Thursday, 28 April 2011

Film Faves - Leonardo DiCaprio was actually naked the whole time.

Rabid Lit Major
Mood: Barely awake...may need to cheat on my less-caffeine resolution
Reading: the comics of Lucy Knisley whom my sister Hillary introduced to me yesterday and I am finding insightful, funny and poignant.

When I was in my junior year of high school I was nominated to represent my school in theater at Missouri Fine Arts Academy. I sent in a video of myself performing a Shakespearian monologue and a passage from a Meg Cabot book. Surprisingly, this earned me a spot in the summer program and I spent a joyous month in a hyperactive haze as I learned how to direct, act for the screen and how to properly audition for a musical.

Aside from the discipline-focused courses (theater in my case) us MoFFA attendees were expected to attend I.D. or "Interdisciplinary" classes. Essentially, every class day, they split the whole camp into five-or-so large classes of about twenty each...combining kids from all the different fine arts categories. (Dance, Voice, Musical Instruments, Art/Sculpting, and area) Each of these five (or so) mixed classes had a "landscape" name - to my recollection these were something like River, Mountain, Ocean, Field and my group: Cave.

The theme was "artist's landscape" and we were told that the point of the I.D. class was for us to learn from each other and, over the course of the month, put together a giant presentation centering on our group's name that explained to the other groups what we thought the "artist's landscape" meant.

Yeah. It was pretty stupid.

It didn't help that, as much as we liked each other, our group fought like crazy. In the same way that voices in a cave echo off the walls and create a cacophony through which comprehension is impossible, the cave group was so full of strong, creative personalities that we could not hear each other over our own opinions.

What this meant, of course, is that every class period we argued until our faces were blue, eventually compromised enough to think of an idea for the presentation, worked our asses off to get it started...and at the end of the class, during the reflection session, realized that the compromises had created a concept that nobody liked and scrapped it entirely.


What was worse was that our friends in the other I.D. groups all seemed excited about their projects. We would hear snippets at lunch: "Oh yeah! We finished choreographing our second dance number and put finishing touches on our original composition while the art kids painted the set" and our only response was an awkward "We still haven't started yet."

You're probably wondering where the hell I'm going with this. I promise there's a point.

The day before we were supposed to present our projects arrived and we still had nothing. Nada. Zip. We stood around a big table, our teachers looking on vaguely amused and calmly reminding us that we had to present something tomorrow.

We sat in frustrated, terrified silence for ten minutes until one of us spoke up:

"I think we should B.S. it."

We all thought the "artist's landscape" thing was stupid. Let's face it: it kind of was. So we decided to take the modern art route and make something so vague and simple that people would simply assume that, because we called it "art", it must have some deep and impressive meaning to us artists that they, the audience, could never comprehend.

This was our project: we stole a chair and had a couple photography kids take random pictures of it all around campus. At a desk. In an elevator. With some ballet shoes on it. In a tree. With a bra. (You need at least one risque element in modern art after all.) When it came time to present our project, we sat in the audience with everyone else. In the dark. We waited for people to ask what the hell was going on and added our own questions: purposefully ridiculous. "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to see it...could it fly instead?" When we got others playing along and distracted, one of the group members snuck the chair onstage unseen. When the din hit its peak, we put a spotlight on that empty chair. The room went silent. After a full, hugely awkward, completely silent minute gazing at the chair, the projector screen lit up with the slideshow of pictures. The final picture showed a view of the chair from behind, looking out on the empty audience (a picture of the theater we'd taken before anyone had arrived.)

After the presentations, we gathered in classrooms to discuss. The other presentations had been elaborate. They frankly discussed what it meant to be an artist. They used dance and music and painting to express their joy and creativity. They were elaborate. They were impressive. Extreme amounts of effort went into them.

When asked which group had captured the "artist's landscape" best, the near-unanimous answer was "the cave group". Students and teachers alike praised our grasp of the intricacies of the creative soul: the anguish and the ecstasy of imagination. They applauded our minimalist approach and felt ours was the most "sincere" performance.

