Posted in Film, Writing

Why It’s So Fun to Revisit Fairy Tales in Your Writing


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Tangled (2010)

Released at the end of 2010, Tangled was the best non-Pixar full-length Disney animated feature since The Lion King. That’s right — since 1994. Let’s look at that long list of mediocre titles, shall we? There’s the decent but unspectacular Pocahontas and the dark and not quite successful Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Emperor’s New Groove is hilarious, and 2009’s The Princess and the Frog was a wonderful callback to hand-drawn animation. The only movie that came close to greatness was 1999’s Tarzan, but even that one has some issues. Tangled truly is one of their better films of recent yeares.

Does Tangled rank with the best of Disney’s late 80’s-early 90’s golden era, like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast? Well, no, it’s not on that level. And is it as good as all the Pixar movies? Well, no, it would probably rank in quality with the lesser Pixar titles like A Bug’s Life and the Cars franchise. But it works as genuinely thrilling, romantic, hilarious family entertainment from beginning to end that doesn’t have any gimmicks or forced moments. This is just a great story well told, with fine voice acting and more than enough story twists to keep things moving.

Disney has told the stories of almost all the famous princesses, but the one that until now hadn’t been told was that of Rapunzel. Instead of going a more traditional, dramatic storytelling route like The Princess and the Frog, the makers of Tangled infused this story with lots of humor and irreverence, with barely a scene that goes by that doesn’t have some comedy.

First, the really good. One of the great pleasures of Tangled is watching a classic story unfold that will work for every age range. There’s a lot of great fun for the kids, especially with a horse sidekick character that has great goofy human-like expressions. Similarly there’s a lot of humor for the adults in the audience, like all the flirtatious quips and exchanges, and a delightfully crass bar scene. But best of all, the emotional aspects of the movie, concerning the lights that fire up the sky every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, really work, and there are a handful of teary moments throughout.

Second, the mostly good. A heroine is only as good as the villain she’s up against, and the bad girl here, an elderly woman on a quest for lost youth who has an eerie resemblance to Sally Kellerman, brings to mind those classic villainesses like Maleficent and the Wicked Stepmother. The character animation and voice work is wonderfully cunning and charming. Similarly Rapunzel and Flynn are genuinely likable lead characters, with a romance that blossoms that actually feels authentic and earned. All the characters work really well in the movie, and that’s a major compliment considering so much of Disney’s lackluster projects of the last fifteen years.

Third, the not so good. They’ve never been as good since the mid-90s, and unfortunately the disappointment continues when it comes to the songs in Tangled. While they’re pleasant enough, they rank along the level of the songs in The Princess and the Frog — cute while you’re listening but wholly unremarkable. These animated movies that have singing throughout can’t ever rank on the level of a movie like Beauty and the Beast when the songs are so unmemorable.

But really, the songs being a tad underwhelming in Tangled is a minor quibble. This is a delightful film that marks one of Disney’s great achievements of the last ten years.

Watching Like a Writer

Watching Tangled again makes me think about tackling a classic Grimm’s fairy tale in my writing. Last April I wrote my one and only short story of 2018 — Gretel, which tells of a YA author who updates classic fairy tales for the new century… and then accidentally finds herself living one of them. I’ve never had as much fun in years as I had writing that story for three weeks last April. It’s fun to pick apart a classic story that you love, that is beloved around the whole world, and then put your own spin on it. I haven’t ever written an entire novel based on a classic fairy tale, but who knows? Maybe if a great idea comes along soon, I’ll give it a try.


If you had to write a short story or novel based on any of the classic fairy tales, which one would you choose and why?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #47: Ocean’s Eight (2018)


The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

“You’re only as good as your last film” is a classic Hollywood quote, and it’s classic because it’s true. As an actor you can star in the biggest hit film of the year, and then follow it up with a real stinker the following year, and a year after that, many won’t remember you for the hit film, they’ll remember you for the stupid stinker! By 2016, such was the case with Sandra. She had two huge successes in 2013, The Heat and Gravity together amassing more than a billion dollars worldwide. There truly was nowhere for her to go but down, and down she went. Her next live-action film Our Brand is Crisis was one of her all-time massive flops, making only 7 million dollars on a 28-million-dollar budget. The film proved, sadly, that Sandra couldn’t open a movie based on only her name alone, and that for her follow-up she needed to focus on a property that would hopefully bring more audience members to the theater.

When Ocean’s Eight was first announced as her follow-up project to Our Brand is Crisis, I rolled my eyes. I didn’t mind seeing an all-female version of the Ocean’s franchise, and I was intrigued to see her make a huge studio comedy again, but everything about the movie felt like too much of a safe bet. She took a risk before with Our Brand is Crisis, the film failed, and so naturally she had to take on a project that would make a gazillion dollars whether or not she sleepwalked through her leading role as Debbie Ocean, the sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. Nevertheless, the more cast members that were announced, the more excited I became. Cate Blanchett is one of my favorites, and giving her the Brad Pitt role was a masterstroke. Anne Hathaway’s casting perked my interest. Everybody, really, perked my interest, including Gary Ross, director of the first Hunger Games film, as well as the glorious Pleasantville, who came on board as the director. I knew the film wasn’t going to be an award-worthy masterpiece, but I thought it would be loads of fun. And, despite its flaws, fun this movie definitely is!

Ocean’s Eight opens on a startling image: Sandra in an orange prison uniform! She finally has a shot at being released, and she pleads her case that she is a changed person. Of course as soon as she leaves jail, she immediately resorts back to her old ways, stealing from stores and impersonating other people to get a free hotel room for the night. But Debbie Ocean has a much bigger plan up her sleeve, something she’s been thinking about for hundreds of nights in her prison cell: she’s going to rob a diamond necklace at the Met Gala. In true Ocean’s fashion, she needs some help, and she enlists both friends and strangers to help pull this heist off, including her old pals Lou (Blanchett), Amita (Mindy Kaling), and Tammy (Sarah Paulson). Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, and Awkwafina round out the star-studded cast, along with Hathaway, who is hilarious as a spoiled celebrity named Daphne Kluger.

This film has a fast-paced, breezy quality that is infectious from beginning to end. You can really turn off your brain in this one and just enjoy the ride, watch beautiful actresses do their thing and exude charm and power and humor. Any scene of these ladies just talking around a circle and bouncing ideas off each other is pure bliss; I actually wanted more of these scenes, ones that don’t merely function on moving forward the plot. Some of the film’s first half is too endlessly focused on setting up the heist, but thankfully, once the big Met Gala heist sequence is off and running, the entertainment level skyrockets. The heist that plays out in thirty minutes or more is genuinely surprising and suspenseful, and the big twist at the end that reveals what these girls were actually up to is a wonderfully satisfying reveal.

