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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Rainfurrest 2015 Wrap-Up

Fandom 150Another Rainfurrest has come and gone, and I really loved the convention this year. The panels were fun and interesting, but more importantly I got to hang and chat with a bunch of people I had only known online — JM Horse, Phil Geusz, Makyo and others in the [adjective][species] crew. There were a lot of folks from the Furry Writers’ Guild there as well, and they’re almost always delightful! Mary and Daniel Lowd I like more and more every time I get to meet them, and seeing Munchkin, MrMandolino, Dwale and others (too numerous to name!) was really excellent. I’m so happy to see a community of writers forming and networking, talking about their craft and helping each other take their writing to the next level. These are really exciting times to be a furry writer, I feel, and I’m lucky to be a part of that.

Ryan’s books debuted over the course of the convention, and he had his book launch party on Saturday. He read the first scene from Koa of the Drowned Kingdom, an action-packed encounter with a huge, hungry crocodile that also happens to be a wonderful introduction to the characters and the unique world. He also read a scene from Forest Gods, with Doto and Clay traveling through the savannah and reflecting on the situation they’ve found themselves in. Koa’s scene was great, but this scene from Forest Gods is brilliant, and it just reminded me all over again how amazing this book is. I know that I’m his husband and I might be just a little biased, but please trust me when I say that the Fire-Bearers series is simply excellent work and I wholeheartedly, unreservedly recommend that you pick up both God of Clay and Forest Gods as soon as possible. I’m tremendously proud of my husband for what he’s accomplished, and I’m so excited that people get to read what he’s been pouring himself into for the past few years.

I also picked up the Coyotl Award-winning Huntress by Renee Carter Hall so I could introduce myself to her writing properly, as well as the new anthology Inhuman Acts. It’s a set of furry noir stories that I’m rather excited about; I got to hear a snippet of one story from the FurPlanet book launch that made me buy it as soon as I could. Watts Martin, a member of my writing group, workshopped one of the stories with us, and I’m really glad to see it found a home in the anthology. It is so good, and I’m really glad to see Watts popping up in anthologies again, as well as working on novellas and his first novel. Which is going to be a doozy, you guys. I can’t wait for you to read it!

The reason I love conventions these days is to immerse myself in the community of folks who love furry fandom as much as I do, to have conversations about their experiences and passions, to compare notes about our work and divide the burdens we feel amongst ourselves. I also get to settle in with old friends, renewing and deepening friendships that can be stretched thin over long distances; I get to put faces to names, and imagine tweets and blog posts spoken in the manner of their writers. I can geek out to folks I’ve admired from afar for a long time. I can buy drinks for folks in exchange for a few minutes of their time.

Typically, I get depressed BEFORE the convention. Usually I’ve offered to be on a panel or made plans to hook up with someone, and I always worry about the panel or the meeting going terribly. What if I’m awkward? What if what I have to say comes out as a jumbled and confusing mess? What if I don’t hit it off with the people I really like? I almost never sleep well the night before a convention; making sure that I’ve remembered my clothes and my medication, worrying about how I will deal with my scatter-brain and anxiety, takes the place of a good night’s rest.

Then I arrive, and almost always hit the ground running. I meet people. We talk. I laugh a lot. I connect and understand them a lot better. I feel myself becoming more entrenched in this community that I love. I feel a part of things. Happiness sinks into the core of my being, enriches into joy, grows roots that become contentment. I’m floating by the time the convention is over, excited and rejuvenated to go back into my daily life. There is so much I want to do. There’s a certainty I feel, that I’m on the right track, I’m doing the right things, and I’m resolved to keep on keeping on.

I’m so excited about my writing, guys. I’m really looking forward to polishing my work and putting it out there. I can’t wait to see my name in anthologies, to sit in on more panels, to connect with more people. By the time Rainfurrest 2016 rolls around, I sincerely hope that people will be able to talk about the stories I have for sale at the convention — even if they have problems with them, or are curious about certain choices that I’ve made.

I’ve left this convention with the determination to write and submit short stories to various zines and anthologies; to really push on a few of the projects that have been progressing slowly — to make sure my Patreon launches well and I’m well-positioned to make it a fun experience for everyone involved, to make sure New Fables is out as soon as possible and we have an idea for how to take the idea into the future, to become a more active contributor to [adjective][species]; to make sure that my writing is pointing me towards the person that I would like to be. Conventions are a launching pad for each of us, and it’s up to each of us to make sure we use the momentum well.

I’ve got a good head of steam behind me to propel me through the end of the year. I’m going to fly straight and true.

 

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100 Happy Days

Self Improvement 150The civil unrest in Ferguson, MO last summer was a tremendous wake-up call for me, but thinking back there were a lot of things that lead up to it. The astonishing open racism that was taking root within the Republican opposition during Obama’s 2008 campaign, election and Presidency has blossomed into a full-fledged xenophobia that has made it quite clear that there is a large and vocal portion of this country that will never see me as anything other than an impediment to their ideal of a “pure” America. The discovery of a black geek space online has introduced me to a whole world of people who feel the same way I do, and making inroads back into my culture has given me a stronger sense of self. Knowing so many brilliant and passionate people who have been disadvantaged in various ways just for being who they are has made me far less capable of looking the other way when I see inequality in all of its various forms rearing up in front of me. Being more open about my own experiences as a minority and with mental illness has introduced me to a number of people who have their own troubles, and I’ve felt a tremendous kinship with them.

There are so many problems in the world, so many behaviors borne out of ignorance or malice, so many people affected by the personal and institutional acts that marginalize and belittle them. Every day in the news there’s another account of a mass shooting, or some beyond-the-pale statement of bigotry from the mouth of someone with far too much power, or another warning that we’re driving our planet over an environmental cliff and simply won’t be able to change course very, very soon. It’s exhausting, being this angry, disillusioned, frustrated and afraid of what we’re doing to each other and our home as a species.

Yesterday marked the point at which there are only 100 days left in the year. I really wanted to do something to close out 2015 with one last push of positive change, but I wasn’t quite sure what it should be. Should I resolve to meditate every day until New Year’s Eve? Or write at least 500 words a day for the rest of the year? I’m already planning on doing that.

I learned about the 100 Happy Days challenge a little while ago, and remembered it when they so helpfully sent me an email earlier this week. Perfect timing, guys! What I’ll be doing is posting a picture a day over on my Tumblr of something that made me happy and spazzing just a little bit about it. Focusing on the good things in my life won’t make all the terrible things happening in the world go away, and it won’t mean that I’ve given up on trying to change them — but it does mean that I can see more of why I’m fighting for change. There are great things in the world, and my life, and I really don’t want to lose them.

If you’d like to join me over on Tumblr, I would certainly welcome your company! I’m here at Scrapalope — and if you want to join the 100 Happy Days challenge it’s not too late! Just sign up at the webpage and post your picture to your social media platform of choice — Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or Instagram.

 
 

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The Seven Panels of Rainfurrest 2015

Fandom 150Rainfurrest is one of my favorite conventions. It’s held every fall in Seattle, which means I have a great excuse to visit the Pacific Northwest during one of the prettiest times of the year. There is a TON of great coffee to be had, which is handy when you’re putting in those late nights at parties and what not. The convention staff has quietly made it a destination for furry writers over the years, too; the Writing Panel track has been consistently strong. And, perhaps most of all, the convention has been really good to Ryan. He debuted God of Clay there two years ago, and this year he’ll release not only the second novel in the Firebearers Series (Forest Gods) but a Cupcake novella from FurPlanet, Koa of the Drowned Kingdom.

I’m genuinely excited to be going to the convention this year, where I hope to meet and chat with as many writers as I possibly can. You’ll find me with the dazed expression and a rabbit-themed t-shirt with either a cup of coffee or a stiff drink in my paw. I’ll be doing my best to be a cheerleader and stress manager for Ryan, who’ll be having a pretty big weekend all things considered.

