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Fantastic Beasts! A Review!

fantastic-beasts-big-posterIt’s here! It’s here! Fantastic Beasts is here! But does it hold up to the exceptional standards of creativity Potter fans crave?

Yes and no.

As a die-hard Harry Potter Fan, my hopes were high with this prequel series. My overall takeaway is that Fantastic Beasts is a good—not great—film that sets up sequential films and plot lines nicely.

As it is difficult to speak about this film without giving away spoilers, I will share the non-spoiling bits first, and then alert those of you who haven’t seen it yet before launching into specific plot points.

NON SPOILER REVIEW

Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1920’s New York and, boy, does that come across well. I love the grunge and the cramped spaces and the hard times mingled with a sense of possibility. The look-and-feel of the film pulls you in from the start. You want to soak up the period atmosphere and all that comes with it. It really is a shame that the camera moves so quickly; you barely get to see any of the detail in each shot. For example, the opening montage of newspapers flies by so fast you can barely read the headlines—and you may even get nauseous in the attempt. Even so, my imagination was pricked by what I caught, and I grew even more curious about what the Wizarding world in America had in store.

The film follows the path of Newt Scamander, an English ex-Hogwarts student who arrives via steamship with a mysterious suitcase containing a wide collection of magical creatures. Almost immediately, chaos ensues, beginning with the escape of the wily niffler which, as we learn from Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class in the Harry books, is attracted to shiny, valuable objects. The audience giggled along with the niffler’s antics, watching it stuff the contents of a bank safe into its little pouch. I approve of the niffler design, a distinction I take seriously being married to a character designer. I likewise approve of many of the other creatures in design, though their CG animation often seemed forced and cheap. You’d think after all of the disastrous Star Wars prequels that Hollywood would have learned not to forgo props and puppets in lieu of pure CG, but alas. Many of the interactions with the fantastic beasts looked off, lacking in texture and weight, a shiny creature juxtaposed with the gritty city background. When the actors “touched” the creatures, it simply failed to look at all real. It’s like watching TV dramas where people hand each other coffee cups that are clearly empty: we knew the Fantastic Beasts actors weren’t really holding anything, let alone funky bird snake things.

To speak generally of the story, I most appreciated the suspense created; I definitely needed to find out what and/or who the mysterious “Obscurus” was. Many of the characters, especially Newt and Graves, had a mystique that drew me in. That said, many of the other characters could have been better developed, particularly Tina, Queenie, and Jacob. Like many of the later, original Harry Potter films, subtlety of character, plot, and what I will call “world establishing” is lost to action sequences and flashy special effects. This is a shame, as anyone who enjoys the books knows that it is the characters who drive the story, not the flash-bang magic they produce. I would have liked very much to know more about all of the characters in Fantastic Beasts, find out what motivates or frightens them, see them struggle to work together, and be in on their inside jokes. These are the nuanced choices filmmakers can make (though they rarely do these days) that mean the difference between a World War II flick and Casablanca. Hopefully the next films in the series will do more to establish character motivation and stimulate audience empathy.

SPOILER CONTENT: DO NOT CONTINUE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM OR READ THE HARRY BOOKS!

Ok, so for viewers who have already seen the film, let’s get into the nitty gritty.

My absolute favorite thing about this movie is the concept of the Obscurus. This is because, or so I deduce, it is a subtle allusion to Albus Dumbledore’s back story and the tragedy that eclipsed his childhood. As the story goes, Dumbledore’s younger sister Ariana was driven insane by muggle boys who taunted her, leaving her unable to control her immense magical power. Dumbledore’s brief friendship with Gallert Grindelwald ended in a disagreement about Ariana, and their ensuing duel resulted in Ariana’s death. Fantastic Beasts names Ariana’s condition and describes it as a kind of possession by a creature called an Obscurus, known affect children forced to subdue their magical powers instead of learn to control them. To use this source of power as a motivation for the Grindelwald character was brilliant. It ties in the Dumbledore/Grindelwald history to this budding American story with nuance and intrigue.