I enjoyed the film a lot when I saw it opening day and have happily watched it twice since. A life-long Sandra fan (in case you didn’t realize that by now), I had been waiting a long time for this one. 2016 came and went without a new Sandra film. She finally started shooting Ocean’s Eight at the end of 2016, so I assumed the movie would be released the following summer, following the pattern for Ocean’s Thirteen, or Christmas 2017 at the latest, following the pattern of Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve. When the film was eventually announced to be released in the summer of 2018, I wasn’t thrilled. Since her break-out role in Speed, only occasionally did Sandra take a hiatus, like after Two Weeks Notice when she pursued producing and working on architectural projects. But even that hiatus between 2002 and 2004 was shorter than this one. The thirty month period that passed between Our Brand is Crisis and Ocean’s Eight is the longest stretch of time ever between Sandra movies, beating the twenty-seven months that passed between Two Weeks Notice and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous.

Thus, in some regard, Ocean’s Eight got a pass from me just because I was dying to see Sandra in something, anything. I would have liked after thirty months for her to star in the greatest, most monumental film of her entire career, but if I wasn’t going to receive that, Ocean’s Eight would do. There’s a lot to enjoy in the film for Sandra fans. The opening ten or so minutes are actually my favorite, before the rest of the gang shows up, before the mechanics of the plot get into motion. Just watching Sandra wearing fabulous clothes and resorting to her thief-like ways for a few glorious scenes is a total blast. I also love her chemistry with Cate Blanchett in the film (rumors still abound that their characters had a past romantic relationship) as well as her physical transformation in the heist sequence, which, after more than three decades on screen, finally allowed her to use her fluency in the German language! The ending of the film is solid, although I think a short cameo from Clooney in the last scene would have been a nice touch, reuniting him with Sandra for the first time since Gravity and showing that Danny Ocean isn’t actually dead.

Where Ocean’s Eight falls short, ultimately, is in its themes, or lack thereof. At one point Debbie has a great line where she basically states the reason all eight people have to be women is that none of them will be noticed. The film definitely pursues this theme occasionally, but by the end, what the movie is mostly about is these women pulling off a heist and then going their separate ways, enjoying new financial independence and leading richer, happier lives. This is an Ocean’s movie. We’re not looking for poetry, for life-changing thematic themes, but I do feel the movie could be about a little more. It could offer more emotional threads among the characters, give us more moments of their internal lives. In Sandra’s huge canon of films, Ocean’s Eight is one of her emptier vehicles. It does the job, it entertains, it leaves you with a smile on your face at the end, but not much else. This isn’t a fault of this particular Ocean’s movie. All three of the male-dominated prequels are the same. Ocean’s Eleven is a kinetic thrill ride, but nothing more. Ocean’s Twelve is a complete mess, the worst of the series by far. Ocean’s Thirteen was better but still just an action exercise. Ocean’s Eight is the best since the 2001 version, with lots more story possibilities for potential sequels, and if we do ever get a sequel, I’d like to see Debbie’s character explored more, all the characters explored more, rather than have eighty percent or more of the movie just focus on the heist.

If nothing else, Ocean’s Eight was a huge financial success, further proving that women can carry a movie, and that Sandra, yes, was still a box office draw. Made on a 70-million-dollar budget, the film pulled in double that, 140 million in the United States alone, plus an additional 160 million internationally, bringing the film’s world-wide total to about 300 million, not too shabby. As I said before, this film wasn’t one of Sandra’s bigger risks, but no matter — it was still a genuine blockbuster, one that offered audiences everywhere another splendid adventure with one of their favorite movie stars. Ocean’s Eight won’t go down as one of Sandra’s best — I would put it in the middle somewhere, alongside Two Weeks Notice and The Heat — but it sure was nice to see her again after a nearly three-year wait. The best news of all? This was to be her first of two films of 2018. Yes, Sandra had one more surprise in store for her fans right before Christmas: her first ever horror film.

Best Scene: Sandra returns to her thievery right after leaving jail.

Best Line: “If you’re going to have a problem with stealing, you’re not going to like the rest of this conversation.”

Fun Facts

Ocean’s Eight follows the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, the first of which was a remake of a 1960 film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Debbie speaks German as a part of her cover. Sandra really is fluent in German.

Jennifer Lawrence was in talks to be in the film, which would have reunited her with her Hunger Games director Gary Ross, but she later dropped out.

The music that plays as the team enter the Met Gala, “Lara’s Theme,” was also the music that Sandra’s character Gracie Lou Freebush plays on the water glasses in Miss Congeniality.

This was Sandra’s third live-action film in a row that had George Clooney somehow in the mix. He co-starred with Sandra in Gravity, co-produced Our Brand is Crisis, and of course has a connection to Ocean’s Eight as well.

Sandra’s longest-ever gap between movies since becoming a movie star, 30 months between 2015’s Our Brand is Crisis and 2018’s Ocean’s Eight.

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write About New Year’s Eve


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — When Harry Met Sally (1989)

When December rolls around, everyone starts talking favorite Christmas movies, comparing It’s a Wonderful Life to Christmas Vacation, debating whether Elf or Home Alone is better, and more than a few trying to defend the merits of Love Actually. But what about New Year’s Eve movies? What’s the perfect flick to put on after the 25th has passed us by and the 31st comes near? Not the movie New Year’s Eve, God no. And not the cheesy ’80s horror movie, New Year’s Evil. No, the one grand-daddy of all New Year’s Eve movies is Rob Reiner’s 1989 comedy classic, When Harry Met Sally. It’s not just a great movie. It also happens to be my favorite romantic comedy of all time.

Is there any director who had a better streak that Reiner had between 1984 and 1990? What made his run especially impressive is that each film explored a different genre. This is Spinal Tap, The Real Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery. All terrific films, all vastly different from one another. Many of these have gone on to become modern classics, but my favorite of the lot has to be When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the roles that continue to define them as performers on-screen. This film shows these two actors at their very best.

The late Nora Ephron received a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for her clever and breezy screenplay, telling a love story that takes place over twelve long years before the main characters realize they’re in love with each other. This is one of those rare movies where every single scene crackles with energy, jokes, and honesty. The first two sequences set five years apart from each other could have been awkward, could have felt like prologues, but they do a great job setting up two characters that we love and want to be together by the time we get to the present day story-line.

The most famous scene in When Harry Met Sally is of course the “I’ll Have What She’s Having” gag, which many can probably quote even if they’ve never seen the movie. It still holds up as a funny scene, but I do agree with Roger Ebert that it’s one of the rare false moments in the film in that Sally as a character probably wouldn’t do what she does in the scene. I still give it a pass because it’s such a funny bit, but I’m more enamored with other, less familiar scenes in the film, like when Harry freaks out about a coffee table, or when Sally tells of a dream in which she gets stripped naked, or when Harry and Sally have it out at their best friends’ wedding.

And then there’s the New Year’s Eve ending that still gets me every time. The speech Harry gives to her and her reaction could have been too cutesy and sentimental, but it works beautifully because the words feel truthful and earned, and by the end we’ve come to love these characters so much that to not let them be together would be a narrative crime. We then cut to that perfect closer, Harry and Sally now the interviewees, but there’s something about their kiss at the party that makes for one of the most satisfying romantic comedy endings ever. Ephron and Reiner used New Year’s Eve as a heartwarming closer better than any writer and director have used it before or since.

