Classic Movie Review: The Orphanage (2007)

March 31, 2010 in Movie Reviews, Paranormal by pacejmiller

Most of the posters for this film are very disappointing, but this Spanish one's not too bad

I’m a sucker for supernatural thrillers, and for the last couple of years I kept hearing about this Spanish film called El Orfanato (The Orphanage), the debut feature of director Juan Antonio Bayona, and produced by his good friend Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and soon, The Hobbit).

I finally got around to watching it, and admittedly, the hype is justified.

The Orphanage tells the tale of a woman who returns with her husband and son to her childhood home, an orphanage, which they intend to turn into a home for disabled kids.  Needless to say, stuff happens.  I don’t think it’s a premise I’ve seen before, but I’m sure it feels familiar.

Three things that tend to be common in ghost movies: big old house, weird noises and creepy children.  The Orphanage ticks all three boxes, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s going to be a formulaic, predictable horror.  The Orphanage is multiple notches above your average supernatural story for a variety of reasons.

First, the atmosphere is genuinely creepy.  It’s a film that builds up the tension gradually, using a combination of eerie stories and spooky moments.  It unsettles you, makes you feel uncomfortable.  It rarely relies on the cheaps scares that plague horror films these days.  There are also some clever tricks that I won’t divulge, but they are freaking terrifying.  There are a couple of scenes in particular that are classics in my opinion, and they always give me chills when I think about them.

Second, you actually give a crap about the characters.  Laura, the mother and the main lead, is exceptionally played by Spanish actress Belen Rueda.  You feel her pain, her fears, and her desperation.  Rueda makes her a flesh and blood, believable character you care about.  The father, Carlos, played by Fernando Cayo, has less to do here, but he has his moments too in a subtle, controlled performance.

Third, it’s a great story!  Given the premise I described above, it would have been easy for the film to collapse into your run-of-the-mill haunted house story, but there is so much more to it.  There is mystery, intrigue, twists and turns, many of which I didn’t see coming.

In a way, The Orphanage shouldn’t even really be called a “horror” as that downplays the dramatic aspects of the film.  I think the main reason the movie has done so well (won 7 Goya awards) is because of how emotional and heartbreaking it is, in a way you don’t expect horror movies to be.

Watch it before the obligatory Hollywood remake comes out! (New Line has already acquired the rights)

4.5 stars out of 5!

Walking to help your writing

March 31, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Last night in our narrative writing class, my tutor began talking about walking and writing.  Not writing while walking (could be dangerous), but walking to help your writing.

“Didn’t you know?” she said to us (though looking at me).  Writing and walking go hand in hand.  Whenever she got stuck with her writing, had writer’s block, or whatever, she would go for a walk.  And every single time, she says, she gets something out of it.  Not necessarily a solution to the specific problem that was stagnating her, but she would always find an “opening”, something she would be able to work with once she got home.

Well, I have occasionally gone for a walk to clear my head, but usually I do it for the exercise and to breathe in some fresh air.  I don’t think I’ve gotten that into the routine of writing that I need regular walks to unblock my mind, but perhaps I should.  I always complain about my lack of creativity and inspiration.  Maybe it’s because I don’t get out there and observe and uncluster my brain enough.

I was reading around online and found it astounding that so many writers love to walk, some even obsessed with it.  People have actually written books about walking and writing, and how to walk (eg Julia Cameron).  I think that’s going a little overboard, but I guess if it works, then why not?

Not much of the advice is free (you have to buy the book!), but I did find this website on “Meditation Walking for Writers“.  This isn’t just your ordinary, daily stroll.  This is meditation walking!  Sounds like it could work too.  I might give it a try.

Workshopping Works!

March 30, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Writers often just want to be left alone, and I’m no different.  There’s a part of me that wants to share my writings and ideas with others, but there’s also that part of me weighed down by self-doubt and fear.  Usually, I want to make sure my work is “perfect” (in my mind) before I have the courage to show it to someone else.  (Note blogging is different — I don’t give a crap about what people think of my blog posts).

So naturally, I’m not (or at least I wasn’t) a big fan of workshopping.  You know, people sitting around in a room, read your work, and discuss it.  They try and focus on the positives at first, so as to not crush your confidence, but the point is to soften you up before they can give you some constructive feedback (criticism sounds too harsh) so you can improve your work.

Sounds simple and harmless enough, but with so many personalities in the room (some incredibly strong and dominant, some overly confident, some depressingly timid, and not many perfectly assertive), it’s easy to lead to unproductive sessions.

There are people who like to dominate discussions, while there are others who like to remain silent.  Authors of works are usually too protective of their “baby” and become overly sensitive or defensive, and once that happens, nothing can be done.  They’re not going to take any advice, and that defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

But last night, we had a really successful session workshopping our screenplays.  Personally, it was a great experience for me, because I normally hate chatting about my writing, but I also had plenty of questions and uncertainties about my dark comedy short film project, so it was good to get all these issues ironed out.  When I write, I often get stuck in the same world (for lack of a better word) and can’t see things that are right there in front of me.  That’s when getting the views and advice of others can really assist in breaking through those annoying barriers.  Because we all really wanted to make our writings better, we were all completely open to the opinions of others, and as a result it was extremely productive.

