Monday, June 27, 2011

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles

Once in a while, a film stirs you. It cuts right through the daily charade and reopens your heart to a sense of human goodness. I have just sat paralyzed through the entire credit reel of Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, trying to process the beauty of it. So much of how I gauge what I watch comes from aesthetics and technique, but the beauty of this piece is in its humanity.

I'll try to summarize without making it too technical. Mr. Takata's son, who has been estranged for ten years, is dying. All that's left to learn about him is in a tape of a masked opera in China. At the end, the son promises the singer to return in a year to film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. Mr. Takata makes the sudden decision to fulfill his son's promise.

This is truly a film of masks beyond just what is on stage. Mr. Takata is in an extraordinary amount of pain throughout, but he is too afraid to show it. He hides his tears when they show and envies the singer he has sought for breaking down in tears on stage and admitting he misses his own son. Though he is convinced this journey is the only thing that can heal his relationship with his son, he discovers that all he had to do was exactly that which he fears: taking off his stoic mask and showing his son how he feels.

To describe the ending would dull its poignancy. The feelings of love and loyalty are overwhelming and not in a disingenuous way. It is a film designed for feeling, for reassessing values, and for remembering how much we are blessed with the people in our lives. I give it five stars. To say more in print would cheapen it. It should be experienced before being read.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Movin' right along!

Oy! What a month it's been! Not much goin' on the To-Smite List for a while, mostly because 99% of my free time has been spent looking for a new apartment. The other 1% has been editing my 423 pictures from China. So the good news is that this huge To Acquire project has been a success. I am moving to Glendale on Friday. Slowly, I've been taking steps from room to apartment to own half of apartment to full apartment, so I am really excited about this.

Why Glendale? Location, location, location. I'm within a mile of Trader Joe's, 24 Hour Fitness, two malls, two movie theaters, a stage theatre, and my temp agency, and within two miles of Griffith Park, three major freeways, and Costco. I've been packing early in anticipation. I still have to figure out how my finances will hold up as Disney keeps hinting at extending me even longer than I'd expected. The uncertainty is a bugger, but for now, things are looking swell. Ka-ching! Now back to business as usual.

Y Tu Mamá También

There is a joke called "The Aristocrats." It reminds me of this film.

At the core of Y Tu Mamá También is the theme of freedom: sexual freedom, marital freedom, financial freedom, freedom to do with one's body whatever the hell one wants with whatever the hell one can find. It is the sexual odyssey of two privileged, crass, and hormonal teens, who see themselves as utterly free, yet know nothing of true freedom.

Tenoch and Julio come from wealthy families and have no problem affording all the women and marijuana they can consume. Their worlds are defined by their testosterone-laden bullshit. It allows them to drive right past the poverty, the corruption, and the culture surrounding them, keeping quiet about the truly important things. It required narration to interrupt their shallow prattle at unexpected moments to inform us of the truly important things happening in the lives of all involved (e.g. the doom of Chuy's home and career as a fisherman, the stories behind the crosses on the side of the road, etc.). The two friends do not connect on this sort of level, nor do they want to, having based their entire friendship on a mondegreen manifesto while screwing each other's girlfriends. They are the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, the bread and circuses that the average moviegoer craves. They believe they are free, but they are hamstrung by their inability to connect over anything but sex, which is the lesson Luisa tries, with debatable success, to teach them.

I loved the mystery of Luisa's character. Already a fan of Maribel Verdú's performance in Pan's Labyrinth, I was engrossed by her role as the woman searching for her final freedom. She is the one who can appreciate the unmentionable, who can connect with the quiet. She sees herself in the little stuffed mice and the vast ocean where we finally lose her. These are the things she tries to share with her two young companions and her adulterous husband por teléfono, but her words seem to fall on earless heads, her experiences lost among the sheets.

By the end, we are left with the question of whether their journey with Luisa has changed Tenoch and Julio. They remain crass and appear to have continued their conquests, but they are subdued, turning ever so hesitantly toward their futures in Economics and Biology, Julio's small beard growth even indicating a certain visual maturity. However, without their former sexual energy, they no longer have anything to say. They admit their hollowness, and thus their bonds are broken.

To look at this film shallowly is to be offended by the human body itself. There are few mysteries to the character's bodies by the end, yet the sexual exchanges are done tastefully, even elegantly. That's all that really matters, right? Four stars for inciting wonder and reminding me that freedom is in expression, in interest, in celebration of life. It reminds me what is to be missed with eyes down and in rather than out and up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


In order to attain any heights in what one does, one must stand on the shoulders of giants. Considering many of the great writers became great by studying their predecessors, I figure it's about time to delve into some of the ol' Greek classics to see what all the hubbub is about.

