Category Archives: Movies

Skating along the edge of victory

So this week the only thing I worked on was Southern Discomfort. Well except, Thursday, when I was exhausted and spent the day working on my insanely ambitious goals for next year (I’ll get to that in a future post).

I wrapped up last week with slightly over 50,000 words. I’m finishing this week with slightly under 70,000. Given I have five work days left before 2018 ends, it’s possible I can finish, but I’m not quite as confident as I was last week. Especially as I’ll be working around other holiday distractions. But it’s conceivable I can make it.

I’d be better off, obviously, if I’d spent yesterday working on the book too, but cumulative insomnia finally left me worn out. Last night I took an Ambien, this weekend I should get some solid sleep in (I usually do when I don’t have to work the next day), so fingers crossed. If worst comes to worst, I can wrap it up first week of January without disrupting my other writing plans too much.

While I’ve had a lot of tidying up and cleaning up to do — making sure the reactions and conversations flow logically from moment to moment — I haven’t run into any major plot problems since last week. That’s good; hopefully it’ll stay that way as I work through the rest.

Wish me luck.

Oh, and I’ve had a couple of Christmas-themed posts up at Atomic Junkshop. One on the way Christmas sucks movies to it and one about A Christmas Carol as a story of loneliness

And the Science Fiction Research Association Review gave a great review of Now and Then We Time Travel (“Sherman has put in lots of hard work and produced a very useful reference that is fun to sample—open it to page 125 to find Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971 stop motion television special with the voices of Vincent Price and Danny Kaye) followed by Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). There are many similar delights of juxtaposition.”)

While I hope that leads to a few more sales, getting such a good review is a delight in itself.

And here’s a photo I’ve been meaning to post for a while. I batted a pillow at Plush dog but instead of chewing it as he usually does, he simply stared at me. And looked adorable doing it.

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Greedo, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and flawed heroes

Articles about how to write flawed or antiheroic characters usually focus on how to make them acceptable to readers: pit them against worse antagonists, show them transgressing arbitrary rules or challenging an oppressive status quo (I have some added suggestions). But I think it’s also sometimes difficult for us as writers to find them acceptable.

The classic example of this is Star Wars (or Episode IV: A New Hope if you insist). Early in the film (as you probably all know), a bounty hunter named Greedo confronts Han Solo with an eye to collecting the bounty on him. Han draws a gun under the table and shoots Greedo, killing him. It’s not a gunfight; Greedo wasn’t attempting to kill him (though it’s obvious he was ready to) so Han shooting first isn’t self-defense as we usually define it. It shows he’s not a classic hero like Flash Gordon, who’d never have stooped to a dirty trick like that.

Later, though, George Lucas decided that he just couldn’t have one of his heroes do that, and edited the later editions so Greedo shot first. And claimed, falsely, that he’d always planned it that way. Apparently he got retroactive cold feet.

Steve Ditko was similarly uncomfortable with Spider-Man being a fallible regular guy. It was fine to have Spider-Man screw-up and struggle with doing the right thing when he was a high-schooler, but after that? Ditko wanted someone who’d fight for the right without question or pause, and wouldn’t get the wrong end of the lollipop time after time. Ditko was a devout objectivist; while apparently his concept of objectivism stretched to allow for Peter acting unselfishly, but (I gather) he wanted him to be more like the confident super-achievers of Rand’s novels.

Me, I think Greedo shot first. And Stan Lee’s take on Spidey was the right one. Even so, I suspect lots of writers, myself included, grapple with the same kind of questions as Ditko and Lucas. It’s not just about what will sell but what we’re comfortable writing. There’s a whole bunch of slurs I’m not comfortable using, even if it’s appropriate for the character speaking and for the era and situation (I have used them sometimes, but it’s an effort). When I reprinted The Sword of Darcy in Atlas Shagged I rewrote it to have Robert E. Howard Darcy a little less aggressive in the scenes with Elizabeth Bennett. Yeah, he’s Conan with the serial numbers filed off, but him grabbing her in one scene left me feeling like things were a little too non-consensual (I think rewriting got the balance right). I did the same for some of the sex scenes in Dark Satanic Mills.

What Ditko and Lucas was grappling with was more a sense of what a hero should be. Is it okay to fight dirty if you’re on the right side? To put your family first? To take a day off? To enjoy the adulation as much as the good you do? And what are the acceptable flaws? Overconfidence or arrogance work better than, say, writing a repentant racist.

This one of those questions where the right answer depends on who’s writing the story.

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Rogue Christmas spirits, forgettable Christmas films and more!

