Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

The shiny, youthful, vulnerable, and sexiest-man-alive celebrity didn’t have me at hello. It took more than a panty dance to Bob Seger in the hallway to make me start liking Tom Cruise movies, but he finally wore me down. I don’t know if he matured or I did but after 19 years of ambivalence at best towards Cruise and his career, he finally won me over. In a big way. The late-career action hero can outdo anyone. No stunt is too big, too wet, too high, or too low and I love him for it.

Please, don’t call it a crush. I’m naturally attracted to hard working over-achievers who just get it.

You complete me.

There’s a scene in 2015’s Rogue Nation, the most recent installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, in which Tom Cruise dangles from the outside of a four-engine turboprop cargo plane as it speeds down a runway and takes off. Unlike Ghost Protocol (2011), he has no tricked-out magnetic gloves that allow him to stick to stuff.

The scene is captivating – some of it because he’s holding on with his bare hands. And some of it because, well, he’s dangling from a freaking plane high above the ground. Here is a vision of extreme effort being executed by the person who was paid to execute it. That’s why I watch every action/adventure film this 53 year old mini-badass is in. He was really hanging off the cargo plane. Scared shitless. His face tells the audience, “holy crap on a cracker, I’m outside the plane. This is petrifying.” He holds on for dear life. As the plane increases altitude and gains speed his feet give way and he swings wildly in the wind while we wait for Benji to open the damn door. Now that’s Risky Business, dude. Tom Cruise. Not a look-alike stunt double who gets filmed at all the right angles to trick the eye into thinking it was Cruise. It was Cruise.

Tom Cruise understands how to connect with the audience. “Hey, we’re not so different. Heights are frightening. Haboobs are a pain in the ass and it’s gonna hurt like hell when I slam my face into the side of the wall. Uff!” His scenes are so much more E-ticket because he’s the man. He hangs, holds his breath, jumps, climbs, and dangles for the audience. For me. This is something that Cruise and his team totally get. He’s just an average man looking to get shit done. Cruise is the anchor of reality in a sea of facades, fakes, and phonies. I love it when a man works so hard for my pleasure.

His last excursion as thrill-seeking spy Ethan Hunt saw him dangling vertiginously off the north face of Dubai’s 2,722 foot Khalifa tower.

Back for another explosion of extravagant stunts in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the veritable trouble magnet goes even further out on that stunt doubleless limb.

Comic-relief chum and tech-nerd-turned-field-agent Benji (Simon Pegg), offers fumbled and bumbled assistance from the sidelines as the opening stunt wobbles breathlessly on the edge of ludicrousness.

Hyperbolic? Yes, but it’s the dazzling limitless scenes like these (and Cruise’s hunky biceps) that engage the moviegoer.

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“Sometimes you just gotta say, what the fuck.”

The IMF team of Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), Pegg (Shaun of the Dead), and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) all give good acting and each get their moment to shine. Alec Baldwin (The Departed) is a nice add to the Mission Impossible franchise. He plays a suave, raven-haired CIA boss intent on closing down the IMF forever and ever. This flick is slick and it comes complete with impressive set pieces, wicked motorcycle chases, girl-on-boy knife fights, and flying cars.

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BMW placement overkill.

Most of the time, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Edge of Tomorrow, and Jack Reacher) leaves the audience wondering as to whether femme fatale Ilsa Faust is helping or hindering Ethan, but it doesn’t matter.

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Girl power.

Leaving the audience white-knuckled and dangling for two hours is what team Mission Impossible is good at. Mission: Accomplished.

So you think a film with fairies and unicorns is gay? Well, screw you. Legend (1985) is fabulous.

Please don't call it a crush.

Please don’t call it a crush.

Directed by Ridley Scott, the film picked up an Academy Award nom for Best Makeup. Here’s a rundown of my favorite Cruise action adventures in sci-fi/fantasy since Legend:

Minority Report (2002)

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Cruise questions the existence of free will. Based on the 1956 sci-fi short story by Philip K. Dick.

War of the Worlds (2005)

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Tom spies a Tripod in this excellent adaptation of Wells’ 1898 book.

Oblivion (2013)

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Bubble trouble.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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“On your feet, maggot.”

