Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Movie Review: Magic Mike

No, seriously, I am going to write a review for a movie about male strippers.

I was seriously derided by member's of my wife's family for tweeting that I enjoyed this movie. It's no classic, that's for sure (and I'll get to that in a moment) but it was a pretty darn good movie. As I was watching it, I turned to my wife and said, "This reminds me a lot of 'Boogie Nights.'"

As I think on it, it was more like BOOGIE NIGHTS Light and I think that was part of the appeal to me. BOOGIE NIGHTS is one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years. I think it's a great example of a modern epic. No, really. We use the word epic all wrong these days but this isn't one of these times. BOOGIE NIGHTS was an epic movie along with being a modern classic. Make no mistake, MAGIC MIKE doesn't approach BN in scope or quality, but they are both similar movies exploring similar themes while playing with similar tropes, to varying degrees of success and failure.

What I Liked:
  1.   Matthew McConaughey: In a forest of wooden performances, McConaughey stands head and shoulders above the rest. McConaughey is often cast as the kind of guy that men want to hang out with and women want to be with. He is always likable in his roles and is the guy you are rooting for the entire time. For the first time that I've seen him, McConaughey is playing unlikable and doing it well. He's still got that likable thing going on, but he's so sleazy and sneaky in this movie. He's on the cusp of being a washed up exotic dancer but clutching to it like a piece of flotsam. He owns the role, more concerned with the money he's earning than what happens to his men while seeming to care about the men. For a guy that makes his bread and butter by playing likable guys, his two most memorable roles are creeps, this one and as Wooderson. If Burt Reynolds got an Academy Award nod for playing Jack Horner, I have no idea why McConaughey didn't for Dallas. Seriously.
  2. Seedy Underbelly: We all love movies about the things we don't want to talk about. That's why gangster movies are so popular. And we continue to go deeper, look at TV shows like BREAKING BAD and SONS OF ANARCHY or the rise of "grimdark" in fantasy literature. We like the dark, seedy underbelly of society. The dark places we don't want to go and taking your clothes off for money is part of the dark underbelly, only to be found under layers of glitter, baby oil, spray tan and who knows what else. Like all with life, things intersect especially in the dark recesses of the sex business. And they are places many of us, in the darkest places in our minds that we don't want to admit exist, are drawn to and fascinated by them. This movie takes us to one of those places. 
  3. Band of Brothers, So To Speak: If you read my previous post about being able to tell I wrote something, you know that one of the themes that I often explore in my own writing is the bond between men. MM deals heavily with this issue and really latches on to it in a bunch of different ways. Mike is responsible for The Kid throughout the whole movie. He is the reason The Kid gets into the business and there is a strong bond between the two characters because of this. They become brothers and constant companions...until they don't. The dancers as well are a band of brothers, united under Dallas as a member of his company, bonding together and responsible for one another. When something happens to one, there is no hesitation by the others to help out. The entire final third of the movie is about the dissolution of this bond and the damage it can cause to these men.
  4. Futility of Dreams: If there is a great American theme in literature and cinema, it is the realization that our dreams don't always come true and in all likelihood our dreams will never come true, no matter how hard we work. It's a hard truth sometimes, but it's also reality. The characters in this movie are all lower middle class, blue collar types that probably didn't have much of a chance at anything anyway. We don't get much background about the characters, but there's certainly an implication about their histories and where their dreams went off the tracks. It's a fascinating study to say the least.
  5. Men As Sex Objects: While this isn't my cup of tea, it's nice to see a movie where we aren't just ogling naked women. Also, the plot line between Mike and his gal pal Joanna was well done. The hurt that Mike feels when he realizes what he is to her is brilliant and one we've seen a thousand times from the other end.
 What I Didn't Like
  1. Can't See The Forest For The Trees: Wooden acting damn near killed this movie for me. Besides McConaughy and Tatum (at times), this cast was a bunch of Pinocchos. The older sister (I'm getting to that in a second) is as wooden as they come.
  2. Cliche Storm: Steven Soderberg, the director, usually does a nice job playing with the tropes of storytelling and puts his own spin on them. I mean look at the OCEAN'S movies. The characters are all cliches, but he does them well, but he flounders a bit here. There is so much he wanted to do with this movie he lost a lot of the characterization of the guys in the troupe and they descend into cliche-dom before long. His use of drugs and the drug culture was overused and trite as well, there were other ways to go. I think there would have been a better movie if instead of solely Ecstasy or pills (and I get that's a part of the times thing) he used something like steroids (it would make sense considering the entire "aging stripper" plotlines) instead. Also, too many of the scene seemed like retreads of things we've seen before, borrowing heavily from BN.
  3. Mama Bear: I always like the overprotective sibling character, but in the older sister is really flat and boring. There's nothing appealing about her character at all. She adds nothing to the movie but a nag on the boys good time. The fact that I feel that way about her shows how poorly done a character she is. 
  4. RomCom: The entire Mike/Brooke romantic subplot feels forced and while the ending is relatively satisfying (right up until she says that her favorite breakfast place doesn't open for 7 hours...what are we going to do until then), it still didn't fit the tone of the rest of the movie.
What Can I Take Away As A Writer?
I had to think about this for a while, because as a guy that writes YA and fantasy, there isn't much on the surface of this movie for me to take away without crossing over and talking about the influence and significance of BOOGIE NIGHTS on my writing. But there is some stuff that I can take away from MM to use in my writing, including somethings that are already there.

