Tag Archives: reviews

Fuck(ing) (Kidding) Me, Ray Bradbury

January 22, 2012

Aside from an absolutely stellar half-page advertisement on page 59, the new issue of Cemetery Dance magazine contains a fascinating — albeit what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-him — interview with Ray Bradbury.  It’s only one page, though, and only covers the legendary science fiction author’s thoughts on one topic, and it appears to be excerpted from a longer piece.

Subtitled “We Have Too Many Inventions!” the article is still remarkable in many respects.  The most noteworthy is that nowhere does Bradbury reveal his thoughts on Rachel Blooms’s music video, “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury,” and whether he took her up on her offer.  No, it’s solely about his opinions on eBooks.  You would think that a science fiction writer would be especially forward-thinking on anything having to do with the blossoming of new technology.

Here, the 91-year-old author lapses into curmudgeonry when asked if eBooks are the future of reading.

Ray Bradbury: Absolutely not.  Three different groups have called me during the last three weeks.  I had another offer last week from a big company back East.  But my response was, “Prick up your ears, and go to hell.”  That was my response.

You see, Bradbury explains, eBooks don’t smell good.  Sure, they’re good for looking at “a lot of books in a single day,” but they’re not a link to history, like printed books are.

This is a classic example of an older generation’s failure to adjust to a new technology.  I expect that when I’m Bradbury’s age, I’ll have a similar problem with virtual reality mind melds or whatever my grandchildren are doing.  I’m already having to defer to others when it comes to operating my home theater.

Still, I think Bradbury and others like him are off base.  Sure, printed books have their place in our culture and across the entire lower story of my house, and I agree with him that they always will.  But from my limited experience with my wife’s Kindle, I have to admit I sure like reading on it.  So far, I’ve used it to read a couple Charlaine Harris novels, plus Suzanne Collins’s wonderful The Hunger Games trilogy, and I’ve proofread the eBook editions of my own Blood Born and Eyes Everywhere.

Does the Kindle give me the same tactile and olfactory experience as Earthling Publications’ signed, limited, slipcased The Very Best of Best New Horror?  No, but that book is also a doorstop.  When I’m following my two year old from room to room, cleaning smeared Play Doh off furniture, I would rather have a lightweight e-reader in my hand.  Not only that, but — bonus! — I can enlarge the text to give my pre-myopic eyes a rest.  Turning pages is as easy as the flick of a button, and unfortunately for impulse control, so is buying new books.

Part of the disconnect here is that all printed books are being conflated with collectible books.  Signed, limited editions on high-quality paper with leather bindings and slipcases and other cool things like artist remarques have their place.  I’m not knocking them or the people who collect them.  But just because some books are as valuable for their packaging as they are for their content, it doesn’t follow that all books not on paper are worthless.

To me, a book is only a vessel for what it contains.  The story, the information, and the resultant telepathy with the author are what makes a book special and not the paper it’s printed on.  So it’s disappointing that someone who has spoken as eloquently as Ray Bradbury has about the zen of storytelling doesn’t feel the same way.

Looking Through the Rain

October 11, 2011

Death is a temporary madness.  A madness that stops life within us and around us.  . . .  We are held captive in a sad, empty pause.

Looking Through the Rain by Duane HahnDuane Hahn wrote these words in his final book, Looking Through the Rain, which he finished the same day he died, on February 3rd of this year.  Duane was a friend of mine through the local theatrical community, and I had the honor of helping his executor, Michael Waltz, prepare the book for publication.  (Please buy a copy.)

The book is a philosophical memoir and travelogue in the vein of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  It recounts Duane’s adventures with a series of beloved dogs as they come into and out of his life.

In hindsight, it’s easy to be struck by the spooky prescience of passages like the one I quoted above.  The horror writer in me can’t help but linger over his puzzlement at the portentous things he witnessed in the month before he died: a dog with three legs, a family of cows mourning a dead one in a field, and news reports about dead birds dropping from the sky.

But that’s not what the book is about.  Looking Through the Rain is actually an ode to Duane’s love of life as taught to him by his dogs.  And that’s what the title is a reference to.  Duane tells a story about sitting on his porch during a terrific rain storm, worrying about potential flooding, power outages, and insurance claims.  His Jack Russell terrier, Teddy, couldn’t care less.  Seeing a bird, Teddy gives chase through the storm.  “I think I am being taught something by my damp pup,” Duane observes.  Pets like Teddy are compulsive and live for the moment, while “People think and plan.”

