Monday, December 30, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club (a movie review post)

I heard this interview with Matthew McConaughey on NPR a while back about how his family lost a lawsuit because he won the most attractive award (or some such) his senior year of high school. [It's an amusing story about his early high school issues with acne.] You would never be able to tell that from the way he looks in Dallas Buyers Club.
Seriously, McConaughey looks awful, and that's saying a lot considering who he is. He looks like he's wasting away, which is appropriate to the character of Ron Woodroof, who is dying of AIDS.

In the 80s, when I grew up, we were going to die of one of two things:
1. "Russia" (in quotes because it wasn't really Russia; it was the USSR) was going to destroy the world in nuclear fire (or a computer mistake was. It was probably 50/50 which direction that would go).
2. We were all going to die of "the AIDS."

Dallas Buyers Club completely captures the horror of discovering having HIV in the 80s and the prejudice that went with it. [Like when I was in middle school and all of my friends told me (completely seriously) that I was going to die because I sat in the same chair as someone with AIDS that had visited our classroom.] McConaughey is absolutely brilliant. The wail he releases in his car once he has actually confronted what's going on is... I have no other word than chilling.

Seriously, I have never thought much of McConaughey other than that he's mostly a pretty boy that can memorize lines. He's never stood out to me as more than someone with a charming smile, but, in this, he is amazing. His willingness to destroy his body for the part rivals anything Christian Bale has ever done, and he brings a stellar performance along with it. If he doesn't get best actor for this role, it will be a huge injustice.

Jared Leto's performance is also incredible as the fictional conglomeration character Rayon. The relationship between Woodroof and Rayon is demonstrative of Woodroof's changing views as he formed relationships in the community suffering from the same fate as he.

AIDS and the fear of AIDS doesn't carry with it the same weight as it used to, and I don't think people growing up in the 90s and later have the same understanding of HIV as people who went through the 80s when it suddenly became an epidemic. Safe sex has become normative, at least, the idea of it has. Prior to the 80s and HIV, the idea of using "protection" during sex was mostly to prevent unwanted pregnancies. At least, that's my perception of it.

At any rate, Dallas Buyers Club is a powerful movie, the most powerful movie I've seen in a long time, and I highly recommend it. It might be the best movie of the year, but I don't think it will get the Oscar for it.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Goodreads Says I Suck

Goodreads called the other day... Okay, so "they" didn't call; they just sent me an email. Yeah, sure, goodreads sends emails everyday, but this one was different. This one was an update about how many books I'd read in 2013.

Goodreads told me I suck.

I barely read more than a book a month in 2013 and some of those were short! It's not up to my standards at all. At all. And I actually feel quite bad about it.

But figuring out where to squeeze in reading time, lately, has been difficult, to say the least. Especially since school started in the fall. I mean, I started The Casual Vacancy back in, like, March (according to goodreads, which just taunts me with this information), and I haven't finished it yet! It hasn't taken me so long to read a book since I read Dracula back during college (but that was because it was during spring semester, and I had a lot of other reading to do). And it's not like I'm not enjoying it; I am. It's very intricate and interesting, BUT! It's my bedtime book (because I have it as a dictionary-sized hardback, and I don't like to lug those around with me), and, basically, by the time I go to bed these days, the thought of reading isn't even in my head. In fact, there are rarely any coherent thoughts left in my head. [Okay, there's one string of coherent thoughts in my head at bedtime, but they are not polite, and they are all aimed at the cat and what I'm going to do to him if he wakes me up. Which he always does. Every night. More than once. (Does anyone want a pair of cat slippers?)]

As a total aside, I think a pair of cat slippers with the head of the cat at the front of the slipper would be exceedingly cute. Of course, you'd need two cats for that. The other option is that one foot would have the head of the cat and the other would have the... well... the place I want to kick the cat every night when he wakes me up.

No, I'm not bitter at all.


I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions. At all. I hate that whole thing (and I'm pretty sure I posted about that before, so I'm not going into it again). However, I do have the intention of figuring out how to work in more consistent reading time into my schedule, because what I've been doing just isn't cutting it. Specifically, I want to read at least one indie book a month. Even at one a month I won't be reading them as fast as I add them, but I need to start making progress into the... oh, my... triple digit library on my Kindle app. I don't think I'd realized I had that many until I checked. And that's just the indie books, because I do still read traditionally published books, too.

And that's about as close to a resolution as I'm going to get. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

12 Years a Slave

I grew up in Louisiana. The best thing I've ever had to say about that is that I was not born there. Fortunately, though, in having to grow up in Louisiana, I did at least grow up in the best part of the state. Well, the least Louisiana-ish part of the state. And I went to the best high school in the state (which is still the best high school in the state the last time I checked). At the time I went there, at a time when Louisiana was ranked around 47 in education, my high school was one of the top ranked high schools in the nation. That's an aberration that no longer exists.

All of that to say that my educational experience was in no way typical of the area in which I lived and, actually, not typical to most of the nation as a whole. At least not at that time.

And all of that to say that the evils of slavery were strongly impressed upon us, and I picked up a firm belief that all men should be treated equally. At the time, I thought these things were normal for all people; it wasn't until later (only a couple or few years, actually) that I realized that a belief in equality is not a universal belief. In fact, it's a minority belief.

With all of that in mind, it was somewhat difficult to sit through 12 Years a Slave, which is set in Louisiana.
And not just set in Louisiana; being a true story, that's where it actually happened. And with that comes the acknowledgement that a lot of the beliefs displayed in the movie are still very much prevalent. That makes me sad. I mean, I grew up around people that routinely referred to unemployed African Americans as "porch monkeys" or "porch niggers" and knew plenty of people that believed "blacks" would be better off if they were still slaves.

Let me state explicitly at this point that I grew up in what was probably the least racist part of Louisiana and Louisiana is probably not the most racist state in the south, although Louisiana did do a good job of trying to elect a KKK dude as governor in the early 90s. That still horrifies me, especially so considering that David Duke got the majority of the white vote, something he claimed as a victory.

