Jul 212014

Jeff Cohen

My children, who are in their 20s, do not really grasp the idea of episodic television.

Oh, they get that there's a new chapter in a television series every week, and that they have to wait until the next one is aired (or if they're binge-watching, 15 seconds)  to find out what happens next. They get, mostly, that the story doesn't just play from beginning to end in one shot.

But they don't know very much about the way television was back in my 20s. When the same characters showed up every week, but for the most part they dealt only with the problem posed by the current episode's writer(s), they solved it, and they they disappeared until a whole new set of challenges showed up seven days later.

On shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or  1180207320_1F Troop, there was no concept of a story arc. There was a story and that was it. Next time there would be another story. That's how television worked.

Things changed in the early 80s when Hill Street Blues and shows like it challenged viewers with continuing storylines that were not concluded at the end of the week's show. You'd have to wait to see what was going to happen, and sometimes it could take quite a while. Characters would recur from season to season. Viewers were rewarded for their attention with callbacks to previous episodes.

Now, television (particularly in one-hour drama) is almost entirely made up of stories that stretch over longer periods of time. And like most other things, it has some good and some less than good to it.

The new show  Halle-Berry-ExtantExtant is an example: Starring Halle Berry, it tells the story of an astronaut in the elusive "near future" who returns from a 13-month mission to discover that she is pregnant despite her belief that such a thing is not possible. Not surprisingly, answers to the main story questions were not provided at the end of the first episode.

And I'll tell you, I'm just tired of the whole thing.

Lost was the breaking point for me--years of hints, quandries, theories, suggestions, and in the end, the answers given were just as irritating as not knowing. I have avoided some you'll-never-guess shows since then, and not avoided others I wished I had.

You're wondering what this has to do with crime fiction publishing, and you have a point. Consider this: each novel in a series--and I'm trying to complete the second book in one series so I can start the seventh in another--is an episode of a television series. The same characters usually reappear, a new plot is introduced for them to confront, and their relationships will possibly shift or change depending on the circumstances of the story.

Except: I solve the mystery at the end of each book. The reader (who finishes a book it takes me around three months to write in an odd number of hours) is not asked to wait a year until the next installment shows up to (maybe) get some answers to the burning questions.

At the same time, though, there is continuity. Characters grow; they develop. I don't have patience for a character who is the same in book #5 as in book #1. If the silly bugger didn't learn anything from the first four experiences, I can't expect him/her to be any smarter about the situation now. 

Sometimes a character will show up as a minor player in a book and I'll realize s/he has something that can be interesting in the series. 9780738741512_p0_v1_s260x420Two books later, it would be a major omission to the reader if that character weren't involved in the action.

So there is both the Old Television and the New Television in mystery series. On the one hand, people will develop and change. On the other hand, they won't change a lot, at least not very quickly. Because that's the way life is: People tend to evolve rather than have an epiphany every time something happens to them and completely change their personalities in accordance with their new self-understanding.

On the one hand, the story will conclude at the end of the book. On the other, the characters' lives are (usually) not over, and that means their stories go on to the next installment. (In the Guesthouse books, they can go on even after the character dies, which adds a level.)

The one thing I won't do is introduce a story that is huge to the characters and make a reader wait until the next book to resolve it. I won't leave a pregnant Halle Berry wondering what the hell happened for however many episodes Extant will go on. That's not how I write.

Oddly, my children do read my books, and it doesn't seem to bother them.


P.S.: Of course we're sorry to see our pal Ben LeRoy leave DEAD GUY, but this Thursday we'll be thrilled to welcome the wonderful Terri Bischoff of Midnight Ink to the fold! Make sure you check out DEAD GUY this Thursday (and every one thereafter) to welcome Terri and get her distinctive perspective on the publishing scene.

Jun 162014

Jeff Cohen

I know; I promised this week would be the antidote to last week's post, in which I would show you how to write a really good query letter to an agent. And I still will post on that, even after Josh's rebuttal last Tuesday (which made very good points), but not until next week. If you were waiting with baited breath for that one... it's possible you need to reprioritize.

Instead, I felt the need to vent a little on the "holiday" of Father's Day, which if you're keeping score at home, was yesterday.

