Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Movie Review: THE VILLAIN

Though most of my reviews are for new releases, this is one I just had to write--because it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, and because almost no one I know has ever seen it. 

Released in 1979, The Villain could best be described as a live action Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner movie. It stars Kirk Douglas in a rare comedic turn as Cactus Jack Slade, "a mistake nature made--a trick fate has played on itself," as the theme song says. Cactus Jack's a would-be villain in the old west, a guy with a room temperature IQ who's his own worst enemy. As the story opens, he's trying unsuccessfully to rob a bank. When he can't open the safe, he decides to blow it up. The dynamite brings down the building...but fails to budge the safe.

Still, the crooked banker, Avery Simpson (Jack Elam), sees potential in Cactus Jack and enlists him to steal a large sum of money being transported by Charming Jones (Ann-Margret) to her rich daddy, Parody Jones (Strother Martin). However, Parody has hired an escort for his daughter--Handsome Stranger (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who's strong as an ox but not quite as smart. In fact, he's almost as dumb as Cactus Jack. When Charming asks about his unusual name, he explains, "I was named after my father."


As they travel toward their destination, Charming tries every way she can to seduce Handsome Stranger, but he's oblivious to her advances. He's also oblivious to Cactus Jack's pursuit--and multiple bungled attempts to rob them. While Cactus Jack could be Wile E. Coyote, Handsome Stranger's no Road Runner.

  Add to the mix two Indians hired by the banker, Nervous Elk (Paul Lynde) and Mashing Finger (Robert Tessier). Nervous Elk observes, "This one needs to be looked after."

He does indeed--and is, by his smarter-than-the-average horse, Whiskey, who has to save Jack from himself more than once. Whether he's being run over by a gigantic boulder or gluing himself to the railroad tracks, Cactus Jack is nothing if not persistent! Too bad he's so stupid. Does he really think using a handbook for villains is a good idea?

Does Cactus Jack end up blown up or flattened by an Acme anvil? Will Handsome Stranger finally realize he's traveling with a sexually frustrated woman? Will Whiskey get tired of saving his idiot master? If you can find a copy of The Villain on DVD, do give it a look! And if you can't find the DVD, here's the movie on YouTube.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Smart TVs: Not As Smart As They Think They Are!

From the time they first appeared on the market, I wanted a smart TV. Recently, we finally got one. Now I can't wait to replace it.

We've had it a few months now. At first, it was great, easy to use, convenient. I love the large screen, the incredibly clear picture, the easy access to the streaming menu.

Scratch that last part.

Last week, our smart TV went over to the Dark Side.

We had just started to watch a program when the trouble started. The picture stalled repeatedly--not buffering, just stalling. Then, that annoying spinning icon I hate so passionately on our computer appeared on the TV screen.

That's always bad news.

We never got to watch that program. Collin spent most of the evening trying to determine what was wrong and then trying to correct it. He tried turning the TV off, then back on again. Then he tried unplugging it for a few minutes. After that, he did a factory reset that made it necessary to re-enter all of our passwords.

Even after all of that, we were still unable to access the streaming channels.

Finally, he got it back on track. But by then, I'd had enough. We're planning to get a TV with a larger screen for the living room, and he'll take this monster into his bedroom. I told him I'd prefer to not get another smart TV. No...next time around, I want the dumbest boob tube we can find!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Funny How a Font Can Make So Much Difference....

I have news.

When Collin and I first signed with Creativia, it was only for my backlist books. Since they were first published in the '80s-'90s, the manuscripts were either typed on my old electric typewriter or saved onto the old floppy discs that don't work in today's computer equipment. That meant they'd have to be a. completely retyped, b. dictated and converted to text or c. scanned and converted to text. This led to some major frustration when we published the first three in digital format, so we jumped at the chance to have them re-published through Creativia.

At first, I wanted Collin to continue to design the covers. The covers we were shown were pre-fab and I was unimpressed. But the custom designs for Alexander's Empire, as you can see, are another story. Collin and I are both quite pleased. Now to choose a font....

