“12 Years a Slave” – Film Review (A+)

April 16, 2014

 


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I was warned before watching 12 Years a Slave that it would be graphic and painful to watch.  It was.  I was told Chiwetel Ejiofor was equally worthy as Matthew McConaughey for his Best Actor Oscar in Dallas Buyers Club.  He was.  More than a generation ago, I watched Roots, which to me was all I needed to see to understand all I needed to understand about slavery.  Yeah, but Roots was made for ABC television so suburban families could get a basis in what was not just the centuries of “roots” that belonged African Americans but that also lay beneath centuries of American history.  12 Years a Slave goes well beyond that, and it’s unfortunate how necessary that was.

Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor) was a well-dressed musician in Saratoga, New York, where he occasionally played his violin at parties and other social gatherings.  He strolled the lanes, purchased goods in local shops, tipped his hat, and shook hands with a “Good day to you, sir.”  He lived with his wife and two children in a modest home, as I suppose most were, in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains, where one finds the most colorful fall days in America.  Speaking of colorful, there’s nothing thus far that necessitates a mention of Solomon’s color, being black.  Not until the deception begins.

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On one of these fall strolls, Northrup comes across a friend named Parker who introduces him to two gentlemen in need of musicians for a grand show in Washington, DC.  The promised salary and interesting travel are too much to be ignored, and Northrup agrees.  After an evening of dining and drinking – and drugging – he wakes up in chains.  He is beaten until willing to drop his claim of being a free man from New York.  He is hidden on a boat with several other men, women, and children of similar education and circumstance until he ends up sold to a plantation owner in Louisiana.  Like Kunta Kinte from Roots, he is given a new name – Platt – and is reminded to keep his education to himself if he wants to survive.  He replies, “I don’t want to survive.  I want to live.”  Admirable but temporary.

He spends uncounted years on a few different plantations and with a few different owners, including Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), and learns more and more the value of surviving.  There are hangings, whippings, and violence for the sake of violence, as if it is just something to do out of boredom, lust, and pride.  Intentional or not, the most “wrong” seem to spend the most time quoting scripture.  Whether or not what they quote actually is or is not scripture as opposed to a ploy to convince the slaves to accept their place, I cannot say.  What I can say is that either way, those providing the quotes belong in Hell.  For those hearing the quotes, they were already in Hell.

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If you were to ask Ejiofor (Children of Men, Salt) how he prepared for the role of Northrup, he should answer, “There is no way to prepare” because there shouldn’t be a way to prepare for that.  12 Years a Slave is an excellent example of extraordinary directing and should have brought a Best Director Oscar in addition to Best Picture and Supporting Actress.  While I also enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s work in Gravity, which won Best Director, it encompassed what was close to real time.  Steve McQueen, however, had to envision a character for more than a decade, and over that decade there were subtle but important changes for Northrup.

So while I’m not alone in suggesting Ejiofor was worthy of Best Actor, it’s really the director who had to keep that actor on track by guiding speech and mannerism changes throughout the film.  Few films, if any, are shot in sequence, which is more work for McQueen (Shame, Hunger) to keep Northrup lineally progressing and regressing depending on which scene was being shot.  Keep this in mind the next time you want to congratulate – or criticize – and acting performance.  It is likely the director was much more responsible than the actor, unless the actor is so high on his or her own reputation that he or she completely ignores the director because he or she believes themselves to be God’s gift to film.  Just ask Stephen Spielberg why he vowed never again to work with Julia Roberts after Hook.

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Speaking of Oscars, Lupita Nyong’o, who has twice as many editing and artistic film credits than acting, was at the heart of the most difficult scenes.  As Patsey, she was the prey of Mr. Epps’s animal predation as well as Mrs. Epps’s animal revenge.  In a most ironically tender moment, Patsey asks Platt to bring her to the water and drown her, kill her, so she can escape their hell.  He understandably refuses.  However, a moment comes later when we can see greatly how he was second guessing himself.  Though you can’t possibly know, I have typed and deleted several strong adjectives but still can’t find anything to express how disturbing it was to watch Platt and Patsey during that moment.

You might have noticed Brad Pitt accepting the Oscar for Best Picture.  In addition to producing, he also has a brief part as Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter who, while working on one of the plantations, strikes up a conversation with Platt, who of course pleads for Bass to help him escape.  I was surprised, but should not have been, when Bass explained that even just talking to Platt was dangerous for not just Platt but for Bass as well.  I had forgotten how ruthless and lawless America was at that time.  You could have easily been killed, buried, and never heard from again if you crossed paths with the wrong person back then.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and fatally.