The book is full of anecdotes like this, but somehow the author avoids becoming saccharine.  The presentation is often as playful as his pets, everything from how chapter titles are capitalized to its indulgence in jokes.  My favorite chapter is “DoGs versus PeOpLe,” a 27-point list why dogs make better traveling companions than people.  Dogs “do not have to take time to decide what to wear and are happy about it.”  Dogs “do not have a schedule and are happy about it,” and dogs “do not have to be entertained; they entertain themselves cheaply and are happy about it.”

At other times, Duane comes right out and preaches — and these are the passages I’ve been rereading.  A dog, he writes, goes through life without worries, and so should we because there’s often nothing we can do about those worries.  “It has always bothered me that people worry,” Duane writes.  “I think it is a word that should be eliminated.  But then I and others might worry about that.”

I’m not the only one who thinks Duane was someone special.  His funeral was absolutely packed, and in many ways the event was a testament to his sense of humor.  Ever the theater director, Duane couldn’t resist the chance to plan this one final production — I can just hear him saying, “If I can’t avoid it, I might as well direct it” — so he left behind a detailed set of instructions about who would speak and what what songs they would perform.  (You can still watch it online.)

I also owe Duane a debt of gratitude.  Back when I was shopping my stage play “Pirate Appreciation Day” around, Duane was one of the only people who took the time to write me back.  That was in late January.  He said the play was very funny and that I should present it directly to the board of the Waynesboro Players, the local theatrical company through whom we met.  I wouldn’t have gone before the board and proposed a reading to present the play to them if Duane hadn’t pushed me, saying, “Don’t worry; I’ll be there supporting you.”  As it was, he was gone by the time I made that presentation, but I feel like he was there supporting me anyway.  And now, thanks to him, the Waynesboro Players will premiere it this winter.

I’m glad I could give a small repayment to Duane by helping out on his final book.  Looking Through the Rain is a bittersweet reflection on the life of a special person shared with some very special pets.  Its beautiful cover illustration by Cortney Skinner is alone worth the cover price, but it is what’s between the covers that makes it an edifying read whether or not you knew Duane personally.


Why are Boring Youtube Videos Popular?

September 17, 2011

When you’re the stay-at-home parent of a 2 year old, you do a lot of things to keep your kid entertained — like watch Youtube videos.  In the course of searching for Elmo, Fireman Sam, and others, I’ve come across a lot of boring crap that has received literally millions of views.

Take for instance this one of a guy with a miniature excavator.  Boring!  But it has still received 2.7 million views:

Then there’s this pointless one of a woman going down a slip ‘n’ slide.  Over 3 million views:

Or how about this shaky-cam video of a horse walking along a fence?  Absolutely nothing happens.  As far as I can tell, it only received 1.7 million views because it’s titled RETARDED HORSE:

This astounds me. The popularity of reality television (a.k.a. the Parade of American Trash) at least makes sense because those shows are like pornography, except instead of titillating us with sex, they do so with stupidity. But these Youtube videos, of which I’ve given only a small sample, have nothing going for them whatsoever.

Some are no doubt getting repeat views from 2 year olds. Owen is a big fan of DOG vs. WATER BALLOONS, (3.6 million views).

I admit to some sour grapes here. The three cinematic trailers for Blood Born filmed last year were the product of months of hard work, and I think (in my thoroughly unbiased opinion) that their production values are a couple steps above the retarded mini-horse video. And yet only one of them has broken a thousand views so far. Maybe instead of giving them such stellar titles as “Blood Born Trailer #3,” I should’ve called them “Scary Monster.”

The Crimes of Jordan Wise

May 10, 2011

After my reaction to “Limitless” and now this novel by Bill Pronzini, The Crimes of Jordan Wise (Walker &  Company, 2006), I’m worried that I’m becoming a prissy moralist in my watching and reading tastes.  Maybe it’s because the way this year is playing out, or maybe it’s because I’ve been a prissy moralist all along.

Jordan Wise, our first-person narrator, is a boring accountant in the 1970s who does something daring to impress his girlfriend: he embezzles over $600,000 from his firm, changes his identity to “Richard Laidlaw,” and moves to the Virgin Islands.  He takes his girlfriend, Annalise, along, and they begin living the high life, residing in an expensive villa, playing handball and sailing with rich white folk, and taking trips abroad.

