Archive for movies


Revisiting Love Actually

When I got out my DVD of Love Actually, I realized how long it must have been since I watched it because it was the “full screen” edition. I vaguely recalled that being the only option I found when I bought it, but I didn’t remember it being an issue for me. I got the widescreen TV in 2006, but it’s possible that the TV automatically adjusted the picture to fit. I got the Blu-Ray player that shows it in the square instead of fitting the screen in 2011, so it’s been at least that long. I think I may have caught bits and pieces when the movie came on TV, but I haven’t watched the whole movie in at least seven years. Since then, I’ve read the various think pieces, deconstructions, and criticisms, so it was interesting to look at the movie in that light.

I think a lot of the “magic” of the movie for me involved the circumstances in which I first saw it. It had been a difficult week for me. I was in the middle of the first draft of the book that became Enchanted, Inc., and while that was a relatively easy book to write, I was at the hard part after I’d passed the stuff I’d known for a long time and I was having to figure things out. Meanwhile, I’d had to sing for the funeral of a friend that week, someone who was in the choir and who’d been fighting brain cancer for a few years. I got together with friends on Saturday for a girls’ day out. The theater was in one of those shopping centers that’s new but built to be kind of like an old town square, and it’s near downtown, so it really did feel like an old downtown area. We met up for a matinee, got pink girly drinks at the theater’s bar, and then after the movie we went to dinner, did some window shopping, and ended up at Starbucks, where we sat by the fireplace and had hot cocoa. I think a lot of what was going on with me in the movie was getting a good cathartic cry that I hadn’t allowed myself at the funeral since I was singing, and then all the lovely Christmas atmosphere in the movie also spilled into reality with the day we had.

As for the movie, one of the things I like about it is that it’s a mixed bag. When things aren’t going great, sometimes the perfect, happy world of a Christmas movie is a jarring contrast to your life. Having parts of the story be upsetting or depressing makes it not be quite so bad, but there are still happy parts, so the movie isn’t entirely depressing. This is a good holiday season movie to watch when you’re in a funny mood.

There were parts that always bugged me. For instance, I don’t really like the part with the friend obsessed with his best friend’s bride. I’ve never bought into the fictional notion that all feelings must be expressed and acted upon. He’d already had to admit that it wasn’t that he hated her but that he’d had to avoid her out of self-preservation. Going to their house to tell her he loved her, even though he said it was no expectation, was kind of a crappy thing to do as a friend. Be an adult and just deal with the fact that you can’t get everything you want.

The prime minister story line has not aged well. Basically, a woman gets fired because her boss has the hots for her and gets jealous when someone else pays attention to her, but it’s all okay because he learns that she was actually being sexually harassed. In the #MeToo era, it’s hard to see that story as at all romantic.

It struck me on this viewing that the whole movie is very “male gaze,” which is odd for a movie whose primary audience is probably heavily female. Not only is there a lot of nudity or near-nudity (the male nudity is played more like a joke), but few of the women in the movie have any agency. They’re basically prizes to be won, with little consideration for what they actually feel. Since we don’t really get the woman’s point of view until the end, when we maybe learn she likes him, too, it’s all about what he wants. In the few story lines where the women have a perspective, they’re mostly at the mercy of the men in their lives.

But the parts that are good and charming are really good and charming. I may not like the rest of the bride storyline, but I do love the wedding scene. I think it’s a bit much that the Colin Firth character proposes to a woman he’s never actually had a conversation with, but I like their scenes, where they’re saying the same things without realizing it because of the language barrier, and the proposal scene, while illogical, makes me teary-eyed. Emma Thompson proves how much of an acting goddess she is in the scene when she’s expecting the gold necklace she found earlier and gets a CD instead and realizes her husband gave the gold necklace to someone else. I think the best story line is with the Liam Neeson character and his stepson. It’s even sadder now realizing that not many years after this movie, he really was widowed. Although it’s sort of about the boy’s love for the girl in his class he wants to win (yet another woman as prize), I think it’s really about them and their relationship with each other in the aftermath of their loss. Their scenes are so sweet. It’s also a fun storyline because it sets up so many inside jokes for Phineas and Ferb (the boy went on to be the voice of Ferb on the cartoon, and the girl was Vanessa). There was a sequel scene done for one of those fundraising telethons that really ties a neat bow on it.

I did get my cathartic cry the first time I saw the movie, and this time around, in spite of my ongoing mental critique, I will admit that it got very hard for me to see my knitting.

There have been a lot of imitators trying to do the same kind of thing with Christmas and with other holidays, but there really was something about this movie.


