Why Joel Courtney is a Boss (Movie Review: Super 8)

“Bad things happen, but you can still live.”

 

Super 8 PosterOoh, the film for which I named this blog. The pièce de résistance of my movie reviewing. If you’re a faithful reader, you probably saw this coming.

I’ll jump right into it: For those who don’t know, Super 8 is a sci-fi action thriller directed/written by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, released in June 2011. The premise: six kids are filming a super-8 movie when they witness a train crash, with something dangerous aboard (spoiler alert: IT’S AN ALIEN). The military is rolling into town, dogs are running away, people are disappearing, and no one knows why.

I saw trailers for this back in June 2011. I didn’t go to see it. To be honest, the movie looked just mediocre, and I’m not one for alien invasion flicks, anyway. But it was still interesting enough for me to put a library hold on the DVD, and when it came in a year ago to the day (I’m writing this on December 28th) I sat down and popped it in. I wasn’t expecting a reaction like “holy goodness that was the best movie ever”, but I hoped it would be decent.

Holy goodness that was the best movie ever.

Okay, well, I’m not going to say it was the best movie EVER. But it was (and still is) my favorite.

Here’s why.

First of all, the train crash scene is sick. Yes, it’s a little excessive. Yes, the prequel to this movie should be called “And They Said I Was Crazy to Build a Railroad out of Dynamite.” But this is Hollywood, and you could do much worse than everything blowing up like crazy for a minute or two.

I firmly believe that in any form of storytelling—books or movies—action doesn’t mean much unless we care about the characters. Luckily, this movie is perfectly cast. Every character does great acting like a genuine teenager, but the one who really stands out is the lead, Joe Lamb. As a boy who just lost his mom in a factory accident, he’s the mellowest—yet coolest—of the bunch. He’s the definition of the dork role that most of us fall into, all while falling for the girl of their group, Alice Dainard, whose dad is hated by Joe’s for an unknown reason.

And make way for my second-favorite scene of the entire movie: the part where Joe and Alice are watching a projection of Joe’s home movies, and Alice tells him that the morning of his mom’s accident, her dad missed his shift due to drinking, and Joe’s mom covered for him.

From there it’s action. The military sets fire to the town as an excuse for everyone to evacuate; meanwhile, the monster kidnaps Alice. When the kids learn this, they go back into the empty town, break into their middle school to find info their biology teacher had on the creature, and run through their neighborhood as it’s blown up street by street.

And it’s incredible.

To finish it all up, Joe rescues Alice, the monster gets back to its ship, and as it flies away, we have my single favorite part of the movie: the part where Joe’s necklace—a locket his dad gave his mom the day he was born—flies out of his pocket, and he holds it in his hand. Then he looks at it and, while the ineffably beautiful music plays, lets it go.

Don’t ask me why that scene is so incredible; I’m not a good enough writer to explain it. Just go watch for yourself.

 

I should address the title of this review, though: why Joel Courtney, the actor who portrayed Joe Lamb, is so awesome.

Because he’s genuine. Not only his acting, but his personality, which shines through even past his on-screen character. The dude is just cool, and because Joe Lamb is so much like that, it’s fun to watch him and the others running away from aliens and exploding houses.

That’s why Joel Courtney inspired the main character of my book. Because mellow, honest, genuine personalities are—as I now believe—the most likable, and those characters pull the most emotional strings.

I could be totally wrong. But that’s why I love Super 8, think its main actor is awesome, and used that as inspiration for my book.

We’ll see where that gets me.

 

In conclusion: this movie delivers quite a bit more than expected, as does its cast. It’s not the most mind-blowing film you’ll ever see, but it’s handled with such quality and acted so genuinely that it’s hard to walk away unsatisfied.

Rate: 10 out of 10.

On Revision: Stage 1 (Plot Review)

“One’s mind, when stretched by new ideas, never regains its original dimensions.”

 –  Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

Hi, all! I hope everyone is having a relaxing winter break.

I am myself, apart from being sick, and I’m using the time to work on revising my manuscript. And of course, if I’m working on my manuscript, you know I’ll be spending adequate amounts of time procrastinating, directing my creative energies elsewhere…this blog, for instance.