That’s, like, the first half of the book.

“Why the hell am I reading this?” I kept asking myself.  Because a good friend recommended it?  Well, yeah, that, and the book is short (just 231 pages), and the prose has a nice flow to it.  And that’s my judgment of the overall writing: the word-for-word technique is very well done.  No dialogue bugaboos, irritating grammar, or high-flown vocabulary to throw me out of the story.  That’s no small feat in the writing world, because so many writers can’t do that.

No, my problem was with the story and the characters.

I kept waiting for the setup to end and the story to begin.  We’ve read a dry, blow-by-blow account of how he executed crime number one and moved to the Virgins.  They’re living the high life, and they don’t have any moral qualms about what they’ve done.  Great!  Where’s the story?

Oh, okay.  Here it comes.  Annalise just took off because Jordan/Richard just wants to work on his sailboat all the time and not kowtow to her every expensive whim.  Now, she’s hooked up with some dude from New York who has come back to extort money from Jordan/Richard, so now Jordan/Richard has to murder him and hide his body in a French cemetery.  That’s crime number two.

Again, no qualms on the narrator’s part.  He just kills the guy and goes on with his life.  Dum de dum.

But now here comes Annalise, and oh, watch out!  She’s in full gold-digging mode.  She doesn’t have any of the money left she stole from Jordan/Richard, and she wants to fuck her way back into his heart.  Except he’s impotent now.  Ha!  Take that, you shallow bitch!  And now here comes the doozy: Jordan/Richard just drugged your ass with valium and alcohol, and you’re dead!  Wrapped in a spare sail, weighted, and on your way to the bottom of the ocean!

No qualms on the narrator’s part.  Dum de dum.  Oh, he says he has a moral code he follows, and he was just doing what he did in self defense.  Okay, that part’s interesting: “I’m not a murderer!” he protests, sounding like the crazy person he is, but alas, the lunatic monologue is confined to a brief page or two, and we’re back to the dry recitation of how-I-did-this and how-I-did-that.

Well, there is one minor character arc, and if there’s any point to this book, then it would be here — that, by the end, Jordan/Wise is an alcoholic who’s lost all passion for life, who doesn’t like to sail anymore, who’s lost his best friend (because of suspicion regarding the final crime), and who’s impotent.

And did I mention that this is a frame story?  Oh, yeah.  This is all just one big tell-all to a writer who’s sitting in a bar with Jordan/Richard, preparatory to the release of a memoir before dying of alcoholism.  Inexplicably, Jordan/Richard proclaims at the end, “It was worth it and I’d do it all again if I had the chance.”

Sigh.  It’s a beautifully written story, as I said: the descriptions are lush and detailed, the prose flies off the page like champagne, smooth without being too heavy.  But the story and its characters ultimately don’t have a soul, and neither does this book.

Maybe I feel this way because I’m a horror writer — or I’m a horror writer because I feel this way.  I’m not religious, so I need my world view about the natural order to be reinforced by harsh, judgmental stories that not only delve into the darkest depths of human nature but which also affirm those things about life that make it worth living.  Teach me something about life — show me despair, heroism, and triumph.  Don’t give me a story that amounts to nothing more than a big shrug.

‘Limitless’ a Soulless Pro-Drug Thriller

April 3, 2011

== Spoilers ahead ==

Limitless made for a fun, Friday-night romp, but ten minutes after leaving the movie theater, I realized its plot relied on idiotic coincidences and presented a disturbing, pro-drug message.  It’s too bad, really, that the writing was so questionable, because the acting and cinematography were quite strong.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a struggling, non-household-name writer who nevertheless has been paid an advance on a book he hasn’t written yet.  (Okaaay, but we’ll let that one go for the moment.)  Just when he’s about to drain down the toilet of despair, an old friend introduces him to NZT, a drug that allows him to utilize his brain’s full potential.  You know the old wive’s tale, of course: we mortals are cursed to only use a small fraction of our brain cells because the rest of it is preoccupied with things like pornography.  But NZT, the wonder drug, allows Eddie to fire up his full 100 percent.  Suddenly, he can place his order with a waiter in a foreign language; and gee, we’ve never ever seen that in a movie before.  He finishes his novel in four days — four days! — as computer-generated letters and numbers rain down upon him and his word processor to show us the miracle of this manna-from-heaven intelligence.

