Thursday, December 6, 2018

Reflections at Fifty

The older I get, the more birthdays mean to me. But, to date, none have been as monumental as today’s.

Today I am fifty.

A half century. Hard to believe, and, yet, not.

The one thing about having one’s birth year be 1968 and the month be December is that all the anniversaries roll through the year to help remind me what age I am. The Tet Offensive, Lyndon Johnson’s announcement he would not run for reelection, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the election of Richard Nixon, the White Album’s release, and more. The only major thing that always comes to mind after my birthday was when Apollo 8 circled the moon for the first time and we humans got to see earth from far away. And there’s always the shadow of the Pearl Harbor anniversary tomorrow.

Speaking of history, I was surprised when my dad once told me that his mom was worried that I would be born on December 7. Mind you, 1968 is 27 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the memory still burned in her brain.

Every year, when your birthday rolls around, someone always asks you “Do you feel older?” The answer today, and always, is not really. I’m still just me. Friends and family might disagree, but about the only physical evidence of my age is the number of gray hairs. Granted, the ones at my temples evidentially present me as distinguished. I don't know about that, but I  enjoy not getting carded buying wine at Trader Joe's. The ones in my beard, however, certainly show my age.

Shrug. Inside my head, I’m still a young man. Some days, I’m more youth than young man. Others, I’m just a kid. When a new Star Wars movie debuts, I’m back to being eight.

Up until now, birthday have always been a number.

Now, the number is fifty.

Throughout the years, as my birthday approaches, I grow reflective. How fascinating the timing this year with the funeral proceedings of President George H.W. Bush going on. His was a life well lived. An example of how to carry oneself. And he loved his family so, so much.

I love my family, too. I’m a husband. I’m a dad. I’m a son. Those relationships are what matter most. Those are truly the best gifts in the world.

One sign of getting older occurs most Christmas seasons. “What do you want for Christmas?” I often ask my mom and dad and wife. The answers tend to be “Not much” or “I don’t really need anything.” Sure, we can all find the few material things we’d like to own, but more often than not, the gift of life is the best. I’m often asked why I spend most every day in a good mood with a smile on my face. My answer is simple: “I woke up.” Every day of life is a good day. Yes, there will be days more difficult than others, but those hard days are part of life, part of the seasons of life. One has to go through them because there are always good days on the other side.

Sometimes—many times—when I listen to a certain bit of music, my wife has claimed I was born too late. No, I always say. I loved the years of my life because I get to appreciate the old music and discover the new. And that holds true for the rest of my life.

Born while Lyndon Johnson was president, I have now lived through ten presidential administrations. I have seen the ends of four decades (I don’t count the 1960s since I wasn’t aware of them) with one right around the corner. My early days were bathed in the 1970s: comics, Legos, Mego super-hero dolls, Disney on TV, records, books, riding bicycles far and wide, The Three Investigators, The Hardy Boys, and the two biggies from my childhood: KISS and Star Wars.

It’s hard to overstate how big a deal Star Wars was for me (and for just about every other kid my age). It was foundational, fundamental, and a way to see the world. With the first movie, the eight-year-old me learned about heroes. With Empire, the eleven-year-old me learned heroes don’t always win. Return of the Jedi taught me heroes triumph in the end, even at cost. Star Wars framed a certain way of viewing pop culture. It’s a frame I’ve expanded to include so much other stuff.

My childhood was analog. My youth straddled the analog and digital age. My college and grad school years saw the birth of the internet. My adult and career life saw technology unimaginable to that kid who watched Star Wars in 1977. I love being part of the bridge generation of technology. We know how great it is that we have a random feature on our phones to play thousands of songs yet also know the exquisite detail and precision of crafting a mix tape.

I’ve loved being a comic book geek my entire life. As great as it is now to have numerous comic book films per year, I loved being a fan in 1978 and 1989 when there was only one.

I’ve loved music so much. I enjoy playing saxophone in bands and marching for presidents. I still play my sax in church, my own offering to a gift God bestowed me. I loved discovering David Bowie as “who’s that other guy singing with Queen?” I loved discovering Chicago from my best friend, Chris, back in high school when he handed me a cassette of Chicago IX and saying, “I think you’ll like this.” I loved having my opinion of Bruce Springsteen turn around. And I’ve enjoyed living long enough for a band like The Struts to emerge and remind us how great rock and roll can be.

I loved witnessing the birth of the year 2000. That was always The Future in many SF books and comics. Now, it’s our past.

I loved living through so many moments of history, the good and the bad.

I love the huge amount of books I own that will never read. But who cares? I simply love books.

I loved growing up in west Houston, the suburbs. I loved that, when I moved back to Houston after grad school and took an apartment on Fountainview, a mere block away from my future wife’s condo, I considered it way in town. I love driving around Houston with my son, pointing out old things and relating memories. And I really love how Houston has grown to become a major metropolitan city, with a food culture rivaling few other cities.

When it comes to sports and being from Houston, well, we’ve not always had good luck. I’m old enough to be able to say “Renfro was in” and many folks of a certain age will agree with me and know what I’m talking about. I didn’t really love getting out of church one Sunday in 1993, seeing the Houston Oilers were up 35-3, and thinking “We got this.” I loved seeing the Houston Rockets win back-to-back championships, especially the second one. I really loved seeing the Houston Astros finally claim the first World Series title for this town.

But of all the things I cherish in my now fifty years of life, it really does come down to family. I have been blessed with parents who are the best parents I could have asked for. I have been blessed with a wife who compliments me in so many ways and keeps me grounded. And I have been blessed with a son who is a joy to laugh and play with, and who helped me remember many, many things from my own young life that time had papered over.

These are the years in which folks have their mid-life crises. I honestly think that stems from lives filled with regret. Here’s my outlook: everything that happened to me got me to this spot, right here, in front of our Christmas tree, on my fiftieth birthday. Every bad decision, every good decision, every bad event, every good event, everything along the path molded me, shaped me, and made me who I am. Would it have been nice to have skipped a few bad things? Maybe, but then I wouldn’t have received the good things in the same way I have. So I always come around to having no regrets. Besides, what good is regret? We can’t go back. So I just take stock of my life up to now and make any course corrections for the future.

One thing that does keep me excited and the midlife crisis at bay is the business of writing. It’s been about ten years now since I started writing in public, both the blogs and the stories. That keeps me young and fresh, to be honest. If I have any “regrets,” it’s that I didn’t start writing sooner. But I’m trying to catch up, and running my own business keeps me excited for the future. I really enjoy writing, and plan on continuing it for a long, long time.

Fifty years.

I started writing this yesterday, knowing I would complete it now, early morning on December 6. I kind of planned it that way.

I woke up this morning and smiled. Thanks, God. Another day of life. Fifty years of life.

Man, has it been awesome!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Superman the Movie: A Forty-Year Appreciation

 

"You’ve got me! Who’s got you?”

Is this the best line in a superhero movie? Forty years on, when I think of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, this is the first thing that comes to mind. And the helicopter rescue sequence associated with it. I waited in rapt attention for this scene because it is likely the quintessential Superman moment. It did not disappoint last night. In fact, as the goosebumps rippled over my arms, I got a tad emotional.

This was Superman.

The tagline of the movie was “You’ll believe a man could fly.” Here’s the thing with Christopher Reeve’s performance: You’ll believe he really is Superman. Maybe it was my ten-year-old self seeing this hero on the big screen for the first time, but of all the actors who have played Superman, Reeve is the one who made me believe it was actually a man from another planet. Who was also from Kansas. And it did it all with acting. No CGI. No special effects. Just Reeve, in costume, changing his voice and posture, making you believe Clark Kent and Superman were different people.

Speaking of Clark, Reeve sells himself as the bumbling country boy from Kansas to a T. I really loved his sly winks *to himself* when he, say, catches the bullet or when he shows up, as Clark, in Lois’s apartment after flying over the city with her as Superman. There’s a reason Reeve’s version of Clark is also probably the best out there…although Henry Cavill, if given a chance, could have done it well. But, again, he would be channeling Reeve, too.

He and Margot Kidder exudes chemistry. I really appreciate how she, in 1978, portrayed Lois Lane as a modern woman, smoker, working in a newsroom which had been a mostly males club for so long, but one who still needs a little help when she’s hanging out of a helicopter. She’s always out for the hustle, making sure she’s on the front lines. The rooftop interview scene is so good. You even get Superman basically falling in love with Lois on screen. Heck, both of them. And he’s not saving her from some giant robot. They are just talking and acting. Let’s be honest: in this day and age, when you have lots of side projects on TV, how cool would it have been to have had a Lois Lane TV show with Kidder?

I’m not sure who made the call—actor or director or scriptwriter—but, for my money, having Lex Luthor be humorous is genius. Yes, it’s likely a product of the times, but Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Luthor is probably the best. The only other one I truly enjoy is Clancy Brown’s sinister version in Superman: The Animated Series. But Hackman’s Luthor is sinister in his own way. When he delivers the line “By causing the deaths of innocent people,” you honestly believe it. I enjoyed seeing him make deductions and use his intelligence to figure out Superman’s weakness. Lastly, In an age when every aspect of a franchise has its own backstory, I don’t always need a backstory. But I would enjoy at least learning how Luthor and Otis got together.

