The Peanut Butter Falcon—Dream a Little Dream

This past weekend, a friend and I headed to the theater to see a movie neither of us knew much about: The Peanut Butter Falcon, which was written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. (Don’t worry. There are no spoilers in this post.) Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, and Dakota Johnson are the stars of this drama/adventure. Though Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson are more well known and are very compelling in this, the main draw of the film is Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome—only the second time I’ve seen representation onscreen like this, the first being a TV show called Life Goes On. Zack plays Zak (yes, Zak), a young man who fervently hopes to become a professional wrestler, a fact you learn in the trailer.

The film premiered at the South by Southwest film festival this past March. As my friend and I discussed the movie afterward, we talked about how these days we’ve seldom seen such a heartfelt journey story, one that critics describe as Mark Twain-esque—a very apt description. We were impressed by the messages of the film—follow your dreams; treat others with grace and dignity even if it means going the extra mile for that person. (By the way, what dream are you following?)

In a day when many are pilloried on social media, and spewing hateful comments is deemed a fundamental right, I can’t help being inspired by a pair of director/writers who chose to present an alternative to negativity. (Click here to see an interview with the actors.)

I can’t think of a better segue to a giveaway of some books by Jill Weatherholt, an author whose goal also is to provide an alternative to negativity. I interviewed her in my last post, which you can find here.

   

The winner of A Mother for His Twins (which would sound really funny if you heard someone say this out of context) is Lyn!

The winners of the Autumn Hearts anthology are Charles and Clare!

Winners, please comment below to confirm. Thank you to all who commented.

Having been inspired by The Peanut Butter Falcon, Tia Tigerlily has made a practice of giving at least one affirmation a day to her mini-me, whose dream is to own a flower shop someday.

Peanut Butter Falcon poster from justjared.com. Book covers from Jill Weatherholt and Goodreads. Author photo courtesy of Jill Weatherholt. Other photo by L. Marie. Tia Tigerlily Shoppie doll is a product of Moose Toys.

Good by Whose Standards? Exploring the Gap between Critics and Consumers

Hope you had a happy Easter! ****WARNING: If you wish to avoid reading anything about what critics have said about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, stop reading right now. You have been warned.****

By now you’ve heard that one of the most anticipated movies of 2016—Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice—opened to dismal reviews. It earned a stunning 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. (By comparison Zootopia earned a 99%.)

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I was surprised at that score. But what interested me more than the reviews I’ve seen was the reaction of fans in regard to the critics who viewed the film with such disfavor. Even director Zach Snyder and some of the cast reacted to the criticism.

The New York Times addressed the gap between fans and critics in an article by Jonah Bromwich that you can find here. Bromwich proclaims

Critics who have panned the film have been met with fury online, with angry fans sneering at their reviews, their writing and even their motives.

512px-Thumbs_down_font_awesome.svgThis is not the first time fans and critics have failed to see eye to eye. Undoubtedly, it won’t be the last. While Bromwich’s article mentioned that a critical thumb’s down won’t deter diehard fans (case in point: a teen I know saw the movie and loved it), a steady onslaught of critical reviews can sometimes take a toll. As of the writing of this post, the box office take for the movie had not yet been posted. So who knows? Perhaps the fans will have the last word if the film rakes in a ton of money. (Wired.com has what I think is a fair take on Batman v. Superman and the critical drubbing it received. You can find that here.)

Reactions to any artistic endeavor can be subjective. But when so many people pan a project, thus inspiring another group to pan them for panning said project, I can’t help wondering who decides which elements make a project “good” or “excellent.” Is beauty truly in the eyes of the beholder (the consumer) or in the eyes of the gatekeepers (critics, agents, movie studio executives, publishers—whoever)? Is the gap between consumers and gatekeepers widening?

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Many people have written books on what makes a piece of writing “good.” I’m sure you’ve seen some of those. You’re probably thinking of Strunk & White right about now, or Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. I think of Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft (a personal favorite). As for films, you have only to look at the lists of the “best” films of all time and books like Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies to see what many have regarded as “good” films.