If you see me there, feel free to say hi! Since it’s a convention and there’s always a million things going on at once at these things, I apologize in advance if I’m distracted or on my way somewhere else and unable to chat. If you see me sitting down somewhere without a laptop or a book in front of me, assume that means I’m approachable! I’d love to meet folks and spaz about all the things that unite us in our fandom excitement.

Besides the general hangout areas or the Dealer’s Den, I’ll be at a few panels. Here are a few that I’m particularly looking forward to!

THURSDAY, 9/24
9 PM – Write Now!
Kyell Gold and I had a really great time with this panel at Further Confusion earlier in the year, so we’re bringing it to Rainfurrest along with NotTube. We’ll tackle a few blocks to getting your story out of your head and onto paper (or the screen), then provide you with 30 whole minutes of writing time to act on those lessons right there and there!

10 PM – The Coyotl Awards
These are fledgling furry fiction awards given out by the Furry Writers Guild; think of them as the Nebula Awards as opposed to the Hugo Awards (that niche is filled by the Ursa Majors). The ceremony will be held in the Hilton Hospitality Suite, where we will celebrate the Best Novel, Novella, Short Story and Anthology of the year.
FRIDAY, 9/25
11 AM – I Cast Thee Out! Dealing With Rejection and Critique
Every writer submitting stories out into the world will have to deal with the ones that come back with “No thanks.” Even after they’ve been accepted by a publishing company or polished up and self-published, readers might have a few criticisms (hopefully constructive!) to dish out. Since the thought of bearing my soul through stories and having them beaten up by a cruel and uncaring world gives me the screaming fits, this is a good panel to go to.

12 Noon – Only the Strong Survive: Revising and Editing Your Manuscript
Not going to lie — revising and editing is one of those parts of the process I’ve been avoiding for the longest time. I know there are really important things that happen with the story here, so I’m hoping this panel will offer a few pointers on how to deal with this. Anything that helps me get past my natural resistance is a boon.
SATURDAY, 9/26
12 Noon – Gender Identity in the Fandom
This is part of my ongoing education with gender identity and expression. I’m a cisgendered male, but transgender issues are really interesting to me; learning more about what it means to be trans* or gender-fluid is something I’m really keen to do.

2 PM – FurPlanet/Sofawolf Book Launch
Ryan Campbell will be debuting Forest Gods and Koa of the Drowned Kingdom, while Ocean Tigrox will debut a furry noir anthology titled Inhuman Acts. This is THE panel to be at if you’re into quality fiction at all.

8 PM – Unsheathed Live
It’s Unsheathed! And it’s live!! Before my bedtime no less! This is almost always a good time, and I’m looking forward to it.

10 PM – Unspeakable Urges: Writing Kinks in Fantasy
I’m nervous as hell about the Patreon and writing kink-specific fiction for a (hopefully) paying audience. This is part of the process of drawing me out of my shell, talking to folks frankly about erotic and kink writing, and maybe develop a couple of relationships with other authors.
SUNDAY, 9/27
10 AM – En Garde! Thrilling and Believable Action Sequences
I love writing action scenes, actually, but I’m always worried about how to translate the blocking of them inside my head. This panel will (hopefully) come in handy and offer a few tips on making sure I’m doing the right thing.

So those are my panel plans! I’ll also bum around the Dealer’s Den, the hotel bar and a few room parties here and there. So exciting!! If you’re at Rainfurrest, I’ll see you there! If you’re not, please have a great weekend anyway!

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2015 in Furries, Writing

 

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Friday Fiction: Veniamin Opens Up

Writing 150This is the third of four stories featuring Veniamin Kovalenko, the werebear detective I play in a Dresden Files RPG. After being shot during an investigation gone horrifically wrong, Veniamin goes to the only person he can think of to help. In this case, the assistance might burn a relationship he never had a chance to deepen. 2747 words.

“Who the fuck is this? Don’t you know what god-damned time it–oh, hey Veniamin.” The door swung open and Marian appeared, pulling her robe a little tighter around her. Behind her was light and warmth and safety, separated by a sturdy-looking metal and screen gate. “What are you doing–oh my God, you’re bleeding!”

Veniamin could do little more than nod. He had been shot before, but never on two legs and never with silver. The bullet wound had become its own miniature sun of pain, with coronas that spread over the whole right side of his torso and huge flares that twisted his stomach into his throat. He had thrown up three times on the way to Marian’s townhouse; now he was down to consistent dry-heaving.

She unlocked the gate and he stumbled backwards to let her open it. The world pitched whenever he moved. It was hard for him to keep his feet. Just standing upright took an increasing amount of effort. He just wanted to burrow under a nest of blankets, rest his head, and sleep.

Instead, Marian grabbed his left arm and shepherded him into the house. He winced as she pulled, that slight pressure sending a new, nauseating wave of pain through his body. Veniamin had no idea it would hurt this much. The pain had gone beyond pain and into something else — he could feel the effects of the silver spreading through him, slowing everything down, making him sweat and shivering cold. When he could open his eyes, he could barely see anything. There were just lines and light and color. His brain couldn’t make much sense of it.

He felt himself being pulled through Marian’s apartment and set down in the kitchen. Just being off his feet was a tremendous relief; he allowed himself to sag into the chair, the weight of his arm pulling on his wound. It felt awful, but at least he wasn’t standing. His head cleared a little. His vision stopped throbbing. He could take a deep breath and look around.

The kitchen was cozy, but small. The counter space was filled with appliances — expensive-looking coffee makers, a blender, a toaster, a microwave. The walls were almost covered with posters and papers; the clearest part was a corkboard divided into three sections for Marian and her two roommates. Chores and schedules were listed there. Veniamin tried to sniff the place out, but all he could smell was his own sweat and fear and blood. That bullet had to come out.

Marian returned carrying her cell phone, glancing at Veniamin. “Hello, I need the police and an ambulance here at…”

Without thinking, Veniamin’s hand shot out and gripped her arm. When she looked at him, he shook his head silently and mouthed “No police.” He knew how frightening that would be, but it frightened him more for the cops to have a bead on him.

Marian stared at him for a long time. He had no idea what she was thinking; he couldn’t smell her, and that factored more heavily into his reading of people than he realized. After a moment, she looked down at her phone. “I’m sorry. I think I made a mistake. … No, no, everything’s fine. Sorry about that. … OK, yes, I will. Thank you.” Then she hung up.

“I need a pair of tweezers, a pair of scissors, some gauze and some Scotch.” Veniamin’s voice was little more than a hoarse whisper.

Marian flew into action, disappearing down the hall. He could hear her shuffling in another room. “So are you going to tell me what happened? Why you don’t want me to call the police?”

Veniamin quickly thought about how much he should tell her. Could he trust her with information? He shook that idea out of his mind — he was encroaching on her personal space and bleeding all over her floor. If he couldn’t trust her with the reason why that was happening, he shouldn’t be here in the first place.

“I’m a private investigator. Was following someone who didn’t want to be followed.” Veniamin slumped a little further into his seat. He felt weak.

“So they shot you? That’s…that’s illegal! Do you know who did it? You should get the police involved.” Marian’s voice floated into the kitchen from the hallway, from her bathroom, from a closet.

“It was a policeman who shot me.” Veniamin forced himself to speak louder, and was surprised to hear Marian gasp right next to him. He startled in his seat, and a bolt of pain lanced from his shoulder to his chest and arm.

She set a pack of cotton balls down on the table, along with a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a spool of gauze, some tweezers, some scissors. She stepped back. “A policeman shot you? Were you…somewhere you shouldn’t be?”

