Pixar’s “Inside Out”– a brief review….

This past weekend I saw Pixar’s Inside Out

**SOME MILD SPOILERS– NOT REALLY BAD AT ALL, BY MY STANDARDS**

Sometimes I see a film and it takes me some time to integrate what I have seen. Such is the case with Inside Out— there is a lot going here, and I needed a few days to figure it out. Snap judgments are not my strong suit.

Part of the problem is that this sort of allegorical adventure has never been quite my cup of tea– perhaps not surprising in someone who thinks Aliens is close to the acme of film-making. Inside Out reminds me a bit of Alice in Wonderland, another allegorical fantasy I have never really cottoned to.

That’s probably unfair, as Alice in Wonderland was probably not at all an influence on director Peter Docter. Inside Out has a lot in common with his previous work (Monsters, Inc., Up, etc.), in that it is inventive, funny and fast-paced (in fact, pay attention, because some important stuff goes by pretty quickly), with many little touches that bring the film to life (the Mind Workers are a hoot). But it also has the sort of emotional depth we saw most particularly in the silent prologue of Up— a wisdom about the ups-and-downs of life and how things don’t always work out the way you expect.

The central allegory of the movie is that five core emotions– Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness, all personified in the movie by different characters– represent the controlling aspects of our mind and personality. The movie mostly occurs in the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson (although we get often hilarious glimpses inside the heads of other people along the way), who has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents, and who is not happy about the change. The problem is that Joy, who has largely been the emotion in charge all of Riley’s life, doesn’t want to allow Sadness to play a role in this transition– and thereupon hangs the tale, as Riley’s emotions fall in to conflict, things become discombobulated, and Sadness and Joy are accidentally thrown out of “Headquarters” (Riley’s consciousness). They then have to undertake an epic journey through Riley’s personality and memories to get back to Headquarters. In the end, balance is restored as Riley’s emotions are reintegrated with deeper empathy and a restored sense of self– even though the emotions are puzzled by the big, red button on their new control console that reads “PUBERTY” (as obvious a set up for a sequel as Darth Vader’s escape at the end of A New Hope).

I will not spoil the movie more than that. I have a few quibbles about one or two pieces of business in the film, but they are just that, quibbles. Suffice to say that it is imaginative, funny and loaded with insights into how human beings are put together, how we grow and become fully realized individuals. Personally, I am looking forward to see it again, and soon. Recommended.

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Jurassic World– Oh my GOD, didn’t these people see the first three films!?

I went to see Jurassic World today–

SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS***

I held off seeing it the first week because I didn’t want to be crushed in the mob that broke the record for a first weekend opening, and because of a certain amount of caution based on what appeared to be mixed reviews. Reports that the action was well-handled in general, though, enticed me into the theater today.

The movie is explicitly a sequel to the original Jurassic Park series, and there are numerous references in the film to John Hammond and the first attempt at a dinosaur park. The original visitor center, or its ruins, play a prominent role in the action of the movie’s mid-section. Along with the references to the events of the previous movies, though, comes the looming shadow of the casualties of the previous attempts to wrangle dinos.

As in the previous films, the action takes place on a Central American island, Isla Nublar, which has to be Spanish for “Island of Niblets”. In typical movie fashion, the corporation that owns the park, InGen, is up to no good, using the high-tech park as a front for an evil genetic engineering project. The park’s chief operation officer, the job-obsessed Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), is unaware of this agenda as she prepares to debut a new, hybrid dinosaur called Indominus rex, a bid to keep park attendance and revenues high (note: no surprise, this is a very bad idea). She is too busy to greet her two nephews, Zach and Gray, who have been sent to the park while their parents work through a divorce. Unsurprisingly, when all hell breaks loose, Zach and Gray will be the MacGuffins in need of rescue.

Meanwhile, Owen (Chris Pratt), is working in another location of the island on a project involving four velociraptors, with whom he has established himself as their pack “alpha”. InGen honcho Hoskins reveals the project is aimed at weaponizing the velociraptors, an idea Owen resents.

