Saturday, August 31, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 35

Well, summer's at an end. The weather won't agree with that statement, but the calendar says otherwise. It also means we're at the end of Summer Writing, the 97-day bookended time block I touted on Memorial Day.

I didn't do nearly as well as I wanted with fiction writing. Sure I made progress on multiple projects, but I only completed one thing: the short story I submitted for an anthology later this fall. There's a reason Dean Wesley Smith calls this the Time of the Great Forgetting.

But even though the fiction writing faltered, the non-fiction maintained a steady momentum with the blog writing. And there there was the out-of-the-blue moment this past week that has me wondering if I might not also have a non-fiction book in me.

Ask the Question Because You Never Know the Answer

Next weekend, the Son of Houstoncon IV is happening. Long-time readers might remember my write-up for it from 2017. During that review, I commented about seeing one of the giants of fandom and collecting here in Houston. But I didn't spend too much time talking about the guy who resurrected the Houstoncon itself, Don Price.

Earlier this week, a fellow SF book club member emailed me asking if I'd be up for attending Son of Houstoncon IV. I said yes and I sent him the link to my 2017 review. I mentioned I was interested in interviewing Price, but my friend made another point: it would be great to interview all the other long-time collectors who call Houston home.


So, literally throwing the proverbial hail mary, I sent Price an email: would he consider doing an interview? I also bent his ear about something else: what about a book detailing the history of fandom in Houston? I'm a degree historian, a native Houstonian, and a comic book and SF geek. Why not?

Why not indeed.

Price returned with a yes he's up for an interview. He was also interested with the possibility of a book. He's already shared some interesting tidbits on past Houstoncons and a photo. Hopefully, we'll get the interview completed and posted later this coming week leading up to Son of Houstoncon IV on Saturday. Even if things don't work out this week, I think the interview will certainly be on the way.

And I'm already planning on how to approach the other long-time fans and collectors here in Houston. The scope of the project will likely be larger than a novel, but no less doable. I mean, I've written a thesis, so I can do history. This time, it's just closer to home.

Lesson learned: never be afraid to ask. The worst thing could be a 'no,' but just imagine the possibilities of a 'yes.'

Movie Recommendations

Last Saturday, I watched two films. Both are pitch perfect in their chosen genres.

Hobbs and Shaw is a perfect popcorn summer action film.

Olympus Has Fallen is a different kind of thrill ride that left me without any fingernails.

Album of the Week: Midland - Let It Roll

I can’t remember the last time—if ever—I went to the store to buy a brand-new country music CD on the day it came out. But Midland is no typical country band. They are a wonderful throwback to the classic sound of country music from the late 80s/early 90s. This album is fantastic, and I've been listening daily since last weekend.

If you're interested, their website has lots of videos featuring the songs of the new album as well as their 2017 debut.

By the way, it was "Drinkin' Problem" that was the tune that made me sit up and take notice. Have a listen.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Olympus Has Fallen: Not Just Die Hard in the White House

Not sure why I never saw this movie, but hat tip to Ralph Garman for bringing it up. Now, I have zero fingernails.

Last week on the Friday episode of his wonderful podcast The Ralph Report (my review), Garman commented on the third film in the series, Angel Has Fallen, debuting. He and co-host Eddie Pence, chuckled at the name of the main character in this franchise--Mike Banning--as being a typical action film movie name. The little bit made me chuckle, and Garman mentioned he liked the first film. The new movie looked interesting as I have a fondness for the Movies of August so I checked Netflix to see if Olympus Has Fallen. It did. So, I settled in to see "Mike Banning, Secret Service Agent."

The Premise

Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is a secret service agent to President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), First Lady Margaret (Ashley Judd), and their son, Connor (Finley Jacobson). They're in a snowstorm at Camp David, but they have to drive somewhere. Never a good idea. There's an accident, and Banning makes the only choice he can: save the president, lose the First Lady.

Eighteen months later, Banning mans a desk. He wants back in but Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) reminds Mike the president doesn't want to be reminded of that night even though Banning made the right choice. All of this is prelude for the terrorist attack on the White House where Banning finds himself on the outside and rushes to the scene.

The Attack

Look, I know it's a movie, but there's something visceral when you see the seat of our government attacked not by aliens but by flesh-and-blood terrorist. Director Antoine Fuqua shows all the Secret Service agents, military personnel, and policemen and women trying in vain to stop the attack. All of them fall, and its sobering. Especially when the bad guys--led by Kang Yeonsak, as played with wily cunning by Bond villain veteran Rick Yune--have an answer to every counterattack. It was during this series of visuals where my fingernails started being assaulted.

As with Air Force One, I was really, really hoping one of the good guys wasn't a traitor. Well, that must be in another movie, because one doesn't cast Dylan McDermott as a Secret Service agent only to get shot. No, he's with the president's detail as he and the South Korean delegation take shelter in the bunker. McDermott's Forbes makes himself known as he and the South Korean  "security detail" reveal themselves and take out the remaining resistance surrounding the president.

Then things get really nasty.

The Ticking Clock

If it wasn't bad enough as a viewer to see the White House attacked and defeated, when the bad guys start torturing the administration officials for the nuclear codes, it gets worse. One always hopes good people can stand up to bad ones, but we're human, and good people always care about one another. It is brutal, and the acting is fantastically believable.

What's also scary are the reactions to all the folks outside the bunker when they realize that the particular nuclear codes are being entered. There's absolutely no way to stop it from the outside. They can only watch.

But they have a man inside: Banning has entered the White House, and into a certain type of film.

Die Hard in the White House

Look, if we're being honest, that is what this film is about. One man against a team of bad guys and he has to do what he can. It starts with finding the president's son and getting him out. Because if the terrorist capture his son, the president will give in. Any parent would, no matter if he or she is the president or not.

As a writer, I was already imagining where this was going. But...and spoilers if you've not seen it...Banning finds Connor and he escapes unharmed! He climbed up through an air shaft and had to watch the shadows of Banning killing a guy. Then, in pure tough-guy-as-likeable-'big brother' type, Banning just says it was a false alarm and for Connor to continue. Even though I was watching this show by myself, I literally uttered a "Yes!" and pumped my fist. The wave of calmness that swept over me was visceral. And it's just a movie.

But isn't that what is supposed to happen? It did when I watched the new movie Hobbs and Shaw this year (on the same day in fact). Or Avengers. Or Mission Impossible: Fallout. Or name any other movie for which I've written a review. The feels--whether happiness, sadness, sorrow, love, or excitement--is why we watch movies.

As much as I enjoyed the "Die Hard in the White House" aspect, there was still a doubt in my head and fingernails to be chewed. I knew the nuclear codes would be turned off. Why? Because we have sequels, and the previews for the new movie, Angel Has Fallen, doesn't take place in a post-nuclear America. But what it does show is Morgan Freeman as the president. In Olympus Has Fallen, Freeman is Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull. He's brought in when both the president and vice president are captured (and the VP is killed). Trumbull is the acting president in Olympus...and he's president in Angel Has Fallen...and I didn't want to look at the synopsis of the middle film, London Has Fallen, but something happens to where Trumbull is elevated to the top job.

Speaking of that, what's up with the poster? This is Butler's movie with Eckhart as the president. Why does Freeman get center billing?

Would Aaron Eckhart's President Asher make it out of Olympus alive? Well, thankfully for this movie and this viewer, he does. Because of bad ass Mike Banning. Just like Bruce Willis's character in Die Hard and Harrison Ford in Air Force One and others, Banning's not without injury and pain. But he does what he must to save the president and save the world.

Because he's [assume that deep, baritone movie trailer voice] Mike Banning, Secret Service Agent.

Man, I thoroughly enjoyed Olympus Has Fallen, despite the beating my nails took. It's an action film, sure, and its one using a template we've had for over thirty years. But this one is different. It's a sobering reminder that there are men and women out there who's sole job it is to protect the president, our governmental institutions, and our country. It's something each of us should never take for granted.

I'll seek out London Has Fallen soon so I can catch Angel Has Fallen in theaters. Olympus Has Falled is very much recommended.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

I Finally Watched Dogma

Introduction to the series
Clerks review
Mallrats review
Chasing Amy review

Well, a downturn was inevitable. How else does one explain Kevin Smith's often self-deprecating sense of humor about his own work?

Now, let me admit something: I wrote that opening line before I had finished the movie. Which is a way of saying I enjoyed the ending, but largely didn't enjoy the movie preceding it.


