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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.

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Location: California, United States

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Logline: A dysfunctional family goes on a road trip to bring their 8 year old daughter to California to compete in a beauty contest.

The good idea: "Dysfunctional family" and "road trip" in the same movie.

What worked: Confine a group of quirky, dark souled people in a small vehicle that's falling apart and see what happens.

What didn't work: The subversive humor wasn't subversive enough and there wasn't enough of it.

There is a lot of humor in Little Miss Sunshine, some genuine surprises and one or two real belly laughs. Richard is a motivational speaker who doles out destructive self-help advice to his eight year old daughter Olive much to the dismay of his long suffering wife Sheryl. In the meantime, his heroine addicted father has been kicked out of the nursing home and lives with them as does her gay, suicidal brother Frank who rooms with Dwayne, their nihilistic teenage son who has taken a vow of silence.

This movie is driven by Olive's desire to complete in a beauty pageant. Unable to afford a plane ticket from New Mexico to California, they pile into a vintage yellow VW van and trek across the desert. Along the way, we learn why Grandpa got kicked out of the nursing home, why Frank is suicidal, and that Richard should take a page from his own advice on success.

The film is more of a character study than an adventure. Strange as this may seem, this is the film's greatest flaw. What the audience learns about the characters, the characters (for the most part) already know so we are denied opportunities to watch them discover as we discover.

Where the film succeeds is in its ability to throw humorous obstacles in the way of their road trip and how they have to live with the results (as opposed to overcoming the obstacles, they learn to co-exist with them-- a defective car horn comes to mind).

However, the film's greatest strength (humor) also is its greatest weakness. The jokes (while funny) are few and they go on for far too long and are repeated often.

Once the road trip ends and they are at the pageant, none of the characters' conflicts are resolved... because, despite their quirkiness, there isn't a lot of conflict within.

While the film is offbeat, humorous and a little subversive (Olive's talent performance treads that fine line between satire and exploitation), Little Miss Sunshine is strangely unsatisfying.

Friday, August 11, 2006

World Trade Center

Years ago I videotaped some friends shooting pool. Over the course of the evening, I taped about 5 or 6 games with various players which I edited down into a 2 minute clip. What amazed me was that even though the clip was complete fiction, since the viewing, all my friends remember that evening the way I depicted it.

My concern about any film showing the events of 9/11 is that the story and images in the film may ultimately replace my own memories.

Viewing this film was difficult. I couldn't tell if the emotions I felt were a direct result of the story or the actual emotions I felt on 9/11. Much in the way a director will use a popular love song to evoke feelings of romance not intrinsically present in the performance, I suspect that just seeing the Twin Towers was more than enough to recall emotions from that day.

Looking at the film as dispassionately as I can, World Trade Center is an ordinary disaster movie. The acts are clearly delineated. The objective for the characters is survival. There are fewer twists and turns here than in a movie like "The Day After Tomorrow" but also a lack of assignment: WTC doesn't even try to explain the motives behind the attack but tightly focuses on the human drama of getting our men out from the rubble.

This film will not be all things to all people. That was a smart decision. Stories about geopolitical intrigue can be abstract, intellectual and byzantine. Oliver Stone and Andrea Berloff have given us primal emotions. They don't ask the questions, "Who is responsible?" or "Why did this happen?" Indeed, our main characters, for the most part, don't even know what happened.

World Trade Center doesn't offer any answers. It offers relief but no catharsis. Its theme that we are stronger with each other than without is common in disaster movies and maybe this film is a not-so-subtle reminder that we've forgotten this. But still, I found myself fighting back tears despite my stoic demeanor. Even though we're approaching the five year anniversary, we're still very early in the healing process and maybe WTC is a not-so-subtle reminder of that too.

Friday, August 04, 2006

In Memorium: Mako

On July 21, Mako passed away. As one of the co-Founders of East West Players his name was well known within the Asian American artistic community. Outside the community, those unfamiliar with his name would say, "Oh yeah, that guy," when shown his photograph.

I did have the privilege to meet and work with him. I met Mako on our LA stop while touring with "And the Soul Shall Dance..." by Wakako Yamauchi. Later, I stage managed a reading of "Pay the Chinaman" written by Lawrence Yep where he played the title role.

But more than the privilege of meeting and working with Mako, I owe much of my career to his influence.

When I began writing short stories in high school, I was treated as if I had a learning disability. Despite being born and raised in America and fed a steady diet of Star Trek and the Flintstones, I was often told that I would need to learn to speak English before I could write.

While I was in college training as an actor, I faced the cold reality that unless the role was specifically written for an Asian American, I was not considered for the part. These roles included doctors and lawyers... professions where race didn't matter. The Asian American roles that were offered to me were so demeaning, I was ready to commit violence.

I began writing plays for my own artistic survival.

When I met agents and literary managers, their response to my plays were "We're not interested in Asian American plays." This was before I ever gave them a logline or synopsis. Many of my plays then didn't have anything to do with being Asian American.

When I applied for work as a stage manager in theaters, a typical response was, "We' re not doing an Oriental play this year." No matter what I did, I was always perceived as an Asian foreigner first. My acting teacher said I had to get involved with Asian American theaters because I wouldn't be able to work anywhere else because of my limitations.

Asian American theaters are a double edged sword. On the one hand, you get an opportunity to develop your craft free of the burden of justifying your choice in careers to anyone with a belly button. On the other, you face the perception that you're not good enough for mainstream work. As I began to read plays by Asian American writers, I discovered Mako's name was usually nearby. Either as the man who suggested to Wakako Yamauchi that she adapt her short story into a play, or as the director of the world premiere of FOB by David Henry Hwang.

If you think all of this is a matter of perception: that all you need is talent and that talent and hard work alone will win out every time, then you haven't seen America from a minority's perspective. When I did work in mainstream theater, I was always "the Chinese guy." "Find the Chinese guy, give it to the Chinese guy, the Chinese guy can do it." It wasn't until I worked at Tisa Chang's Pan Asian Rep that I became "Isaac" for the first time. In a company of Asians, being "the Chinese guy" was far from adequate to define the totality of what I had to offer where in a mainstream company, "the Chinese guy" was all you needed or cared to know.

Ultimately, I found my way to Los Angeles, where I took several playwriting workshops through East West Players. Encouraged to discover and create my own poetry for my characters and stories, the plays I wrote during this period would elevate my career to the next level. One play would be produced by Lodestone Theatre Ensemble. That, and another play from the workshop would be my writing samples which got me into the MFA Screenwriting program at UCLA.

I shudder to think how my career would have turned out without an Asian American theater company to call home. Mako's legacy gave me much of the support and encouragement I needed to forge an artistic path for myself that I couldn't find anywhere else. To call Mako the "Godfather of Asian American theater" and say that "If it wasn't for Mako there wouldn't have been Asian American theater," is not hyperbole. I'm proof of that.