Monday, May 22, 2017

PLAYING FOR KEEPS: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
Way back in the early days of the Internet, there was a little thing that went viral called “80s Movie Ending ”.  It was riddled with clichés: mismatched group of losers saving some house, an impassioned speech, some rich fuddy-duddy gets beaten and humiliated, love is found (and every pairing that can be paired is paired), some slacker proves his worth.
Playing For Keeps is the quintessence of what this short was parodying.  It is the avatar of what the platonic ideal of "generic 80s movie" is.  If you didn’t know better, you might think that "80s Ending" was the end of this movie.  If you’ve heard of it at all.  It doesn’t exactly have notoriety.  But it does have a little.
It’s first claim to fame: this is the Weinstein Brothers one foray into directing.  No one who has seen this is shocked they didn’t stick with it.
Its other claim is it’s Oscar winner Marisa Tomei’s earliest role.  Really. The opening credits even say, “Introducing Marisa Tomei”.  Her part isn’t minor, but it’s not especially significant.  I think she’s the girlfriend of the Jock Guy. But it's clear they knew even then that if only one aspect of the movie was going anywhere, it was going to be her.  Sometimes you just know when you're around someone who is going to be huge.  So you better believe when the movie got a VHS re-release in the 90s, it was with a cover that featured Marisa prominently.
Of course, it should be noted that when I saw the first trailer for My Cousin Vinny, my thought was, “Hey, it’s that girl from Playing for Keeps!”
Anyhow, here's the plot, which is about three young guys.  We mainly focus on a Dreamer Guy, fresh out of high school (where he was class president, but yet gave a graduation speech of “screw school, man!”) and yet with no prospects on the horizon.  With his friends Jock Guy and Music Guy (yes, these characters have names, but do they really matter?  No, no they don't.), they seem to have a whole lot of nothing to do.  Oh, except playing some sort of strange urban game that’s half hide-and-seek and half kidnapping-your-frenemies.  I really cannot describe it any other way: it’s like capture the flag, except the other team are the flags.  They’re in downtown Brooklyn and grabbing each other and stuffing each other in dumpsters and car trunks.  I can’t imagine this happening without cops getting involved.  Anyway, the point is: losers.  But they’re literally 18 years old with nothing better to do.  Fortunately, destiny steps in and Dreamer Guy discovers he inherited a hotel from a distant aunt somewhere in Pennsylvania.  Seriously, he just opens a box in the kitchen drawer, where the deed is just sitting there.   This movie doesn't even bother having it come in the mail.  It's just SITTING THERE.
So he’s all, “I guess I own a hotel now, let’s go” and loads up Jock Guy and Music Guy into a van and they drive out.  Of course, it’s a disaster: the place is falling apart, thousands in back taxes are owed, and the townsfolk are horrible people.  Really, townfolk believe that they, themselves, are good decent people who don’t want city kids messing up their town, but no.  They are just legitimately terrible human beings. Three guys beat up Music Guy and Jock Guy in the diner just for walking in, because they're “city trash”.  The grocery store literally won’t sell them food.  Why?  Because they are city kids.  They get thrown into jail for jaywalking.  They’re a “bad element”.
Because nothing says “bad element” like kids fixing a broken down old hotel so they can run it. The nerve of these kids.
Plus—and I can’t believe I’m not making this up—there’s an evil industrialist who wants the land so he can make it into a toxic waste dump, and there's also a town council guy WHO WANTS THIS TO HAPPEN.  Can you get anymore mustache-twirling evil?
Dreamer, Jock and Music Guy have a dream, though: a rock-and-roll party hotel for teens.  Now, I’m not one to mock people for their dreams, but it strikes me as poor planning to deliberately target a demographic that doesn’t have a whole lot of expendable income to go way out to the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania just for a "rock-and-roll" party.  But this was before Burning Man was a thing, so maybe they were on to something.
Tthe movie gets somewhat coming-of-agey, in that Dreamer Guy grows up a little, in that he learns how to work with the bureaucratic roadblocks the town puts in his path.  So he’s got to figure out how to open a bank account, pay a tax bill, and convince friends to give cheap labor.  He’s got a month to get the building up to code, and the hardest task involves getting leech field dug for the septic system.
So with more music montages than you can shake a stick at, these kids clean up their act.  And the hotel.  And they break into half the places in town to cause general chaos, but that's just as a diversion to get a backhoe across town and over a dangerous bridge so they can dig that leech field.
Seriously, that’s the whole back half of the movie: the town fucks with them, and they fuck with the town.
Including, and I’m NOT MAKING THIS UP, kidnapping the town elders.  But that’s so they can be listening in secret when the Evil Town Elder reveals his part in the “sell out to toxic waste” plan.  He monolgues about his part in the evil plan in a darkened room with a bunch of closed curtains, and then Dreamer Kid pulls down the curtain to reveal he’s caught.
And then there’s a big party.
The 80iest ending big hotel party EVER.  Every one of the main characters and their minor characters gets their “thing”.  There’s aerobics.  There’s pastel décor. There’s a video arcade.  There’s feel-good synth music.  And there is an inexplicable crowd of teenagers who drove out to some hotel in the middle of nowhere for a party.
Maybe those townspeople had a point.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