Thanksgiving Week

I can’t believe it’s almost Thanksgiving! I’m going to be taking the rest of the week off from posting since I want to get some writing done and something has to go to free up time for travel and hanging out with the family. Today is for working my way through the pre-holiday checklist. I’ve had my tires rotated and have bought a birthday gift for my mother (she has a Thanksgiving-week birthday) and a Christmas gift for my brother (since we probably won’t overlap at Christmas), and now the laundry is going.

I went to see the new Fantastic Beasts movie on Friday, and I may need a refresher re-read of the Harry Potter books because I’d forgotten who a lot of the people from that era were to recognize how they linked to the generation from this series. Like, there was one big revelation that I got an entirely different meaning out of until I read something online and realized that I’d mixed up some things and had the timeline off.

I’m hoping now that things are set up that the future films can focus more on the characters because that’s where the strength of this series is. Newt is such a refreshing hero because he doesn’t have any of the usual “hero” traits. He’s shy, somewhere on the autistic spectrum (Eddie Redmayne confirmed that this is the way he’s playing him), not at all interested in power or glory or being considered brave. He just wants to take care of his creatures and have a world where creatures and people are treated well, but when something threatens that, he’ll step up.

Jude Law is one of those actors I don’t think of as a favorite, but I seem to really like him in everything I see him in. He makes a good younger Dumbledore. It’s fun getting to see Hogwarts in various other eras.

But at the same time, I wasn’t particularly blown away by the movie. I don’t know if I was in the wrong frame of mind, if I was hungry (I’d planned on getting popcorn and had eaten lunch accordingly, but couldn’t get any service at the concession stand and gave up), or if I was distracted by the book I’m writing that kept trying to play itself out in my head while I was watching the movie.

It’s great that this book is so alive in my head. It makes writing it like taking dictation. But it’s also a pain because it makes it difficult to enjoy anything else.

Have a happy Thanksgiving! See you next week.


Favorite Romantic Comedies

Thinking about a romantic comedy revival has got me in the mood for watching that sort of thing, though I also seem to get in that mood in the fall. It’s going to be a rainy weekend, so it may be time for a film festival. I’ve been making my mental list of favorite romantic comedies that work on both the comedy and the romance side, trying to decide what I want to watch, so I thought I’d share.

From the “classic” era:
It Happened One Night — I love a road trip story, and this one is funny and romantic. It manages to simmer with sexual tension in spite of being conspicuously chaste (hanging the “Walls of Jericho” in the shared motel room).

The Philadelphia Story — One of my all-time favorite movies, full of witty lines and sparkling character interaction. Loses some points on the romance front, as the most romantic scenes are between characters who don’t end up together, but still, all those scenes between Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn just sizzle.

From the late 80s-90s “golden age”:
When Harry Met Sally … — a friends-to-lovers story that really works. This may be the reason I associate romantic comedies with fall (even though it came out in the summer), since there are a lot of gorgeous scenes of New York in the fall.

While You Were Sleeping — I have to ration watching this one because for some odd reason it makes me cry hysterically. I think it triggers abandonment issues, or something. But I think it does a great job of making an outrageous premise work.

Hope Floats — I need to get this one on DVD because it’s a good “cozy” movie for me. (Incidentally, this screenwriter was the one who wrote the now-defunct Enchanted, Inc. screenplay that I would dearly love to get my hands on, just so I could see what he did with it.)

The Very Thought of You — this one’s a little more obscure, but it does some interesting things with structure, telling the same story from different perspectives until we can piece together what was really going on. I can understand why Joseph Fiennes made the career choices he did, but it’s kind of a pity he backed off from playing romantic leading men because he’s wonderful in this.

The last trickle before the Dark Ages (2000 on)

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day — I love this movie so much. It’s like a throwback to the classic screwball comedies (probably because it’s based on a book from that era) but with a modern edge.

The Holiday — to be honest, I like this one more for the Christmas setting and the life-swap fantasy. The romance doesn’t entirely work for me. I enjoy the romantic scenes and the way the relationships build, but I don’t really believe these people made it work after the closing credits. Still, I watch this just about every year a couple of nights before Christmas.

Stardust — I know it’s not classified as a romantic comedy, but it’s an incredibly funny movie with a bickering couple who gradually falls in love along the way. Basically, it’s a gender-flipped (since he’s the one trying to get back to the woman he thinks he loves) It Happened One Night with magic and the road trip is through a fantasy realm.

