Friday, December 30, 2016

Favorite TV Shows of 2016

The year 2016 saw the end of my favorite TV show for the past seven years, the renewal of my now current favorite TV show, the discovery of two shows nowhere near my radar but loved them, and a television event for the ages.


For eight seasons, this show ruled Monday nights at 9pm. Yeah, I’m still an appointment television viewer. From the initial trailer for the show, Castle had me. The show was right up my alley. Geeky writer solving crimes with beautiful woman detective and her squad. That they successfully kept the Will They/Won’t They chemistry going for four seasons, then successfully together for the next three. Yes, there was an eighth season, and I’m mostly glad for it, but the writer messed with the chemistry and the show wasn’t the same after that. There’s a part of me that still latches on to the finale of Season Seven as the true series finale. Be that as it may, Castle was cancelled and that was that. Still one of my favorite all-time TV shows.


This is the show that replaced Castle as my favorite. Its second season coincided with Castle’s eighth and I realized I often smiled more, laughed more, and cried more watching The Flash than any other show. Greg Berlanti, the creator and executive producer, grew up immersed in DC Comics lore and it plays out remarkably well in The Flash. He has a saying on set that each episode needs Heart, Humor, and Spectacle. This show has it in spades. When you have a villain like King Shark—humanoid with a shark’s head—on network television, something is going great. And Flash’s guest appearance on “Supergirl” this past spring (back when Supergirl was on CBS) was probably the most charming thing on TV all year. Absolutely love this show.


Yes, the fourth “season” of Sherlock is about to air Sunday night, but I’ve already got over 100 episodes and into the fifth season of what many consider the other Sherlock Holmes TV show. What makes this show shine is the chemistry between Sherlock’s Johnny Lee Miller and Watson’s Lucy Liu. Because they have had over five years together on screen, the subtlety and nuances of their performances have evolved into a deep and rich relationship that is based on friendship, respect, and agape love, but not romantic. (Well, I’m a few episodes behind since the show kept getting pushed later into the nights because of football, but I don’t think the writers changed anything.) Miller’s version of Sherlock is brilliant, modern, flawed, but capable of change. He still has one of my all-time favorite Sherlock Holmes scenes from any medium. It’s from 2015 and an old flame has asked Sherlock to be the father to her child. For the entire episode, he contemplates her request. Finally, he gives her his answer. That part starts at the 28:33 mark of this video.


Sometimes, the images you see in a trailer, the sounds, too, latch onto you in such a way that you are compelled to watch. That’s what the trailer to summer’s biggest TV hit did. Like the DC Comics, Marvel movies, and the newest Star Wars films, the folks behind Stranger Things have grown up and turned around and made a TV in which everything they loved as kids now shows up in their work. Stranger Things pays homage to Spielberg films, John Carpenter scores, and the rest of the early 80s in such a way that it’s a love letter to childhood without being hampered by nostalgia. The story, the writing, made sure of that, and I eagerly await the next season. Here's what I wrote back in the summer.


The out-of-left-field show that completely blew me away this past week. I even named it the most compelling thing I watched on TV in 2016. Read my complete review here.


Again, I watched this on Netflix so I consumed seasons 1 and 2 in short order. The story of six people who awake from stasis on a spaceship with no memory of how they got there or who they are. They assume names based on the order in which they awoke, thus One, Two, etc. The gradual peeling away of the mysteries surrounding their predicament easily propels the show forward—each character gets an episode or two to focus on their past like any good ensemble show does—but it is the seventh individual on the ship that is my favorite. It’s an android, named Android, and she’s female. Frankly, I’m not aware of another example of an android, played by an actress, in the mold of Star Trek’s Data, that is, an artificial life form who longs to be more human. Zoie Palmer plays Android (far right in the image) with so many nuances that I started to zero in on her scenes most of all. One of the great things she does is with her eyes as Android processes information or executes orders from the crew. Her voice is like that of a questioning child, trying to learn about human behavior and all of its inconsistencies. Her facial expressions show the conflicting of emotions even though, in reality, the Android is only processing information. Android may not be the lead in this show, but she is my favorite. Oh, and when she has to fight, she kicks serious ass without so much as batting an eyelash. Of the humans, Three is tops for me (second from the left in the image). His story arc is fantastic, especially considering his character type. Heck, they're all great characters, and I'm eagerly awaiting season three...which I'll be watching in real time!


Rarely watching this show when on the air, but I have been watching the various seasons on DVD. I always liked the occasional daydreams of lead character, Zach Braff’s JD, especially considering it was farcical and what he was really thinking. Even when the show was airing, I knew about that. But long-term viewing of this show revealed it to be not only a laugh-out-loud show, but one that could turn on a dime and sting your eyes with tears. The family typically watched the show during dinner, and there were a few times when my wife and I would be wiping away tears with the napkins we had just used to wipe our mouths. Two runs stand out. One is with Brendon Frasier and series regular—and funniest guy on the show?—John C. McGinley. Another is with JD and Kathryn Joosten (Mrs. Landingham from “The West Wing”) when she chooses death over dialysis. That this episode was the fourth of season 1 and that the producers played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over the final scenes ripped my heart out and prepared me for…well, anything from this wonderful show.


Few shows consistently put a big goofy grin on my face quite like Supergirl. Taking the Super-family mythos and bringing it to network television is a feat in and of itself, but that they do it with such a charming actress like Melissa Benoist makes it all the better. She’s got just the right amount of learning about the world through the eyes of her alter ego, Kara Danvers, as well the fierce determination it takes to kick the butts of the bad guys. That John Jones, the Martian Manhunter, is a character is such a great thing and draws deep from the well. But the coup de grace has got to be the second season’s premiere where we get to see the Berlanti-verse’s version of Superman. Gone is the grimdark visage from the modern DC movies. Here, we get Superman, frankly, like he’s supposed to be: charming, happy, but still strong enough to defeat the enemy or help land a damaged plane. This episode is my happiest hour hour of superhero television in 2016.

TELEVISION EVENT: The DC Comics TV Crossover

Like what I wrote about The Flash, Greg Berlanti and crew now have four TV shows, 7pm CST, Monday through Thursday. I don’t watch Arrow on Wednesday, but I watch Supergirl on Mondays and Legends of Tomorrow on Thursdays along with The Flash on Tuesdays. As soon as Supergirl landed on The CW, everyone was wondering if all four shows would crossover. They did. And it was so good. Heck, the Arrow episode might have been the best, and the Flash episode really brought home the damage Barry Allen’s choices made on other people. The Legends hour, however, had the burden of finishing up the story, but it also had the images of all those heroes fighting aliens. That Berlanti was confident enough to have the heroes’s training facility resemble the Hall of Justice from the old “Super Friends” TV show will give you a taste of how he and his team are honoring the legacy of DC Comics. I'm just so happy we live in an age where this kind of thing is a reality on television.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Favorite Songs of 2016


The year 2016 produced some fantastic albums and songs. Here are my Top 10 favorite songs of the year, presented in random order…except the first one. That is my favorite song of 2016.

“Put Your Money On Me” by The Struts


The Struts put out my favorite album of 2016. They are my favorite new discovery of the year. I listened to this album far and away more than any other album released this year. I first discovered the band via an article in Rolling Stone. The article name dropped “glam rock” and that’s pretty much all I need. I then went to Spotify to give the record a virtual spin. The first three cuts (can’t remember them because I have the free version of Spotify and it shuffled the songs) were great, but “Put Your Money on Me” sold me this album with the first chord. Not kidding. It is the sound of summer, a Mountain Dew commercial, unabashedly fun music, with an infectious chorus. The words, as sung by Freddie Mercury’s musical descendant, Luke Spiller, is all about winning over his girl. That this song includes brass is icing on the cake. The MVP of this song—other than the person playing the tambourine—is guitarist Adam Slack. His ferocious solo grounds this song in the rock world so it’s not always just a shiny pop song. And the song ends with a final chord, not a fadeout. By far my favorite song of 2016. “Uptown Funk” was already my favorite song of the decade. We now have another contender. Video.

“Going All the Way is Just the Start (A song in 6 movements)” by Meat Loaf


This song comes from Meat Loaf’s new album, Braver Than We Are, a collection of songs all written by Jim Steinman, the man behind the songs from Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell. To be perfectly honest, this album is a mishmash of styles and influences. Meat’s singing voice is all but shot, but there’s still an earnestness behind it. Much like other long-time singers, Meat singing less powerfully than he used to gives the songs here a unique quality. This song is special as it features both female co-singers from his Bat Out of Hell Days, Ellen Foley and Karla DeVito (vocalists from the studio and live versions "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", respectively). I’m a sucker for Broadway-like rock songs and Meat Loaf is perhaps the best example. This song clocks in at nearly eleven minutes, and it is excellent. The two ladies certainly carry the song, but when they both sing together, it’s magic. To give you an idea of the type of song this is, were this song part of a Broadway play, it closes the show. It builds and builds to a magnificent ending, especially when the counter melody kicks. When I first listened to this album at work, this song captivated me. It made me want to hurry up and finish the record so I could come back to this song. Video.