As strong as that plot device was, however, the film suffered from many missed opportunities. For starters, I had hoped there would be elements of the American magical world that were, well, more American. The totalitarian structure of the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) simply mimicked the Ministry of Magic. There could have been more of an emphasis on individual liberties and identities, or even a “screw you” attitude among American wizards that, for better or worse, would make an American wizard feel like an American. There could also have been different spells used or more discussion of the American wizarding education and the way it influences the culture. In other words, an extension of the wizarding world into other other countries could be fascinating, but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy. That said, it would take a lot for that to happen with me.

Another small criticism involves the use of the memory charm at the end. It made no sense. For one thing, movie fans and book fans alike remember that the charm works on wizards just as well as muggles, so why aren’t the local wizards forgetting everything? Second, is it only working on people who get wet in the “obliviating” rain? If so, that causes many problems, as most New Yorkers would have been indoors. Third, why does Newt have this potion in his pocket and why can that bird thing release it perfectly to enchant the rain? Too deus ex machina for me. Surely we can come up with something better.

Again, overall, the film holds up well, and can entertain anyone from wizarding newbies to raving fanatics like me with its lovely visuals, suspense, and occasional jokes. That said, being entertained is not the same as being moved, and I think the film could have done the latter with a bit more polish and exposition and fewer flash-bang action sequences. Hopefully, though, this first film will serve as a platform for great things to come. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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Top Takeaways from STORY 2016!

cjz7l7guuaal6r1The STORY 2016 conference has come and gone! Those of us who attended the two-day gathering are now left to stew in the myriad of motivational messaging.

What is STORY? I’m actually still trying to figure it out. I suppose it is like Ted Talks aimed at creatives/artistically-minded folks, presenting them with an extensive lineup of speakers from various creative bents who share about their experiences and lessons they’ve learned so far in their work. The talks ranged from 10 minutes to 30 minutes or so, and were tightly packed with anecdotes to uphold the conference’s name. All told, the conference amounted to a serious pep talk for people doing creative work. Creatives sometimes (all the time) need that.

As I am constantly on a quest to learn more about story and storytelling, and because the conference this year was 15 minutes from my house, I made sure to attend. I collected many takeaways from the 20 different presentations and wanted to share them with you.

TOP TAKEAWAYS…

…on Motivation and Validation.
The first speaker, Brad Montague, filmmaker behind the Kid President sensation, really stole the show (almost too bad he went first). He talked about a line from one of the videos where Kid President asks, “What if Michael Jordan had quit? He never would have made Space Jam!” For Brad, this line started funny, but took on an insidious flavor when the video’s sensational popularity prompted Brad to ask, “Was this my Space Jam?” The idea haunted him. He knew he would crave more validation for his work to feel good. What he discovered, though, was that this was true of anyone…anyone…even Beyoncé…even Obama…both of whom finished their interviews with Kid President and asked, “Was that ok? I can do it again…” Brad is motivated by the idea that we each don’t just have one Space Jam, but can focus on our entire body of work over the course of our life. We can approach life with child-like wonder and enthusiasm and be better off for it. He asked, “Why does a child pick up a box of crayons? Because they like it. They want to make a present for their mom. They want to see what happens when they blend colors.” They create out of joy, and so should we. As Fred Rogers said, “We were all children once.”

…on Empathy and Experience.
Two ideas emerged from many of the speakers in what makes for better stories: the need for empathy and the need for personal experience. As Rick Rekedal, creative guru at Dreamworks, said, “The best stories are not just stories I like, but stories that are like me.” Hannah Brencher, a writer, put it this way:”Loneliness is at large today—we all need ‘me, too’ moments.” Stories work wonders for creating empathetic connections with audiences, but empathy requires personal knowledge of the experience being shared. Therefore, storytellers need to live life and not just talk about life. Casey Neistat brought this idea home with his story about getting fined $50 for riding his bike outside of the bike lane in New York City. The subsequent viral video resonated so deeply with so many people it even led to city-wide policy changes regarding bike use. Casey found an audience for this story because it was based on a real experience and created those “me, too!” moments.