It was also good to get a sense of what types of projects other people are conjuring up in their minds, and how their thought processes work.  Is it better to concentrate or plot, or character?  How to they create their characters and dialogue?

One of the reasons the workshopping session was so successful was because we were given specific guidelines.  I know it sounds artificial, and to be honest that was what I thought when I first received them, but having seen them in practice I think it really helps keep things in order and from spinning out of control (which is remarkably easy).

Here are some tips when others are critiquing your work:

  1. Be open to ideas, but don’t take every suggestion or criticism as fact — evaluate them objectively to see what can be utilised to improve your work.
  2. Write down what you are told because in the heat of the moment you might not agree but it could be useful.
  3. Don’t be defensive and start explaining yourself — ask questions or ask them to clarify if you don’t understand.

Here are some tips when critiquing the work of others:

  1. Be sensitive about their feelings and avoid blunt or cryptic comments they can’t use.
  2. Give comments in a structured, organised manner (eg, one thing at a time, such as structure, character, dialogue, etc).
  3. Be constructive and offer options and alternatives they can take away and consider, not just problems you have identified.
  4. If they are becoming sensitive and defensive, back off, because they’re not listening anymore.

Oh, and keep the groups small.  We had 4 or 5 people in each group and it worked.

Movie Review: Green Zone (2010)

March 28, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

There have been a lot of movies made about the (latest) Iraq war in recent years, but not many I know of have tried to tackle the controversial threshold issue — the existence (or non-existence) of WMDs — that started the war in the first place.

Green Zone, featuring director Paul Greengrass and actor Matt Damon (they previously collaborated on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) is a very clever movie that blends the Iraq WMD conspiracy/debacle with a cracking plot and high octane action.

It tells the story of US Army Chief Roy Miller (Damon), who stumbles across a possible conspiracy involving WMDs in Iraq, and those who will do anything to stop the truth from being revealed.

The script is supposedly “inspired” by the non-fiction book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, which I haven’t read (and don’t intend do), but I understand it does not take any sides.  The film, on the other hand, makes it pretty clear what it thinks of the war.

However, it would be wrong to focus on the political message in Green Zone.  I liked how fact and fiction intertwined in this movie, but it’s the suspenseful action that made it a highly enjoyable experience.

I didn’t mind the cliched, archetypal characters or the unlikely “local” helper thrown into the mix to add a more emotional element to the film.  After all, it is an action movie.  But what did irritate me was Greengrass’s overuse of the vomit cam.  I know what’s his style — I’ve seen his Bourne movies — but it was overkill for me.  Used in moderation, it can add voyeuristic realism and tension.  However, there was no need to have the camera hover around like a faulty UFO on just about every scene, even when all that’s on screen is two people standing around having a chat, or a close up of a person’s face.

On the whole, Green Zone is 115 minutes of solid, interesting entertainment that is mostly made up, but it still makes you wonder how much of it, if any, is true.

4 out of 5 stars!

Classic Movie Review: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

March 27, 2010 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

I’ll be the first to admit that I am usually a little prejudiced towards old “classic” films, especially the black and white ones.  Techniques, writing, acting and filming styles, not to mention technological improvements, have all advanced so much that it’s easy to conclude (without actually having watched many) that old films don’t compare to their modern counterparts.

While much of that is probably true, there are a few “true” classics out there that seem to defy the passage of time.  I recently watched, as part of my writing theory class, Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (also known as “The Bicycle Thief” or “The Bicycle Thieves”).

The point of watching the film was to learn about neo-realism, a style movement which attempted to give a new level of realism to cinema.  This meant shoots on location (as opposed to studios), non-actors in lead roles, and tackling issues of everyday life, such as economic and social difficulties.

The Bicycle Thief tells the simple story of an unemployed man in poverty-stricken, post-WWII Italy who is fortunate enough to be given a job putting up posters around Rome.  The job is contingent upon him having a bicycle, and of course, as the title of the film suggests, it is stolen from him.  Desperate to save his job and his family, the remainder of the film follows the man and his son as they trek through the streets of Rome to find the bicycle.

In my opinion, The Bicycle Thief is a “true classic” that can still resonate with viewers even more than 60 years after it was made.  I couldn’t believe it myself that they were capable of making such technically sound and emotionally power films back in those days, especially in Italy, where they didn’t have anything close to the big budgets of Hollywood.

Yes, there are some moments that are quite scripted, but somehow they still work.  Perhaps it’s the natural performances by the non-professional leads, Lamberto Maggiorani (a factory worker) as the man, and Enzo Staiola (literally a kid off the streets) as his son.  These actors bring an authenticity to the film that cannot be overstated.  It’s crazy to think that they almost had Cary Grant playing the man.

The touching relationship between father and son, the father’s increasing desperation and despair, and the son’s gradual loss of innocence, all carry timeless and universal messages.  There are a few scenes and images in particular that pack as much of an emotional punch as any Hollywood film I’ve seen, and yet the story itself and the relationships between the characters are remarkably simple.

Some films stand the test of time for a reason.  And thanks to The Bicycle Thief, I might just start watching more “classics” from now on.

5 out of 5 stars!