In my series SEASONS OF DESTINY, I have a character that I desperately want to come across as crooked and sleazy (actually in my mind's eye he bears a striking resemblance to Channing Tatum). Watching and paying attention to the character Dallas was a good way to do so, because he oozes the exact sort of attitude and demeanor I want the character to. And like Mike, that character is on a road to redemption and salvation, if you will.

I also realized that you can't just shove a romantic element into a story if there isn't one there. I know that SEASONS lacks some romance in it, but I'm not going to pigeonhole it in there because it might make it more marketable for a romance to be in there. And that goes for a lot of other elements too, you can't just shove things in there because you want them there, they have to make sense within the context of your story.

There is something trashy about this movie that appeals to me. I could've put this as it's own thing under the "Things I Like" section, but I covered it with what I put there so I didn't. I genuinely believe there is a white trash/low life Nicholas Sparks-esque novel in me somewhere and I think that it would sound quite a bit like MAGIC MIKE looks.

Well, that's a first...I just analyzed how a movie about male stripper could influence my writing.

As I progress with these movie reviews, I'm going to include photos and maybe even gifs, but for now you'll just have to use my words. Cause that's what's really important.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How To Tell It's A Zeleznik

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my desk while my roommate was teaching her class and a discussion about theme came up with her class. She brought me into the discussion and asked me if, when I write, do I put themes in my work on purpose or do they develop independently? It's an outstanding question that I paused and thought about it for a moment. The words of another colleague came to mind, "No writer worth their salt puts something in their work on accident." (I'm paraphrasing a bit as I don't remember the exact quote from him.) And that is true...sort of. I responded to my roommate that they do get put in there on purpose though you don't often realize that you are putting them in there until after you've finished a draft or two, which is how I usually can pick up on my themes, which, in the course of this brief discussion, I realized I explored many of the same themes in all of my works (I know, all unpublished but someday dammit!) and I realized what I was talking about is motifs.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word motif means "a usually recurring salient thematic element (as in the arts)." It's one of my favorite literary words because it the motifs a writer uses in their work reveals as much about the writer as they do what they write. This is great self analysis I suppose though I'm probably too close to the subjects to comment on them, but looking across all the crap (and until some editor deems that I am the genius that I think I am, I'm calling my stuff crap) that I've written, I've picked up on some motifs and elements that would identify me as the writer:

