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Review: District 9

We live in a magical time. A time where one of the most popular films in the nation right now is not only science fiction, but is filled with subtitles. I’m practically giddy over here.

It was a depressing revelation for me in my days as a Blockbuster employee how many individuals would return movies with subtitles because “I don’t want to read” (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the cause of rampant DVD-returns, as the desire to see a martial arts epic fought against the distaste for all them words on the screen). So, to see a film that is unique, entirely lacking any major stars and filled with subtitles to read succeeding at the box office is heart-warming.

Some background before we get rolling:

District 9 was actually birthed from a short film Neill Blomkamp made years ago on the web, Alive in Joburg. The film was largely a tech demonstration, showcasing how well computer graphics could be integrated with real-world environments. It has many of the trademarks of District 9: the shaky handicam look, the personal interviews to explain the action, the look of the alien tech, etc.

Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, caught wind of Blomkamp’s project and liked the flavor enough that he had planned to have Blomkamp direct the Halo film that Jackson was slated to produce. After Halo was held up due to funding issues, Jackson and Blomkamp were in search of another project, and figured why not expand on Blomkamp’s world as presented in his short film.

Below, enjoy the video. After that, my review of District 9, spoilers and all.

And now, here be spoilers.

District 9 isn’t telling the most original story in the world, but it does so in a fresh fashion. Aliens have “landed” on Earth, settling their mothership over South Africa. The ship simply hovers over Johannesburg until humans manage to break inside it, finding aliens stashed away like refugees in a slave ship. With the world watching, the aliens are shepherded down into the city and cordoned off into what starts as an area for protection and ends up as a ghetto.

The aliens, it seems, are lacking their leadership. As they are an insectoid race, it’s apparent that without their leaders, they are an aimless species. Soon, the human population comes to realize that they have no idea what to do with these stranded aliens. They have several million aliens that are culturally and physically alien, are potentially dangerous, and are feared and unwanted by the majority populace of the area. So the aliens are cordoned off in their ghetto and essentially ignored.

The film is a fairly transparent look at racism and the practices of apartheid. The action of the film is spurred on by the South African government’s attempt to have the company in charge of alien affairs, Multi-National United (MNU – not coincidentally also the world’s leading arms manufacturer), evict the aliens from their current residences in District 9 to an even more remote and tightly controlled area, referred to by one character as a concentration camp.

The man placed in charge of this action, Wikus, manages to accidentally ingest some alien liquid which begins to transform him, slowly but surely, into an alien himself. The transformation very quickly costs him everything he holds dear, and he finds himself hunted and abused, much as the aliens he has been placed in charge of have been for so long. The message, communicated in this way, is very effective, but it’s not the kind of thing that would have carried this film to the level of popularity it has achieved. Not that I want to say that covering racism is old hat, but simply having your message be “racism is bad” is not exactly something that takes 120 minutes to hammer home.

The film also deals with the efforts of MNU to unlock the secrets of the alien’s weaponry, which can only be operated by entities with alien DNA. Wikus, as a man in the midst of transformation, becomes a valuable piece of bio-weaponry that MNU attempts to harvest. Wikus’ subsequent escape into District 9 makes him the target of a massive military manhunt.

And on the alien front, we have Christopher. Clearly an alien with a greater sense of motivation than his brethren, he has been collecting fuel for two decades in an attempt to pilot his small shuttle back to the mothership so that he can return to the homeworld. When he crosses paths with Wikus, we watch as Wikus must confront what the humans have been doing to these aliens. He is forced to weigh his own desire for salvation with the notion of freedom and rescue for this downtrodden race.

All together, the film is an engrossing experience. The world is gritty and realistic. The racism parable is effective and jarring as Sharlto Copley (Wikus) gives a manic and wholly believable performance. The effects are top-notch, the alien tech is very cool and the action is very tense. I had no idea what to expect throughout the movie. The style of storytelling didn’t lend itself to a typical Hollywood arc where even if you feel some trepidation, you’re still aware of what the ending must be. I was able to sit back and be honestly mystified and intrigued the entire time.

District 9 is part of a rare breed. We need to encourage it. Go and see it. We need more high concept, unique and intelligent action and science fiction films out there. I’m getting really tired of remakes.