Veniamin noticed the apprehension that had crept into her voice. He shook his head as he reached for the scissors. “No. This was on the street, several blocks away. The person I’m following is being protected by the police for some reason. I don’t know who I can trust there.”

Marian stepped in when she saw Veniamin trying awkwardly to cut his shirt. She took the scissors from him, laid a hand gently on the back of the chair, and cut away the fabric as carefully as she could. “That’s pretty crazy, Venya. I’m not saying I don’t believe you, but this sounds too much like a movie.”

Veniamin took a deep breath, and nodded when enough of the wound site was clear. “Trust me, I know how it sounds, and I’m not happy about it either. I’m gonna need that scotch now.”

Marian nodded and got the whiskey with two tumblers. Veniamin glanced at the bottle, saw that it was Crown Royal, and said nothing. It would get the job done, and that’s all he needed. “So what are you going to do? If you can’t go to the police, where can you go?”

“I’m still figuring that part out.” He took the tumbler in his good hand when it was offered, drained the whiskey, handed it back. Marian poured another few fingers immediately and shot it back to him. This time, he sipped. “Right now, I just need to get this bullet out of me and heal up a bit.”

Marian had gotten herself a drink too, her face scrunching up as the Crown burned down her throat. “You should at least get to a doctor. That looks like a really nasty wound. I…never saw something get infected that fast.”

Veniamin followed her eyes to his shoulder, a little unnerved by her expression. The blood around the open wound had turned black and sticky, and clear veins snaked from it in an inky spiderweb. He winced at it. The silver was in his bloodstream. That would explain why it felt like he was dying; he probably was.

“Yeah, it needs to come out right now.” He drained the rest of his tumbler and gave it back to Marian, curling his fingers a bit. “I’m going to need those tweezers.”

Marian gave him a doubtful look, but passed them on. “Are you at least going to go to the doctor for the infection? You’ve lost a lot of blood, and what’s left probably isn’t doing you much good.”

Veniamin gave a curt shake of his head. The whiskey was working, but not fast enough. This was going to hurt, and he needed to be ready for it. “Nah, I’ll be fine. Nothing that a good night’s sleep won’t cure.”

Marian snorted. “You really went all in on this bull-headed detective stuff, didn’t you?”

Veniamin chuckled to himself. He poked at the side of the wound with the tweezers, winced as he felt the bullet lodged within his flesh find a new part of it to sear. “Wouldn’t you? Most of it’s pretty boring. Watching people. Taking notes. Filling out paperwork. It’s not every day you get to act like a bad ass in a pretty girl’s kitchen.”

He regretted it as soon as he said it. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Marian; he had to concentrate on getting this thing out of him, and he didn’t want to know just how offended she looked. Hopefully, she would chalk it up to the quarter-bottle of whiskey he just downed and the fact that he was light-headed and poisoned.

“Mmm. Well,” she said, her voice sounding distant, guarded. “I guess that’s true. Well, you milk that, Sam Spade, and I’ll help out where I can. Got some lines to feed me?”

Veniamin felt what little blood he had left rush to his face. “I think you’re plenty clever enough to come up with some quips all on your own. I might pass out for this next part. Think you can take the tweezers out if I lose consciousness?”

He heard her say, “Sure.” He pushed the tweezers in and fished for the lump of metal nestled somewhere between muscle and bone. Veniamin gritted his teeth against the astonishing pain that blossomed there, rushing through his body in a wave that made him feel like he was floating outside of his body, watching all of this happen. Then came the heat that stole his breath. He couldn’t see what he was doing through the tears.

He felt it though. The pain was exponentially worse when he bumped it with his tweezers, and he forced himself to push towards it. His vision dimmed. He felt himself clasp the rounded bullet, paused to make sure he had a good grip, and slid it out as straight and as quick as he could.

Veniamin had just enough strength to toss the tweezers, blood and all, onto Marian’s kitchen table. He panted in a cold sweat. It took him nearly a minute for the room to stop spinning, to hear Marian’s voice over the beating of his heart inside his ears.

His head was shifting from side to side. It took him another minute to realize she was slapping his cheeks.

“Venya? Venya…wake up! If you don’t answer me right now I’m calling an ambulance!” Marian’s voice carried a mixture of firmness and panic. When he came to his senses, he felt them brighten a little. The world seemed brighter. He could smell…so much. Blood and sweat and fear and disease, Marian’s clothes and the deodorant she used.

He took a deep breath and lifted his head. It felt like a small triumph to look her in the eye. “I’m up. I’m up.”

She relaxed. “Good. I don’t know what I would have told the paramedics if I had to call them.”

He smiled, shook his head. “Yeah, that would have been awkward. Sorry. And thanks. For being here.”

She thumped back into her chair. “You’re welcome, I guess. So…what now? You’re in no condition to go anywhere except a hospital.”

Veniamin looked down at himself. She was right. His shirt was cut into tatters, his suit was a bloody ruin, and he wasn’t going to be able to make himself get out of this chair. He closed his eyes, tried to avoid the only option he had left until he knew he couldn’t any more.

“Yeah…do you have a room somewhere in the house that I could use privately for the rest of the night? I know it’s asking a lot, and I wouldn’t if I didn’t need to.” Veniamin took a few deep breaths, steadying himself. The blood loss and alcohol were beginning to catch up with him.

“Uhm….not really. Why?” Marian looked at him, then glanced at the bullet he pulled from his shoulder. It gleamed in the light of the kitchen more than it should have. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but grabbed the cotton swabs and gauze instead.

Veniamin’s head buzzed. He knew he shouldn’t, but he did. “That’s a silver bullet, you know.”

Marian nodded as she knelt next to his chair and poured alcohol into a handful of cotton balls. “Yeah, I thought it looked weird. You’re not a werewolf, are you?”

She grinned up at him. She had obviously meant it as a joke. He smiled back at her, his heart hammering inside of his chest. “No.”

“Good, because that’s the last surprise I needed tonight–”

“I’m a werebear.”

Marian shot him a look right as she pushed the cotton over Veniamin’s wound. He cried out and she pulled back, standing up. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK,” he said, clutching his shoulder hard enough she had to know it was very much not OK. “I just…I need somewhere to go, where I can be naked and I won’t be seen. I promise nothing bad will happen, and you won’t ever have to see me again if you don’t want to.”

“Veniamin…look, I know you said you didn’t want the paramedics involved, but you’re burning up and that wound looks bad, and you’re…you’re not making any sense. I’m going to call–”

Veniamin sighed and quickly kicked off his shoes. He thought about the shift, and it happened. He could feel his hair multiplying, bristling into fur. He could feel his body changing its shape, stretching and then simply breaking his clothes. He could feel the power of his birthright coursing through him, reversing the poison working through his system. He stood up to save the chair, sending it on its back in the small kitchen. His head rose to meet the lights, and then the ceiling. He got down to all fours.

Marian screamed. Veniamin’s ears flicked as the last of his changes completed. It was a relief to be in this shape, that felt so much more natural than the other one. But the kitchen was too small, and he was blocking the only Marian’s only exit. He had to calm her down.

“It’s OK! Don’t scream,” he rumbled. His voice was different, harsher, clipped by the sharp teeth and heavy muzzle he had to work with. “I’m still Veniamin. I’ll heal faster this way.”

He pointed his nose towards her, but didn’t look her in the eye. Instinct told him that it would be viewed as a challenge, force her into a confrontation she didn’t want to have. Logic told him that was nonsense and he just felt bad for doing this to her. The scent of her fear overwhelmed everything else — the grease that had caked into the walls, the spices on the counter, all of the varieties of coffee that were ground and poured every day, all of the food in the cupboards. It was rolling from her in great waves, lapping at his nostrils in a way he could not ignore.

