Interview with Melanie Stone and Nicola Posener from Mythica

Two weeks ago I reviewed Mythica: A Quest for Heroes, the first in a projected five-film epic fantasy series.  As well as being a great little film, it was notable for having two female characters as the driving forces of the story, with neither sidetracked into any obligatory romance.  The two actresses who played these roles, Melanie Stone and Read more

Interview: the writers of Carmilla

  Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu's 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction.  It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer's The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version).  It's also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style.  So Read more

Movie Review: Mythica, A Quest for Heroes

Back in 2011, I stumbled on Arrowstorm Entertainment's Dawn of the Dragonslayer, a low-budget fantasy epic that had the look of a much more expensive film. But what really got my attention was the care given to the performances: leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener really dug into their characters, and director Anne Black gave them the time to Read more

Dramatics Interreptus

My younger son turns seven in about a month, and the other day I realized that I was about that age when I realized just how important stories were to me. My parents left me to stay with friends of the family for an afternoon; I have no memory why. But while I was there, I started watching the TV Read more

Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

Interview with Melanie Stone and Nicola Posener from Mythica

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Two weeks ago I reviewed Mythica: A Quest for Heroes, the first in a projected five-film epic fantasy series.  As well as being a great little film, it was notable for having two female characters as the driving forces of the story, with neither sidetracked into any obligatory romance.  The two actresses who played these roles, Melanie Stone and Nicola Posener, were kind enough to answer some questions for me about their roles.

Your roles are interesting to me because, in fantasy films, actresses mainly get cliche roles such as the ornament who exists to support the hero, or the kickass babe who slaughters dozens while looking like she belongs on a Maxim cover. What concerns did you have about avoiding those pitfalls?

Melanie StoneMelanie Stone: To be honest, I actually have never been placed in situations where I was auditioning for either of those cliche roles, so it never even crossed my mind until I was cast in Mythica. I was getting a lot of questions and sometimes remarks from people outside the film when they heard my character had a club foot. “Really? Why? That’s not hot.”

I hate to admit it but in the beginning I found myself agreeing. I mean it was all based out of shallow insecurities, and like I said earlier I had never been objectified in film before (thankfully), so I didn’t instantly realize the awesome gem I had… but eventually I did. I can’t say the exact moment I fell in love with the character Marek, probably slowly and over-time, but I’ve just got to brag for a moment. She is the absolute coolest. She grows up in horrible conditions with a club foot, and despite all that she still has this drive and determination to be what no one thinks she can be. She’s constantly being underestimated and she doesn’t care. She’s going to do her thing, and sometimes it’s a bit sloppy and improvised, but she’s not afraid to make choices, which is something she taught me.

Nicola PosenerNicola Posener: Thankfully in this particular instance that thought never became a reality; the character of Teela was extremely well developed before I came on-board and it was quite clear from the outset that she wasn’t all that she appeared and would certainly be difficult to categorise in the typical genre cliché’s as mentioned above. That said, she is a ‘healer’, this describes one aspect of her without defining her, there are many other characteristics completely unlike any other ‘healers’ of this genre, some typical of a priestess and others not so. It is such a pleasure to play away from the stereotype and really surprise the audience as the characters develop along the journey.

This is part of a multi-film series, so obviously there’s more character development to come, but in this film, the central scene between your characters is the one where Marek asks Teela to heal her club foot. What was it like to create that scene?

Melanie: I have a tendency of overthinking things and it ruins moments for me; luckily we had been far enough into filming when we got to this scene that I had learned not to do that. I kept it simple; just before shooting I reminded myself of my objective and what my relationship with Teela was at that specific point in time. When the camera starts rolling I put all my focus on being present and connected. It’s easy with Nikki; she’s such a great scene partner. She cares so much about her work and she’s so giving as an actor even when the camera isn’t on her. It’s easy to react to what she’s giving and in turn give her something back to work with.

Nicola: This actually happened to be one of my favourite scenes to shoot, I particularly enjoy the quieter more intimate scenes, it was an enclosed set whereby Mel and I had no other factors to consider besides the main objective; two unlikely characters confiding and connecting for the first time. This was one of the first major scene’s where Teela lets down her guard, she can often be quite stoic and matter-of-fact with her one main focus at the for-front of her mind and her vulnerability hidden by her sharp demeanour so I personally really enjoyed playing her more endearing and understanding and for lack of a better word ‘human’.