  1. Bonds of friendship between men: Okay this one is in just about everything I write no matter what the genre and I KNOW it's one that I play with and explore. Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play and it's one of the major themes of that play and it's crossed over into all of my work, from my trunk novel The Falling Dark to my Seasons of Destiny books to the novella I'm working on now, the friendships between guys is an important theme. 
  2. Children paying for the sins of their parents: Mostly sons paying for their father's transgressions but there's other examples in their too. It really is one of the major themes of  Seasons of Destiny and I definitely put it in Sisters of Khoda as well. I know that I want to tell a Jaiman story revolving around some mistake his father made as well somewhere down the line. 
  3. Trees: It might have been the fact that a tree took my first two teeth when I was younger, it might be that I'm fascinated with the power and mystique of them, but in all of my work trees take a central role. From the "witchwoods" in Seasons to the grotto in Sisters, there's a lot of thematic importance to trees.
  4. Betrayal: As a writer of fantasy, betrayal is my bread and butter to be quite honest, but it's an important part of all my stories, even my self indulgent attempts at contemporary fiction.
 I'm sure there are more, but these seem to be the ones that my stories revolve around and make my fiction move. They are the things I'm probably trying to reconcile within myself and using my fiction to self-analyze and self-therapy-ize my own issues.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Being Mean

One of the things I've ranted on before, in one place or another, is the prevailing sense entitlement that has reached epidemic proportions in our world. As a teacher and aspiring published novelist it permeates almost every aspect of my life on a semi-regular basis and it's a direct result of our generation forward...and it's only going to get worse.

When I started this blog, I vowed that I was going to keep anything beyond the scope of writing out of it, but as with a great many things, my writing life and my professional life intersect and I find a parallel that I want to discuss, this idea of entitlement that has become part of the fabric of our culture and what it's doing to publishing.

If you are new or just don't know, I am a high school English teacher at an inner city school in Syracuse, NY. Now I know we're not talking the Bronx or Chicago or LA or anything like that, but still. For the last two years I've taught Freshman, two sections of double block literacy program classes with students at least two grade levels behind in reading ability and one section of Advanced. I had a situation occur during my advanced class yesterday that inspired today's post.

About a week ago, I had assigned a creative writing assignment related to Romeo and Juliet to the students. (Common Core be damned!) They were quite good actually and I was very happy. Grades on the assignment (graded on a rubric) ranged from 75 to 100 with the average being 90. AS students read their comments and looked at their grades, I heard one girl say "HE hates me, he's so mean."

Now initially, I thought perhaps this girl was speaking of some boy. It turns out that boy was me and she was very upset at the 90 she received on the project. Now never mind the whole 90 is good argument, that point is moot.

The project was good. It was a creative angle, but about half way through her story, it got very confusing (Not in the good way that confusing can be in a story but in that, "What the f**k was the writer thinking?" kind of way) and I had to reread it several times to get back into the story. Her writing was good, not great. She earned 30 out of 40 points on the section about Ideas/Organization/Content and was perfect for the rest, earning her a 90. She came up to me, with red-rimmed, tear filled eyes and asked, "Why did you give me a 90?"

Let me pause for a moment (trust me, I'm going to get to the writing part in a minute) and tell you all something, there are few more infuriating things to say to a teacher than "Why did you give me ____?" I won't go into the particulars of why, but it does.

I looked up at the girl and very coolly responded, "You EARNED a 90."

To which she responded with, "Everyone else got a 100."

Entitlement at it's finest. "Everyone else did well, so should I."

I kept my cool and said, "No, they did not." She walked away in a huff, not happy with me at all.

While all this was going on, my phone was buzzing in my pocket. I'd received an email from my agent informing me of a rejection on WINTER'S DISCORD I'd received with some notes. It was a bummer and I was really disappointed. It was a publisher and editor I would have loved to work with.  The critique of my work hurt. I descended down the slippery spiral of self-doubt and anger over my own perceived lack of writing ability. But as much as it bothered me, I took it in and reflected, making me wonder if his assessment of my work were true and the first questions that came to my mind were ways to fix what he suggested was broken. Just because I think I'm good, doesn't mean I'm good enough. I've got to earn this, it's not handed to me

My agent did tell me he disagreed with what was said and was incredibly supportive of me, saying, as agents do, just the right thing at the moment I needed him to say something to make me feel better about me and my writing.

I see my student's attitude everywhere in writing today. Read the comments section over on Agent Query. Read some people's blogs. People think they are good and they aren't or they need some editorial help to make them better. But that's not what they really want.

