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Year-End Movie Journal Dump

Star Trek Beyond
I liked the latest Star Trek movie.  I think.  I’m pretty sure anyway.  Is that the one with the…no, no, that’s the first one.  Oh, I know!  It’s the one where…no, that’s the second one.  Huh.  Anyway, I’m pretty sure I liked the third one.  If only I could remember anything about it.

2.5 / 5 bananas

Ghost in the Shell
It had been years since I’d watched this classic of the anime genre, and seeing the trailer for the new live-action remake starring ScarJo made me want to check it out again.  It truly is a beautiful film to look at, with set design that has become so influential it’s not even funny.  The story still feels a little scattershot for me, but the themes and ideas about personality and consciousness are still deep even though they’ve been tread by dozens of properties since the film’s initial release.  I’ve started watching the spin-off TV series, Stand-Alone Complex, which all the internet nerds say is 1000 times better, so I’m excited to see where that takes me.

4 /5 bananas

The Room
Listen, I loves me some so-bad-it’s-good cult classic movies, but I really couldn’t stand this film.  I get why it’s a cult classic, I just don’t think it’s necessarily earned that status.  There was not a single redeemable thing in this movie for me.  I was so annoyed by the ineptitude of the whole thing that I couldn’t even laugh at it.  I hated it and won’t be watching it again anytime soon.

.5 / 5 bananas

Sausage Party
Like a lot of R-rated comedies, I watched this one, I thought it was funny in the moment, but it quickly left my brain afterwards.  The underlying message about the dangers of religion is a thing I can get behind, and it was surprising to hear it from a bunch of talking food, but a week out from watching it, I don’t feel a great need to revisit it.  It’s fun, it’s definitely not safe for kids, but it’s also just a flash in the pan for me.

3 / 5 bananas

Swiss Army Man
I can absolutely understand why this film is going to make a lot of Top 10 lists this month.  Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano are amazing, helping the the writers/directors are able to pull off the strangest, most heart-warming buddy flicks ever made.  I really enjoyed this one and would have to agree that it’s one of my favorite flicks of the year.

4 /5 bananas

Amanda Knox
I have a vague memory of the hullabaloo surrounding the Amanda Knox trial when it occurred, but as someone who isn’t really into following salacious headlines, I never had an opinion one way or the other about whether or not she had killed her roommate in Italy.  However, watching this documentary was still very captivating and, in my opinion, pretty much exonerated her for the crimes she was accused.  It’s a horrifying look at how a person can get railroaded by a corrupt system with an agenda.

3 / 5 bananas

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
I’d been reading the rave reviews about this film for a while before I finally got the chance to check out this stark black-and-white horror film about a Muslim woman who, well, walks alone at night.  The twist is – she’s a vampire who kills the men who inevitably hassle (or worse) her.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see the same film the reviews saw.  I saw the seed of a great film, one that would be empowering for women of all nationalities and religions, if it had only been willing to see it’s horror roots through.

2.5 / 5 bananas

Return of the Living Dead
I hadn’t seen this campy zombie film in years, so it was fun to revisit it lately on a whim.  It’s still a ton of fun, still utterly ridiculous, still over-the-top and cheesy.

3.5 / 5 bananas

Cartel Land
I don’t even know where to start with this fascinating documentary about the violent, very political world of the Mexican war on drugs.  There are so many moral questions raised – Is it ok to take up arms to defend yourself and your community?  Or should you leave that responsibility to the powers that be, even if those powers are corrupt?  If it is ok, there clearly needs to be some type of system in place to ensure that those that become the target of such vigilantism are given a fair trial, or else the people are no better than the criminals.  But any system is made up of people, who can be corrupted through either money, fame, power, or fear, which inevitably leads back to a flawed system of checks-and-balances.  So how do you keep your mission true?  Or is that even possible?  My only complaint is that the filmmakers spent most of their time with Mexican militias, but not a lot with the American militias.  They include these groups briefly as a warning of “it could happen here”, but their mention is so sporadic and shallow that not everyone is going to see the parallels with the Mexican militias and their ultimate undoing.  Still, an amazingly engaging film.