12 Years a Slave is possibly the most brutal movie about slavery I've ever seen. It's unflinching in its portrayal of the inhumanity involved in selling slaves and the attitude of them being nothing more than just, basically, livestock. This is summed up no better than a line delivered by Mistress Ford to a female slave just separated from her children, "You'll forget about your children soon enough," as if she was a dog being separated from her pups. Of course, Eliza did not forget about her children.

However, as brutal as the film is, it is very much detached from the emotion of the things that are happening in most circumstances. You see the horror, but you don't really feel it. In that, it's almost like watching a documentary. It's more clinical than visceral, a drawback for a movie like this, and I'm not sure what causes the disconnect. It's not a lack in the quality of the acting.

Chiwetel Ejiofor does a great job of bewilderment after he's kidnapped at the beginning of the movie. He make us believe in the unreality of his situation. At least, it's unreal from his perspective. Solomon Northup was, after all, born a free man and the idea that he's been taken into slavery is a bit beyond his conception. The problem, I think, with the movie overall is that Ejiofor never really seems to believe in the situation he's in. It's as if every moment he's waiting to wake up, and that may have been what made me feel removed from the action of the movie. I'm not sure that's all of it, but I know that's some of it.

Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, is completely "within" his character, Edwin Epps. Fassbender is not someone I've thought much of as an actor thus far. Not that I've thought he was bad, he's just been someone I've mostly shrugged off as, "eh, what's the big deal?" But he did a great job as Epps. He was completely believable as cruel and erratic. And Sarah Paulson, who played his wife, was wonderful(ly horrible) as his cold, bitter wife.

Many of the other actors were also quite good in their smaller roles. Giamatti, Cumberbatch, and Pitt were more than adequate, but their roles didn't require anything more of them than to be the kind of characters they frequently are. Pitt, in particular, seems to have chosen hos role specifically (he did produce it) to deliver the message he wanted to deliver, and he fit well in that part. Paul Dano was also quite good. Actually, Dano is good enough that I always have a hard time remembering who he is when I see him on screen. He seems to gravitate toward parts that are kind of slimy, but he fits so well into them, that he mostly disappears.

The most unsatisfactory part of the movie, though (and this is kind of spoilery, but, if you have any grasp of racial history in the United States, it shouldn't be anything unexpected or surprising), is the bad guys go unpunished. Of course, this is because the bad guys went unpunished, so it's more that it's an unsatisfactory part of history; no fault of the movie. It does, however, stir up feelings over the injustice of how Northup was treated. That's actually a positive aspect of the movie, because you should feel that Northup was treated unjustly. He was treated unjustly.

It was a good movie but not one that I felt was great. There's almost no way it won't get a best picture nomination, but I don't think it's going to win. I don't think it ought to win. From a movie standpoint, it was just missing... something. Something ineffable, I guess. That doesn't make it a movie you shouldn't see, though. Evidently, the message that all men should be treated equally is still a message that needs to be delivered.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Tree Skinner

Once the tree is home, it still has to be skinned and dressed and all of that, and that stuff is still my job.
The tree before skinning:
And after:
(You can't really see it, but the goofy limb is right there in front.)
Then, it has to be dressed:
(Yes, we have stacks of books lying around. Always.)
(And, yes, those are glowing peppers on the tree. That's how hot they are.)

Once it's dressed, it's time for the fun part, the decorating. That means a tree decorating party. The kids love the tree decorating party because it means cheese ball and sparkling cider and all sorts of fun foods (this year it meant chocolate-orange cookies). Mostly, it means cheese ball. And decorating. There's nothing better than decorating with cheese fingers, let me tell you! (They don't really do that, not anymore, but there used to be the occasional cheese print on the ornaments, especially the glass ones.)

We have a good selection of the typical glass ball ornaments, but we don't use many of them anymore in all actuality. Our collection of funky/quirky ornaments has grown too large, especially with the recent addition (last year) of Lego Star Wars "planets." I say "planets" because:
And "that's no moon," either. Here are some more of the planets, a bunch of hand-made ornaments, and a couple of dinosaurs:
Because what tree is complete without dinosaurs? Answer: none!

In the end, it's a beautiful mess of chaos, and, I suppose, that's rather what it's like living here.

Or, you know, whatever holiday it is you celebrate.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Are You Being Hustled?

Some of these things actually happened.

But probably not many of them. At least not in any way close to the presentation in American Hustle

That doesn't stop it from being an excellent movie, though.

It's one of the few movies I've seen where I had no idea about what was coming next. At its base, it's a con movie, so you're never quite sure who's conning whom and what anyone has up his sleeve. Or under her skirt, I suppose, since the women are perpetually dressed as they are in the poster. And, then, at least a couple of the characters are at least slightly unhinged, and you never quite know which direction the story is going.

Surprisingly, the movie opens with one of those flash-forward/flashback type things that I normally hate, but they really made it work in this one. For one thing, the movie doesn't start near the climax, just at the point of the first sting operation. It's the place where we meet all of the major players, so to speak. Once the deal falls apart, we flashback with Irving Rosenfeld for a first person narration (which I also usually hate) of what brought him to that point. But what makes it interesting is that when we get to the part where he crosses paths with Sydney Prosser, she picks up the narration and, then, they have this kind of dueling narration giving us the back story, and it really works. It helps that it's not a "36 hours earlier" kind of scenario. It's the characters telling us about who they are, you know, as people, and that's what makes it work.

As interesting as the story is, though, it's the acting that makes this movie. The performances, all of them, are incredible.

Christian Bale shows us once again just what he's willing to do physically to become his character, this time putting on a bit of a paunch (which he shows off in the movie in a very unflattering way) and shaving a bald spot onto his head (also unflattering). He's what can only be described as a sleazy character, a con man, but, by the time we get back to the point in the story where it started, we have total sympathy for him. I just want to point out that I am not a Bale fan. I have respect for what he's willing to go through for a role (like in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn), and I think he's a good actor, but I don't really like him that much. That I say he was impressive in this role is, then, saying something.

