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MATT'S OCCASIONAL WRITING BLOG

Only a Show Worth Binging…

The last show my wife and I found that was worth binging was Ted Lasso. Before that, The Walking Dead (the first seasons, not the spin-offs). Before that? I honestly can't remember a show we both felt like we just had to watch. Suffice to say, "must see t.v." is a high bar in the Lucas house. Recently, though, we came across one that's got us hooked. Yes, we're a couple years late to the party, but Only Murders in the Building has got us planted on the couch for two episodes a night, every night, and looking forward to the fourth season.

 

A washed up Broadway director (Martin Short), a washed up small screen actor (Steve Martin), and an enigmatic, out-of-work twenty-something woman (Selena Gomez) all happen to live in the same tony Manhattan apartment building, the Arconia. Strangers at first, each with their own complicated backstories and hang-ups, they share a love for a certain true crime prodcast, which brings them together. When a young man is found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot in the Arconia, the trio believes there may be something more to his death than what it appears. They team up to investigate and, since the elder thespians have nothing better to do, decide to record their endeavor as a podcast of their own (eponymously called, Only Murders in the Building). Somehow the hapless team stumbles onto clues and make more headway in homicide investigations than the NYPD.

 

Martin Short is delightful as always; and Steve Martin and Selena Gomez round out the trio with solid performances of their own. What unfolds over the course of the first season is wry and witty and, in places, emotional. It's a great blend of twists and turns that dishes out just the right size of revelations at just the right times. 

 

As to that last point, as a writer, I can only admire how deftly the show paces the reveals--whether it's backstory or new twists or exposition. There's a knack to that kind of pacing, and it's very different than plot pacing. The latter concerns the story's flow (which, ideally, should vary, beat to beat, so that the audience feels compelled to follow along but not exhausted). Revelatory pacing is a trickier thing. A lot of modern fantasy fiction suffers from bad revelatory pacing. So many stories are stuffed to bursting with exposition at the beginning ("Ten thousand generations ago, King Malagascter the Malevolent sallied forth under his dark banner to claim the first of the twelve dragonstones guarded by the Saphire Paladins of Scara Notis, who were captained by the bold Lord Aethelban, sworn to protect it by his family's oath to the Archmage Dzzlbintil'dagon ..."). That's not pacing, it's an info dump. On the other hand, a reader needs enough backdrop and storyline to be able to know who's who and what the stakes are in a scene. Finding the sweet spot where the story unfolds organically and understandably is one of the harder parts of speculative fiction writing.

 

Though it's neither literature nor fantasy, Only Murders in the Building offers a good glimpse at how to find just the right revelatory pace. I highly recommend the show.

 

-Matt

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Review: The Enlightenment by Ritchie Robertson

Five Stars

The Enlightenment has been written on, and thought about, and talked over, and lauded (and, lately, pilloried) since, well, since it began. So why another book about this subject, and why one that's over nine hundred pages long?

 

Because Ritchie Robertson's magnum opus stands apart. This book is like a grand mountain range. Sweeping, vast, intricate, in places difficult--it requires stamina to fully explore it. But its work well worth doing. From the simple thesis that the Enlightenment was, in truth, a collection of disparate Enlightenments spanning several lands and times, Robertson is a patient and incredibly erudite guide who leads the reader through one of the most profound points of human history. This is a timely study--and much needed in these times.

 

Highly recommended.

 

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Review: The Haunted Mansion

If you like the ride, you'll like the movie

I'll confess that, by and large, I don't much care for the Disney World amusement park. Never have. Too hot, too crowded, too expensive, and the rides and attractions never did much for me ... with one major exception. The Haunted Mansion. I could spend all day on that ride. With the pre-ride creepy show where the lights suddenly go out, and the scary organ music as you ride along a conveyor through a cobwebbed mansion, and the green, ghostly apparitions popping up everywhere you turn. I love it. Sure, the effects are a little dated now, but that's what makes it awesome. It's hokum and horror, blended to perfection.

