Archive for September, 2014

TransformersThe DVD release date of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” will be here in less than two hours, Eastern Standard Time. I believe that movie coming out on DVD, along with a hail of fire and the oceans turning to blood, is one of the signs of the Apocalypse cited in the Book of Revelation. Beware. Anyway, film reviewer Roy Sexton of Reel Roy Reviews has generously allowed me to run his review from the movie’s original theatrical release here. Should you be tempted to rent it … well, consider this a public service announcement. And be sure to check out more of Roy’s reviews at reelroyreviews.com.

T.J.

 “Well, you brought your family and that is terrible parenting.” Transformers: Age of Extinction

Have you ever seen a movie so astoundingly awful that you find yourself overwhelmed, gobsmacked, dumbfounded to the point you don’t even have words?

Yeah, Michael Bay, that’s the impact of your latest creation Transformers: Age of Extinction.

I knew going in that this would be a dumb, loud b-movie. I even relished the potential for mindless fun. I’ve seen the other three, forgettable as they are – though I don’t mind Dark of the Moon too much (either as a Pink Floyd album or as a Transformers flick). And, yes, Michael Bay has gotten to a point where every film he makes is him flipping the proverbial bird at liberal Hollywood … and at good taste.

But, good googly moogly, this installment may be final evidence that Bay’s cinematic nervous breakdown is totally complete.

I don’t even know if it’s worth bothering to summarize the plot. Mark Wahlberg, looking like a sad and puffy plumber in T-shirts two sizes too small, plays a down-on-his- luck single dad and robotic engineer (yeah, I know) in Texas who discovers a dilapidated semi-truck embedded in a dilapidated movie theater (yeah, I know). Of course, every shot is art-designed to look like a sepia-toned Abercrombie & Fitch ad … or a Buick commercial … all grungy, wholesome Americana.

Well, duh!, the truck turns out to be Autobot leader Optimus Prime hiding out from big bad CIA operatives led by Kelsey Grammer (yeah, I know) who is hunting down all the Transformers to mine their metal skin for something called “Transformium” (yeah, I know) that Stanley Tucci (shamelessly aping Steve Jobs) will use at his fabulously appointed tech company in Chicago/Hong Kong to create America’s own army of robots to defend us from future alien incursions (yeah, I KNOW).

It’s just not even any fun to ridicule this movie. The film is so self-consciously horrid that it’s like shooting rubber bands at a Teflon skillet.

The movie runs an interminable three hours, more or less, and is an unending series of chase scenes and things-blowed-up-real-good and tin-eared dialogue. I thought Zack Snyder was my go-to cinematic caveman, but I’d forgotten about Big Daddy Bay, whose male insecurity manifests itself in an avalanche of phallic images and orgasmic explosions and flag waving (?), not to mention some rather kinky torture scenes. Is this a kids’ movie? Ah, Michael Bay and his angry inch.

It goes without saying, that the heroes (whomever or whatever they are exactly) win the day and leave things wide-open for the inevitable sequel. This involves murdering a gaggle of CIA agents (cause the gubment is BAD, see?), destroying pretty much all of Hong Kong (cause no one is supposed to like the Chinese but they spend a lot of money going to movies so we’ll blow up Hong Kong cause it’s all sorta British and doesn’t really count), planting or not planting or destroying or flying away with some cosmic “seed” (subtle metaphor there!), and assorted other mayhem and corny one-liners all too inconsequential to delineate.

This movie is like comic book porn for FOXNews aficionados.

I suspect the next movie will be four hours long, with even more randomly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic images and themes all edited together in the most confoundingly inept way possible.

(I suspect some internet trolls will tell me I’m mixing personal politics into my “objective” review. My blog. My site. Never said I was objective. What reviewer is? Viewing a film is a subjective, singular experience. Neener neener neener.)

And, in the inevitable fifth (!) Transformers movie (yet, only three Godfathers!), another A-list actor undoubtedly will be slumming it. At least in this “film,” Stanley Tucci (unlike franchise vets Frances McDormand and John Turturro) wisely realizes he is in a completely bonkers enterprise, allowing his character to just start screaming out obscenities like he’s having a Tourette’s-fueled meltdown.

Watching this film, I felt like joining him. It was pretty much the only joy I had the whole three hours.

I take that back. The greatest joy was that friends Jim and Sean braved this crap with me. And that, between our rounds of church pew giggles and guffaws (we weren’t the only ones doing so, I might add), they were jotting down all the godawful lines they couldn’t wait for me to include in this review. (In fact, I kept getting texts from Sean today asking, “When are you going to post it?!?!”)