My Kingdom for a Writer Retreat

Writing is a solitary activity.  It is fundamentally about holing up somewhere and shutting out the world and getting the work done.  This is a job for introverts.  
But promotion, appearances, interacting with the fellow writing community?  That takes extroversion. And I can do that: I can turn it on and get the job done.  But then I want to crawl back into a hole and just write.  
Now, as things currently go, I don't have much option for holing up.  There's no single space in the house that's just for me just to write.  We also run our business out of the house, and due to the nature of it there isn't an area that can be just MINE all the time.  
This past weekend at Comicpalooza, I was sitting with a bunch of writers, and one that I didn't recognize (and because, you know, that's how things go, no introductions were made between us) talked about finalizing his cabin in the woods: isolated, with a great view of a lake (but still only a few minutes away from the grocery store).  The perfect place to be completely disconnected from the world and just get writing done.
I said that sounded like bliss.
Turns out that guy I didn't recognize was Jim Butcher.
If Jim Butcher is only JUST getting his cabin on the lake to write in isolation, it's going to be a bit for me. So I'll keep working out of my bag, using my headphones to isolate myself.  (And reminding my family that Headphones Means Do Not Disturb.)
All that said: if any of you out there has a cabin on the lake or beachhouse or isolated studio or adobe hut in the desert you want to lend me for a week or so?  Let's talk.  I would love to have a place to retreat to, if just for a little bit.