4 / 5 bananas

Late Phases
This is a perfectly fine, low-budget werewolf movie that has quite a few similarities to the 1985 classic of the genre, Silver Bullet.  Essentially, man moves into small community, people start getting killed, he finds the werewolf in an unlikely place, he’s the only one who knows the truth so it’s up to him to defeat the beast.  Like I said, perfectly fine, but I probably won’t watch it again anytime soon.

2.5 / 5 bananas

Audrie & Daisy
As the father of a tween girl, I dread what’s going to happen once Instagram, Facebook, and (shiver) SnapChat become everyday parts of her vocabulary.  Once this happens, my wife and I need to sit our daughter down and have her watch this stirring documentary about rape in the era of social media.  And then when our son comes of age, we’ll have him watch it, too.  This true story of two girls who were victimized and then had it broadcast on social media, only to have their aggressors let off with a slap on the wrist, is a must-see for anyone raising kids today.  It will not only boil your blood, but simultaneously make it run cold.  A must-watch.

4 / 5 bananas

Martyrs
I listen to a really amazing podcast called The Faculty of Horror, hosted by two movie critics who analyze horror films from a feminist perspective.  Recently they reviewed two films from the New French Extremism sub-genre, one of which was Martyrs (the other was Calvaire).  I’d actually seen Martyrs before, but it had been a number of years and hearing the podcast’s utmost praise for it made me want to watch it again.  It’s a really brutal and effective film with a disturbing storyline that really digs into your psyche.  This is one of those films that an entire entry could be written about – and maybe one day I’ll get to it – but in the meantime, just know that it’s not for the faint of heart.  But if you like a little philosophical pondering with your bucket of blood, it’s worth checking out.

4 / 5 bananas

Black Christmas (1974)
I’ve been hearing about this film for years, but just now finally got around to watching it as we near Christmas 2016.  Now I understand all the hype.  This is a very effective, truly terrifying thiller.  There are moments of intentional levity and some of the performances are a little over-the-top, but the tension is high throughout, and the ending is so dark that it leaves you feeling anything but holly and/or jolly.

4 / 5 bananas

Keanu
I don’t really go in for sketch comedy shows, but what I have seen from comedy duo Key and Peele has been consistently funny.  And for me, Keanu was no exception.  The story of two men diving into the urban underground they are so clearly not a part of, just to get back a stolen kitten, had me laughing the whole time.  Mostly Key and his “Richard Pryor’s impersonation of a white man” persona kept me rolling, but everyone involved gets some great moments to shine.  I loved the absurdity, the heart, and the deep (albeit flawed) interpretation of the musical stylings of George Michael enough that I’d probably watch this one again, something I rarely say about comedies.

3.5 / 5 bananas

Suicide Squad
Oooh, boy.  Where do I begin?  Actually, I’m not even going to.  Everything negative that you could say about this film has already been said on countless websites, podcasts, and YouTube reviews.  I can say that sometimes it looked really cool, there were a few set pieces that, while dumb from a plot perspective, were fun to watch, and some of the performances were quite well done.  But for the most part, all the bad things everyone else has said are not baseless criticisms – they are all very, very based in reality.

2 / 5 bananas

Magic
Another classic that I am just now catching up on, Magic tells the tale of Corky, played by Anthony Hopkins, a magician/ventriloquist who has a very special relationship with his little wooden sidekick, Fats.  The film is pretty disturbing, mostly thanks to Hopkins’ performance.  With a lesser actor in the role, this film would have been a joke, but Hopkins’ ability to go from wild-eyed loon to dead-eyed milquetoast in an instant keeps the viewer on edge throughout. Also, how hot was Ann-Margaret?

3.5 / 5 bananas

House
I’d seen House years ago, back when it was in regular rotation on cable TV, but I didn’t remember anything about it, so it was fun to watch it again today.  The film tells the story of a young man who inherits his Great Aunt’s mansion, only to find that her death by suicide might not have been so cut-and-dry.  The “horror” here isn’t so scary – intentionally so – but has more of a Sam Raimi, Army of Darkness vibe to it, with plenty of laughs to go along with the slimy Lovecraftian creatures living in an alternate dimension inside the closet.  Is it a good film?  No.  But it was a fun ride to revisit and one worth admiring for it’s low-budget gumption and willingness to not take itself too seriously.

