Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

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.

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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.)

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.

OK, gotta call bullshit on this one. From a review in today’s local paper on the movie “A Letter to Momo” (which sounds pretty awesome). “American children’s films have never been very good at handling grief. Our stories tend to focus on external obstacles, worldly challenges to be met and overcome. For grief, for the melancholy and sadness we all must learn to face, we need to turn to Japanese anime …”

Uh, hello? “Up?” “Finding Nemo?” “The Lion King?” Freakin “BAMBI?”

My friend Tracy speculated that this might be the movie reviewer:

But no, it’s a guy. I’m a little puzzled how he got a job reviewing movies, in light of the fact that this is apparently the first one he’s seen. But I look forward to his future reviews. Which will probably contain observations like these:

– “In a delightfully innovative approach, two radically mismatched police detectives — a loose cannon and a by-the-book straight arrow — team up to solve the case.”

– “Surprisingly, the two members of the opposite sex who initially dislike each other form a romantic bond.”

Well, it pains me to do this. But I’m going to renounce what I said in an earlier post, titled: “Affairs With Robots — Does That Even Work Anymore?” Read the post here.

In that post, I came to the conclusion that the answer is “not really.” But last night, I finally got to see the Spike Jonez film “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Technically, the female love interest wasn’t a robot, but a computer operating system. But we’re still talking about an electronic simulation of an actual, flesh-and-blood woman. And the answer as to whether it works is an emphatic “yes.”

I was inspired to write the earlier post after watching a performance of “Comic Potential,” which is a comic love story set in the near future about a guy who meets and falls in love with a beautiful female robot. “Comic Potential” was cute and entertaining, but pretty lightweight. It also took a fairly trite approach to what’s already a hoary science fiction cliché. (None of this is a dig at the community theater company that performed it, by the way. They did a great job.) The female robot is essentially an idealized male fantasy. A beautiful  naif whose only flaw is her fragile innocence and her need to be taught the ways of human love. (Though that last one ain’t exactly a failing, ifyaknowwhatImean … wink wink, nudge nudge.)

A few conflicts come along. A few people try to tell the hero that he can’t love her because she’s only a machine. (Boo! Hiss!) But in the end, true love prevails.

My contention in the earlier post is that the modern digital age has killed that romantic scenario by making it borderline feasible. Men really do become romantically obsessed with electronic simulations of women, as evidenced by all the erotic Lara Croft fan fiction in existence. And the result is more sad than romantic and inspiring.

Yet “Her” works so well precisely because the film acknowledges that reality. I won’t give you a full replay of the plot. Very briefly, Phoenix gets an advanced new operating system — voiced by an unseen Johansson — with a simulated personality so complex that it’s indistinguishable from an actual human. The two fall in love.

That’s a very simple explanation that doesn’t do this psychologically complex movie justice. It has some extremely funny moments, but doesn’t go for any of the easy, cheap laughs that the premise could generate. Instead, it functions mainly as a bittersweet exploration of how the digital age has simultaneously eased and deepened our loneliness.

I’m not generally big on romantic stories. Nothing wrong with them. Just not my thing. But I have to say that this movie was wonderfully, joyfully, achingly romantic. Its ability to achieve that effect when one of the romantic partners was just a voice emanating from a computer and a hand-held digital device is testimony to both Phoenix’s and Johansson’s talents.  Don’t want to give away any spoilers here. By the end, the film has explored some mind-bending ideas about the nature of consciousness without ever losing its tight and personal focus on the two main characters.

So bottom line: I looked at an old science fiction trope and concluded that it needs to be retired. Spike Jonze looked at it, realized it’s more relevant than ever, and made a brilliant work of art from it.

Guess that’s why he’s one of the greatest and most visionary directors of his generation, and I’m … me.

The original “Rosemary’s Baby” from 1968 is one of my all-time favorite supernatural thrillers. It’s a testimony to the principle of “less is more,” seen all-too-rarely in popular entertainment these days. Roman Polanski (yeah he’s a scumbag, but the guy knows how to direct) doesn’t need to use a lot of CGI monsters to generate chills. Just a slow-boiling, claustrophobic tension undercut with elements of sly humor that only accentuate the unease.