Before he can do anything about it, though, Claire comes to him. She has concerns regarding the new hybrid’s enclosure and she wants his assessment of its safety. The two of them have history, but their differing styles (corporate button-down vs. motorcycle-riding dinosaur-whisperer) killed their first attempt to connect.

Owen goes to Indominus’ enclosure, but it appears that the hybrid has escaped. Owen and two park workers enter what they think is an empty enclosure, but it’s a ruse– the wily critter has tricked them within reach of its claws. Mayhem ensues– Owen survives (by employing a hasty but rather nifty bit of animal psychology), but Indominus escapes.

The rest of the movie is basically InGen’s increasingly desperate attempts to first contain, and then to kill, Indominus, which, in the typical manner of action movies, goes from bad to awful to disastrous to absolutely catastrophic. Everything the park officials and InGen do just makes the situation worse. The body count mounts, while shady InGen operatives remove embryos of other genetically modified critters from the park in order to keep their illicit weapons project alive (and probably set up the next movie).

I won’t spoil much more of the film, especially the twist in the final, epic battle with Indominus. In many ways it is basic action movie stuff, with a corporation as the villain (zeitgeist, anybody?), deploying surly flunkies who bump against the colors-outside-lines hero, and the love interest who learns to value the lives of her nephews over her job and re-connects with the hero. The other emotional turns in the film are pretty standard, as well, such as the parents’ divorce and the older brother not really paying attention to the dino-obsessed younger, until Indominus tries to chomp down on them, whereupon the two re-bond in the effort to avoid becoming lunch.

Having said that, in general the movie works pretty well. The action kept me engaged. For me the critical test of an action movie is whether I, at any point, start to disbelieve the action– if I start to say “wait a minute, that’s lame/overblown/unbelievable…”, then the flick, for me, is doomed. I am happy to report that I had no such moments– given the movie’s premises and setup, the action flowed pretty logically and believably from one disaster to the next. Once or twice I questioned why a character zigged instead of zagged, but the only aspect of the film that really challenged my suspension of disbelief was Claire’s ability to run cross-country in high heels.

It helps that Chris Pratt is basically believable as Owen– he seems comfortable in the role, a working guy who just happens to work with dinosaurs. Pratt is funny when it’s called for and does his hero thing without posturing. In the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy and now this film, he’s well on his way to joining a select band of brothers in my favorite movie actors clubhouse (and, yeah, I can see him in the fedora).

It also helps that Indominus was, for me, truly huge and menacing. When it bursts out of its enclosure, or the forest in pursuit of the brothers, the tiny, helpless primate in me wanted to climb a tree. This movie, like the first Jurassic Park, would not work without a sufficiently terrible lizard. Indominus fits the bill.

On the whole, I give the film three and a half frozen dino embryos– it doesn’t carry the impact of the first movie (and how many sequels do? Aside from Aliens, I mean), but it stands on its own as a pretty good action film, and heads-and-shoulders above the second and third Jurassic Park movies. Recommended.

Note: I don’t usual do back-to-back reviews of current movies, but I am already down to see Inside Out tomorrow, and if the reviews are any indication, I will probably have something to say about it. Stay tuned.

Jon Stewart and the un-funniness of some things

Jon Stewart couldn’t make any jokes in his opening monologue for last night’s show, and who can blame him–

http://thedailyshow.cc.com/full-episodes/rilcea/june-18–2015—malala-yousafzai

I am heart-sick and stunned that nine innocent people could be gunned down, at a Bible study in a church, by someone who sat there for an hour and still couldn’t hear and see the humanity of those around him. Stewart confesses a similar incomprehension, except on a broad scale. His monologue may be a little unfocused– he seems to be talking about domestic terrorism, our gun culture, racism, and racist violence, all simultaneously. I forgive him, even though these issues are not all exactly the same, because they do powerfully overlap, and who can think with one hundred percent clarity after an atrocity like this? But I think his central question comes through loud and clear– what is wrong with our culture when we spend billions of dollars and thousands of lives defending against foreign terrorism, and then (effectively) shrug our shoulders at horrors like Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook and now Charleston? What is wrong with our culture when deadly weapons are allowed to fall into the hands of haters and lunatics? And why, why, why is it so hard for us as a culture to face up to this void in our soul and do something about it? Stewart doesn’t really have an answer, and neither do I, but it’s way past time for us to figure this out.