After more than 30 years in Hollywood, Tom Cruise is still top gun on the big screen (and sometimes in my dreams). He’s intense. He sweats. He runs his bubble butt from scene to scene. He is the ultimate action hero. I love him. Please don’t call it a crush.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Matthew Vaughn delivers a slick and slightly misbehaving piece of mainstream entertainment in Kingsman, an homage to everyone’s favorite spy. This rude romp embraces all the wackiest aspects of the Bond series while lovingly abusing it at the same time. 

Kingsman is a super-secret organization of smartly dressed British spies. Like Bond, they are highly skilled at bagging baddies. Little focus is placed on bedding babes, but the princess eventually gets it in the end. The film also throws down a colourful supervillain (Samuel L. Jackson) with a dastardly plot. Jackson plays a psycho dot com billionaire with a lisp. Yeth, a lithp.

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The story begins when a Kingsman is killed early on in the first act, so there’s a job opening for a new recruit. Colin Firth’s sporty and winsome character picks up low class Eggy (Taron Egerton) to fill the gadget shoes.

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Kingsman is good, sick, maniacal fun with a high body count. In one blood-soaked scene, Firth brutally murders more people in a church than the Bride (Uma Thurman) puts down at the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

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The film teeters on the edge of graphic novel subversion and goofy offensiveness. If you have a hankering for dark and perverse humour, buy a ticket. I can’t recommend this cheeky spy flick enough.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers—The Ultimate in Science Fiction

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“The Ultimate in Science Fiction.”

Today in cinematic history, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was released in theaters. In Don Siegel’s hot-headed paranoia B-movie, the killer aliens from outer space duplicate humans.

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“Something evil has taken possession of the town.”

The aliens spawn up a frothy mess from super-sized seed pods.

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Gee, Wally. That’s not a walnut.

Filmed entirely in southern California, Invasion is set in a sleepy nondescript California town. The Eisenhower-era commiesploitation film noir focuses on the fear of depersonalization and the claustrophobic constraints of conformity.

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It’s probably better to stay on the train.

Significant plot hole aside, Invasion is a concise (80 min.) and dramatic thriller that succeeds at creating a sustained sense of suspense.

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Say. This ain’t Green Acres.

Special effects are kept to a minimum.

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She has a lot of pretty, pretty boys she she calls friends.

The plot’s premise is emphasized through Siegel’s classical compositions, mise-en-scene, and crisp night-time photography.

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I’m about to be transformed into a hot frothy mess.

When the film was first previewed, wholesome audiences thought the ending was a bit of a downer. Originally, the main character was left yelling and waving his arms madly about in the middle of the highway, desperately trying to warn folks of the dangerous pod people. To give the film a happy ending, the studio added opening and closing sequences that imply help is on the way.

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And they all lived happily ever after.

If your preference is the more ambiguous ending, there’s a work-around. Start the movie at scene three and end with scene twenty-four. The other alternate for a better ending is to watch the 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland.

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Blame it on the speed.

Either way, Invasion is the ultimate in science fiction. Available on Netflix and streamable ($0.00) via Amazon Instant Video.

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For Your Consideration … Films I Would Watch Again

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And so it begins. The annual ritual of whittling down hundreds of film titles—and a gazillion hours of captivation and wonderment—to just 15 is a cruel and torturous punishment. This list is forever transient and subjective, made up of whatever mood I was in when I happened to set my eyeballs on a particular film on a particular day. The fifteen films on this list consist of impressions that I could not shake from my brain and the stories I’m eager to watch unfold again, in some cases for the third or fourth time. 

1. BAD WORDS (March, 2014)

Jason Bateman’s directorial debut. It’s hard to believe this hilarious gem was overlooked by the Academy. Bad Words is a crass, sweet and super dark comedy with instances of pure vulgarity that is at the same time heartwarming. Yes, heartwarming.

2. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (March, 2014)

I figured this quirky tale would fly past the Academy faster than a bottle rocket but to my surprise, it’s nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Screenplay. For the record, the erotic Egon-Schiele style painting that replaces “Boy with Apple” was commissioned by the film’s director, Wes Anderson. Artist Rich Pellegrino created seven versions of two women “doing that thing they are doing” and Anderson selected one.

3. DOM HEMINGWAY (April, 2014)

Jude Law’s greatest performance by leaps and bounds. After spending 12 years in prison for keeping his trap shut, notorious safe-cracker Dom Hemingway is back on the streets of London looking to collect his due. The opening scene defies all fallacies and misconceptions of masculinity and toughness in film. The story is entirely built around character motivation and response. Dom is a loser for the choices he makes, not for who he is. The screenplay is three-dimensional and complex. It manages to reverse all pre-conceived or judgmental notions we may have when we first set eyes on Hemingway. No sappy male redemption story here folks. Bravo!

