Writer @ the movies

Happy new year!

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I spent a lot of time at the movie theater over the holidays. So many interesting, quirky, or intriguing films came out. I’m no film critic, but as a writer, I pay attention to things like character-building, story arcs, suspense, conclusiveness, and screenwriting. So here’s what I thought of the 5 movies I saw in theaters over the holidays, from a writer’s perspective. Feel free to add your opinions in the comments!


Big Hero 6

I LOVED this movie. Not just liked. LOVED. I already tend to like animated movies, but I know they’re sometimes used an excuse for fluffy endings and one-dimensional characters. Not so with Big Hero 6. This film tackled major issues: grief, adolescence, math/science/engineering, women in the sciences, etc. etc., all without sacrificing fun, humor, storytelling, amazing animation, and some really great lines. This movie proved to me that Disney has assimilated Pixar and is better for it.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

This movie…was the third in a trilogy…that wasn’t supposed to be a trilogy. Okay, so I’m a book person. And Tolkien is one of my literary idols. But I think, even if I hadn’t read The Hobbit, this movie would have felt like a long sequence of impressive but disconnected CG fights. And a moose.

But hey, at least I got some good laughs out of it, right? Even if they weren’t at the parts that were supposed to be funny?


Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of the award-winning book was impressive. Louis Zamperini was a truly amazing person–I had the opportunity to hear him speak when I was fourteen, and his humility, faith, and sense of humor in spite of all his suffering made a lasting impression on me. This movie communicated Zamperini’s hardships and resilience in gritty, heavily charged storytelling that kept me riveted the whole time. The disappointment to me was that I didn’t feel there was enough beginning or ending to this story–it left the excellent middle feeling a bit out of context.

The Theory of Everything

The trailer for this movie was so unusual that I had to go see it. The cinematography was beautiful, and it made me very nostalgic for Cambridge 🙂 The acting was also superb–Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking as his body wastes away with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Felicity Jones plays his wife and caregiver, Jane Hawking. The sequences of caregiving were exquisitely portrayed, in all their pain and grit. Still, I have to say I was disappointed in the movie’s message. It seemed to celebrate only the resilience of Hawking’s indomitable spirit, when I saw the real heroine as his strong and courageous wife.

Into the Woods

This is the movie I didn’t expect to like. I love stage musicals, but after seeing Les Miserables translated to the movie screen, my expectations for Into the Woods were low. Happily, they were exceeded. Not only could everyone in the film both act and sing (!) but I’m a big fan of fairy tales, especially when they’re interwoven with each other. Though the ending was sad, I liked the way the story extended past the traditional “happily ever after.” What happened after Cinderella married her prince? What about after Jack’s beanstalk fell? I thought the movie used those questions as a great opportunity to probe the limitations of fairy tales and simplistic happy endings–all without losing hope in the power of storytelling.

Did you see any of these movies over the holidays? Share your opinions in the comments! 

A Book Lover Goes To The Movies

(Warning: this post contains spoilers.)

I saw more movies in theaters over the Christmas holidays than I normally do in six months. What can I say? It never rains, but it pours.

The three movies I saw were radically different from one another, but they were all based on books (at least at some level): The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Saving Mr. Banks, and Frozen. Some of what I saw disgusted me; other parts delighted me, but above all I couldn’t separate these movies from their books. I must be a book lover, even at the cinema.  

Some of my moviegoing companions were entertained by my bookish reactions to these three films. We’ll see if you agree. 

Film #1: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Rating: 3/10

Book fidelity rating: 2/10

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

J.R.R. Tolkien has been my first and most enduring literary love since I had The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings read to me at age 8. I knew I couldn’t miss this film, but I had to brace myself to see it, knowing I would probably come out incensed. Well…I was right. 

Strong suits:

The Desolation of Smaug definitely pulled out all the budget stops. The CG, action sequences, and overall glamor of the movie were luxurious, particularly the scenes involving the dragon. There’s nothing they didn’t do with screen wizardry. I was also pleased with the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice of Smaug. He brought that evil dark-chocolate silkiness to the dragon’s words. In addition, there were a few book scenes that made it almost directly into the movie, and these had a poignant sweetness about them. One of my favorite scenes was the moment when Bilbo pops his head above the trees of Mirkwood and sees the treetops and butterflies. The other I really liked was the all-too-brief riddling between Bilbo and Smaug, when he identifies himself as “barrel-rider.”


…mostly everything else. I’m not a fan of moviemakers rewriting books, especially great classic ones like The Hobbit. I’m also not a fan of splitting ONE book into THREE movies. Because then things like elf-dwarf-elf love triangles happen. And then I start laughing out loud in a quiet movie theater. And it’s embarrassing.

Film #2: Saving Mr. Banks

Rating: 10/10

Book fidelity rating: 10/10

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Everything that was wrong with The Hobbit was right about Saving Mr. Banks. This movie is all about literary integrity…and the power of storytelling to redeem a shadowed past. Though I only read Mary Poppins once as a child and I remember being more frightened than enchanted by the austere British nanny, I came home from Saving Mr. Banks and re-watched the Disney movie, suddenly enthralled.

