QUADRIVIUM

Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?

Archive for November 2007

Some thoughts…

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I’m sitting here enjoying the gray dusk as it settles over Colorado’s first real snow of the season.  Just came across an old story idea I had actually forgotten I had.  I had even outlined the whole plot all the way up to the denouement, which is pretty good for me. I’m not very good with endings, though. 

Speaking of endings, Stephen King likes Frank Darabont’s tweaked ending to The Mist.  Not that this is a real surprise; Darabont handles King’s material better than most…with exception perhaps to William Goldman, but I know that’s debatable. 

“1-18-08” finally has a title (Cloverfield), and a new trailer.  It’s interesting to watch a film develop between ads—watch the teaser first, then notice how much more real the effects artists have rendered the Statue of Liberty’s head in the second trailer.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Paul the Apostle in Athens.  I started reading up on it, and my study has changed most of my preconceptions about the entire episode.  I want to try and get some thoughts down on that tonight. 

And finally—The word “evangelism” seems to taste more sour to me with each passing month.  I just feel like it makes me out to be some programmed robot out to convert despicable dissidents, and that just doesn’t paint a picture of Jesus Christ for me. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

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Written by taj

November 21, 2007 at 5:56 pm

Smash Cut – Lions for Lambs

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My review of Lions for Lambs is up at Infuze. I tried to be fair—feel free to let me know whether you think I succeeded.

***

It would be easy to approach Lions for Lambs as a simple partisan tirade and accept it on its own terms. But though it asks some important questions, the film ignores so much narrative common sense that its message drowns in a pool of presuppositions and insulting non-sequiturs.

The film follows three stories. Time magazine journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) has been invited by Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) for an exclusive look at a new plan to win the War on Terror. It’s a plan that involves capturing the high ground in Afghanistan — one that happens to includes soldiers Arian Finch and Ernest Rodriguez (Derek Luke and Michael Pena), former students of Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford). Malley, the third anchor to this story, has chosen today to confront the apathy of a slacker in his class whom, Malley believes, has a lot of untapped potential.

The structure lends itself more to a stage play than a film, relying almost entirely on dialog.

Redford, assuming directorial responsibilities, handles the script by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) well enough, and armed with two other thespian giants, portions of the film rise to colorful life on the strength of those performances alone. Absent any discernable plot, however, the story amounts to little more than an episodic ideologue.

Unfortunately, the film never quite transcends its agenda, and the resulting narrative begs credulity in places. For instance, Sen. Irving makes a habit of blaming poor intelligence for various difficulties involved with fighting the War on Terror, yet he assures Roth that this new operation in Afghanistan is based on solid information. The operatives joining Finch and Rodriguez in their flight over the desert corroborate the claim — satellite imagery from the day before confirms their landing sight as abandoned.

Naturally, the helicopter takes surprise enemy fire. In the course of the mayhem, Rodriguez falls from the craft. Finch, desperate to save his friend, leaps from the helicopter as well. As they lay in the snow, injured and bleeding, with enemy troops advancing on their position, a satellite has conveniently appeared overhead to keep the soldiers mounting a rescue appraised of the situation. The audience is left to decide whether its appearance is a result of poor military planning, or just lazy scriptwriting.

As the film’s most interesting characters, Finch and Rodriguez receive perhaps the most disrespectful treatment. They appear as thoughtful young adults, anxious to engage the world around them. Their choice to join the military, an intent decision made to put legs under their idealism, disturbs Malley, and he gently tries to coax them toward another direction. Admirably, they hold to their convictions.  We can change things, they say.

“If,” Malley replies. “If.” The implication being, of course, if they return home alive, as if their service to their country holds little to no meaning at all. Unfortunately, that’s just the signal the film appears to send.

Redford, Streep, and Cruise all turn in steady performances, in spite of their rather stock characterizations. Streep and Cruise spar over the issues with reflexive talking points, neither taking the discussion to a level deeper than anything found on Dateline NBC. Only Malley’s conversation with the slacker Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) leads to any real conversational development.

We get to see a glimpse of what Malley sees in Hayes through a flashback that reveals his smarts. We leave him at the end as he wrestles with Malley’s prompts, juxtaposed with a newsreel that has become all too familiar in a media culture more obsessed with braying pop stars than the too-often nameless lions making real sacrifices.

