A Message for My Young Padawans

Hi, guys.

I thought it would be a good idea to get acquainted. There’s only so much information I can post in the forum and I wanted you to have an opportunity to know a little bit about the person who’s going to be tearing your work apart.

I’ve called myself a writer since I was 12 years old. Throughout my teens, I dreamed of becoming a bestselling author—I would have a bestseller by the time I was 30 and eventually score an Academy Award for adapting my own novel for the screen.

None of these things happened, of course.

I’m 33 now. I’ve published one short story. I have written one novel, but it’s so full of holes Clint Eastwood could take a shot at it and miss. It’ll probably never see the light of day.

On the other hand, I have landed multiple assignments writing feature magazine articles for a Colorado non-profit. I am regularly hired as a grant writer as well. I even spent about six-months back in 2009 contributing movie reviews to an online Christian magazine before it folded.

Every morning, I get up before the kids and write for an hour. I’ve completed a handful of short stories, all of which sit at various stages of readiness, all of which I plan to submit to publishers. I even have one such short sitting on the desk of a magazine right now, waiting for a response.

This is the typical daily life of a writer. It’s not what I imagined when I was 12, but I still wouldn’t trade it. I do it because I love it, just like you.

As we begin to work together, I want to give you some pointers I wish someone had given me when I was still in my teens.

First: read a lot. If you already do, great, but I want to challenge you to read outside your favorites. If you like Stephen King, try reading Anne of Green Gables. Read the classics. If you like CS Lewis, try a book called Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet. Overstreet shows how you can emulate Lewis without copying him. Challenge yourself. Find a list of Pulitzer-prize winners and read those. You’ll be amazed what you’ll discover. The more you read, the more you get a grip on that elusive idea of what works and what doesn’t.

Second: write a lot. I know you’ve heard that before, but I don’t think you’ve ever heard it like this:

THE GAP by Ira Glass from frohlocke on Vimeo.

Third: find a hobby. This can be anything, and it doesn’t even have to be creative. Find something you enjoy and do it every day.

A good hobby develops your discipline muscles, and writing well requires discipline. It takes days of sitting at the keyboard time after time writing one terrible paragraph after another. You do it because you will get better. You do it because small moves yield big results.

Personally, I like to run. During the week, I go out and run four miles during my lunch break (unless I have a meeting). When I started running, I started with a mile. Three months later, I was up to four. Six months later, I had lost 40 pounds.

When I started that novel, I committed to 1,000 words a day. Some days I wrote more, some days I wrote less. Sometimes, I even skipped a day. When I finished, it clocked in at 109,000 words. Want to know how long it took me to write it? Four months. That’s all. I started in September and I was finished before the Super Bowl.

This is an adventure we’re going to take together. You can do this. I already believe in you.

Now let’s get to work.

Transitions

transitionsSplinters of Light began as a personal experiment. When I started this in 2012, I was in between projects. Freelance assignments had dried up and I needed something to prompt me to write on a regular basis.

It’s time to admit it: my powers of articulation and criticism haven’t grown as I once hoped they would.

Part of this is because I haven’t invested the necessary time. The critics I enjoy—whose opinions run counter to that old axiom “if the critics hate it, then I’m gonna love it!”—see hundreds of films a year. I’m lucky if I get to see more than 20. They’ve studied art across multiple mediums, studied film history and developed numerous powers of insight. Me, I’ve read a few books here and there. They are Olympians. I’ve tried swimming in their pool and I can’t keep up.

In the last year, however, freelance assignments have picked back up. I’m watching fewer films, but I’m reading more books.

And I’ve reacquainted myself with my first love: telling stories.

I started calling myself a writer when I was 12. I used to hand-write my stories on lined paper. I even tried creating my own comic books once I discovered spiral-bound sketch pads.

I loved the act of sub-creation. It’s a love affair that’s had its fits and starts over the last 10 years. The idea of being a novelist looks romantic and beautiful until you actually try to be one. Still, I published a short story in an obscure publication (so obscure I can’t even link to it) back in 2006. I wrote an actual 109,000-word novel in 2010. It’ll never see the light of day (at least, not in its current form), but the experience taught me many valuable lessons.

