NaNoWriMo: I’m Only Going To Say This Once, Okay?

thimblerigsark:

This post is a couple of years old, but it’s just as relevant heading into #NaNoWriMo2014. Everyone should just relax and enjoy the month to come! Happy writing, y’all! Nicely written, Catherine.

Originally posted on Catherine, Caffeinated:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts on November 1st.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the idea is that you pull out all the stops to write 50,000 words of a new novel in 30 days, or around 1,670 words every day during the month of November.

Every year around this time, something else starts too: NaNoWriMo Snobbery. Professional writers, who the other eleven months of the year seem like the nicest, most generous and friendliest people, suddenly start tipping their noses in the air and saying or even writing things about how NaNoWriMo and the people who partake in it are belittling their profession, ridiculing their craft and making a mockery of the 1,670 words they write every single day of the year in order to make a living.

Now, usually I just grit my teeth and try to ignore it, but this year I’m finding it impossible—and…

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Left Behind • Thimblerig’s Review

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been following the drama of Left Behind‘s release.  From the initial buzz created with the news of a “faith-based” film featuring Nicolas Cage, to that compelling trailer with the haunting song by Civil Twilight …

…it seemed like this might be the film that would break the mold in faith-based films.  It seemed like this might be the one that would actually play well in and out of the Christian subculture.  After all, everyone loves a good apocalyptic thriller, right?

Yes, I was hopeful.

And then the reviews started coming in.

“A shoo-in to clean up at the next Razzie awards…” from here.

“I am now relatively certain there is a Hell and it is a darkened theater with no doors showing Left Behind on a loop for eternity.”  Ouch. From here.

“…may be one of the most inept films to ever see a wide theatrical release.” Double ouch.  From here.

And if you go take a gander at Rotten Tomatoes, it goes on and on and on and on.

And on.

And on.

Ouch, and ouch, and ouch, and ouch.

The reaction from the crew that made Left Behind?

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Damn the professional critics, full speed ahead!   After all, the ones who get paid to critique movies don’t matter!  All that matters is that the regular folks – John and Sue Christian – absolutely LOVE the movie!

Then, there were the incredibly strange promotional images for Left Behind, including this one from Satan himself:

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And then this one, attempting to take advantage of the Ebola scare that has been sweeping the nation:

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It seemed like Lalonde and company were really stretching – trying anything to drum up grass-roots support to make back the $16 million dollar budget.  But with bad reviews (2% on Rotten Tomatoes!?!) working against them, it seemed like a lost cause.

The really interesting thing in all of this has been the amazing amount of fan (read: protestant Evangelical) support – as evidenced by the Left Behind webpage that has been tirelessly documenting audience praise.

So, what’s the real story here?  Should we believe the critics, or the filmmakers and fans?  Should Left Behind be left behind as a movie, or is it actually a brilliant film that has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented?

After having finally seen the movie for myself, I can give you my answer to this question – which I will do later in this article.  For now, for the sake of consistency in my reviews, let me start with the positives of Left Behind.  And there are spoilers ahead.

Positives:

1)  Recognizable Actors

The filmmaker’s big coup had to be getting Nicolas Cage to play Raymond Steele.  According to interviews, he was talked into doing Left Behind by his pastor brother.

Considering the critical reaction to the film, you can’t help but think that Thanksgiving might be pretty uncomfortable in the Coppola household this year.  Or it could be that Cage, who is one of my favorite actors but who has had – at best – an uneven acting career as of late, is impervious to negative criticism and it won’t bother him.

Regardless, the producers of Left Behind managed to score a bunch of other recognizable actors, including Lea Thompson,  American Idol’s Jordan Sparks, The Blind Side’s Quinton Aaron, and Martin Klebba, who I know from Scrubs, but he’s been in a lot of things.

I’m guessing this must have been where the bulk of that $16 million budget went.

2)  The Subject Matter

As I said before, apocalyptic movies are quite popular these days, and making a film from the Christian POV about the last days was theoretically a great idea.

Theoretically.