Melanie (L) and Nicola behind the scenes

Melanie (L) and Nicola behind the scenes

There aren’t many female directors working in fantasy films; what was it like having one in Anne Black for Mythica?

Melanie: Anne has an incredible eye for detail; she’s very visual. What I loved about Anne was she was so good at giving us rich environments to work in. For example the very first scene I’m in (where I’m busy creating a spell); I had so much fun in that freezing room, because there was so much to play with. Even when they weren’t rolling I was mixing and mashing weird herbs and salts; I was a kid again.

Nicola: I am a great fan of Anne’s work and eye for detail! She is a brilliant director who makes everyone feel so comfortable on set and want to work to the highest of standards each and every day. She knows very clearly what she wants for every scene yet gave myself and the other actors’ freedom to be creative! I rate working with Anne very highly and a huge pleasure every opportunity we have to work together, not due to the rarity of having a female director in a fantasy genre but because of the great end result produced! We also had the brilliant A. Todd Smith joining forces to direct Mythica 3!

You’re both attractive actresses, yet that isn’t overly emphasized in the film. How much input did you have in the look of your characters?

Melanie: Ha! I had zero input. Really though I just showed up and let the costumers, hair, and make-up do their thing. Like I said before Anne has a very specific artistic vision and I knew better than to mess with that. For the most part though I loved what they did with my Character. I like that Marek is kind of a mess all of the time, she’s dirty and sweaty and her clothes are ripped and tattered. I never felt bad about rolling around in the dirt when I needed to.

Nicola: Thank you, I think despite it being fantasy and other worldly it is set in a different time period, particularly close in medieval nature and so in terms of costume and make-up it was very much directed towards the type of look and materials you would expect of that time. I think infact the wardrobe department started coming up with designs/looks before we were cast and so we didn’t have any involvement as such as far as the costume was concerned. I did however have say over the red hair, that was the final question that was asked of me prior to being offered the role and I was thrilled to have the drastic change. It enabled me to really get a sense of my character from early on; the further I looked from my usual modern-day self, the better.

I have a three-year-old daughter, and when she gets a little older, I’ll be showing this film to her. How does it feel to know a child might be dressing up and playing your character someday?

Melanie: I like that idea, but it’s only because I love Marek and I think she’s worth pretending to be.

Nicola: I truly hadn’t considered this before it was asked but it would be the ultimate compliment to the film and character to have made such an impact. I think many of our characters hold positive values and qualities that would make them great role-models to be recreated; plus they’d make for very fun distinctive costumes which always help!

Thanks to Melanie and Nicola for taking the time to talk to me, and watch for Mythica: A Quest For Heroes coming in 2015 from Arrowstorm Entertainment.

Interview: the writers of Carmilla

Posted on by Alex in Horror Films, Uncategorized, vampires | Leave a comment
Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis) and Laura (Elise Bauman).

Carmilla (Natasha Negovanlis) and Laura (Elise Bauman).

 

Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu’s 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction.  It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version).  It’s also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style.  So contemporary, in fact, that it’s been turned into a 36-episode web series.  Here’s the first installment:

 

I love this show. It’s funny, sweet, goofy (wait until you get to the puppets), and suspenseful. It takes its limitations and turns them into strengths, embodying Nicholas Meyer’s maxim, “art thrives on restriction.” More, it’s post-modern in the best possible way: the attractions between and among the female characters are never remarked upon, but simply accepted, creating an endearing level of innocent romanticism.

The show’s writers, Jordan Hall and Ellen Simpson, were kind enough to talk to me about creating the show and the many ways they brought LeFanu’s story into the modern world.

What aspect of LeFanu’s original novella spoke to you most vividly, and why? How did you decide to present the show from a single laptop’s POV?

Jordan Hall

Jordan Hall

Jordan Hall: The fixed camera POV was built into the concept, because Smokebomb was looking for a Lizzie Bennet Diaries-style adaptation. As for Carmilla– what struck me most about the novella was the simple fact of two indelible female characters. Le Fanu’s Carmilla is fascinating, and compellingly drawn, and that remains, despite what a contemporary lens allows us to recognize as problematic in the novella’s politics of representation. Her dialogue is striking and rich and thoughtful, and I love that. There’s also this insinuation of an entire hidden world of vampires in the second half of the novella, which struck me as unusual for the “singular monstrosity” style of the gothic genre which Carmilla seems to be a part of. And, of course, just a huge treasure trove of “Good god, woman, She’s a vampire!” moments that I needed to make a lot of jokes about.