Oh, is Ned Beatty’s Otis the only henchman in superhero movies who has his own theme song? It reminded me of the theme for Jabba the Hutt which would arrive five years later.

The music. John Williams was at the height of his powers in 1978. Star Wars and Close Encounters and Jaws were already under his belt. So were three Oscars. I haven’t heard the entire score is so long that it came out of the speakers fresh and new. Look, I know his Star Wars theme, his Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, and the ET flying theme are all good and light and positive, but is it possible to hear the Superman March without a grin on your face? I don’t think so. The Krypton music is eerie and otherworldly. The love theme is lush and romantic. And in sitting through the credits listening to the music, I found myself awash in greatness. I know there are folks who think Superman is the best soundtrack of Williams’s career. While I still hold Empire Strikes Back as my personal favorite (with Star Wars and Raiders close behind), I can certainly see their point.

On the subject of Krypton, I was again reminded of the very 70s-ness of it all. I have a great fondness of 70s SF films pre-Star Wars. The Krypton sequence fits perfectly in that pocket. Ditto for the flying sequence as Kal-El rockets off to earth. Oh, and the training montage.

As the opening credits rolled, I leaned over to my friend and said Superman: The Movie hit the jackpot with casting. Marlon Brando, of course, but Terrence Stamp, Glenn Ford, Jackie Cooper, Hackman, Beatty, Valerie Perrine, and Susannah York. To say nothing about then newcomers Reeve and Kidder. I can’t think of a single character who needed to be recast.

The first hour of the show is near perfection. We see Krypton, the trial and banishment of Zod, Ursa, and Nan (and the setting up of Superman II), and then the destruction of the planet. Now, forty years later, as a parent, the longing and desperation of Jor-El and Lara sending baby Kal into the void with only the hope that he would be safe is poignant. But the Smallville scenes? Holy cow. Those hit me. And those shots of Clark and Jonathan, his death, the funeral, and then Clark and Martha out in the field? You honestly forget you’re watching a superhero movie. Brilliant stuff.

Alas, the movie is not without its flaws. With an additional forty years of consuming stories—including writing my own—much of the latter half of the film is disjointed. It would have been so much better if there were words on screen like “Three week later…” or some such. As it is, the film comes off as almost happening in the same day. Which it doesn’t, but it feels that way.

But all that is nitpicking, especially when you get the best of both worlds: you get to see Superman doing super things—helping the bus on the bridge; making sure the railroad doesn’t derail; making a new dam—but then he turns back time and it’s all good. And with Luthor’s intelligence, you ever wonder if he figured out Superman changed time? Or would he merely realize his plans were foiled? Ditto for the other characters, too.

But that’s neither here nor there. They’re just fun things to ponder.

Forty years. Hard to believe and, yet, not. I was ten when I saw it in 1978. I’m nearly fifty now. Lots of life, lots of events, lots of other Superman stories, both in print and on screen. But this film remains a gold standard in superhero films and Superman films in particular. I’m keen on finding and watching the Donner cut of Superman II. I’ve never seen it, but always enjoyed Superman II. Superman The Movie is that perfectly placed film and story that straddles two eras: the Golden and Silver Age (and a little Bronze) of comics before the current era we’re in. It’s like a love letter to all that came before. From the vantage point of forty more years, it’s stature grows even more. Heck, as the credits rolled last night in the theater, applause erupted from the gathered few—young and old alike.

We now live in a golden age of superhero films. There’s nothing filmmakers cannot do when you couple their imagination with computer technology. Make no mistake: it’s awesome when we get to see Cavill’s version of Superman fly or punch Zod or slam into Doomsday. And I really enjoy The CW’s Superman as played by Tyler Hoechlin. And I watched Lois and Clark loving it…mostly. Didn’t watch Smallville.

But I think we can all agree that when you think of a live action Superman, one name comes to mind: Christopher Reeve. He was and is and will forever be Superman. He made me believe a man could fly in 1978. Forty years later, he still made me believe he’s the best Superman. And, despite its flaws, Superman The Movie is the best version of Superman on film.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

NaNoWriMo 2018 – End of Week 2 – Mid-Book Revamps Are Okay


As of today, all NaNoWriMo writers have reached the end of the second full week. And we have reached the halfway point in the month. By the numbers, as of today, all writers should be around 28,000 words in their 50,000-word novels. First of all, if this is where you are, Congrats! You are more than halfway through the month of November and more than halfway through your book. It’s an awesome feeling, isnt’ it? Just wait until you type “The End.” That never gets old, no matter how many books you write.

I experienced an interesting bit of serendipity this week. On my current non-NaNoWriMo novel (started 1 October and aim to finish by 30 November), I hit a snag. I’m halfway through the story and I found myself a bit adrift. Unlike previous books, I’m writing this without an outline. Writing into the dark, as Dean Wesley Smith does. Every now and then, I get backed into a corner and I have to think my way out of it. What that entails for me is to put a halt to writing the current scene and ask myself a few questions about the scene, why I’m even writing it, and where do I think the story is going from there. Naturally, this process puts the kibosh on new words, but it also opens the door to the next scene.

So that’s what I did this week for my current book. A mid-book brainstorming session. Complete with notes on a whiteboard. This book is the sixth Calvin Carter novel. The first will be published in January 2019 and this one won’t be published until November 2019, but I wanted all six complete before I start publishing so I can use the various covers in marketing material. I had a fun opening sequence, but I didn’t know why the mystery men stole the MacGuffin of the story. I knew that was an issue, but I kept writing ahead, confident the true reason would manifest itself. It did, but it took a mid-book reset to do it. Now, I at least know the next quarter of the book.

What is serendipitous about this process in 2018? Well, I encountered the exact same problem in 2015 when I participated in NaNoWriMo 2015. Each week this month, as I prepare for these posts, I revisit my own daily updates from 2015. I reviewed Day 11 through Day 17 of 2015. Guess what I (re)discovered? I hit snags back then, too. Of the seven days back in 2015, five of them involved not only writing but reviewing the scope of that novel. It seemed I was writing scenes that kept affecting subsequent scenes and I just had to keep going. Two things happened back then. One, I had my best day of writing at that point with 3,538 words. Two days later, I experienced my worst at 1,703.

Writing a novel is not a short process. It is long. There will be good days and there will be bad days. The key factor is to keep going. Just keep moving forward. You can do it.

And the theme for this week is simple: if you have to stop or slow down and reassess your novel from the vantage point of the middle, do it. What’ll happen is that you will likely open the floodgates for the rest of the book.

But here’s a more down-to-earth, nuts and bolts piece of advice: If you are truly stuck, finish the scene/chapter you are currently writing. Look no further than that. Just finish this scene, and trust your creative subconscious to help you along. Chances are good you will see light at the end of the tunnel.

So, NaNoWriMo folks, how are y’all doing?

Saturday, November 10, 2018

NaNoWriMo – End of Week 1 Encouragement – Stay Flexible

Look, I know where you are because I’ve been there.

Today marks Day 10 of NaNoWriMo 2010. It’s also the end of the first full week of writing 1,667 words a day on a novel that’s aiming to be 50,000 words. If you want to think of it this way, 1-3 November of this year (last Thursday through Saturday) was the ramp up. The prelude if you will. I’m a person who likes to view the calendar in weeks. So basically, you have nearly four full weeks to write a novel.

Yes, you can do it.

I’ve been right where you are now. Yes, even there. Let me show you.

Back in 2015, when I successfully completed my first NaNoWriMo, this was my daily line item: Day 10: 2023 (22,193 total; 27,807 remaining). I’ll admit I jumped way ahead on the first three days, writing 3,464, 2,325, and 2,637 words respectively. Here’s what I wrote about Day 2 back then: “First NNWM day on a work day. Rose at 5:00am. Wrote 1,244 words before work on the laptop. Wrote additional 796 words on the iPod at breaks during the day. I finished off the night with another 285 to round out a chapter.”

So I had some cushion. Which was great considering Day 4 back in 2015. I only wrote 1,709 that day. What happened? Technical issues. Here’s a note I wrote back then:

“The theme of today was flexibility. This morning’s writing session was interrupted when my Mac wouldn’t start. So, I shifted to connecting my iPod Touch with my Apple keyboard. I managed 1100 words or so, but knew I needed to make up the deficit. I wrote some on the iPod at the day job, but deadlines and meetings ate up all my break time. Not much writing done during the day.

Throughout the day, my mind wondered if I had lost all my data. I diagnose the problem, fixed the drive–took apart my laptop and extracted the drive to repair it–and got it working again. Finished the day at 1709 words.”

If there’s one thing you must keep in mind as you write your story this month is to stay flexible. Writing a novel is not a sprint. It is a marathon. Yes, I know writers who can craft a novel in a week. That’s not me. But I can write one in a month. I know because I’ve done it numerous times.

And you can, too.

Just stay flexible.