I started with Antigone by Sophocles, equipped with masks, gods, and a chorus. The plot embodied simplicity itself. The heroine, Antigone, wanted to perform burial rites for her brother, while the villain, Creon, wanted his body left out to be eaten by dogs. Of course, simple plots have a tendency to resolve quickly, so the majority of the play consisted of individual characters, chiefly nameless messengers, interacting episodically with the chorus while reflecting on the ways of gods and men, well, mostly the gods. In terms of stage time, Creon has the most visibility while the gods get the most lip service. Antigone, and pretty much every other character who appears in the duration, are basically foils for Creon's downfall. The messengers, Haemon, Eurydice, and Tiresias all have a little reminder for Creon that he's offended the gods with his actions and he will be punished. In modern culture, it would be the equivalent of a street protest where the participants yell at passersby for their godlessness.

On reading, I felt compelled for about half the duration and came to appreciate its merciful shortness. While I appreciate writing in verse and admire the numerous flowery tangents into myth and glory, in terms of storytelling, my modern tastes were simply not satisfied. However, it wasn't until after I read it that I realized Antigone was the last of Sophocles' Theban plays. Perhaps if I read Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, I may come to appreciate this classic much more.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

About a year and a half ago, I adopted two zebra finches named George and Martha. I did not really understand why they were so named other than a vague recollection of a play by Edward Albee with characters sharing nomenclature. It wasn't until I brought them home that first, Martha went after George, flying at him, pushing him out of their gourd home, pecking him, and generally being a harridan. They fought like cockerels and screwed like field mice, yet they never did produce an egg. One day, the tables turned, and George took ownership of the bird house. George began to rip out Martha's feathers. George banished Martha to the floor to pick her sustenance from among the shit-encrusted scraps on the cage floor. Then, one day, while I was away, Martha died of mysterious circumstances. I buried her under a cactus; within two days, something had dug her up and eaten her.

My only exposure to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? came from mentions and a high school performance of Martha's opening monologue: I thought it was a pure comedy. What I got were two hours of pure, inhuman nastiness, goaded on by razor-sharp tongues dripping with venom. True, there were laughs to be had, but as in the life of finches, the story of a crumbled and fruitless marriage is rife with tragedy and delusion that permeates every character. There is little room for sympathy with these characters, who fluctuate so readily from fondness to loathing and back again. Nonetheless, their exchanges, much wittier and allowing more time than most modern films (owing to the theatrical source material), keep the viewer engrossed and cringing.

The late, great Elizabeth Taylor very much deserved her Oscar for her role as Martha, a performance unlike any I'd expected from the queen of class, so elegant in her horridness, yet overflowing with emotional layers that may or may not have been real to the character. Martha is a truly sick woman who has built up an entire world of illusion that George has somehow tolerated for years. Yet, they feed off each other, enable each other, and are clearly meant for each other, as dysfunctional as their alcohol- and revenge-driven relationship is. Their example offers a warning to anyone on the brink of marriage: choose wisely, not for money or out of panic, or else become the monster or the monster's bitch.

I give Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? four stars for sheer cringe factor. Whether I would watch it again on screen or choose to see it on stage instead remains to be determined. In any case, it is an excellent film for any (would-be) actor looking to see how the pros can make the most of long conversations in few, select settings, as well as how to effectively make the audience squirm at every turn.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Avatar (The Screenplay)

For someone constantly striving to hone world building skills, there are certain resources that tower above the others in terms of usefulness. Up near the top, with a respectful nod to Tolkien of course, is Avatar, the highest grossing film in cinematic history and the stimulus of a 3D renaissance. It has been praised for its visual genius and mocked as a cheesy version of "Dances with Smurfs," but its success and the fact that it has spawned so much dialogue is extraordinary, especially as a science fiction film taking place in a world that is not our own, a genre that traditionally caters to a niche market. The true magic of Avatar rises from its visual elements, but in order to spawn such breathtaking cinematography, the foundation had to first be laid in print. Examining this foundation has been very enlightening, and even inspiring, on the following levels.

The world of Pandora shares much in common with Earth in that there are plants and animals, which interact with each other in a systematic and occasionally predatory way. However, on a cinematic level, these worlds differ fundamentally, starting with lighting. Unlike the planet, Earth, Pandora is a moon, orbiting around a gas giant, which provides most of the planet's lighting through reflection. Pandora's ecosystem then compensates for the lack of light through ubiquitous bioluminescence, the element which contributes most successfully to the dreamlike nature of the world. Additionally, the lower gravity of this moon and the presence of "unobtanium" in the soil, have permitted massive growth among the fauna and flora, further diminishing the importance of puny humanity and thus turning the dream world into a nightmare.

A note on unobtanium: the film doesn't really clarify what "unobtanium" really does or why it's worth so much to humanity. The name "unobtanium" sounds ridiculous, and so it seems a haphazardly planted element in an otherwise elegant world. The screenplay describes it as a magnetic material producing a maglev (magnetic levitation) effect, designating it as an important raw material for anti-gravity technology, something understandably useful to space-age humanity. However, there is one brilliant aspect to this omission in the film, which is all but impossible to see on screen. On page 30, Grace picks up a copy of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax from a school desk, an act of little to no significance in a quick camera shot. However, the central conflict of The Lorax, which was initially banned from television, comes from the destruction of the Truffula trees to produce Thneeds, which have no function at all but are in high demand. Thus, by omitting the use of unobtanium, the filmmakers have created a useless MacGuffin, for which the greedy are willing to destroy anything, making their actions even more barbaric to the viewer.