KARROLL’S CHRISTMAS (2004) is a fun Christmas Carol riff; Alex Karroll is a disgruntled greeting-card writer who hates Christmas ever since his ex-girlfriend shot down his proposal (in public, no less), only half aware of how badly he’s slipping into bitter depression despite having a new and better girlfriend. When Bob Marley’s ghost shows up (it seems Jacob spent some time in Jamaica as a young man; Bob’s a descendant), it turns out they’ve mistaken Karroll for his even meaner neighbor, Wallace Shawn, so he finds himself dragged into Shawn’s past life instead of his own. Of course the spirit of goodwill wins out, but not before some fun; in its own way as subversive of the conventions as Scrooged. “Your use of the word ‘lunatic’ is very offensive to me and to, well, lunatics.”

Having watched CHASING CHRISTMAS (2004) for Now and Then We Time Travel, I knew it would make a good double bill for the first film; Jack (Tom Arnold) is the Christmas hater this time, due to catching his wife cheating on him during their daughter’s Christmas pageant; unfortunately after Christmas Past (Leslie Jordan) drags Jack back into his childhood, Past snaps, feeling centuries of guilt-tripping people has been completely futile, and strands Arnold in 1965. And if Jack can’t get back to the present before Christmas Day, he’ won’t exist any longer … A fun one, as I thought the first time I watched it.  “I am not some mean old man — I hate Christmas for a reason and no amount of memory is ever going to change that.”

I also caught EVE’S CHRISTMAS (2004) for the book, but I had no memory of that when I decided to stream it. Nor did the first thirty minutes jog my memory as unlucky-in-love Eve gets transported back to right before the wedding to her hometown sweetheart that never happened when she left for a Big Apple job (leaving your home town and not marrying your childhood sweetheart are terrible, terrible, terrible mistake in rom-coms like this). Once I realized I’d seen it, I stopped (trust me, I wasn’t missing anything).

I can’t say THE SANTA CHRONICLES (2018) did any better for me. This made-for-Netflix programmer has two kids attempt to catch Santa result in Mr. Claus losing the hat that gives him his magic powers. Can kids and Santa recover the hat in time to save Christmas? Despite Kurt Russell as a somewhat grump Father Christmas (constantly annoyed that no matter how much he works out, people expect him to be plus-size), this wasn’t worth finishing either.

While I’d planned to rewatch 12 Dates of Christmas it appears I gave that one away with many of the other time-travel DVDs. So instead I went with the old reliable WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) in which entertainers Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby put on a show to save their former CO’s Vermont Inn, and possibly snag dancers Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney for themselves. As familiar as an old shoe by now, but there’s no denying the charm of the performances (particularly Kaye and Vera Allen in “Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”) and the gorgeous Technicolor look. I also found myself thinking of ways it could have gone horribly wrong, like if they’d done the minstrel-show number in actual blackface. “‘Wow’ is somewhere between ‘ouch’ and ‘boing!’”

Another perennial is TWILIGHT ZONE: The Night of the Meek with Art Carney as a burned-out, drunken department-store Santa who gets to play the role for real when he finds a bag that allows him to give everyone the present of their dreams (hmm, where do you suppose it came from? Why, that’s right!). Rewatching, I was struck by the episode’s generosity of spirit; the officious department store-owner is precisely the kind of character who usually gets coal in his stocking in some fashion, but here even he gets a merry Christmas. “Just once, I’d like to see the meek inherit the Earth.”

MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962) stars the short-sighted cartoon character voiced by Jim Backus as a Broadway star, here performing in an musical adaptation of Dickens. This squeezes in a substantial amount of plot for under an hour, though dropping some details such as Scrooge’s family. Well done, with good songs, though I’m curious what millennials would make of the stylized, simplified style of animation UPA uses here (it was considered quite groundbreaking back in the day). “A hand for each hand was the way it was planned/Why won’t my fingers reach?/A million grains of sand in the world/Why such a lonely beach?”

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Let us sample some Christmas treacle

As anyone who’s been reading this blog for more than a year knows, I love immersing myself in Christmas movies. I spent about a decade of Christmas mornings alone before moving up here (family scattered all over the map) so I compensated by watching a mix of old classics and new TV movies until I was stuffed with Christmas cheer. Normally I’d have started right after Thanksgiving but with the weeklong stretch before December, it didn’t feel quite right.

As a result I caught FAME (1980), in which aspiring musicians, actors and dancers struggle to graduate from a performing arts school while also coping with family, teen angst, career struggles, insecurity and love.While I enjoyed the TV-series spinoff, I’d never seen the movie before; pleasant enough, and I absolutely loved one twist when a rejected dancer appears to be contemplating suicide. “Who cares if it wasn’t ready? They liked it!”

