.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

My Photo
Location: California, United States

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

Note: I purposely didn't read the book in anticipation of the movie.

Logline: An American symbologist and a French cryptographer investigate the murder of an elderly antiquities curator and, while running for their lives, uncover a conspiracy that threatens to expose Christianity as a hoax.

The Good Idea: Tom Hanks starring in Dan Brown's phenomenal best seller.

Why it Didn't Work:

Robert Langdon is not the protagonist. Or, at least, he doesn't behave like one. He is the classic passive main character who takes little action and spends nearly the entire movie reacting to what happens around him.

Langdon is called to investigate a murder while not being told his name was scrawled on the floor. He is told his life is in danger and he is hidden away in the museum by Sophie. The mystery of the fleur de lils is also solved by Sophie. Their escape from the French bank is engineered by the manager Vernet. Their escape from Teabing's chateau is orchestrated by Teabing.

All the while, the scenes are generally made up of exposition (lots and lots), explaining the conspiracy to hide the fact that Jesus was mortal, married and a father... a fact that could bring down all of Christianity because it destroys his aura of divinity.

Time is inconsistent throughout the film. Despite the ticking clock of the ever approaching French police, Langdon and Sophie always seem able to leisurely examine artifacts and trade stories. Clues that seem important (the use of the Fibbonacci sequence) turn out to be red herrings (the numerical series is merely a password).

Coincidences abound. Why was Langdon so important to the story? Ultimately, the puzzle didn't require his vast skills as a symbologist but a halfway decent knowledge of Newtonian trivia. His mentor Teabing just happened to be a Holy Grail freak? or is it that the world's greatest Holy Grail freak just happened to be his mentor? Is there only one living descendant of Jesus or is it possible that the family tree has many branches? The film in its last few minutes may have unintentionally raised this question by introducing a grandmother.

The film lacks a sense of gravitas. To protect a secret that could destroy the foundation of Western culture (think of how many works of art, literature, political movements were inspired or influenced by Christianity), Opus Dei has surprisingly little reach and competence. It is also unclear what they would have done to Langdon and Sophie if they ever caught up with them. Kill them? Make them join? Make them repent? Worship them?

What would have helped is the sense that conspirators and protectors are everywhere. That both have great reach and great power. That somewhere in our lives, we may have sworn allegiance to some organization and now we are called upon to test our own conviction of faith. Because Langdon is a symbologist, there is the potential to reveal new meanings in everyday objects. That once we leave the theater, the next time we see a painting, or a gargoyle or some architectural flourish, we can't help but wonder anew who put it there and what it really means.

Without this, most of the killing in The Da Vinci Code (supposedly in the name of God) has as much impact as when henchmen are dispatched in your typical action films. Neither Langdon nor Sophie's faith is tested because they are not faced with having to kill in the name of God. As a result, the film becomes very small in its scope.

It is probably difficult for anyone seeing this movie to not know a few basic concepts or the premise of the story. For those with some familiarity, the movie doesn't really begin until the halfway point, after Teabing explains the Mary Magdalene connection. However, once this point is reached, the movie continues at the same lugubrious pace as the previous hour... a tense action scene bookended with spoken exposition and flashbacks.

The general flaw is that we never really get to know Langdon or Sophie. They are merely ciphers for information. Though we know Langdon is claustrophobic and Sophie lost her parents, those emotional wounds never create a desire that results in action for either of the main characters. Simply put, there is no strong desire or need that drives Langdon or Sophie to solve the mystery of the Holy Grail.

The ending reminded me of Star Trek V where Kirk and Spock travel to the center of the galaxy to find God and Kirk debunks the deity by asking, "Why does God need a space ship?" The discovery of Jesus's descendant has no emotional impact of Langdon. His beliefs are not shaken to the core. If this knowledge has no effect on our protagonist, then why should we worry that it will have any impact on civilization?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

How Do We Know They're Supposed to be In Love?

A comment that usually turns up about my scripts is, "How do we know they're supposed to be in love?" Believe me, I've pondered this one a lot, not just for my writing but for my own sanity. We've all had that moment when we're introduced to a couple, scratch our heads and think, "I don't get it." That happens a lot with lovers in my scripts.

I wish I had an answer for this because I don't have a clue why some relationships are meant to be. I've tried creating that magical moment like in West Side Story when Tony and Maria see each other at the gym and everyone around them moves in slow motion while they sing.

I know they're supposed to be in love-- I see all the signs-- but I have a hard time believing they are in love. I have this problem, not just with my scripts, but with a lot of movies I see.

I've tried the opposites attract method. By showing that he loves chocolate and she loves vanilla, that he loves dogs and she loves cats, that he's a slob and she's a neat freak, they were meant for each other.

