Tuesday, November 30, 2010

And so ends November 2010

I got my 50,000 words of new novel done this year, making this my seventh successful nano. This was the year of slow and steady, where I needed the weekends to make up for the lack of time during the week days. I'm fairly pleased with how the month's writing went. I skipped over a few scenes in the beginning, but overall, everything is usable, and I did not go off on any strange tangents. I got hit with lots of surprises, mostly in the character area. I should be used to this by now, but my two intended bad guys failed the evil test and have become good and semi-good guys. One of my good guys becomes a bad guy, but I knew that before I wrote one word of story, so that did not surprise me. There was also an even bigger bad guy behind the not-bad-any-longer bad guys who revealed himself. That was a delicious revelation, because it made everything else I was doing make sense. Mwah-hah-hah.

I never did make it to the big awesome scene I had in my mind. That's still down the line a bit. I will be continuing on the novel in the next few months to completion, though not quite at the same pace.

To celebrate, I watched The Seventh Dawn (1964), with William Holden, Capucine, and Tetsuru Tanba on Netflix instant viewing. I'd never seen this one before, and I really liked it because it had multiple triangles going on -- romantic and ideological, and I am very partial to triangles in fiction. This movie takes place entirely in Malaysia and was filmed on location. It opens in Malaysia at the end of WWII, with the Japanese surrender. Our three main characters have been together awhile and have an easy camaraderie, and complete loyalty and trust and love in each other. After the war, though, Ng (Tetsuru Tanba -- who I know best as Tanaka from You Only Live Twice), heads off to Moscow to study communism. Ferris (William Holden) and Dhana (Capucine) stay behind in Malaysia, where Ferris becomes a very successful landholder and businessman. Ng returns as Malaysia is trying to gain its independence and things turn nasty as his new communist ideals put him on the other side of the line from his former companions. This sets up a nice hotbed for all sorts of my favorite things: betrayal, acting/dying for your beliefs, loyalty, the bonds of friendship, love, rebellion, racing the clock.

What I liked best about this movie was the quite complex relationships of the characters. Ferris and Ng both love Dhana, but Dhana loves Ferris and so stays with him. But he won't marry her, and just keeps her as his mistress, until he realizes too late what he took for granted. A young Susannah York also stars in the film, as Candace, who also falls in love with Ferris, but to my great delight, he actually doesn't fall for her in return. Quite surprising, and very refreshing. The only big flaw is that Ng is not given the same depth of character as the others, and I really wish they'd given him more. It was needed to balance out the sides and show where he's coming from.

Other things I liked:
  • this is not a happy movie, and that lack of rosiness really works here.
  • William Holden in a sword fight! Okay, it was a machete fight, but that's pretty darn close.
  • the on location scenery and real jungle
  • leeches!
  • William Holden (that almost goes without saying, but I really liked his character in this film)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Four Musketeers (1974)

Ah-HAH! I was wondering why a couple years back, when I was watching various versions of The Three Musketeers, I didn't like The Three Musketeers (1973) when I thought I had had good memories of it. It's because my memories were of The Four Musketeers! Which really is technically the second half of The Three Musketeers. They filmed too much material and ended up splitting it into two movies, released a year apart. I'm rather glad, actually, as the first half is crazy, oddly a bit boring, and over-the-top, and I'd really rather skip it, whereas the second half is by far my favorite Musketeers movie (seen to date). It blows away the other versions out there.

The Four Musketeers deals with Milady's revenge, which is far more interesting than the whole Buckingham/Queen of France/jewels thing. You know, when I think of the top villains out there, I tend to overlook Milady de Winter, and that is a huge mistake. She is one of the best villains ever. I'm personally not that fond of Fay Dunaway, but I honestly cannot think of anyone better for this role. Her Milady has just the right kind of cold beauty, the right manipulative smarts to be playing a very unrepentant murderess. She is a worthy adversary, and I love Fay Dunaway in this movie.

(and she has great costumes)

I had a copy of a young adult version of The Three Musketeers book growing up that I used to read over and over. Milady imprinted on me very strongly because I think she was one of the first female villains (outside of Disney and James Bond movies) that I'd ever encountered -- and she got executed for her crimes! That blew my mind when I was young. Somehow, I expected her to get off, just because she was a woman, and she didn't. There's something still a bit shocking about it to me, even if she is one nasty and deadly lady. It's been awhile now, but I think that was one of the things I liked least about the 1993 version -- they changed her character a bit and made her less evil and more sympathetic. Phooey. Wimps. That takes away the essence of what makes her such a great character!

