Monday, March 29, 2010

Psycho

yes I admit it
I was thoroughly creeped out
Vertigo's better

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

I don't intend to use this blog for movie reviews, but I just saw Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and can't resist writing a few things about it.

WARNING: Spoilers will be flying all over the place. Proceed at your own peril.

Not that there's much to worry about, because Alice has few surprises and hardly any suspense. I had a good time anyway, frankly. There's plenty of good mixed in with the what-were-they-thinking parts. I've also never seen a movie in 3-D before (stop snickering) and almost ducked when a bookcase came crashing down (come on, quit it). I don't know how it compares to Avatar (haven't seen it yet) or Up (didn't realize it came in 3-D), but the effect was enjoyable without being distracting. But I digress.

Burton has never been a cutesy filmmaker and I'm thankful that his take on Alice likewise refrained from being cutesy. I know some people are offended by his making a sequel of sorts to the original Alice, but I don't have a problem with this. The problem, I think, is that, though they distanced the film from its source, they didn't go quite far enough. Alice is a rebellious nineteen-year-old returning to Wonderland and has long since resigned the previous adventure as nothing but a dream? Great.

Too bad she spends over an hour continuing to believe it never happened and that what's going on right now is also a dream, when we can all guess that it did and this isn't. It's also too bad that the other characters blithely play along with her amnesia and assume the White Rabbit lured the wrong Alice. If they were going to go that route, it would've been more interesting if she actually was the wrong Alice. And then they could've avoided the Chosen One plot cliché.

Other than that, the film struck me as too adult for children and not adult enough for non-children. Am I the only one who noticed the sexual tension between Alice and the Mad Hatter? It's not as obvious as Jareth and Sarah in Labyrinth, but it's nevertheless there and they didn't do a thing about it. Look, I'm not crazy so I'm not suggesting there should've been a serious romantic entanglement between Alice and His Spectacular Looniness, but the tension between them has no payoff in Wonderland or in the "real world" she returns to in the end.

Which brings me to my next point. The opening scenes of the film – Alice unwillingly and unknowingly attending her own engagement party to a spoiled aristocrat – set up certain parallels with characters Alice later meets in Wonderland. Her would-be fiancĂ© Hamish has flaming orange hair like the Mad Hatter; his mother has an attitude like the Red Queen; Alice's brother-in-law Lowell is treacherous like Stayne, the Knave of Hearts; Alice's sister Margaret is sweet and perfect like the White Queen; there are even twin sisters who act like Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The problem? These parallels turn out to be either superficial or unnecessary. The one between Hamish and the Hatter is just absurd. It makes you wonder why they didn't employ the traditional technique of actors playing dual roles in order to emphasize the connections.

There's also a glaring omission concerning Alice's mother - she has no parallel in Wonderland. If Alice's intended mother-in-law, Lady Ascot, was supposed to evoke the Red Queen, then Alice's mother should've evoked the White one. The battle between them would've had more complexity as would Alice's part in it, but the film seems muddled over the difference between reality and fantasy. After working overtime to establish the "real world" Alice flees for Wonderland, this is entirely thrown away at the end, since Alice, in blatant defiance of Victorian gender politics, decides not to get married and be an entrepreneur instead. And not one character voices a word of protest. I know I sound stuffy, but that ending doesn't pass the common sense test. If they were going with woman's-empowerment, they succeeded with Alice being the one to slay the Jabberwocky, but letting a nineteen-year-old girl pursue a high-powered career in Victorian England outdoes wish fulfillment. It pushes the fantastic beyond the Mad Hatter.

Speaking of the grandly unbalanced one, though I'm never sorry to see Monsieur Depp, I am sorry that he and Tim Burton went so completely over the top with the Mad Hatter. One of the beautiful things about Edward Scissorhands was Depp's low-key performance in spite of his extreme costume. Surely they could've found a way for the Hatter to be outrageously dressed and subtly insane. If there's anyone who could pull it off, it's Depp, who played the eccentric Sam in Benny & Joon – a character that recreates Buster Keaton's slapstick routines and makes grilled cheese with an iron, but never raises his voice or cracks a joke. As he is, the Hatter is a circus rendition of Jack Sparrow, and I happen to like the Captain - dreadlocks, eyeliner, and all.

I will say that the Hatter seems overdone out of sheer love. It's also evident that the entire production is in love with the Red Queen. One of the film’s best features - pathetic, hilarious, cruel, and psychotic – she's designed and played like a caricature of Elizabeth I. Too bad they didn't take as much interest in the White Queen – she's Galadriel + bleach + a touch of kookiness. The same goes for the monarchs' respective kingdoms. The production obviously had a ball planning each and every detail of the Red Queen's castle – the White Queen lives in Middle-Earth.

So yes, I've spent the last 900 words listing one complaint after another and yes, I can still honestly say I was entertained. You can follow it easily, the visuals and actors are good. It's just that it could have been a lot better.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Special Mad Men Marathon: The Loves of Don Draper

Midge, Artist
a Village woman
left Don for a narcissist
what am I thinking?