Ellen Simpson

Ellen Simpson

Ellen Simpson: Yes, the “Look at the vampire, Laura, look at her attempting to eat you, look at her avoiding the sun and sleeping all day!” moments were some of my favorite in the novel.  They were just so striking in their transparency at times that you just wanted to reach into the book itself and shake Laura for being so oblivious.  There was a certain charm to that though, that I think we’ve managed to capture pretty well in the show.  As Jordan said, the fixed-camera was built into the concept, but I think it really helped to narrow what the viewer was able to see and allow us to play up some of those same moments of Laura’s lovable naivety from the book, while also providing some more modern interpretations of some of the more problematic elements of the story.  Le Fanu’s prose, as well, draws the reader in and holds their attention beautifully.  I fell in love with the writing, but also read the story at an age where seeing two girls falling in love, even if presented in a problematic way, was very important to me.

What’s the most frustrating thing about being locked into single POV for the entire series?

Jordan: I don’t actually find the single POV frustrating. A challenge? Definitely. But also a kind of gift– there’s a way in which the single POV both makes a lot of decisions for you, and forces you to be creative within the constraints of those decisions. I think many writers would tell you that they do their best work by setting limits for themselves and working within them.

Ellen: This is actually where the social media elements of the show can be really helpful!  Because we’re seeing such a narrow view of things, almost exclusively from Laura’s (rather biased, at times) perspective.  Having Carmilla have a presence on social media helps to provide a larger view of what’s going on, on top of some great foreshadowing.  And using the twitter and tumblr accounts we’ve been able to expand the universe presented in the show and show more of what’s going on at the university.

In LeFanu’s novel, Carmilla initially plays the victim to gain Laura’s trust, and in the series she mentions using this approach in the past. Why did you choose to have her more abrasive and/or assertive in the series?

Jordan: That character choice emerged very naturally from two decisions I made about the narrative, fairly early on. (And, uh– spoilers for the first season here:) One, I knew that I didn’t want to have Carmilla as the ultimate antagonist, and two, I knew that I wanted to essentially retcon some parts of the second half of the original novella– basically approach it as a kind of contested history. From those decisions came the idea that 2014 Carmilla wasn’t so much a willing participant in her mother’s plans, and her callous, rebellious teenager attitude just developed itself from there. As a bonus, that also allowed me to steer directly into “terrible roommate” territory, which was very much a place we wanted the relationship to go.

Ellen: When I got Jordan’s original one sheet, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical that it could work, because, as you said, I saw Carmilla as playing the victim, not rebelling against her mother’s actions. But as we worked through breaking story and plotting things out, I gotta say that Jordan was right: it was a very natural progression in terms of Carmilla’s character. I think doubly so when you consider what she’s been through in order to retcon the second half of the novel.

The plot brings a lot of original elements to the story, such as Carmilla’s “mother” being a more active antagonist, and her “brother” being around.  Why did you depart so strongly from the novel?

Jordan: As I’ve mentioned above, and in other interviews, one of the things I knew I wanted to do was grapple with the way the original text depicted the “monstrous lesbian”, and part of doing that definitely meant that Carmilla wasn’t going to be the villain of the piece. Looking at the original text, Carmilla’s mother–who definitely seemed to be in charge of their vampiric con-game–seemed like a strong choice. And of course, any villain worth her salt needs minions…

Ellen:  You have to remember that Carmilla is the original evil lesbian vampire.  She is the one who first personified all the tropes that we’ve seen in every piece of media from 1871 on.  In that sense, it would have been to the show’s detriment to present Carmilla as that same villain.  It’s 2014, we no longer suffer from the lesbian panic of the 1870s, and if we were to approach the story in exactly the same way, you’d run up against all sorts of problems regarding queer representation, female representation and a whole slew of consent issues that frankly make me uncomfortable to think about.  She doesn’t work as well as the villain in a modern interpretation, but her mother, shadowy but definitely with an ulterior motive leaving Carmilla with Laura and her father, works fantastically as a bad guy.