Amy Adams--cute, sweet Amy Adams--shows us she's anything but as an ex-stripper trying to reinvent herself. Her boobs should probably also have received some sort of credit. Not that they ever fully appear onscreen or anything, but it's hard not to be aware of them when she's onscreen. She's like some 70s porn star or something. Or like what I think a 70s porn star must have been like. I'm not really sure. At any rate, her performance is pretty amazing, and you're never quite sure what she's up to, just that she is up to... things. It's her performance that provides a lot of the tension in the movie, because you're never really sure whose side she's on. Well, other than her own, that is.

Bradley Cooper is amazing as a somewhat overzealous FBI agent. And I'd say more about him, but I don't think I can without spoilers. I'll just say that I think Cooper has a certain intensity about him that not many actors can equal. And, according to my wife, he and Adams deliver one of the sexiest scenes she's ever seen. The amazing thing about that is that nothing happens in that scene. Well, not nothing but, you know, nothing happens: there is no loss of clothing or anything like that. But it's intense, and most of that is from him.

Jennifer Lawrence continues to show that she's more than just a pretty face. I'm not quite sure she deserved her Oscar last year (not that her performance wasn't good; it was. I've just never been convinced it was "best actress" quality), but, if she gets a best supporting Oscar for this role, it will be deserved. The scene with her and the "science oven" is almost enough all by itself to earn her the Oscar.

And, then, there's Jeremy Renner. And his hair. Because if Amy Adams boobs almost deserved a screen credit, Renner's hair certainly did. I could not take my eyes off of it. It was amazing. And, in a movie where everyone's hair was pretty amazing, that's saying something. This is the first movie I've seen him in where he shows me he can do something besides play "taciturn hero" (and, no, I haven't yet seen The Hurt Locker, but, knowing what it's about (loosely), I'm guess he plays "taciturn hero" in that one, too). He's pretty great as a New Jersey mayor in this. He's pretty great in the sense that I did not actually know he was in the movie before I was seeing the movie, and, then, I kept wondering if I was wrong and maybe that wasn't really him, so that, I think, is a pretty good performance.

Louis C.K. also fit in nicely. I don't think there was any kind of stretch for him as an actor, but he worked well with everyone else. As did Elisabeth Rohm (from Angel); I didn't recognize her at all.

The end result is a lot of compelling performances and an interesting plot. Enough so that, as I sit here writing this up, it makes me want to watch it again. Especially Jeremy Renner's hair. I don't think I've been so captivated by anyone's hair since the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl back in '93 (I think) and someone (Emmitt Smith?) poured a cooler of water over Jimmy Johnson's head, and his hair didn't move. It was like he had on a plastic, hair-shaped helmet. It was fascinating.

Oh! And the cameo appearance by De Niro... the perfect touch.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: A Review (Part 2)

Disclaimer: The fact that I'm reviewing this right now has nothing to do with the release of the movie.

Note: Those of you who have read my "Of Significance..." page may remember that The Hobbit is listed there, so this is (by far) not my first reading of the book.

Part 1 of this review is here.

It is of great interest to me that Tolkien is considered the "father of modern fantasy" when so much of modern fantasy has nothing to do with what or the way Tolkien wrote. While it's true that The Hobbit is a classic fantasy story, it is not classic in the sense that it uses all the normal conventions of fantasy. In fact, despite that many (most?) people would say that modern fantasy is largely based on Tolkien, you will find few to none of what we consider basic fantasy tropes in The Hobbit (or The Lord of the Rings).

One of the most common bits of fantasy literature is the young, male protagonist. Young often means teenager. Most often, probably. The last couple of decades have finally brought us a bevy of female protagonists, but, still, youth is the most common theme. Bilbo, however, is not young. He's not even what we would consider middle-aged. He's not quite "old," but he's definitely on his way. Definitely "established" and definitely set in his ways. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other piece of fantasy literature that's like that except The Lord of the Rings, because Frodo (and the other hobbits), also, is not young (something Peter Jackson conveniently forgot). [And it's not one of these things where hobbits are old but still young like elves can be, because hobbits are Tolkien's stand-ins for humans and age about the same way (when Bilbo is turning 111 in LotR, he is old, as in really old, as in ancient).] The closest other thing I can think of is Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, who is not old but is definitely not young.

The next piece is that this young protagonist is frequently (almost always) an orphan of some kind. Maybe, s/he has one of his/her parents, but the protagonist generally has lost at least one of them and almost always to some kind of violent circumstance. Maybe this is why the orphan princess is so common in Disney? Bilbo is definitely not an orphan. Which is not to say that his parents are alive, because they're  not, but, then, he's 50, and there is no indication that they died of anything other than old age. Or, maybe, boredom.

Then there is the requisite prophecy about the protagonist. The list of fantasy literature which feature a prophecy would probably exceed my usual word count, so I'll just remind everyone of Harry Potter and how he fits all three of these so far. Even The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has a prophecy. The Hobbit contains no prophecy (neither does LotR). There is nothing "special" about Bilbo in that sense. He has not been chosen by fate to do what he does. This is a story about a hobbit that rises to the occasion. It's more like your boss at work needing a job done, choosing the person the boss thinks is most qualified, and that person choosing to do it.

And there is no "party" of adventurers. No, the dwarves don't count, because they're all interchangeable on the whole. And Gandalf abandons them half way through. So there's no wizard, no fighter, no ranger, no healer, none of that stuff we expect to find among the heroes band of followers. Just the burglar, and that's Bilbo.

Possibly the biggest break from convention is that Bilbo is not the valiant warrior that "saves the day" in the end. He does not slay the dragon, and he does not defeat the goblin army. He's not even conscious for most of that. Bilbo is a hero of another type, let's say a moral hero, which is so much more important and believable. Bilbo's bravest moment is when he walks down the tunnel to see the dragon. Not to fight the dragon, just to see him. I love that bit:
Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
And his most significant contribution to the end of the story is standing up against his friends when they are set on a wrong path. Neville Longbottom's stand against his friends and Dumbledore's rewarding of it very much reminded me of Bilbo handing the Arkenstone over to Bard.