Based purely on Smith's on stage persona and the type of guy he is in the podcasts I listen to, going into the Kevin Smith filmography, I had a certain expectation about what his movies were like. As I've mentioned in my reviews of Mallrats and Chasing Amy, those expectations were torn asunder with what I got on screen.

With the wildly divergent kinds of movies the initial three films of Smith's are, I had nothing in the way of knowing what to expect with Dogma (1999), his fourth film. It didn't land on my radar in 1999. I don't even remember hearing about it. The only thing I knew about this film was the presence of Jay and Silent Bob and Alan Rickman.

The Cast

Over the years, and especially when Rickman died in 2016, Smith has talked reverently about the actor. I was very curious to hear and watch Rickman deliver some Smith-penned dialogue. In every scene in which he appeared, Rickman was stellar.

Well, truth be told, most of the cast was pretty good. Ben Affleck (Bartleby) and Matt Damon (Loki) are fallen angels looking to get back into heaven via a loophole in the holy law. Seeing and hearing them deliver Smith dialogue was mostly good, but only in the smaller moments. Like on the bus when the pair see a couple making out and Loki predicts--correctly--that they are not married. I enjoyed seeing them take their road trip from Wisconsin to New Jersey, but some of the banter was just off.

Linda Fiorentino as Bethany Sloane,  an abortion clinic counselor, is pretty good, especially when she comes across with the gruff, seen-it-all sensibility. She's a perfect foil to Jay and Silent Bob, especially while keeping her squeamishness about Jay at bay. It was interesting to see her transformation from skeptic to believer by the end of the film. 

Jason Lee is back as a demon, and he's brought along three hockey-stick welding demons (sub-demons? Lieutenant demons?) to help him. He doesn't have as much dialogue as he did in Mallrats or Chasing Amy, but it's always a joy to see him on screen speaking Smith's dialogue.

Jay and Silent Bob as Prophets?

Which brings me to Jay and Silent Bob. They make their on-screen appearance saving Bethany from the triplet demons in such a way that I initially thought they were going to be transformed into super heroes. Thankfully, that wasn't the case. They're still just their same old selves. But Bob, at the end, gets some emotional heft, a nice change to the character who uttered some fantastic bits of life advice in Clerks and Chasing Amy.

Speaking of Silent Bob, um, speaking, I knew exactly what he was going to say right before he said, "No ticket." When it comes to Bob's dialogue, I guess it's the inverse of the Star Trek films: great wisdom in the odd-numbered films; jokes in the even-numbered ones.

The Ending

So I kind of struggled to watch most of the movie leading up to the ending. I liked bits and pieces of the film along the way, but it didn't seem to add up to a whole.

The ending, however, worked wonders for me. Really, really enjoyed it. By ending, I'm talking about the part when God, as played by Alanis Morissette, shows up on screen. Loved that she didn't talk, leaving Metatron to translate for the mortals and immortals. It serves the point not to get inside God's head because we humans can never comprehend God's thoughts. We will only understand once we shed these mortal coils and enter into heaven.

Then, after seeing all the death and destruction brought on by Loki and Bartleby, the camera zooms in to her face and then back out again. All is well. All evidence of the carnage is gone. Everything is back to normal. Peace has been restored.

But Bethany, who martyred herself, is still dead. Her lifeless body carried by Bob, who is opening crying. God walks over and, with a smile, heals Bethany, bringing her back to life.

I really liked this interpretation of the Almighty, especially in a film so unabashedly irreverent.

Kevin Smithims

First mention, if I remember correctly, of Hetero Life Mate.

The Verdict

The ending, alas, was not enough for me to enjoy the film as a whole. Like with Clerks, maybe I'm too old to get this. Maybe my own faith leads me to see the world differently. Don't get me wrong: I wasn't offended by what happened in the film or what was said. I just see the faithful life more like what God does in the end of the film rather than all the legalistic dialogue spoken by various characters. Damon and Affleck do a great job at pointing out all the flaws of humanity in their trek from Wisconsin to New Jersey. I know these kinds of things happen all the time and it sure would be nice to live in a world where sin was vanquished.

But we're human. We are imperfect. Perfection exists on a different plane, in heaven. Hopefully, we'll get there. In the meantime, we'll have to deal with all the crap we have to deal with down here on earth, always striving to remain vigilant and do the best we can.

In his first three films, Kevin Smith took on pop culture, life, love, and relationships. I enjoyed them all, each in their own way. With Dogma, he turned his focus on religion. Frankly, it surprised me. I would like to know why. Was it his Catholic school upbringing? Did he have some lingering stuff to deal with and Dogma was the way to deal? I'm genuinely curious because in the credits for these four films, Smith thanks God in all of them. Clearly Smith is a believer and knows from whence his talent is derived.

No matter why he made Dogma, I appreciate that he did. Clearly it's not the film for me, but that's okay. An artist should be free to follow whatever muse he wants, and Smith wanted to make Dogma. He did. Some liked it, some didn't. Perhaps more people didn't, and that's why his next film was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

Let's see what happens.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Hobbs and Shaw: The Perfect Summer Movie

Having never seen any of the Fast and Furious movies, my wife was wondering why I was gung-ho about seeing this film, the ninth in the franchise. The trailer. That was it. Well, that and Dawayne Johnson. And Jason Stratham. And Vanessa Kirby. And Idris Elba.

I had a preconceived notion about the type of movie this was. It was exactly what I expected, and I absolutely loved it.

The Premise

Vanessa Kirby's character, Hattie, is an MI6 agent trying to secure the Snowflake virus. Her raid goes sideways when Elba's bad guy, Brixton Lore, shows up. To prevent him from getting the virus, she injected herself, giving her, the world, and the viewers a countdown timer. She escapes and is on the run.

Enter Johnson's Hobbs and Statham's Shaw, who just happens to be Hattie's brother. They are tasked with finding her because the story in the news is that she's a traitor and she must be stopped. Hobbs and Shaw soon realize things are much worse than they thought when Hattie reveals she's the carrier.

Brixton's bad guy group wants the virus because said group wants to wipe out the weak so humanity can evolve. Considering the evolution Brixton's talking about is himself, a technologically enhanced human with machine parts in his brain and body, Hobbs and Shaw aren't likely to let him take Hattie and extract the virus (contained in microscopic vials that will burst when the countdown ends, killing her and untold millions).

All of that is the plot that serves up equal doses of interpersonal chemistry via bickering and kick-ass action sequences.

The Reason We See Hobbs and Shaw

Over-the-top action. Fun, witty banter. That's what attracted me to the film via the trailer and that's exactly what was delivered. Even from outside the franchise, I knew enough about Fast and Furious to know the action sequences were stellar. We have three giant action sequences in the new film: a car chase in London, another car chase in some abandoned factory complex in Russia, and, well, another car sequence on the island of Samoa. They are all equally breathless, but the London set piece, with its narrow streets and potential civilian casualties, was probably my favorite. The Russian one was an exercise in driving on things and places you always made your Hot Wheels car do--up a crane; through giant windows--but would never see in real life.

The Samoan one is in the trailer, but how you get there is pretty nifty. Won't spoil it here, but it's really fun to watch. As is the entire Samoan finale. I can't tell you how many movies there have been when the technologically superior enemy is met on the battlefield by the primitive good guys. You can probably name half a dozen right now in your head. Be that as it may, it still kicks ass. Always will, because of the underlying message of heart and willpower and love.

Look, the entire movie is basically in the trailer, but that didn't stop this film from being one hell of a thrill ride.

Action sequences are good, but even they can't carry an entire film. You need the down times, to catch your breath and have a bit of plot exposition. If those times don't stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the action stuff, you have a lopsided film. And despite the dichotomy in sizes of the two leads, Hobbs and Shaw is anything but lopsided.

The Real Reason Hobbs and Shaw Works

I suspect there is some back story a newbie like me missed by going into this film cold. Didn't really matter. I picked up enough along the way to figure it out. Hobbs and Shaw have met before and they don't like each other. They are like oil and water. Their styles vary just like their physiques. Johnson's Hobbs is big, brutal, and perfectly willing and able to joyfully punch things. Kirby's Hattie comments on it throughout the movie, as a kind of meta commentary on Johnson's entire vibe. Stratham is the shorter, but not less deadly fighter, fully capable of taking out bad guys, but will do so with balletic artistry. In an early, side-by-side sequence when both guys do a solo job, Stratham comments that he's a champagne problem while Johnson is an ice-cold can of whup-ass. I think you see the difference.