Monday, May 15, 2017

FOR KEEPS: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
If there was one thing the 80s loved, it was a heavy-handed morality tale.  And did For Keeps deliver that in spades.
The basic gist of For Keeps is one the 80s really loved, namely: Teens Have Sex So Their Lives Are Ruined (But You Should Love That Life-Ruining Baby Anyway).
The movie starred Molly Ringwald, America’s Sweetheart at the time, who had spent Sixteen CandlesThe Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink essentially being the good girl.  This made her the perfect candidate for a movie about a good girl who gets ruined by a stupid penis.  Randall Batinkoff was perfect as the stupid penis, as he wasn’t known for anything in particular, or really anything else since, because that’s what happens when you knock up America’s Sweetheart, buddy.
Pictured: Ruined Lives.  And an amazing miracle.  Mileage May Vary.So, Molly is an 18-year-old senior in high school whose life is full of promise and potential.  She speaks fluent French!  She’s gonna go to college!  The world is her oyster, mostly due to the fact that her somewhat batty, over-controlling mother has orchestrated Molly's life to perfection.  Which is why its pretty astounding— even unbelievable— that said mother allows Molly to go visit one of her prospective colleges without any supervision. Molly and her best friend are going to go, just a girls trip, so the mother lets it happen.  Little does the mother know that it’s an elaborate plan so Molly and Randall can have a romantic weekend, where they stop in some field in the rain and have sex, which—as we are explicitly shown—impregnates her.
And that ruins everything.
Seriously, this is where the movie goes.
The first half hour involves them realizing they’re pregnant, fretting for a bit about what to do, telling their respective parents that they are pregnant, and getting kicked out of their homes for it.  BOTH OF THEM. But these crazy kids are in love, and they think they’re gonna make it work, so with nowhere to live, they get an apartment together! 
Said apartment is comically bad.  It’s basically a big, horrible room with a free-standing toilet in the middle.  Because nothing says, “Your life has turned terrible” like having to do your business in plain view of the world.  But they try to make it work, and Randall gets a job while Molly… gestates, or something.  I’m not sure what she’s doing to contribute at this point.  Well, she makes the apartment into something cozy and livable, including putting a tent around the toilet.
And then comes the best scene in the whole movie.
Molly decides the end of the first trimester is the best time to see what this "penis" thing is really all about.Randall comes home to find Molly in the shower, so he decides to be romantic and joins her in the shower.  And she has a bit of a freak-out, because OH MY GOD HE’S NAKED AND SHE’S NEVER REALLY SEEN HIS PENIS.
I swear, people, this scene could ONLY have happened in the 80s.  
Please, let's drink this in deep.  I could easily write a two thousand word essay on this scene alone.  But let’s break this down.  At this point, of course, they’ve have had sex.  Six times.  Even though they’re totally in love, and teenagers, and are sharing an apartment for at least a week to get it as set up as it is, and had a “romantic weekend” and who knows what else, they can still explicitly count how many times they’ve had sex-- which they do in this scene. And it’s in the single digits.   They name all six places, and none of them are “in this apartment”.  Which they've lived in together for, I don't know, at least a week or so to make it livable.
But MORE TO THE POINT, not only can she count how many times they had sex without taking her shoes off-- but however they had sex, and in doing whatever else they did to lead up to sex, she NEVER saw his penis.  NEVER.  Just… unpack that, if you can.  I mean, I know 80s era Hollywood liked to pretend—especially for teenagers—that there is no middle ground between kissing and intercourse, but was the person who wrote this a virgin?  Or are they telling us that these kids really only had rote, foreplayless sex, where Molly more or less closed her eyes and thought of England, and neither of them had any particularly strong desire for sex?  Because it comes off here that they only had sex in the first place because that’s what grown-ups do, and they were playing at being grown-ups, rather than out of genuine interest or attraction for each other.
Anyway, so she finally actually looks at his penis in the shower, and they joke and laugh and it’s sweet and romantic.
Seriously, the rest of the movie is just a tailspin of awful.  Molly gets “kicked out” of high school—not exactly, but she is called into the guidance office and asked to stop being seen as such a shameless hussy.  So Molly has to hide with her shame in night school where decent people won’t have to see her.  Despite this, they still try to Yup.  Cures everything, just by touching it.go to prom, but she goes into labor on prom, and has the baby.  So, yay, baby!  Right?  Wrong.  Molly gets the fastest, hardest case of postpartum depression on record.  It just hits her like a rock the second the baby is out of her, and she won’t even touch the poor thing.  It’s okay, though, because later she’s cured when her would-be-father-in-law comes sneaking around the apartment to give her groceries. Thinking she’s about to be murdered makes her suddenly love her baby, and her depression never comes up again.  THIS IS A THING THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS.
I swear to god, this movie had to have been written by screenwriters who were the equivalent of the guy in 40 Year Old Virgin, based on their understanding of sex, cohabitation and babies.  “You know how when you pick up a baby and it feels like a bag of sand?”
Things come to a head when Molly finds out that Randall has a scholarship somewhere and can go to MIT and be a real person, but he won’t go because said scholarship won’t allow married housing.  So they sit down and work out the best way to make use of this opportunity to maximize their futures together.  I’M KIDDING.  Nothing like that happens.  Instead, Molly decides he needs to go, and uses the only skill we’ve seen her reliably demonstrate: being a horrible person.
Seriously, this is her plan:
Step 1: Be horrible.
Step 2: Randall will run away and go to college.
Step 3: Mission accomplished.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite comply, especially when he learns Molly’s Stupid Plan.  At this point he is going to college, but merely a state school instead of the MIT offer (OH THE HUMANITY), and Molly is living with the baby and her mother, and they get back together and everything is “happy” at the end.  “Happy” in the sense that they reached the conclusion that people who aren’t assholes would have managed months earlier without the drama in the middle.
This was Molly’s last hurrah at playing a teenager, and she moved on to playing “dark, edgy” stuff like Fresh Horses and Malicious.  Neither of those movies will ever be covered here by me.  I couldn’t ever sit through either one once, let alone many, many, many times.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Panning for Idea Gold

