Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

Talking to My Daughter About Women in Refrigerators

On New Year's Day, I did some surfing through various Twitter feeds and came across this article by Caroline Pruett. Titled, "Talking to Our Daughters About Violence Against Women in Comics," she speaks to the issue of "women in refrigerators," a term for using the death and/or brutalization of female characters as devices to motivate male heroes. It's a Read more

Some thoughts on the Ghost Brothers

Recently I caught up with the cast recording of the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. As a longtime fan of Mellencamp's, and an admirer of King's (there's a difference, and I'll explain it shortly), I was curious to see what they'd come up with working together, and in a form neither had tried before. The results, Read more

Why I Haven’t Blogged Lately

Posted on by Alex in writers, writing | 4 Comments

Charlie's Desk

I haven’t blogged in a while, so I thought I’d blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta.

Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You’d think it would be done by now, wouldn’t you?  Alas, ’tis not the case. Not only is this the longest book I’ve yet written, it’s been the most complex to finish.  It didn’t start out that way, but that’s where we’ve ended up. Even within the last week, with ARCs done and ready to disseminate, I’ve been working on polishing bits with my patient, dedicated editor.

Long Black Curl cover

So why is that?  I can’t tell you. The idea wasn’t that complicated, and the execution was pretty clear. But like many stories, it didn’t go precisely where I wanted it to go. In fact, the whole original third act I had in mind just flat out didn’t work, which sent me back to the end of act two, trying to decipher where the story and characters wanted to go, since they clearly didn’t like the destination I had in mind. Yes, it was the literary equivalent of turning this thing right around.

So there’s that. Then there’s Tufa novel #4, Chapel of Ease, due out sometime in 2016. I’m in the midst of the third-draft polish pass, and luckily this one is going much, much more smoothly. It’s very different from the previous three, for reasons I don’t want to reveal yet; readers should have some surprises, right? But I will say this is the first book I’ve done where the “special thanks” page will include a fight choreographer.

Finally, there’s the spec horror novel I’ve been picking away at for a couple of years. It’s finished, but unfortunately it may never see the light of day. People I trust have said that its depiction of racism and anti-Semitism in a small Southern town is so realistic, it might damage my career. I obviously don’t agree with this, but many times the author isn’t the best judge of such things. And I won’t deny that this has taken some of the wind out of my sails, motivation-wise. Still, I’m seeking the opinions of other trusted folk, so who knows?

unnamed-2

Finally, lastly, and perhaps mostly, taking care of three kids age 10 and under in the middle of a Wisconsin winter, when they can’t be chased outside and there’s only so many times they can play Minecraft, has been rather overwhelming. In addition to being a full-time writer I’m also the stay-at-home parent, and that role becomes primary during this season.

unnamed-3

 

So there you have the reasons I haven’t blogged in a while. I’ve been forced to prioritize, and unfortunately blogging has been moved a bit further down the list. But I know I enjoy reading the blogs of authors I like, so I’ll try to do better for you guys. Thanks for your patience, and for your interest in Long Black Curl. Watch for it in May!

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

Posted on by Alex in ARCs, giveaway, Tufa | 135 Comments

Long Black Curl cover

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn’t come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn’t matter). I’ll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Sunday, February 22.

And, to get you in the mood, here’s Tuatha Dea doing their original song inspired by the book.

Win a copy of Mythica!

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews | 31 Comments

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here.

Mythica poster

Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Stone), and as the first film of a series, it sets things up nicely. Moreover, it offers two strong female characters (Stone and Nicola Posener) who drive the action and motivate the plot without devolving into cliche or romance.

Now Arrowstorm has slipped me five copies of Mythica to give away.  If I’ve piqued your interest, then just leave a comment below telling me about your favorite fantasy heroine for a chance to win one of these.  Deadline is Sunday, February 14 at midnight.

Mythica giveaways

Talking to My Daughter About Women in Refrigerators

Posted on by Alex in comic books, movies, writers, writing | 4 Comments

On New Year’s Day, I did some surfing through various Twitter feeds and came across this article by Caroline Pruett. Titled, “Talking to Our Daughters About Violence Against Women in Comics,” she speaks to the issue of “women in refrigerators,” a term for using the death and/or brutalization of female characters as devices to motivate male heroes. It’s a concept that’s been covered in great detail elsewhere.

The panel that gave the trope its name.

The panel that gave the trope its name.

As I read Ms. Pruett’s article, I thought about my own daughter, and what I’d tell her if she were older (she’s three right now) and asked me about this. It struck me that writers might answer this question differently than readers or consumers, since we have a unique viewpoint into the creation of these sorts of tropes. So here’s what I’d tell my daughter:

Honey, each of these characters was created by someone, but that creator is not the only one writing about her. In comics, different writers come along and tell stories in different ways, and some are better than others. Editors are supposed to make sure everything stays consistent, but they change, too. So occasionally you get people who just aren’t that smart, making decisions they just haven’t thought out. And just like in real life, that’s when people die.

So, it’s reasonable* for her to ask, why do those writers think that way?

Well, sweetie, I think part of it is tradition, part of it is immaturity. The “women in refrigerators” trope has been around for a long time, and it’s awfully omnipresent in our popular culture, not just comics. How many stories of revenge begin with the death of someone close to the hero, usually a woman?

Beats me, Dad, I’m just a kid.