When Harry Met Sally is the ultimate New Year’s Eve movie, and it’s also just one damn great film. It’s one of the few movies I can watch over and over again, as much as once a year, and never tire of. Even some of my favorite movies ever I struggle to watch again and again, but not When Harry Met Sally. This is due to Ephron’s brilliant, funny, insightful screenplay. This is due to Reiner’s terrific direction. This is due to the charming performances by Crystal and Ryan, perfectly cast. There’s nothing I would change about When Harry Met Sally, the ultimate romantic comedy.

Watching Like a Writer

When Harry Met Sally makes me think about how to use time in my fiction, particularly when it comes to showing how a relationship evolves over the years, and it also makes me think about how to use New Year’s Eve in my fiction. A few years ago I wrote a short story called “New Year’s Kiss,” in some part inspired by the end of When Harry Met Sally, in which two young men meet on New Year’s Eve and fall for each other in the minutes leading up to the big fireworks moment. There’s so much possibility on New Year’s Eve, the kind I think can make for a compelling story!


How would you use the New Year’s Eve holiday in a short story or novel? Would it naturally come at the end of your narrative, or is there a way that you could start with New Year’s Eve and take your story from there?

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write One Character in One Location


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Danny Boyle is one of the few living filmmakers who gets to do the unthinkable — direct movies in different genres! A lot of directors, even the most famous, find themselves stuck like glue to a genre for the rest of their lives. Such is definitely the case with most horror directors, like Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Of course every successful director usually gets a shot in his or her career to do something different, but Danny Boyle is the rare individual who dares himself to do better, more ambitious films each time around that have little in common with the movie he made before it. Not since Rob Reiner’s golden era from 1984 to 1992, when Reiner made a mockumentary, teen comedy, coming-of-age film, fantasy, romantic comedy, horror film, and political drama, has there been such a varied, successful career as Boyle.

Here are the five best films of Danny Boyle’s career…

5. The Beach (2000)

Probably Boyle’s most critically-maligned film was perhaps the one box office misstep in Leonardo DiCaprio’s enormously successful career following Titanic. But there’s a lot to admire in this wildly bizarre dramatic thriller, including exotic locals, fantastic cinematography, a dynamic supporting performance by Tilda Swinton, and Leonardo running around with his shirt off.

4. Trainspotting (1996)

If any two Boyle movies feel similar, it’s Trainspotting and his debut Shallow Grave. The movies almost work as companion pieces to each other, with Boyle’s style evident in every scene. McGregor returned in this sordid tale that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and made a huge impact on popular culture in the mid-1990s. Toilets would never be looked at the same way again.

3. 28 Days Later (2003)

Boyle might have faulted a bit with his third feature A Life Less Ordinary and the dismally received The Beach, but he returned in top form in the summer of 2003 with this terrifying, realistic horror film set in an empty London that just happens to be roaming with zombies. Shot in ugly drab colors on a Canon XL1 camera, the film actually benefits from its low-budget aesthetic. Cillian Murphy headlines this now-classic undead tale.

2. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

This little underdog movie took the world, and the Academy Awards, by storm two years ago, and there’s a good reason why — it’s just so damn entertaining. Slumdog Millionaire is the perfect modern fairy tale, a movie that seamlessly blends dark themes of chance, courage, and hope. The shooting style is unusually effective, and the performances are spot on. And it all leads to a big, glorious musical number.

1. 127 Hours (2010)

You don’t watch Danny Boyle movies. You experience them. Films like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, an and Slumdog Millionaire give its viewers out-of-body experiences, taking them to new, faraway places in ways those places have never been seen before. Boyle could’ve told any story he wanted after his Oscar win for the splendid Slumdog Millionaire, and he chose a story and subject matter on first glance might not have seemed the most obvious choice. But every inch of 127 Hours is steamed and broiled in Danny Boyle, riveting from beginning to end, featuring a career-best performance by James Franco that is startlingly realistic.

The film is based on a true story, telling of a daredevil mountain climbing enthusiast named Aron Ralston who became trapped by a large boulder in a Utah ravine for five days in 2003. At first he’s practically laughing at himself for making his mistake, not realizing that the error could possibly cost him his life. As the days tick on, he slowly starts to realize the magnitude of the scary scenario, particularly since he’s in the middle of nowhere with nobody around, and he didn’t tell a single soul where he was going. When he starts running out of water, resorting to drinking his own urine (!), he makes a life-affirming choice to survive that marks one of the most astonishing, terrifying scenes in modern film history.

Films like 127 Hours are tough to make, and even tougher to get right. Movies that revolve around one person for the majority of its running time going through a struggle — think Cast Away and Phone Booth — can be riveting at times but can easily get dull really fast. There’s surprisingly not a single moment in 127 Hours that runs on too long or bogs down the story. Franco’s commanding performance makes this 96-minute film run by in a millisecond, but Boyle is a mad genius for some of the visual and story qualities he brings to this movie.

Technically the movie is innovative and superior to most any film made this year. Boyle’s films always have a unique visual structure — think the underlit gloominess of 28 Day Later — and the wildly dynamic approach he brings to 127 Hours thrusts the viewer into each and every moment, including the cheery mountain climbing events at the beginning, and the horrors of the underground at the end. There are a ton of awesome helicopter shots, as well as how-did-they-do-that smaller feats accomplished in the quieter moments in the second half of the film. The editing is top-of-the-line, all the sound design is exquisitely done, and the score by Slumdog composer AR Rahman have a raw, unnerving quality that always keep the viewer on the edge of his seat.

But really, no matter how great the filmmaker is, how well all the components come together, there’s no movie without a hugely talented lead actor at its core. Franco was not only perfectly suited to a role like this, with his chiseled face and lean physique, but he’s also just so committed to making every moment feel as real as possible. 127 Hours is a claustrophobic movie if there ever was one, and it’s one gorgeous piece of unforgettable cinema.

Watching Like a Writer

127 Hours makes me think about trying to write a story or, gasp, a novel, where for a big chunk of time one character is stuck in a place he can’t escape from. So much of writing fiction depends on dialogue and the relationships between the characters, so what happens when you strip all that away? It’s certainly possible to do, but I wouldn’t want to take it on until I had a brilliant idea worth pursuing. What Boyle did with this film is truly remarkable because while a novel can be effectively internal so often, a film is primarily visual, and so having a camera focused on a single character in one location for an hour or longer was am ambitious task indeed. But it would still be a difficult task for any fiction writer to take on a claustrophobic story like this one.


Pitch me a story about one character in one location. What would be the genre? What would the protagonist want?

Posted in Film, Writing

Why Mirrors Are So Effective in Horror Fiction


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Oculus (2014)

The horror film genre has always been my favorite, and yet it’s so rare these days to find new, original, effectively scary films. Thankfully we seem to have finally outgrown that terrible period of torture porn that existed during the time of the Saw sequels, and maybe, just possibly, we have moved on from all the dreadful remakes of classic 70s and 80s horror (maybe because there’s simply nothing left to remake). Now we are seeing more and more micro budget films from producer Jason Blum, and while not all have worked, these original small-budget horror movies have been a positive influence on the current genre scene.

