89th Academy Awards: So different, so much the same

lego-oscarIt’s Oscars weekend and I’m super excited. I’m a huge movie buff, and this year I’ve seen all but two of the nominees for Best Picture. One is FENCES, which I’m actually hoping to see tonight if I can, and the other is LION, which I probably won’t get to see before the awards tomorrow evening (sorry, LION, it’s definitely nothing personal. You look great.)

So – huge disclaimer – I’m going to write a bit about the movies I have seen, which is sort of unfair to those two that I haven’t. My apologies to everyone involved in those two films for this inequity. I have no doubt they’re amazing.

I really enjoyed all the nominees this year. ARRIVAL stunned me with its unexpected depth and brilliance and big ideas. HIDDEN FIGURES and HACKSAW RIDGE inspired me with the heroism of unknown characters from history who faced insurmountable odds. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA broke my heart more than once. HELL OR HIGH WATER drew an artful picture of the friendship between men and brothers.

Most interesting to me this year, though, are the two seeming front-runners for Best Picture, two movies that couldn’t be more different at a time when it seems our differences are being called out every day with the virtual slashes of a thick, yellow highlighter: LA LA LAND and MOONLIGHT.

LA LA LAND is big and audacious. It’s a musical, and from the opening number that required an entire highway to be shut down so hundreds of people could sing and dance on top of their cars, to the ending, where the movie breaks free from the confines of conventional reality in a gorgeous, bold way, it seems to be constantly seeking to be larger than life. The colors are vivid, the music and songs inspiring, the choreography magical.

I confess I’m not normally a huge musical fan, but I adored LA LA LAND with its inspiring message urging us all to follow our dreams, and its familiar-feeling love story that was equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The filmmakers made no attempt to hide the fact that the movie often reaches out beyond itself, paying homage to several classic films, notably SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Sometimes it felt like the movie wanted to reach out and grab everyone in the audience, too, like it wanted to pull us in one by one – “Sing with us, dance with us,” it seemed to say.

Conversely, I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie recently that’s been more comfortable in its own skin than MOONLIGHT. Which is ironic, since the film features a main character who is anything but comfortable being who he is, especially early in the movie.

“Society isn’t letting Chiron be who he is,” the movie seemed to whisper to us, “but you’re damn-well going to let us be who we are for these next two hours.”

Where LA LA LAND wanted to reach out to us, MOONLIGHT stayed within itself and its main character. It remained focused on telling the story of one man’s struggle – a gay, black man – in society as he aged from boy to adolescent to man, in some ways a small story that was actually huge. MOONLIGHT doesn’t reach out and grab you so much as it leaves a door ajar just a small crack, and asks you to have the courage to push it open and stay for awhile.

I was particularly moved by the third act. The writers, actors and direction came together to show an incredible amount of restraint in completing their story in a way that felt entirely authentic and moving. All it was, really, was life, such as it is for some of us, right there on the screen. The heartbreak of life, the way each of us is challenged to find our way in this difficult place, how we search for happiness in the small things, the way we break each other’s hearts, the times we find comfort in each other.

It would’ve been easy to be over the top in a variety of ways in that last act, which is primarily made up of a conversation between two men – old friends with a history. But the writers kept the dialogue sparse and meaningful. The actors were moving, portraying their characters with a subtlety and grace that felt true to life, and the director guided them all with what felt like a practiced, sensitive and restrained hand.

So it strikes me how incredibly different these movies are from one another, how incredibly varied life itself is. Big vs. small, predominately white vs. predominately black, loud vs. quiet – and yet, also, they were the same in so many important, fundamental ways – inspiring, heartbreaking, heartwarming, innovative.

I’m not sure which one should win Best Picture, and I won’t pretend to be enough of an expert to even hazard a guess. I do know that some folks feel MOONLIGHT should win because it, in some sense, is a more important film socially. That’s probably true. It gives voice and stands up for a segment of our population that needs someone and something standing up for them just now.

What I hope is the best movie wins. And MOONLIGHT may in fact be the better movie. If it doesn’t win, I hope folks won’t lose sight of the fact that it has ALREADY stood up.

For myself, I’ll be overjoyed for either movie’s success. They both really challenged, inspired and spoke to me this year. In that way, for me, they’ve both already won.

Now we just wait for the little golden statue. Good luck to all the nominees Sunday night.

A different kind of mirror character: Robert Redford’s The Natural

The NaturalI love The Natural. It’s a fantastic movie, a baseball classic. For me, it’s on that list of movies that, if I find it playing on television, I’ll drop everything and watch yet again. And recently, thanks to The Sundance Channel, I have re-watched the movie a few times, enough to notice some writing-related things that interest me.

Much of The Natural was filmed in various locales in Buffalo, NY, where I grew up, during the ’80s when I still lived there. In fact, some of my friends were at the stadiums as extras, part of the cheering crowds, when some of the game footage was filmed at War Memorial Stadium (a.k.a. “The Rockpile” – standing in for New York Knights Field) and All High Stadium (standing in for Wrigley Field).

You can see a full list of the locales and buildings around Buffalo that appear in the movie at this Forgotten Buffalo site. Check it out, it may give you an appreciation of the underrated architecture in my hometown.