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Review: Raging Bull

I’m going to assume that for a classic film, I don’t need to worry about spoilers. If I’m writing something about a recent film (next Wednesday will feature a write-up on District 9, for example) I’ll let you know before I launch into spoiler-laden content. The classics, though, as you’ve likely had about twenty years to catch them, are past that statute of limitations. That having been said…

Raging Bull is a film that I was looking forward a great deal to seeing. It’s a Scorsese film, it’s a DeNiro film, it’s an early Scorsese/DeNiro film. It has all the elements of cinematic success (who knew there were so few elements?). Considering the film is argued to be one of the best film of the 1980s (if not the best), I would have expected to enjoy it a bit more than I did. Since seeing it, I’ve spent some time trying to puzzle out why I would have such a tepid reaction to a cinematic giant such as this film, and I think I’ve got it.

The modern bio-pic is very different from the way Raging Bull handles things. Films like Walk the Line or Ray or Erin Brockovich or even titles that are less obviously bio-pics like The Insider are very focused on a theme and a moral. Johnny Cash is battling the personal demons he has relating to his brother’s death and his father’s approval. Ray Charles is dealing with addiction and pioneering the fight against racism. Erin Brockovich is an everyday Jane fighting corporate greed. Similarly, Jeffrey Wigand is taking a stand against Big Tobacco in spite of the dangers it represents. These are all pretty targeted stories. These are less films that chronicle the lives of their subjects and more films that tell a story that just happen to have their subjects as the protagonists.

Raging Bull is a film that in very honest terms is telling about the life of boxer Jake LaMotta. There’s a story being told, but it’s almost told in vacuum. LaMotta’s life isn’t something that can be equated to a struggle that the everyday film-goer can relate to. It’s not connected to the era in terms of any social movement or historical event. LaMotta is the film’s hero and its sole villain. He begins the film as a brash, stubborn, violent and jealous man who wants to be a big shot. He ends the film as a brash, stubborn, violent and jealous man who has seen those traits take him from his role as a big shot to his current position as a has-been. LaMotta never seems to learn a lesson throughout the entire film, making him exceedingly hard to identify with. He beats his wife, is insanely jealous of her (ignoring the irony that he left his first wife to be with her) and alienates his brother after almost beating him to death after his brother had spent his life doing nothing but helping LaMotta to achieve his goals. So, while the film is shot and written with the authenticity that Scorsese is so well known for, and DeNiro and Pesci give characteristically strong performances, I didn’t feel that the meat of the film was satisfying. It was basically “everything sucks for Jake LaMotta because of Jake LaMotta and then the movie ends”.

It seems to me that much of the film’s reputation is formed around DeNiro’s weight gain for the film, considered to be the epitome of method acting. The film shut down production for months in the middle of filming so that DeNiro could complete LaMotta’s weight gain into his later years, packing on 60lbs. for the role.

Raging Bull is a film with excellent performances, excellent direction and cinematography, believable dialog and characters and a story that is perhaps too real to be workable for today’s audience. Is it bad that I found myself dissatisfied with a film that appeared to be missing the veneer of Hollywood storytelling all over it? Probably. But at the same time, my taste is of course infallible (I mean, obviously). So we appear to be at an impasse.

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Wednesday Review: Jeph Loeb’s Marvel Ultimatum Series

It’s been a little while since I last geeked out good and proper. Consider yourself forewarned.

The Marvel Ultimates are reimagined series of some of Marvel’s most famous superheroes. The concept was that these comics would start fresh and free themselves from the sometimes wonky backstories that they had earned over decades of comics. The Ultimates exist side by side with their standard counterparts because the Marvel Multiverse has, as the title would suggest, a wide vartiety of parallel universes. This lets Marvel use their characters a bit more freely, knowing they can always hop into another universe where things are as the fans have always wanted them to be.

Jeph Loeb wrote a series for the Ultimates arc called Ultimatum. This was intended to be a conclusion for the Ultimates, and the completion of his miniseries did result in some Ultimates comics being discontinued and others being relaunched anew.

***MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***

Ultimatum deals with Magneto’s attack on the Earth via the Ultimatum Wave. Magneto has tired of humanity and intends to wipe them from the Earth. He begins by using his magnetic powers to tilt the Earth’s axis, causing portions of the world to freeze over, wreaking general tectonic havoc (not to be confused with “teutonic havoc”, though that would be funnier) and, in the event that the series focuses most on, causing a massive tidal wave to wipe out most of the Eastern seaboard of the United States. In the aftermath of this attack, essentially, shit happens.

The series is a violent and shocking look at what would happen if superheroes and supervillains stopped doing a Bond/Bond-villain dance around one another. There are no evil plots that are easily tossed aside. Villains and heroes don’t choose to nerf their powers so that they’re not hurting anyone. It’s a grim and gritty five-comic series. There’s not a ton of depth to it. Magneto has caused the deaths of millions, including many notable heroes. The heroes then attempt to regroup and fight back. They do, and succeed in defeating Magneto in a grisly and far-too-easy fashion. This is a man that can tilt the Earth itself, but you’re telling me that the X-Jet has no critical metal parts in it that he could have shorted out to keep the heroes from even arriving at all? The man has his arm cut off by someone with a sword for jeebus’ sake. A metal sword does in the Master of Magnetism? I don’t think so, Jeph. It seems lazy.

I’m getting off topic. The highlight of the Ultimatum mini-series is the violence, no doubt about it. Heads explode, limbs are severed, people are eaten. There is a good deal of gratuity, but at the same time, Loeb is showing things a bit closer to how they might really occur with heroes. Magneto has been foiled for years by Professor Xavier. So… he visit his old friends Charles and snaps his neck. Why not? Why would he leave him around to spoil his plans for the bajillionth time? It’s cold and callous and violent… but it is believable. Not all of the violence is believable or necessary, but it is in keeping with the overall tone Loeb has set for Ultimatum.

But that’s not what I want to gripe about today. I want to gripe about the critical reception of Ultimatum. Critics LOATHED it. Loeb was panned left and right and up and down. The series has sold exceptionally well, but it hasn’t stopped the critics from slamming him hard. I think this is unfair.

Ultimatum is extrapolating a common trend in comics today. As comics hit the mainstream, they reaching for ways to reinvent themselves. It’s not a surprise that many comic artists chose to go for stark, realistic violence. There’s a reason the costumes heroes wear, for the most part, are toned down for Hollywood consumption. People who were not fans of the comics back in the day might find it silly. The natural progression would be for comics to get more intense and a few shades darker to convince new readers that they’re approaching some heavy stuff that they need to take seriously. Comic readers are getting older as well, and the presumption is that older readers want more mature content. Mature content doesn’t equal explicit content, but that tends to be the most obvious conclusion content producers reach.

My beef with Ultimatum’s reception is that it is being villainized for the same things that Wanted was lionized for. You’ve likely heard of Wanted as a film starting Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy. The film bears almost no actual resemblance to the comic series, though creator Mark Millar was closely involved the film’s production. The film deals with an ancient order of assassins that are charged with keeping the world safe, no matter the cost. The comic deals with a world where super-villains have killed all the heroes off and rule supreme. The “hero” is an unabashed Eminem look-alike who learns he is the son of one of the most famous of all super-villains and the story covers his rise to power in the fraternity of bad-dudes.

Wanted as a comic is interesting… but totally disgusting. It is more violent than Ultimatum, and more crude. A villain named “Shithead” actually kills someone by pooping him to death. The hero’s main ability seems to just be that he’s really good at killing lots of people, and when he’s bored he takes to raping and killing at whim (at one point he kills everyone in a police station, Terminator-style, just because he’s in a bad mood). Some of the ideas presented in Wanted are more clever than Loeb’s Ultimatum, but the content is much more abhorrent because it is presented as a sort of fantasy life for a loser who has finally become a big shot. Wanted felt to me like it was trying to make some ironic statement about self-confidence and to poke fun at comics for the last fifty years, but in the end it felt to me like what happens when you let drunk frat guys write comics.

I enjoyed elements of Wanted, but felt it received too kind a reception. It was probably the first very popular comic to be so violent and explicit, and it was embraced. Here we are a few years later and Loeb is being crushed for what seem to be the same reasons that Wanted was praised.

Some examples:

From IGN’s Wanted review: “Wanted is a fresh, vivid and uncensored look at the world of villains.”

