Archive for March, 2015

A Writer’s Review of Twixt

twixt

Release Date: April 11, 2012 (Belgium)

MPAA Rating: R

Starring: Val Kilmer, Elle Fanning, Bruce Dern, Ben Chaplin.
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Spoiler Level: Who Cares?

Greetings, hacks and scribblers, ya bunch of whacky folks. I’m back, once again endeavoring to find meaning in my dreary scribbler’s life through the medium of film. Well…I didn’t find it in this one.

It’s pure coincidence that the next movie up is a Francis Ford Coppola flick, and it is instructive to see how one person’s art can differ from one project to another.

For your consideration: Twixt!

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

A writer with a declining career arrives in a small town as part of his book tour and gets caught up in a murder mystery involving a young girl. That night in a dream, he is approached by a mysterious young ghost named V. He’s unsure of her connection to the murder in the town, but is grateful for the story being handed to him. Ultimately he is led to the truth of the story, surprised to find that the ending has more to do with his own life than he could ever have anticipated.

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Twixt very nearly didn’t make the cut. But heck, I burned up 88 minutes of my life watching the silly thing, y’all can darn well read my review.

Ahem.

Val Kilmer stars alongside Bruce Dern and Elle Fanning—what could be possibly go wrong? What indeed.

In truth, the synopsis is probably why this movie made the cut. I read the synopsis now and it almost makes me want to watch the movie again. Almost.

Entertainment Quotient:

Rotten Tomatoes rated this film as “Rotten”, with an average score of 29% positive. I’d say that’s pretty close to the mark.

May I tell you something right up front? We’re friends, yes? Okay, here it is: This is an awful movie. There, I feel better now.

Somehow, though, it’s the kind of awful that’s sort of fun to watch. Especially as a writer (more on that below). But be warned: there are tons of “wait…what?” moments in this movie.

Less than two minutes in I knew we were in trouble; the gravel-voiced narrator is taking us through the town and past the church, and I quote: “The most astonishing thing about the town was an old belfry that had a clock tower with seven faces. You could see the time from anywhere in the town of Swann Valley. But the faces persistently told different times. No question; something evil was abiding there.” At which point I wanted to shout: “Excuse me, I have a question!” Apparently clocks that tell different times are…evil? Ummm-kay.

And watch for the whiskey-of-many-colors. Is it pink, is it amber? And my favorite gaffe of all is the really oooold bag of take-out. It has to be old, because we are in what seems to be an east coast backwater town and a kid brings in a bag from the Western States’ favorite burger joint In-N-Out (you cannot find this chain any further east than Utah). Oops.

This is a clearly well-made, low-budget movie. Lots of cinematographic bells and whistles. But whereas Coppola worked his vision with a deft hand in Tetro (see SoC #3), it seems here like someone doing Coppola.

Twixt is one of those movies that has you wondering if you just aren’t getting what the director was trying to do. Maybe y’all are a lot smarter than I and will have a grand time with the thematic brilliance. Or, maybe you’ll take my advice and put your brain on the shelf for the duration. Probably enjoy it more that way.

One notable performance (far, far too short in my opinion) is by the slick motorcycle-maybe-vampire character Flamingo, played by Alden Ehrenreich who starred as Bobbie in Tetro. That kid’s got style.

And while we’re talking performances, if you are a child of the ‘70s, you will feel as though you are welcoming an old friend when Don Novello makes an appearance—his voice will catch your attention, you’ll think, “ Where do I know him from?” And then it will hit you. Yep, that right there is Father Guido Sarducci.

The Writerly Element:

A few elements of writerly note…I guess.

We have repeated dream sequences where our hero, Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), has enigmatic conversations with Edgar Allan Poe (played well be Ben Chaplin). That’s a win.

Early on you can feel Baltimore’s pain when he arrives in the Podunk town for his book signing and finds the town does not even have a bookstore—they have him set up in a hardware store (note to self: fire agent).

Later (and I won’t even try to tell you what’s happening because I couldn’t if I wanted to), Baltimore gets excited about this hot new IDEA and sets up his portable writing table, with laptop, beef jerky, spare pens, and the unlikely pink—no wait it’s amber—Irish whiskey. The pure precision with which he lays everything out on his writing table is such a perfect representation of the writer’s mind. Everything has to be just so to let the muse speak. The writer in us recognizes all this as a stalling technique—I have a great idea and I don’t dare write anything down for fear of screwing it up.