I've tried the eHarmony philosophy matching bizarre, obscure characteristics. They both like the same punk band from Indiana that released only one album in 1982, or can quote from the same movie from the French New Wave (in French).

All of these devices feel clumsy and contrived. One of the more successful ways I've seen love indicated was in The Music Man. Harold Hill's theme song, "Seventy Six Trombones," and Marion Paroo's theme song, "Goodnight My Someone," both have the same melody. They sing a duet toward the end where their separate songs become one melody.

In reel life, those "love at first sight" moments are destined by the gods as a sign of true love. In real life, those "love at first sight" moments often lead to the discovery that it really wasn't meant to be.

In reel life, the guy calls her at her unlisted home number, sends flowers to her work and serenades her under her bedroom window. In real life, she calls the police and gets a restraining order.

In reel life she leaves her fiance at the altar in favor of her true love and everyone is happy for her. In real life everyone wonders if they should ask for their wedding presents back and how to keep them separate at future parties.

Our society has a lot of codes, cues, signifiers, symbols to tell us what is true love. Rings, flowers, puppies, and heirlooms are examples of how love is indicated in movies. But real life is not as simple as finding a lost, out of print book from her childhood or giving him blank music sheets as a symbol of your emotional support for his chosen future.

What seems to be my current paradigm is that the lovers have the ability to give each other what they need to complete themselves. However, if this were true, I should be in love with my shrink, my car mechanic and the barista at Starbucks.

My guess is that I resist any notion that there are prescribed courses of behavior given certain stimuli. That there are things we're supposed to do given certain situations. Do we search for order in films that's lacking in our own lives?

This is one of those, "How many angels can you fit on the head of a pin," kind of questions. Every answer is right, every answer is wrong. I just have to find a way of expressing it that I can live with... writing about love, that is.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Eve & the Firehorse

Written and directed by Julia Kwan
Produced by Erik Paulsson, Sham Tam and Yves J. Ma

Eve & the Firehorse is inspired by two real life events in the writer/director's life. A story about reincarnation into a gold fish when her grandmother died and a Sunday school lesson about how she would be in hell because she was a Buddhist, not a Christian.

The story of Eve & the Firehorse weaves the discovery of Christianity into the lives of two sisters, Eve (Phoebe Kut) and her older sister Karena (Hollie Lo). Bad things happen begin to happen to their family after their mother (Vivian Wu) chops down an apple tree in their yard. Karena embraces Catholicism whole heartedly and takes their teachings to comic and near tragic extremes. Eve is more questioning about her faith, following her mother's lead and hoping that multiple beliefs will her cover all her bases.

This is because Eve carries the guilt of believing she was responsible for her grandmother's death. She follows her sisters distorted teachings of Christianity to try to absolve herself of that guilt and the subsequent tragedies that befall her family.

The scenes move skillfully between very funny scenes (a singing goldfish) to tragedy (we are unsure if Eve drowns during an impromptu baptism in their bathtub). The performance of the sisters is incredibly honest and unpretentious, easily overshadowing Vivian Wu's excellently nuanced performance. The emotional dynamics of the family scenes will be familiar to anyone who grew up in a Chinese family (the brusqueness, the candor and unabashed threats and discipline with no veneer of politeness or diplomacy).

An interesting note from the Q&A. This film was 80% financed by Canadian subsidies and tax credits. You can't help but see it in the credits as well. You have to wonder what filmmaking in America would be like with strong support of independent voices.

Fishing Luck

Written by Tseng Wen-chen and Yuan Ling Yang
Directed by Tseng Wen-chen
Produced by Yeh Ju-feng and Su Li-mei

I'm probably not the target audience for this film which tells the story about Zing (Linda) from Taipei who finds herself stranded on Orchard Island and is befriended by the free spirited locals led by Behong (Biung Wang).

Zing is escaping a broken heart and Behong is looking for love. It is a youthful melodrama of falling in love and broken hearts. Unfortunately, the film doesn't track the emotions of the lovers very well. Each new scene brings with it a new emotion that doesn't carry anything over from the previous scene. For an old, jaded movie goer like myself, I missed the linear unfolding of emotions.

However, the movie does play like the fractured memory of a lost love. It reminded me of what I thought true love was before I hit puberty and started dating for real, of how quickly emotions could be turned on and turned off at a moment's notice and how you sacrifice logic when living moment to moment.

I say I'm not the target audience because I have long since outgrown believing that radio dedications can be a catalyst for true love. That if you throw your ring into the ocean, a quick swim in snorkeling gear will retrieve it.