Will we ever catch more than a glimpse of Carmilla’s “mom”? 

Jordan: Well, that remains to be seen, doesn’t it?

Ellen: Indeed it does.

Thanks to Jordan and Ellen for taking the time to talk to me.  You can find season one of Carmilla on YouTube, and the producers recently announced there will be a season 2, beginning in spring of 2015. And here’s the video for the series’ captivating theme by the band Soles:

Movie Review: Mythica, A Quest for Heroes

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mythica poster

Back in 2011, I stumbled on Arrowstorm Entertainment’s Dawn of the Dragonslayer, a low-budget fantasy epic that had the look of a much more expensive film. But what really got my attention was the care given to the performances: leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener really dug into their characters, and director Anne Black gave them the time to do so. When you’ve seen as many bad performances in genre films as I have, you really appreciate that sort of thing. (You can read my full review here, and an interview with director Black here.)

Arrowstorm’s upcoming release Mythica: A Quest for Heroes, the first of a projected five film series, has the same good qualities, and improves on some of the earlier film’s weak spots. Whereas Dawn was visually rather sparse, Mythica is lush: the interiors bristle with detail, and the lighting makes the most of the atmosphere. The music is suitably exciting. The script, by Jason Fuller, director Anne Black, and producer Kynan Griffin, pulls together a rich fantasy world. And the CGI is particularly good for an indie fantasy.

But what I really like is the attention to characters, particularly the female ones. The protagonist is Marek, a slave girl in this faux medieval world. She has a club foot, a defiant attitude, and is learning magic on the sly from wizard Kevin Sorbo. When she finally has enough of her brutal owner she runs away, determined to seek a life of adventure using her magical skills. Marek is played by Melanie Stone, and she’s flat-out terrific; she provides the emotional center the film needs.

Marek (Melanie Stone) and Teela (Nicola Posener)

Marek (Melanie Stone) and Teela (Nicola Posener)

Marek visits a tavern where mercenaries gather to hire out on bounties for various mythical creatures (one man brings in what looks like a gorgon’s head), but the only one willing to take a chance on a novice is Teela, a priestess seeking the orcs (it’s always orcs) who kidnapped her sister.

Teela is played by Nicola Posener, who was so good in Dawn of the Dragonslayer, and is just as good here. In fact, the central relationship in the film is the one between Marek and Teela, and it not only passes the well-known Bechdel test, it completely shatters it as a convention. Marek and Teela behave like reasonable adults in a crisis, not like female characters written to be ogled by men.

Not that there aren’t any men.  Marek recruits a drunken soldier (Adam Johnson) and a smooth-talking thief (Jake Stormoen) to join them on their quest.  They each have their moments; the thief Dagen is the flashier role, but I really like the way sullen warrior Thane kept getting mortally hurt and needing Teela’s magical skills to heal him. He’s secure enough that he doesn’t resent her; he accepts her help graciously.

The action is handled with skill by director Black, who once again understands the importance of the quiet scenes between characters. There’s one exchange between Marek and Teela, where the runaway slave asks Teela to heal her club foot, that is really the emotional heart of the film, and the two actors bring it to life with grace and poignancy.

As many of you know, I worked with Tara Cardinal on a novel, Sword Sisters, that focused on the friendship between two young women in a fantasy setting. Tara had already pulled off the Herculean task of writing, directing, producing and starring in a female-led fantasy film, Legend of the Red Reaper. Mythica, co-written and directed by a woman, featuring two wonderfully vivid female characters, is working the same side of the street. Hopefully it’s a sign that indie films will fill the niche left by mainstream studios too timid to put women both in front of and behind the camera for fantasy and action films.

Mythica: A Quest for Heroes will be released on DVD in 2015.  Keep an eye on the Arrowstorm website for more info. And here’s the trailer.

Dramatics Interreptus

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Timmy and Lassie

My younger son turns seven in about a month, and the other day I realized that I was about that age when I realized just how important stories were to me.

My parents left me to stay with friends of the family for an afternoon; I have no memory why. But while I was there, I started watching the TV show, Lassie. In the episode, someone is diving in a local pond for some reason, with full diving gear. Timmy, the human main character, finds tracks from swim fins and assumes there’s a monster in the pond. At the climax, the diver gets trapped underwater (I think a rock fell on his leg), and his air is running out.