Today, I talk about “Stage 1” of revising a fiction manuscript. In my intro to this, I broke the process down into three stages: Plot revision, wording revision, and the final “flow” read-through.

Plot revising is arguably the easiest of the tasks, because it actually can be fun (or so you think going in). You get to take a step back, look at the storyline you’ve created, and decide how to make it even better. And storytelling is why novel writing is so fun in the first place, right?

People write fiction for different reasons, of course. I do it because I have stories burgeoning from my brain, and I need someplace to put them. Plus, as a teenage guy still in high school, I find it’s one of the few areas of my life over which I have complete control.

That’s not why I write nonfiction, obviously, but the concept is the same: I write because I have something to say. No matter how mind-mashingly boring it might be.

But I digress. Where was I? Plot revision.

The term is pretty self-explanatory, and everyone goes about it in kind of their own way. Some skip this step altogether, some just think through the story in their heads, and some read the entire manuscript start to end to check for continuity errors.

I myself take this last road, as painstakingly tedious as it sounds. I recently sat down and read my whole book start to end, not worrying about wording (though I can’t pretend I ignored every syntax error I spotted) but just checking that everything made sense.

When telling a story, it’s easy to ignore character motivations. If you’re in the throes of creativity and you realize how cool it would be to throw in a betrayal halfway through the story, great! Eureka!

Erm…unless, as you now realize, there’s no reason at all for one of your characters to betray the other.

This is just one example, and trust me, I’ve caught myself plenty of times. I’ve found my share of characters who know things they shouldn’t, do things that don’t make sense, and say things they never would (but they did!)

And now I realize how annoying plot revision is. I have to be “that guy”…the one who reads over the book and says in a nasally voice, “Well, the story was good, but here’s why this part is improbable, this character is confusing, and this part is extraneous. Also, to be realistic, half of your characters should have died around here” (jabs to chapter number with wooden ruler).

An unpleasant task, to be sure. But not nearly as unpleasant as actually fixing these obnoxious errors.

And yet it must be done, which is what I told myself when I sat down and combed through my plot for inconsistencies. I found less than I was expecting, but they were still there, dancing around and clogging up my manuscript like those talking snot creatures in the Mucinex commercials.

And, much like in those commercials, I flushed them out. Then, once I finished reading through, I looked at the story as a whole. Did it start naturally, and come to a satisfying conclusion? Did each of the characters develop as much as I wanted them to, in a way that felt right?

This is another part of revision…knowing your story and your characters. What I mean is this: knowing what expectations you gave people when you introduced them to your characters, and making sure those expectations were met. Of course you want to surprise people, but they also shouldn’t be left feeling let down, like the author got lazy (*cough* Mockingjay).

The book should be like a breath of air: you start by taking a deep breath in, you hold it for as long as you can, then let it out slowly. It should feel natural, as should the story itself.

 

I finished my stage 1 revision on December 16th, for the most part. And now I’m immersed in stage 2—page by page word revision.

I’ll save this cheerful subject for later, though. Happy editing.

We’re Not in Hogwarts Anymore (Book Review: The Casual Vacancy)

“I’ll put it out there, and if everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards with you’, then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.”

 –  J.K. Rowling, in an interview

 

The Casual Vacancy coverThere are several reasons I’m hesitant to review this book. First of all, the review is several months overdue. I don’t have an excuse for this, other than I haven’t had time to construct a breakdown of Mrs. Rowling’s newest novel.

And, secondly, I have very few positive things to say of this story. I know I should technically be able to speak freely, but I’m still not totally comfortable trashing on a book by one of my favorite authors, especially seeing as she’s one of the most successful writers to date, and I’m an unpublished teenager with a blog.

But, I have a fair amount to talk about with this story. And so I talk.

 

Yes, I was (am) crazily obsessed with the Harry Potter franchise, but that doesn’t mean I started this book expecting to be blown away like I was by Rowling’s famous wizard. I decided to go into it with an open mind, expecting nothing. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much more than that.

