Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

Bloody Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is golden age, but is she cozy or bloody–hard boiled even? Okay, maybe not hard boiled, but according to a WSJ front page article, Christie staged “some of the world’s grimmest homicides” on paper that were then made bloodless for the screen. New TV productions commissioned by her estate bring back bloody Agatha.

The estate has its  motive (in this crime, if you’re a cozy fan). By 2013, it had adapted nearly every Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot detective novel. “We were kind of staring down the barrel of ‘What do we do now?'”  James Prichard, Christie’s great grandson and chairman of the estate, told WSJ.

This should set off some serious debate (hide the knitting needles and kittens) at Malice Domestic.

Them, Robots

Morgan is a great airplane movie. I had no plans to see it when it came out. My expectations were set quite low on a flight last week. It jumped that low bar and gave me some things to think about. Before the thinking, the movie: things are going mighty wrong in the effort to create a fake human (synth, android, robot, pick your poison). Right at the beginning, synthetic human Morgan, looking about 15, but real age five (she’s a fast grower), stabs a caretaker in the eye.

Things are going to get worse. You can tell. Particularly once we figure out this is a movie trotting out the old trope (or cliche, you choose) about building fake humans (synths, robots) to be soldiers. More precisely, weapons. I won’t ruin the end, in case you’re on plane sometime soon.

My thinking:

  1. An entire category of movies and TV shows would disappear if the imaginary robot/android/synth/fake-life manufacturing industry followed Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. I mean, why would you not put in Law 1? “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The Amazon series “Humans” nods at the law, then walks around it. A character talks about overriding the Asimov protocols in a synth. That. Should. Not. Be. Possible. For a safe society, at least, though boring robot movies.
  2. My next thought, as the movie ground toward its pretty inevitable conclusion, was about how indignant Isaac Asimov was when his laws were not programmed into Hal 9000, the computer aboard the ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was a great exchange between Asimov and 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke, but I can’t find it anywhere on my interwebs. Suffice it to say, Clarke felt he could do what he wanted in his universe. I’ve not read that Asimov protested the hundreds of TV shows and movies after that ignored his Three Laws of Robotics–probably realizing it would do little good. Thus was born a mighty industry making  filmed entertainment about deadly robot-android-synths.
  3. But really, why bother making the movie Morgan when the best film about synthetic human soldiers, Blade Runner, has been around for decades. The banal Morgan dialogue was replaced in my head by Rutger Hauer as Roy, speaking his dying words. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
  4. Credits rolled at the end Morgan, and I got an answer to No. 3.  The director of the film was Todd Scott. I start wondering. Up comes the executive producer, Ridley Scott. Interweb confirms Todd’s the son of the director of Blade Runner. Not only are deadly robot-android-synth movies and shows an industry, they’re a family business.

Old newspaper movies about today’s journalism

I’ve been deep diving into movies about newspapers. There are more than a few. I think I may have found the best. Oddly, it’s one of the oldest. “Five Star Final,”released in 1931, is about the destruction caused by a do-anything-for-circulation tabloid. The competition was tight between that feature and “Deadline – USA,” another black and white picture, though this from 1952. Both include as leads men better known for playing gangsters and good guys during crime films of the noir era. Both portray troubling behavior in the newspaper business that could have happened yesterday.

five star finalEdward G. Robinson is the managing editor in “Five Star Final,” while “Deadline – USA’s” top editor is Humphrey Bogart.

In bad journalistic tradition, I’ll bury the lead and talk about the second-place movie first. In “Deadline – USA,” Ed Hutcheson (Bogie), the editor of the The Day, goes after a mobster for a murder. The only hitch: He has three days until the newspaper will be sold by the family that owns it and closed by a competing publisher. (We call this the Gannett approach.) In a way, it is the more traditional of the two newspaper movies, with its crusading journalist chasing a bad guy. A few things make it better than most of the others I watched. Actual scenes are shot among the printing presses. Most movies cop out and use b-roll or even acquired footage of presses rolling. You’re going to do a newspaper movie, you’ve got to play some scenes in the pressroom.

