Archive for the ‘Pop culture’ Category

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.

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In my recent post on the movie “Night of the Templar,” I mentioned Creature Double Feature on Channel 48 out of Philadelphia. I since found the original intro and outro from it on Youtube. This made my week. Took me back to those Saturday afternoons in the 1970s camped in front of the TV, watching the cavalcade of old black-and-white movies, or the more recent (and frequently more gory) drive-in and grindhouse fare. Sometimes they’d show one of the classic Universal monster movies. More often, they’d be grade-B films. And there was certainly nothing wrong with that. Although I still remember tuning into what I thought would be “Bride of Frankenstein,” and instead watching Ed Woods’ “Bride of the Monster.” I was a bit too young for irony, so I didn’t yet appreciate Ed Wood’s work on the level I would in later decades. That may have been the first time in my life I uttered the words: “What the FUCK?”

Anyway, check out the Youtube clip. It’s decidedly low-budget and campy, but eerily effective all the same. Much like most of the movies Creature Double Feature showcased.

 

clamorThere are plenty of things I like in Gerry LaFemina’s novel “Clamor,” which is the story of a 39-year-old punk rocker going home for his father’s funeral. But it’s one of those books that I like just as much for what’s not in it. More on that presently.

When I was reading it, I found myself remembering a question that a black friend of mine once asked me more than a decade ago. Why don’t white people respect older musicians?

I told her that I don’t think that’s true. These days, older musicians such as Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello are regarded more as revered elder statesmen than creaky relics. But I could see where she was coming from.

In thinking of the musicians that white people are into, she was probably thinking of rock stars. (And for the time being, I’m not going to go into the oversimplified but certainly not meritless assertion that white people simply appropriated rock music from black people. That’s a big can of worms.) And the template for rock stars was forged, with some overlap in adjacent decades, in the youth-obsessed 1960s.

I remember a time not so long ago (By my standards. I’m no spring chicken myself.) when the mere act of getting older was considered a kind of failing on the part of rock musicians.

Back in 1989 when the Rolling Stones were on their Steel Wheels tour, a lot of my peers were making dismissive cracks about “Steel Wheelchairs.” As if the fact that the Stones were in their 40s — their freakin 40s! — meant they were far too old and decrepit to continue their careers, and it was pathetic of them to even try. I can’t see anybody harboring that attitude toward a painter or a writer. Or a classical musician, for that matter. (more…)

This past Saturday, I attended my first meeting of Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers in a while. As I’ve mentioned (whined about?) in some recent posts, I’ve been really busy lately and a lot of things got put on the back burner.

The meeting is in North Jersey and it’s a nearly two-hour drive for me. But it’s worth it. The group is made up of a very talented, professional and dedicated group of writers, and I always take away something valuable.

At this meeting, the guest speaker was Teel James Glenn. The guy’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia of things I consider to be cool. He writes books that are intentional throwbacks to the classic pulp era of the 1930s, of which I’m also a fan. Some elements of The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report were intended as a homage to classic pulps, including the tough-guy detective hero and the gang of masked villains.

Teel is also a martial artist, professional stuntman, and fight coordinator for movies. He’s got a particular specialty in sword fighting. I picked up his now out-of-print (but not for much longer, as a reissue is on the way) Them’s Fightin’ Words!: A Writer’s Guide To Writing Fight Scenes. I know we’re not too far into 2014 yet, but that still pretty much made my year. Hell, he’s even into sleight-of-hand.

Check out his Website, The Urban Swashbuckler. (Come on! How freakin cool is THAT?)

Anyway, he said something about writing that really had a big impact on me, and helped me get past something I was struggling with in the novel I’m currently working on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles, writing manuals, and critical think pieces about popular culture that stress the importance of two elements in fiction: A flawed hero and a compelling villain. (more…)

VeronicaThe trailer for the “Veronica Mars” movie is out. And it looks … well, I don’t know how it looks. I’m not going to watch the trailer for fear of seeing a single spoiler. And it’s not like I need to be sold on seeing the movie. Hell, I’d pay a large sum of money just to see a five-minute resolution of the season three cliffhanger, which is where the show wrapped up in 2007.

Soon after I discovered “Veronica Mars” a few years ago — perhaps “had been converted to” is a more accurate term than “discovered” — I was raving about it at a party. A rather sardonic friend of mine asked: “What are you, a 15-year-old girl?”

That’s the kind of misinterpretation the show engendered. For the record, I’m a 47-year-old man, and I’m a big fan of hard-boiled crime fiction. (By the way, check out Alex Segura’s “Silent City” if you’re also a fan. For that matter, check out my novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.”) As I don’t really follow TV, I was vaguely aware of the show when it was on from the years 2004 to 2007, felt no desire to check it out, and didn’t give it a second thought.