At one point I glanced back at my own I.D. teachers and saw them biting their fists in an effort to keep from laughing.

Essentially, we allowed our fellow artists to prove our assumption that they were dumb enough and egocentric enough to make our project seem more clever than it was completely correct.

Christopher Nolan would have fit in well in the cave group.

Caution: If you still want to see this film and are excited by the huge twist you've heard everyone applaud, stop reading now. Either I will ruin it for you by spilling the huge secret, or I will ruin it for you by revealing that the huge secret was stupid. Either way: spoilers ahead.

Film: Inception (2010)
Starring: Leonardo diCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page (aka Juno-chick)
Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan
Accolades: 4 Academy Awards (Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects) 4 Academy Award Nominations (Art Direction, Original Score, Picture of the Year, Screenplay) and a huge amount of fan hype.

Yesterday I spoke of how I liked the ambiguous ending of Labyrinth and how you could never be sure whether she had dreamed the whole thing or not. Why, then, did I find the ending of Inception incredibly idiotic and vaguely insulting?

I was super-excited to see Inception from the very first trailer. The maze-like text of the title sent frissons of bracing terror through me and left me drooling to see it. The snippets of action and mind-bending graphics looked incredible.

It came out. Friends of mine left the theater talking about how awesome it was. How the end was such a mental mind-f*** and how much I'd loved it. The excitement grew.

Then another friend told me "Eh, the ending was lame."

She was the nay-saying needle in a glowing-review haystack. I chose to believe she was being contrary and maintained my excitement, now more determined to like it to prove her wrong.

I will apologize to her now for my lack of faith in her assertion.

So, the plot of Inception is something like that television gimmick "Picture in Picture". There exists some kind of ability/technology/mystical-devil-summoning-process which allows people to enter other people's minds through their dreams in the most complicated form of intellectual property theft ever invented. It's probably every copyright lawyer's nightmare, (Grandma? Grandpa?) and will likely spark some truly absurd conspiracy theories in all of the hundreds of drunks who have ever said: "He's making money off of that?! I came up with that idea years ago but the man kept me down!"

At some point, someone comes up with the logical idea that if you can steal an idea from somebody's mind you can probably plant an idea there as well. Which isn't creepy at all, as I'm sure every sci-fi character that's ever been brainwashed by an evil government can tell you.


So I'm watching the film, and admittedly the visuals were awesome. I mean really, truly, awesome. I only had three major issues with the main portion of the film.

1. Not enough of Ellen Page being Ellen Page. In fact, not enough Ellen Page period. We get one really awesome scene where she bends reality like a kid with a never ending supply of play-doh in every color of the rainbow and then she just fades into the (sometimes inverted) background. There's two issues with this: First of all, in every other film she's been in, Page has been charming and quirky and vibrant. She was boring here. Her character had no opportunity to shine. Secondly, the assertion that they "needed" an architect was never really proven. Her input in the plot seemed minimal, other than feeding Leo's angst. I wanted some elaborate scenes dreamt up by her mind that really impeded everyone creating an excellent plot-point. Instead, it seemed the only reason they needed an architect was to emphasize that Leo's character couldn't be one. Because of his angst. Angst. Angst. Angst. Angst.

2. IT WAS ALL ABOUT LEO. Boring. The whole film was set up so his character could whine about his miserable existence and his wife. Which would be cool...if we hadn't been promised a film about really cool mind-blowing sci-fi and instead were treated to an angst-ridden plot about trust and relationships and guilt with very little actual delving into the sci-fi parts. The sci-fi makes a pretty background, but it really is just the background. Think back: was any of the really awesome technology really explored: implications, history, impact, function etc.? Or was it briefly skimmed over so we get the premise and then used to make everyone feel high and get distracted from the fact that nothing was actually being answered?

