Monday, October 28, 2013

More Thoughts On A Funeral for Finn

A death on TV is a tricky thing.


The issue is, of course, that people die on TV constantly.  If I were to turn on my television now and start flipping, I could probably find someone in the act of dying, or recently dead, within a few minutes.


It reminds me of the commentary made by Tom Hanks in the movie Splash.  The mermaid is crying because someone has died on TV and she doesn’t realize it’s not real.  So he explains that it’s just a story and that same actor who just pretended to die will probably die again on some other show next week.


Subsequently, it’s hard to made death on TV really count.


It’s been done before.  Probably one of the most famous is when the actor who played Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street passed away.  Rather than just pretend that it hadn’t happened, a special episode was produced wherein Mr. Hooper had died, and everyone had to explain it to Big Bird.


I don’t recall seeing it.  I was probably a little too old to be watching Sesame Street at the time, since I was in the first grade by then.  But it’s one of those cultural events that reverberates.  People remember seeing it, both kids and adults, and I expect that it still sticks with some people.


Back in 1998, I remember very well hearing that Phil Hartman had been shot and killed, leaving behind not one character, but three or four, if you count all the people he played on The Simpsons. 


Of the shows Phil was on, the only memorial I really recall was on Newsradio, where they tried very hard to send his character off in a fitting manner.  Obviously, I never knew Phil personally, but it was clear that everyone on the screen cared about him, missed him, and getting through that episode was tough for them.


Which brings me around to Finn.


I felt, at first, that I wouldn’t have much to say about Finn’s death, but it came at such a strange time for me that I felt I needed to say more.  I’m not sure what, but more.


The Finn episode came just one day after a good friend passed away.  He wasn’t Finn young, but he was too young, and many of my fondest memories of my friend were (and are) of him singing.  So I was a little afraid to queue up the DVR.  I even offered my wife an out.  But she was good with it, so we proceeded.




And ultimately, it was Glee.


Glee trucks in big emotions, but all too often it feels like it’s being created by magicians who don’t understand how their tricks work and can only get them to function half the time. 


So when they took a page from Rent and opened with a song, I thought maybe they could nail this one.


And as it turns out… they couldn’t.


Ultimately, I think the best thing they could have done was locked everyone in a room for 45 minutes and just let them talk.  Put whatever they were feeling into dialogue and pick songs to match.  I think that could have been perfect.


Instead, they set up a mystery with Finn’s jacket.  And Tina whined about dressing Goth again.  And other moments fell with a painful, crushing, unimpressive thud, sometimes because of the painfully on-the-nose dialogue, and sometimes because the actors just didn’t have the range to make their grief feel real.


Which is strange, because it was.


Truthfully, I put that on the writing, and not on the actors, as the episode tried to be all things to all people, and show every possible reaction you can have to a death.


Though sometimes they nailed it. 


Finn’s parents?  Perfect.  Even though their dialogue sometimes slid towards the clumsy, they sold those feelings completely.  If they don’t get Emmys just handed to them next year, it’ll be a crying shame.  (Literally, now that I think about it.)


But much of the rest of the episode only worked in half-measures and it took me a little while to figure out what flawed the episode so completely.


It was two things.


First, the show flat-out refused to say why Finn was dead, claiming it doesn’t matter.


And you know what?  That’s a bald-faced lie, because it does matter.  I’ve had friends die from cancer.  I’ve had acquaintances die from suicide.  I had one friend die from pneumonia, which is absolutely something that should never happen and part of the reason I support the affordable care act so strongly, even with its flaws


I had one family member die in a motorcycle accident that was wholly preventable.  A poor choice was made and family member’s hearts were broken because of that choice.  That person could be alive today.


It matters.


And the thing of it is, they tried to show every reaction a person could have to a death, and they attempted to render the death generic that way.


But you know what?  That felt false as well.  At least one person being interviewed (a cast member) stated that it was hard to act in spots, because they had to pretend they were in denial about the death, and NONE of them were in denial about the death.


And I realize that “acting” is part of TV, but they weren’t just memorializing a fake person, they were also memorializing a real person, and that requires much more honesty.


And, in some ways even more painfully, they took time out to point out that the cast was on a show that could be phenomenally stupid.  By talking about Finn singing to the sonogram of a baby that wasn’t his.


I mean… really?


Perhaps it was flat-out desperation to pick that song, as Finn didn’t have a ton of solos.  At least, nothing that felt even slightly appropriate.  But then, why not sing a Journey song?  I mean, I know they’ve done Don’t Stop Believing a LOT on this show, but why not ballad it up?  Do something really bold with it?


Does it matter now?  Perhaps not.  But I spent that hour feeling awkward, feeling the characters being forced into dialogue that didn’t really work, and I rarely felt moved by anything that wasn’t singing or otherwise wordless. 


Because that’s where the real grief lay, I felt.