By now she was in a corner, hyperventilating, clutching her chest, eyes wide and staring. Small whimpers were coming from her throat. She might be in shock. He couldn’t say. He should put some distance between them.

“I’m going to go into your living room and try to shut the door. I’m just going to sleep for a while. Don’t call the police. Or animal services. Just be cool.” He slowly backed his way into the hallway. The floorboards creaked loudly under his step. “I’m sorry. I’ll be out of your hair by morning.”

She disappeared as he backed into the hallway, his flanks brushing either wall. He kept going slow until he felt the edge of the living room door, then backed into that. His enormous haunches thumped into an end table, her couch, her coffee table. He couldn’t help but nudge furniture aside to make room for himself.

Once he was in, he tried to pick at the sliding door with a claw. It took some doing, but he managed to shut himself away; as soon as the hallway was gone from view, he heard Marian silently running into the hall and up the stairs. A moment later, a door slammed above him.

Veniamin sunk to the floor with an ursine curse under his breath. He couldn’t believe he had done that. Now that the alcohol was leaving his system along with the infection, he knew immediately what a bone-headed move that was. What did he think would happen? How else could she have reacted?

He closed his eyes and rested his muzzle on his paws. Seconds later, he fell into a deep but troubled sleep.

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2015 in Writing

 

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My Last Three Movies: Before Sunrise, Ragtime, Snowpiercer

Entertainment 150Before Sunrise (1995)
This is one of the earliest works for Richard Linklater, the writer-director responsible for my favorite film last year, Boyhood. It was a little cult film, though critics love it and it’s still really fondly remembered by film-loves everywhere. I can see why — this is a quintessential Linklater film: the narrative tricks are all meant to strip away anything but the central conceit, and while still a movie it’s really concerned with ideas. It’s as introspective as you can get without being inert.

Here’s the set-up: American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train and convinces her to get off with him and spend an evening walking around Vienna. There, they talk about their lives, loves, and the nature of each as they see them. The bond they share over the evening — especially as it nears its end — deepens and grows more complicated, and the interactions they have with various people in the city only spurs that along. The decisions they make reflect an opening up to one another, and this singular experience.

It’s a great idea, but it took a little while to convince me it was. I spent a little more than half of the movie hating Jesse, a self-involved, smarmy faux-intellectual who speaks like he has these grand realizations. Really, they’re the ideas you have in college, where your knowledge of reality gets its first great expansion. It can feel like your mind has expanded in these earth-shattering ways, but for those of us on the other side it can be a struggle not to roll our eyes.

Celine, on the other hand, is almost immediately fascinating. She has complicated ideas about what it means to be a woman, how that affects romantic entanglements, and what exactly she wants to be. You can see her struggle between the image of independent, willful man-eater and allowing herself to be vulnerable, to deeply love a man and choose a domesticated life. Her bravado up front clearly masks an almost aching desire to buy into a fairy-tale romance, and it’s fascinating to see.

After sunset, as they walk through an alley, Celine opens herself up to Jesse, who in turn drops the cynical act and offers up a bit of himself. Once he stops holding the movie back it becomes much richer, deeper and engaging, and it’s a lot easier to invest in these characters and entertain their ideas. As the movie follows them through the evening, and they become increasingly aware of the fact they’ll need to go their separate ways, the ephemeral, transitory nature of their evening becomes all the more precious and their resistance to it surprisingly touching.

In the end, it becomes a beautiful movie, and even better, a jumping-off point for your own complex, vulnerable conversations. This is a film you have to see with someone you love, or at least someone you love talking to, simply because it awakens in you a newfound love for simple, earnest conversation. I highly recommend this, with a cup of tea or coffee, and a good walking trail in mind.

Ragtime (1981)
Apparently 1981 was an exceptional year for movies, and I had no idea. The Academy Awards were dominated by Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond and Reds. Arthur earned John Gielgud an Oscar, and there was also Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Clash of the Titans, Escape From New York and Time Bandits. So many great movies, so many of them threatened with the ravages of time.

My continuing education in 80s film brought me to Ragtime, which was nominated for eight Oscars that year. I had never heard of it, and I’m sorry I hadn’t — this was the movie Milos Forman directed before Amadeus, adapted from the novel by E.L. Doctorow. There are so many great actors in it, from James Cagney in his last film role to an early appearance by Samuel L. Jackson, it kind of blows you away. But the story and performances are what’s really gripping here.

It’s a sprawling movie that drops you into three different entry points to the story: a rich family in a suburb of New York City is enjoying dinner when one of their servants screams at the sight of a black baby left in their garden; a jealous industrialist shoots an artist over the unveiling of a nude statue he believes was modeled after his wife; a street vendor (Hi, Mandy Patinkin!) discovers his wife (Hi, Fran Drescher!) cheating on him and promptly throws her out. The set up is a bit dizzying; the world is chaotic and full of people, and you’re left to determine relationships and conflicts on your own. The plot does not wait for you.

Things get a bit easier as the disparate plots come together. A musician named Coalhouse Walker arrives at the family’s house, claiming to be the father of the baby; the younger brother of that family becomes obsessed with the model of the nude statue, then with Coalhouse’s stand-off against a volunteer fire department who harassed him, then vandalized his Model T car. Coalhouse slowly emerges as the main character, and his run-in with these racist firemen becomes the focal point all of the other stories revolve around.

The racism portrayed in Ragtime is shocking mostly because you’re exposed to so many different forms of it: the casual, matter-of-fact dehumanization of black people by doctors and the law; the blatant and almost cartoonish idiocy of overt bigots; the frustrating stonewall of institutional racism. It shows how this kind of thinking infects almost every aspect of life, and how difficult it can be for black people to escape it even as they struggle to present themselves legitimately and for white people to even understand it in the face of “sudden” black anger and unwillingness to accept one more insult.

This is an incredibly important idea, that the institution of racism has insinuated itself into the fabric of our society, and that relatively good and decent people can still hold racist ideas or support that institution through inaction or preserving the status quo. Ragtime shows the radicalization of victims of racism, and how they’re pushed to these drastic measures simply to be heard. It’s astonishing how the situation escalates simply because the power structure in place cannot understand what is at stake here, and refuse to stop and listen. That’s the tragedy here.

Ragtime is necessary viewing for understanding the black experience in America. I recommend you watch it. No qualifiers. Just do it!

Snowpiercer (2013)
You’ve probably heard about this movie during the summer of 2013, when it was one of those small independent movies that broke through the pop culture chatter to grab a good portion of the hype that year. Mostly, it was described as a smart and crazy mid-budget blockbuster that was like nothing you’ve ever seen. That part is true. But it’s also an intensely polarizing film that’s doing a lot of stuff all at once, and your reaction to it will largely depend on how you’re interpreting the action.

In the near future, attempts to combat global warming with weather engineering via a chemical called CW7 has gone terrifically wrong. The entire world froze, killing all life on Earth save for a small remnant of humanity huddled aboard a train called the Snowpiercer. The track transverses the globe, and the train is designed to complete one loop every year.

Of course, there’s a class system on the train. Those who paid for tickets or contributed to the creation of the project are in the front. Those poor sods who were “lucky” enough to gain free passage are in the back, packed into dirty cars with nothing but protein bars to eat. One day, after enduring the theft of their children to the front and a rather brutal punishment for fighting back, a revolution is organized. The movie follows this resistance as they move from the back of the train towards the luxurious front and the creator of the Snowpiercer, Wilford.

The microcosm of the train is fascinating. Each new traincar offers a surprise that gives us a little more information about the world that’s developed in the 18 years since civilization has fallen, and it’s endlessly interesting to compare that information to the structure of our own society. There’s a mixture of world-building, very solid character moments and vital action that keeps you engaged through the entire film. It’s really hard to think of a single moment that was wasted.

