Friday, June 23, 2017

23 June 1989: The Real Batman Day

Where were you 28 years ago today? Probably standing in line to see BATMAN.

It may be difficult to imagine now, in 2017, a year in the golden age of superhero movies, but there was a time when a single superhero film dominated everything. And I mean everything.

BATMAN, the 1989 film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker, was a cultural phenomenon in every sense of the word. The long gestating film had started production the previous year and if you thought the backlash the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman created was something, you have no idea when the casting of Keaton, primarily known for his comedies, caused. I can’t remember my own impressions for Keaton, but I remember quite vividly my thoughts on Joker. My choice, if you were going by the comic book look and feel, was Peter O’Toole. Sure, he was older, but he had The Grin. But when Nicholson was cast, I was like “Of course!”

Pictures in Starlog the spring of 1989 gave us the first glimpse of the all-black Batsuit and Keaton in it. I was sold! Then photos of Nicholson’s Joker emerged and I was so excited! I was and am an easy mark in that respect. A lifelong comic book fan, it was so cool to see Batman in real life.

Batman ‘66

Let me pause here a moment to comment on the 1966 Batman. At the time, I was 20 and had come of age just as comics realized they could be darker and grittier. I was almost the perfect age to read The Dark Knight Returns and Year One and The Killing Joke. So, in 1989, I was distancing myself from TV’s Batman, the way I was first introduced to the character. Gone in my mind was the funny Batman. Here was the grim Batman, the way he was in the 1940s comics and the 1970s comics. Ironically, 28 years later and with the passing of Adam West, I’m ready for grimdark Batman to go away or, at least, make a way for more than one version.

The Preview

Back in those pre-YouTube days, the only way you could see a trailer was to go to a movie and buy a ticket. I’m not sure how but I learned that the Batman trailer was attached to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Boom! I couldn’t get to the theater fast enough. There it was, with no music and what seemed like unmixed sound, was Batman, alive, moving, beating up bad guys and driving a kick-ass Batmobile with fire out the back! And Joker. Heavens, how awesome he looked. And I loved the line Robert Wuhl’s reporter asked: “Is there a six-foot bat in Gotham City?” And Batman crashing through the skylight? The only question in the spring was how many days until 23 June?

The Movie

I can’t remember for sure if I went to the midnight showing or day one showing. I worked at a movie theater the summer of 1989—a great summer of movies*—so I’m pretty confident that I saw it at midnight with the throngs of other folks. Like just about everyone, I lost it. This was the movie we had been waiting our entire lives for! The Danny Elfman score. The opening scene when the mugger asks what are you and Keaton says “I’m Batman” (still my absolutely favorite part). The gadgets. Keaton doing a wonderful job. Nicholson chewing scenery. The fight in the alley with the sword guy. The Batmobile doing…anything. The menace of Joker. The reveal that Joker/Jack Napier killed Bruce’s parents. Prince’s music. The Batplane. The quotes (“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” “Never rub another man’s hubarb” “I didn’t ask.” “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.” “My life is…complicated.”) The final confrontation. The final scene with the Bat-signal. It was utterly awesome.

BATMAN got everyone. The hard-core comics fans flocked to see the movie multiple times. The casual viewer enjoyed it. Your grandpa enjoyed it. Everyone, it seemed, had seen the movie at least once, and chatted about it. Was it the last great common movie everyone saw? I’m not sure, but it was certainly a milestone.

Oh, and the merchandise! Good grief! Batman stuff was everywhere. And, yeah, I bought my fair share. Why the heck not? Up until then, the amount of Batman/superhero stuff available to purchase was meager at best. Nowhere near what it’s like today.

I can’t remember how many times I saw the film. Enough for me to memorize huge chunks of the movie.

Looking Back

The irony now, for many of us who distanced ourselves from the 1966 Batman in 1989, is that the Batman '89, when compared to the Christian Bale films and Batman v Superman, looks more campy than we ever saw at the time. But that’s only in comparison to what came afterwards. Sure, the immediate next film, 1992’s Batman Returns, went very dark, only to be brightened by 1995’s Batman Forever and, ahem, 1997’s Batman and Robin. When you compare those four films, Batman is the second darkest. But it’s still funny when you look at it now. Something the new Wonder Woman movie realized and got correct.

But not in 1989. In that year, we comic book readers thought our time had finally arrived. We had our dark Batman. What was next? Another Superman? What about those Marvel characters? And when’s the Justice League gonna land in our laps?