3. I literally spent the entire film...the entire film...muttering under my breath "Please don't let the ending be that it was all a dream. Please don't let the ending be that it was all a dream. Please don't let the ending be that it was all a dream." Why? BECAUSE IT WAS BLOODY OBVIOUS. The "real" world held absolutely no element of realism. They weren't even really trying to trick us. At no point did the real world hold a single feeling of realism. There is foreshadowing, and there is being beaten over the head with a baseball bat labeled "TWIST ENDING" until the phrase shows up backwards in bruises all over face. Among all of the other hints, here's the biggest: everyone takes the whole concept of mind-rape in stride. Seriously? It's obvious it's not really a well-known thing. Leo has to explain the concept to Page. She gets over the shock of the most intrusive idea ever pretty freaking quickly.

But here's the really big problem I had: for such a huge, creative's been done. A lot. And better. More subtly and with more point.

Places the ending of Inception was handled with more dexterity
Abres Los Ojos (NOT Vanilla Sky)
House M.D.
Scrooge McDuck
Thousands of cartoons searching for a cheap gimmick.

Essentially, I think that the ending of Inception is like the Emperor's New Clothes. We've been told it's clever. We've been told it's brilliant. We are too afraid, therefore, to admit that we don't get it. Meanwhile Christopher Nolan is laughing all the way to the bank, because he knows there was nothing to get in the first place. He distracted us with shiny special effects (nothing up my sleeve!) so we didn't notice him setting up the magnets that make the damn top spin.

Summation: Totally deserved the Academy Awards it idea why it was ever nominated for writing or best picture.

You spin me right round, baby.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Film Faves - Fantasy Films FTW

Rabid Lit Major:
Mood: Hungry and unfocused
Watching: Q.I., a fabulous BBC show that's like "Whose Line is it Anyway" but educational. Essentially, Stephen Fry sets 4 comedians at a table, quizzes them on obscure trivia, and awards them more points for "interesting" answers than correct answers.

First, a plea: do not get mad at me for the long delay. I did not have access to a computer during the interim since my last post. Many apologies.

Okey-dokey. Let's dive into my film extravaganza (which, now that I think about it, I should have done during Oscars week...) where I will be reviewing films, and explaining the literary reasons they are either awful or awesome.

I'm going to ease into this with two films that are complete classics...if your definition of classic is similar to mine and allows for cult-classic 80s films. Which...why wouldn't it?

The two films which I shall be reviewing are impressive in their handling of classic fantasy novel themes. Where they differ is that one focuses on fairy-tale elements and the other on mythology elements...but both take these themes and make something completely new and unexpected.

So, without further ado: let's jump in. We'll go chronologically. Age before beauty as they say...

Film: Labyrinth (1986)
Starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, and the genius creations of Jim Henson.
Screenplay: Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame.

So what happens when you take Monty Python cleverness, mix in a bunch of creepy puppets, dump them in a fantasy scene, and have David Bowie star in it and write/perform the entire soundtrack? A set with glitter dumped all over it.

I love this film. My mom was forced to rent it an absurd number of times when I was quite young...which probably explains a lot. Viewing it again as an adult I am struck by how dark it is and how impressively the fantasy elements are woven in. The plot, on the surface, is fairly simple. An imaginative and overly-dramatic teenage girl, angry that she has to babysit her baby half-brother, makes up a story in which the King of the Goblins will take him away if she simply wishes for it. When he actually shows up and takes the baby away, she is struck with remorse and asks for the chance to save the baby. He then gives her 13 hours to solve a huge labyrinth and take the baby back before he turns him into a goblin.

Then you watch the film and you wonder what in the world just happened.

For all the silliness, from the hard-to-look-away-from bulge in David Bowie's tights (yes, tights) and the manic goblins (Jim Henson puppets all) and all of the crazy obstacles (the MC Escher scene had to be the coolest set ever) it's actually a brilliantly written film under all of the glitter. There are four major reasons for this.