Perhaps the ending might have worked better had those sacrifices received better treatment.

(edited by Sam Gaines)

Written by taj

November 16, 2007 at 5:51 pm

Getting over my outrage

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There’s a place in Through a Screen Darkly where Jeffery Overstreet writes about a reaction he had to reading someone’s poor review of a film he admired, and how he had wanted to jump online and write a biting retort.  The words of an old friend kept his fingers in check (pardon me while I paraphrase):

You’re could be a great film reviewer one day if you can just learn to get over your outrage. 

That’s good advice for writers.  It’s lingered there in my head since I read it three weeks ago, and started making some noise last night while I was trying to write up a review of my own. 

I don’t think this means I need to dismiss my outrage.  Christ was outraged when he drove the money changers out of the temple.  Outrage can serve as a great motivator, but it needs focus.  The same outrage that spurned Arthur Miller to write The Crucible has also driven men to kill. 

There’s plenty over which to feel outraged in this particular film—be it the poor storytelling, or the blatant disrespect it shows for the military in general, and the sacrifice of soldiers in specific.  But my writing needs focus.  I want to write without pretension, and God knows plenty has wormed its way into previous efforts.  When I write, I want to know I am taking part in telling my tiny portion of His great story. 

Written by taj

November 14, 2007 at 10:19 am

Posted in Movies, Quotes, Writing

The WGA Strike

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Janet Batchler, screenwriter, lecturer, blogger and Christian, lays down a concise beat-for-beat look at the Writers Guild Strike.  It’s an interesting read, particularly for anyone hoping to work in the business some day. 

Conservatives usually fall on the ill-supportive side of things where unions are concerned.  I am woefully ignorant as to why, but the WGA has a legitimate gripe: when I download a film from iTunes, the fellow that composed the score receives a tiny dividend—just like a novelist receives royalties. 

The writer of the film, however, receives nothing. 

There’s a common myth that writers make gobs of money, and it just isn’t so.  Everything I’ve ever read about writing for film and television says that fat paychecks are more the exception than the norm.  If Batchler’s numbers are correct, and the average annual income of a WGA member falls around $37,700, I could make more money as a school teacher.  And we all know how underpaid they are. 

This is something you do out of love for the craft.  A residual from an internet download really isn’t a whole lot to ask. 

Written by taj

November 6, 2007 at 5:45 pm

Posted in Movies, Writing

Pastor Appreciation Sketch

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Two people on stage, Two carries a paper bag with the following items: a bottle of sparkling cider, a tube of cheese whiz, and an envelope of money…

One: Hey where’ve you been?

Two: I had to meet with my realtor. 

One: Really?  You thinking about selling your house?

Two: No, I had to get Pastor appraised for Pastor Appreciation Month

One: You had to do what? 

Two: Appraise his value.  See, cars and computers depreciate.  Homes and pastors appreciate. 

One: Ah. 

Two: Get it? 

One: Not really. 

Two: It means his value increases with age. 

One: Oooh.  So we can say something like, “Pastor, you are like a fine aged Merlot.”

Two: Well, not really.

One: Why not? 

Two: Well, we’re Nazarenes.  Comparing a pastor to a fine aged Merlot has to violate something in the manual. 

One: I see. 

Two: Plus, comparing him to something aged sounds like we’re saying he’s old. 

One: So what do we do? 

Two: I got him some sparkling cider.  (pulls out bottle)

One: Oh, good choice. 

Two: And you know how they say that wine and cheese go together, right? 

One: Yeah.

Two: So I got him some cheese whiz.  (pulls out tube)

One: Don’t you think he deserves something a little nicer?

Two: Like what? 

One: I don’t know…Velveeta? 

Two: Ah, Velveeta tastes cheap.  Trust me, he’ll like this. 

One: You know what else we could do?  Get some flowers for his wife. 

Two: Great idea.  I was thinking: Pastor works like twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week, right? 

One: Yeah. 

Two: So I was thinking he deserved another nice gift. 

One: Like what?

Two: The kind that lets him choose for himself (reveals envelope with money). 

One: Perfect.  Hey, when do you think we could give all this to him? 