Today, Father, is Father's Day

and we're giving you Necktie-The-Best-Collection-Men-Necktie-Formal-And-Poly-Silk-Tiea tie.

It's not much we know;

it is just our way of show-ing you 

we think you're a regular guy.

You say that it was nice of us to bother

but it really was a pleasure to fuss.

For according to our mother,

you're our father.

And that's good enough for us.

--Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby, "Father's Day"

Just a few short weeks ago, Americans (and for all I know, people everywhere else) celebrated Mother's Day, a holiday designed by florists and greeting card companies to exalt the concept of motherhood and move some inventory. 

I have nothing against Mother's Day, nor mothers in general. I think they should in fact be exalted and recognized for the impossible job they do raising children every single day. And that is exactly what happens on Mother's Day. You can see it in the respectful, reverent advertising that goes on for weeks before the Day itself:

Square_200_5922d8805ef7921354a78930 Tokyo-lebanon-mothers-dayKhoury-home-Mothers-Day-Ads-in-Lebanon

Mothers are, then, then, to be honored and celebrated on their day. Bravo (brava, actually). A nice idea. I always felt bad before the holiday at school for the kids who didn't have mothers while the rest of us worked on a card that (supposedly) looked like a flower, but okay. 

Good for you, moms. More power to you, and thanks for all you did and do.

So imagine my delight when this lovely specimen arrived in the mail days before fathers were to be equally well feted:


Father, Groucho Marx once said, is the town schlemeil. (That's something of a buffoon, Gentiles.) And while I could easily dispense with the once-a-year Hallmark fest because I have two children who show they love and respect me all the time, it's the presentation that rankles a bit.

Father-fruit-loom-hed-2014     Wearable-Sleeping-Bag-10-Fathers-Day-Gifts-So-Bad-Theyre-Awesome

Yes, that's right. All Dad wants is bacon in bed, a remote control, and a nap. Or a sleeping bag he can wear. (?)

The image of fatherhood has taken a pretty harsh beating since he Knew Best in the 1950s. Of course the antiquated idea of a man's home being "his castle," (which one assumes means he should have a crocodile-infested moat around it and parapets from which to pour boiling oil on rampaging Visigoths) has been swept away, and that's good. The family unit gets stronger when everyone has a voice.

But what's happened in addition to that is that fathers have become comic figures, and not heroic ones.  (I subscribe to the theory of Heroic Comedy, and this ain't it.) They are figures of ridicule, cliches, easy and fair targets. Make fun of mothers and you're a beast. Turn Dad into a grotesque figure who just wants to sit on the couch and drink beer, and you're the showrunner of a sitcom, making millions in Hollywood.

Oh, and by the way: Buy this Double_34855power tool for the old man. It's what he REALLY wants. (No, it isn't.)

So Father's Day? Eh. We didn't do much. Errands, mostly, some for my mom, some for my spouse, one for my daughter, recently back from wandering Europe following her graduation before starting work in August. The baseball game wasn't worth watching.  The only gift given was to my wife, whose birthday was a few days ago (we waited until the whole family was on the same continent). It required some assembly. Guess who did that.

And when you think about it, that's how fathers should spend Father's Day--reiterating the idea that we are essential, useful, and worthy of respect and love.

Maybe it isn't such a bad gig after all, huh?

Apr 132014

You guys! Some thieves tried to steal a pair of ruby slipper replicas from a Staten Island hotel! The best part is, there were three of 'em, a woman and two men, so it's almost as if Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow were to blame (I'm figuring the Cowardly Lion would have been too cowardly to participate.) Mystery writers, wouldn't this make a great heist story, with a few modifications? Someone please write that novel. Thank you. And thank you, Jezebel, for calling my attention to this theft.

Mar 032014

Jeff Cohen

You never know who may be listening to you--Paul McCartney, "Take It Away"

How about those Academy Awards, huh? Were you shocked? I was stunned.

I'm lying. I wrote this a week before the Oscars. Hey. Life gets in the way sometimes.

Still, thinking about the glamor and silliness of Hollywood--and the best thing about the Academy Awards is how silly they are--got me to wondering. My writing has certainly not made me a household name, and I'm perfectly fine with that. But if I'm being accurate (to the best of my knowledge), my books have, in the past few years especially, sold conservatively in the tens of thousands, and that's probably an underestimate. 