Next comes some new-to-me Christmas stuff, but even by my low standards it was disappointing. A BAD MOM’S CHRISTMAS (2017), for instance, plays like a TV spinoff special jacked up to a feature film. Original Bad Moms Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis struggle to stay afloat under the demands of being a Mom At Christmas, an effort made worse by their various mothers (wild child Susan Sarandon, overbearing diva Christine Baranski and insufferably perky Cheryl Hines) all showing up for a long stay. Despite some amusing moments (Hahn as the raunchiest mom has a lot of those), the themes about Christmas have been done before, and better.  “You should never have to watch your mom lick your boyfriend’s nipples!”

SO THIS IS CHRISTMAS (2013) is sufficiently Christian that I was surprised the Wise Handyman who helps everyone out didn’t turn out to be Jesus.  Eric Roberts and Vivica A. Fox are the parents watching their kids cope with drugs, sex and petty theft before discovering Jesus and Christmas Pageants Are the Answer. Forgettable. “You’re going to write the script. We need seventeen speaking parts.”

I fear my iPad is finally expiring, which may be why CHRISTMAS CRUSH (2012) kept crashing when I streamed it. Fortunately a movie abouta twenty-something returning home for her high school reunion where she’s surrounded by her far more successful old friends, gets a shot at reuniting with her high school crush and fails to notice her male bestie still has eyes only for her probably isn’t going to surprise me any. Not that I require rom-coms surprise me (as I’ve said before, love is a cliché) but it didn’t interest me much either.

I think I may stick with the tried and true for the rest of the month. Because even fluff like 12 Dates of Christmas is better than that troika of treacle above.

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Women solving mysteries: this week’s movies

 

FRIDAY FOSTER (1975), which I listed in Tuesday’s memorable films post, is a blacksploitation throwback to 1930s films about fast-talking, female reporters such as Glenda Farrell’s Torchy Blaine series, though it’s actually based on a newspaper comic strip (the first with a black female lead). Pam Grier is Friday, a camera jockey trying to figure out the connection between a friend’s murder, “black Howard Hughes” Thalmus Rasulala, fashion designer Eartha Kitt, gay drug dealer Godfrey Cambridge, lecherous clergyman Scatman Crothers and a mysterious conspiracy called “black widow.” The plot has some huge holes (I honestly can’t see what the bad guys would have gained from killing Friday) but it’s fun and Grier is charmingly sexy (she also hops into a number of beds without the movie doing any slut-shaming, which is cool). With Yaphet Kotto as Grier’s PI boyfriend, Jason Bernard as a schemer Ted Lange as a pimp and Jim Backus as the Evil White Mastermind. “Sex is on the male mind every other minute … and on the female mind every other second.”

Normally when a movie trailer promotes T&A as much as STACEY (1973) I assume that’s all the movie has to recommend it. As it turns out, this is pretty good as a low-budget PI thriller with Anne Randall (whose impressive T&A are displayed quite a bit) as the gumshoe (happily a very competent one) hired to check out a wealthy widow’s potential heirs. What she finds includes adultery, homosexuality, group sex and of course, murder. Fun, though the ending chase feels like padding at times. “Never trust anyone you haven’t been sleeping with for a while.”

INCENDIES (2010) is a French/Canadian film in which an Arab immigrant’s will denies her adult children the right to put up a gravestone until they find the brother they didn’t know they had and the father they thought was dead. Investigating, the daughter learns about their mother’s past as a pacifist idealist, an angry terrorist, a torture victim and a heroic prisoner (“They call her the woman who sings.”) and where the rest of their family is hiding. Very good. “Childhood is a knife stuck in your throat.”

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Films that made an impression: the second five posters

Following up on last week’s post about movies that made an impression, for various reasons:

There was nothing like Blazing Saddles (1974)when it came out and I was flabbergasted. A mainstream movie that had that much profanity? And dirty jokes? To say nothing of dealing with race, and in a comedy no less. Not to mention just nuts in so many ways. As if that wasn’t enough, I first saw it at a friend’s house on a cable channel that was — get this — devoted to showing nothing but current movies, all uncut. My god, what an amazing development in TV!

Like Star Wars in the previous post, Casablanca (1942) had me walking around in a daze after I saw it (a showing while I was in college). An amazing movie with an all-star cast, a great theme song, drama, Nazis and some incredible lines of dialog (“I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”). Still one of my all-time favorites; I have that poster on my wall.

I never saw any blacksploitation movies when they were showing on the big screen (they were at the drive-in, I didn’t have a car) but I caught the trailer for Friday Foster (1975) on TV and immediately crushed on Pam Grier. She was probably my first big-screen crush (I had quite a few from TV) and while the movie isn’t her best from that era (I think I’d pick Coffy), it is a lot of fun. And Grier, as a news photographer, is just as stunning as she looked in the trailer.