Fishing Luck plays like an afterschool special for teenagers, painting life and love with gigantic brush strokes where emotions are as big as the ocean. The cynic in me wanted to hate this film but I was charmed by the appeal of the lovers, the scenery and a strong nostalgia for my own lost innocence.

The Motel

Written and directed by Michael Kang
Produced by Michael Kang

The Motel is a gem of subversion and nihilism. Exploding the myth of the model minority, The Motel carries themes about class in a rural motel that would be lucky to have any rating in a AAA guide.

Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) is a 13 year old Chinese boy living at a rent by the hour motel owned and operated by his mother and his grandfather. Between cleaning toilets and washing stained sheets, he writes stories about life in the motel. He is befriended by Sam Kim (Sung Kang), recently thrown out by his fiancee, elevating drinking and whoring to an art form.

Sam is more than willing to play the father figure and educate (read: corrupt) Ernest as he enters puberty and deals with new feelings and urges.

Even thought the film masterfully exploits low humor, there is great poignancy in the evolution of Sam and Ernest's relationship. Ernest takes Sam's lessons in defiance to heart as he learns to stand up to his overbearing, controlling mother but also quickly outgrows the need for Sam's influence.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Journey From the Fall

Written and directed by Ham Tran
Produced by Lam Nguyen

I'm not easily moved by a film. I'm conscious of the subtle and not so subtle emotional manipulations that tell me what I'm supposed to feel. However, the emotional bond that connects a family separated by war is devastatingly powerful as shown by the skillful hand of Ham Tran.

After the fall of Saigon, Long is sent to a re-education camp where he is subjected to both mental and physical abuse. Escape is a futile endeavor met with death from either from a guard's rifle shot or from surrounding landmines. He has sent his wife (Mai), son and mother on a dangerous journey to America onboard a small fishing boat ill suited for the task.

Long is told by the guards that his family is dead, killed by pirates at sea. In Orange County, California, Mai believes her husband was executed through official reports. Through a chance meeting Mai receives information that Long might be alive. She engineers a covert delivery of letters, drawings and photographs which Long receives.

Structurally, the film found its own storytelling rhythm. It did not have predictable act breaks and employed a parallel structure (read: non linear narrative) that enhanced the emotional impact of its revelations.

There are no fancy twists or ironic turns. As Americans we can't begin to fathom what it must feel like to part with loved ones and live only on the distant hope that one day we might be reunited. What does it mean to be forcibly uprooted from your home on pain of death? Can you move on to new lives and new loves when the fate of so many family and friends are unknown? No words could express this as eloquently as the expressions conveyed by the cast.

In the Q&A session after the film, a cast member commented that they didn't have to act. The story in the film is very familiar to them in that they either lived it (as a boat person when they were a child) or it touched someone close to them (as in the re-education camps). It's a luxury that most Americans don't have to live with these emotions so close to the surface or have to bury them so deep in order to keep your sanity.

Journey From the Fall measures the cost of war not in destroyed buildings, spent missiles or in a cold, statistical body count but by showing how one family copes with the unknown fates of their loved ones. Complex, powerful and raw (and technically accomplished), Journey From the Fall deserves a theatrical release. Let's hope they find a distributor.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

VC Filmfest 2006 - May 4 - May 11 - Los Angeles

This weekend begins the VC Filmfest 2006, The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Lots of interesting features and shorts to catch. Most of the films will be shown at the DGA or at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theater.

Check out the official website (which is a pain to navigate).


I'm pretty much going to live there this weekend. If I see anything interesting, I'll try to steal some time to blog about it.

Here's what I'm planning to see. If you plan on seeing anything, drop me a line and we can meet while I'm mainlining caffeine between showings.

Opening Night Celebration - Journey from the Fall
Thursday, May 4, 2006 - Directors Guild of America • 7:30 p.m. • Theatre 1

Program 06 - The Motel
Friday, May 5 - 10:00 p.m. • Directors Guild of America, Theater 2

Program 15 - Fishing Luck
Saturday, May 6 - 5:00 p.m. • Laemmle's Sunset 5 Theatre

Program 18 - Eve & the Firehorse
Saturday, May 6 - 7:00 p.m. • Directors Guild of America, Theater 1

Program 23 - Secret Identity Crisis
Saturday, May 6 - 10:00 p.m. • Directors Guild of America, Theater 2

Seminar 7 - So You've Completed Your Film - Now What?
Sunday, May 7, 2006 • 2 pm • DGA Atrium

Program 35 - Asian Stories (Book 3)
Sunday, May 7 - 7:00 p.m. • Directors Guild of America, Theater 1

Program 39 - The City Never Sleeps
Sunday, May 7 - 9:00 p.m. • Laemmle's Sunset 5 Theatre