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Archive for April 2008

Time to do the math…

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OK.  As of today, there are 61 days to deadline to finish the screenplay.  In order to complete the second draft and get it into the hands of the people we’ve selected to give us feedback in time to complete the third draft, I’m looking at pumping out four pages a day until the current draft is complete. 

While this would normally mean I’m stepping back from the blog, I’ve decided to update my progress here as a kind of accountability.  A way to “put up or shut up” so to speak. 

So, as of this writing, two of the allotted four are complete.  Two more to go before sunset. 

As the work progresses, I’ll start to reveal details of the plot — something I’ve avoided doing thus far with some degree of intention.  So here’s the basic premise:

A dual adventure that touches two continents — A reporter searches for a lost treasure as he investigates incidents of murder and intrigue that took place in an Australian mining town in the early 20th century.  A surprise tip leads him to the untold story of an oft-ignored legend. 

That oft-ignored legend may change before submission, so for the time being, I have to keep mum.  When the second draft is completed, I’ll try to post the first ten pages, just so everyone can have a look at the work. 


Written by taj

April 29, 2008 at 2:12 pm

Guitar Hero Humble Pie

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Over the weekend, I finally had the opportunity to play that phenomenon of video games (and, so I’ve read, frequent diversion for writers caught in the WGA strike) – Guitar Hero III

Where video games are concerned, I was a once a solid contender.  My aptitude for the controller knew no bounds.  But then adulthood arrived and the need to pay rent soon overwhelmed the need to buy video games, and I bid my consoles farewell long ago. 

I imagined I would take to Guitar Hero well enough.  Having never played, I knew I was in for a challenge.  But when, upon failing one of the training courses, someone actually quips, “Wow, I’ve never seen that happen before,” something is dreadfully wrong.  I am now about eight years removed any serious video game playing, already in danger of becoming one of those old relics whose children will lament to their friends my inability to play. 

Luckily, some friends of ours have procured a Nintendo Wii, so maybe I can recapture some skills there as a freeloading amateur.  (crosses fingers)

Written by taj

April 28, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Posted in General, Pop Culture

Subjective slants, and other things

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After posting the Cloverfield review, I looked around to see what others were saying, and I have since spoken to other friends who’ve seen the film, and I learned something interesting.

Not everyone agrees with my assessment of the film.

And that’s OK – I’m not so pretentious to believe my opinion is always the right one.  Opinions differ.  Christianity Today gave it 3 ½ starsLibertas only gave it one. I’d’ve probably given it two – on one or two levels, the film does succeed.  I shy away from rating films that way because it can be so subjective. 

The way I see it, a review is just my take, and in the case of Cloverfield, there was not a lot of time between watching the film and writing about it.  Sometimes art takes time to penetrate.  My opinion could change.  As of this writing, it still stands. 

One conversation at work this morning resembled an old Siskel and Ebert exchange.  My friend looked at the film as something in the vein of the old Gojira films – a simple concept running on simple execution. There’s a lot of merit to that perspective; the filmmakers themselves have said that was what they were shooting for. 

One of the challenges I have whenever I write a review is stepping outside of my own perspective and letting the work speak for itself.  Cloverfield tells a simple story set against a violent and gargantuan upheaval.  That the simpler aspects annoy me says more about me than the actual film, and perhaps I need to do a better job delineating the two when I write one of these. 

Reviews ought to dialog.  Disagreements will abound, and their validity or merit will depend on any number of factors.  Writing about art requires the writer to bring part of him(or her)self into the work.  So I’ve read, anyway.  My annoyance, then, does carry some weight.  The artists involved may have achieved the goal they set out to reach; it does not mean that I have to like it.  I do believe, however, that it warrants an acknowledgement at the very least. 

I still feel very green when it comes to writing reviews.  I look at some of the ones I wrote two, or even one, years ago, and I can see where I’ve grown.  I read Overstreet, Chattaway and Ebert, and I see I still have a long way to go. 

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April 24, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Smash Cut – “Cloverfield”

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It’s not easy to admit this. But they say confession starts the process of healing, so I’m just going to lay it out there. I ignored the reviews. I ignored my friends’ advice. I even ignored my own good sense. I was duped, see — caught up in the enthusiasm that anyone who can set up film so spectacularly has to deliver a terrific pay off. My pride’s only recourse is that no one can count me among the hapless many that shelled out full price for a ticket to see the disastrous train wreck that is Cloverfield.

It’s Robert Hawkins’s last night in Manhattan. His friends have all gathered to wish him well while one compadre totes a video camera around to capture everyone’s goodbyes—and the entire film happens through its lens.

A jolting earthquake brings everything to a halt. Everyone heads to the roof of this posh Manhattan apartment complex to see all the action, just in time to witness a cataclysmic explosion erupt in the city, spewing debris. Hawkins and his buddies evacuate the building, just in time (you’ll find yourself repeating this phrase a lot) to see the head of the Statue of Liberty crash into the streets of New York. A monster has invaded the city!