“Still That Boy From Texas” by Reagan Browne


The discovery of this album, Rhapsodic Roar, is proof that words can still sell albums. I was sitting at a convention in Austin, Texas, and I read a Waterloo Records ad that mentioned Browne’s new album was a great example of melodic rock. I got to the store and listened to a few cuts…and bought the album. He’s new to me, but this is his fourth album. The songs range in heaviness from the opener, “Accelerate to the Straightaways,” to terrific cuts like “The Universe Gives Me What I Want” (my other favorite song) and “Gypsy Woman’s Got the Groove,” featuring Texas guitar wizard, Eric Johnson. “Still That Boy From Texas” is the song I kept returning to. Browne’s powerful, deep baritone voice soars over this song about a guy who longs to be back in Texas even though he’s plying his trade in California. Browne was born and raised in the Texas Hill Country so the song comes from the heart. It’s evident on the song. Here’s a link to his website’s video page where you can listen to the song and hear some other cuts.

“Victorious” by Wolfmother


Sometimes, albums can be sold merely by the cover. Wolfmother’s new album, Victorious, got my attention with a cover that evoked those great painted rock covers from the 1970s. Heck, all their covers have that in common. Well, that’s not all that the band, formed in Australia in 2000, draws from. This entire record is chock full of influences from 70s rock, prog rock, and even metal. It’s a fun listen, especially when  you try and guess the song Wolfmother was listening to when they wrote their songs. When I got/persuaded/trapped her in a car and played the record, she said it was good, but that she liked it better the first time. No matter. The entire record is good, but “Victorious” is my favorite cut. A fast, adrenaline-fueled driving rocker that is best listened to when driving, windows down, and singing along at the top of your lungs. Here is the tripp video.

“Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake


I can’t say exactly how/when I first heard this delightful pop song, but my son—who discovered music this year—had it on his iPod. He played it more than once and I latched onto it. I don’t have any of Timberlake’s albums, but then again, everything I heard from him I like. He’s immensely talented, and this song is an effervescent slice of pop goodness. The bass line during the break is funky and dirty. This is the aural equivalent of a smile on a summer’s day. And the video is charming as just about anything I saw this year. Video

“Go Big or Go Home” by American Authors


Speaking of my son finding music I like, this is another one. This band takes a slice out of the Mumford and Sons jangling pseudo folk playbook with mandolins spicing up this song. Its all-ensemble sung verses lead into a fist-pumping-in-the-air chorus. This song played a lot in the car in our various commutes so much that I started really to like it. Video

“You Bring the Summer” by The Monkees


Imagine a radar, the old-school kind with the rotating green line that would blip whenever something was within range. Got that? Well, The Monkees was beyond my radar. Frankly, I basically knew who they were…and that was it. Then their new LP, Good Times, dropped this year and this song was the lead single. Talk about starting off the summer of 2016 with a slice of pop goodness. I ended up buying this album and loving it. This cut wraps up what I know of the Monkees and produces a song that at once could have been a hit in 1967 but sounds fresh and modern. The video is out-of-this-world great, made to look like an animated segment from their TV show. I was ThisClose to picking “Me and Magdalena” (an achingly beautiful song) as my favorite song from this album, but “You Bring the Summer” was the tune I listened to most. Video

“Today is Yesterday’s Tomorrow” by Michael Buble


Michael Buble is a modern anachronism. He’s got a voice that could have been heard in the 1940s or 1950s but he can write wonderful modern pop songs. Buble’s song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is one of my favorite songs of this decade. He can write a pop song that earworms itself into your brain that you’ll be humming it all day long. To be honest, some of the cuts off this new album, Nobody But Me, tries to replicate the vibe of that song. The title track is the obvious contender. He gives you two versions, one with a rap interlude (yeah, it really works) and the other with a trumpet solo in the same spot. “Someday” is a beautifully infectious duet with Meghan Trainor that is reminiscent of  “Lucky” by Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat as mixed by Train. Their harmonies on the chorus nearly got in this list. But it is “Today is Yesterday’s Tomorrow” gets the nod. It is the most obvious kin to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in musicality and style. The verbal wordplay, with its rapidly spoken verses, are rap-like, but still musical. The chorus is another aural smile (see a theme of these songs?) that’ll make you tap  your foot, even if you’re at your desk. Video

“I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” by Sting


Sting is back with a rock record! That was the headline this year. Yeah, kinda. Sting is a pop star who dabbles in rock (and just about everything else). But this is his first album of new pop/rock music since 2003’s Sacred Love. If there is a theme of this list, it’s that light, poppy music seems to be where my head was this year. By that standard, “One Fine Day” off this new LP would fit on this list. It is right in that poppy groove. Heck, Michael Buble could cover it and you’d never know Sting wrote it. But the lead single, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” gets the nod. This is Sting at his pop/rock best. A tight band, a song that will get your head nodding up and down, and Sting singing about the often melancholy aspects of love. Is he the best one ever for that aspect of love? Video

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” by David Bowie


The elephant in this year’s list is David Bowie. He was one of my four pillars of rock for me. Here is my essay from January about his death. But we’re here to talk about my favorite Bowie song from Backstar, his last album. In the days leading up to the release on 8 January (his birthday), I was so excited. Bowie had recruited saxophonist Danny McCaslin’s jazz ensemble. He was going to make a jazz record! And it is so good. Repeated listenings reveal added layers of emotion and musicality. And then Bowie died two days after the record was released, and Backstair took on a different shade. To be honest, after a certain point, I stopped listening to the album. The emotions were too great. Heck, I even bought the Lazarus soundtrack, with three new Bowie songs, but I haven’t listened to them yet. I’m waiting for 8 January 2017, his 70th birthday, to play them.

Any of the songs from the record could be on this list, but I’m going with the last song. I wrote a review of Blackstar back in March, so I’ll just quote the paragraph about this song. “‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ starts before “Dollar Days” is even over. Bowie’s voice is very “close” in the mix, especially in headphones. It gives the listener the distinct impression that he’s singing directly to each one of us. Which, of course, he is. The harmonica flourishes harken back to 1987’s “Never Let Me Down” while McCaslin’s sax does its own thing, almost as if the song belongs to it and Bowie is merely the guest singer. Death lances through the last words Bowie sang. They sting, but there’s joyous defiance in his voice and delivery. Yes, death will take me, Bowie seems to say, but I still possess the gifts God gave me and I’m going out on the top of my game. Fittingly, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” ends with a guitar flourish that at once would gracefully end a concert but also directly echo the guitar work on “Look Back in Anger” and “Heroes.” Guitar and strings and drums end triumphantly what is effectively David Bowie’s last will and testament.” Video

Honorable Mentions

“Since You Been Gone” by The Heavy. Dirty rock, soulful singing, and in-your-face brass. Right up my alley. Video

“Parasite” by Ace Frehley. The original writer of this KISS classic put his own, modern spin on this song. Heavier than the original and still pile-driving into your head. The solo is a clinic of Ace-isms. Video

“Love Makes the World Go Round” by Santana, featuring Ronald Isley. Santana has always had that great latin/rock vibe. It’s the aural equivalent of smoking a joint, especially in the song “Fillmore East.” This new record reunited the original band, and Ronald Isley sings on a couple of tunes. Having his soulful voice mixed with Santana’s vibe is eclectic, but ultimately rewarding. Video

“Stranger Things” by S U R V I V E. Even though I came of age in the 80s, I don’t always revisit that time in my music, especially the very 80s synths. So imagine my surprise when the TV show “Stranger Things” tapped into that perfect vein of 80s nostalgia not only with the visuals and the story but with the John Carpenter-esque soundtrack. Survive is another new-to-me Texas band (ironically, they were in the same ad that featured Reagan Browne; Thanks Waterloo Music!) that makes synth soundscapes music using old technology. It really shows, and I’ve already bought the soundtrack and Survive’s new LP. Video

Rogue One soundtrack by Michael Giacchino. I’m still processing the new Rogue One soundtrack so I cannot give definitive song yet. Giacchino is an excellent composer, a true heir to John Williams. His music for TV’s Lost, a number of Pixar films, and the new Star Trek movies show his range and ability to create a soundtrack that can be heard on its own as well as in the movie. If the movie Rogue One contained a lot of visual Easter eggs, Giacchino’s score does the same for the music. He interweaves old Williams melodies and instrumentations that hearkens back to the other seven movies. For longtime listeners of the Star Wars soundtracks, Rogue One is great listening experience.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Bloodline: Season 1 - The Most Compelling TV Show of 2016?

By sheer coincidence I watched Rogue One and the first episode of Netflix’s “Bloodline” on the same day. After my wife and I had finished watching “Dark Matter” seasons 1 and 2—highly recommended, by the way—she scoured Netflix for a new show. She found Bloodline and started watching. Somewhere in the week leading up to the release of Rogue One, she commented that the bad guy in the Star Wars movie is in this TV show she was watching. I asked her which character and she said “Darth Vader?” My eyebrows raised, thinking “Wow, the guy in the suit must be good outside of the suit.” I must have said something to the fact, because in the next few moments, she pulled up a photograph of the actor in question. Ben Mendelsohn. Oh, he’s not Vader, he’s….well, I didn’t know the character’s name yet. I hadn’t seen the movie. Come to think of it, I didn’t know Mendelsohn either.

