Thursday, June 30, 2011

In Which Mercy Gets Two VERY Different Reviews

First, a VERY kindly write-up that talks about what I’m doing with Ethiopia Reads:

Now, here's the interesting thing about MERCY - it's really a story about a mother (named Georgina Fulci - this book is fun) who will do anything to be reunited with her young adopted daughter (Mercy) and husband (Rob). The plane crash and zombies are the obstacles. So it's a story with lots of heart.

Second, my very first two-start review:

The main reason I struggled with this book was the timeline. The first fifty pages especially needed a more linear layout. (…) I get that at the beginning of most chapters she’s flashing back, but then the tense would switch and leave me confused. I honestly read the first fifty pages multiple times due to timeline confusion, and I never recovered from it to enjoy the rest of the novel.

Why link to a bad review? Well, because I don’t think it’s a bad review. The reader got confused. So far, this is the only review I’ve gotten that says as much. I find it interesting. And hey! They still reviewed it…

How to Make a Movie: The Complete Series

How to Make a Movie: An Overview


Story Part 1

Story, Part II

Writing Links and Books


More Screenwriting Thoughts

Tech Stuff



Film Festivals

Building a Character In Two Easy Steps

My Favorite Movies: 1 – Edward Scissorhands

There are certain things in life that just hit you at the perfect time, in the perfect place.

That was Edward Scissorhands.

It’s an old story. Awkward kid, dealing with all the emotions and new and exciting pressures and experiences that come with puberty and high school.

Honestly, most people go through an awkward phase. It’s part of life. As a teen, it’s hard to see, but as an adult you find yourself looking at the kids in your life, and you want to tell them, “You are loved, and handsome/pretty, and you’ve got a brain in your head, and this will all suck and then it will be okay.”

But that’s a hard thing to say to a kid, and most of the time, you suspect that they won’t really hear you.

Sometimes, though? They can hear it in other places.

I heard that, to some extent, in Edward.

Here’s a guy with no parents. No understanding of the social structure of the world. He ends up living in a house with a beautiful girl, but lacks the words to tell her how he feels about her.

He just wants to make people happy, but doesn’t really understand how.

Things go well for him, and he smiles.

Things go poorly, and he lashes out.

If you’re a human, you probably went through this.

From all this, I learned:


There’s another lesson in Edward Scissorhands, though I think most people forget about it today.

It’s this: Tim Burton, before making Edward, made a movie called Batman. It made lots, and lots and lots of money.

And that’s why Tim got to go on and make Edward.

(Christopher Nolan did the same thing, years later, with Batman, and Inception.)



No, wait. Sorry.


Which is to say, there’s nothing wrong with what so many people call “Selling out.” Take the gig. Get the clout. Then come back and create something small and personal, if that’s what you “really” want to do.

There are probably other ideas I’ve taken away from Edward over the years. It makes sense, since I’ve seen it 19 times.

(Yes, I really did start counting. It’s also one of three movies I saw in theaters twice.)

As I finish writing up why I love my five (well, six) favorite movies, I’ve noticed a bit of a theme.

Most of the movies don’t have happy endings.

Evil Dead? Sad (well, unhappy, anyway) ending.

Dawn of the Dead? Ambiguous, trending towards bad.

When Harry Met Sally? Happy! The only one, though. And the flick is shot through with misery.

Trust? Ambiguous, trending towards sad.

Student Bodies? Unhappy ending.

And Edward Scissorhands?

The movie that kind of taught me that everything was going to be okay? That really, I would come out of things okay?

Sad ending. An ending that says we’ll walk out of terrifying situations remembering the good, and that might be the only happiness we ever get.

In the end (and skip this, if you’ve never seen the movie) Edward doesn’t learn to get along with the world, and he doesn’t get the girl.

Instead, he spends the rest of his life, locked away in a remote tower, remembering the girl he loves as she once was.

That’s a pretty solid summation of life, right there. Sometimes, all you’ve got are the memories.

And yeah, life can be sad, and ambiguous. And sometimes you do get lucky and meet the girl of your dreams.

So maybe there’s a final idea in there:


Good luck.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Favorite Movies: BONUS – Student Bodies

I’ve spent years trying to explain Student Bodies to people.

For a long time, it was pretty tough. I’d bring up the name, and people would go, “Is that a…” and they’d look around, trying not to talk too loudly.

And I’d go, “No, it’s a kind of spoof comedy. Of horror movies.”

Then came Scary Movie, and people would say, “Like Scary Movie?”

And I’d go, “No, because Student Bodies is actually funny, stars no one famous, and is mostly forgotten.”

To my surprise, the last few years have been kind to Student Bodies. At one point, it was pretty much impossible to find. Barely released in 1981 in theaters, one of the producers took an alias as their credit rather than own up to producing it, last released on video in 1987.

Impossible to find to rent. Most of the time.

But here, again, was a flick that was sort of a USA Up All Night staple. It wasn’t the 10 PM movie, though. Or the midnight movie. It was the 2 AM movie, just like The Evil Dead.

When EBay became a thing and I wasn’t living a totally broke life, I actually bought an unused copy of Student Bodies for 15 bucks. This was after DVD had arrived, but before everyone started tossing their videotapes into the trash and re-buying their favorite movie on shiny discs.

I sort of figured I was would never own a copy of Student Bodies on DVD.

Then it came out. In 2008. Crazy.

I bought it for my birthday, and sat down to see it in widescreen with actual audio mastering. I could hear the words! Words I never knew before!

I quite literally planned to watch 5 minutes. Then 10. Then the credits were running, and I went upstairs and went to bed.