1. Mythology elements

If you have ever studied mythology you will be impressed by the little jokes put in the film. The classic riddle where there are two doors, one which always lies and one which always tells the truth, makes a grand appearance. The trippy peach-dream scene is a nice reference to the legends surrounding eating fay food in the land of fairies...which in many legends causes the person who eats it to lose their memories of the real world and lose track of time. The overarching plot of the Goblin King is a variation on Changeling myths. All-in-all it shows that there was some serious thought put into making this seem like a classic story book which helps create....

2. The Ambiguous Ending

Tomorrow, I'm going to talk about "Inception" and how it completely botches its attempt at this. "Labyrinth", however, has this down to a science. The whole story begins with Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) by a lake looking like a medieval princess and speaking in beautiful prose. It isn't until she flubs her lines and pulls out a play that you realize she's playing a game in the park, further highlighted by her realizing the time and hitching up her dress to run to run, revealing the jeans beneath. As you watch the film, you begin to realize that all of the characters and situations she's running into not only echo the themes in the play she'd been reading (called "Labyrinth" of course) but also look like objects from her room. Hoggle looks like a bookend she had. Sir Didymus looks like on of her stuffed animals and rides "Ambrosius" who looks just like her dog "Merlin". Ludo is reminiscent of the "Wild Things" from the Maurice Sendak book on her bookshelf. The MC Escher stairs print on her wall makes a reappearance in the climatic scene. Her music box features a spinning girl in the same ballgown she wears in the peach scene. Heck! She even has a Labyrinth game. There are tons more of these details, but what it boils down to is the vague feeling that the whole thing had been a dream. (The constant references made to dreaming and dreams don't help much here.) The only problem is: it's never confirmed. Even after she "wakes up", she reunites with all of her friends for a party in her room. Regardless of whether it was real or not, the salient point is that she's completely changed by the end of it: she no longer resents her brother or her new stepmother, nor is she as zealously obsessed with her things.

3. Dark horror elements that subtly teach a lesson

You all know how I feel about subtlety in morals. It was the core of my Avatar vs. Monster's Inc. post. One of the most brilliant moments in the script was the junkyard scene. Sarah is shown into a perfect likeness of her room by this freaky junkyard creature...a little old woman puppet who's dwarfed by the large pile of junk she's accumulated on her back. She brings a dazed Sarah to this room and starts handing her her treasured belongings - beginning with the teddy bear that was given to her brother Toby which prompted her to wish him away. As the junk lady hands Sarah the items she mumbles about how Sarah needs these things, how she never wanted to lose them and always emphasizes how they are hers, Sarah's. As this continues, you slowly realize that the items are piling up on Sarah as she clings to them...and she begins to look more and more like the junk lady. It isn't until she exclaims that it's all junk and that what she really needs is to save her brother that the illusion crumbles away revealing the junkyard again. It's terrifying...and subtly warns against holding objects in higher regard than people.

4. Musical numbers

Ok ok. It's not really a literary thing. I just like films with musical numbers. Plus: it's David Bowie. (Although I heard that he's embarrassed by this film...can't imagine why. Maybe it's the tights?)

Wow this is going long. Moving on to film number two.

Film: Princess Bride (1987)
Starring: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Serandon, Andre the Giant, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Fred Savage...
Screenplay: William Goldman, also known for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"

I don't think I need to tell you that this film is great. It's quirky beyond all reason and the fact that it's written by the same guy who wrote the book means that it holds all of the quality of a novel. I will however give you the main reasons you like it so much.

1. Frame Story

A good portion of the charm derived from "Princess Bride" is the framework. Rather than a straight up fantasy film, it's delivered as though it is, in fact, a storybook. The movie begins with contemporary Fred Savage as a sick kid home from school being read a book by his grandpa. The film is peppered with interruptions as the kid and the grandfather interact. The kid whines about kissing, the Grandfather interjects his own comments...they even argue about how a story is supposed to go...