1968’s The Yellow Submarine was a mindblowing experience (again, one I didn’t go through until college). The absolutely wild pop art animation was stylistically unlike anything else I’d seen in animation, throwing in weird stuff purely for the sake of weird (this is a plus). The score is, of course, awesome, and I think those guys they had in the lead have some real potential as singers.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) was a movie that just left me glowing with its warmth and affection for humanity, and it’s belief that just being a good person matters. I remember after seeing it I went and found one of my friends and just hugging her and telling her how much I liked her because I was just overflowing with warmth for other people. It’s not one I can watch every Christmas the way I do some, but it’s a really charming movie.

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Librarians, Dungeons and Dragons, mad science and cartoons: movies and TV

The fourth and final season of THE LIBRARIANS has the team coping with not only a new wave of magical threats but the need to tether the Library to reality (a ritual that will put more responsibility on Flynn than he’s ready for) and the return of Flynn’s original Guardian, Nicole (from the first Librarian TV movie, Quest for the Spear), immortal and very pissed off. The usual fun, though while the ending (involving banishing the Library and the dystopia that results) was good, it wasn’t great (possibly because I’ve seen too many stories where a last minute bit of time travel resolves everything). “They say you can kill a man but not an idea — but I did just that, I killed the idea of the Library!”

Right-wing Christian Jack Chick became legendary for his bizarre “Chick Tracts,” comic strips showing how watching Dark Shadows or playing Dungeons and Dragons would damn your soul to Hell. The short film DARK DUNGEONS (2014) is a comedy fantasy that takes the latter premise literally: two nice young Christian college women are seduced into playing D&D (“People have tried to get those RPGers off campus, but they’re just too popular!”), after which one of them turns to Satanism to get real magical power while the other snaps under the strain. Fun, but the elements it adds to the original don’t all work, from errors (clerics don’t cast magic missile) to making Debbie as ignorant about Christianity in the end bit as she was in the Tract, even though she’s now written as Christian. And throwing Cthulhu into the mix felt like they didn’t have enough faith in their premise. Still, I did enjoy this. “I am proud to announce that more people have decided to become homosexuals this year than ever before!”

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) didn’t lighten the purging phase of colonoscopy prep as much as I expected so I didn’t laugh as much as I usually do. Still, it’s never a waste of time to watch Frankenstein descendant Gene Wilder reanimate dead flesh, Marty Feldman robbing a brain depository (“It was someone called … Abby Normal.”), Teri Garr showing off her knockers (it may show a generational gap that while I think of this as her big role, TYG thought of Mr. Mom), Cloris Leachman gets outed as Victor’s ex (“He was my — boyfriend!”), Peter Boyle tap dances and Richard Haydn and Kenneth Mars round out the cast. “Tonight we shall hurl the gauntlet of science into the frightful face of death itself!”

THE TOP 10 FORGOTTEN CARTOONS OF ALL TIME doesn’t live up to its billing; the cartoons are perfectly entertaining, but they’re not better than lots of other obscure ‘toons I’ve seen (as four of them come from the 1930s Rainbow Parade series, I wonder if rights to that series influenced what was picked). Still, I did enjoy watching a rabbit trying to wear out a hound dog the night before a hunt, honeymoon couples going “Dancing on the Moon,” an RCMP-clad Cupid uniting two squabbling neighbors, the Toonerville Trolley comic strip coming to life and the rough-hewn mutt Dog Face protesting against being a pampered pet. The weakest was probably the one I was most interested in, Ub Iwerks’ (Disney’s partner in Walt’s early career) “Happy Days,” about a group of kids going fishing. “If he’s a real burglar, I’m Seabiscuit — wait, I am Seabiscuit!”

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Posters for memorable movies

You may have seen or participated in the Facebook meme where someone calls on you to post posters for 10 movies that made an impression on you. I was tagged by a friend, so I figured I’d replicate my list for the blog.

Captain Blood (1935) was the movie that sparked my interest in old films. Based on the Rafael Sabatini novel (which is even better) it has doctor Errol Flynn falsely convicted for an uprising against James II, transported to the brutal life of a plantation worker in the Caribbean, then leading a breakout to become a pirate captain.It’s a glorious swashbuckler that established Flynn as a star. I’ll never forget watching it on the big screen in college and hearing a gasp sweep through the audience when we got a closeup of him smiling into the camera.

