Category Archives: Movies

Lessons From Empire Records

Some of you know that Empire Records is one of my all-time favourite movies. It captures something about the nineties that other movies seem to have missed, an atmosphere that I guarantee you’ll never find in new movies when that decade becomes “retro” and a cool time period to set movies in.

And I’m not ashamed to admit it, I adore Lucas.

But as I was watching last night, I realized that there were things that I, as a writer, could learn from this movie. No, it’s not perfect, but it does a lot of things very well. The first one that struck me was character introduction.

This isn’t a movie with a small cast. It’s not Game of Thrones huge, but it’s a day in the lives of the people who work at a record store, on a day when absolutely everyone is working. So do we open on a scene with everyone running around, doing their thing?

Of course not. The introductions come quickly so we can get to the story, but each character has a moment (or a scene) where we meet them and learn the basics; depth and details come later, but we get enough to push them into our brains and stick a pin in them until we get back to it. Now, I’m talking about the fan edition; forgive me if anything doesn’t line up with the original cut.

First, there’s Lucas. We learn that he’s closing the store, and he’s been instructed not to touch Joe’s (the manager) beer, cigars, or drums.  A moment later we cut to Lucas touching all of those things, drumming away on the piles of money he’s been instructed to count twice. But count it twice he does, which tells us a lot about Lucas. We also learn something when he discovers that his beloved Empire Records (an independent store) is set to be turned into a big chain store (booooo!), and he decides to take a big risk to try to save this place he loves.

Lucas may have impulse control issues and/or an odd way of respecting authority, but he wants to do the right thing. This in just a few minutes, and from him closing the store. Not the most exciting set-up, no danger or explosions or fights, but we’re thrown into character and story right away, and want to know what happens.

Boom. That’s exactly what all writers are told to aim for in the first few paragraphs, isn’t it?

Other characters trickle in the next morning. Joe, the grumpy manager. Frustrated, beaten down, but it’s quickly apparent that he cares for the kids who work for him. We get Mark, who’s obviously not all there (hi, drugs!), but he’s funny and seems like a good guy. AJ: artistic, confused, and lovesick.

Next scene, Corey and Gina on their way to work. Corey: perfect, organized, efficient and infatuated with a much-older pop star who she plans to seduce later that day…

Because it’s REX MANNING DAY, folks!

Rex is clearly a bit of a douche. This creates tension as we wonder what in the world the sweet, innocent Corey wants with him, and how that’s going to pan out. Bleh.

Gina: Corey’s polar opposite, except that they’re both pretty (of course).

Other employees filter in (Burko and Eddie are really the least-developed ones, but we still get a feel for them*), adding to the cast in little bits, allowing the audience to adjust and get to know them a little before we’re overwhelmed with more people. And while this is happening, of course, there’s a plot developing.

Several plots, actually.

And this is another thing I think is interesting. You have this plot concerning what’s going to happen to the store after Lucas screws things up. This affects everyone. But the subplots are thick in this one. AJ wanting to tell Corey he loves her. Debra tried to kill herself, and everyone’s worried about her. Rex Manning is a douche, and just makes everything worse in the store (and adding conflict is a good thing, right?). And we also have Warren the shoplifter.

Gina hates Debra, Debra hates Gina.  Gina is jealous of Corey but tries to hide it; Corey seems perfect on the outside, but we all know that can’t be right. Everything is coming to a crisis point.

It could be a huge mess, but every sub-plot is tied in to the others, adding to them rather than taking screen time away from them, and everything builds toward the climax and a satisfying resolution. Subplots add depth to a story; keeping them tight and intertwined keeps them from slowing the plot down.

So there’s two things, and plenty of evidence that I can’t just sit and enjoy a movie.  There are other lessons, I’m sure. Dialogue is one:

Aah, I love it.

So, what movies have you learned from? Jae, I know you always find lessons in movies (everyone else, have a look!). Anyone else have one movie you just adore and want to share with the class rest of us? Or are there movies/books/shows you thing didn’t do character introductions well, throwing so many people at us that we can’t really tell them apart later on? Share!

*However, their hairstyles are never adequately explained. Come to think of it, everyone’s hair is pretty greasy… this may be the film’s primary downfall.

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Damn the Man. Save Merida!

Warning: rant ahead. These are my own initial thoughts and impressions, though I doubt I’m alone in my observations.

Remember when Brave came out? I don’t. I don’t pay much attention to movie releases. But I do remember the first time I saw it, after it came out on DVD. I was blown away. It was funny, and heartwarming and a little frightening at times. It was a story about love, but not about finding a prince.

And Merida. Kicked. ASS.

Here was a princess I could get behind. One who pushed against the expectations that strangled her, who embraced what freedom she had and used it to ride, to shoot, to live in the beautiful word around her, to climb fecking mountains when the mood struck. Her little rebellions were believable in the context of the movie, and when she felt helpless, she went out and tried to figure it out on her own. Sure, that backfired spectacularly and she came off looking like a total brat a few times, but that was part of the charm. She was real. And she sure as hell wasn’t the Disney princess type. She was athletic. Her legs were strong, her boobs those of an actual teenager and not a twenty-something playing a teenager, her stomach strong, though not tucked into a perfect hourglass figure.

And her hair. That wild, frizzy, breathtaking, defiantly red hair that captured everything that she was. You could tell just by looking at her that this isn’t a girl content to sit and brush her hair and pretty herself up and sit around doing princess things. She was as wild as her hair, as frizzed-about-the-edges, as passionate as the colour and as unpredictable and defiant as every randomly-bent corkscrew.

I case you haven’t guessed, I cheered. I fell in love with this strange, kind of odd-looking girl who was allowed to screw up and make her own mistakes, who learned something about herself, who changed her world, and who did it without the help of a prince.*

Did you see this?