I loved this movie; the plot was great, the stakes were never far from the top of my mind, and the subtext within the story is something that just blows me away. Like so many films that swing for the fences, Snowpiercer might be too over-the-top for some, and that’s fine. It can be really hard to take something this high-concept and make it feel grounded; I feel that director Bong Joon-ho mixes the familiar and the outlandish quite well, but other people might not.

Still, it’s a unique film that I highly recommend. It’s best watching this in summer; the movie is atmospheric enough that you’ll feel the cold despite the temperature outside, and personally I love the idea of stepping outside and feeling the heat. It’s easy to imagine that quick and desperate measures will become increasingly plausible as the effects of climate change connect and multiply; despite its insanity, it’s insanely easy to imagine the world of Snowpiercer becoming our own.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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A Look Into the Future

Fandom 150I’ve been a little more quiet on the writing front than I feel comfortable with, but there’s a reason for that. When I get deep into various projects, I tend to talk about them less because I guess I don’t want to reveal how the sausage is made before it’s presented. When I push a story out into the world, I want the story to stand on its own — I don’t think the audience should have any thoughts on the author and the trouble or decisions he made to have the story turn out the way it did.

Right now, I’m working on “A Stable Love” and having a lot of fun with it. The characters are surprising me, and that presents new challenges for me to think about, and the writing has been relatively smooth as I march towards its conclusion. I was having a lot of trouble with the first part, which I thought I needed for set-up, to establish the characters and the central issue, but when I got rid of it and moved the beginning of the story ahead, the world just opened up and things became a lot easier. I’ve shown the customer what I have so far and received an enthusiastic response, so that’s incredibly encouraging.

I’m working on another story for MegaMorphics, an old-style APA, and its fall issue. I want my work appearing there to be a bit more polished and considered, which means working on it before the deadline! I have an idea for a Halloween story that I’m pretty excited about; I hammered down the idea with another contributor in hopes of a collaboration contribution — I work the story, he works the art. I’ve never written a story like this before (it’s horror), and I’m trying to do a few things that I’m not sure about. It’s exciting but difficult work, and I’m looking forward to how it will turn out.

After that, working on a story for People of Color Destroy Science Fiction that I’m really excited to tuck into, and the prize story for a very generous fellow who donated the most towards my Clarion Write-A-Thon during week 6. I’ve given both of those some thought, and I think when I actually sit down to write them, the work will come relatively easy.

This is a completely new experience for me. As much as I love writing, it’s always been extraordinarily difficult. I have perfectionist tendencies that have caused storms of anxiety, and that makes it hard to see anything but the mistakes. I’ve never been able to write shitty first drafts; I know writers who create such polished work right off the top of their head, and it’s impossible not to compare yourself against that. My character work is never where I want it to be, and when the characters actually begin to live and breathe and deviate from the plot it legitimately freaks me out. I have no idea how to handle that.

But that’s the state that I’ve always given lip service to wanting to go. Writing, for me, feels like being a conduit for something. When the ego drops away and I’m connected directly to the story, it feels like I’m possessed by something, transcribing an event as being dictated by someone “not me”. When a story is really flowing, it’s an out of body experience. And I know how crazy that sounds, but it’s true.

For the longest time, I’ve never trusted myself to tap into that. Knowing the history of mental illness within my family, and dealing with my personal experience there, I’ve been very afraid of indulging any tendencies that could exacerbate those issues. Does writing make me crazier? Is it likely that one day, when working on a particularly intense story, I could have some kind of schizophrenic break? My life unfolded the way it did because my mother did not have any semblance of reality, was paranoid, unable to take care of me. I couldn’t live with myself if I forced my husband and my friends to go through that.

I didn’t even realize I was having that thought before doing the work I’ve been doing in my Anxiety group class. And realizing that writing, mental illness and anxiety had coalesced into this huge mental knot is ultimately freeing. I’m more willing to take risks with it, just because the feeling I have when writing is worth it. And that means I’m more willing to make mistakes and learn from them. I no longer catastrophize the consequences; if I fail, I can come back from that. With my mental illness, I trust my medication, I trust my self-care process, I trust my behavioral therapy, and I trust my support network.

For the first time, being a writer isn’t some distant dream for me. It’s who I am, and it’s what I do. And I’m so very excited that I have an opportunity to do the things I’ve always wanted to do, that I get to be the person I’ve always wanted to be.

I have an idea for a serial story originally released on-line. It’ll be furry stories, sci-fi and modern fantasy, adult. Right now, I would love to write about 1500 words a week, release that part in certain places, then collect three or four parts into a chapter that’s released in a more polished form elsewhere. Once the story is finished (I’m thinking anywhere from 8 – 13 chapters per serial), hopefully I can polish it further, and release it as an ebook or self-published novel.

In order to work on this project, I’m launching a Patreon. Folks familiar with my furry work should know what to expect from the Jackalope Serial Company: stories about growth, personal and otherwise. When I’m ready to go live and work on the serials directly, I’ll post a link with more information. But for now, I just wanted it out there. I’m expecting to be ready to go with it by the beginning of November.

I’ve also reached out to a few friends about the Furry Mental Health podcast; the person I know with the best equipment and knowledge for it suggested that I present a proof of concept to him for six shows, with subject matter, segments outlined, all of that. It’s a solid recommendation, and I’m working on that. I would like to start recording THAT at the beginning of the new year, with episodes coming out in February or March.

So that’s my plan for the rest of the year. Full steam ahead on short stories, getting the Jackalope Serial Company off the ground, putting together a first season of the Furry Mental Health podcast. I’m incredibly excited about all of this, and I can’t wait to actually share finished stuff with you very soon.

 

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Fiction Friday: Veniamin Makes His Mark

Writing 150Part two in a set of stories about Veniamin Kovalenko, the detective/fixer I’m playing in a Dresden Files RPG. Ryan very astutely noticed that I am hesitant to throw my characters into conflict, so I thought I’d work on a situation that pushed Veniamin a little further then “Oh no, will he like this delicious cup of coffee?” It turns out, I had a lot of fun with this — expect to see him getting pushed around a little more often!

Veniamin wasn’t sure if the man he was following had spotted him or not. He had made sure to keep a respectful distance, look as casual as possible, even stare down at his phone every now and again. Still, he was closer than he would have liked to be. He couldn’t help it — his night vision wasn’t too great, and the scents of downtown San Francisco were so overwhelming they made his nose useless. He was just going to have to rely on his weaker senses for this one.

The man walked with his head down and collar up, obviously trying to render himself invisible, trying to pass himself off as just another person shuffling his way from A to B. His gait was long and true; he walked with a confidence and awareness of his surroundings that marked him as someone who knew a thing or two, if you knew how to read body language. Venimain did. His family expressed themselves largely through movement, and over time he developed a sixth sense for that kind of thing.

He slowed down and looked at the phone he held in his hand when the trenchcoat half a block away shifted and the hat above it turned in his direction. This was a residential neighborhood, one of the few that non-technical workers could afford at this point, and it would be obvious that there was nothing of interest for him here. He doubted his mark would believe a feinted look around, at a street sign or one of the barred doors that kept residents safe this time of night. So he scrolled through his apps without looking at them, trying his best to keep his ears trained on his quarry.

After a few seconds, he looked up to see the trenchcoat break into a run. He cursed under his breath and tucked his phone into his pocket, taking a step in pursuit.

Another man appeared in front of him from an alley. Veniamin stopped short to avoid running into him. Before he knew what was happening, the man pulled a gun from his short leather coat and squeezed the trigger.

The bullet punched his shoulder and spun him to his right. He felt the joint crack, then his arm go numb. As soon as he realized what had happened, he felt his senses go dim — like his nose had been stuffed with cotton, like he was listening to the city underwater. The slug burned the blood that had welled up around the wound. Silver. This guy was using silver bullets.