Don’t get too bogged down in the daily weeds. Maintain the overall goal: 50,000. Some days, you’ll blow past the 1,667 mark. Others you may fall short. You can make it up. Don’t lose sight of the end goal: a completed story. In the end, it won’t matter if you didn’t reach your daily goal for a third of the days and exceeded it on the rest. All that matters is a 50,000-word completed novel.

Let me know how it’s going. And tune in next week for another pep talk.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Haunting of Hill House - The Best Thing on Netflix?

 

I never saw this show coming and it totally blew me away.

We live in a golden age of content, especially television content. There is just so much that we can’t realistically be expected to watch it all. Even as an avid Netflix consumer, I didn’t know the re-imagined version of “The Haunting of Hill House” was even a thing. My wife, did, however. She read about it in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and then it popped up on her Netflix account. We had just finished Amazon’s brilliant "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," it was October, so why not? It was a short, 10-episode series--movie, really--so it wouldn’t take up too much time if it proved to be bad or if I proved indifferent.

All I needed was the first episode.

Specifically, the last minute or so. Well, no, let me backtrack: the steller cast, the adept direction, and the fantastic writing of the first episode got me to swallow the hook. The last couple of minutes set the hook. “I’m in,” were the words out of my mouth as soon as the credits rolled. Truth be told, I was already in.

The Haunting of Hill House, as re-imagined by director/writer Mike Flanagan, tells the story of the Crain family in two different phases of their lives. In flashbacks, we see Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas; yes, that Henry Thomas) and his wife, Olivia (Carla Gugino) move into Hill House with their five children. In the present day, the children are now adults, Hugh is now played by Timothy Hutton, and Olivia isn’t around. The central mystery of the show is what happened to her and to the family at Hill House.

Taking his cue from any number of modern examples of non-linear storytelling, director Flanagan expertly weaves in and out of both times, revealing just enough here while intentionally not showing you something there. I knew what he was doing, and I didn’t care. I became so enthralled in the story and the way it was presented that I came close to the desire to binge it all. The closest we got was two separate days of two episodes each. Most of the time, however, it was an episode per day. But the beauty of watching the show in this manner was the ability to mull over the story and the characters.

And mull it over I did. Numerous nights and even throughout the days, snippets of the show would float back into my head. My wife and I discussed various aspects of the show, and I even played the age-old game of trying to guess what was going to happen next.  Thankfully, I was wrong on nearly everything except one crucial aspect. And, no, I can’t tell you what it was because it is fundamental to the story. (see below)

Billed as a horror show, it lives up to that reputation. Yes, there are jump scares. Of course there are jump scares. But, for me, Hill House was less a horror show than a supernatural suspense, eerie type show. There were some moments in the show that I was glad I was watching in the day time. And most of those are quiet moments you didn’t see coming.

Flanagan--whose work I don’t know--did a marvelous job at directing and pacing. I’m no film geek, but even I realized some of the tricks he used to great effect. One was the just-out-of-range blurring of a background character. He did this often, and it really worked well. Camera movement was pitch perfect. Probably the thing getting the most buzz is episode 6, “Two Storms.” The story content is stellar and pivotal to the series, but the direction is what will earn this episode award nominations. Even as we watched it, we could tell it was shot in multiple long-takes, with the camera moving this way and that, revealing a nothingness behind one character in one second only to reveal something behind the very same character when the camera pulls around again. Excellent work.

An excellent director with an excellent story can only get you so far. If you don’t have excellent actors, you get something sub par. The casing director of Hill House needs an award today. Let’s start with Henry Thomas. Seeing as I didn’t look up or know anything about this show ahead of time, it was during the first episode I realized he was the “E.T.” kid. I haven’t followed his career at all, but man did he deliver in the various flashback scenes. The chemistry Thomas has with Gugino and the five child actors is so good, you’d think they were a real family. Speaking of Gugino, she had the difficult task of conveying Olivia as a loving mother and wife, but as someone also haunted by things not often visible, sometimes even in the same scene. When she was comforting a scared child, she was honest and sincere. When she was facing something else, she was just as scared as you were in that moment.

In any movie starring kids, you might get less-than-good actors who deliver less-than-good performances. The five children--especially Julian Hilliard (young Luke) and McKenna Grace (as young Theodora)--gelled on screen as if they were truly siblings. They really inhabited their characters well. Not to be outdone, the adult actors playing these characters also knocked it out of the park. There was one scene in particular where Theodora--who has a special talent--does the thing she does to use her talent (like how I’m obfuscating?). With modern technology and CGI chicanery, Flanagan could have conjured up anything for a scary moment. Instead, he lets Kate Siegel’s face be centered on the screen. When she “sees” what she sees, Siegel screams a scream so bloodcurdling your mind is the thing conjuring up the horror. So well done.

I questioned why Flanagan didn’t just put Henry Thomas in older make up but rather cast Timothy Hutton as the older Hugh. Visually, the two actors are not too far off, and stylistically, they created mannerisms for Hugh each actor mimicked. But in keeping with the obvious recasting of the kids, the choice for a second actor for Hugh was a good one. I’m not too familiar with Hutton’s work, but as the series propelled itself to the end, his gravitas carried his scenes and I was ultimately satisfied with both actors playing the same part.

Oh, one other thing about the cast: each one of them get what I call a “Robert Shaw in Jaws” moment. You know the scene in Jaws where Shaw, as Quint, tells the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the sharks. Best dang scene in the movie. Well, the adults get their version, but none was better than of Robert Longstreet as caretaker Horace Dudley. When he says what he says in the manner he does it, Flanagan keeps the camera on Longstreet. The actor delivers that story with so much depth and emotion that I immediately called it a “Robert Shaw in Jaws” moment. Incredible that a piece of a show like this by a side character could be so compelling.

I could go on and on, but I'm going to halt here. I’ve seen some great stuff this year, but The Haunting of Hill House is easily in the Top 3, maybe even Top 2. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

P.S., I’m stopping the main review here. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop and watch then return. For those of y’all who want to continue, you’ve been warned.

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The one aspect of the show I did see coming was Episode 5, “The Bent Neck Lady.” At that moment, I nearly thought the secret of the house was an alternate dimension.

What I didn’t see coming was the ending.

Holy moley. Who in the world saw it coming? Who in the world would have predicted the ending of a showed billed as a horror show could have such a genuinely emotional ending? I don’t know about y’all, but I was bawling my eyes out when Hugh--first as Hutton then as Thomas--talked to Steve and explained the situation. He told his son why and how the house needed to be saved. And then the instant transition from Hutton to Thomas? Lost it. My wife did, too. Maybe it’s my age, maybe I’m just so emotional about family, but The Haunting of Hill House delivered not only genuine scares, creeps, and thrills, but also a deep, heartfelt emotionally resonant ending. I couldn’t be happier about it.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Importance of Awards and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

If it weren’t for the Emmy Awards, I would never have watched “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

I’ll admit: I barely watched the actual awards show. I stayed long enough to see Henry Winkler earn his first (!) primetime Emmy award (and his wonderful speech*) I also saw two actors from GODLESS win: Merritt Wever and Jeff Daniels. Loved that he thanked his horse.

The next day, I read through the rest of the winners. What struck me was this show on Amazon that won not only Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. In fact, I think it won the most awards of the evening, taking home five trophies.

But what was this show about? My wife and I were intrigued, so we pulled up Amazon and gave it a look.

NOTE: The show is eight episode long. As of this writing, I have not seen the last episode, so I’ll be basing all my thoughts on the first 7 episodes. But that is enough.

Rachel Brosnahan stars as the titular character, Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a Jewish housewife who inadvertently discovers she has a talent for stand-up comedy. The show is set in 1950s New York, and Midge lives with her husband, Joel, and their two kids in an apartment a few floors below her parents’ apartment. Tony Shalhoub plays her father, Abraham, and in a bit of “Whoa, maybe I really am getting old”, her mother is played by Marin Hinkle. You might not know the name, but she starred as Jon Cryer’s ex-wife in “Two and a Half Men.” She’s a mere two years older than me...and she’s a grandmother!

As the show opens, it’s Joel who tries his hand at stand-up. He’s not good, but Midge dutifully takes notes during his performances, compiling a notebook full of ideas and lessons learned. After a particularly bad night in which he bombed, Joel informs Midge he’s leaving her for...his secretary. She gets drunk, wanders the streets, and ends up in The Gaslight Club, the very venue Joel just stank up. She gets up on stage, overcoat covering her nightgown, and proceeds to let it all out. Susie Myerson, playing a worker in the Gaslight, sees what Midge is capable of and convinces her to give stand-up comedy a serious go.

In what could have easily been a rote-type comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel vibrates with a joy not seen on the small screen in a long time. It’s a very New York show, complete with lots of Jewishness and talk about the town and society in the 1950s. This historian part of me loved it all. The clothes, the formal dinners, the evident ‘caste-like’ system is portrayed very well.

