Mel’s movie madness, September 2015 edition

I just checked, and my last edition of Mel’s movie madness was a year ago. Yup. I’m a movie-watching machine (self-deprecation mode engaged).

Despite my lack of movie-watching prowess, I watch movies like I read books and watch television series (Series discoveries will be coming up later in the fall season once I’ve had a chance to watch a few of the new and returning shows).

So with each of these wee summaries (HERE BE SPOILERS) I’ll be offering takeaways for the working writer.

American Ultra

Phil and I decided to have a date night last weekend and I wanted to see American Ultra. We’d heard decent reviews from a couple of our trusted sources, Richard Crouse of Canada AM, and Eli Glasner of the CBC, and decided to give it a try.

It was supposed to be dinner and a movie, but ended up being a movie and dinner deal because of the timing of the shows. The theatre was practically empty because it was a long weekend. It was practically perfect.

For those of you who don’t know, American Ultra takes the premise of such movies as The Manchurian Candidate, the Bourne series, and Conspiracy Theory, and transplants it into stoner culture.

It might be a myth, a legend, or the underpinnings of a government conspiracy, but there’s this thing out there called the MK Ultra program. The CIA supposedly used experimental procedures and drugs to control the minds of American and Canadian citizens.

It’s an enduring fascination, judging by the number of movies that have been made about it.

Mike Howell just wants to work at the local convenience store, get high, and work himself up to propose to his girlfriend Phoebe. He saved up and wanted to make the ultimate romantic gesture by proposing to Phoebe in Hawaii, but he suffers debilitating panic attacks whenever he tries to leave his hometown of Liman, VA.

Mike knows he’s fucked up, in more ways than one, but one night, a strange woman comes into the store, repeats several cryptic phrases to Mike, and then leaves.

Shortly thereafter, Mike notices two men messing with his old beater, and when he asks them to get away from his car, they attack him. They have knives and body armour. All Mike has is his lunch—a noodle cup—and a spoon.

Shenanigans ensue.

Because this one’s still in the theatres, I don’t want to get too spoilery here.

I enjoyed the movie thoroughly.

Takeaway: There’s nothing new under the sun, but you can give a tired premise new life by changing one critical piece of the puzzle.


I’ve heard the complaints. It was hella long. It was boring. It was all kinds of crazy and implausible.

I loved it, though.

To me, Interstellar had the same feeling as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Contact, both epic science fiction movies, and both all kinds of crazy and implausible.

I watched it with Phil (at home), and he warned me that he would be screaming at the screen before long, as he had with Gravity, which I have not yet watched. He didn’t, though. In fact, he said that the movie took the same liberties that many of the classic science fiction authors took, and that it was, by and large theoretically sound if not factually so 😉

The premise is that Earth is dying and it’s taking humanity with it. In school, everyone is expected to become a farmer, because, though the world’s population is significantly reduced, one by one, all of our staple crops are dying off. We’re down to corn, and even that crop won’t last long.

Science and scientific achievements are no longer encouraged, and history has been rewritten so that space travel was all a hoax concocted during the cold war to force the enemies of America to waste their time and money on trying to win a space race that didn’t exist.

A widowed former NASA pilot, Cooper, farms with his father-in-law, son, and daughter, Murphy. Early on in the movie, Murphy asks her dad why he named her after something bad (the implication: the other kids have been teasing her about it). Cooper clarifies and explains that Murphy’s Law isn’t that something bad will happen, it’s that anything that can happen, will. Epic moment of FORESHADOW.

Murphy’s gotten into trouble at school for fighting with the other kids and not toeing the line with regard to the accepted view of the space program. She’s also trying to figure out why the books on the shelf in her room keep falling.

Eventually, a dust storm reveals that it’s not a poltergeist (Murphy’s theory), but gravity being used to send messages. Cooper deciphers the message—a series of coordinates—and they’re off on an adventure.

The coordinates take Cooper and Murphy to the vestiges of NASA, who have been trying to come up with a way to save humanity. Plan A is a massive space station that would theoretically save most of Earth’s population as well as frozen specimens of animal and plant embryos. Plan B is to investigate a number of planets that can be accessed through a stable wormhole that has mysteriously appeared near Saturn.