Basically, despite what everyone says about "all fantasy" being based on Tolkien, almost no fantasy is based on Tolkien. What Tolkien did was original and, amazingly, remains original to this day. No one else has written a story like The Hobbit (and, although people have attempted stories like The Lord of the Rings, no one has succeeded), and I have to wonder if that's because the story becomes so much bigger in our minds after we read it. Bilbo becomes this larger than life hero that he's really not in the book, and that's, frankly, amazing. We remember him fighting the spiders and riddling with Gollum and the dragon, but we forget that it's Bard that kills the dragon and the Eagles that save the day in the Battle of Five Armies. It really is like what Gandalf tells him in the end:
You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all.
We don't tend to have characters like that in our fantasy. Our protagonists are huge, essential characters who have the fate of the world hanging on their shoulders, and Bilbo is not that kind of hero.

He's just a guy that learns that he's capable of more than he believes he is, and I think that's an important lesson to learn. And I love that we see that change through the pages of The Hobbit. He goes from being a guy that runs away from just the idea of an adventure, of anything different, to the guy that gets them all caught by trolls, to the guy that everyone depends upon. There's no unlocking of the secret, magical talent that only he possesses; there is only Bilbo learning to use the "gifts" that everyone is given. There is only Bilbo deciding to go instead of stay and to do instead of not. It is Tolkien telling us that there is a bit of the Tookish inside of all of us... if only we can wake it up.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Frozen (but full of warm fuzzies)

Pixar's loss of John Lasseter's direct involvement in their day-to-day operations hasn't done them any favors (see my reviews of Monsters University and Brave); however, his influence on Disney as a whole looks to be unmistakable. Unmistakably good, at that. Whereas the last couple of Pixar movies have descended to fairly typical Disney fare, Frozen rises towards the kind of film we haven't seen from Pixar since Toy Story 3 (a movie that made me cry, and I don't cry at movies very often). It's not as good as TS3, but it's definitely the best Disney Animation movie in a good long while.

In an effort to avoid spoilers, I'll just say that the movie is delightful on so many levels. Olaf steals every scene he's in, and my kids loved him. Seriously, my daughter especially has not stopped talking about him, and both of the younger ones have been singing as much of his "puddle" song as they can remember. My daughter, who is less interested in movies than the boys, would have turned right around and seen it again. [And we'd (my daughter and I) planned to see Desolation of Smaug together (because the boys (and my wife) were too disappointed with the first one to want to go see the second one), but, when we walked out of the theater from Frozen, my daughter said, "I don't want to go see The Hobbit; I want to see Frozen again," which we're not actually going to do (because I'll just buy here the DVD), but, now, I have no one to see The Hobbit with (which I'm only going to see because I feel compelled to do so).]

The animation in the movie was, in a word, incredible, especially the ice and especially especially the ice bridge. The songs are good (and who knew Kristen Bell could sing? Okay, so, well, maybe lots of people, but I didn't know, so I was surprised to see that she had performed her own songs), and, as I've already implied, the song by Olaf was really catchy.

The best parts of the movie, however, can't be talked about without being spoilery: You've been warned.

The death of the parents at the beginning of the movie is pretty typical for Disney. I'm not quite sure why all of their young heroes have to be orphans of some type, but it's almost always the case. Possibly, for Frozen, it's there to help you feel as if you're in a typical Disney film (I kind of doubt it), but, whatever the reason, you know when the parents are leaving on their trip that they're not coming back. Of course, that's what sets up the problems for the rest of the movie. Elsa has no one to help her cope with her powers and grows up in isolation because of it.

One of the best moments is between Anna and Kristoff as he chastises her for attempting to marry someone (Hans) that she had just met that day. It's very amusing, because the immediate True Love thing is so endemic in Disney movies, so it's refreshing to see it handled like this in this movie. In fact, the catalyst of the whole thing is Elsa (now the Queen) refusing to allow the marriage between Anna and Hans because they had only just met. There's even a comment from Kristoff to Anna where he is saying "no" to her about something (no, I don't remember exactly what) because he doesn't trust her judgement. All of this is a nice break from that Disney cliche.

And then there's the whole thing with True Love's Kiss that they also turn on its head, and that was great to see, too. And I won't say more than that, because I don't want to give everything away. Let's just say that the movie ended with both Anna and Elsa growing as characters, something that Brave, unfortunately, lacked.

At any rate, it's a very enjoyable movie and one that I hope is signaling a new direction for Disney. Disney Princesses are great and all that, but it's good to have some that don't need to get rescued.

Also, Alan Tudyk was great. I didn't even realize that was him until I saw his name in the credits. He's a great voice actor and under-appreciated as an actor in general.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Tree Hunter

I have previously told a story about how Christmas trees worked at my house when I was a kid. You can read that here. That, though, is not the way Christmas trees work in my house as an adult.

For a couple of years, I suppose, after my wife and I got married, we bought our Christmas tree at a tree lot, but that didn't last. At some point, we fell back into the tradition she had had as a child, which was to go to a tree farm and hunt and kill a tree every year. I have been that hunter.

Not that we all didn't go, but I have traditionally been the one to have final say on the tree. For many reasons:

  1. I have the highest standards of tree quality (and if you did go back and read that story, you will understand why).
  2. I'm the one that has to deal with the tree and all of its various needs.
  3. Because of #2, the tree has to meet certain... safety criteria. For instance, one year, we got a tree that was entirely to stabby, and it scratched me up and caused me to have some kind of allergic reaction. It wasn't fun.
  4. I have the highest standards of tree quality. (Did I say that already? I don't think I did.)
So we'd wander around the tree farm, and various children would suggest trees that were too tall or too wide and my wife would suggest trees that had holes in them or had some other defect. Eventually, I'd wander away from them and find a tree; wait around for a while for one of them to come looking for me; when that didn't happen, try yelling for one of them; when that didn't work, venture only so far away as I could still see the tree and look for them and yell some more; when no one responded, mark the tree in some way and move to a better vantage point and yell some more. The yelling almost never worked, but I would finally catch sight of someone and send whoever it was to gather everyone to where I was. They'd all look at the tree I'd found and, yes, agree that that was indeed the tree, and I'd kill it and have it bagged, and we'd take it home.

