Monday, June 11, 2018

San Diego Comic-Con Spotlight Panel

A few weeks back, I received word that my panel as a San Diego Comic-Con Special Guest is scheduled on Thursday, July 19, 12:30–1:30 p.m. in Room 4! Details to come, but I hope to broaden interest in the panel a bit by talking about how I started out and my experiences as an indy publisher! To everyone who's going to Comic-Con this year, hope you can attend -- and bring a friend!

Saturday, June 2, 2018

10 Films in 10 Days: #10 - Diner

The final of my 10 films in 10 days is Diner (1982), another one from college. Diner was one of the earliest examples of a “sleeper” hit that was saved by famed film critic Pauline Kael. The film reportedly had screened badly with test audiences and MGM was ready to bury it. However, after Kael saw it, she insisted MGM release it, promising it would review well—which it did. I was so taken by this movie on its release, I saw it three times in a week in the theater. (Of course, I also own it on DVD.)

The film comedy was the directorial debut of Barry Levinson, who also wrote the screenplay, and featured actors Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Paul Reiser, and Ellen Barkin. (With the exception of perhaps Guttenberg, this was the film debut for most of the actors.)

Based on Levinson’s own experiences as a Baltimore native, Diner follows the episodic misadventures of a group of recent high school graduates in late 1950s Baltimore trying to decide what to do with their lives, centered around the week leading up to one of the friends’ wedding. (For the wedding to occur, however, the bride-to-be, who is never seen on screen, must pass a test about football!) Much of their lives centers around hanging out and eating at a local diner, often into the early morning hours.

I suspect the studio thought it had green-lit a film to capitalize on the teen comedy hit Porky's and did not expect such a soulful, thoughtful film. While the story and characters are all distinctive and well-defined—due to both the script and performances—it is the pointless but hilarious banter in the diner, much of it ringing true and reportedly ad-libbed by the actors, that helped give the film a sense of character and verisimilitude, and made it so memorable. The film no doubt resonated with audiences for many reasons, but it wonderfully captures the essence of youthful male friendship. Indeed, it was a touchstone for many of my college buddies as well—we watched it on a movie night once and often made it a point to take a “Diner” photo—a recreation of the Diner poster of the principal cast gathered around a dinner table in the afterglow of a wedding—at each other’s marriages.

Friday, June 1, 2018

10 Films in 10 Days: #9 - The Year of Living Dangerously

My ninth of 10 films in 10 days is another movie (like my previous one) I’ve blogged about before, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), and another one that came out during my college years.

I’ve always enjoyed smart political and newsroom thrillers and dramas (like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men, both on my list). Adding to the appeal of this film was its exotic locale, Indonesia. Though the movie was a U.S.-funded production that featured American actors (such as Sigourney Weaver and Michael Murphy), the film is otherwise thoroughly Australian, with Aussie director Peter Weir at the helm and, in the lead role, Mel Gibson, who had already received international attention for the first two Mad Max films and Gallipoli).

Of course, one of the film’s most memorable performances is delivered by actress Linda Hunt, as cameraman Billy Kwan, a male character. Hunt deservedly received the Academy award for best supporting actress for her performance.

Based on the novel of the same name, the film follows a green but ambitious Australian journalist named Guy Hamilton on his first overseas assignment in the early 1960s, set against the backdrop of real-life historical events in a country on the verge of civil war, as Communists threaten to topple a government that is dominated by the military and Islamists.

On the surface, the film is somewhat in the same category as the classic Casablanca—a love story mixed with foreign intrigue. Here, Hamilton must choose between his ambition to break a big news story and his love for a British embassy worker/undercover intelligence agent (Weaver). But this being a Peter Weir film, the addition of Hunt’s character—as a half Asian-half European dwarf—and the backdrop of Indonesia lends the film an otherworldly “magic realist” quality that is greatly accentuated by the film’s score by Greek composer Vangelis (who also scored Blade Runner).