There are a number of movies that I like, but not as romantic comedies. I love The Princess Bride, but the romance takes place almost entirely offscreen, so it doesn’t scratch the romance itch. I love Enchanted, but that romance really doesn’t work for me (I guess I’m Team Prince). I kind of lose interest in the movie after the big Central Park musical number. Sliding Doors is one of my favorite movies, but the romance isn’t the reason why, and it’s not really what I would consider a comedy.

And there are lots more movies that I like okay but that I wouldn’t put on a favorites list. These are the ones I can watch over and over again and still enjoy.


Are Romantic Comedies Back?

If you’ve read my books, you might guess that I’m a fan of romantic comedy. A good chunk of Kiss and Spell (book 7 in the Enchanted, Inc. series) was designed as a spoof of romantic comedy movie tropes. And if you’ve followed my blogging over the years, you may have seen a rant or two about romantic comedy movies or lack thereof recently.

Well, apparently there’s been a resurgence. At least, Crazy Rich Asians has ruled the box office for a few weeks, and it seems that Netflix has been making some romantic comedies that are proving popular. Because in journalism, a couple of things mean it’s A Trend, there are now articles like this one about how romantic comedies are back.

I’m not quite willing to hold out hope for that, but this article does at least seem to get what the problems are. That is, they agree with my contention that the main problem with all those relatively recent movies that flopped and seemingly killed the genre was that the people making those movies had no respect for the genre or the audience. They seemed to think they could just slap something together, cast attractive people, have a good romantic montage to a pop song, and those silly idiots would eat it up. Or, as one of the people interviewed in the article put it:

They followed the formula of a rom-com on a surface level — aspirational jobs, fancy clothes, beautiful people — but they were made with a palpable contempt for both their characters and the people who enjoy watching romantic comedies. These movies didn’t care about their characters or why they should fall in love; they were just putting them through the motions. And watching them didn’t feel escapist and joyous and fun. It felt gross and slimy.

Yep, that’s exactly how I felt.

Then there was the problem that so often happens with things women enjoy. They had to try to make it something men would like, and then we got all the gross-out movies. I’m sorry, but I don’t really want bathroom humor and lots of vomiting in my romantic comedies, and the fratboy manchild is not my romantic ideal.

I’ve been sort of getting my fix via Hallmark Christmas movies, which didn’t quite scratch the itch, but at least the characters tended to act like adults and there were some lovely moments. I’ve found a few things on Amazon Prime that work. But I really miss going to the theater and spending an afternoon laughing and crying while I watch people fall in love against a pretty background.

And if they’re looking for something that would make a nice romantic comedy movie with all the tropes but with some twists, the Enchanted, Inc. series isn’t under option at the moment. It was optioned by a major studio and a script was even written, but they then let the option lapse. Maybe the time is right again.


Solo and Star Wars

Now that I’m back from my trip and had a holiday weekend to recover, I’m ready to hit summer. This means getting up early for a walk, and I hope to spend the days indoors, making incredible writing progress. It’s looking like it’s going to be a hot summer, but I may be able to fake myself out. I’ve discovered that Amazon Prime has “sleep sounds” videos of rainy nights, so I may be able to fake a good rainy writing day by closing the blinds, sitting under the ceiling fan, and playing the rainy night video.

One thing I did over the holiday weekend was see Solo. I really enjoyed it — it might not have been quite as awe-inspiring as some of the other Star Wars movies in that I doubt it would have made me a lifelong fan of the franchise if this was the first movie I saw, but it was still a great summer action movie involving characters I like. It kind of had a Firefly vibe, right down to using a spaceship to rob a train, and for me that’s a feature, not a bug. We get to see how Han met Chewbacca, how he got the Millennium Falcon, and exactly what the Kessel Run was all about. They even addressed what’s always been seen to be an error in the original movie. Ever since the time Han bragged about making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, people have been talking about how that’s a unit of distance, not time, so he was bragging about running the 100 yard dash in 40 yards. Well, this movie explains exactly how that worked (spoiler: it’s a shortcut).

They had a great cast and some fun characters. There’s room for at least one sequel and possibly a spinoff with a character who seems to be a setup for her own story. It wasn’t as moving as Rogue One, but it was just the sort of thing I wanted right now.

Watching Solo reminded me that I hadn’t finished watching the special features on the DVD set of The Last Jedi, and the “The Director and the Jedi” documentary was really interesting. It’s a glimpse into the creative process behind a movie like that, going from figuring out the budget and the sets they’re going to need, to the preproduction, to the filming. Obviously, a lot of hard work goes into these films, but it was nice to see that everyone also seems to be having fun even while taking it all quite seriously. Also, I may have developed a teeny crush on Rian Johnson. Is it a sign you’re getting old when your celebrity crush from a movie is the director?