Athos has always been my favorite Musketeer, and of course, the more Milady around, the more Athos. That is a good thing, particularly when it's Oliver Reed playing him. I really like Oliver Reed. He turns in such fascinating performances. He's compelling, dangerous, charismatic, and sexy, and hey, Athos is a perfect role for that. Reed and Dunaway play off each other beautifully in their one major scene, when they reunite. There are so many undercurrents between them, so much unsaid. The way Athos touches her cheek before he leaves, her reaction after he's gone.... It's absolutely perfect and just about my favorite scene in the movie.

All the things I expected of the 1973 movie and didn't find were in this one. This movie is also comedic to a certain extent (though tempered by more serious bits than the first movie has), but the humor is a lot more natural to the story (for the most part) in this one, instead of eye-rollingly over-the-top. I'm particularly fond of the more subtle background humor, like Aramis covering his shoulder with a handkerchief before leaning against a dirty wall. I love Constance and the key. I love Rochefort's (Christopher Lee) droll, "Why bother, I might die of old age," line, and Porthos: "This wine does not travel well." And Richelieu: "One should be careful of what one writes." I love the herd of goats crossing in front of the row of active cannons. I love the sense that this is a real world, not a set. I love the sword fight on ice, but then that's one thing both movies do very well -- the sword fights. This one has a great sword fighting finale. The sword fights here are much more realistic than the average film, with fighters using any weapon at their disposal, with longer pauses between short flurries of action. I'm surprised no one got more injured than they did on the making of this film. From the making of video on the DVD , it appears everybody did their own stunts/fights (for the most part), and it looks extremely dangerous.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention how much I loved the way this movie was shot. The angles and positioning, and lighting. Neat stuff, like this one shot across the interior of a two-storied inn, where you watch Richelieu enter the ground floor, pan up to Aramis and Porthos playing cards and Athos keeping watch across the way, and then Richelieu crosses in front of the camera, while Athos reacts across the inn... all in one take. There's a lot of scenes set up like that and I really appreciate it.

This is one I'd very much like to own on DVD and will have to pick up at some point.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Quo Vadis (1951)

This is a movie that never quite works for me, as much as I want it to. It is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, from the costumes to the sets to the matte shots to the gigantic crowd scenes, it is big and BIGGER and always pretty. I love this about the film. I love that about epics in general. But the story? Simply doesn't work for me. There just isn't any substance to it.

The biggest problem for me is love story between the two main characters of Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) and Lygia (Deborah Kerr), as it is supposed to provide the emotional core to this story. I didn't buy it at all. Marcus Vinicius is an arrogant jerk who thinks he can take what he want. He's in lust with her, not love, and I don't mind that. That seems realistic. What I mind is that Lygia falls for him, when he gives her ZERO reason to do so (other than he's handsome and Robert Taylor, but yanno, that ain't enough). She's a smart and caring girl, true to her religious convictions, and she wouldn't give his character the time of day, particularly after he forcibly has her removed from her life and everything she loves, just so he can make time with her. This would still all work if his character showed more depth than a shoebox. The best love stories often start with two diametrically opposed characters, but there has to be something good or redeeming about the jerk so we can believe a girl would fall for him. And he does change his ways over the course of the film, but I don't particularly buy that change either. Vinicius's flatness is partly Robert Taylor's fault -- he does not particularly convey anything more going on in his heart beyond what's on the surface -- but mostly, it's the script's failure. This is a script that tells, not shows.

The love story that does work for me in this film is that of Petronius and Eunice. Now, they're convincing, and touching, and feel genuine. Petronius is one of the better characters in the movie. He's played by Leo Genn, who always turns in first rate work. I mostly know him from Moby Dick, but he made a lasting impression in that film on me. He is fabulous here, flattering and placating Nero, trying to steer the emperor to act for the good of Rome and not his own selfish interests. Now there's a losing battle, but it gives him some of the best and wittiest dialogue in the film. I really liked him.

And, of course, this is also the story of Nero, played by Peter Ustinov. I think it's quite amazing that Ustinov can make Nero both completely mad and yet still sympathetic. There's a fair bit of scenery chewing in his scenes, but it's the delightful, entertaining kind, particularly as he's surrounded by very staid and serious people, and his flamboyant turn provides some much needed color.

I just have to add that Poppaea had the best costumes, hair, and jewelry, and the actress (Patricia Laffan), had exactly the right exotic look to pull it all off with poise and elegance.

My favorite scene in the movie was when Lygia refuses Vinicius's marriage proposal because of her beliefs. This was the first (and only) scene Deborah Kerr actually got to do something other than be the perpetual helpless victim and damsel in distress. I loved her here. If this movie had let her do more like this, this would have been a great movie. And it was also the first scene in which I actually liked Robert Taylor's character for once.