By mutual agreement, Creativia will be publishing all of our books, with the possible exception of the novella length stuff. I haven't discussed that with Miika Hannila ( our publisher) as yet. But I'd be happy to have them publish those as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

For Father's Day...A Salute to Dads Real and Fictional

I did something similar to this on Mother's Day, so I figured the dads deserve equal time. With a wish for all of you and your dads to have a great day--my own dad has been gone twenty-four years now, and I miss him now as much as I did right after he passed away--I'm going to pose the same question I did on Mother's Day.

Which of these TV or movie dads is most like your own dad?

Jim Anderson, Father Knows Best

Ward Cleaver, Leave it to Beaver

 Archie Bunker, All in the Family

Al Bundy, Married with Children

Jay Pritchett, Modern Family

Dan Conner, Roseanne

Jonathan Kent, Smallville

Howard Stark, Iron Man 2

Odin, Thor and Thor: The Dark World 

As for my own dad, he reminds me most of Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless--not the obscenely wealthy, ruthless tycoon, but the man with the troubled past who grew up without a real family, the father who would do anything to protect his children but could be too overbearing when they didn't react as he wanted them to. Like Victor, Dad didn't have a role model to show him how to be a good father, so he had to learn as he went along. He didn't always get it right, and he never felt truly appreciated, but the bottom line was that he loved me--and he was a wonderful grandpa to Collin.

I miss you, Dad. When I leave this world, you and Mom had better be there waiting for me, or else!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


"The key to a happy life is to accept you are never actually in control."
-- Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan)

"Hey, don't give me that shit."
-- Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to one member of his Raptor Squad

"Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We're just used to being the cat."
-- Henry Wu (BD Wong)

Jurassic World has accomplished what only a few short months ago seemed an impossible feat--besting Marvel's Avengers' record-breaking box office opening weekend. At $208, 806,270.00 it has barely squeezed into the number one spot (Avengers made $207,438,708.00). Does it deserve the top spot? See it for yourself and decide!

The fourth film in the Jurassic Park franchise may not have the same sense of awe the original gave audiences more than twenty years ago (hey, it was the first time we got to see genetically engineered dinosaurs!), but the special effects are far better, the park itself is much more high-tech, and this film has Chris Pratt, who in my opinion is the new alpha of action stars. He reminds me in many ways of Harrison Ford. 'Nuff said.

I disagree with the reviewers who say the film lacks character development. It may not have as much as I'd like, but I believe action reveals a great deal about character, and if there's one thing this film doesn't lack, it's action. Pratt's dino-wrangler Owen Grady is a Navy man who has a vaguely-referenced history with Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire. He's something of a swashbuckler, living in a ramshackle trailer (at least I think there was a trailer under that mess) and riding an old motorcycle. Claire, on the other hand, is a polished corporate professional who ends up looking pretty silly trying to escape rampaging dinosaurs in her high heels. What could these two possibly have in common? Hmmm....

John Hammond, who first conceived the idea of a dinosaur theme park is gone now, having left his dream in the hands of the very wealthy Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), who shows more concern for the welfare of the dinosaurs than anyone else in the movie with the exception of Owen. Sir Richard Attenborough, along with Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern are sorely missed, as well as Julianne Moore from Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

The requisite villains in this installment are Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, who appeared in Jurassic Park), the geneticist who's missing the conscience gene, and an InGen security chief named Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), who has plans of his own for the dinosaurs--specifically, Owen's team of raptors. Owen doesn't trust him, and with good reason. I kept hoping one of them would eat him. 

You can tell the Jurassic movies are geared toward a family audience, because there are always kids in them. This time around, the kids are Claire's nephews, Gray and Zach (Ty Simpkins, who was Tony Stark's young sidekick in Iron Man 3, and Nick Robinson), who were sent to Claire for a visit while their parents dealt with an impending divorce. As always, the kids are bright and resourceful.