This happens in “Deadline – USA,” including the death of one character, crushed when he falls into the spinning metal rollers and web of newsprint.

The movie features some good lines from the pressroom.

Bogie tells the gangster Tomas Rienze what’s going to happen from the phone with the presses rolling behind him:

“That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!”

Or maybe I’m just obsessed with printing presses.

In spite of the crusade, The Day is done. The last shot is of Hutcheson reading his paper’s story on the murder as The Day’s neon sign dims and goes out. I can’t leave this film without quoting Hutcheson’s eerily prescient lines on what readers want from newspapers:

“It’s not enough any more to give ’em just news. They want comics, contests, puzzles. They want to know how to bake a cake, win friends and influence the future. Ergo, horoscopes, tips on the horses, interpretation of dreams so they can win on the numbers lottery. And, if they accidentally stumble on the first page… news!”

As dark and realistic as it feels, “Deadline – USA” has nothing on the older “Five Star Final” for portraying the destruction caused by a tabloid paper determined to get a story by any means. New York Evening Gazette managing editor Joseph Randall (Robinson) pursues a woman 20 years after she shot her unfaithful husband and served her time. She’s married, living in anonymity. It’s the day before the wedding of her daughter, who doesn’t know her mother’s past. A reporter poses as a minister to get the mother’s story. The mother, then her husband, commit suicide. Lives are destroyed. I will admit scenes come off as melodramatic in our era of more naturalistic storytelling. But the havoc wreaked by tabloids in search of circulation could, as they say, be ripped from today’s headlines.

The film is based on the stage play by Louis Weitzenkorn, who worked at one of the city’s nasty tabs of the time. That might explain the double-suicide histrionics. Yet the film is dark in a real way. No one at the newspaper, not even Robinson’s character, looks good in this story. Isopod, the reporter who masquerades as a minister to get the story, is played as a real journalistic monster by Boris Karloff, just weeks before the release of “Frankenstein.” How do you like them metaphorical apples?

If you’re into thundering newspaper presses, reporters screaming “get me rewrite” and the disturbing thrill of newspaper people behaving just as badly as they can today, check either film out. As all good oldies, they only run 90 minutes a piece.

I’ll finish with an interesting bit of trivia. “Five Star Final” was remade as “Two Against the World” just five years later. This time, Bogart had Robinson’s role and the setting was switched from a newspaper to a radio station. Storytellers were already considering the destructive power of tabloid journalism when put in the hands of the new broadcast medium. I’m going to have to watch that one.

One old comic book turns into a time machine

519TGRT5JZLI flipped through one 40-year-old comic book the other day and was suddenly reminded of books I’d read and music I’d listened to way back then.

My time trip happened when I rummaged through the small collection of comic books from my youth to find the handful of “Guardians of the Galaxy” books I’d read in 1975. I was curious  to see how they compared with the film. They didn’t. Not at all.

I did find something  more interesting: reminders of other books I’d read, as well as the “lost” Spider-Man rock opera that really should have been the basis of a Broadway show, not that overwrought thing put together by Julie Tamor, Bono and The Edge.

I turned pages of bright four-color ink on yellowed newsprint. No. 3 in the series officially titled “Marvel Presents.” (The Guardians lasted about six issues in this run. They were never the heavy hitters of the Marvel Universe. Even Howard the Duck did better back then.)

First I came to an ad for the trade paperback “Son of Origins of Marvel Comics.” This was a follow-up to “Origins of Marvel” by Marvel editor-in-chief-of-everything-(still) Stan Lee. I’d devoured both books. I’d started reading Marvel Comics in 1972 or 1973, and felt most definitely late to a party that began in 1961 with “The Fantastic Four.” Stan’s books included anecdotes on how the first Marvel heroes were created, their origin story and another issue from Marvel’s great age of superhero creation. Reading the books then made me feel like I was inside the club rather than a late arrival. They’re still on my book shelf.

weirdheroes1Below the ad for “Son of Origins” was one for “The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar,” with Spider-Man, The Hulk and Captain America trooping with drum, fife and flag. This I did not buy. Here’s what I missed out on: “A glorious, full-color, 12-month trek through American history with the Marvel superheroes. Join The Hulk at Valley Force. Conan the Barbarian at the Battle of Lexington…” You get the point.

