Saturday, September 28, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 39

Are you a monogamous writer?

So, as a fiction writer with a separate day job, I have the luxury of finding myself in writing slumps and not having to worry about paying the bills. The slumps are a pain, to be sure, but I've been able to wallow in them, diagnose why they started, and then finding ways out of the hole.

I've been in one for a little bit, probably late summer until now. I've given myself permission to not write, but I plan on getting back on the horse come Tuesday, AKA 1 October.

A few, I printed my three or four works in progress and I've been reading over them, figuring out which one I want to restart. One's a Ben Wade tale so that's 1940s. The other is a mystery set in the present day. Ditto for the non-mystery novel I began in the summer. Then there's the sequel to a short story I submitted to an anthology. It's an action tale, and I enjoyed writing it so much, I want to write more.

Thing is, each of them bring a certain vibe in my imagination. I like all the vibes, especially considering each of them are in different genres.

I had an idea just this week: why not work on multiple projects at the same time?

Up until now, I've always written on one project until completion. It's worked well. I've written novels in a month using this philosophy. All waking non-writing moments enable me to think about next scenes, working through plot points, etc.

But if I hit a wall for any reason, the writing gets derailed. And if I can't get back on track, then the writing grinds to a halt.

I know other writers have multiple projects going at the same time. Veteran writer Robert J. Randisi works on multiple books per day. James Patterson undoubtedly does the same thing. If one book ain't jiving, shift books.

It's an idea I'll be testing, just to see how it works. Why not? Trying something and failing is way better than not even trying in the first place, right?

How Did You Celebrate Batman Day?

Last Saturday, we celebrated the manufactured "holiday" known as Batman Day. Why? Marketing and selling. But it was still kinda cool to see all those Batman-related hashtags and images.

I started by watching the Batman episode of the new Scooby-Doo and Guess Who
. Later, with the wife taken ill, I watched the end of Batman 1989. As those credits rolled, Batman Returns began in split screen. Why not? Ditto for Batman Forever.

Later in the evening, I ended up watching the first of two direct-to-DVD movies featuring Adam West and Burt Ward, The Return of the Caped Crusaders. Really, really enjoyed it. I closed out the evening with Batman comic 321, the one written by Len Wein featuring the Joker throwing himself a morbid birthday party.

It was a fun day. What did you do?

Sting's Brand New Day is Twenty!

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the release of Brand New Day, Sting's sixth studio album. I loved that era of Sting fandom and I wrote about it (because of course I did).

The next anniversary is this Friday when David Bowie's ...hours also turns twenty. That was a great week back in 1999: two veteran artists releasing new music.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Sting - Brand New Day at 20

Twenty years ago today, Sting released Brand New Day and I was enamored with his sixth studio album. It was the first of a pair of new records by two of my favorite rock stars (come back next week for my take on David Bowie's ...hours). I was newly married, newly employed, and the end of the millennium was mere weeks away. It was a fabulous time, and this album landed right in the middle of everything.

And it hit me exactly at the right place musically and lyrically.

I've enjoyed Sting's music since Synchronicity, but if push comes to shove, I easily prefer his solo work over his Police music. I like his explorations of other styles of music and lyrics, and we got a microcosm on this one album of nine songs plus and intro to a tenth.

I fell hard for this album, but I hadn't spun it in a little while, so it was nice to get back to it. For me, it still holds up pretty well, with some all-time favorite songs from the entire Sting discography.


A Thousand Years - A downbeat opener (an odd choice to kick off the concert), nevertheless, this meditative song is one I ended up enjoying quite a bit over the years.

Desert Rose - On any given day, this is my favorite all-time Sting song. Loved it from the day I heard it twenty years ago. When Cheb Mami starts singing, with that distinctive Middle Eastern scale and chords playing in the background, I was hooked. The exotic lyrics mixed with the somewhat mysterious instruments bring to mind multitude of desert visions in my mind. The instrumental break, with the sitar high in the mix, is the musical equivalent of a camera mounted on a helicopter as it flies low over the desert sands. By the last chorus when Sting and Mami sing their lines, intertwined, is hypnotic. Fantastic song.

Big Lie Small World - From the Middle East to Brazil. It's one of the best things about Sting: his willingness to explore the world's music and incorporate it into his music. This bright bossa nova song is sung in Sting's trademarked English teacher way. Lots of word play, and the first instance of trumpeter Chris Botti, unknown to me at the time. Botti's trumpet almost gives this song a noir vibe. This song, like 1996's I Hung My Head and others, is a short story in four minutes.

After the Rain Has Fallen
- An immediate style change. Instantly brighter than the dark of Big Lie Small World. Here Sting tells the story of a knight trying to save the princess, complete with hand claps. The chorus is one great gob of smiles, a joyous thrill. Sting's bass is wonderful buoyant here, jousting up and down the fret board. When he starts talking about "take me here and take me there," the song builds back up to another ebullient chorus. Love this song.

Perfect Love...Gone Wrong - A jazzy little number that seems like the direct descendant of Moon Over Bourbon Street. The second dog song in Sting's career, more intricate wordplay enlivens a song that might have been pedestrian. Perfect Love benefits from a wonderful rap in French for which there is no translation in the liner notes. Why? Because dogs can't really understand people and vice versa. Botti's trumpet flits in and out of the tune, like little musical gnats. Pianist Jason Rebello gets a short solo in a funky interlude.

Tomorrow You'll See - Brandford Marsalis, famous Sting collaborator from 1985 onward, shows up on clarinet here. The story of a prostitute is sung in Sting's intricate talk/sing way leading up to the more melodic chorus and more clarinet. The bass in this tune is somewhat different, more like from a bar rather than the traditional bass sound on every other tune. The Hammond organ brings a street-level vibe.

End of the Game - I've had the full version of this song for nearly twenty years now, so I've included it in my playlist as the full song. Not even sure why Sting didn't just include it in the regular album. But when I think of this album as a whole, this is the one song I always forget about. Perhaps Sting was on to something.

Fill Her Up - Talk about the oddball song on the album. Love the story of a gas station attendant just absconding with a few bucks to impress his girl. Definitely a full-throated gospel song, and it's not bad, but does it really fit on this record? Feels more like a Ten Sumner's Tales tune, or Nothing Like the Sun.

Ghost Story - Another meditative song, largely as a result of the plucked guitar that opens the song, this tune swells like an orchestra playing a symphony as the song progresses.

Brand New Day - The opening guitar strings hint at another Middle Eastern tune, but the major chord progression segues into the 3/4 time signature of the main song. Another tune chock full of joy, not the least of which being Stevie Wonder's harmonica playing. I've always loved how Sting delivered some of his sung lyrics in a rhythm counter to the main beat. And I really dig how he ends the song with his numerous metaphors. A fun way to end the album.

Bonus Tracks:

Windmills of Your Mind - Sting the Jazz Man shines in this bonus track available in 1999 on the Japanese version of the album. One of the aspects of Sting's voice I find interesting is his lack of vibrato. It's just pure, clean notes. Here that kind of "Broadway-type" singing comes across wonderfully. It almost makes you wish he'd do an entire album of jazz standards.

Other Mixes:

There were a ton of various mixes of many of the tunes on this album in 1999, into 2000, and all the way into 2001. Some are fun and good. Others a shrug. You've got the Desert Rose (Chillout Mix). After The Rain Has Fallen (Extended House Mix). Perfect Love Gone Wrong (Dub Remix).

One highlight was the Bill Laswell remix of "A Thousand Years." The original six-minute meditative song was extended to twelve. Additional orchestration and Middle Eastern drums were mixed in, but one thing really stands out on this song: Botti's trumpet. Playing with a somberness Miles Davis might actually admire, Botti's horn swirls in and out of the first half of the song, reminiscent of the live version on the Brand New Day tour. The latter half of the song is the basic beat with Botti basically playing a solo.

The Brand New Day Era

The tour to support the 1999 album lasted nearly two years. My wife and I saw him here in Houston in August 2000 and we very much enjoyed seeing this band live. First time to see Botti live, and I started listening to his music. Even saw Botti live with his own band. As Sting toured, he would show up on the late night talk shows. I watched and recorded every one of them. As much as I enjoyed the full band version of Brand New Day (on Letterman), I really dig the acoustic version he did on the Conan O'Brien show. Here he is singing "After the Rain Has Fallen" on the Tonight Show.

All This Time...

The entire Brand New Day era ended on the evening of 11 September 2001, when Sting and his band were set to perform the second of two shows at his Italian villa. We know what happened that day. Tempted though he was to cancel that evening's performance, his band convinced him to use music as a way to start the healing. You can see it happen, in real time, if you watch the DVD of All This Time, which came out in November 2001.

The Verdict

Brand New Day is one of two Sting albums to which I constantly return. The other is Mercury Falling. Of the nine tracks on this record, five would rank high in an all-time list. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire Brand New Day era. It was a great time to be a Sting fan.

Has it really been twenty years?

What are your memories of this album and era?

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

I Finally Watched Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Chasing Amy
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Bac
Jersey Girl
Clerks II

 Well, if anyone ever wondered how Kevin Smith would make a romantic comedy, the answer naturally had to be "with porn."