4. UNDER THE SKIN (April, 2014)

Okay, so I have a big man-size crush on Scarlett but who doesn’t? A mysterious woman (Scarlett Johansson) of unknown origin combs the highways of Scotland in search of lonely and forsaken men. The sexy beast lures the lost souls into an otherworldly den of darkness where they are seduced and grotesquely stripped of their humanity. This film is light on dialogue but heavy on strong, simple visuals. Many of the men filmed were not actors, but random people walking down the street. The van Johansson drove had been outfitted with high quality hidden cameras to capture the interactions. Once again, Jonathan Glazer succeeds in unsettling the viewer. Definitely not a Hollywood film. Not for everyone.

5. THE IMMIGRANT (May, 2014)

A modern masterpiece. James Gray’s latest film is a deep classical melodrama steeped in beauty. Like the melodramas of the 1950s and 60s, the cinematography is stunning and the sepia tones capture the era. An immigrant woman (Marion Cotillard) is tricked into a life of prostitution until a charismatic illusionist tries to rescue her and reunite her with her sister, who is being held in the confines of Ellis Island. Why the Weinstein Company decided to dump this movie in theaters without much hubbub is a question only it can answer. It’s a shame because people missed out on award worthy performance by Joaquin Phoneix, who falls apart at the seams on screen.

6. SNOWPIERCER (June, 2014)

South Korean writer/director, Bong Joon-Ho’s first primarily English film is one of constant chaos. Joon-Ho is a creative director. He builds intensity and immediately hooks the viewer. Snowpiercer is a rhythmic thrill ride without being awkward or excessive. Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe.

7. EDGE OF TOMORROW (June, 2014)

Tom Cruise still believes in Tom Cruise movies. In Edge of Tomorrow, a military officer is brought into a war against an alien enemy who can reset the day. Cruise teams up with a full metal bitch (Emily Blunt) to try to end the war. Blunt is all sorts of fabulous throughout the film. Edge is a very well executed sci-fi time loop movie and the characters’ repetitive day continues to entice the audience until the very end. Plus, the audience gets to see Mr. Cruise die … over and over again.

8. THE ROVER (June, 2014)

Toughies riding in cars. An untamed, uncompromising post-apocalyptic film in the Mad Max (1979) vein, The Rover is a bleak, savage and downbeat chase thriller through the sun-scorched Australian outback. The film is extremely rewarding and ultimately quite moving. Ten years after a global economic collapse, a hardened drifter (Guy Pearce) pursues the men who stole his only possession, his car.

9. A MOST WANTED MAN (July, 2014)

This is the last completed movie of Philip Seymour Hoffman. As I watched the late actor play a drained and weary chain-smoking, whisky-swigging spymaster, it was hard not to find the dark shadow of his tragically early death hanging over his character. The book A Most Wanted Man is the twenty-first novel of author John le Carré. The film itself is tight and the story is filled with intrigue. I didn’t get the same sweaty palm response I felt in Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy  (2011) but it’s still a noteworthy spy flick. The film is stylishly directed and evokes the lower depths of espionage agencies. Hoffman is outstanding, of course, which makes his loss all the harder to bear.

10. BOYHOOD (August, 2014)

I’m a sucker for dysfunctional family films. Nominated for 6 Oscars, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood explores the life of a young man from age 5 to age 18. The film’s audience connection is a universal one and the events that happen on screen unfold in mundane surroundings. We’ve all felt the awkwardness when starting a new school or job. Or perhaps the thrill of a first love along with the earth shattering despair when it ends. No one is immune to life. These events happen to everyone regardless of age or gender. Linklater takes these ordinary events and makes them grand and important. “Life doesn’t give you bumpers.”