When you’re married with two kids and bills to pay, that lovely notion of retreating to a room to craft the next American masterpiece wilts like a dead rose. In its place grow thousands of weeds. They will choke you unless you mow them down. That, I’ve learned, is where the real work begins.

Earlier this year, I was approached to help out with a small writer’s forum as a mentor to young teenage writers. After looking at what was involved, I decided to dive in. Therefore, this site is transitioning to an extension of my new role as a mentor. It’ll still by my little effort to participate in the ongoing conversation about stories–how they’re told, and the splinters of light that point the way to the Great Story–just in a different way.

I may still post an occasional movie review, too.

There’s a lot of stuff that I wish I had known about this gig when I was 15 and 16. I’m eager to share what I’ve learned, and I’m eager to learn from them as well.

Everybody wants an Incredibles sequel. Except me.

(c) Disney/Pixar

(c) Disney/Pixar

Disney CEO Robert Iger made the announcement yesterday: The Incredibles 2 is happening, and Brad Bird is writing it.

Ten years on, The Incredibles hasn’t aged a day. It’s my favorite pick out of the Pixar library. It is easily their best candidate for a sequel. And while my inner 11-year-old would love to see it, my inner 33-year-old feels a little disappointed. I wanted The Incredibles to stand alone.

It’s not that I’m tired of sequels (though, when it comes to Pixar, I am). It’s not that I think Brad Bird isn’t up to the task. In my mind, there’s a very fine line between a film that begs for a sequel and one that could, but shouldn’t. If that even makes any sense.

Let me put it this way: If John Hughes were still alive, I wouldn’t want him to make Ferris Bueller’s Next Day Off. I kind of wish Ghostbusters 2 didn’t exist, and I’d be all right in a world that stopped with one Back to the Future film (as was originally planned). 

Some movies don’t necessarily need a sequel. It’s not that they’re not good enough, or that another adventure in that world wouldn’t be worth the trip. There’s some … I don’t know, a vague sense of integrity that gets lost. I know a sequel won’t sully the original one iota. Nothing I love about it would change. It’s just –

You know how Toy Story 2 capped the story so well we thought Toy Story 3 was unnecessary? That’s what an Incredibles sequel feels like to me. And just like Toy Story 3 defied every expectation, I fervently hope The Incredibles 2 will do the same.

There’s no reason not to get excited. Bird will be back—that’s a solid plus, and I’m all for letting Bird do what he wants. I loved Ratatouille. His take on Mission: Impossible injected some much-needed fun into a franchise that needed it. I have no doubt Tomorrowland will be great. Thing is, before Tomorrowland ever got the green light, Bird was well into pre-production on 1906, a film about the San Francisco earthquake of that year.

Details on 1906 remain thin. The film was a victim of the 2008 economic crisis, which made studios a lot less interested in spending $200 million on less than a sure thing. Early word was that Bird’s script was terrific. As great as an Incredibles sequel could be, I wanted to see 1906 more.

I have every confidence in Bird. He’s a proven talent. He’s stated before that he wouldn’t go back to The Incredibles unless he had a story to tell that was just as good, if not better than, the original. I believe him. And when it hits theaters, I’ll probably go and see it. My inner 11-year-old will be thrilled. 

My inner 33-year-old will just have to wait and see.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

(c) Lucasfilm/Paramount

(c) Lucasfilm/Paramount

While Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull retains many of the qualities that raised its predecessors to legendary heights, it takes things a step or two beyond the line of credibility.

It’s 1957. Upon arrival at a secret army base in Nevada, Indiana Jones is pulled from the back of a car where he’s confronted by the nuclear age’s answer to the Nazis—Soviets. Leading the Soviets is the rapier-wielding Irena Spalko. She represents a speculative arm of Soviet muscle, implying an inclination to telepathy in her service to the Motherland. Her men have commandeered the base and they want Jones to help them find a secret weapon hidden inside the base’s warehouse. It’s something they say he’s seen before, something very powerful, and not of this world. (more…)

Man of Steel (2013)

(c) Warner Bros.