But what really sends this show over the top is the whip-smart dialogue. This TV show could easily have been adapted to a stage play, but the better comparison is the comedies of the 1930s movies. Think of the Thin Man movies or any of those films where the characters deliver their lines in a rat-a-tat fashion, always with the perfect comeback and precisely the best time. You will, um, marvel at how well these actors do their thing.

Brosnahan is a dream as Midge. Not only does she deliver the normal dialogue well, but when she gets behind the microphone to deliver her stand-up routines, she comes across as a natural. It makes me wonder if she’s ever had any desire or experience being a true stand-up comic. If not, she should definately try.

Tony Shalhoub is hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times. And the chemistry he has with Hinkle is so palpable that you might wonder if they are not secretly married. Joel’s father is played in a wonderfully over-the-top fashion by Kevin Pollak. I know him best as the third person on Tom Cruise’s legal team in A FEW GOOD MEN, after Demi Moore. He all but steals every scene he’s in.

Every actor in this show is at the top of their game. I rarely binge, but there were a couple of nights when we’d finish one episode and, after a quick check of my watch, rolled right into the next one.

Awards are sometimes derided as things given within a group of people to bolster all those egos. I’ve never thought that. Awards, no matter the group, are intended to showcase good, quality things--in this case, TV shows--and let the world know some examples of good stuff.

I so enjoyed this show...and I never would have likely given it the chance were it not for all those Emmy wins. Well deserved, and highly recommended.


*Henry Winkler, upon winning his first primetime Emmy said, among other things, this fantastic line: “If you stay at the table long enough, the chips comes to you. Tonight, I got to clear the table.”

Let’s hear it for perseverance. And for continuing to show up.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Magnum PI (2018)

 

As a fan of the TV show CASTLE, I loved that the pilot episode of MAGNUM PI (2018) started with the characters reading the exploits of themselves in a book. It explained how it was we first saw Thomas Magnum in space, skydiving into North Korea.

And served as a teaser for what was a perfectly fine hour of television, especially on a Monday night.

Now, I’m of an age where I remember the original with Tom Selleck. However, I was not an avid watcher of the program. I knew the basics: Magnum was a veteran who lived in Hawaii, had a job as a private investigator, and lived in the home of Robin Masters, a mysterious figure we never saw and the only connection was Higgins, the caretaker of the estate. In the original version, HIggins was played by Texan John Hillerman, doing a great British accent. With Magnum were two pals from his time in Vietnam and they shared in Magnum’s adventures.

Magnum PI 2018 is pretty much the same thing except we get a real British person playing Higgins, Perdita Weeks (sister of Honeysuckle Weeks of Foyle’s War). The gender swap will likely lead to some romantic tension between the two characters. Yes, that will change the dynamic, but that isn’t a bad thing. While I pretty much envision Magnum and Higgins to pair up after awhile, they could always go the route of TV’s ELEMENTARY, where Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson respected each other but never hooked up. It can happen.

The pilot episode showed what was updated and what wasn’t. The coolest thing that was kept was the theme song and the typical 80s-era credits sequence. I dug it. Now, Magnum and his three friends are veterans of Afghanistan. It was when one of their number is kidnapped and killed that Magnum--played by Jay Hernandez--Rick (Zachary Knighton) and TC (Stephen Hill) join forces and bring the bad guys to justice. In addition to the gender swap, Higgins is also former MI-6 (disavowed), so she called in favors to help locate a missing truck, and she kicked some bad guy butt along the way. Natch. The action was fun and over-the-top, but what were you expecting?

I expected a fun, light romp to replace the Monday night vacancy voided by ELEMENTARY last week. Magnum PI might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as someone who doesn’t remember much of the material from the original, I’m good with the show.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Forty Years with KISS and the Solo Albums

It was forty years ago today…

The year 1978 was dominated by a few things: Star Wars. Comics. KISS. And more Star Wars. Yeah, Star Wars was like a pop cultural supernova that, in my distant memory, seemed all consuming. But KISS was right up there. I have no memory of what or how I first got interested in the band. I suspect it was the comic book--with real KISS blood! For a comic book geek like me, super hero rock stars were right up my alley.

But what was my musical alley? In case you didn’t know, I’m an only child, so I didn’t have any older sibling passing me LPs and telling me to listen. Up until 1978, my music consisted of the Star Wars soundtrack, my parents’ Roger Miller album...and little else. Maybe the Village People. Maybe the Bay City Rollers. So when I dropped the needle on Double Platinum, KISS’s first greatest hits collection, the drums of “Strutter ‘78” greeted my ears and likely shaped much of my musical tastes from that moment on.

The haziness of memory won’t let me remember what order I purchased subsequent albums. But the ones I had were the debut, Alive, Destroyer, and Alive II. Now, the big obstacle for my KISS fandom was the knights in satan’s service stuff. My parents were good, however. They reached what I suspect was some sort of compromise: I could keep listening to KISS, but my purchasing of new albums was limited.

So, by September of 1978, when the four solo albums were released, I suspect I had to pick only one. While my album consumption was limited, I consumed all information about the band I could find. That meant constant trips to U-Totem and 7-Eleven looking for magazines like Circus, Hit Parader, and such. I bought lots of trading cards, both comics, and even a few posters. I had one of those monster posters, measuring at 3 feet by 4 feet on my wall. The fall of 1978 was destined to bring four new albums (!) as well as a TV movie. It was, even looking back now, arguably the high point of KISS fandom...until 1996 when we did it all again.

Which album to get? Well, one was immediately off the table, likely by parental decree. Gene Simmons, the Demon himself, would not be found in my house. The little drip of blood on the cover pretty much secured that fact. Okay, what next? KISS was my first rock band so I had no preconceptions about drummers, but I don’t think I seriously considered Peter’s record. Paul or Ace? Well, being the science fiction fan I was, I think the choice was pretty obvious: I bought Space Ace’s album. Plus, I was a follower: “New York Groove” was on the radio and I wanted that song.

I was a music novice so all the songs were good to me. I had no clue about what Ace was singing about, but that didn’t matter. His album sounded like SF so I was good. Poster on the wall. Album spun over and over.

I have a distinct memory of a friend who lived down the street. He arrived home one day and, as he passed me in his dad’s car, simply put the Gene Simmons record up to the window for me to see. Lucky guy. I think he may have had all four. What never occurred to me at the time was to record the other three albums on cassette. If I had, my history with the solo albums would have been different.

The last new KISS album I was allowed to buy was Unmasked. I did--and still do--love that album. But, for whatever reason, KISS faded from my attention until 1983. Of course, I was fascinated by Lick It Up and the real unmasking, but didn’t purchase the album. It wasn’t until 1988 and the release of Smashes, Thrashes, and Hits reminded me of my first rock and roll love. The girls in my high school group of friends loved the sexiness of Paul, but I remembered fondly the make-up years. It wasn’t until Revenge was released that I picked up my first new KISS CD in over eleven years.

And I never looked back.

Cut to 1997 and the CD remasters. Those are the ones I own. Naturally, the albums that beckoned me most was Music from the Elder (never heard it) and the other three solo albums. By that time, I was nearing thirty, had decades of music listening under my belt, and knew music. What would those albums sound like?

Well, at the time, I immediately gravitated to Paul Stanley. His album was the most KISS-like. It became and has remained my favorite of the four. Gene Simmons was ...interesting, but nothing like I expected, even in 1997. Then there was Peter Criss. By 1997, my other favorite band--Chicago--had planted roots in my life, so I was actually cool with Peter’s record. It wasn’t KISS, but that was okay.

Over these last twenty years, I kept listening to the four solo albums. Paul’s remains my favorite. You can’t argue with the pure rock and roll swagger of this album. “Wouldn’t You LIke to Know Me” is all but perfection. “Tonight You Belong to Me” is the kind of song you’d end a concert with, while “It’s Alright” and “Goodbye” are so good. This might be the first record in which the vocal brilliance of Paul Stanley really shines. Peter’s is now my second favorite. I think Paul’s musical stylings line up perfectly with KISS, so his record sounding KISS-like was a natural. But so was Peter’s. His R&B vibe, complete with brass, was who he was. I have grown to appreciate this album more and more. “You Matter To Me” is a dang fine song. The album is admittedly filled with “Beth”-like songs, but “Easy Thing,” “I Can’t Stop the Rain,” and “Don’t You Let Me Down” are much better songs. And the vibe of “Hooked on Rock ‘n’ Roll” is just plain good old fashioned rock and roll. The same, however, cannot be said about Gene’s. Yes, “Radioactive” is a good song and I really enjoy “Mr. Make Believe” and “See You Tonite” but most of the other songs are just this side of good. He, like Peter, took chances. I applaud him for that, but the material is not to my liking.

Forty years is a long time to be a fan of anything, but I’m really happy to have discovered KISS when I did. Why? Because the solo albums were smack in the middle of it all. What a remarkable, bold feat. Were all the songs good? Nope, but much of the 40 (?) songs were pretty good to gold standards based on the vocalist.

What are some of my favorite songs? I’ve listed some. All of Paul’s, most of Peter’s and Ace’s, and a few from Gene. A few years ago, the PodKISSt folks did a “What if KISS made an album in 1978?” episode and used the solo album songs plus the five studio cuts from Alive II. It remains my favorite single episode. I was fascinated that the top 9 songs were all the same. It’s a great episode by the godfather of all KISS podcasts.