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is Smith's eighth film overall, but only his second not set in his View Askew Universe. If you've read my review of Clerks II, I wondered how Zack and Miri was his next project. I also wonder if setting this film outside his usual playground is Smith trying to gain a wider audience.

The Premise  

The premise is in the title, but there's no sub-title to tell you why. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) live together in Monroeville, a Pittsburgh suburb. They can barely pay the rent. Bills pile up as their seemingly aimless lives spiral into boring routine. She works in the local mall (natch) while Zack slings java in a local coffee shop.

It's Thanksgiving and their high school peers coordinated a reunion. Zack couldn't care less, but Miri wants to get Bobby Long, the ever attractive Brandon Routh, into bed and hopefully to pay off her debt.

That's not going to happen. You see, Zack struck up a conversation with the wonderfully named Brandon St. Randy (Justin Long), a gay porn star and boyfriend of Bobby. If that isn't bad enough, that same night, their power is turned off mere hours after the water was shut off.

What to do?

Granny Panties

At the reunion, St. Randy recognizes Miri from a viral video a pair of teens shot of Miri while she was changing in the coffee house. It's Zack's idea to make a porno movie to pay off all their debt. Miri's reluctant, but goes along.

Zack's original idea was to parody Star Wars as Star Whores complete with funny names like Luke Skyballer and Hung Solo. He recruits Delaney (Craig Robinson), Bubbles (Traci Lords), Stacey (Katie Morgan), Lester (Jason Mewes, of course), and a goateed Jeff Anderson to make the flick. But the building they were using gets demolished. Out of luck, whiling away depression in the coffee shop, Zack figures out a way to still do the film, but use the coffee shop as the setting.

Bawdy is an Understatement

I've listened to Smith's podcasts for seven years now. I know how he talks when there are no censors present. I know how he writes films (see language in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back). Given all that, I was still surprised at the sheer amount of dick and sex jokes in this film. Keeping to my policy of never reading anything about these films until after I've watched it, I now know he had to appeal the initial NC-17 rating. I can see why in language alone, but I wasn't prepared for the near-actual sex on screen.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not bothered by it. Hey, it's world's better than the "interspecies erotica" from Clerks II, but I just hadn't seen that kind of content in a mainstream movie in a long time.

I really enjoyed the entire brainstorming montage as Zack and Miri come up with possible titles before settling on a Star Wars parody. I suspect there are more than a few out there, but the promo shots Smith showed were hilarious.

It's Not If They Get Together...

No matter the cosmetics, this is still a romantic comedy. It's never in doubt if the two leads are going to get together. It's how.

Banks telegraphs Miri's feelings for Zack pretty easily. He's just too dumb to see it. Which brings up a point I don't think the movie touched on: how in the world did these two end up living together?

I'm a fan of romcoms. I'm fine with all the various tropes associated with them, but how many times have we seen the woman's feelings manifested first? And how many times do we have a clueless man missing what's right in front of him? That's what irritated me halfway through the film. And knowing the ending, why wasn't Zack more forthcoming? Don't get it.

I know Smith's characters are often clueless guys (of the movies I've seen to date) but it would have been interesting to see Smith write a guy who clearly loves the gal rather than the other way around. It would have been interesting to see how the traditional romcom roles were reversed.

And it's not like Zack doesn't already care for Miri. He washes her hair in a very intimate way. He comes across as a crass dude, but he cares for her. It just manifests itself in the script when he has written it in such as way so that Miri only has sex with Zack.

It's right there on front street, dude. Just tell her!

...It's How They Get Together

"Start kissing on three."

From the title and premise alone, the consummation scene was a given. And boy was it great. Might be the best scene in the entire movie. The characters of Zack and Miri are understandably awkward around each other in this scene, and Rogen and Banks pull that part off well. But as the scene progresses and the sex starts, you'd almost think the two actors really care for each other. Look, I know it's acting, but they carried it off so well that said thought entered my head. It was a really great scene in which their love was on full display. Even the characters in the film noticed.

Afterwards, Miri's all smiles. Zack's given her the big O, something she comments on earlier in the movie. But here's the thing: Zack knows something just happened. He may not be able to process it, but he knows, especially considering the ending of the movie.

Yet, during the wrap party, he actually goes into the other room with Stacey. Now, Stacey had asked Miri if it would be cool if she, Stacey, and Zack hooked up before their scene the next day. Miri's response: "You can ask him." Thus, we get the big test. A test, mind you, Zack fails miserably. He actually goes with Stacey. In my notes, I wrote "He knows...but still goes!? WTH?"

What the hell indeed. Which makes the next day's shoot with Miri and Luthor, the one scene Zack tried to change because he didn't want Miri having sex with anyone else, inevitable. Miri shows up, ready for her scene, and the inevitable fight ensues. "Did I do something wrong," asks Zack. Dude, if you have to ask, you know the answer. Accusations fly, but amid it all, Zack professes his love for Miri. Really? Then why did he go with Stacey?

What if I didn't, he asks Miri. "But you did," she replies.

If there was a boom in this movie, that's where is would have landed.

Three Months Later

I'll admit I was pretty pissed at Zack at this point. I knew the ending had to be resolved in the positive, but come on, dude. Why did you run away? Especially when you reveal the truth at the end.

Look, all the nice things that happened--the revelations, the awesome quote by Delany ("Sometimes we need someone to show us something we can't see for ourselves. And we change forever."), and finally Zack's declaration to Miri through the door--I I like them all. I do. It's why we watch romcoms. But c'mon. Couldn't Zack have done that three months earlier? What was he afraid of, especially in that last dramatic moment when he thinks she with Luthor and he declares that he'll wait for her. Aggravating.

But it ends well, as nearly every romcom does. And the mid-credits sequences are pleasant.

The Verdict

As I wrote at the top of this review, if Kevin Smith would ever make a romcom, it would have to be with porn. Sigh. Look, I know that dirty talk and all of that is the center of his wheelhouse. It is literally all over his face, neck, and chest of every podcast I've heard. Perhaps that just who he is and how he sees love and the world. I honestly wouldn't expect him to make a romcom without all of that.

But with Clerks II and Zack and Miri, it seems like it's all amped up to eleven. Strike Back had lots of language, but these last two films just seem just under over-the-top. I'm not sure why. Was it scar tissue after the Jersey Girl bomb (great movie, BTW, and nowhere near a bomb). Was he accused of being too saccharine with that film so much so that he had to dial up the dirty? I'm not sure. It'll be interesting to see where he goes next with Cop Out, a film, he didn't write but directs only. That in itself is an interesting situation, but that's also a topic for next week.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a decent film, but the clear star of the show is Elizabeth Banks. She sells Miri and her feelings perfectly at all stages of the movie. I enjoyed her the most. Seth Rogen is basically the same type of character he plays in other movies and a stand-in for Smith himself. Chris Robinson was also a fun discovery for me (first film I've seen him in) and I look forward to him in Reboot next month.

I enjoyed parts of Zack and Miri, but not all of it. I'm looking forward now to watching some of the DVD extras and get some additional insight. But not before I head off to New York City and "Cop Out" and to see if I can see why Kevin Smith and Bruce Willis had their famous falling out.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Batman Forever

As the credits rolled for Batman Returns on Batman Day 2019, the third Batman film started in split screen. Again, it was made-up holiday so I was in a Bat-mood. My college football team wasn't playing yet. And I hadn't watched films two and three back-to-back in perhaps ever. Why not at least see the opening segment and just be reminded again of the complete 180 the franchise took.

Color...All Over the Place...Including Two-Face's Face

The heist that opens the film introduces us to Tommy Lee Jones's Two-Face. No, it wasn't the split-down-the-middle character who anguished over what life had dealt him like in the comics or the Animated Series (which, at the time, had already run a couple of seasons and was voiced by Richard Moll). Nor was he what Aaron Eckhart would eventually do in 2008's The Dark Knight. It would have been very interesting to see a Tim Burton version of Two-Face, no matter the actor, but that version lives in a parallel universe.

What we got was an exaggerated cartoon version of a comic book villain. I don't know if new director Joel Schumacher gave Jones direction or if Jones just assumed all comic book villains were of the mustache-twisting variety. Either way, the latter is what we got. Shrug. It is what it is. For such a dual personality, he has a one-track mind: kill the Bat. He has an annoying way of grunting throughout the film, but I enjoyed his puns about twos and duos and whatever.

The make-up job is pretty good. No, it isn't green, but that's okay. There is a ton of green in this film, and that's probably why Schumacher made Two-Face's scarred face purple.

Jim Carrey is Perfect as Riddler

When Jim Carrey's Riddler enters his scenes, he consumes everything around him. Even as Edward Nigma, Carrey does a great job at being who he is: a mentally unstable genius who just wants from the world that which he thinks he deserves. Again, this Riddler is not comic-book accurate, but I don't think too many people threw up their hands in despair, especially when you have Carrey gloriously chewing the scenery.