11. THE DROP (September, 2014)

This was the last completed film of James Gandolfini. It’s always a lovely surprise to have a contemplative action film. Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) finds himself at the center of a robbery gone wrong and tangled in an investigation that digs deep into the gritty neighborhood’s past, where friends, families and enemies all work together to make ends meet. Directed by Michaël Roskam, there is no shortage of elements that you’d expect from a Shane Black flick. Like Black, Roskam avoids the easy route and creates a world of understated tension, memorable characters, and the slow burn of hidden violence. There’s nothing extraordinary about the plot. Nice guy works a job in the seedy party of town. He meets a girl with a scarred past. Ex-boyfriend gets angry. Guy gets roped into a crime against his will. Blah, blah, blah. Hardy takes this lead and kills it in his meek but powerful delivery. Dennis Lehane’s script is to-the-point without being on-the-nose.

12. WHIPLASH (October, 2014)

You’ve already seen me rave about this Oscar nominated film in my blog.  A promising young drummer (Miles Teller) enrolls at a competitive music conservatory where his dreams of fame are mentored by an extremely harsh instructor (I predict an Oscar win for J.K. Simmons) who will stop at nothing to eke out a student’s potential. Oh, and more than just a zit-faced teeny bopper, this film will make Teller an all-out freaking movie star.

13. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (November, 2014)

In the Iranian ghost town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and despair, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. This original hybrid flick feels like a mash-up of several über-cool art-house subgenres, including vampire films, French new wave, 80s rom-coms, Jarmuschesque and Lynchian film noir. Shot in good old fashioned black and white, this film mesmerizes the audience with melancholy, despair, and sweetness. Yes, you read that correctly. The film also boasts one of the most romantic first kiss scenes (sigh) ever to grace the silver screen.

14. TOP FIVE  (December, 2014)

Chris Rock has some significant doo doo to say about his life, his story, and the world of comedy. Top Five reminded me of Birdman but without the “meh” factor. Unlike Birdman, Top Five is more than a whiny display of alleged satire and social commentary about the relevance of critics. Sometimes raunchy and painfully funny, this comedy reflects Rock’s charm and audacity which he continues to reflect in his standup.

15. INHERENT VICE (December, 2014)

This neo noir crime comedy drama is about a 4:20 private eye in 1970 Los Angeles who becomes embroiled in a twisty and dangerous mystery. This flick is rich in odd characters, offbeat comedy and a deeply human element. A great film that won’t be to everyone’s liking. I suspect there are folks out there who can resist a movie with colorful lines like “You smell like a patchouli fart,” but i’m not one of those people. This is just one nugget of such bizarre dialogue to be found and savored in Paul Thomas Anderson’s messy, convoluted film.

Because I love them so,  I must pay tribute to the 2014 zombie film I would watch again.

15.1 Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (October, 2014)

Gallons of gore and an absurdly high number of brutal kills, this Nazisploitation flick is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a perfect sequel that amps up everything to the freaking max. This politically incorrect funfest massacres everyone in its path. Two bloody thumbs lopped off in its hackability, I almost died from all the gore-gasms.

 

Bang on the Jazz Drum All Day

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The last and probably only Hollywood film ever made about a jazz drummer was The Gene Krupa Story (1959). Jazz critics called the film “ludicrous” and “inaccurate.” Still, the film managed to inspire thousands of young musicians including Peter Criss (Catman) of KISS.

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It’s taken the silver screen 55 years to recover from all that noise. Whiplash (2014) director/writer Damien Chazelle’s story about the musical journey of a young jazz drummer’s experience at a demanding music conservancy is extraordinary in many ways. It is apparent that Chazelle, also a percussionist, watched and learned from Krupa. He also most likely watched the many DVDs on “the world’s greatest drummer,” Buddy Rich, who receives honorable mention in this film more than a few times.

The storyline is refreshingly straightforward. A gifted young drummer, played by Miles Teller, enrolls in a the country’s most prestigious music school, the fictional Schaffer Academy in Manhattan (Schaffer is based on the ultra-competitive jazz school at North Texas State University), where his dreams of awesomeness are mentored by a fierce and ruthless instructor, played by J.K. Simmons, who’s onscreen monster-of-insults performance is terrifyingly oscar-worthy. He serves up verbal, physical and emotional abuse, public humiliation, and rants and raves like a crazed Full Metal Jacket (1987) sergeant.

Expecting “110 percent musical perfection” was often cited as Buddy Rich’s goal. To say that J.K. Simmons’ whack-job character channels Buddy Rich is an understatement worthy of further examination. High expectations? Yeah, he had a few.

Whiplash is no touchy-feely film and in many ways may seem like a horrifying experience. In actuality, it’s a story of passion between two men in love with the same thing. They share a devotion to the jazz tradition and the missions of perfection and artistic excellence.