…on Process and Getting Out of Our Own Way. 
Writer Hannah Brencher has no illusions regarding romance in being a writer. Her message was clear: creative work is a fight. It’s not personal, it’s business. “Your voice,” she says, “is not something that you find; it is something that is birthed.” This means that there is struggle involved, and that it will take time. I appreciate it when people acknowledge this, instead of glossing over the tough parts of creating to glory in the final product. Of course, it is easy to understand why they do that. They do not want to remember how much of a struggle it was, how much they got in their own way. Jason Jaggard, an executive coach, talked about the dark side of imagination, or the ways in which our mind can become extremely imaginative devising ways to tell us that we can’t do things. We have, as he described, somatic markers or instincts that protect us from the unknown. These keep us safe from danger, but they also keep us safe from opportunity. He suggested that we need to address these instincts and counteract them purposefully:
 a) We all long to look good. We overcome this by being willing to look foolish. 
     b) We all want to feel good. We overcome this by accepting pain as inevitable, and focusing on making something useful with those experiences. 
     c) We all want to be right, even when it means being right about our own perceived lack of abilities. We need to realize it might be good to be wrong about this. 

Overall, I can say I’ve come away from this conference motivated to work harder and strive for better focus. I will also say though that the conference content ended up being different than I had hoped it would be. Like I said, I am constantly on a quest to learn more about story and storytelling. Very little of the conference actually focused on narrative craft. How to become a better storyteller, and why the great stories we know and love are the great stories we know and love…this is what I crave. Please, readers, let me know if you have resources for me in my continued quest.

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Sojourn into Story, Part II: What is Story?

This is Part II of a series, Sojourn into Story. See Part I to find out why stories make the world go round.

its-a-wonderful-life-foto

It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the greatest stories ever told on film. This past Christmas, I had friends from Sweden visiting who had never seen it. When we came out of the theater they said, “I don’t know how I’ve lived this long without seeing this movie.”

What is Story? Now there is a dangerous question.

Stories surround us, but when we stop to think about it, Story is very difficult to define. It is like asking ‘What is love?’ We all know it when we experience it (at least I hope we do), but defining it gets tricky. Story, like Love, is a word we throw around casually, and in doing so it has lost much of its weight. Just as we say we “love going to the movies” and we “love our kids,” a “story” can refer to something minor or to something incredibly profound.

So how do we pursue such an elusive question? It might help to discuss what story is not. Stories are not merely a sequence of events. For example, I heard a talk given at a networking event in which the speaker shared about something from his life. In an attempt to inspire us to believe in the value of grit and hard work, he said, “I want to tell you a story. When I was in high school we had a really prestigious drum band and I wanted to be part of it, so I practiced a lot and got in.” Good for you, guy. When he gave this account, it rubbed me the wrong way, and I was definitely not inspired. Later that day I understood why: what he shared wasn’t a story. Stories are more powerful than that. They connect the storyteller to our empathy and to our curiosity. They do this through portrayal of conflict, specifically conflicts that inhibit the characters from getting what they desire. How the characters make their choices regarding this conflict, and how those choices change the outcome of events, is what makes a story. In the case of the successful drummer, his reference would have become a story if he had been injured, or if he had to choose between rehearsal and something else he wanted, or of his parents disapproved of drumming. He lacked something to overcome, and the result is a disconnect with his audience. As Robert McKee says in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, ‘True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.’