From Comic Book Resource’s Wanted review: “Despite all the super-villainy, raping, and territorial intrigue, Millar and Jones’s “Wanted” is about a lad whose life is dominated by the lack of a father’s love.”

From Comic Book Resource’s Ultimatum review: “At this rate, “Ultimatum” is going to be remembered as little more than a snuff film for Marvel fans.”

From IGN’s Ultimatum review: “The gruesome deaths only grow more and more ridiculous as the series draws down. Several A-List characters get killed in ways that will make you grimace. It’s a wonder Loeb is even allowed to depict this level of violence and gore in a mainstream Marvel comic.”

Wanted is great in spite of all the raping, but Ultimatum is a snuff film. Wanted is fresh and uncensored, but Ultimatum is the kind of comic that’s so violent maybe it’s unpublishable. The flip-flop in standard bothered me quite a bit.

I’m simplifying a bit, as some of the critical comments are accurate. Loeb is trying to tell a story so big that he’s forced to devote only a couple panels to major events like the death of a hero to fit it all into five issues. Ultimatum was an interesting look at the Marvel world gone a bit mad. It’s a story painted in broad strokes that is being panned because it took shots at favorite heroes, instead of going the Wanted route and slaying approximations of those heroes. It’s not for everyone, and it is probably more interesting and entertaining than it is good, but it’s certainly not deserving of the destruction it is receiving from general critics.

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Indiana Jones and the What Went Wrong

[Author’s Note: After the second paragraph, there be spoilers]

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull rubbed a great many of us the wrong way. By us, I mean Indy geeks. I count myself one of that number, but I don’t think that Indy 4 was nearly as brutal as I was led to believe it would be. I do, however, feel that the film shot just left of the mark. Not far enough off to result in an unmitigated disaster, but enough so that I was left feeling hungrier for classic Indy action than when I began the film. This was the Indy equivalent of eating nothing but celery all day. You’re taking in content, and you enjoy it while it’s happening, but there’s nothing substantial for you.

So… what did I like? For starters, there is some great flavor to the movie. Speilberg conjures up some very faithful Indy action and interactions. Old favorites make appearances. Villains get their gruesome comeuppance. The ridiculous sound effect that accompanies a punch to the jaw remains in all its original glory. Even Shia LaBeouf as Mutt (bonus points if you know why they would call him “Mutt”) wasn’t a hateful addition, though he was clearly the anchor point for the younger audience the film felt it needed to be speaking to.  The writing is decent, the film skips along despite its 2 hour run-time, the puzzles and riddles felt like Indy problems to solve. And Indy himself is, well, Indy himself. He’s a patriot and a scholar and driven enough for knowledge to help the bad guy get the info they want and to worry about how he’ll stop them after the fact. All of these things were present in the film, as they should have been.

So then what went wrong?

Sci-fi.

Indiana Jones is NOT science fiction, for starters. It is adventure. It is pulp fiction. It is supernatural. It is mythic. It is religious. It is scientific. It is NOT science fiction. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is science fiction, therefore it is not real Indiana Jones.

The core of the film deals with the discovery of an artifact that is revealed to not be a sculpture of an alien skull, but an actual alien skull. There are alien bodies shown in the film. The film ends with the uncovering of a flying saucer that vanishes into another dimension. And it all just makes things feel off somehow. Indiana Jones has always dealt with the fantastic – the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, whatever the hell was going on in Temple of Doom – but a flying saucer piloted by a crystal hive-mind alien skull that vanishes into another dimension after disintegrating an ancient South American temple? It’s just one step too far. The spectacle was too great and it became apparent as artifice.

I began to realize that my problem with the film was that it was injecting flash to distract me. I wasn’t supposed to notice that Indy was old, so it tried to distract me. Instead of weaving that into the action and making his age part of the adventure, and having him – as he should – rely on wits to get himself out of danger, the film stuck to flash and glam, and too much of that was constructed in a way that made it feel less like the classic action it should have, and more like something out of a Michael Bay film. And it’s not even the sequence of action that necessarily gave it this feel. Its the manner in which it was filmed and presented.

There was too much CGI. Too many scenes that would have otherwise felt crunchy and satisfying were made glossy and thin by computer graphics. I know you can film a car chase through dangerous territory and make it real and visceral, Spielberg. You did it 27 years ago in the original.