The minor subplots of family feud and a brief romance (no nudity) remain subplots and don’t distract from the main story. The main characters remain true to themselves throughout the film and there is no male redemption involved. Thank you, Chazelle.

Whiplash is not a musical. In fact, the only song played in its entirety is Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” during the film’s crescendo.

Steeling Time

On April 28, 1869, the Central Pacific railroad crews laid 10 miles of track in one day.

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Early in the morning, crews faced a days work, and then some. Before them stretched a smoothly graded path in the Utah desert, the final product of a sizable army of Chinese graders that shoveled, chiseled, blasted, and bored their way nearly 700 miles from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada mountains, then across the desert toward a mountainous peninsula on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.

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The graded path stretched beyond their range of vision. If the crews could deliver on the boast of the railroad’s promoters to lay ten miles of rail in a single day, they would claim an unbeatable record.

At 7 a.m., the lead supply train blasted its whistle, and the machine of men swung into action. Chinese laborers unloaded the first train of kegs, spikes and bolts, bundles of fish-plate fasteners, and rails. “In eight minutes, sixteen cars were cleared, with a nose like the bombardment of an army,” wrote one correspondent.

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At the end of the track stood eight men with tongs to grab the rails. A wood-framed device that ensured 4 feet 8 1/2 inches separated each new rail pair, was moved ahead by two additional men. Two men were at the head and tail of each rail. As the forward pair seized each 30-foot rail, the rear pair helped guide it over the rollers and onto the cross tie. As soon as the rail was in place, one gang started the spikes, eight to each rail, and bolted fishplates at each rail joint; another gang finished the spiking and tightened the bolts.

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As end of track moved onward, ten yards at a clip, track levelers followed in its wake, lifting ties and shoveling dirt under them as needed. At the rear of the column, which eventually stretched out some two miles, were 400 tampers, with shovels and iron bars to give the road bed a firm set. Whenever a workman tired or faltered, a fresh replacement took his place. Horses tired easily on the steep grade and were changed every two hours.

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Progress that day was phenomenal. At a pace that one might average on a day’s walk, the Iron Horse was galloping across the desert. “I never saw such organization,” marveled an Army officer. “It was like an army marching over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.”

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After an hour’s lunch break, the crews returned to action. For almost an hour the most important task, conducted with hammer, wood blocks, and eyesight, was bending rails for the upcoming curve. As the shadows lengthened, the last supply car was unloaded. By seven in the evening, the ten miles of new track, plus 56 extra feet, was complete. The effort had consumed 25,800 ties, 28,160 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and 3,524 rails. In 40 minutes, the superintendent ran an engine over the new ten-mile track to prove its soundness.

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Michael Corbin Ray and I spent months on research for our debut novel, The Long Way. Although the story is fantasy, the locations and historical background are very much real. We took pains to be as true to the people and reality of the times as possible. This involved a great deal of research across a wide variety of subjects, often from first-hand accounts, including the timelines and methods of construction of North America’s first transcontinental railroad.

Creature features: Monsters of the imagination

I was once told that in order to be a good writer one has to be a good observer. Nothing flicks my twisted switch faster than a creature feature and I’ve observed them all. I was raised on a healthy diet of schlocky horror and martial arts movies from the 1930s to 1970s. These genre busting films were broadcast and welcomed into wholesome homes across America via local US television stations during the 1960s and ’70s. This was my candy store. Part sci-fi, part fantasy and a whole lotta scary. The stories I love most feature space aliens, large-scale mutants, and giant nuclear monsters terrorizing planet Earth.

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“Golly. I’m a whole lotta scared.”

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Starring Leslie Nielsen, my favorite Naked Gun.

These films are welcome to wreak havoc on my imagination. The Raven (1963) and The Terror (1963) are smart representations of the creature feature genre. Roger Corman’s B movies are delicious and extraordinary.

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Jack Nicholson (Lt. Andre Duval) pursues a mystery woman to an old baron’s castle.

All of those Japanese monster movies produced by Toho Studios and Daiei Motion Picture Company, known for Godzilla (1954) and Gamera (1966), created more monsters than you can shake a chopstick at.

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“Three heads are better than one.”

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Tail-biting fun.

The Universal Horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s like Frankenstein (1931) and other old RKO Pictures films like King Kong (1933) keeps the schlock menu timeless.