Well, we still had to wait another decade until 2000’s X-Men to kick off this current Golden Age of Superhero Movies. This current run of films has produced some truly great movies (Dark Knight; Spider-Man 2; Batman Begins; all three Captain America movies; Avengers; Ant-Man, and, in 2017, Wonder Woman) but it all had to start somewhere. Technically, the run started in 1978 with SUPERMAN THE MOVIE (Boy, am I so happy they didn’t put “The Movie” at the end of “Batman”), but the run of superhero movies started with BATMAN.

I’m so glad I was alive at the time to enjoy it.

What were some of your thoughts about the movie?

*The other movies of Summer 1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; When Harry Met Sally; Star Trek V; License to Kill; Ghostbusters 2; Dead Poet’s Society; Karate Kid III; Lethal Weapon 2; Parenthood; The Abyss.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Now Available: A Father's Justice: A Junction City Western

A man shouldn't outlive his son. Neither should his killer.

IN A SEARING NEW WESTERN FROM AUTHOR S. D. PARKER, you will discover all a father will endure to see justice done right by his murdered son.

Luke Russell was a cowpuncher, making an honest way in the world at one of the biggest ranches outside of Junction City. But he got himself in trouble over a girl, and he paid the ultimate price.

Now, a stranger's in town, asking after Pete Davidson, the man who put a bullet in Luke Russell's gut. This stranger is old, and folks realize it's Luke father, come to kill Davidson. The gunslinger is young and vibrant, just like Luke Russell was. The old man doesn't stand a chance.

Or does he?

The answer comes in a brand-new western written in the style of Robert Vaughn, Louis L'Amour, and Chet Cunningham.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Honoring Strangers

It was the fire trucks that got me.

A week ago, my cousin passed away. He was 87 and lived a good, long life. What made him unique in our family was his profession. The son of a sheriff here in Texas, my cousin worked for the Texas Department of Public Safety before becoming a Texas Ranger for two decades. And boy did he love being a Ranger.

His service was this past Saturday. As you could imagine, the folks who turned out for the service consisted of many current and former Rangers and DPS veterans. The casket even had an honor guard, complete with the changing of the guard. It was a somber ceremony punctuated with humorous moments, including one old timer who quipped that “today would be a good day for a jail break.”

The ceremony was nice, but it was the funeral procession that really got me. My first clue this was something special was the highway patrol officer who blocked traffic right as we left the funeral home. He stood there, in the early summer heat, in front of his car, and saluted until the last car in the procession had gone. From there, we drove about half an hour to the cemetery. What I saw reminded me of some good old-fashioned values that I hadn’t seen in a long time.

All along the route, oncoming cars didn’t merely slow down as the procession passed, they stopped. I live in Houston and I love living in a big city. Motorcycle police make a path for funeral processions here and cars slow, but they don’t always stop. I do because my parents taught me to show respect to strangers, and I’m instilling that trait in my son who will be driving soon. But things are different in small town central Texas. Every car stopped and pulled over. They didn’t know who the procession was for, but it was a funeral procession, so they stopped. That was awesome to witness.

By the time we reached the little town where my cousin would be laid to rest, I had become accustomed to the sight of these Texans paying their respects by stopping for a few minutes of their day. But when we reached the main intersection of that small town, we saw something even more powerful. The local lawmen and firemen had blocked the intersection with all the local fire trucks. It was our last right turn before we took the smaller roads to get to the cemetery. This is what we saw.

Man, that was a great sight. I was driving, but my eyes welled with tears. 

The graveside ceremony was somber, filled with quiet dignity and ceremony—complete with a trumpeter playing taps and the honor guard meticulously removing the Texas flag from the casket—but it will be the fire engines that stay with me. It reminded me that dignity and honor, even for strangers, is something worth taking the time to do. 

I remembered that yesterday as I walked outside around my office building on a break. When I reached the corner, I heard the distinctive “whoop whoop” of police motorcycle sirens. It was a funeral procession. Remembering what I had seen over the weekend, I stopped walking and turned off my music until the procession had passed. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Fourth Gunman by Merle Constiner

Sometimes, a western features a guy walking, riding, talking, and thinking. But little in the way of shooting.

THE FOURTH GUNMAN by Merle Constiner is the first book I’ve read by him. It is one half of an Ace Double, the flip side being SLICK ON THE DRAW by Tom West. I own a handful of Ace Doubles and, based on the description, I chose Constiner’s book first.

The story revolves around George Netfield, proprietor of a saloon up in Kirkville, Wyoming (I think). He is what you’d typically find in a western written in 1958: tough, lean, cunning, quick on the draw, but quicker on talking. But the end of chapter 1, one of his workers lays dead. He realizes there are some bad men roaming around the county, many of them from the 7 Diamond ranch. Additionally, some of the finer men in the county are gathering up steam in a more legal manner. Lastly, a small cadre of gun totters made their presence known. I think you can guess how many there were by the title.

