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Writing Advice you may be Missing

Anyone who reads my postings knows that I love film. Movie have been a part of my life as long as I can literally remember. The advent of home media, first VHS/Betamax, then DVD and Blu-rays has been heaven for the cinephile in me but it has also become a boon to my writing.

A common piece bonus material included in DVS and Blu-ray’s is the commentary track. Here writers, directors, producers, and actors will record a liver running commentary as they watch the film. Sometimes these are funny and filled with behind the antics, or peeks into how the magic of movies works. Those sort of commentary track are fun and I enjoy them, but there are commentary track where the writers and directors will spend the two or so hours talking about the story. What made them want to tell it, what it means to them, and how that approached the challenges.

If you are a writer and you are not listening to these you should. Heavens knows everyone looks at writing and stories from a different point of view, but seeing those points of views can illuminate your own, expand your vistas for crafting a story. These are lectures from professionals and all you need to do is block out a couple of hours – or more in the case of Peter Jackson and his endless Lord or the Rings running times – and soak in the teachings.

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Movie Review: Kong; Skull Island

 

The other day I was speaking with friend who also enjoys movie about Jackson’s remake of King Kong and he commented that he enjoyed the film it got back to New York. Now if you agree with that sentiment then Kong: Skull Island likely right in your wheelhouse.

The movie has the usual first act set up of meeting the characters, providing just enough depth to satisfy the requirements of a major tent-pole action film, and getting the relationships into a rough geography.

With the housework behind them then next two-thirds of the movie is action on Skull Island. Meeting fantastic beasts, being chased by monsters, the thinnest of explanations for why we haven’t seen these giant kaiju monsters before, and then wrapping all up with a message of ecology and humility.

This movie is competently crafted without glaring idiotic errors but that landed the final product, in my opinion, just okay. It was fun and engaging on the surface but it lacked the grip to hold my unbroken attention and my mind wandered.

Now as with all things your mileage may vary and I want to repeat that this is not a bad movie. I am happy I saw it, and the spectacle is enough to justify the big screen viewing. The film does more work establishing the shared cinematic universe to come than it does in servicing its own story and that’s the biggest flaw.

There is a button that follows the end credits but if you want it unspoiled do not read the title card announcing that this film is a work of fiction. (I did read it *sigh*)

Overall a fun film for giant monster fans but I’d keep to the matinee price level.

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Retire This Trope

The other night on Hulu I watched some of the movie Deep Impact. If you haven’t heard of this Earth versus Comet movie it is because it was utterly buried at the box office by that stupidly insulting example of Michael bay’s work, Armageddon. Beside show casing Elijah Wood before The Lord of The Rings, this film was a serious attempt to convey a story about a comet on a collision and the difficulty in diverting it.

Overall this film scores well in its science. It has some concept of the distances and energies involved. In fact the ship dispatched to divert the comet is powered by an Orion drive, something we had considered building; a ship that flies on a series of atomic explosions.

The movie did engage in one of the oldest trope in SF movies, the astronaut who gets separated from the craft and flies off into cold limitless space.

People, this is not the problem Hollywood would have you think it is.

Everything in space is about velocity. Velocity determines the size and period of your orbits. Go fast enough around the Earth and you are in orbit around the planet. Go faster and you may leave the planet but then you are orbiting the sun. Go a hell of a lot faster and you leave the sun’s influence and now you’re orbiting the center of the galaxy.

If you are working over the side on a spaceship lose you grip you may float away, but your velocity did not change all that much. You are still in the same orbit as the ship you left. Yeah it is out of reach but guess what you can move. With just a tiny burp of it orbital thrusters, not its main engines, and they can come and get you. The same is true if that ship is on its way to the moon, or Mars, or even the outer solar system. The difference between your new velocity and your old one, which was the same as the ships, is going to be insignificant compared to the ship’s ability to change its velocity.

But you know, I am starting to get an idea for a story…

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Mad Max: Fury Road – Black and Chrome

For Valentine’s Day y sweetie-wife gifted me with the deluxe Blu-ray for Mad Max: Fury Road which included not only tons of bonus material, which I adore, but the directors version of the film in glorious Black and White. I have spent the last few nights watching the movie in its ‘Black and Chrome’ edition.

(I saw the film in the theaters and one on Blu-ray in color so I didn’t feel too bad breaking it into thirds to watch it after my evening’s work was done.)

Much like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that I like and appreciate more with repeated viewings. The story movies at a breakneck pace, throwing character development and backstory in amid the action. I watched it this time with subtitles turn on and followed the story a little closer without losing dialog to accents or the massive noise of the extended chases. Specifically I understood the through-line arc for the character Lux a little better this go around.

The film plays beautifully in black and white. Stripped of color the stark unforgiving landscape is particularly powerful and the characters seem harder and more raw.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I couldn’t hazard to guess which version may end up my default screening, B&W or color.

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It Means What you Think, but that is not what was Meant

At one of the panels this past weekend the classic SF/Horror film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was mentioned. Naturally when the film came up people started discussing it’s message and meaning.