Here’s the setup: there’s a small town called Pagford, which we know is filled with at least thirty-four people, as that’s how many main characters there are. Unfortunately, the most appealing of them—who’s still a bitter, reclusive journalist who doesn’t think much of his family, mind you—dies on page two. This character, named Barry Fairbrother, was on the town council, and his death leaves an empty seat which acts as a catalyst in the characters’ scrambles for power.

(Please note that this review, from here, contains spoilers. There isn’t a whole lot to spoil, honestly, but I still think I should warn you.)

If I summarized all of the sub-plots spattered across these five hundred pages, I could write a small book myself. So instead of wasting words, I’ll try to just hit the high points:

  • We have Miles Mollison, who is predicted on page 10-ish to win the town election. On page 500-ish, he wins the town election.
  • Sam Mollison, Miles’ wife, is constantly thinking snarky comments on everyone’s words and actions, all while fantasizing about running off with the lead singer of her daughter’s favorite boy band.
  • Howard Mollison, Miles’ father, is a power-hungry member of the council. Notable for being the source of more obesity descriptions than I’ve ever read in a single book.
  • Terri Weedon is a heroin addict with a three year old son, Robbie, and sixteen year old daughter named…
  • Krystal Weedon, a student who juggles going to school, caring for her younger brother, and crushing Samuel L. Jackson in the imaginary game show, “So you think you can use the F-word more than me?”
  • Stuart “Fats” Wall is a scrawny student at the same school as Krystal, and eventually starts a relationship with her (though this relationship is notable for its lack of emotional investment and honesty).
  • Andrew Price is a school kid who’s best friends with Stuart and spends his free time stalking a girl in their class (at one point it describes in detail his combing through her Facebook photos).
  • Simon Price is the father of Andrew Price, and chooses to show his affection for his wife and children by relentlessly abusing them both verbally and physically. He was my personal least favorite.

There are several others whom I could list out with their related sub-plots, but there are many other things I could do that would take far less time. Watching all of the Lord of the Rings movies, for example.

So those are the sub-plots of the novel. These unfold side by side as the pages slip from one hundred, to two to three to four hundred…and finally, around page 450…there’s an election! Holy Grail!

And it turns out exactly as expected. The least horrible character wins.

Then, just to finish off the narrative—this is supposed to be the grand finale, mind you—Krystal Weedon goes down to the river with her boyfriend, Stuart Wall. They don’t pay attention to her younger brother, Robbie, who takes several steps forward and drowns in the river.

Then, Krystal runs home and commits suicide with her mom’s heroin.

And on the last page of the book, as the two kids’ coffins are carried down the aisle with Terri crying, “the congregation avert[s] its eyes.”

This illustrates my biggest problem with the book, right down to the last sentence: there’s absolutely no redeeming qualities in this story. All of the characters start out as horrible people and end the same, if not worse. Instead of coming to terms with their own problems or trying to fix things, they all screw themselves over by being selfish. It’s as if Rowling and her publisher said to themselves, “You know how with that last series, we made a bunch of characters who start out bad and redeem themselves through love and forgiveness? Yes, this time, let’s do the opposite of that.”

See, I hate doing this. I hate trashing on my favorite author, but this book lends itself to criticism so easily. It tries to send out so many scrambled messages, but they all fall short on top of each other, leaving a mixed mess of unpleasantness we can’t wait to wash our hands of.

I will say, though, that this still is a compliment to Rowling’s skill as a writer. She decided to write a horribly depressing story, and I can honestly say she succeeded brilliantly in doing exactly that. So, in all sincerity, Rowling is still a great writer. She just needs to find a bit more uplifting—or at the very least, meaningful—material. As she said in an interview, “If everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards, please,’ then obviously I won’t be throwing a party, but I’ll live.” The woman can still write, and she at least deserves credit for that. Unfortunately, it still can’t save this particular novel.

 

In conclusion: this is shockingly bad. Back to wizards, please.

Rate: 2 out of 10.

Apocalypse!

“Don’t worry about the world ending. If the Mayans were so good at predicting the future, there would still be Mayans.”

 

What on Earth are you doing here? The world’s about to end, and of all places, you decide to spend your last moments paroozing through my blog?