Little by little, Netfield seems to be the only man who discerns what’s really going on. He’s out to stop it, but roadblocks and bad hombres keep getting in his way. A rich man by the name of Crewe, old and somewhat enfeebled, doesn’t think much of Netfield’s suspicions, especially considering Crewe has employed two of the bad guys. Little by little, the noose around Netfield tightens, and he has only a few allies…if they can stay alive.

Perhaps it’s just an assumption but I’ve always thought of westerns, especially older pulp-inspired westerns from the 1950s, as action-packed romps with lots of shoot-outs and fighting. THE FOURTH GUNMAN certainly has its share of fighting, but it is few and far between. There are a few fine action sequences, one in a lumber yard that’s positively stellar. But I have to admit much of the action was over so quick that I have double-back and re-read certain sentences to verify bullets were loosed. The action was so quick that the gunshots were over in a sentence. At first I was surprised, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that true violence back in the old west was often swift, brutal, deadly, and over within seconds. Then my respect for Constiner’s book grew.

But still it seemed that Netfield did a lot of talking. The story read a bit like a detective tale, where Netfield would go here or there, gathering pieces of information, and then piecing it together. He wouldn’t always tell other characters and, thus, we readers would also be in the dark. But along the way, the cast of suspects keeps growing and  you pretty much figure out what the bad guys are up to, and then it is only a matter of time to see how Netfield would get through the book.

Whenever I read westerns—heck, any book really—I always have a pencil in my hand so I can circle or underline a word, a phrase, or a bit of history. There were few pages without a mark when I completed this novel, not the least of which was Constiner’s great descriptions of the landscape and the towns. For a genre that likes and prefers lean storytelling and descriptions, Constiner made the extra effort to color his prose well.

I enjoyed THE FOURTH GUNMAN and will certain pick up future Merle Constiner books when I see them.

Anyone else read this book? Any recommendations for other Constiner books?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Father's Justice: Excerpt

Excerpt from A Father’s Justice: A Junction City Western


Now Available at Amazon.

Chapter 1

If there was one thing bartender Hector Alonzo knew, it was trouble. And when he got a look at the man standing outside the Lampasas Saloon, Hector’s gut clenched into a tight, little knot. He finished pouring a mug of beer for the two ranch hands leaning on the bar and sidled over to where the two parts of the bar formed the crux of the L and waited. His thick fingers casually caressed the smooth oak of his shotgun’s stock, the gun within easy reach of the proprietor but out of view from all the patrons.

The stranger was tall and rangy. He looked like he spent his days astride a horse. The brim of his brown, sweat-stained hat was pulled low, obscuring all but the hard jaw, which was unshaven. The stranger’s lips were drawn into a thin line, almost like a grimace. His clothes had seen better days as well. Sweat stained his armpits, chest, and collar. His pants had patches mending the frayed fabric. His boots were well worn. A pistol, a Colt by the look of the worn handle, was slung low on his right leg, held in place by a leather thong around his thigh.

Hector recognized the type. He stood behind the bar, polishing glasses and cleaning up from the lunch crowd. The ranch hands were the only customers remaining. From the back came the sounds of pots being scrubbed and readied for the evening. The late afternoon sun slanted into the saloon from dusty windows, giving the interior a muted glow.

The stranger paused just inside the batwing doors. He turned his head long and slow, taking in the saloon. His scan paused a moment to inspect the poker tables, empty and waiting for the evening’s patrons. His eyes followed the stairs up to the second floor with the rooms that featured Hector’s other business offerings. The stranger’s mouth twitched. Finally, his eyes met Hector’s. Even though this was his place, Hector inwardly shrank a little under the steady gaze.

As the stranger entered the Lampasas Saloon, a gust of wind followed him, bringing with it the scent of horse manure, dust, and grime. He wore no spurs. The only sound he made was the soft clomping of worn heels.

“I’m lookin’ for Pete Davidson.” The stranger’s voice was old, aged with smoke, and hardened by time out on the range.

Hector knew Davidson. Everyone in town did. Hector only wondered what fresh hell Davidson had cooked up to get another man to come looking for him.

To the stranger, Hector said, “He ain’t here.”

“I can see that.”

Slowly, the stranger walked to the bar. Outside, passersby went about the business of Junction City. The courthouse lawn was free of people on this Saturday afternoon. The Gilmour children walked with their mother across the street, a rangy dog followed them. The clip-clop of hooves and a squeaky wagon wheel pierced the stillness of a late summer’s afternoon.

The stranger reached the bar and leaned on it. “Can I get a beer, please?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. He laid it on the wood pockmarked with knife marks and carvings.
Hector retrieved a fresh glass and filled it. He slid the coin into his hands and stepped back, putting his butt against the far wall. “Why’re you looking for Pete?”