(c) Warner Bros.

Superman first appeared in 1938. In the 78 years since, his origins have seen so many retellings that expecting any new interpretation to strictly adhere to either one of them becomes an exercise in futility. However the story plays, the same fundamentals continue to assert themselves:

Superman was sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El. He landed outside a farm in Kansas where he was raised by a kindly farmer and his wife and taught the values of Truth, Justice and the American Way (TM). As an adult, he becomes Superman, a hero for the ages. Disguised as Clark Kent, a mild-mannered newspaper reporter, he engages Lois Lane in battles of rapier wit, hard-hitting journalism, and eventual romance.

That’s the gist in a nutshell. MAN OF STEEL covers each of the highlights while dressing the proceedings in an odd combination of influences. Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder possess very different strengths. Nolan brings a level of sophistication and dark morose to his work. Threads of sadness weave throughout his stories, like he knows the world is broken and fixing it may never happen, but someone has to try. Snyder has a much more aggressive, much less nuanced approach. He can certainly choreograph action far better than Nolan, but he can’t lay subtext without showing the seams. Parts of Nolan want to break through, but what we have here seems to be two competing sensibilities. The result is a big bombastic romp that feels like it’s missing one thing while retaining too much of another.

(more…)

Iron Man Three (2013)

(c) Disney / Marvel

(c) Disney / Marvel

It’s a bitter pill, sitting down to watch a film that has every ingredient it needs to be something special, and what you get doesn’t live up to it. Iron Man 3 has everything it needs to work the magic. The spell just isn’t cast.

Let’s look at what the chefs at Marvel pulled out of the cupboard. Robert Downey, Jr. A solid talent, comfortable with the banter just as much as the serious stuff. Shane Black. An excellent writer who’s already established his ability to blend plot with complicated emotional baggage. For Black, who created Lethal Weapon, Tony Stark riffs on the Martin Riggs archetype: the lovable, damaged rogue. Before, it was Stark’s destructive lifestyle/career, and then it was his daddy issues. Now it’s some kind of anxiety in response to what he encountered in The Avengers. The potential threat level looms larger than he had ever imagined and he’s curse with the weight of keeping prepared.

Into this steps the Mandarin, a terrorist preying on the innocent, a villain no one seems able to defeat. Stark doesn’t like bullies. He may not stand as noble as Steve Rogers, but they believe in some of the same virtues. Stark challenges the Mandarin to a fight, and much fighting ensues. There might be some logic gaps involved with some of the tech, but it manages to work well enough.

All the problems creep in through the telling. Certain reveals strain some old clichés. No one expects comic book movies to ground themselves in reality, but they should at least reach for some semblance of it. Rich corporate geniuses aren’t the ones blowing themselves up in the real world. There are others, but it’s here that IR3 makes some of its biggest stumbles.

Much of the film’s middle deals strictly with Stark’s development. Once more, he has to battle some iteration of his inner demons. This time, there’s a kid involved. He’s a young charmer, an anchor to keep the hero grounded. He fills the roll Pepper Potts vacates this time out. Though Pepper gets a few cool moments, the absence of her influence lingers in spite of the kid’s efforts.

I don’t believe the idea that, now that the Marvel movies have entered phase two, these films have to reach higher in scope and action than previous episodes. IR3 feels like it wants to believe the same thing, but it doesn’t feel very confident about it. Some of the set pieces, particularly at the climax, get to be a bit much. Those logic gaps only increase the longer the action plays. It all looks very exciting, and one moment right at the height of the action plays pretty well, despite the fact that it really shouldn’t be happening at all.

Then there are the plot similarities to The Incredibles. Brad Bird did it better.

The heart at its center beats with all the earnestness it can muster. There’s almost an excess of Tony Stark, doing his best to ply his charms. While it might be because Downey, Jr. wanted more face time, the film at least provides some context. Tony is Iron Man — the hero is more than just a suit. It matters who wears it.

That angle should work. All the beats are there. I don’t even mind the absence of AC/DC. But watching this feels like listening to someone else cover their hits.