Every year I’m looking for good horror, both mainstream and indie, and it’s especially a thrill when one comes out that I know next to nothing about. Oculus, released in 2014, was one of those finds. I hadn’t even hard about it until a week before its release, but as soon as I saw the positive reviews and storyline of the movie, I knew it was a must-see. One of my first short stories I ever wrote in the third grade was about a haunted mirror, and I was curious to see how a modern horror film could be made with this eerie but potentially silly hook.

Thankfully, writer/director Mike Flanagan (who has gone on to make the terrifying Gerald’s Game and the monumentally creepy The Haunting of Hill House for Nextflix) understands that, especially in horror, less is more, and for most of Oculus he lets the tension build and build, only showing us small traces of the evil that is to come.

One element I loved about Oculus was the emphasis on two dual story lines, one in the past concerning a family of four who contend with an unexpected demon, and one in the present concerning those two children, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now grown up, facing their fears with the mirror once and for all. At first the cuts back and forth to each storyline were jarring, but by a half-hour in the rhythm works extremely well.

The performances are on a very high level for a film like this, especially Gillan, and, best of all, the scares come fast and fierce, especially in the second half. The twist ending I didn’t see coming, either, and usually I’m able to guess where these kinds of narratives are headed.

Oculus isn’t on the same level as 2012’s supremely chilling Sinister, still the best of the Blum-produced movies. There are a few lulls in the movie, and Flanagan actually shows a little too much, I think, in the last half-hour. But overall, Oculus is a solid horror film that’s different from the usual fare. You might not look at your mirror the same way again.

Watching Like a Writer

This film makes me think about how mirrors can be used so effectively in horror fiction. It might be a touch scarier in a film or TV episode than it is on the page for the reader, but mirrors have always struck me as a particularly useful tool in my scarier stories. Like I said in this review, one of my earliest stories I ever wrote was about a haunted mirror (and if I remember correctly, the title was Mirrors Can Be Deadly and I wrote two sequels!). My first screenplay I ever wrote had a haunted mirror. So many short films I wrote and directed used mirrors in the visual storytelling. I’ve always been obsessed with mirrors, and finally, after all this time, I’m beginning to outline a middle-grade horror novel that will use mirrors as a part of the story. What makes them so creepy? How can they be used in a way we’ve never seen before?


Pitch me a scene from your latest WIP that a mirror could play a major role in. What does the mirror add to the scene, and to the development of one of your major characters?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #46: Our Brand is Crisis (2015)


The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

Gravity was Sandra Bullock’s biggest success to date, skyrocketing at the box office and earning Sandra a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She had just won the Oscar for The Blind Side four years prior, and she had since enjoyed success in a new blockbuster comedy, The Heat. So what in the world would she do next?

First, she played it safe by offering her voice talent to a film that was going to make a bazillion dollars regardless of her participation — Minions, a prequel to the Despicable Me series, that debuted in theaters in the summer of 2015. Sandra played the villainous Scarlett Overkill, her name plastered on all the trailers leading up to the film’s release. The movie earned nearly 1.2 billion dollars at the worldwide box office and provided another huge success to be added to the Sandra Bullock canon. But, about two years now since Gravity’s release, Sandra had one more surprise for audiences up her sleeve. She had a new live-action feature, her first since Gravity, that in no way was an easy sell: a political comedy set in Bulgaria released not only when our nation’s presidential campaigns were up and running but also during Halloween weekend, of all weekends. This was… Our Brand is Crisis.

Based on a highly regarded documentary released in 2005, Our Brand is Crisis floated around Hollywood for years. At one point George Clooney was going to star in the project, but then his participation fell through, and the project stalled for awhile. After Gravity, Sandra was looking for something that excited her, something challenging, and after reading a lot of screenplays with female protagonists, she and her team started digging through unproduced screenplays with male protagonists. Who’s to say the gender couldn’t be flipped, after all? When she came upon Our Brand is Crisis, she connected to the main character and the story-line, and apparently it didn’t take too much effort to change the protagonist to a female.

In the film she plays Jane, a political consultant who’s been out of the arena for awhile, enjoying a quiet life when she’s summoned to return to politics by helping re-elect a controversial president in Bolivia. She reluctantly takes the job, only to learn that her rival consultant of old, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, in a delightfully malicious performance) has joined the other team. The political candidates fight head to head while Jane tries to find herself again, particularly in what she truly wants to be fighting for in the years to come. The film blends comedy with drama and features a stellar supporting cast including Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan, and Reynaldo Pacheco, in a terrific turn.

Our Brand is Crisis came and went like no other Sandra Bullock movie in recent history. It wasn’t a massive flop, given that it only cost about 28 million to make, but it still only made 7 million at the nationwide box office, about the amount Gravity made in a few hours on its opening day. This film’s downfall was a matter of timing, to be sure, and also the many mixed reviews, which rightfully point out that the story itself isn’t as compelling as it could be, the mix of comedy and drama is never quite successful, and the film never comes together as it should. It takes a while to get going, the ending feels rushed, and there’s never the sense that anything truly big is at stake in the story.

Having said that, I still believe Our Brand is Crisis is an underrated film, one that probably would have fared better earlier in the year, far away from the Halloween holiday, as well as the political season that was free for everyone to watch from home every day, so why go pay money to see a political film in the theater? But although the film is good, not great, and certainly worthy of many of its criticisms, the one element of the film that saddens me when I think back on this movie is the widespread ignoring Sandra’s rich and commanding performance, easily one of the three best she’s ever delivered in her long career. Although the movie isn’t one of her greatest, her performance I would rank right alongside The Blind Side and Gravity.

One thing that obviously rubbed off on her after making Gravity was taking more risks as a performer and allowing herself to inhabit characters that are deeply flawed, not always likable, filled with rage and anger. Jane is a lost soul throughout a lot of the movie, apathetic toward the political system in the film’s first third, committed to her job and her goal in the second third, and finding heartbreak and new roads to walk in the final third. She has great moments in the film where she simply sits and reflects, and also terrific moments where she commands a room like she rarely has in a movie before or since.

Sandra often joked about her 2009 flop All About Steve that one day it would be considered a cult classic, that audiences just weren’t ready for it that year and that maybe a few years later it would be better regarded. I’m almost one-hundred-percent certain that All About Steve will never be liked, by pretty much anyone, this year, or next year, or in another two decades, because it truly is an awful film. But a mammoth flop like Our Brand is Crisis, which, yes, made less money than All About Steve, is too solid of a film, with way too good of a Sandra performance, to be ignored forever, and here’s hoping, maybe not anytime soon, but down the road, that more reverence will be given to the film and that more people will get a chance to see it.

Best Scene: Sandra yells at her political candidate in an auditorium about him being nothing more than a puppet.

Best Line: “That’s the world, that’s politics. That’s how it works. It starts out with big promises and ends up with jackshit happening. But like the man said: ‘If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.’”

Fun Facts

Sandra’s only live-action film between 2013’s Gravity and 2018’s Ocean’s 8.

At the beginning of the film, a still black-and-white image from Sandra’s 1995 thriller The Net can be seen.

On the final day of shooting, Sandra had an ice cream truck brought to the set.

Her previous live-action film Gravity made more than 700 million at the worldwide box office. Our Brand is Crisis made 7 million total.