From Sean: “I think you should definitely note that, thankfully, the movie is left with a cliffhanger, paving the way for Transformers 5! ‘When you look at the stars, think of them as my soul…’ – Optimus Prime.” Even Gary Cooper couldn’t have sold that clunker of a line.

From Jim: “Here’s your title … you know that quote thing you do? When Wahlberg is roughing up Tucci, blaming him for all the turmoil, Tucci replies, ‘…Well, you brought your family and that is terrible parenting.’” Tucci is a touch wittier than a CGI robot, so at least that gem elicits a chuckle or two … and is a nice little indictment of anyone who brings their kids to see this dreck.

From me: at the film’s conclusion, Nicola Peltz, who plays Wahlberg’s Lolita-90210 daughter, intones, “We don’t have a home, dad. It blew up.” No kidding.

Cat Women of the Moon

Posted: September 25, 2014 in Movies
Tags:

Want evidence that the American movie industry was well aware of the Freudian nature of marketing back in 1953? Check out the juxtaposition of words and image at the :56 mark.

continental opI’ve been checking out a few online lists of overused cliches in crime fiction. Interesting, amusing, and — being a writer myself — occasionally cringe-inducing.

I’ll readily admit to being guilty of a couple with my debut novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.”

A trait that showed up on a lot of lists was the hard-drinking detective. And the investigator in my novel certainly fits the bill. He even carries a flask around with him to take swigs at appropriate or grossly inappropriate times.

Not sure if I have a problem with that, though. Or with any cliche, necessarily.

Keep in mind, I’m aware that all of this might be an elaborate self-justification. And to be fair, most of those lists specifically stated that a cliche isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if used in a creative manner.

Cliches are kind of tricky when it come to genre fiction. Because readers of genre fiction expect certain elements. Let’s take the anti-cliche mindset to an extreme. “Why does every thriller need to have a crime in it? That’s so overdone. How about a thriller where the sole conflict is the hero’s attempt to complete a batch of cupcakes in time for the church social?

True, wouldn’t be a cliche. Wouldn’t be much of a thriller, either.

Another example: Why does the hero in every single martial arts movie have to be a martial arts expert? Isn’t that a cliche? Maybe. It’s also the reason we watch martial arts movies, so I’d just as soon that one stay around.

But I’m certainly sympathetic to readers who get fed up with cliches. The kind that make you groan and say “not THIS again!” One of my least favorites is the meet-cute between the male and female characters who initially hate each other, but who are obviously gonna hook up before the end of the book. In fact, pasted-on romantic subplots in general are kind of tedious for me. Can the hero foil the criminal plot without getting laid in the process once in a while?

Recently read a novel — Won’t name it here. My policy is to name only the books I like. — where I felt like the writer was working though a checklist of crime fiction cliches. We-don’t-like-each-other-but-I-guess-we’ll-have-to-work-together-to-solve-this-case relationship with a colleague? Check. You-may-be-brilliant-at-catching-criminals-but-your-personal-life-is-a-mess talking-to by an exasperated colleague? Check. You get the picture. I finished it out of obligation, bored and annoyed the whole time.

But I guess it’s subjective. Because if you don’t like a story element, it’s a “cliche.” If you do like it, it’s a “convention.”

Not long ago, on a whim, I picked up a book on writing the modern mystery novel. In it, the writer decried the cliche of detectives with no apparent personal lives whose only role in the book is solving the case. Modern readers, this writer insisted, demand complex detectives with well-developed back stories, home lives and romantic histories.

With all due respect to that writer, I disagree. I happen to like the old-school detective whose only role in the story is solving the case, and maybe delivering some wisecracks and punches to deserving jaws along the way. Call me insensitive, but I don’t really care about the lead inspector’s conflicted relationship with her father, unless it’s tied into the case somehow.

We didn’t even need to know Columbo’s first name. Or his relationship to his wife — who in all likelihood didn’t exist, and was a ruse he employed to put suspects off balance. (And don’t tell me about the later seasons where he had phone conversations with her, or the defilement that was the “Mrs. Columbo” spinoff. That was bullshit.)

The name of my book’s protagonist, the Freak Foundation operative, is never provided. That’s a tribute to Dashiell Hammet’s Continental operative, the employee of the Continental Detective Agency who’s never given a name and doesn’t need one.

I also like hard-drinking, emotionally troubled — troubled, but not self-pitying and whiny — detectives. Not just as a throwback to the old-school, hard-boiled detectives, though that’s a factor. It strikes me as a logical outgrowth of the who they are and what they do.

A lot of people who deal with violence, death and its consequences in the course of their jobs drink and have emotional issues. If protagonists are seeing death and violence all the time and AREN’T emotionally affected by it, they’re probably screwed up in a different way.