 

Well, I'm pleased to say that Disney's new Haunted Mansion movie hits that vibe with pitch perfection. The underlying plot line is utterly ridiculous. Ben, a skeptical astrophysicist is down-and-out, leading ghost tours in New Orleans. But when a priest (we're never told if he's Catholic or Episcopalian), Father Kent, barges into Ben's home, Ben is thrust into a circle of people who find themselves haunted--perpetually--by a house chocked full of ghosts. The house's owner is a recently relocated single mother doctor, Gabbie, who, along with her nine-year-old son, Travis, are trying desperately to figure out what it is these ghosts want (other than to constantly scare them). For it seems that anyone who crosses the threshold of their mansion is doomed to be haunted, at all times, no matter where they flee to.

 

The circle of threshold-crossing, ghost-plagued people expands as the movie goes on to include Harriet the psychic and a completely preposterous Danny DeVito playing a professor of local history. As the story unfolds, we learn of the house's past, a secret, supernatural plot, and a whole heap of character backstory, all of which sort of, kind of coheres into an articulable plot. There's just enough of a story to justify a movie. And the actors play their roles just seriously enough to make that story work without losing sight of the fact that this is a fun movie.

 

It's fun from start to finish.  

 

The scares are plentiful and carefully crafted to hit the precise level of creepy corniness that makes the Haunted Mansion ride such a delight. Go into the movie with the same level of expectation you'd have going into the ride and you won't be disappointed.

 

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Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Lots of things moving really fast

I fell off of following comic book movies back around the second "original" Spider-man movie (back when Tobey Maguire was still doing the web-slinging). So jumping straight into a 2023 animated Spider-Man sequel set in the "Spider-verse" was kind of like, having not jogged for two decades, you one day decide you're going to do two hours of windsprints. 

 

Across the Spider-verse fits within a broader vein of classic comic book heroes reformulated into new characters and reset within bigger, broader "meta" comic book universes. The movie's center of gravity is not one, but two, spider-bitten super-heroes: Gwen and Miles. They're fighting crime in New York and tackling the challenges of adolescence (Gwen as a Spider-Woman, Miles as a Spider-Man)--but here's the knot: they're from different New Yorks in different universes.

 

This, of course, is part of the central conceit of the "Metaverse," the notion du jeure that there are infinite parallel worlds and universes all running alongside each other simultaneously. As it happens, there is a common strand between a fairly large number of these parallel universes: they all have New York Cities. More than that, though, all these New York Cities have radioactive spiders biting teenagers and turning them into a wide variety of spider-themed super-heroes who feel compelled, despite the usual challenges of adolescence, to fight crime.

 

Gwen and Miles are two such kids, misunderstood by their parents and friends, who feel overwhelmed by the awesome power of being teenagers with superpowers. When a faceless, bumbling villain called "Spot" shows up in Miles' New York, throwing holes (that look an awful lot like rorschach tests) into reality hither and yon, Miles and Gwen come to learn about the Spider-verse. Turns out all these alternate universe spider-heroes have a central node, a big futuristic city, where they basically make sure all their respective threads run the way they're supposed to. That point's really important, apparently. So important, the idea takes on a term of truly breath-taking self-awareness--it's Canon. And as long as everyone in the Spider-verse follows the Canon, everything can go on, more or less smoothly. 

 

Spot's quest for vengeance against Miles threatens to destroy the Spider-verse's Canon. While Miles' quest to chart his own destiny pretty much does the same. And, lo, lots of things move really fast and blow up.

 

This really isn't my kind of movie (we took our younger son to see it), but that's not a fair critique in a review, so I'll try to hit the highs and lows on the movie's own terms.  In terms of animation, this was a beautiful movie. Computer-generated animation has come a long way, and Across the Spider-verse shows it at its best. The action--and there's ample plenty of it--is fluid, fast (and at times, at least for this old Gen-X'er, a little bit overwhelming). The backdrops were inspired, alternating between sweeping cityscapes and, at times, evocative color spreads. The latter could've come straight out of a Ralph Bakshi movie (and I mean that as high praise). The voice actors all put in solid performances, as well. The script-writers deserve praise for the dialogue, which differentiated characters' voices while avoiding info-dumps. The score wasn't bad if urban and techno beats are your thing. 