And that’s when my parents showed up.

I desperately wanted to see how the show came out. I mean, desperately. So much so that forty years later, I can still remember how badly I wanted it. They, however, wanted to go home, no doubt so my dad could sneak a drink and my mom could look the other way, and even the five-minute delay to finish a thirty-minute TV show was too much to ask. And I vividly recall what my dad said as he pulled me out the door.

“Don’t worry, Lassie’ll save him.”

Really? A dog will dive down and move the rock? And you’re not letting me see this?

Of course, my dad could care less. It was just a TV show to him. And in a way, he was right. Certainly it wasn’t any great shakes as drama, and there was absolutely no doubt that the diver would, in fact, be okay. Most likely Lassie summoned help, rather than doing the actual heavy lifting. She was, after all, a dog.

But that was my first experience with dramatics interreptus. Premature climax, if you like. And even back then, just as now, it was important to me. And I’ve tried to never do that to my own kids, although sometimes it’s difficult, since so much of their media (i.e., Minecraft) is open-ended.

But there’s a larger point to this as well: art matters. All art. When someone’s watching, or reading, or listening, that act deserves respect (I’ve written about this before, too). Interrupting it because it’s “just” watching, or reading, or listening, cheapens not only everyone involved, but our society. If we can’t have respect for things like this, then we’re backsliding as a civilization. We’re prioritizing primitive activities like sex, violence, revenge, brutality, hatred, and avarice.

And it might already be too late.

Black Friday Shopping

Seeing It a New Way

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

unnamed-2

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I’m paraphrasing):

Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden’s problems weren’t that significant. But in so many other books I’ve read, the problems seem to come out of the poverty and economic situations of the characters, or at least be so connected to it that it all gets blurry. When the characters are rich, you know that that’s not the source of the problem, that it’s something from within the characters themselves, and it makes it their problems much more vivid and clear.

I’ll admit, this idea had never occurred to me. I really doesn’t enjoy reading about the “first world problems” of people with no economic worries, which is one reason why many books, not just Catcher in the Rye, irk me (for example, don’t get me started on Eat, Pray, Love). But my student forced me to re-evaluate my position with this simple observation.

This was reinforced when I discussed this with a friend who’s also the editor of the local paper.  He said that’s exactly the reason he likes Batman so much. Again paraphrasing:

People complain that Bruce Wayne is just a rich do-gooder, but that’s part of the point. He’s trying to correct the one thing that all his wealth and power can never fix: the death of his parents.

In my teen class, I try to share mainly the practical aspects of being a writer, stuff I’ve had to learn the hard way since I had no mentor to guide me when I was their age. I never tell the students what to write, or how to write about it. As I say at the beginning of each six-week session, I can’t make them great writers, but I can make them better writers.

But as this indicates, it’s not one-way learning. These students are not burdened with thirty-plus years of experience; they see with fresh eyes, and uncluttered perspectives, and to negate that as being foolish simply because they’re chronologically young would mark me as a fool.

So after this epiphany, what did we do?

We spent ten minutes discussing what sort of noise zombie ducks would make.

 

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

Posted on by Alex in alcohol, biography, children, family, fatherhood, home, memoir, Parenting, tennessee, Uncategorized, west Tennessee | 4 Comments

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You’re Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank).

When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind me. We never hunted anything epic, like deer or bear; we went after squirrels, rabbits, and the occasional quail.  And, in the hot summer months, we went frog gigging.

This sport (and I used the term loosely) is how you acquire frog legs. You carry a long, six-to-eight-foot pole with a barbed trident on the end. You also use a flashlight, or ideally a miner’s light worn on your head, and creep around the edges of ponds, lakes or swamps in the dark.  The goal is to spot eye shine from bullfrogs.  When you do, you hold the light on it, to make it stay still. Then you stab it with the gig.

Frog Gig on Stick

The business end of a typical frog gig.

I was one of those weird kids who liked to catch frogs rather than kill them, and had no real taste for their meat.  It was fun, in a macabre way, to watch the disembodied legs jump around in the pan as they fried, but not so much fun that I wanted to go get those legs myself.