Soon, he makes a killing on the stock market and meets the financial world’s godfather, played by Robert De Niro, whose name, Carl Van Loon, is surely coincidental to the character’s being a loon.  Eddie’s ex-girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish), falls in love with this new persona and rewards him with sex.

Eddie also makes a killing in the form of a Courtney Love lookalike whom he murders during a drug-induced blackout.  So he uses his money to hire a high-rolling defense lawyer who — coincidentally! — works for Carl Van Loon’s arch-nemesis, who employs a psycho henchman who — coincidentally! — has been following Eddie around all this time.

More hijinks ensue.  The cameraman goes crazy with a continuous-zoom effect that travels the length of Manhattan island and ends up sprayed all over the seat in front of me.  Eddie beats his murder rap, the Loon is outsmarted, Eddie is on the road to the presidency, and he flawlessly orders another meal in a foreign language he doesn’t know.

And did I mention that the movie starts at the very climax of the story until Eddie jumps in as a voiceover to say that he’ll now show us how he arrived at this point?

What’s most disturbing about this movie is that it validates the drug culture.  It shows, again and again, that we’re not smart enough or athletic enough to solve our problems without pills.  Eddie is rewarded, repeatedly, for his habit: he becomes rich, he gets the girl back, he gets away with murder, and he’s set onto the road of “limitless” fame and fortune.

Oh, he says he’s off the drug by the end of the movie — he doesn’t need it anymore — presumably because he just thought his way out of it with his advanced intelligence.  After all, that’s what Charlie Sheen teaches us, isn’t it, that you can just blink your eyes and tap your ruby slippers to cure yourself of substance abuse.  Even if you believe that’s possible — and I hope by my tone you realize I don’t — Eddie’s drug-free status at the end of the movie doesn’t justify how he arrived there, which was by traveling the road of pharmaceutical assistance.

Limitless is a slick-looking movie.  It’s mostly fun to watch.  But it’s kind of like a big candy bar — maybe one laced with LSD.  The side effects and the bad aftertaste aren’t worth it.


February 17, 2011

It’s been a while since I posted in this blog, so I thought I’d alert anyone following this that I’m still alive. Which brings me to today’s first imponderable: are blogs still relevant, or has the nature of online ramblings “evolved” (cough, cough) into short mental burps, like what we’re used to on a Facebook status or a Twitter tweet? Have our attention spans been amputated?

Feel free respond here or on Facebook, where I often repost these messages. (That is, if your attention span has carried you through this far.) This isn’t an idle question, as I’m a practitioner of much, much longer forms of ramblings.

Meanwhile, it’s been a coon’s age since I’ve read anything I’ve really liked. If you glance at the Goodreads widget on my biography page, you’ll see that I’ve been finishing books less frequently and rating them more harshly. Either my tastes are changing, or there’s something wrong with me; I mean, only two stars out of five for Something Wicked This Way Comes? (An overwritten piece of treacle, by the way, but there you have it.) I don’t have much time to read, and what I’ve read lately is sapping my interest. Somebody rescue me with a good suggestion!

You Know, When Snape Kills Dumbledore

August 22, 2010

Fucking USA Weekend magazine. Fuck them to hell!

Excuse me. Let me explain.

Dexter season 5 has just started on Showtime, which means that the season 4 DVD box set just arrived in my mailbox. I’ve been very excited to see it; Showtime’s series about the serial killer who only kills other murderers has really sunk its teeth into my head. My only regret about it is that since I don’t subscribe to Showtime, I have to wait one year for them to release the DVD box set.

The word on the street is that there’s a huge, as in, G-A-R-G-A-N-T-U-A-N, earth-shattering change at the end of season 4. So I’ve been very careful to avoid reading all things Dexter. A friend in nearby Crozet said to avoid Entertainment Weekly magazine, whose article about Dexter apparently spoils the season 4 finale in its headline.

Deena and I have been meticulously careful.  When the Horror Homemaker Apron Hall of Fame posted our silly Dexter homage picture and I needed to test the link to the Dexter homepage for the caption, I clicked on the link only long enough to see the show name appear in the title bar of my browser before closing it up again.  When Deena’s brother Ricky posted the season 5 trailer on her Facebook wall, we elected not to watch it.  Ricky, by the way, is the same guy who uttered the fateful phrase to me, “You know, when Snape kills Dumbledore,” a year before the release of the Harry Potter movie in which that happens.  (Yes, I’m the one person in existence who hasn’t actually read the Harry Potter novels and who would rather watch the movies.  Maybe I’m gun shy about drowning in J.K. Rowling’s Tom-Swiftie dialogue technique.)

