Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"Buck up, Little Camper."

I got a book in the mail the other day.  It wasn’t from Amazon.  It was from a friend of mine.  There was a note with it describing the career of the author and drawing parallels to my journey as a writer.  It couldn’t have come at a better time, or offered better encouragement to keep writing.

The subtext of the unexpected gift was that even while I was struggling with my current novel, reading the fine work of Michael Connelly, and wondering who I thought I was to even try to appear a shelf beside him, there was someone out there who believed in me and couldn’t wait to read my next one.

That’s the thing we struggle with, whether we are writers, artists of another sort, or just trying to make it through life.  We feel discouraged, we feel overwhelmed, and we feel very alone but we aren’t.  Somebody out there is thinking about you, hoping you are okay, and excited that you are in the world.

Buck up, Little Camper.  Carry on.  Tell that mean old world, “You cannot make me quit.”

Have you read Love for Justice yet?  It's available now at Amazon.

Monday, March 13, 2017

I call them Skull Crawlers.

I got talked into going to see Kong: Skull Island this weekend.  It wasn’t too hard, I loved the original King Kong and am always up for hoping another Kong movie will be good.  The last one was a fairly true remake and while long at times, still captured most of the core story and was generally enjoyable.  I had some concerns about another remake, of course, not the least of which is the current trend toward over dosing on CGI in the modern PG-13 action flick, but I can always close my eyes in the theater and add my voice to the hue and cry against reliance on processors instead of good writing afterward.

As always, the following observations on the merit of the story contain light spoilers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film.  It was exactly what it claimed to be (a PG-13 action movie) and executed itself well.  The acting was top notch with John Goodman doing what he does best and Samuel Jackson channeling Kurtz perfectly.  What an amazing idea.  (Heart of Darkness is one my all-time favorite stories.) And then John Reilly.  I will never see him as any other character again.
There were several good story choices made.  The first was setting the action in 1973.  The world we live in today is too far removed from the original setting of the Kong legend to resonate with younger viewers, but post-Vietnam isn’t.  The choice lent a spectacular soundtrack, political conflict that echoes exactly what we are going through today, and an easier Kurtz connection for those who think Apocalypse Now was the original story.

The second great choice was reimagining the storyline.  I’ve always dozed off when Kong goes to New York.  No worry about that now.  It’s more Jurassic Park III than Jurassic Park II.  And I liked number three.  (Speaking of number three, my #3 left saying, “I have a new favorite movie.”)
The sets were outstanding.  The real-world backdrop was stunning, the actual sets were crafted with attention to detail and added to the realism.  The CGI effects were woven into the real with skill and care.  CGI.  Present.  Absolutely.  BUT!!!!  And this is important; the effects were not the draw of this film and were not used in place of plot.  Just the opposite.  The effects add to the story telling and draw you in.  I actually wasn’t even aware of the CGI until the climactic battle when the analytical side of my brain said, “Wow, that’s good use of CGI.”  I never once worried about getting a headache or said, “Really?  I’d rather see 10 real soldiers than 100k drawn by the computer.”  Remember the original Jurassic Park?  It’s special effects like that.  But with today’s higher resolution.

Finally I want to talk about what is perhaps the most impressive part of the entire movie.  The dialogue.  There are a lot of characters.  Many of them are extremely similar in appearance and costume.  None of them are cardboard cutouts.  You know who they are by how they act and what they say.  That is extremely good writing.  You’d think there was a Gilroy involved.  I am very interested in reading the script.
There are probably purists out there who will lament the loss of certain story elements.  I caught myself several times saying, “Ah, this where they will have the XYZ scene” only to find it missing entirely.  The original King Kong is still a great movie.  I will watch it again.  This Kong is not that Kong and doesn’t even try to be (read: “Not a love story”).  It’s a reimagining of the conceit and it’s told with skill and style standing strongly in its own right. 
I think this summer’s offerings will have a hard time matching the total package this popcorn flick is.  The IMDB “Parent’s Guide” section is spot on, make your ultimate decision accordingly.

Friday, March 10, 2017

And This Bag Was Just Dancing With Me

There's a stoy in screenwriting circles about a floating plastic bag and the inspriation for the film "American Beauty."  I like that story, and I found Mr. Alan Ball's script for the film to be extremely well written.  I don't see the what he saw when I look at discarded shopping bags, but it's stuck with me and I've wondered about how he must feel in places such as San Francisco that have declared the ubiquitious liter to be detritus-non-gratta.
The following is a work of fiction and did not occur (to the best of my knowledge).  Any actual quote of Mr. Ball which I did not fabricate on the spot is intended only as an aid for readers who care to search out what he has to say on the topic of plastic bags using "Ctrl-C" and Google.

