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12.26.2008

Slumdog Millionaire

The dam burst on Christmas and the theater flooded with a fresh batch of this year's prestige pictures. Valkyrie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Marley & Me, The Spirit and Bedtime Stories took the silver screen by storm. A few lucky markets got Gran Torino. But a little indie with a couple of big-time talents absolutely absconded with my heart on Christmas day, and that was Slumdog Millionaire.


From a narrative perspective, this work is very accomplished. The story follows a pair of orphaned Indian boys as they hustle their way into adolescence in many of the worst environments in India. The actors who play the youngest versions of Salim and Jamal (check IMDB for spelling of their names) are fantastic in the first act. They share an undeniable chemistry and their genuine sibling affection for each other is palpable. Salim is the elder. He's hard (as evidenced by the sale of his brother's prized autograph) and he's dangerous. He's imposing toward the other urchins in the garbage piles and begging scams. Jamal is the romantic. He's the dreamer. His character ultimately matures and blunders onto the popular Indian version of the show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

The sad story of the early life of these brothers sets in motion a string of coincidences, punctuated by their on-again, off-again companionship with a young girl named Latika, that ends with...well, I don't want to spoil it. You need to see this.

Latika and Jamal dream of a life together in a house on Harbour Row, but what they face is a series of degradations and hardships that only drive them further apart. The narrative initially outlines events set in the past before culminating in an impressive climax, realized in the present.

Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) is a strong director, though he has his bad days (Sunshine, The Beach) as well. He's 100% on top of his game here. The shots are vibrant, India alive in a wash of pastels and muted tones that come together in some form of horrific beauty. Boyle keeps the pace up, and the editing is a huge strength. The parallel narrative sequence of the first two acts rivets the audience to the action on the screen. And, as in many of his better films, he illustrates a superb grasp of sound. The soundtrack pulses through almost every shot, the songs complementary to the emotions of the characters on the screen.

And the acting. Dev Patel nails it in his portrayal of Jamal. He plays the role of the self-deprecating dreamer perfectly, and is a wonderful foil to the charismatic Anil Kapoor. Frieda Pinto is striking in her turn as Latika. All in all, this one was very well played.

I haven't been as happy leaving a theater as I was after leaving Slumdog in a great long while. I hope that the goodwill that this film has garnered in the early awards season (four Golden Globe nominations) carries it into January.

Go see this film. You'll be happy you did. Oh, and don't miss the Bollywood dance at the end.

12.19.2008

New High Temperatures in Florida


Just got back from the Round Marsh, and man is it hot. We're pushing 81 degrees, which would threaten the new high temperature for Jacksonville. While I miss Oregon's snow and it certainly doesn't feel quite like Christmas, we have to make the best with what we've got. When life gives you limes, make margaritas I guess. I'm thinking a frosty beverage (rocks, with salt) would wash down a dozen Apalachicola Bay oysters quite nicely here in a couple of hours. I'm going to knock out some Christmas shopping, then hit Sliders at Atlantic Beach, then go see Seven Pounds.
And I'll do it all in flip flops.

12.17.2008

The Genesis of a Horror Tale

I scared myself this morning. Badly.

I had a hard time getting to sleep last night and didn't drift off until after midnight. I read in bed (Bentley Little's The Academy) until about 11:50, and then just passed in and out of shallow rest until sometime after 3:00.

Then I got down to business and dreamed one of the most vivid nightmares I've had in a long while. It was set in an imposing old apartment building in Portland's Goose Hollow Neighborhood. The place, a former luxury hotel, had undergone a series of crazy renovations, and I was an architect that enjoyed touring the place a couple of times a week.

I was on the second floor when I met a little girl in a Christmas dress. She walked with me, sharing information on the people who lived in the building, until we got to a stairway leading to the penthouse apartments, which I'd never seen before. The little girl produced a key and we went up.

There were two apartments--one on the north side of the building, one on the south--divided by a long hallway. Behind one door, I could hear a low-pitched hum. The other doorway was framed with lightly frosted glass. I could see a woman behind that glass, and she was fumbling with something. She had on all of this crazy make-up, and the girl told me we should go back downstairs.

That's when the woman started shooting. And shrieking. And chasing.

I tucked the little girl under my arm and sprinted for the stairwell. The woman gave chase--down five flights of stairs until I burst into the dim lobby of the place. The girl scampered away, out into the streets I guess, and I just hid--in a hollow beneath the stairs.