But it works. Hobbs and Shaw, underneath all of its intense action sequences, is really just a buddy cop movie from the 1980s. A Lethal Weapon, a Tango and Cash, and any of a half dozen you can name. The chemistry of the lead actors works so well,  you could almost do without the action stuff and you'd still have a pretty good film. Now, you're not really going to do that, but the mixture of buddy cop with action is pretty darn satisfying.

There are enough one-liners in this film that it almost come across as a roast of the two guys. I couldn't help but wonder if some of the dialogue was made up on the spot during filming. Heck, it also crossed my mind that Johnson and Stratham themselves added to their own personal pile of insults.

Vanessa Kirby more than holds he own between our two heroes. She is so far from the shrinking violet that she could lead a film like this. I first saw her in my favorite film from 2018, Mission Impossible: Fallout. In the final cut, she doesn't have a lot of action, but it makes you wonder if there were some action scenes in that film that were left out of the theatrical release. There's, of course, some implied attraction between her and Hobbs because of course there is.

And then there's Idris Elba. In a world in which his name is regularly floated when it comes to recasting James Bond or whenever there's a new super-hero movie announced, we get to see him perform in a franchise film. Yeah, he could easily be Bond or, as he says in this movie, "I'm black Superman." True, but he's really driven in this film. I would love to see him do more stuff like this.

The Cameos

I have no idea if the three cameos in Hobbs and Shaw are actually from earlier Fast and Furious movies. Judging by the crowd reaction, however, I'm guessing two of them (hint: the ones not set in a prison) are unique to this movie.

And they are hilarious!

The Verdict

Hobbs and Shaw is a quintessential summer popcorn movie. You get likable actors playing fun characters against a formidable villain in a easy-to-follow plot that throws so much action at you that you truly will feel like you've been on a roller coaster. And it's solidified the other thing as well: I was already tempted to step into the Fast and Furious franchise. Now, I'm going to dive in.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 34

This was what you might call a coast week.

Last week, I turned in a short story to an editor for an anthology to be published this fall. This week, I returned to my slice-of-life novel and made some good progress. What made that progress possible was the call sheet.

The Call Sheet

In movies and TV, the call sheet is the list of actors and crew who need to show up for a given day's shoot. For my story, I have a growing cast, most of which--other than the four main leads--I make up as I go. But these four men all have spouses or girlfriends or ex-wives and children. I couldn't keep all the names and characterizations straight.

So I wrote it all down. I formatted it in such a way so that it all fits on a single sheet of paper. That paper fits neatly between my Chromebook's folded halves, so when I'm here at the day job, I have easy access to the data. When changes happen, I can make them on paper and then transfer back to the electronic version.

I know this isn't rocket science, but for the longest time, I've been writing longer works with characters I already know. Ben Wade, my PI in 1940, looks and acts a certain way. Ditto for Calvin Carter and his partner, Thomas Jackson, both railroad detectives in the 1880s. With those tales being historical, it's the little non-character details I sometimes have to research. The irony is that my new book is set in 2019 and all the setting and world building are's just the characters are difficult to keep straight. But this is the first quarter of the book. By the time I write "The End," I'll know them very well.

The Chasing Amy Response

Week 3 of my "I Finally Watched Kevin Smith's Films" series was this week. It was Chasing Amy's turn. My normal procedure is to get the blog posted, then cross-post on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I check Facebook frequently, but not necessarily for feedback to my stuff. But when I checked on Instagram late on Wednesday, I had over a hundred likes on my post. I actually thought the app had malfunctioned. I rarely, if ever, get a hundred likes on a post.

But I did with Chasing Amy. I think it's a testament to how good and how different this movie is, especially the Smith ouevre to date. As a friend of mine wrote on Twitter this week:

It was by far my favorite of the first three. I like the unhappy ending and the truth that young men can be stupid and immature while loaded with arrogance which can be a toxic and dangerous combination. Rarely do you see that written so well.

Of the eight films I've seen so far, there are four I want to revisit when I'm done with the run. This is one of them.

Heart in Houston 

I wrote a review of the Heart concert here in Houston yesterday. It was a really good show, with a song choice in the encore I initially questioned, then realized was a great choice.

Here's the link to the entire review.

The Mandalorian

Is that not an awesome trailer. IG-88! Are you kidding me? Just take my money now!

Friday, August 23, 2019

Heart in Houston: Keeping the Music Fresh and Powerful

On Thursday night, my family and I went up to The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands (just north of Houston) and saw Heart with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Elle King. We actually arrived too late to see Rob Schneider's daughter, but thoroughly enjoyed both Joan Jett and Heart. When it comes to summer concerts, there is no other place than the Mitchell Pavilion that I'd rather be. The vibe is wonderful. I always buy lawn seats because there are few things better than sitting in a small chair on a grassy lawn, under the stars, and listening to great music.

Joan Jett

Joan Jett is a trailblazer. There she was on stage, leading her five-piece band, dressed in black leather, jamming during her entire set. I was struck by her appearance. Not only does she look just like she did thirty years ago, but I thought back just two weeks ago when the band Halestorm opened for Alice Cooper. Lzzy Hale fronts Halestorm and she is a direct descendant to Joan Jett, even down to Hale's wardrobe.

Jett and the Blackhearts delivered the exact set we all wanted, included an unknown-to-me version of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People." Boy is that a message as timely as ever.

Heart Arrives

By the time the lights went dark and Heart stepped on stage, I sat up in my chair. The crowd started cheering and, out of the darkened stage, Ann and Nancy Wilson appeared. As part of my Legacy Rock Tour--that is, seeing as many legacy rocks acts while we still can--there's something magical about seeing veteran artists for the first time. I'm a casual Heart fan, a greatest hits fan, but when those two ladies walked out on stage, I started grinning ear to ear. There they were!

And man, they have not missed a beat. For a total of sixteen songs, Ann and Nancy Wilson led the band through cover songs and original material. Ann's voice is still powerful, filling the covered part of the pavilion and washing over the capacity crowd on the hill. The harmonious blending of their voices waxed and waned depending on whom sang lead. Very happy they included the Moog synth on Magic Man since it takes me back to the mid 70s.

The covers were an interesting choice. There was a three-song mini set, starting with Yes's Your Movie, then I Heard it Through the Grapevine, and a wonderful version of The Boxer with Nancy singing lead while playing acoustic guitar.

The Rhythm of the Band

A word on Nancy's playing. This being the first time to see the band, I knew she played guitar, but I didn't know how well her rhythm playing was. I'm a sucker for a great rhythm player. Imagine the Beatles without John Lennon's guitar, KISS without Paul Stanley's playing, or Metallica without James Hetfield. Can't do it. Neither can you be without Nancy's playing. She drove the band, leading it through the tunes. Frustratingly, the camera operators focused on her playing infrequently, but when they did, it was impressive.

What was also impressive was Ann's voice. We all know veteran rock singers lose a step or two as time takes it toll. It's part of the aging process for everyone. Ann, however, still has a powerful singing voice. I've been recently introduced to the band's 2016 album, Beautiful Broken, and I enjoy it quite a bit. In some of the more orchestral songs, I wondered how Heart never got tapped to record a song for a James Bond film. It's a natural choice, and Ann would be able to belt it out with the best of them.

Modern Spins on Classic Songs

The choices the band made were great. While I wondered why they chose covers over some of their other hits, what they did with the hits was a nice change. For all the on-stage wizardry of bands who can play their greatest hits just like the record, it's a refreshing change to hear a band like Heart change up the instrumentation of some of their songs. These Dreams, in particular, had much of the 1980s sheen stripped away, leaving a more organic and natural version of the song that is, frankly, better than the original. Same with What About Love, and the inclusion of tasteful bongos. Minstral Wind is a tune I don't know, but it served as the nice atmospheric extended jam before kicking into Crazy on You. That song still rocks.

The Encore

When they came back for the encore, I ticked off songs they hadn't played. We all knew they'd end with Barracuda, so that meant we'd get renditions of All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You, Alone, and some other hit from the 80s. What we got instead, was Stairway to Heaven. From the opening chord, I recognized the song. I turned to my family and voiced the obvious question: "Why?"