It was a beautiful thing.

So what’s it about?

Tricky to say. It’s about a girl named Toby who plans on keeping her (ahem) innocence, and encourages her friends to do the same.

They don’t, and because this is a horror movie, they end up dead.

And that’s it.

There are no direct spoofs of scenes from other movies. There are no stars, though I just learned that the old woman in the movie apparently had along career on stage and screen. Which is strange, because she looked REAL old in 1981, and kept working until 2005. There’s even a documentary about her.

So what makes the movie great?

Probably just one thing:


Seriously. That’s it. The movie looks terrible, even after re-mastering. The sound is sketchy in spots.

The acting… well, there’s a reason most of these people never worked again.

Most of the cast isn’t even terribly attractive, which was usually how you sold el-cheapo movies like this to cable.

The movie kind of makes fun of this – there is no graphic person-on-person action. Most of the violence is implied. No one removes all their clothing.

To get an R rating, they literally have to pause the whole movie and let a guy drop an F-bomb.

And much of the slapstick is… a little too slappy. Too obvious, and often too overdone.

But the dialogue!

Where did you learn to speak English? A zoo?

Ms. Van Dyke: What makes your voice sound so funny?
The Breather: I'm disguising it.
Ms. Van Dyke: How?
The Breather: By talking through a rubber chicken.
Ms. Van Dyke: I thought it sounded like you were speaking through a rubber chicken.

Toby: Who could have done these murders?
Hardy: I don't know. It could have been anybody.
Toby: Well, it can't be ANYbody. It's gotta be somebody.
Hardy: Of course it's somebody, but that somebody could be anybody.
Toby: Well, look, we didn't do it, right?
Hardy: Right.
Toby: So you can't say it could be anybody. WE'RE anybody.
Hardy: True, but we're also somebody.

The Breather: [on the phone] I'm gonna kill next at the football game. Click.
Ms. Van Dyke: Did you hang up?
The Breather: No, I just said "click".

(Confession: I use the zoo line on people ALL THE TIME.)

If there’s another lesson to take away from this movie, I don’t know what it is. This flick was long-lost and forgotten, except by a chosen few, which was enough to get it released on DVD.

And then, so help me, on Blu-Ray.

The movie? On Blu? Looks awful. If they spent any time re-mastering it, it doesn’t show.

But the flick is so much fun, and even history couldn’t kill it.

So maybe that’s the lesson, here:


So write a movie worth discovering three decades later.

My Favorite Movies: 2 - Trust

I once knew a guy who told me that two of his favorite movie-watching experiences were achieved by going into the video store, renting something with an interesting box, and walking back out.

I forget what the two movies were – or rather, I can’t recall one of them. The one I remember was The Boondock Saints, a movie with a cult so big it’s resulted in a documentary about the director, and a direct-to-video sequel, even thought the flick was a flop at first.

It was also hard to find. When it was first released, it was a Blockbuster exclusive. That was the only place you could rent it.

There’s something a little magical about the movie that’s hard to lay your hands on, but it’s a sword that cuts both ways. If the movie is so-so, your desperate search to find it can turn you against it.

But if the flick is good, you will pretty much oversell it to everyone.

Such is, I fear, the case with Trust, a movie I rank as my number-two favorite.

At this point in my life, I think it’s been more than a decade since I’ve seen it. And my last viewing of the film was so poorly reviewed by the person I shared it with, that to this day I’m a little afraid to go back and watch it again.

The thing of it is, the movie isn’t available in the United States any more. It was released on video, but the music wasn’t cleared for DVD (because, hey, who knew?) and so it hasn’t been released, and probably won’t be.

I only saw it because my local college had a movie channel, which was run by… I dunno. Someone who had a thing for teeny-tiny movies few people had heard of.

I bumped into Trust in the listings on my TV set one night, and I sat around for a few minutes just to see what it was. Action? Drama?

It came on, and I sat there, captivated. I found out when it was playing, and I taped it the next time it showed.

Then I kept on showing it to friends. And they all liked it. Except for that last friend…

What’s the movie about?

Well... A cheerleader gets pregnant, and her boyfriend wants nothing to do with the baby. At the start of the movie, she tells her parents she’s pregnant, her father says some very unkind word, and she slaps him and walks out.

Then he dies of a heart attack.

Then we meet our other protagonist, a slightly older guy, living with his dad. Only his dad is just a mean, mean, mean dude. Which rolls down to the son, who starts the movie by quitting his job and putting his boss’s head in a vice.

Both of them attempt to get away from their situations, and then they run into each other.

What happens next? They kind of, sort of, fall into a relationship. Only he has anger issues and she’s not out of high school, and neither of them even know how to be in a relationship. Or how to hold a job. Or are ready to be responsible adults.

I won’t tell you how it ends, but there’s a grenade involved.

Trying to describe why I love this movie leaves me a little stuck, frankly. Brilliant acting?


The writing?


The directing?


Here’s the issue: The movie looks, and looks often, like a stage play. The directing is rarely dynamic. The actors frequently seem to get only one or two takes, and they work so hard to get the words out just right that it feels like ACTING, instead of acting.

And then there are those words. Lovely, some of them, but they feel WRITTEN.

These are not real people talking to real people, which is what you hope for. These are ACTORS on a STAGE delivering LINES.

But some of those lines:

Maria: Can you stop watching TV for a minute?
Matthew: No.
Maria: Why?
Matthew: Because. I had a bad day at work. I had to subvert my principles and kow-tow to an idiot. Television makes these daily sacrifices possible. Deadens the inner core of my being.