3)  No Conversions

This might sound odd, but hear me out.  It’s almost obligatory for Christian filmmakers to have a Gospel presentation, and It would have been really, really easy for Left Behind‘s filmmakers to have Nic Cage drop to his knees in the cockpit and cry out to God for forgiveness, but they thankfully avoided the temptation.  I’ve actually heard this as a critique of the film, that it had no overt Gospel presentation, but it was one of the strengths to me.

Just like Jesus made his audience work for it in his parables, we should – from time to time – make our filmgoing audience work to connect the dots.  Or allow the film to be the conversation starter, possibly opening the door for John and Sue Christian to share their faith with Bobby Unbeliever over coffee after the movie.  I’m glad that the filmmakers took this route.

4)  The Changes from the Book

I was also very glad that the filmmakers deviated from the source material and focused so intently on the Raymond’s and Chloe’s story.  As in Signs, which is one of my top ten movies, focusing on one family’s plight created the opportunity of making this global event seem more personal, and it made that last scene of the burning city that much more profound (although I did wonder why Ray and Buck didn’t notice all the fires as they were flying over the city on the way to try and land the plane).

That last scene also created a strange sense in me of wanting to see more – to see what happens next to Ray, Chloe and Buck, which is odd, considering that the four things I listed above were the only things I liked about the movie.

Negatives:

Oh, gosh.  Where to begin.

1)  The SFX

Technically, Christian movies have been getting so much better, but Left Behind took a step backwards.  This is really hard to believe, because the director, Vic Armstrong, has a lifetime of experience in the technical side of filmmaking.  Also, if you go to the film’s cast and crew IMDB page, the people who did the effects have worked on some big FX movies!  This was definitely not SFX amateur hour, but for some reason, the end results appeared to be.   The only thing I can conclude is that the filmmakers spent the bulk of their budget on getting recognizable actors, resulting in effects that were less than spectacular, and that was a shame for a big end-of-the-world movie.

In the old days, we'd have seen the strings on this plane.  As it is now, the CGI was painfully obvious.

In the old days, we’d have seen the strings on this plane. As it is now, the CGI was painfully obvious.

Again, the one really good SFX scene that stuck with me was the burning city in the distance, but it only lasted for half a second. Kudos to the artist(s) who rendered that too-brief scene.

2)  The Script

As I said before, I liked the idea of resetting the Left Behind story as one family’s plight.  And most of the dialogue between Ray and Chloe was believable.  But the rest?  Blech.

For example, I’m not sure whose idea it was to have the vocal Christian woman in the opening approach Buck in the airport to try and witness to him, but it was a cringe-worthy scene.

CRINGE WORTHY.

That woman – by herself – made me think that people would be so grateful to have all the Christians taken away!  She was obnoxious, irritating, and came off as just a touch insane.  And she was one of the only Christian characters from whom we heard anything of substance?  It seemed like she was written and acted the way Christians are mockingly seen by non-Christians, not how we see ourselves.  Wasn’t this supposed to be a Christian-made film?

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Wouldn’t it have been interesting if she had been one of the ones left behind?  We got to see a snippet of Chloe’s church’s pastor, but not much.  I would have really enjoyed if they’d had a person who was very vocal about their faith, and it turns out they were actually not a sheep, but a goat, and we get to watch them deal with not being raptured.

The conversations going on with the passengers in first class were also pretty hackneyed.  From Jordan Spark’s breakdown (which came way out of left field – what ever happened to having set-ups and pay-offs?) to the X-Files uberfan to the little person with the big chip on his shoulder (did the Muslim guy really push him off the plane at the end?  Really?), it seemed to be more of a one-dimensional youth group play (see kids, how non-Christians act?) rather than a carefully crafted feature film.

Frankly, with the exception of the leads, I just really didn’t care about any of the characters who were left behind, just like I didn’t care about the people being eaten by sharks when I watched Sharknado.  In a disaster movie, the audience needs to care about the supporting cast who are also dealing with the disaster, and the poorly written scenes that took place onboard PanCom 257 never made me care.