Well, there was a reason. Over Nancy's acoustic guitar, Ann sang those familiar words. Line by line, verse by verse, I was swept away. Through the slow parts, her voice was so powerful that I gradually looked forward to the inevitable: Ann Wilson singing the fast part. Brilliant. As my wife said and I agreed: second best version of this song we ever heard.

That's why.

And that's why I am so glad we got tickets for this tour. If you haven't ever seen the band, or you haven't seen them in a long time, get your ticket today.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

I Finally Watched Chasing Amy

(This is the fourth in a series of how a fifty-year-old geek finally saw the films of Kevin Smith. If you want the origin story for this series, read the Introduction. I've already reviewed Clerks and Mallrats.)

You've got to be kidding me, right? Kevin Smith, the same guy who wrote Clerks and Mallrats, also wrote Chasing Amy?

Three Different Films...

Clerks is the slice-of-life kind of film famed for its indie spirit. Mallrats is a raucous comedy about twentysomethings in the mid 90s. Chasing Amy is an all-out romantic drama with some humorous dialogue thrown in. On the surface, you'd be right to question if the same writer developed all three films. But there's an underlying thread running through all three films.

Chasing Amy starts in a comic book convention. Check traditional Smith trope number one. A fan wanting to get his comic book signed starts an argument with Jason Lee's character, Banky Edwards. Banky is the inker for the famous Bluntman and Chronic book, and he and the fan dispute the importance of an inker. The fan says Banky is merely a tracer. Banky thinks otherwise. They come to fisticuffs, leaving it to Ben Affleck's Holden McNeil (the penciller) to break it up.

[Aside: The worst part about not knowing much of anything about Kevin Smith films and having to go to Wikipedia to verify names is seeing certain characters, like Banky, have their own entry. Thus spoiling things for future films, because the best thing about Smith's films is seeing how and where the same actors show up.]

Now, I'll admit when I first saw Jason Lee, I thought he was the same character as in Mallrats. Ditto for Affleck, which led to wonder how the two characters from Mallrats made up and work together. That's not the case here. In this film, the main stars, like the various other side characters, play different people in this movie.

It's at the comic con where Holden first lays eyes on Alyssa Jones, played by the brilliant Joey Lauren Adams. Alyssa is also a comic book writer, but for a not-very-famous title. Holden is besotted, especially when Alyssa invites him out to meet her in a bar. A very particular kind of bar that Banky picks up on pretty quickly but that Holden doesn't until the shattering moment when Alyssa makes out with a girl.

A Shared Moment

Alyssa is gay. Holden has no clue. He thinks she had eyes for him. She doesn't, but she likes him as a friend. Script-wise, the scene was great. The bartender, Hooper X, (Dwight Ewell) is flamboyantly gay and he's about to tell Holden the truth, but Holden's too fixated on Alyssa singing her torch song to listen. Banky looks around, sees all the evidence that it is a gay bar, and the smile Lee brings the Banky's face is fantastic. It's only when Holden's world is crushed when Banky tells him "That, my friend, was a shared moment."

The Frank Dialogue

In what I'm now realizing is a trope of Smith, Banky, Holden, Alyssa, and her gal head off to a different bar where copious amounts of dialogue occurs. In Clerks, it was about life in dead-end jobs. Mallrats was about suburban pop culture. Chasing Amy is about relationships, love, and sex. Here, Alyssa and Banky see eye-to-eye on many things. And, in a particularly hilarious spoof, they start comparing sexual scars...just like the three characters did in Jaws. When Alyssa props her leg on the table just like Robert Shaw in Spielberg's movie, I busted out laughing. Not only does the dialogue move the story forward, it's also a great in-joke for movie buffs. Just like Kevin Smith.

The Story Twist

After a so typical 90s montage scene showing Alyssa and Holden doing various things, getting along, and, of course, Holden falling in love, the movie comes down to two people sitting in a car. Rain pours down and Holden has to reveal the truth to Alyssa. He declares his love for her in a rather decent manner. Sure, it's not Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, but it's genuine and heartfelt. And selfish.

Watching in 2019, in the week celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, in a year in which it's no big deal to see same sex couples at the grocery store or concerts, I was shocked at Holden's declaration. What was he thinking? What did he expect would happen? I'll tell you one thing: Alyssa's reaction is exactly what I expected.

Joey Lauren Adams Knocks It Out of the Park

Up until this point in my Kevin Smith movie run, Joey Lauren Adams has been the bubbly girl with the unique voice and the infectious laugh. But in this scene when Holden lays out his heart, she is brilliant. The anguish. The betrayal. The anger. It all comes out in this fantastic scene, especially her reaction to Holden's stupid off-hand comment about "a period of adjustment." Great, great scene. I wasn't sure where they were going to go next, but I sure as hell didn't expect the kiss.

Nor the dating stuff. Sure, I expected the scene when Alyssa tells her friends, but what sets Adams's performance above everything in this movie is that she effortlessly goes from the anger of the rain scene to the wonderful explanation scene when she answers Holden's "Why me? Why now?" question. Her answer is so sincere and so from the heart. "The way the world is, how seldom it is that you meet that one person who just gets you - it's so rare." Holy cow, this is good. So good.

And then she turns it back up during the hockey scene and its aftermath. Man, I wanted to slap Holden for doing what every single guy in a relationship tries to do: find the history of the new girlfriend and compare. And Alyssa deservedly lets him have it. "I was an experimental girl for Christ's sake! Maybe you knew from early on your track was from point A to B, but unlike you I was not given a f***ing map at birth, so I tried it all! That is until we, you and I, got together and suddenly I was sated!" That may not be as succinct as "You had me at hello" or "I know," but that's one of the best declarations of love I've seen on screen, and it's delivered like a gut punch. Or a kick the nuts.

Jay and Silent Bob Arrive

Nearly eighty minutes into the film, Jay and Silent Bob arrive. Again, as in Mallrats, you can't help but wonder how a cool kid like Holden even knows or hangs around these two. Again, probably because he's best friends with the writer, Jay gets one of the funniest lines in the whole movie: "Bitch pressin' charges? I get that a lot." He delivers the line as if he's in a Naked Gun movie: deadpan, straight, and with obvious history.

Over three movies, I've been conditioned to expect Silent Bob to speak. He spoke gold in Clerks. He spoke a joke in Mallrats. Now, in Chasing Amy, I expected gold again. I got it, in the form of a soliloquy on love.

"I wasn't disgusted with her, I was afraid. At that moment, I felt small - I'd lacked experience, like I'd never be on her level, like I'd never be enough for her or something like that, you know what I'm sayin'? But what I did not get - she didn't care. She wasn't looking for that guy anymore. She was...she was looking for me, for - for the Bob. But, uh, by the time I figured this all out, it was too late, you know. She'd moved on, and all I had to show for it was some foolish pride, which then gave way to regret. She was the girl, I know that now. But I pushed her away. So I've spent every day since then chasing to speak."

Give Smith credit: he can write some awesome dialogue for his actors to say, but he saves some of the juiciest morsels for himself. Other actors might get more memorable and quotable lines, but the heart of the story rests in the words of Silent Bob.

Holden's Stunningly Stupid Idea

I've been keeping notes as I watch these movies. Yeah, I'm a dork, but I want to capture my thoughts. I wrote "astonishingly dumb!" when I realized what Holden suggests he and Alyssa and Banky do together:  have sex. She knew it, Banky was oddly clueless. Did Holden not hear what Alyssa said (and that I quoted here)? Did he not understand what Silent Bob told him? I mean, come on. If Silent Bob breaks his silence to relay some morsel of knowledge, listen man!

But no, Holden didn't listen. He thought the three of them having sex would solve everything, Alyssa's explanation as to why she was walking out the door killed any chance he had with her. Well, heck, let's be honest: after the hockey scene, there was no chance.

Separate Lives

It is still simply wild that Holden would even suggest such a solution, so I was greatly rewarded when the three of them ended up with three separate lives. As much as I was surprised with the initial kiss between Alyssa and Holden, I would have been pissed if they ended up together. Glad they didn't, but it makes the ending, the final line, that much more poignant. A year later, at another comic convention, Holden and Alyssa have a final and proper good-bye. When asked by her companion who Holden was, Alyssa has the perfect response: "Just some guy I knew," relegating Holden to a past lover, a past Alyssa will likely not mention unless asked.

