Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Two weeks ago I brought up several stories which I call my favorites, and that naturally brought me to the idea of influence. You hear the phrases bandied about often by any creative types–“I consider such-and-such my greatest influence”, as in “As a composer, I find Mozart and John Williams to be my greatest influences” for an example, or directors cite earlier movies that formed their interest in the silver screen.

Certainly, as a writer, I count many, many authors and stories among my influences. All writers generally do–after all, that initial exposure to tales that transport us to other worlds or realities far from our own personal experiences engender the desire in some readers to craft our own. Fredrik Pohl, Harlan Ellison, Harry Harrison, John Haldeman, Doyle, Tolkien, Lewis, Shakespeare etc. all count high on my list of literary inspirations.

But… what about other influences, such as music? Take my first example, with music above. I frequently listen to music while writing, matching the mood/tone with whatever I am trying to write. Umbra (and all of its previous iterations) came flying from my fingertips with an ample dose of Alice in Chains, early Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden pounding in my ears. For my darker fantasy stories like “The Falconer and the Wolf“, one of my favorite bands to get me in the right atmosphere is Dead Can Dance. When sketching notes for The Light of Liberty, I turned to Barry Phillips and his version of “The World Turned Upside Down” along with other American Colonial period tunes.

Are there any more? Of course there are. Many people have incorporated their likes and hobbies into their writing. Some cozy mysteries, for example, are based around knitting. My character Ennid the Havoc and his escapades are influenced by my love of MMA (that’s Mixed Martial Arts for those not yet initiated into its primal awesomeness). My interest in genetics features heavily in Clones are People Two. Even if the things we like aren’t at the forfront, we sometimes insert it in small ways. I love goats (Casey, from Umbra), I think rhinos are awesome and I smith silver (both of which will appear in The Opal Necklace, release date TBD) and I’ve an interest in raptors and falconry.

It’s all very simple–EVERYTHING can be an influence on our creativity, and EVERYTHING should be. It’s from these somewhat disparate ideas and influences that some of our richest “juices” flow.

 

 

Quite recently, a writer friend who comes to me for advice told me that he is glad I have standards. I laughed, but denied that the standards were necessarily mine. They’re not, in fact, but the culmination of millennia of oral tradition and tales of heroes. Good stories hit on touchpoints, on lows and highs as they run their characters through the wringers of conflict, and games of emotional tug-of-war.

Stories that are stories have a basic skeleton, or hangar upon which they hang. I can liken this to fashion design. At the minimum, stories consist of words strung into sentences, piled into paragraphs. Think of the words/paragraphs as the fabric. If you are making a dress, for example, you have to follow a certain format—essentially a long garment that covers some fraction of the torso with some type of bodice or halter, of varying lengths of beyond-the-ankles to just covering the crotch.1 That statement itself implies that even though there is a basic structure, the format can encompass many shapes subject only to the designer’s imagination.2 Fashion designers learn the basics of dress construction and then learn how to play with the rules and create bizarre monstrosities only appealing to Lady Gaga… but it’s still a dress. irisvanherpencapriole-0780-682x1024[1].jpg

The writer is no different. He must know the rules and know them well before he can break them.

What is the framework, or hangar, for a story? Well, they have to have beginnings, middles and ends. All good stories have them. But just having these does not a story make. I can tell you about my day, which begins with me waking up, brushing my teeth, continues to the middle where I have lunch (sometimes by myself and sometimes I go out with my co-workers), or the end where I brush my teeth and go to bed. Is that a story? Not really. Nothing exciting happens, nothing that would make anyone feel that their time wasn’t wasted by me relating nothing more than a series of events.

So what else does it need? I hinted at it already—something exciting. Let’s say that instead of waking up and continuing my routine as normal, I had to stop at the bank and on that very day, the bank was robbed while I was in it. That’s exciting, sure (not that I ever want that to happen while I am at the bank, although I couldn’t tell you the last time I was actually in one). But okay, there was a bank robbery and I was there.