I've gotten pretty good at locating trees that meet our (my) specifications. So much so that the last couple or few years I've been told, "We can't just take the first tree you find. We have to look more." So we'd look and, then, come back to that first tree, and I'd kill it.

My oldest is about to turn 18 which somehow translated into him getting to be the tree killer this year.
It started innocently enough. I sent him to select the tree killing weapon.
That's it there in his hand as he's arguing about what tree to kill. Okay, that's probably not what's going on there, but I don't actually remember what's going on there even though I took the picture, so they're arguing over what tree to kill. Yes, I'm writing the history as I go along (but at least I'm telling you what I'm changing). When he brought the weapon back, I went to take it from him, and I received the "no, I've got it" response. Usually, that response to anything directly precedes some disaster or another as whoever is saying it shows that, in fact, no, he does not got it. Yes, you could say I was nervous at that point.

So we started up the hill, and, almost immediately, I found the perfect tree. In fact, it was so perfect that there was a lag before my wife said, "No, we can't just take the first tree you find. We have to look more." So we noted the spot and continued hunting. Next, my wife found a tree. A tree that I vetoed because it had a bad branch. But she liked the bad branch, only agreeing with me on the veto because we, also, couldn't just take the first tree she found.

We wandered around and, somehow, I became nothing more than the cameraman. I did wander off and found a couple of other good trees, not as good as the first one, but no one else really liked them. Mostly, I just took pictures.
The other son. I think he's using the Force on this tree.
The lone red tree on a hill of green.
Because persimmons are weird.

Eventually, we ended up back down at that first tree, which everyone agreed was perfect. Until my wife said it was "too perfect." By that point, though, I was just the cameraman, so I just followed along taking pictures as we went looking for the tree with the bad branch. And that is the tree everyone agreed we should get... because it wasn't perfect.

Oldest Son went to work with his weapon.
He's helped before, but he's never done a whole tree by himself. Let's just say his technique is lacking. It took him a looong time to bring that tree down. And he wouldn't let me help or show him anything, either; he just kept saying, "I've got this."
But nothing bad happened. I mean, it took a while, but there were no severed limbs or anything. Only a severed trunk. And, soon, we had my Oldest's first kill.
And, yes, I should have taken some pictures of him carrying the tree down the hill, but, for some reason, I just didn't. And, yes, we carry our trees down the hill. He did ask after he cut it down, "Where's the cart for the tree?" I just shrugged and said, "I always carry the tree, so we didn't bring one. Do you want me to carry it?" Can you guess his response? "No, I've got this."

And he did.

In case you missed it, over the weekend:
I did a guest post over at THe GaL iN THe BLue MaSK all about how writing is easy or it's not. Click the link to go and read it.

Also, Konstanz Silverbow, over at No Thought 2 Small, is giving away some books for Christmas. Day four is "Christmas on the Corner"! Drop by her site to sign up to win and check out the other books being offered while you're there.

Free for Christmas!

Have you ever wanted your very own copy of "Christmas on the Corner"?
Well, here's your chance to get one for FREE!
Drop by No Thought 2 Small for your chance to win a copy of your very own!

But, first, if you haven't read it, pick up your copy of The House on the Corner, today!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

THe GaL iN THe BLue MaSK

Today, I am guest posting over at THe GaL iN THe BLue MaSK. Drop by and check it out.
No, seriously, go do that.
Every Saturday, she has a guest author talking about writing, so you may want to follow her, too, just to see who shows up.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

After Earth

So, yeah, I know. After Oblivion, why would I want to and watch After Earth?
Either it was some weird form of masochism or it was Will Smith.
Actually, it was Will Smith and all the bad stuff said about his son because of the movie. I needed to see, okay! Sometimes, you just have to know, like when someone says, "This tastes awful! You try it," and you do. You're thinking, "Surely, it can't be that bad," but, then, it is, and you get mad at the person offering you the taste even though he told you it was going to be bad.

And, wow, After Earth was bad. So bad.

And, you know what, I'm not even going to talk about the stupid science in this movie.

I lied.

In one of the most ridiculous scenes I've ever witnessed in a movie, Cypher (Will Smith) gets up from his seat and places his hand against the interior hull of the spaceship he's in. He goes to the cockpit and tells the pilots that he feels gravitons and wants to know what's going on. This is like saying, "Hey, I feel some neutrinos; what's up with that?" Anyway, there's a field of asteroids nearby, and, sure enough, when they check, they find there's a sudden buildup of gravitons happening, and Cypher tells them to be careful because the asteroids might suddenly explode. Predictably, the graviton levels start to drop... just before the asteroid field spontaneously explodes. Because that's what asteroids do when they're sitting around in space; they spontaneously explode. The ship is forced to crash land on Earth, abandoned by mankind 1000 years prior.

Cypher and his son, Kitai, are, again predictably, the only survivors of the crash, but Cypher is badly wounded, which sets up the contrived scenario where Kitai has to go trekking across the planet to get to the other part of the ship to fetch a homing beacon. He has to trek across the planet on which "every living thing has evolved to kill humans." Oh, and climb an active volcano. No, wait, I don't just mean active; I mean actively active. As in, it's in the process of erupting. Because that's such a great idea. And I won't even go into the part where he has to fight the alien that they brought along with them, another thing that has evolved or been engineered "just to kill humans."