Later, his soon-to-be-fired agent (or maybe he’s an editor) tells Baltimore, “No fog on the lake!”, which is apparently Baltimore’s favorite cliché. Baltimore’s efforts at crafting an opening sentence without exactly referencing fog on the lake is reminiscent of Throw Momma from the Train (which, come to think of it, needs to be on my list). These efforts are borderline laugh out loud hilarious.

Why Bother:

Because of the occasional transcendent moment like this, during yet another nonsensical dream sequence. Edgar Allan Poe is leading Hall Baltimore along a “Dark and Scary” cliff (I really don’t know why). As they walked along the cliff edge and I was scratching my head wondering, WTF?, this bit of dialogue happened:

Poe: Do you dare go further?

Baltimore: What are you talking about? Tell me the ending.

Poe: If you don’t stop now, every word that flows from your pen will be your own tale. You. You are the ending you seek.

That’s good stuff right there.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 Quills

Final Thoughts:

I…nope, I got nuthin.

I hope you will indulge me while I engage in a bit of harmless narcissism.

It recently came to my attention that I used to sing for folks. Like on stage and everything.

As a lark, I posted a very poor quality video of me singing a Guns-n-Roses tune and received some very nice words. You will likely not be surprised to hear that this pleased me.

What did surprise me was that these kind folks did not seem to know that I actually do this (or used to) semi-professionally. I began to wonder how many others of you out there are similarly out of the know.

So then. Here are a few moments from the recent past you might find fun. Or you may find them annoying, in which case you are invited to keep your big yap shut, um-kay?

I was lucky enough to spend some quality time with Foxtrot Mary, and the Fabulous Dana Moret of Mr. December. Good times indeed. All these fine folks are still out there, gettin’ funky and making the world a better place through music. Click their highlighted names and find them wherever they are playing next.

From large venues to tiny rooms with nothing but crickets to hear us, these were moments I will never forget. Enjoy.

countdown6

Part 6. It seems like only yesterday we were at Part 1.

Here’s a question: Anyone else bothered by the fact that we are counting up and not down? Interesting the things one notices long after the time such scrutiny would actually have been of value.

Anyhoo…

As our countdown begins to wind up (?!), I thought I’d drag Logan Cain in here for a little chit chat. You all know Logan, yes? Pastor of Midtown Community Church? No? Has no one read Relative Karma? How about Relative Sanity???

Geez, people. Just…geez.

So, I met with Pastor Logan at The Shanghai, a bar of local legend in Auburn, CA. Rumor is it’s haunted. Well, more than a rumor—I’ve been there into the wee hours, and if the air wasn’t congested with spirits then we were experiencing some kind of weird barometric phenomenon.

I knew Logan Cain from Relative Karma and had no trouble recognizing him when he walked through the door into the dimly-lit establishment. He was taller than I expected, with his silvery mane pulled into a long braid. He had on a Marilyn Manson t-shirt and his jeans were so shredded I had to look away—some things you just don’t need to see. He caught the bartender’s attention (who obviously recognized him, and looked oddly familiar to me) and held up two fingers, then pointed at me. He was at my table in two long strides and gripping my hand gently as he sat.

ME: You knew who I was?
LOGAN CAIN: That surprise you?
ME (shrugging): Yeah, I guess a little. Have we met?
LOGAN (cocking an eyebrow): I’ve spent plenty of time in that noggin of yours. You’re easy to spot.

I squirmed a little.

ME: Uhhh, yeah, I guess I get that. Anyway, thanks for meeting with me. You cool to answer a few questions?
LOGAN: Shoot.

A large pitcher of beer arrived with two mugs. I hadn’t planned on drinking, but if the man was buying…the waitress also looked familiar and I was starting to get a little head-swimmy with déjà vu.

ME: Is that Jewel?
LOGAN: Looks like her, doesn’t it?

He smiled…Cheshire Cat smiled…the room tilted and I continued.

ME: So, uhhh…we know how you met Jeff Vincent. I was wondering about your background. It’s pretty clear you give new meaning to the word unorthodox when it comes to what we expect of a pastor—
LOGAN (interrupting): Expectations are the bane of this sad world’s existence, son. Everyone is too busy trying to fit into someone else’s mold. What a fresh world it would be if we all approached life on our own terms, with our own open minds. Who cares what came before? Are you open-minded, son?

At that moment a blonde walked in that sucked all my breath away through my eyeballs. And, of course, I knew her.

ME: Uhhh…
LOGAN (snapping his fingers in front of my face): You in there, partner?
ME: I, um, yeah, I’m here.

I looked around, turning a three-sixty in my chair. I knew everyone here. And they were all watching me.