Near the back of the comic book was, as always, “Stan Lee’s Soapbox,” a must-read for teases on upcoming titles, crossovers and key collectible editions like “Giant Size Man-Thing” (that is, the comic book was giant size). In the column, Stan tub thumps for two Marvel writers, Archie Goodwin and Steve Englehart, who had contributed stories to a paperback anthology Weird Heroes. This really sent memory spinning. I don’t remember reading about Weird Heroes in Stan’s column. I’d discovered the first of the series in Book & Record in hometown Wappinger, N.Y. The cover, seen here, leapt off the shelf at me. In the books, editor Byron Preiss set out to create new American pulp heroes. What were the old American pulp heroes, you might ask? These crime fighters came before comic books or radio and were featured in magazines and books published on cheap pulpy newsprint. They included The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Avenger (pre-dating the Avengers of Marvel or British TV fame). Also the Bat, said to have been an inspiration for a certain Bat Dude. The Spider, said to have been an inspiration… Well you get the point.

Some of the new pulp heroes included Adam Stalker, Guts the Cosmic Greaser and Gypsy. Preiss put out eight volumes, though a renaissance of American pulp heroes never did happen (unless you count three-quarters of Hollywood’s output).

The highlight of this tour through my adolescent media consumption via one little comic was the full-page ad at the back for the record album, “Reflections of a Rock Super-Hero.” The banner at the top called it the “The Biggest Rock Event of the Year.” Don’t know about that, but the LP told Spidey’s tale better than the now defunct Broadway musical. Songs included “No One Has a Crush on Peter,” “Gwendolyn” and “A Soldier Starts to Bleed,” with narration between the tracks by Stan the Man himself. This I also still own a copy of.

One comic book pulled out because of a movie I saw in August, and I stumbled across all kinds of memories. It’s funny where the past finds you.

Straight scoop from the Weekly World News

I love newspapers. Pretty much all newspapers. Big city dailies. Small town weeklies. Broadsheets. Tabloids. Even Berliners.

I even have a special place in my heart for supermarket tabloids (a category created, I guess, to differentiate them from newsstand tabloids likes those of the Murdoch/New York Post variety). But the supermarket tabloids I really love are gone from the checkout line. Now it’s all diets and the same tiddle taddle about Beyonce and Taylor. Boooring.

Ah but back in the day, the supermarket tabs were glorious in the range of stories they covered. Alien invasions. Elvis sightings. Elvis invading with aliens. The Weekly World News was the king of them all, delivering stories like the woman who married a giraffe, a baby born with antlers and the merman caught in the South Pacific. This stalwart of a very special kind of journalism lasted from 1979 to 2007. Now there’s a book out by Neil McGinness offering the best (I would never say funniest) pages from the Weekly World News. Few book trailers fire the imagination like this one:

I’m sure there are doubters out there. How could this paper possibly be important culturally, historically or in any other way whatsoever? Read a best-of book about it? Never.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Agent K in “Men in Black” on supermarket tabloids: “Best investigative reporting on the planet. But go ahead, read the New York Times if you want. They get lucky sometimes.” Or visit Fox Mulder’s basement office on “The X-Files.” Articles from a paper just like the Weekly World News, maybe the very paper itself, hang on the wall. Something is out there.

‘2001,’ ‘Interstellar’ and Howard Johnson

1968HowardJohnson2001-01Collisions that happen in my mind: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Interstellar” and Howard Johnson. Okay, the first two are obvious for the way the first movie informed the second. (How many “2001” references did you count in “Interstellar”?)

But Howard Johnson?