Starring:

Robert Downey, Jr.

Gwyneth Paltrow

Don Cheadle

Guy Pearce

Ben Kingsley

Written by: Drew Pearce and Shane Black

Directed by Shane Black

The Conjuring (2013)

(c) New Line Cinema

(c) New Line Cinema

As you take your first steps into the world of THE CONJURING, two things become very apparent.

First: you realize you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. James Wan knows what scares you. He knows how to build a scare that reaches beyond quick movements punctuated by a loud noise. He doesn’t resort to cheap tricks. He knows how to place the camera to make use of a room’s space, knows when to keep the shot tight to limit your field of view, knows how to choreograph not just his actors, but where and when you need to have your eyes on something important. He knows when to offer you a glimpse, and when you need a nice long look at the terror.

Second: this story feels real. Haunted house movies are a dime a dozen. Many claim their stories are based on true events, almost all of them fail to evoke anything more than a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that goes away once the lights come up. THE CONJURING lingers long after the credits roll. Movies that portray demonic powers often fail to capture the sinister malevolence captured by stories such as THE EXORCIST. We like our movie evil easily vanquished, or so powerful as to be almost god-like. The reality lands somewhere in between, but far removed from the ease of defeat. There’s a sense of dread Ingmar Bergman created in THE SEVENTH SEAL when the angel of death appears. “It’s the angel of death passing over us … and he’s very big.” THE CONJURING does not shy away from evil’s size. It is not easily vanquished, nor is it given powers far beyond its true scope. But it is very big.

Rich characters underscore the genuine feel of the story. Wan builds an ensemble in which every character lives and breathes with well-defined traits, making each of them a separate person. The Perron family earns empathy through their love for each other, the energy of their play, how quickly play turns to conflict, even the underhanded sneakiness siblings ply against each other.

After a short time, however, the Perrons encounter some very troubling things about their home. Spirits lurk in the dark, and they only mean harm. Their actions assume every shape, from mockery to outright cruelty. The slow assertion of their presence prompts Carolyn Perron (ably performed by Lili Taylor) to seek help from two ghost hunters—Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga make the Warrens a couple that rise above the oddity of their work. These two earn your sympathies by making you believe that what they’ve seen is real. They face it with courage punctuated by clear conviction. Farmiga in particular owns the movie. She knows just how to react, just how to look, just how to make you know exactly what she’s thinking. We never really get a good picture of the Warrens’ faith life, and I think that’s a good thing. The day-to-day practice of faith never looks very exciting on film. It needs legs, and the film sets those legs to run at a full sprint.

Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hays have written a tight narrative. Almost nothing goes to waste in this picture. It’s a lovely thing to weave a tale that manages to knot nearly every thread and this one does not disappoint. Every element matters. Things that first appear extraneous come back into play in clever and unexpected ways. The brothers Hays even address a pair of old haunted house clichés and overcome them with ease. A story that could easily have turned the Warrens into a joke treats the subject at hand with level-headed seriousness. It makes neither comedy nor melodrama of their work.

Given the religious underpinnings of the tale, I appreciate the filmmakers’ respect for the Catholic milieu. Movies like this usually ignore Jesus Christ. They make use of his name as a curse or as a totem easily tossed aside by the forces of evil. The name of Christ carries authority in this film. Regrettably, it isn’t as much as I would have preferred, but the one who speaks in his name knows whose hands are keeping him on his feet.

THE CONJURING musters a solid sense of the numinous. As the dread mounts, a subtle reminder of the greater reality—a deeper magic, if you will—works underneath it all. The glimpse offered behind the fabric of the world is a terrifying one, but it leaves you with the knowledge that while evil is very big, much bigger than we ever like to dwell upon, there is one who is bigger still. While his heel may be bruised, the head of evil is always crushed under his weight.

