‘Spotlight’ is a Film for Writers and Character Study

If I’m allowed to make a recommendation for all writers, it is this: See the 2015 Oscar-winner Spotlight. And watch it a second time.

In Spotlight, Boston Cardinal Law has a chat with Marty Baron of the Boston Globe.

Tom McCarthy’s film is all-around brilliant. What’s amazing to me is how subtle everything is. It’s a very quiet film. There’s no violent action, no in-your-face confrontation, nothing that seems over-dramatized at all. (Suffice to say, there also isn’t any comedy or romance). Yet, there’s plenty of tension and menace, magnified by the overall subject matter. (This film is about the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up of widespread sexual abuse by priests.)

The movie humanizes both the journalist heroes and the villains (of the cloth and of the fountain pen), and most every smile is, in fact, a facade. In a way, the filmmakers got to cheat on a few things. They assume the audience has a working understanding of a big-time newspaper (where things are always complex, and timing and legal issues must be considered) and of the gravity of the whole saga. There’s little tension between the journalists and editors working on the story because, in real life, there wouldn’t be room for it. What they’re working on is so huge and horrible, it can only be eclipsed (in the film) by 9/11.

The long hours clearly take their toll. One quick scene shows Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams) struggling to get the dishwasher rack in properly. She bangs it, her husband asks if she’s okay. No response, none needed. The story never calls for an awkward domestic moment: “So what did you do today at work, Honey?”

In the end, what that gives us is a 2-hour build toward a satisfying crescendo. There isn’t an erroneous scene or a wasted word of dialogue in the whole movie. That, by itself, is amazing. Some of my favorite moments were the slight or gradual facial reactions to verbal jabs and tough questions. The heroes mine for information, constantly digging for truth. Without dark TV music or flashy cut-scenes, the weight of what isn’t said almost becomes its own character.

I could probably base a college seminar on this movie alone.

Escape the Holidays with Humor

Because this time of year gets a few people down…

And because I’m already all Xmas’ed out by Dec. 23rd…

And because I love humor–especially inappropriate stuff…

Here’s a short list of some of my favorite, ever-inspiring comedic moments:

(Yes, I wish I’d come up with these gems.)

 

Tropic Thunder is possible the funniest movie of all time. This film-within-a-film action romp through the Vietnamese jungle is over-the-top ridiculous from start to finish, and gives us too many hysterical moments to count. The one I’d love to have (but, for many reasons) can’t have on a T-shirt: “Never go full retard.” This was courtesy of Robert Downey Jr. in blackface. After watching the movie, you’ll also never think about ‘gravy’ or ‘arms’ the same way.

Justin Edison's blog on humor includes Robert Downey Jr. in blackface in Tropic Thunder.

In the film Up, the villainous Charles Muntz character watches young hero Russell being dragged across the dirigible’s cockpit window. Muntz’s twitch-eyed glare-stare perfectly captures his madness–and the absurdity–at work in one of Pixar’s best films. It’s also the best counterpoint to the film’s most quotable line, “Squirrel!”

Who could ever get the absurd logic employed by Milo Minderbinder–to contract with the Germans to bomb his own air base–in Catch-22?

“The Simpsons” episode known as The Fat Episode. In his continued pursuit of laziness, Homer Simpson gains enough weight to qualify as the world’s first at-home nuclear safety inspector. Among other favorites, this comedic bit features a telephone operator’s recorded message: “The fingers you have used to dial are too fat…”

Finally, this 8-minute segment from Jeff Dunham’s Controlled Chaos is one of the funniest routines I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s offensive. Yes, it pokes fun at stereotypes. Yes, it is definitely worth watching!

 

Happy Holidays!

 

How the GOP Has Made Villainy Easier

Without warning, my friend Prubius launched into a lecture on the Mitasterites. “Well,” he started, “the short version is that they have so completely carved up their own planet and their own species. That caste system they have is one example. By the socioeconomic view, forty-three percent of Mitasterites now fall into the three strata below the slave line, and another thirty-one percent are stuck in the so-called Mighty Mid group. These people never eat tuna steak or travel off-planet. Our own soldiers live like princes by comparison. The caste system keeps people where they are. Everything serves industry, there.”