I’d hoped the four-hour miniseries update that ran last month would come out on DVD, so I could see if it was true to the original. But now? Well … I’ll let you read the interpretation by somebody who’s eminently qualified to judge the quality of supernatural thrillers. E.F. Watkins is one of the more notable and talented writers of supernatural thrillers out there these days. She generously agreed to let me run her review of the series. And once you’re done reading it, be sure to check out “Hex, Death and Rock & Roll,” her latest paranormal mystery, which was a recent finalist in the mystery category for the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Take it away, Ms. Watkins:

Recently, NBC presented a four-hour miniseries based on Rosemary’s Baby, the 1967 Ira Levin novel and 1968 Roman Polanski film. The TV version kept the basic plot but made many “updates.” In general, this was a good idea, since it avoided direct comparisons with the original classic. By the end, though, my complaint was not that they modernized the tale but that they didn’t update it enough.

The original Rosemary’s Baby was a “smaller” story with which almost anyone could identify. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young New York couple, luck into a great apartment in an upscale but spooky old Central Park building. Soon, they find their lives invaded by quirky old neighbors, the Castevets, who seem overly interested in the Woodhouses’ personal business, including Guy’s stagnant acting career. After a macabre sexual dream, Rosemary discovers she’s pregnant. Guy takes credit and “acts” delighted, but afterward becomes standoffish. As her pregnancy progresses, Rosemary feels worse and worse, but Guy, the Castevets and the obstetrician they picked for her all belittle her complaints. Some people who either block Guy’s career ambitions or try to help Rosemary get answers are eliminated through accidents or sudden illness. Eventually, her research on the building’s dark history leads her to believe the neighbors and their friends are “witches” (more accurately, Satanists) and she thinks they want her baby for a sacrifice. Rosemary makes several attempts to escape and get outside help, but in vain. In her apartment, struggling against her husband and the cult leaders, she goes into labor. Guy later tells her the baby was born dead, but one day she hears it crying from the Castevets’ apartment. Armed with a large kitchen knife, she investigates and finds her baby … not on a sacrificial altar, but in a black-draped bassinet in the living room. Strangers of many nationalities are gathered around, chatting happily. They coax Rosemary to put down the knife and see her healthy baby boy. It takes her a second to notice something inhuman about the infant’s eyes, and they tell her Satan was the father. She is horrified, but finally her mothering instinct wins out. In the last scene, she rocks the bassinet, cooing to the baby, and the Satanists around her hail the birth of their Dark Master into the world.

Levin said he was inspired by the 1966 cover of Time magazine, which asked in big block letters, “Is God Dead?” If he was, Levin wondered, might Satan get a chance to step into the void? The original book and movie also served as a clever satire on the hustling atmosphere of Manhattan, where an actor might literally sell his soul—and his wife—to the Devil for stardom. Not to mention, that great apartment on Central Park West!

The 2014 miniseries takes place in a different world. The young Woodhouses moved to Paris where Guy, an aspiring novelist, has a shot at a teaching position. They are living in cramped, temporary quarters when they meet up with the Castevets, this time a rich, attractive, sophisticated, middle-aged couple (“Minnie” is now “Margaux”). When a mysterious fire damages the Woodhouses’ apartment, the Castevets—who happen to own the Chimera, a mammoth apartment building lavishly carved with stone dragons—offer them free housing until they can get back on their feet. They also invite them to a glamorous Parisian party where Guy makes connections helpful to his career.

This approach lacks the cleverness of making the Satanists a doddering old couple across the hall, because we almost expect rich and powerful people to be in league with the Devil. And Parisians—! Don’t they already have a reputation for decadence? Still, it works on the level of The Devil’s Advocate, as Guy and Rosemary become seduced by their charming, generous new friends and The Good Life. As the familiar plot unfolds, the sex scenes are steamier, and the deaths of those who might scuttle the Castevets’ plans are gorier, than in the original. The acting and atmosphere are decent; though Guy is blander this time around, Zoe Saldana gives Rosemary strength and sass and realistically conveys the wild roller coaster ride of her emotions.