How did he know? Veniamin had just enough time to think this before he dove behind a set of stairs. Another bullet whizzed past him; he could feel the displaced air ruffle his hair. He fell back into a forward-leaning crouch by instinct. He had only bought himself enough time to prepare for the next attack.

He leapt as soon as he saw the man in the leather jacket round the short flight of wooden stairs, crashing into the center mass with his good shoulder. His long legs provided good propulsion, and he had put on enough weight since coming here that the impact would be more than enough to knock this guy off his feet. Veniamin tried to ignore the way the jolt reverberated through his wounded arm, or the feel of another shot grazing his arm just above the elbow. It opened a line of broken skin that blood welled and seared along the edges.

Veniamin’s momentum carried him and his attacker into a parked car, which rocked under their combined weight a moment after he heard a window shatter behind him. The bullet that had just missed him went wide and into someone’s home; if the sound of three gunshots weren’t enough to get someone to call the police, the sound of breaking glass almost certainly would.

“Stop firing!” Veniamin hissed. He tried to pin the man against the car with his good shoulder, but his momentum made it easy for him to be rolled off to the right side. He flipped until his back was against the car, adjusting his weight to make another leap at the man. Probably sensing this, Leather Jacket took a few steps back and swung the revolver up into the space between them with both hands.

Veniamin stopped. He might be able to rush this guy, but not without taking another bullet. The pain had settled into a deep throb that rung through his clavicle, down the numbness of his right arm and forced tension in his neck and jaw. He wasn’t sure if he was light-headed from the sensation or the lack of blood. He was sure he didn’t want to get shot again.

“All right!” He put up a hand and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to push the pain aside. This guy wasn’t supposed to kill — or at least, he didn’t want to — because if he did there would have been nothing stopping him now. Veniamin had to assume this was meant to scare him off the trail. He had to be honest, it was a pretty effective maneuver. “Just…stop. The cops are going to be here any minute. Say what you’ve got to say so I can get out of here.”

Leather Jacket shook his head, rolling his shoulder, taking a slow half-step forward. “No they won’t. We’ve got enough time to tell me why you’re following Sgt. Schraeder.”

Veniamin blinked. He didn’t know what to say here. If he told the truth and he was talking to a corrupt cop, he’d probably come off as a threat and maybe the guy holding the gun would feel justified in shooting him right here on the street. He wasn’t a good liar, though, even in the best of situations. Nursing a bullet wound wouldn’t make him any more convincing.

“Would you believe me if I told you I was hired by a jealous wife?” He tried to smile through his grimace, but it only made the joke seem weaker.

The man in the leather jacket snorted. “Well, you tell your ‘jealous wife’ that there’s nothing going on and you’ve decided to drop your investigation. Because if Schraeder calls me again, the next bullet is going right between your eyes.”

He stepped forward and pressed the still-warm muzzle right against Veniamin’s temple, erasing the safety that distance had provided him. Worse, in his pressing of the advantage, he had revealed himself to be a grade-A asshole.

Veniamin didn’t hesitate. His left hand came up under the man’s right arm and swiped to his left, hard. He ducked down to avoid the gun shot, felt the back window of the car explode against his neck and skull. He slammed into the man’s stomach, driving the breath out of him, and brought his head up to slam against his chin. He felt his crown force the man’s jaw closed, snapping his assailant’s head back and forcing him to the ground. Veniamin took a couple of steps forward and slammed his foot down on the man’s right arm. He cried out, but his hand opened up to release the gun.

“You’re assaulting a police officer!” The man croaked.

Veniamin’s anger flared, and he put more weight on his foot. The man cried out, and a brief, weak sense of satisfaction rose between the painful throbs in his shoulder. “I’m giving as good as I get. A police officer shot me, point-blank, without cause. I’m merely defending myself.”

“Fuck you.” The police officer spat. A glob of saliva flecked the ankle of Veniamin’s suit pants.

He snarled, unable to help himself, and bent down to grab the man’s wrist. He brushed the gun aside and yanked up sharply, moving his foot up the arm to keep the man’s shoulder in place. There was a satisfying pop and a scream that cut through the sudden explosion of pain that spread over Veniamin’s torso. “Tell Schraeder that he has my full attention now. And I will find out whatever he’s up to. Make sure he knows that when I’m through with him everyone else is going to know too.”

He dropped the arm, letting the man go to curl around it on his side. He started walking, briskly, towards the end of the block. He turned the corner before he grabbed his shoulder, leaned against a wall, and groaned loudly. Now that the adrenaline was starting to wear off, the pain felt like it had moved into his bones. He felt weak, and cold.

Veniamin glanced at the street sign. Who did he know in this neighborhood? Didn’t Marian live here? What would she make of him showing up at her doorstep after midnight, covered in his own blood?

He blinked a few times as the sidewalk grew hazy and the street light dimmed. It didn’t matter what she would make of him. He had to get off the street, and he had no other place to turn. That bullet needed to come out. He needed to shift. And all of that needed to happen very soon.

Veniamin groaned as he pushed himself off the wall and stumbled into the night, gripping his shoulder. Even with his dimmed hearing, he could hear the wail of sirens coming closer.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2015 in RPGs, Writing

 

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My Last Three Movies: Final Destination 3, Tammy, Jersey Boys

Entertainment 150Final Destination 3 (2006)
If you’ve never seen a Final Destination movie, it pretty much goes like this: one person in a group of high-school/college students sees a horrifying calamity unfolding in their imagination right before it happens and freaks the hell out. They (and a number of friends and acquaintances) avoid the disaster, but Death — not one to be cheated — stalks after them one by one, making sure to correct the tapestry of fate before too long. It’s a really neat concept, especially since it’s a slasher film with an existential threat more than an actual killer.

Even still, the Final Destination series has always vaguely disappointed me because it flirts right up to the line of doing something really interesting or thought-provoking with the premise before retreating back into the safety of its Rube Goldberg devices (each character is killed in an increasingly complicated set of freak accidents) or sophomoric foreshadowing and discussions about death. Even the really good ones (like the first two) are fun, but leave me with a sense of dissatisfaction. Whether it’s fair or not, I always kind of want them to be more than they are.

The third movie doesn’t hold up as well as the first two, and it’s here where we start to see the seams of the formula showing. This time, the epic accident is a roller-coaster malfunction that’s fairly impressive but not nearly as harrowing as the plane crash or highway traffic accident that preceded it. The build-up to the set piece is stocked with groan-worthy dialogue, and it almost feels like the writers have gone out of their way to make these characters as unlikeable as possible.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim!) leads the cast here, and she does a pretty good job. Her love-interest co-lead (Ryan Merriman) is Wonder Bread bland, though, and it all goes downhill from there. The group of “lucky” students saved from Death by roller coaster only to be killed in arguably more gruesome ways later on are almost uniformly terrible, and it makes me feel mean to wish horrible things to happen to them only to see them suffer some pretty terrible fates.

Horror movies are at their most fun when they have engaging or fun characters to root for, an inventive premise that’s fun to explore, and a sense of inevitability that never lets the main characters off the hook (even though they’ve won…for now). With Final Destination 3, there’s really only the knowledge that everyone you’re seeing will suffer and die, and after three installments of it the whole affair feels a little sadistic. There needs to be something more to it; inventive and gory ways to kill supporting characters just aren’t enough at this point.

Still, if you’re a horror franchise completionist or like watching annoying characters die in terrible ways, pull up a chair and pop it in. The DVD has a “Choose Your Fate” feature that opens up a few alternate scenes that might actually be fun.
Tammy (2014)
This was a rare misfire from Melissa McCarthy, a sort of mumble-core comedy that no one really knew what to do with. It was loaded with talent (Alison Janney! Susan Sarandon! Kathy Bates! Sandra Oh! Dan Akroyd!) and had a potentially amazing premise, but for some reason it felt like a hybrid between a Duplass Bros. movie and an earnest Cameron Crowe road-trip film.