-from Endgame (Woman at War 1)

 

When I was crafting the backstory for Endgame–as the narrative takes place within the context of a war–I knew I needed texture and credibility for the ‘bad guys.’ The Mitasterites couldn’t just be cardboard cutouts to shoot at and run from. Even though they don’t much chance to show personality in Endgame (other than ruthless behavior, such as offering up 1,500 boys as sniper-fodder for propaganda) they still needed to be real enough to me.

These days, it’s very easy to look around and find a model for bad behavior: The GOP. Most everything they have done or opposed (under President Obama) has signaled a cold indifference to individual’s lives (those beneath a certain tax bracket, at least).

[I’m not so typically one-sided, to be honest. The GOP and conservatives used to represent ideals and views that made for healthy debate. Not anymore.]

The party may be on a regrettable road to fascism (yes, look at the latest tax-code revision, if you doubt it) and the leadership harbors a worrisome far-right view. (Bigotry, xenophobia and pandering to extremist views, to name a few.) They’ve made it easy. My fictional Mitasterites are just much farther down that road: Disregard for the majority of individuals–and the environment–in favor of a military-industrial complex which ultimately pursues wealth through aggression. For really, in the modern world, what is war? Nations may squabble over borders and ideological views. In a universe where a party has its own planet, border disputes and threat don’t really wash. So the government has to crank up the propaganda machine and conjure another set of excuses to conceal the truth: Somebody wants to make a lot of money. Human (or Mitasterite) cost is immaterial.

While this draws a lot of parallels from the vast armies of WWII (the buildup, the extreme nationalism, the inevitability) it also allows for plenty of internal fighting. Naturally, not everyone just gets in line with evil intentions. So heroine June Vereeth’s surprise new boss in Destruction is an admiral who has defected from the Mitasterite ranks. Tohk-Mahsda, a middle-aged woman, is utterly furious with her home-world and the government which has taken over. She’s not alone, of course.

It isn’t difficult to imagine her anger, her feelings of betrayal. How would a government–or political party–choose to sell the lie that they want more than serfdom for three-quarters of the population? When the desires of wealthy oligarchs outweigh the needs of the overwhelming majority, and institutions of scientific fact and free press and environmental stewardship are trampled and disregarded?

If the Mitasterites (or those WWII armies) are at the far-right end of the spectrum, what’s uphill and sliding down toward them?

Justin Edison's Destruction, second in the Woman at War series, will be out in 2018.

Endgame cover by Greg Simanson Designs. Cover shows characters, rockets and a woman's eye against a green-ice background and twin suns, orange lettering. "The war begins" is added at the top.

Blackout: a Pioneering Term from Destruction

Writing my first sequel (ever) for Endgame has given me a few challenges.

One of those–natural for a sci-fi series about war–is penning my first space battle since I was, well, a teenager. What would it really be like? Since everything in the book is seen from heroine June Vereeth’s perspective, the moments were a combination of what she hears (communications) and the too-fast objects moving across various display screens. (She’s on a space station, not in the battle. Bonus: The worries and concern from watching something you have no control over.)

Since I grew up watching Star Trek: TNG, one of the questions that bugged me was how did the Enterprise crew see what was happening at some far-off outpost or near a cosmic rift. Bridge stalwart Lt. Warf says “On screen,” and, bam, there it is! Piece of Cardassian cake: You’re watching something from a two million kilometers away. No mention of satellites or camera-bearing probes. (The tech in that show was always frustratingly fool-proof, too.) If only.

So, how would we see such events in space? Especially when we’re nowhere close to them?

Introducing the term blackout, playing a minor role in Destruction. A blackout is an SUV-sized pod which would detach from a larger ship, like a battle cruiser, ahead of an event. The craft would move to a spot two miles away (things move pretty fast in combat) and sit stationary, offering tactical and radar assistance. If there are multiple vessels engaged in battle, the third-party view would give the good guys something of an advantage. For one, ships couldn’t hide behind others (a concept which sounds far-fetched but actually makes perfect sense in scenarios, such as in Ender’s Game).

Justin Edison's Destruction teaser featuring red lights on a black background with 'blackout' lettering in yellow.