The stranger removed his hat and set it on the bar. His matted hair was predominantly gray. What color remained was brown.

“That’s between me and him.” He downed half the brew in a single gulp. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stared at himself in the mirror behind the bar.

Hector had the impression the stranger had forgotten all about him. It wasn’t until Hector fidgeted that the stranger again took notice of him.

“You ever know you have to do something but don’t know if you’ve got it in you?” the stranger asked.

Hector was used to men talking to him, giving up their secrets. But that was from men he knew. “I reckon.”

The stranger shook his head. “Bet you have more than one cuss saying something like this?”

Hector nodded. He spoke when he realized the stranger wasn’t looking at him. “Yes.”

The stranger took another swallow. He drew his attention to the bar top and the gouges in it. Knife cuts and initials coated most of the surface. Some men carved their entire names. The stranger traced his hands over one name, his fingers caressing each letter of the name. His beer forgotten, he studied each of the names carved into the wood.

Hector said, “A few boys carved their names into the wood. I used to get after them, made them fix up what they did. But as you can see”—he indicated a place nearer him—“the fix looks worse’n the carvin’. Pretty soon, I kinda liked having the names in the wood. Became kinda like a rite of passage. New man in town ain’t accepted into town lessen’ he puts his name on my bar.”

The stranger wasn’t listening. He went up one side of the bar then returned to his spot. He moved his beer glass and started reading the names and initials on the other side of the bar.

His fingers stopped on a name. A little gasp of recognition escaped his lips.

Hector moved to see the name that had stopped the stranger. “Luke.” Hector’s blood froze in his veins. He remembered the man who belonged to that name. He remembered how he died.

Realization dawned on Hector. “You kin to Luke?”

The stranger didn’t answer. “You knew him?”

“A little.” Hector shrugged. “He was new in town, got shown the ropes by the other cow punchers up on the Alistair ranch. He was a little wet behind the ears, but he learned fast.”

The stranger kept staring at the name. “How did he die?”

Hector hesitated. “Look, mister, I don’t…”

“How did he die?” the stranger repeated, this time in a forceful voice.

For the rest of the story, A Father's Justice is available at Amazon.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Father's Justice: Description

A man shouldn't outlive his son. Neither should his killer.

IN A SEARING NEW WESTERN FROM AUTHOR S. D. PARKER, you will discover all a father will endure to see justice done right by his murdered son.

Luke Russell was a cowpuncher, making an honest way in the world at one of the biggest ranches outside of Junction City. But he got himself in trouble over a girl, and he paid the ultimate price.

Now, a stranger's in town, asking after Pete Davidson, the man who put a bullet in Luke Russell's gut. This stranger is old, and folks realize it's Luke father, come to kill Davidson. The gunslinger is young and vibrant, just like Luke Russell was. The old man doesn't stand a chance.

Or does he?

The answer comes in a brand-new western written in the style of Robert Vaughn, Louis L'Amour, and Chet Cunningham.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Forgotten Books: The Pulp Jungle by Frank Gruber

When I read Frank Gruber’s retelling of his days as a struggling then successful pulp fiction writer from the 1930s, I realized something important: I don’t have it so bad here in 2017.

Frank Gruber was one of the more well-known and prolific authors to emerge from the pulp fiction years from the 1920s through World War II. By his own estimates, Gruber wrote more than 300 pulp fiction yarns, 60 novels, and more than 200 screenplays and television scripts. THE PULP JUNGLE is his retelling of his time as a writer, how he started, how he persevered, the decisions he made, and how it all turned out.

In a word, it is a sobering read.

Like many of the successful pulp writers in the depth of the Great Depression, Gruber wrote everything. A ledger from the months August 1932 to June 1934 indicated he wrote 174 “pieces” which totaled 620,000 words, all on a Remington manual typewriter. He called himself a sloppy writer, so he had to retype everything after he corrected the manuscript. The fiction spanned the gamut: Sunday School stories, detective stories, love stories, spicy stories, sports stories, etc. Those words were not solely fiction. He wrote tons of articles often on topics he had to learn on the fly. In the book, Gruber lists the dollar amounts he earned for various pieces. Even in 1932 dollars, those meager sales didn’t add up to a living wage.

But he persevered. His move to New York in 1934 proved to be the kind of starving artist story that sounds good when you’ve made it but horrible at the time. He arrived in the Big Apple with the Remington, clothes that fit into a suitcase, and $40 after paying rent. And “I had something else…the will to succeed.” But those early New York years were bad. He “existed. Some days I had a single meal, some days I tasted no food at all other than the tomato soup at the Automat.” The tomato soup in question is actually warm water (which was free), catsup (also free), and crackers (free). That was the “soup.”

