Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Operation Oscar" - Complete!

Roll out the red carpet and get ready to toast Tinseltown - it's time again for the "Women's Super Bowl."  That's right - Oscar night.  With 10 films up for best picture, watching all of the nominees was no small task.  But yesterday, I finished "Operation Oscar" just in time to ogle the gowns (and James Franco :) during tonight's broadcast.  I don't profess to be a film critic; rather I'm just a person who likes film.  So, here's my two cents worth on this year's "Top 10," loosely in rank order according to my personal criteria of writing (I love snappy dialogue), acting, and overall likability, or the "entertainment factor."  

#10.  Black Swan - Portman should be commended for her dancing (which was convincing and indicative of a bonafide prima ballerina) but I wish she had spent as much time on her acting as she did on her ballet training.  This film comes in at number 10 for me, as one of the most over-hyped films of the year.  While certain scenes were artistically filmed and beautifully rendered, to understand and empathize with mental illness I'd rather watch A Beautiful Mind again (and again) than delve into the dark, and at times, hokey, depths of this movie's "Swan Lake."  Loved the dancing, could've done without the lesbian love scene (imagined or not), but I wonder if it would have gotten as much attention, especially from male moviegoers, without it?  Hmm....Portman will likely win for Best Actress tonight, even though she should win for "Best Dancer" in a movie (new category I just made up :) and leave the acting to the likes of Benning, Kidman, and even the 14-year-old Steinfeld of True Grit.  I do like that this movie offered SNL and other satirical shows the opportunity to create some hilarious spoofs - see Jim Carrey's interpretation of Black Swan.

#9.  The Kids Are Alright - This movie is enjoyable, with moments that make you laugh-out-loud, and moments twinged with poignancy and pain.  This movie is not good enough to be a best picture, but Benning is excellent (now there's some acting - take notes Portman) and Ruffalo is charming as always.  A great, fresh, dramedy, that depicts a less than conventional family that yet any family can relate to.

#8. Inception - this movie will keep you on the edge of your seat for sure.  It's original, it's eye candy filled with eerie effects, and it's intense.  It is not a best picture - but it is one of the best, suspenseful popcorn movies I've seen in a long time.  And I would rather be trapped in Leonardo  DiCaprio character's mind than Portman's any day :).

#7. Toy Story 3 - this movie is, in a word -- sweet -- without being saccharine.  I loved Toy Story and Toy Story 2), and 3 doesn't disappoint either.  For a trilogy of movies that began with a high standard, this is really, really hard to pull off (although it doesn't stop Hollywood from releasing lame sequels in droves).  In fact, I can't think of another trilogy of movies that can hold a candle to this one for consistent enjoyment, (and I'm including The Godfather trilogy, because we all know how disappointing #3 turned out to be...)  In some ways, these movies keep getting better.  Hats off to Pixar, for taking their time in develop the execution and evolution of Andy's beloved toys since their initial 1995 debut.  

#6. The Fighter - Christian Bale is tremendous, as is the entire ensemble, in this somewhat predictable, based on a true story, boxing drama.  It took me a little while to "settle in" to this film - the initial jerky camera shots and thick Boston accents take some adjustment.  Superb acting, and the handheld camera filming technique, make this film feel very real and immediate - as if you the viewer are a part of this loud, bizarre, tacky and dysfunctional family.

#5. The Social Network - very snappy writing, fresh, and for the most part, fun and fast-paced.  I didn't expect much of this film and it delivered so much more than I expected.  While I've read many stories questioning the authenticity and liberties the filmmakers took to portray this "based on a true" story, I do think the exaggerations and/or embellishments probably made for a more compelling movie.  The end of this movie is unsettling - as a Facebook user I felt like a pawn in some master-mind nerd's big plan...that being said, I'm still "status updating" and "friending" with a frenzy, over 7 months after the film's debut. 

#4 Winter's Bone - quiet, dark and bleak.  Not much seems to happen in this movie of a young Ozark girl's quest to find her delinquent, drug addict father to avoid losing her home and keeping her family together.  But the climax is stomach-turning and the characters in this film are heart-breaking, pathetic renderings of human nature at its lowest.  Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as the lead and the heroine of the story - she, like Steinfeld, show strength and, well, true grit....

#3 True Grit - freshest re-make ever made.  I could close my eyes and still enjoy this movie - the writing is that good.  Steinfeld shines as the young heroine, and single-handedly steals the show in my opinion (no disrespect to Bridges, Damon and Brolin).  The Coen brothers strike gold again.