It’s a lot, trust me. And when you start to write, in any format, you first write the stories that surround you (hence fanfic). Then, with time and practice, you learn to write your own stories.

I’m not saying comic writers are inherently immature, nor am I criticizing the medium as a whole; I do think that by its nature, mainstream superhero comics appeal to a core demographic that, due to age and other factors, seems to coddle immaturity. And most of today’s creators have come from the ranks of fans: they may have internalized this immature appeal without moving past it. Also, most of them are guys.

What does that have to do with it?

Because of the way the entertainment industry works, and who it tries to appeal to, these guys are essentially writing to impress other, similar, guys. Many of them have likely never experienced the death of someone close to them, so the only way they know to depict it is through the examples they’ve encounter in popular entertainment. And that’s how the trope is perpetuated.

So how do we change it? I hope she would ask.

By writing the stories you want to read. By connecting with readers who also want to read those stories. By supporting the people who already create the stories you want to read, who don’t reduce women to plot points and cliche’ motivations. Art isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a marketplace, and you have to convince the people who produce it that these old tropes are no longer as profitable as the new ones. That’s when the girls will start to have a bigger voice, and the boys will have to grow up.

Can I write those stories?

You bet, honey. And get all your friends to do it, too.

*****

Reasonable in the sense that this is what I want to write about next.

Some thoughts on the Ghost Brothers

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writers, writing | 3 Comments

ghost brothers cover

Recently I caught up with the cast recording of the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. As a longtime fan of Mellencamp’s, and an admirer of King’s (there’s a difference, and I’ll explain it shortly), I was curious to see what they’d come up with working together, and in a form neither had tried before.

The results, for me at least, were disappointing.

The story involves two sets of brothers, one alive and one dead. The ghost brothers died in the Sixties, and their still-living baby brother, now the dad of the other pair, is trying to prevent history from repeating itself. Got that?

The actual ghost brothers of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

The actual ghost brothers before they become ghosts.

The story was inspired by Mellencamp’s purchase of a haunted cabin in Indiana, which struck Maine-born-and-bred Stephen King as a great spark to a story. So where did they decide to set their play?

Mississippi.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that, since neither is a native Southerner (references to Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor notwithstanding) they get the dialect and vernacular pretty much all wrong (and don’t get me started on the accents the cast uses on the recording). For example, the living brothers’ mom uses the Yiddish word, “schtupp,” when she walks in on one brother and his girlfriend. Since she’s established as an alcoholic, church-going traditional Southern wife, this feels totally wrong, like the kind of joke a New England Yankee might make about the South. Oh, wait….

But there are more general issues. As I said above, I admire King for his willingness to push his own boundaries, when he could simply write the same books over and over and continue to add to his fortune. But he’s far from a flawless writer, and there are a lot of flaws here.  Chief among them is the presence of The Shape, a character (played by Elvis Costello on the recording) who is supposed to be the devil, or at least a demon. He has several solo numbers extolling his own virtues, and we’re supposed to enjoy his manipulation of the other characters, whispering unseen in their ears throughout the show.

From left, T-Bone Burnett, John Mellencamp, Stephen King.

From left, T-Bone Burnett, John Mellencamp, Stephen King.

The thing is, by including this character, it totally obviates the tragedy. In real tragedies, the downfall of the hero is due to something innate in his or her character; here, it’s due to Satan. Both sets of brothers, alive and dead, have their animosity stoked not by their own personalities, but by this outside force. What is King trying to tell us by that? That nothing awful we do is really our own fault? That’s not tragedy. That’s Calvinism.

There’s also the old King standby of having one character, in this case one of the living brothers, be a misunderstood writer. As voiced by Matthew McConaughey and sung by Ryan Bingham, his main issue is that his brother, the failed musician, has always been mommy’s favorite. It’s disheartening to have a writer like King still putting obvious Mary Sues into his work.

Mellencamp’s music, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is a different issue. According to various interviews, the songs were designed to provide all the character development, while King simply worried about moving the plot forward. But that creates its own problems, most notably the songs’ collective obviousness.

For example, when Anna, the live bitchy girlfriend, sings to explain herself, her song is “That’s Who I Am.” When Jenna, the dead bitchy girlfriend, sings of the pleasures of visiting juke joints, it’s called, “Jukin’.” When the two living brothers sing about their contentious relationship, it’s called “Brotherly Love.” Their mother’s song about how no one in her family really knows her? “You Don’t Know Me.” And so forth.

Not that most audiences would notice, since the music is produced by T-Bone Burnett, whose talents are so important he’s given equal billing with King and Mellencamp. Some of the songs are really good: “So Goddam Smart” and “How Many Days,” for example. And on a surface level, King writes an entertaining libretto, with many poignant and funny lines. But there’s no denying, as the New York Times said in its review of the initial Atlanta production, “it has the feel of something devised over Skype.” Still, as Mellencamp told the Baltimore Sun after a November performance, it’s a work in progress: “this thing will only be done when Steve and I go, ‘It’s done.’ He’ll continue to make changes, I’ll make changes. That’s what art is. It’s just constantly in motion.”

So there’s hope. But like so many musicals–and this is the reason I don’t like them–everything good is on the surface. Dig deeper, and you simply don’t find much of anything. Because the biggest ghost in Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is the ghost of something meaningful.

Here’s the trailer:

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

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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

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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.