Gruber got two breaks that helped him on his way. One came from honesty. He had been paid twice for a single story and, reluctantly, Gruber had sent the second check back. That ended up paying dividends when the editor of Writer’s Digest came calling to see the man who had returned that check. The editor paid Gruber to be a contact in New York.

The other break—The Big Break—came in 1934 in one of those great true tales you hear. Gruber gets a call on Friday afternoon. Operator #5 was going to press the next day but was a story short. Could Gruber write a 5500-word story overnight? In his retelling, he started at 8pm and had a character. Two hours later, he had his leading lady. By 3:30am, he had his big finale…but still needed a plot thread to weave it all together. He got it, and delivered the 18 pages by 9am. He didn’t hear back for a few days. He started to worry, so he called on the editor. Oh, he was told, we pay on Friday. Pay? Yup, the story was purchased. And then he was asked for another. According to Gruber, “I was ‘in.’”

From that moment on, Gruber worked steadily and for higher paying markets. He cracked the big dog on the block—Black Mask—and kept going. The key factor here was that Gruber never stopped working. Yes he had made it, but in those days, a writer was only as good as the next sale. Not like today. So he kept working on stories, then branched out into novels, both detective stories as well as westerns. All the contacts he had made during the lean years paid dividends later on, including when he moved to Hollywood.

THE PULP JUNGLE is chock full of great little nuggets of truth. Writing to market is a growing aspect of indie writers, but Gruber and his pals did it back in the 1930s. They had to or they didn’t eat. Another modern trend is books or courses or classes on writing. Yes they serve a valuable purpose—I greatly benefited from two online courses with Dean Wesley Smith late in 2016—but constant writing means a writer is constantly improving his craft. By definition, each story or book is better than the previous. I can attest to that as well.

For any person who dreams of a full-time writing career in 2017, that dream is still attainable. But what the story of Frank Gruber’s professional life suggests is that hard work, determination, and perseverance will enable a writer to hone the skills necessary to become a full-time writer. It also demonstrates that writers must recognize and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Don’t think you could write a story overnight (or insert your own personal challenge here)? Perhaps Gruber didn’t think he could do it either…until he said “yes” and then he delivered.

You can, too.

Reading THE PULP JUNGLE is a great snapshot into the life of a real pulp fiction writer and might be essential reading for any writer who is considering the professional writing life.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bloodline Season 3

Bloodline: Season 3

I crossed the finish line with Bloodline Season 3 last night. Perhaps that phrase will serve as a clue to what I thought of it.

This review contains spoilers so read no further if you don't want to know details.

Back in December, I watched Season 1 and raved about the series, especially Ben Mendelsohn's character, Danny. He was mesmerizing. He didn't survive to Season 2, having been murdered by his brother, John, played wonderfully by Kyle Chandler. Most of Season 2 was John and his two siblings (Kevin and Meg) and the constellation of characters around them try to come to terms with Danny's death and John trying to keep the law away. The finale of Season 2 also featured a murder and much of Season 3 was...wait for it...John trying to keep the law away from discovering *that* truth.

I'll be honest: there were certain stretches of Season 3 that were a slog. Well, not a slog, but just dull. I don't binge watch, so my wife and I watch an episode a night. Seven of the ten episodes in Season 3 typically ended with "Well, Kevin's being stupid, John's always looking like he's trying to contain his anger, lots of people are trying to talk to each other and leave voicemails like 'John, it's Kevin. I really need to talk to you.", and not much else." Oh, and a lot--a lot--of F bombs. It got to the point where I could tell, by the slightest of pauses from the actors, that they were about to unleash that word.

But the last three episodes made up for the previous seven. Well, Episode 8 was more of the same, but the last image served as a cliffhanger. So the wife and I binged the last two back-to-back. Hallelujah! Mendelsohn was back. Sure, he was still dead, but his 'ghost' kept up a running conversation with John. All that gravitas from Mendelsohn was on full display, and frankly, Chandler did some of his best acting opposite Mendelsohn. Episode 9 was a wonderfully trippy, what's-going-on hour of television that I enjoyed specifically because I didn't know what was going to happen. Might be the best of Season 3. The Finale was good, wrapped up some loose ends, but, ultimately was a little underwhelming considering how fun Episode 9 was. And the last moment, the final bit of this series, left you with an unanswered question. Sure, it leaves the true ending up to the viewer, but come on. We all want things tied up in a bow.

Acting-wise, Mendelsohn really shined in all of his parts, but Kyle Chandler I really enjoyed, too, even when he's often doing the same thing. This is my first time seeing him, and I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for his projects from now on. It was fantastic to see Sissy Spacek again, and her role and performance only gets better as the series moves on. Heck, her final scene is pretty darn brutal.