I felt compelled to complete this essay by, of all things, The Vampire Diaries.  A character had died (which happens… a LOT on this show) and it was a shock to everyone, and even though the character who was dead appeared in the scene (because she is not actually deceased)?  It moved me.  Because it showed genuine loss.  Because it showed those moments where you kind of hear your lost friend in your head, and hope that they’re happy where they are, and hope that how you are can or does bring them joy.


There’s talk that Finn’s death will continue to reverberate throughout the year, and maybe that’s the case.  But I’ve seen Glee abandon story after story over the years, and I suspect that the impact will end up being minor.  Rachel will move on emotionally and start a new relationship, and they’ll state that it’s hard for her twice… and then she’ll just move on, because Glee does.


Or perhaps I’m just too cynical.


To want more from Glee at this time is, surely, too much to ask.  I get that.  It’s a show that has to make it 41 more episodes and then shutter, and it sounds like the showrunners are already tired and unsteady on their feet.


The truth is, if they really want Finn to be remembered fondly, now is the time to double down and make sure the show actually works, not just 50% of the time, but 90 or 100% of the time. 


Because if they don’t, the show won’t go into that endless loop of syndication that keep shows like Cheers and MASH alive.  And Finn’s legacy will vanish that much faster.


I must say, I don’t envy them.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Brendan Halpin Reading List

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve spent the better part of the last year not-writing, mostly because of lack of time and a variety of other issues in my life.


I’ve been working on this post, off and on, for most of the year, and in this year alone, Brendan has published two books, which tells me that if I’m ever going to write this, it needs to be now.


I’ve created and recreated this introduction a dozen times, always getting bogged down in minute details that don’t really get to the meat of the piece.


And mostly related to John Green.


Here’s the deal, in very, very short.  You’ve heard of John Green.  You’ve heard of his massive bestseller, The Fault In Our Stars.  I’m sure of this because you can’t wander past any place that sells books right now and NOT see four dozen copies of it in three different editions.


And this part, right here, is where I’d got off on a four-paragraph rant how if you’ve read and enjoyed John Green, you really, really need to be reading Brendan Halpin.


I call it a rant because it wandered off on long tangents based mainly on my disappointment that Green is a total juggernaut of sales, while Halpin had to get his last book release funded by Kickstarter.


Here, by the way, is there I confess that I wanted to mention John Green (John Green, John Green) for the purely selfish reason that I hope people click on this link after looking him up on Google and subsequently discover one of my favorite authors.


Okay: Link-baiting John Green/Brendan Halpin discussion over.


(John Green.)


What makes writing about Brendan Halpin difficult is…


Well, a few things.


First, he’s a Facebook friend.  And what’s more, he blurbed my first novel.  (I asked him to, because I love his work and getting his stamp of approval is one of the highlights of my writing career.)


Second, I know he Googles himself (all authors do), so I’m sure he’ll read this at some point.  Probably a few days after I post it.  (Hey Brendan!)


Third, breaking his work up into discreet sections is an absolute bear, because the man (unlike John Green, who writes rom-com indie movies in book form, mostly with sad endings) keeps shifting his genres just enough to avoid easy classification.


And what makes it worse is, I think some of his books are absolutely essential, and they fall into a few different groupings (YA, adult and memoir).


So I’ve developed some of my own groupings, outside of genre trappings, and, well, hopefully, this list will take you somewhere you want to be.  (Like a John Green novel.  Except at the end, where someone dies or the romantic entanglement falls apart.)


Start Here:


For lack of a better way of saying it, these are the best of the best.  Most of these are not just Halpin’s best books, they are among my favorite books, period, and I’ve read all of them at least twice.


Forever Changes – If you only read one Brendan Halpin novel, it should be this one.  (Especially if you’re into John Green.)  I suspect the only reason it didn’t sell better (and eventually went out of print, Brendan has re-released it as an ebook) is because it’s a sad and scary subject matter.  It follows a girl who has cystic fibrosis.  She knows she’s only going to live another year, or two, or three.  So does she apply to college?  Does she fall in love?  What’s the point?  And how does she deal with her forthcoming death in the meantime?


I cannot state too emphatically that I think everyone should read this novel.  I made my book club read it, and of the ten or so people who came, more than half of them said it was the best book we ever read as a group.


And as for me, personally, I’ve never been able to think about death and dying in the same way.


It’s a sad novel, yes, but it’s also a hopeful one. You should read it.  (Especially if you enjoyed The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green.)


It Takes a Worried Man – This is Brendan’s memoir of his wife’s breast cancer.  It was his first book (it was started as a journal, and reads that way) and it details much of the fight.  The book originally ended in a place of uncertainty (they didn’t really know whether they were winning or losing) but his newly released version (the book went out of print and he re-released it himself) features a wrap-up that talks about the fate of everyone involved.