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If I’m serious about seeing a film, most of the time there is no critic alive who will deter me from seeing it. In fact, I try to avoid reading reviews until I’ve seen the film. But I’m not always successful in avoiding them; consequently, negative reviews sometimes sway me. With books, however, I often check the reviews (including verbal praise from friends) beforehand. I’ve been burned too many times in the past not to.

I have opinions, yes, about what I consider “good.” Sometimes I judge by the way a book or film made me feel as I read it or viewed it. Many of the books and films I’ve loved over the years haven’t had all of the bells and whistles of a critically acclaimed, National Book award finalist or Academy Award nominee. Yet I found something endearing about them. On the other hand, I’ve loved some extremely well written books (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, for instance) and films.

All the Light We Cannot See

The jury’s still out on whether or not I’ll see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have to chalk some of my reticence up to my inability to escape some of the negative press. How about you? Have you ever been swayed against seeing a film or reading a book because of a negative review? Do you, like some fans, believe that critics don’t understand what the average person likes? Why or why not?

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Batman v. Superman poster from thegg.net. Book covers from Goodreads. Peeps from Pinterest.com. Thumb’s down image from commons.wikimedia.org. Gap image from clipartpanda.com.

Let the Sunshine In

In case you’re wondering, I did not have the musical Hair in mind when I wrote that post title. Because of the previous post, I thought I’d share this photo of the sunflowers, now that all are open.

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They look like eyes, don’t they? They see you!

Though this photograph doesn’t show dimensions, each sunflower is about the size of a dinner plate. Such happy, but huge flowers. They came at the right time, too, providing beauty and color to the walkway outside my apartment building. But the fact that they draw energy from the life-giving sun also reminds me of my need to refuel. Ever feel creatively drained? That’s how I’ve been feeling lately. When your tank is empty, there’s only one thing to do: fill it. (I learned that from Andra Watkins.) So recently I decided to take some time off to do activities that replenish me.

1. Visit bookstores. I spent a fun afternoon with a friend looking at books at Halfprice Bookstore and Barnes & Noble. It had been too long since I’d walked through either door. At B & N, I was pleased to find books by fellow VCFAers: Trent Reedy, Varian Johnson, and K. A. Barson.

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2. Hang out with friends and mooch meals off them. It’s great to have a home-cooked meal that someone else prepared, especially when good leftovers result. Even if they don’t, spending quality time with good friends is a gift I gladly gave myself this past weekend.

3. Have lunch with a friend at Panera Bread and dessert at Oberweis. Oh yes. We dared. If you aren’t familiar with Panera, click here. For Oberweis, click here. While Oberweis is known for milk and ice cream, they also have a chocolate layer cake my friend raved about and insisted that I sample. Who was I to say no?

4. Watch this funny, fantastic movie with another friend. I’d looked forward to seeing this movie for months! I’m grateful to say it did not disappoint!

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Chris Pratt, one of the lead actors, is just what the doctor ordered. I won’t spoil it for you, however. If you love Marvel movies or stories set in other galaxies (Star Wars anyone?), head on over to the theater.

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When you need refueling, what fills you up?

Book covers from Goodreads, except for Varian’s book, which is from his website. Oberweis photo from eatinwheaton.com. Chicken photo from donnahup.com. Chris Pratt photo from insidemovies.ew.com. Guardians of the Galaxy logo from static4.wikia.nocookie.net.

Charmed by the Past

MV5BMjMzMzM2NTM2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTk4OTYwOQ@@__V1_SX214_I concede defeat. I have tried and tried, but I can’t quite figure out what makes Studio Ghibli’s films, particularly those in which Hayao Miyazaki has been involved, so emotionally satisfying. The phenomenal animation? Compelling stories? The touch of ma space? Case in point: I just finished watching From Up on Poppy Hill. If someone had told me the premise without telling me who was involved in the film, I’d be hitting the snooze button right about now.