Stewart redeems the show from utter despair by then pivoting to an interview with Malala Yousafzai. He himself expresses his own relief at being able to talk to this young woman on this particular day. I am a fan of this brave youngster. She is only some months older than my own daughter, so it’s easy to see my bright child in this bright child. But this young woman has faced much the same sort of hateful violence as the Emanuel AME attack and, amazingly, is still working for the education of girls and young women. Watch the whole interview, and maybe, like me, you’ll remember that there is still hope in the world.

PS– upon reflection two days later, it’s probably me who is experiencing the greatest confusion– now that I’ve watched the segment a couple of times, it’s clear Stewart is focused on this crime as racially motivated terrorism. It’s my brain that cross-connected to the other issues– but, as I said, these all overlap in our culture, so I am fairly unrepentant. I just wanted to get clear on who it was who was confused. C’est moi, clearly.

Let Father do it

“Daddy!” his daughter cried, emerging from the bathroom. “There’s a spider in the bathtub!”

“Oh, go kill it,” his wife told him, not missing a step of her aerobics routine.

“What, me?” the father said.

“Well, I’m not going to do it,” his wife said.

His son came up from the basement. “Son, how about you do your father a favor?” the father said.

“Not a chance, Geezer Prime,” said his son, hefting his backpack. “I have a rendezvous with education.”

“Stop stalling,” his wife said. “All you’re doing is playing that stupid computer game.”

“Pater facere,” the father muttered, and got up.

Going into the bathroom, he pulled back the shower curtain and cautiously peered into the tub. “General Jackson and all the archangels!” he said, retreating in haste. “Honey, we need to call Animal Control.” He thought about it. “Or maybe the Third Armored Division.”

“Oh, stop being such a wuss,” his wife said, as she performed a set of high kicks.

“There are very few poisonous spiders in Western Washington, you know,” he said. “It’s definitely not a black widow, and I doubt it’s a yellow sac….”

“Man up and just take care of it, will you?” his wife said.

Growling, he went into the kitchen and pulled paper towels off the roll. His wife eyed them as he went by her. “Why three whole paper towels?” she asked.

“Because I don’t have a flame-thrower,” he muttered.

He looked down into the tub, aimed, fired. The spider crunched beneath the towels. He grimaced and looked. A brown stain, and legs; before, alien and menacing, but now merely broken, twitching, pathetic. Revulsion mingled with guilt. He shoved his victim and its paper shroud into the garbage and washed his hands.

“Now I’m scarred for life,” he told his wife.

“Oh, grow up,” his wife said.

Muttering, he sat down again at the computer. He might still have time to complete this level before he had to buckle down to work. He un-paused the game to resume his battle against the Skoglag Imperium.

From the other side of the house his daughter yelled, “Daddy!”

Editing truths

I am waist-deep into the next phase of editing Princess of Fire, in which I work up a punch-list of errata. As this basically entails re-reading the novel for the third or fourth time, it is also another opportunity to catch remaining text errors and lingering bad grammar that I somehow missed on my first two passes.

There are certain truths to editing any long work–

1. Spell-check is a problematic tool. It’s basically stupid– you have to tell it what’s acceptable (mine doesn’t recognize words I consider perfectly correct– e.g., “snockered” and “annal”), and then fight off its attempts to correct grammar that is just fine (thinking in a regional dialect is a hindrance here). On top of that, it will fail to catch correctly spelled words that are out of place or used incorrectly. I cringe when I hear new writers talk about spell-check as if it’s the beginning and end of their editing process. Nope, not even close.

2. Instead, you have to re-read and re-read and re-read your work until you can’t stand to look at it anymore, and then re-read it again. Read it to see how it flows, read it to see if the plot holds together, read it word-by-word to see they make any sense whatsoever. Each time you do, you need to find some way to see it with different eyes, even if it’s just hanging upside-down off the end of your kitchen table. Read it out loud, or sing it to the tune of “My Favorite Things”. Anything.