The Verdict

Chasing Amy was an unexpected film. It didn't fit into the mold of what I assumed Smith's movies were like. I assumed he had a career of Mallrats and Clerks clones. That isn't what Chasing Amy is. This is a really good film, chock full of multiple truths, as told by a gifted storyteller with something to say in the mid 1990s.

There's a trend apparent in the first three films that I'm curious to see if it continues. With Clerks, it was all about the truth as Smith knew life as a young twentysomething not seeing himself or his friends represented on screen. It was cheap to look at but rich in character. Flush with success and money, he makes a strikingly different film in Mallrats, an over-the-top comedy I enjoyed but didn't make a lot of money. Batting only .500, Smith had to draw on more truth, this time an emotional truth. Clerks and Chasing Amy both look and feel like indie films. Mallrats doesn't.

This is kind of like the even numbered Star Trek movies being the better ones while the odd numbered ones just move things forward.

Looked at it another way, one might argue Smith's merely flexing his movie muscle, trying his hand at various types of movies he had consumed up until that point: the talky one, the comedy, the romantic drama. Knowing Dogma is next, I cannot even imagine what that film will be like.

But I'm eager to see it.

Watching for the Trademark Kevin Smith Things

A real treat about watching these films for the first time at age fifty and having listening to Smith's podcasts for years is to see how certain things he still says to this day initially show up in his movies. Here are a few I saw:

  • First mention of cock knocker
  • DeGrasse
  • Alyssa overtly naming characters from Clerks and Chasing Amy
  • Inker discussion
  • Brian O'Halloran is back. That's three for three
  • Camera work in the car while Holden and Alyssa are driving, the back-and-forth


When I saw this movie in early July 2019, the trailer for Jay and Silent Bob Reboot had not yet dropped. When it did, the world got to see the fact that Affleck and Smith got past whatever had driven them apart. I've now listened to Smith relate the details of Affleck coming down to the set and working again as Holden. Which prompted Smith to write a sequel to Chasing Amy.

Look, I'm in the bag for the Reboot film, but having already seen eight of Smith's films as of this writing [21 August 2019], the Chasing Amy scene in Reboot is probably the one I'm looking forward to the most.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Haunting of Hill House

(With word that Netflix is going to release a director's cut of 2018's The Haunting of Hill House, perhaps the best thing I saw on TV last year, I realized I had not posted my review here. Now I have.)

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 stellar 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.

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, August 17, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 33 AKA What a Difference a Week Makes

What a difference a week makes.

If you tuned in last week, I wrote a "What's the point?" post in which I wondered why a creative (notice, not just writer) should keep working. I came around to my own conclusion.

We creatives all go through times like these where the urge to just throw in the towel is so dang strong. It would be so, so easy to just give up. And no one would notice.
Fight through those tough times. Persevere. Keep going.
Why? Back to Jay's first item: because you love it.
That's the point. 

This week, I remembered why I love storytelling so much. But I almost threw in the towel on one story.

New Thriller Story

A few weeks ago, I was invited to submit a crime/mystery/thriller story for a yet-to-be-named anthology. The deadline was 15 August. Sure, I thought, when I first got the invitation, I've got a story. It's already started. All I have to do is finish it. I'll have it way before the deadline.

But I didn't. The story remained elusive. I had the first half of the story already written, but it was listless. I was listless. I'd wake up at my morning writing times and chose to write a blog post. I just wasn't into the story. Even as I wrote my "What's the Point?" post last Friday, I was ready to email the editor and bow out. I hesitated, deciding to give myself Monday.

Monday came. Monday went. No good progress on the story. The deadline was Thursday. There was just no way to satisfactorily finish this story. Tuesday morning's session came and went. I got into the shower to get ready for work. I was going to email the editor later that day.

And something clicked. The thrill that passed through me as one small piece of the puzzle fell into place. It was the crucial piece, the keystone of the whole tale. I smiled in the shower. I wasn't going to email the editor at noon. I was going to move the story forward.

I moved it forward 1,450 words that lunch hour. I was on a roll. Then I had to get back to the day job. Later that evening, I read the opening to my wife. She liked it. A pretty good indicator considering she doesn't read this kind of story.

Wednesday morning and lunch came and went. More words. More progress. I needed to stick the landing, so I let my mind churn on it. I was done by Thursday morning's writing session. The lunch hour was proof hour. Came home and sent it to the editor.

It was the high point, creatively, for the week. I cannot control what any reader thinks, including the editor. Maybe this yarn won't even fit the vibe of the anthology and the story'll come back. All of that doesn't matter. All that matters was how excited I was to write the tale, how excited I was to read it aloud to my wife, and how excited I was to have completed another story.

And, perhaps, launched a series.

That is why I do this.

Then I got a reward in the form of another blog post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Expect Success

Please tell me you read Rusch's Thursday posts on here blog. For the past few weeks, she's been discussing licensing. This week, she took a break and focused on success, specifically the mental fortitude one needs to strive for success.

Boy, was it exciting. And sobering. And thrilling. And daunting.

But most of all, it was encouraging. It's not a magic potion. Being creative is work. Sometimes, like this week, the work is tremendous. Other times, like all those hours before Tuesday for me, it's frustrating. But it's still something for which to strive.

Toward the end of the piece, Kris talks about what to  do when we creatives face challenges. One is to print her blog and re-read it. Another is to purchase the book she mentions. I've bookmarked the piece and will come back to it whenever I feel like throwing in the towel.

She ends like this:

Maybe you should ask yourself what terrifies you the most about the possibility of success.
Expect success. And then work for it. Each and every day.

The Elementary Finale

Going in, I knew the tears would come. Even if the episode was just a mystery-of-the-week, saying good-bye to this version of Holmes and Watson was going to be difficult. Because I loved them. I'm not going to get into a tit for tat as to which version of Sherlock Holmes is the best. Jeremy Brett pretty much nailed the traditional version. The BBC Sherlock was a nice updating of the original canon. I also enjoyed Robert Downey, Jr.'s version quite a bit.

But Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes evolved. That's what it comes down to for me. And he was simply brilliant. He showed a broken man with immense mental gifts that were also a curse. He learned to broaden his self-centered life, even though it often proved very difficult. Miller's acting acumen was on full display every week. The seven-year arc of this version of Holmes was a joy to witness, and the finale was beautiful.

Many thought the stunt casting of Lucy Liu was just that. Hogwash. She took what was traditionally side-kick role and made Watson equal to Holmes. She learned, she excelled, and she often beat Holmes to the deduction. And she always had her partner's back. Always. From the jump, I loved the idea of the gender swap. It was something different. Creator Robert Doherty re-imagined Holmes, Watson, and the canon. The show was not slavishly trying to mimic the canon. It was inspired by it. The show lived and breathed

Many also predicted Holmes and Watson would hook up. I never figured it would happen, and glad it didn't. What emerged was a deep love between two characters that needed no romance. The finale showed that to the full extent.

Season 6's finale was all but perfect. Season 7's was just as good. All the tears. All the feels. All the love. I will so miss this show, but I'm so glad it went out on a high note before the quality started to drop.

As I wrote on Twitter:

Perfect casting from day one. Perfect ending. Incredible writing for a complex pair of characters and actors who love each other deeply. So well done. That is how you create a fulfilling finale. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Chicago 13 at 40

This is not Chicago's worst album. It is among the ones I return to often. But it also doesn't make it one of Chicago's best.

The Post Terry Kath Era

Chicago 13 arrived in stores forty years ago this week (Tuesday, 13 August to be exact). The record marked the second and last album to feature Donnie Dacus, the first replacement lead guitarist and singer after Terry Kath's untimely death. Looking back on the time now, I understand why the founding members of the band made the choices they did. Kath, the soul of the band, was gone. So, too, was his deeper voice, and his extraordinarily unique guitar playing. His was a style born out of the 1960s and early 1970s, a musical style that, by 1979, had changed and morphed into something different. You can hear Kath's own style changing, especially in his playing on Chicago XI. A favorite guitar piece, "This Time," Kath was already adjusting and pointing in a different direction. Change was inevitable.

But his absence carved a hole out of the band that, arguably, has never truly been filled. He was one-of-a-kind, the underappreciated rock guitar monster most veteran guitarists acknowledge could play circles around most of them. By 1979, long-haired guitarists fronted album covers--Peter Frampton. A brand-new style was debuted only a year before: Eddie Van Halen. The lead guitarist as leader of the band was nothing new--just watch old Chicago shows from the early days and you can see Kath was the leader. So when it came time for the band to audition a new guitarist, that person was going to be put front and center.