And from the same scene:

Maria: Your job is making you boring and mean.
Matthew: My job is making me a respectable member of society.

Now, removed from context, I don’t know if those lines feel as beautiful as they are when spoken aloud. At that point, the boy has tried to subvert everything he is to become a husband and father.

You can feel that he just wants a family. A real family, with someone to look after. (Though he doesn’t yet realize he needs someone to watch over him, as well…)

But he can’t do it, and it’s breaking him.

This is our hero.

In the end, I think I took away these lessons from this movie:


When most people talk about telling a story, they claim that the “good guy” needs to be just that – a good guy.

But the boy in this story isn’t a good guy. He wants to be, but he puts people’s heads in vices, and carries a grenade around.

And you root for him.

A character doesn’t have to be a good guy for you to want to follow him. He’s just got to be interesting.


Again, the main guy? Scary dude. You can’t really be sure what he’s going to do next, and sometimes, that’s pretty worrisome.

I keep talking about the grenade. He carries it around. It’s always in his pocket. And that’s kind of terrifying to think about.

So, only one explosion in the whole movie, but just about every minute has the potential to become an explosion.


In the end, Trust works, even with all its flaws, because it’s sure, and steady, and fascinating from the first slap to the final ride in the police car.

Which also leads me to this:


Trust ends in a Lady or the Tiger-type way. Two people who seem to love each other are being pulled apart, and that might be for the best.

It might not.

As the credits roll, you get to decide. And that’s something more movies should try.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Favorite Movies: 3 – When Harry Met Sally

I spent years not really seeing When Harry Met Sally.

Home from college one summer, it came on cable and I started watching, just for something to do. About an hour into it, my parents came home (yes, I lived with my parents during the summer to save money), and we got to talking and I shut the movie off.

A couple of years later, a friend of mine showed it at an in-dorm movie night… except that she’d taped it off cable, and in the last ten minutes of the movie, the tape had run out, and so she had to put in a different tape, and we had missed two minutes of the movie.

Granted, they weren’t critical minutes. Harry had just realized who he was in love with, and was running there, which is supposed to build suspence, but, well, you know.

It’s a romantic comedy. They mostly only end one way. (My Best Friend’s Wedding is one of the few exceptions.)

Through those two semi-viewings, I did come to realize that a) I liked it a lot, and b) it was a strong reflection of a relationship-that-was-not-a-relationship that I was in at the time.

Later that same year, I got a pair of pants for my birthday, and they didn’t fit. So I took them back to Target, and they offered me store credit, and instead of buying more pants I bought a copy of When Harry Met Sally.

If you’ve never seen the movie, well, here’s a warning: It’s pretty plot-less.

If you ask the folks who made the movie, they’ll tell you it’s about Harry and Sally, who become friends, but know that sleeping together would probably be a bad idea. Then they sleep together.

Mind you, that’s not the actual plot, because if it was, the movie would be about 20 minutes long, since the sleeping together thing doesn’t happen until the movie is getting pretty close to being over.

What most interests me about the movie is the fact that, aside from being plotless, it has a few other flaws that should prevent it from being the classic that it is… and those are the lessons I most remember from watching this flick.


Don’t get me wrong. Billy Crystal? Meg Ryan? Nice people, as far as I know. Talented people, sure.

But at the time, neither of them was the biggest thing in the world. Billy Crystal had come off Saturday Night Live, and granted, they loved him there, but imagine in Adam Sandler had left SNL and then gone on to star in a very adult, thoughtful romantic comedy.

Didn’t happen. Adam took all his boy-ish rage and turned it into the Adam Sandler brand.

Billy went for something deeper. And he pulled it off.

Meg Ryan, sadly, filled her role a little too well, as the cute pixie-type girl. She played that role year after year, until she started to get too old, and then she kind of wrecked her poor face in an attempt to keep looking cute and pixie-like.

But she wasn't really much of a star, either. This was the woman who had been in things like Amityville 3-D.

And yet, the movie was good, so people flocked, and now it’s a classic.

Second lesson:


Harry and Sally meet. They walk away from each other. They meet again. They walk away from each other.

They meet again.

This is not really a plot. But the little details of what happens at each of these meetings, and the dialogue, and the way… but I’ll come back to that.

Great dialogue, interesting characters. People you kind of want to hang out with. You can make a movie with that.


A lot of people think you can only make a good movie when you have nothing but love in your heart for its creation.

I sort of agree. When people don’t really care about the movie they’re making, you can usually tell.

Except in this case.

In her last book, Nora Ephron, the writer of When Harry Met Sally, had an essay about the time she thought she was going to come into a lot of money.

She was super-excited about this, because it meant she could quit writing the screenplay she was working on. In this case, it was When Harry Met Sally.

She was flat-out writing it for a check. And it came out just fine. More than fine, really.

Stuff you write just to make money? It can be art, too.


This is the magic of When Harry Met Sally – the thing people miss.

They talk about the dialogue. The words.

But you know what makes all those words, and no plot, really work, I think?

The movie never stops moving.

They’ve got a scene in a baseball game. A scene in a mall, with karaoke, back before that was a thing.

They’ve got people having dinner parties in different places.

And they’ve got married couples, seemingly unrelated to the plot, popping up at regular intervals.

Some sequences are thirty seconds long, and take place while two characters are crossing the street.

It’s brilliant.

And you, and I, should strive for that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pondering the World of Marketing

So you might have heard (if you care about this kind of thing) that an indie author named John Locke (no relation to the Lost character, or the founder of Liberalism, as far as I know) recently sold 1 million books on the Kindle.