Personally, I’ve found that making a Createspace digital proof PDF of the manuscript really helps me spot lingering text errors and weak sentences–

proofpdf1

proofpdf2

Apparently seeing the novel in something resembling book format is helpful for me. No, I haven’t analysed it– I just know it works.

(By the way, in the latest edit, I’ve fixed the justification on the Robert Burns quote. No need to yell at me about it.)

3. In that same vein, it is essential that at some point you get someone else’s eyes on the work– and not your mother, nor your spouse, unless they are the sort who can tell you the unvarnished truth and not care that they’ve left you a pitiful, blubbering wreck on the living room couch. In an ideal world, those eyes would belong to a professional editor. In the real world I live in, most professional editors– in other worlds, editors who actually know what they’re doing and charge accordingly– would be competing for my money with my medical insurance. And that means they’d lose. If you can afford a professional editor, by all means, hire one, and then seriously consider their advice. But not everyone has that kind of wherewithal.

Instead, I have to rely on beta readers. I have a couple of very good readers, and I’m recruiting more. It’s not a perfect approach, but it’s considerably better than nothing. One way or the other, there just is no substitute for the feedback of someone who has not read the novel five times and whose familiarity with the text doesn’t exceed their familiarity with their own spouse.

The point– other eyes multiply your success.

4. Be merciless. Even in the later stages of an edit, you will find material you don’t need, or which can be cut down to size. Kill or shrink as needed. Trimming excess from a text, even late in the game, should give you a warm fuzzy. If it doesn’t– if you get sentimental and defensive about every word you’ve written– then, Grasshopper, you have a serious problem as a writer. Please, please, re-thunk your thinking.

5. Eventually, you have to quit screwing around with the damn thing and either send it out to an editor or agent, or self-publish. Here’s a hard truth– it’s never going to be perfect. There are authors who fiddle and fiddle and fiddle with a work, and never overcome the terror of being imperfect. Eventually, you have to surrender to the fact that your piece falls short of what you had in your head. Embrace that short-fall– it just means you’re human. Send your work out into the breathing world scarce half-made up, if you have to, and move on to the next project.

That’s being a writer.

A not-so-short note re: Princess of Fire– a milestone passed….

I have finally, finally, finally finished inputting the hard-copy changes for Princess of Fire. This should not have taken three weeks, but it is done. In the process I re-wrote a major piece of action from scratch, and substantially tightened another section. Net word count didn’t change much– about 134,000 to 133,000– but the end-product is, I think, a good deal tighter. The book is now, essentially, in its final form.

There are a few formatting issues I need to deal with before going to the next step, chief among them removing all hard-returns I inserted as breaks between sections. Such extraneous hard-returns cause problems with Kindle formatting, so I have to go through and remove them, and use after-paragraph spacing instead. It’s a tedious task, but it has to be done.

(Why didn’t you do it while you wrote the story, Mr. Daniel? Because when I’m writing I’m flying too low and fast to worry about precise formatting issues. Besides, I generally don’t know exactly where section breaks are going to fall before the red-pen changes are done. So there.)

Once that’s done, I will create a paginated PDF via Createspace that will allow me to pin down lingering issues (“eek, a soft-return!!!”). From the PDF I create a punch-list of errata for correction. There may also be a couple of small additional scenes– a couple of hundred words each, at most– that I may want to insert, if I decide they enhance the story. This phase will essentially constitute my third complete read-through of the novel. As far as I’m concerned, reading your own work until you can’t stand to look at it anymore is essential to getting it right. Easy? No. The life of a writer is never easy. Give up that delusion right now.

Once the punch-list is complete, the novel will go to my beta-readers. Assuming they are not completely revolted and demand massive changes, it will be a few short steps from inputting the beta-corrections to publication. One lingering task that will need to be completed before-hand is for me to write an excerpt from Princess of Stars for inclusion in Princess of Fire. I’m in the process of pulling that together right now. Once it’s done, I may post it on WordPress for feedback.

Whew. To sum up, I am probably more than eighty percent through a long, painful process. There are a few more miles to go, but considering that there were points last summer when I thought I would never finish this novel, I’m feeling pretty good. If the Lord tarries and aliens don’t invade, Princess of Fire should be online on Amazon sometime before September.