At the time, the only other Riddler we could remember is Frank Gorshin's version from the 1966 TV series [No, I don't count John Astin], and Carrey wonderfully channels Gorshin's barely restrained performance and magnified it with his own abilities. Look, I love what Carrey does, but when he's the star of the film, he's often let off the leash. When he's a co-star, he can only chew the scenery he's in. With those small doses, he's the comedic version of Heath Ledger's Joker: when Carrey's on screen, he draws everything towards him. But he's checked, no more so that when he introduces himself to Two-Face, the veteran villain fires his gun and implores Riddler to get to the point.

Of all the Bat-villains we got in the initial run of four movies, I'd rank Carrey's Riddler just behind Jack Nicholson's Joker as the best. Catwoman is in a class all her own. He's over-the-top, but that's what we want from Jim Carrey, and boy does he deliver.

A New Batman

The one person who is not over the top is Batman himself. Val Kilmer plays Batman almost like it's a friendly jaunt through the countryside, barely seemingly to break a sweat as he takes out Two-Face's goons. And boy, are there a lot of goons. I've lost count. A dozen? Two?

There are some terrific shots of Batman in this film. Him swinging out of the elevator and foot-smashing the goons. Him swinging on the chain under Two-Face's helicopter. And, best of all, him smashing the overhead window, landing on that dais in the middle of the goons, and then flipping over them to start fighting. Carrey even acknowledging the coolness factor in the movie itself. I think it trumps Keaton's similar entrance into the museum in the 1989 movie.

Love that Batman's suit is back to being very black. It was in 1989, but it got a bit grayer in Returns. The eye holes for Kilmer's suit also serve him well.

As Bruce Wayne, Kilmer delivers a low-key version of the character. He's not the manic Keaton presents, nor the "I have to play this part to avert suspicion" way Christian Bale delivers his Bruce. Here, Kilmer gives Bruce some angst, even if it is just skimming the surface. It was alright, but I prefer Kilmer as Batman.

But this film is unique in one aspect: it is the only (y'all can fact check me) time in which Bruce Wayne comes through in the costume. I'm thinking of the moment when Chase tells Batman she loves another man. That man, in costume. And Batman smiles.

Loved that.

Enter: Robin

Not much to say here. Chris O'Donnell plays Dick Grayson's origins straight out of the comic books, the only change being Two-Face killed his family and not some random criminal. It works here, because Bruce is able to teach Dick about the nature of revenge and what it does to a person if you let it. Good lesson for the younger man, and for all the young kids watching the movie. You know what you'd get nowadays: Dick getting all mean and vindictive and beating the crap outta Two-Face.

And look: the moment when Batman and Robin are standing together, in costumer, and they have their "we're partners" talk, it's cheesy as hell. But, this is the first time since 1949 that Batman and Robin stand next to each on the big screen. The first time since 1968 that any live-action version of the Dynamic Duo are together. That makes it very special. My only wish: that there was a roomful of goons that they had to fight to get to the villains. We don't get that until 1997's Batman and Robin.

They were going to do Robin, and O'Donnell's version works fine.

The Music

With the departure of Tim Burton, so, too, did composer Danny Elfman depart. Enter Elliot Goldenthal. We didn't get a lot of Elfman's  theme in Forever, but we got really good set of new themes. I rather enjoy this music. I have the suite on one of my Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra CDs so I've heard it often over the years. Not quite as good as Elfman's music for Batman 1989, but pretty darn good. It's probably second only to Elfman overall. As much as I like the Dark Knight theme by Hans Zimmer, it ain't much of a theme.

The Verdict 

I was in the bag for this 1995 film from the get-go. I'm a Batman fan so I'll watch any version. And in the mid 1990s, this was all there was. Sure, it's a different Batman. Sure I wish Billy Dee Williams would have played Two-Face. But we didn't get that. We got this movie. And for all of the nitpicks you can pick, it's a pretty darn fun movie. I always enjoy watching it, even though I don't watch it often.

And, in the world of 2019 where every Batman version is seeming the dark and brooding version, this Batman, the Batman who actually smiles, is just fun.

So, this summer, I've watched Batman, Batman Returns, and now Batman Forever. You know what I'm gonna have to do now, right? I'm going to have to watch 1997's Batman and Robin. Sigh.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Batman Returns

Unfortunately, my wife took ill on the made-up "holiday" known as Batman Day, so all the things we had planned to do were postponed. With her resting, I was left to my own devices. I had watched the Batman episode of Scooby Doo and Guess Who earlier in the morning. The TV was already on to my Saturday staple, MeTV, when I started flipping channels. TNT was showing 1989's Batman. It was the end, in the clock tower. Even though I had already watched the movie earlier this summer as part of the celebration of the film's thirtieth anniversary, I watched the end.

Batman Returns came on immediately thereafter. Why not? I hadn't seen it in who knows how many years. Michael Keaton gets top billing finally, and he really becomes a better Batman in this movie. I still love his version of Bruce Wayne, especially when Wayne initially meets with non-masked villain, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), and lays out just how he, Wayne, is going to fight Shreck on the power plant.

Then the moment Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle walks in, Keaton has Bruce return to his scatterbrained self. Clearly that was a choice, but I wonder why? Is the what Keaton and director Tim Burton thought Bruce would do whenever he's around pretty ladies?

Keaton did a great job of dissecting the duality of what he does by being both Bruce and Batman. The next movie (Batman Forever) kind of puts that to bed for the most part, but here, Keaton tries to help Pfeiffer's Selina. She's just too far gone to take him up on his offer.

The Best Catwoman

Speaking of Pfeiffer, can we all agree she's the best Catwoman? At least in the modern age? I can't even remember who voiced her in the Animated Series [Just checked: Adrienne Barbeau] and I won't get into the 1966 series [yet; see below], so Pfeiffer wins. Oh, and I don't really count Anne Hathaway.

Look, there's no explanation for Selina's transformation. What, she falls out a window, cats lick her fingers and mouth so she's got super cat powers? And the first thing she thinks to do after this transformation is to fashion a costume out of a raincoat and prance around Gotham.

[Slaps cheek] Scott, it's a comic book movie! And in terms of it being a comic book movie, just take things at face value. And if you do that [you don't need to slap yourself], then just sit back and enjoy.

And I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. Pfeiffer and Keaton are great together, especially outside of their costumes. Them on the couch trying to muddle their way through romantic talk is charming, but their ending dance/party scene when they figure out each other's identities is really well done. "Are we supposed to start fighting now?" Selina asks. Bruce, the more seasoned costumed character, tries to talk his way out of the situation but the Penguin crashes the party and we're left with the big finale.

I would have really enjoyed seeing a Pfeiffer Catwoman movie, or have her co-star in the third Batman movie. But the executives chose to go a different direction. Can you blame them, especially considering the big master plan of the Penguin was the murder of every first born son in Gotham.

An Interesting Penguin

By 1990 or so when the film's script was being written, I can remember any version of the Penguin that remotely matched what we got with Danny Devito's portrayal. I wonder if the original scriptwriter came up with this idea or if director Burton urged that interpretation. Nevertheless, that sewer-dwelling monstrosity of a boy abandoned by his parents to be raised by penguins is what we got.

Here's irony: I remember all the furor of the casting of Keaton as Batman. I don't remember any uproar about Devito prior to the movie, and I don't remember any complains after the film debuted of fans gnashing their teeth and bitching about "this Penguin isn't comic book accurate." Ditto for Riddler and Two-Face in Forever. Devito's Penguin was just a version.

Makes perfect sense when you consider Burton loves the outcast monsters. Of course Penguin would be a sexually desperate, borderline deviant. I was surprised at just how many sexual overtones (they barely try to hide it) there are in the film, especially the dialogue. "I'd like to fill her void," Penguin says. "I'd say semi-hard," Selina says to Bruce. And those are just two.

I'm fine with Devito's Penguin. For what that character is, Devito did great. I always (even at the time) preferred it when Devito had all his clothes on (i.e., pants, shoes, overcoat) versus him running around in long johns and that ratty robe. I also enjoyed the comic-book dialogue that clearly had its origins in the 1996 series. The wordplay was fun and it passed the threshold of over-the-top.

The Music

If you had any doubts about how this movie saw itself, then all you needed was Danny Elfman's music. There's a helter skelter vibe running through the entire movie. It starts with the flashback scene of the Penguin as a child, and it never truly stops. It, like the film, soar way past over-the-top.

And it's wonderful. I had the soundtrack back in the day. It's a different vibe than 1989's Batman.

The Verdict

Batman Returns is still a fun film. Still enjoyable providing you know you are watching what Tim Burton believes a comic book movie should be. But it's a dark film, both in tone and visually. Lots of night shots, and when there are daytime shots, it seems always to be overcast. Then there's the sewers. Lots of muted colors. Story-wise, when you have the villain aiming to kidnap and murder children, well, I can see where Warner Bros. wanted to go in a different direction. But at props to them for allowing Burton to make the movie he wanted to make. If it were made now, we'd get something akin to Justice League.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

How I Spent Batman Day Part 1: Scooby Doo and Guess Who

Yeah, it's a made-up "holiday" but it did get everyone talking about Batman. That's the point. For me, well, it turned into a day-long celebration.