2. Avoidance of cliches.

I was going to warn about spoilers here but honestly, if you haven't seen this film you should be watching it instead of reading my blogpost. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I consider it one of the greatest films ever. One of the great interruption moments with the grandfather and kid is when Westley, the hero, dies. The kid immediately interrupts, exclaiming that he can't be dead. The grandfather tries to continue with the story but the kid gets upset. He wants to know who kills the evil Prince Humperdink. When the grandfather tells him that Humperdink lives, the kid exclaims: "You mean he wins?! Jesus, Grandpa, what'dya read this to me for?" This perfectly highlights why it's so brilliant. While you get all of the elements of a classic fairy tale: the most beautiful princess in the world, daring sword fights, revenge plots, magical cures, kindly giants etc. etc. etc. it's amazing how much it defies convention. I won't go into too much detail here, but consider this. For all of the action and humor of the film, the big climatic scene, when the hero and antagonist face each other for the final time, has no huge chase, dramatic battle or brilliant self sacrifice.

The hero simply taunts the antagonist who then surrenders without a fight, allows himself to be tied up, and the heros simply leave.

There is literally no climatic battle between Westley and Humperdink. The turning point, the resolution of the whole plot, is full contained in the line "Drop. Your. Sword."

THAT is brilliant.

All right. I think this blog is plenty long enough. Tomorrow I'll explain why you should be very offended by Christopher Nolan. In the mean time, a small grammar lesson for you.


People are frequently confused by grammar rules...which is not surprising at all because for every grammar rule that exists there also exists at least one exception to throw you off. The combination of languages and roots that make up the English language make it particularly incomprehensible and often properly written sentences and words will look completely ridiculous. Generally, the best advice is simply to read whatever you've written out loud. If it sounds off, it probably is. There are, however, fiddly little rules that will always throw you off for the simple reason that nobody ever explained them to you. So here we go, the first of my little grammar lessons.

Possessives and apostrophes constitute some of the most frequent grammar violations. There is actually a fairly simple set of rules when it comes to using an apostrophe to denote possession. The issue is that most have never learned it and even those of us who have get confused because it sometimes looks so silly.

So here we go. A step-by-step process to knowing where to put your apostrophe.

1. Which word should the apostrophe go on? Look at the sentence. The apostrophe belongs on whichever word possesses the object in question, regardless of where it is in the sentence. What object belongs to someone...who does it belong to? The apostrophe goes on the latter.

2. Is this word plural or singular? If it's singular, regardless of whether it ends in an s or not, it gets an 's. This means that when you are referring to an ABC book belonging to Dr. Seuss, it's still "Dr. Seuss's ABC book" even though the "ss's" looks absurd.

3. If the word is plural and ends in an "s" it gets just the apostrophe. If it's plural and doesn't end in an "s" then it get's the "'s" just like the singular words.

In summation, there are cupcakes belonging to your parents, cupcakes belonging to many people, cupcakes belonging to everyone and cupcakes belonging to the class.

1. The people who possess the cupcakes are "parents", "people", "everyone", and the "class".
2. "everyone" and "class" are singular nouns. (They really are. You can't have multiple "everyones" and there is only one class mentioned, even if there are multiple people in the class. It would only be plural if it was "classes".
3. "parents" and "people" are, however, plurals of "parent" and "person" respectively.

So...Here are the cupcakes: my parents' cupcakes, many people's cupcakes, everyone's cupcakes, and the class's cupcakes.


Never use "'s" when creating a plural. Ever. It looks ridiculous. If I see a cupcake's in the previous sentence, it should be followed by the sprinkles that belong to that cupcake (cupcake's sprinkles) or it should be a contraction of "cupcake is" as in "This cupcake's great!"

Major exception: "its" is the possessive form of "it". "it's" is the contraction of "it is". To borrow from Lemony Snicket: Each boat has its own sail. I imagine this is to avoid confusion between possessive its and contraction it's...but let's be honest: It's much more confusing when "its" is its plural form considering that "it's" actually fits in the rules.