Origins and Influences: Star Wars

I finally had a chance to watch my DVD of The Last Jedi this weekend. I saw it at the theater, but it’s been a while, so it was still relatively fresh, aside from already knowing the various twists and outcomes.

It reminded me that I have yet another chapter to share of my origins and influences: Star Wars. Although I’d always been a big reader and had always indulged in the kind of play that involved making up stories, Star Wars seems to have been the trigger that made me really want to be a writer, someone who told stories.

And to think, it almost didn’t happen. As my parents never tire of telling me, I didn’t want to see the movie. I was in elementary school when the original film came out (yes, I’m old), and I was so not into that sort of thing. It was Labor Day, and my dad had the day off but I had school, so my parents had celebrated by renting a steam cleaner and cleaning the carpets. They were still damp in the evening, so they thought it would be a good idea to go out to a movie, which would give the carpets time to dry. My dad had heard people at work talking about Star Wars and decided that’s what we should see. I was rather adamantly opposed because I’d read articles about it in Newsweek and didn’t like what I’d seen. The Slipper and the Rose, a telling of Cinderella, was on the other screen at that theater, and that’s what I wanted to see. I even proposed me going to see that while everyone else went to see Star Wars, but my parents said we would all go to the same movie, and I was outvoted.

Even though Star Wars had been out for a few months at that time, every show still sold out and there was still a long line at the theater. This was back before the days of multiplexes and the same movie showing in multiple theaters. There was one screen in town showing Star Wars. We barely made it into the theater. And then about 30 seconds into the movie I was totally enraptured.

Looking back, I find it a bit ironic that I wanted to see a fairy tale movie instead because this movie was basically a fantasy story that happened to have science fiction trappings. I think that was a lot of the appeal for me. It took all the stuff I liked about fairy tales and added a lot more action. Yeah, there were robots and spaceships, but the story was basically about a farmboy (who wasn’t all that different from all those third sons of woodcutters in fairy tales) rescuing a princess with the help of a wizard and carrying out a quest by trusting in the secret magical knowledge given to him by the wizard. While this was also the entry level to me getting into science fiction, I think it still had a lot to do with me becoming a fantasy novelist. I remember thinking as I rode home from the movie, looking up at the stars and imagining them being TIE fighters I was shooting down using the controls on the window crank knob, that I wanted to tell stories like this.

I also wanted to be Princess Leia. I absolutely loved the way she was introduced. We saw the ethereal figure in a white robe, looking beautiful and vulnerable as she sent R2-D2 on his mission. And then when the stormtroopers arrived, she whipped out a blaster and started shooting at them. After she was taken captive, when Darth Vader loomed over her, looking menacing, she sassed him. This was so much better than any fairytale princess. I think most of the characters I created in my earliest stabs at writing were more or less versions of Princess Leia.

The only problem was that she was pretty much the only girl in the movie. There might have been three female characters, at most, who even had lines. That meant things got complicated when the neighborhood kids got together to play Star Wars as we ran around the neighborhood. There was a big fight over who got to be Leia. For everyone else, we had to make up characters to play. That was some of my earliest writing activity, not just acting out existing characters, but creating new ones.

That’s also one of the areas where this new age of Star Wars is a distinct improvement. There’s more than one woman with lines. After this latest movie, there’s Rey and Rose for the younger generation. There’s Maz if you want to be an alien. If you want to be in charge, there’s Leia and Admiral Holdo. And then there are the various female pilots and support staff who could easily be fleshed out if you’re looking for roles to play. Though, in spite of what a lot of the manbaby Internet whiners claim, there are still a lot more choices for the boys. Still, it’s a much bigger universe than we had to work with in my childhood.

After I discovered Star Wars, I started reading science fiction, starting with the works of Alan Dean Foster, since they seemed most like the Star Wars novelization I devoured, and since he wrote the (now non-canon )“sequel.” I didn’t realize until later that he also ghost wrote the novelization. I also started reading fantasy around that time, with The Hobbit being one of the first real fantasy novels I read. It didn’t occur to me until much later that Star Wars was essentially a fantasy story and that there may be more connection between that and stuff like The Lord of the Rings than there is between Star Wars and things like Star Trek. Now it makes perfect sense for me as a fantasy writer to cite Star Wars as an influence.


Murder on the Orient Express

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally saw the new version of Murder on the Orient Express last weekend. I missed it during first run because I was so busy when it came out, but it started playing at the discount theater, so I went with a group of friends.