The other issue was that my father had to be the worst person in the world to try to teach you anything.  He had no patience, no concept of cause and effect, and no idea why once he’d explained something, it might need to be explained again.  And he was a drunk.  Not an overt one, but one of those sneaky drunks who hid his drinking from everyone.

So on those few instances when he’d insist that I go frog gigging with him, I was a nervous wreck.  His disappointment in me was never violent, but it was always withering, and heavy with the sadness that I, his only son, was such a failure.

My dad (far left) and me (second from right) at about the time of this story.

My dad (far right) and me (second from left) at about the time of this story.

I was twelve years old the night we went to a pond that seemed to be miles from where we left his old station wagon. We crawled through weeds, under fences, and across fields before finally reaching the tiny round pool, which was no more than forty feet across and perhaps six or seven feet deep. The deep thrump-thrump of bullfrogs told us we’d come to the right place.

We fired up our head-mounted lamps and split up, each of us taking a different direction around the pond. We had to walk right at the edge of the water, and shine the light ten or fifteen feet ahead, watching for the distinctive eye shine.  I heard the snick-THUNK! of my dad’s gig right away, while all I managed to do was startle every frog within range.  They leaped from the shallows and dove gracefully into the safer, deeper water.

Finally, though, I spotted one that was big enough, and transfixed by my light.  I crept through the weeds until I emerged onto a flat patch of mud, almost in range.

Then something moved in the corner of my eye, by my feet.  I tried to look down without moving the light off my quarry.  It wasn’t a frog, and it was the wrong shape for a turtle. My brain classified it at the same instant my head involuntarily turned and shone my light on it.

It was a snake. A fat, poisonous water moccasin.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.

A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.

I had no time to react, because it was already reacting.  It struck out and sank its fangs into my foot, right through my rubber wading boots.

I’m not a courageous person by nature, and I certainly wasn’t brave then.  My recently-descended testicles shot back up to their original spot, and my voice grew high and shrill as I screamed, “Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy!”  I jumped in the air and tried to kick the snake away, but it was well and truly determined not to let go.

My dad ran over to me as fast as he could, saw the snake and quickly stomped on it.  Then he pushed me down on the bank, tore away my wading boot and ripped off my sock, exposing my foot.

My entirely bite-free foot.

We both stared at it, pasty white in the combined illumination of our lights.  I wiggled my toes.

Then my dad picked up my boot.  The snake hung from it, smashed and dead, fangs still caught harmlessly in the rubber seam where the sole attached.

We went home after that.  Dad had gotten enough frogs anyway, and I waited for my testicles to decide it was safe to come out again.  I’d like to say this marked some sort of change in our relationship, but it didn’t.  Since I don’t know how drunk he was that night, I have no real idea if he actually remembered it the next day.  And I’d like to think there was some sort of symbolic aspect to it, mirroring our relationship.  But truthfully, it was just one more instance of a man with too many problems and a son with no appreciable life skills failing, as always, to meaningfully connect.

Dad's Cross

This cross was put up in honor of my dad’s service to his church.

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews | Leave a comment

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn’t find anything.

Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus.

Exorcismus poster

No, I can’t explain the title, either. Yes, it’s an exorcism movie, but as far as I know, it’s gibberish. It was also released under the even worse generic title, The Possession of Emma Evans.

But don’t let that throw you. The film is wonderful. It’s about a possessed teenage girl, and her uncle the priest who tries to help her, and yes, that’s about as basic as it comes. But as with many horror movies working in well-established genres, the fun–and the originality–is in the details.

Exorcismus 1

The movie is set in England, and despite being a Spanish production, is performed in English. Teenage Emma (Sophie Vavasseur) is, along with her brother Mark, homeschooled by well-meaning but oblivious parents (Richard Felix and Jo Anne Stockham). Right off the bat this is interesting, because the kids are not homeschooled out of religious beliefs, but out of a sense that the public schools are inadequate. Emma wants to attend regular school with kids her own age, since her only friends are her cousins Alex and Rose. She’s an unhappy, isolated but basically good girl whose possession is unexpected and, as it turns out, surprising for a number of reasons.

What makes this film work, and puts it leagues above the many other films that feature a similar plot, are the acting and the demonic manifestations. Every performer is spot-on, creating low-key, complex characters. You believe them as individuals, and as a family. When things fall apart, they do so with believable emotions: there are only a few moments that don’t ring true.