ME: What’s going on here?
LOGAN (leaning back, mimicking deep thought): Hmmm, “what’s going on?” the man asks.

Someone grabbed my chair from behind and tilted it sharply back. I turned and gasped. A big chunk of crumbling granite who could only be Karl Luber smiled down at me.

KARL: Congratulations, Reaves.
ME: …Errr…what the hell…?

The bartender waved. It was Detective Alex Tinkham from Relative Sanity. The stunning blonde was Shelley Vincent; Jeff Vincent was at the far corner smirking his butt off. Barista Benny was at the juke box next to Suzi and Wendy. Ramona was shooting pool with Nick Grimmer. And walking towards me…I began to hyperventilate.

LOGAN: Easy, son. Easy now.
ME: That’s Daniel. (He stopped before me, his goofy eye dancing). You are, aren’t you? You’re Daniel?
DANIEL (holding out his hand): H-h-happy h-handshake day, M-M-Mike!

I looked at Logan Cain, my mouth moving but nothing coming out.

ME: How is he here…he can’t be, he’s…
LOGAN Sure he is. Big deal. The Shanghai no longer exists either, so why swallow that camel and strain at Daniel?

The next few hours passed. I know they did, but I have no idea what transpired. Somewhere around midnight, Jeff Vincent stood on a table and clapped his hands.

JEFF: Everyone! Listen up. I appreciate all of you taking time to materialize here, but I didn’t bring you together just to party.

Jeff then went to the front door and whistled for someone. A minute later a nice-looking guy walked in looking a little uncomfortable.

JEFF: Everyone, this is Branden McKenzie.

There was a collective gasp within the room, loudest of all from me.

JEFF (pausing for effect): Ladies, gents, and sordid folks, the wait is over. Relative Karma is available NOW in audio!

There was a great deal of applause, and back-slapping, and drinks sloshing. I hugged Branden, who still looked like someone sleep-walking. I don’t blame him.

ME: Hold on! It’s only Part 6 of the countdown, errr…up. What do I do with the rest of the parts? And there’s supposed to be a quiz at the end!

Karl Luber grabbed me by the scruff of the neck (it did not feel good) and told me to hang the f-ing quiz (he didn’t say “f-ing”). I decided the quiz could go hang.

KARL: Listen, Reaves. Your people need to get clicking right now. HERE, HERE, or even HERE. Understand? You know what I’m capable of. If your people have been reading your books, they know too.

do it now

Which I guess brings us to the end of this weirdness. Ahead of schedule, and screaming to be heard, Relative Karma has gone audio. Download and listen. Report back to me. Go visit Branden McKenzie and tell him how awesome he is.
And thank you for joining me. I may still drag out a prize or two, but right now I need to put Jeff Vincent in a cab. He’s looking a little wobbly.

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alrighty then

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Relative Karma - ACX FINAL

countdown5

 

We’re at the halfway point. Huzzah!

huzzah
Because I’m tired (and because you have better things to do) I’ll keep this one short. Just a couple things to ponder…

#1: Fiction is all lies. Everything we write is lies, including this very sentence. You can’t trust anything a writer says in print. Case in point is the boiler plate nonsense you find in any book of fiction regarding persons living or dead. In Relative Karma it comes right under the title. Consider this rubbish:

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Please. We all know it’s not true, right? Well, sure, the names are changed—I’m not a complete idiot. But, as noted in Part 1, this is all based on a slightly enhanced version of true events. What actually happens in the forward flow of the narrative is made up, but what happened to get the ball rolling is true. It happened. And two of the characters are based on real people. Three of the locations in the book are real, with only one undergoing a name change because my characters spend so much time there I didn’t want to anger anyone due to an unwitting misrepresentation.

Coincidence my ass.

#2: Remember early on in this countdown series when I started blathering on about prizes? Well, I wasn’t kidding. The first person to comment on this particular post (below, not on Facebook) will get a $10.00 Amazon gift card. One exception: It cannot be someone who’s already commented on any of the previous countdown blogs. If you are one of those few who have previously commented, go tell a friend to get over here and drop a comment. Maybe they’ll buy you something.

What’s that you say? The prizes were supposed to be part of a quiz at the end?

Just goes to show what I said in point #1. You can’t trust anything a writer says.