Probably moments after it happened, he used this achievement as a chance to sell his readers a book on how he did it.

It’s a short book, sixty-some pages, and he’s charging $4.99 for it. Which is sort of hilarious, because part of his marketing schema is that he sells his novels, which are a lot longer than his marketing book, for 99 cents.

In the middle of the book, Locke lays out everything that he did to become wildly successful, and in looking it over, a lot of makes sense. I won’t post his list of ideas here, because if you really want to know, well, you should buy his book. Assuming that it works, it’s worth the five bucks.

However, I did want to talk about one interesting thing the guy brings up: The Niche Market.

In short, he basically says that you need to figure out what your market is, then write TO THAT MARKET. The point is that if someone likes one of your books, they will like all of your books, and they will BUY all of your books.

In other words, you don’t want to sell a million copies of one book to different people. You want to sell 20,000 copies of one book to different people, who will then buy your next 20 books.

He says that if you’ve already started writing, that’s all right. You just have to figure out what it is about your work that people like, and then push those strengths.

After that, it’s all about getting your name out there. If you get one fan you loves your work, they’ll buy all your stuff and then recommend you to friends.

So, okay, here you go:

My work is a combination of the best aspects of Stephen King and Nicholas Sparks. I also do well with Twilight moms.

If you enjoy those kinds of novels in some combination, I can almost guarantee you’ll love my work.

Now, comes the big question: How do I tell the world that?

I’m still working on that. But now to take his second bit of advice and tell you where to buy my stuff.



And now, time to go do some thinking.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


As of now - right now! - I am 35 years old.

I know! Crazy!

What does that mean for you? Dunno! If you're a friend or loved one, I'm sure you've already told me happy birthday in some capacity. Thanks for that.

As I said on Twitter, I'd be curious to go back and tell 18-year-old me what's happened between then and now.

I'd love to end with something profound. But, you know, I think I'll end by telling you where to buy my books. Why? Tell you in a second:

Me on Amazon

Me on nook

Back in middle school, I started writing... three novels? Four? I can't even remember. What I do remember is that I never even got close to finishing them. This was an era before computers, when I sat and scribbled in notebooks, and didn't realize that a novel needs a story. A nice long one, to fill up all those pages.

And now here I am, 35, and I've written screenplays, and short stories, and novels, and now, thanks to the magic of technology, I can share them with you.

I think that'd blow my mind, a little bit, if I could tell 18-year-old myself that.

So I guess my birthday wish is I'll do something in the next 17 years that'll blow my 35-year-old mind.

And I hope that happens to you, too.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Wrote This Movie: Meaningful Touches

For those of you following my How to Make a Movie series, I thought I'd share one of my movies.

My Favorite Short Reviews

On "Stutter Rap," a Beastie Boys parody by Tony Hawks.

"Stutter Rap = Utter crap."

On, "Because they can," the Nelson follow-up to their multi-platinum album "After the Rain."

"But still, I wish they wouldn't."

Relating a review for a Neil Gaiman novel:

"On a scale of one to Gaiman, this book goes the full Gaiman."

May I someday write a line so memorable as any of these.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How to Launch Your Book: A Short Guide

Recently, a friend of mine published a book on the Kindle. He decided to shoot low, and sell it for 99 cents, and see what came out of it.

The dude is smart, and I like him a lot. So if any of the words you’re reading make it sound like I’m bagging on him, just know that’s not the case. I should say that before I say anything else.

At any rate, about two weeks after he put it on the Kindle, I asked him how sales were.

The answer was: He’d sold zero copies. In fact, as I type this, a week or two later, he’s still sold a grand total of zero books.

Now, in all honesty, I don’t know if he’s really that worried about it. He wrote a book (which is an accomplishment in itself) and now people can buy it if they want to. He might have done everything he wanted to in this particular instance.

But I’m guessing most people aren’t like my friend. At the very least, they’d like to sell a few copies of their book. Or write for a living. Or just, you know, have readers.

I’ll flat-out admit, I’m a rookie when it comes to this game. I’ve released three things on the Kindle and nook (one short story, a novelette, and a novel) as of this writing, and I’m selling steadily.

So if you want my kind of (semi)-success, here’s what you need to do to launch your book.

1. Put your book up on the Kindle and nook.

Can you sell it other places? Sure. But these are the big two.

2. Open up a Facebook account.

You probably have one of those. Otherwise, go to and create a Facebook profile. Then go out and friend everyone you know. And I mean this seriously. People you KNOW.

Friending random strangers is not where you’re going with this. Friend your family. Friend your friends. If you’re even a tiny bit social, you’ll probably have 100 friends in short order.

3. Make a Facebook fan page.

Go here:

Create a page. Use whatever name you’re going to use professionally. Which is the say, if you’re named John Smith, and you’re going to sell books as John K. Smith, make sure your fan page says you’re John K. Smith.

4. Start a Twitter account.

Go to Try to use your name, if you can, so people can find you by looking for

Then, set yourself a reminder to Tweet once a day. Twice a day, if you’re promoting your book, because telling people to buy your book gets old. By tweeting twice a day, you can tell everyone about your book, AND about how you really love marmosets.

5. Go to Goodreads.

You’ll find them at

Sign up and get an account. Locate your book.

Then tell Goodreads that you’re the author of the book. You can find out more information here:

6. Create a blog.

Easiest place I’ve found: Also, I’ve noticed most book bloggers use it.