Conversely, there were quite a few thematic elements to the screenplay that enriched the reading experience but felt sadly lost in the viewing. The first instance comes from the distinction between the human connection to machines, one of distance and utility (e.g. Quaritch's controlled Wushu kata while hooked up to an ampsuit), and the Na'vi connection to the creatures they ride, one of intimacy and brotherhood (e.g. linking up to the banshees, which then bond to their riders for life). The contrast between these two relationship styles serves to highlight a rapid social retreat from personal intimacy in favor of the mechanical, which is easier to discard. We can see this in the futuristic Earth, all but destroyed and littered with what has been discarded (like Jake), a way of life that the colonists of Pandora believe will serve them well on all worlds. Therefore, we have the cultural conflicts of destruction/disdain and life/respect, a theme addressed in the film but more succinctly described in the script.

The allure of the Na'vi culture and the negative effects of the conquering human worldview on Jake's psyche come across much more clearly in the screenplay than in the film. Jake comes from this cold, hostile world of machines and people, but it is on Pandora, among an alien culture of respect and intimacy, that he is able to find his humanity. It is literally drawn out of him and absorbed into a new body to the point that he is more human as an alien than he ever was among other humans. His transformation thus invites the viewer to question the limits of his or her own humanity, though it's doubtful how many viewers left the theater questioning their human natures.

Thematic elements can be dreadfully difficult to visualize without inserting bad lines of exposition, so I make no judgment there. However, the creation of this world with its vast zoological population required a lot of exposition, the technique of which I badly want to learn. James Cameron (who, for some reason, just can't fit into one name like "Spielberg") introduces his menagerie of alien creatures in a dual manner: in the scene descriptions, they are known by Mendelian Greek names (e.g. leonopteryx), while the characters in the film refer to them exclusively by their Na'vi nomenclature (e.g. toruk). This makes it easier for the reader to keep track of creatures without spending unnecessary time trying to pronounce the names, while on screen, the viewer has a visual guide to the creature and thus does not care what it's called anyway. The writing sets up this visual guide simply, focusing on one or two specific traits: teeth, leg count, colors, crests, horns, what Earth animal it might represent, and what Earth animal it could rip apart. The characters then add details of the creatures' ecological importance (human) or cultural importance (Na'vi). In the end, it only takes us a few lines to understand each creature's role in the world and to let it be absorbed into the backdrop without forgetting what it is when it returns later.

The combined script and film are rich in detail, though the latter unfortunately takes a turn toward the cliché through ad libbing. Nonetheless, the details of this world drive the whopping 152-page screenplay and three-hour film in the form of smaller adventures and simple moments of awe at the bioluminescence, the floating mountains, or the wonders of flight. The world provides conflicts and lessons aplenty, leaving us no chance to be bored and only a little opportunity to be confused. The Avatar screenplay is a great reference for creating a world that is not only spectacular and innovative but also relatable.

Monday, May 2, 2011

In the Loop (The Screenplay)

I'm going to forget my reference here. I can't remember who it was exactly who told me they were tired of pretentious, cinema-nut screenplays with rapid-fire dialogue, bad attitudes, and a heap of swearing and pop culture references to cover up their confusing plotlines being nominated for Academy Awards. In any case, those are the criteria that I would use to classify In the Loop.

That is not to say, of course, that I did not enjoy the read for the most part. Of course, without character introductions of any kind or really any lay-person/British-novice explanations, it took a while to figure out what exactly was going on, who these people were, and that this was actually meant to be a comedy. Right? For the most part, I enjoyed a some of the lines and trivial conversations - I really appreciated the fact that Karen Clark had dental problems, and I got a kick out of Toby and Simon resorting to shark documentaries in order to get off without having to hold a press conference - but good lord, apart from these few moments, the repetition of humor styles became unbearable! By the end, there were two to four movie titles or character puns thrown at us per page! I got tuckered out after about forty pages of Malcolm's viciously caustic put-downs of everyone within hearing range, and I became annoyed with Simon and Toby's utter spinelessness. In fact, most everyone in this script except for Malcolm and Jamie had no backbone at all, which leaves us with a really uncomfortable message: that our governments are run by bullies.

I suppose the film could provide a useful lesson for standing up to bullies, no matter how old or how powerful they may be. The bad guys get their way in this one, and the good guys bend over and take it, but perhaps the viewer's frustration at their utter uselessness could serve as a motivator to do more to resist this kind of system. Then again, they'd actually have to be able to pick out the message amid the barrage of government titles and threats of a war against an unknown enemy that's been brewing for who knows how long and is somehow threatened by a lower-ranking politician who really seems to have no real clout to begin with. Considering the Oscar nominees I've read thus far, I can't quite understand why this was nominated, except for its portrayal of our world as a screwed up place, but it's serving as a very useful learning tool for tailoring a script to the high-testosterone crowd.