A final note of caution: this is an R-rated film, so take it seriously. Much of the story’s violence affects the Perron’s children. Though it doesn’t push any envelopes or try to break new ground in blood or gore, the threat involves some disturbing thematic elements.
Starring:
Vera Farmiga
Patrick Wilson
Lili Taylor
Ron Livingston

Written by Chad Hayes and Carey Hays

Directed by James Wan

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

(c) Lionsgate

(c) Lionsgate

The Cabin in the Woods waffles back and forth between settings. The white-collar workaday business at what looks like just another office shares space with the creepy confines of the film’s namesake. Explaining how these two settings relate to each other would be spoiling things. If you haven’t seen it already, treat yourself. You’ve never seen the old-school horror tropes get skewered like this.

Before we dive in, this is a rated R film. Younger readers who might have found their way here from my Facebook page should probably avoid it for a while. But your parents may get a kick out of this.

What looks like your typical cookie-cutter slasher film is really something quite different. We’ve seen the set up more times than we can count. Five attractive stereotypes—the jock, the brain, the blond, the druggie and the virgin (kind of)—head off to a secluded place in the woods. After the requisite creepy inserts and tales of a bygone legend to foreshadow the coming doom, there’s flirting, there’s sex, and then there’s bloodshed. And wouldn’t you know it, I haven’t spoiled a single surprise. There’s much more going on under the surface (and I do not mean that in the figurative sense).

Old tropes got to be tropes in the first place because there was a time when they worked. Cabin dusts them off and gives them a nice clean polish. Joss Whedon seems to have his hands in almost everything these days. He and his old friend Drew Goddard put this little gem together and their fingerprints cover the thing from beginning to end. They infuse these walking cliches with a touch more brain power and insight than the usual scary story would allow and turns them into something a little more substantial.

Every surprise in this movie deserves enjoyment. It returns a little verve to an old favorite, at once renewing and sealing the lid on a sub-genre that really has run its course. You could call it a parable. Maybe we need to be a little more mindful of our stories and the way we tell them. What invites mockery may not make for the best way to parlay your point, unless you spin it the way this movie spins the old-school horror genre. Then it becomes a one-shot deal. The Cabin in the Woods may inspire some copycats. If it does, the copycats have missed the point.

It’ s a struggle to stay so vague, keep everything in very general terms without giving away anything specific. The filmmakers spin their tale with taut precision, so keep your eyes open. They have delivered you something much better than the usual Big Mac. They cleverly package something new in the same little brown box, and they want you in on the joke. All you have to do is open the lid.

What you’ll find inside, if you’re willing to look long enough, acts a little like a looking glass. Not everyone will like this picture. And some who run to see it will miss the fact that the joke’s on them.

If you want anymore detail than that (and a far better analysis than I anything I’ve delivered here), go read what Jeremy Purves has to say. He gets it.

Will you?

 

***

 
Starring:
Kristen Connolly
Chris Hemsworth
Richard Jenkins
Bradley Whitford

Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard

Directed by Drew Goddard

The Golden Compass (2007)

(c) 2007 New Line Cinema

(c) 2007 New Line Cinema

When The Golden Compass (based on the novel Northern Lights by Philip Pullman) first made the rounds in theaters, I remember most of the buzz focused on the more controversial aspects of the story. If The Chronicles of Narnia were the Christian benchmark for children’s fantasy stories, then Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is its antithesis. Many writers have already thoroughly dissected these aspects (I’ll link to a few at the end); what I want to do is look at the craft of the film itself. If the film failed to connect with audiences, it wasn’t because of its subversive elements. Compass achieves an impressive amount of world building, fills the space with a strong assortment of characters, but it doesn’t fill their souls with enough life to make it all matter. (more…)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

(c) Paramount Pictures

(c) Paramount Pictures

In the months leading up to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, I made a bet with a friend that J.J. Abrams would not try to reboot the Khan story. I had hoped that if Abrams were to revisit elements of Trek’s original series, he’d avoid inviting comparisons to something many already considered a classic. I figured rebooting Khan would induce more groans that glee.

I was wrong on both counts, however, and now I owe my friend a cup of coffee.

It was a close match—groans made a late surge in the third quarter and threatened to edge glee out of a hard-fought win. Despite some close calls, glee ran down the clock with more points on the board. So let’s check out the highlights. (more…)