Hell, there are even scenes where things get on the lens. I find this to be a pretty ludicrous bit of breaking the fourth wall. If you want your film to be 3D, make it 3D. Don’t remind me that none of this is real by splashing crap digitally on a camera lens that shouldn’t be there. It’s a cheap parlor trick almost always intended as a grossout effect, and all it does is make it very apparent that there is a visual effect in play. It’s not natural, and for a film about the 1950s era, drawing attention to computer graphics being used to augment things is probably not the way to go.

Which leads me to my final point — rather than make an Indy film for the Indy fans and have Harrison Ford be the age he really is in the film, there’s a palpable feeling that the film is trying to be relevant. It doesn’t do anything quite as subtly as the previous films (parts of which are decidedly unsubtle). The era is pushed down your throat. Things are explained to you in utterly matter of fact terms even after loads of hints and clues and prodding that should have led you there on your own anyway. Hell, there are digital groundhogs doing double-takes at the start of the film. It’s just trying too hard.

The film feels as if its laboring as hard to make its points and to be itself as Harrison Ford must have been when trying to film some of the stunts. Instead of just telling a story about Indiana Jones and how age is impacting his ability to adventure and how he’s still The Man in spite of it, the movie feels as if it’s trying very hard to make everything shiny and hip and relevant. Indiana Jones isn’t about being hip. It’s about being classic. It’s the very definition of old school and the film gets so close to capturing that you can almost taste it. In the end, though, it ends up being that aging hipster that knows the fresh lingo and maybe knows a few of the dance steps, but very apparently is just out of his element.

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Up and the Power of a Consistent Theme

It should come as no surprise to anyone who watches movies these days that Pixar is basically the pinnacle of consistent filmmaking out there today. If you pass their films up because they’re cartoons, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Pixar films are very rarely, especially lately, films whose message is aimed at children (This actually would be my only critique of their films: that sometimes they’re missing both intended audiences by trying to cater to both). What Pixar offers are films with very  “mature” messages that are crafted within the framework of a cartoon for children.

It’s no surprise that most people don’t rate Pixar films in relation to other films, they do so in relation to other Pixar products. They stand apart.

Up continues this trend. The film is filled with cute moments and the kinds of characters that will entice children, but its message is one that speaks almost exclusively to an adult audience. It might not be as exclusively aimed at an older generation as The Incredibles (at its core, a film about a mid-life crisis) or Wall-E (a cautionary tale about our excesses), but Up‘s core concept deals with what it means to fulfill our life’s dreams, something that you can hardly expect a child to grasp. Note that this isn’t a story about having a dream. It’s a story about what it means to pursue and achieve those dreams.

The film seems to distill wonder with its focus on achieving the impossible mixed with a flavor of old school adventure from the 40s and 50s era of cinema and television. It also packs a ridiculous emotional punch. If someone like me was choked up no less than half a dozen times in the film, a more susceptible film-goer can expect to be in tears at least twice. Not the kind of impact you usually expect from a movie supposedly for kids.

Okay, mini-review complete. Here’s where I warn you about spoilers. They’re coming up.

A big part of why Up, and Pixar films in general, succeed is their adherence to a theme. Don’t confuse theme with setting or plot. The theme here is seeking your dreams, and what that means for one’s life. Every major, and even some minor, characters in the film embody this theme in some fashion.

Carl (the little old man) has the dream of living in Argentina, as per his deceased wife’s unfulfilled childhood hope—but once there he realizes that pursuing this dream to the exclusion of all others is an ultimately unhealthy pursuit. Carl’s wife dreamed of living south of the equator, but ended up living an entirely different sort of dream with Carl. Charles Muntz has become obsessed by his dream and it has turned him into an evil and lonely man—this is what makes him Carl’s foil. Russell has the dream of fulfilling his boy scout badge quest—but this is really just his way of seeking out the approval of the father figure he wishes was around. Even the dog, Dug, dreams of being accepted by a loving master for the kind of creature he is.

Every major character pushes the audience towards the theme and explores a facet of it. And because of the intermingling, it makes it possible to really explore variations on the theme. Carl realizes that his dream all along was adventure, and that his wife realized long before he did that their life together, mundane as it might appear on the outside, was the true adventure. He realizes that by taking Russell under his wing, he has fulfilled the dream of being a father, a dream he abandoned long ago.