Long Way Back – A man’s wife dies, and he joins a gay punk band in an effort to help himself cope.  Once again, this has a certain John Green-y quality to it, but it’s about adults instead of kids.  Even though it’s fiction, it serves as a strange kind of semi-sequel to It Takes a Worried Man.  It’s about what comes next when you lose someone you love.


Losing My Faculties – This was Brendan’s second memoir, this time covering his life as a teacher.  As a teacher myself (and a child of a teacher, and a friend to teachers) I’m going to tell you this: You need to read it.  You need to read it today, and you need to realize what teachers are up against (kids, the school itself, and other teachers) and why education is more than a bit of a mess.


I honestly believe it should be part of every teaching curriculum in every university.


Then Go Here (Mostly YA):


Whereas the first group of books were the greats, these are the merely very goods.  I liked them, I would share them with people, and I would almost certainly read them again if I had unlimited time to do so. 


Donorboy – In which a girl’s two moms die, and she goes to live with the man who contributed half her DNA.  This one picked up an award for being good for young adults even though it was written for adults, and it put it on this second plateau mostly because it hits some of the same themes as his other books, but it also has a strange little sense of humor (the moms are crushed by turduckens, for example) that I suspect might sit not sit well with some readers.


It also introduces a couple of Halpin pet themes that appear in a lot of his fiction.  Being a vegetarian and gay acceptance.


A Really Awesome Mess – Over the last few years, Halpin has written a handful of books with female cowriters.  They each take one character, his male and hers female, and they alternate chapters.  Most of them are good.  This is the best of them.


In this one, the boy and girl end up in a mental health facility in order to deal with problems ranging from anger to depression to adoption to eating disorders, and those are the ones you learn about right away.  It’s the best book I’ve read this year (2013) and it contains the single best description of depression I’ve ever read in a novel.


The ending bends a little too far towards the fairytale, but overall, it’s so good I’m willing to let it slide.


Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom – A guy realizes he’s in love with his best female friend, only it turns out that she’s gay, and, yes, her name is Tessa and her town doesn’t want her to go to prom with a girl.


I think that, in life, we encounter a lot of people who we think of as an “other.”  This book is, I feel, about discovering someone you really care about is an other, and about how that changes you.  Again, it’s a co-write, and again, it’s got a fairy-tale ending. 


The Half-Life of Planets – I think the tag line was something like: A boy with Asperger’s meets a girl with a reputation, and that sums it up pretty well.  Mostly it’s about two people trying to navigate each other, and it’s a sweet little story that has issues sitting in the background, but which aren’t really the story.  Another co-write.


Notes from a Blender: Once again, a co-write, in which a boy who likes a girl suddenly learns that she’s about to be his step-sibling.


This one has the pet themes out in force, and adds blended families and a few other items that will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about Halpin’s life. 


Genre Stuff:


I realize as I’m creating these categories that I’m leaving out a certain subset of Halpin’s work – namely his genre stuff.  Halpin wrote two books as Seamus Cooper, both of them HP Lovecraft comic horror novels.


I think they’re all worth a read, but they’re so off the beaten path of Halpin’s usual work that I have a hard time sticking them in a particular “spot.”  So I’m putting them here, pretty much in the middle, which is where I put them on my “favorites” scale.


Mall of Cthulhu (as Seamus Cooper) – In which our hero learns that Lovecraft’s monsters are real, and tries to fight them.


Brendan is a fan of Lovecraft, and he takes a few hundred pages to snap him on the tail end with a towel.  But, you know, in a loving way.  Mostly, if you read the reviews, he didn’t really please anyone all that much.  Hardcore Lovecraft people seemed to want something else, and people looking for a comic novel didn’t quite get into it either.


As a person who is sorta “eh” about Lovecraft, I thought this worked pretty well.


Terror at the Short (Seamus Cooper) – Here, Halpin takes a few short stories, and links them together into a novel.  This one tries to tip more towards the horror and less towards the funny, and I enjoyed it.  This was also Brendan’s first attempt to DIY publish a “new” novel, in this case another Lovecraft novel that takes place on the Jersey Shore (and has nothing to do with MTV and that show at all).


I suspect this one would work better for Lovecraft junkies, as it leans a little harder on the scary.


Enter the Bluebird – This was Halpin first solo novel in years (outside of Terror) and he chose to Kickstarter it in order to get a better cover and a copyeditor.


In it, we meet a girl with superpowers whose mom, a non-powered superhero, has gone missing.  She makes friends, starts a war with the local crime syndicate, and meets a cute boy.  And…


Really, I owe this one a longer review, but I’ve only sat with it for a day and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.  (Sorry Brendan.)