I guess the whole idea of cliche is subjective, and changes with time, anyway. For example, I just watched the first season of “Hannibal,” and it was great. Ten years ago, if you’d asked if I was interested in watching some popular entertainment about an investigator playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a brilliant serial killed, I might have actually physically assaulted you.

“Enough!” I’d have cried, while slapping you about the face. “That whole thing has been driven into the freakin ground!”

But somewhere in the intervening time and pop culture’s obsession with other matters — boy wizards, vampires, zombies, etc. — that convention appear to have lost its stale quality to some extent. So I guess I can enjoy it for now.

Until it becomes cliche again, and the circle of life continues.

Time MachineI got the idea for writing this post after accepting that Facebook challenge going around, to name 10 books that have stuck with you over the years. Man! That was a tough challenge — restricting the list to 10. And like a list of my favorite songs or favorite movies, a list of my favorite books would change on an hourly basis anyway.

One of the books I chose was “The Time  Machine.” I was about 10 when I got that out of the school library, and it blew my mind. It was a big influence on me for several reasons. First of all, it sparked a life-long love of speculative fiction. I like to think it even led to me becoming a speculative fiction writer myself.

But more than that, it was the book that first taught me how a story can convey a message without sacrificing any of the elements that make it cool and engaging.

I’m not going to pretend that I was capable of comprehending all the social commentary in “The Time Machine” at the age of 10. But I went back and read it as a teenager, and was surprised to discover nuances that escaped me the first time.

In my Facebook post about the book, I included this commentary: “One of these days, somebody’s going to make a film version that doesn’t TOTALLY MISS THE FREAKIN POINT!” I really hope that’s the case.

I caught the 1960 version on TV when I was a kid. Not bad, but kinda missed the point. I saw another made-for-TV version that aired in 1978, also when I was a kid. Missed the point and royally sucked. Then I saw the 2002 version starring Guy Pearce. “Sucked” barely covers it. God Almighty, did that movie bite the big one! And not incidentally, it missed the point too.

Spoiler alerts are coming up, in case you’ve never read the book.

But here’s the basic plot. The unnamed Time Traveler who relates most of the story journeys to a distant future. There, he discovers an apparent paradise of child-like humans called “Eloi” living an idyllic and trouble-free existence. He befriends one, a woman named Weena.

He’s puzzled by the logistics of this world, though. The simple-minded Eloi seem to lack any means of sustaining themselves. Then he discovers the existence of brutish creatures living underground called the “Morlocks.” He pieces together that humanity has evolved into two branches — the Eloi from the upper classes, and the Morlocks from the lower classes. Now the Morlocks are maintaining the Eloi as livestock.

The story progresses from there. Through a chain of circumstances, the Time Traveler comes into conflict with the Morlocks. He also tries to defend Weena, because of their personal connection.

But here’s what the movie versions always get wrong. With varying degrees, it always comes down to the Eloi being the good guys, and the Morlocks being the bad guys. Beautiful people = good. Ugly monsters = bad. That’s a grossly simplistic interpretation of the book, and the total opposite of what Wells was going for.

Wells, a socialist, was appalled at the stark class divisions at the tail end of the 19th Century, when he wrote the book. “The Time Machine” was intended as a commentary on those divisions.

Wells defines the Eloi’s character in the episode where the Time Traveler meets Weena by saving her from drowning. The other Eloi make no effort to save her — reflecting the indifference to others’ suffering that disgusted Wells about the upper classes. By the future era in which The Time Machine takes place, that indifference is so ingrained in their descendents that it’s become a defining trait of the subspecies into which they’ve evolved.

The Morlocks aren’t the good guys. They’ve become so degraded by the lower status into which their ancestors were forced that they’ve turned into monsters. But the Eloi aren’t the good guys either. By their status as food animals, they’re paying a kind of karmic penance for the decadence and complacency of their forebears.

It’s an eviscerating take on the class system, and on humanity in general.

I guess that’s another important early lesson that “The Time Machine” taught me when I was a kid. If a movie version of a book you like is coming out, prepare to be disappointed.

(Though that’s not always true, as I discuss here.)

DickI believe I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I edit the quarterly newsletter, called “The Speculator,” for the writers’ group Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. I like to include an interview in each issue. For the September issue, I had the opportunity to interview Dick DeBartolo — one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent writers and a childhood hero of mine.  (For more about my life-long fandom of Mad, read here.) Needless to say, I was thrilled. Here’s the story that ran in the newsletter. Since The Speculator is for and about writers, much of the emphasis is on the craft and business of writing. But even if you’re not a writer, I hope you’ll find it interesting. And I’d like to thank my good friend Doug for helping make contact with Dick. Doug, give me a shout if you ever need a kidney.