The very first thing that happens to Kitai when he leaves the one end of the ship is that a spider crawls on him. But this spider that has evolved "just to kill humans" doesn't hurt him. And, of course, none of the plants hurt him. But here's the thing: 1000 years ago all of the animals on Earth were basically the same as they are now. 2000 years ago, they were basically the same. 5000 years ago, they were basically the same. 10,000 years ago, they were basically the same. Yet, 1000 years in the future, all of the animals have evolved "just to kill humans." And we see some significantly different animals, like some kind of saber-toothed tiger, on this future Earth. And, I'm sorry, I have to call "Bullshit!" How about adding some science to your science there.

And I'm not even going to go into the physics involved in a bird no bigger than Kitai flying off with him. I'm just gonna say "bullshit!" again. I'm also not going to go into how the entire planet freezes over every night and, yet, remains lush and green. I don't even have a word for that, because bullshit doesn't cover it.

Now, I haven't seen The Happening, but I do know what it's about, and After Earth struck me as nothing more than a bad sequel to a bad movie. Another low for M. Night. The bad thing here is that Will Smith brought Shyamalan into the project, not the other way around.

So, yeah, the original story idea was Smith's, but it involved a car crash in the woods in which the father is injured and the son has to go for help, and he should have just stuck with that story. But he decided he wanted to go sci-fi with it, so he hired a guy who wrote a script then went to Shyamalan with the script who also worked on the writing of the script and what Smith ended up with was a disaster that should have crashed in the woods and been left there.

I mean, not only is there no science in the science in the sci-fi movie, but they stripped out of Cypher Raige (yeah, really? he needs a name like "Raige"?) everything that makes Will Smith an enjoyable actor. Cypher is nothing more than the stereotypical emotionless military character out of touch with his son. Of course, Smith didn't want the movie to be about him; he wanted it to be about his son. This was to be the movie to give Jaden a foothold into his own career of action stardom.

And that's the second reason I wanted to see After Earth. I liked Jaden in the remake of Karate Kid, but he got slammed pretty hard for his performance in Earth, and I wanted to know if it was justified. After watching it, I'm not sure. Based on his performance in Karate Kid, I'd like to say his performance in Earth is due to bad directing (because his father certainly delivered one of the worst (possibly the worst) performances of his career), but it's hard to know with only one other movie to compare against. He certainly didn't help the movie any, though, and his scene where he stands on the cliff and yells at his father through his communicator was almost painfully awful. But I really want to give him the benefit of the doubt and blame it on Shyamalan, who hasn't made anything watchable in over a decade. I guess we'll just have to see what happens. Assuming Jaden Smith gets another chance. A movie that crashes and burns as hard as this one did can kill a career.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Creating a Masterpiece (an Indie Life post)

What do you think of when you hear the word "masterpiece"? And I don't mean Masterpiece Theater, either. Do you think of this?
Or this?
Or, maybe, even this?
Or something like this?
Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne
While it's true that we think of great works of art or craftsmanship as masterpieces, it wasn't always so. Far from it, actually. For hundreds of years, right up until modern times, the word masterpiece was actually applied to what was probably going to be the least accomplished work of one's professional career.
Wait. What?

Okay, let me explain.

There used to be this thing in Europe called a guild system. I'm not sure if they called it that, but it's what we call it. If you were a craftsman or artisan of any kind, you belonged to a guild. So there were guilds for woodworkers, stone cutters, goldsmiths, cooks, painters, sculptors... nearly anything you could think of. And, while it may seem that these just covered, basically, practical professions, they also covered the arts (and many of the most famous pieces of art in history came out of guild work, especially stuff done in cathedrals and other important buildings). [I also want to point out that the guilds also, to some extent, covered writing, especially scholarly writing.] If you wanted to be in one of these careers, you would get apprenticed to someone within the guild to learn the trade. Usually, this was just arranged between the families involved (because often the apprentice went off to live with the person he was apprenticed to), but, (I think) sometimes, these arrangements could be assigned by the guild.

So the apprentice would spend years working with his master to learn his trade, whatever that trade was. At the point that the apprentice had (1) learned everything from his master that he could or (2) learned everything that his master was willing to teach him, he would either become a journeyman (someone who "traveled" (because actual travelling wasn't always involved)) while he worked on his craft and attempted to learn new skills through practice or from finding others to learn from or, if his master had taught him enough, attempt to become a "master craftsman" himself. This was kind of like a test. Okay, no, it was a test. A skills test. The craftsman would have to produce an item to show that he had mastered his craft. If the item was judged worthy, it was called his "masterpiece."

And, as an aside, many (most? all?) of the guilds kept the items that "students" presented and had halls to display great "masterpiece" items. As an additional aside, some of these guilds grew into actual universities. Two prime examples are the Universities of Paris and Oxford.

So... it is true that an artisan tried to do his absolute best work on his masterpiece; it is also true that the production of a masterpiece marked the beginning of a master craftsman's career, not the culmination of it. It was expected that a "master" would go on to create even better works of... art. Because a master was expected to create things of beauty. Even if it was just chairs. Or stone pillars. Or swords. Or, even, writing, to a certain extent.

So here I am to present to you The House on the Corner as my "masterpiece." Not my best work, but the work that proves that I can do the work. I intend that everything will just get better from here on out, and I think that I've already done better. "Christmas on the Corner," for instance, is better. Brother's Keeper will be even better. That's how it goes. Or how it should go.

Now, you get out there and make your "masterpiece"! Whatever that is. Create that masterpiece and declare, "It only gets better from here!"

This post has been brought to you in part by Indie Life.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Independent Day

Those of you that have been around here for any length of time will know that I don't promote books I haven't actually read. Ever. I don't do cover reveals or blog tours or any of that stuff, because I'm not going to back a book that I wouldn't actually recommend to someone to read. It's just not the way I work.