Mostly I feel like I want to take my time with it because it has a lot of things in it that are new for Halpin as a writer.  It’s a superhero story, but it’s told in noir fashion.  It’s also a YA book, more or less.  He’s talked about writing a second one, and I’m curious to see what comes of that, as a lot of this book felt like the pilot for a TV series – it sets up a main character, yes, but it also builds up a “team” that, by the end, would certainly make for an interesting ongoing series.


For what it’s worth, I’d put my money down a second time just to see where it goes.


The Good:


For lack of a better way to put it, these are some of the lighter Halpin books.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, and I think if they found just the right audience, they could have been huge hits (though I don’t think any of them were).


However, the key issue here is: Right Audience. So I’ll talk about that as I go along.


Shutout –  Shutout is a story about teen girls who play soccer.  There’s boy stuff, and friendship drama.  And I think it’s the kind of thing that would make for a cute TV movie starring a few upcoming tween girls.


But it’s a light book, and deliberately so, and I don’t know that I was the “right” audience for this one.  But if you know a girl who plays soccer, you should give it to her.  Like, yesterday.


Jenna and Jonah’s Fauxmance – This is another co-write, about two TV costars who pretend to love each other, but actually loathe each other.  You can probably guess how it ends.


Honestly, I remain SHOCKED that this one wasn’t picked up by Disney and converted into their next High School Musical franchise.  Truly.  It’s light and fluffy and fun, and I think it would be a huge hit.


How Ya Like Me Now? – This was Brendan’s first crack at YA, and for a while I tried to get it turned into a movie.  (I had a few connections at the time, all of which failed me.)  I remember liking it quite a bit, but I suspect it fell into a strange gap where it wasn’t dark enough to find a grim audience and wasn’t light enough to find a non-grim one. 


Thinking back on it now, it feels like a more racially diverse episode of Degrassi.  And I like Degrassi.  And if you like that kind of thing, this book will almost certainly work for you.


The Few, The Proud, The Ones I Won’t Reread:


Brendan Halpin sits in my top three authors list – the other two are Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.


Here’s what I’ll say for Brendan.  He’s never written a book I just flat-out hated, and/or couldn’t read.  King has written a few.  Gaiman has written a couple.


But I should note, these books aren’t bad, they just didn’t appeal to me all that much, and my interest in rereading them is pretty much nil.


However, I need to add that they might work for YOU.  I just wouldn’t start here:


I Can See Clearly Now – This was Brendan’s last book for adults, and I remember reading it and knowing that there was no way it could be a hit.  The premise isn’t bad, really, but… Okay, here’s the premise:


A bunch of people come together to create the songs for a show that might as well be called Schoolhouse Rock, but isn’t because it would probably cost money to do so.


As novels go, it’s basically a light soap opera.  It’s an easy, breezy read.  But it’s not something that would ever, in a million years, become a New York Times bestseller.  As it is, I think the “Schoolhouse” angle was probably the idea that sold it.


It’s not a hard read.  It’s not a bad read.  It’s just an interesting premise that I don’t think could ever be “great” in execution.


Dear Catastrophe Waitress – This book, also, suffers from an interesting idea that doesn’t really work.  I think it’s possible it might have come together if it were a short story, but in this case…


Here’s the gist: Two people, one male and one female, have their lives ruined when their ex-significant other writes a big hit songs about them.


This notoriety causes them no end of grief.


Again, it’s not a bad book.  But it felt long, as these two people go through something like a decade of life before they meet and commiserate over what was done to them.  It marks the first and only time a Halpin book felt “long” to me.


Odd and Ends:


Halpin has written a handful of screenplays in an effort to try something different.  Here’s a quick rundown of the results.


Don’t You Forget About Me – Halpin wrote a sequel to The Breakfast Club.  As far as I know, it never went anywhere or did anything, and since you can get it on his web site I’m guessing he never got sued over it.


I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Breakfast Club (I think I was too old when I saw it, and perhaps too cynical) so my opinion doesn’t count for much.  But I felt like people who loved the first movie probably would have loved this, wherein all the gang gets back together and we catch up with them.


Baby, I Love Your Way – In this, a guy loses everything, and becomes a busker who only sings the title song, over and over.  There are fairies, but they play a VERY small role in the story.  And it shouldn’t really work, but it sort of does.  For what it’s worth, I liked it more than the books listed in “The Few.”


Notes from a Blender: The Sitcom – In which Brendan tried to make Notes into a sitcom.  I remember I had comments for him at the time, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they were.  If I remember right, I think I was under the impression that it would have worked better as a comedy/drama, not unlike Gilmore Girls.


There’s fun stuff to be had in the script, though.


Donorboy: The TV Show – This one, on the other hand, didn’t really work for me.  I think when it comes to TV, that both of these books could have been good TV, but I think they needed someone with an expert hand to co-write them.


And there it is – 3,000 words just to tell you to read Brendan Halpin.  Because you should.  Start today!