 

“Mad’s Maddest Writer” Dick DeBartolo on Writing Parody

By Tom Joyce

As you might guess from my membership in this group, and my editorship of this newsletter, I’m a big fan of speculative fiction. So don’t take the following statement as a dis.

Speculative fiction lends itself to parody.

Think of the works of speculative fiction that simultaneously serve as genre parodies and great stories in themselves. The writing of Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett immediately come to mind. For further examples, you could go as far back as Fritz Leiber’s classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, or head to your local multiplex and watch “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

So I thought it might be helpful for us as writers to get some insights from a parody writer. As luck would have it, I got to speak to one of the all-time greats.

Dick DeBartolo is one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent and prolific writers, having contributed to the magazine since the early 1960s. He specialized in the magazine’s movie and TV satires, which were always my favorite part of the magazine.

Dick also hosts a wonderful netcast about gadgets and technology called Giz Wiz, which is available on TWIT.tv. He’s a regular guest on segment on ABC News Now, and was recently interviewed on the public radio program Studio 360 (which is available online). He is also the author of “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

Dick asked that the interview take the form of a phone conversation, rather than responding to e-mailed questions. So I’ll have to do some paraphrasing, as I wasn’t able to write down everything verbatim. But it’s worth it, because I’ve been a fan of Mad since I was a kid, and being able to talk to Dick made my week, month and year. As an added bonus, Dick turned out to be every bit as funny, charming and flat-out cool as I could have hoped.

So here’s the gist of what Dick and I talked about:

Dick said that he naturally gravitated toward movie and TV satires. And the bad movies were a lot easier to satirize.

“The more serious the movie was and the more pretentious it was, the more fun it was to make fun of it,” he said.

TV satires were more difficult, because they were more of a time commitment. He’d have to watch five or six episodes to get a feel for the show’s approach and its characters.

Unlike the movie satires, which would follow the plot of the source material, he would have to construct his own plots for the TV satires. That could yield some interesting results. When he wrote the satire for the campy science fiction TV series “Lost in Space,” he placed the characters on a planet with giant vegetation. Not long after, he encountered series star June Lockhart on the set of the game show Match Game, where he was also a writer. She jokingly asked him if the magazine had spies on its staff, because the plot of his parody mirrored one of an upcoming episode.

His propensity for making fun of movies meant that he was rarely invited to previews, but that was fine by him. He preferred seeing movies with audiences so he could take note of the scenes that got the biggest reactions from the crowd, and be sure to reference them in the satires.

He was apparently doing something right. No less a luminary than Roger Ebert once told Dick that he learned how to criticize movies through Mad’s dissection of them.

Here are Dick’s insights on:

TECHNIQUES FOR PARODY

— Your intended audience should be familiar with the source material. When you’re riffing off something, it helps if they get the references.

— Dick is a big fan of what he calls “The Rule of Three” for satire. You have two references to something normal to establish a pattern and set up the punchline, then deliver that punchline on the third reference.

For example: “Is this rocket going to make it to the moon?”

“Yes. We’re using the highest octane fuel, the most powerful engine, and a big bottle of Mentos and Coke.”

— Running gags can be very effective. Try to find a hook within the context of the story, and keep non-sequiturs to a minimum. For example, in his parody of “The Poseiden Adventure” about a capsized ocean liner, Dick made a running gag out of the characters’ linguistic confusion over “up” vs. “down,” which got more absurd and funny as the story progressed. (“I’m seasick. I think I’m gonna throw down.”)

MAD MAGAZINE

The magazine was initially very male-oriented, for boys in the 10-through-15-year-old range. Initially, the magazine only satirized G-rated movies. Now its approach is more inclusive. He also describes it as “rougher” than it used to be, with edgier humor.

“When it came out, it was the only thing like it,” Dick said. “Now that’s all changed. Mad is like a mirror of society.”

SELF-PROMOTION FOR WRITERS

“The Web is where it’s at,” Dick said “You can do so much with no money.”

Where social media is concerned, Google Plus users tend to be more interested in serious, straightforward information. Facebook and Twitter users gravitate toward the “silly stuff.”

“Make yourself a valuable information source on the Internet,” Dick advises. “You get followers. Follow your followers.”

reel roy reviewsI don’t consider myself to be a meathead when it comes to movies. Back in the day, my propensity for going to the video store and returning with movies such as “Heavenly Creatures” and “Lost Horizon” — cinematic offerings with an insufficient number of explosions and/or boobs — was a boundless source of exasperation for my roommate and our drinking buddies. I still recall the looks of wounded accusation that greeted me when I returned from work one evening to find them screening a video of “Last Tango in Paris” that I’d rented the night before. Seems they’d spotted the “X” rating on the box, and expected a very different kind of film.