At the end, though, I felt the TV version fell apart in terms of both its internal logic and its final impact. In the original book and movie, one young woman in the apartment building in the past had committed suicide—apparently because the Castevets tried to recruit her for their scheme and she became desperate to escape. You had the feeling they’d just begun this attempt to create an Antichrist in the flesh (possibly because God was now dead?). In the miniseries, a police captain finds that a string of young women have been murdered over the decades by the Castevets. Have they really been trying for all that time to find a suitable mother for Satan Jr.—and failing, in spite of all of their powers?

In the original, it seems as if Minnie and Roman are just picking young, fertile women who live nearby. But this time around, the Parisian couple appear to seek out Rosemary, an American visitor, and toward the end they tell her, “You were chosen.” Why? There aren’t enough fertile, young French women with ambitious husbands? If there’s something special about Rosemary, it’s never explained, and it should be.

But I think the biggest flaw in the remake is that the consequences of this baby’s birth don’t seem ominous enough. Back in 1968, life for most Americans was pretty comfy. Just the idea that God might be dead, and Satan might rise to power instead, was enough to shock audiences. But in 2014, unfortunately, it takes more than a few fatal hexes and a baby with black, fathomless eyes to frighten us. If the Castevets and their friends really are the most successful Devil-worshippers ever, with many power brokers among their circle of friends, what is their ultimate agenda? Satan Jr. should have at least as much apocalyptic horror up his sleeve as the kid in The Omen!

Without at least some inkling of that threat, though, an updated Rosemary’s Baby falls flat. In these days of global climate change, worldwide financial disasters and international terrorism, mankind seems all too capable of destroying itself without any outside help from the Devil.

 

Remember Teel James Glenn, neo-pulp author and stunt coordinator? If not, read his interview here. He’s awesome.

After the meeting where he spoke, we had a really good discussion at lunch about movie fight scenes. I was pretty psyched to find out that a professional stunt coordinator shared a lot of my opinions about them.

First of all, we both really dislike the way fight scenes are directed in most modern movies. They tend to be filled with rapid cuts — frequently cutting away from the combatants to their surroundings — so you can’t even tell what the hell is going on.

I’d always assumed the reason for that is because directors are trying to conceal the fact that the actors aren’t really fighting, and stunt doubles are doing all the work. But Teel said it’s more because most modern directors don’t understand the psychology of fighting. They do those jump cuts because that’s the way they film conversations. One guy “speaks” with his fist, the other answers, etc. Teel said directors have also told him that they make the cameras jump around to simulate the “disorientation” and “confusion” of being in a fight.

I’ve done some martial arts training that involved full-contact sparring, as has Teel. And we agreed that when you’re really engaged in a fight, you’re not the least bit distracted. If a guy standing directly in front of you is intent on hitting you, there’s very little else of interest to you at that moment. Yeah, you should be aware of your surroundings, but you’re certainly not swinging your gaze around randomly at other objects in the room.

It turns out Teel is also a big fan of my all-time-favorite movie fight scene, which is James Bond vs. Grant in “From Russia With Love” (1963).

Here’s a clip.

I didn’t know this until Teel made me aware of it, but the guy who staged that fight scene was a former paratrooper named Bob Simmons. That makes sense.

One of the things I like about this scene is that the two opponents aren’t simply trading punches on the jaw, which happens in a lot of movies from the 1960s. Nor are they wasting time with a bunch of balletic high kicks, which you’d see in action movies from later eras.

Nope. They’re fighting like a couple of guys who are intent on killing each other, and don’t give a royal fuck how graceful or gallant they look in the process.

Like the parts where Bond takes Grant’s jacket off his shoulders to trap his arms, then knees him in the sternum? And stomps on his spine? And slams the door in his face? That’s some dirty shit! And that headlock Bond gets Grant in at about the 2:40 mark is banned in Judo and jiu jitsu competitions, because it’s what you’d do if you wanted to break a guy’s neck.

Sure, there are plenty of cuts in the scene. But they serve to convey what’s going on in the fight, not obscure it. Another thing I like about it? No background music. Two guys are trying to kill each other with their bare hands, for cryin’ out loud! If you can’t make that exciting without putting a bunch of techno crap in the background, it’s time to go back to film school.

So THAT’S how you do a fight scene. Modern directors, watch and learn.