However, I do want to support other independent authors as much as possible. That's why I do reviews, and that's why I'm including stories by other writers in my books. And that's why, today, in the Spirit of Christmas (or something like that), I'm going to highlight some indie work that's come out in the past year or so. Many of these books are on my list of things to read (but I've been really behind on reading, lately, so I haven't gotten to them) and will get reviewed at some point. Others are books I know of, but I haven't made the decision to actually read, yet. They are all, however, independently published by people whose blogs I follow.

So, while I'm not actually recommending them in the sense of, "Hey! I read this and it was great," I am saying, "Give some indies some love and check these out." And, really, they are in no particular order.

1. White Walls by Australian author Hayley M Clearihan

2. Butterman (Time) Travel, Inc. by Pk Hrezo

3. CassaStorm by Alex Cavanaugh

4. Green Eggs & Weezie by Cathy Olliffe-Webster

5. A Hero's Journey and other things by PT Dilloway (seriously, he has so many books out, I can't list them all, but the Scarlet Knight stuff is from this year)

6. The Faerie Guardian by Rachel Morgan

7. A Flock of Ill Omens (part 1 of her serialization of A Shot in the Light) by Hart Johnson

8. Moonless by Crystal Collier

And this one I have read and get to include because, well, it's my blog and it's good:
9. Shadow Spinner -- this link is for the physical book

So there you go. It's Christmas. Support an indie author! It's like shopping locally, which you all do, right?

Oh... and, after you read, leave a review!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Hobbit: A Review (Part 1)

Disclaimer: The fact that I'm reviewing this right now has nothing to do with the release of the movie.

Note: Those of you who have read my "Of Significance..." page may remember that The Hobbit is listed there, so this is (by far) not my first reading of the book.

As I've mentioned, I'm teaching a creative writing class at my kids' school. When it was discussed, back at the beginning of the school year, about assigning them a book to read to go along with the class, I immediately suggested The Hobbit. It was not on the "short list;" it was the list. I really can't think of a better book from which to teach writing form. Also, there is the part about introducing the kids to great literature.

My choice of The Hobbit as a book I think everyone should read has nothing to do with it being a great book. I do think it's a great book, but, mostly, I think it's a simple book. And, when I say "simple," I mean "straightforward." It is not a book with a complicated and convoluted plot. It doesn't have hidden meanings and subtleties. It is what it says it is, a fantastical adventure story. That's why I wanted to use it for the creative writing class assignment.

If you want to look at plot arc, you can. The story follows only one protagonist, and there aren't any twining branches or confusing twists. It's just "hero gets into trouble"/"hero gets out of trouble." It's easy to look at and map out and, most importantly, it's easy for them to understand.

If you want to look at character development, you can. Bilbo is not the same person at the end of the story as he is going in, and you can see the changes as they happen, and that's good for these young writers to see. Especially, it is good for them to see in a literary world where so few characters do any real changing these days other than becoming awesome fighters through some brief training montage. Actually, as I'm typing this, I think The Hobbit should be required reading for anyone hoping to be an author. These days, it's all about "voice," but I really don't care how good your voice is if your protagonist doesn't grow within the story. If the protagonist doesn't change, your story falls flat. [And, now, I'm thinking of a ton of books that I have been less than pleased with, and I think this is the reason: no character growth.]

If you want to look at how to deliver a message within a story, The Hobbit has that, too. Not hidden or veiled messages but messages told through the repercussions of the actions of the characters. I mean, you can't get more clear than when someone tells you to stay on the trail, you need to do it. And, no, that's not really what I'm talking about, but I don't want to get into the specifics until I actually get into the review. The book does, though, have strong messages about greed and war in particular.

The Hobbit, in many ways, is the perfect introduction to reading. It's a clear story that most of us can actually relate to in some way. It has humor and sorrow. It's fast and it's fun. It's simple enough for a child yet full of things only an adult can understand. It's the story that you would beg your grandfather to tell on a cold night in front of the fireplace, and Tolkien tells it that way. Right down to the hypothetical question, "What is a hobbit?" right in the middle of the narration. In short, the story is delightful. And scary. And exciting. And sad. It is full of life and what life is, and, yes, I think everyone should read it. Earlier is better than later, but, if you missed it when you were 10 or 12, there is always time to go back and make up for it.

Having said that, no, I don't think everyone will love it or, even, like it, but it's one of those things -- like chocolate or cheese -- that you just need to taste. Skipping it entirely is too much of a risk.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Plot Line of Your Life (an IWSG post)

We talk a lot about plot and plot arc in the creative writing class I teach. If there's just one thing I want them to come away with it's what a plot is. Not just that the plot is the story but what a plot actually is and how it works and develops within a story. We look at this a lot:
Well, not this, because this is not actually how I draw it. I draw it more like a simple roller coaster -- gradually up and, then, steeply down, returning to the same level upon which it started (because that makes more sense in my mind, I guess) -- in its basic form and, then, add in extra hills to show plot complications, and, well, this is where a drawing would come in handy, but I don't know how to draw that stuff and post it here for you to see. [Well, without actually drawing it and... oh never mind. I'm not doing that right now, but, maybe, at some point, I will.]

Anyway, as a writer, I can see my plot from the outside. I know where and how the story starts; I know where the plot gets tangled; I know where and how things go bad for my characters and how those things get resolved. I know where the climax is. The climax being the most important part. Well, the most important part other than the exposition and the rising action and the stuff at the end, which, sometimes, is just the climax since authors frequently lump their falling action/denouement into a "they lived happily ever after" sort of ending.

The thing to note here is that the characters, of course, can't "see" the climax. For one thing, they're only characters, but, if they weren't, they're within the story, and they can't see what's going on beyond what's actually happening in the moment. Authors, then, have to make sure that the characters are as true to the moment as possible. That means when bad things are happening, the characters have to behave as if those bad moments are all the moments, because they can't see the happy ending that's coming. Assuming that there is a happy ending coming, but most stories do have happy endings, so we're just going to assume that that's what's happening.

It can be kind of like this:

As the author, though, we have to push the characters along and keep them from actually getting stuck. Even when it looks like there is no hope left, that they have descended to the very depths and there is no way out, we have to find the motivation for them that will send them on their way, keep the story going, take them to their climax. Remember, we know what's coming.

