Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Snow-Covered Clunker...

There are a lot of different writing styles out there—and obviously, a multitude of genres in which those styles can be employed—but in the end, one’s enjoyment of anything written is an individual thing; some things just click with us, while others leave us feeling indifferent.

For me, B.D. Smith’s The Ice Maiden falls into the latter category (and with a big thud). 

The thing is, it really seemed, at first glance, like a sure bet: a serial killer operating in a small community somewhere in Maine (which, by dint of having read very few stories set in that distant state, made it immediately interesting), who acts out tortures from the Spanish Inquisition (ooh, cool historical undertones, anyone)? How intriguing! Add a wintry scene for the cover plus the title itself (“ice”)—hey, I’m nothing if not magnetically drawn to things set in cold, snowy climes—and again, I thought it would be a slam dunk. 

The problem, unfortunately, is Smith’s writing style… which, to put it into screenwriting parlance, falls way more to the “tell” side than the “show” side of the spectrum. (The idea, if I lost anyone there, is that it’s far better to show your audience what you want them to see/know/feel/understand than it is to tell them.)

Fine, you may be thinking, that makes perfect sense for a program or movie… but with a book, how does an author manage to “show” the reader anything; isn’t it all “tell”? 

Actually, no, it isn’t. A novelist can “show” us things in different ways. He/she can draw vivid pictures and characterizations with words, allowing us to “see” scenes, people, places, and the like. The writer lets his/her characters speak to each other and interact, as well as conducting inner monologues—all of which serve to show us who they are, and to better understand their reasoning or motivations. In other words, the writer allows the characters and the places to “show" us what’s happening… so that we can draw our own pictures, conclusions, and suppositions in our heads.

In sharp contrast, a writer who “tells” his/her readers everything uses considerably less dialogue, opting instead to describe everything—and not from the characters’ points of view, but from an omnipotent outsider’s POV. It makes for a considerably less active style of storytelling… and for me, a rather dull one.

So, although Smith had a compelling story to impart with The Ice Maiden, I never felt it was being told well… and that was because I was almost always being told, rather than shown.

In the end, did I like the characters, the setting, the story? The bones of the thing were actually good… which makes the style that much more unfortunate. Would I recommend the book? Nope… unless you’re someone who prefers being told things with as little dialogue involved as possible. Finally, is it likely I’ll ever read another tale by this author? No, that won’t be happening.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Searching for Movie Gold: A Tale of "The Bigs"

It definitely wasn’t by any conscious plan, but I found myself—on two consecutive nights—watching “big” movies (both based on real-life events, no less), then on the third night, realized the thoughts swirling around in my brainpan about those films—and about movies, in general, to a lesser degree—probably needed to come out. 

So, about those “bigs”…

When The Big Sick was suggested for Movie-Night-In, I had only the vaguest recollection of the title from a few months earlier. Still, I thought, why not? It almost had to be better than a couple of other movies we’d watched recently. 

My verdict? Great call. The Big Sick—a semi-autobiographical recounting of how a Pakistani-American boy and an American girl fell in love and wound up together—is far from the average romantic comedy. (Not that there haven’t been some fab rom-coms, mind you, it’s just that this goes to a different place.)

Basically, it starts out simply enough, with the meet-cute of a stand-up comedian (Kumail Nanjiani, who plays himself in the movie) and grad student Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). They deal not only with all the usual issues that couples in the early stages face, but also with Kumail’s struggles trying to reconcile the expectations of his uber-traditional family (arranged marriage, anyone?) with what he wants for his life.

And then, in the midst of all of that business, the completely unexpected (and way more serious) happens: Emily gets sick—really, really sick (“big”, remember?)—and winds up in the hospital in an induced coma so the experts can poke, prod, and try to figure it all out. 

There are plenty of laughs (with fantastic support by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, as Emily’s parents). but the majority of those laughs come at you like the best comedy does—out of truths (think, the painful variety) and realizations—rather than being manufactured and forced. 

There’s growth, understanding, and genuine compassion. The Big Sick is real, it’s messy, and in the end, is something pretty special… a feel-good (as well as feel-bad/feel-sad/feel-terrified) flick, great for Date Night or Ladies’ Night, alike, and one I highly recommend.

The following night, while perusing my Netflix watch list (and flying solo), I noticed another “big” movie sitting there, just waiting for me to (finally) pick it… which is how I wound up utterly absorbed in The Big Short

Why it took me so long to see, I have no idea; there’s no shortage of star power (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, plus many more), and the reviews were overwhelmingly good. (Maybe I thought it would be too depressing, the mid-2000s worldwide market bubble collapse? I dunno… but finally, the time was right.)

Slick, smart, shocking, and (almost) impossible to believe, The Big Short details the time leading up to the catastrophic credit and housing bubble bursting ‘round the globe, as lived out by four separate individuals/groups: Michael Burry, the offbeat Wall Street guru who first realized how many home loans were in danger of defaulting (and began massively shorting the bonds everyone else assumed were safer than houses [no pun intended]); Jared Vennett, a banker who noticed Burry’s activities and devised his own plan of shorting stuff; Mark Baum, an opinionated hedge fund manager who—along with his small team of aides (flunkies)—was willing to bet on Vennett’s plan; and a young pair of newbie traders who’d packed their bags and made the journey from Colorado to New York with their own tiny (but successful) fund under their belts, looking to make it big. 

Some of the scenes—especially viewed nearly a decade after the huge collapse occurred—are jaw-dropping: watching a couple of tools bragging about how much money they were making on loans so underemployed (or even unemployed) folks down in Miami could buy their own McMansions; listening to a fund manager who claimed to represent the investors justifying his actions… even though all of the (horrible) bonds he was bundling together and selling them came directly to him from a bank (rather than him doing any research and putting together sound portfolios from multiple sources); and seeing how oblivious everyone attending the huge financial convention in Vegas—mere months before the collapse began—was, to what was really going on. (The fact that there’s a fair amount of humor to be mined from this nearly-unbelievable episode in our collective history comes as a bit of a surprise, but—like The Big Sick—the fact is, some degree of amusement can be found nearly everywhere. Guess that’s one of our finer traits, as humans, to see funny in gloomy times.) 

The Big Short is a brilliant cautionary tale… but of course, the tragedy there is that those who need most to learn the lessons it tells are the very people who either went right back to doing what they’d been doing, pre-collapse, or those who got into the biz afterward. (Humans have nothing, if not short memories… one of our less-desirable traits, in this case.)

So, after a period of feeling utterly worn out by (almost) every super-hero movie finding its way to the big screen (again and again and again…), being worn out by ridiculous (and boringly-long) action sequences in pretty much everything that comes out, and groaning at the thought of yet another puerile (and patently not-funny) “comedy”—in other words, a sizable portion of the new theatrical releases in any given month, these days—it’s with considerable relief and pleasure that I mull over “the bigs” I’ve just watched. 

There will always be gems out there; I think it’s time to stop mindlessly accepting the dross—either by paying inflated ticket prices at the box office, or by streaming them, just for the “privilege” of being disappointed—and start doing a little more work to dig out the bits of gold, whether old or new. 

Happy viewing, everyone…