I caught Crack in the World (1965) during college vacation. Years later I remembered it as an apocalyptic film, a disaster movie on a global scale. Rewatching in my twenties, I discovered it was drawing-room SF, or more precisely board room SF: the end of the world (a botched attempt at tapping Earth’s core as a power source starts ripping the planet in two) appears second-hand, as Dana Andrews and his worried colleagues sit around a conference table watching stock footage of ruined cities. The romantic triangle (Andrews/younger wife Janette Scott/colleague Kieron Moore) is given at least as much screen time as any actual world saving. So the film taught me that my memories aren’t always accurate, which is why I always try to watch movies for my film books, if I can.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) shows how society’s perception of old movies can be just as misguided. John Wayne’s name embodies military heroism and right-wing “pro-American” attitudes in movies (I’ve known people who think Wayne himself embodies military heroism even though he opted to stay in Hollywood rather than enlist). Here, Wayne is certainly heroic as a career Marine but the movie portrays him as a dumb lug completely unfitted for civilian life; John Agar, who’s going to serve for the duration of the war, then return home and get out of uniform, is unambiguously the type of man America needs, not career soldiers. It’s a great movie (except the ever-talentless Agar) but if it was made today, people would be shrieking about how it disrespected the troops.

I saw Ball of Fire (1941) in college and it launched me on a lifelong crush of Barbara Stanwyck (I watched it again recently and it holds up well). She’s tough, no-nonsense, flirtatious, beautiful and probably won’t be any less so even after she falls in love with Gary Cooper (or whoever). She wasn’t my first movie crush, but she’s one of the top ones.

I walked out of 1977’s Star Wars in a daze, as did everyone I saw it with (a large group — we’d all heard it was something special). From the moment the Imperial destroyer appears on screen and keeps appearing (it was so. damn. big) there’s not a moment when I felt bored or uninterested. Great special effects, a fun pulp story, a classic villain with James Earl Jones’ voice, what’s not to love? I certainly kept loving it the seven or eight times (maybe more) I saw it in the theater over the next few months. And the last time I watched it, it was still awesome. And no, it will never be A New Hope to me.

The remaining five next week.

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A prophet and a showman: movies viewed

A PROPHET (2009) is a French-Italiam film in which an Arab (Tahar Rahim) stuck in prison for six years becomes the gofer for a Corsican kingpin who values his skills (his first task is to kill another prisoner) but still treats him like shit. Slowly, though, the protagonist begins to learn the system and, as he gets more responsibility, build a network of his own, leading to an inevitable confrontation. This is a good, absorbing crime drama, though not quite what I was in the mood for when I watched it. “I like porn set in castles better.”

MATINEE (1993) is a film I absolutely love, and firmly believed I had on DVD, so when I realized I didn’t, I ordered it. John Goodman plays producer Laurence Woolsey (based on William Castle, a hack movie maker but a genius at promotion), who’s premiering his new movie Mant! (“Half man — half ant — all terror! Filmed in Atomovision!) in Key West in 1962  in hopes of attracting a national distributor. Everyone in town is freaking out over the Russians having missiles in Cuba that could blow them to kingdom come, but Woolsey figures that’s just the thing to get his movie more attention. Meanwhile local teens including military brat Gene Loomis, nervous buddy Omri Katz, an anti-war Lisa Jakub (“You’ll puke up your internal organs!”), and sexually experienced Sherry Harris all work out their own dramas. The adult cast includes Cathy Moriarty as Woolsey’s star actor, Robert Picardo as a theater owner, Jesse White as a distributor and Kevin McCarthy as Mant‘s “General Ankrum” (referring to veteran SF movie actor Morris Ankrum, a joke I made myself in Atoms for Peace). “I feel I should warn you that the story of Mant! is based on scientific fact.”

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Samurai and lovers: movies viewed

SANJURO (1962) is Akira Kurosawa’s riff on his previous film Yojimbo. Once again, Toshiro Mifune plays a ronin who stumbles into a power struggles, in this case between the wise leader of the local samurai clan and scheming underlings plotting to take over. This time, though, the disgruntled, constantly crabbing Sanjuro sides with the good guys on the principle that the idealistic samurai supporting their lord will get themselves killed otherwise. A good film, with a great performance by Mifune, who steals every scene he’s in.“I dislike saying this after you so kindly rescued us, but killing is a bad habit.”

Despite some admiring reviews BLUE VALENTINE (2014) was too much an aimless slice of life to work for me — as Leonard Maltin put it, the scenes are good, but the film is less than the sum of its parts. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a dysfunctional couple who married in starry-eyed haste and in the present are repenting at leisure; both leads give great performances but that didn’t keep me watching. “In your dream where I’m doing what I really like, what would that be?”

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