That being said, one of my problems with a lot of film reviewers is that they’re a bit too much into movies as serious art. Look, I’m sure that 12-hour-long, avant garde version of “King Lear” released by the Icelandic Film Board is a masterpiece. You know what? I only get one Saturday a week. I’m not going to devote a significant chunk of it to watching a movie that doesn’t entertain me.

That’s what I like about Roy Sexton of the blog “Reel Roy Reviews,” who is now officially my favorite film reviewer. The guy’s obviously a hardcore film geek, who’s seen a ton of movies and has a good sense of what makes for a quality film. But there’s an element of populism to his approach that I see lacking in a lot of film reviewers. He understands that sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a transcendent redefinition of the cinematic art form. Sometimes you just want a fun night at the movies.

He also understands that even a movie that’s not “good” by any objective standards can still have elements that make it worth watching. Like when you’re flipping around on cable, see a movie and think: “Oh yeah, this movie. Damn, this movie sucks.” Then 90 minutes later, you’re still watching.

In other words, he doesn’t review like a serious student of cinema, so much as a regular person who just happens to really like movies. And since that description fits me and — I’d venture to say — the vast majority of movie viewers, that makes his reviews enormously engaging.

I just finished reading a collection of his reviews in book form, titled “Reel Roy Reviews Volume 1: Keepin’ It Real.” Most of the book covers films released from mid-2012 to early 2014. To tell you the truth, I’m probably not going to see most of the films he reviewed. Even the good ones. Much as I like movies, I just don’t have a lot of time on my hands these days. Had to prioritize, and books won out.

So why bother reading them? Because the guy can write. As an added bonus, he’s freakin hilarious. Even if you’re not planning on seeing the movies, the reviews are a pleasure to read.

My favorite part is a section where he goes back and reviews movies he loved as a kid, to see if they still hold up. If I wasn’t already a fan, the fact that this section included “The Black Hole” — Disney’s brilliantly twisted, how-the-fuck-did-this-get-made peyote trip of a kids’ movie — would have sealed the deal.

Added bonus? He likes the 1980 movie “Popeye.” Why the hell does this movie have such a bad reputation? Sure, it tanked at the box office. So did “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You’re telling me that a movie directed by Robert Altman based on one of the best comic strips of all time, starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall, with a screenplay by Jules Feiffer and a soundtrack by Harry Nilsson has NO redeeming qualities?

OK, going off on a tangent here. Bottom line — get Roy’s book. And be sure to read his reviews at reelroyreviews.com.

Danielle1Hey folks! Remember Danielle Ackley-McPhail? If you’re a fan of speculative fiction, you oughtta be a fan of hers. Anyway, here’s word about a Kickstarter campaign, courtesy of the talented Ms. Ackley-McPhail:

Have you heard of the Eternal Wanderings Kickstarter? Danielle Ackley-McPhail has pledged to write a new novel following her popular Eternal Cycle trilogy of Irish-myth-based urban fantasy novels.

You aren’t familiar with the series? Here’s what the Bibliophilic Book Blog had to say about it: Ms. Ackley-McPhail has brought us a seamless blending of the present, past, and future throughout her Eternal Cycle Series, incorporating Irish myth, the beautiful and mysterious Gaelic language, and prophecies which span millennia.

If you’re interested in learning more, visit the Kickstarter page: http://kck.st/1tv0cq7

Some reviews from the original novels:

On Yesterday’s Dreams:

[Danielle Ackley-McPhail] certainly seems to know her Celtic mythology… a solid story. —Piers Anthony, bestselling author of the Xanth series (source, personal letter)

“This novel will appeal to fans of Charles DeLint with its urban approach to Irish mythology. At times I was mesmerized while at other times … I had to get up and turn the lights on…” —4 Tombstones, Kate, Bitten By Books Reviews

On Tomorrow’s Memories

Tomorrow’s Memories” is darker in a rich sense from the first book in this series. Compelling characters, history, and plenty of action will keep you glued to each page until you reach the end. -4 Stars, Bibliophilic Book Blog

“Danielle Ackley-McPhail seems to get better with every book … I didn’t want (Tomorrow’s Memories) to end, and I’m looking forward to reading the third novel of the trilogy.” – BookSpot Central

On Today’s Promise

“Today’s Promise” is the stunning conclusion to an epic series which can be read time and time again without losing its potency. – 4 Stars, Bibliophilic Book Blog