You can make it fancy and use your cover art, but mostly, make sure you set up links on the side of the blog so people can find:

a) Your books.
b) Your Facebook fan page, Goodreads page, and Twitter page.

Then, set yourself a reminder to blog on some kind of schedule. Once a week is good. Three times a week is great. Five times a week is super-awesome.

What can you talk about? Talk about your book. Talk about stuff you like (100 Awesome Things about Marmosets). Try to talk more about stuff you like than about your book. That gets boring. It will even get boring to you, after a while.

7. Link everything to everything else.

Go back to your Facebook page, and tell everyone about your blog, and Goodreads page, and Twitter account, and Facebook fan page.

Most people will not flock to them. But some will, because they are nice people who want you to be happy.

Then go through your Fan page, and Twitter account, etc., and make sure that everything links to everything else.

Why? So people can find your book, of course.

Which leads me to the last part – which maybe should have been first.

8. Find book bloggers, and ask if they’ll review your book.

The fact is, if you’re being published by a publishing house, then, yes, they’re probably going to make sure critics get copies of your book. You can worry about this less.


If you’re self-publishing, and no one out there is talking about your book, chances are you’re not going to sell many (or any) copies.

How do you find book bloggers? Well, that’s a little more tricky.

A few thoughts.

a) Before doing anything, craft a generic letter. A paragraph that tells what your book is about. Really. Just one. Then a paragraph about who you are, and maybe why you wrote the book. Then, tell the blogger you’ll be happy to send them an e-copy of the book.
b) Figure out what genre your book is in. Figure out who writes those kinds of books. Google them. Find out who reviewed their books (a lot of times, authors link to their own reviews).

Email those book bloggers. Don’t email the New York Times.

Actually, don’t email those bloggers. First, look and see if they have a review policy, and then if they review self-published books, and will read e-books… then email them. Otherwise you’re wasting time.

Be sure to email them by name, even if you’re using a generic email. Instead of Dear Blogger, the letter should read, Dear Bob, or Dear Crazy Reader Blog.

If they email you back and say no, email them back and say thanks anyway. Because it’s polite.

If they email back and say yes, send them a copy of your book, and information on where to buy it. And a copy of the book cover isn’t a bad idea.

Then leave them alone, because they’re doing you a favor.

What will happen next?

Well, in an ideal world, you’ve written a good-to-great book, and you’ll get favorable reviews. Tweet those reviews into the world. And let people know on Facebook that people like your book.

Do that mostly on your Fan page, by the way. Or you might start to drive your friends and family up the wall.

After that? Well, it’s mostly about being social.

Check out other author’s blogs and Twitter accounts, see what they have to say. Say hello. Say thanks for the advice. And offer your thoughts on their thoughts.

You can also look into the Kindle boards, or join groups of people who are into your kind of thing online (Marmoset World!).

But more important than being interactive?

Keep writing.

It’s possible that your one book will fly off the virtual shelves and you’ll get rich. But chances are that if someone reads your book and likes it, they’ll want to buy more.

And if you don’t any anything else to sell them… they can’t buy it.

So happy writing, happy Social Networking, and most of all, happy selling!

Friday, June 10, 2011

My Favorite Movies: 4 - Dawn of the Dead

After graduating from college I found myself a lot of free time and a new job located next to Family Video.

If you've never heard of it, it's a rental chain that has probably the best rental deal ever: For a dollar, you can rent two movies for five days.

Granted, these aren't the NEW movies (those'll cost you) but most things fall to those shelves after 9 months or so.

One night after work, I wandered over to the store and discovered a magical utopia filled with things I wanted to see. That would cost me fifty cents each.

Things like Brain Dead. And Troma's War. And Escape from New York.

And Dawn of the Dead.

If you've never seen or heard of the movie, the setup is pretty simple. Three men and one woman try to wait out a zombie invasion by hiding in a mall.

Gradually, things go wrong.

Granted, that sounds like a fun film, as long as you're somewhat into zombies. But the thing that interested me about this movie was:

Critics like it.

Really, they do. Robert Ebert gave it four stars.

And among fans of the horror genre, this was considered one of the greats. So I had to see it.

Here's the amusing thing: It took me three nights to get through it.

Now, it's not a dense movie. But it is a long one. It runs over two hours, in a world where most trashy horror films run about 80 minutes, most studio horror films run about 90, and a horror film that actually cares about its characters might push you to 100.

But for various reasons (late work schedule, other obligations) I kept starting and stopping the movie, finally finishing it up one evening.

I'm not going to say that the movie knocked me out right away, but I found the movie impossible to shake off. It was a film with ideas in it, some subtle, and some not.


Mostly what struck me was how many quiet moments the movie had. At one point, one of the men and a women just sit in bed next to each other, saying nothing. She's pregnant. He's the dad.

And the world around them has fallen totally apart.

You can read a lot into their faces, if you so choose. You can decide that they realize they're stuck together, and they don't like each other much. You can decide they're afraid for their baby. Or you can decide that now that they're safe, they're coming to realize that even during an Apocalypse, life can be really boring.

The point is, the movie lets you think about these things, and decide for yourself, instead of having verbal sparring to no real end.

The movie also has satirical elements, with lines like (in reference to the mall):

Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

Now, you could read that as a straight line, and I'm sure people have. But it's also a pretty outstanding joke, and a sad statement about our culture.


Time passed. The movie finally came out on DVD. I bought it, and watched it again by myself. And then again, with friends.

And I realized something. Yeah, it's a thoughtful movie, to be sure. Lots of people die, but when George Romero, who wrote and directed the movie, wants you to care, he slows right on down and makes you care about a death.