The last thing I remember was the woman, her face painted hideously with Kabuki makeup, sticking the barrel of an enormous gun in my face.

I awoke moaning about a nightmare, but it was 5:56 and Jeanne was long gone. Man, it creeped me out something fierce and, though I was able to fall back asleep, the opening line to the story I just wrote in two hours played over and over in my head. It was there when I was eating my bagel and having my coffee. It followed me while I perused the sports section. It was under my skin and dying to get out.

Here it is:
The Chamberlain did not change as it grew older, but instead became more clearly itself.

It's a play on an old quote I recall from a composition text. It might not be a crackerjack hook, but it captures exactly the sentiment of the dream I had last night.

Sheesh. This story poured through me. I wasn't going to work on anything in the short form until I was through with Book #2, but this couldn't be helped. I'll polish it over the coming weeks and see where we are.

That said, I'm always thankful when the projector up there gets cranked up. It's sometimes hard to take and I get a little scared, but a few seconds of frightened moaning is worth every minute of suspense that a good horror tale can provide a reader.

Tentative title:
"Life in the Chamberlain Hotel"

12.15.2008

Alternative Christmas Movies

I filled up the gas tank today and saw something I haven't seen in a decade. The person who had gassed up before me had purchased $5.00 worth of gas. That bought a little over a gallon a year ago. Today it paid for 2.7 gallons.

When was the last time you put a fiver in the tank? Tenth grade? Amazing...

On to other things. I like holiday movies. Always have. It's not the holidays if I can't hit the theaters once a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas for the late-season prestige picks. Jeanne and I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still last week, and we both kind of enjoyed it. It wasn't anything special visually (there were a few nice shots when Klaatu and Helen tried to hide in the New Jersey woods), and the leads didn't share much in the way of chemistry.

Incidentally, I'd like to see Jennifer Connolly go back to acting. She now pretty much traipses through every movie she's in, mouth slightly agape, making that "Damn-I'm-surprised-this-is-happening!" face over and over. She can do much more. If you haven't seen A Beautiful Mind, then take that sucker for a ride. Great movie.

The critical reception of Four Christmases was dismal and that scared me off. Too bad, because with that cast, a sharp satire on America's love of divorce had potential.

But I thought I'd list a couple of films that fall outside the realm of The Santa Clause, et al. Not every holiday film needs to bubble along with holiday cheer, and these ones offer a little naughty with their nice.

Die Hard: Man, this movie changed my life. I've maybe seen it a dozen times, but the first time was transcendent, and my love of the American action film was kindled. Bruce Willis plays NYPD Lt. John McCLane, hoping to reconcile with Holly, his estranged spouse in Los Angeles. Little does he know that the purely evil Hans Gruber has plans for the Nakitomi Plaza. McClane, shoeless and battered, punches back at the terrorists, single-handedly restoring order (but not before the body count shoots through the roof). Great holiday film.

Gremlins: Joe Dante's horror comedy about when good Christmas gifts go bad is lots of fun. Just sitting here typing these words evokes that creepy little music and visions of a swimming pool filled with monsters. Speaking of that creepy music,
take a listen.

Anybody see anything good lately?

12.11.2008

Cherie Priest and Fathom

Fans of slipstream, fantasy, mythology and horror will want to hit their local bookstores or log onto Amazon this weekend to purchase Cherie Priest's fifth novel, Fathom. The book is Cherie's first American hardcover and is also a featured pick for Barnes and Noble's paranormal book club. Cherie's writing is strong and her stories are always intriguing.

Take a look at what this book means to Cherie's promising career here, and then pick up a copy for yourself or for a Christmas gift. The work is well worth it and you'll be happy that you did.

12.10.2008

"The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates"

I've had some long nights of late, friends. Just After Sunset arrived last Saturday, and I spent all of last week motoring through the stories. All in all, the collection is a little uneven. When it shines ("Graduation," "N.," "Mute," Ayana" and "A Very Tight Place"), it really shines. We're talking polished to a sheen here, folks. The rest is a bit more pedestrian. It's another quality effort by King, but much of it feels...well, limp, for lack of a better term.

Mr. King is a master short story writer. While I feel his novels have generally improved throughout the years, I think much of his earlier short fiction was superior to the stories in this collection and in 2002's Everything's Eventual. Night Shift (1978) was excellent and Skeleton Crew (1985) was great.

But Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993) was the absolute goods when it comes to King's short fiction. His three finest short tales are found in the pages of N & D: "The End of the Whole Mess," "Crouch End" and the all-time favorite--"You Know They Got a Hell of a Band." The writing in Nightmares (and in the two collections listed above) has more teeth to it. Ever the American craftsman, King repeatedly espouses the practice of putting the story first. The tales in those first three collections illustrate that ethos to great effect. I haven't felt the same about the work in his last two collections, though. The stories just don't have as much zip.

But that's not to say there aren't some true gems in this batch. The story by the title listed above is one of these--maybe the best thing he's written in the short form in a decade or more.

Told in the third person, "The New York Times..." is a heart-wrenching story about loss and connection. It tells the story of Anne, whose husband has been in an accident. Days after the tragedy, her cell phone rings. I don't want to spoil the story, and I'm not by simply saying that it's him (James) on the other end.

But where is he calling from?

The story is about the afterlife, and the little things--those tiny nuances that dictate memory and create meaning in everyday life. In this case, it's there in the language, in the inside jokes James and Anne share, in the shared frustration of something as simple as not charging a cellular phone.

Consider this passage:
Anne goes to the extension on the bed-table, wrapping a towel around her, her wet hair thwacking unpleasantly on the back of her neck and bare shoulders. She picks it up, she says hello, and then he says her name. It's James. They had thirty years together, and one word is all she needs. He says Annie like no one else, always did.

King cranks up the pathos on this one, and the story really does (in ten quick pages) spur the reader to consider his or her life. It causes a person to roll over in bed and kiss the person sleeping there--to maybe lay closer to that person in the night, thankful for the solidity and proximity of a shared connection.

The tale is rife with concrete imagery and some very solid phrasing. It moves well and concludes in stunning, crushing fashion. It's the type of story that people learning to write in the short form should study, to be sure.

Stephen King's story appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction a few months ago. You can probably hunt it up on the internet, but I'd recommend taking out the collection. I'll be commenting on a couple of the stories here over the coming weeks and, while it's not as great as N & D, there is still much to discuss in this collection.

I did the second pass-through on a short I wrote in two sittings yesterday. I'll take one more run through and try it out soon. Book #2 is in the polishing stages. I hope to have it ready for Bernadette in the first month of the new year.

Here's hoping you're writing through the holidays, and taking care in these rough economic times.

12.07.2008

Australia



Man, I had a hard time with this film. Baz Luhrmann's film is certainly ambitious. It started with great promise, but then it just...kept...going.

The opening twenty minutes were pretty entertaining. The film portrayed the early '40s fetchingly; Luhrmann strung together an interesting series of overlaps, fades, dissolves and jumpcuts to divulge the backstory. We learn about Australia's Stolen Generations. We learn about the character played by Hugh Jackman, a man strangely only called "The Drover" throughout the whole film. Honestly, even after he married Lady Sarah Ashley (played in typical fussy, constipated fashion by Nicole Kidman), she just called him "Drover." What was the man's name?

But after opening with such promise, the whole thing devolves. The narration is told in broken English by an aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters). The kid has promise, but he annoyed throughout this film. It's hard to think of child actors over-playing their roles, but that's just what happened here.

The film is a series of seemingly insurmountable tragedies. Nullah's mom dies, needlessly, in one scene. They have a crazy cattle drive (one good scene in the film) and a hit-and-miss romance. Ashley's husband is murdered and a creepy aborigine named King George dances around in a thong and follows the characters throughout the movie. There's a subplot about an evil cattle baron (even the villain here is dull). Oh, yeah, and there's some stuff in there about a war as well.

I've heard critics mention this film in the same breath as Gone With the Wind. Not even close, friends. I was laughing in the third act as Luhrmann trots out every romantic cliche in the book. Slow motion shots of the little kid running for The Drover and crying his name at a reunion. "Drover! Drover!"

There's, of course, a case of mistaken identity as we worry about whether Ashley was killed in the bombing. There's a bunch of sentimental crap in there about The Wizard of Oz.

Honestly, this is the biggest jumble of cinematic hoo-ha I've seen in a while. If you still go to this film, bring plenty of supplies. It checks in at 165 minutes and they don't pass particularly quickly.

I'd like to see Milk, and Gran Torino looks interesting, but this season's pick of "prestige" films just doesn't look all that appealing to me. I'll be seeing The Spirit on Christmas day I guess.