It’s a near-flawless logline; the perfect set up to a 90 minute disaster flick, and difficult to screw up. Somehow, the filmmakers actually manage to do just that. Thankfully, it only lasts about 73 minutes.

The marketing for this film was brilliant, releasing a quick trailer six months ahead revealing the premise, the creative minds attached, and a release date. No title. Audiences went crazy with speculation. Everyone started hoping to relive the Blair Witch phenomenon. The downfall started once we learned the title — an enigmatic name various web sites had floated from the beginning; a name with no relevance to anything in the film, implied or imagined, at all. And that’s just a precursor.

This near-flawless premise comes polluted with cookie-cutter iterations of any number of shallow personalities found on the WB’s line up. There’s the jilted lover, the lover’s hip brother, the brother’s endearing girlfriend, and the token slacker/best friend who just can’t keep his mouth shut. And they all have to find Hawkins’s girlfriend, trapped in her apartment. Conveniently located at the epicenter of the monster’s inexplicable wrath. On the 39th floor.

They have no choice, you see. Remember all those rescue workers, those heroes, that gave themselves and often their lives on 9-11? They’re conspicuously missing from this picture. Perhaps there is no emergency responder for convoluted plotlines.

When the performances captured in the trailers look and sound more natural than those used in the final cut, something’s amiss. Running on the premise that everything you see was supposedly culled from home video footage, spontaneity becomes a key selling point. Everything about this picture feels forced or manufactured.

Critics have drawn numerous parallels between this movie and the other “home video” thriller – The Blair Witch Project – and comparisons should end with the inclusion of the video camera. The terror of Blair Witch was elemental; it played on base fears, building on that oft ignored rule that what you can’t see is much scarier than what you can. Where Blair Witch terrifies, Cloverfield only inspires guffaws. So many scares spurn utterances of “I-seen-that-one-coming” that you wonder why the movie bothers to take itself so seriously. One particular scene might have earned a place among the more chilling moments to come out of the genre in recent years, were it not so delimited by cliché.

I really wanted to like this picture, yet every time I find a compliment, a qualifier has to follow. For instance, the film possesses some amazing visuals, but nothing that surpasses anything seen all the other times Hollywood has blown up New York. The filmmakers involved in this project – Drew Goddard, J.J. Abrams, etc. – have earned numerous accolades for their work on television for years. Not quite sure what happened here, but for all its marketing innovation, Cloverfield falls well short of what should have been a slam dunk.

(photo (c) Paramount Pictures)

Written by taj

April 22, 2008 at 10:12 pm

Speaking of Indiana Jones…

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Appears whoever came up with 140 minutes didn’t know what they were talking about (HT Libertas).  Indy IV’s running time sits officially at 123 minutes.

So everyone who was actually worried about this can finally breathe. 

Written by taj

April 21, 2008 at 10:26 am

Posted in Movies

Kids just know

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The other day, I had the baby in my lap, and just for kicks, I played the trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie. 

His attention was rapt.  And I kid you not, when the trailer was over, he actually clapped his hands. 

Kids know, man.  They just…know.

Written by taj

April 21, 2008 at 9:21 am

Smash Cut – “The Forbidden Kingdom”

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Folklore follows a particular template, as most stories within a genre will do from time to time. The Forbidden Kingdom follows that template almost to the letter, and in many respects, it actually works in favor of the film. It’s the surprises that elevate it from just another mediocre kung-fu movie into an enjoyable little ride that doesn’t require a lot of effort.

Teenage kung-fu junkie Jason Tripitakus (Michael Arangano, Seabiscuit) buys bootleg martial arts DVDs off an old Chinese shop owner when he isn’t at home watching them, or asleep, dreaming about them. His dreams take him into a tale of the Monkey King — the ancient character of Chinese folklore, originally conceived four hundred years ago as an allegory for the fabled monk, Xi You Ji.

The film borrows particular elements of the legend — the king’s rebellious nature, and his defiance of authority — but twists them to suit its plot. Instead of earning the wrath of the Jade Emperor, the Monkey King’s pluck gains him favor among the powers on high, until he is betrayed by the Jade Warlord, and cast into stone. Upon his imprisonment, he flings his magical staff far from the kingdom, to await its return by a prophesied warrior.

Naturally, upon visiting the shop for more DVDs, Jason stumbles on to the old bo staff. On his way to school, some punks rough him up and discover his haul of illicit media. They force Jason to let them into the shop, where they proceed to search for cash, trash the store, and shoot the owner. As the owner struggles, he pushes the staff into Jason’s hands, and breathes an order — return this to its rightful master. As he escapes the pursuant punks, Jason falls, and somehow plummets into ancient China.

Once in China, Jason quickly meets the rest of his fellowship, intercut with ample opportunities to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li work their own fun and fabled magic. Fight choreographer Wu-Ping Yuen delivers, as usual, though he does recall in places the tired duels of Neo and Smith.