Scooby Doo and Guess Who

I've known about the latest Scooby Doo series since the summer, but I've never watched an episode because the show is on Boomerang's streaming service. We already have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and a couple of anime ones, so I was in no mood to hang another service on the monthly bills.

But when I read that the latest episode featured Batman, voiced by manifestation of the hero himself, Kevin Conroy, I changed my mind. Turns out, there's a 7-day free trial for the channel, so you know what I did.

The episode was funny, over the top, and honest to the original. Heck, even the title card, "What a Night for a Dark Knight," was an homage to the very first episode that debuted fifty years ago this month. Man-Bat is the villain, and during the inevitable chase sequence in an old department store, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby show up in the skiing gear from another season one episode.

The coup de grace? When they unmask the villain.

Do yourself a favor and check out this episode.

Next up...Batman Returns

Then Batman Forever

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 38

Scott D. Parker

I was told there'd be no math in writing.

Turns out, there is, and it's telling.

The Math And Nothing But The Math

My wife is learning a new art technique: paint pouring. It involves putting various amounts of paint and other synthetics in a receptacle (cup, colander, anything really) and pouring it on the canvas. Then you manipulate the canvas in your hands until you find your work of art.

Let me give you an example.

But here's the thing: at almost any stage, you can literally scrape all the paint off and start over.

Every so often, veteran writer Dean Wesley Smith likes to do the same kind of thing with the writing business. This week, it's with math. Specifically the math involving the money one makes as a traditionally published author vs. the money one makes as an indie writer. The post was prompted by a traditionally published author's piece on Medium. Dean didn't want to comment on the author, but I actually found it. Wasn't difficult considering Chuck Wendig also offered a response, albeit from a traditionally published author's point of view.

Dean has done math posts before, mainly from a word count point of view. Here he examines the finances. It's sobering. I read his post first when it was published on Wednesday. As an indie writer, I'm part of the choir. But when I discovered the original post and read it, I was sobered even further. How many of us would, more or less, do the same thing? The answer is likely somewhere north of lot of us.

The biggest caveat to Dean's outlook is time. His view is long term. His way takes time. It'll likely end up making more money, but it'll be stretched out over years. For folks who intend to make a living writing as their sole income, they'll need money right now. For someone like me, who holds down a day job with hopes and dreams of writing fiction full time, I have the time to wait. Ain't always fun, but it's good steady work with writing on the side.

If you read the comments, you'll see me in there. I asked Dean about advertising and how we should factor in an advertising budget into the cost of a single book. His response was one, while it makes sense, I don't necessarily agree with 100%. "Let your books build," was his response. Over time, I should get the 42 books sold per month average he uses to make his case for the indie life. Sure, that's something, but I probably should have posed the question about promotion. How is the best way to promote out books? The age-old question, isn't it?

Here's Dean's post. Here's Chuck's response. Here's the original post that prompted everything.

BTW, Dean does a follow-up. It's here.

Definitely food for thought. What are yours?

Unforgotten TV Show

My wife and I enjoyed Season 3 of this BBC show earlier this year via our local PBS station, Houston's KUHT. The characters are a nice counterpoint to traditional cops in TV shows, even traditional cops in BBC police procedurals.  Neither DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) or DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) are from the standard mold. Neither are troubled. Neither are raging alcoholics with some vague past that threatens to rear its ugly head. They're just ...people. Granted, people whose job it is to crack cold cases, but their just a couple of folks who care for and respect each other and get the job done.

And it's so refreshing.

That doesn't mean this pair is dull. Far from it. But they are refreshing in their mundane-ness.

Of the three seasons, the second really hits home partly for the story and plot, but mainly for the acting. There are a trio of folks Cassie and Sunny zero in on during their investigation, and those three actors--Mark Bonnar as Colin Osborne; Badria Timimi as Sara Mahmoud; and Rosie Cavaliero as Marion Kelsey--are fantastic. There is a moment in the last episode where Bonnar has a particular scene, that, as my wife and I sat watching, we were utterly spellbound. When the scene shifted, I realized I had involuntarily held my breath for a bit, so engrossed was I in what he was saying and the spectacular delivery. Turns out he won a BAFTA for the role.

You watched the show?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

I Finally Watched Clerks II

Clerks review
Mallrats review
Chasing Amy review
Dogma review
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back review
Jersey Girl review

Well, this is and isn't what I expected from Clerks II, the direct sequel to the 1994 film, Clerks, by Kevin Smith, and the sixth film in Smith's View Askew Universe. Coming out a dozen years after Clerks, Clerks II's immediate predecessor was 2004's Jersey Girl, a film that was a critical and commercial failure at the time, but is actually pretty good. It deserves its second wind just like Mallrats.

What I don't know is if Smith always planned on returning to Clerks II [end credits of Jay and Silent Bob seem to bear this out] or if he was so disappointed with the fallout from Jersey Girl that he returned to his View Askew Universe as a way to get back on track. Perhaps, with Jersey Girl, he was planning on a new phase of his career: a studio film followed by a personal, more indie film. Not sure. Either way, with Clerks II, Smith returned to the site that launched his career.

The Burning of the Quick Stop

I'll admit, in the opening moments of this movie, I was surprised to see Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) still driving to the Quick Stop to open. I assumed (correctly) that twelve years had passed since Clerks. Why would Dante still be working there? Wasn't there something more to life than being a clerk? Little did I know such a thought would be one of the movie's themes.

Little did Dante know that this particular day would be the last for the Quick Stop. Shot in black and white, just like the first one, the first we see color is of the fire burning the interior of the convenience store. Then, when we shift back to Dante, the movie's in full color. Nice effect on Smith's part, especially (if I remember the previous five View Askew movies well enough; I don't) this is the first time these characters have been on screen since Clerks.

I also appreciated the first of Dante's many eye rolls when Randal (Jeff Anderson) strolls past all the firemen, seemingly oblivious to the world around him (another theme!), and into the Quick Stop. Perplexed by their predicament, the two friends just sit and stare at the burned husk of a store.

What could be next for our two slackers?

Marriage...for one of them.

Working at Mooby's

A year later, Dante and Randal both work at Mooby's, the fictional burger joint in the View Askew Universe. By the time we see them again, Dante has a fiancee in Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach Smith). He's on his last day working at Mooby's before he and Emma move to Florida and Dante operates one of his father-in-law's car wash shops. He's outwardly happy larger, I think, because he has moved on. Randal, on the other hand, has not. He's basically still living in 1994 where he does just enough work to sustain (subsist?) himself and he gets to work alongside his best friend, Dante, and carry on seemingly endless conversations about life.

The pair have a new foil: Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a nineteen year old who is basically still the kind of kid Randal made fun of back in 1994. Or 1984. Or probably during his entire life. But, with the age difference--Dante and Randal are both...thirty-three--it gives Randal and Dante ammunition to disparage younger culture. In effect, they have become grumpy older slackers.

To round out the Mooby's ensemble is Becky Scott (Rosario Dawson). Smith famously casts his friends in his movies, but he has a way of finding the perfect females for his characters. I'm referring to the brilliant Joey Lauren Adams, the acerbic Linda Fiorentino, and the wonderful Raquel Castro. Dawson is so charming and gregarious that, as the show went on and it was revealed Becky and Dante loved each other, I wondered how in the world she'd end up with Dante. Still, she serves as the more grown-up counterpoint to Dante, and especially Randal, who, frankly, has never grown up.

The four of them play off each other throughout the entire film, often tackling topics as far ranging as ass-to-mouth and various phrases that have taken on different meanings over the years. Their interactions with their customers are also moments to jump off into a discussion. Loved seeing Ben Affleck back as a customer, but was sad it was only a cameo. In my notes, I wondered if this was a favor by Affleck to Smith for Jersey Girl. Anybody know?

Jay and Silent Bob Return

What I found fascinating about Jay and Silent Bob in this film was they didn't acknowledge Strike Back at all. They're out of rehab (jail?) and are still doing the same thing thing they've always done: sell drugs. It's the kind of thing I'd expect from them, but on the other hand, you have to wonder. If the  Bluntman and Chronic movie was made, and after the trademark monologue Silent Bob gives in Strike Back, you'd think Jay and Bob would have some money. And if they had money, might they also want to do something else?

[Aside: Yes, I know the end of the movie Jay and Bob loan Dante and Randal the money to open another Quick Stop, but at this point in the movie, it still had me wondering.]

Pop Culture Moved Forward

One of the frequent targets of Randal's rants is the Lord of the Rings fandom. Elias loves it and can quote from the movie...just like Randal can for Star Wars. Even a customer agrees with Elias. But during those scenes, I jotted down a note. I found it interesting Smith aimed at Lord of the Rings so hard...just like Star Wars fans themselves were aimed at by most of the rest of culture in 1977-1983. It's like Randal had his precious (intended!) pop culture event, but then looks down on every subsequent one from then on out. This film was likely written in 2005, the year Revenge of the Sith came out. Smith, like most of us who grew up on the Original Trilogy, didn't have the same feelings associated with the Prequel Trilogy. How could we? With the Original Trilogy, we were kids. Now, we're adults. It can't hit us the same way. But other trilogies can hit other people (read: younger) the same way as Star Wars consumed us. What is Smith saying here? Does each generation have its own "Star Wars" moment that is unique to said generation and cannot be understood by younger or older generations?