In most film reviews, I look for at least one thing to criticize so as to balance out a review.  Fortunately or unfortunately, there’s nothing I can recall for which it would be fair to say, “Well, they should have done this, or there was too much of that.”  I got nothing, except a strong recommendation for you to see 12 Years a Slave.

Teacher gives it an A+
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z02Ie8wKKRg


What’s the Real Purpose of All This Testing?

April 15, 2014


Kid walking alone There’s a week approaching that usually arrives when the weather warms. No, not Spring Break. This week is all about stress, skill, competition, failure, and success: state standardized testing. For students, it means blood-shot eyes and frazzled nerves. For parents, some are worried but not enough. For politicians, it’s either a feather in a cap or out the window. For school districts, it’s an expensive headache. The state claims it’s a performance review, but exactly who needs to be reviewed is open for debate. What’s the real purpose of all this testing? Good question.

Nearly 80 years ago, a group of educators from the University of Iowa developed a way to determine the strengths and weaknesses of pupils and improve classroom instruction. Back then and through the 70’s, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills was given to students in half the country. Other schools used the California Achievement Test, but both were only one day’s worth of math, reading, and filling in little ovals with a #2 pencil. Those days are now weeks. Those ovals are now followed by 5-paragraph essays. Those pencils will soon be replaced by laptops. Much has changed with school testing over the last 40 years, but not everyone is happy about it.


This is a story I contributed to a new website dedicated to education.  I’ve had these thoughts for a long time but no reason to type them all out.  This new website is as good a reason as any.  

Please click on either the picture above or this link right here to read the rest of the story…


Writer’s Process Blog Tour

April 11, 2014

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When asked, I don’t normally participate in round-robin, tag team kind of things unless there’s a good reason.  Sometimes the reason is not what was asked but who asked.  Whom asked.  By whom it was asked.  Dammit.  In this case, I was asked by the lovely, talented tease by the name of Dana, aka, DCT designs, who was asked by Helena.  I was later asked by the wickedly quirky Marie, but it all goes to the same place.  Sort of.

When she asked me to share some things about what and how I write, I was ready to say no, but then I thought further.  Farther.  More.  And I thought that maybe there’s someone who might read this who really has some interest in my particular process.  Sometimes the value in that is for someone else to see what I’m doing, realize it’s the same as what they do, and maybe they’ll say, “Oh, cool.  That’s what I do.  That’s good.”  Or maybe someone else will say, “He does that?  Crap.  I do that too, but not anymore.”

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Either way, it could help.  Here are the questions I borrowed from Dana’s entry, which can be found here.

 

Question 1. What am I working on?

I’m currently working on three different things:

First, a short story about a serial killer who abducts homeless people, ties them up in his basement, and slowly watches them die while talking to them.  But one evening, he selects the wrong homeless person.

Second, many people already know that I love time-travel (TT) stories and have always wanted to write one.  However, the device is the problem.

In most TT stories, the device is stupid.  In Stephen King’s 11/22/63, the device was to shut yourself into a closet in a diner, lift your legs as if walking in place, and then suddenly you appear in a back alley a bunch of years in the past.  Just plain stupid.  In a recent romantic comedy, About Time, you went into a dark place, closed your eyes, clenched your fists, and thought about where you wanted to go in your past.  Bang – you went there.  I know, right?  Stupid.

For many years I’ve read and enjoyed TT stories, but I couldn’t write one because I hadn’t thought of a device that makes sense.  I was recently watching a science show that debated whether the universe was the work of a Creator or just a natural event.  During the course of the show, which examined theories about parallel universes as well as the creation, my “device” came to me.  I’m in the process of outlining that story, which should be novel length.

Third, I’m also working on revising and submitting Woodbury Avenue to agents.  That’s my story about a disturbed man with violent tendencies living in a quiet, suburban neighborhood.  That story is also currently simmering in the quarter finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, an annual contest for writers seeking discovery.  By rule, I can’t submit to agents while still in the running for the contest, which is run by both Amazon and Publisher’s Weekly.

 

Question 2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That’s a tough question because one of my weaknesses as a writer is not reading enough within my preferred genre, and I haven’t figured out my preferred genre either.  All I can say is that my work is different in style. 

From what I’ve been told, and for what I strive, my writing is rather conversational.  Feedback from wonderful people suggests that my writing sounds as if I’m simply having a conversation and orally telling you the story.  I try to avoid forcing anyone to keep a thesaurus nearby while reading.  I hate when writers think that using “new” words = better writing.  Reading shouldn’t be work.  A writer’s job is to entertain, not educate.  For me, less is more.  I’m a fan of what Twain and Hemingway did for American literature.  I like how King keeps his prose simple.  I don’t like his endings, but his sentence and paragraph structure is fabulous.  So my difference is not what I write but, hopefully, how I write.