Donnie Dacus was twenty seven when he joined Chicago and recorded Hot Streets in 1978. He brought a youthful energy to playing the old songs and the new ones. He was different than Kath, but his style matched the era, just like Chris Pinnick's did in the early 1980s and how DaWayne Bailey's Van Halen-esque style did in the late 80s and early 90s when I got on board. One of my favorite all-time shows is the Los Angeles concert with the orchestra. Dacus was fantastic in that show, and every show I've seen with him. It would have been interesting to see what the band would have done had Dacus remained for XIV, but then, we'd not get Pinnick's great playing.

Be that as it may, the Dacus Era ended in 1979, but not before 13 August, when Chicago 13 debuted. And it had one of my favorite things the band ever did.

The Cover

Let's get this out of the way early: This is my favorite Chicago album cover. In a gallery of album covers, 13 stands out. It's not the plain wood, leather, or steel of the early album covers. It's not one that obscures the logo like 16 or Twenty-1. It's the signature logo, front and center, in the most interesting presentation among the albums. Come to think of it, in terms of visual appeal, Chicago 25 is up there. I'll have to do a Top 10 list of favorite Chicago album covers someday, but the top spot is already taken.

Side One

Street Player - To start one of the more energic, dancable, and fun tunes off with a rim shot? This is certainly not Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," but I can't think of another Chicago tune that starts solely with percussion. One of the more recognizable horn licks Chicago has ever written. Heck, it's one I can sing to myself while on a walk. The gorgeous disco beat in infectious. And there's cowbell! Peter Cetera's vocals soaring high above the music. He and Dacus make a good, high-tenor pair. True, the band missed the deeper, soulful Kath vocal, but setting that aside, Cetera and Dacus are good together. Speaking of soaring, Maynard Ferguson's trumpet is awesome. I remember hearing 13 for the first time in the mid 1980s and scrambling for the liner notes--I think the cassette version didn't have them so we had to find an album--to confirm what could only be Ferguson. Easily the best song on the album.

Mama Take - With an acoustic guitar and electric guitar intro, this tune is the direct descendant to Hot Streets' "Gone Long Gone." Again, Cetera leads the way, often serving as his own backup vocalist, a trend I never truly enjoyed. The horn break is pretty good. Well, are there any bad Chicago horn breaks? Nothing to write home about, but a serviceable pop tune.

Must Have Been Crazy - Dacus wrote this tune and it served as the lead single to the album. It's a curious song with which to lead. In a precursor to the 1980s Chicago songs, this song downplayed what a Chicago song was supposed to sound like. Sure, you got Cetera in the background, but no discernable influence by Robert Lamm, and no horns. There is a cowbell, and a short guitar by Dacus. I'm all for the Dacus years and giving him a front-and-center look, but unlike Bill Champlin in the 80s, Dacus didn't write a Chicago song. He wrote a Dacus song. The tune certainly fit the times. You easily imagine this song sung by REO Speedwagon or Supertramp, but even then, I'd have much rather had Street Player be the lead single.

Window Dreamin' - Chicago 13, along with Chicago VII, share one particular thing in common: every member of the band contributed a song. This entry is by saxophone player Walter Parazaider and trumpeter Lee Loughnane. You can hear it in the opening seconds when the horns lead off this track. The vocals kick in, and it likely sent listeners in 1979 to the liner notes. Who the heck is "P.C. Mobelee"? It's clearly Cetera, but why the rigmarole of renaming himself. He sang in his lower register more than once before (parts of Hideaway from VIII and State of the Union from V and Song for You from XIV jump instantly to mind), so what's the point? His vocals actually make it more difficult to hear the words. Killer guitar solo, especially the sound of it amid all the horns. That sequence is probably my favorite part of the song. The groove is pretty good, too, but it would have been so much better if Cetera just sung it normally. Or Lamm.

Paradise Alley - Speaking of groove, this tune takes a sound straight from Stevie Wonder. It figures since Lamm wrote the song. Surprisingly, he doesn't sing it. It's Dacus again. Drummer Danny Seraphine shines on this song (as he does over the entire album. If Chicago XI is a Kath album, then 13 is a Seraphine album). I love the bridge (the "It reminds you of who you used to be and who you are" part). The sound and vibe change. It's a fun song and it closes out side one of the album.

Side Two

Aloha Mama - Despite the song title, this song opens with a horn lick straight out of New Orleans. If you had any doubt, when Loughnane comes in with his flutter trumpet, you are in a sweaty bar down in Louisiana. P.C. Moblee makes his second appearance on the album, but Cetera sings much better here. The horns are all over this tune written by Seraphine and Hank Wolinski, the same pair responsible for Street Player (and Take Me Back to Chicago and Little One from XI). They know what components a Chicago song is supposed to contain, and they deliver a highlight of the album. If you also need proof Cetera can sing rough, his closing vocals are the proof.

Reruns - Finally, a Lamm-sung tune. And it's brilliant. Deep, heavy groove. Stellar horns. Lamm's smooth-as-silk vocals. And cowbell! I love this song. And, in a hallmark of most every Lamm song on any album, you can hear the *other* guys in the band singing backup. It's another example of how well blended Cetera and Dacus actually are. You don't get a "wall of Lamms" like Cetera does for his own tunes. Jimmy Pankow's horn arrangement is another one I can find myself singing at random times. I know little of Lamm's personal life, but the lyrics pretty much point to a down time. Sorry for him, but he delivers one of his best-ever songs.

Loser With a Broken Heart - The harbinger of what was to come in the 1980s. Speaking of backing up your own lead vocals, I can't hear anyone besides Cetera here. No horns. No keys other than the organ playing whole notes. It's basically a feature song for Cetera's vocals. Considering he wrote If You Leave Me Now (the band's first #1 song), Baby, What a Big Surprise, and No Teller Lover, this song could have easily been predicted. Tasteful, but short, guitar solo toward the end. And for a guy who played his bass on the earlier Chicago albums in the style of Paul McCartney, Cetera just sticks with eighth notes here. It's an okay song.

Life Is What It Is - Talk about a time capsule song, this song just reeks of the late 70s...but in a gorgeous way. Seraphine's wonderful high-hat cymbal drives this song with nice horns in the background. Cetera is perfect here. And all that Cetera-backing-Cetera stuff? I actually like it here. But you can hear Dacus in the background on verse three, so he should have done it from the get-go. I've always linked this song with Love Was New from Hot Streets. And we finally get a horn solo with Pankow's trombone. This is one of those songs that just makes me smile. I didn't know the song, album, or band in 1979, but with this tune, it's almost like I did. The vibe takes me back forty years.

Run Away - The sole song written by Pankow, the tune begins with a decent groove and first couple of verses. The half-time section is a favorite of mine because it showcases a long-standing hallmark of Chicago songs: multiple voices singing lead. Here Cetera and Dacus shine. But the song is a little light on content and substance, despite Dacus's guitar soloing during the fade out.

Bonus Track

The original album contained only those ten songs. The 2003 reissue included the song Closer to You and an alternate mix of Street Player. I had already purchased the 1991 Group Portrait box set so I've had this song for a long time.

And boy is it great! Dacus sings lead on a tune that has the vibe similar to Life Is What It Is mixed with Take a Chance from Hot Streets (my favorite Dacus/Chicago song). The horns are everywhere on this cut, Seraphine's cymbal work is great, and Lamm's keys give a great undercurrent. Dacus's vocals are fantastic here, giving the tune an urgency. The horn break is excellent, and in a page ripped from Chuck Mangione, Loughnane's fluglehorn soars in a short solo. How in the world did this song not make the original album? Perhaps it was the similarity to Life Is What It Is. Perhaps the original members didn't want to give Dacus a third song (fourth if you include the duet with Cetera on Run Away). Who knows. But Closer to You belongs on the album and I've always included it on the various playlists I've created over the years. It's top 3 for this album.

The Verdict

The Dacus Era was not to last. I don't know all the personal details about 1978-1979, but I appreciate how difficult it must have been for the founding members to move on. I've read Robert Lamm had a bad time which was probably why he has only two writing credits on Chicago 13 with only one vocal. But this era--and this album in particular--saw the rise of Danny Seraphine's songs. The man can write some killer songs, with one long-standing hit so popular, it was sampled twice. If you want the man's insight on this era, check out the Nakedly Examined Music Podcast.