"Your first three ideas are wrong."
This was a piece of advice that came from the production designer I worked with the most in my theatre days, which he got from one of college professors.  While I don't think it's completely accurate, I do think it's coming from a fundamentally correct place.  A lot of the time, the initial idea is flawed, and it takes some work and thought before you get to the thing that's actually going to work.
Now, he was talking about design work-- how you build something that will look and function the way you want it to on stage-- but the principle is the same as with writing.
Around that same time, we both worked with another playwright, and one of the comments made of that playwright was, "He has some really fantastic ideas.  And some truly terrible ones.  And absolutely no skill at differentiating them."
And that's the challenge in writing, isn't it?  Looking at the ideas you have, and trying to crack which ones will work and pay off, and which ones are not worth developing.  I think it's still something I'm working on, myself.  Now, part of my process is a long germination period, where I go from a vague idea to building the roots of it, and then growing it out in outlines and finally writing the story. I know my output speed would seem to belie this idea, but you're seeing the end result of the process which started many years ago and is now bearing fruit.  In many ways, the two trunked novels were a necessary part of the process of the planning and plotting of all the Maradaine novels.  And my space opera project (that is currently shopping) went through so many changes that the only things surviving from the original concept are A. the name of the ship (and the ship focused on is completely different) and B. one character (who in original concept was a stand-out secondary character that evolved into the actual lead).  
Now, I could have stuck to my guns and insisted that the original space-opera concept or the now-trunked novels were how I had to go forward... then I'd probably still be languishing as a writer.  
That doesn't mean every idea is gold, or I've mastered figuring out which are or aren't worth my time.  Just slow, steady improvement on that front.  Always learning.  Any writer who thinks there's nothing left to learn is just stagnating.
A reminder that I'll be at ComicPalooza this weekend.  My schedule is here.  If you're in or near Houston, come say hello!

Monday, May 8, 2017


This weekend I'll be at ComicPalooza in Houston.  If you're in the area-- or looking for a good excuse to be-- come by and say hello.  Or even sign up for a slot on Saturday's Read & Critique for Tex Thompson and I to delicately tear your short story or novel chapter to loving shreds, and offer whatever advice we have on this industry.  Either way: come say hello!  My schedule is below.
FRIDAY, MAY 121:00 - 2:00pm What's New in the Old West  (370E)
Tex Thompson, John Shade, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Doug Goodman, C. D. Lewis
2:00 - 3:00pm Signing- Barnes & Noble Booth
4:00 - 5:00pm Manuscript Makeover: Revise, Rewrite, or Recycle? (370D)
Lev Grossman, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Jake Kerr, Mari Mancusi
SATURDAY, MAY 131:00 - 2:00pm Read and Critique (380A)
Tex Thompson & Marshall Ryan Maresca
2:30 - 3:30pm Creative Collaborations - How, Why, and With Whom? (370E)
Marianne Dyson, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ammar Habib, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Jessica Reisman
SUNDAY, MAY 1411:00am - 12noon Signing- Barnes & Noble Booth
1:00 - 2:00pm From Pen to Pulse Rifle: Writing Good Military Science Fiction (370F)
Breandan Ó'Ciarraí, K. M. Tolan, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Wayne Basta, Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Also, there's about a month left to register for the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop.  This year's lineup of teachers includes: Nisi Shawl, Trevor Quachri, Don Webb, Martha Wells, Nicky Drayden, D. L. Young, Christopher Brown, E. J. Fischer, Jessica Reisman, Stina Leicht, Rebecca Schwarz and myself.  It should be a great workshop this year, so come check it out. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Illegitimi non carborundum

The writing business is rough.  You put stuff out there, and you kind of have to accept that rejection is the baseline.  That's the thing you have to earn yourself out of.  Success is never a given.  You've got to toughen your skin.  None of this is new information, of course.  If you read any sort of writing advice, this is a front-and-center thing.  
And you've got to allow yourself to be critiqued.  You've got to be able to take your licks and then stand up and say, "All right, what's next?"
But when you're looking for critique, look for critique that is useful.  It isn't good critique just because it tears you down.  (Nor is it just because it fluffs you up, either.)  Choose your critique partners with care, because getting tied in with someone who isn't interested in actually critiquing your work-- or worse, thinks they understand what critique is, but doesn't-- can do so much more harm than good.
Here's my little story: I was on one small, private on-line critique group.  The set-up was pretty casual: upload things to a shared folder, and then critiques are either A. sent via group email or B. also uploaded to the shared folder.  No specific timeline, just put it up and people will get to it or not.  Because of this system, I had some things up there that I wasn't actually seeking critique on anymore.  But I hadn't taken them down, mostly because I wanted the other members of the group to be able to look at the whole body of work/larger plan if they were so inclined.  
And then I got this on one manuscript.
I made it no further than page 5 before nearly chewing my left arm off in the frustration of knowing that a writer with a great imagination, a lot of drive, and most likely a wonderful story to tell hasn't bothered, after all these years of effort, to learn the basics of story crafting. To improve your writing, you need to, at the very least, read some well-crafted books and analyze the plotting, sentence structure, foreshadowing, and subtlety of the writers' works. No one is born knowing how to write or craft a story. Those are skills that take some effort to learn. You could be a great writer. If you don't put in some study time, all your efforts and talents are wasted.
Wow.  That's brutal, no?
That's the sort of critique that could send someone running for the hills.  Heck, that's not even a critique, that's a dressing down.
Fortunately, I just laughed at it, and then promptly deleted myself from that group.
Because the manuscript in question was The Thorn of Dentonhill, which at that point had already netted me an agent and was out on submission.  And it was bought by my publisher just a few weeks after I got this.  I mean, what exactly was this person trying to accomplish with this critique?  I'm not sure.  But I feel like they were trying to just grind me down.
And, like I said, this business is tough, and you do not get handed anything and certainly don't deserve anything you don't earn-- you don't just get handed accolades and awards and film options-- but you need to keep pushing on as they try to grind you down.  Success could be right around the corner, and if you let them beat you-- you let a drubbing like that one up there break you-- you won't get there.
Because there are people who've realized that they aren't going to make it in this business, and then they decide they don't want anyone else to either.  They will try to grind you down.
Illegitimi non carborundum
Don't let the bastards grind you down.