Now that I think further about this, another way I’m different is how much, or how little, time I spend on descriptions of characters.  I know that many people have extensive lists of character traits and things like height, weight, birthday, favorite food, good/bad habits, and 33 more things that won’t make it into the story.  I don’t mess with that.  As the story progresses, I’ll drop in what I need when I think I need it.  I’m not saying those lists are a bad thing to do.  Anything that works for any individual is a good thing.  Anything that doesn’t work?  Bad thing.  Doesn’t work for me.

For my characters, I’ll drop in a few touches here, but I don’t care much about someone’s specific descriptions unless they’re important.  It’s not necessary for me to write about someone’s height or eye color unless the eye color is vital to the story.  In one story, I specified about a man having extremely dark brown eyes.  The only reason was so that later, when I then described a girl as having extremely dark brown eyes, it would give the reader the clue that those two people were related.  If it’s not an important characteristic, there’s no need to mention it.

For more about that, you can read here

 

Question 3. Why do I write what I do?

When I was in high school, I fell in love with film and always wanted to write films.  When I finally paid so much attention to film that I was subsequently kicked out of college, I started writing because I realized how tiny the likelihood of ever working in the film industry was.

I like to tell stories.  I improvised many stories to entertain my kids on long drives to visit relatives living about two hours away.  I made up characters and spoke in dialects to act out stories, making them more lifelike and fun.  When they were eventually too old for the goofy stories about a race between a watermelon and a grape or how I invented birds, leaves, etc, my writing/storytelling had to grow up.

I write because I think people love to disappear into a story, forget about everything around them, and just go somewhere else for a while.  I’d like to help them get there.

 

Question 4. How does my writing process work?

I’m going to describe this process as if it is something unique while knowing perfectly well that it is not.

Step One – Getting an idea

The first story I wrote with any seriousness was a middle-grade time travel story about a boy who accidentally transports back to the Civil War.  I was visiting Gettysburg, walking through the battlefield, and I thought, “What interesting thing could happen here?”  It’s called Grandpa’s Watch, and I should post that here.   Hey, so I guess I already did write a time travel story.  Go figure.

I wrote a short story about a man finding a dead body in an abandoned house.  That story came to me when, stuck in traffic, I noticed an abandoned house and thought, “What interesting thing could happen in there?”  It’s called “Better Days” and will be published this summer in my short story collection.

I wrote a novel about a luxury housing development, built on what was once a plantation, haunted by the spirit of a vicious slave owner whose cursed spirit was trapped on what was his family homestead but was turned into the housing development.  I wrote that when sitting at my computer, looking out the window of a home built on what was once a farm, and I thought, “What interesting thing could happen here?”  It’s called The Curse.  Wanna read it?

I wrote a novel about a deranged man who stalks the nice people in the suburban neighborhood to which he had recently moved.  I began that story when, after moving into a suburban neighborhood, standing outside the home, watching a handful of nice people going about their August day, and I thinking – well – you get the idea.  That’s Woodbury Avenue.

That’s how my writing starts.  I look at the world around me, fold it, rip it, shape it a little, until it becomes a little more interesting.  Nothing special, I know.

Step Two – Getting started

I use outlines.  So as not to make you read details unless you wish to – here’s a link to my outlining process.  Feel free to read it, or just feel you know enough to know that I use outlines. 

I don’t start writing the first draft until I have the outline so that I know where my story is going, start to finish.  Some people can just start winging it from “chapter 1,” but I don’t work that way.  I need a framework of where the story will go before I get going.  Sure, I will change things along the way, but without an idea of where to aim, I can’t possibly come close to my target.  Others can, I guess, but not me.

Step Three – Making it better

After I’ve written each first-draft chapter – which is my favorite part of writing – I post chapters here on my blog to get feedback.  I am extremely fortunate to have about ten very smart, generous people who read nearly everything I write and leave fabulous comments, question, and concerns.  I read those carefully, juggle and feel them out (the comments, not the readers, yet) and then revise my chapters one at a time, but not usually until the whole story is finished.

I put each chapter online usually before I start the next one.  I also include questions at the end of each chapter in order to help the readers be aware of my concerns.  Again, I don’t claim this is original, but I stress “show, don’t tell.”  Sometimes I think I’m showing, but maybe I’m not showing enough.  By asking readers certain questions, I’ll get an idea if I “showed” enough.  Maybe they totally missed something.  If so, it’s probably my fault, and the questions help with that.

Some writers feel that posting chapters on my blog is actually “publishing” them, and then no agent or publisher will touch my story because I have already used “first rights” or something like that.  I’ve talked to agents, and they disagree.  I’ve talked to editors, and they said all I would have to do is change a few things, like names, and then I’ll be fine.  Nobody I’ve ever talked to can name an incident in which a publisher accepted a story, later learned it had been on a blog, and then changed their mind.