2 / 5 bananas

House II
Now the sequel is one I’d never seen, but I’m glad I took the chance.  The filmmakers really just embraced their B-movie roots with scenes played purely for comedy, ridiculous scenarios, garish performances, and crazy, creative ideas that could only work when you let go of logic.  By the time the end credits roll, a baby pterodactyl, an Aztec woman, a mummified cowboy, and a bizarre worm-dog puppy are all part of the main cast of characters.  The film is pure bonkers fun and is truly an underseen gem.

4 / 5 bananas

Don’t Breathe
Touted as one of the best horror films of the year, Don’t Breathe tells the story of three Detroit kids who rob houses in an effort to make enough money to get out of the dying city.  As with so many heist films, they come across a big score that would push them over the edge.  But they aren’t expecting the home’s blind occupant to be such a hard one to handle.  Mining as much tension as it can from being trapped inside a house of horrors, the film is a B-movie scenario that is beautifully shot, expertly directed, and incredibly raw.  There are some really great moments throughout that will keep any horror fan happy.  And if you like this one, I suggest you check out the similar, but even better Green Room.

4 / 5 bananas

 

 

 

The Film Journal Strikes Back!

Way back in the day, I used to keep a movie journal.  Ever since I went back to school, then got my freelance writing career going, then had kids, my life got too busy to watch a lot of movies, so it was pretty pointless to keep a journal when I was only seeing a handful a year.

But now that things have slowed down a little, I’m seeing quite a few more movies.  So with October being a time of year where I intentionally watch a lot of movies in the lead up to Halloween, I think I’m going to revive my film journal.  At least it will give me something to write about so this blog doesn’t sit stagnant for a year anymore.  Enjoy!



dark_night_of_the_scarecrow

Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Way back in 2011, I was a guest on my friend Tommy’s podcast, Bubble Pipe Theater, for a special Halloween edition of the show.  On that episode, we talked about some of our favorite scary movies, and another guest, Tim Briscoe, brought up this film, Dark Night of the Scarecrow.  He said that for a TV movie, it was pretty scary, and since then I’ve wanted to check it out.  It came up in an article online somewhere recently, so I decided to finally add it to my Netflix queue for October.

The film is set in a small farming community where everyone knows everyone else, no one locks their doors at night, and everybody is scared of anything that’s not white, Christian, Conservative, and otherwise perfect in every way.  So when Bubba, a grown man with the mind of a child, is accused of hurting a young girl, a small group of local vigilantes arm up and chase after him.  They find Bubba hiding inside a scarecrow costume and decide that it’s time someone did something about this potential menace.  It’s only after they’ve pumped twenty-one rounds into him that someone calls on the CB radio to let them know it was all a big mistake – that Bubba had actually saved the girl from a dog attack.  The hillbillies cover it up by putting a pitchfork in Bubba’s deceased hand, so they can claim the killing was in self-defense.

But as the vigilantes start dying off in suspicious accidents, the remaining members of the party start to question their sanity and their safety.

Right off the bat, the title and the marketing of the film on DVD is a bit misleading – this isn’t a slasher flick with a Jason Voorhees-like madman running around with a pitchfork as his weapon of choice.  In fact, we really don’t see who is killing the men at all until the very end, and even that death would still be interpreted by any sane person as an accident.  While it is a fun movie, it’s pretty obvious there are scenes that are simply there to pad out the runtime, so it does feel a little sluggish.  The performances are all pretty great, but that’s to be expected from the handful of “that guy” character actors that make up the lynch mob, every one of whom has done their fair share of films and dozens of TV appearances.  Best known of these actors is Charles Durning as a portly postman and leader of the mob, Otis Hazelrigg, who gives a fine, scenery-chewing performance.