Some nitpicky things:  Buck was doing his job at the beginning of the emergency, filming what was going on, but then the camera disappears.

Incidentally, I also found the mid-air collision over the Atlantic to be a bit hard to believe, but as I’m not an expert in piloting big airliners, I won’t focus on that.

3)  The Soundtrack

I’m a huge soundtrack fan, and I listen daily to the greats – Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Christophe Beck.  As I was watching Left Behind, I kept getting the feeling that I was watching a movie made for television.  After researching the composer, Jack Lenz, I realized why.  Lenz is an accomplished award-winning composer – having composed for years – for television.
From looking at his IMDB page, it appears that Left Behind was Lenz’s first feature (although it seems he did do some work on Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, but I couldn’t find what).  Unfortunately, the instrumentation, the moods evoked, all felt like television.  This was a shame, especially considering the big budget feel that the movie was attempting.
But at least they didn’t commission Newsboys to write and perform “Left Behind”, right?
4)  The Rapture and the Response
I didn’t have a problem that Left Behind explored a possible future where the Rapture happens.  It’s a movie, after all, and movies can imagine and explore anything.  It’s not a sermon, not a church, not a pastor – it’s a movie.  That being said, I had several problems with the way this movie executed the Rapture.  
First, it took thirty minutes for it to happen.  THIRTY MINUTES.  I realize that the filmmakers were spending time building the world, introducing us to the characters, showing the problems they were facing, but thirty minutes is a third of the way through the film before we get to the inciting incident, and it was too long.  If the point of the movie is to show us what happens when you’re left behind, why make us wait so long to get there?  
Second, the way the Rapture happened.  One moment, Chloe is hugging her little brother, there is a flash, and then she’s hugging his empty clothes.  I was making this effect on my home video camera way back in the 1990’s,  and while I felt clever doing it then, it seemed much too small for a big feature apocalyptic movie now.  I didn’t mind that the Rapture happened in the blink of an eye, because it was obvious that the filmmakers were paying homage to 1 Corinthians 15.  However, it felt like it should have been more visually impressive, and this goes back again to special effects.    
I wish that the filmmakers had put some money into making the actual Rapture more interesting and memorable.  For example, remember the way people apparated in the Harry Potter movies?  Or the way the Death Eaters would turn into black smoke?  Of course you do (if you saw the films), because it was visually impressive!  Christian filmmakers, if you’re attempting big budget movies, you have to remember that with movies, you have to show us something we haven’t seen before!  Left Behind was completely underwhelming in this regard.
Third, the responses to the people being Raptured.  Yes, if people were to disappear leaving behind piles of clothes, there would be panic.  Especially if children vanished.  But there was something off about the panic scenes in Left Behind.  Something about it looked too choreographed – like people had been told to run from one place to the other, screaming and waving their arms, when the truth is, not everyone would be doing that.  There would be the screamers, there would be the arm-wavers, but there would also be the shell-shocked, there would be those who would react calmly.  
CONCLUSION
The whole time I was watching, I felt like this was something that had been made by the Zucker Brothers – an Airplane! for a new generation.  Didn’t it seem like it?  The overly earnest marketing, casting Nic Cage, rumors that Duck Dynasty guys were behind it… I kept waiting for the intentionally funny to happen, but it never did.  What a missed opportunity to poke fun of ourselves, by making a satirical apocalyptic faith-based film!  Now that would have been something I could have enjoyed and promoted among my friends.  
In fact, this is my free idea to any risk-taking Christian filmmakers out there – to make a faith-based Scary Movie, and call it Faith Based.  Let’s poke fun at how badly we seem to be doing!  That could be the spark that gets us up to a new level of filmmaking!  Maybe the lads behind Believe Me could make it work.

In Conclusion…

While I love the idea of a big budget disaster film told from a Christian point of view, and while I give the filmmakers props for attempting to go big, I did not love Left Behind.  It was a series of missed opportunities, the biggest being the squandering of an Academy Award winning actor.  It was a reboot of a movie that didn’t need rebooting, and while there were some interesting choices made in the retelling, the execution of those choices underwhelmed.