A Thing of American Beauty
(by Jonathan Stark, 800 words)

Councilman McTaggart yawned as he shuffled the papers on the table in front of him.  The florescent lights overhead flickered and the blueish bulb in the third fixture went out.  Then it came back on.  He looked at Councilwoman Harris on his right, then Councilman Greene on his left.

McTaggart cleared his throat.  Then looked at Councilwoman Harris again.  She looked up from her phone, said, “Oh, right.  Sorry.”

 Harris opened the folder in front of her.  She’d borrowed it from her daughter and the sight of the kitten falling of the tree branch on its cover made her heart skip a beat.  That poor cat.  Driven by duty to her electorate, she pushed aside her concern for the wellbeing of the animal and read from the first paper inside.

“Next order of business is proposition seventeen dash zero zero zero six,” said Harris.  McTaggart snickered.  So did Greene.  They always did when she said “proposition” and sometimes she’d snicker too but not this time.  Zero zero zero six was important.

Harris continued, “The council proposes a ban on the issuance and use of plastic bags within the city limits by grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores, food carts, Yancy’s Lumberyard, and school lunches due to the unsightly problem of excessive plastic bags on the sides of city streets, in yards, clogging parks, congesting sidewalks, blocking bus grills, and filling the shopping carts of homeless people.”

McTaggart said, “All in favor say, ‘Aye.’”

A well-dressed man transitioning from handsome middle age to distinguished older gentleman, stood and said, “According to bylaw section twelve paragraph ‘C’ you must open the proposition for discussion.”

McTaggart and Greene snickered.  Then McTaggart said, “Everyone is in favor, no need to discuss.”

“I am not,” said the man.  “You don’t realize what you are doing.”

Harris said, in her slightly schrillish voice, “Sir, the plastic bags are an unsightly problem in our city.  This prop-“ she stopped, bit her lip with a sideways glance at McTaggart, “-plan will solve that problem.”

“You may as well solve the problem of flowers,” said the man.  The bluish bulb went out again, but this time with a dramatic pop.

Henry Steed, well ensconced in distinguished gentlemen, attended every council meeting.  His quiet snoring always comforted the councilmembers, reminded them of the importance of their work.  The sudden interruption in the rhythm of the snoring when Henry awoke at the comparison of trash to flowers was disconcerting.

Henry said, “Are you mad?  What do flowers have to do with plastic bags?”

The other man opened his mouth to speak but stopped.   Henry’s face changed, lightened with sudden realization and agreement.  “Councilman McTaggart, my esteemed colleague –“  he paused, turned to face the man, “Sorry, what’s your name?”

“Alan,” said the man.  “Alan Ball.”

Henry nodded his thanks and then went on.  “My esteemed colleague Mr. Ball makes a valid point.  You have not included Shane’s Florist in the ban.”

“The amendment is approved,” said McTaggart, casting a commanding look at Harris who dutifully wrote ‘Shane’s Florist’ in the margin of the proposition.

“That’s not my point at all!” exclaimed Alan.  “Have you ever seen a plastic bag caught in the wind?  Drifting along an alley, dancing on the updrafts and floating down only to be swept further along?”

Nobody had.

“I have,” said Mr. Ball.  “And was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”  They looked at him strangely.  Everyone.  “There’s a Buddhist notion of the miraculous within the mundane, and-“

Steed interrupted.  “We’re all good Presbyterians here, Mr. Ball.  No need to confuse things.”

Alan lost his flow.  McTaggart leaped into the void and dragged the rest of the council with him.

The ensuing debate ultimately resulted in a series of amendments that allowed school children to bring their lunches to school in plastic bags because the council, as eloquently expressed by Councilwoman Harris, “Did not want to discourage the arts among the young people of our great city.”

Henry Steed, who had been to Canada once, expressed his displeasure.  “The plastic bag is garbage, a thing of American pestilence that should be eradicated.”

Mr. Ball said, “You are mistaken.  It is a thing of American Beauty.”

Henry Steed rose from his folding chair, removed a carefully folded plastic grocery bag from the left breast pocket of his blazer, shook it open, and tossed it into the air.

The bag hung for a moment, as if orienting to the room, then gently floated downward only to be caught in the sudden down draft of the overhead HVAC duct.  Just as it was about to crash onto the vinyl tile of the floor, it whooshed toward the council table and rose on an updraft.