Strong suits:

Everything. The acting was top-notch; the storytelling, graceful. It had the poignancy of one of my other favorite movies, Finding Neverland. Of course I laughed at the prim, snarky quips of P.L. Travers and the Disney underlings who had to work with her. But the film also brought me to tears on no fewer than four occasions with its artful yet honest depiction of the childhood scars that carry over into adulthood. I’ve never sobbed through the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” before. But if you see this movie, you might too.

I especially appreciated this movie’s redemptive theme. One of my pet soapboxes (as you probably know if you’ve read The Illuminator’s Gift) is the power of art as both calling and catharsis. By revisiting our own dark places through writing (or painting or moviemaking or composing), we not only find healing for ourselves, but share it with others as well. That was what this film communicated through the relationship of a hardened English writer and a Hollywood film mogul. And those were the scenes where I bawled like a baby.


There were a few ends left a little too dangly for my taste at the end. What role did Aunt Ellie play in Ginty’s later life? How did Disney’s not inviting Travers to the film premiere affect their ongoing relationship? What happened to Travers in later life?

Film #3: Frozen

Rating: 8/10

Book fidelity rating: 1/10 (though for once, this might be a good thing…you should really go read “The Snow Queen,” just to see what I mean)

Frozen (2013)

I love fairy tales, and I’m almost always a sucker for a good animated movie. Frozen didn’t disappoint.

Strong suits:

This is the most beautiful animated film I’ve ever seen. Not just for its incredibly realistic visuals of shiny, transparent ice or powdery snow, either. Even the imaginary things in the movie were stunningly beautiful, from Elsa’s creation of her ice castle to her diaphanous blue cape. Some of the swirls and the color palette even reminded me of the cover art from The Illuminator’s Gift! Even more than the animation, though, I loved the messages of this movie and the way it debunks some longstanding Disney myths. If I ever have daughters, I’d want them to see that not even princesses wake up with perfect hair in the morning, that love at first sight doesn’t exist, and that not all true love has to come from a romantic hero. The heroines in this movie are strong while still remaining feminine, but more importantly, they stand by each other as sisters, demonstrating true courage and sacrifice.


Okay, so the storytelling got a bit lost in the woods. Some of the character depth and complexity came at the cost of a linear storyline like that of Tangled. On the other hand, it’s based (very loosely) on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” which is about the most madcap fairy tale in existence, so with a story basis like that, it did pretty well. I could have done quite well without the character of Olaf. His toilet humor didn’t add anything, and his character and even animation didn’t fit with the rest of the movie.


Have you seen these films? Did you think they were true to their books? Which one was your favorite?


Gladiators in the 21st Century

Last weekend I watched the movie Gladiator for the millionth time.

I love watching Russell Crowe’s portrayal of a soldier (Maximus) driven to heroism by love of–and grief for–his family, and intense motives of revenge, anger, friendship, and brotherhood fan the story to a white heat. The screenwriting is amazing: What we do in life echoes in eternity. Chills. The depth of the characters and the complexity of their relationships keeps me watching, even though I have a notoriously weak stomach for blood and guts.

As I watched the movie this time, though, what struck me most was not the violence of the gladiator fights (though they are intense) but the enthusiasm of the crowd who watches them. The unpopular Emperor Commodus tries to mollify the Roman mob with free food and gladiator fights. And it works! The people crowd into the Colosseum to cheer and boo the men in the sand who are fighting viciously to come out alive. Maximus must use the same ferocity he employed in the Roman army to overcome his opponents, but now it is not for the empire or for duty or glory: it is for entertainment. Ordinary citizens, all the way down to the children, sit in the stands and laugh as the gladiators struggle and bleed, kill and die.

What kind of bestiality does it take to be entertained by such horrific violence between real people? To laugh and applaud while our own kind torture and kill each other? It must be a sort of moral cannibalism. Or perhaps it is the sick pleasure of saying: “better him than me”?

My first reaction was to say, “Those horrible Romans. They must have been little better than animals to take pleasure in such brutality.”

But then I had this uncomfortable realization. Our sadistic delight in watching humans torture each other didn’t end with the closing of the Colosseum. We still support “gladiator sports” in our entertainment today.

Think about reality TV. It’s not just Survivor, where people are pushed to painful physical endurance challenges for our entertainment. It’s also The Bachelor, where an immature single male plays among a harem of 25-30 women, making light of their hearts, bodies, and lives for several months at a time, harming them and himself, with no guarantee of commitment anywhere. What for? Money–and an hour of mind-numbing entertainment a week.

Yes, the contestants now voluntarily participate in these brutal forms of entertainment, rather than being captured and sold into the trade as slaves. But the reason TV stations continue to produce reality shows is because we, the audience, continue to watch them. Obviously, we still like to watch our own kind suffer.

I guess human nature isn’t so different now than it was in the times of the Roman Empire, when gladiators looked up at the emperor and the crowd and said “We who are about to die salute you!”

And as long as human nature remains the same, sadistic forms of human-mutilating entertainment will continue to exist.

What do you think? Is reality TV today’s “gladiator sport”? What other cruel forms of entertainment does our human nature still enjoy today?