Forty years. Man, has it been that long? Yes and no. Yes because we can look at Paul, Ace, Peter, and Gene and see the years their faces. Heck, all we need to do is look in the mirror and we’ll know it’s been forty years. I was a nine year old boy when I bought Ace’s album. Now, I’m forty nine, and still loving this band.

A memorable moment in my KISS fandom was last year in which I took my son to see his first KISS concert. It all comes full circle.

It’s difficult to escape one’s first love. It gets embedded in our souls like few things rarely can. Star Wars. KISS. Those were the things I loved as a boy in 1978. They are still the things I love in 2018. And the KISS solo albums are a part of that legacy.

Happy anniversary, Paul, Peter, Ace, and Gene. Thanks for making those albums so long ago.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Let Your Creativity Shine: The Inspiring Message of Brad Meltzer

Sometimes, a guy is exactly who he seems to be.

I’ve enjoyed Brad Meltzer’s work as a comic book writer and as the author of adult thrillers. His blend of history and exciting, page-turning books is right up my alley. His latest novel, THE ESCAPE ARTIST, is one of my favorite books of the year and has one of the best hooks I've ever read. Here’s my review. Meltzer is also a fantastic interviewee, especially when he deep dives into the stuff he loves. I wrote about one particular interview back in 2015.

This past Thursday, I finally got to meet Meltzer when came to Houston (at Katy’s Books-a-Million) to promote his latest book, I AM NEIL ARMSTRONG.

It is the latest entry in his series of children’s books featuring heroes from history from which we can learn. The genesis of the ongoing project was to remind his own children who were the real heroes. They were ordinary men and women who sought truth, justice, and to achieve something never before accomplished. Here’s one of the quotes from his website: ““These aren't the stories of famous people. This is what we're all capable of on our very best days.”

It is an admirable goal. It is also one that seems to be seeping through. There were something like eighteen kids there. Most held a copy of one of Meltzer’s books in their hands, and not just the Neil Armstrong book. A few had written him letters or drawn him pictures. All because of the stories he told in his books and were illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos.

Speaking as a Houstonian, I’m very glad Eliopoulos captured the moment when President Kennedy declared the moon as the ultimate goal of the 1960s. You see the background? That’s Houston’s Rice Stadium.

In his his 30-minute talk, Meltzer talked about the genesis of selecting Neil Armstrong. I appreciated his history talk, especially the comment about heroes. In the Depression, when all looked bleak, Superman burst onto the scene. In the months after 9/11, the first Spider-Man movie arrived. I wore my Aquaman shirt (and stood next to a dad wearing a Flash t-shirt) so we had a little of the Justice League present and accounted for.

But heroes don’t always wear capes and tights. Heroes are like Armstrong who did something no other man had ever done. Heroes are Jackie Robinson and Lucille Ball, people who also accomplished things for the first time. And Meltzer—always cognizant of the children sitting on the floor right in front of him—kept reminding them that they could write their own story, be the heroes of their own stories, and make the world a better place. In fact, he uttered a sentence so inspiring I took out my notebook and wrote it down:

“You can use your creativity to put good in the world.”

Frankly, it made me want to get home as soon as possible and work on my stories.

After the talk, we all got back in line and waited for a chance to meet the author, get him to sign anything we brought, and snap a photo with him. The kids went first, of course, and Meltzer treated each one of them like they were the only kid in the store. Actually he did that for everyone, adult and child alike.

In the meantime, I struck up a conversation with some of the folks standing in line around me. All were women, and all were avid readers. We pointed at some of the books lining the shelves and talking about them. We talked about audiobooks. We talked about ereaders like the Kindle (I was the outlier). But there was a funny moment when one of the ladies asked the deadly serious question: do you bend down the corners of pages. Like a rousing chorus, all of them said no. It was so good to stand and chat about books with avid readers. I discussed my books, but like a dunce, I didn’t have any of my business cards with me. [Shakes head] But I got to meet Meltzer, let him know how much I enjoyed his thrillers, his comics, and how glad I am that Scott Brick—my favorite audiobook reader—is the narrator of his adult books.

Let me circle around back to the quote I captured: “You can use your creativity to put good in the world.” Think about that today. Then follow through.

Best News of the Week
Here at the Parker house, we got great news this week. My wife, Vanessa—jewelry artist extraordinaire!—is featured in HoustonVoyage Magazine. Here’s the link with her interview and some spectacular photos of her work. Need a hint at how good her work is? Here you go.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Batman Summer Spectacular 1978

To commemorate the end of summer 2018, let’s take a trip back forty years.

The summer of 1978 was smack dab in the middle of one of my favorite pockets of my life. You see, Star Wars had debuted the year before and it consume much of my imagination. It had awakened in me a love for all things science fiction and I sought out as much as I could, eventually discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A PRINCESS OF MARS. I had discovered the rock and roll superheroes known as KISS through their albums, comics, and trading cards. And every issue of Circus or Hit Parader magazine I could find.

And, of course, there was the constant: comic books. I have memories of certain issues—where I bought them; what kind of day it was—but not all. Interestingly, as summer 2018 wound down, I was drawn to a forty-year-old comic of which I have no memory buying at the time. But I also have no memory of buying it in the years since, so it’s a logical conclusion that my ten-year-old self forked over a dollar bill for this unique issue.

Officially issue fifteen of the DC SPECIAL SERIES, the 1978 Batman Spectacular boasted of 68 pages of content and no ads. In reality, you get to 68 pages by using both interior covers. This issue is a true gem of my favorite era of Batman’s history: the Bronze Age. More or less, the Bronze Age of comics ran from 1970 to 1985. For Batman, the Bronze Age started with the pairing of writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams in the early 70s to the publication of Frank Miller’s seminal THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. In the 1970s, Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor and the Batcave and took up residence in the Wayne Foundation building. He was a detective, a creature of the night, and, most importantly, still a man. He could be hurt, both emotionally and physically, and he was, including this book.

The Batman Spectacular features three tales. The first, “Hang the Batman,” was written by David V. Reed and pencilled by Mike Nasser. The story centers on the death, by suicide, of a famous author, Archer Beaumont. But Beaumont believed it was possible to communicate from beyond the grave, a belief given new relevance when various signs start popping up around Gotham City. A cryptic note admonishes the Dark Knight Detective to solve Beaumont’s murder or Batman himself will meet death. He investigates, gets into fisticuffs, and, no spoiler here, solves the case.

Reed’s writing is crisp, fast-paced, and typical of the type of story from the 1970s. He provides all the clues the reader needs to solve the crime along with Batman. But it is the visual way Nasser (now Netzer) drew the panels that really set this story apart. His Batman is lithe yet muscular. He rarely treats a single page with traditional panels and borders. He visualizes the entire page as a canvas, seeking out new ways to tell the story. And he gives you interesting angles. I read this tale twice in a row I was so enthralled by his art.

The second story is by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Michael Golden. It features Batman’s (likely) best nemesis, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Batman’s unwitting and unwanted marriage to Talia, Ra’s’s daughter. O’Neil co-created Ra’s with Neal Adams and this is a perfectly serviceable story, but it seems rather small. Ra’s is best when he’s trying to take over the world or do something for which he sees as right. Here, he’s just trying to steal some diamonds—in a manner fitting a James Bond villain. Golden’s art is as realistic as you could get from art in the 1970s, and helps elevate this story.

O’Neil redeemed himself with the third tale of this issue. Advertised as “Something New..Something Bold!”, “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” is a Batman story told in prose by O’Neil and illustrated by the great Marshall Rogers. All three artists are fantastic at creating interesting visual storytelling. Rogers drew a series with writer Steve Engelhart many consider to be among the best Batman stories every told. The scenes he draws for O’Neil’s story are, like Nasser’s very visually interesting and almost minimal despite the exquisite detail.

But that’s okay, because the real stars here are O’Neil’s words. Free from a traditional comic book story, O’Neil’s prose is lavish in detail and is spun like a magician. And the details provided give a glimpse of a Batman rarely seen on comic pages. In one scene, Batman confronts a brute who thinks he can best the Caped Crusader. “The Batman shrugged. ‘Take your best shot.’” I loved the noncommittal nature of Batman here, the hero who knows he’ll win, the hero who has confronted countless thugs who think they’ll be the one to take down Batman.

As a writer, I especially appreciated how O’Neil didn’t always conform to proper grammar to paint his pictures with words. “The footfalls stopped. Snick of lighter. Odor of tobacco.” That’s it. Sure, you could write a paragraph, but why when a short few words will do the trick. The way he describes Gotham City is also splendid.