Hopefully….

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PS– already found a soft-return in the process of removing extra hard returns–

Softreturn06122015

These hidden little disasters play merry hob with e-book formatting, as they insert a generally unwanted line-break. They must die….

A plea to new writers, while treading carefully…

A certain author, on a certain online group, recently posted, with evident pride, a chapter of their work-in-progress. I looked it over. It was not a happy experience.

One of the greatest problems with online self-publishing, in all its forms, is that it makes it entirely too easy to put out work that is in no way, shape or form ready for public viewing. And in this instance it wasn’t just poor writing– the author obviously had no grasp of basic grammar or punctuation, the very things Stephen King calls the writer’s fundamental toolbox. Comma splices, run-on sentences, misused or missing capitalization, long interior monologues, and adverbs– dear God in Heaven, not just over-used, but used in bizarre and novel ways…you probably get the picture, and it ain’t gonna be hanging in the Louvre. It’s the sort of thing that gives ammunition to those who denigrate self-published works as amateur and unreadable.

It is a simple truth that, to write effectively in English, you must master– and not just master, but internalize– certain rules and nuances of the language and how it is expressed in symbolic form. You can’t get away from it, not if you want your work to be readable and to rise above the status of laughing-stock. You ignore those rules at your peril.

Now, having said that, you will notice that I have not named the author, nor their work, nor have I quoted any of the more wretched passages (a strong temptation, if for no other reason than to bear witness to those adverbs…). It is not my desire, nor my purpose, to denigrate or belittle any author, just as you would not denigrate a student struggling with a math problem (at least, I hope you wouldn’t). In the first place, we all have to start somewhere. The difficulty is that self-publishing allows thousands and thousands of neophyte writers to plunge straight off into the deep end, with the result that the self-publishing sea is layered thick with their corpses….

In the second place, I am not sure I would personally have many stones to throw. I think I write fairly effective sentences, and I have been at this a very long while (depressingly so), but, even so, I trip up all the time. The hard-copy edit of Princess of Fire has rubbed my nose in that fact (more about that below). And I remember quite clearly how long it has taken me to get to whatever level of competence I have achieved.

Here’s the truth– English is a hard language, even for native speakers. This bastard child of German and French, bespangled with a host of ‘loan’ words (more like, hijacked), is tricky and ever-shifting– and it hasn’t helped that formal grammarians have long insisted on imposing Latinate rules of grammar on an essentially Germanic tongue, which has basically gummed things up even worse for generations (but that’s another post).

To handle this language effectively, you have to learn the rules. You have to study. You have to read good writing, by good authors. I have already name-dropped Stephen King, so I’ll go the whole hog and mention his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, as an excellent primer on not just what tools a writer needs, but as an outline of how life influences a writer. Among other things, King hammers hard on the idea that to write effectively, you must read widely. And then you have to write, write, write, over and over again, figuring out what works and getting rid of what doesn’t.

And while I’m mentioning books, if you don’t have a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, stop reading this and go get one. Now. I’m not kidding.

All of this takes time. And time, I fear, is something many new or young writers don’t want to part with. Worse, they don’t understand that there is no other way to become a good writer than by putting in the effort and the time. Instead they charge ahead, afire with the enthusiasm of seeing their work online, on Kindle or Smashwords or Nook, and then wonder why the reviews are cruel, if they get reviews at all. This is, frankly, one of the downsides of the self-publishing revolution.

I’m saying nothing new here, but I think these truths need to be repeated every so often. More than that, though, I want to try end on a hopeful note. The fact is, everyone starts in the same place with writing, except for those extremely rare native geniuses who are born with pen in hand. Most of us have to do it the hard way. And that should be encouraging to anyone struggling to learn how to write. You need to write, and read, and persist. Therein lies your hope.

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On another note–

Re: Princess of Fire , yes, progress is being made, but my first estimate of a week to put in the hard-copy changes was, unsurprisingly, way, way off. Part of the problem is that I am in the process of re-writing, from scratch, a climactic piece of action; also, the real life demands of being unemployed, of dealing with medical Cobras and unemployment insurance issues, having been seriously distracting. But I’m closing in….

Later.