But holy cow do I now.

And not only because of Rogue One.

Bloodline is a mystery/drama series produced by Netflix. Two seasons have been produced, but we’ve only seen the first, having concluded just last night. On the day Rogue One was released, my wife attended the show with me. Later that night, having already consumed the entire first season herself, she asked me to watch the first episode. Just the first one, mind you, to see if I’d like it. Now, I was more than willing to go along. I was curious about Mendelsohn as he, unfortunately, didn’t get a lot of screen time in Rogue One. So we cued up the show.

And I was hooked.

Bloodline has a terrific tag line: “We’re not bad people…but we did a bad thing.” The tale involves a family who owns an inn in the Florida Keys. Sam Shepherd plays the father, Sissy Spacek the mother. Three of their adult children live in the area: John (played by Kyle Chandler) is a cop, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) is a blue-collar man who works on boats, and Meg (Linda Cardellini) is a lawyer. As the show opens, black sheep son Danny (Mendelsohn) is returning to the Keys. There was a bad event back in the day—not spoiling it here for the gradual revelation is part of this show’s wonderful pacing—and Danny went off on his own. But he wants to come back to the family. He’s even got the words he wants to say to his family written on folded yellow notebook paper.

As you might expect, not everyone is thrilled that Danny’s back. And it is in the interactions with the other cast members where Mendelsohn just shines. When he talks with his cop brother, Danny acts a certain way. If it’s with his sister, it’s another. The nuances in Mendelsohn’s performance and in the performances of the other actors that make this slow burn show so dang compelling to watch.

Typically while engrossed in a show, I don’t usually notice how the story is put together. Not so, here, but that’s a perfectly fine compliment. As a writer, I was amazed at how the show runners were able to craft such an elegantly sculpted piece of storytelling art. Throughout most episodes, you get flashbacks to the bad event in the past, but you also get glimpses of another event in the future. The openings of each episode have the policeman, John, doing a voiceover that so engrosses you in the show that it all but compels you to keep watching.

The twists and turns of the plot are enough to keep your attention engaged, and the payoffs surprising and satisfying, but the performances are what truly sell this show. Mendelsohn is the scene stealer. He's like Heath Ledger's Joker: whenever Mendelsohn's on screen, you are riveted. He transforms Danny throughout the course of the 13-episode first season via words, actions, and even body language. Kyle Chandler’s John plays the straight arrow cop like he was born to play it. (I never say Friday Night Lights so this was the first time I saw Chandler act.) Norbert Leo Butz, who I literally just discovered is a two-time Tony winner, plays Kevin as the down-and-out man who needs just one more break, not unlike Danny himself. When I saw Cardellini, I thought “Velma!” since she played that character in the live action Scooby Doo movies, but she plays Meg as a combination of small-town charm with a haunted darkness underneath her eyes. All the performances are fantastic.

And then I learned Mendelsohn won an Emmy for his role as Danny (I purposefully didn’t research too much into the show while watching it for fear of reading a spoiler). Well deserved.

For eight seasons, my favorite show on TV was “Castle.” Now it’s “The Flash.” That’ll give you a sample of where my interests typically lie. But I’m going to split hairs here. I’ll still contend that “The Flash” is my favorite show on network TV. But giving “Stranger Things” its props for what it did and how well it accomplished its goals, “Bloodline” season 1 might be the most compelling thing I’ve watched on TV in 2016.

Now, on to season 2!’

P.S., Having seen this first season with Mendelsohn as Danny, two things come to mind. One, there are certain actors that I enjoy so much, I’ll watch anything they’re in. Mendelsohn is now on that list. Heck, his mere inclusion in “The Dark Knight Rises” is now going to make me have to watch that movie again. (I haven’t since the day I walked out of the theater in 2012 despite it being a Batman movie.) Two, I know Rogue One was chock full of characters—and I immensely enjoyed seeing the movie a second time having watched half of Bloodline by that time—but boy would I have liked to have seen more of Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Thoughts on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I saw the movie today at 10am in a theater populated by about ten folks. The downside to that is that there wasn’t a rapid theater full of Star Wars geeks who cheered at every single Easter egg thrown in the mix. And let me tell you: the Easter eggs were numerous and fun. I’ll actually have to wait for someone to catalog them all to determine if I caught them all. I don’t think I did, but I caught most of’em.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to Rogue One was that it wasn’t a saga movie, i.e., one with a number. As great as the Star Wars movies have been up to now, basically, they’re all about the same family and their friends. Finally, we’d get a film that wasn’t about a Skywalker or a daddy issue. We went one for two there. It’s not about a Skywalker—although there is one in here; the one who dresses in black—but there is a daddy issue. As much as you might groan that this will be the 8th Star Wars film (i.e., all of them) to deal with familial issues, you also have to know that this is a pattern. Plus, it’s a Disney film, so there you go.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a young woman whose dad, played by Mads Mikkelsen, is an Imperial engineer in charge of building the structure known as the Death Star. At the start of the film, a young Jyn sees her mom killed and her dad recaptured. She escapes, but, by the time Jones fills the character’s shoes, she’s a twentysomething in an Imperial prison camp.

And she’s rescued by the new group calling itself the Rebellion. There’s a character, played by Forest Whitiker, who is an estranged member of the Rebel Alliance but now needs to be joined if the Rebels are going to take on the Empire. Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is a veteran of the Clone Wars, but he’s also the man who raised young Jyn after her parents were taken from her. To the Rebels, Jyn’s their key to get in the door with being killed. For Jyn, it’s a chance to not be in jail.

Naturally, plans go asunder. And a Star Wars movie unfolds.

There is lots to like about this film. I stayed away from all written content about this film and have only dipped a toe in it now, but the vibe you get from this film is gritty, street-level realism—or as real as a Star Wars film can get. In this movie, you see Stormtroopers who can shoot straight and they kill people. You have opponents of the Empire likewise shooting and killing. One way to look at this film is as one who has earned the word “Wars” in its title. In many respects, this is a World War II film masquerading in the Star Wars universe.

And that is not a bad thing. At all. I quite enjoyed it.

There is a gloominess to this film, much as there was with Episode III, the last of the prequel films that led into the original Star Wars film, but there had to be. The first film’s subsequent subtitle is “A New Hope,” but for there to be the need for a new hope, you have to get rid of the old hope. And you have to lead into the urgency that opens the original 1977 Star Wars film. The ending gives you that, but not before introducing you to new characters, new worlds, and new experiences.

There’s a certain action figure quality to this movie. Have we seen Star Wars on the beach? Nope. Then let’s do a beach set piece. Have we seen Star Wars in the rain? Nope. Then let’s do something there. Nothing wrong with that. Lucas did it in every movie he made, and I quite liked the beach battles. There’s also yet another desert planet in this movie, and the set piece here is a claustrophobic ambush/assault. It worked very well. Most of the ideas and concepts you may have seen before, but as seen through the Star Wars lens and in the Star Wars universe managed to make them fresh again.

I’m about to get into spoiler territory, but I wanted to leave this thought up here, so most readers can read it. I’m so glad that folks my age who saw the original Star Wars film in 1977 and became steeped in this universe have now become the filmmakers of today. They can now take their devotion and passion for this material and throw in the Easter eggs and winks and nods for the long-time fans. Ditto Marvel movies and DC TV shows. It’s a great time to have all of these wonderful movies made for us.

And, with that, I’ll go ahead and end the spoiler-free part of the review and say I enjoyed Rogue One quite a bit, actually felt the bite of tears in a couple of places (yeah, yeah, I know) and delighted in the Easter eggs. A worthy addition to the canon.

Now, on to the spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.

Still giving you a chance to turn away.

Jyn running into Walrus Man and the other guy who eventually accosts Luke. Love it!

Seeing more of the Yavin base. So, so good.

Seeing many of the male cast members having grown 1970s mustaches.

The namedropping of “Whills” in regards to what the blind mystic and his bodyguard are doing on the desert planet. The term Whills is from the opening quote from the original Star Wars novelization.

The Kaiburr crystal! Those were first seen in Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye novel that came out in 1978. Talk about taking something from out of the blue.

Oh, and blue milk.

Speaking of Splinter, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as much as I’m loving all the films that have come since, arguably the best time ever to be a Star Wars fan was 1977-1980. The universe was vast, the mysteries were great, and Vader wasn’t Luke’s father.

Speaking of Vader, going in, I wanted one thing more than anything: I wanted him to be bad. Evil. The guy who chokes various Imperial officers if they get on his bad side. Evil Vader was here. In spades. And it was so, so good! Loved it. We got to see Prequel saber stuff in the older trilogy.

Threepio and Artoo. Wasn’t really expecting it, but it was nice.

Mon Motha in the Yavin base. Nicely done.

Tarkin. I had heard he was in the film, but I expected him not to be on screen. It was a little odd, I’ll admit, in the same way The Polar Express is odd, seeing the CGI version of Peter Cushing talking and interacting. It wasn’t quite all there, but I’m really glad they tried.