It is a monster sprawled along 25 miles of eastern seaboard, stirring and seething and ever-restless. Eight million human beings live on streets that, if laid end-to-end, would stretch all the way to Tokyo, crammed into thousands of neighborhood from the fire-gutted tenements of Chancreville, where rats nestle in babies’ bedclothes and grandmothers forage in garbage cans,to the penthouses of Manor row, where the cost of a single meal served by liveried servants would support an immigrant family for a year. It is countless chambers and crannies and corners in bars, boats, houses, hotels, elevators, offices, theaters, shacks, tunnels, depots, junkyards, cemeteries, buses, cars, trains, terms, bridges, docks, sewers, parks, jails, mortuaries—the shelters of living and dead, millionaires and bums, fiends and saints.

Napoleon’s armies could search for a lifetime and leave places unseen.

An exceptionally energetic investigator could visit the likely ones in a month.

The Batman had less than sixty minutes.

Come on! You can see that as clear as any artist. O’Neil’s love of old pulp fiction, especially The Shadow, bleeds off the page. And how’s this description of Batman emerging to take on a couple of crooks in front of a movie screen: “The Batman, stark and implacable against the expanse of white, a grim figure congealing from the shadows.” So, so good.

I highly encourage you to seek out this issue. The entire thing has not been republished elsewhere. The Ra’s tale you can find in Tales of the Demon. The prose story is reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers and in Batmam: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Movies of Summer 2018

 With the arrival of Labor Day, the season of summer movies is over.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I really love summer movies. It is an annual thing for me and (most) of my family to see nearly all the summer movies. The big ones. The tentpole movies. The loud films where you need giant speakers to fully get the experience. Thinking about it, many of my favorite all-time movies debuted in the summer: Star Wars (and Empire and Jedi), Raiders of the Lost Ark (and Temple of Doom and Last Crusade), The Dark Knight (and the entire Christopher Nolan trilogy), When Harry Met Sally, Guardians of the Galaxy (and many other Marvel films), Batman ’89, Die Hard, many Pixar films, and the list could go on. Yeah, that’s a bunch of a certain type of movie, but it’s the kind of movie I love.

Back in mid April 2018, the slate of films to come out in Summer 2018 was massive. Heck, “summer” started on 27 April when Avengers: Infinity War was released. So, to commemorate the end of Summer 2018, I’m going to chat a little about some of my favorite films. They are in chronological order with, ironically, the last one being my favorite. The only ones I haven’t yet seen are CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (likely on Labor Day itself), the Mr. Rogers documentary, and CRAZY RICH ASIANS.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR - Really, what’s not to love? It’s a giant team-up movie with nearly every Marvel hero on screen. And they broke out into various smaller teams, which I always a treat in the comics. Giant spectacle, great action, more humor than you’d expect, and some genuinely heartfelt moments (Spider-Man’s last scene). The audience was also fantastic, with gasps and shouts to the screen.

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY - A perfectly fine film that would have done much better at the box office had it debuted December 2018 rather than a mere six months after last year’s THE LAST JEDI. It was a movie I didn’t particularly want or need, but it was enjoyable. An odd thing to say about a Star Wars movie, but if they keep churning them out, then the sense of “this is an event!” will fade and you’ll just have another Star Wars movie. The reveal at the end, though: great!

INCREDIBLES 2 - Wonderful film! Really, really enjoyed it. Laugh out loud moments and pure domestic emotions all usually within five minutes of each other. THE INCREDIBLES was, arguably, one of the best superhero movies of all time. The sequel doesn’t quite reach that level, but it is heads and shoulders above many, many other superhero films. And the Michael Giancchino soundtrack? Golden! He even leans harder into the James Bond-ian hooks. Funny note here: while driving back home after seeing this film, I commented we only had a week until the next blockbuster. My wife looked at me askance. Nevertheless, the following week, we saw…

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM - And, frankly, have forgotten most of it. The one image instilled in my memory was of the gentle brontosaurus lowing at the departing boat, doomed to die a fiery death. Oh, and Bryce Dallas Howard’s non-high heeled shoes. Other than that, not as exciting as the first Jurassic World movie, and nowhere near as good as the original Jurassic Park.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP - Three years ago, the first ANT-MAN debuted and it was a breath of fresh air in the superhero genre. A funny one. Intentionally funny. And Paul Rudd was so not like every other chiseled hero out there. Now, with the sequel, it is still a darn good time at the movies. Rudd plays Ant-Man as a real human, with real emotions. The movie is really entertaining with some great laugh out loud moments.

Now, all of those movies are good and ones I really wanted to watch. But there was one movie that was so darn entertaining, thrilling, funny, and more that I actually saw it twice. Moreover, I spent over seven hours listening to director Christopher McQuarrie deep dive about the movie on the Empire podcast. Yes, I’m talking about my favorite movie of the summer…

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT - I’ve already devoted an entire blog about it and another about the McQuarrie interviews. A phenomenal film. The first time, I grinned like a goofball, wholly entertained about what I was watching. The second time, having heard McQuarrie discuss this and that scene, I enjoyed it for the piece of film making it is. And it is still just as enjoyable the second time around. Even the audience for that second viewing—about a dozen or so folks—gasped in wonder at what was transpiring on screen. I’m now looking forward to the DVD where there will be even more behind-the-scenes material…and I’ll get to watch the film a third time.

So, those were my favorite summer movies of 2018. What were yours?

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Deep Diving Into the Mind of Christopher McQuarrie

This summer, I have seen every major film. But there is only one I want to see again. This time, in IMAX. Yeah, I’m talking about Mission Impossible: Fallout again.

Last week I wrote about sixth film in the Mission Impossible franchise. In the week since, I read every article I could find and watched every video featurette (discussions of the heists, that HALO jump, English slang, and the oh-so-charming one where Tom Cruise gets James Corden to jump out of a plane) but the crown jewel was the deep dive into the mind of director Christopher McQuarrie. Specifically I’m talking about his interview with the Empire Film Podcast. Host Chris Hewitt and McQuarrie talk. And talk. And talk. In fact, their interview is longer than MI: Fallout, which is the longest film of the entire series. But you will never be bored. You’ll want them to keep on going.

You might’ve already heard about some of the tidbits from this interview. Yeah, I’m talking about MustacheGate. Henry Cavill, deep into the filming of Fallout, was called back for reshoots on Justice League. But he had grown a mustache. Superman doesn’t have a mustache. What to do. McQuarrie relates the honest tale.

He also discusses the conspicuous absence of Jeremy Renner. His character, Brandt, starred in the two previous films, so why wasn’t he in Fallout? Again, the answer is as basic as it gets.

Those are likely the headline-grabbing pieces that might get someone to invest nearly three hours of listening. But that’s not the best. Not even close. The real gems of this interview is getting into the head of McQuarrie as he discusses, in intricate detail, aspects of the film. He talks about movie making in general, but most of his points can easily be applied to art of writing fiction. It was a master class in storytelling and making choices. More than once McQuarrie faced a deadline while shooting this film, and in nearly every time, he had to improvise. We writers talk about pantsing vs. plotting. The creation of Fallout is as close to pantsing as I’ve ever heard.

Best thing about the end of this episode? It’s only part 1. Part 2 arrives next week.

Do yourself a favor and listen to this interview. I bet you’ll come away not only with a greater appreciation of the film, but you’ll get a spark of creativity to boot. And sometimes, we all need a little spark.


You can find the interview here or via your favorite podcast app (I use and love Overcast).

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Mission Impossible: Fallout - The Best Pulp Movie This Year

First of all, Mission Impossible: Fallout is a phenomenal movie. I absolutely loved it. The action scenes are as you’d expect: awesome, over-the-top, and genuinely thrilling, especially when you know and see with your own eyes that Tom Cruise is doing practically all of them. Can you believe Cruise all but started doing these action movies around the age of forty, the age where many actors stop? The man knows how to craft a film.

I sat through most of the action scenes with a big goofy grin plastered on my face, loving practically every minute of film. I even jumped a few times, as did my wife who also thoroughly enjoyed the film. Heck, even my boy, seeing only his second Cruise movie and first MI film enjoyed it. Avengers: Infinity War was fantastic for what it did, The Incredibles 2 was gloriously fun, but MI: Fallout is hands down the best thrill ride of the summer.

One of my favorite hallmarks of these movies are the scenes where something appears to happen…only to learn later that another thing also happened that set everything into motion. It’s very much like a movie serial from the 1940s where you see Captain America appears to perish in a car explosion that caromed off a cliff…only to see that he jumped off at the last minute. Can’t get enough of that kind of thing.

Lester Dent’s plan for writing a pulp story also ran through my mind during certain scenes. Naturally, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt gets into trouble, and then more trouble, and yet more trouble. Then he must face choices that veer from bad to terrible. Just like Dent tells us writers. Oh, and that very end sequence, in Dent’s tales or MI films? Always there and always satisfying.

Speaking of satisfying, Henry Cavill is wonderful in this. He’s a big brute of a man, and those fighting scenes in the bathroom (they’re in the trailer) is brutal and vicious. Rebecca Ferguson returns and she is as bad ass as she was in the last movie. Simon Pegg is always a breath of levity in movies like this, especially this one which had much more humor than you’d expect.