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“I’m king of the world!”

The television stations also broadcast all the great British horror films by Hammer Film Productions like The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939).

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Half-man, half-wolf and a whole lotta hair.

Thanks to a handful of creative and determined directors, this larger-than-life genre will not be eradicated anytime soon.

Director Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 unleashed Kaiju on mankind in Pacific Rim. Giant robots called Jaegers, controlled from within by two pilots, fight giant monsters in a showdown with sea monsters to save humanity. “Engage.”

Featuring all creatures great and small, Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a fun gorefest mash-up. Part slasher and part creature feature. This flick is sassy, sexy and fiendishly funny. Monsters spring up scary surprises at every turn as their appetite increases for pretty young things.

In 2006, Joon-ho Bong made a mutant water dragon emerge from the Han River in Gwoemul (The Host). An idiosyncratic combination of creature feature and thriller with a twist of slapstick and side of dysfunctional family. The world suffers at man’s hand due to environmental carelessness like so many of its predecessors. This creature is aquatic and acrobatic. I’m in love.

What to watch next?

I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Lester last weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. He’s a director and producer of high-action films and I was thrilled to learn that he recently finished directing a creature feature.

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“I eat bikinis for breakfast.”

A small secluded island off the coast of Belize suddenly finds itself terrorized by a deadly predator from Earth’s distant past when deep-sea divers accidentally awaken an ancient evil in Poseidon Rex.

Filmed on location, Lester’s latest opens in theaters and iTunes on April 18th. Listen to his radio interview on America’s Most Haunted.

Sometimes I convince my co-author Michael Corbin Ray to watch B movies with me. Our debut novel The Long Way features a creature. A dragon to be precise. If our genre mash-up story (east meets west) reads like a film we’ll blame it on cinema and the art of observation.

Chock-a-mo-fee-nah-neh.

I can’t make it through Fat Tuesday without listening to this nonsensical song at least a hundred times.

Iko Iko is a much covered tune that tells of a parade collision between two tribes. The song, under the original title “Jock-A-Mo,” was written in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford (love that name) in New Orleans.

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James “Sugar Boy” Crawford (1934-2012)

The story tells of a Mardi Gras Indian “spy boy” encountering a “flag boy” for another tribe. He threatens to “set the flag on fire.”

In the early days of the Mardi Gras Indians, “masking” and parading was a time to settle grudges between tribes.

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Tribesmen dress up in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel. There are about 38 tribes.

Sugar Boy’s song immortalized this violent history in Iko Iko. In the late 1960s, Tootie Montana (Chief of Chiefs), fought to end violence between the tribes.

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Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana. The fairest of them all.

He said, “I was going to make them stop fighting with the gun and the knife and start fighting with the needle and thread.” Today the Mardi Gras Indians mainly argue only over the “prettiness” of their suits.

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I feel pretty.

Sugar Boy gave a 2002 interview with Offbeat Magazine discussing the song’s meaning. What do the lyrics actually mean? Sugar Boy says, “I really don’t know.” It appears that linguists and historians are stumped as well and a variety of origins have been proposed, suggesting that the words may come from a blend of cultures. They could be Mobilian Jargon (an extinct Native American trade language), Louisiana Creole French, Haitian, or West African.

Voodoo practitioners also recognize many aspects of the song as being about spirit possession. Setting fire to a flag is a way of cursing someone. The song also mentions a man dressed in green who either has a change in personality (whoa) or is in some way not what he seems to be.

“Jock-a-mo” was the original version of the song “Iko Iko” recorded by the Dixie Cups in 1965. Their version came about quite by accident. They were in a New York City studio for a recording session when they began an impromptu version of Iko Iko, accompanied only by drumsticks on small studio ashtrays. Y’all go stomp your feet, kick up your heels and catch some beads. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

 

 

Dragon Country

We went to Weaverville for our first official book signing last weekend. Although part of our book takes place in Weaverville, we hadn’t actually been there. In order to gain a sense of the area during the mid-1800s for The Long Way, we rummaged through field guides, looked at topographical maps of the vicinity, and read books about the California Gold Rush and Chinese history.

As we ascended from Redding and drove along the base of the Trinity Alps and Highway 299, it became obvious. Our description of the area had been accurate. We were in dragon country.

The rugged terrain provides perfect habitat for a Chinese dragon.