Monday, May 1, 2017

SHEENA: A Bad Movie I've Watched Many, Many, MANY Times

Bad Movies
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle
There was a point in time where someone thought putting a fair amount of money behind a movie starring a bleach-blonde Tanya Roberts (of Beastmaster fame) and Ted Wass (later of Oh God, You Devil!—a movie I will probably get to at some point with this), and putting them in Africa to save magic sacred land from gun-toting warlords was a great idea.
Really, the drugs in the 80s must have been fantastic.
I have no idea how a movie like Sheena got greenlit.  But, lord, is it a glorious trainwreck
The set-up has a pair of white, blond missionaries (or something) doing whatever it is they were doing in Africa, until they get killed.  They discover a tribe that has secret, sacred earth that literally is healing magic.  Seriously, the tribe buries someone who is sick or hurt up to his neck, and then they do some ritual, yank him out and BAM, he is ALL BETTER.
So, clearly, it won’t be long before some Stupid Americans just want to, I don’t know, build a mall on top of it or something, just because.
What matters is the blond missionary couple ends up dead, and their little blond daughter escapes the murder, so she can be raised by the tribe and grow up to be Tanya Roberts.
Cut to the present day, where Ted Wass is a journalist who is in Africa to cover some new prince, but he’s tied the warlords or something.  It’s just a set up so he can discover Sheena, the gorgeous white, blonde woman living amongst the tribe.
People, Tanya Roberts is glorious in this role.  She tries to play Sheena as if English is not her native tongue, but I swear, it comes off as if Tanya herself forgot how to speak English and learned her lines phonetically.  Also, she’s not just a white girl who’s been living with this tribe: she can speak to animals.  Swear, she just presses her fist against her forehead, and zebras and elephants come running to help her.  Because this is the 80s, and apparently people believed that Africa is magic.
Seriously, that’s the only explanation behind this.
I should point out that this movie is PG.  But this is, like, 1984 PG, before we had a PG-13.  But even still, by today’s standards this movie wouldn’t even be a PG-13, but a hard R.  Not only because there is a fair amount of gun violence throughout, but because Tanya Roberts is all kinds of naked.
And I’m not talking about a quick flash that movies back then could get away with and still be PG.  It’s, like, three minutes solid of Tanya standing there in the lake to bathe, talking about Ted Wass’s hairy chest, the shot framed so its millimeters away from being full-frontal.  There were honest exploitation movies from that era that had less nudity.  I can only imagine some studio flack fast-talked the MPAA with the idea that it was the same kind of nudity in National Geographic, as opposed to a former Charlie’s Angel.
Sheena and Ted fight the warlords to save the tribe and the sacred land-- honestly, the plot is largely negligible-- but in stopping the warlord, Ted Wass is horribly burned.  Fortunately, he’s saved by said sacred land—and we’re treated to his bare ass when they pull him out of the dirt.    Then the Western World is going to take him back to New York, or wherever, because that's where he belongs and Sheena can't go there because she'd have to wear shoes or something--  but in the end he stays behind to be with the crazy woman he loves.  I think.  Maybe he flies away while she rides a zebra.  My memory is hazy on this point.
Either way, it learns one lesson from Beastmaster: the best way to end a movie is a helicopter shot of nature, animals, and Tanya Roberts.