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Lost Boys - The Trilogy

It’s clear that my writing ability has taken a bit of a hit, as lately it’s been harder for me to write pieces like this.


To wit, this is the third time I’ve started this essay/review, and I’m still not sure I’ve nailed it.  But I’ll leave that for you to decide.


The Lost Boys


Let’s just get this out of the way – The Lost Boys is a classic of 80s horror cinema, and perhaps of horror cinema, period.  Sit down and watch it today, and you can see the DNA of all the self-referential horror that came after it.


Unlike, say, The Walking Dead, which seems to exist in a world where no one has ever heard of zombies, in The Lost Boys, people have heard of, fear, loathe, and actually know how to fight vampires, more or less.  And as you watch it roll by, you can see things like Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a few other progeny as a gleam in the movie’s eye.


If you’ve never seen it, here’s the setup:


A mom and two brothers move to an odd little town in California, where they crash with their eccentric grandfather.  The older brother accidentally falls in with a group of vampires, and is half-turned into one.  His younger brother and his new frenemies, the Frog Brothers, try to help the younger brother locate and kill the master vampire, which will allow the older brother to revert to human.


It falls into a weird crack, in a sense, because it was a horror comedy.  Bits were scary, and bits were funny, and in the middle of it there was even some actual drama, as the mom tries to figure out just what is going on with her son.


Most horror comedies don’t really work all that well, as they can’t quite get the mix between horror and comedy to come out.  Either the funny undercuts the suspense, or the horror just kind of takes hold and there’s no more funny to be found.


But The Lost Boys doesn’t have that problem, and the reasons are many.  It’s an impressive cast, for one:


Jason Patric - He never got to major stardom, but he was certainly a known and reasonably respected entity.

Corey Haim  - A sad end to his life, but a solid acting career that went for maybe ten years.

Dianne Wiest - Academy Award nominated.

Barnard Hughes - Not a huge name, but if you look through his credits, he was around just about forever, and did quality work.

Edward Herrmann - Still well-liked and well-respected.

Kiefer Sutherland  - Aside from some personal issues, he's had a long and well-respected career.

Jami Gertz  - Still around, still acting, still pretty well-liked.

Corey Feldman  - Had some years of rough road (and seems to be headed back that way) but at the time, he was coming off several years of really respected kid acting.  (Check out his work in Stand By Me, if you’ve never seen it.)


Then there’s the script, which in addition to catching that rare balance I mentioned gets some other things very much right.  The characters are well drawn.  The “jokes” are rarely jokey, or dopey one-liners that you used in find in action movies in the 80s.  Instead they sprout out of character.


Watching it 25 years down the pike, there are a couple of flaws.  The female characters are, for the most part, pretty inert.  They have little moments of mom-ness style protection, but none of them ever pick up a weapon and fight back, and in a post-Buffy world that doesn’t quite work.


The other issue is that the fashions are, at times, so comically 80s-esque that today they feel like a parody of the 80s.


But overall?  This is one of those movies that keeps getting released on VHS and DVD and Blu Ray and will probably eventually be released in a version you can attach to your brain stem, and it deserves it.


The Lost Boys: The Tribe


This one, on the other hand…


Okay, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way – people HATE this movie.  I mean really, actively, hate it.


But let’s back up and examine, for a moment, what the movie is.


By… uh… looking at another movie.


Okay, let us consider the movie Terminator.  A great movie, made for little money, and it still works all these years later.  Terminator 2 is also a straight-up classic.  A flawless film that anyone who enjoys action and/or sci-fi will almost certainly love.


And then there’s Terminator 3.


Here’s the truth: Terminator 3 is not a bad movie.  It’s well written and well-directed, and the cast is a solid plus.  The movie works, and if 1 and 2 didn’t exist, it would be a well-respected flick that bounces around on cable from time to time.


But compared to 1 and 2?  It’s a retread with an exceptionally good ending.


Now.  I am not going to say that The Lost Boys:  The Tribe, is anywhere near that good.  Terminator 3 had a massive budget, really talented actors, and a returning actor who was, at the time, still a big star.


Tribe, on the other hand, has… Corey Feldman.  And Kiefer Sutherland’s brother, who has a really strange accent for reasons I don’t understand.


But the movie is competently directed by P.J. Pesce, who has done a few direct to video movies and some good TV work. 


And when it comes down to it, this movie was one of those things that was going to come out, no matter what.  Warner Brothers wanted a sequel, and they wanted it cheap and they wanted it done by a certain date, so quality was not really of the utmost importance.


And it’s mostly a retread.  A brother and sister come to town to stay with their aunt, and they encounter, yep, vampires.  The sister becomes a half-vampire, and the brother turns to one half of the former Frog brothers team (Edgar, Alan is MIA) for help.


The big difference here is that it takes longer for everyone to accept that there are really vampires, and when they put together a plan to beat them… they try it, and it works.  In contrast to the original movie, wherein they kept failing.