Tammy (McCarthy) is fired from her dead-end burger job after wrecking her car running into a deer (don’t worry though, the buck is fine) and comes home to discover her husband in an emotional affair with another woman. She runs next door to her mother’s house and threatens to leave — only to be pushed out the door by her grandmother (Sarandon), who insists on coming along. She is, after all, providing the car and the trip money.

A series of misadventures follows, of course. We see Tammy and her grandmother Pearl getting into all kinds of trouble, and it becomes increasingly clear that Pearl might actually be the hotter mess of the two. Both women learn a bit more about themselves than they bargained for, and stumble into potential relationships with a retiree and his son after Pearl has a one-night stand with the older gentleman.

The movie takes a few dark turns that feel oddly specific yet not-quite-jokey that makes it hard to navigate the emotional turns. Pearl is an alcoholic diabetic, which…we’re never quite sure how to feel about. She’s funny when she’s drunk, until she isn’t, and her diabetes is a potential problem, then maybe a huge one, then maybe not so much. It’s almost like the writers themselves aren’t quite sure what to do with their own characters.

Nevertheless, both McCarthy and Sarandon are great when the material allows them to be freely funny, and the beginning of the film is awesome enough to carry you through the uneven, emotionally-dissonant second act. Tammy gets increasingly dramedic as it goes on, smoothing down the jagged edges of its protagonists as if admitting it would be kind of exhausting watching them be as crazy as we know they could be for a whole two hours.

Still, it’s worth watching. There’s great stuff there, and the worst of the film is never bad enough to make you tap out. If you’re looking to put on a comedy, laugh hard for thirty minutes, then maybe fall asleep in front of your television, this is one for you.
Jersey Boys (2014)
Clint Eastwood produced and directed this movie adaptation of the jukebox musical, and you can tell that this was a fairly faithful conversion from stage to screen. A lot of the narrative tricks are there — actors breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience, smooth transitions from expository monologues to in media res action, even the way actors speak their lines point to a theatricality that was meant for another medium. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but I think I would rather have someone trying to take advantage of the fact that film provides them a certain amount of freedom they wouldn’t have had on stage.

I think your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your awareness of the catalogue of the Four Seasons and how much you like the unique vocal stylings of Frankie Valli. His signature sound is a high falsetto that lowers to a kind of nasally tenor(?), which isn’t for everyone but I find pretty nice. The story moves from the early days of Valli’s career in a rough New Jersey neighborhood, to the formation and dissolution of the Four Seasons, to his later solo career and family troubles. The music matures accordingly, from nascent 50s doo-wop and crooner covers to 70s pop standards that I was surprised were written so early. Valli’s songwriting partner, Bob Gaudio, is responsible for some legitimately great music.

The story, though…that’s something else. While it doesn’t fall into the standard musical biopic structure (earnest ingenue works hard from humble beginnings, breaks through to success, falls to excesses of drugs or affairs or general assholery, makes a comeback that ends the film), it does spend most of its time on the unhappy career of the Four Seasons. Tommy DeVito, the group’s de-facto leader and money manager, is portrayed as a selfish and irresponsible grand-stander who accrues a shocking amount of debt during the group’s success. His personality makes it difficult to enjoy the breakthrough of the Four Seasons, and he’s the single reason the group busts up.

Frankie Valli himself produced the movie in part, so I have to be a little suspicious of the narrative here. He had enough pull to appear on the credits, so he probably had enough pull to influence the story. Did DeVito really sink the Four Seasons? Is it really true that Valli’s post-Seasons career was almost entirely working whatever jobs he could find in order to pay back DeVito’s debt? It feels like he could have pushed that part of the narrative to justify his absence to his family; it’s clear that his wife and daughters were bitter about his not being there, and the movie suggests the only reason he was on the road so much was a misguided sacrifice of one type of family for another.

Still, the performances are solid, the direction is competent and the song arrangements are decent. It’s a reasonably good adaptation that will serve you well in place of a more immediate or energetic live-theatre show. If you’re really big into 50s doo-wop or jukebox musicals, or you want to see Christopher Walken as the world’s most paternal mob boss, give Jersey Boys a try.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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My Last Three Movies

Philomena (2013)
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a disgraced adviser for the British government trying to determine what he should do next. At a party, he was approached by a woman suggesting he write about her mother, an elderly Catholic who had been forced to give up her son for adoption while living in a convent. Though initially reluctant to do a “human interest” piece, he eventually agrees to meet the woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Her story — uncovered in fits and starts despite opposition at nearly every turn — proves to be shocking, tragic and almost unbelievable. Of course, most of it is true.

This was a lovely surprise. It was on our radar mainly because it had been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Judi Dench had been nominated for Best Actress. Honestly, who can resist a great Judi Dench movie? She’s just amazing.

Here, she largely disappears into the role of Philomena, an old, slightly doddering woman who remains devout despite the failings of the Church she believes in so strongly. It’s impressive to see her so ordinary and simple, pulling out only hints of her natural gravitas when she needs to underscore a dramatic beat. It’s unlike almost any other role I’ve ever seen her in.

The movie is directed briskly by Stephen Frears, who guided another British treasure to a Best Actress Oscar (Helen Mirren for The Queen). The more we learn about Philomena’s past, the more sympathy we feel for her and the deeper our desire to know what happened to her son. The answers lie in Washington, DC, and they’re just as surprising. How the film handles each revelation, allowing just enough time for the shock to settle in before moving quickly through the fallout, is kind of a marvel of pacing. This is a film that knows what it’s about, and doesn’t waste time getting there.

Coogan is great as Sixsmith, the prickly journalist who bonds with Philomena through the search but never quite stops being himself. A final confrontation underscores the wide gulf between the reporter and his subject, and while you understand Sixsmith’s reaction (and probably share it), Philomena’s gives us much-needed grace and closure.

If you’re waiting for more episodes of Downton Abbey or Doctor Who, this is going to be your jam.
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
Robert Towne wrote and directed this California crime film, which is pretty confusing. On one hand, he wrote the classic film Chinatown and here he is returning to the genre that made him. But on the other, maybe Roman Polanski deserves all the credit and visibility he gets for Chinatown; while that film’s many, many twists are managed quite nicely, this one feels inert — like we’re standing in one place, spinning in circles, and calling it entertainment.

Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, Michelle Pfeiffer, JT Walsh and Raul Julia all star in this movie but it’s hard to care about that. Gibson is a former drug dealer who Russell’s detective believes is selling again. They’re at each other’s throats for a good bit of the movie, but it’s hard to care about that either. The dialogue sinks pretty much every exchange, aiming for crackling and witty and landing far short.

After an hour or so, when we see the seventeenth slow-burn conversation between two of the characters, I realized that I had no idea what was going on, why the characters knew what they did or why they were saying what they were saying to each other. Ryan and I turned it off without finishing it, which almost never happens. Life’s too short and there are too many great (or at least more interesting) movies to watch.

I can’t say I recommend this one, but if you want to see an early Mel Gibson movie where he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of an American accent or Kurt Russell looking like he’s auditioning for the part of Patrick Bateman, this is your movie.
Last Action Hero (1993)
The real star of this movie is Frank McRae as Lt. Dekker, the stereotypical shouting black police chief, but Schwartzenegger actually does pretty great work here as well. This is one of those movies that got buried by bad timing and kind of unfair press; it opened a week after Jurassic Park and held up poorly against Sleepless in Seattle later. By the end of the summer, everyone called it a bomb and to this day there’s not a lot of fondness the way there is for other overlooked classics like, say, UHF.