And I’m really glad they did it with Leia, too. Got goosebumps and happy tears. But hers was a little more odd than Tarkin’s.

Nice to see Jimmy Smits back.

Really loved K-2SO and Alan Tudyk’s performance. His jokes were great, but I actually groaned at the “I have a bad feeling about this” but, then again, it’s now a Star Wars tradition.

Really, really love the blind mystic Chirrut Îmwe. I loved that his was not a Jedi but could feel the Force. From a religious standpoint, not ashamed to say that when Chirrut Îmwe started chanting "I am with the Force and the Force is with me" and walked across the battlefield to turn on the master switch, I teared up. I loved his faith in the Force. And then his mercenary friend took up the mantle and chant. Very powerful stuff.

Jyn’s pendant. That was a Kaiburr crystal, right?

Oh, and the music. Enjoyed it. I like Michael Giacchino’s work on Star Trek and the Pixar films, but his music on Doctor Strange (save the end credits piece) sounded a bit like Star Trek to me. But I was very pleased with his work with John Williams’ themes. Giacchino’s delicate use of old themes to go along with new ones was well done.

I’ve probably forgotten a few, but those are the ones that stand out.

Y’all’s thoughts?

Friday, September 30, 2016

ULTERIOR OBJECTIVES: A Lillian Saxton Thriller - Chapter 1

ULTERIOR OBJECTIVES: A Lillian Saxton Thriller will be published in November 2016. What follows is Chapter 1.

Chapter 1
Tuesday, 23 April 1940

“Sergeant Saxton, what do you think of when you hear the word ‘treason’?”
Lillian Saxton stood at attention and frowned. She wore her assigned brown uniform, belted at the waist, tie neatly knotted, with a skirt that hung just at the knees. Since she was inside Houston’s Rice Hotel, her garrison cap was folded over the belt. Her red hair was pulled up behind her ears.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t I understand what you mean.” Her voice was curious but deferential.
“Treason, Sergeant. It’s a simple concept. What does it mean to you?”
The man who snapped at her she didn’t know, but his brown uniform displayed the rank of colonel. He stood to the side of a table in one of the upper suites of the famous Rice Hotel. The man who sat at the table, littered with stacks of paper and a typewriter, she knew. He was Captain Ernest Donnelly, her commanding officer. She looked at him for clarification.
“I’m the one speaking to you, Sergeant,” the colonel spat. “If there’s ever a situation where you think you need to look elsewhere for help, then we’ve got a bigger problem than I imagined.”
Donnelly, dressed in his brown uniform but with the tie loosened around his collar, leaned back in his chair. “Honeywell, why don’t you just…”
“Don’t tell me what I should do, Captain,” Honeywell blurted. “I’ve asked the sergeant a question. I expect an answer directly from her and not from her superior officer or anyone else she thinks can help her.”
A little fire burst into existence deep within Lillian’s gut. She hated what many of the men in the United States Army thought of her: weak, not as good as a man, only good for typing up reports. She was none of that, and she strove every day to prove wrong that kind of thinking.
“Treason,” Lillian began, speaking evenly but with force, “is the active betrayal of one’s country. In most cases, especially in war time, it is punishable by death.”
Honeywell regarded her for a moment. His short-cropped hair was receding across the top of his head. The gray flecks caught the lamp light and seemed to glow.
“That is pretty much the letter of the law, Sergeant. Now, even though we’re not at war, what do you think should be done about someone who may commit treason?”
“May commit, colonel?”
A small twitch along the corner of his mouth might have grown into a smile, but Honeywell didn’t give it the chance. “Yes, Sergeant. Would you trust anyone whom you suspect of committing treason?”
Lillian pondered the question for a few heartbeats. “It would depend on the circumstances, Colonel. If the person was only suspected, I would seek out additional information, either to clear the individual or convict him.”
Another twitch, this time along Honeywell’s eyebrows. Lillian had to admire a person like the colonel who could so easily contain his outward emotions. She made a note never to play the colonel in poker although that likelihood would probably never come to pass.
“So you would investigate?”
“Yes, sir.”
“If necessary, yes.”
“What if you knew the person? Would that cloud your judgement?”
Another few heartbeats. “No, sir. This is the United States of America. All citizens, military or civilian, are assumed innocent until proven guilty. Same goes with someone suspected of treason. You investigate, gather evidence, and, if the evidence points to treason, you arrest the individual. You bring him to trial and, if he is found guilty, you inflict punishment.”
“Back to my second question: what if you knew the person? Would you hide evidence, alter testimony, or do anything to sway the arresting officer or jury?”
“No, sir. Treason is treason, and if the evidence indicates that, there is no other recourse.” She glanced to Donnelly, then back up to Honeywell. “I would, of course, be upset, but that’s a personal matter, not a military one.”
In the intervening silence, Donnelly spoke. “Well, Colonel, I think that should satisfy you.”
Honeywell narrowed his eyes. “I’ll let you know when I’m satisfied.”
“Of course.” To Lillian, Donnelly asked, “Have you contacted Wade to get his report on your brother?”
Donnelly was referring to the assignment recently completed. Samuel Saxton, Lillian’s brother, was lost in Europe. She feared the worst, especially with the Nazi army threatening to strike. A reporter, Wendell Rosenblatt, had information about Samuel. He was due to land in Houston, but vanished. Lillian hired private investigator Benjamin Wade to locate Rosenblatt. He did, but it was too late. Rosenblatt was dead, but Wade found the reporter’s notes complete with all the details about Samuel’s whereabouts.
Lillian had been waiting for Wade to deliver his report when Donnelly summoned her to his room in the Rice Hotel.
“No, sir.”
Donnelly gestured with his head to the next room. “Why don’t you give him a call?”
Lillian nodded once and left the room.


“I think she passes your muster, Colonel,” Donnelly said.
“You’re just too close to her and the rest of your little squad.” Honeywell walked over to a bureau where a single bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey rested. He poured himself a couple of fingers and downed half in one gulp. He held the glass in his hands and mulled over something in his head. “But the communique was to her personally. Do you think Monroe is trying to recruit her?”
“Don’t be silly,” Donnelly blurted. He realized he was addressing a senior officer and stood. He poured his own glass of whiskey. “As far as I know, Frank Monroe is only an investment banker. His job takes him all over the U.S. and Europe. He has contacts everywhere. Sure, he’s been over to Germany since they invaded Poland last year, but there’s no cause to think he’s turned traitor.”
“Why else would he insist on seeing her? You think he knows she works for the Army?”
“Lillian Saxton’s job is no secret. What she does for the Army is. Look, they’re old friends from back when they attended college in Europe in the ‘30s. He says he has vital information about the war, but will only talk to her. And the meet’s in D.C. They’re not even leaving American soil. What’s to lose?”
“I don’t trust anyone who has business dealings with the Nazis and then turns around and asks to meet with one of my soldiers.”
Donnelly did not have time to respond. The adjoining door opened and Lillian Saxton walked in the room. She must have tried to mask her emotions, but Donnelly noticed the red rimming her eyes.
“Is everything okay, Sergeant?” Donnelly asked.
Saxton merely nodded.
“You find out about your brother?”
“He’s dead.”
The two senior officers gave the revelation a few moments of silence. “I’m sorry,” Donnelly said. He reached into his pocket and held out a handkerchief. She walked over and took it.
“Thank you, sir.” She dabbed at her eyes. She stood straighter and pulled herself together. She handed the handkerchief back to the captain. “What’s the next assignment? It’s why you brought me here, isn’t it?”
Donnelly said, “Sergeant, this is Colonel Clive Honeywell. He will explain the situation.”
Honeywell stepped forward. “Sergeant, do you know a Frank Monroe?”
Donnelly watched the emotions cross Saxton’s face. He prided himself on not just being a commanding officer to his squad, but to know his officers as real people. Saxton had a circuitous route to the United States Army, but she had acquitted herself beyond even his expectations. The name “Frank Monroe” hit a nerve.
After a moment, Saxton said, “Yes, sir. He’s from a prominent family in Boston. He and I went to the university back in 1934. He’s some sort of banker now, I think.”
Honeywell narrowed his eyes. “You hesitated. Why?”
“The name came out of left field, Colonel. We haven’t even seen each other in years. It just wasn’t a name I expected you to say.”
Pursing his lips, Honeywell said, “He’s asked to meet you.”
For the second time, Donnelly noted Saxton’s surprise.
“Yes. Personally.”
Saxton frowned. “Why?”
Honeywell raised his glass and pointed a finger at her. “That’s what you’re going to find out.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Thoughts on Suicide Squad

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterI won’t bury the lede: I liked this movie. But, like all three of DC’s movies, Suicide Squad seemed to be a collection of great scenes mashed into a serviceable plot. I’ll start with things I liked. And there will be spoilers.