So what are you folks looking at? Anything out there worth seeing?

12.06.2008

Hey!

I wrote eleven pages yesterday.

How many did you write?

UPDATE:

Our cat Joe snores. He's sawing logs in the glow of the new Christmas tree. Poor little sport tuckered himself out battin' low-hanging ornaments. Let's all give him a hand!

12.04.2008

Three Things I Like: Friday Night Lights, Ghost Story and Sotto Voce

Tis' the season for listing. Twelve goats a leaping, eleven zombies lurching, ten tentacles tweaking...yada, yada, yada.

We're no different here in this neck of the woods. I keep track of things. Lots of things. I'm not quite Rainman, but you could say I'm a dork and it won't hurt my feelings. Books. Movies. Stories I enjoyed. Trips. I write it all down in a journal that's making the long, hard trip back to pulp. I'll have some top-tens around here in the coming weeks. I know they can be tedious, but I've got to write them down, friends. One must justify the bookkeeping somehow, I suppose.

Here's a list of three things that I enjoy:

Friday Night Lights


I was as skeptical as the next person after this thing stunk. I loved Buzz Bissinger's book. It's on the shelf here in my office and it seems to fly away on loan quite a bit. The book is a journalistic jewel--an in-depth look at small-town, blue-collar life in West Texas. Buzz can write with the best of them. His work is fluid and lyrical, descriptive to fine point and clear.


I laughed at the premise of the show when I first heard it was coming to NBC. I thought, given the film's turdy appearance and shoddy adaptation, that it would stink it up.

But it surprised me from the first episode. The series is well played by its leads, and there are enough subplots to keep the thing going for years--a trouble spot for most high-school themed series. Rich with pathos, the writers seem to really understand why the show's small-but-devoted audience is looking for. They developed believable characters with depth and complexity.

Kyle Chandler has nailed his turn as Coach Eric Taylor. Chandler plays a kind-but-gruff smoldering volcano with perfect authenticity. Connie Britton is excellent as his wife, Tami, and the cast of "kids" is surprisingly likable and talented. Don't discount it. I'm just saying...

Ghost Story
Straub wrote this beauty when he was in his teens. It's a hell of a great yarn that features likable protagonists (older protagonists--conveyed convincingly by a young writer; it's a neat trick) and some great embedded ghost stories. Straub's writing is top shelf--smooth and descriptive and very addictive. This one keeps you up. About the book, Stephen King states: "The terror just keeps mounting and mounting."
The man knows his haunted stories, and this certainly qualifies. Put it on the Christmas list.
This magazine's impressive first issue was published just a few weeks ago. Publisher Emily Thorp has created a magazine with a network of editors who have crafted a solid market for fiction, poetry and art. The magazine showcases a new batch of work each quarter and allows for a voting system to select an end-of-the-year print anthology. I think this is one of the markets that will have some traction in the years to come.
And I'm proud to be a part of that beginning in January of 2009. My short story "The Dandy on the Doorstep" will appear in Sotto Voce's winter issue. It's a story I wrote a little while ago about the powers of temptation. I remember having recently read King's "The Man in the Black Suit" and Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" before I took a crack at my own take on that theme. I've always been fascinated by travelling salesmen, and I wanted to write a rural Oregon story. This was the result, and I think it was a pretty good one.
So there you have it. Three things I like, and the first list of the holiday season. I've got a committee meeting with a meatball hoagie, so I gotta run...

12.03.2008

A Day of Firsts...

Today marked the first time I've scraped ice from my windshield since I moved to Florida in 2005. It's been a remarkably cold winter in the Northeast corner of the peninsula. Should make for some sweet orange juice next year, ya'll.

I composed the first original fiction this morning that I've written in two weeks. The holidays can tackle your work if you let them, but I've got a clear path to a productive December ahead of me.

This wasn't a complete surprise, given the economy, but HMH was the first major publisher that I've read about halting new acquisitions.

This is the first time I've checked in online here in what feels like forever. Thankfully, I have a lot to write about in the coming weeks and I won't be such a stranger. I've got a couple of reviews to post and some good news on a couple of story placements I'm pretty proud of. I hope the Thanksgiving holiday went well for everyone, and if you haven't been reading that book there on the right of your screen, make it a priority. That man can yarn with the best of 'em, let me tell ya.