I must admit, this whole end-of-the-world business is at least throwing a mildly entertaining wrench in the machine of school life as well as social media. What I find the most interesting is that a few years ago, people were genuinely concerned for the coming end of days. And now that it’s here, it’s suddenly everyone’s shared inside joke. I’m reminded of the dog from the movie Up…“Apocalypse!”

My personal celebration of the end of the world, so far, hasn’t been especially exciting. In fact, last night mostly consisted of me studying for an AP Psychology test and watching the first episode of The Walking Dead (not even because I’m trying to be ironic, either…the DVD just happened to come into the library yesterday).

But, I’m not letting a thing like the end of humanity go unattended by my mind. Today, one of my friends is hosting an Apocalypse Party, in which we’ll probably listen to songs such as “2012 (It Ain’t the End)” by Jay Sean and “4 Minutes” by Madonna. I came up with the event’s tagline: “It’s our party and we’ll die when we want to.”

We’ll also be watching the movie 2012, because who doesn’t want to be seeing that film at the moment it becomes utterly ridiculous?

(Not that it isn’t on its way there already. The whole ‘driving a limo out a three-story window’ bit was already awarded some significant eye-rolls on my part).

Let’s talk about that movie for a second. No, I’m not going to do a review of it on the day of the supposed end of all life. Instead, I’ll just tell you some random facts you might not have known about it:

  • North Korea banned the film, as 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder, and thus they disapproved of a film that “reflected unfavorably” on that particular year.
  • Due to the movie’s success, there was (and still is) talk of launching a spin-off TV series called “2013.” A little slow on the production there, fellas.
  • It is the only movie I know of that will go from being an action to a comedy in a single day.

I’m reminded of a similar phenomenon back in 2011 involving Harold Camping, a man so good at predicting the end of the world that he’s done it three times now. After one failed attempt, he told us that the world would end back in September 1994. When it didn’t, and after spending millions of dollars promoting the judgement day, he admitted he had made a simple “mathematical error.”

Oops.

But then, after that, he immediately began targeting May 21, 2011 as the new end of the world date. He wrote pamphlets on it, made radio broadcasts…and starting October 2010, he and his followers began driving across the country with signs indicating that the end was near.

 

Well, I was on a campout on May 21, 2011. I had just finished a ten-mile hike and was completely exhausted by six p.m. The world didn’t end then, which was good, because that wasn’t at all the way I wanted to go out.

Harold later admitted that he made—and I quote—“A little bit of a mistake.” Which is interesting, since that’s probably the same phrase I would use to describe leaving my iPod on until the battery runs out.

But anyway. My point in all this is that there will always be predictions about the end of days, and we’ll never really know for sure when it actually is. There will always be those awkward moments after a failed prediction, when you get the chance to yell at the people who were genuinely concerned: “Oh, you sold your house to buy a bomb shelter? Good move! Enjoy your eight hundred cans of corn!”

So just celebrate how you want without doing anything stupid. And if that means dressing up as a Mayan and walking down the street yelling warnings at random people…well, I considered it.

As for me, though, I’ll be using the phrase “it’s not the end of the world” as many times as I can in context. But let’s hope I don’t jinx anything.

The Three Stages of Editing (On Revision: Intro)

“There’s a hormone secreted into the bloodstream of most writers that makes them hate their own work while they are doing it, or immediately after. This, coupled with the chorus of critical reaction from those privileged to take a first look, is almost enough to discourage further work entirely.”

 –  Francis Ford Coppola

  

Well, I’ve accomplished something, at least: the first draft of my manuscript is done.

The one thing I can say with confidence is that I spent enough time working on it, for a first draft. I started it back in April 2009, finished the story, set it aside for a few months, rewrote most of it, set it aside again, rewrote it again, then set it aside and finally, this past August, rebooted it starting from scratch.

And I think I might have something worth keeping this time.

I followed that annoying rule of writing a first draft; the one that says to try as hard as humanly possible to make it good, all while keeping the firm mentality that it won’t be. Every author I’ve ever read about has said that the first draft of their story was terrible. Nobody is perfect the first time around…nobody I’ve heard of, at least.

And thus introduces the purpose of…revision.

[Insert Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor].

 

Based on what I’ve heard, there are three stages of revision, if we’re discussing a novel (which I always am). None are pretty, but I think together, they’re fairly effective.