Exorcismus 2

We’ve all seen The Exorcist, so we know how possession usually manifests. Most of those tropes are here, but instead of being cranked up, director Manuel Carbalo dials them way down: when Emma levitates, it’s only about a foot off the floor, and when the demon takes control and makes her do things, they’re small and insidious, not grand gestures of evil.

And the plot, by David Muñoz (who also co-wrote Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone) really doesn’t go where you expect. The first exorcism session occurs pretty early in the film, so you know immediately that the story is about something other than the standard good versus evil.  I won’t spoil it by giving away more, but trust me: although the initial build-up is slow, the payoff is worth it.

Currently, Exorcismus is streaming on Netflix. You can find the trailer on YouTube, but if you really want to be surprised, don’t watch it: since, as I said, the movie is so low-key, they’ve had to cobble together a lot of the high points.

And if you do see the movie, come back and tell me what you thought.

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still…rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.

 –Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93

I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Marsh’s Springsteen book came out.  It’s stuck with me over the intervening decades, and at some level has informed a lot of my writing. That idea, filled with drama and potential, that I might’ve just missed the greatest thing ever, is one of the things that drives me to write stories that, regardless of their apparent genre, are at their hearts, mysteries.

But of course I thought about the idea literally as well as metaphorically.  What song might fit that description–a serious contender for the greatest rock and roll single that hardly anyone–well, anyone in my social circle–has ever heard or remembers?

And this is it:

 

This was also the very first music video I ever saw, sandwiched between two movies on HBO at a friend’s house.  MTV hadn’t been invented, and I remember wondering exactly what I was watching: a preview, or a commercial, or what?  And for years I had the actual 45 of this single.

Herman Brood

The late Herman Brood (1946-2001) is far from an unknown in his home country of the Netherlands. In fact, there he’s legendary. But it’s safe to say most music fans younger than me (which is most of them, sadly) have never heard of him. This was his one hit on the American charts, and even then it only rose to #35.

But as a contender for Marsh’s award, it’s perfect. It’s about something universal in rock and roll (i.e., Saturday night, the night the rules are broken and the boundaries shattered in so many other songs). It has an instantly recognizable guitar lick for a hook. It’s the perfect single length at roughly three and a half minutes. The name of his band–His Wild Romance–is so good I truly wish I’d thought of it. And it makes you want to enter the nighttime world it conjures, where the deadness of your mundane existence would vanish in a night of “chicks dressed to kill/surrounded by the boys like bees and their honey.” That, to me, is always at the heart of real primal rock and roll.

But that’s my take. What’s your contender for the greatest rock and roll song that no one’s heard of? Tell me about it in the comments.

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Making of day of the dead cover

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero’s third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it’s still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Still, it’s one of my favorites, and I was very curious to see what the book would be like.

 My initial response is…wow. No, wait, that should be…WOW.

A bit of background here: I’m been a longtime fan of several genre directors: I admire John Carpenter for his clean visuals and amazing genre range, I used to like Tim Burton before he became a parody of himself, and if James Wan continues as he’s started, I’ll add him to the list. But George Romero has always been special.

For one thing, he introduced me to horror, via a Sunday afternoon broadcast of Night of the Living Dead. And I’d never seen a midnight movie before I saw Dawn of the Dead in 1979, made memorable by a nurse loudly announcing to her date, “I see this shit in the ER all day, I ain’t paying to watch it now!” before she stalked out. But it was his non-horror film Knightriders that made me a real fan. It’s Arthurian tale of an SCA-like troupe battling the dragon of the modern world resonated (and still does) with me, to the point that it was one of the movies I showed my wife on our honeymoon. (Read my about my real-life encounter with this film’s Merlin here.)

That meant Day of the Dead, as the third film in his original zombie trilogy, came with high expectations. The first time I watched it, I was uncertain if I really liked it; although it was particularly suspenseful in its final twenty minutes, the prior seventy were about as different from Night and Dawn as you could get. Finally, though, I realized that was part of the point: why do the same story over? It’s a lesson I’ve tried to internalize as a writer, so that my own series don’t just repeat themselves.