So, anyway (you know where I’m going with this, don’t you?), immediately upon receiving the box set, we popped the first DVD into the player and watched the first two episodes.  Magnificent.  Moving.  Can’t wait to watch the rest.

Fast forward a couple days to this morning.  My one-year-old son woke me up at 6:45.  Yesterday, we removed the bumpers from his crib on the theory that he doesn’t need them anymore, but it wasn’t until this morning that I discovered this action had exposed an electrical socket bristling with plugs, and the plugs were within reach of my son.  When the lights came on, Owen saw where my gaze went and immediately lunged for the plugs to play with them.  My stomach did a barrel roll as I pulled him away.  (We’ve since blocked that section of wall with a piece of plywood.)

When I left his room, I went down the hall to un-block the cat door.  Moody last night killed a rabbit and dumped it in our bathroom, so before bed I dumped the rabbit and the cat outside and blocked the door so they couldn’t come back in.  Percy went outside too — and I think it was probably Percy who violated that poor bunny’s corpse, the remains of which I found just outside the door this morning.  My stomach did another barrel roll as I picked up the door mat the guts were lying on and watched them slurp into a garbage bag.

Back inside, Deena was fixing pancakes.  Owen was whining about something, but I was determined to have a good breakfast.  I opened up the newspaper and pulled out the Sunday morning copy of the USA Weekend magazine.  Drew Barrymore was on the front cover worrying about what she’s going to do with “the second half” of her life.  Oh, please.

I turned the page, and on the inside was a picture of Michael C. Hall, who plays Dexter, in the Q&A section.  The question was how he’s recovering from cancer.  I was interested in this question, especially since the lead actress in my movie received phone calls on set from entertainment reporters digging for information on this very topic.  (She, admirably, kept her mouth shut.)

I didn’t even think about the potential of a Dexter season 4 spoiler in the article, nor do I think I should have.  It was about the man’s cancer, for godsakes.  And yet, there it was, a parenthetical aside that blows the whole finale.  My stomach did its final barrel roll, and I couldn’t finish my meal.

Why do they do this?  Do some writers just have an insatiable need to show how hip they are?  Is it that they want the satisfaction of sharing some juicy bit of gossip with you?  What are they thinking — that if you don’t have Showtime on your cable box that you’re not important?  “You’re assuming that these people think,” Deena said when we discussed this.

There should be a statute of limitations on spoilers.  Not until the DVD box set has been out for at least two weeks should writers be allowed to blab.  I have a whole line of friends waiting to be loaned Dexter season 4 once Deena and I are done with it.  God help them.

BEA, Writers’ Egos, and Other Stuff

May 30, 2010

Just got back from BookExpo America on Friday, and my head is swimming. Here are some reactions, in no particular order:

  • Holy.  Crap.  That was a lot of people under one roof.  (200,000+)
  • It was nice to see lots of stuff designed by Deena on display, such as the Constellation logo and website in the Perseus Books booth:

    More pictures at the DWDLLC 5/27/10 blog entry.
  • Every time I talk to Matt Schwartz of Random house, it’s like attending a master’s class on publishing.  Wow, does he know a lot of stuff.
  • The timing of Garrison Keillor’s latest column, “Missing the heydey of books,” is ironic.  “Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea,” he writes.  Because of vanity presses, the future of publishing is “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”  He has a point, but Jesus Christ, I think what I saw at BookExpo shows that there’s some kick left in the industry.  If the Horror Writers Association spent $6,000 for a booth the size of my shed, then I can only imagine what Simon & Schuster spent for a booth the size of my house.  If the industry were about to slide into the sea, I doubt anyone would be spending so freely.
  • Speaking of the Horror Writers Association, the HWA is pretty damn lucky to have Vince Liaguno on its side.  Besides being a good publisher and a very nice man, he’s extremely hard working and dedicated.  One of his ideas is to open up the Stoker Awards banquet to the general public to attend it (provided they buy admission, of course).  It’s a great idea and the kind of thing the HWA should do to up its profile.