Batman Doing Batman Things

Since 1989, Cinematic Batman is one who kills. Most of that deals with the need for a movie to blow stuff up and the coolest way possible. Michael Keaton’s Batman killed some of Joker’s goons in the factory. I’m pretty sure Val Kilmer killed some folks in the car chase. Ditto George Clooney. I’m trying to remember if Christian Bale did or not. Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman definitely did. But in Suicide Squad, Batman doesn’t kill. In fact, in a flashback, we see him rescue Harley Quinn after the Joker drove his car into the water. Batman, complete with Rebreather (!), dives in a saves Harley. That’s Batman. He even saves the criminals

Also, the visuals of Batman coming down from above to capture Deadshot? Loved it.

All in all, Batman/Bruce Wayne in Suicide Squad was pretty darn good. Ironic considering so many reviled against his casting. Just goes to show you that you shouldn’t make an opinion until you’ve seen the movie.


I loved the early scene when Amada Waller (Viola Davis) introduces all the main characters. We get nice, short, bite-sized origins and background…and that’s all we need. Period. We didn’t need an entire movie to describe Deadshot or Boomerang. Well, Deadshot maybe, but still, we get what we need and then we move on. And it was presented like splash pages in a comic book. Loved it.


People make jokes that are situational jokes. I laughed. The other members of the audience laughed. That’s what is supposed to happen in movies of this kind. We’re supposed to have a good time. BvS had, what, two jokes, one of which was in the trailer.


Finally, we have a villain that has magical powers. Not quite sure what they were, exactly, but I loved it.

Will Smith

The man oozes charisma from his pores. I haven’t watched everything he’s done, but in terms of being a likable movie star, he’s great. I like portrayals of heroes who are badasses but have the one humanizing flaw. Plus, he’s funny. And the ending where he has to make the choice he does? Nicely done.

Margot Robbie

Up until now, with me not being a player of any of the Batman video games, Harley Quinn was Joker’s sidekick from Batman: The Animated Series as voiced by Arleen Sorkin. Also up until Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie was best known as Jane from The Legend of Tarzan. But she inhabits the role of Harley. She played crazy, sane, and sad very well. The backstory wasn’t as good as it could have been, but hey. It’s a first-time live-action version. I’ll settle. Plus, in the flashback, you get a live action shot of one of the famous Joker/Herley images.

Harley_Quinn_and_the_Joker_(art_by_Alex_Ross)Viola Davis as Amanda Waller

Wow. To be one of the best villains the cinematic DC has put on screen and not be a supervillain is a real treat. Davis knocked it out of the park. But, at the end, during the mid-credits sequence, I liked that she was a little off her game. Nicely done. And then at the end, what she does? Pretty dang surprising.

Characters That Weren’t Batman or Superman

Finally, we get some DC characters that isn’t the big two and their associated supporting cast. Captain Boomerang is in a real, live movie. Let that sink into your brain. And Diablo. And Deadshot. Did you think we’d ever get characters like that in a movie? Me, neither. Loved that.


I’m a comic reader, but know little of him, so the movie version is my first real taste of this character. I liked him quite a bit. I’m guessing his powers came from the same source as Enchantress’s brother?


They weren’t recruited for THIS job

In the trailers, you get the impression that the big villain was so bad that the squad needed to be formed to defeat that villain. Not the only case. Waller tries to get the team together and fails. Only when Enchantress goes rogue does the team come back and get the gig. I would’ve liked it better if Waller came with the Task Force X idea as a result of Enchantress versus a take two.


Why was she in the movie? Don’t get me wrong. I loved her look at lot, I liked that she wasn’t a bad guy, and her slim backstory was somewhat good. But you take her out and, say, give Boomerang the moves she made, it would be just fine. And it would have given him more to do.


What was she really doing in Midway City? It would be one thing if she was, say, channeling in inner earth core to assemble a thing that would make all human subservient. But it looked like she was trying to kill everyone. I could have sworn that she liked it when the humans worshipped her and her brother. Then why kill everyone? So her big plan and the plan to stay in one place was baffling.



There were 19 years between Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Heath Ledger’s. That’s a generation. Time enough to let Jack’s version fade into history. Not so Ledger’s. Only eight years ago this summer, Ledger’s take on the Joker was playing on the screens. You can help but compare.

And Jared Leto’s version suffers in comparison.

I really liked Joker as a mobster. It reminded me of Joker by Brian Azzarello from 2008 when Joker wasn’t the Joker as we know him. Heck, Ledger’s Joker is more down-to-earth, but he’s still master of all he surveys. And Ledger’s Joker commands the screen when he’s on it. He sucks you in with his vocal delivery, his cadence, and his unpredictability. He made you watch.

Leto’s Joker, in the trailers, looked like a fiendish man who would do despicable things for the mere thrill of it. He looked scary, and if the cinematic DC is known for anything, it’s making comic book things “real” and “scary.” But he wasn’t. In fact, strangely enough, Joker is a romantic lead. The only thing he seems to be after is to get Harley out of Arkham Asylum.

And that’s perfectly okay. Heck, it’s a fresh take on Joker. But that’s not the impression the trailers gave. Perhaps Joker should have been held back a little in the marketing to be present as this lovelorn man. Needless to say, I was expecting one Joker, but got another. Again, the more I think on it, romantic Joker is one I’d like to see more of, and I hope we get to in later films.

All in all, a fun two hours. I enjoyed the film, but I wanted to love it. To date, my favorite comic book film of the year is Captain America: Civil War.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Vacation Writing

I don’t know about y’all, fellow writers, but vacations can be great times to do some work.

Back in 2005, I started my first novel. I kept working on it during my 2006 vacation. I have worked almost every vacation since then. Even last year, when the family and I traveled to San Antonio, I got the wife to drive while I sat in the back seat, iPod Touch wedged under the head rest, bluetooth keyboard on my lap, and my fingers flying. Heck, I did something like 8,000 words on one travel day.

So, when it came time to pack for my just-completed trip out west to Big Bend, Texas, I was ready. I printed out my notes. I had my synopses for a couple of westerns I have in process. I had pencils and different color pens. A whole pack of index cards. Post-it notes, both big and small. The small ones were even different colors. I still have the same Apple keyboard. I have an iPhone now. And, best of all, the brand-new Scrivener for iOS app dropped the day before we left. Man, I was ready for some awesome writing.

The trip out to Del Rio, Texas, was pretty good. I managed to think through the ending of a western novella and crack open the dam that was blocking me. By the time we arrived in Del Rio after a 5.5-hour drive, I just knew I was gonna blaze away.

Turns out, I didn’t write a thing.

For whatever reason, I didn’t break open my iPhone and write new prose. Part of the reason likely was the accidental breaking of my consecutive writing streak. Without that streak alive, I didn’t feel compelled to write every day.

And I was okay with that. It was a nice break, to be honest. During those down times where I would have written, I read. Seeing as how I was going to Big Bend, I ended up choosing RETURN OF THE RIO KID by Brett Halliday writing as Don Davis. It was set in the Big Bend region. Why not read a book like that?

No reason at all.

That break from writing actually helped fuel my desire to get back to writing. Thursday, on the way home, I sat in the back seat and wrote nearly the entire way back. I didn’t write new prose, however. I worked on the new Lillian Saxton novel. And it went splendidly. I’m getting excited to start this new book.

I guess we all need a little break every now and then. I had mine. Time to get back on the writing wagon.

How about y’all? Do y’all take breaks from writing?

Friday, July 29, 2016

Vacation Books

I just returned from a wonderful eight-day trip out to Texas’s Big Bend country. For those of y’all that don’t know where it it, visualize a map of Texas. Now, from the far left point, follow the Rio Grande (southern border) from El Paso to Brownsville. Big Bend is literally the point where the river makes a big bend. The family and I hiked, saw stars and satellites every night, and just enjoyed being away from the everyday.

Naturally, one of the things I love doing is visiting bookstores and antique stores. Interestingly, there were very few of each, although the antique stores outnumbered the bookstores. Two of the bookstores I visited were in Alpine, Texas, a great little town along Highway 90. Front Street Books is a block or two down from the Amtrak train station. They have new and used books. They had some old western pulp magazines, but I zeroed in on a couple of books.

I have only a few Longarm novels, but how could I pass up the adventure that takes place in the Big Bend region?

Ironically, there was a Star Western pulp magazine in the back, but I found this anthology instead. At $6.00, I was pretty much gonna buy it anyway, but the inclusion of a Day Keene story is what took it over the top.

The Alpine Public Library has a used book store and a nice western section. Lots of Louis L’Amour, but I selected this title based on the author and, especially, the cover painting.

Now, on the way back, we stopped in Uvalde, Texas, (also on Highway 90) at the Antiques on the Square store. I had traversed the entire store, not really finding anything that struck my fancy, until I was near the checkout counter. On a shelf, tucked almost unseen, was this book.

You are probably wondering why in the world I would buy this book from 1943. Because I write a series of books set in 1940 and will continue through World War II and beyond. This book is chock full of data, tables, photos, and details that the internet will likely just not have. In addition, many of the laws and executive orders are reprinted. To sum up, this is a perfect reference for future novels!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Stranger Things, Part 1

My nostalgia typically runs through the 1970s. That was my first decade of life (born in 1968). It included KISS, Star Wars, comics, Legos, elementary school, Saturday morning cartoons, and many more discoveries. The 1980s was the decade I came of age: Middle school, high school, music, girls, movies, graduation in 1987. Not sure why, but I tend to overlook the 1980s in my trips down nostalgia lane. Not that I didn’t have a great time in that decade. I did. I had a pretty great time during those years. But I rarely return to them.