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(Click on rock star me below. Go ahead, I’ll wait.)

the krude

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Relative Karma - ACX FINAL

countdown4

As we inch closer to the release of Relative Karma on audio, I want to talk about something that most non-writers don’t understand. Well, to be perfectly honest, most writers don’t understand it either, but it is something we come to trust, to believe will happen if we show up, put our ass in the chair, click our heels together three times…oh wait, that’s something else.

scarecrow

I’m talking about those mysterious moments during the writing of a project where things happen on which the writer did not plan. But it’s really bigger than that—every writer worth his or her salt follows the characters where they lead, listens when they speak, and writes it all down. Often times we are surprised by our characters’ bursts of dialogue. This is more or less the normal course of things for a writer, even when the story is outlined ahead of time. Unanticipated events occur and we smile, knowing the muse is singing and all is right with the world.

But what I really want to focus on is the pure, out-of-left-field happenstance that hugely affects a story and sends it off in an unforeseen direction.

In the case of Relative Karma, it was the loveable character Daniel. I don’t know where he came from, I honestly don’t. He literally showed up on the page (or on the street) as Jeff Vincent was walking from his apartment to Starbucks. Like so:

An hour and a half later I was walking south on Fifteenth toward K Street.The morning air had a snap to it and I noticed the homeless were beginning to sport their fall wardrobes; ragged scarves and soup-stained sweaters were all the rage this season. One poor bastard at the corner of Fifteenth and H was so shabby and filthy he looked more like a caricature of a bum than an actual homeless person. The dirt on his face looked applied; he was wearing honest-to-God fingerless mittens, and his “will work for food” sign—which carried a great deal of information regarding his plight—was so full of misspellings it had to be intentional. I stopped in front of him.

Boom. New character. And no garden-variety extra, either.

I had one job: get Jeff out of his apartment and a few blocks over to Starbucks to meet the femme fatale who may or may not be his undoing. And what does Jeff do during his walk? He starts looking around, sort of like any normal person would do, and he sees this homeless guy and…

And suddenly this homeless guy is telling Jeff his name. And (what’s going on here???) we start to like this guy. Jeff likes him, too, and offers to buy him a cup of coffee. The point to understand here is that I saw Daniel completely when he showed up on my screen. I heard him speak and fell in love with him. Instantly.

I suppose this kind of thing happens all the time with bit players and spear carriers. But it’s not quite as common with major characters. At least not with me.

How does this happen?

I can only go back to Stephen King’s theory of where stories come from, that they are found things (see On Writing). A story (I’m paraphrasing Mr. King) is something that exists somewhere in the ether as a complete entity. All we have to do as writers is find it (or it finds us) and write it down. King likens it to a fossil, mostly buried but with a tiny bit poking through the surface. We notice it—my, what an interesting little shard of rock that is—and begin our work, chiseling gently to uncover the whole. Sometimes we get a lot, sometime only a little. Our skill and a good deal of luck determine just how much we unearth.
I like this idea. It makes sense. And it helps explain the inexplicable.

It also makes one believe in serendipity, which of course is just another relative word for karma.

i see what you did

Go now, people, and find your serendipity. If nothing else, it’s a really fun word to say.

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(click on groovy me below…the hair demands it)

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Relative Karma - ACX FINAL

A Writer’s Review of Tetro

tetro_movie-poster-02

Release Date: June 26, 2009

MPAA Rating: R

Starring: Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú

Written by: Mauricio Kartun (verse “Fausta”), Francis Ford Coppola

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Spoiler Level: Low.

Greetings, hacks and scribblers. I bet you thought you’d never hear from me again, now did you? As they say (or, as Robert Burns actually did say):

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,

Loosely translated: Shit happens. In this case, lots of schemes are ganging aft agley all over the place. Several writing projects, including the blog countdown to the release of Relative Karma on audio. I plan to revisit my commitment to this particular series of writerly movies later, and will likely amend the list of movies somewhat. For now, I am quite happy with the increased activity in my writing world. All good things!

all good things

So, on to the movie at hand. I give you: Tetro!

The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:

Bennie travels to Buenos Aires to find his long-missing older brother, a once-promising writer who is now a remnant of his former self. Bennie’s discovery of his brother’s near-finished play might hold the answer to understanding their shared past and renewing their bond.

My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):

Two minutes into Tetro I knew I wanted this movie to make the cut. Ten minutes in and all doubts were gone. We have a tortured writer in Buenos Aries battling his inner demons. And it’s presented in gritty, black-and-white video. Yep, you bet it made the cut.

Entertainment Quotient:

Rotten Tomatoes averaged Tetro at 71% positive, labeling the movie as “Fresh.” On the whole, I’d say that’s a little lean.

Tetro is one of those films for which they like to use the term Work of Art. In this case I think they’re right. Coppola knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing in this film is showing us why we all know his name…in a good way.