All of this adds up to make the film feel very cohesive, and that’s because everything is interrelated. They’re all sides of the same construction, functioning as support for the theme which forms the film’s core content. And for anyone interested in actually writing screenplays (as opposed to just watching and appreciating), it should be very apparent by now why a clear theme like this makes a film much easier to write.

If every character has a dream and a goal of their very own, every character has its own plot. Look at that plot for each person. You need a beginning, middle and an end for each. You’ll want a couple high points and low points for each plot. So, let’s say you have 4 characters, and each of their plots has 5 major points to it (start, middle, end, 1 low point, 1 high point)… well that sounds to me like you have at least 20 scenes. Tying them all together and working in your exposition, and you’re remarkably close to having a fully realized script.

Maybe later we’ll discuss the little details that can really give your script life as well. For example, it’s not an accident that the pin that Carl get’s from his wife, and the badge that Russell is missing from his scout sash are both located in the same position, and that position is right over their hearts.

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Vicky Christina Barcelona and the Voiceover

Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen’s latest, is a pretty sharp bit of work. The film applies a sort of casually biting look at the lives of its protagonists, playing around with the notions and limitations of relationships and love.

The film follows the adventures of Vicky, a neurotic woman convinced she’s looking for a very traditional and stable sort of relationship, and Christina, a hopeful bohemian who seems to thrive on chaotic relationships, during a summer trip to Spain. Once there, the pair encounter Juan Antonio, an artist who propositions them both to become his lovers. Vicky is of course appalled and Christina of course enraptured.

As the film progresses, though, both women grow to form different attachments to Juan Antonio and his erractic and brilliant ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz in an Oscar-winning performance) that cause them to mature and evolve their views on life and love and relationships.

Woody Allen films are, all the way through, an acquired taste. They feel an awful lot like theater in their staging and dialogue and they border the preposterous at times with the scenarios that are presented. Even his more recent films that don’t feel much like traditional Woody Allen (Match Point also comes to mind), have something about them that sets them apart somehow in their presentation.

For Vicky Christina Barcelona, it’s the voiceover.

The voiceover is a much maligned bit of screenwriting technique in all the standard tomes on the subject. It breaks a principle rule for good writing, which is that the author show, rather than tell, the audience critical details. At first, it does indeed seem that Allen is abusing this conceit in his film. During the opening moments of the movie you are told, in about the same fashion as my synopsis above, all about the lives and tendencies of the two woman the film follows. It feels a lot like Allen wants you to get all these details the easy way so he can just jump off into the deep end of the pool without needing to wade his way through anything first.

Why then does Allen then take the time to have scenes of dialogue between Vicky and Christina that exist only to very clearly illustrate that they display the type of character that he has just described to you? Is he being redundant? Maybe he’s too old for this crap now? Doubtful.

The voiceover crops up periodically throughout the film… and it always is telling you something in very plain terms exactly what the film itself appears to be showing you, again in very plain terms. It’s not so much a crucial bit of exposition for the main narrative as it is a parallel narrative – just watching along with you. But to what end?

As with the breaking of any and all screenwriting tropes, it comes down to style. Allen is trying to evoke something very particular here, and the narration takes the film from being a modern talking-heads style drama and gives it a bit of classic style. It also gives a bit of a sense that you’re watching a parable play out (similar to the too-short-lived Pushing Daises on ABC).

Would the film have been better without the voiceover? Critics across the net say yes. I say it would be different. Maybe it would be better from a modern sensibility, maybe it would make more screenplay professors happy. However, all the voiceover was to Allen was another tool to evoke a particular feeling.

The moral of this particular story? Always, always, ALWAYS break the rules when it helps you say what you want to say. Know the rules first, and then ignore them frequently.

Vicky Christina Barcelona also segues into a great talk about titling your writing. The film is about four people: Vicky, Christina, Juan Antonio, Maria Elena. The film is about a complex love affair. The only other thing named in the title is a city in the country the film is set in. So before you think that the film is only, or even primarily, about a relationship between people… think about that title.

But that’s a topic for another post.

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