Overall, Bloodline was an enjoyable show, despite some dull parts. I could actually make a case where new viewers simply watch Season 1 and go no further. That season ended on such a high that it, frankly, never achieved again. But no one is really going to do that because of the questions posed at the end of Season 1.

Bloodline. It's certainly a recommended show despite its flaws, and I'm glad I watched it.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman (Movie Review)

Every Saturday night, MeTV broadcasts an episode from the 1970s TV show “Wonder Woman.” That theme song always makes me smile, as does Lynda Carter’s portrayal of the Amazon from Paradise Island. The show was cheesy, especially when they moved to the 1970s (from the 1940s of Season 1), but I always appreciated her earnestness, even if I didn’t know what that was back in the day. Ditto for Batman ’66 and Superman ’78. Somewhere along the line, earnestness in a superhero film was beaten down in favor of grim and dark and dour because…whatever. That’s more real. There are certainly elements of grimdark in Wonder Woman (WW) but it’s so refreshing to see a return of earnestness to a superhero film, especially this one.

The movie is the origin of Diana of Themyscira, the island (don’t call it Paradise Island), the only child of the Amazons set on earth and hidden by Zeus to serve as the ultimate protector against the fallen god of war, Ares. Naturally, the world of man intrudes on Themyscira when an American spy, Steve Trevor played by Chris Pine, crashes in the water. Diana sees this and, being the hero, saves him. Then you get the first bad-ass sequence in the movie: when the Germans invade Themyscira and the Amazons defend their island. Holy cow! The action was well choreographed and executed with panache. That the Amazons were all female warriors (natch) was great to watch. More importantly, to me, was that they were almost all not young. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen, to name the two main stars of Themyscira are both 51 now, so they were 49 or 50 when filming the movie.

The plot is a natural super-hero plot: future hero wants to do something good, leaves her home to do the good thing. The fish-out-of-water aspect here is great with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. In Superman ’78, when Superman made his debut, he had grown up a human and revealed himself to the world. In WW, the Amazonian is introduced to the world of man with predictably funny moments. You’ve seen some of them in the trailers. There are more and funnier ones in the film.

Diana’s single-minded belief that Ares was behind the war and that if she merely killed him, the war would end is her guiding force. “Just get me to the war,” she keeps imploring Steve, “and I’ll kill Ares and be done with it.” But her seeing all the pain and horror of a human war—especially World War I—starts to affect her. This leads to arguably the greatest moment in the film (and it’s in the trailer so it’s not a spoiler): her march across No Man’s Land. She’s tired of hearing the world ‘no’ so she decides she’ll do something, anything, to try and help. What follows is such a transcendent moment in the movie my eyes welled with tears.

Gal Gadot is truly amazing in this role. Her nuances, whether in the quiet scenes or her determination in the action sequences, really bring WW above a mere hero in a hero film. She gives the character depth to do what she has to do in the way she does it. Chris Pine has charm dripping out of his pores. Director Patty Jenkins could have cast any hunky star to stand opposite Gadot. With Pine, you get something extra. Not only is he the stand-in for the audience (his responses to Diana’s heritage is pretty much how we’d all react), his charm helps the comedy play out better. His particular way of reading Steve’s lines ended up being something more than Hunky Co-Star. And even he has a character arc.

The film is not without some flaws. Act three is a little tedious and devolves into a typical super-hero showdown. At night of course, which brought to mind Batman v Superman, a movie I’ve tried my best to erase from my memory (save for the WW parts). The tedium of another night fight was in sharp contrast to the Themyscira battle, which was in full daylight on a beach. More of that, please.

But the quibbles are minor because the entire experience was so filled with joy. I loved watching this movie, late afternoon of opening day. It’s the way I want every DC film to be: action, adventure, a good dose of humor and spectacle, with heart and emotion.

Need any more reason to see the movie? When was the last time you heard an audience erupt in applause at the end of a movie? My theater audience did that. I enthusiastically joined in. It’s that kind of movie.

