Thursday, October 13, 2016

When a Movie is Almost Good

I haven’t watched many movies lately, but one that kept nagging at me recently was the remake of Point Break.  Now, before I get started, let me just say that I’ve heard and read all of the reviews of it and I know how bad they were.  I was already let down by that because I love (LOVE) the first Point Break and so, despite the reviews, I had to see the remake.  I felt like I owed it to the first one and myself as a moviegoer.  And, I admit, sometimes if a film is very poorly reviewed, that piques my interest—weird, I know, but what can I say?  So, here it goes. 

The film opens with fantastic views of two men on dirt bikes in the desert.  They’re evaluating a daring stunt that ultimately turns out tragic for one of them and leaves the other, Johnny Utah (played here by Luke Bracey, Keanu Reeves in the original), scarred for life and feeling responsible.  Right away, I see that this film is going to be a lot of style and a little substance (sigh).  The acting is only average, the writing, probably slightly below and the scene transitions quickly, possibly a little too quickly to seven years later.  We don’t get a chance to fully take in what has just happened and what it has done to our protagonist, and this is a theme that is resonating throughout.  I’ll explain more about that later.

We next see Utah training to work as a Field Agent for the FBI.  He is studying the FBI’s most recent headache: a series of fantastic robberies carried out in death-defying capacity by daredevils who distribute the stolen goods to the less fortunate.  A former motor cross star and extreme athlete, Utah immediately comes to the conclusion that the robbers are, too.  His instructor has a few lines before simply saying “Okay,” and taking this rookie’s word, giving him a gun, and a pass to seek out these Robin Hood-like thrill seekers.  Not sure if that would be policy, but the plot has to keep moving somehow.

Utah finds himself in France and in a matter of a couple of short, choppy scenes, is surfing waves in the middle of the ocean during a competition while people party and watch from an immense yacht.  The scenery and cinematography is absolutely gorgeous here, but the focus is too much on the action and for too long.  There are a couple of other skydiving and rock-climbing scenes where this takes place again.  The scenery is beautiful, but I can only look at it so long before I want story, characterization, and depth.

Back to the surfing scene in the ocean, it becomes choppy and confusing again when focusing on story because the next thing we know, Johnny is underwater, faint and clearly about to drown until we see an unknown dark angel pull him from the depths and bring him back.  There is a similar scene in the original but it is a woman, Tyler (Lori Petty), who saves Johnny.  Here, it is none other than Bodhi (played by Patrick Swayze in the original, Edgar Ramirez here) who saves Johnny’s life.  We are briefly introduced to Bodhi, who is still an ocean-washed, philosophical surfer in this remake, but played very differently by Edgar Ramirez, who, I believe, is the best part of this remake.   

The writing, as I mentioned, is not great, but Ramirez does the best job with what he is given.  There is a seriousness to his stare, an intensity in his eyes, a lovely inflection in his Venezuelan accent.  He is intelligent, grave, and confident.  I believed him as someone these men would follow, as someone anyone would be drawn to.  I just wish there had been more to his scenes to get to know him better.  Most of his lines are philosophical in nature, and short at that. 

On the flip side, Utah is not nearly as serious as he was portrayed in the original, and I think that was one thing that was lacking with him. 

Now to the love interest.  Tyler was the original.  She was tough, straightforward, didn’t buy into Bodhi’s philosophies, and believed “big wave-riding is for macho assholes with a death wish.”  In other words, she carried a logic of her own.  Here, the female is given a more exotic name of Samsara.  She hangs around Bodhi and the rest, takes part in big wave riding and with her long, flowing hair and dive from the highest part of a yacht into an ocean at night, she has an ethereal, gracefulness about her.  Johnny, of course, is immediately smitten.  What is her part in this?  Well, that’s another thing I like about this remake.  Later, after another bank heist in which most of Bodhi’s friends are killed by Johnny and his fellow agents, it is discovered that Samsara was working with Bodhi the whole time.  She not only bought into Bodhi’s philosophies, she worked with him.  She might very well have been his lover, still, but that is not something the film delves into and I wish it had.  It would have deepened her character, made her part in the robbery clearer and, I think, more appealing.  But, we will never know.