So it came as an interesting curiosity when I saw the trailer to Stranger Things, the 8-episode TV series from Netflix. Perhaps I had been away from the 80s for so long, mentally, that everything in this trailer piqued my interest. To be honest, I got pretty darn excited about seeing the show. The trailer itself seemed to check off just about every 80s visual reference you could imagine. Camera moving across backyard a la ET? Check. Flashlight emerging from elevator, also reminiscent of ET? Check. Boys on bikes? Check. Boys finding an “ET” and bringing her home? Check. Wait a second. Are all these images from ET? No, but Stranger Things is a love letter to Steven Spielberg’s films and Stephen King’s books. It's even got "Stephen King" font on the title card! Oh, and John Carpenter’s film scores.

I’m up through Episode 5 of the show, and boy am I digging this series. The creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, lather on so much 80s goodness in just about every shot and line of script that it’ll make you wonder if Netflix didn’t just discover some long-lost TV show from 1983. Heck, if you were to play a drinking game where you verbally identify a shot or a line of dialogue from an 80s movie, you’d be smashed halfway through the first episode. But all of this 80s love is not played ironically. This is real, genuine love of the era and its movies.

The basic plot is revealed in the trailer. Will, one of a quartet of young nerdlings, disappears after he rides home at night after a terrific game of Dungeons and Dragons. Winona Ryder is his single mom who was working. His older brother, Jonathan, is a loner who likes to take pictures with his camera and worked an extra shift the previous night. Quickly they realize Will is missing and things get started.

The leader of the young nerds, Mike, convinces his pals that they can find Will whereas the cops and adults cannot. In their nighttime hunt, they discover a girl. She won’t say anything. Her shaved head makes her look odd as does the tattoo of “011” on her forearm. They take her back to Mike’s house and hide her in the basement. Quickly, they figure out she has some special powers. She also knows where Will is: “Hiding.”

Meanwhile, Mike’s sister, Nancy, is infatuated with a boy, Steve, sort of a bad boy. He’s slept around but she’s a bookworm. Her friend, Barb, warns Nancy that Steve’s no good, but Nancy only has googly eyes for the handsome lad. Barb and Nancy go to a party at Steve’s house while his parents are away. Nancy makes some questionable choices and Barb bides her time outside on the diving board. Until something snatches her.

Sheriff Jim Hopper is a divorcee who self medicates. In typical fashion in a show like this, initially he’s reluctant to listen to the wailings of Will’s mom, chalking up her words to a frantic mother. But soon, however, he changes his mind.

Needless to say, all of these plot threads start to converge around episode 4. And I’ll freely admit that I’m in the dark on where this show is going. I’ve got a general idea, but I’m willing to just let the show take me where it will.

Oh, and Matthew Modine is now playing the Peter Coyote role. Bonus points if you get the reference.

I’m enjoying the heck out of this show. Ryder is great as the crazy-with-worry mother. I remember thinking during the first episode “How old must I be if Winona Ryder is playing the mom?” Old enough. All the cast are doing great. The youngsters are straight out of a Goonies casting call, but I’m fine with that. Absolutely love the music! Pure early 80s synth moody soundtrack.

I’m definitely looking forward to finishing this series. It’s a television highlight of the summer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Western Words

I live and write in 2016, the 21st Century, and there isn’t any real way to know how folks talked in the Old West. The only way to discover what words people used in conversation is to read then-contemporary documents and glean what I can and put it in my stories.

There is, however, another way: western novels and stories. From the earliest days, authors sometimes had the opportunity to interview real old west cowboys. Or these future authors—I’m thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Lester Dent—they actually grew up around some of these cowboys. No matter how the early 20th Century authors got their data, they put what they learned or knew into their stories.

Over the years and decades of western writing, a vocabulary of how writers described things emerged. A more or less common way to make these cowboy heroes, villains, and lovely ladies speak also emerged. Ever since the first western I read, I quickly realized that western writers simply had their own unique vocabulary.

So I started reading westerns with a pencil in hand.

Every time I came across some new term, I’d circle the word. Every new-to-me western I read, I repeated this practice. It’s second nature to me now. Even the Longarm novel I picked up in Austin last weekend—Longarm and the Bank Robber’s Daughter—has multiple new words for me. Even when I read stories on my Kindle, I highlight words and phrases and collect them when I'm done.

Now, I have an ever-growing “database” of words I can use to sprinkle into my Triple Action Western stories and give them more authenticity and help the reader—and me—become immersed into the world of the Old West.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Movie Review: Hail, Caesar

MV5BMjQyODc3MTI2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDMxMjU2NzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Up front confession: I didn’t finish the film. I tried. Maybe I was tired. Maybe the idea of taking out the trash on a Sunday night was more appealing than the movie. I don’t know. But I just couldn’t finish the film.

What was surprising was that it was tailor-made for someone like me. It’s a period piece, set in the early 1950s. It’s an inside look at Hollywood through the eyes of Josh Broil’s character, Eddie Mannix, an executive who is described as a “fixer,” a guy who does his best to cover up the real excesses of Hollywood celebrities in order to maintain the fiction of Hollywood itself as a golden paradise where everyone is always good. He actually did a pretty good job. I like the idea of following him around.

In fact, perhaps the neatest thing is when directors/writers Ethan and Joel Coen follow Mannix around the lot of Capital Pictures and the camera shows us various movies being filmed. Scarlett Johanssen is shown when one movie is staging one of those synchronized water dance pieces and she’s dressed as a mermaid. That was fun, until she threw her crown and struck the band leader, killing the scene. Now you realize that they’ll have to do the whole thing all over again because one person, the star, screwed it up. Another number I really enjoyed was Channing Tatum’s tap dance routine on the set of a picture about sailor’s about to ship out. I loved this sequence not only because it looked like the film itself, but, partway through the piece, Mannix walks in and we get a scene of the piece from behind the scenes.

Now, you might think that this praise on these set pieces would get me through the rest of the movie. Ironically, as I type this, I’m beginning to realize what the movie is going for. The overall story is that big star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney (I will watch anything he's in), has been kidnapped by communists. The commies have demanded a $100,000 ransom. When I turned off the film, Mannix had collected the dough and was prepared to meet the kidnappers somewhere.

But the movie was so disjointed. Ralph Fiennes, as director Laurence Laurentz, was frustrated by being told he had to work with cowboy star, Hobie Doyle, played by future Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich. I had the wikipedia page pulled up for him and learned who he was while watching his scenes. Suddenly, now that there was a Star Wars connection, I watched him intently. I could see Ehrenreich as a young Harrison Ford.

Argh! I’m digressing, but that’s what I faced last night while watching the movie. I’m beginning to think I was just tired. Maybe the pinot grigio relaxed me too much. Maybe I’ll give the film another go, at least finish it.

Anyone out there see the whole thing? Shall I get back to it or did I just miss point?

P.S., Okay, I just re-watched the trailer. I think I'll try and finish it tonight. Still, anyone out there see this flick?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Pets

MV5BMjQyODc3MTI2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDMxMjU2NzE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Up front confession: I didn’t finish the film. I tried. Maybe I was tired. Maybe the idea of taking out the trash on a Sunday night was more appealing than the movie. I don’t know. But I just couldn’t finish the film.

What was surprising was that it was tailor-made for someone like me. It’s a period piece, set in the early 1950s. It’s an inside look at Hollywood through the eyes of Josh Broil’s character, Eddie Mannix, an executive who is described as a “fixer,” a guy who does his best to cover up the real excesses of Hollywood celebrities in order to maintain the fiction of Hollywood itself as a golden paradise where everyone is always good. He actually did a pretty good job. I like the idea of following him around.

In fact, perhaps the neatest thing is when directors/writers Ethan and Joel Coen follow Mannix around the lot of Capital Pictures and the camera shows us various movies being filmed. Scarlett Johanssen is shown when one movie is staging one of those synchronized water dance pieces and she’s dressed as a mermaid. That was fun, until she threw her crown and struck the band leader, killing the scene. Now you realize that they’ll have to do the whole thing all over again because one person, the star, screwed it up. Another number I really enjoyed was Channing Tatum’s tap dance routine on the set of a picture about sailor’s about to ship out. I loved this sequence not only because it looked like the film itself, but, partway through the piece, Mannix walks in and we get a scene of the piece from behind the scenes.

Now, you might think that this praise on these set pieces would get me through the rest of the movie. Ironically, as I type this, I’m beginning to realize what the movie is going for. The overall story is that big star Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney (I will watch anything he's in), has been kidnapped by communists. The commies have demanded a $100,000 ransom. When I turned off the film, Mannix had collected the dough and was prepared to meet the kidnappers somewhere.