 

The plot, however ... needed some tightening up. I say that recognizing this is comic book stuff, so its supposed to be big and sprawly and kind of winding. But still, the story line ran wild and never really cohered. It's also larded with teen angst. Everything in this movie--every parent, guardian, villain, and mentor, every secondary and tertiary character, heck, the whole "Spider-verse," becomes nothing but a crucible for Gwen and Miles' struggle of being misunderstood. That aspect of the characters certainly deserved a few beats in the story; it didn't deserve to be beaten to death. 

 

But overall, I think, Across the Spider-verse is a solid contribution to the modern take on the classics. Whether it rises to Canon or not, I guess we'll have to wait for the next installment to find out...

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Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

A solid 17 on a d20 roll.

Whatever boundaries separate fantasy novels from movies from video games from role-playing games are delightfully blurred in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

 

A bard (who doesn't really play much music in the movie), a barbarian, a somewhat hapless sorcerer, a shape-shifter, and (for a time) a paladin, are on a quest to retrieve a magical stone that will resurrect a lost loved one. In true D&D fashion, the only way to break into the magically sealed vault that holds the stone is to retrieve another lost artifact (a helmet), which is hard to get to and well guarded, but it can be used to ... well, you get the idea. The movie has all the classic tropes of a D&D game (specifically, a heist adventure), and all the free-reeling fun of a good RPG session. 

 

There's complications, plot twists, pieces of luck (both good and bad), and, of course, lots of swords and sorcery. It's funny (but thankfully, unlike a lot of modern movies, the humor isn't entirely sardonic). It's fast-paced. It's got plenty of action. Blend that all together with just the right touch of character arcs, workmanlike acting (no one takes their role too seriously, and that really works in this movie) and you get something unique: an RPG movie that can hold together as a movie while still keeping the feel of an RPG game. 

 

Grab your favorite set of dice, crack open a beer, and enjoy it!

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Book Review: Murder Your Employer

The Hogwarts of Homicide

Aside from the Sherlock Holmes short stories, I've never been much of a fan for mysteries. The handful of mystery novels I've read always felt like I was working through a crossword puzzle (instead of enjoying a story). So it was very much an impulse purchase when, as I was looking through a new Barnes & Noble that had just opened, I picked up Rupert Holmes' Murder Your Employer. I'm glad the store placed it where it did.

 

Set in the 1950's, the book follows three protagonists, Cliff Iverson, an engineer and all-around likable guy, Gemma Lindley, a young British woman who lost her father to illness, and Doris Maye, a Hollywood maven facing the twilight of her career. The three of them, it turns out, all have one thing in common: they each work for a boss that is utterly, completely, irredeemably awful. These bosses aren't just bad to work for, they're bad for society. Each of whom, in their own way, engrandizes themselves while impoverishing (and sometimes endangering) others. Holmes does a wonderful job of making the reader, like the protagonists, wish their bosses were dead.

 

As it turns out, there's a school for people like Cliff, Gemma, and Doris. The McMaster Conservatory located in ... well, no one (except the faculty) knows exactly where this pristine, Victorian campus is. Because the students are always brought there under sedation. At McMaster, pupils who wish to "delete" (the euphemism for murder) undersirable targets, take classes to hone their skills in the finer aspects of getting away with murder. There's a code, of sorts, and the course work is quite rigorous. The campus is, of course, bucolic--with dormitories, "labs," athletic fields, gorgeous parks, a quaint pub, and even a chapel (with a serving cleric!). Think of McMaster as a Hogwarts of Homicide. If this all seems a little much for the premise of a mystery novel, it is. But Holmes layers it in manageable pieces and serves it out with clever prose and vignettes, so suspending one's disbelief becomes a delight. The author also, quite wisely, doesn't endeavor to string an entire novel around the school, but instead breaks the book into halves.