My only complaint, other than the padded scenes, is that I almost wish we’d seen the killer more.  Typically real horror comes from the unseen, but I think it would have been much more effective to see the scarecrow/Bubba at the scene of the murder.  I’m not saying I wanted all the bad guys to be run-through with the pitchfork as the DVD cover implies – they could have died in the same manner as they did in the final film – but the scarecrow costume was so well done and creepy as hell, it would have been nice to have seen him featured more.  A few shots of him standing just outside in the shadows, a truly menacing figure, would have upped the tension quite a bit.  Let the men panic and put themselves into dangerous situations to get away from the scarecrow.  But as it is the monster isn’t really much of a presence, and I think it would have been more fun to have him be more of a known catalyst for the deaths.  I understand the writer was trying to make us wonder who the “real” killer was, but none of us ever really suspected Bubba’s mom or the little girl.

Overall, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a fun little movie that’s perfect for Halloween.  It won’t frighten die-hard horror fans, but the story of revenge is timeless, and there’s adequate tension to keep you interested in what’s going to happen next.  This is actually one film I’d love to see a remake of, because with a few tweaks it could be something really great.

Score: 3/5 bananas

Not Your Average Monster

NYAM

 

 

Yes, folks, the anthology, Not Your Average Monster!, that features my first published short story, is now available on Amazon!

You’ll find my short, Good Ol’ Buddy, on page 191, but so far everything I’ve read from the other authors is definitely worth reading, too.

Thanks again to Pete Kahle and Bloodshot Books for giving me a chance.  It was truly an honor to be selected.

Now, go buy the book!  It’s only $3.99 for your Kindle.  You’ll spend that much on a latte today.

Summer 2015

Hey, folks! Sorry it’s been so long since my last update. I’ve been fairly busy over the last couple of months, working on Mental Floss, spending time on a beach, drawing, and writing, writing, writing. I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time doing dishes, which is really the only blemish on an otherwise pretty decent summer.

First off, let’s get the Mental Floss stuff out of the way. The Strange States series continues. I had a surprise hit with South Dakota’s Wall Drug entry. I also updated an old article, 10 Very Rare (And Very Expensive) Video Games, which turned into a virtual rewrite thanks to a bunch of movement in the video game collecting hobby over the last few years. I also had a new, rather extensive article on the History of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, published on July 4th (fitting). Finally, I scored a minor viral hit with “7 Overlooked 80s Toys Worth More Than You Think”.

As for that beach time I mentioned, my family (and most of my extended family) traveled to Tybee Island, Georgia to spend about a week in a condo right near the ocean. It was an amazing experience to see my kids playing in the surf for the first time and to explore Savannah and the island itself. We had a great time despite the 13-hour, one-way drive with a seven and a not-quite-two-year-old in the car (thank god for tablets!).

It was our first family vacation and, oh man, did we need it. I’ve never really been one to take two weeks off from work, ever. A day or two here and there was always my preferred method of relaxation, but I have to say, it made a huge difference to just spend time away from work, from our normal routine, and from the world we usually know. It’s amazing what a little shift in perspective will do for your psyche. I know that ever since we got back, I’ve been more relaxed, I’ve been more patient with my kids, and I’ve felt like, yes, there is time to get everything done, instead of scrambling and racing around with my head down. Now I’m really jealous of all those Germans getting six weeks vacation every year. No wonder we have such a stressed out society.

I have been spending quite a bit of time writing fiction this summer, too. My main project at the moment is a Goosebumps-esque novel for kids. It’s based on a story my daughter and I came up with, which makes it all the more fun. So far I’m about 80 single-spaced pages in and I’m having a blast. I’ve also completed a couple of short stories and have a couple more that are in progress whenever I need to take a break from the novel. Everything is in the first draft phase at the moment, but I’m hoping to take a little time soon to edit and send them off to a few small publishers. However, self-publishing with Kindle is always a viable option today, too.

It’s funny how completely different my outlook is on writing fiction this time out. 10 years ago when I thought I was going to be the next Stephen King, I was sending manuscripts out to the biggest publishers in the business, not wanting to “waste my time” with the small press. Now, thanks to working in the nonfiction field for so long, I understand that having an extensive portfolio of published work is so much more important in the long run. I’m also not so egotistical to think I’ll be writing novels for a living like I thought I once might. It’s ok if I do my day job and then write fiction on nights and weekends. That’s what most writers do, even accomplished ones. I don’t know if it’s just maturity or experience, but I understand now what my writing goals should be, and it makes the writing that much more fun and exciting. Still, I hope I can get a few more things published, because that would be pretty sweet.