#2 127 Hours - I wasn't prepared to "enjoy" this movie.  In fact, I thought it was going to feel like sitting for 127 hours, or in real time wasting 2 1/2 hours of my life that I would never get back.  But I did enjoy it, if you can use that word to describe watching a man saw off his arm with a blunt pocketknife.  While Franco is easy on the eyes, watching him for 94 minutes alone would not have been enough to save this film.  His acting, however, is convincing; I felt frantic, parched, desperate, and loopy right alongside him.  The filming is also creative - the use of screen strips to juxtapose the human rat race with the starkness of nature was eye-catching and compelling.

#1 The King's Speech - well-written, well-acted, and entertaining.  This film hits all three criteria for me.  Firth will likely win for Best Actor tonight, an honor that is overdue and rightfully his.  If Franco makes you feel trapped in a canyon, Firth makes you feel like you'd rather be trapped in a canyon than be a public figure forced to speak publicly with an uncooperative stammer.  Rush is delightful as Firth's speech coach, friend and mentor, and audiences leave feeling relieved and refreshed by this historic tale of a King and his speech.   

The top 10 in a nutshell....what's your pick? 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Show Don't Tell" Writing Class Homework

Last Monday, I went to the first session of a "Show Don't Tell," writing class, offered by the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.  After taking an initial course last October ("Writing 101") through this same non-profit, and receiving a gift certificate for a second class for Christmas, I was excited to try another course.  I chose this class because it seemed like a natural next step - 4 weeks (vs. the 8 week intensive genre-workshops they offer) with a broad enough topic that the exercises and instruction could apply to any writing endeavor.

Monday night was simultaneously humbling and inspiring.  These people (15 total in the class) are writers...real, flesh-and-blood, published writers.  In fact, I sat two seats away from Eleanor Brown, whose debut novel The Weird Sisters is getting its fair share of attention.  (Needless to say after Monday night I purchased the book and just began reading it - review will be forthcoming, but the opening chapters are lovely).  So it was with a mix of excitement and sheer terror that I left on Monday night, thinking about the 3 weeks remaining in this class where I am trying to do my best to blend in and soak it up in an environment that is, without a doubt, way beyond my league.  

In fact, I thought about skipping class tomorrow night, because our instructor assigned homework alphabetically, meaning I will be one of 5 students presenting a 150-200 word writing exercise to the group for close reading and critique.  Oh, the joy of having a last name that begins with "C" - and, of course, what comes before "C"?  Yep, "B" as in Brown...I have to read my attempt at a "show don't tell" exercise in the company of real writers, including the recently published Brown...gulp.

So, here it is...the exercise...all 183 words that will go up for public scrutiny tomorrow night.

Setting the Scene: (The Establishing Shot)
Exercise: Write a few sentences that set up a specific idea about a place.  Then start a second paragraph in which we see some characters and understand how they fit (or don’t fit) into the place.

A routine burning of incense and candles cloaked the parishioners in warmth.  The organ hummed steadily, smothering the lively chatter initiated in the night as the murmurings floated into the narthex.  Rows of bent heads and kneeling bodies demanded an obedience and uniformity from those entering its space.  Faces creased with age gripped rosaries, mouths moving rhythmically in silent prayer.  Smooth-skinned infants, confined to weary laps, grasped for the glossy beads, marveling wide-eyed at the beauty just beyond their reach.  The congregation, engulfed in a gentle rustling of hymnals, subtle fidgeting, and muting of coughs, anticipated the beginning of the weekly ritual.
In the last seat of the last row, burdened by layers of clothing, arms folded tightly across her chest, she sat.  Measured trembling shook her body, while solitary tears lined her face and slipped off her chin.  Dark misshapen blobs marred the coarse twill of her sleeves.  Her sharp gasp disrupted his thoughts.  Opening his eyes with a furtive, sidelong glance he wished more than anything that he had thought to pocket a handkerchief.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Book Blog - Little Bee

On Little Bee

"What is an adventure?  That depends on where you are starting from.  Little girls in your country, they hide in the gap between the washing machine and the refrigerator and they make believe they are in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around them.  Me and my sister, we used to hide in a gap in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around us, and make believe that we had a washing machine and a refrigerator.  You live in a world of machines and you dream of things with beating hearts.  We dream of machines, because we see where beating hearts have left us," (pg. 165). 

Chris Cleave, the author of Incendiary, transports readers into two worlds -- one developing, and one developed -- in his second novel, Little Bee.  Two strong, unforgettable female characters forge a surprising and unconventional friendship, and serve as narrators for the reader's journey between the two worlds.  This is the story of a Nigerian refugee who renamed herself Little Bee, a name intended to keep her safe and free her from the men, guns, fear and bloodshed that characterized her former life, and Sarah, a Surrey girl whose suburban London address and fashion editor job title conceal the flaws and complexity that exist in her seemingly normal, advantaged life.  Titled The Other Hand in certain print versions, this novel is about the layers of morality, guilt, love, selflessness, selfishness, and emotional and physical scars that haunt characters so different they discover they share vast common ground.  