So after a while you start thinking that maybe one or two of those mass market paperbacks has made it into the hands of a famous person. 

It's sort of a cool thought. Who might be a fan of the Haunted Guesthouse series? There's no way of knowing, really, unless said celebrity were to reach out and communicate with the author (that's me). And so far, they haven't, with one exception, who was a friend before the series started and has blurbed a couple of the books.

Erin posted a while back about the impression an author leaves when making public his/her thoughts about politics or some other sensitive topic. The flip side of that is wondering whether someone whose positions I support might be reading my work.

Or what if it's someone with whom I disagree vehemently? What would that say about my novel?

So in order to prevent myself considerable embarrassment (after this display of undigestible hubris), I've decided to provide a list of celebrities whom I hope are or will be fans of my work. Because you never know.

My Hoped-For Famous Fans

  • Mel Brooks: Always at the top of my list, unless Harpo Marx is resurrected. If someone knows how I can get Mel a copy of any of my books, don't hesitate to get in touch;
  • Jon Stewart: The smartest comedian at work for the past 15 years. Can take an incredibly obvious joke and still make it hilarious. I don't even care if he likes the book; I just want him to read one;
  • Queen Latifah: Hey, a fellow alum of 8096523-standardFrank H. Morrell High School and multitalented performer. Jersey girl with attitude, someone I'd be proud to have as a reader;
  • Ringo Starr: The People's Beatle and funniest of the bunch;
  • Steven Spielberg: Let's face it--if he were a loyal reader, Josh and I would have heard from him by now;
  • Derek Jeter: Not only an unparalleled athlete entering his final campaign, but an aspiring publisher--someone get this man a book!
  • Bette Midler: Because she's damn funny;
  • Craig Ferguson: Doing the funniest, most subversive talk show on the air, and a fan of crime fiction who books authors on his show. Yeah, you could do worse;
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Simply the coolest guy in any room he enters. A superstar astrophysicist? You know if Dr. T. likes your work, you must be smart;
  • Bill Murray: I'm not sure why, because I don't think he'd like my work, but I want to hope he would;
  • George Clooney: This generation's attempt at Cary Grant, falling a little short but way closer than most of us get. Smart, talented, committed; what's not to like?
  • Tina Fey: She's really funny, and if she publicly said she liked my books, my wife would be impressed with me for the first time this millennium;
  • Gene Wilder: The best comic actor of the past 50 years, and an author in his own write.

To be fair, of course (or even not to be fair), it's probably right to list a few celebs who, if they are fans of my work, I'd appreciate keeping it to themselves:

Thanks-But-No-Thanks List

  • Ted Nugent: Yeah, and his music is lousy, too:
  • Mel Gibson: I hold a grudge. Move on;
  • Rush Limbaugh: You shouldn't have to ask why;
  • The Duck Dynasty Guy: I'm almost ashamed to have a beard because of you;
  • The Boston Red Sox: Nothing personal. It's a religious thing;
  • Alec Baldwin: Luckily, he's getting out of public life, so that will never become an issue;
  • Vladimir Putin: Keep your shirt on, Vlad. I didn't watch your Olympics, either, so we're even;
  • John Travolta: If he can't get my name right, he's not going to be much help anyway; *
  • Justin Bieber: Get help, man--or just get better advice, and listen to it;
  • Isabel Allende: You know why.

For the record: I doubt any of these people has ever been in the same room with one of my books, but this is a fantasy league sort of thing, where you get to choose the names and assume they'll go along with you--or not. So that's my list. What's yours?


P.S. Recently the world of comedy has lost its grandfather and its funny uncle. Rest in peace, Sid Caesar and Harold Ramis. It doesn't matter how old you were; either way, it was much too soon. This is a world that can't afford to lose the laughs.

*Added after the Oscars

Feb 242014

Jeff Cohen

BALTIMORE, MD--It's not about baseball. Not this time of year, although there are stirrings in Florida that can cause a fan's heart to hope. It's not about the impending retirement of the noble Derek Jeter or the welcome relief from the year-long sabbatical imposed on Mr. Rod. No, I'm not in Baltimore this weekend, staying within spitting distance of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, for the baseball. It isn't here yet.