The story needs something else. It needs something unexpected to happen. That element, if nothing else, can become the whole reason the story exists, the single point on which the whole story hangs. Let’s keep the above scenario and set it up. Say I am someone of strict routine, who is never late and never varies from that safe, comfortable routine. Only this morning I realized I forgot to deposit the paycheck in the bank and I wrote a check for the mortgage and mailed it yesterday, so if I don’t get funds in the account it will mess everything up. So I am irritated, because I’ve got to stop at the bank (which further messes up my routine and ticks me off even more), and then the customer in front of me is taking a while and leaning in to talk to a distraught-looking teller, and I just have to get moving, and when I vent my frustration uncharacteristically, the customer in front of me turns around just enough to show me his gun, and instead of running or screaming like a frightened little social justice snowflake at the sight of a firearm, I pick up the teller’s ten pound marble nameplate, whack the guy on the head and step over his unconscious body so I can deposit my check with the flabbergasted teller and get on my way.

Where does a story like that get started? It could start with the routine, to establish that I am a creature of habit who is likely to fly off the handle and do odd things when I experience disruptions, reiterating that the routine is tantamount to my happiness, and therefore the desire is to remain in it.3 It could start with my discovery of that item that changes the direction of my day. It has a middle where the tension builds as I come across the bank robber, which also lends itself to a hint at what the twist will be like—something going on with the money in the bank. It ends when I’ve dealt with him and taken steps to repair the normalcy I crave.

Plenty of writers and those who teach creative writing will tell me I am wrong, or I haven’t covered all of the criteria. That’s okay, we all have different ways of seeing the same thing. I will recommend several of these learned individuals who have published good frameworks for stories. They are:

  • Joseph Campbell’s works. Must-reads, all of them, for any writer.campbell-joseph-the-hero-with-a-thousand-faces[1].jpg
  • Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters. Not so much for the characters, but the priceless section in the second half of the book on the Masculine (based heavily on Campbell) and Feminine Journeys.thN6LAS0EA.jpg
  • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Yes, it’s a book on screenwriting, but a quick, fun and informative read.save-the-cat[1].jpg

The last two especially have been priceless tools for me. I don’t necessarily write to their format, but when I’ve hit a slump or something feels like it’s missing in my story, I will hold up the scenes to their framework and I usually see that they are skewed to one end or the other (or both!) and ask myself if the “stages” they spell out lend any ideas to new scenes that would help tie the bookends together. I’ve never come away not having a new scene or two that move the story more coherently. Next time you write or read a story (or watch a movie) that seems to drag, or be too talky, or seems incoherent, it could be because it’s missing something from the framework that helps to make it a true story and not just a series of loosely-related or random events.

(By the way, years ago I ran my tied-for-first favorite movie of all time,4 The Road Warrior, through Schmidt’s/Campbell’s Masculine Journey and the story rocks it, dead on. Can’t get any better than that.)

1Originally I wanted to say that reached to the thighs but modern fashions have shortened the dress to some fairly revealing lengths… or not to length, as the case would be.

2I have to wonder from where some of their imaginations spring…

3For the record, I am not OCD. At least not most of the time. My closet is about the only place where I have standards. No wire hangers. Nothing but black hangers, all the same shape and size. Call me ‘hangerist’ if you like.

4What’s the other? Fury Road, of course. George Miller is a master director, and a lot can be learned about storytelling from him.

DISCLAIMER: Unapologetic Spoilers (If you read on, don’t blame me. You’ve been warned)

My obsession with the post-apocalypse began decades ago with George Miller’s genre-defining films, and the Wasteland and Fallout video games. Enough so, that last year (2014) I published two collections that feature some post-apoc stories (“Treasure” in Morsels and the “Ain’t No Coffee” chapter of Melange[1]) as well as a PA mystery novel, Umbra.

They pale in comparison to the mighty prosthetic strength of George Miller.

Completely skeptical in many arenas, I had been hearing about Fury Road for years, when it was an on-again, off-again project for the Happy Feet / Witches of Eastwick / Babe, Pig in the City director. He explored anime as a possible avenue, and there were brief rumors about Shia LeBouf taking the role of Max’s kid (I’m glad he failed that experiment with Indiana Jones instead). I also wasn’t sure what to make of a Mad Max who wasn’t going to be played by Mel Gibson. Remake after remake shows they don’t often get better, and most of the time are worse for all of the gimmicks and none of the story-meat.