Two: How ‘bout right now?

Written by taj

November 5, 2007 at 1:25 pm

Posted in Writing

Invisible Review…and other stuff

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My review of The Invisible is up at Infuze.   Please ignore the two small grammatical errors found within.

–The appreciation sketch I wrote was nixed.  Long story.  But I might post it tomorrow (the sketch, that is).

–Some friends I know are actually crazy enough to participate in NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month) this year, the goal being to generate a novel length manuscript (at least 50,000 words) inside the thirty days of November.

That’s 1,666.67 words a day.

But it’s doable.  One guy I know pumped out 3,378 words just last night.

–Next week, I get to review Lions for Lambs, which (as of this writing) is holding steady at 56% rotten at Rotten Tomatoes.  I’m withholding judgment till I see it.

Written by taj

November 2, 2007 at 6:50 pm

Smash Cut – The Invisible

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While The Invisible makes honest use of the old Shakespearean thread of treachery and cowardice to spin its yarn, its sophisticated aspirations tumble into an underwhelming, ambling suspense tale of two fractured teens and their desperate need of mending.

Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin, War of the Worlds) writes essays for money, selling them off to the lazy and desperate teens who stalk the halls of his high school. He carries a plane ticket that will take him to a writer’s program at the Royal Academy in London, a decision his widowed and emotionless mother (Marcia Gay Harden) stiffly discourages.

Annie Newton (Margarita Levieva) lives in a splintered home run by apathetic parents. Her efforts to cope take her out to the streets at night to help her ex-con boyfriend Marcus steal cars. She also peddles cheap cell phones, a sticky temptation to Nick’s friend Pete. When Pete fails to pay up, Annie and her goons threaten violence. Nick tries to buy her off. “You are so broken,” he whispers into her ear, drawing out her defensive wrath.

A jilted Marcus’s call to police and Pete’s lack of a spine propel Annie toward her predictably disastrous confrontation with Nick that leaves the hopeful young writer lying dead in the woods. Or so Annie believes. Annie and her goons ditch his body and scatter. The next morning, Nick emerges from the woods, returns to school, and finds that no one can see or him. Trapped in an ethereal netherworld, he has finally earned the film’s moniker.

As the supernatural elements develop throughout the second act, the story starts to unravel under the strain of thoughtless plot devices, which unfortunately bury the stronger aspects of an otherwise mundane ghost story. Various awkward subplots, such as Annie’s past relationship with the officer investigating Nick’s disappearance, seem planted merely for drama’s sake, and never see any real development.

Many of the film’s clever attempts to evoke the eerie netherworld border on the ridiculous. We learn that the ghostly Nick can seem to interact with the physical world only to realize upon second glance that his actions have no effect. It’s a trope the filmmakers keep going back to, effectively drowning the initial shock.

Nick eventually sticks to following Annie around: watching her at home while she endures the paper-thin complexity of her parents, watching as she dotes on her little brother. As the police close in, Annie grows desperate and Nick inches closer to doom. Inexorably, Annie hears his voice, thrusting our two broken teens on a shallow journey of discovery and salvation.

Some moments offer glimmers of a more penetrating narrative. One surprisingly tasteful scene that follows Annie into a shower paints a figurative look at her desire to purge herself of her wrongs. Still unseen, Nick reaches a personal zenith as he watches his ice-hard mother melts into painful despair. His realization that she can feel moves him to start picking up his own broken pieces.

Director David S. Goyer (Blade: Trinity), familiar with moody plotlines, appears capable enough to coax adequate performances from his cast to at least project hints of believability. His strengths certainly help the film recover from some of its flaws. But only a little.

The film commits its most grievous sin during the final payoff. There’s no setup, so the climax appears out of nowhere, perhaps assuming the audience will just buy it after having followed the film’s vague humanistic meanderings thus far. A more refined script might have offered a more compelling journey to build toward that ending, instead of contriving one out of thin air.

The DVD’s special features include director and writer commentary, a pair of music videos, and a collection of 11 deleted scenes that would have offered still more needless dangling subplots that fail to offer any greater insight to the overall story.

(edited by Sam Gaines)

Written by taj

November 2, 2007 at 7:00 am