My suspicion is that if people saw this first, without the original Lost Boys, it’d be one of those movies that’s watched and forgotten, but not really loved or hated.  (With the possible exception of a water balloon gag that comes off so perfectly I laughed in delight for almost a full minute.)


I’d say if you’re curious, it’s worth a look, but go in with very low expectations, and be aware that you’re looking at a sketchy photocopy of a near-perfect original.


The Lost Boys: The Thirst


Thirst, on the other hand, got nicer reviews, and watching it, it’s easy to see why.  Whereas the second movie was basically the first one done over again, this one at least shoots off and tries hard to go its own way.


And honestly, it mostly works.  Edgar is still on his own, but Alan is around, though he’s been half-turned into a vampire.  Edgar is given an opportunity (or so it seems) to kill the Alpha vampire, thereby allowing Alan to revert back to his human state.


There are other subplots, and more importantly, this movie adopts a bit of a team-building atmosphere, as Edgar adds more people to his caravan of vampire hunters. 


Which is to say, we could have gotten the same movie a third time, and instead we started to head somewhere.


More importantly, there are actual surprises to be had in the flick.  There are a few cases of concealed identity.  And when you find out the big bad’s plans, it isn’t a very good one, but if you squint it makes just enough sense to pass in an action movie.


And finally, the movie works overtime to try to tie itself to the first flick.  Footage is pulled from the original movie, and little ideas (mainly based around a Batman comic) from that first flick infiltrate this one and try to give it some depth.


Roughly two-thirds of the way through the movie, I remarked to my wife, “It’s not exactly good, but it has a certain charm…”  and really, that sums it up pretty succinctly.  I suspect that hardcore fans of the original don’t like this movie much, but…


Here’s a quick metaphor.


Back in the day, there were two Halloween movies, and then a third that had nothing to do with the series, and then a fourth…


And the fourth should really be terrible.  It was written at the last minute, just before a writer’s strike, and there’s really no reason that the movie should be passable, let alone good.


And yet, it’s a pretty good entry, complete with a solid closing scene that wraps up the story, but provides an open-ended option for future entries.


It shouldn’t work, but it does.


And Thirst is much the same.  If you go in with reasonable expectations, you can (and should, really) enjoy yourself.


Am I hoping for a fourth?  Or, as has been hinted at, a TV series?




Truthfully, it’s not the worst idea, but anything they do with likely feel like a retread.  There’s a hint at the end of the movie that they might try to take on werewolves next, and in a movie context, I think that wanders too far off the central spine of the series.


And honestly, if they went the TV show route, it would likely come off as a lesser version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or, more likely, Supernatural.


I think it’s time to just let it rest.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Maybe Too Much Mike Doughty

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of this year talking about Mike Doughty.  Whether he’s a good human being has come into question.  Whether his last few albums were decent has come into question.


And really, I’ve given more of my headspace to the guy than anyone who isn’t at least a personal acquaintance deserves.


Yet I’ve spent the better part of the last month listening to Mike pretty much all the time I’m listening to music.


Why is that?  I’m not sure, but it brings to mind the first time my parents made Cajun chicken.


I was in college, as I recall, and for years my parents had been in a pretty firm rut as to what they were going to make, week in and week out.


Like most parents I know, they had probably a dozen recipes that were cycled and recycled.  When your cooking and eating time is limited, that’s just what you do – sit down and make what you know how to make as fast as you can make it.


And then one day, they decided to make Cajun chicken sandwiches.


This sounds complex, but it’s actually a pretty simple process.  Thaw some chicken breasts, chop up some onions and red peppers.  Pan-fry the whole mess in butter and Cajun seasoning.  Cut two large slices of bread and shove the mixture between them.


Like most of the best food in the world, it isn’t elegant, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you keep eating just because it tastes so good when it hits your mouth.


The meal was so good, and so relatively simple, that they replicated it the next day.  I should clarify: there were no leftovers.  They simply made an all-new batch of food.


As far as I know this has never happened before or since.


And that’s where I’m at with Mike.  Something about him is making me need to revisit the experience of listening to his music.


Earlier this year, I pulled out his albums again, and I discovered that while I had let his newer music pass me by, I was just loving his older stuff.  Haughty Melodic is a tremendous record (of which I’ll say more in a moment) and Skittish/Rockity Roll is a fantastic little collection that demonstrates just what you can do with a lo-fi setup and some free time.


But I felt like I was missing something, and his new collection of old Soul Coughing songs really brought that home for me.  Fully two-thirds of the songs on that record were remakes of tunes I wasn’t familiar with. 


And while the critics had warned me away from his newer records, I just thought it was time to find out for myself.


Ultimately, it came down to a question of cash, and looking into these lost artifacts was cheap.  Three of his newer albums were available at my local library.  And I only required two more Soul Coughing albums, both of which could be acquired for seventy-five cents each online.