I'm here because a Mad_squirrelsquirrel got into my attic.

A few months ago, we woke up one morning to a nasty scratching sound in our bedroom wall. This is not something you want to wake up hearing, but it was undeniable and just as unmistakable. Something was living inside our walls, and that something was larger than a mouse.

You can be all anthropomorphic about squirrels and how "cute" they are if you want, but when one has taken up residence in your attic, it's just a rat with a fuzzy tail, and one that can do a good deal of damage. So we had an "animal control expert" come by, and he determined exactly how Rocky was getting inside our house. There was a hole in the soffet next to our attic window.

I asked him if the hole could be plugged, and Mr. Ranger shook his head. "You need a roofer for that," he said.

Well, the time had come. We'd been living in this house for just about 20 years, perhaps to the day, and had not addressed our roof except for a few patches after Hurricane Sandy had her way with the entire state of New Jersey and its neighbors. So the roof now had to be replaced.

That's not why I'm in Baltimore. Hang on.

After batting around the idea of a new roof for a few days, Rocky_the_flying_squirrelJessica and I decided it was best for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves our partners in all endeavors the IRS, to take our a home equity loan to pay for the roof. And if you're taking out a loan, you might as well get a few other things done. So we had a number of windows replaced too, just to experience the thrill (once this interminable winter, um, terminables) of opening a window and not having to prop it open with a book (I know, book lovers, but it's a cruel reality).

Still not the reason I'm in Barry Levinson's backyard. I'm getting there. Here. Wait.

Besides the roof and the windows, we had to prioitize the 15-million things that we could have chosen to fix in our ramshackle abode. And the one area (besides that roof) we'd been working hard not to discuss all these years was the staircase.

Our stairs, which go from the living room up to the bedrooms, were in desperate need of replacement. We'd talked to our contractor friend who lives across the street some time ago about repairing them because of the hideous, cacophonous creaking that caused us to pause the television anytime someone would walk up or down, or put the phone on mute because of the noise. And our contractor pal had informed us that repair wasn't an option. These stairs had to be ripped out and new ones put in. And he intimated, without actually coming out and saying it, that it was best we do so before someone were to head for the living room taking the local and end up there via the express. If you know what I mean.

So this weekend, two gentlemen (including our across-the-street neighbor) ripped up our Imagestaircase and installed a new and--since I can now verify it--vastly improved one. But it took the better part of three days, and there was no way to get up to our bedrooms while that was happening.

We decided on this particular weekend because it was one of the few coming up during which we had no plans, and initially assumed we'd book a couple of hotel rooms (one for us, one for our son the budding filmmaker and job seeker) and wait out the devastation. And then it occurred to me that if you're going to have a couple of hotel rooms anyway, it might be an idea to, you know, go somewhere.

It had to be within driving distance, and given the kind of weather we've been having since roughly Halloween, cancellable if necessary. And it might be a nice idea if we had an event, a destination, in mind for at least one day. So I started searching around.

And it turned out that this weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was playing a series of themes from science fiction film and television, featuring our host, SuluGeorge Takei. And since we're all big Takei fans in this house, the deal was done. 

We returned Monday, before Josh's shift at the movie theater was to begin, to a lovely new and completely functional staircase, having enjoyed some film music presented by a distinguished group of musicians and an iconic actor and Internet personality. (Alas, there was no time to see Edgar Allan Poe's home as well.)

So greetings from Baltimore, Maryland, everybody. Except we're back in New Jersey now, and supposedly things will (sigh) return to normal. Sort of.

There's still painting and maybe a new floor in the kitchen to discuss. 

Damn squirrel.


*No squirrels were harmed in the posting of this blog.

Feb 102014

Jeff Cohen

There was much hoopla in the past few weeks about the date, 50 years ago last night, that a rock and roll group from England appeared on an American television show and "changed history." (You can't actually change history; you can make history. Once it's history, well, that's history. If you know what I mean.)

Nonetheless, I was not as ambivalent to the overblown festivities as I would normally be. I'm a lifelong (pretty much) fan of the ImagesBeatles, still think their music is fresh and amazing, and enjoy watching them be appreciated by those of all generations. So although the coverage was certainly disproportional to any event ever, it was not as irritating--to me--as almost anything else would have been.

