Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lessons from the Seven Day Rental Section

I was going to wait until we had finished six movies to write this post, but a barrage of gaming and project writing has taken over our waking consciousness at the Langer house, and I figured I'd better write while I still remember the four movies I want to write about. A while back, I asked Derek to go to the video store and rent a movie, without consulting me. I have a love-hate relationship with the video store. I adore the accessibility of new media, and the wonderful and less than wonderful movies I have watched, but I hate choosing. I hate walking around the store without the faintest clue of what I'm in the mood for, then trying to match that to the vague idea that Derek may have about what he's in the mood for. If I could get back all of the hours I've spent walking around the video store, I'd have written the Great Canadian Novel by now. But this isn't a movie store rant. When Derek home with six movies, I was pleasantly surprised. They were all movies that it would be unforgivable never to watch, from the seven day rental section. I decided to take mental notes on some of Hollywood's MVPs in cinema and see what lessons I could take away as a writer. I'm assuming I'm the last person on earth to see these films, so if I'm wrong and you are the last, do not read on, as spoilers will ensue.

(Let's put our distaste for Roman Polanski's personal fails aside for a moment while we revel in the genius of this film.)

Immediately after seeing this film, I placed it in my top ten. I had heard many things about Chinatown, but nobody mentioned that I would fall head over heels for Jack Nicholson. That aside, Chinatown taught me some very valuable lessons. First, you can expand on the typical set up, and take it a step further than is necessary which will surprise a smart viewer. While watching Chinatown, I was convinced that Faye Dunnaway's character was the villain, especially after Jack slept with her. It was a classic set up. Boy meets girl, falls for girl, sleeps with girl, is betrayed by girl. What I was pleasantly surprised to see is that she was and wasn't connected with the underhanded goings on that Jack was investigating. Though she was keeping her sordid past from Jack, she wasn't the bad guy. This challenged my unsophisticated palate, and showed me that I've gotten too comfortable with the easy set ups and quick fixes of the current age. I'm also a big fan of a real ending, not a gift wrapped happy heart warmer, though sometimes my emotions play tricks on me and tell me that I'm upset by a less than happy ending instead of impressed by it.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Only served to solidify my new love for a less wrinkly Jack. This is a masterpiece. Not only was a pleasantly surprised to see Louise Fletcher AKA Kai Wynn (yes, I'm a Star Trek geek) as Nurse Ratched, a meaningful role, but I loved the dynamic between Ratched and Nicholson's character. I love the ethical shift that takes place when we automatically side with the criminal and despise those who oppose him, whereas if this were a story on the nightly news, we would undoubtedly bestow our allegiance on Nurse Ratched. The acting in this movie is brilliant. There was a scene where the camera stayed on Nicholson for upwards of forty seconds, and I couldn't look away. It makes me wonder how much of that dynamic comes from the actual script, and how much it is due to great directing, acting, and editing. I have not read the novel, but I heartily believe that the weightiness of the original work transferred to the screenplay, and in turn filtered into every part of the project.


OK, this was an unexpected win for me. Generally political comedy isn't my bag unless its in the form of a 3-8 minute SNL short. Part of this is due to my lack of knowledge regarding the finer points of the American political system, and the other part is due to me being a drama & sci-fi snob. Not to say I don't enjoy a good comedy, but I really pick and choose. Bulworth, however, taught me that comedy can be bold and dark, even when you're expecting it to be wussy and campy. I was surprised by the level of ridiculousness that showed up in the film, and even more surprised that it worked. When the senator is busting out an ill-timed rap, dropping the f-bomb, and wearing a tuque (beanie for non-Canucks) but I still truely want him to succeed, something magical has happened. The thing about Bulworth is that I still haven't figured out how they won me over. In part it was due to a solid concept, and a genuine belief that someone in a similar situation could act out in such a way, but why the complete success? I am still at a loss.

The Firm

Epic. I was skeptical because of my love for A Few Good Men. It seemed to me that lightening couldn't strike twice for Tom Cruise in a lawyer movie. I was wrong. The Firm was fantastic because of the dramatic tension that permeated the whole movie. I loved that the writers were able to knock the average thriller time line out of the park, and I didn't get bored once. Something The Firm taught me, was how low you can sink a character before you redeem him. Sometimes threatening a lead with losing everything isn't enough. The character really needs to believe they have lost everything and still carry on their in quest, that is really when you, as a viewer, can begin to believe as well. The Firm still incorporated the typical thriller formula, but went above and beyond the bare minimum and expanded on the typical requirements to create a masterful, tense and exciting film.

So that is a window into what I've learned though some of these heavy hitters. It was refreshing to watch some films that weren't afraid to break some rules, and perhaps have written some new ones. The other two that we have yet to watch are Annie Hall, and Ed Wood. If we get to those before the video store has us arrested for our abuse of their "No Late Fees" policy, then I will write some more.

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