Unfortunately, all this time sitting on beaches, writing about video games and action figures and zombies (and all those dishes I have to wash), have prevented me from working on my podcasts this year. I have a new episode of When You Hear This Sound written and ready to record, but, ugh, it takes so long to do, and I don’t really have a good studio setup, and the air conditioning that’s been on all summer because it’s so bloody hot will screw up the recording, and excuse after excuse after excuse. I’m hoping that I’ll soon be able to get back to it, because I really do enjoy it, but with so much else going on this summer, it just hasn’t been a priority (especially when compared to sitting on beaches and getting paid to write about video games and action figures). But here’s hoping I’ll be able to make time for it again this fall and winter. I have some great ideas ready to go, it’s just a matter of finding the time and a few assistants to help me make them a reality. If only I hadn’t used up all my vacation time and I could take a little “staycation” to get some things done.

As we head into fall, I hope the next time I give you an update I’ll have finished the first draft of the novel, maybe cranked out a few more Mental Floss articles, and perhaps gotten around to a podcast episode or two (once the air conditioning is turned off for the season in November because Missouri weather sucks). I also have a few more things going on that I didn’t mention here, but they’re still up in the air at the moment, so I’ll wait to report on them when things have solidified a little bit. Until then, thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting me throughout my many creative endeavors.

So, Apparently I Write Fiction Now…Again

Back in the olden days of 2002, I thought I was going to be the next great American author. Admittedly, it was a very creative time in my life, and I was getting some decent feedback from writerly friends, a creative writing professor, and even a professional author. With my head sufficiently swollen, I submitted a few short stories to giants of the industry, like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales Magazine, and a handful of respected short story contests.

I was rotely rejected by every one.

I never even got any personalized feedback; just generic form letters that might as well have been stamped with a big, red “Nope!” at the top.

Confused, angry, and conceited, I did the smart thing when my short stories were rejected – I started writing novels. I would plan these epic, sweeping tomes of Lovecraftian horror, Reservoir Dog-like heists filled with clever characters rambling on about retro pop culture, pulp-inspired space operas staring cloned aliens on the planet Mars, and heart wrenching tales of star-crossed lovers. Notice I said I would plan these stories. Writing them was an entirely different matter. But even the act of outlining made me feel like I was doing something, that I was…(pause for dramatic effect) a writer!

Needless to say, none of those novels were ever finished. I may have gotten 10, 20, as many as 50 pages in to a story before getting bored, or stuck, or making the idiotic mistake of going back and editing what I’d already written (two steps forward, three steps back).

As I grew more and more frustrated by my lack of instant success, I found that I wasn’t writing anymore at all. I was still outlining, making character notes, and writing down ideas that I might someday get to, but actually writing had gone the way of the dodo. Sometime after, one of my favorite magazines/websites, Mental Floss, was hiring. I switched gears away from fiction into non-fiction, essentially kickstarting a second career that has served me well over the last seven years.

But while I was busy writing about Hello Kitty, miniature crime scenes, and racist candy, I still longed for the days of gumshoe detectives, monsters under the bed, and sword-wielding knights on great adventures.

Recently, a friend of mine on Facebook with similar authorial pursuits posted an open call for submissions for the debut anthology of a new micro-publisher, Bloodshot Books. The concept for the anthology – Not Your Average Monster – would feature horror stories that did not star such well-worn creatures as zombies, vampires, werewolves, or even kaiju (like Godzilla). As I read the requirements, I immediately thought about a story I’d written a while back that would easily fit the mold. It was a story I rather liked, but never bothered submitting it to any publishers. My confidence had been shot at that point, so I figured there was no use; it would just get rejected anyway. The story stayed on my hard drive for years, lingering, but never quite going away.

On a whim, I pulled the story out of my virtual desk drawer, dusted it off, and made a few changes. And, well, if you’ve read this far and haven’t figure it out, Good Ol’ Buddy, about a boy and his murdering mutant dog, will be included in the anthology when it’s released this September.

Look for more information when the time comes. And maybe, just maybe, there will be a few more fiction-related announcements in the future.