And it's this attitude that ruins self-publishing. A board that I frequent has a "Writing" thread and one of the people that frequents the thread sent out a few queries for his book to agents. It got rejected. He threw up his hands and began a rant on the evils of the publishing industry then announced he was going to self publish his 300k word fantasy novel because of that rejection. I can't tell you how many things were wrong with that post, so much so I think a vein in my head may have ruptured.

Regretfully, there lack of editorial control in too many self-published books, mostly because someone doesn't want to hear that maybe there's a chance they aren't as good as they think they are. And what that does is color someone like me as being against self-published authors, which for a long time I was until I got schooled on it a bit in the last few years. My view has eased so much that my present WIP is going to be a self-published e-novella. However, I'm using a professional editor to help me get it ready for public consumption(my agent, but hey, that's what he's there for!) and I'm using professional artists to do any artwork.

In the end, we're human beings and it hurts to hear someone say that maybe we're not as good as we think we are , but you know what, I want someone to be mean to me if it means that I want to be a better at something I love.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I've decided to add a new "feature" to my blog to get me to blog a little more about something I really love: movies. I'm going to do these reviews in three parts. First part I am calling "What I Liked," the second part is going to be "What I Didn't Like" and the third part is going to be a pseudo-analysis of what I can take away from the movie as a writer. So here goes....installment number one: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

So I stayed up entirely too late last night to watch this movie and I enjoyed it very much. Let's address the elephant in the room first. The novel The Hobbit is one of those books. It's importance to writers of fantasy is immeasurable. Without it, many of us are still looking for work, so to speak. I dare say, to me, that it might be more important than Lord of the Rings. As with adapting anything with that much love and importance, there is bound to be issues. With that understanding, here we go:

What I Liked
  1. Martin Freeman: To those of us of a certain age, Bilbo Baggins will always and forever be Orson Bean. (There's another blog post in me about Batman and Kevin Conroy, but I digress) That being said, Martin Freeman is pitch perfect as Bilbo. He brings all the right notes about the character to the screen while adding just the right amount of self-deprecation and humor. I really enjoyed Freeman in the terribly mediocre adaptation of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and he's perfect in this role, hobbit mullet and all.
  2. Erebor: Was this not the image of every Dwarven city from any D&D game, module, guidebook or novel that we ever read growing up? It's literally as if Peter Jackson reached into our collective geek minds and made everything we dreamed a reality. It was just stunning, from the entrance to the mines to the corridors and walkways. Bloody brilliant.
  3. Rivendell: It's easy to forget how stunning a place Rivendell is supposed to be and Jackson pulls it off. 
  4. The Dwarves: I always liked how Jackson approached the dwarves. Sure they were strong and stocky but like people, there are all kinds and we see that in this. And I always hated that dwarves are limited to using axes and hammers. It was nice to see some swords, bows, maces and even a slingshot thrown in there.
  5. The Riddle Scene: The most important scene in maybe the whole book and they nailed it. It was taut and well played. Andy Serkis owns Gollum and Freeman's Bilbo is threatening to Gollum as he is unsure to us. Unfortunately it's kind of overshadowed by some...wait, I'll get to that in a minute.
  6. The Dinner Party: Utterly brilliant and fun...from the raucousness of the dwarves to Bilbo's fretting over things and finally to Bilbo just throwing his hands up and saying he's not going on the quest. 
  7. Bofur: I liked him. He accept Bilbo from moment one and was truly disappointed when it looked as if Bilbo were going to quit. It was a nice moment without dialogue that told you everything you needed to know about the character and his relationship to Bilbo.
  8. Richard Armitage: He was Thorin Oakenshield and brought the right amount of intensity to the scene. You have no doubt that he is singleminded in his quest to win back his home. He's channeling Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn with more ambition, which I like as a theme. Does he want to lead because he's a great leader or because he feels he deserves to rule? I want to see how that plays out.
 What I Didn't Like
  1. The Goblin Chase: Someone, somewhere, either on Twitter, Facebook or on a blog posted how annoying it was that this scene was like one extended video game sequence. (I'm not doing justice to what they said, it was far more eloquent than that.) I'm not against a good action sequence, this just seemed like too much, as if they were just showing off what they could do with CGI and playing to the video game crowd. Didn't the movie DOOM teach us that doesn't exactly work?
  2. The Dwarf Analogy: Maybe I've become oversensitive in my older, more politically left leaning, inner city school teacher ways, but it felt as if Jackson was kind of hitting us over the head with the Dwarves are an analogy for the Jewish people, or at least of Jewish stereotypes. I'm basing some of this on something I read somewhere, so that's where the kernel of the idea comes from, but it really felt that way watching the movie, from the "people with no home" angle to their obsessing over money. Like I said, maybe I'm reading too much into it.
  3. Azog: He's the bleeping Darth Maul of The Hobbit. Seriously. He's an action figure they wanted to sell. That's it. End of list.
  4. Radaghast and the hedgehog: Okay, I get that this trilogy is more of a prequel to Lord of the Rings and you want to include him, great, but the whole scene with hedgehog was about 5 minutes of my life I'm not going to get back. And quite frankly, I don't need to see all the bird poop in the man's hair. 
  5. Kili: Okay, we get it, he's the "hot" dwarf, but there are a bunch of other dwarves there too. It gets distracting after a while that they focused on him so much.
  6. Awful Lot of Honkies In Here: Is Middle Earth the whitest place ever? I mean not one person of color in the whole movie. Come on. You're willing to make all these changes, why not do that with Papa Tolkien's vision? Well, except for the orcs of course...but that's another blog post. 
  7. F**king Eagles: Are the military minds of Middle Earth that dim? Why aren't they including these guys in their big strategy meetings? They've got these giant, flying eagles that can cover huge distances and chuck wargs around like cats do mice, yet no one in Middle Earth is bothering to see if these guys want to help out. 
  8. The Cheesy "I Was Wrong About You Speech." The whole speech at the end was cheesy and corny in every way, shape and form. It was awful.
What Can I Take Away As A Writer
I'm not going to spend any time on this. Without the book The Hobbit, I'm probably not a writer. So there's that.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Damaged Calm