But to me, the real star of the Jurassic films has always been T-Rex, and when he finally does make an appearance, he delivers. There's a saying in Hollywood: never make a movie with kids or animals. Making a movie with a scenery (and actor) chewing T-Rex could be added to that caution!

Do I recommend it? Definitely--and if you want a second opinion, check out William Kendall's review over at Speak of the Devil.... 

(Also posted at Rotten Tomatoes and at Amazon.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Where Were You When the Lights Went Out (And the Movie Started)?

They're almost extinct today. Sad. I, for one, really miss them.

I'm talking about drive-in movie theaters. The first one opened on June 6, 1933, in Pennsauken, New Jersey--eighty-two years ago. Their popularity peaked during the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were ideal for families with small children--no crying babies interfering with others' enjoyment of the movie, since everyone watched from the comfort of the automobiles. Parents could--and did--bring the kids in their jammies and let them sleep in the back seat.There were almost always playgrounds for the kids. There were concession stands and restrooms, and many drive-ins offered special attractions to bring in business.

At one time, drive-ins charged admission by the car, not by the person. When that changed, teenagers took to sneaking in via the trunk of the car. Most of the time, they got away with it.

There were several factors involved in the decline in their popularity in the '80s. They had to close in bad weather. Daylight savings time made it necessary for drive-ins to start the movies later. They became too expensive to operate. By the late '80s, less than two hundred drive-in theaters remained in operation in the US and Canada. The few that remain today are struggling, as the switch to digital projection has created requirements for drive-ins that are simply too costly.

Have you ever seen movies at a drive-in theater? If so, can you remember your first time? I'm a little fuzzy on my first, but I believe it was a double feature at the South Twin Drive-in in south St. Louis County. I was with Shirley, a friend from high school. The movies? Flesh Gordon and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.

No wonder we kept getting funny looks from other moviegoers. Why did I leave it to Shirley to pick the movie? It's not as if I didn't know what to expect!

I can, however, recall with certainty the last movie I saw at a drive-in. It was Jurassic Park, which I had fortunately already seen. I say fortunately because that night, I was with Mom, Collin and my cousin Jeff. Jeff was driving. Mom couldn't--by that time, diabetes had robbed her of enough of her eyesight to make our family doctor restrict her driving at night. I couldn't drive and Collin was only thirteen--no driver's license. The problem was that Jeff had brought along a carton of wine coolers. There was no way I was going to have him driving drunk with my kid in the car--so I did my best to drink as many of those wine coolers as I could in order to keep him from drinking them.

Anyone who knows me well knows I can't hold liquor--at all. After three of those things, I was really, really plastered. (If you're reading this, Collin, just remember I did it for you!). I don't even remember seeing the last two-thirds of the movie or going home. I do remember being so hung over the next morning, I couldn't stand sound, light, or the smell of breakfast cooking. 

That drive-in--the 66 Park-in Theater in Crestwood on the original Route 66--is now the site of a shopping center. Ditto for the old South Twin. The Ronnies Drive-in is now the Ronnies 20 Cineplex. The closest remaining drive-in to us is the Skyview, across the river in Belleville, Illinois.

Monday, June 8, 2015

For Anyone Who Still Doubts, Miracles Do Still Happen!

Even the most die-hard racing fans were starting to lose hope. It had been thirty-seven years since there had been a Triple Crown winner, and with each passing year, there was talk that there might never be another. Here we were, over a decade into the twenty-first century with no equine rock star. A few had come close: last year's almost-winner, California Chrome and his unusual band of owners, who had dubbed themselves the Dumbass Partners...Smarty Jones...I'll Have Another...Funny Cide...War Emblem...Big Brown. Only twelve horses in the history of the Triple Crown have won all three races. Forty-seven have won the first two races, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Twenty-three went on, only to fail in the Belmont Stakes.

And then came American Pharoah, the quirky horse with the misspelled name (somebody alert the Grammar Nazis!) and the short tail (due to a bite from a stablemate), proving it can still be done and inspiring the dreams of owners, trainers, jockeys and racing fans everywhere. Dreams can and do still come true!