The film ends much like the original does, with Utah allowing Bodhi to surf into a magnificent storm to his death instead of facing trial for his crimes, but again, choppy dialogue and scenes that focus too much on style get in the way. 

The film had a few good points—like I said, the different take on the love interest was appealing and Edgar Ramirez is worth watching, but the intense focus on scenery and style far overshadowed what the story could have been, thereby proving that too much of something can be just that—too much.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Getting Back (or trying to get back) in the Saddle Again

Well, I knew these first few weeks of teaching, starting school, and Connor starting a new school were going to be tough, and it looks like I wasn’t wrong.  This past week has perfectly illustrated that point.  Day 1: not bad, considering it consisted mostly of a meeting, me bustling around getting decals, IDs, books, figuring out where I was going to park my car so I don’t get towed or fined, finding my classrooms, making sure my syllabi printed correctly (two typos on one—argh!), figuring out the new printer and new copier.  But, all of that worked out, just the stress (and standing out in the sun waiting to get a decal and ID) gave me a migraine for my very first face-to-face class, leaving me to gobble Ibuprofen, down coffee, and sniff my Young Living M-Grain oil until it dulled enough for me to coherently speak to a group of expectant faces about what to expect of me and my class.  Luckily enough, the Ibuprofen, coffee, and M-Grain came through and I made it through my first couple of classes.  My second went even better—I planned a good lesson consisting of watching a couple of small videos, a writing prompt and group work, and discussion—I the same for this class as I was the previous day, so I didn’t sweat it.  I probably should have.  Class started well enough (not that it can really go wrong taking roll and explaining changes to the schedule, I guess).  But then, as the students got started working on their writing assignment, I started to boot up the computer and find the videos I wanted to show, only . . . nothing was happening.  Despite continuously pressing the power button and checking the plug-ins and mentally cursing the machine, I was consistently met with a blank screen.  Nothing.  Nada.  I checked the controls.  They were locked behind a screen, but they looked on and working.  Little lights were on, anyway.  Okay.  The kids finished their work, I put them into their groups to discuss their prompts while I tried a little longer.  Ten minutes later the kids had moved on from discussing their work to chitchatting and I was no closer to booting up that machine than I was to winning the Pulitzer Prize.  Okay, so this is why I went into English instead of Computer Science.  Well, I had to accept the fact that my lesson was NOT going to go as planned.  I wouldn’t be able to show them the videos I had worked over an hour to find—and was proud of myself for finding—and started up the class discussion.  Needless to say, the trip and distraction that technology gave me that morning led to a stumble in my discussion and though it may not have been as bad as I think it was, I still verbally felt like Otis Campbell on The Andy Griffith Show, trying as best I could to find my footing while I stumbled all over creation.  I wasn’t as articulate and didn’t say some of the things I was proud of saying the day before because my mind had gotten distracted and tripped.  I felt like I’d let my students down.  Plus, I was greeted with bored looks and someone so eloquently saying “This sucks,” when I handed out the first essay assignment.  At least it ended well, with students signing up for conferences for their essay, and I determined from my department head what to do when technology fails me once again.  So, back in a positive frame of mind, I re-learned what I can and should do and I was ready for the next part of the day.  I picked up the kids, only to be told at our next stop not once, but twice, by two different people, that parking was prohibited where I'd tried to park.  Okay, now normally this would not bother me--everyone makes simple mistakes.  I smiled, apologized twice, and said I would remember that for future reference but internally, I couldn’t believe I’d made yet another error.  So, after a little stress-cry that I kept from the kids, I felt a little clearer and knew that it wasn’t just one thing, but multiple things that had added up.  I’ve taken on a lot in a short amount of time, and the things I’ve taken on are not easy and require a lot of time and energy.  And also, I’m at the beginning—in new places, with new people, new rules, and a new schedule (and new technology).  That can be daunting.  The terrain is unfamiliar right now—I don’t always see the bumps or cracks in the road, so hitting a few are inevitable.  And I will probably hit a few more, but that’s okay.  The longer I travel this new road, the more familiar and comfortable I will become.  I’ll learn (I hope!).