Easily explained. I happen to be working on scenes in my work-in-progress set in the HoJo that once operated in the heart of Times Square. In researching colors and menus and other details, I came across a wonderful blog Dreams of Space —Books and Ephemera. That blog features what I’ve pictured here, a free comic book telling the story of “2001.” Given out by HoJo as the children’s menu! Howard Johnson received a brief product placement in the movie itself. Still, I’d love to meet the person who convinced perfectionist Stanley Kubrik to sign up for the HoJo comic book children’s menu. Here’s two other pages:










The Books of Nerd

978-0-7864-6682-5I first discovered McFarland & Co. Publishers many years ago when I bought the book Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1988 by Lee Goldberg. It was a delicious compendium of  TV shows pitched to the networks as scripts or actual pilot episodes that didn’t get made into series. It was nerdy joy. I could look up all the shows Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury proposed but didn’t get on the air. Or find which favorite stars appeared in failed pilots. Or just laugh at the goofy ideas for TV shows Hollywood came up with. Let me tell you, there were some goofy ideas. (Not that goofy ideas don’t actually get on the air.)

Because I bought the book, I started receiving the catalog from McFarland. It is heaven for a nerd like me, or as I like to think of myself, a pop culture vulture. Admittedly, some of the titles can be a bit academic—esoteric even. Take It Happens at Comic Com: Ethnographic Essays on Pop Culture Phenomenon or The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times. Not to mention Myazaki’s Animism Abroad: The Reception of Japanese Religious Themes by American and German Audiences

Lest I scare you away, there are many books in the catalog that are accessible. McFarland’s authors cover a wide range of topics in the universe we call genre entertainment, including TV, film, old radio, music and pulp fiction.

Here are a few titles this pop culture vulture would love to add to his groaning physical and virtual to-read bookshelves:

  • Zane Gray’s Wild West: A Study of 31 Novels
  • Anti-Foreign Imagery in American Pulps and Comics
  • Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis
  • Columbia Noir: A Complete Filmography, 1940-62
  • Women of Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance
  • Pulp Fiction to Film Noir: The Great Depression and the Development of a Genre
  • Route 66: Images of America’s Main Street
  • The Flash Gordon Serials: 1936-1940
  • Superheroes and Gods: A Comparative Study from Babylonia to Batman

I could go on. Probably would if I wasn’t agraid of losing, you, the reader. If you don’t see a genre you love, there’s a good chance  McFarland has a book on it anyway.

In fact, even if you never by one of their books, get on the mailing list for their catalog. Readers and writers of what’s termed genre fiction—sometimes derided, sometimes a boast—will love flipping through pages of titles written for the pop culture vulture in them.

Me, I’m about to order A History of the Doc Savage Adventures, about a pulp hero series from the 1930s I discovered in my teens during the 1970s and thought was my special literary secret for the longest time.

(Disclaimer: I have absolutely no connection financial, publishing or otherwise with McFarland Publishers or its authors. I just think the company is putting out cool little books on—to me—cool big topics.)

What pop culture are you a vulture for?

Sci fi on the low fi

220px-Angels_&_Airwaves_-_Love_film_posterI’ve been meaning to put a link up to a recent excellent article on low-fi sci-fi that ran in the Wall Street Journal. I know. Those aren’t really words you expect to read in the same sentence. But this long takeout on films in the $7,000 to $1.5 million range that deal with the same ideas as big budget flicks is worth the time.

What is the $500,000 answer to “Gravity,” or the $1.5 million film about A.I. that’s probably more worth your time than Johnny Depp’s “Transcendence?” Check out the article to find out.






‘…book paper catches fire, and burns’

I failed to do my job that night. Didn’t even try. I was supposed to be chasing scraps of gossip and bits of deal news that HBO executives might dole out to a neophyte reporter from a C-list trade publication. That was not my excuse for not trying. No, mine was three amazing hours spent talking to the late Ray Bradbury.

I was at something called the television critics tour, an odd little meeting where TV critics from the nation’s newspapers assemble in one place to interview network executives and the stars of upcoming series. The acceleration in coverage of entertainment news, even back in July 1984, meant that beat reporters like me were along in the hopes of the scoops and tidbits that might leak (or be planted).

HBO hosted that warm night in Phoenix. The A-list critics and columnists sat with HBO chief Michael Fuchs and his court of executive vice presidents. This was at a time when Fuchs was being called “The Man Who Ate Hollywood” by Esquire magazine because of his company’s massive spending on movie rights.