PS My novel Angels at Midnight is on sale this week at Amazon. Check out the Countdown Deal, if you haven't already read it!

Friday, June 5, 2015

No, This Isn't Research for a New Novel....

One of our local TV news programs did a segment on how burglars choose their victims and what they're looking for during a burglary. They showed part of a video made by police in which they show homes in the aftermath of break-ins and interview convicted burglars currently in prison. The convicts talk about what people are doing wrong. It was informative...and oddly enough, entertaining.

The TV segment ended with some recommendations from the pros (and by pros I mean criminals). Home security systems are advised--but even they can backfire. An author friend of mine had one. She accidentally set off the silent alarm one day, and she and her grandmother were in the kitchen when the police burst in, guns drawn. "Yeah, I always take Grandma along on all my heists," she told them.

Think just putting one of those home security service signs in your window or front yard helps? Guess again. They know that's almost always just for show. (I thought about putting one of my Minion cutouts in our living room window with a little sign reading Protected By Minion Security. I guess they wouldn't take that seriously either....)

And the huge dog water bowl I bought with KILLER painted on it won't actually scare anybody away? 

Recommendation: get a deadbolt. Got one. Not that it would do much good. Anyone wanting to break in would only have to break the living room window and reach inside to unlock it. Of course, if I'm inside, I'm going to chop their hand off. I almost did that once, years ago. I was a teenager, my parents were both at work, and a nutty gal from down the street thought she was going to force her way in. She did a lot of screaming when that big knife came down hard on her arm!

Fortunately, we now live on a courtyard and a large number of the neighbors have dogs. When they get started barking, it reminds me of the Twilight Bark from 101 Dalmatians. They're a better early warning system than NORAD.

Recommendation: hide your valuables. What? You're not supposed to sit them out on display on the dining room table with a TAKE ME sign? From the looks of the crime scene photos shown, the thieves didn't mind making the effort to find the good stuff.

The reporter doing the story also recommended a number of websites where one can upload photos of their valuables so that, in the event of a burglary, police will have a photographic file of all of your property. At first, that seemed like a good idea. But on the same broadcast, there was a story about another massive computer hacking.

I'm picturing a group of burglars hacking into one of those sites, checking out all the merchandise. It would be like an online shopping site for customers who don't plan to pay for anything. The resulting crime rate would be almost as high as it is on Craigslist!

And now to get caught up on the blogs I've missed the past couple of days....

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Could This Be the Start of a New Venture? Probably Not, But it Could Be Fun!

Collin and I are both artists...or he is, anyway. I used to be, before poor eyesight and the tremors in my hands made it too difficult.

Neither of us has done anything in a long, long time. Life just seemed to always get in the way. Collin's done a lot in pencil in the past. I did pencil and ink drawings--people, animals, caricatures. I once did a cartoon of my agent. Her name was Maria Carvainis, but the nickname "Carnivorous" stuck because of her aggressive negotiating style. I drew her as a vulture with long eyelashes. One of the last things I did was a poster--black ink on white posterboard--of the characters in my first novel. It hung over my desk in my first home office. I had two home offices--the first one was pretty crappy, in a basement that was more like a cave. The second was pretty nice and came after I got those first two big advances from Berkley. I gave up on home offices when I realized I never did any actual work in them. They were just places to file stuff and use the phone without distractions.

But I'm getting off track here. This is the poster (one thing I am not is a photographer, as you can see).

Anyway, Collin and I had been talking about doing comic books--or graphic novels. Comixology, owned by Amazon, does comic book self-publishing. I'd do the writing and he'd do the artwork. Last week, he found a great deal--a graphic artist tablet, regularly $145, for $45. It arrived yesterday, so we played around with it last night for a while, getting used to it. Collin did a couple of Minion pictures....

Will we or won't we? Will we ever actually produce any graphic novels? Will I be able to draw again with this new device now that the new seizure meds seem to be doing such a good job? Will Collin find the time to do anything else, with a full-time job and a full-time class schedule? Tune in tomorrow...or next week...or next year....