And here's where things get a little backwards from how I usually do them. Usually, I will give some life example and turn it into a writing analogy, but I'm going the other direction this time. This is a writing example leading to a life analogy.

So here's the thing:
In our lives, we are like the characters in a book: we can't see our own climax. We don't know what's coming. Sometimes, people decide they hit their climax during high school and everything after that is just denouement. They don't try to achieve anything else, because they make the assumption that there's nothing that will ever be better in their future. Or, maybe, it's a wedding. Or, like Orson Welles, your very first completed project.

After Welles finished Citizen Kane, he said he would never make another movie as good, and he didn't. He was only 26. I have to wonder, now, if it was because he had decided that Kane was his climax. Maybe not, but our attitudes play such a huge role in what we do and how do it that it's really hard to know. Maybe, if he'd believed Kane was just the beginning of the great things he would accomplish, he would have made even greater movies. But this isn't really about Welles.

Sometimes, we end up in  those same kinds of depths that authors drop their characters into. Like it is with those characters, we can't see what's coming. We don't know what lies ahead. All we can see is the moment. It's important to realize that our climax is still on the way. Even if it's not, it's important to act as if it is, because acting as if we're still in our rising action can propel us higher. It can make a Citizen Kane moment merely a part of the rising action rather than sending us on a slow descent of falling action for the rest of our lives.

We don't know where our own climaxes are in the stories of our lives. We can't see it from the outside, and, until we die, that story isn't over yet. There is always the chance to achieve something greater, go farther, rise higher. It's only when we decide that we've got nothing left on the horizon that that becomes true. So, no matter how bad things get or how bad they seem, remember that there's still more to come. More rising action. More complications. But, somewhere ahead, a climax. A great moment, the great moment, of your life. Don't give up before you get there.

This post has been brought to you in part by the IWSG.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

It's Buy-Stuff-Online Day!

The way things becomes "things" is often very interesting. Sometimes, it's because a thing needs a name, like at one time how a dog needed a name. And I don't mean Spot or Fido, either. Way back when around 25,000 years ago when wolves started hanging out with men, they had to call them something, and I bet "wolf" started out something like "wlf" and was related to the sound they made. [Yes, I'm making  this up.] Later, some of the wolves started living with the cavemen instead of just hanging around and trying to grab scraps and calling both groups, the in-camp group and  the out-of-camp group, wolves probably became confusing, so someone started calling the ones that never left "dgs," which is kind of like the sound my oldest son made, "dg!", when it was being his first word. Yes, my oldest son's first word was "dog," and we didn't even have one at the time.
[Remind me to one day tell you about his first Star Wars word.]

Anyway... the idea of "Black Friday" was one of those things that came about over time. It was a thing that was happening that needed a name, and, then, it had a name, and, then, people (stores) started having sales for it, because, sometimes, in our culture, all you have to have is a recognized name and there will be sales in your honor. Like "President's Day." And I'm waiting for stores to realize that they can name sales after celebrities, and, then, we'll see "Cyrus Twerking Day" sales or something.

But that's not today. No, today is "Cyber Monday," a complete made up marketing name so that we could have sales. And convince people to shop online. No, really, Cyber Monday was not actually a thing until some company decided to call it a thing and hope that it would become that thing, and, well, it did. It's like if you started calling your car a rocketship and, one day, you woke up and it was a rocketship. Dude! Now, I'm totally going to have to try that!

At any rate, today is the day where we try to get people to buy stuff online, so I'm going to give you some suggestions of things you should buy online that will help out some people that need it more than say, Target or Toys R Us or Best Buy. And, not to start with myself, but I'm going to start with myself, but only because it's

And what better time of the year is there to read a Christmas story, right?

And, just to say it, I'm only suggesting things I've actually read.

The best bargain on the list:
Temporary Anne by Briane Pagel -- Not only do you get a pretty horrific horror story (that's, like, horror squared), you get additional stories from some other pretty great authors! And, well, there are cookies! But not cookies you want to eat, and you'll just have to go read "The Magic Cookies" to understand what that means. And it's just $0.99!

Eclipse -- Also by Briane Pagel and my favorite (so far) of his novels. If you want a book that will leave you wondering what actually happened when you get to the end, this the book for you.

Demetri and the Banana Flavored Rocketship by Bryan Pedas -- This was the best book I read in 2012 and there has only been one, so far, from 2013 to beat it. Yes, it's got a strange title. Yes, it's quirky. Yes, it's a great read.

"My Killbot Buddy" by Rusty Carl -- This is an intact story but only a glimpse into a world I hope Rusty goes back to.

"Augurs of Distant Shadows" by Briane Pagel. It can be found in "Shadow Spinner: Collection 2: The Man with No Eyes." And, honestly, this has nothing to do with the fact that it's in my Spinner collection and everything to do with the fact that this is my favorite thing of all by Brian (so far!). More people need to read his story, so buy Collection 2 just for that if you need to.

There are plenty of other independent authors out there that could use the support, and this a perfect time of year to do it. I'll be mentioning other authors as we progress through December, but these are the indie things I've read that I've really liked (as in, these works stand out in my mind without me having to go back and look through what I've read; if something I remember without needing to think about it, it's pretty darn good), so this is where I'm starting. Seriously, support quality, independent works by supporting these guys in a way that's tangible. AND LEAVE REVIEWS once you've read the work in question! That's tangible, too, and, hey, it might just be me, but reviews make great gifts!

Note #1:
Just in case any of you missed the announce last week because of the holiday, "Shadow Spinner: Collection 3: The Garden (Parts 13 - 21)" is now available!
It has a backup story by Rusty, and, if you don't know who he is by now, shame on you. Pick up your copy today!

Note #2:
Also in case you missed it, I have a short story, "The Tea Kettle," up over at Out of Print. Stop by and read it and let me know what you think.