Then there was the character of Sarah, played by Lori Cardille. A full year before Aliens made a splash, Romero gave us an emotionally tough yet entirely believable female lead who–and this was especially notably in the 80s–never takes off her clothes (not even for a shower scene), never relies on a man to save her in a pinch, and is resourceful, but not unrealistically so, in a crisis. It’s a shame that Cardille wasn’t able to use this as a career springboard, because she, again like Sigourney Weaver, was basically a total unknown who effortlessly carried her first film.

Lori Cardille

The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead by Lee Karr is the kind of obsessive tome that (and I’ve seen this observation elsewhere) I wish I had for all my favorite films. Not only did Karr collect the usual stories that all fans have heard, but he recreated day by day (no pun intended) the shooting of the film. Each day of principal photography is covered in detail, richly illustrated and laced with interviews from the participants. It’s also well written, with little of the amateurishness that tends to mar fan-driven works like this.

When I was a kid, in the days before any sort of home video, every major movie had a “making-of” book, usually written by someone in the studio publicity department. These tended to be just as one-sided as the “making-of” documentaries you now find on most DVD releases, so none of the really interesting stories got told. But this book is no PR fluff piece; it’s cinematic archaeology. The raunchy hijinks of Tom Savini’s makeup crew are detailed, as are the contentious relationships between writer-director Romero, producer David Ball and cinematographer Mike Gornick. You get a real sense of what it must have been like working in the Wampum mine during the winter of 84-85, creating what is now rightly regarded as a classic horror film.

I don’t know if a casual reader will enjoy this as much as I did, or even a student of filmmaking in general. This is for fans. And I sure hope there are enough of us to make it successful, because this book deserves it.

You can read an interview I did with author Lee Karr here.

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Posted on by Alex in children, children's books, pop culture, reviews, storytelling, writing, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

Since I now have another two-year-old, I’m back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I’m here to talk about the New York Times bestseller (it says so right there on the cover) The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, and especially what it’s like to read this book to a daughter.

 

Pout Pout 1

 

So, here’s our hero, featured on the cover: the Pout-Pout fish. The plot, such as it is, has various sea creatures essentially telling the pathologically depressed Pout-Pout Fish to cheer the hell up, to which he repeatedly replies:

Pout Pout 2

 

I admire a fish who sticks to his…fins, I guess.

Anyway, with no warning, a female fish shows up.  She says nothing, but simply swims up to our hero and plants a smooch on him.

 

Pout Pout 3

 

This kiss totally turns him around.  One kiss from a total stranger, without reason or explanation, causes him to exclaim:

Pout Pout 4

 

The last page shows him kissing the nameless girl-fish again, but it’s unclear if it’s real, a fantasy, or simply a memory of the first kiss. But that wasn’t what bugged me. It was the idea that somewhere I’d seen this plot before…

Oh, yeah!

Garden State…

Elizabethtown…

Sweet November…

And Autumn in New York, and (500) Days of Summer, and Almost Famous*, and The Girl Next Door, and…

This other fish–unnamed, unidentified, with no function other than to cheer up the protagonist–is…

A Manic Pixie Dream Fish!

(NOTE: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, “manic pixie dream girl,” check here.)

Okay, on the one hand, I’m sort of kidding. This is a kid’s board book after all, not the place to look for psychological depth or meaningful social interaction. It has funny animals and it rhymes, and I’m certain author Deborah Diesen had no ulterior motives.

Except on the other hand, I’m not kidding at all. The female fish exists for no other reason than to kiss the main character. She’s not identified as his mother, or his sister, or his girlfriend, or any other sort of character who might legitimately have a reason to kiss him. And while some of the other characters who complain to the Pout-Pout fish about his attitude are female, she’s the only one who takes any sort of action in the story, and the only one who gets to dominate a two-page spread. Is this, then, icthy-objectification?  And further, if the genders were reversed–if a strange male fish swam up and kissed the female main character–would we accept it as the wonderful thing this book presents? Isn’t it a kind of harassment?

I’ll keep reading the book to my daughter, because at her age, it’s a) essentially harmless, and b) counteracted by the things she sees around her, such as her dynamic and empowered mother. But when she’s older, I plan to show it to her again, and ask her what she thinks. If she’s the girl I think she is, she’ll be as amused/appalled then as I am right now.