Here’s my review summary, using the Thimblerig Movie Review Scale, inspired by my article, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking:

Films made by Christians should take risks.  

Nope.  This was a very solidly safe faith-based movie, that didn’t do anything risky.  No golden groundhog.

Films made by Christians should challenge the audience.

Considering that the faith-based audience was the target audience, this movie was not challenging at all.  Oh, they say it was – that it challenges people to share their faith with people before the Rapture happens, but it really didn’t.  Scripture says that iron is supposed to sharpen iron, and this was the typical faith-based back-rubbing.  No golden groundhog.

Art is Art, the Pulpit is the Pulpit

I will give the filmmakers some credit for this.  As I said earlier, they could have made the movie preachy, and the argument can be made that it was subtly didactic, but at least they didn’t have the obligatory salvation of the hero scene at the end.  Half a golden groundhog.

Films made by Christians should raise important questions

While some would say that the film raises the important question, “How can I avoid being left behind?” I would argue against it.  The film just isn’t interesting enough to make anyone ask the question.  This is why the critical reviews are so important, and why the filmmakers make a big mistake just throwing them out the window.  When we make movies that grab the interest of the viewers (regardless of their background or beliefs) then we can earn the right to have them ask the questions we want them to ask.

That being said, for Christians who have developed low standards and expectations for the films made for our subculture, there is the chance that the question would be asked.  For that reason, I reluctantly give the film half a golden groundhog for this.

Christian films should tell good stories

For Left Behind, this is another missed opportunity.  There is a fantastically interesting story to be found in the story of the Rapture, as LaHaye and Jenkins discovered in their first few books, but it was a story that this movie did not find.  It danced around a potentially good story with the focus on Ray and Chloe, but that possibility was overshadowed by the less-than-compelling side stories.  The big actors were underused which had the consequence of making the so-called “big budget” misspent.   No golden groundhog.

Golden Groundhogs Left Behind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I’m Really Irritated by the Makers of “Left Behind”

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They did this.  They seriously did this.

When Left Behind was being released, they had the nerve to post this picture.

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And then they go and pull the Ebola card?

All in the hope of selling more tickets?  Trying  to freak people out?

I’m sorry, but any hope that I would respect the people who have made and produced “Left Behind” has been left behind.  To take something like Ebola – to publish a picture of a guy in protective clothing WHEN THE PICTURE ISN’T EVEN FROM YOUR MOVIE to try and freak people out and get them to see your movie, is just pathetic.

And I say this as a Christian that is really hoping that Christian filmmaking finds its way – and becomes a cultural force to be reckoned with.

Paul Lalonde, this is not the way.

Either your movie is really good, and actually convinces the critics (look at the reviews for Believe Me) or your movie stinks and the critics call you on it.

You made a big movie, and for that – well done.

But you made a big movie that is universally considered as a dud.  For that – do better next time.

Rather than pulling the Ebola card, and the persecution card, just MAKE BETTER MOVIES.

Just make better movies.

Please.

 

Fear, Reason, and The Ebola Virus

What is the most frightening word in America right now?

Depending on your level of media coverage, it might just be a word that rhymes with Coca-Cola.

Not Ayatollah.  That’s so 1980’s.

The word we’re looking for is Ebola, and I’m joking about it because it frightens me.

This is a new fear for the lexicon.  For years,  Ebola was just a device in a movie or a novel.  Like the fictional virus in the film starring Dustin Hoffman, the film that had something to do with monkeys and people dying horribly and Donald Sutherland wanting to drop a nuke on a small town in California.

Or maybe Steven Soderbergh’s film where Gwynth Paltrow cheats on Matt Damon and winds up spreading a hybrid bat/pig virus that wipes out a bunch of people.

It’s really odd, how fascinated we are with fictional doomsday movies and books, but when one is teased as actually being on the horizon, we freak out as if we are the hysterical characters in a fictional doomsday movie or book – the panicked crowd running from the monster, or being crushed under the falling building as the superheroes duke it out in the sky.