When I got home, I caught up on things like finishing the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel, which unfortunately really didn’t get going until the last three chapters, and cheering that another webzine has interviewed me about Blood Born.  I also played my latest video game purchase, Alan Wake, which tells the story of a horror writer suffering from writer’s block who has gone on sabbatical to the Pacific Northwest.  While there, his wife goes missing, and he battles mysterious shadow men as he searches for her, along the way finding manuscript pages of a novel he doesn’t remember writing.

Alan Wake has a great premise and is beautifully executed, but I have to say I am extremely displeased with the character himself.  Alan Wake, the person, is an asshole.  From the very beginning, he’s full of the “oh, I’m such a famous writer, and I wish the public would just leave me alone” movie star angst.  He blows up at his wife when she encourages him to use their vacation as a time to conquer his writer’s block.

The worst was the scene I just played last night, when he’s in the sheriff’s department, conferring about his missing wife.  A pop psychologist who specializes in writer’s block enters the station for presumably some unrelated reason, and Alan attacks him.  Alan knows that this is the doctor whom his wife wanted him to see, and he assumes that the doctor has something to do with her disappearance.  Maybe he’s right; I haven’t played far enough to find out.   But a few things about this cut scene especially bother me.  First, why would anyone get up in somebody else’s face and punch him out for no apparent reason?  (And why would any self-respecting sheriff, who watches this transpire in her police station, right in front of her, fail to arrest him on the spot?  The game’s realism went right out the window there.) Worse, Alan’s literary agent, Barry Wheeler (named because he’s a wheeler dealer, I suppose), suddenly storms into the police station, screaming and swaggering as if he’s some high-blown Hollywood lawyer, which he’s not, and pulls his client out of there.

I could forgive this if I believed the game’s writers knew they were setting up Alan Wake as an asshole.  Maybe their plan was to give him a character arc so that he’s a humble, nice guy by the end of the story.  But I suspect that that’s not the case.  I have this niggling thread of doubt that we’re supposed to be on Alan’s side, sympathizing with him because his wife has disappeared–particularly since we’re using our Xbox 360 controllers to puppet him through the story.  So, basically what I have here is an unsympathetic protagonist whom I care little about, which discourages me from continuing through the game.

The character of Alan Wake particularly bothers me because I’ve known writers like him, and I simply don’t understand how a writer can act that way.  I scrape and work hard for every fan and positive review I get.  I’m grateful when an editor thinks highly enough of my writing to publish my work.  When someone tells me he’s read my stuff and liked it, or asks me for an autograph, I’m thankful for the validation that I haven’t wasted my time writing that story: that my creation was worthy of spending some time in somebody else’s head.  That’s the way writers should be–not these angsty, self-absorbed assholes who think they’re very smart and clever and wonderful when they’re really not.

The writers of Alan Wake did themselves a great disservice when they wrote their character to be a Hollywood-style figure of arrogance.  And Garrison Keillor needs to stop griping like an old man lamenting the Good ‘Ole Days, even if that’s what he is.  They all need to attend the next BookExpo and inject themselves with a little bit of humility and a little bit of hope–because most of the time, as a working writer, that’s all you have to power you through the day.

G.I. Junk

December 5, 2009

As a writer, it’s always instructive to watch a poorly written movie and to analyze what went wrong.

Oh, maybe I’m being too hard on last summer’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a retelling of the cartoon I enjoyed as a kid, which itself was a rehash of an older entertainment franchise.  I mean, I did say to Deena, “Let’s watch something mindless,” and I got what I wanted.

Still, I can’t help wondering if the movie makers intended for me to burst out laughing the first time the Baroness walks onto the screen looking like Sarah Palin in a skin suit.  Nor can I help wondering if, when the movie was finished, I was supposed to admit that I couldn’t remember the main character’s name.

Somewhere between the underwater space battle, the ninja swordfight over the pit of crackling electrical arcs, and the evil doctor talking through a mask, I finally realized that this movie aspired to be Star Wars and failed miserably.  And I think the problem can be summed up in one elementary topic of story craft: character development.  Sure, I believe the original Star Wars had lots of revolutionary special effects for the time, and that’s what all of us kids buzzed about as we ran around our lawns with our X-Wings making “pew!  pew!” laser gun sounds.  But I also remember being fascinated with the character dynamics.  By the end of Star Wars, I felt like I knew Luke, Han, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and C-3PO as well as members of my own family.  I never forgot their names.  Interest in where these characters were headed (and, of course, the cool special effects) brought me back for The Empire Strikes Back sequel. When the simulated space battles on the front lawn were done for the day, we sat down for long philosophical discussions about Darth Vader’s revelation that he was Luke’s father.