I read the book ages ago (I went through a massive Agatha Christie phase in junior high), and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the earlier movie version, but I really liked this one. I got the sense that they went into it knowing that most of the audience was well aware of the big twist, so instead of focusing on surprise, they made it more about a character study, letting us see some of the psychological analysis going on.

Mostly, though, it was a chance to watch a lot of great actors doing some really nice acting while wearing fabulous costumes in a gorgeous setting, with a lovely soundtrack. I even found myself wanting to see what happens next for the various characters. They seemed to be setting up more Poirot movies, but what I’m curious about is the aftermath for the other people, who I’m pretty sure won’t appear in future movies. I’d be totally up for the continuing adventures of Daisy Ridley’s clever and logical governess character — I’m sure she’d be inspired by Poirot to start solving mysteries on her own.

And it makes me want to take a train trip, but Amtrak is nothing at all like the Orient Express. I’m not even sure the Orient Express now is anything like this Orient Express. When I took a long-distance Amtrak trip, we did have a long unplanned stop because of a death, but it was because the train hit a deer, not because a passenger was murdered.

At least, that’s what they told us, but no one came to question me, and no one gathered us into the lounge car to reveal who the killer was, so I guess I believe the story.

Anyway, I’d recommend this movie to those who like Kenneth Branagh movies, those who like old movies (it really felt like an old movie, like something that could have been made in the 1940s, only with improved technology), those who like trains, and even those who like mysteries. It’s fun to see actors get to disappear so deeply into their characters that you don’t realize who some of those people are until you see the credits.


Don’t Blame the RomCom

I’ve been scarce online lately as I finished a draft of a book, and I have another draft to go and a lot going on this week, but I have a rant brewing that must come out.

Twitter’s been all abuzz about this article about a man playing the piano in a park as a way of getting his ex-girlfriend back, vowing to keep at it until he knows that she knows what he’s doing. It was initially presented as a romantic gesture, until people pointed out that it was creepy, manipulative behavior. If she wants to get back with him, she knows where to find him. The big, public gesture to get attention and acting like she owes it to him to listen to how much he loves her is a huge red flag.

And I totally agree with that. What I have issue with is that most of the commentaries that have come out on this issue have blamed romantic comedy movies for teaching that this kind of grand gesture works. They criticize the fact that stalking and big public manipulative gestures are shown as positive things in movies. However, as a huge fan of romantic comedies, I can’t think of any that really fit this circumstance. Movies are being unfairly blamed here. When there is a big, public gesture, it’s usually the person who did the rejecting or who otherwise messed up showing that he/she learned a lesson and is trying to make up for it.

Usually, the image used to illustrate these commentaries is the scene from Love Actually in which the guy who has a crush on his friend’s wife comes to their house and declares his love in a series of posters. And, yeah, that’s creepy, and rather a jerk move to declare his love to his friend’s wife. Also, very selfish, because it’s about making himself feel good, not about what it does to her. The movie does treat it like it’s a sweet gesture — but it’s also unsuccessful. She more or less pats him on the head and goes back inside to her husband. He later moves on and finds someone else. This is not shown as a successful way to get the girl.

The closest I can think of to the “stalking will win you the one you love” message might be Bringing Up Baby, but there it’s the woman going after the man. She keeps arranging ways to make him be stuck with her as a way of getting to know him and forcing him to get to know her.

Maybe there was some stuff like that in the Doris Day era, but there was a whole lot of creepy stuff going on in those movies. In the modern era, I’ve seen the reference to the boombox outside the window from Say Anything. It’s been a while since I watched that movie, but I don’t recall it being him forcing her hand. It was more of a declaration of his feelings and a show of support for what she was going through.

Otherwise, there was Billy Crystal’s public declaration of his feelings on New Year’s Eve that was his way of showing Meg Ryan that he didn’t see her as just another conquest. In Notting Hill, she made her declaration of love that he rejected, then regretted rejecting, so he made an even more public declaration (though I always felt she owed him an apology for jumping to the worst possible conclusion about him earlier). Leap Year was essentially a remake of It Happened One Night, where she realized she had chosen the wrong guy and went back to see if the right guy was interested. And I could go on.

Now, there may be some selection bias, as I’m not likely to remember or have in my collection a movie I found creepy, but I can’t think of any romantic comedy film equivalent of playing the piano in public to force an ex to deal with him. Where you’re more likely to see that kind of thing is in TV sitcoms or in romance novels. I can think of way too many books in which the guy declares at the beginning that he’s going to win the woman, she rejects him, and he spends the book relentlessly pursuing her until she gives in.

But stop blaming romantic comedy films in general. Cite specific examples of the behavior being referenced.