Jason Lee Arrives

Jason Lee only has one scene in this film, but it serves as the breaking point for Randal. Lee's character, a former friend from high school, laughs  at Dante and Randal for still flipping burgers. Somehow, Lee makes his character come across as both condescending and still influenced by Randal. It takes a special actor to pull that off, and Lee is that kind of actor.

[Aside: You are going to laugh at this, but other than a few episodes of My Name is Earl, the only thing I had seen Lee in up until these Smith films was Alvin and the Chipmunks and as the voice of Underdog (and Syndrome from the Incredibles). Hey, I had a kid at the time. As much as I've enjoyed seeing Lee in the View Askew films, I'm going to re-watch Alvin this Christmas and look at it with new eyes.]

The Emotional Heart of the Movie

By this time, Smith's seventh film, I have come to expect some sort of truth to arrive in this story. In Clerks II, we get two.

One is the more obvious from the moment you realize it. Becky loves Dante. Dante pretty much loves Becky, but he's committed to moving to Florida and marrying Emma. Smith telegraphs it in plain sight when we see Dante painting Becky's toenails in the office. In a riff straight out of Pulp Fiction's discussion of a foot massage, this rather intimate act lets us viewers know exactly what's going on. They try to hide it from Randal, but even he guesses the truth...way before the pair say it out loud.

I'll reiterate what I wrote above: how and why does Becky (and Emma) love Dante? In an echo from the spirit of Chasing Amy, Becky explains why. Emma played the field with all the hot guys. After a while, she came around to realizing that guys that look like Dante have more to offer.

Now, being a member of said group, one might take offense to that. But it goes back to the central truth from Chasing Amy: we find love in all sorts of places. Perhaps having Becky say those words was Smith's own wonderment that he found his wife and that they had a kid and made a family. We guys often are amazed when a girl says yes to a date and probably even more amazement when they say yes to marriage. With us.

When Dante says about Emma "She'll eventually get me," he's basically putting all this on the table. He knows he's marrying up, at least on the surface, which is where we find him for most of this film. I can't imagine marrying a person who would "eventually" get me. Or never. In all his podcasts, Smith talks about how his wife isn't a huge fan of Kevin Smith movies, but loves him anyway. It just played odd considering his wife is cast as the other woman. I'll have to research that and see how that came to be.

Back to the Roof...and Dancing!

Like pretty much all Smith fans, when Becky takes Dante to the roof in order to teach him to dance for his wedding, I loved the homage back to the rooftop hockey game in Clerks. What I didn't expect was probably the most charming thing I've seen in a Kevin Smith film to date.

A dance number! And to the tune of "ABC" by the Jackson 5 no less. Loved that it was a good cross-section of people. I was grinning ear to ear during this number. Absolutely loved it.

What I also love is the scene where Dante is watching Becky dance. Smith holds the camera on Brian O'Halloran's face. Whatever reticence Dante might have had up until this scene, you can see it all sloughing off in O'Halloran's expression. He was blind, but now he sees. He realizes he's in love with Becky. And O'Halloran did it simply with a facial expression. I'd be curious to know how many takes it took to get that shot, but O'Halloran's a good actor so I'm guessing he got it in one. Best Dante scene of the movie for me.

Inter-species Erotica

Back in the early part of his career, Stephen King commented that he'd get readers one of two ways: he'd either scare them or gross them out. Here, Smith goes for the latter. I guess it was for shock value, but still, it was way over the top. I guess that was the point. Moreover, if Randal, who will eventually confess the truth to Dante about his feelings for him, really cared for his friend, why would he bring in the donkey guy? Didn't get this part at all.

The Other Emotional Beating Heart of the Story

Dante and Randal. They've been together since we first saw them in Clerks. And we've already heard Jay refer to Bob as his hetero-life mate. I pretty much saw coming the real reason Randal was upset at Dante, but never did I expect the raw emotion I'd get from those scenes.

One of my favorite pairs of actors who played characters who loved and respected each other was James Spader and William Shatner in Boston Legal. No romance, but deep love for each other. I never expected to find it in a Kevin Smith movie when I started this odyssey, but the themes he's written about telegraphed it from the jump.

These two characters love each other. And, just like Dante and Becky love each other and don't/can't say it out loud, the same dynamic holds sway for Randal and Dante. But they are dudes. Guys traditionally have a difficult time expressing their emotions, especially to and about each other. But Randal did it. "You're my best friend and I love you, in a totally heterosexual way. Please don't leave me."

From what little I know about about Jeff Anderson, he read for the part of Jay but ended up landing the co-lead in Clerks. For that entire movie and three-quarters of this one, Anderson played Randal as a slacker who looked down on everyone via his language and life outlook. He's more of the star here in Clerks II, and, frankly, up until the closing scenes, I got rather annoyed with him.

Until the scene in the jail cell. Anderson opened up Randal in a real, raw, heart-felt way that surprised the heck out of me. "Who would want me as their friend?" Here he was, laying out his heart to his friend, finally saying what he felt for over a dozen years. Blew me away. It was one of the best scenes in the film and for the entire body of Smith's work (so far that I've seen). It ranks for me up there alongside Joey Lauren Adams's scene in the car (Chasing Amy) and a pair of Affleck's scenes in Jersey Girl. Fantastic work, Mr. Anderson. Fantastic work.

Silent Bob Speaks

"I got nuthin'." That what Silent Bob says in this film. While this is Smith's seventh film, it's only the sixth View Askew Universe film. Thus, the trend of Silent Bob saying great things stays in the odd numbered movies while his throwaway lines are saved for the even numbered movies.

Quick Stop Part II

Of course the end of the movie would be the two guys from Clerks re-opening the Quick Stop. But this time, they'd be the owners. It was Dante who first uttered the words as to what he'd do if he could live his life as his own. The only sticking point is they had no money to buy the property.

Enter Jay and Silent Bob. I guess we're all supposed to assume the reason the two stoners have a spare fifty grand is the royalties from the Bluntman and Chronic movie, but it's not mentioned in the film.

Loved Dante just showing up with the ring in the drive-thru, Becky smiling and sliding into the car. "What took you so long?" And then Elias gets to bring in Lord of the Rings with "One ring to rule them all."

Also loved how the movie ended: Dante and Randal, behind the counter of the Quick Stop. Randal says, "You're not supposed to be here" in an echo from Clerks. Dante replies with "It's the first day of the rest of our lives."

And we fade to black and white. With the milk lady--Smith's mom--doing her thing.

Irony in the Credits

A fascinating thing about most of Smith's films to date has been reading what Smith put in the credits. Unlike nearly every other film I see, Smith goes line by line, shouting out thanks to all the people in his life who helped make the movie or is a part of his life. In all of them, he thanks God first. I really appreciated seeing that, especially since he made Dogma. But on Clerks II, the shout out is this: "The director would like to thank: God - He who keeps my heart beating, and makes me appreciative, and scared." As I first watched Clerks II in 2019, a year after Smith's heart attack, I found the timing ironic. I can imagine a future Smith film's shout-out to God going something like "Glad you kept my heart beating, but I would have appreciated a little heads up." Well, Smith surviving the heart attack in 2018 was the warning, and he's turned his health around.

Two other shout outs are worth mentioning. Smith's praise of Jeff Anderson: "For not only coming back, but for knocking it out of the park and keeping me honest." Acting-wise, Anderson is the star of Clerks II. Not only did he make me annoyed by Randal, but he turned in the most emotional performance of the show. I also enjoyed Rosario's shout-out: "For saying yes and turning in a performance so great it made me actually believe that Becky would f*ck Dante." Smith and me (and everyone else?) included.

And then there's the Jersey Girl mention: "For taking it so hard in the ass and never complaining." Over the years, I've heard Smith throw shade on Jersey Girl. When I finish all his films, I'll be re-listening to his audiobook Touch Sh*t. I know he probably mentions some background into the aftermath of Jersey Girl, but as a first-time viewer in 2019, I loved the film. Smith mentions Mallrats needed time to find its audience. I'm waiting for Jersey Girl's turn.

The Verdict

Clerks II is a pretty good film, but not my favorite. It has heart, just occasionally obscured by the irritating stuff. There are moments that rank high in the overall View Askew Universe and some that rank pretty darn low. All in the same film. I thoroughly enjoyed Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in the universe, but I'd put both Clerks films together. I enjoyed Clerks II more. Again, seeing Clerks for the first time at fifty, its impact was not as great as it would have been back in 1994. That said, the life choices Dante and Randal face in Clerks II is more relatable to a fifty-year-old man: what am I doing with my life? Is this all there is? Granted, for me, I've answered those questions, but Dante and Randal had not. Now they have. Welcome to real life. Or middle life.