This book has been discussed and blogged about by so many book clubs and readers since it's publication in 2008, and the inside cover page boasts that it is "soon to be a major motion picture," leaving me, perhaps, with little fresh or noteworthy to say in this review.  I initially (and admittedly, somewhat snobbishly) put off reading this book, because it was one of those books everyone was reading and talking about at the time.  I was afraid Little Bee wouldn't live up to the initial deafening buzz (no pun intended) that it created when it hit the shelves.  Indeed, I do think I enjoyed the reading experience more now, distanced from the early hype, than I would have if I had read it when everyone else was reading it.  It is, at times, a beautiful book, especially the chapters told in Little Bee's distinct voice -- a polished hybrid of Queen's English and her native dialect.  At other times, it is an infuriating book, one that gets under my skin and that makes me feel angry, disillusioned and torn about the all-too-real inequities that exist in both worlds.  Most of the characters, aside from Little Bee and Sarah's four-year-old son, Charlie ("Batman,") walk a fine line between being contemptible and pitiable, and for the most part in my opinion, seem to get what they deserve.  Despite Sarah's voice and noble intentions throughout the second half of the  novel, it is Little Bee that I feel readers of any background will side with.  

For those that have read this book, there is plenty to discuss -- from the political and human rights agenda put forth in the novel, to the more basic moral issues of what is right and what is wrong, and all of the shades of gray that exist in any moment's notice decision.  For those who haven't read the book, it is worth the journey if you are interested in a trip that takes a few divergent and unexpected paths, can at times make you uncomfortable in your own industrialized skin, and in the end, leaves you with as many questions as it answers.  It is an adventure in two worlds - a world with machines and a world with beating hearts.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brief Book Blog - Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

 Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

It's true.  I admit it.  I do on occasion judge books by their cover.  I initially 'judged' this book by both its title and its cover, and overall the contents lived up to the poignant promise on the jacket.  

Last night, on the eve of a guaranteed snow day, I stayed up past my work-week bedtime to finish Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.  This historical fiction novel toggles between two time periods in Northwest America - World War II and 1986 (or "present day" for the main character, Chinese-American Henry Lee).  Lee's struggles in 1986 include the loss of his wife, a semi-distant and forced relationship with his son, the aging and imminent death of a close friend and jazz legend, and the unrequited heartache he has grappled with since losing his childhood sweetheart in a complex web of events that unfolded during World War II.  The 1940's component of the narrative tells the story of young Lee, who is both coming of age and coming to terms with his own heritage in a complicated world.  Torn between the traditional beliefs of his Cantonese father, the teasing and torture of his all-white American schoolmates, the influence of an African-American Jazz musician, and the unlikely friendship that emerges between Lee and the open-minded Japanese-American girl, Keiko Okabe, Lee's story unfolds as the country's story of World War II plays out in different ways for Americans of all races.  The Panama Hotel, an old Seattle landmark, anchors the narrative in both time periods and gives the story it's poetic and compelling title.

Ford's novel offers a balanced blend of history, romance, and the tension that existed between being Chinese and being American (in the case of the main character) or being Japanese and being American (in the case of Lee's childhood love interest) during a time when the loyalty and belief systems of all Americans were being put to a test after the events of Pearl Harbor.   True to the title, in two words this book is both bitter and sweet.  The strength, beauty, and honesty present in the World War II chapters compensates for the predictability of the 1986 narrative thread.  This is a book that could easily be adapted into screenplay that would delight in giving cinematic life to the two time periods, the Japanese internment camps, the jazz scene in Seattle and the Panama Hotel itself.  Indeed, many parts of the book move effortlessly through the reader's mind like scenes in a movie when you know how it will end, but feel yourself hopelessly riveted to the screen anyway.  

Throughout the book it is Lee's internal and external conflicts, coupled with Ford's simple but graceful prose and the natural shifts between the two time periods, that keep readers invested.  Ford makes the reader experience for themselves the clash between growing up in the 1940's straddling two contradictory cultures and belief systems.  "Young Henry Lee stopped talking to his parents when he was twelve years old.  Not because of some silly childhood tantrum, but because they asked him to.  That was how it felt anyway.  They asked--no, told--him to stop speaking their native Chinese.  It was 1942, and they were desperate for him to learn English.  Which only made Henry more confused when his father pinned a button to his school shirt that read, 'I am Chinese.'  The contrast seemed absurd." (pg. 15).

If you want an easy read that is heavier on the sweet, with sprinkles throughout of the bitter, explore Ford's debut work for a glimpse into the past and a look at World War II from a unique perspective.