Of Course it is an allegory for Communism and the soul crushing power of the totalitarian state.

Of Course it is an allegory for McCarthyism and crushing power of political terror forcing everyone into the same march.

Of Course it is an allegory for Social Conventions and the crushing power of culture, particularly that of mid-20th century America to crushing people into conformity.

Which of these is correct?

Why all of them, of course. A piece of art means to you what it means. That is not to say that was its intended meaning. Various interviews have revealed the actors, director, and writers, harbored not direct allegory. Some going so far as to say they merely intended to craft a good thriller. (check that box) Do not confuse the message you take away with the artist’s intent.

A perfect example of this is the recent on-line war between John Carpenter and the Alt-Right over the meaning of his film They Live. As I mentioned in passing when I recently discussed that film here, it could be read in an anti-Semitic manner. Now if you know anything of Mr. Carpenter you know that the intended message was on attacking Yuppies, Capitalism, and Consumerism. However those of the Alt0Right saw a different theme, one that is easy to see if that us what you *want* to see.

And there is the great truth of art, everyone brings their own life experiences and filters the process through them. What you see as a clear symbol is to someone else just a jar of baby food.

When you talk about tv shows and movies and what they really meant, be wary of putting your meaning into someone else’s mouth.

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Sunday Night Movie Sadako vs. Kayako

While this is billed as my Sunday Night Movie, I started it Sunday evening but finished it Monday. After the energy expended at Condor 2017 I simply pooped out and couldn’t watch it all in one go, particularly since it is subtitled and required a greater mental focus.

I first learn of this film last year when a friend and I drove up to Los Angeles for an after evening at Universal Studios, taking in their Halloween Horror Night, and then scooting over to Hollywood for a late screening of 1979s Dawn of the Dead in 3D. (Verily that was cool.) While my companion took care of his pre-show bathroom break and concessions the trailer for this film played.

If you do not recognize the names these are the ghosts or spirits from The Ring franchise (Sadako) and The Grudge (Ju-On) (Kayako). So as you can see it is not just American that is interested in bad guys fights such as Freddy vs Jason.

Overall this was better than the aforementioned Freddy vs Jason. The cast is comprised of fairly likeable and relatable characters competently acted. The film’s action is contemporarily set and so they had to dance around a few issues since Sadako does her bad magic via a VHS tape. Also for the sake of compression, I assume, they reduced her kill curse from seven days to two.

(If you don’t recall The Ring or Ringu the Japanese original version, if you watch the tape then your phone rings and a voice tells you ‘seven days’ and when that time has passed you die. Ju-On was centered on a house where a spirit of vengeance visited violence and death on all who lived there, for this film that has been compressed to simply entering the haunted home.)

The production values are decent and there are plenty of both in your face jump scares and atmospheric scenes that rely on tension for their effect. I was particularly fascinated by an exorcism scene. It was quite interesting watching one that was non-western and not driven my a monotheistic religion.

Of course the main event for a film of this type is the throw down between the two powerful spirits. (Though at one point both are referred to as ‘ghouls’ and I wonder what the original language translated as.) On that score the big confrontation is rather spare and short but better that than overly drawn out and tiresome.

In terms of tone it borrows more from Ringu than Ju-On. It has a conventional western narrative structure rather than the sequence of incidents that Ju-On utilized. In the final resolution it leaned more in the direct of Ju-On.

I enjoyed my viewing but not enough to see a need to purchase a copy.

Sadako vs Kayako is currently streaming on Shudder.

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Movie Review: Logan

Logan is reportedly the final outing for Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier and it is fitting conclusion for the association of these two talented actors with their icon characters.

This movie is not one for the children. It is rated ‘R’ for language and violence. In the source material Wolverine is a violent character and the illustrations usually hint of the terrible carnage wreaked by his claws. For this final film the carnage is explicit. Limbs are severed and decapitations abound. However the film is not an exploitative exploration of how much gore can fit onto an IMAX screen. In fact compared to most zombie movies post Dawn of the Dead the blood and dismemberment is positively restrained.

The themes are friends, family, and the dichotomy between what life has made us into and what we choose to be. It is set in the future of the X-Men/Mutants franchise (Which is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Different studios, different film rights involved.) and for the most part the gifted mutants have vanished from the world. Logan and Charles live in hiding, the days of heroism now a thing unspoken. A mysterious aliment has weakened Logan who now makes his living as an upscale Uber-style driver. Into this reclusive life comes Laura, a laconic young girl, troubled, hunted, and with a secret. Suddenly thrust into danger and trying to refuse call to heroism Logan is forced to confront his and Charles’ past and the ghosts of their actions.

This film hardly belongs in the category of ‘superhero’ movies. It is a rich character drama drawing its power from compelling characters, a tight, taut script and terrific acting. It is no surprise that veterans such as Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, and Richard E. Grant imbue their performances with heart and nuance but throughout the film I was stunned by Dafne Keen as Laura.