But at the same time? It's an action movie, and a fast-paced one at that. There's a little talk at the beginning, and then some soldiers try to clean out a ghetto. Some people fly off in a helicopter, and have to fight to refuel. They find a mall, then have to fight to get supplies. Then they fight to keep the mall protected from more zombies.

Action sequence after action sequence after action sequence. Even at over two hours, the movie rarely feels like it's going to pack all its story into the non-action sequence moments.


When I went to write the movie up for my upcoming book, But the Third One Was Great, I got a fourth chance to really learn about the flick. And a little research told me that the movie didn't end the way it originally did.

In the ending everyone's seen, a couple of people live. And you can view what happens to them with hope (they'll be okay!) or with dread (they aren't going to be okay!). It's up to you.

In the original version, however? Everyone dies.

Romero went to that well with the original, Night of the Living Dead, and frankly, it was haunting. But this time around, he ended in an ambiguous way.

And you know? The movie was better for it.


Is that always possible? Probably not always. But it's something to strive for.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Five Favorite Movies: 5 - The Evil Dead

At the start of every semester, I gave my students a form to fill out. One of the questions on it was, "Name your three favorite movies."

What fascinated me about this question was how elementary it was - and yet, some of the kids didn't answer it completely. Two of them put two movies on the list, instead of three.

Of those two, both picked movies that had come out in the last year.

More interestingly, both of them wanted to make movies (in some way, shape or form) for a living.

Asking someone what their favorite movies are can get complicated, I suppose. For most people, it's an ever-evolving list, where you can revisit an old favorite and find yourself going, "Wellll... maybe this is number two instead of number one."

That I get. But most of us can at least list a few movies they really, really like.

But no.

So I offered up a list of my top five favorite movies. They are:

5. The Evil Dead
4. Dawn of the Dead
3. When Harry Met Sally...
2. Trust
1. Edward Scissorhands

And finally, a bonus movie that bounces around the top five: Student Bodies.

(In general, Student Bodies knocks one of the Dead movies off the bottom of the list.)

So. What does this say about me?

And more importantly, what did I take away from all of these movies?

Let's start with The Evil Dead.

I heard ABOUT The Evil Dead almost a year before finally seeing it. I had learned about the movie when I first discovered newsgroups (something almost no one remembers) on the early version of the World Wide Web.

There was a group called Alt.Cult.Movies, and as I started clicking around, I mostly learned that there are probably 20 cult movies that EVERYONE who know cult movies was into, to some degree or another.

(No, I can't remember the complete list. Sorry.)

At the time, Evil Dead as so popular that it even had its own newsgroup - alt.cult.movies.evil-dead.

So I hopped over there, and started reading up on the flick.

Here's the irony - The Evil Dead is actually a trilogy of films, and I had already seen the final movie: Army of Darkness.

I started reading up in this little flick, made by a bunch of friends in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere. I read about how it was unrated, how it was really brutal, and about how Stephen King was a big fan of the film.

More importantly, I read that the movie was incredibly hard to get your hands on.

Today, of course, it seems like everything is on DVD (except Trust - see the above list of my favorite movies). And if it's not on DVD, it's on Netflix. Or on On Demand. Or on Turner Classic Movies.

Or someone is putting out a bare-bones vault release of it in the future.

But this was the time of video, when if you wanted to find something, you went to every video store in town and hoped that someone hadn't stolen the only copy of a popular cult film, because it was the ONLY WAY TO GET IT.

Evil Dead had come out on video in the early 80s, and then they just stopped printing new copies. There were no more to be found. There was, as is not the case today, a finite supply.

And at the time, I couldn't get my hands on a copy.

So there's your first lesson:


Here's the honest truth - I think that if Stephen Spielberg had made The Evil Dead, and he used the cast of Jaws, the movie just wouldn't be as awesome.

Instead, it would have been everywhere, easy to find, easy to rent, and while the few copies that existed might have looked and sounded better, and featured better acting and improved special effects...

It just doesn't sound as cool as a movie made by a bunch of friends in a cabin in the middle of nowhere.

So keep that in mind. If you're making a movie, and you want people to hear about, tell them what you went through to make it. Put your best stories together, and polish them, and tell them to anyone and everyone.

Mostly the press.

Moving along, the story about how I finally came to see the movie.

About a year passed, and I found myself at home for the summer. It was a Saturday night, and I was at home because it was late at night and I wasn't on a college campus, where things sometimes actually happen late in the eventide. As always, I was having trouble sleeping, so I alternated between reading a book and seeing what was on USA Up All Night.

If you're not familiar with the show, it was... um... basically, it was cheap and/or cult and/or horror movies, with hosts. They'd show two back-to-back, one at 10 PM and one at midnight, and then they'd show a third movie, without any hosts, because if you're up at 2 AM you don't NEED a host, you need a prescription for sleeping medication.

Now, 2 AM was usually my limit. Somewhere between 2 and 3 my eyes would finally start to close of their own accord, and my body could shut down and I could rest. So I got ready to do that, and...

There it was. On my TV screen. The Evil Dead.

Now, granted, they were going to cut stuff (it was, after all, an unrated film!) but I could at least see it! Without having to hunt shelves on every video store in town!

Now, keep in mind I was TIRED. It was 2 AM, I'd be doing things all day, and I had somewhere to be in the morning.

I actually NAPPED DURING COMMERCIALS, which sounds impossible, but I did it.

And when it was over, I shut off the TV and passed out.


I totally got why people loved the movie. It was awkward and not-very-good and brilliant all at the same time.