This is not going to be another one of those this-is-how-the-Beatles-changed-my-life stories, I promise. I was all of six years old when Ed Sullivan put them on a bill with Tessie O'Shea, Myron John-lennonCohen (no relation) and a very young Davy Jones, in the cast of Broadway's Oliver at the time. Frankly, I wasn't all that impressed that night, and wasn't until I got to hear the studio recordings, on which there was no hysterical screaming by teenage girls. (After all, I was six. Girls? Ugh.)

No, my appreciation of what those four men accomplished goes in another direction, and I think somewhat deeper than most. What the Ed Sullivan performances show me are four guys who were just starting, who were used to the spotlight but not the United States, and who could have easily been exactly what the adults in the suits and ties were saying they were--a passing fad fueled by silly children.

Instead, they became probably the signature musicians of the century and their music is still relevant enough that today's PaulMcCartney60sartists cover their songs. Not bad.

I write books for a living. And in those books, I make up stories. If you want to call that an art form, I'm not going to argue, but it feels like entertainment to me. That is not to denigrate what I and my colleagues do; I have long droned on here about my high opinion of popular enterainment, and will not take back a word of that now.

The admiration I have for what John Lennon, Paul McCartney, MV5BMTUyNjE0NzAzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQzMzU3._V1_SY534_SX475_George Harrison and Ringo Starr did is based in their ability to start as light entertainers and then grow into really great artists who were also fantastic entertainers. They never disappointed (unless you watched Magical Mystery Tour expecting a coherent film), but they also didn't rest on their laurels. They didn't stagnate.

George Martin, the producer of almost all Beatles recordings, has often said that one thing he loved about the group was that "they never gave me the same thing to do twice." The songwriters in the group were conscious of the danger in repetition; they wanted to progress with each new recording, and what is most amazing is that they actually did.

I have been struggling Imageslately with the feeling that I want to write something really notable, something that would stretch me into new areas, uncomfortable places (as a writer) and hit new heights for me. (Don't worry; this happens periodically. It'll blow over.) I don't want to stop writing the things I write; I love those--but I like to think there's something more as well.

Unfortunately, I suffer from a common malady among such entertainers as myself. I'm not sure what my limits are (I know; you're not supposed to have any, but we are given a finite amount of talent without an inventory of how much we have). And even such a revered writer as George Bernard Shaw, late in his life, was urged by a rather nervy acquaintance--Harpo Marx--to write something new.

Shaw looked over, stared Harpo straight in the eye, and asked, "Got any ideas?"

Yeah, I haven't hit on that yet.

And that is what, for me, is the defining genius of the Beatles. Given the opportunity to milk their success into a year or two of tremendous wealth and fame, they chose instead to push the envelope. The group recorded 13 albums of about 14 songs each. In a seven-year recording career. Writing almost all the material themselves, while touring almost nonstop for the first four years. That's astonishing.

The more they recorded, the more innovative they became. String sections in rock and roll? Why not? Backwards lyrics? Bass lines that were sung instead of played? Songs with false endings, concept albums, extended medleys of new material that didn't have anything to do with each other but managed to come together cohesively. Done, done and done.

A Hard Day's Night. Day Tripper. Yesterday. In My Life. Help! A Day in the Life. Here Comes the Sun. Hey Jude. I'm just getting warmed up.

So those of us who entertain for a living should take a hint from those four "youngsters from Liverpool," as the condescending and avuncular Ed Sullivan said. Don't rest on your laurels. Don't simply write what you've written before. Challenge the conventional. Write to entertain oneself as well as an audience. Try things that aren't supposed to be done and see if they work.

It doesn't hurt if you're a brilliant artist. Or four. But since none of us knows if that term applies to us, we must operate on the assumption that if we try hard enough, we can find out. Maybe we are brilliant artists, and we just don't know it yet.

Turned out The-beatles-0John, Paul, George and Ringo fit into that category. But ironically in the end, the love they took was not at all equal to the love they made. Countless millions were touched by the music those four men created. And they were repaid very well monetarily, no doubt. They also lost all chance at anything resembling privacy, their fame eventually drove wedges into their personal friendships, each one went through a divorce, one was shot and another died of cancer after being knifed by a madman.