The only acting nomination received for the film was for Reynaldo Pacheco for Best Supporting Actor, from the Imagen Foundation Awards.

The first film Sandra and George Clooney co-produced together.

The first film Sandra produced (technically, executive produced) since All About Steve. I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it again: with a few exceptions, any project Sandra produces herself is typically doomed at the box office.

Posted in Film

What are the best family Christmas movies?


Christmas is the best time of the year to sit around a warm fireplace and watch a great Christmas movie classic with your family. There are seemingly fifty great choices or more to put on every holiday season, but these five picks will keep every member of your family happy.

Here are the five best Christmas family movies for the upcoming holiday season…

5. Home Alone (1990)

This modern classic proved to be a sensation during the holiday season of 1990, and while its sequels haven’t held up all these years later, the original stays as fresh, funny, and hugely entertaining as it did nearly thirty years ago. The concept for the film — a young kid getting left home alone at Christmas — is genius, and the cast, which includes Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Catherine O’Hara, and John Candy, is totally winning. You can’t go wrong playing this one.

4. A Christmas Story (1983)

You don’t have to go far to watch A Christmas Story. Just turn on any one of the thirty-seven channels it’s playing on during Christmas Day and witness one of those timeless holiday movies that feels as necessary to fill your day as the presents fill your house and the glazed ham fills your belly. Packed with iconic moments like the rifle presents, the Santa meet-and-greet, and the frozen tongue, this movie makes you want Christmas to last a whole lot longer than just one day a year.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Of all the old black-and-white movies to watch around the holidays, there’s really two musts, the 1938 or 1951 versions of A Christmas Carol. But if you can’t make up your mind which version to choose, just relax and put on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life instead. Known as the favorite film for both director Capra and star James Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life is a magical film that shows its main character a world in which he never existed. A darker tale, to be sure, but with an uplifting ending that will never fails to satisfy.

2. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)

It’s not a perfect movie, but there’s something just so effortless about this late ‘80s comedy, written by the great John Hughes and featuring Chevy Chase in his last great movie before slipping away into oblivion. It was criticized back in the day because the Griswolds don’t actually go on vacation anywhere, but I feel that’s part of the charm of the film, watching Clark try to give his expanded family a worthwhile, meaningful Christmas. He succeeds.

1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Another hundred years will pass, and no Christmas movie will ever come close to the perfection of the twenty-five minutes of the 1966 animated TV classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This is a lovingly realized, enchantingly drawn animated gem that features the great Boris Karloff as the voice of the Narrator and the Grinch. The score and songs are simply magical, and the ending, which had the potential to be maudlin, marks one of the great lessons for young and old during the holiday season. No Christmas is complete without How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It’s one of the few perfect movies ever made!

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Put Your Own Spin on Road Trip Stories


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne is one of my favorite directors. I have loved all five of his previous features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendents), and Nebraska is yet another gem to add to his filmography. He has a gift for getting incredible performances from his actors, whether they’re well known stars like Jack Nicholson and George Clooney, or character actors who you might never have seen before. He is known for finding non-actors to populate the bit parts in his movies, to give the settings more realism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the smaller roles in this were filled with locals, too. He does a great job in each of his films blending comedy and drama; typically there’s at least one scene of riotous comedy, as well as a significant dramatic moment toward the end that takes your breath away. Nebraska has both of these scenes, and lots more.

Shot in stunning black-and-white, Nebraska tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a 70-something alcoholic who receives a letter in the mail claiming he is the recipient to a million-dollar prize. Thinking it’s the truth, he starts to make the long trek between Michigan and Nebraska by foot, until his son David (Will Forte) elects to drive him. David and his mother Kate (June Squibb) know the letter is bogus, but David doesn’t care; he looks at this trip as one of the last he will ever have with his aging father. They stop in their old hometown a couple hundred miles before Lincoln, and of course get bombarded by everyone when they mistakenly think that Woody has won the prize money. In the process, David discovers more about his father than he ever could have imagined.

The film received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, but arguably its most deserving nomination of all didn’t happen. Yes, Bruce Dern is magnificent in the lead, giving his character a signature walk, a jaded dip of the head, a couple of blinks in almost every shot that tell the audience he’s only partway present. Yes, June Squibb is a hoot as his wife, offering the most laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue in the movie, especially in a perfectly executed scene when she tells off members of her extended family. But there is one actor who holds the movie together, who gives it the heart and soul, and that’s Will Forte. Naturally, that’s a sentence I never expected to ever write.

Payne likes to gives all sorts of actors chances (Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen, for example, were pretty low on the D-list before he gave them career-best roles in Sideways), and it was a bit of inspired genius to give Forte, known for his wild comedy on SNL and in films like MacGruber, a totally ordinary dramatic role, one that essentially carries the whole movie. He is a revelation here, totally convincing as a 30-something man whose life has grown stale in work and relationships and who sees this bogus letter as a way to spend time with his dad.

All of the performances are stellar. Stacy Keach and Bob Odenkirk are also solid here. Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray (Buzz from Home Alone!) are scene-stealers as a pair of lazy brothers. Finally, an actress named Angela McEwan, who plays an old flame of Woody’s, has one superb scene about halfway through the movie, reminiscing about the man she wanted to marry, which is followed in the end by a brief moment that was moving enough to bring tears to my eyes. With an emotional stare, and no words, McEwan says so very much. Amazing.

It should be noted how thrilling it was to see a modern film up on the screen shot in gorgeous widescreen black and white. How many B&W movies do we get a year? One, maybe two, if we’re lucky. The Coen Brothers got to shoot one in 2001 with The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Steven Spielberg famously chose it for Schindler’s List. There is a haunting quality to black and white that color can never give, and I loved its use of it here. The same way Woody Allen used B&W to give a dream-like quality to the city he loves in Manhattan, Payne uses it to show the vast and empty landscapes of the mid-west. Black and white ultimately makes a movie feel timeless, and it is a tool that enhances the dramatic power of this movie. I hope this film’s success will inspire more directors to use black-and-white to tell their stories.

Watching Like a Writer

The road trip story. It’s been done a gazillion times, in film and in novels. It’s an easy way to tell a Quest narrative, characters going after something, where they begin in one place, literally and figuratively, and end in another place, literally and figuratively. Probably my favorite road trip movie is Planes, Trains & Automobiles, a comedy of friendship that has one of the most tender endings ever. Nebraska is another brilliant film that uses the road trip narrative, blending comedy and drama in a father-son story that ultimately isn’t so much about the destination but more about the characters themselves. I’m in the middle of revising a road trip story right now actually, a horror-thriller that is a whole lot more Mad Max: Fury Road than it is Nebraska, but no matter what genre you’re working in, a road trip for your characters can allow for great conflict and consistent raising of the stakes.


Pitch a one-sentence logline about a potential novel you could write about characters taking a road trip. What would be the genre? How would you put your own spin on the story?

Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #45: Gravity (2013)


The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

Ever since she broke through in 1994 with her charismatic performance in the action extravaganza Speed, Sandra Bullock has been working steadily in films, both good and bad. From 1995 to 2008 she had a string of hits — While You Were Sleeping, A Time to Kill, Miss Congeniality — as well as a boatload of bombs — Two if By Sea, Forces of Nature, Gun Shy. She has been a beloved actress among film fans for two decades, but after the critical and financial failure of her suspense thriller Premonition in 2007, it seemed like she would never break through her seemingly long-lasting trend of making mediocre films. But two films in 2009 changed everything. While she did appear that year in All About Steve, arguably her worst film ever, she also starred in The Proposal and The Blind Side, two smash hits that re-instated her A-list status and garnered her not just monetary success but critical cred and major awards, including the Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Academy Award for The Blind Side.

After Sandra enjoyed such a spectacular year, one might assume there was nowhere left for her to go but down. The next three years offered little output from her, with only a brief turn in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and the occasional film premiere appearance. However, 2013 marked something impressive for Sandra: her most astonishing year yet, both financially and critically. Think her PG-13-rated romantic comedy The Proposal earning $163 million nationwide was a fluke? Consider her 2013 summer comedy The Heat, co-starring Melissa McCarthy, which earned $159 million — with an R rating, which precludes most teenagers and kids from buying tickets. Think The Blind Side making $255 million nationwide was impossible for Sandra to ever beat? That film made headlines in early 2010 for making the most money in history with only a sole female name above the poster.

Still, remarkably, her other 2013 film Gravity beat her all-time record. Opening with an astonishing $55 million, the largest sum a film has ever made on a weekend in October (until Venom and Halloween in 2018), Gravity went on in the next two months to become one of the biggest smash hits of the year, topping out at $273 million nationwide and a whopping 712 million worldwide. Many expect a summer action movie like The Avengers and Iron Man 3 to break box office records, but few assumed Gravity, with its fall release date and quieter marketing campaign, would reach such similar heights in its popularity. The film is, after all, a drama more than it is a thriller, one that features only one person on screen for the majority of its running time. Gravity is a deeply intimate, emotionally rewarding film experience, and the rare instance of a great motion picture that has managed to appeal to everyone — film buffs, casual moviegoers, grandparents, kids. It has visionary special effects, a fun supporting turn by George Clooney, and a moving story that creeps up on the viewer as the film reaches its stunning climax. Best of all, it features a stunning performance by Sandra that bests anything she has ever done on screen, including Crash, Infamous, and The Blind Side.

Gravity was in the works for more than five years. Alfonso Cuaron, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation, wanted to make a movie set in space. The director of such terrific and diverse films as A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien wanted to step outside his comfort zone and do something different. While his 2006 film Children of Men was not a major moneymaker, its overwhelming critical praise and handful of Academy Award nominations gave him enough clout to begin the process on his next motion picture. Cuaron has said that Gravity was the biggest miscalculation of his entire career, in that he had no idea how long it would take to get his vision to the screen. When he approached his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki about this project, Cuaron said that the process could be completed relatively quickly — a year, he assumed — considering that it was essentially a two-character piece with little dialogue. Gravity, however, took much longer, both to get off the ground and to become realized, with a considerable amount of time devoted to figuring out how the screenplay could be translated to the screen. Cuaron met with major filmmakers who had worked on complicated special effects films before, like James Cameron, the maverick director of Avatar, who told Cuaron flat out that the technology to make Gravity was at least five more years away. Cuaron and his crew wouldn’t take no for answer, though, and after much research and determination, they ended up inventing brand new technology just to get the film made.

As the team behind Gravity started experimenting with these mind-blowing technologies, Cuaron met with potential actors. Angelina Jolie was the first to be cast as Dr. Ryan Stone, but she dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, and Cuaron went on to consider Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, and Scarlett Johansson. The one who proved to be the best choice for the role, as it turned out, was Sandra, and he approached her at her home in Texas, during the summer of 2010. She was hesitant to take the role at first, having endured a very public break-up with her former husband Jesse James, and taking care of a newly adopted child Louis at home. Sandra was in awe of Cuaron’s work, however, and had been hoping for an opportunity to work with him. She eventually signed on, making Gravity one of her first two projects following her Oscar win for The Blind Side. Early in pre-production, Robert Downey Jr. was attached to the role of Matt Kowalski, the only other major character in the film, but he eventually dropped out, too, for undisclosed reasons, and George Clooney came on board the project, marking the first time that Sandra and Clooney — close friends since they were struggling actors in the late 1980s — finally worked together in a movie.

Soon after Sandra wrapped her small part in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, she flew to London and began work prepping for Gravity. To achieve all that was needed of her on this unusual production, Sandra spent months training with two fitness instructors who specifically aimed to strengthen her core. During the production, she spent long hours hanging on wires, and she needed to be in tremendous shape to physically endure the trying and claustrophobic shoot. It was the most demanding filming experience of her career, with Sandra at times having to spend up to ten hours a day stuck inside a tiny nine-by-nine light box on a bare soundstage all alone, acting off nobody, and having little human interaction. Clooney was on set for a small part of the shoot, and before and after his scenes were filmed, the Gravity production was essentially a one-woman show.

After Sandra wrapped her work on the film, she went on to star in The Heat with Melissa McCarthy, while the technical wizards behind Gravity spent more than two years in post bringing Cuaron’s vision to life. It was one of those hot projects everyone in Hollywood knew about, but who few knew of any concrete details. The first release date set for the film was November 2012, but Gravity was ultimately delayed due to the extensive post-production work that needed to be completed, and the film was ultimately pushed back to October 4, 2013. Gravity finally had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival at the end of August, and instantly received unanimous praise from critics, with many calling the film a landmark in cinema, as well as a tremendous showcase for its main star. While it may have taken Cuaron multiple years to get the film made, his hard work paid off, with audiences all over the world falling in love with this remarkable achievement.

There have been spectacular opening shots in films over the years — the first few minutes of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil come to mind — but the thirteen-minute shot that kicks Gravity into high gear might be the most astonishing of all time. The film opens simply, cutting to a quiet and awe-inspiring shot of planet Earth. There is no music, no dialogue. Director Cuaron draws the viewer into the movie slowly, allowing him time to situate himself in a setting very few people are familiar with. Clooney’s voice is soon heard, and when he and Sandra finally appear on-screen, one is completely immersed in the amazing oasis of outer space. The actors talk for a few minutes — telling jokes, voicing frustrations, uttering the briefest accounts of their lives — and the viewer watches in awe as the camera spins around the characters and gives alternating angles of people floating hundreds of miles above Earth. But then, the unthinkable happens — debris from a destroyed Russian satellite zooms straight toward the space shuttle and collides with such ferocity that Ryan gets ejected from her spot and starts flipping into the void of space. All of these events play out in real time, in one unbroken shot, a seamless piece of pure cinema that is a work of art all its own.

Once the first harrowing action scene reaches its climax, the rest of the film plays out as an intense survival story, with Ryan doing all she can to return to Earth. The second half of the movie finds Ryan working all by her lonesome, overcoming one potentially fatal obstacle after another, in order to survive. Cuaron has said that one of his influences in making Gravity was the first major work by Steven Spielberg — Duel, the 1971 TV movie about an ordinary man who is pursued by a mad trucker. Spielberg’s film doesn’t let up in the suspense and tension throughout its brief ninety-minute running time, and neither does Gravity. The scene of Ryan and Matt trying to grab onto the shuttle, for instance, offers no break from the kind of hold-your-breath excitement that one rarely experiences in modern movies, and a later scene involving a second run-in with the satellite debris is so well realized that it is hard to not have a strong physical reaction to what is playing out on the screen.