So, I watched the trailers, and wasn’t completely turned off. Good sign.

First, the movie NEVER LETS UP. There are scarce moments to breathe, and the “slow” points in the movie don’t really drop its pace. Like downshifting, but the car is still rolling a pace that could snap your neck if you braked too hard. Except for an extremely short introduction in the very beginning (rather like The Road Warrior, but without the montage) you are dumped into the chase. Period. Miller is a master of showing, not telling, with only one very tiny, practically gasped “info-dump”. Otherwise, you glean the narrative organically as the story unfolds through action. This IS a car/rig movie, however, so those of you who just wanted to see souped-up, weaponized and apocalyptisized (yes, I just made that up) versions of vintage cars, look no further.

It also gives no quarter—just when you thought you came up for air, you find yourself smothered in dust cloud. Not everyone gets the happy ending, and one of the most heart-breaking moments in the movie comes in one of these gasps.

Anyway…

Storytellers and directors, take note: THIS is the way to do strong women in movies. Don’t insert them where they don’t belong just to 1) appeal to a young female audience and 2) bring sex incidentally into a film. Not that there’s any sex involved, at least not overtly, and not in the act of pleasure kind of way. Mostly, it’s for procreation. Or lack of. (the chastity belts worn by the brides are positively feral looking, although I think I would have kept it on until I reached my destination. Talk about your rape deterrant!). Believe it or not, there is a tiny romance subplot between a bride and one of the half-life War boys, and it’s handled a little too roughly to start, but it “moves” into its own. But the women here are strong, supportive and determined to escape and survive without having to be glammed up to do it. I could easily see myself as one of the Vuvalini (assuming I would want to survive in a post-apocalypse).

A few gimmicky moments exist to play up on the 3D version of the film (most notably the shot near the end with the guitar and the flying steering wheel), but these can be forgiven. George Miller always did have a little fun in his films, with the odd juxtaposition of the ultra-violent and quirky humor (see the exchange between Papagallo and the Mechanic).

Was there a soundtrack? Yes, there was, but the frenetic energy is so pervasive that the “music” is lost. Except for one well-placed, drop-of-the-bass dub invasion. Thanks, Junkie XL.

There are plenty of moments that call back the older movies, such as when Max, wielding a short-barreled side-by-side shotgun goes to blow some guy’s hand off and the round fizzles.[2] There is a moment when one of the brides is playing with the innards of a music box.[3] Hugh Keays-Byrne, as everyone who knows Mad Max knows, played the Toecutter in that film.[4]

Toecutter2-1

There’s even a momentary, overt nod to another director’s film, The Dark Crystal, by having people on long stilts very much reminiscent of the landstriders ridden by Jen and Kira (don’t have a still from MM:FR, so if you want to see it, BUY A TICKET!!!!).

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Count on George Miller to introduce characters with medical issues and/or prosthetics. We know the post-apoc “look” which he created in The Road Warrior went on to infect 80’s hair bands with the feathers and football gear as armor, but his inclusions called on his former career as an emergency room physician. In Mad Max it was the young cop forced to use the electrolarynx after his chase of the Nightrider leaves him with a shard of windshield glass in his throat. In the second, the most notable is the Mechanic, not confined to a wheelchair but held aloft by a cherry-picker like device cobbled together to get him around the equipment. In the third, there is Master-Blaster, a duo whose brain makes up for his lack of stature, and the brawn of which he rides to make up for his weakness for which he serves (and loves) paternally. Then, there is this movie, when it becomes a staple. Imperator Furiosa is the first notable, with her prosthetic arm, and Immortan Joe of course, but then there are the myriads of those with tumors and missing limbs, etc.

Tom Hardy’s Max is an extremely worthy successor to Mel Gibson’s Officer Rockatansky.[5] There’s more than a little nod to Bane there, George, in his and Immortan Joe’s get-ups.[6] Enough said.

latest Hugh-Keays-ByrneImmortan-Joe-Mad-Max-Fury-Road

So, this one is already going to be on my shelf the moment it is released on Blu-Ray.