In other words, all stories are about something going wrong. Think about it: George Bailey is always stopped from leaving Bedford Falls. Snow White’s stepmother tries to kill her. Elizabeth Bennet is forced to endure the company of a man she hates. Harry Potter can’t live while Voldemort survives. Whether the conflict is within or without the character, Story is not Story without it. A Story, therefore, is a sequence of changes a character undergoes as a result of the choices he or she makes in the face of conflict. If the Evil Queen had been ambivalent about Snow White, we wouldn’t have a story, as there would be neither conflict nor choices nor change. If Voldemort hadn’t killed Harry’s parents or tried to kill him in every book, Harry would have grown up as a normal wizard boy, unscarred and, well, boring. As Patrick Moreau of Stillmotion Studios says in his Ted Talk:

Every story needs a person with a strong desire, as well as conflict. Good Conflict creates questions, and humans are naturally driven to find answers to questions we care about. We could preach facts all day, but in the end we need an emotional connection to the problem, which is much better provided by a story.

In short, conflicts, choices, and changes are the ingredients of Story that tap into our souls, that connect us with the characters in an empathetic bond, and that leave us desperately curious about how the story will end.

 

Stay tuned for the next installment of Sojourn into Story. 🙂

 

 

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Sojourn into Story, Part I: Chasing the Elusory Craft

As many people in the movie industry will tell you, “Story is King.” That’s nice. Thing is, telling a good story is no cakewalk, and those movie people prove that ALL THE TIME (CoughAvatarcough). True, some people seem particularly gifted for breaking down a sequence of events and describing them in an engaging way, and it appears so simple and effortless. But understanding specifically what they do and how it works can get extremely complex. To show this, ask a bunch of writers about their writing process, and I bet you every answer will be different and–more often than not–fluffy, incoherent, and useless. They will say things like, “Write what is in your heart,” or “Write every day and don’t care about how bad the product is.” Thanks a lot. Once I attended a conference where the emcee asked a musician how he wrote his lyrics and this was his response: “You know how when you wash dishes and the bubbles rise up from the sink and you know that if you look directly at the bubble it will pop so you just try to glance at it through the sides of your eyes? That’s where my lyrics come from.” This was, obviously, a ridiculous thing to say, but the musician is not alone in his feelings. I have met many artists who stand by the elusive, organic, and serendipitous nature of their creativity. They talk about it almost as something happening to them, rather than a process they control. To be sure, I experience this unexplainable inspiration myself regularly, but I also know that structure, format, and technique are critical concepts to hone. I also know that good stories have traits in common, and I want to find out what they are.

To this end, I’ve been researching Story for several years now, pursuing questions like, ‘What is story?’ and ‘What is the difference between a story and an anecdote?’ and ‘What are the elements of a GOOD story?’ among many others. I’ve read several books including Storyby Robert McKee (A highly technical breakdown of storytelling craft through the lens of screenplays) and Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listensby Bobette Buster (A story consultant’s top ten techniques of storytelling). I attended a filmmakers’ workshop that promoted an 8 step process for telling real stories, usually in a documentary. This fall, I participated in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) in creative fiction. Most recently, I attended a writers’ workshop on Magical Realism. Most importantly, I have also started to write my own stories. I have learned a lot. I still have a lot to learn.

Why should you care? Let’s put it this way: Imagine you have something you want to say, something to get off your chest. You want it to have impact, to mean something to people hearing it. You have three choices:

  1. Describe your emotions
  2. Argue
  3. Tell a story

As to the first, let’s face it: people have only so much patience for others’ feelings. As for arguing, this only works when you have an audience willing to argue with you, which seems to happen less and less in our social media-crazed, soundbite-obsessed world. Interestingly, stories are the best way to show (instead of tell) emotion, and the best arguments are the ones that incorporate stories. We can conclude, therefore, this mantra: Master Stories, Master the World.

Learning how to tell good stories is a worthy quest. Please join with me as I chase this wily vixen of a subject, Story. This is Part I. Stay tuned for more in the upcoming weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

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Story Time!

I finally wrote a short story! Woo hoo!