How Gravity differs from so many other action films set in space is that it has a heartbreaking, intimate story at its core, one that slowly but assuredly works its power over the viewer. There is not a lot of backstory in Gravity. The viewer is introduced at the beginning to two characters who he comes to know little about, until about thirty minutes in, when he learns that one reason Ryan accepted the mission into space is that she has endured an unthinkable loss in her life. She tells Matt that she had a daughter, a precious little girl with brown hair who died in a tragic accident at her elementary school. One would argue that there is nothing worse for a parent than to bury his or her own child, and Ryan has dealt with her own pain by removing herself from the world — literally. When she’s suddenly the last survivor of her mission, and has to go to extreme lengths to stay alive, she is faced with the ultimate question: why go on living when there’s nothing left to live for?

At one point in the movie, Ryan hits a stumbling block, when her shuttle shuts down and loses all its fuel. She immediately gives up, turns down the oxygen, and prepares herself for death. Up until this point, the film has worked as an exciting suspense thriller, with enough beauty in its impeccable visuals to guarantee unanimous praise. It is in this long, quiet scene, however, that Gravity moves into truly special territory. The camera lingers on Ryan’s face, as she starts to cry, realizing she is moments away from fading, never to come back. It is a raw, intimate moment rarely seen in a modern American blockbuster. Most directors would cut away, move to the next scene, do his best to not make the audience feel even remotely uncomfortable. Cuaron is gutsier than the average director, however, because he understands that the viewer has spent an hour with this character, rooting her on, and hoping she makes it back to Earth. The viewer is so invested in her plight that he wants to share this downbeat moment with her, still with the hope that she will persevere and not give up so easily.

Ryan’s determination to stay alive brings the film to a moving and satisfying conclusion. Cuaron doesn’t allow for much sentimentality in the movie, but he does give Ryan a tender monologue, where she talks to the invisible Matt about when he will meet her little girl. This scene, more than any other in the film, had the possibility of playing maudlin, but Sandra underplays it, not going overboard with the tears or any look-at-me kind of emotion. All it takes is one brief hesitation at the end of the monologue, when she looks up at the shuttle ceiling and takes a deep breath, to tell everything the viewer needs to know about her state of mind. As she hurtles in a small burning pod toward Earth, not knowing if she has a chance to survive, she screams in terrified delight that whether she burns up in the next few minutes or makes it to safety, it has been one hell of a ride. The last shot of the movie, another long take that is a perfect bookend to the first shot of the film, shows Ryan swim to the shore and try, with humorous difficulty, to stand up, and finally surrender herself to — what else — gravity.

In a 2013 interview, James Cameron said how much he loved Gravity, that he thought it was the best space film ever made. Cameron would know — as the director of Aliens and Avatar, he has been to space before. Movies set in space are relatively few and far between, with only two to three significant films in this science fiction subgenre released each year. The first space motion picture ever made was A Trip to the Moon, directed by George Melies and released in 1902, and over the decades many influential films followed, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Wars, Alien, and Contact. More recent examples of this subgenre of science fiction films include the latest Star Trek films, as well as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. So many of these films, however, don’t take outer space seriously, and instead treat it like a fantasy world, with monsters and aliens forever running amok. The space film closest in tone and grandeur to Gravity is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is dead serious in tone, and more interested in making audiences think than it is in blowing up a distant planet. The film offered audiences not only some of the most stunning visual effects ever seen on screen up to that point, but also the first truly awesome look at space, and not until Gravity had moviegoers been treated to a spectacle that can match it.

One of the most impressive achievements of Gravity is its focus on a female main character for the majority of its running time. Cuaron was pressured by Warner Bros. to make the main character a man, as many studio executives still think to this day that audiences won’t go to a big blockbuster movie if a woman is leading the show. Cuaron, to his credit, never wavered from his vision, and stuck to his guns about hiring an actress for the pivotal central role of Dr. Ryan Stone. While it is not common for women to headline big-budget action thrillers, a few select actresses have paved the way for Sandra’s role in Gravity. The most obvious influence is Sigourney Weaver, Sandra’s Infamous co-star, who made huge strides for women in action cinema when she outlived all the men and became the heroine of 1979’s Alien. A riveting space film in its own right, as quiet in its many suspenseful moments the same way Gravity is, Alien offered Weaver the chance to prove that women can hold their own in big-budgeted movies the same way that men can. Her character of Ellen Ripley is witty and intelligent, and quick thinking in the face of adversity, just like Dr. Ryan Stone is in Gravity. Weaver followed her tremendous work in that Ridley Scott classic by reprising the role in three sequels, but despite the occasional action movie female lead — Geena Davis headlined 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, and faced scrutiny when the film bombed hard at the box office — men typically drive the genre. For a major studio film like Gravity to feature not just a female in the lead role but a woman in her late forties, particularly in today’s teen-driven marketplace, is an important step in the right direction; hopefully the film’s massive box office success should point studio executives to offering roles like this to more women in the future.

Alfonso Cuaron has been working his whole impressive career toward Gravity, and with his latest film he has catapulted himself into the realm of the top three filmmakers working in the medium today. He started quietly in the 1990s, helming film versions of two classic novels, A Little Princess and Great Expectations. He impressed audiences with his low-budget Spanish road trip movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and stumped many when he was chosen over many A-listers to helm the third Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While the darker, more immersive vision he brought to the franchise won him fans, it was his phenomenal work on his 2006 dystopian drama Children of Men that cemented his status as a true auteur. The story of a future society where women can no longer bare children, Children of Men introduced his famous long takes, and catapulted Cuaron to legendary status.

Gravity, remarkably, is an even greater achievement, the kind of film so few directors would have had the patience, or the determination, or the imagination, to ever make. He succeeded in creating a film that is unlike anything that’s come before; while movies have taken us to space time and time again throughout the medium’s history, nothing has ever demonstrated the true beauty of space quite like Gravity. He also succeeded in telling a moving, intimate story about a woman in her forties who has lost everything, and who finds the will to live even in the most trying of circumstances. The film works as a tense thriller, an emotional drama, an action blockbuster, and a bravura one-woman survival tale. That Cuaron worked on it tirelessly, day and night, for nearly five years, also shows the determination he has to get his films as perfect as possible. The film is a piece of pure artistic genius, and while Sandra and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also deserve kudos for their fantastic work, Gravity begins and ends with the great Alfonso Cuaron.