G.I. Joe had all the ingredients of a great story like Star Wars, but they were undercooked and underseasoned.  The writers tried to establish character dynamics through the use of flashbacks rather than to let the present story do the work.  Characters contrivedly addressed each other by their names (“yes, we will work on that next, Storm Shadow”) so the audience would learn those (corny) names and/or connect them to their previous cartoon incarnations rather than to let this information come out more naturally.

The cinematography didn’t help.  The frenetic, herky-jerky camera work made me nauseous at the same time that it prevented me from even understanding what was going on.  You don’t need to move and shake the camera to film a good fight scene, you really don’t, not unless the actors are so bereft of athleticism that you need to cover up their shortcomings.  (Yes, I’m talking to you, David Carradine, in the latter years of Kung Fu.)  Please, just pan back a little, and let me follow the action like a normal human being and not like someone flipping through comic book panels in fast motion.  Also, it’s okay, really it is, to let a single camera angle last for more than two seconds.  I won’t get bored, I promise.

Maybe I’m just getting old.  Maybe I should just pull up the A&E channel and watch a black-and-white adventure story from the 1940s.  The characterizations in those are usually outstanding.  And because the directors no doubt were raised in the theater, the camera angles are always a good ten feet away from the subject, as if to film the events on a stage.  (The actors always shouted their lines, too, so those of us the back of the movie theater could hear.  Yes, I admit some things have improved in movie-making.)

Sigh.  If only Hollywood would hire me.

BBC’s “Being Human”

August 4, 2009

It sounds like the setup to a joke: a werewolf, a vampire, and a ghost all move in together . . .

Except, it’s really the pitch to a new BBC television series, Being Human. And what’s more, it’s not a comedy. It’s a down-and-dirty urban fantasy that’s quite dark — and quite welcome. Deena and I stumbled across it a couple weeks ago while cruising through the free on-demand offerings of our cable TV provider. (Readers take note: yes, I actually just paid a compliment to Comcast. It won’t happen again, I promise.)

Mitchell is a rockstar-looking vampire who dates back to WW1. He’s made a momentous decision: no longer will he prey upon humans. Except he’s having a hard time fighting his impulses, and, in a bit of poetic justice, is being stalked by the woman he recently turned into a vampire. The local vampire population, headed by a creepy police officer with a thing for hot chocolate, wants to recruit Mitchell into a brewing conspiracy against the humans.

George is an emotional, dorky werewolf. He and Mitchell both work as low-level nurses at the hospital. And like Mitchell, he was turned into a supernatural creature against his will and isn’t too comfortable in his own skin. His biggest problem, as far as I can tell from the first two episodes, is finding a decent place to transform during the full moon. Doing it at home tends to break all the furniture.

And finally, recently deceased Annie has found herself in a world where no one can see or hear her, and where she’s doomed to spend eternity wearing the same ugly gray sweater. She’s insecure and still pines after her old boyfriend. However, now that she’s found she can interact with the physical world, she compulsively makes cups of tea for her roommates.

Yes, I said roommates. You see, these three characters have all decided to move in together into Annie’s old townhouse. (Mitchell and George can see the ghost.) Post-move is where we find ourselves in episode #1. Apparently, an unaired pilot episode with different actors explains how they wound up in this situation.

In its first two episodes, Being Human suffers from a bit of first-draftitis, mainly in its inability to establish clear, understandable rules for its supernatural world. Vampires can walk in daylight, but there’s still some stray dialogue that confuses the issue. The ghost can’t be seen by anyone except for other supernaturals, and, for some reason, the pizza delivery boy. Things like that. But what’s important, the characters and their “humanity,” have been well established in an interesting and compelling way.

It’s worth watching. I’ll be looking forward to this weekend, when the next episode will air on BBC America . . . and then right after that, I’ll tune into HBO for that other addictive urban fantasy series, True Blood.

Yes, I sure am carelessly throwing that “urban fantasy” term around, aren’t I? Tor just released an interesting press release about this sub-genre that raises as many questions as it answers. But I’m starting to get a feel for the landscape. Right now I’m plowing through Carrie Vaughn’s excellent series about a werewolf who hosts a late-night call-in radio program for the supernatural population. The first novel is Kitty and the Midnight Hour and was a fast, enjoyable read.