Oddly, our memories of them are usually happy ones. We celebrate their work and we remember them fondly. And sometimes, when we dare to place ourselves in similar categories, we wonder, since they did it, if we can become great artists just by pushing ourselves to the limit. And maybe a little bit further.

Got any ideas?


P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 4 days.

Feb 052014

It was a beautiful morning for a horseback ride through New York City's Central Park. Too bad it ended in sudden - and most unnatural - death for the rider. As a result, the very considerable talents of schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers and her good friend, Inspector Oscar Piper proved to be essential in solving The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, by Stuart Palmer. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

Stuart Palmer wrote more than a dozen novels and a fair number of short stories about schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, whom he referred to as "that meddlesome old battleaxe." Hildy generally teamed up with her friend (and more than occasional rival), New York City Police Inspector Oscar Piper to solve mysteries which very often appeared impossible at first viewing.

The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, which was first published in 1935, was the sixth book to feature Hildy and Piper. It begins with a murder – a murder in which Miss Withers quickly becomes involved. The victim, a glamorous fashion model, had been riding her horse, a beautiful red stallion and former racing horse named Siwash. At first, there appears to be no good way to explain her death, as there is no evident wound on the body, though there is blood in Siwash. Miss Withers helps Piper solve that problem only to discover that, while there are plenty of suspects who might have had good reason to want the victim dead, none appeared to have had an opportunity to commit the murder. There is a great deal about horse racing in this book, and the sport does play a very important part in the solution of the mystery. There is more than one murder – and, I would have to say, a really nasty method for committing murder that almost evades detection.

While The Puzzle of the Red Stallion is not the strongest entry in the series, there are a couple of murders and some interesting characters. It was made into a movie called "Murder on a Bridle Path," but I don't think it's available for viewing at the moment. The book is a fairly quick, enjoyable read. There are used copies available from the usual sources, but it's also been published as a low-cost e-book from the Mysterious Press and Open Road Integrated Media.

This book is another entry for this year's Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge at the My Reader's Block blog. The challenge this year is to fill our "Bingo" - type cards with vintage mysteries (Gold = pre-1960 or Silver = 1961-1980) mysteries. On my Gold card, this book counts os "one book with an animal in the title.


Jan 272014

Jeff Cohen

Let's have a brief break from the crime fiction and take stock of another form of entertainment close to my heart. 

It's film awards season! Everybody who has ever been near a movie set is about to hand out some statuettes in anticipation of the Academy Awards on March 2. And because my son now works at a movie theater (although anyone who has contacts in the film business and needs someone with a degree in that area--who works cheap--need not hesitate to get in touch), I've seen a good number of the contenders this year. 

So simply because my opinion is worth roughly the same as yours, let me offer a few on this year's more lauded films. SPOILER ALERT: None of them exactly knocked me for a loop.

In no particular order:

12 Years a Slave: 12-years-a-slaveYou have to figure this is a very strong candidate for many awards. It has the benefits of being based on a true story, dealing with perhaps the most hurtful period in American history and doing so quite well. And it has many British people speaking with American accents. It's a harrowing film with excellent performances by just about all the actors--the only false notes struck by Brad Pitt as the angelic white guy--and it portrays slavery in America in ways that have rarely, if ever, be seen on a screen before. In short, I'll give the last words to my son Josh, who said, "I think it was really good and I never want to see it again."

All is Lost: Robert Redford, playing... somebody... is stuck on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean when his craft is hit by a cargo carrier and starts to sink, just before a horrific storm hits. With virtually no dialogue and no other actors, it's Redford's show, and a major surprise that no Oscar nomination followed. Problem with the film, which is technically brilliant: You don't know who this guy is, you don't know what the hell he's doing in the middle of the Indian Ocean by himself, and you don't even know his name, so you don't really get emotionally involved. It's all about pulling it off, not really about involving the audience.