Here is the premise: A girl (Umi), whose mom studies medicine in America and sea captain dad is presumed dead, works to help save a clubhouse slated for demolition at her school. All of this takes place before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Um, yeah. Sounds like a real nail biter, huh?

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Hayao Miyazaki. He can grin, because I’m hooked on his movies.

Yet it was! There’s much more to the story than that—namely a budding romance and an extremely surprising twist. I’m a fan of both. Miyazaki wrote the film (based on a graphic novel) along with Keiko Niwa, and his son Gorō directed it. It debuted in Japan in 2011 and in the United States in 2013. If you’re used to movies like Princess Mononoke or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, you might have to switch gears a bit, since From Up on Poppy Hill is as different from either film as day is from night. I mean, yeah, they all feature a strong female lead. But most of Miyazaki’s films go that route.

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Okay. I’ll give figuring out what makes these films so special another shot, instead of letting my ignorance win the day. Maybe it’s the work ethic inherent in the films. Everyone works really, really hard. Even minor tasks seem compelling and noble. Take From Up on Poppy Hill. Umi cooks for the people who live in her family’s boarding house. Throughout the movie, she works hard with others to help clean the dilapidated clubhouse. Why? Because the students who inhabit the clubhouse are charmed by the past too, and think it worth preserving.

When Umi’s not cleaning the clubhouse, she’s hoisting signal flags (um, there’s a good reason for this), studying, or helping her new friend Shun with the newspaper produced by Shun’s literary club. Maybe for you, these activities sound about as interesting as watching paint dry. But what I find most charming about this story, and other stories about the past is the lack of technological conveniences. Life has a gentle rhythm. Relationships are forged not by texts or email, but by people hanging out and talking, working together, or through the exchange of long letters. Change comes about not by innovative software or high speed Internet, but by people meeting face to face and hashing things out.

This is one reason why I’m a fan of the classics and all of the lovely effort involved in relating to others or simply getting from Point A to Point B. There’s nothing instant about anyone’s journey. The past isn’t perfect, however, but it’s interesting nevertheless.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my car. I enjoy a plane ride. My iPhone is awesome. But for sheer entertainment value, I like to journey back to the past, back to a day when a couple falls in love not through Facebook but through a long bike ride or a walk down a street. Ah. Those were the days.

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Movie poster from imdb.com. Princess Mononoke image from fanpop.com. Miyazaki photo from Wikipedia. Umi and Shun from movit.net.

By the Numbers

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By now you’ve heard about the big budget summer movies that supposedly tanked at the box office. Maybe you’ve seen some of them and wished you hadn’t. Or, maybe you loved them and can’t understand why they didn’t do as well as predicted. (Or, perhaps you have no opinion at all on the subject.) I haven’t seen any of the ones critics placed on the “tanking” list, because I haven’t seen very many movies at the theater this year. But the issue is, other people haven’t either.

If you follow Nathan Bransford’s blog, you read his post on the subject and the part formulas played in the perceived failure of some of the summer blockbusters. Apparently famed director Steven Spielberg predicted something of the sort. But Nathan discusses an opportunity formulas provide for exercising your storytelling muscle. If you haven’t read that post, you might click on Nathan’s name above and do so. You might also check out the Slate article on Steven Spielberg’s predictions or the Suderman Slate article, which discuss the formula issue. Both are mentioned in Nathan’s post.

Formulas. Aren’t they a guarantee that something works in a certain way? That’s the way formulas in math and science behave. I find the subject of formulas quite fascinating, because I’ve never been very adept at following them. Oh, I could swing a mean Pythagorean theorem if I had to, or whip out the formula for sulphuric acid (H2SO4). But formula writing usually did me in.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post (and I can’t find it right now, just take my word for it) that when I was a teen, my goal was to write Harlequin romances. A friend and I read a good hundred or so one summer to get the formula down before trying our hand at writing some. Crashed and burned we did. All we wound up doing was parodying the romances. I later tried writing a teen paranormal romance. Here’s the formula I worked with:

One hot guy who is special (not exactly sure how; something paranormal) + one girl who thinks she’s plain, but is secretly beautiful + one not-so-hot guy the secretly beautiful girl loves + one girl who thinks she’s hot and the guys do too + some big plot point = ???