Seriously, go now to a theater and buy your ticket to Mission Impossible: Fallout. It’s a living pulp story. You will enjoy it. Tom Cruise guarantees it and I wholeheartedly agree.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Gray Ghost by Clive Cussler and Robin Burcell

Clive Cussler is one of those authors I admire. He cut his teeth on his Dirk Pitt novels before expanding his universe to include the NUMA series (Kurt Austin) and Oregon Files (Juan Cabrillo). These three series have numerous crossovers (if my paltry reading of the entire run is any indication). But it’s his Isaac Bell series, set in the early days of the 20th Century, that I really enjoy. The fourth series is the Fargo adventures, featuring Sam and Remi Fargo. They’re a charming pair of millionaires (thanks to Sam’s invention) and they travel the world, searching for treasure and doing good. I had only read one novel of theirs to date (THE TOMBS) but the latest novel, THE GRAY GHOST, features not only them, but Isaac Bell.

How, might you ask, can a story set in the present also include Bell? Well, it’s a very clever conceit. In 2018, someone steals the Gray Ghost, a Rolls-Royce car from 1906. In the course of the story, Sam and Remi get involved in the search for the priceless car. You see, there has always been a legend that treasure exists in the car, but no one has found it for over a century. As soon as the Fargos get involved, they have bad guys trying to stop them, even while they try to help the actual present-day owners locate the vehicle.

Where Isaac Bell comes in is through a journal. Back in 1906, Bell helped an ancestor of the present owner thwart another attempt to steal the Gray Ghost. That ancestor kept a journal of the exploits, but that volume of the journal is missing in the present day. Stolen. Cussler and co-author Robin Burcell keep the action going not only with the Fargo adventures but the Bell investigation as well, interspersing passages of the journal with the current action.

As with all Cussler novels, I listened to the brilliant Scott Brick narrate the story. It was interesting to hear slight variations between how Cussler and Burcell treat Bell versus Cussler and Justin Scott, the team who writes the Bell novels. Brick brings so much to his narration that it enlivens the story above the mere prose.

If I have one criticism of this series, it’s in the back-and-forth dialogue of the two main characters. Often times, you don’t get the spark of passion between husband and wife. I’m not calling for a bunch of intimate scenes, and I’m completely fine with them walking to a hotel room with the knowledge of what they’re about to do, but I would like to see a little more fire to their relationship. In one of the dire moments in this book, I got the sense of it, but I’d like to see if when they’re not fighting for their lives. It’s a little thing, but noticeable.

For a good summer beach read, THE GRAY GHOST is a humdinger, and it’s propelled me to my next Fargo adventure, THE MAYAN SECRETS.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Project: Nemesis by Jeremy Robinson

When I asked my fellow science fiction book club friend how he came to select PROJECT: NEMESIS by Jeremy Robinson, he said he was looking for something that captured the 60s cartoon/monster movie vibe. Additionally, he heard a couple of folks saying this book was a genuine effort to do an American kaiju book. Well, that would have been enough for me, too. But a premise is only half of the equation. The book has to deliver.

Two words come to mind: Nailed it!

PROJECT: NEMESIS starts with a military operation in the far north and two soldiers stumble upon the remains of a giant monster. This story is set in a nebulous future/present where Japanese soldiers work with Americans and train together. When a high-ranking general arrives, he promptly asks the younger Japanese soldier to shoot his American partner.


The story cuts to our main hero, John Hudson, Department of Homeland Security-Paranormal Division. He’s in Maine mostly to investigate a series of reports of a Sasquatch sightings. He arrives at a cabin where he’s supposed to sleep only to find a mama bear and cubs have staked out their claim. So, in a novel about a kaiju, you first get a bear attack. And it’s pretty darn exciting. Hudson survives—but not his truck—and he throws back quite a few beers to decompress. Well, the next morning, the local law officer in the person of Sheriff Ashley Collins and, through his hangover, Hudson accompanies Collins to interview the old man who called in the complaints. What they find is unexpected: a seemingly abandoned military base from the Cold War days. But if it’s abandoned, then why is the razor wire new? And why is the wire coated with a substance meant to look like rust? And why is there a man and his hidden partners there pointing a shotgun at them?

PROJECT: NEMESIS definitely earns the name ‘thriller’ because the action rarely lets up. Robinson throws in a lot of sequences that are just flat-out fun. Plus, there’s a kaiju, the Japanese word used to describe giant monsters like Godzilla, Mothra, or King Kong. What makes this story interesting is how the kaiju was created and birthed. It may not be totally unique in the entire oeuvre of monster movies, but I liked it.

The bulk of the book is told from Hudson’s first person, present tense point of view. It gives the story a breathless immediacy.  When the POV switches, it’s all still present tense, including a few scenes featuring the kaiju itself. You actually get a ‘why’ to go with all the destruction. More importantly, you get a twist on a common story trope. Most of the time when an author introduces you to a character via their POV, you make the assumption you’ll be with that character the entire way through the book. Nope. He manages to make you care for a character and then have that character die. It was a shock, as in “Did [that character] just get killed?” Yup. It made the rest of the action higher pitched because you never knew if any of the main characters would get offed.

I listened to the audiobook and this is a perfect case for narrator giving that little extra something that comes across as greater than the whole. Hudson is basically your typical wise-cracking hero, and Jeffrey Kafer is pitch perfect. Robinson’s words and Kafer’s narration sucked me in almost immediately. Heck, I finished this nearly nine-hour book in five days. I started volunteering for household chores. Need the lawn watered? I’ll do it, just let me get my phone. Oh, we need to drive our empty glass bottles to get recycled? I’m your man.

PROJECT: NEMESIS is nothing less than a thrilling summer blockbuster in prose.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Almost from the day it was announced, I knew I wanted to read THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. On the one hand you have one of the all-time best-selling authors who has created his own fiction factory. On the other, you have a former president who served for eight years in the office and could provide vital details as only a man who sat in the Oval Office could. It was a match made in heaven.

But would the book be any good?

It’s an honest question, but let’s be honest: if it’s got Patterson’s name on it, the story will at least be serviceable.

And I’m here to tell you it’s more than serviceable. It’s pretty darn good.

The story opens as President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, newly widowed, is facing the prospect of a compelled testimony in front of a Congressional committee. Impeachment is in the air because Duncan recently ordered a special forces raid seemingly to save notorious terrorist Suliman Cindoruk, leader of the Sons of Jihad group. The Speaker of the House—a member of the unnamed ‘other party’; Duncan’s party affiliation also remains unnamed making it more bipartisan—who has designs on the presidency smells blood.

But Duncan has an even greater problem. Somehow, Suliman’s cyber hackers have implanted a virus in the computer systems of the Pentagon. Codenamed “Dark Ages,” if released, the resulting damage would be catastrophic. It would literally plunge the US into a modern dark ages. And one of six members of Duncan’s inner circle—including the Vice President—is a traitor because a young girl from the Republic of Georgia is asking to meet with Duncan. Alone. And she utters “Dark Ages” to prove her point.

How could this young woman know that? Who is she? And, after Duncan goes incognito and meets at the baseball stadium, who is this other guy pointing a gun at the President of the United States?

THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING clocks in at over 500 pages, but they read extremely fast. Duncan’s prose is all in first person and the entire novel is written in the present tense, giving it an urgency. Having Duncan narrate his own scenes is great, especially with his asides when he gives details you know came from Bill Clinton’s memories. There are other characters and all those scenes are related in third person. It’s the first time I can remember reading a book like this. Granted, as a writer, I noticed the differences at first, but as the story went on and my reading speed increased, it faded away and I was solely in the action.

By now, Patterson is a master at crafting a story and, while I’ve read few, I could see how one of his stories is made. And I really loved how the tension was racketed up. Sure, there were lots of cliffhanger chapter endings, but this is a summer thriller. It’s supposed to have cliffhangers.

And there was one passage of about five chapters that completely fooled me. I thought one thing was happening and it was something else entirely. Much like watching “The Sixth Sense” a second time when you know the truth, I re-read those chapters just to see how Patterson did it. Brilliant. Also brilliant was the skillful way Patterson kept the truth behind the traitor and other characters, revealing their identity at precisely the right time. This guy can tell stories!

I purchased this book from my local grocery store and I pointed out something to some friends who noticed the book in my basket. I indicated all the other Patterson novels on display—eight?—and then at THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING. Patterson’s name was listed on top of all save the new one. It takes a president’s name to shift Patterson to second billing.

I very much enjoyed this book and would easily recommend it as a good beach read.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Congo by Michael Crichton

I'm a book dork. Are you?

I’ve read many, but not all, of Michael Crichton’s novels, but CONGO was one I had missed. I have the paperback, but it had remained on my shelf for years. Earlier this spring, a comment on the Doc Savage Facebook group said CONGO was a pretty good lost city novel. It landed back on my radar. I flipped it open and noticed one of the locations was Houston. How cool was that? Additionally, the action began on 13 June 1979. And I got to thinking: since I was already reading a book at the time, why not wait until 13 June to start the book?

So I did. Book dork? Guilty as charged. But at least I didn’t wait until 13 June 2019 to start it.