AND… I have heard there is already a second/fifth one planned, called Mad Max: The Wasteland. I, for one, am looking forward to it

 

 

[1] Which are available for free on Smashwords, and possibly Amazon if they caught up. Read them and let me know what you think!

[2] From The Road Warrior, during the rig battle, when Max discovers the shell he picked up in the beginning of the movie from the dead man on the “Meek Shall Inherit” truck is a dud.

[3] Also from The Road Warrior, and also during the beginning after the battle with Wez, when he finds the music movement and later gives to the Feral Kid.

[4] Calling up of course that George Miller borrows actors from his own movies as well. I address this in another post, here.

[5] That name shows up, by the way, in House of God, Samuel Shem’s novel about a teaching hospital. George Miller finished medical school before he became a director, so might have some interest in reading that novel. Coincidence? I leave you to decide.

[6] Then again, isn’t Bane a little more “Road Warrior” than “Batman” anyway?

So, yes, I know the movies isn’t exactly this summer’s blockbuster, but when I read back over some of my old posts from a different site, I noticed a glaringly obvious snafu.  I promised a review of The Book of Eli when it came out, but I never delivered.

Well, ‘never’ is such an absolute term.  And I am here to rectify my error and nullify that ‘never’.

The Book of Eli stars Denzel Washington as Eli, most often referred to as ‘The Walker’ for the duration of the movie (in fact, his name is said only once, and is written once on a tag and carved into stone).  Mila Kunis plays Solara, the girl who becomes his sidekick by circumstances addressed in the film.

Post-Apoc, this baby takes the cake, eats it and bakes us another one.  The visuals in this movie capture all of the bleak and decaying landscape fans of PA and games like Fallout and Wasteland could ever desire.  One particular scene of Eli peering up at the broken, curving highway directly recalls similar images from Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland.

The music was very hit or miss for me.  If anyone’s read my review of The Road, they would know that I favor a ‘less is more’ soundtrack for films like this.  Part of the scoring with the languid, melancholy cello seemed perfect, like endless drifting.  Too much of the heavier ‘rock-like’ music felt invasive.  The insertions of other music via the iPod or the radio felt right, and also seemed like something pulled from Fallout (I especially loved the ‘soothing’ song, ‘Ring My Bell’.  Proved this film had a sense of humor, too.)  Fans of Fallout 3 will also find a familiar face (voice) but I won’t spoil that.

I generally love anything Denzel involves himself in, and this film is not an exception to that.  Not a huge fan of Mila Kunis, but she didn’t grate on me in this film, although her character didn’t develop as much as I’d like.

SPOILER ALERT:

The ending image bothered me in that it seemed too amorphous.  I would have liked to see a complete circle happen in this story.  Having her take some of the Bibles with her would have given the sense of completion.  Eli brought the Bible to the place he intended, and now she is taking it (them) away, on another trip, to distribute.

END SPOILER ALERT:

In all, the only gripe I had with The Book of Eli was a very personal one: some of the images I found in the movie were ones I had already written into a very early draft of Umbra: A Post-Apocalyptic Mystery.  Some things that I conjured up seemed too familiar, too similar and so I felt forced to abandon those particular scenes and characters I had grown to love for fear of being labeled a plagarist.  Someone may still point out that a few of the ones I left in were still enough to evoke those similarities between the two, but for some reason or another, I couldn’t give them up, and they stay, albeit as modified as I could bear to change them.  In a very odd way, I suppose it’s flattering.  After all, the movie proved that some of the ideas I came up with would work, and work well.  (This happened to me quite a few times, sadly enough, while writing other stories during my childhood and early teenage years, when I began to think that someone was copying ideas from my brain.  At least that’s the only logical explanation.  I will just say that one of the Predator stories, as told by Dark Horse comics, is frighteningly close to ideas I developed in unpublished fan fiction.  Cree~py.)

Overall, I liked the movie. 4/5 Mushroom Clouds.