Ironically, I think the ideal viewer of the show is somebody like me, who has an idea that it’s some kind of lightweight teen mystery/soap opera hybrid. Somebody with no natural inclination to watch it, who ends up seeing it anyway through some chain of circumstances. That’s precisely the type of person most in a position to be surprised at first, and then blown away by how clever, darkly funny, edgy, complex and just flat-out freakin good it is. (more…)

MadMan! My friends are the best!

I went to a Christmas/New Year party last weekend, and my buddy Doug Ferguson got my 2014 off to a very good start by presenting me with the pictured issue of “Mad” magazine, signed by writer Dick DeBartolo. Thanks Doug!

Doug’s a tech guy, and he’s a fan of DeBartolo’s netcast “The Giz Wiz,” in which he talks about gadgets. I myself am not a tech guy, but I still listened to “The Giz Wiz” on Doug’s recommendation, and found it highly entertaining. By the way, be sure to check out Doug’s blog here.

My familiarity with DeBartolo comes from his status as a long-time writer for “Mad,” going back to the early 1960s. He specialized in the movie and TV satires, which were usually my favorite parts of the magazine when I was a kid. He also wrote an account of his experiences in “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

So I started leafing through the signed copy of “Mad,” and thinking about how much I loved that magazine as a kid. I’d like to think that when I was writing “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report,” DeBartolo and “The Usual Gang of Idiots” (the appellation by which the magazine’s editorial staff customarily referred to themselves) were kicking around in my subconscious.

If so, I wouldn’t be the first one to cite “Mad” as an influence. So have writers with “The Simpsons” and “The Onion.” Even Joyce Carol Oates has sung its praises.

I stopped reading it at roughly the time I entered high school, around 1981. When I was in grade school, I first started reading the new issues that came out in the late 1970s. Then I started buying second-hand issues from earlier years, as well as paperbacks showcasing material from the 1950s and ’60s. I loved it all.

Here’s the funny thing — much as I hungrily devoured every issue I could get my hands on, I always felt vaguely depressed after reading them for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time. In retrospect, I think the reason tied in with why I found them so fascinating.

Social critic Tim Gitlin once described Mad as “bubble gum nihilism,” which strikes me as a very apt description. Looking back, I marvel at the balancing act that the writers and artists of “Mad” managed to pull off. They kept it ostensibly within the realm of children’s entertainment, always toeing that line but never quite crossing it. (I noted in the issue Doug got me that they’re still using the word “dreck” as a thinly veiled substitute for “shit.”)

What amazes me, given those strictures, is how subversive, bracing, sharp and ultimately bleak they managed to make the humor. Even in gloriously sardonic comedy such as “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development,” you get glimpses of redeeming intentions and behavior. Not so with “Mad.” Its sensibility was more analogous to “Eastbound & Down” or “Archer.” Unremitting in its cynicism. Every emotion, every action, every institution, every human impulse was ultimately grounded in venal self-interest, lust, or stupidity. Nobody and nothing was above mockery. The Usual Gang of Idiots were simply hanging back and reporting on it with knowing smirks on their faces — advising you that existence is nothing but an unkind joke, so you might as well laugh at it. I can’t begin to describe how refreshing that was for me, as a Catholic school boy from suburban South Jersey raised on Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books.

(And for the record, based on the netcast, Dick DeBartolo sounds like a wonderful human being. That’s often the case — people with the most cynical, biting sense of humor in print turn out to be the nicest people when you meet them in person. Maybe because they have a means of getting it out of their system.)

As I leaf through this recent issue of “Mad,” it looks a lot different from the magazine I remember. It’s in color, and printed on slick paper. I don’t recognize most of the artists and writers. It’s full of references to modern pop culture and technology.

But it’s still sharp. It’s still lively. And most importantly, it’s still funny.

So Alfred E. Neuman, my friend, it’s good to see you again after all these years. Thanks for the laughs. (Eccch! What a load of dreck!)

superfriendsA recent article on The Onion A.V. Club brought back some memories. It dealt with all of the knockoffs that Hanna-Barbera crapped out in the 1970s after the success of “Scooby Doo, Where are You?”

Among them was “Super Friends,” which debuted in 1973. Apparently there was a later iteration. But the version I watched as a kid featured a crime-fighting team consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, and Aquaman.

Also along for the ride were a couple of teenagers named Wendy and Marvin, who had no superpowers or any particular talents that lent themselves to crime-fighting. Their presence was never explained. Made me wonder if that prompted any behind-the-scenes discussions like this:

Wonder Woman: OK, this isn’t on the agenda. But it needs to be addressed. Can someone explain to me why Wendy and Marvin are on the payroll? They don’t contribute anything. And we spend half our time in the field trying to keep their pimply little asses from getting killed.

Superman: Ask Aquaman. He said that if Batman gets to have Robin, then he gets to have a couple of “special friends” too.

Wonder Woman: OK, that’s REALLY creepy.

Superman: Says the woman whose entire superpower is based on binding people up with rope.