 

The second half of the book follows Cliff, Gemma, and Doris as they return to the real world to work through their "theses" (that is, the actual murder of their respective targets). You'll find yourself cheering them on as three separate "mysteries" are slowly laid out through the point of view of the persons attempting to commit the crimes. The endings are not at all predictable, with plenty of twists and complications to keep the reader on his or her toes. 

 

Overall, this was a really enjoyable read. It may be a tad long (there are a couple of points in the first half that drag a bit). And the premise is absolutely ludicrous. But Holmes makes it work with masterful pacing, relatable characters, some fine wordsmithing, and a genuine sense of fun that's suffused throughout the book. Recommended.

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Review: Cocaine Bear

The title's better than the movie ...

There are three ingredients to make a "cult classic" movie: (1) an absurd premise; (2) a low budget; and (3) actors who aren't entirely sure what they're supposed to be doing. Cocaine Bear has two of the three. And that's the problem.

 

The central premise of the movie is pretty ludicrous. In the mid-80's, a drug dealer throws a duffel bag of cocaine out of an airplane over a southern forest and a wandering bear gets into it. Apparently, this actually happened in real life (which is why the movie has alternatively proclaimed it is "based on" or "inspired by" a true story--the latter being more accurate). Whereas the real bear dropped dead, the Cocaine Bear bear develops a nose for coke, takes on super powers, and goes on a seemingly endless, drug-fueled bloody bender. No one is spared (least of all, the audience). There's more horror than humor here. Park rangers, drug dealers, European hikers ... they all come to learn, in grisly fashion, that bears and cocaine just don't mix.

 

Oh, there's some half-hearted attempts to string together a number of plot threads: something about a couple of kids who played hookie, a drug dealer's son seeking his redemption, some love interests. They're all paltry and spread way too thin. And the only chemistry on the screen is the drugs. Nothing in any of the storylines really matter, and the actors all act accordingly.

 

But, then, that's not why you're going to see this movie, right? You want to see a bear on cocaine, right? 

 

Alas, the star of the show is not as cool as she could have been. The bear scenes (almost all of which are CGI) come off as pretty boring. There's no shock, no awe, and not very much to laugh at.

 

This could have been a funny movie. But it isn't.

 

It's not a particularly good horror movie, either. There's no real suspense, no dark, lurking menace. And WAY too many half-baked plot lines that never come together. 

 

So that leaves a "cult classic," which, I think, is what the producers were aiming for. Cocaine Bear has its absurd premise and more than ample meandering acting. The problem, though, is that with a $35 Million production budget, you can't really pretend it's been filmed on the cheap. Which is part of the fun of the old cult classics. Basically, the movie's overdosed.

 

Wait for the video.

 

 

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Stranger Things

I know I'm late to the party, but for the past couple of weeks, I've been working through the first two seasons of Stranger Things. Speaking as a child of the 80's--who played his share of D&D and rode a bike all over the place--let me just say this show hits a real sweet spot.

 

It's 1983, and a government lab in Hawkins, Indiana (something between a large, rural town, and a small suburb) has been engaging in covert experiments with telekinetic children. Why? Because their powers could be developed into a weapon against the Soviets--which is entirely plausible given the zeitgeist back then. But an especially "gifted" (but traumatized) young girl has unwittingly opened a hole into a dark, dangerous alternative reality. The "Upside Down," as this place is called, has all sorts of connections to our world.

 

Those connections, however, are mostly unpleasant. When ten-year-old Will Byers disappears into the Upside Down, his distraught single mother, his older brother, and his best friends and fellow D&D gamers, all go on the hunt to find him. There's deadly creatures, menacing fiends, and more 80's nostalgia than a New Wave Retro Night. High stakes, paranormal strangeness, government conspiracies, kids riding their bikes to save the day--Stranger Things is what you get when The Goonies meets The X-Files. It really is a delight to watch. 

 

A couple of small criticisms. The acting is a little bit uneven in the first season, but gets better as the show goes on. Also, the plot lines get machinated from time to time (mostly when the characters are getting moved about in clusters like chess pieces). But it's easy to gloss past those minor issues because the story is so fast-paced and foreboding. Highly recommended viewing for the Gen Xer who keeps a soft spot for malls, walkie-talkies, and classic role-playing games.