Dafne tackles a part that many adult and experienced actors would find difficult. Using only her eyes she conveys a range of emotions many thespians are unable to achieve. I was reminded of the work of Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional. I hope that Ms. Keen’s career is a full, varied, and satisfying as Ms. Portman’s.

From a writer’s perspective There are a few minor flaws in the Logan. Elements of Wolverine’s mysterious illness left me with problems and some of the ‘Chekov’s Gun’ establishment was too obvious for my tastes, but these and other minor missteps are unlikely to bother people who are not regularly engaged in story construction.

This is a movie worth seeing. If you enjoy your violence loud, and in your face, then see it in IMAX, if you are sensitive to modern movies and their volume levels wait for home video as the mix is full of thumping bass, but the movie is fully worth it.

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Awards – Not Really Caring

Mind you I am happy when my friends win award, and should I ever be so lucky to be even nominated for an award I will be thrilled, but aside from those cases, awards don’t matter that much to me.

There will always be awards given to films, stories, songs, and other projects that didn’t work for me. There will always be projects that I think are heads and shoulders better than their competition that lose. (Yes I am looking at Titanic and L.A. Confidential.)

However even when projects I love lose that doesn’t mean a lot. After all the book, story, song, and movie remain unchanged. The reason I loved or admired them remains unchanged and I do not need the validation of others to make me feel good about my tastes.

So congratulations to everyone who has won an award, to those nominated, but also to those who create, fight, and keep on going without the acclaim. We are all artists and we are all in the arena.

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Pet Peeves

This is not an exhaustive list but just a couple of things I see in movies and television that irk me.

I once read a science-fiction novel where the author took the time to describe the conjoined circles view through a pair of binoculars. I very nearly threw that book across the room right there.

This is a sign that the author only knows what he sees in Hollywood movies. The point of binoculars is that they allow you binocular vision just as you have with your own eyes. You know the two eyes you have in the front of your head. When you peer through them you do not see two circles that overlap like a bad Venn diagram. You see one circle and the view has depth.

Recently I watched the Netflix period/historical drama The Crown. It’s damn good and should be watched if for no other reason than the great performances, but when they presented the correct view through a pair of binoculars I nearly shouted in triumph. It is a little thing, a tiny detail, but details are important. If you get something so basic wrong how can I trust you as a film make or story teller to get the important details right? I would love to find out which movie started this damned trope so I can curse it.

Another optical pet peeve is the view through a sniper scope. You all know the picture. A person, usually a bad guy, is holding a scoped rifle. He pulls it to his shoulder, and peers through the scope. The shot changes to a POB through the scope showing crosshairs fixed firmly on the target, if it is a bad guy you can count on the crosshairs settling right onto the target’s head. Those crosshairs are rock steady.

Bull.

Take out your cell phone and set up the camera. Focus on something distant and then zoom all the way to the subject while holding the camera/cell phone steady. Do you see how much the image moves? Up, down, side to side, it really hard to hold it steady and you certainly can’t replicate the tripod perfect shot presented as a hand held scoped rifle.

If you are making movies, or writing stories please pay attention to such things. Don’t assume that Hollywood has taught you anything factual because really you can’t trust the movies.

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Sunday Night Movie: The Caine Mutiny

Last night’s movie served a dual purpose, it functioned both as entertainment and as research. Entertainment because The Caine Mutiny has always been one of my favorite films. I dare say that I watch my Blu-ray of it more often than I do ether Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. Research because my current work in progress is on one level about a dysfunctional wardroom and how that undermines the ship’s commanding officer. Now the specifics are very different in my WIP than in the classic movie. My WIP is not about a duplicitous officer and hopefully my captain is more relatable and heroic than the poor broken Queeg.

The Caine Mutiny is one of those rare film that I find difficult to watch only a portion. Many movie I can start and stop, or back in the days of channel surfing, watch a brief bit in the middle before moving on, but that has never been the case with this movie. When I had a lasrdisc player it was one of my first purchases, and when I moved to DVDs I acquired a copy in that format as well. For several years I’ve had my Blu-ray version and the film has never looked better. (Though I have yet to see a properly projected version in an actual theater.)

Based on the fantastic novel, The Caine Mutiny is the story of the officers if the DMS Caine. (Destroyer Mine Sweeper) It is World War II and Willis Seward Keith an immature offspring of a rich family has become a newly commissioned ensign in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to the Caine, a duty station he views as a bitter disappointment, Willie discovers that the junkyard navy falls far below his expectations. Too young and too inexperienced to understand the nature of the Caine, Willie rejoices when the captain is replaced with hard-nosed, by-the-book, Captain Phillip Francis Queeg.

A change of command turns out to be the spark that lights a fire culminating in the ship nearly sinking and Willie along with another officer finding himself standing before a court-martial on charges of mutiny.

Truly one of the best films to come out of classic Hollywood, The Caine Mutiny not only is faithful for the original work, but where is seriously diverges from the text of the book serves the different medium without undercutting the themes and point of the source material.

If you have not seen this film, waste no time in finding a copy, it will be well worth your effort.

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