Councilwoman Harris squeaked and covered her mouth.  Her eyes were wide, filled with unshed tears, and she shook.  Never, in all her days had she been so moved.

“It’s just Steed’s bag,” thundered McTaggart, oblivious to the miracle he witnessed.

Councilman Greene snickered.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Who Am I Talking To?

Split.  The latest from M. Night Shyamalan.  Let’s have a quick refresher – I’m not a Shyamalan fan boy.  I believe The 6th Sense was one of the best movies made, even if you know the twist.  I thought The Village was a masterful thriller.  The rest?  Not so much.  I freely admit I didn’t get Lady In the Water and honestly, did anyone anywhere like Devil?  Truly one of the worst films ever.  I’m glad to know it wasn’t a career killer but still, I almost didn’t bother with Split because of it.

However, #2 told me it was very good.  And my wife wanted to see it.  So off we went.
When I first started writing scripts, I read voraciously on the subject.  One of the recurring themes was that I would never watch movies the same way again.  Split proved that warning to be true for me.  Within 5 minutes I was analyzing everything from the inspiration to the introduction of characters.  I kept stopping myself from trying to figure out what was going to happen because I wanted to enjoy my large popcorn.
Depending on your definition, spoilers follow.
I’ll give you a minute in case you read faster than you process.  The characterization was pretty good.  I didn’t confuse any of the main cast and the dialog was extremely well done in the sense that I always knew which personality was talking, even without costume cues.  However, the dialogue was not extremely well done if you’re looking for lines that will become part of pop culture.  In fact, there were a few lines I found a bit cheesey.  But they never drew me out of the story far enough I couldn’t get back in.
Split was creepy the way The Village was creepy, a few gotcha moments and a setting that created tension.  It was not a horror movie and the gore was minimal.  My wife suggested that might be because I’m color blind, there were a few scenes where I didn’t know what happened because I didn’t see the blood.  Still, in this movie the violence was mostly suggested rather than witnessed.
It took a few twists and turns which played with stereotypes for the genre and were logically supported, but nothing earth shaking – there was no big twist like in the better films.  I’m also not sure it was entertaining.  It was dark in the way Prisoners was dark, but lacked the resolution.  I was disappointed by the ending.  There was the general sense of unease, discomfort even, and depression like his so-so The Happening.
I thought of Prisoners several times while watching.  And I had the sense that had an unknown written the film, it would only have been produced by a bit of luck.  I don’t say that to take away from the quality of the story, but to make the point that Split wasn’t any better than many of the unproduced scripts I’ve read and worse than several.
Perhaps the take-away is aimed squarely at struggling story tellers – the world is dark and bleak, but somewhere, somebody has the money to make your movie, whether it’s amazing or just pretty good.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What Happened to Space?

Do remember being a kid and wanting to be an astronaut?  I don’t hear that anymore.  None of my kids want to be astronauts.  None of their friends ever talk about it.  But I did, and so did all of my friends.  I have been wondering where the cut off was, when it stopped being the great adventure.

My first thought was it broke evenly along the generational line.  For my generation and our parents, space was exciting and still very new.  We knew the names of ships and their crews.  I suspect Topps even had collector cards for the various leagues.  Now it’s old hat, like sailing around the world in a small boat.  Not something many people do, but enough we don’t think anything about it when somebody does.

Then I wondered if the demise of the shuttle program and privatization of the industry led to decreased interest.  I was in second grade when the first shuttle lifted off and we stopped classes and gathered to watch the first two scrubbed launch attempts.  Everyone was disappointed the actual launch was in the middle of the night.  But we watched the landings and other launches.  And I watched the reentry and landing of the last shuttle flight on the TV in my office, felt the weight of history.  Thinking about it now still gives me chills.

My kids didn’t really care.  It meant nothing to them.  They never had toy space ships or a Boeing 747 with a spring launch system for the red plastic shuttle on its back.

I could blame video games but I’d rather blame Facebook.  Neither one is the likely culprit.  It isn’t a lackadaisical attitude by my kids either, they want to do big things.  They want adventure and meaning.  But my oldest wants to explore the dark depths of caves rather than space, my second to rescue people stranded on ships in the oceans rather than orbiting planets.

With the success of books and movies like The Martian I believe there is still a yearning for the great unknown beyond our atmosphere.  Just not in the next generation, not the way it was.  My daughter thought The Martian was great for the same reason she liked The Green Zone (Matt Damon).

Electricity.  That’s what it is.  If we turned off the power, looked up at a night sky unpolluted by city lights, someone in the next generation would say, “I wonder what’s there?”  And people would go.