A junior publicist led me to a table far from that crowd and sat me next to Bradbury. He was supposed to tub-thump for his new HBO series “Ray Bradbury Theater.” As you know, I was supposed to find a way to track down the scoops being given out several tables away.

Instead, Bradbury and I talked. And talked. We had several glasses of white wine. I fawned. And he was generous, so generous that I didn’t feel like I was fawning, but chatting about something we both loved—story. I don’t remember exact dialogue, but under that clear desert sky we covered Martians and things wicked this way coming and a house destroying itself after its family is itself obliterated by nuclear fire. We talked about his great short story “A Sound of Thunder,” a tale that presages every other change-the-past, change-the-future time travel story. Step on a butterfly hunting dinosaurs and your own present is altered completely.

And, of course, we talked about “Fahrenheit 451.” We had to, for the dystopian novel of firemen burning books was and is my favorite Bradbury story. Read it again. It holds up far better than the bad futures dreamed up by the so-called literary writers—George Orwell’s “1984,” Adolous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Government doesn’t take away books from people; people give up on books as they immerse themselves in interactive soap operas that play on the four walls of their living rooms. (In 2009, Amazon deleted “1984” from thousands of Kindles because of a rights dispute, so really, we’re almost there.)

The setting that night was even perfect. The Arizona Biltmore was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and could easily have been a building on Bradbury’s Mars. His Martians, like Wright, created structures that fit into their arid world by making use of landscape and light.

Bradbury was wonderful company. That too should have been no surprise to me. The Times quoted him in its obituary: “I have fun with ideas; I play with them. I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring. My goal is to entertain myself and others.”

Entertain me he did. That assignment—ignoring the real assignment—was the best of my varied but not-so-storied journalism career. Some interviews came close. But only close. And many events I reported on would be considered bigger, more important, even more interesting by most anyone else. They are welcome to them. A three-hour conversation in the desert with the master tops them all.


As postscript, I’ll leave you with a link to the obituary the Economist did on Bradbury. It’s great for the form they chose and the stories they touch on.

I’m a writer. I am

Pretentious and preposterous. That’s how this line reads: I’m meeting my agent. It’s not so much name dropping, as noun dropping.  Like, did I mention my sports-car repairman stopped by? Hold on, the art dealer is calling. Oh, and I’m meeting my literary agent this afternoon. But I am. I’m going to spend this whole weekend playing at writer. I don’t mean the solitary, banging-your-head-into-the-keyboard part of being the writer. That’s the real part. I’m going to enjoy the public part, where you get to act like a writer.

Journalism taught me long ago you don’t say you have a story until it is for real, in print, ink on newsprint. I found it hard not to take the same stance when defining what I now do. I swallowed the word “writer” when people asked how it is I spend my days. After all, no book. Proof and the pudding and all that. I finally settled on saying, “wannabe writer and stay-at-home dad.” There’s no oversell in that.

But today I am meeting with my agent, Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency. Getting to this point has been a long time coming—a lot of words under the bridge, tens of thousand in fact. I’m still a wannabe, but I’m a wannabe with an agent who also wants me to be. Tomorrow, we head to the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. We’ll meet some of her other writers, some with actual books out. I’ll check out conferences on publishing and ebooks and marketing and meet authors (the real kind) and walk around the place in my writer pose.

I’ve even brought a special T-shirt. This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. In celebration, Philosophy Football created the Dickens XI shirt, with Dickens characters shown in each of the 11 positions on a soccer team. Too esoteric to put soccer and writing together? Maybe, but the writer pose is all about the eccentric. Anyway,  imagine Pickwick anchoring the midfield and Chuzzlewit storming forward at center forward. It’s a mash up and we love those.

In between meeting my agent—said it again—and swanning around the fest, I’m sneaking into a late matinee of “Hunger Games.” I’d planned on the midnight show last night, but the travel logistics didn’t work. My next book is for young adults. I do not have visions of “Hunger Games” or Potterworld dancing in my head. I wish the movie well because I wish writers well. I hope Suzanne Collins becomes a squagillionaire. (Based on the movie theater parking lot outside, I think she’s got a shot.) When stories fascinate, writers have a chance, even the guy playing one for the weekend.