This movie kicked off the run of epic biblical films, and I have to thank it for that. Without this one, there may not have been 1959's Ben-Hur, which is a far superior movie with a stronger, more emotional story and deeper, believable characters. Even Miklos Rozsa's score to Quo Vadis seems like a warm up to the Ben-Hur score.

Friday, November 12, 2010

16,000 words and growing

National Novel Writing Month proceeds. Nano has gotten very interesting for me. They don't really talk about how nano changes for a writer each year they participate. The pep talks, etc. all still mostly speak to beginners, or first time nano'ers. They don't talk about how easy nano gets after you have a few under your belt. Or maybe it doesn't for other people? Maybe it's just as hard for them on their tenth as it was on their first?

Not for me. Maybe because I came to Nano originally as a more experienced writer, but once I learned that writing 1,666 words a day can not only be done, but done pretty easily, that particular challenge was gone. I've successfully completed six nano's before this. Achieving word count is not really an issue. The last couple times, and this year in particular, I've become pretty lackadaisical about nano. I don't stress and stay up until eleven or twelve at night just because I need another few hundred words that day. I don't get that thrill or that excitement or that anxiety anymore, not about the month itself. About the story I'm writing, yeah, but that's a different thing entirely.

Nowadays, nano is about maintaining discipline. More than that, it's about understanding story and storytelling. About what makes a good story, what each scene needs to do in the small individual picture and in the big picture. I am not fond of writing crap. I don't have time in my life to spend November writing crap that I'll have to spend the next year re-writing into something decent. That's just a load of road apples. If I'm not writing usable material right here, right now during nano, that is on track for my goals for my novel, then there's no point in participating at all.

And so I throw out a lot of words during nano, and I tend to write pretty sparse when I write this fast anyway. I delete extra adjectives and phrases I know I won't keep in a later draft as I go. I had a scene started the other night that I was ready to end, when I realized nothing had changed in the scene. It was informational only, and the character was in the same spot at the end as at the beginning. So I deleted about four hundred words, re-thought it to make it an actual functioning scene, and re-wrote.

And that's how this writer's seventh nano session goes. It's no longer about the word count, it's about getting the story as close to right the first time through. That's the challenge now, of staying on track while moving at the speed Nano requires. And all that Nano talk about just keep writing, allow yourself the freedom to suck... that is dead-on right to encourage and create successful first time nano'ers, but it could not be more irrelevant or annoying when you're down the line. I keep waiting for the "So, you've done this before, eh? Well, now, let me tell you what your next nano challenge is going to be and how to beat it." But no one writes those pep talks.

Maybe I should.


Monday, November 01, 2010

Time Limit (1957)

Watched this film yesterday and enjoyed it immensely. Richard Widmark plays an Army colonel investigating a case of treason during the Korean War against Richard Basehart's Major, who refuses to defend himself against the charge. Widmark suspects something else is going on, but nobody's talking. The movie follows his patient and frustrated investigation as he's hounded to close the case by a General, whose son was killed at the same POW camp Basehart was a prisoner in.

The last twenty minutes really take off, when characters start to crack and reveal the truth. There is a fabulous, passionate exchange between Basehart and the General (played by Carl Benton Reid), about the nature of heroes, cowards, Army code. It could seem a bit speechy under a different director or actors, but the actors here are all strong, and they pull it off. It was so good I rewatched the ending three times. I'm particularly fond of how it keeps changing how you think about the situation as each character chimes in, and I think it ends in the right place as well, with the General's answer to Basehart's question.

Martin Balsam plays Widmark's aide, and despite his rather annoying, smarmy character, he also gets a great serious scene defending Widmark. A very young Rip Torn plays another POW member who gives his testimony in the case. He also gets some powerful moments. Dolores Michaels plays Cpl. Evans, who is Widmark's other aide. While she's mostly just a secretary, she also gets some good moments, where she stands up to Martin Balsam, and where she figures out some key points. There's some attraction between her character and Widmark's that is nicely underplayed. I really liked her.

This film was directed by Karl Malden, in what I understand was his only directing venture. He does a fine job, and I would have liked to have seen what else he might have done, how he might have grown as a director.

November madness begins

I hemmed and hawed and finally decided to participate, yet again, in NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writing Month. This will be the seventh straight year I've participated. Egads! Seven??? Where has the time gone? This is gonna be a tough year, because three nights a week are lost to kickboxing lessons. I think my weekends are going to take the brunt of it, and my parents are coming down for one of them. Should be interesting.

My project this year is the novel I tried to start two nanos ago, but after only one day, I switched projects. It's a fantasy novel, entitled The Traitor.

I have a couple films to write reviews of over the next couple weeks, as time permits.