The story opens with a transmission from a team in the Congo back to their home base in Houston. The team is part of the Earth Resources Technology Services (ERTS), one of two companies searching for diamonds in the Congo rainforest. Just before the video feed is abruptly cut off, there appears to be what looks like a gorilla. Not just any ordinary ape, but something different.

Soon, a second team, led by Dr. Karen Ross, sets out to keep looking for the lost city and discover what happened to the original team. Coming along is zoologist Dr. Peter Elliot and Amy, a gorilla from the San Francisco Zoo that has learned American sign language. Along the way, Ross recruits the famed white hunter Captain Charles Munro to guide them.

I’ll admit it’s been awhile since I’ve read a Crichton novel solely written by him. (I read the posthumously published DRAGON TEETH last year.) I had forgotten just how much science the author crams into his books. What particularly interested me was some of the computer stuff the team had to do. In this age of cell phones and satellite phones and instant access, it was charming for Ross to have to wait six minutes for the satellites and her communication equipment to sync up. Then there is always the “As you Bob” moments that are liberally scattered throughout the book. With the zoologist being the outside member of the team, he gets to ask for clarification on things Ross and Munro know by heart. The science, however, was fascinating, especially regarding the attempts by scientist to teach apes communication skills. I found it ironic timing that I completed the novel a day before Koko the gorilla who learned American sign language died.

Unlike the JURASSIC PARK novel where, once the dinosaurs escape, you are in a series of chases and near misses, the action here is not as relentless. There are some political struggles that erupt in gunfire, and a few brushes with death, but CONGO is more a novel of discovery. In this, it’s a perfect book for Crichton’s talents. What makes the book even better is its seeming realness, almost as if Crichton is merely the author of a non-fiction book depicting events that really happened.

CONGO is a perfectly fine book, not in Crichton’s top tier novels, but well worth the time to read, especially if you enjoy lost city stories like I do. Now, I’m going to conduct a little search of my own and track down a copy of the 1994 movie.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain: RIP

The news of Anthony Bourdain's death early this morning Houston time was one of those events you hoped beyond hope was false. Sadly, it wasn't.

My wife and I are both foodies, yet she discovered him first and introduced him to me. We both quickly became fans. We watched his shows on whatever network. His zeal for life was palpable. He yearned for the whole story, the background of a story, and the story of a people through the lens of food. And told some amazing stories. Naturally, I appreciate his episode on my native Houston, but I also remember the one where he was trapped in Beirut. Or when he and President Obama sat in a little Vietnamese restaurant and shared a beer. Or the any number of episodes where he’d sit down with an old friend and reminiscence.

His storytelling ability started on the printed page with Kitchen Confidential. If you’ve never read it—or its semi-sequel, Medium Raw—do yourself a favor and listen to Bourdain himself read the audiobook. I wrote about Medium Raw here.

One of my favorite things about Bourdain was the tag line for this Travel Channel show, No Reservation: I travel. I write. I eat. And I’m hungry for more. I called it the Bourdain Quatrain. In that spirit, I created my own.

But man, does this news sting. It’s like a gut punch. My wife couldn’t believe it. One of her favorite traits of Bourdain was his general “F*ck you, I’m doing this” attitude. Where was that, she wondered. I don’t know. Clearly there was something dark festering inside of him that none of us saw. I pray that he finds peace in his rest. I pray also for his daughter and his family and close friends. The larger family across the nations also will mourn this genuine, unique, and ever-curious man.

If you’re reading this and think you are at your wit’s end, please seek help. Life is too, too precious. You are important and meaningful. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK.

Monday, May 28, 2018

99 Days

Ninety-nine days. That’s the length of Summer 2018. Traditionally, Memorial Day (today!) kicks off the summer while Labor Day closes it out. For me, it’s always been a more relaxed time, even when I wasn’t in school and had the summer off. I drink different wine and beer, I watch certain kinds of movies (summer blockbusters!), and I read certain kinds of books. It’s a great time, even here in the Houston heat.
But I’m wondering how many of y’all think of the summer as a productivity time. With its unique bookends, summer is always a set time. How many of y’all take on a project or two specifically to complete in the summer months? As a writer, I love the joy of beginning and ending stories in the summer. Typically the stories that emerge out of these months are more action-packed and fun. (Well, truth be told, I consider all my stories fun.) But the types of stories I write in the summer just possess a different kind of vibe.
I’ve got my own projects set out for Summer 2018. Just today, I started my latest novel. It’s a complete redraft of an earlier story I completed. It’s been sitting on my shelves, waiting to be rediscovered for a while now. I’m opting for a redraft over a revision because I am a better writer than when I first wrote this tale. It’s exciting, frankly. I easily woke up this morning, grabbed a cup of coffee, and forged ahead. And with 2865 words already written today, I’m well on my way.
Along the way, I’m going to complete a short story for an upcoming anthology and probably a few other projects. Some of those things are business-related, including a revamp of my website, the expansion of my YouTube channel, and an upgrade to my Facebook author presence.
So, how about y’all? What projects do you want to accomplish this summer? If I may paraphrase the sentence that got me back in front of the keyboard five years ago: Come Labor Day, you’ll wish you had started on Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Deadly Shade of Gold: Does the Longest Travis McGee Novel Hold Up?

One thing immediately stood out when I went to download the fifth book in the Travis McGee series, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD: it was nearly twelve hours long. That was nearly twice as long as each of the first four books in the series. What could author John D. MacDonald do with more prose and time with McGee? A lot, actually, and it mostly revolved around character.

Unlike the previous four stories where someone came to McGee and basically hired him, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD finds McGee visited by Sam Taggert, an old friend of McGee’s, who is on the run. He doesn’t initially tell McGee why but asks him to arrange a meeting with Sam’s old flame, Nora. He has something he needs to sell and, with that money, he and Nora will be able to pick up again where they left off…provided Nora doesn’t still hold a grudge against Sam for walking away three years ago. She doesn’t. In fact, she’s still in love with him. But no sooner than McGee picks up Nora and takes her to see Sam, they find Sam murdered and the little Central American golden idol stolen. Needless to say, McGee wants revenge…and so does Nora.

After a quick trip up to New York—where McGee does a little research and finds the time to bed Betty, the antique dearer, with whom he made a deal—McGee make their way down to Mexico. One of the best things about MacDonald’s writing is he seemingly effortless way in creating a scene. With a few pieces of description, you really get the feel, the smell, the sights and sounds of a small, out-of-the way Mexican seaside town. Various characters walk into and out of the scenes, each described in McGee’s now trademark world-weary cynicism. But of the five novels I’ve read to date, the McGee in GOLD is much more…well, I’d almost use the word ‘depressed.’ His friend has been killed, the people he interacts with in order to find the man who gave the order are all almost soulless shells, and it doesn’t help that he has some growing feelings for Nora. And she for him, apparently. She’s ready to exact her revenge, but is seems to be held back by McGee, by physically and emotionally. That they end up together is a spoiler not.

In reading up on the McGee novels, I found somewhere a comparison to James Bond. I don’t really see it in any aspect other than the female co-star. But when using this as the only metric, author MacDonald goes one step further with McGee than Ian Fleming does with Bond. In the Bond books and movies, the book ends or the camera fades to black and the credits roll with Bond and his current leading lady arm in arm. By the next book, the previous lady is long gone. What happened? Well, in the McGee books, John MacDonald shows you. Sometimes they are killed, sometimes they leave, and sometimes, it is something else. I actually enjoy and appreciate MacDonald doing this and, more importantly, McGee reacting to it, often with self-loathing or something worse. There are emotional costs to McGee bedding all these women, and yet he still does it.

Where GOLD suffers for me is its length. Yes, we get a lot more of McGee’s worldview explored and that’s wonderful. And in Nora, you have one of the more compelling female co-stars to date. But the plot rambles and wanders. In the story, McGee stresses to Nora that they must appear to be carefree lovers away on a vacation. Well, MacDonald seems to take that as an excuse to let the plot wander. I don’t know about his writing style, specifically if he wrote from an outline or not, but I’d venture a guess that he and McGee experienced this story together, simultaneously.

Interesting, right around the eight-hour mark, they story kind of ended…and there was still nearly four hours to go. I knew why McGee needed to move forward, and I knew more or less how it was going to end, but the level of caring dwindled. In many stories, the denouement is short, right after the climax. Here, it’s almost a third of the book. Which brings up the question if it even is a denouement or just the last third of a longer work. Not sure. Likely the latter. Still, the story kind of dragged on and on.

All of this is to say that A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD is my least favorite book in this series to date. I’ve only read five—in order—and I’m looking forward to reading the sixth and see if, in my mind, MacDonald righted the ship. These novels were originally published under the Fawcett Gold Medal banner. I’ve read many of them. They tend toward fast, action-packed little thrillers that one might devour in a weekend. Through these books, I’ve learned and appreciated Wade Miller, David Dodge, Donald Hamilton, and Day Keene. MacDonald clearly has the writing chops and the character to elevate this series above the rank-and-file of a typical Gold Medal book—and he did with books one through four—but GOLD missed the mark for me.