Duly stacked up, I started trying to put together a handle that I could put on all this music.


I considered doing individual reviews for all of them, but in the end, I’m not sure I need to.  I have some very specific thoughts about each album, but I don’t know that I need 500 or a 1000 words to detail them.


So here they are in order.  With a caveat that I skipped over most/all of his live records, and also Golden Delicious, a studio album I couldn’t pick up cheap or free.


But I suspect I will soon.  And here is, more or less, why:


Soul Coughing: Ruby Vroom


A lot of the time even if I don’t really like something, I can see why other people might. 


But when it comes to Ruby Vroom, I’m genuinely uncertain how these boys got themselves a record contract.


Well… okay, I guess I can see how they might have gotten onto a small label, the kind of place that puts out spoken word records, or poetry, or jazz.  What blows my mind is that this group, and this record, got themselves onto a Warner Brothers label and got their music out the door.


I’m not saying that the record is bad, per se.  But unlike their later records, there’s no handle to grab onto.  There are no catchy songs that might serve as singles.  There’s a lot of talking that isn’t quite rapping.  There are a lot of samples that kind of work in the context of the song, but sometimes don’t (though that’s clearly deliberate).


It might be one of the most off-putting records put out by a major label since Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention snuck Freak Out! into the world.


I think there’s catchy stuff there, and the band really gets to demonstrate their chops on the record but… I have a hard time believing they got it into records stores, and I’m even more amazed they were able to release a follow-up.


Soul Coughing: Irresistible Bliss


In contrast, Bliss opens up with Super Bon Bon, which, while still kind of weird, at least sounds like the kind of thing that could be a single.


And it was.


That’s the thing about Bliss, really.  While some of it is forgettable, this time around the band appears to want you to hear their record.  There are easy songs to listen to here, and even the stuff that just appears to be flat out oddball poetry (White Girl, for example) is at least somewhat catchy underneath. 


You can follow along and not get a headache.


It’s not a pop record, exactly, but it does give up a few of those spoonfuls of sugar that help the rest of the medicine go down.


Soul Coughing: El Oso


I once heard Soul Coughing described as one of pop music’s most interesting dead ends.


I would have agreed with him, I think, if these records had been released in the opposite order.  Ruby Vroom, to be honest, feels like a dead end.  A concept that goes about as far as you can take it, jamming jazz and funk and poetry together.


You could do more of it, but you can’t really do it “better” than it was done there.


To be honest, had the group stayed in that lane, I suspect I wouldn’t be writing about them now.


But instead, as the records went on, they wandered out of that dead end and pulled into a much more regular lane.  If Ruby Vroom was a series of crazy sonic experiments, El Oso is a pop record with occasional nods back at their oddball roots.


Consider: There are three songs on the record that could be, and to some extent were, hit singles.  Circles, St Louise is Listening, and Rolling might sound a little off-kilter from what you hear on the radio, but put up against other big hits of the day, and you don’t really have to squint to see how they could butt up next to one another.


Heck, the year ended with Cher’s Believe at the top of the charts.  A little sonic flutter-pop was to be expected, and Soul Coughing delivered.


Skittish/Rockity Roll


Although these weren’t actually released together until later in their existence, I think it’s worth lumping them the way they’re lumped now.


They were, in a sense, meant to be anti-Soul Coughing songs, in particular Skittish, which is mostly just Mike and a guitar.


What the songs reveal is mostly, in my estimation, what Soul Coughing eventually revealed.  Mike has a gift for a twisty-turn melody that bounces above his underlying simple chord structures.


What does that mean?  Well, I’ll come back to it.  Suffice to say that a lot of critics complain that all his songs sound the same after a while, and in a lot of cases, the critics are correct.


It’s been said that Johnny Cash only knew three chords and that all his songs only had six notes in them, and maybe that’s true.  But Cash released almost two hundred records in his lifetime, and 50 of them were made up of fresh material.


Which is to say, you can do a lot with a little.


Of course, on the other side of things, there are stories of Mike starting to play a song, people cheering, and Mike stopping and going, “Wait, this is a new song.”


So limitations have their issues as well.


But still, this seems to go in the direction Soul Coughing was going.  Even though there is still some obtuseness, this stuff feels more like songs.  You don’t have to create your own handle, it’s there for you when you turn the record on.


Haughty Melodic


Someday, Mike Doughty will be deceased, and people will mention Soul Coughing and Haughty Melodic in their opening paragraphs.


This is not to say that what came after was bad, in my estimation.  But Haughty is one of those rare records with no real flaws.  You might find things you don’t like, yes, but those are personal and not based on the actual material presented.


Or, as I said about Ruby Vroom – I can appreciate something without liking it.  And I love Haughty.  And I think people that don’t can at least acknowledge that it does what it wants to do very, very well.