Aside from some voice-work at the beginning of the film by Ed Harris, the star of two famous space films The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, Gravity features only two performances, and while the film belongs to Sandra, Clooney is equally impressive in his brief but essential role. Matt is a jokester, giving the film its only sources of comic relief when he tells humorous stories from his past, right before the first wave of satellite debris hits the station. With so much action and intensity throughout, Gravity might have been too much of a downer without at least some comedy woven into the narrative, and Clooney provides just the right number of laughs in a few key moments to give the audience a much needed relief from the tension. His humor also adds to the emotion of the movie, because after so much of his commentary lightens up what is otherwise a scary circumstance, he turns serious in a moment of self-sacrifice. If the character hadn’t been so personable before, this scene of Gravity might not have had the power that it does. His sweet, self-mocking personality makes the awesome spectacle more easily accessible in the beginning, and his chemistry with Sandra is natural throughout the brief running time they share together. The role of Matt is pivotal to the success of the movie, and no one could have inhabited this role better than Clooney.

Sandra, however, is the star, and she is a revelation in Gravity. America’s sweetheart for so many years, the lead actress in so many terrific comedies and dramas over the last two decades, she is loved the world over — and still, nobody could have been prepared for her mesmerizing, physically demanding, emotionally rich tour-de-force of a performance she delivers in this film. So much of Gravity depends on visual effects, and another actress could have gotten lost somewhere behind all that beautiful imagery. Even when the viewer can only see her face inside a space suit for the first thirty minutes, her presence is felt in each second of screen time. The quiet despair she displays is evident from her first shot on screen, when she is focused on the technical job she has at hand. When the debris hits, she panics and screams, like any normal person would do, but when she makes it back to the shuttle and finds herself the sole survivor, Sandra’s rarely utilized physicality comes into play. In the film’s most striking shot of all, Ryan enters the shuttle, takes off her heavy suit, and curls up into a fetal position, in mid-air, signifying a moment of rebirth. From this point on, no one is helping her, and she needs to fend for herself, like a newborn child. What follows are many scenes of physical tasks and problems to solve, as she slowly realizes she might not survive the strenuous ordeal. The up-and-down emotions her character goes through would be a lot for an actress to deal with in a film that takes place down on Earth, let alone in zero gravity, and Sandra is more than up to the task. She has to not only convey everything her character is thinking and feeling at all times, but also deal with the tremendously demanding physical side of the role. That such a moving performance broke through under these circumstances is some minor miracle. Later nominated for her second Best Actress Oscar at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, Sandra is the best she has ever been, in this, the film of her career.

Gravity is proof that studio filmmaking in the new millennium still has the capability to be strong and inventive, and promote the imagination. While the television medium has enjoyed a new golden age over the last ten years, some have argued that major motion pictures have been declining in quality, especially studio blockbusters, which are often dumbed down, and aimed at kids and teenagers, to make the highest profit possible. Gravity, however, stands out as a true anomaly; it is a big-budget studio film made with love and artistry, that was geared toward an adult audience, that allows for a woman in her late forties to command the screen all by herself, and that promotes ideas over explosions. Gravity is an astonishing film, an instant classic, and it offered fans of Sandra, after twenty long years, a reason to celebrate.

Best Scene: Sandra starts weeping when she realizes she’s about to die.

Best Line: “Either way, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.”

Fun Facts

Gravity won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. It lost Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, and Sandra lost Best Actress to Cate Blanchett, for Blue Jasmine.

Aningaaq, the man Sandra talks to over the shortwave radio, is the main character of the companion short film Aningaaq, directed by Jonas Cuaron, which shows the other side of the conversation.

For research, Sandra talked to Astronaut Cady Coleman about life in space.

Because of Cuaron’s lengthy takes, Sandra had to memorize long combinations of precise movements to hit her marks at different points in the shot, as well as coordinate her own moves with those of the wire rig attached to her and the camera.

Along with 12 Years a Slave, Gravity is the first film in history to tie for Best Picture at the Producers Guild Awards.

While filming the underwater scene, Cuaron held his breath along with Sandra to make sure he wasn’t asking too much of his leading lady. He soon found that he couldn’t match her lung power.

The film was shot on digital cameras. However, the last scene of the movie was filmed in sixty-five millimeter, in order to give a hyper-reality look.

With more than forty feature films behind her, Gravity is Sandra’s most successful motion picture to date.

Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Happy Endings that Feel Earned


Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

This is it. This is the one. The mother of all Christmas movies. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation comes close, It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, Home Alone is still a personal favorite, and all those claymation movies from the ’60s, like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, are a lot of fun. But How the Grinch Stole Christmas remains the cream of the crop in my eyes. It does so much in so few minutes. It has a sweet message that never tires. It features one of the most memorable antagonists in movie history. The songs are perfect. The narration is terrific. And it gets in and out in under a half-hour. It’s about as close to a perfect film as they come.

There was great controversy in the year 2000 when Ron Howard’s live-action feature-length version of the story was released to theaters. I mean, the idea of it solicited promise. Jim Carrey as the Grinch? And Howard, who had so much success beforehand working in all sorts of genres, proved to be a capable choice of director. It’s dark, grimy, ugly. The movie didn’t work at all.

The live-action version has come and gone, and the one that will stay around forever is the animated short. This movie is the real deal. From the opening animation and song that cause goose-bumps, all the way to the happy but in no way sentimental ending that finds The Grinch carving that giant roast beast with the Whos, the film is sublime entertainment. I truly never get tired of it.

Some maniacal genius decided to allow Frankenstein’s monster himself Boris Karloff to do the voice work, and he is a fantastic choice. His voice is distinct in a way that will never be repeated again. The film features three songs, all of which stay in your memory long after the movie has ended. They could’ve been annoying, and for some reason, they should be, but they work completely. And the movie features animation that looks dated, of course (it is 1966 after all) but that quality, to me anyway, makes the movie more endearing.

My favorite moment is at the end, of course, when we find out what the Whos find to be the true meaning of Christmas, even when all their presents have come to be stolen by the morning. Lately I watch this ending feeling a bit cynical, thinking that if this were to actually happen on a wealthy street in today’s society, the kids and parents would be clawing at each others’ throats. But I try not to think about that. I try to let the movie’s message fill me with the kind of hope I need lately. In most films, an ending like this would make me want to throw up, but it works in this. Why? We identify so much with the Grinch’s demeanor (I mean, everyone hates Christmas a little), and we’re taken by surprise by how these creatures react to the news that there are no material goods. We’re surprised, and the Grinch is surprised. And what happens to him after this twist development is one of the most heart-warming arcs of a character in animation history.

I love this movie. I’ll love it to the day I die. It’s rare to find a Christmas movie that blends together a wonderful story, memorable songs, a superb main character, and beautiful animation all in one neat package that people of any age can watch and enjoy. While most contemporary Christmas movies put money in the studio banks, only to be forgotten six months later, a movie like the 1966 classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! will live on for many more years to come. It’s one of the classic stories of all time.

Watching Like a Writer

It’s easy to bring cynicism into your endings, and it’s also easy to write an ending so cutesy and sentimental that the reader can’t help but roll his or her eyes. Something this animated classic does so well is feature a happy ending that feels both earned and unexpected, one that shows a much-needed arc in the central character. I’ve always been a fan of dark endings in my own fiction, but movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas gives me the inspiration to aim for more happy endings, ones that are emotionally satisfying without being cloying.


Think about the ending of your work-in-progress. Is there a way to make it a happy one without making it overly sentimental? How so?