Couldn’t make it work. Failed miserably.

I even bought Save the Cat, the book at least two of the above articles mention, hoping to discover some good advice for producing commercially successful fiction. Now I can admit I’d hoped to find a shortcut—an easy way to success.

I love what Nathan said in his post:

First, it just goes to show that while you might follow the market and cash in on the short term, following your own vision will win out in the long run.

Following your own vision. Guess that means doing the hard work of birthing that vision. Hmm. Perhaps I’ll finish reading Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream. . . .

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Better still, I think I’ll work on my book and stop searching in other people’s books for a way to do just that.

What about you? Like formulas? Dislike them? What do you think of the summer movie situation?

Formula from wpclipart.com.

“No. Don’t Speak”

Movie buffs will recognize the title as a line spoken by actress Dianne Wiest, who played Helen Sinclair in the 1994 Woody Allen movie Bullets over Broadway. (Another character also echoed the line.) It perfectly encapsulates my thoughts on a movie I saw recently.

I decided to watch The Artist, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2012. Normally, you couldn’t pay me to watch a silent movie, no matter how award-winning or iconic. And I’m a huge fan of Samurai Jack, the award-winning 2002—2005 animated series created by Genndy Tartakovsky, and famous for having very little dialogue.

You see, I love dialogue. Give me a movie like The Front Page, Born Yesterday, or It Happened One Night any day. But I decided to break out of my comfort zone and give this one a try. The premise on the Netflix envelope seemed familiar in that Star Is Born sense: one star descends while another ascends during the transition from silent movies to the era of the talkies.

George, the reigning king of silent films does the “meet cute” thing with Peppy, a fledgling actress. In one scene, the director even used a staircase showing the ascent of one and the descent of the other as a foreshadowing of what was to come’

I admit I had extremely low expectations as I began my viewing, even though the film won five Oscars, including Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin). I told myself I’d give it 20 minutes. If I wasn’t engaged in 20 minutes, back into the envelope it would go.

Perhaps it was Jean Dujardin’s gorgeous, engaging smile in the role of George Valentin, the pathos of Bérénice Bejo whenever she crosses paths with George (Peppy Miller), or Uggie the Jack Russell terrier’s incredible performance (love that dog), but I absolutely loved this movie. I couldn’t stop watching it. To employ a cliché, it kept me on the edge of my seat. In one viewing it broke through the walls of my prejudice toward silent movies.

As in other silent films (and SPOILERS this film is silent 99% of the time), Dujardin, Bejo and the other actors couldn’t rely on scintillating dialogue to help them keep viewers engaged. Their faces and gestures had to tell the whole story. Even props like newspaper headlines, marquee signs, and intertitles were used sparingly. So Dujardin and Bejo showed the story, rather than told it (spoke it).

I won’t go TOO spoilery by talking about the ending (though I sat through it three times). But I came away from my viewing of this film with a desire to write something equally as memorable and wall-busting as this film was for me. But as a writer, however, words must be my tool. Yet many times in the writing of my young adult fantasy work in progress, I struggle with those words. How do I help readers see the world and keep them engaged?

Many writers follow the adage “show, don’t tell.” We use words to show the story, rather than explain it. Like the directors and producers of silent films, we help our viewers (in our case, readers) gain a full experience: the tastes, smells, etc. of the worlds within the pages of our books through the use of well-chosen imagery. We’re artists (heh heh, had to sneak in that film title), painting a picture in our reader’s minds, one we hope is a vivid, lasting image.

Well, that’s my hope for my manuscript: choosing the right words to help a reader “see” that smile of my character; to experience the agony of another. So, I’ll keep plugging away at it. But at the back of my mind is the artistry of The Artist, a film that won me over and made me a believer in the power of story in any form. Even silence.