The End...For Now

At the last of the credits, Smith writes "Jay and Silent Bob might return one day. For now, they're taking it easy. Goodbye Horses." What this tells me is that Smith either had no ideas about his own universe or he was intentionally going to turn away from it. I know that Zack and Miri Make a Porno is next, but I'm curious to do a little research into where Smith's head and heart was in 2006. Did he see Clerks II as the end? Did he want to make non View Askew movies to broaden his audience? Did he intend to do one for the studio and one for himself?

In 2019, we know he's returning to the View Askew Universe. In contemporary interviews, he mentioned having the story in his head for awhile, including pre-heart attack. I also know he didn't find his audience for his last couple of films. When that happened, we finally get Reboot.

I wonder if that was Smith's pattern. It kind of held true for Jersey Girl/Clerks II. It'll certainly hold true for Reboot. I'm writing this review on 31 July 2019 so I've seen the new trailer and I think everyone is back at the party. And it's going to be a great party.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 37

And now, a word from our sponsor.

No, not really, but after you read today's post, you might wonder.

A Two-fer from Draft2Digital

Tuesday was a fun for me. First there was a new blog post from Draft2Digital. It was nothing new to me, but it was about the definition of the word 'prolific.' The post was penned by Kevin Tumlinson, arguably the face of Draft2Digital. The piece is a nice reminder that being prolific doesn't always mean churning out a book a month or publishing sixteen books a year. It can mean whatever you can sustain.

And that's the key: sustainability. You have to be able to sustain whatever schedule you develop. Here's how Kevin ended his piece:

"If your goal is to be a prolific writer, the secret isn't a secret by any stretch. It simply comes down to "write a lot."

Spend your time and energy now on developing a daily writing habit. Treat every bit of writing you do (emails, blog posts, social media posts, even text messages) as practice. Engage your writer brain early and often and always. Put it to work daily, and it will build up some callouses so it can keep working when it really counts.

Commit to a daily target and start meeting it, then push yourself to exceed it. You'll thank me when you have a shelf full of books to point to."

Meeting with Kevin Tumlinson

The other cool thing on Tuesday was that I got to meet Kevin live (and not in person). I attended one of Draft2Digital's "Ask Me Anything" Facebook live event a couple of weeks ago. That session itself was good enough, but as a treat/thank-you gift for attending, we had the opportunity to meet with Kevin and discuss the author business.

Kevin and I linked up on laptops and we had a great 30-minute conversation. One of the biggest things was clearing up a misconception re: Draft2Digital's printing service. Not sure how this idea got ingrained in my head, but there you go.

When you upload your files to Draft2Digital for their print-on-demand service, you do not incur any fees. In addition, if you have to make any changes, you still do not incur any fees. Do you know what that means? It means the POD service via Draft2Digital is free at the outset. They'll get their cut on the backend, but too often, we authors tinker or find things only after we upload the files. It is reassuring to realize you can make mistakes and you don't face any charges.

Plus, Draft2Digital can be the middle man for getting ISBNs. That's a big help.

So I'll be moving all my POD books to Draft2Digital. Because why not?

If you want to join the next Ask Us Anything Facebook live event, head on over to Draft2Digital's Facebook page and sign up.

One Last KISS

This week, I went to my last KISS concert in Houston. As a fan of the band for 41 years, it was fantastic and bittersweet. I never, ever tire of watching the opening of a KISS show, but to know this was the last time to hear "Rock and Roll All Nite" live was bittersweet. Here's my full review.

TV Shows With Unanswered Cliffhangers

My wife and I watched two unique BBC shows in recent weeks: The Ketering Incident and The Living and the Dead. Each are unique in their own ways. Each end with a cliffhanger that doesn't diminish the series you just watched, but leaves unanswered other questions.

Both were not renewed for a second season, so those unanswered questions are not answered. Irritating, I know.

It makes you wonder why the creators and writers didn't make an official "This is what Season 2 would have done" post or ebook or novel. Is it the idea that they might make the second season one day, or might the TV studio own the rights and they just don't care?

Are there shows you enjoyed with unanswered questions?

Friday, September 13, 2019

One Last KISS in Houston

Forty-one years and nine months. The first is the number of years I've been a KISS fan. The latter is the difference between the day I bought my tickets for the last KISS show in Houston and the day they actually arrived in town. And in that span, time marched on.

Gene Simmons turned seventy. Paul Stanley turned sixty-seven. And then some of the tour dates got postponed. Crap! Was there some health issues? Was there something the band, which also  includes Tommy Thayer on lead guitar and Eric Singer on drums, wasn't letting fans know about? Would we Houstonians get our last KISS?

I needn't have worried. The End of the Road Tour landed in Houston on Monday, 9 September, and it was about as perfect a show as I've ever seen by the band. It brought bittersweet emotions at the end, but it started with something that never, ever gets old.

You Wanted the Best...

After performance artist David Garibaldi painted three large canvases (ZZ Top; Mick Jagger; KISS), the crew altered the stage and raised the familiar KISS curtain. Various rock songs played during, and I was ecstatic to hear "Dirty Sexy Money" by The Struts boomed through the speakers.

But when Led Zepplin's "Rock and Roll" started, everyone knew it was time. The lights were doused, the synth notes vibrated the walls of the Toyota Center, and the two screens on each side of the stage--shaped in the familiar KISS Army logo--showed the band walking backstage. The the forty-year pronouncement of "Alright, Houston! You wanted the best, you got the best. The hottest band in the world! KISS!"

The eighth-note riff of "Detroit Rock City" greeted us, the stage lights blared on, the curtain fell, and the pyro exploded. There they were: Paul, Gene, and Tommy coming down on large saucer-shaped pads, smoke and sparks flying. Hexagonal video panels hovered over the stage. A monster screen dominated the backstage area, just behind a large metallic artifice that served as the pyro's portals.

As I told my son who attended with me: "This never, ever gets old." I can think of no other rock act--ever--who opens a show in a manner like KISS. Will there ever be another band like this? Never say never, but KISS showed the world how to open a show.

...We Got the Best (Setlist We Could Hope For)

Now, in preparation for this show, I looked at no setlist ahead of time, but you don't really have to. For the most part, the setlists have remained static with the occasional album cut gem thrown in. Sure, I'd love to hear "Yes I Know (Nobody's Perfect)", "Modern Day Delilah," "Danger Us," "Ladies Room," "Hell or Hallelujah," or "Naked City," but that simply is never going to happen. There is no reason to hope for something like that and walk away disappointed. Chicago's my other favorite band and they, too, have had basically the same setlist for a generation. If that pisses you off, don't buy a ticket.

Having said all that, this was about as good a KISS concert as I’ve ever seen. Five songs from the 1980s. Out of twenty total songs, that's 25%. Perfectly fine with that. Plus, we got a Sonic Boom cut ("Say Yeah") and the perennial favorite new song, "Psycho Circus." That left thirteen tunes from the band's 1970s heyday.

Let me go ahead and say this as well: When Eric Singer sang "Beth," he knocked it out of the park. Taking nothing away from Peter Criss, I have long since skipped that song when it comes up on shuffle on my phone. I had to sit through it that night, but I didn't mind. It was different. It was powerful. I want this version on audio.

And we even got a kick-ass version of "I Was Made For Lovin' You", 100,000 Years," and a personal favorite, "Let Me Go, Rock and Roll."

The Hottest Band in the World (Who Knows How to Entertain)

Knowing this was the final tour, KISS pulled out all the stops and lit all the fuses. The fire was felt by those of us on the far side and in the upper deck. The explosions were wonderfully loud. Ironically, this is the first time I've seen the band in a basketball arena. The Woodlands Pavilion is outdoors and has a sound ordinance. The new Sugar Land Smart Pavilion Center is great, but when I saw KISS there in 2017, they volume could have been turned up.

Not this time. The music was pleasantly loud. The vocals propulsive. The drums booming. Tommy's lead guitar tastefully screeching.

As the show kept going, there was plenty of time for Paul Stanley to chitchat with the audience. Because this is the last time he'll have all us Houstonians in the same room as the same time. It was all smiles all the time.

But the end was inevitable.

The Last KISS

I know myself. The older I get, the more emotional (sappy, as my wife says) I get. I had an internal debate on how emotional I'd get during the opening song and during the finale. For the opener, I was all smiles and fist pumping.

But as the opening chords of "Rock and Roll All Nite" started, I knew this was it. This was the last time I'd hear KISS play this song. This is their mission statement, their life outlook for the most part. It was a chorus everyone the world over can sing. This is their Hall of Fame song.

I had my phone in position, snapping photos, but I was not watching through the screen. I was watching with my eyes, my youth, my adulthood, my fandom, and everything else. As Paul started to break his guitar, the emotions welled up. I didn't exactly roll a tear, but they were there. The last few moments of me seeing KISS in person, it was through a mixture of confetti in the air and tears in my eyes.

KISS was my first favorite rock band. And now I've seen them for the last time. Sure, there will be more videos, maybe even a DVD of this tour, and maybe even a one-off show in the future. But I likely will never see them again. I will never see the band that captured my imagination as a boy and still resonates with me in middle age.

I walked out of that building thoroughly satisfied with the show.