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

"While you see a chance, take it"

I’ve been away for a while (okay, a long while), and with reason.  I’ve been working on two new books, both of which I am super excited about, but I’ve also been spending a lot of time in my own thoughts.

I’ve been thinking for a long time that it’s past time for a change professionally.  I’m leaving the library I have invested twelve years of working in, taking an offer from my alma mater to teach part time and going back to school to work on Early Childhood Education Certification.  Having spent the past several years largely teaching online, getting back in front of the classroom will be a change and a challenge for sure.  But it’s something I’ve trained to do, something I worked two and half years on a Master’s Degree so I could do.  I can’t let that degree sit on the proverbial shelf anymore, especially when there is a possibility that teaching Creative Writing is in the near future—a dream class for an author such as myself.  And not to mention, I have the opportunity to work with the professor who inspired me to go into English and reignited my love of writing fiction. 
Now why would I think about going back to school to teach little kids while teaching college at the same time???  Good question.  About a year ago my husband and I were asked to substitute teach my daughter’s Sunday School class.  I was nervous, no doubt.  But I was surprised at how much fun I had, despite the hard work.  And it was that way every time I left class.  I even volunteered to teach my son’s preschool Sunday School class.  One day, a little boy came to class distraught and crying for a reason we didn’t know.  Normally, I freeze when confronted with that type of emotion, but not that day.  Somehow, I naturally went over, talked to him, gave him a hug, and before I knew it, he was joining in with the rest of the class.  Mark even complimented me on what a good job I had done.  I don’t know if it was having kids of my own that helped me in that situation, but whatever the case, I was happy knowing I helped that little boy smile and enjoy class time.  I was happy after class that day, the same as I was after substituting for each of their classes.  I’d always loved helping my kids with their homework—seeing them actually identify a circle from a square, distinguish their favorite color, carefully trace letters until they can write their names.  It never occurred to me that that was something I could do for a living.  Doing crafts, telling stories, seeing bright little smiles light up with enthusiasm with the work they accomplished taught me that teaching those little children is something I was initially volunteered to do, but it was also something I learned that I wanted to do, too. 

And life is much too short to not do something that you want to do.  I’m not getting any younger, and neither are Connor and Lydia.  They deserve, like all kids do, to grow up with a good education, a good home, and this path I’ve chosen will certainly help provide them with those. 

This wasn’t a decision I came to lightly.  I have been working at the same place, in the same position, for twelve years.  I have made friends and was comfortable—maybe a little too comfortable.  The work wasn’t challenging anymore.  I didn’t take pleasure or pride in the same day-to-day routines.   I didn’t feel like I fit in as well as I used to and that some relationships had just unfortunately waned.  I became depressed and unfulfilled by my work.  I listened to promises of promotions that I later realized were empty.  I know a lot of people go through the same exact things with their jobs and that I should be grateful to have had a job and I was.  I just wasn’t sure I was where I needed to be. 
And then that’s when it happened.  I met with a lovely woman at USC-Upstate who offered me a chance to go back and do what I realized I’d always wanted to do in the first place.  She gave me a few days to think it over, which didn’t seem like much time, but that ended up being good.  It forced me to magnify the decision then and there and really look at what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  So, I did, and it was amazing how clear everything started to become the more I thought about it.  I took the chance she gave me and did something I should have done a long time ago, which was to end one chapter so I could begin another in my life.  I know it will be challenging, but it will certainly awaken a spirit in me that has been asleep for a while.

If I may, I think Steve Winwood put it quite well: 

Stand up in a clear blue morning 
Until you see 
What can be
Alone in a cold day dawning, 
Are you still free? 
Can you be?

And that old gray wind is blowing
And there's nothing left worth knowing
And it's time you should be going
While you see a chance, take it . . . Because it's all on you. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Fitting End and “Muse”ical Inspirations Part II

I’ve been away for a long while, with most of my writing energy going toward my latest novel, which, I am happy to say, I finished, and even happier to say that my publisher accepted!  I’ve spent over a year with these characters and it was only in these last few months that they really opened up and told me their story.  I like to call them my demure characters. J  Anyway, as I have finally finished, I thought I might share some of the journey and inspirations.