 

Stage 1: Plot Revision

I don’t claim many of my personal methods as ironclad, but I think it’s safe to say that you should always revise plot before anything else. Always. You can work on wording all you like, but if the beautiful descriptions fit a stupid storyline that you intend to change later, then it’s back to square one.

When I myself go through “plot revision,” I don’t just look at storyline, either. Yes, my first step is to make sure everything is logical, that there are no gaping holes in logic or unrealistic events taking place. But then I also think through the characters. Are there any that fall flat? I liven them up. Are there any that the story would be the same without? I erase them.

Yep, just like that. I still can’t figure out how extraneous characters work their way into my story (because why would I take the time to invent them if they didn’t have a purpose?) but they do. And during this first stage of revision, I find and eliminate them.

I’ll talk more about this and the other stages in their own posts later, so I’ll shut up for now.

 

Stage 2: Word/Style Revision

After my plot is in place, this becomes the most important phase of revision. Anyone can tell a story, some can tell a good story, but there are only some who can tell a good story in a good way. The difference is a little thing called voice, and it’s one of the most important ingredients of a novel. How different would the Percy Jackson books be if narrated in a factual, third-person POV similar to that of Artemis Fowl or Harry Potter? Or, likewise, if Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter were narrated from the first person POV of their titular characters?

Every word is essential. And the way they’re mixed makes all the difference.

I’ll dump my thoughts on this a little later.

 

Stage 3: Final Read-Through

Yay! The plot is good, the wording is good, and you even found a copy of the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents on sale! Praise Tolkien!

Unfortunately, there’s one thing every author recommends you do with your manuscript before it’s declared perfect. I’m not looking forward to it, but I’m going to do it.

I’m going to read my entire manuscript aloud. Cover to cover.

At first when I heard this recommendation, I thought it was a matter of personal preference. And I suppose it still is. But I’ve heard it from enough successful authors that I think I should do it, and I’d recommend you do it, too.

I agree that it’s a good way to eliminate any final “flow” problems. You’ve fixed plot, you’ve fixed wording…now, this last revision is a way to nail any issues with both.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

Happy revising, to anyone starting it. I’m sure I’ll be distracting myself by blogging more often later.

Christmas Camping, Memories and Moonshiner Ghosts

“Happiness is only real when shared.”

–  Chris McCandless, written in journal

  

I like to think of myself as a somewhat courteous blogger. So, as a courtesy, I’ll tell you now that this post probably won’t interest you in the slightest. Because even though I just got back from an amazing trip with quite a few of my friends, that doesn’t really affect you. No, there’s no deep emotional story about to come out, or a lifetime realization about the secret to writing well. Just a recap of my great weekend. Ergo…this post probably won’t interest you in the slightest.

I’ll post on writing next time, I promise!

 

So, then. My weekend trip.

Every December since sixth grade, I’ve gone with my Boy Scout troop up to a lodge, which has a room full of bunk beds, an eating area, a sitting area with a fireplace, and even an arena for us to play dodgeball.

And I suppose now is when I should explain that this isn’t technically a ‘campout.’ Normally a campout for us is building and sleeping in shelters during freezing-level temperatures. But for Scouts who have exceptional service hours, this is our ‘reward’ campout.

Since I’m a senior in high school, this was my last chance to go. I planned to enjoy it and wasn’t disappointed.

I mostly played Mario Kart and slept during the drive up. Once we arrived at the lodge, we cranked up the iPods until it was time for bed.

Saturday was full of funness. There was great food (cooked by the adults; again, this was a reward trip), lots of music, and movies shown with the help of my projector and another scout’s drop-down screen. Through the course of the day we watched The Rundown, The Dark Knight Rises and the first half of The Avengers.

We also fit in a hike. That was surprisingly relaxing…walking through the clear, open woods in mild cold while all of us whistled “Viva La Vida” and enjoyed the view.

Hike 1

I got to talk to my friends, which I realized I wouldn’t have many more chances to do within the troop.

Then towards the end of the hike, we came across a destroyed cabin, and our Scoutmaster told us the same story he’s told every year:

In the early 1900’s, a man lived in these back woods…a moonshiner. He built a cabin by hand and smuggled a boiler into it, which he used to make hundreds of gallons of moonshine over the next five years…illegally, of course.