I’m not pioneering the term ‘blackout’ of course. But, of the dozen or so definitions that appear (the term first being used in 1913) none refers as slang for a ship. That’s exactly what it would be. With space, of course, being quite dark, it would make sense for techs to use dark metal, or just paint the thing black. Then, while the pod was in use, it would make even more sense for all the lights to be turned off. Otherwise, a Mitasterite fighter makes a quick loop out and eliminates this tactical nuisance.

It might be fun to write a comedy piece, too: A mismatched couple (Felix and Oscar, or Elliott and Todd from Scrubs) arguing in the ‘dashboard’ light while all hell is breaking loose twenty seconds’ flight away.

I honestly try not to take myself too seriously, so there’s potential.

Endgame cover by Greg Simanson Designs. Cover shows characters, rockets and a woman's eye against a green-ice background and twin suns, orange lettering. "The war begins" is added at the top.

Endgame is available now!

Calling Readers: My Newsletter

Hello, Dear Reader:

With much fanfare (or, at least, a couple drum taps) I have launched a newsletter and I’d love for you to sign up!

Red pen and coffee mug with Edison's draft work.

Why do I need a newsletter? Because, according to several successful authors, this is a great way to reach readers and find more. So I’m game.

Why should you sign up for a newsletter? This way, I can send quick updates on my work, plus offer you some goodies that you may otherwise miss. (I am not above bribery, of course!) So, it will be worth your time, and it only takes two minutes!

Note: This will not be spam! I have no intention of flooding anyone’s inbox with digital junk. Our time is more precious than that. Instead, this will be 1-2 updates per month on what I’m working on, and maybe some food for thought.

 

Please sign up here, and I look forward to connecting with you!

 

-Justin

Rumination on the Draining Hourglass

Blame the onrush of autumn–Halloween, the sudden cold temperatures, the yard turned orange from wind-stripped tree litter–but my thoughts have recently been bouncing to the issue of mortality. I’m not a morbid person by nature, but I certainly ponder the end often enough. Given the preponderance of auto-accident fatalities (37,000 annually in the U.S.) and mass shootings (also far too numerous), a random ‘untimely’ death feels less unlikely than it used to.

In the Arts

Artistic reminders abound. Dave Matthews’ So Damn Lucky describes a bad car accident (where the narrator disregarded his partner’s cautionary advice). The last four minutes of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond seems like the ultimate statement on ‘moving on.’ John Lennon‘s “Watching the Wheels” always makes me think of my wife’s late brother Eric, as I heard it soon after his funeral and it made me weep. (Perhaps there was something about Lennon’s voluntary ‘quitting’ the music business, only to be tragically murdered several weeks later.) The events feel tied together.

In the film Glory, Colonel Robert Shaw is given a moment to gaze at birds flapping above the South Carolina surf. He has volunteered his 54th Regiment (Massachusetts) to charge an important Confederate fort (Wagner), even though losses will be heavy. Shaw senses he’s going to die that very evening. We aren’t told what he’s thinking–we just have to imagine it for ourselves.

Mortality

One of the stark exercises journalists are asked to go through is to write their own obituary. How would you sum up your life in 400 words? Space is limited, and difficult choices have to be made.

Contrast that with Steven Dalt, the hero of F. Paul Wilson’s The Healer. Thanks to a symbiotic relationship with an amazing, all-learning creature, Dalt lives (in the story) some 1,200 years. While this longevity and his godlike ability to heal people (through knowledge and psychic abilities) sounds grand, it also comes with terrible costs. He outlives everyone he meets, including his wife and subsequent partners. In the end, given the chance to rule Humankind (being victorious over its far-away nemesis), he ponders the meaning (or meaninglessness) of existence. If you could go anywhere and do anything, what would be the point of it all? Even hedonism would get old. Wouldn’t it?

Life’s Journey

Immortality and limitless pleasure are not problems any of us have, of course. While there’s a part of me that’s fine with being an entertainer (how best to describe a writer?) that doesn’t seem like enough. Neither does making heaps of money (though this could be used in various beneficial ways).

So as I embark on a website design path, and hope for success, I’ll have my eyes on several prizes (doing solid work, employing people, fulfilling others’ wishes). When I look back, at least I can say I tried some cool things (besides raising great kids and supporting noble causes). Without better answers to the big question, these attempts seem good enough.

cloudy sunset taken from the big island of Hawaii

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