Man! Has it been a great time.

Thanks, KISS, for being a part of my life (and the lives of millions more).

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I Finally Watched Jersey Girl

Introduction to the series
Clerks review
Mallrats review
Chasing Amy review
Dogma review
Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back review

In what world is this movie a bomb?

Those were the words I wrote on my steno pad after watching this film. Five pages of notes, the most during this Kevin Smith journey. There was so much to love with this movie provided a viewer knows one thing: this is not part of the then five-film View Askew Universe. This is a standalone story about a single dad coming to grips with how much his life changed after the simultaneous birth of his daughter and the death of his wife.

Preconceived Ideas

Like I mentioned during my write-up for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I stopped checking the Wikipedia article partway through that film so I wouldn't spoil the surprise of the various cameos. I didn't even open the Wikipedia page for this film other than to look up the name of the young actress who plays Ben Affleck's daughter in this movie. It's Raquel Castro by the way. And I didn't watch the trailer until after the movie, so I wasn't prepared for what happens in this film.

To see Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in this movie was natural to me. I mean, I remember they dated for a time, but couldn't even recall if they'd gotten married or not. (Just dated, I've since re-remembered.) Of course writer/director Kevin Smith would hire Affleck's girlfriend for the role of his wife...and what the hell just happened! Are you kidding me? Jennifer Lopez's character dies in this movie?

Yup. A fact I would have known had I watched the trailer. See how much fun it is to go into a movie blind and just let the story wash over you? We should all try it sometime.

But back to my preconceived ideas about this film. I remember it bombing and, as I write this without looking it up, I seem to recall Jersey Girl and Gigli both bombing. (Just checked: yup) In my recent re-listening to Smith's old Fat Man on Batman podcast episodes, I was listening to him and Marc Bernardin doing commentary for the 1989 Batman movie. But the introduction to that episode was Smith talking about the then casting of Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (still a bad title, especially when you have to type it). Smith retold a moment when Affleck emailed Smith to give the director the heads up that magazines would be wanting comments.

"Don't mention Jersey Girl," Affleck implored.

After Smith summarized his glowing thoughts about the actor, Affleck simply repeated what he had said.

Let me return to my initial statement: In what world did this film bomb?

The Prelude

Every story must begin with a "Here's where the main character is now" sequence of scenes. It's December 1994. Affleck plays Ollie Trinke, a famous New York publicist. His wife is Lopez's Gertie, a book editor. At a party early on, a pregnant Gertie complains she's so fat when compared to all the young, thin ladies who'll be at the party. "They're all just coked-out whores," Ollie assures her. "I want to be a coked-out whore," is her comeback.

Naturally, with Ollie being all involved with work, he misses things like lamaze classes, but he's there for the birth of their daughter. But he's roughly shoved out of the surgical room when Gertie faints, and then dies.

This was the first of many moments in which my waterworks started. I am a husband and a dad. I was in the delivery room the entire time when my boy was born. With allowances by the doctor, I delivered my child, cut the cord, and held him first. I know how precious life is, and how many things can go wrong during a delivery, including the health of the mother. That we three got through that day safe and healthy is a blessing from God. I cannot imagine the anguish real people endure when something goes wrong, so it is no surprise Ollie doesn't deal with it very well either.

But let's be honest: at first, Ollie as a dad is a dick. Him passing his crying daughter to his Pop (the great George Carlin) was probably understandable. Ollie was still in his Old World. Right up until the press event in which Will Smith who, in 1994, is still more famous for being the Fresh Prince on TV and is breaking out into music and movies. Ollie's harried assistant, Arthur Brickman (Jason Biggs), and Ollie try to get the young Gertie to stop crying. Eventually, Ollie has to take his baby up on stage, only to be faced with a chanting, hungry press corps who only want Will Smith. Ollie tells the hoard exactly what he thinks of them and Will Smith.

You know what happens next. Ollie is fired. He moves out of his fancy apartment in New York and back to New Jersey, moving in with his dad. Pop is happy to have his granddaughter so close, but he grows increasingly pissed at his damaged son who is trying to get another job in New York as a publicist. We all know where this goes.

But not before a fantastic monologue by Ollie to his infant daughter. His world has crashed. He's lost his wife, and his daughter is the only thing in the world that is a living, breathing part of his wife. As Ollie's tears flowed, this dad's tears also flowed. "Your mom would have really liked to have met you," he says. Again, as a dad, meeting my child was a profound experience. It seems Ollie finally realizes it, too.

Enter Raquel Castro

The movie's middle act is a joy because Gertie, now aged seven, is played not by a stunt baby but a young Raquel Castro. I can imagine most every movie in which actors, both young and old, who play parents and children develop a certain amount of chemistry. Affleck and Castro (who was eight or nine during filming) definitely have it.

Ollie is now a New Jersey city sanitation worker with his dad and his dad's pals, Greenie and Block. He picks up Gertie in the street cleaner, dubbed the Batmobile. Their life is grand. Sure, he may not have his old job, but he seems happy and his daughter is happy and well adjusted. Castro delivers Smith's dialogue like it's her own, and she's a wonderful foil to both Affleck and Carlin.

Enter the Romantic Sub-Plot

Being a single dad, naturally there was going to be the other woman in Ollie's life. It turns out to be Maya (Liv Tyler), a female version of Randal from Clerks. That is, she works in a video store. Surprisingly, there are not long asides discussing movies, which is another indication writer/director Smith is branching out to do something different. I can imagine the writing process being something akin to writing said diatribes only to excise them later, realizing they don't fit this film.

The pair meet when Ollie tries to quickly purchase a porn tape ahead of his daughter's kiddie picture. Maya starts quizzing Ollie until he reveals he's a widower. That kills the mood instantly, but she tries to make up for it by going to his house and asking him out for lunch. "For her research," she tells him, but the way she's tripping all over herself drives home the point she's smitten. She carries this through all the way to their lunch when they discuss Ollie's sexual habits. He's not been with a woman since his wife died.

An incredulous Maya blurts out, "You're rather hang out with your kid than get laid?" "Yeah," Ollie replies. The shock on Maya's face is priceless. It's one of my favorite moments in the movie. You see, for me, when I became a dad, a switch was flipped in my brain. No longer was my life purely my own. Now, there was another human being who would rely on me for the rest of his life. Just like I do with my own dad. I appreciate how Smith, then a father for something like five years, slipped in this truth to his movie. This is a more mature Smith who is speaking from the heart, and putting the joy and love and craziness of being a parent in his story. The younger Smith wouldn't have done this because the younger Smith didn't know. Heck, Maya didn't know, either.

The Non-Consummation

I honestly was shocked when Ollie and Maya are next seen in his dad's house, excitedly going at it. We all knew the scene would be interrupted by either Pop or Gertie, and it was his daughter who prevented the consummation. In a brilliant bit of reversal, layered into the film in small moments earlier on, it is Gertie forgetting then remembering to flush the toilet that outs her dad. Then we have the reversal of the "What are your intentions?" moment that Ollie gave Gertie when he caught her with a young boy, each showing their privates parts. Now, it's Gertie sitting her dad and Maya down to have the same talk.

The Dick Version of Ollie Returns

Look, I know this is a drama so  there has to be drama. And the story is all the better for it. But I honestly thought Ollie had changed in seven years. Nope. The old Ollie returns after he meets with his old assistant, Brickman, and the younger man agrees to talk up Ollie to his bosses. In Ollie's mind, he's back in. He'll be able to move back to the city, get Gertie in a great private school, they can see Broadway shows all the time. It'll be just like it used to be.

For Ollie.

Not for Gertie.

A giant fight ensues, in front of Maya, Pop, Greenie, and Block. They're practicing for the talent show. Of course the interview is on the same day as the performance. Of course Ollie pulls the dad card. Of course he inadvertently (?) insults his dad's profession. I knew that stuff was going to happen. But I never expected Ollie to yell, "You and mommy took my life away and I just want it back!"

A f-bomb left my mouth in a whisper at that moment. I wrote it out on my notepad. And as charming as Castro is in every other part of the film, she looked truly crushed at those words. Affleck realizes the shattering words he's just said, but his daughter slams her bedroom door in his face.

Again, as a dad, I've said  and done some crappy things--not to this extent--that I wished I could go and take back, but I can't. Neither can Ollie. His pain in this short montage, accompanied by Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins," is heartbreaking, especially when he sits at his dead wife's grave and cries.

I was genuinely touched by these scenes, but lost it when Ollie and Gertie finally talk. Ollie implores Gertie to believe that he didn't mean the things he said. "Neither did I," Gertie replies. There's something profound when your child forgives you for a crappy thing you said or did. It humbles you like few things in this world. It humbles Ollie, especially when she gives him her permission to miss the show for his interview.

The Big Decision

There's a trope in just about all these kinds of films, and it works most every time. A character is at a crossroads between two decisions. The character knows what he wants to do and should do, but so often, numbly goes through the motions of the wrong road before being turned around by something external. That trope is on full display here, and I had zero problem with it.