Gravity: Gravity-movie-review-sandra-bullock-suit-2"All Is Lost" in space, with Sandra Bullock. A little more talking, and one other actor on screen (George Clooney) for a while. We know more about Bullock's character, and that helps. It's technically amazing, but the story is, at best, slight, and there are points at which it stretches credulity. Google "Neil DeGrasse Tyson" and "Gravity" (or click here, but there are SPOILERS) and you'll see what I mean. Nice to look at. I don't remember much of it.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: The Ben Stiller version of the Danny Kaye version of James Thurber's very slight short story, which means there's almost no Thurber in it at all. It's cute, although not so closely fetched, and after a while you wonder why this Walter Mitty is doing all the wacky stuff he's doing. The daydreaming stuff becomes secondary. Someday someone should make a real movie out of Thurber material. Nobody's done it yet.

Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen Brothers take on the folk music scene in the early 1960s. Again, wonderful performances, especially by Oscar Isaac as the title character. But that character is so completely involved with himself and unconnected from everyone he encounters (including a cat) that it's hard to care. More music probably would have helped.

Her: A guy in the not-very-distant future falls in love with his operating system. Just to make it more believable to an audience, the OS is given the voice of Scarlett Johanssen. It moves along in that strange mode from writer/director Spike Jonze for a while, then takes a complete left turn two-thirds of the way through that comes out of nowhere. And we're supposed to care whether this "relationship" survives, but we actually don't very much.

Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks, in another notable Oscar snub, was probably brushing off his tuxedo months before the nominations came out just to be as surprised as everyone else. Here, in another based-on-a-true-story film, he plays the captain of a cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates. He's very good, the completely new-to-acting Somalis who play the pirates are even better, and the movie is sort of tense despite our knowing in advance how it's going to end up. 

Saving Mr. Banks: Saving-mr-banks-tom-hanks-emma-thompsonHere comes Mr. Hanks again. This time Tom is playing Walt Disney trying to get P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, who ALSO didn't get nominated!) to sell him the rights to Mary Poppins despite her being a giant pain in the butt. We find out why she's like that in far-too-numerous flashbacks to her Australian childhood. You never for a second believe Tom is Walt Disney--he's Tom Hanks--and despite the protestations that this is not a sanitized version, it's a sanitized version. That would be okay, except there's not that much suspense about what's going to happen, and the drama is almost all in dialogue.

American Hustle: Oh, boy, a movie about corruption in New Jersey, and just to make my home state look even worse, it's the late 70s. A VERY loosely adapted version of the Abscam operation run in NJ--and other states--in the 70s and 80s, here we get a bloated Article-0-19DA5A8A000005DC-252_634x894Christian Bale (and we get to see the Batman connection, because he looks just like Adam West) joining with Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to scam the mayor of Camden about something going on in Atlantic City, which is not in Camden (and we can see with a sign outside the mayor's office window that the filmmakers think Camden is in Essex County, which is only about two hours away) and... after a while it's hard to remember. Entertaining enough, but all this hoopla is odd.

Nebraska: Nebraska_0Bruce Dern (in a film that sometimes seems to be starring his nose hair) plays the inevitable befuddled old guy that a 77-year-old actor will be offered, and does it well. But the idea that this movie--about, um, a befuddled old guy who thinks he's won a million dollars because he's received a mail scam for magazine subscriptions and travels to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son (Will Forte)--is about Dern's character and not Forte's is silly. Forte is on screen much more often and it's his story that's being told. But everybody wants Dern to get an award. This one goes on too long, is in black and white for absolutely no reason, and is sometimes amusing.

The Wolf of Wall Street: There is no chance I would ever go see this movie. It's not bad enough that guys like this destroyed the economy, screwed regular people worldwide, and got off with a slap on the wrist? Now I should pay money (some of which will go to the actual person who did these things) to see them do it? I think not.


P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 18 days.

Jan 232014

Cold in July film

Calling it “dank and sweaty and fabulous,” Twitch reviews Cold In July, directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are) and starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson. The way the film is described can also be applied to Joe Lansdale’s writing: “dark, grim, all-too-real, refusing to stay within a predictable path.” Please join us in congratulating Joe as Cold In July is positioned to be one of the most buzzed-about films at the Sundance Film Festival.

And when can plebes like us watch the movie? Cold In July was just snapped up by IFC Films for nationwide distribution, and they’re expecting to release the film theatrically and on Video On Demand this summer. Read the full press release on Deadline.