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That’s all I got.  Part of this writer’s blog tour is to nominate someone else to contribute the details of their own processes.  I’m not going to do that.  But what I am going to do is invite you to write that in your own blog post.  Then come back here and slap the link to your post in the comments below. 

Ready….Go!


Back in the Day: “Dead Calm” (April ’89)

April 8, 2014

 

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In this week’s “Back in the Day,” we pick on, I mean, look at a good thriller that was Nicole Kidman’s breakthrough role as a damsel in distress – and wet clothes – aboard a yacht with a lunatic.  Back in the 80′s, many a teenage boy scoured the HBO guide to see when this would be on because, well, let’s just say Internet porn hadn’t been invented yet.

Click on the picture above to read a few fun facts about why Dead Calm, adapted from a dime-store novel, was a pretty a decent movie, even if she hadn’t been naked.


Back in the Day: “Lean on Me” (March ’89)

April 5, 2014

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In this next episode of “Back in the Day,” I stretch 25 years back and look at Morgan Freeman’s first lead role.  More important than how good or not-so-good a movie it might have been are the personal connections I still have to it.  Click on the picture above and learn a few things about Lean on Me, the film about controversial high school principal Joe Clark who believed he had no choice but to fight fire with a little bit of his own fire.


#fridayfictioneers via rochelle – 4/04

April 3, 2014

Every Wednesday Randi Wisoff-Fields posts a picture prompt challenging writers to create a 100-word story, poem, or whatever works for you.  After posting your work on your blog,  go back to her site and add your link on her Friday Fictioneers post.  Place.  Page.

Give it a shot.  I prefer to stick to 100 words, but she doesn’t mind either way.  Not everyone has the time to sit and write, revise, edit, revise, edit, etc. until getting it down to 100 and telling everything you want to tell.  I know it’s only Wednesday, but everyone else seems to be in such a hurry, so…

Please see the notes that follow the story.

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The Light

Wig secure, colorful nails cemented, microphone gripped.  She paces the stage.  Audience, eyes watching, waiting.  They come for her “presence.”  Commanding the stage.  Words magical, mystical.  Sure, they’ve seen her on television, but live?  Oh, her live performance – a pure blessing.

A single light over the stage embraces her, follows every movement.  Her personal halo, as she ordered.  One Great Light, like no other, above the stage, watches, judges.  She begins.

“I’m getting a name,” dramatic pause, “starts with an S.”

Over half the audience clenches armrests.

They think - Mom?  Dad?

She thinks - Cha-ching!

One Great light thinks - Really?
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100 Words

Back in the 70′s, there came a guy who called himself The Amazing Randi, and he would occasionally perform psychic tricks.  What was different, however, was afterward he would explain how it really was just a “trick.”  He offered $1 million to anyone who could actually perform a provable (or, not DISprovable) psychic feat.  He never lost that check.

I despise alleged psychics like Theresa Caputo who peddle the false notion they can speak to your loved ones who have departed.  I despise the false feelings they provide.  I believe that if anyone truly were able to talk to the dead and communicate back to the living, the “power” would be so overwhelming that they would not charge money for such a thing but would be happy to do so because that power would truly be a gift from God.  And I don’t believe God would give someone that ability in order to cash in on it.

Feel free to disagree.


#fridayfictioneers via rochelle – 3/28

March 29, 2014

Every Wednesday Redwood Wisoff-Fields posts a picture prompt challenging writers to create a 100-word story, poem, or whatever works for you.  After posting your work on your blog,  go back to her site and add your link on her Friday Fictioneers post.  Place.  Page.

Give it a shot.  I prefer to stick to 100 words, but she doesn’t mind either way.  Not everyone has the time to sit and write, revise, edit, revise, edit, etc. until getting it down to 100 and telling everything you want to tell.

A few comments at the end…

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“Into the Woods”

“Now?” asked Son.

“No.  He’s not far enough.”

“So?”

“If he hears us, he’ll run,” said Father.

“I’m hungry.”

“We’ll eat later.”

“Why are we after him?”

“Because he’s after us.”

“You sure?” asked Son.

“They all are.”

“Should we whisper?”

“Child, he can’t understand our words, nor we his.”

“He’s not speaking.”

“They speak with actions, not words.”

“He hasn’t done anything.”

“Not yet.  He will.”

A knife clicked open.

“See?”

“Dad, how’d you get so smart?”

“Takes years.  You’ll be smart someday.”

“How old are you?”

“Almost 200.”

As Pete carved his first initial, leaves rustled behind him.

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100 words


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