I say this with so much love I can't fully express it. The acting was, in several cases, so-so. The makeup seemed almost painted on (it was!). And many of the special effects were clearly stop-motion, and looked almost ridiculously cheap.

Didn't matter.

It also had an amazing number of shots that make you want to cry out in joy. Sometimes it was the angle choice. Sometimes it was "special" effects that were obvious, but still kind of genius (Ash reaches into a "mirror" and puts his hand through it. It's water! Obviously, it's a trick shot with a bucket of water. But before you figure that out, your brain goes, "Whoooooah...")

And though I didn't realize it at the time, the flick offered something other movies weren't. Halloween had come out a year years earlier, and Friday the 13th came out in 1980.

Men and women in masks, stalking and slashing, were the order of the day.

And here was this little movie, taking a page out of Lovecraft (pretty literally, in part II) and, yeah, killing a few teenagers. But in a way that wasn't about revealing an arbitrary villain at the end.


And, yeah, the stop-motion looked pretty so-so, and yeah, the film stock was pretty grainy, and yeah...

Forget it. All those things added to the charm. In the strange way, they even improved the movie. A movie featuring a bunch of Hollywood-types, including a star, would have made you think, "Eh, it's all just a movie." But when you've got a bunch of no-names... anything can happen.

Over the years, The Evil Dead has gotten more and more under my skin. I've watched it multiple times, on VHS (bought a copy!) and DVD (bought TWO copies!). I own a copy of The Evil Dead Companion. I've watched every lost scene and interview about the movie that's reasonably commercially available.

I could give lectures on the film, I'm pretty sure. For that matter, if there was a convention and Sam Raimi (the director) or Bruce Campbell (the star) didn't show up, I could probably answer all the questions posed FOR them.

But the thing of it is, I can still turn off the lights, put on the movie, and know that I'm going to jump at LEAST once, even after examining every nook and cranny of the film.

That's good stuff.


Monday, June 6, 2011

What I'm Watching: TV Done Ended!

Back when I was writing Fox Valley Geeks (it's still out there, if you want to hunt for it, but it's not being updated any more) one of my favorite things to do was the run short updates of what I was watching.

Why? Dunno. But I tended to get people talking back to me about them. Mostly about semi-cult shows that people didn't want to die before their time.

Of course, they generally did.

I haven't done a full-on What I'm Watching in perhaps a year now. So here goes.

American Idol

I considered doing another big ol' recap of the show to put a cap on the season, but I can't say that I care all that much.

But, in short:

James: Sad to see him go, but losing him fell well into my, "Being in the bottom three can be good for you" theory pretty well. I suspect everyone else thought he'd win, and didn't get him the votes he needed.

Still, good dude, and I see good things for him in the future.

Haley: I was so happy to see her go, even as I saw her FINALLY seem to get what she was good at, which is a kind of classic rock/blues hybrid. Fact of the matter is, her low range was just about worthless, she's got a bad attitude, and you could see it on her face when she got cut. The look on her face didn't say, "I'm sad," it said, "I'm better than all of you and I deserve to be the queen. THE QUEEN!"

Lauren: They'll turn her into the next Miley Cyrus, and she'll do all right. Good for her.

Scotty: I said if James didn't take it, I'd be good with Scotty getting it. And though I called it for Lauren (as the Idol people really seemed to want her to win) I was happy to see Scotty take it.

Granted, I don't care for country music all that much, but he really seems to know what he's doing, and people seem to love him. And he seems like a nice dude. Hope he stays that way.

All in all, Idol is a pretty middle-of-the-road show you can watch with your whole family, and if you enjoy a good pop song (and who doesn't) it works. It's sports for theater dorks. So, you know. Fine.

My wife wants to watch another season, and I'll probably tolerate it. But I won't be jumping up and down about it.

Speaking of sports for theater nerds:



I've said in the past that the only way the show works is if you pretend everyone on the show is a moron. That's still the case.

But, you know. Fun performances. Some good stories here and there. Good acting, mostly. In particular, the very short subplot wherein Emma finally gets some medication for her OCD was nice.

Mostly, I'm curious to see what happens as we hit the end of season 3 and the class graduates. I figure they'll pull a Degrassi and keep a few old faces around through failure to graduate, and maybe as a class mentor or something.

I just hope they can get back to a point where the characters make sense. In some alternate universe there's a place where everyone owns the box set of a TV show called Glee, that only made it 13 episodes, and ended on a perfect note.

For the record, dumping Sue would help. Her character is like an extra limb at this point. Interesting and kind of entertaining at first, and now just getting in the way.


The only show I'm losing this year, much to my surprise. After a so-so first season, it got into a really, really odd second season, and ended by killing off almost the entire cast.

A gutsy move that might have made for an interesting third go-round. But I kind of doubt it.


A friend of mine and I spent hours talking about what this sixth season might be. Once everyone in the cast has died a couple of times, and stopped the apocalypse a couple of times, what's left?

You know, they pulled it off. It's been a lumpy season, with fewer great highs and no real lows. I'm calling it a win, especially now that they have a season 7 coming down the line, with a big, big, big problem they need to deal with.

The Vampire Diaries

You know what? Go out and get the first season on DVD, and then the second season when it comes out. Get past the first five.

The rest of the series flies. I promise you, you will stay up late nights watching "just one more" episode.

My good buddy wants to know what's going to happen to Supernatural next year. Me? I want to see if Diaries can keep up its totally relentless pace.

The Big Bang Theory

You know? It's a sitcom. Sometimes, it's a well-thought-out one. Sometimes, it's kind of dopey.