But the movie was so disjointed. Ralph Fiennes, as director Laurence Laurentz, was frustrated by being told he had to work with cowboy star, Hobie Doyle, played by future Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich. I had the wikipedia page pulled up for him and learned who he was while watching his scenes. Suddenly, now that there was a Star Wars connection, I watched him intently. I could see Ehrenreich as a young Harrison Ford.

Argh! I’m digressing, but that’s what I faced last night while watching the movie. I’m beginning to think I was just tired. Maybe the pinot grigio relaxed me too much. Maybe I’ll give the film another go, at least finish it.

Anyone out there see the whole thing? Shall I get back to it or did I just miss point?

P.S., Okay, I just re-watched the trailer. I think I'll try and finish it tonight. Still, anyone out there see this flick?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Book Review: Cross Kill by James Patterson

lg-bookshots-cross-killI’ve never read a James Patterson book before now. It wasn’t that I had anything against him. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I just didn’t have the time to keep up with his prodigious output. Actually, I’ve long admired Patterson in his strategies to produce as many books per year as possible and to generate new readers. That was why his Bookshots idea struck a chord with me. Patterson had the idea of writing shorter books, making them fast paced, and charging readers only $5. I liked the idea of creating smaller, faster reads for folks who may not have read a book since high school. That’s certainly not me, but I have come along for the ride.

The first book in the initiative is Cross Kill. It’s an Alex Cross story. The only thing I knew going in about Alex Cross was that both Morgan Freeman and Tyler Perry portrayed the character in movies. I’ve actually seen none of them. I’m not sure how many Cross novels Patterson has written, but I thought starting with Cross was a good idea. All the characters are new to me so, like the proverbial dude who hasn’t read anything since high school, I went in cold.

Police detective Cross and his partner, John Sampson, are working in a soup kitchen. Gunshots ring out and they investigate. When they get back into the preparation area, there’s a man waiting for them. He fires at both the police officers, striking Cross’s partner. But the really weird thing is that the shooter looks exactly like Gary Soneji, the main villain from Along Came a Spider. But Soneji is supposed to be dead a decade or so. According to Cross Kill, Alex Cross watched Soneji die in a ball of flames. But here Soneji is, seemingly back from the grave and ready to take out his vengeance on Alex Cross.

As if Cross didn’t already need a motive to investigate, Sampson is shot in the head and isn’t expected to survive. Now, Cross is even more driven to figure out who this shooter is and why he looks so much like his arch-enemy.

The story moves along at a fast clip. Even when Cross is hunting for clues or interviewing someone, the pace rarely slows. I went back and re-read some pages to figure out why. It turns out Patterson doesn’t spend a lot of time with description. He sketches a scene with a few words and leaves it up to reader to fill in the blanks. Not a bad way to write. I didn’t notice until I actually examined the prose. Besides, if it gets non-readers to read, who cares.

I’m a newbie to Patterson and Alex Cross so I imagine lots of the dialogue and thoughts would mean a whole lot more to folks who have already read the books or seen those movies, but I got through it. I was rarely lost because the gaps were mostly filled in and I could deduce the rest.

Then there the ending. It’s a cliffhanger. A pretty big one at that. In many of the self-publishing podcasts and blogs I read, a good deal of discussion is given to cliffhangers, both pro and con. While I don’t usually mind a certain type of cliffhanger—say, the end of Star Wars where Luke has blown up the Death Star but Darth Vader has escaped and you know he’ll return—this one is pretty out there. Even a tad aggravating. To make matters worse, there isn’t any “Come back in September for the exciting conclusion!” so I’m not sure when this sequel will land.

Other than the end, I enjoyed the book. Actually, truth be told, the ending didn't bother me too much. I smiled at how well Patterson hooked me. And, yeah, I’ll be buying the sequel.

Job well done, Mr. Patterson.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

RTX/SGC 2016 Convention in Austin

I’m used to comic book and SF conventions. The people who attend are, by and large, my people. I’m one of them. But an internet/gaming/YouTube convention? I’m more of a bystander, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a blast at the RTX/SGC convention in Austin over the weekend.

According to the website, “RTX is a three day gaming and internet culture event hosted by Rooster Teeth!” The con was held at the Austin Convention Center (ACC), one block north of Town Lake. I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin but I never had cause—or knew about—the ACC. Man, is it huge. And packed with a lot of people. The percentage of cosplayers was not as high as Comicpalooza in Houston, but they were still there. Most of the attendees were folks with ages ranging from teenagers to upper twenties. I saw a decent number of younger kids with parents in two and some folks more my age without a young chaperon, but, by and large, this seemed to be a young person’s con.

That being said, the first area you see right inside the main doors was the retro arcade games! Asteroids! Tron (very glitchy)! Donkey Kong! Pole Position II! Star Wars! <—this was the original Star Wars vector graphics game which I still know how to play and win. That made my day.


Two YouTubers were the big draw for me and my boy. Jirard the Completionist is a dude who, as his name implies, completes a game every week.


ProJared is another reviewer/game player who is highly thought of here at my house.


Both are funny guys. We attended both panels on Saturday. Now, what that means is that we sat in line at 1pm, attended the Completionist panel at 2pm, got back in line at 3pm, and then saw ProJared at 4pm. That may sound…interesting…but being in line at a con like this can actually be fun. You start up conversations with folks and share stories. The Completionist picked 8 audience members to come up and play a Super Smash Bros. tournament. ProJared’s experience doing stand-up comedy was on full display. Both panels were a lot of fun.

The weekend was not without its challenges. As soon as we got to Austin, the transmission in my dad’s van decided to stop working. Enter: tow truck. Enter: Toyota dealership. Enter: Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Enter: being 4 hours late to the start of the convention. Ugh! But…that delay enabled us to be at the exact right spot for us to meet the Completionist and ProJared just walking around the convention floor! So we got our photos without having to wait in any lines! So it all worked out.

Conventions. Love’em. Love the people and the vibes.

Oh, and I found myself on TV.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan

The_Legend_of_Tarzan_posterI’m to the point now where I rarely, if ever, read any reviews prior to seeing a movie. I watch the trailer and if it grabs me, I’ll go see the movie. And, boy, did the Legend of Tarzan trailer grab me! I had no idea there was a new Tarzan movie being made so the trailer was a happy surprise. But a lot of times, trailers stuff all the best parts into the previews and leave nothing for the movie. Would LoT suffer the same fate?

No! Absolutely not! If you love Tarzan, if you love adventure movies, this is a great film. Highly entertaining with many sequences that had me smiling and all but cheering out loud.

Legends of Tarzan starts with a decision that was probably the best decision possible: make this movie NOT be the origin. When the film opens, John Clayton III is already back in London, in the House of Lords. He’s married to Jane Porter and they are living their lives happily. His days as Tarzan are legend. Those stories are already printed in dime novels of the day. Now, scattered throughout the movie are flashbacks to Tarzan’s origin. And they worked well to educate those who may not know Tarzan’s story—who, exactly, is this?—and to flesh out this story’s through line. I suppose some folks in this century might not know Tarzan, but they will be fully up-to-date after LoT.

The story kicks off with an invitation from the King of Belgium for Lord Greystoke to travel to the Congo and tour the new schools and such. Unbeknownst to John Clayton is that this plan is really an elaborate ruse by Leon Rom, played by Christopher Waltz, to lure Tarzan down to the Congo to capture him and deliver him to Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). Mbonga, you see, has his eye on vengeance because Tarzan killed Mbenga’s son. Reluctantly, Tarzan agrees to the trip and is accompanied not only by Jane (Margot Robbie) but Samuel Jackson, playing Dr. George Washington Williams. Now, Jackson was nowhere in the trailers so he was a complete surprise to me. He brought the comedic relief. He also served as a surrogate audience member not familiar with all that Tarzan can do. He performed his task just like you’d expect Samuel Jackson to do. After all, in 2016, Jackson only play one character: “Samuel Jackson.” If you like that, you’ll be fine with him. If you don’t, he’ll be annoying. I’ll admit I was initially jarred when I realized Jackson wasn’t just in a cameo, but I like him so I went with it.

If you have read any of the books—I’ve only read the first three—or seen any of the movies, you know what’s going to happen so there’s little use in relating it here. Jane gets herself captured and Tarzan must rescue her. Heck, even the trailer has Christopher Waltz deliver a standout line: “He’s Tarzan. You’re Jane. He will come.” In order to do that, Tarzan and his growing team of allies, both animal and human, traverse through the jungle where Tarzan meets up with old friends and enemies. It is in these scenes where modern technology has finally allowed you to see the images in your head when you read the books. The gorillas are HUGE and vicious. The elephants even huger but graceful. And the jungle environs are exactly what I wanted to see.

An interesting note to the characters of Jackson and Waltz. Both don’t know what Tarzan can do so each comment—almost meta-comment—on what’s happening. It’s humorous and it didn’t take me out of the film. But I can see where some might find that irritating. No one in the theater yesterday minded a bit. We laughed at the funny spots and a few folks clapped when the movie was over.