Monday, June 5, 2017

You Can Find Great Story Structure Anywhere: Scooby Doo, Mystery Inc

One of my favorite modern cartoons was Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated. The show, which ran for two sporadic seasons, came at the perfect time for my boy, who had just discovered the original series and enjoyed it. But Mystery Inc. was something different. Not only did it issue meta commentary on the original series, it offered an excellent example of ongoing storytelling amid ‘monster of the week’ episodes.
I re-watched the first episode this morning—what else are you supposed to do on Saturday mornings other than watch cartoons? Thanks Netflix. The more I watched the breakdown of the episode, the more I realized how the scenes were actually structured. Yeah, it’s the curse of a writer always to be mindful of how stories are constructed.
Effortlessly, scenes relayed not only the backstory and current situation of our five heroes—Fred, Velma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scooby—but also subplots and main plots. Sure, it’s a cartoon, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built like a movie.
And this episode was. The precise moment I realized it was when Velma was about to tell Scooby about her relationship with Shaggy—still not one of my favorite aspects of the show, but I understand why—when the monster attacks the Mystery Machine. Thus, subplot averted for main plot. This subplot remerges one more time and then is tabled until the next episode. Ditto for the Daphne/Fred subplot.
The coolest thing is one of the clues. Daphne finds a key that is also a locket. Inside, there is a photo of a couple. She can’t figure out what it means to *this* episode until the end when the Bad Guy reveals he’s never seen it before.
But Fred’s dad, the mayor, has. The last scene is the gang at a local radio station and they get a call. A spooky voice says “You don’t know what you’ve uncovered: the truth of the curse of Crystal Cove.” When asked who the caller is, he identifies himself as Mister E. “And the real mystery is about to begin.” And the episode ends.
Boom! Now you’ve got an entire season’s worth of storytelling.
I really loved this show. Season 1 was pretty consistent in terms of airing, but Season 2 was sporatic. The casting was great. Patrick Warburton is the sheriff.  Each set of parents were an older reflection of the each gang member. Shaggy’s dad was voiced by Casey Kasum, the original Shaggy. The look, the feel, the vibe of the entire series is excellent. And the series finale is mindblowingly good.
Anyway, just thought I’d share some writerly thoughts about the first episode, “Beware the Beast from Below” of Scooby Doo and remind you that you can find inspiration about writing everywhere.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Forgotten Books: Return of the Rio Kid by Brett Halliday

In 2010, while vacationing in and around San Diego, I happened into a used book, as I am wont to do. I found a book called Death on Treasure Trail. It had a nice, bright yellow cover, the kind that nearly every western novel had back in the day. Erle Stanley Gardner even wrote an introduction. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the setting of the novel was in Texas’s Big Bend region.
Yet I never read the book. Cut to July 2016 and our trip out to Big Bend. I’m a fan of reading books on vacations that are set around the places I’m visiting so Death on Treasure Trail was tops on my list. But the book is pretty beat up, so I took to the internet to find an electronic copy for my Kindle. Imagine my surprise when I discovered not only Treasure Trail, but the other two Rio Kid books all available as ebooks. Well, seeing as how Treasure Trail was third of three, I went ahead and got Return of the Rio Kid, the first book in the trilogy.
The author on my physical book is listed as “Don Davis” but, in reality, the man behind the typewriter was none other than Brett Halliday, the writer who created the Michael Shayne private eye series. However, “Halliday” is merely the most famous pen name for the actual man, Davis Dresser, but that name won’t sell many ebooks, so the good folks at Open Road Media made sure Brett Halliday supersedes the title on the new covers.
When the book opens, the Rio Kid has been hiding out in Mexico after fleeing Arizona on a false murder charge three years before. Sure, the Rio Kid has killed men before, but the one that got his visage on a wanted poster was falsified. Having grown into manhood in a foreign land, the Kid wants to return to Arizona and clear his name. He chooses the Big Bend region as his crossing point, but not before trouble starts.
On the Mexican side of the border sits a small town under the thumb of ruthless hombre, Pedro. He rules the town in much the same way Gene Hackman’s character does in Unforgiven. Being a western paperback of the 1940s, the Kid gets himself in a fight when he refuses to remove his twin .45s strapped to each leg. He hightails it out of town, leaving one mess behind. He crosses the Rio Grande and finds himself in another mess, this one partly of his own making. You see, there’s a small town on the Texas side. A poker game is being played and a young man is betting when he should be folding. The Kid gets himself mixed up in the game and ends up winning the young man’s ranch. A ranch that, not coincidentally, is one of two parcels of land a ruthless (is there any other kind?) cattle rancher wants to own. Well, you can imagine what happens from here.
But you’d be partially wrong. Sure, the Kid—whose real name isn’t given—does what all flawed heroes with prices on their heads do: the right thing. Mostly. But the folks he’s trying to help and those he’s trying to stay away from, have other ideas. It makes for entertaining reading, that’s for sure. I especially liked the secret the Rio Kid uncovered and how he turned his attention to putting it to good use.
Halliday chose a curious method to get across how folks talked to each other. He spelled out the Rio Kid’s drawl phonetically. Granted, when I read the first few passages, I assumed Halliday was going to provide this kind of dialogue as an example and then revert back to standard spelling, letting the reader fill in the blanks. Nope. The Kid mutters through the entire book. Others, too. Here are a couple of examples.
“I’ll just keep my guns on, I reckon,” he drawled, “’less yo’re of uh mind tuh take’em offa me.”
“Say, yo’re jes spoilin’ fer uh six-foot hole, ain’t yuh? Yuh cain’t buck Pedro, I’m tellin’ yuh.”
Yes, it leaves the reader with absolutely zero leeway in hearing the voice in the mind, but it’s a pain to type. I understand one or two words consistently spelled like they sound, but almost all of them? Aw, shucks. Who am I kiddin’? I liked ’em all.
Oh, and all that joy I experienced when I realized I was going to read a western set in Big Bend while actually being in Big Bend? That excitement held all the way until Halliday namedropped a mountain range that, upon consultation with the internet, was actually located in Arizona. No big deal. All I had to do was look out the window of my hotel and get my bearings straight.
But don’t let that dissuade you from reading this enjoyable first book in the Rio Kid Trilogy.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Ranking All James Bond Theme Songs