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GHOSTBUSTERS — Afterthought

Ghostbusters Afterlife dug up a nice piece of nostalgia from my childhood, pulled the corpse from its coffin, and made it flop around in a barnyard while mouthing unfunny lines from its dead, withered lips. Yeah, it was that bad.

 

The story has a basic "next generation" setup. Egon Spengler has died, alone, in a ramshackle farm in the middle of nowhere. I would have cautioned spoiler alert, but if you don't pick up who it is and what's happening in the first ten minutes of the film, you're just not paying attention (for which you should be commended). Apparently, Egon had an estranged daughter, who, in turn, has a 15-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, Phoebe, the latter being something of a replica of her late grandfather. They're also poor, apparently. The family is evicted from a pretty nice looking apartment, drives in a new-looking car to Egon's farm (now theirs). Phoebe discovers a ghost in the farm, who leads her to her grandfather's underground lab. Paul Rudd, a seismologist who is substitute teaching in summer school gets hooked in with the family. Ghosts start to appear in the little farm town. The kids and a really annoying sidekick take it upon themselves to take up the ghostbusting trade. And the last 45 minutes basically replicates what happened in the last 45 minutes of the original Ghostbusters movie.

 

The story was ... well, there was no story. The entire script was a patchwork of scenes machinated together for the sole purpose of having kids do "ghostbuster stuff" in a rural setting. The dialogue was horrendous. There was nothing resembling an authentic human relationship between anyone, at any time, in any part of the movie. The acting felt flat, but I pin that more on the terrible script than on any of the actors. It was, in short, a bad movie.

 

The premise was a good idea. And the special effects were fantastic. But they can't make up for a seriously flawed script. Which made Ghostbusters Afterlife not much better than an afterthought.

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Scream (2022)—It’s Pretty Bad

Run ... to another movie.

I've never been a fan of horror movies. And I grew up in the 80's. For whatever reason, slasher flicks just never did much for me. 

 

But when Scream (the original) came out in the 1990's, I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it had a typical horror movie's plot line (you've got a killer; you've got a bunch of teenaged potential victims; they run and, well, scream, and most of them get stabbed in various inventive ways). But the movie had a solid cast. It poked at the genre a little bit (all in fun), which gave it just the right amount of comedy. And it served up a neat twist in the end. I liked it. Apparently, lots of other folks did, too.

 

So, of course, Hollywood monetized the bejeezus out of it. And that is all the new Scream (2022) is--the last squeeze on the husk of a profitable franchise.

 

The premise is basically the same as the original. A group of teenagers who are, we are told, friends (you'd never know it from the acting) find themselves in the sights of Ghost Face, the masked killer who once plagued another group of teenaged friends in their small town. The story of the first group of friends became the subject of a film-within-the-film franchise called Stab. That movie (Stab) became serialized to the point of weariness, which kind of plays into the actual movie's plot, eventually ... assuming you care. 

 

The new kids immediately suspect the killer is one of their number--because they're all friends, and that's what friends do. Indeed, Gen Z of this little town is pretty darned sanguine about getting murdered. They sit on couches and chairs and type on their phones and riff off horror movie tropes and get killed. Eventually, the original crew of kids who were stalked by the first Ghost Face (Cox, Arquette, and Campbell), all grown up and a little grayer, get roped in to help deal with this new(ish) threat. Maybe you'll care about what happens to everyone. Maybe you'll be surprised that there's another "twist" ending machinated like a pretzel weave into the stumbling plot line of this movie.

 

But you probably won't. Because the acting is almost as bad as the script. With the lone exception of Jenna Ortega (as Tara Carpenter), everyone in this film is just going through the motions. Who knows? Maybe that was purposeful. Because if there's one thing Scream (2022) assaults you with, relentlessly and agonizingly, is how consciously "meta" it is. It's so very aware of itself, and its genre, and the conceit of highbrow art within its genre, and telling its audience about its awareness of itself, that no one involved in its making bothered to put together an actual story. 

 

Which makes this "requel" of Scream both tired and tedious.

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