Alexander Skarsgård is new to me. I never watched True Blood so, for me, he was Tarzan. He did such a great job showing you how difficult it was for John Clayton to hold back his savage upbringing in London. Even in Africa, when the chase is on, initially, he is still reticent. But when Jane is taken, boy, hold onto your hats. Even Jane tells Waltz basically “You have no idea what’s in store for you.” She says it with such honesty that it comes across not as bragging but as a certainty.

There are so many great sequences in this film that to tell but a few would spoil it for y’all. The stampede in the trailer is exactly what you think it is and it hearkens back to The Beasts of Tarzan where he can talk to the animals. Waltz’s little accouterment is interesting and I’d like someone more versed in the lore to let me know if it’s from the books or made up for the movie. Either way, I thought it pretty nifty. The soundtrack by Rupert Gregson-Williams is pretty good at mixing African beats and sounds with traditional orchestral music. In many scenes, with the vista of Africa on the screen, the music swirled to match.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, whether he was writing Tarzan, John Carter, Caron of Venus, or who knows what else, often had a standard plot formula: girl gets kidnapped and guy must rescue her. It’s old fashioned, but it’s also pure. You don’t need anything else. You don’t need angst. You only need love. Love drives the character to great feats of daring-do to save the one he loves. It has it slow moments, but that’s only to let you catch your breath before the next action sequence. It is a modern pulp adventure movie with all the trappings of modern movie making behind it.

If you love that kind of movie, you will love this movie.

I do, and I did.

It hit every beat I want to see, that I expected to see, but did so in such a way as to be greater than the sum of its parts. This is a fantastic summer movie that I will be adding to my DVD collection later this year.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Blogs I Like: Rough Edges by James Reasoner

James Reasoner has written so many books I’m not even sure he knows how many. A career writer of over 40 years, Reasoner is an old-school pulp writer working in the modern age. He loves and adores all types of fiction—especially westerns—and he channels all of that enthusiasm into his blog, Rough Edges.

Reading the Rough Edges blog is like sitting next to a kid in the candy store and having him tell you about all the different types of candy, who made them, and which are his favorites. Actually, the image works better if you imagine that same kid but in a drug store sometime in the mid-1960s. This was the time when comic books and dime store paperbacks could be seen in just about every establishment. This kid is a voracious reader, consuming just about anything, but favoring westerns, SF, and old pulp superstars like Doc Savage and the Shadow. Throw in the trips to the library and bookstores and you have a kid who realized he loved to read and never stopped.

Now, with the Rough Edges blog, Reasoner has many more years of reading and knowledge to share. He has many regular features. One of my favorites is Saturday Morning Western Pulp where he’ll take a particular issue of an old western pulp and comment on the stories, authors, and cover artists. Sunday gets you Bonus Pulp, which could be a detective mag or a SF one. He typically does the Forgotten Book Friday segment where he’ll take an old book and/or author and “re-introduce” it to modern audiences who may have been too young to have read the particular book first hand. (I fall into that category a lot.) Somewhere along the way he started contributing Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies where he’ll examine some movie out of the mainstream and tell you why he likes it.

Reasoner, however, isn’t just a fan. He’s a working craftsman of words. He produces millions of words a year in content. Many of his books are under a house name or pen name, but you’d be surprised—no, amazed—at how prolific he is. And, a few years back, he, and his life, Livia Reasoner, started Rough Edges Press, an independent publishing house. Rough Edges Press releases some old titles by other authors and some of Reasoner’s short westerns that he wrote back in the day. He also releases new material like his Outlaw Ranger series. Most recently, Rough Edges publishes Blaze, the new adult western series featuring husband and wife gunslingers, J.D. and Kate Blaze. That series is up to eleven.

But it’s the Rough Edges blog that has become a constant companion. Every Saturday morning, one of the first things I do is check Rough Edges blog. No matter the day, I read Reasoner’s blog entries. Reasoner’s interests often dovetail into mine, so I’ve long considered him my tour guide for stuff I like and other stuff I'm probably going to like.

Why don’t you come along for the ride?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Finding_DoryPixar makes great films. Even something as subpar (for them) as Cars II is still better than a lot of movies out there. Pixar is 1 for 2 in the sequel department. For as great as Toy Story 2 and 3 are, there is, well, Cars II. So when Finding Dory was announced, I was a little bummed. Why? Finding Nemo was so good what more could be told. And did we really need Dory’s backstory? Wasn’t that first film a nice, little one-off movie, like Ratatouille or Wall E?

Boy was I wrong. Finding Dory is a wonderfully charming movie that expands her backstory, provides a ton of genuine laughs, and, of course, has some teaching moments, namely family. Granted we got that in Nemo, but, hey, so what, right? It’s also the thing that kicks off the plot.

If you remember in Nemo, when, towards the end, Dory has a memory and all those images flash by at rocket speed until she remembers Sydney, there’s a similar thing here, but it’s for her own past. Thus, the story starts when she was to find her parents. Throughout the film, we get to see baby Dory and her parents. And, boy, is it as cute as can be. This is Disney full-on cuteness. As funny as Dory’s short-term memory loss can be (a fav of mine is in Nemo when she keeps calling him just about any other name), it is basically a handicap. Thus, you see her parents teaching her to cope with her handicap. I never quite figured that out before this new movie. It’s a nice example of modern parenting.

Naturally, Marlin and Nemo go along for the adventure. It’s great to see the dad and son, reunited, and working together. There are some fun mentions of the first film along the way. Where in the first film, Marlin is the scaredy cat who overcomes his fear of the ocean to rescue his son, in this new film, we get to see Marlin take some chances of his own volition but still be the worrywart. It’s a nice bit of character development that works.

The humor is over the top funny. Slapstick in many places. I am not ashamed to say that I was literally laughing loudly in many parts of the film. Everyone in the theater loved it. The new co-stars are hilarious. I won’t spoil what they are, but it’s just further proof that the folks at Pixar can create instantly memorable characters. Andrew Stanton returned to direct and, once again, proves that anything he's involved in is good. Yes, even John Carter! (Come back tomorrow for my reasons.)

The animated short, Piper, is simple stunning! Naturally, the story is yet another example that great stories and great storytellers do not need a word of dialogue to move you. Shhh! Don’t tell the writers. But the animation is incredible. My entire family all marveled at the all-but-real-life quality of the short. Fantastic. And, of course, funny and poignant.

Definitely put Finding Dory on your to-watch list. And, no, you don’t need to rent a child to see it. While Finding Dory skews more to a traditional kids film (say, Frozen or Toy Story 2) rather than an adult film that just happens to be animated (Inside Out, Up, Wall-E), there is still content for everyone. Easily one of the funniest films of the year.

Oh, and stay through the credits…

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Charm of The Bronze Gazette

BG01-Cover-Upright-211x300I am way too young to have been a Doc Savage fan back in the 1930s, but reading The Bronze Gazette is like being a kid again.

The Bronze Gazette is a fanzine focusing on the life and adventures of Doc Savage, Man of Bronze. Doc was the larger-than-life creation of Lester Dent back in 1933. For 181 issues—most of them monthly—Doc and his Fabulous Five took on bad guys the world over with high adventure, keen gadgets, and overall derring-do. Doc is the precursor to many things, including Superman, Batman, James Bond, the Fantastic Four, CSI, and every other ‘team’ on TV and movies. He is the “Superman” to the Shadow’s “Batman”: good-hearted, courageous, and a dozen other adjectives.

Doc’s fandom grew almost instantly in the 1930s and carried on through World War II. But, as is so often the case, the Doc Savage magazine was eventually cancelled. Doc lay dormant for a few years before Bantam began publishing the stories again in the 1960s. Here, instead of the original painted covers by Walter Baumhofer, Bantam commissioned new art from James Bama. This is the Doc many people think of if they think of Doc: big, buff, sporting a widow’s peak, and with a shirt always ripped to shreds.

220px-ManofbronzebamaFandom of Doc kicked into another gear as a new generation of readers fell in love with Doc’s adventures. Enter The Bronze Gazette. Frankly, I have never seen an issue before the most recent one, No. 76. For 75 issues, dating back over 25 years, Howard Wright founded, published, and kept the Bronze Gazette going. With issue 76, a new team has come on board to carry the baton going forward.

I got my first issue today, and boy is it stellar! I’ll be honest: when I think of ‘fanzine,’ my first thoughts are of xeroxed pages, stapled together, with black-and-white hand drawn illustrations. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bronze Gazette is a professionally bound journal with a great cover and color pictures scattered throughout. There are over a dozen articles including a couple by Will Murray, the preeminent Doc scholar and author of The Wild Adventures of Doc Savage, the new novels being published.

I was already thrilled to receive my first fanzine and first Bronze Gazette, but there was one thing that put a huge goofy grin on my face. There is a code inside. It’s a Mayan alphabet with a symbol for each English letter. And it’s up to you to decipher it.

Come on! With the attention to detail like this, the charm of this, I hope the Bronze Gazette continues for many years to come. I know I’ll be buying every issue.

Thanks to Chuck Welch (editor), Kez Wilson (art director), and Terry Allen (publisher) for keeping the fire of Doc Savage going into the 21st Century.