Could it be that we’re afraid with good reason?  What scares us about something like this current outbreak of Ebola?

That’s easy enough to answer – the possibility of a potential nightmare scenario becoming a living nightmare reality – as it is doing in three countries in West Africa – with devastating effects.

But for those of us not in those countries – why are we afraid?

It’s because of the fear of what might be.  It’s terrifying to imagine that one of those nurses from Dallas may have passed Ebola on – somehow – to someone who is carrying the disease and doesn’t know it.  Yet.  And that those ignorant carriers might somehow pass it on to someone else until the growth becomes exponential and we have a 21st Century global plague that decimates the world population.

It could happen.  Right?

Nevermind the odds.  Nevermind statistics.  Nevermind healthcare professionals and precautions and the CDC and the WHO and the government.

Nevermind God.

It might happen, and the possibility is terrifying.

That’s how fear works.  It’s based on things that could happen in the future.  It’s based on the unknown.

And fear misused can be one of the most dangerous and paralyzing things on the planet.

Fear itself isn’t bad, of course.  God gave us fear to keep us from harm, and that makes it a wonderful thing.  A gift.  For example, fear of falling keeps us from approaching the edge of a cliff, and this saves us from falling.  Fear of getting bitten keeps us from approaching a strange dog, and that keeps us from getting bitten.

God also gave us the ability to reason, to help us understand what we should fear and what we needn’t fear, and when we have the two in balance, we’re fine, operating the way we’re supposed to operate.  We can decide what is deserving of our fear, what isn’t deserving, and what things we need to keep our eyes on – just in case.

Where we get in trouble is when we let fear get the upper hand.

It could be that our fear of Ebola needs to be balanced with a bit of reason.

So, if you are fearful about the potential for an Ebola disaster of summer blockbuster proportions, I’d suggest you ask yourself the following important question:

As of October 17, 2014, what does reason tells us?

1.  Ebola has mostly affected Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea in West Africa.

2.  It has not spread substantially to neighboring countries, largely because of the active intervention of those other countries.

3.  There has been one death caused by Ebola in the United States: a man who travelled to West Africa and had direct contact with an infected person.

4.  Two healthcare professionals in the United States have been identified as having contracted Ebola as a result of caring for that man, and they are currently being cared for by teams of medical personnel.

5.  The people who had contact with the three individuals above are being tracked down and closely monitored – a situation where our Big Brother world is actually coming in handy.

6.  The virus is not airborne, so being in the same room (or airplane) as an infected person does not mean you will become infected.

7.  Ebola is transmitted by having direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person who has been infected, or possibly by having contact with things that have been infected by having contact with fluids from an the infected person – such as soiled clothing or linens.

8.  Ebola isn’t passed on during the 21 day incubation period, only after the person has become symptomatic.

9.  The virus cannot go through skin.  It is transmitted when a person touches someone or something infected and then touches their own eye, nose, or mouth – or through an open cut in the skin.

10.  There is no known cure for Ebola, so when a person contracts the disease, he or she will fight it off on their own.  The things that seem to have an impact on the person successfully fighting the disease include the following:  age, access to modern medical support, nutrition, and prior health.

You can read more facts about Ebola here and here.

What will happen tomorrow?  I have no idea.  None of us do.

But tomorrow isn’t my concern, because right now I can’t do anything about it.

In Matthew 6:34, Jesus said:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.

I’m an elementary school teacher, a want-to-be writer, a dad, a husband, and ultimately, I’m just riding the same wave you’re riding, hopeful that we’ll all make it to shore.

And here’s the big thing:  I can’t control the wave.  None of us can.

I can only control my response to the wave.

Using reason, I will ask myself what I can do to prepare.  I will educate myself on the disease and how to recognize it.  I will be careful to wash my hands as often as possible, especially after being in public.  I will be vigilant to do what I can, but I will not be afraid.