Beautifully filmed in black-and-white, which makes the Buenos Aires locale that much more real, you believe within minutes that you are there, climbing the soiled steps with young Bennie to Angelo Tetrocini’s apartment.

The video quality is noir-esque from the get-go, and lends a surreal vibe to the film as a whole. (There’s a bit of nudity here, as well, and just why is it that black-and-white nudity is so much sexier than color?).

Speaking of color, there are a good deal of flashbacks in the film and they are all rendered in color, with the aspect ratio shrinking to a slightly smaller inset screen, almost like watching a movie within a movie, which somehow serves to make the flashbacks less “real” than the current-day black-and-white.

It is artsy, yes, but effectively so. With the exception of the method of filming, there are few bells or whistles here—this is slow, measured story-telling. This film is, at times, very nearly reminiscent of Greek tragedy. In flashback we see the tortured (and torturous) relationship between Tetro and his father. We begin to sniff out the ugly plot twist in the film. We get uncomfortable until the story sweeps us away again. Then we find ourselves at the end and we remember the twist…we were right and we were wrong.

Beautifully handled story-telling.

The Writerly Element:

There is so much here to offer, from virtually every corner of the writing life. In no particular order, here are a few things to watch for…

During a performance of “Fausta,” (a delightfully weird retelling of Faust from a female perspective), a sun-glassed, fur-wearing critic walks in and sends the small crowd into an awed hush—the critic’s name is Alone (make of that what you will).

Another scene I watched several times because of the painful resonance was this slice of Ouch between Bennie and Tetro.

Bennie: “Will you get back to your writing?”

Tetro: “I walked away from that.”

Bennie: “How do you walk away from your work? Doesn’t it follow you?”

It does, brothers and sisters. If you are a writer—if it’s what you are wired to do—forget trying to get away. It will follow you.

Later, in another poignant moment, Tetro says: “Am I not okay the way I am? Not famous enough?” Ouch again.

As younger brother Bennie continues to be rejected by Tetro, he begins piecing together and transcribing Tetro’s abandoned writings. We see these as ragged pen-and-ink scribblings, written in code, written backwards.

Bennie: “They’re great stories, they just don’t have an ending.”

Tetro: “They don’t need an ending. You know why? Because my stories will never be published.”

In a scene that could easily stand for Tetro’s entire motivation throughout the movie, we see Tetro’s famous composer father in a flashback, speaking to his son just before Tetro leaves to go on a writing sabbatical:

“To make a living as a writer…you’d have to be a genius. And we already have a genius in the family.”

Why Bother:

There are maybe a hundred reasons why I think Tetro is an important movie for writers. The section above barely scratches the surface. In the end, though, I was left thinking not just about writers, but the poor souls damned to spend their lives at our sides.

Tetro touches deeply on the Crazy in writers, and paints a vivid picture of the people who live with them; how hard it must be to put up with a bipolar personality who fears his own words, and the interior horror that inspired them.

With all our latent (and not so latent) insanity…these saints love us anyway.

Living with a writer, and all that entails, can be something of a punchline, but there’s a point to be made. Writers (and artists in general) do seem to run a greater risk of drug and alcohol dependence, not to mention courting madness on one level or another. Depression is common. Suicide often beckons as a final way to still the voices.

Speaking personally, I am grateful with everything I have for my partner—she understands my giddy highs and festering lows. She stands by me, props me up. She is, simply and always, there.

Maribel Verdú does a wonderful job of portraying Tetro’s partner, Miranda, who originally met Tetro during his self-committed stay at the local looney bin. At one point, when Tetro is spiraling out of control, she says:

“I’ll be at the other insane asylum. I need a break to clear my head.”

And later, in a moment of such authenticity I found it hard to breathe:

“I’m the only one who’s always in your corner, always supporting you, the only person in this fucking life who loves you.”

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills.

Final Thoughts:

There is one moment in this film I hope I never forget, and I’ll leave you with this: Toward the end of the film, when the skeletons had been dragged screaming from their closets and into the limelight, the critic (Alone) finally takes notice. Tetro looks at her and says:

“Your opinion doesn’t matter to me anymore.”

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(Going forward, I will likely detour liberally from the original list. There are far too many movies, and far too little time to view them all and present them here. I will continue in the original order, but will skip over movies that I feel aren’t spot-on to the discussion at hand. I beg your forgiveness.)

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Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what say you click on the image below and head over to the countdown? There be prizes, Precious, aye, prizes there be indeed.

Relative Karma - ACX FINAL