Sitting in the waiting room for his interview, none other than Will Smith shows up. Natch. Will Smith and Ollie chat, but the conversation zeroes in on being a dad. Loved Will's line about Gertie's name: "Why you do that to that kid?" But it's Will's description of his daily life that finally cracks open Ollie's thick head. Will always tells his kid he loves them all the way to the moon and back to the dirt. When Ollie gets up to do the other main trope--run to his real self--Will asks him why. "I'm just a guy who'd rather play in the dirt with his kid."

Smiles and all the feels.

The Big Ending

I knew where this was going from the moment Ollie started driving. You did, too. And dang if it isn't as heartwarming as you'd expect it to be. The street construction Ollie convinced the town it needed naturally slowed his progress by car, so he has to run to the school. Will he make it in time to watch the performance? Of course. In fact, he's so on time that he's even able to slip into costume and perform--like they rehearsed all along--with his daughter. If the anguish on Castro's face earlier in the film is one side of the emotional coin, then the bright-eyed ebullient sense of joy on her face upon seeing her dad performing with her is the other side. More feels, man. All of them.

One trope not taken was Maya and Ollie instantly kissing in the bar as they all celebrated after the show. In just about every movie, you'd have Maya's character kiss Ollie and lock in their relationship. Not this time. She says "I'll think about it," the 'it'  being a date with Ollie.

But this movie belonged to Ollie and Gertie, Affleck and Castro. In a movie full of sentiment, one small act really got me. When Ollie picks up Gertie to dance, she runs her hand over his face. It's an intimate gesture and conveys so much. I'm not sure if director Smith suggested it or Affleck or if Castro herself did it, but it is so good.

The Verdict

Loved this movie. I think this is the longest review I've written. I took five pages of notes, so it's already the most number of notes taken.

Let me circle back around to my opening statement: In what world is this movie a bomb? Was it Smith's fans who didn't cotton to a non-View Askew Universe film? Did they want another Jay and Silent Bob movie only? If you factor in my own preconceived notions about Smith films, then the answer has to be partially yes.

My wife offered a different take. It was the public's exhaustion with Affleck and Lopez and/or Affleck and Jennifer Garner. I just scanned Affleck's Wikipedia entry and this movie is under the sub-head 2003–2005: Career downturn and tabloid notoriety". According to the entry, Jersey Girl is part of the problem, especially coming on the heels of Gigli.

So, if I understand correctly, Jersey Girl suffered not from in-movie acting and writing but from external pressures, be they tabloid, critics, public perception, and fan reaction. Really? Is the movie going public that shallow?

Sometimes. Now that I'm doing all this Kevin Smith research, I've learned Mallrats didn't hit big upon release, but gained a following in the years since. I'm proof positive because I loved that film.

When is it Jersey Girl's turn?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 36

This week has largely been consumed with reading, revising, editing, and posting the three-part interview with Don Price. He's the local Houston man responsible for creating and hosting the Son of Houston-Con IV. This is the direct descendant to the original Houstoncon, the first main genre convention series in Houston.

You may ask yourself why would I need to revise and edit and interview. Well, my initial set of 15 questions exploded into follow-up questions, but those were after Mr. Price returned a Word file nearly eight pages long. In fact, Part 3 of the interview (posted yesterday) was a single answer to a single question. This interview is chock full of great material. Even fans of comic conventions in other parts of the country might enjoy reading what it was like to be a kid who loved comics in the late 1960s. Very different than now.

I really enjoyed the process, and learning about fandom's early days in Houston. It reminds me of my time in grad school and writing my thesis. Weird, I know, but, then again, I'm weird. By the time this post goes live, I'll be heading out to the con with a pair of friends from my SF book club. It'll be a fun day.

Well, this is kinda strange. I didn't finish anything of note this week for a review. I'm in the middle of a BBC series, The Living and the Dead, but I'm not finished. It Chapter Two starts today but I haven't seen it. No new movies of note. Books, neither, although I'm ready for this coming Tuesday when the next Isaac Bell Adventure by Clive Cussler is published.

So this is going to be a really short entry. Hopefully, I'll have more to say this time next week. Come back and find out.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Interview with Don Price of Son of Houston-Con: Part 3

Son of Houston-Con IV (2019) starts tomorrow and I've been running a lengthy interview with Don Price.

In Part 1, Mr. Price discussed his origins as a comic book reader and him attending the early conventions. In Part 2, we discussed what he's had to do in order to host the four Son of Houston-Cons and the featured guests this year.

Today is something special. It is only one question, but as you will read in Mr. Price's opening statement, "Hold on to your hat."

Be sure to read to the end, because Mr. Price sums up his outlook on life that I appreciate and to which I subscribe.

Note: Son of Houston-Con IV (2019) will be held this Saturday and Sunday, 7-8 September, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm at the Wyndham West located at 14703 Park Row. Tickets are only $5.00. Here is a Facebook link with more information.

You seem to be a part of several very uniquely Houston communities.  Would you care to share a bit about what this city means to you and how you've seen it change over the last 60 years?

Hold on to your hat. So I was an Air Force brat who moved around a lot, and then it became a “broken family” when my mom and dad divorced (before that was common.) So it took me eight different schools to get through 12th grade. They were: Jim Bowie in Baytown for 1st and 2nd grade, Shearn and Red elementary schools. Jonston Jr. High, then Lanier Jr. High for what is now called “middle school.” Then I had one year at HSPVA [High School for the Performing and Visual Arts], and then finished high school at Lamar.

I had to decide whether I wanted to stay an introvert or forge ahead and make new friends everywhere I went. It used to drive one of my bosses crazy when “important” video clients when come in and I would treat them as if we knew each other all our lives. My philosophy became, “I never met a stranger.” I met have met plenty of stuck-up people with more reserve than was called for, but no real strangers, other than maybe the creepy Serial Killer I met when I was hitch-hiking in the 70s. For real!!!

But I always attributed it to the social skills I developed as a survival technique from moving so much and maybe the Officers’ gene I inherited from my dad that I have variously been the President of the Jaguar Club of Houston (I have a 1952 XK-120 and a 1962 XK-E) and a Wing Leader in the Commemorative Air Force.

I am putting on my fourth Son of Houston-Con now. This is in addition to the fact that I still play original music live, and have played coast to coast. I played the opening night of infamous “The Island” on Main Street. Later on our beautiful lead singer was accepted to Columbia University and we wound up following her up for visits and have played New York City multiple times. And when she got busy we booked into clubs with what I call “The Houston Band” and were well received. When my nephew Matt moved to Seattle we wound up using his place as a base to play there. And Austin is just down the road by comparison. Let’s save the stories about when I used to choreograph, teach and perform dance for another article.

But Legacy? I have been in Houston through the days when it mushroomed in size. The 610 Loop was not built yet when we moved here in 1964. It was started, but nowhere near complete. The city has always had an inferiority complex, even when we had one of the largest conventions in the country. There was no Comic Con in San Diego, or at least it was not the mammoth it was to become. And because of its growth, everyone seemed to be from someplace else, so it was easy to sit back and let the rest of the country bash us!

But things changed in Houston’s self-confidence. I think NASA’s achievements started that, but that was shared across the nation and the world. The Houston Rocket’s winning back-to-back championships did TWO things. It showed that Houston sports teams COULD win championships, especially after the Oilers had been screwed over. But it also showed how much the power centers of the East and West Coasts hated us when they ignored the Rockets on such venues as Sports Illustrated and then ignored the rules to avoid a three-peat.

Stick with me. Pop Culture matters! And sports is part of it for a city’s group gestalt. So my opinion is that things are getting a LOT better in Houston. Now the Astros won a championship and you could see people perked up. Of course the “I hate sports” curmudgeons are snorting, but you could see it when the basketball and baseball teams won.

What has that to do with comic book conventions? Well Houston already proved it could put on some of the best conventions in the country. And as far as Airshows go, Wings Over Houston rightfully claims to be one of the top air shows in the nation. But comic books and airplanes are on the fringe: Geeky fringe in the case of comics and hardcore aviation in the case of Wings Over Houston.

My little show is a start and I am getting some help. Will it grow to the scope of the original Houstoncons? Not without some more help and support. The OLD Houstoncons stopped when people started moving away and having life distractions. But the potential is there. Of course the elephant in the article is Comicpalooza. It is proof that the fan base is there and willing to pay $35.00 a day to walk miles through a convention center that is filled more and more with things that have less and less to do with comic books. But SOMETHING is there in the comic book industry. The fresh creativity to generate projects that start on cheap paper and wind up multi-million dollar movies and spawn whole franchises.

And then there was “The Big Bang Theory.” Suddenly Geek became chic. Who knew? Amazingly enough Bedrock City provides all the proper comic books for “Young Sheldon.” So the same Richard Evans who owns Bedrock City was in Roy’s Memory Shop rifling through bins and stacks of comics when I was riding my 10-speed over and he was at the same Houstoncons when I was getting lost on the way home on that same bike. Until some bastard stole it from my back porch at La Fonda Apartments, long since torn down but proudly decaying over by the Summit, where the Rockets won back-to-back championships.

But most of all, REMEMBER THIS: “These are THE Good old Days!”