Using reason, I will ask myself just who stands to make the most out of an increased amount of fear in the population as a whole.

I wonder who?  Who stands to profit off increased newspaper and magazine sales?  Who gets more ad revenue when we desperately click on their links to find out the latest bit of news?  Who thrives off sensationalism and agitation and unrest?  Who – like a Dementor in a Harry Potter book – loves to suck out all our joy and peace and replace it with fear and panic so that we keep coming back for more?

Who, indeed?

I will make the choice to not permit fear to outweigh reason.

I will make the choice to be wary and careful today, but to let tomorrow worry about itself.

And finally, I will make the choice to continue trusting God, regardless of what happens tomorrow.

An outbreak of Ebola in West Africa or the United States or anywhere doesn’t make God any less God, and doesn’t make Him in any less good, or any less trustworthy – just like cancer doesn’t change who God is, or a job promotion, or meeting the love of your life, or losing a baby in a miscarriage, or any number of the other good and bad things that happen in our lives.

God is still God, even in the face of everything that life throws our way.  And He’s still good.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  Isaiah 41:10

Fear balanced with reason, held up by faith.

I can live with that.

 

Star Wars Episode VII Concept Art

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Warning!!!

Spoiler images ahead!!!

If you wish to walk into the theater on December 18, 2015 with absolutely no knowledge about anything to do with Episode VII, then click away to another page.

Maybe here?

Or, you can read my open letter to J.J. Abrams: Please keep the sex out of Star Wars!

Otherwise…

These images just hit the internet today, and they are fantastic.  They look like classic Star Wars, but with new elements thrown in.  Exactly what an old fan hopes for.

The images were first found here, but you can see them by just looking down the page here.

I can’t wait to see how these all piece together!

 

It’s October… NaNoWriMo’s Coming! Are you ready?

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It’s nearly the middle of October, which means one thing for thousands of people around the internet: almost time for Nanowrimo!

Nanowrimo stands for the National Novel Writing Month, and it is a free, non-competitive opportunity for writers all over the globe to go from zero words to 50,000 over the course of the month of November.

In short, it is the opportunity to write the first draft of a novel.

Started in 1999 in the San Fransisco bay area with a modest number of writers (21), Nanowrimo has grown to over 400,000 in 2013.  It is a serious occasion in the writing world, because it gives everyone – from first time wannabe writers to established and published writers – that most-needed phenomenon: a deadline.

But you don’t have anyone looking over your shoulder, no editors breathing down your neck, no teachers looking to see if you would meet your goal.  It’s just the writer and the computer and the imagination going wild.

And it’s a fantastic thing to do.

I first found out about Nanowrimo because of its now-defunct sister program, the Script Frenzy, where screenwriters worked on first drafts of film scripts over the month of April.  Unfortunately, that program was retired, but participating in the Frenzy led me to Nanowrimo.

Thimblerig's Ark Cover Art copyI’ve enjoyed Nanowrimo in two ways.  First, I was able to finally complete my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, because a draft was written and edited during subsequent Nanowrimos.  Second, as an upper elementary teacher specializing in reading and writing, I’ve taken two classes of fifth graders through Nanowrimo through the Young Writers Program, and I’m currently preparing a class of 6th graders to go through the month of insane writing.  I’ve done this in international schools in Kazakhstan and China, and it’s been a huge success as I’ve watched ten and eleven year old children blossom as writers.

This is the wonderful thing about Nanowrimo – it gives us an excuse to do the thing that we could be doing at any time, but which we have a hard time actually sitting down and doing – writing without abandon.  In November, anyone (with understanding family members) can excuse themselves from the bulk of other responsibilities for thirty days while they get their story out of their head and onto the page.

And writing the first draft is the biggest challenge, isn’t it?

So if you are one of those people sitting around thinking that you would like to write The Next Great Novel, but you don’t have the time, consider taking part in Nanowrimo.  It won’t cost you a penny, but it might just be the thing that helps you to achieve that particular dream.

And you still have half a month to get yourself ready.  What are you waiting for?