But more often than not, it makes me laugh. So I'll stick with it a while.

Modern Family

Sometimes, I find it scary how much this mirrors the world I live it. But I appreciate that. At its best, it's a wonderfully honest portrayal of a family that really cares about each other.

And that's nice to see.

South Park

My favorite thing to do is read interviews with the creators of South Park, because they all start by explaining how they thought they'd be canceled after six episodes.

200 episodes later...

As funny as it used to be? Probably not. But every once in a while they hit a cultural nail to precisely on the head that I'm reminded how much I enjoy having the show around.

From what I've read, the show is coming to a close in a couple of seasons. I'm good with that. I think you'd have to be crazy to argue that it didn't get its due...

How I Met Your Mother: Seasons 1-5

I've long considered doing a big, fat, write-up of my thoughts on How I Met Your Mother. I've even started writing one. But I can probably sum it up in a few short lines...

1. Ted is the worst character on the show, which is a pretty big flaw.

2. This is the hardest working show on television, hands down. It goes for broke every week, and tries so, so, so hard to find new ways to tell stories. That's to be applauded.

3. The only problem is, because they're trying so hard to break the mold, a lot of the time they fall short of greatness.

4. That said, when I finished up season five, and got my hands on season six, I wanted to dive right into it. The show CARES, and that makes it worthwhile.

For the record, though, the only truly great episode is Slap Bet.

But I don't care. I'll take a B on a show that's really trying over an A on the show that doesn't care any day.

And, finally:

Degrassi: Season 10 - first half:

You know, I'm a hardcore Degrassi lover. Started watching with the old series three years ago, and then plowed through EVERY season on DVD in an attempt to catch up.

Degrassi has always been a show that cared - one that talked about the world, and more importantly, remembered what happened from week to week. There are no "best friends" who appear in an episode, die, and make everyone think for 30 minutes.

No. The people count, and so do the storylines.

I will say, in Season 10 they've finally done the big conversion, and turned a lot of the show into Soap Opera. But it's a soap with a long memory, where everything that even happened can come back to haunt the characters later.

It used to be brilliant. It isn't any more. But it's still somewhere in the very good range most of the time, and that's more than people seem to expect from "Children's TV."


Speaking of TV for kids. You know all those old sitcoms that used to run on Friday nights? The writers work on iCarly these days.

So if you missed those, tune in. And if not, well... Try something else.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Stuff I Hope My Students Know

Dear Students,

We’ve come to the end of yet another school year. That means things are gonna be different next year, whether you like it or not.

New teachers. New experiences.

And if you’re moving, or graduating, that goes double for you, with new places to live, new social situations, and so on.

As I type this, I’m 34. I entered high school a hair over 20 years ago. You might think I don’t remember all that much, or that things today are different, but, well…


And yes.

But mostly no.

I suspect you won’t care all that much about what I have to say, or otherwise think I’m clueless, and that’s cool. I remember feeling the same way about pretty much every adult I encountered when I was your age.

(Oh, awesome. I’m now old enough to say, “When I was your age…”)

Regardless, here’s some stuff you should know about the next few years.

1. Everyone you know, friend or foe, has some aspect of their life that sucks.

To misquote Vonnegut, Jesus, and pretty much everyone else – “You’ve got to be kind.”

I’ll be honest, some people in your life are going to make you miserable. Accept that, and move on, and don’t give them another thought. In ten years, it won’t matter.

But don’t hurt people. That’s not cool.

2. The greatest thing that Facebook has taught me over the last two years is that I should have talked to more people.

I spent my entire senior year sitting next to a girl who I only found out a year ago shares almost all my reading passions. We could have had SO MUCH FUN. We didn’t.

3. High school is the best and worst time of your life.

In high school, I was probably part of something like 200 performances over the course of four years. I sang. I danced. I acted.

I had a girlfriend who I liked an awful lot.

And much of the time, I felt like a complete outcast, unsure of who my true friends really were.

It’s part of the process. It’s not any fun.

But there’s good news.

4. College is a complete reboot.

Really. No one there (assuming you leave your home town) knows what you did with the last 18 years of your life. And unless you decide to make a complete tool of yourself during your first week of college, everyone will assume that:

a) You’re not a moron (hey, you got into college!).

b) Someone, somewhere, thinks you’re awesome (even if it’s not true).

New experiences. New friends. New life. Reboot. Enjoy it.

But one last thing:

5. Don’t change who you are.

I mean, unless you really are just a straight- up not-good person. And I’m not talking about collecting spiders, or something. I mean, if you enjoy punching squirrels for pleasure, don’t do that.

Instead do me, and yourself, a favor, and be who you are. And like who you are. And you’ll find your people.

And be kind.

That’s it.

With Much Affection:


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Not a Good Blogger

Dear Readers,

Man, I've had things to write about. I have. But I'm tired. Why am I tired?

Well, let's see.

My wife has pneumonia, so she's been up coughing. And my four-year-old has had trouble sleeping, and keeps having to be put in her own bed. Oh, and we just wrapped up the school year, with many kudos to my students for their movie-making projects.

So, in short, here's a sneak peek of what's coming up:

What I Learned While Teaching High School Kids!

What I'm watching on TV (hint - Degrassi Season 10!)!

Some thoughts on dialogue!

And I'm sure it will all happen soon, right after my wife (poor thing) finishes her third round of antibiotics, which we need to go get from the pharmacy right about now.

Did I mention I've barely worked on my novel at all? And I promised a summer release?


In conclusion, I need a nap. But first - medications!