Weaverville is an historic California Gold Rush town. Tucked into the base of the Trinity Alps Wilderness area, it was once home to approximately 2,000 Chinese gold miners and had its own Chinatown. The combined Gold Rush and Chinese history provides a perfect backdrop for our main characters.

We enjoyed our first book signing in Weaverville during the Chinese New Year celebration that ushered in the Year of the Horse.

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The day started with a book signing at Tammie’s Books on Main Street.

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The wet weather attempted to rain on our parade, but Tammie Huff explained that local residents are a hearty bunch who are used to the snow of winter and 100+ degree temperatures in summer. Folks were out in full force.

In the afternoon, we made our way to the Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park.

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Every year the Weaverville Joss House Association holds a Chinese New Year celebration that draws hundreds of visitors. It was raining. Hard. The townspeople gathered outside the Joss House under umbrellas. Lions danced, gongs rang, drums beat, and fireworks exploded.

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Between dances we met new friends and signed copies of The Long Way in the shelter of the interpretive museum. Our signing table was situated between a silk lion dance costume (early 1900s), opium pipe bowls, handmade weapons and equipment used by Chinese miners.

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The intricate bamboo structure and silk fabric is a stunning sight.

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We took turns visiting the Joss House which is a remarkable structure. The sign above the wooden temple door reads, “The Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds.”

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In 1853, the Chinese residents of Weaverville erected a small Taoist joss house that they named Won Lim Miao (Won Lim Temple). The first temple building, with most of its furnishings, was consumed by fire in 1861. Local Chinese residents built a new temple, but in 1873 another fire swept through Weaverville completely destroying the second temple. In 1874 the residents began construction of the present building.

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An altar table holds candles, incense sticks, oracle fortune sticks, wine cups, and pictures of immortals painted on glass. A small wooden table holding food offerings sits in front of the altar.

The temple’s historical significance lies in the fact that very few such structures still survive.

The celebration of Weaverville’s Chinese history continued into the evening at the Civil Defense building with the Weaverville Rotary Club Dim Sum Dinner & Auction. The gala benefits the Trinity High School Scholarship Foundation. The venue was decorated with an ornate entryway. Silk lanterns and thousands of red hanging lights greeted us inside. Everyone in town was there!

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Cheerful Rotarians, hardworking waitstaff (Trinity High School teens), city council members, business owners, and the descendants of Moon Lim Lee, who was appointed as the temple’s trustee in 1938. In 1956 Mr. Lee saw his dream fulfilled when the Joss House was preserved and became a part of the California State Park System. This park is supported in part through The Weaverville Joss House Association.

The journey to Weaverville was a memorable one, indeed. Dragon country exists. Dragons are real.

 

The Long Way – Production Notes

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Although the story is fantasy, the locations and historical background are very much real. We took pains to be as true to the people and reality of the times as possible.

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This involved a great deal of research across a wide variety of subjects, often from first-hand accounts, including:

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The history and politics of nineteenth-century trade with China

 

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Opium—how it was produced, imported, sold…

 

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…and used.

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Life in and management of brothels in China

 

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Life in nineteenth century China

 

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Construction, sailing, layout and

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routes of clipper ships involved in trade with China

 

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The evolution, use, and availability of guns and weapons to various militaries and civilians during the time period of the story

 

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The rapid growth of San Francisco during and after the gold rush years. Portsmouth Square, San Francisco (1850-51).

 

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Merchant ships fill San Francisco harbor during the Gold Rush (1850-51).

 

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The life of miners in the gold fields.

 

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Whites, Native Americans and blacks engaged in gold prospecting (c.1850).

 

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The life and treatment of Chinese workers in nineteenth-century America

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The state of settlements and cities in California during the late 1850s. The San Joaquin river.

 

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Immigration routes to California and life on the immigrant trails.

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Lifestyles of various Native American peoples, and their treatment by European immigrants

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Timelines and methods of construction of North America’s first transcontinental railroad

 

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We did our best to filter through the biases of the day to present a balanced view of these subjects, especially in the case of often conflicting reports—and frequent outright racism in the source material.

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In the end, however, this remains a fantasy novel, which allows for some leeway in the case of any factual errors.

More than facts, though, what matters here are the people—people of all races who struggled, mostly anonymously, to make a better life for themselves.

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We can say clearly today that many behaved less than admirably, but many were simply doing the best they could do in the face of great odds.

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We hope in some small way that this book celebrates their achievements.