The era also saw the ascendancy of Peter Cetera as a songwriter and leader. Say what you will about his style and the types of songs he writes, but there was a void in the band and he filled it. By doing so, we are able to witness the band's fifty-second year of existence and their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Without him, that likely doesn't happen.

And I'm glad it did. Without the Cetera Era, we don't get the great ballads that introduced me to the band. Without Cetera, Chicago doesn't become one of my two all-time favorite bands. I've listened for thirty-four years now and I've come to love the Originals Era best, but that doesn't mean I don't love the Dacus Era. I do. In fact, I have a 1978-1979 playlist on my phone. It's a great vibe that reminds me of that time in my life even though I didn't know the band at the time.

I enjoy Chicago 13 much more than I used to. Heck, I enjoy the Dacus era quite a bit. I enjoy scouring YouTube for live cuts just to hear him play. Earlier this year, I bought the vinyl of 13 and just sat and listened to it. Very enjoyable album.

I place Hot Streets in my Top 10 Chicago albums. I enjoy the songs of Chicago XIV, but I prefer them in my own revised order. Chicago 13 isn't a top 10 album, but if you judge the catalog by how many times I return to 13 and listen to these songs, it's Top 15. Pretty darn good for an album many fans--and likely some band members--rarely discuss. Sure, there might be better albums, but here, on this album's 40th anniversary, I'm glad it was made. It marked a band in transition from one era to the next. It's a fascinating pocket of time in the band's history.

If you haven't spun it in a long time, break it out. Give it another listen. The music will surprise you and remind you what a talented group of muscians can do with changing musical styles.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

I Finally Watched Mallrats

(This is the third in a series of how a fifty-year-old geek finally saw the films of Kevin Smith. If you want the origin story for this series, read the Introduction and then review of Clerks.)

The same guy who made Clerks made Mallrats?

One is a black-and-white indie film made on a shoe-string budget set mostly in a single location while the other is a full-color movie set mostly in a single location with a lot more money on the screen. Well, okay so the premise of both films might be similar, but the payoffs are completely different.

Oh, and you get a glimpse of Future Kevin Smith in this movie, too.

The Production

A year after the success of his first film, Clerks, writer/director Kevin Smith made his second, Mallrats. I suspect there are numerous places you can go to learn about how this movie was made. Suffice it to say the difference between Clerk and Mallrats is night and day. The instant you see the Universal logo, you almost forget you're watching a Kevin Smith film. Wasn't this the guy who filmed his first film in black and white?

Yup. And he's also learned a thing or two about staging, spacing, lighting, and other things now that he had the backing of a major studio. He also had some well known and soon-to-be famous actors in tow. Michael Rooker starred in Days of Thunder and The Dark Half while Shannen Doherty appeared weekly in Beverly Hills 90210. Ben Affleck is here, as is skateboarder Jason Lee in what I think is his first main role. Man, he shined in this film. To be honest, I know him best from Alvin and the Chipmunks and as the voice of Underdog in the live-action movie. What? I have a kid and we watched those movies over and over. Oh, and My Name is Ed.

Smith and co-star Jason Mewes are back as Jay and Silent Bob in a much bigger role than they had in Clerks. I've got to find some behind-the-scenes talk about the choice Smith made to broaden the presence of these two. Was it merely to get himself and his friend more screen time or enhance the story with some comedic elements? Either way, he succeeded on both counts.

The Setup

As the film opens, T.S. Quint (Jeremy London) is about to pick up his girlfriend, Brandi Svenning (Claire Forlani), and take her down to Florida. He's going to propose in the Universal Studios theme park. She can't go because she has to fill in as the female contestant on her dad's game show, Truth or Date. They fight and quickly break up. Despondent, Quint heads over to see his friend, Brodie (Jason Lee) and talk it over. Brodie himself has just been dumped by Rene, his girlfriend (Doherty), for not being romantic enough. Considering he lives in his parents' basement crammed full of comic boxes, magazines, and superhero posters on the walls to say nothing of his reluctance to introduce her to his mom, I'd say she has a point.

I found it funny that T.S.--who basically comes across as one of the cool guys--would even ask basement dweller Brodie for advice. As the movie goes on and T.S. witnesses some of Brodie's ideas, I questioned how they were even friends. Brodie gives voice to my puzzlement: "You're gonna listen to me? To something I said? Jesus, man, haven't I made it abundantly clear during the tenure of our friendship that I don't know shit? I mean, half the time I'm just talking out of my ass, or sticking my hand in it." This is truth, but T.S. doesn't even bat an eye when Brodie suggests the antidote for both of their troubles: go to a mall.

What the choice does is allow Smith to fill the mouths of his characters with more witty observational dialogue just like he did in Clerks, albeit with fewer bad words. And while I found Clerks humorous, I laughed out loud more than a few times during Mallrats. Brodie's story about farting in front of his girlfriend was pretty darn funny. I had heard the discussion of Superman and Lois Lane and the perils of her getting pregnant before, but it comes across funnier as spoken by T.S. and Brodie. I especially enjoyed Brodie's comment about not talking about romance and girls when the discussion is focused solely on comics. Spoken like a true 90s twentysomething.

The Antics of Jay and Silent Bob

What makes Mallrats so much fun are the happenstance encounters Brodie and T.S. have and their reactions to them. There's poor Willam who cannot for the life of him see the image in the 3D picture ("It's a sailboat."). Affleck's more "grown up" character works at a men's store in the mall. Joey Lauren Adams' Gwen trying on clothes but keeps getting surprised by Silent Bob and his antics.

Jay and Silent Bob. They're just hanging out at the mall. Bob is trying the Jedi mind trick to levitate a cigarette from the palm of one hand to his other. Jay is much funnier in this movie than in Clerks. Holy cow, his little dance as he looks at all the people walking by the pet store is hilarious. They're friends of Brodie (natch) and it is to them he turns to help destroy the game show set erected inside the mall as a means for T.S. to find time with Brandi.

Love this little back-and-forth as an example of how listless Jay and Silent Bob are.

Brodie: You know about this game show they got going on here? We need you guys to somehow ensure that it doesn't happen.
Jay: Is that it? We were gonna do that anyway.
Brodie: Really? Why?
Jay: What else are we gonna do? Silent Bob stole the schematics from some foolish carpenter and found a weakness just like the fucking Death Star. You knock this crossbeam out and fucking bickety-bam! The whole stage comes crashing down.
Brodie: Well we were thinking of something simple, but, hey, if you want to destroy the stage, we're all for that.

Played as comic relief, Jay and Silent Bob are great in this movie. But what I appreciate most about them is that they appear to be in the wrong movie. Everyone other than Jay and Silent Bob know they're in a romantic comedy populated by twentysomethings. Jay and Bob are extras from an Airplane movie. Or the Marx Brothers. Or Wile E. Coyote. Or, more accurately, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Weird? Let me explain.

The best thing about the Abbott and Costello movie is that the monsters are all played straight. You never see Dracula poke Frankenstein in the eyes a la The Three Stooges. The only funny people in the movie are the two main stars. In Mallrats, the same dynamic is at play, except the funny guys are the side men. It'll be interesting to see how this evolves knowing Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, where they appear to be the leads, is in the future.

The Expected Ending

Despite all the window dressing, Mallrats is a romantic comedy. Like a good Doris Day and Rock Hudson picture, it's not if the leading men will get back together with their ladies, it's how. For T.S., it's him on the Truth or Date game show with Brandi as the contestant. In this way, he gets to pop the question in front of an audience. Any chance she'd say no?

For Brodie during most of the movie, it doesn't look so good. That is, until a chance (not really) meeting with comic book legend Stan Lee. The elder man talks to Brodie about love and what's really important (read: not comic books). Knowing that Stan is married, I expected him to circle back around to his own wife, but instead, spins a yarn that is exactly what Brodie needs to hear. Sure, T.S. had asked Stan the Man to do it and he did, with wonderful warmth. But it is yet more evidence that writer Kevin Smith is a romantic at heart. In all the podcasts he does, when the subject of marriage comes up, he's glowingly effusive about how great it is. The younger man who wrote this movie either was in love or knew the truth about love because this little soliloquy by Stan Lee is fantastic.