The end of the week, I mean, and the beginning of something altogether different. Kind of like the end of the world (as we know it) isn’t going to be the end of everything per se. To quote Aslan, it is only the beginning. But, as the typical workweek goes, the end is near (or nigh, if you prefer) and now it’s time for the fun to begin: the Weekend Media Review.

How could I possibly start this Weekend Media Review posting without mentioning my favorite movie of all time, The Road Warrior. Directed by George Miller (the same guy who brought us The Witches of Eastwick and Babe. Yes, that Babe.) this movie gave birth to the iconic look for the post-apocalypse (along with the punk movements, or is it the other way around?) for decades to come. The Road Warrior also raised the stakes in the car chase scenes, throwing bevies of cobbled road-rejects together -along with an innovative sky chase with the quirky Gyro Captain. Chase scenes in this movie weren’t just for the thrill of speed or just to get away from the bad guy, but they became central to the subplot of the survival of the people in the “village.” A need for speed that transcends – imagine that. This film, admittedly, could have been placed in a western setting*, with a town’s fight for survival because of the one commodity they owned, but we wouldn’t have had those fabulous punks and super-adrenaline chase scenes. Horses are beautiful creatures, and they’re not that expendable. So it’s excused. And George Miller needed a segue for Beyond the Thunderdome. And Fury Road, if it ever gets made as a real movie and not as anime.

What about Max? “Mad” Max Rockatansky already devolved into a heartless killing machine in Mad Max, but in this film, we see him follow the path of the Hero and rise above the self-centered anti-social ex-cop. Miller’s storyline fits the pattern unabashedly of the three-act character growth story.

Act I: Max runs around doing his own thing until the Gyro Captain challenges him to get what Max thinks he wants more than anything else: more fuel (literally, more fuel to keep him going in his old lifestyle, to run the wild roads by himself and stay away from the bad guys). Faced with the challenge, he also is forced to face something else – namely, his own self and his motivations. The people of the town ask him if that is what he really wants – to continue on his pointless crusade of “days go by” and he blows them off. While he experiences a little success in getting the tanker for the people of the town through the baddies’ blockade, all he manages to do is get himself back into trouble with enemies who have all the more reason to hold a grudge. Then when these people come to his aid, he finally realizes No Man is an Island and decides to help them. What does he get for it? The realization they used him as the proverbial red herring. The old Max, the Max of Mad Max, born of vengeance, disappears. Suddenly, he’s laughing at himself, and the pre-friends-and-family-brutalized-and-murdered Max is back.

The Road Warrior, while following the character growth structure so well, manages to create an interesting juxtaposition of the “world upside down” style. Most movies depict “life as usual” and drop an unwitting character into a situation where he/she rises above their everyday selves to become a hero when events turn a little crazy so they can return to their “normal” world. In Miller’s story, nuclear war distorted what is normal and made anarchy the reigning queen of the day. The “upside down” is where Max encounters a village still governed by order and civility, nothing like what he became used to in the outback.

Miller’s characters are over-the-top bizarre, including his good guys (note: Miller was a medical doctor before he became a director, and his movies tend to include at least one character with some type of medical issue, such as the man in the wheelchair in this one, or the cop in Mad Max forced to use the electrolarynx after the accident which slit his throat). As stated previously, the look of the film is groundbreaking and everyone that came after with something even slightly post-apoc lifted from The Road Warrior. Weird Science not only borrowed the gestalt of the character Wez, they even lifted the same actor to parody himself. Even Wells’ character in Commando draws from it.

Besides all of the above analysis, The Road Warrior is just a damn fine movie, a great flick to watch with your girlfriend on a Friday night. Well, maybe. That is, if your girlfriend is like me.

Meltdown Café: 10/10

IMDB: 7.6/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Flixster: 75%

*Note: Vernon Wells (Wez) sports a mullet mohawk, wears chaps and flaps with his arse free to the wind, shoots (cross)bow bolts and rides a motorcycle with his not-so-‘squaw’ behind him. Tell me that isn’t lifted and tweaked right from a Western. Go on, tell me.

(Originally published on The Meltdown Cafe 7 AUG 2009