It gets that entire mixture right.  Mike’s playing is often simple, but the arrangements, so key to the success of Soul Coughing, are even more sublime here.  Listen to Busting of a Starbucks as performed by Mike, and it’s a two-chord song with a chunka-chunka strum.


But on this record, there’s cello.  And banjo.  And a bunch of other little things popping up, surprising you, carrying you along on sonic waves of excellence.


His lyrics are also first-rate, nailing little emotions of life with clever wordplay and surprising vulnerability.  It all comes together in songs like “Your Misfortune,” which flat-out states that I, yes, me, I am your friend no matter what the world does to you.


Songs like that are a little nothing, and yet they are everything.


Sad Man, Happy Man


People didn’t much care for Golden Delicious, the album that came before this one.  I have no real feelings about it myself, except that it bothered me a bit to learn that Mike had recycled 27 Jennifers off of Rockity Roll.


And by all accounts, it was the best song to be found on the record.


Sad removed all the band and fiddling around that I enjoyed so much on Haughty and broke it down to Mike, a cellist, and a drum machine.


It’s a short record, a little over 30 minutes, and even the cover has an odd handmade feel.  I’m not sure what he was going for, but it feels like he tried to pull a Beck.


Because you remember the old days, when Beck had a major label deal, but was also able to put out his teeny-tiny oddball records on other labels?


This feels like that. A funky and weird little return to Skittish days.


Critics didn’t really dig on the record, and while I get why they didn’t, it felt okay to me.


But what it really reminded me of were the days when Prince wanted out of his record contract.


In the midst of all that kerfuffle, Prince put out a record called Chaos and Disorder, and it felt like what it was – cobbled together scraps which only true fans would want and everyone else would shrug at.


And shrug they did, and Prince was allowed to go on his way.


As did Mike.


Am I right about this?  Did he revisit his weird little avenue so he could be a free agent again, now that he was just famous enough to not need a label, and perhaps more importantly, not need to share his money with a label?


I wonder.


Yes and Also Yes


I think Yes was the first record where Mike really tried to split the difference between the two Mikes in question.


After all, he was a free agent now, and he could do whatever he wanted.  And what it sounds like is, he wanted to make some money.


I’m not saying this record is a cash grab, but it does feature something you couldn’t really find on the album before it – attempts at a hit song.


Read his notes on the record, for example, and you’ll find that Drive Into the Un, which is catchy as all get-out, was meant for a Twilight Soundtrack (though it didn’t make it).  Na Na Nothing has “single” written all over it, and yeah, you can find it on YouTube complete with video.


By the time you hit the back half of the record, well, there some more silly and some more experiments (including a song sung in German, for whatever reason) But it’s clear he’s splitting a deliberate difference here.


Unfortunately, I doubt Mike pleased all that many folks with this particular album.  It’s not busy enough to be Haughty and it’s not simple enough to be Skittish, and much of the criticism fell on Mike for not writing “songs.”


Which is too bad, really.  Of the later albums, this is easily my favorite.  And if he kept producing records like this, I think I’d be all right with it.


The Flip is Another Honey


It’s strange to think that Mike has now released two albums of cover versions, but that’s what the Soul Coughing record was, and that’s what this record is too.


That worries me, really, because Mike really is on his own now.  There’s no big money backing him, and that means everything he puts out from here on in is on his own dime and his own time.


And while I am more or less okay with his little sonic experiments, records like this make me suspect that Mike takes a long time to fill up the songwriting gas tank.


And I don’t think he has that kind of time anymore.


There’s nothing wrong with the record, and I guess I give the guy props for mostly playing a deep cuts game.  People cover Cheap Trick, yes, but Mike does so twice here, and never once grabs I Want You to Want Me.  He also gloms onto John Denver and does a serviceable job, and then he takes Sunshine and raps over it and…


And it’s all fine, really.


He even digs up a couple of other songs I just plain didn’t expect.  Randy Newman’s Mankind is nicely served by Mike’s gravelly throat.  And Ta Douleur is a song I’m pretty sure I would never have encountered if I wasn’t a fan of Mike’s.


And then there’s Send in the Clowns, which features no singing.  And I like Mike, but I don’t think anyone would argue that his guitar playing is why they buy his stuff.


But like the Soul Coughing record, it’s good but doesn’t give us more Mike.  Some songs are better than the originals, and some are worse, but most are just the same.


Just this morning, I pulled out Haughty Melodic again for the second or third time this year, and I queued it up and let it go and, yeah, if I was ever going to make a case for Mike, it’s right there.


I said before that Mike takes a while to fill the tank, but more than that, what I think Mike needs is some time to himself.  He needs to plink and plunk and create and then invite someone in and collaborate them.  He doesn’t need someone to do what he dictates, he needs something to push against.


And I hope he gets it… right around 2015.