I'm a tad behind on listening to the nifty James Bonding podcast with Matt Mira and Matt Gourley. In the most-recent episode, #34 (dated Dec 2016), they spend 2.5 hours discussing all 24 James Bond theme songs.

Never one to let an opportunity to make a list pass me be--especially when it comes to James Bond--I made my own before listening to the episode. You can hear their list here and mine is here. The only caveat: I didn't include the Dr. No theme because it is the James Bond theme. I put it at zero.

Oh, and I'm happy to note that their #24 is the one that immediately, without a second thought, jumped to last. Abysmal song.

0. Dr. No (James Bond Theme)

1. Live and Let Die
2. Goldfinger
3. Thunderball
4. A View to a Kill
5. You Only Live Twice
6. The World is Not Enough
7. Diamonds are Forever
8. Nobody Does it Better (The Spy Who Loved Me)
9. The Living Daylights
10. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
11. The Man With the Golden Gun
12. From Russia With Love
13. Spyfall
14. You Don't Know My Name (Casino Royale)
15. For Your Eyes Only
16. Moonraker
17. Goldeneye
18. License to Kill
19. Tomorrow Never Dies*
20. All Time High (Octopussy)
21. Writing's On the Wall (Spectre)
22. Another Way to Die (Quantum of Solace)
23. Die Another Day

*The k.d. lang song, "Surrender," heard in the closing credits, is a brilliant song. Were it the official song, it's a Top 5 song (replacing Thunderball)

P.S., I never knew Shirley Bassey contributed a song for Quantum of Solace. They play a snippet (and then I went out and listened myself) and it's another swing and a miss.

Podcasts I Like: 70s Trek

They had me at the title: “70s Trek.” 
Heck, they had me at "70s"!
I listened to the first episode, then promptly downloaded all episodes up to that point (29 at the time). I binge-listened to all of them in a week’s time, loving every minute of each episode.
I was born during Star Trek’s third season so I grew up with Star Trek. Now, I’ll admit that my memory is a tad hazy and I only came to Trek after Star Wars debuted, but that’s where this podcast comes in.
Hosts Bob Turner and Kelly Casto are a delightful pair, easy on the ears, with a warm comradery and shared love of Trek in the 70s. In each episode that averages around 30 minutes, Bob and Kelly examine some aspect of Trek. While you don’t have to listen in order, it’s not a bad idea as you’ll get a good overview of how Trek came to be and the influences that went into its creation.
The main focus, however, is the 1970s, as the tagline reads, “The decade that built a franchise.” For us, over 50 years on, Trek permeates our daily lives, from cell phones to tablet computers to speaking to our computers. But Bob and Kelly take us back and remind us what it was like to be a fan of Trek in the 70s. Fans in the 70s didn’t know a lot. They had only a few books. They had a cartoon. Heck, they never even knew if there’d be any more live-action Trek. After all, Trek was actually a cancelled TV show, but it proved to be much more than that.
One of the aspects of this podcast that remains joyful is Bob and Kelly’s sense of wonder. Often one of them will take the lead on a particular subject, leaving the other co-host the first listener. Many times, new facts will be revealed, and cries of “I didn’t know that!” are great fun. What’s also fun is their clear joy at the subject and other things in Trek’s orbit.
So far (remember: I’m still catching up) a particular favorite episode is #3 (What We Knew in 1970), #13 (the Richard Arnold interview), and #9 (Star Trek in Syndication).
This is a love letter to Star Trek, the people behind it, the fans that kept it alive in the 1970s, and everything in between.
70s Trek has now firmly ensconced itself in my weekly podcast schedule. Utterly and completely enjoyable.
Oh, they have a Facebook presence and respond personally to comments. So after you subscribe to the podcast, head over there and join the conversation.