The idea for the novel arose when I heard “Never Tear Us Apart,” by INXS.  I was familiar with the song, of course, but hadn’t heard it in a long time and when I did again, it was like I was hearing the words for the first time.  In my mind as I heard the song, I saw two people, instantly and intensely drawn together—not love at first sight, but a connection—and then there was an outside force coming in, pulling them apart before they could properly embark on a relationship.  Nonetheless, they knew they wouldn’t be apart from each other for long.  The first eight pages came from this, as did the theme that runs throughout. 

Then, in February, I lost one of my most trusted readers, Barbara, a cousin and friend who would tell me her thoughts on my work honestly yet lovingly.  She did that with everything, and it’s something I respected her most for.  Having said that, I feel like I lost a part of my story when I lost her.  Depression can be bad for a writer (for me, anyway).  It can leave one feeling drained and numb, and thus halt creativity, and I went through a deep one when she died.  But then, a couple of months later, something happened.  I opened up this story I’d almost forgotten about, and I began reading.  And after I read what I’d first written those couple of months earlier, I automatically picked it up and started writing again, that very minute, like I hadn’t stopped at all.  I’m not sure what happened, but I like to think it was Barbara inspiring and encouraging me on with this story.  I even found myself basing a character on her. 

There is a lot of dancing in this story, though it’s not about dancers.  It’s about musicians and singers.  I’ve always been intrigued at people who work together (especially creatively) and are in a relationship as well.  And so, that is what I explored here.  But, like I said, there is dancing at two major parts of the story.  In the first part, my two characters meet and before they even say more than a few words to one another, they are drawn into a slow dance.  The song?  “Sea of Love.”  Again, I heard this one on the radio as I was writing and I took note of how the speaker asks the listener if she remembers when they first met.  Like my book, this song deals a lot with remembrance and recollections and it also addresses an instant connection between two people. 

Another song I selected is when the central character teaches her love how to dance the shag on the beach (another nod to Barbara who loved to dance the shag and loved the beach!).  There needed to be a song to go along with that, a good shagging song, and I settled on “My Girl,” by The Temptations.  Not only is a good shagging song, but it communicates what has just happened in the story.  Almost at this exact point, she has become his girl.

A song that pushed me forward when I felt a little blocked was “Mandolin Rain,” by Bruce Hornsby.  I heard it in my car one morning and again, heard the lyrics for the first time.  I became encapsulated with the speaker’s story, which Hornsby sings with just the right amount of poignancy and passion.  He has lost a woman he loves, though we don’t know exactly why.  We are only given hints in that we know she “runs away” and there was a “choice” he made that we are meant to believe led to this loss.  And as I listened to these words, I began to see parallels again in my story.  And to top it off, he describes a quiet dance the two share that closely resembled the dance my characters did near the beginning.   

The characters go through a lot of mental and emotional anguish.  Though they love one another, they hurt one another and there is no shortage of songs on that subject.  But, the ones that stayed with me and that I felt described my characters were “Silver Springs” (the live version) by Fleetwood Mac and “Hello” by Adele.  I’ve always been a fan of Fleetwood Mac and when I heard this song again, I immediately zeroed in on the truthfulness with which Stevie Nicks communicates the sentiments one feels immediately after a breakup.  Notice how she goes back and forth in her feelings (natural after a breakup) toward, as we know, is Lindsey Buckingham.  Also, the way she describes to him that he won’t forget her is lovely.  What’s even more powerful is the live version they did of this song on their album The Dance.  Watch it on Youtube if possible!

I damn near cried the first time I heard Adele’s “Hello.”  Against the backdrop of a phone call (or an almost phone call) to a former love, she confesses her regret, mistakes, and the love she still feels for him despite it all.  Her voice in the chorus is almost a lift, high and away as she is nearly filled with hope and then brought deep down when she realizes it’s too late to continue their love, but not make things right.  I heard it, and I had the last scene of my novel.

And so, there it is—the inspirations and motivations that helped me see and feel what my characters were going through.  I finished editing it last week.  And, what song did I randomly hear on the radio the day I finished editing?  You guessed it: “Never Tear Us Apart.”  A fitting end, indeed!