Monday, June 1, 2015

Movie Review: SAN ANDREAS

My partner in crime, William Kendall, has also reviewed this film over at Speak of the Devil, so if you haven't already seen it, please do so. He reviews like a pro, while I call mine “popcorn reviews”—that is, your average audience review.

Collin and I saw it on Friday afternoon--and as usual, a storm came through as we made our way home afterward. I'm really feeling jinxed! As if that weren’t bad enough, using a keyboard or tablet keypad is not easy when one hand is constantly reaching for the tissues. When is medical research going to find a cure for the not-so-common cold?

I confess, I would much rather watch movies at home. But San Andreas is one of those movies that should be seen for the first time on a big screen. The visuals are stunning--terrifying at times--and let's face it, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, in all his muscled glory, was made for the big screen.

The story opens with rescue chopper pilot Ray Gaines (Johnson) and his team attempting a particularly difficult rescue. After a couple of way too close calls, Gaines takes a big risk to save a young woman. In some ways, this scene reminds me of the opening scene in the 1993 film Cliffhanger—but with a better outcome.

Yep--this is the kind of white-knuckle movie I love.

At Caltech, seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and his colleague, Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) are working on a formula to predict earthquakes. They travel to Nevada to monitor small tremors detected at Hoover Dam--and end up caught in a major quake, where Park is killed.

Meanwhile, back in LA, Ray prepares to take his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) up to San Francisco, where she's attending college. That same day, he receives divorce papers from his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino). Ray doesn't want the divorce, but a family tragedy has come between them and Emma sees no way back. She’s moved on—and moved in with new boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffud), a wealthy developer who, it turns out, has a yellow streak down his back as wide as the—yes—San Andreas fault. When Ray is called to assist rescue operations in the Nevada quake, he has to bail on Blake and their plans. Daniel immediately offers to take her, since he’s headed for San Francisco anyway. What better way to score points with Mom than to fly her daughter to school on his private plane?

Returning to his lab at Caltech, Hayes makes a terrifying discovery: a major quake—major as in part of the state maybe dropping into the ocean—is about to hit the San Andreas fault with devastating consequences. The worst of it will destroy San Francisco. (We didn’t need a seismologist to see that coming, did we?) The first quake hits LA while he’s preparing for a TV interview, and the interviewer  (Archie Panjabi) helps him get the word out to hopefully save as many people as possible.

As soon as Ray hears the news of the LA quake, he abandons his mission (he probably would have been fired, had this movie had a Marvel-style post credits scene) and heads back to save Emma. Good thing he knows where she was having lunch with Daniel’s snotty sister (pop singer Kylie Minogue)—because he arrives as the building is collapsing. Together, they head for San Francisco to get their daughter. En route, their conversation reveals the details of what ended their marriage—the death of their other daughter, for which Ray blames himself.

Their journey—both physically and emotionally—may seem a bit farfetched to some moviegoers. I’ve seen reviews use the words “no way” repeatedly. But as a parent, I can honestly say that if my child were facing such danger, I’d move heaven and earth to find him. It’s the family dynamic that makes this movie work—though the special effects are pretty great, too. And the women in this movie are as capable and resourceful as our hero. One of my favorite lines is a phone message Emma leaves for Daniel after discovering he abandoned Blake in the chaos in San Francisco: “If you’re not already dead, I’m going to fucking kill you!”

Does Daniel does get a smackdown from karma before Emma can make good on her promise? 

I loved the two British brothers, Ben and Ollie (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson) who end up with Blake in San Francisco. Ollie as the kid brother is delightful, smarter than he should be and possessing the boldness of youth. Ben is shy with Blake at first, leaving it to Ollie to play matchmaker for them (sequel, anyone?).

San Andreas will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you love disaster movies, this one’s a don’t miss!

(Also reviewed at Rotten Tomatoes and at Amazon.)