Rachel Menken, CEO
a nice Jewish girl
who sees through Don like crystal
will I recover?

Bobbie Barrett, Agent
a tough showbiz broad
I think I've got Don's number
where did I go wrong?

Suzanne Farrell, Schoolmarm
an unlikely choice
but Don has eclectic taste
do I regret it?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Eight and a Half

I am confusion
the fragments of a circus
now there is freedom

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Influence, Part One.

I've been on an introspective roll lately which is why (in addition to an inconvenient time-shortage) I've avoided posting anything serious for the past few weeks. Now – brace yourselves – meh – you can sit comfortably - this won't be earth-shattering – some results of my introspection…

A while ago, I was writing a piece for The View* and was trying to work out which authors/filmmakers had the biggest influence on me (and ended up doing something shamelessly frivolous instead), which got me thinking about what I owe to each. A good way of gauging your development as a writer is examining what you've absorbed from other writers/artists – not merely the techniques or ideas you've adopted, but those you've rejected. Saying you're not going to write like so-and-so can be every bit as defining as doing the dance of joy when you agree wholeheartedly with so-and-so's method.

As you can tell from the "Part One" in the post title, I'm not going to cover everyone today. Ladies first, as they say. The gentlemen will wait patiently until next time.

Jane Austen. My apologies if you gasped in shock over this one. It's strange because, when I think about it, deciding I was not going to write like Jane Austen was one of the most important decisions I made early on. In fact, it's better to say "had to make" since otherwise I would have ended up a sad imitator. (Emphasis on "sad.") I've probably said this before, but Jane Austen is the Fred Astaire of writers – so effortlessly sophisticated and charming you think you can just get up dance… Then you limp into a dark corner to hide your shame.

Aside from that and crediting Austen with my wanting to take up writing in the first place, one thing I love about her writing (which I've adopted), is that she's not very concerned with painting a picture. She'll say "handsome" or "elegant" and that's it. You fill in everything else. I'm not against detailed description – I just don't like writing it. I also love the way she summarizes events – perfectly blending facts with commentary - and it makes you wonder what she could've done with a history textbook.

Harper Lee. I've already written a post about the profound effect To Kill a Mockingbird had on me. It's also the first book (out of a very small number) that made my eyes well-up. Two important things I owe Ms. Lee: one, that my protagonist need not narrate in quite the way he/she thinks or speaks; two, that a story can be tragic without making you feel terrible.

Edith Wharton. The Age of Innocence is among the first serious novels I read and, besides setting the bar pretty (damn) high, more than anything, it emphasized that you have to write what you know. Not that you can’t draw the same conclusion from Austen or Lee, but Wharton first constructs and then dismantles the society which produced her characters. You can’t do that without expert knowledge.

Virginia Woolf. The following passage from “Modern Fiction” has been quoted a million times, so this will be a million and one:

"Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from the old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on, as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged, but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."

I don’t agree with Woolf’s rejection of genre, but her emphasis of subjectivity helped me break away from the idea of being systematic. Meaning, I didn’t have to describe the house my character lived in, what their job was, or what their childhood was like unless it was somehow relevant to the story I was trying to tell. Knowing what characters would notice when they walked into a room or what they would think about when they first met another character would reflect the way their minds worked as much as what they actually said or did.

Probably most of this sounds obvious – painfully obvious maybe – but the truth is you can take a lot for granted when you write. Ideally, writing should be as plain and simple as breathing, but sometimes you need to question why you’re doing what you’re doing the way you’re doing it – or you stop seeing the finer details. You’ll end up running on autopilot without even knowing it. Whenever metaphors begin to take over my sentences, I know it’s time to finish, but I’ll only add that one of the hardest things a writer has to do, especially today with all the past and present writers in existence, is to find his or her own voice. After a certain point you don’t absorb other influences to such a degree, but it’s still useful to know who your stylistic benefactors are.

I just used the phrase “stylistic benefactors.” That’s definitely it for now.


* That's not a shameless hint to go see what's going on at the magazine. There wasn't even a link (like the two different ones in the right-hand column).

Monday, March 8, 2010

Special To Catch a Thief Marathon

Shh! Don't Tell the Censors
ah, innuendo...
subtle as those those fireworks
exploding up close

Grace in Gold
anybody else
would've been a parade float
going down main street

I Don't Care What Your Name Is
Oh Johnny Devlin
John (Conrad/Cat) Roger (George)
I simply love you

Monday, March 1, 2010

Special Vertigo Marathon

Nightmare
castanets clicking
Technicolor pulsating
it's a showstopper

Scotty
you aren't crazy
although your taste in women
is questionable

Madeleine
mystery woman
spells trouble, capital T
a male fantasy

Carlotta
of all puzzling things
what I find most curious
you're not Latina