But the movie is a really solid concept held back just a bit by shaking execution. To be fair, it’s a bit of a high-wire act that had never been done before — Last Action Hero tries to straddle the line between a parody of action movies and an homage to them, while also being a parable about the value and nature of storytelling. It swings for the fences, and that earns it my respect, and it mostly succeeds. Everyone gives it their all, and it’s really enjoyable if not quite as emotionally effective as it tries to be.

Teenage movie-buff Danny Madigan finds himself transported into the world of his favorite action hero, Jack Slater, through a magic ticket handed down to him by the elderly projectionist of an old movie theatre that’s about to be torn down. His presence in the film shades the live-action cartoon enough that the stakes are changed, especially when the sub-boss Benedict (Charles Dance!) slips through to the real world and realizes that the rules of the cinema don’t apply. Benedict is a great villain — smart, amoral, calculating, and he makes a nice foil for Schwartenegger’s meathead protagonist, Jack Slater.

Not everything works here — the big scene introducing the magic ticket is pretty corny, and not every self-aware joke lands quite right — but Last Action Hero gets more right then it gets wrong. The action is at once silly and engaging, and the comic timing actually works well slipped in amongst the thrill beats. Schwartenegger is game for self-parody, and he’s a lot funnier than he’s given credit for.

It’s still a minor film in his filmography, but it’s good enough for me to say it’s overlooked. Then again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of Schwartenegger’s panned films; I thought Jingle All The Way is a legitimately-good Christmas movie, and Kindergarten Cop is not great, but fun. The same could be said for Last Action Hero, but I hold it up a little higher because of all it tries to do. It’s a mild success that could have been an unmitigated disaster, and that deserves at least a little love.

If you want to see Schwartenegger poking fun at his oiled-up machismo or the role that probably got Dance the part of Tywin Lannister, I’d recommend this one. It’s a great one to pop in on a Friday night where you just need to decompress.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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Fiction Friday: Veniamin’s First Cup

Writing 150For the month of September we’ll be following one of the characters I play in a Dresden Files tabletop RPG in little vignettes. The Dresden Files setting is basically modern fantasy, in a world much like ours but where vampires, werewolves, faeries, ghosts and other supernatural creatures hide in the shadows. Veniamin Kovalenko is just entering the wider world, trying to make his way as a fixer and private detective. Here, we see him just a few days into moving to San Francisco from the middle-of-nowhere California. He is about to have his first cup of coffee from an honest-to-God snooty coffee shop.

Veniamin was acutely aware of how out of place he looked. He was tall and lanky — 6’6″, but just over 200 pounds — with a mop of reddish-brown hair and a beard that looked like it belonged to a lumberjack or hermit. There was no way for him to tame that much pelt so he just didn’t bother. It covered his eyes and obscured his mouth so that any expression he made was hidden and his voice sounded muffled, flat and distant.

He thought a suit would make him look more civilized, so he bought one off the rack with half of the money he came to San Francisco with. While it covered his gangly limbs, the sleeves and legs were far too thick and his discomfort with the clothing showed. Even though he was wearing it for the first time it already looked rumpled, as if he had slept in it, as if he had worn it and nothing else all week.

“Welcome to Philz, what can I get you?” The chipper barista didn’t seem phased at all by the human match-stick that loomed over her across the counter. She beamed at him the same way she beamed at every other customer.

Veniamin blinked at her as if he was surprised she was there. He stared at her, then up at the chalkboard menu above her. Maybe it was the font, or maybe it was the way every square inch of the board was filled with something, but it was hard to make out anything intelligible. The confusing gaggle of words and numbers simply washed over him, threatening to drown him in much the same way his suit wanted to. He didn’t know why he thought this would be a good idea. He felt like he was in shock. He wanted nothing more than to run to the redwoods and climb one of them.

“Uhm,” is what he managed to say.

“It’s your first time here, huh?” She gave him a sympathetic look, then glanced back to the chalkboard. “You kind of have that deer in the headlights look.”

Veniamin felt the blush rising in his cheeks. He sniffed once. Behind the overwhelming scent of roasted coffee beans, he caught her lip gloss — cinnamon, tinged with the smell of powder and the synthetic berry of her shampoo. His shoulders slumped a little, and he felt his heart slow down. He liked berries, synthetic or otherwise. “Yeah. Sorry. I have no idea what to get.”

The barista smiled at him. “No problem! I would recommend the Tesora roast; it’s kind of our gold standard. Full-bodied, low acidity, kind of a rich and nutty flavor with a smooth, clean finish. It’s nice and middle-of-the-road, so you can taste it and decide where you’d like to go for your next cup. Okay?”
Veniamin blinked. He had no idea what those words were supposed to mean when put next to each other. But she seemed to know what she was talking about, and was the first person to speak to him this long and still be friendly. “Yeah, OK.”

“Great. How do you take your coffee?” She looked at him while her arms seemed to move of her own accord, grabbing a filter and stuffing it into the top of a coffee machine.

“Hot?” Veniamin hadn’t expected the question. There were ways to take coffee?

The barista laughed and nodded. “Right, right. Medium cream, medium sugar?”

“Sure.”

“All right, I’ll get that right out to you!” Finally, the barista looked away. She turned, grabbed a scoop of almost-black beans and ground them. When she returned to the coffee machine, he was still there. “Oh! You can pay at the cashier right there, and I’ll call you when your cup is ready. What’s your name?”

“Veniamin.” He drew himself up straighter, eyes glittering behind his hair. He said his name like it was a challenge, as he had been taught.

The barista simply nodded. “All right, Benjamin, I’ve got you.”

“Thank you.” Veniamin hesitated. He felt like there should be something else to say, but nothing came. He had the distinct impression that he was coming across as a weirdo. He turned and lumbered to the cash register.

Most of the pastries next to the cashier smelled stale, but there was a fruit danish that at least smelled sweet enough for it not to matter and some small rectangular bar that reeked of nuts, cardamom and honey. He bought both along with his coffee, found a corner to squeeze into, and inhaled the pastries before his name was called. The small bar was practically inhaled; the fruit danish gone in two bites.

As he chewed, appreciating the way the spices and honey lingered on his tongue, he watched the people who filled the coffee shop. Most of them were staring down at their phones, but some were reading papers or having quiet conversations. He couldn’t hear what they were saying from here. At least, not as he was…

He loosened his tie with a small grunt. He was wearing a suit. He was in a coffee shop. He was in the middle of downtown San Francisco. He was supposed to blend in.

“Benjamin!” The barista called out, looking around briefly before spotting him.

He rose, strode over to the barista, and took the cup.

“Why don’t you take a sip to let me know how it tastes?” She looked excited for some reason.

Veniamin sniffed. The coffee scent was buried under cream and sugar, but blended they all worked together to create something more. He closed his eyes, let the smell bounce up to his brain and light it up. Then he took a sip.

The heat didn’t bother him. The cream smoothed out the bitterness of the coffee, while the sugar lifted the lighter aspects of the taste on his tongue. The coffee reasserted itself along the back of his tongue, a lingering bitterness that was managed by the thickness of the cream. Veniamin found himself smiling as the warmth traveled down his throat and spread through his chest.

“Good?” The barista looked pleased, and that pleased him.

“Great.” Veniamin took another, longer sip. He felt more like himself, like he was in a forest, or fishing out in a river. “Thanks.”

“No problem, Benjamin. Have a good day!”

“It’s Veniamin. What’s your name?”

“I’m sorry. My name? It’s Marian.”

Veniamin stuck out a broad hand. “Marian. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for the coffee.”

She beamed, but there was something different in her expression this time. “My pleasure, Veniamin. Take care.”

Veniamin smiled, hoping it would show through his beer. He floated through the crowd at Philz and out of the door, feeling for the first time the magic of San Francisco.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Uncategorized