On the cusp of my final evaluation at school for the year, this one an announced peer observation that will count on my "final score" because I was still recovering from my hip surgery when the opt out paperwork needed to be submitted. I'm not worried about it, but I am. But this isn't what I wanted to blog about. I wanted to blog about something even more important than that. Deals.

Okay, relax, take a breath, I didn't get a deal...yet, but as I am sometimes wont to do, I was reading PW this morning and made the mistake of clicking on the Deals link and opening a list of deals that were made in the last week. One of the deals sounded very similar to the book my agent is shopping to editors right now. This naturally damaged my calm slightly and as time passed (the students in my first "block" class are working on a project, so I'm not directly teaching at this point), my brain took the little bit of information and began snowballing. It started slow and small but now, about an hour and a half later, it's grown to the size of that boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark and it pounding the sides of my fragile psyche.

It's interesting how this happens. I'm a "stuck in your own head" kind of guy. Once a thought takes hold, it's very, very hard to let it go, though, when I let it go, it's gone and I don't dwell...it just takes a while to get it out. For now, it's pounding and distracting me when I should be on my game, getting ready for my eval and preparing for a big writing weekend as I hammer out this novella idea that I've been working on. Instead, my brain is obsessing over why this person's book is somehow better than mine. And this bothers me. It sometimes leads me into dark places...dark places that make me ask questions that make me very uncomfortable. Now, I don't begrudge that person success. Honestly, I don't, but it doesn't stop these question from popping up.

Writers are fragile creatures sometimes and usually we are most injured by the slightest of slights and can endure the most vicious evisceration.  I am no different and right now my calm is damaged over this and it shouldn't be. I should celebrate this person's/people's success, not me injured, upset or harmed by it. It could be another step being built for me to get my deal for all I know.

Really, in the grand scheme of things, this isn't a big deal. I know, in my heart of hearts, that this is going to happen for me, it's just a matter of when and with whom. This industry is so subjective. All I need is the patience I preach and faith in my ability.

Then again, it might be time for some thrilling heroics.