Themes of revenge, courage and immortality rear their familiar heads, but the filmmakers wisely avoid the temptation to force feed their points. Plenty of fighting, plenty of war, and the plot sticks to stock development. In a few places, it even recalls The NeverEnding Story. Fifteen minutes in, a discerning viewer can probably piece together most of the plot, and its resolution. The script doesn’t ever reach a significant level of depth, but it never aspires to. It manages to land a couple successful twists, if one were not so inclined to check out IMDB before heading to the theater, that is. Otherwise, even those secrets are easily spoiled.

Its one gaffe might rest on the lazy inclusion of a crucifix, which hangs around the neck of — you guessed it — the greasy punk who likes to beat up our hero. Yet, considering hoodlum and gang iconography, one could argue for its accuracy. Kingdom treads comfortable waters. It neither challenges, nor instructs, but it does provide an escape, at least worth the price of a matinée if you’ve got a couple hours to kill. Folklore nerds and kung-fu geeks will likely get the most out of this one. Everyone else be sure to check your brain at the door.

(photo (c) Lionsgate)

Written by taj

April 20, 2008 at 1:15 am

Indiana Jones and the Cutting Room Floor

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Hollywood Elsewhere reports Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is locked and ready to roll (HT: Looking Closer Journal) with a running time of 140 minutes plus. That makes this the longest Indy adventure of the four.

Fan chatter likes to go back and forth over issues like this, but the running time indicates little except for, well, the length.

There was an interview Steven Spielberg gave some time ago where he said his cut of Raiders ran a little over two hours. Lucas trimmed it down to 115 minutes. The trims, Spielberg had said, covered mainly the opening approach to the Hovito idol, and the climax involving Belloq open the Ark. Spielberg had envisioned a grand operatic/special effects blowout. Lucas made it leaner, he said, and the film was better for it.

140 minutes might feel a long way from lean. But some stories require more time to develop, and the magic of making a longer film work sometimes depends what ends up on the cutting room floor.

The perception of time when watching a film is very elastic. Theater houses and studios prefer shorter running times for their films to allow them to play more times in a day, and thus, earn more dollars. Or so the thinking goes. Dances with Wolves, however, upset that paradigm for the first time in decades with its release in 1990.

Its theatrical cut runs about three hours, though a recent DVD release of an extended cut of the film allows audiences a look at what dir. Kevin Costner originally left out. The new cut pushes four hours, involving minor, more character defining subplots. And it’s a bloated mess.

James Cameron obliterated the paradigm with the success of Titanic, a film he previewed for test audiences three times before settling on the final cut. Among the first complaints he received about the film involved its length — 202 minutes. Only two of the 20 people pulled aside at the final preview said it was too long. His final cut lands only seven-and-a-half minutes shorter than the first one he screened.

While less is usually more, sometimes the opposite is true. The theatrical cut of The Abyss – another Cameron epic – runs about 140 minutes. It’s a decent cut, awkward in places, particularly the ending. The story itself doesn’t really fit into one mold. It’s an undersea adventure that’s part sci-fi, part love story, part Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Cameron only previewed the film once. His audience had come indoors from a 110 degree heat wave to sit in a theater with a broken air conditioner and watch a film that pushed three hours. Feedback wasn’t exactly positive; as a result, Cameron cut 45 minutes out of the film.

In1992, Cameron went back and restored those 45 minutes on a laserdisc release. And the result is a far superior film. The middle and third acts find much greater context, especially the climactic moments involving one man’s selfless love standing in the gap for all humanity – a theme the original cut had excised completely.

A 140 minute running time takes Crystal Skull out of the typical Indiana Jones mold (the previous three installments have all kept to roughly the same length), but doesn’t bear any significance on the perceived strength of the film. Spielberg can handle a 140 minute picture. Take a gander at the trivia list over at IMDB – this film’s in good hands. I doubt it’ll disappoint.

(Quick note: many of the facts involving Titanic and The Abyss were pulled from Paula Parisi’s excellent book, Titanic and the Making of James Cameron, New York: Newmarket Press, 1998 )

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April 17, 2008 at 8:05 pm

A question for you scholars, lay or otherwise…

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Back when I went to school in Missouri, I remember attending a lecture given by a calvinist theologian who equated the first eleven chapters of Genesis with mythology, and generally held the belief that evolution was God’s means of creation. 

That’s a terribly written generalization of the lecture, but I’m writing this on the fly.  Since I started reading up on C.S. Lewis’s understanding of myth (as in story, not mythology itself), I’ve been curious to delve a little more into those first eleven chapters, and wanted to know if anyone knew of some good books to start with. 

Andrew, I feel like I remember you tried to tackle this issue before.  Any ideas?  All other readers, you’re welcome to voice your views/suggestions too. 

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April 16, 2008 at 1:00 pm

Been a while…

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Two weeks.  I really didn’t mean to go AWOL for that long.  If anyone’s still out there to read this, I am alive, taxes are filed, and I am finally getting back to the 2nd draft of the screenplay (and the sound of the ticking clock has only gotten louder).  I’ll post more soon.  Promise. 

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April 16, 2008 at 12:38 pm

Posted in General