Watching for the Trademark Kevin Smith Things

A real treat about watching these films for the first time at age fifty and having listening to Smith's podcasts for years is to see how certain things he still says to this day initially show up in his movies. Here are a few I saw:

Snootchie-bootchies and Noochie noochie
Tell 'em Steve Dave
Whatever you call that "mmnnmmnn" sound Jay makes when he and Silent Bob are air guitaring to heavy metal music. I've heard Smith do that frequently.
"Trust me, True Believer." Yup. I went back and re-watched Stan Lee's cameo in Captain Marvel after seeing Mallrats. I cannot even imagine what longtime fans of the movie felt when they saw that. 

Silent Bob Speaks

After Silent Bob's great line about women in Clerks, I was admittedly underwhelmed with his one bit of dialogue in this movie. "Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things." Sure, it's a great quote from a time when there were no new Star Wars movies on the horizon and the franchise had not consumed all of pop culture yet, but the bar for Bob's dialogue had been set very high. This was just nice.

The Verdict

Boy, I loved Mallrats. I don't get how it didn't do well. I'm a fifty year old man watching it for the first time and I loved it. Sure I'm a comic book geek like the guys in the movie, but that's just side chatter. Yes, it's part of the film's DNA but it doesn't get in the way of the warm-hearted story.

In a recent podcast interview with the Empire Film folks, Smith talked about the movie bombing when it opened but aging well. It certainly has. Not sure what the audience thought this film would be like in 1995. Like the original trailer closed with: "What else did you expect from the director of 'Clerks'?"

So far, two movies into Kevin Smith's career, I'm seeing a pattern. Let's see if it holds true for Chasing Amy.

Monday, August 12, 2019

License to Kill at 30

With thirty years hindsight, one of my favorite James Bond films could have easily worked in the 21st Century.

The Summer of 1989

It was altogether fitting that the fabulous summer of 1989 for movies would also include a James Bond film. It had been since 1974's The Man With a Golden Gun that a Bond film did not premiere in the summer. Coming two years after 1987's The Living Daylights, License to Kill was Timothy Dalton's second outing as 007. I would have liked to have seen more (yet I truly enjoyed Pierce Brosnan's turn as well).

License to Kill (LTK) was the first Bond film not based on a single Ian Fleming novel. With A View to a Kill and The Living Daylights the titles for a pair of short stories, even LTK's title was unique. It's story of drug cartels in Central America was straight out of dozens of films in the 1980s. Some might think this was pandering to a current trend, but I have always seen it as fitting. Although it hadn't happened yet, 1989 would see the unification of Germany and the felling of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union was crumbling. The United States and United Kingdom was down one major adversary. Why not turn to a smaller, more intimate James Bond film?

And Timothy Dalton was the perfect actor for the role.

The Darker Bond

Before Daniel Craig signed on and made the James Bond franchise noticeably darker in tone and subject matter, Timothy Dalton was the one who did it. Sean Connery had moments. Later, Brosnan had one of my favorites. Even Roger Moore had a few moments here and there of the literary Bond. But Moore had turned Bond into a middle aged super-hero by 1985's A View to a Kill, something from which Dalton turned away. Heck, he even had Bond smoking again.

For a story in which Bond goes rogue, seeking vengeance and revenge for the mauling of his friend, Felix Leiter, and Leiter's new bride, I can't image any actor up until then playing the role quite the way Dalton did. Sure, Craig could do it now, but up until 2006, we hadn't seen a brutal Bond for an entire movie. Watching the movie again this past weekend for the first time in I can't remember how long, I was struck by how hollow the humorous moments felt. When Bond takes his first revenge again the traitorous US agent Kilifer, the dialogue you can imagine any of the actors saying. "You earned it. You keep. Old buddy." Then he throws the suitcase at the agent hanging over the shark tank. The traitor falls and the shark feasts. But it's Dalton's dead stare that is so chilling. Craig delivers looks like this. But up until 1989, no Bond had done so.

A Worthy and Scary Adversary

It was the brutal actions of Franz Sanchez, drug lord from a fictional Central American country, that brought out Dalton's dead stare. Sanchez, played wonderfully by Robert Davi, fed Leiter to the sharks after having his wife killed (and presumably raped). All throughout the film, Sanchez is unlike most of the villains Bond had faced up until 1989. He was ruthless and vicious, happily willing to mete out punishment in violent ways. Despite Sanchez saying thing were purely business, Davi pretty much plays Sanchez and a man who enjoys the pain he dishes out.

For the longest time, I would always associate Davi with the role of Sanchez. Didn't matter what he was in, whenever I saw him, I'd say "That's Sanchez."

In a movie with one of the better villains in the Bond franchise, it also had one of the better Bond girls.

A Tough and Capable Partner

Carey Lowell has been one of my favorite Bond girls for thirty years. Even at the time, I could tell she was different. She wasn't some shrinking violent who only needed saving. The then most recent one--Maryam d'Abo from The Living Daylights--fell into the prior category. I honestly can't even remember Tanya Roberts's turn in A View to a Kill. (I can barely remember anything from that film save the great theme song.) You had to go back to Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only for a Bond girl who could hold her own with 007 in the action department. Honestly, I think my favorite of all is Michelle Yoeh from Tomorrow Never Dies.

But Lowell was right there. We first see her with Leiter as he's working with her to capture Sanchez. Next she's welding a shotgun in a bar and enables hers and Bond's escape. We learn she's a pilot, a skill that comes in handy more than once. You can see the turn in her character after Q mentions a field agent must use all the whiles at his (or her) disposal. At that point, she's there to save Bond's butt more than once.

For me, she's top tier of the Bond girls.

The Theme Song

Sorry, Gladys Knight. You sing well, but I've never enjoyed this theme song. But considering the theme for Die Another Day is sitting there as the all-time worst Bond theme song, License to Kill will never reach the bottom. Actually, as I'm writing this piece, I have a YouTube playlist going with all the theme songs. Even when compared to others, LTK just doesn't hold up for the absolutely worst reasons: it's boring. Who writes a boring Bond song?

And this is one of the few Bond films I can remember that had a different closing song. Sorry Patti LaBelle. "If You Ask Me To" is a better song that the main theme, but the record for best-ever closing song is k.d. lang's "Surrender" wins in a blowout. That's so good, it could have--should have been--a main theme. Love that song.

Bond's Plan

It's a common trope to have the hero infiltrate the villain's lair and destroy from within, but I can't remember one for Bond in quite this fashion. Goldfinger brings 007 to Fort Knox thinking Bond knows something. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond's investigation leads him to Blofeld's base in the Alps. Most of the time, Bond finds himself in the hideout, but he soon starts blowing things up.

In LTK, Bond uses his brain much more than in other films. He's cold, calculating, thinking of ways to get to Sanchez rather that just shoot him. His actions remind me of the character in Dashiell Hammet's 1929 novel, Red Harvest, and the move Yojimbo (1961). I suspect the writers had this trope in mind. I'm just surprised it took Bond so long.

The Stunts

In the history of all the Bond films and Bond stunts, I have always enjoyed the water skiing sequence in LTK. Of course he would do that. It was all the funnier later in the movie when Anthony Zerbe, as Milton Krest, explain it to Sanchez. The drug leader didn't believe it. Most of us wouldn't either.

As to the 18 wheeler on its side? Well, this was 1989. All practical effects. Some stuntman on set actually did that, so be quiet about "it couldn't happen." It did happen.

Q in the Field

I've always loved LTK for the extensive use of Desmond Llewelyn as Q not only giving Bond the gadgets, but actively helping 007 with his mission. I'm a fan of the franchise, but this is the only one when this happens, right?

The Verdict

License of Kill remains one of my favorite Bond films. Dalton remains one of my favorite Bonds. I like that he and the producers sought to bring Bond back to his darker, literary roots with The Living Daylights and License to Kill. I'm glad it was Dalton who portrayed Bond in a story like this. This wasn't some megalomaniac trying to take over the world. This was personal. This was revenge. This was Bond's career be damned. He was going to have his revenge.

LTK is a film firmly ensconced in the 1980s, and I'm fine with that. So, too, was From Russia With Love, Live and Let Die, Tomorrow Never Dies, and Quantum of Solace. Bond evolves with the times. Bond reflects the times. It makes perfect sense for Bond to confront the drug cartels of the 1980s.

As a result of the subject matter, License to Kill is a darker film. In fact, as I mentioned to my wife, watching the movie from  the vantage point of 2019, License to Kill is a Daniel Craig-type Bond film...just years ahead of its time.