This is a big deal for me for a number of reasons. To begin, I have been reading a lot over the last few years about what makes a story a story. If you think about it, the craft is incredibly complex, as are many processes that try to yield simple outcomes. I will be sharing more about my findings in the future. But as to writing my own stories, I had let my own over-analysis inhibit my creativity. I also carried some particularly hurtful negative feedback around with me for years before realizing I didn’t have to believe it. I decided I needed some structure if I wanted to get back into creative writing, so for the last few weeks I have been following along with a fiction writing MOOC (massive online open course). The prompt for the story below was ‘A lady gets on a bus with a dog in her purse; the dog is wearing a bow that matches the lady’s sweater.’

Enjoy! Happy Friday!

One Day on the CTA

A CTA bus is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

I clambered onto the bus at Clybourne and Armitage on my way to visit a friend who lived in a western neighborhood. I beeped my bus pass and made my way down the aisle, dodging a lady toting her groceries. I found a seat toward the back near a hipster girl in the requisite flannel, her head encased in grapefruit-sized headphones.

After realizing I had forgotten my own headphones, I let my gaze drift from the window to the other passengers. A yuppy father cooed to the baby strapped to his chest. Further up, a young African American woman with a textbook in her lap struggled to concentrate under the uncomfortably steady glare of the tall, hulking man sitting next to her. The man’s eyes looked out in different directions. He breathed heavily, his lips twitching as if he wanted to say something. The woman glanced up at him several times before making up her mind to change seats.

The bus stopped and did the pneumatic kneeling thing it does when letting on disabled passengers. Up stepped an itty bitty woman with bright white hair that swooshed just so around a leopard-print poof hat. I noticed I was not the only one eying her as she fussed through her voluminous purse digging for her bus pass. Her bracelets jangled loudly as she searched, and each time her round glasses slipped down her nose she pointed her face upward, sniffed, and slid the bridge of the glasses up her long nose with hyper extended fingers. To add to the spectacle, the fluffy face of a Pekingese popped out of the lady’s bag and began yapping. The animal wore a red bow on its head that matched the sweater on his back that matched the booties on his feet that matched the sweater worn by its mistress. At last, the woman located her pass, beeped it, and settled herself down in the seat the African American lady had just vacated, next to the man with the crazy eyes.

The woman seemed not to notice or care that she held a captivated audience. She was too busy speaking sweet nothings to the dog in her bag. She bounced the dog on her lap and stroked its head and fed it treats. “Oooo what a good little boy you are, yes you are, yes you are!” she gushed. Nearby, Mr. Crazy Eyes stared fixedly at her, his chest heaving and his face issuing a look of deepest disgust. She continued to praise the dog and produce treats for him to guzzle. “Oooo you make mummy so proud, yes you do, yes you do! My little baby boy, such a good boy, yes you are, yes you are!”

With every handful of treats she produced, Mr. Crazy Eyes fumed more vehemently. His body twitched and his lips spasmed liked he was practicing ventriloquism. The lady still took no notice. Then, out of her bag, she pulled a huge hunk of steak and held it up to the pup who swiftly sunk his teeth into the meat. This was too much for the man.

“WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” yelled Mr. Crazy Eyes, getting to his feet and leaning over the lady and her dog. “HUH? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? Feeding perfectly good steak to a dog when there are children dying of hunger on the streets of this very city! Ever think to look around you? Huh? Ever think there might be real children to care for? NOooooo! Of course not! You think this DOG is your child! You blithering old freak! You snobbish, dog-crazed piece of…Oh!”

He stopped his rant suddenly and looked up, his demeanor completely altered. He yanked on the stop wire. Hurrying to the back door he waited for the bus to come to a complete stop. He wore a serene expression, seemingly unaware of the stunned onlookers. Everyone on the bus watched him disembark and trot eagerly toward the building on the corner and go inside. As the bus pulled away, we could all read the sign on the building.

“West Side Shelter for Cats.”

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