Merida is taking her place in the Disney Princess line-up. They just had to change a few things about her.

Now, before anyone accuses me of overreacting, I want to say that I’m aware that some changes are due to a shift in the style of the art; 3D animation deoesn’t translate directly to 2D drawings very well, and stylistic changes are necessary. I’m fine with that. The movie would have been just as enjoyable in a more classical animation style. Whatever. I’m also mostly ignoring the fancy-schmancy dress, because Disney is always altering the ladies’ outfits to make them look good together. Because why not.

It’s the other changes that are pissing me off. Did you notice the different body proportions? There’s less of her. Her waist is smaller. Her boobs are still small (thank goodness), but the neckline of that dress sure is showing them off better. Her thighs and butt look downright dainty. Her distinctive face shape hasn’t changed, but her lips and eyes are emphasized to make her look prettier. *squints* Does this girl even have freckles?

And her hair is still wild, but do you see it? It’s not “girl who just finished a physically demanding and spiritually rewarding adventure” wild. It’s sexy wild. It’s controlled wild. It’s pretty. As noted above, this is partially due to the shift in art style, but it’s more than that.

Yes, it bothers me. A lot.

I have no problem with girls wanting to look pretty. I do it myself, once in a while. But here’s what I see in the new Merida:

  • She’s lost her big, powerful lower-body muscles. This new girl doesn’t need ’em, and they were just making her look fat, right? God forbid a girl should be strong instead of sexy.
  • The dress. I know, I said I was fine with it, but I don’t see how the lower neckline was necessary except to make her look prettier. Again, pretty is fine, but Merida is a girl who wears clothes because she can move in them without falling out. That v-shape at the neckline on her original dress was functional. Now it draws attention to her bust. Sure, change her outfit, but not in a way that re-defines her character.
  • Facial expression. Merida in the movie is expressive. Her jaw drops, her lip curls, she snarls, she cries, she rolls her eyes, and she often looks goofy or unattractive doing it.  This new girl could do all of those things, but you can bet she’ll look camera-ready when she does. Every expression will be effing adorable and pretty.
  • Does this new Merida have adventures? I’m sure she does. But I suspect she has safe, approved adventures, and if she gets her face dirty or messes up her hair, it’s going to look good.

Someone posted this picture in a discussion of this on Facebook and said, “Well, she looks like that in the movie, too:”

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what the problem with that argument is. Merida wears this outfit for a tiny portion of the movie, and it’s very symbolic. This dress squeezes her into a more-feminine shape that’s not her own. It makes her look demure and smooth, and it stuffs her into the shape of what her society expects a princess to be. Notice that it also covers up the hair that basically defines her character, trying to make her look the way they think she should. They way that will sell her to the visiting suitors, hiding who she really is to make her visually appealing. It leaves her passive, unable to move freely, able only to be acted upon, to be chosen, to be pretty, to be acceptable.

In the movie (yay!), Merida busts out of these constraints. Literally. She gets frustrated when she can’t be her own badass (and yes, disobedient) self in that dress, and literally rips it to make it suit who she is and what she needs to do. It’s a brilliant and cheer-worthy scene.  She becomes her own self again, she takes action, and her actions change the very people who wanted her to fit their standards.

Boom. That’s my girl.

Merida is a different kind of princess. She’s not beautiful in a traditional way. She doesn’t behave herself, she doesn’t let people control her. She knows she has value outside of being pretty and good, and she’s willing to fight for the right to just be who she is. Disney’s make-over tells us that all of that is well and good for a movie, but if she expects to fit in with the real princesses, the ones who matter, she’d better make herself fit our society’s expectations of what a princess is.  Be yourself, Merida, but be better- and by better, we mean be what you’re not. Sexy. Pretty. Made-up. Easily controlled. You have no value if we don’t think anyone would want to screw you.

So yep, I signed the petition at change.org, much good it will do anyone. Please, Disney, let Merida be the wild, strong, brave girl who’s a role model for girls who need to feel OK about not being what everyone expects them to be. Don’t tell kids that Merida is better when she’s thinner and sexier and fitting in.

(for a more professional article, see the Huffington Post piece here)

*Nothing against princes, mind you, I just think there should be more girls who are complete and happy without ’em.


Happy Pi Day! (movie review)

“Double posting AGAIN?”

I know, I know. Dirty habit. But really, what better day to review “Life of Pi” than March 14, Pi day? I would have bumped the Engrish post, but it was kind of a belated blogiversary gift to Jae at Lit and Scribbles… So here we are again. Hi there.

When I heard they were doing a film adaptation of “Life of Pi,” I cringed. The book is never as good as the movie, of course, but this went beyond that. It had been a few years since I’d read the book, but I remembered it being captivating. Mesmerizing. Unfathomably beautiful. Absolutely impossible to bring to life on-screen (yes, I think about this when I’m digesting a book).

But it happened, and the reviews were good, so we went to see it when we went to the city in December…

I was blown away.

I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to analyze it. I’m content with “it’s magic.”

My husband hadn’t read the book. He also loved the movie, which surprised me. Often when we leave a movie based on a book, I feel like I need to fill in the blanks for him, and he has questions that the book answered (hello, Hunger Games!). The ambiguous ending of this one was no worse than the book, though, and everything they used in the movie worked well.

Maybe I’d have been less impressed if the book was fresher in my mind; distance does make movies more enjoyable for me. But there you go: gorgeous, moving, inspirational movie, and recommended right here by one person who has read the book and one who hasn’t.

Just be warned: if you’re anything like us, you’ll start yelling “No, Richard Parker!” every time you see a tiger. Possibly forever.

Long story short: 5 stars, two thumbs up, the book was still better but the movie is fantastic (in my opinion)


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