In particular, watch for the gorgeous Buffalo Central Terminal, as it was in the early ’80s at least, in one of the more sepia-toned scenes from the film:


Another thing I love is mirror characters in fiction. These characters, sometimes known as foils, usually possess opposite values to your protagonist. Because of this opposite nature, they often manifest as antagonists (Harry Potter and Voldemort, for example). The manifestation that interests me more, however, is the sidekick (think Kirk and Spock).

The great thing about these mirror characters is they really help the reader understand the main character better. Through their contrasting nature, the characters CHARACTERIZE EACH OTHER. Think of color theory in painting or interior design. Two contrasting colors – say orange and blue – are often placed side-by-side, making them both appear brighter.

I introduced a mirror character of the sidekick (former best friend) variety in my most recent MS. She was meant to only exist in the beginning of the story, to demonstrate some of my main character’s qualities, to magnify them. I was therefore fascinated when she elbowed her way into the rest of the narrative, standing up straight and shouting emphatically, “Nope, I’m sticking around. I like this story.”

In my head, it went something like this:


My favorite moment in The Natural is one you might not expect. It doesn’t involve a mirror character in quite the classic definition, but employs another kind of mirror that is every bit as inspiring.

The moment is near the end, yes, in that final at-bat where Roy Hobbs gets the chance to win the game. But it’s not the home run itself. (Although, of course I do love that moment when the sparks fly off the lights and the crowd goes wild.)

Some may remember that Roy starts the at-bat against the starting pitcher for the Pirates, who, after nearly pitching a complete game shutout has clearly begun to lose his edge. When he falls behind in the count to Roy, we see the fearful reaction of the Pirates’ manager – telling us that he realizes, if he wants to win this pennant, he needs to call a relief pitcher in.

Roy HobbsWhile Roy waits, the manager reaches into his bullpen and calls on a young Iowa farm boy with a blazing fastball. As he steps to the mound, a low camera angle is used to magnify the big kid’s presence. He looms over us as the viewer, the muffled announcer in the background describing how un-hittable he is. Stopping just short of calling him a natural.

And that’s the moment. If you’re not caught up in the drama of that last at-bat, the anticipation that Roy will save the day, you see the mirror being held right in front of Roy – or, 60 feet and 6 inches away on the mound, that is.

Because this kid from Iowa, this fireballing pitcher, it’s Roy. That’s who he was early in the film, before he made a terrible mistake and his life fell apart. A life he’s trying to get back, to re-discover, in this single at-bat. Roy was a great pitcher first, before he got shot and could no longer do it, had to become a great hitter instead. It was Roy who, as a kid, faced the great Babe Ruth and struck him out on three pitches.

Now, Roy must succeed against the younger version of himself.

And if you recognize that, you also see that, while the movie has its share of literal antagonists – from the greedy owner to the superficial newspaperman to the owner’s lackeys – the figurative person Roy’s been battling against the whole film, his entire life, really, is HIMSELF.

Those types of moments, for me, are story magic. In books, movies, whatever – they’re the sort of thing that make want to keep writing.




January Update : #OneHundredMovies

I’ve taken the #OneHundredMovies challenge issued by @JoseMolinaTV on Twitter. The idea is simple: watch 100 full-length feature films – that you’ve never seen before – in the 2014 calendar year. This works out to 8-9 per month.

I’m going to do a blog post each month to let you know how I did the previous month, with some mini-reviews of the movies I chose.

After getting off to a good start in January, I stalled out, watching only a total of 7 movies. The problem? The last season of Dexter became available on NetFlix. Yep, that one killed me. But I’ve watched the whole season now, so I’m back in the saddle for February.

Quick reviews of the 7 films I saw:

Best movie I saw in January: Her

Worst movie I saw in January: A Good Day to Die Hard

And here, in alphabetical order, my mini-reviews. I’ll add to this list each month, maintaining the alphabetical order and bolding the new entries.

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The Power of Symbolism: Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo”

We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo

Thanks to the exhaustion of two weeks of constant travel combined with free movie channels and perhaps one too many cups of DayQuil, I sat still long enough this morning to enjoy my second viewing of We Bought a Zoo from the brilliant Cameron Crowe. I always see more the second time I watch a movie like this, and I wanted to talk about the powerful symbolism he utilizes in the film.

Somehow, I feel like We Bought a Zoo hasn’t yet garnered its due as yet another Crowe classic. It’s no secret that Crowe’s movies, from Jerry Maguire to Almost Famous to my personal favorite, Vanilla Sky, always feature real-to-life characters and emotional, heart-warming or heart-wrenching stories. But just as prevalent are the symbols that deserve exploration from a writing perspective.

Maybe We Bought a Zoo isn’t as regaled because it was based on a true story. Or maybe because it featured a family drama amid animals in a zoo. Despite the many, many crazy animal-people out there, it’s possible some portion of Crowe’s typical audience may have thought this story wasn’t going to be as edgy as his others. Certainly, as the writer/director has grown older and probably become more of a family-man himself, his stories will change from relationship-oriented to family-oriented. This is a natural progression. (Though, there’s a still a sweet little love story in this film. Actually two of them.)

Crowe seems to realize this himself, and takes several moments of pointed dialog to remind his viewers his story is still about people, not just animals. More on that later. First, let’s talk symbols.

WARNING: Starting below, SPOILERS abound. If you haven’t seen We Bought a Zoo yet, what are you waiting for? It’s Cameron Crowe, after all. Go see it now, then come back. I’ll wait. Those of you who have already seen the movie or don’t mind a little discussion of its themes and symbols before you do, please read on.   Continue reading