Cooper is recruited for the mission, his son takes over the farming operation, and Murphy—resenting her father’s departure—ends up being inducted into NASA as a theoretical physicist, helping to solve the problem of getting Plan A off the ground.

Despite the tragedies that ensue, Interstellar is a hopeful story about survival, perseverance, and love.

Takeaway: I can sit through a complex, two-plus-hour epic, as long as the pay off doesn’t leave me on an ultimate downer. I’ve realized recently that this is how I like my books, too (and how I write them), long and complex, replete with tragedy and triumph.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel’s done better with the Captain America series than it has with some of its other offerings recently.

The big question here is: who can you trust? This is a big problem for Steve, because he grew up in another age in which trust of authority was ingrained and the delineation between the good guys and the bad guys was clear.

S.H.I.E.L.D. turns out to be an ends-justify-the-means kind of organization. Hydra has turned Buckey into a brutally efficient assassin, and Steve struggles to do what’s right in the face of the enemies, and frenemies, all around him.

Takeaway: Even if your protagonist is Mr. (or Ms.) Perfect, tear out the underpinnings of their values and see how they manage. This is just another way of saying that we authors love to torture our characters, but you knew that already, didn’t you, clever people?

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, part 1

Last year, I’d seen Catching Fire and said I wasn’t really impressed. The second instalment was an iteration of the first, with the stakes raised a little more. It was basically about getting Katniss from competing in the hunger games to the rebel base in District 13.

Mockingjay, part 1, however, was better. It was about how Katniss, after having been broken by the games, starts to rebuild. And of course, as she seems to be making headway, she’s broken again.

I thought it was interesting how events played out in this movie and will probably see the next one, just to say I have. I’ve only read the first book in the series, though. I’ll eventually get there, but since they’re sitting on my shelf, there’s no urgency at the moment.

Katniss’s initial goal, to protect Prim, is presented again, this time not as an alternate Tribute for whom Katniss voluteers, but as one of many refugees from the districts that have found their way or been taken to District 13.

The real sacrifice in this movie is Peta, tortured and brainwashed into a blind hatred of Katniss and all she stands for. Though he’s retrieved from the Capitol, he’s drastically changed, perhaps forever.

It could be argued that the sacrifice has become all of Panem outside the Capitol, but Peta is a very concrete symbol of what will happen to the people of Panem if President Snow has his way.

Takeaways: You can only have your protagonist at the mercy of external forces for so long. She has to act. Also, you can’t use the same motivation repeatedly without that motivation losing its power. It has to change. That’s what I think was bothering me about Catching Fire, ultimately. Weak sauce.

The Maze Runner

This is another YA dystopian novel/series that I have not read, but I was curious to see what it was about.

The premise: a boy with no memories is sent to live in a compound surrounded by a giant maze. The other boys who have preceded him all live in the Glade in fear of the reavers, fearsome, robotic monsters that live in the maze and hunt anyone stuck inside it overnight.

Thomas eventually remembers his name but, in short order, breaks every rule of Fight Club the Glade there is. He runs into the maze without authorization. He manages to kill one of the reavers and rescue one of the maze runners. He won’t shut up if he thinks he’s right.

Rather than punish him, as many of the other Gladers want, Alby, the leader of the Gladers, makes Thomas a Maze Runner.

Then, the unthinkable happens. A girl is sent to the glade and with her a message: this is the last one EVER.

So, of course, Thomas decides he’s going to figure out how to get everyone out of the Glade and the Maze, despite a swarm of reavers released from the maze to kill them all.

What could possibly go wrong?

Though I saw the denouement coming, the movie was entertaining.

Takeaway: If nothing else, be entertaining. This is something I may have to work on. I tend to the grim side of dark in my novels. Unrelenting has been used to describe my work o.O

I’ve seen other movies in the past year. Dark Shadows (campy, but not challenging), Frankenweenie (sweet, but disturbing), and a number of others that have failed to make much of an impression on me. Rest assured, I’ll share anything from which I’ve gleaned some Writerly Goodness.

That’s it for this week.

Hope the coming week is full of all kinds of Writerly Goodness 🙂

Mel's Movie Madness