Soon, the police heard rumors of what he was doing, and investigated. Upon confirming that the man was indeed breaking the law, they sent several teams to find his cabin and arrest him.

When they arrived at the scene, the moonshiner locked himself in his house and started shooting, intending to go down fighting. The police fired back, and their bullets hit the boiler.

The cabin exploded. The moonshiner was killed, but his body never was found.

The rumor said that he still haunted the forest where he had spent the last years of his life, waiting for the moment to carry out his revenge. And to this day, people who have ventured to the lodge at night claim to have heard him calling out for his killers.

Or, so the story goes, anyway.

I know that doesn’t sound like much, but hearing it while we stood in the cold wind, looking out at the pile of logs that was obviously once a home…it was interesting. The rusted bed frame was still there, along with a part of the stove, an old sink, and even parts of a car on the other side of the stream.

Anyway. After all of this we got back to the lodge, had dinner, exchanged small gifts, and had some amazing hot apple cider. Before I fell asleep that night, I cranked up the Fray’s “Never Say Never” in my earbuds and started to type on my iPod’s notepad.

 

I know this is my last year because today was a great day, and for some reason I’m sad.

This is the last time I’ll sleep in this lodge, under this roof with these incredible people. I’m trying to capture everything, but of course that’s impossible. So what’s the one thing I do to preserve it? I write about it.

But I’ll do that tomorrow. For right now, I need sleep. I’ve had my time for goodbyes here. All it really taught me is that I’ll never have enough.

So for now, as I sit here for the last time in this place: goodbye. Thank you for six incredible years.

10:55 PM.

 

Then I woke up this morning, we all packed up, and we drove home. Luckily I got to make one more memory by watching Super 8 with one of my close friends during the ride.

All I can say is that I’m coming home next year, and I’ll go on this again, if I’m allowed. I don’t care if I’ll be in college with a new set of friends and finals bearing down. There are just some things you never let go of.

This is one of them.

“Wow” Moments

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

–  Unknown

 

To me, time is one of the weirdest things in life. You always think you have tons left…“oh, I have four years of high school. It’s going to take forever.”

And then, as the end of something—high school, in this case—gets closer, you start counting up in smaller amounts. “Oh, I still have six more months until graduation.” But then you realize that six months ago was June, the start of summer (only it couldn’t have been, because you remember it so clearly, like it was yesterday).

And you further realize that a year from now, you’ll be done with your first semester in college; except that’s way too fast, because you remember one year ago like it was only a few weeks earlier.

What’s my point in all this?

My point is that I can count way too many increments in my life. I might only be in the middle of 12th grade, but I remember all too easily when I was in the middle of 9th grade. And 10th. And 11th. And even back in 8th, when I didn’t yet have to worry about what it means to move on.

But we all need to eventually. And that’s why I do this so much: I look forward, talking about the future like it’s far away, because then when it gets here, I can at least tell myself I prepared for it. That’s still a lie, but a little less of one.

Which brings me back to why I’m writing this tonight, of all nights: because tomorrow evening, I’ll be hanging out with a bunch of my friends in a weekend trip I’ve taken every December since I was in sixth grade. And there’s a good chance it’ll be my last time ever doing so.

So, I’m being pre-emptive. I’m reveling in this moment when the awesomeness hasn’t started yet, so I don’t have to worry about it going away.

That might be a bad attitude, but it’s one I’m comfortable with. And that’s why from now until who knows, I’ll occasionally post about what I call a “Wow” moment…a day, event or instance that just deserves some of my written thoughts. One thing I’ve heard before is that you should only use exclamation points very, very rarely…that way, people will know you mean it.

That’s metaphorical, of course, but still true. So, whenever my life throws an exclamation point at me, I’ll be sure to post about it here. And now my biggest challenge will be not over-using this new tool.

So, I suspect my first use of it will be on Sunday, when I get back from my trip. I’ll look forward to posting then.

Chili Davis said, “Growing old is mandatory…growing up is optional.” I’ll do my best to keep the two going at the same pace.

Wish me luck.