It’s a terrific, layered film that influenced some of my early comic-book stories. Indeed, my love for the film inspired me to read the original book—since this was well before the Internet, I discovered the book was no longer in print in the U.S. and had to get a cashier’s check in Australian dollars to cover the cost of the book and overseas shipping to order it. But I also enjoyed the book, so it was well worth it.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

10 Films in 10 Days: #8 - Electric Dreams

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic choice in my list of 10 films in 10 days is my eighth entry, Electric Dreams (1984). I actually wrote about this film on my blog back in 2015, so much of this is taken from there—I also recently rewatched it and can say my feelings for it remain the same!

This little known/seen romantic comedy/”date movie” featured the major film debuts of actors Lenny von Dohlen (later seen in the Twin Peaks television show and Home Alone 3) and the lovely Virginia Madsen. Its tagline—"a love story about a boy, a girl, and a computer"—says it all. (Bud Cort voiced the computer.) Adding to the obscurity of this film is the fact that it’s never been available on DVD in the U.S., let alone BluRay. I saw Electric Dreams in the theater several times on its release and it was one of my earliest VHS purchases, bought used from a video store at a time before films on VHS were relatively affordable. I viewed that tape multiple times for many years and had the foresight a few years ago to transfer the fading copy onto a recordable DVD before the VHS copy finally gave out (the picture was already quite faded – but I’ve since discovered the film is available in its entirety on YouTube!)

Though in many ways a true product of the ‘80s—with a score by synth disco and electronic dance music impresario Giorgio Moroder and songs featuring the likes of Boy George and Jeff Lynne—the concept was actually very much ahead of its time. Set in San Francisco (though the outdoor shots are filmed on location, it was otherwise shot on a London soundstage!), von Dohlen plays Miles, a milquetoast architect, while Madsen plays Madeline, a classical cellist who has joined the local symphony and the object of Miles’ attention when she moves into the apartment upstairs. After Miles purchases a computer to organize his life and computer-model an earthquake-resistant brick he’s designing, the PC becomes sentient (and learns to speak) through a convergence of mishaps after being connected to the nascent internet—which soon becomes increasingly jealous of Miles. As a result, the computer—who we later discovered is named Edgar—sets out to ruin Miles’ life by attacking him through the electronic networks, by playing havoc with his financial credit and reporting him as a wanted felon in the system.

At the time of its release, the film certainly stretched credibility since there was no World Wide Web or Internet yet as we know it, and modem communication networks were very much in their infancy. Nevertheless, the film in retrospect is quite prescient in predicting the threat of hacks. But the film is not a cautionary tale about technology—at its heart, it’s a simple romantic comedy involving a love triangle in which one of the parties happens to be a computer.

The main reason I enjoyed this film was because I simply found it very romantic—in fact, I used to watch this film when I needed a little cheering up. The filmmakers use San Francisco effectively as the backdrop, giving the movie character and a strong sense of place. And in today’s era of irony, self-awareness and snarkiness, the characters and their story project a sweetness and innocence rarely found in films anymore. Anyway, it’s a film that came into my life at the right moment and remained a touchstone for me for many years as a young single person.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

10 Films in 10 Days: #7 - Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962), released the year I was born, is the seventh entry in my 10 films in 10 days. Anyone familiar with me or my work will know this film is right in my wheelhouse—a sweeping historical epic adventure set in an exotic locale. Arguably the greatest film epic of all time—they truly don’t make ‘em like this anymore folks—and directed by the great David Lean, it is based on the real-life story of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer during World War I who served as a liaison during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Adding to the cachet of the film is the fact that Lawrence—both in real life and in this film—is a bit an enigmatic figure. Is he an idealistic romantic doomed to disillusionment? An adrenalin and power junkie? Ambitious? Or just a clueless political pawn? In the film, of course, he is all of these.

The film opens with Lawrence being assigned as an observer to Prince Faisal, who is leading the Arab revolt against the Turks. Lawrence, however, soon becomes a more active player, planning and leading some military actions and campaigns, perhaps both for glory as well as out of genuine support for Arab autonomy and anti-colonialist sentiment. While the British initially see Lawrence’s actions as brash (and even vaguely treasonous), they shrewdly decide to use him to their advantage as a diversionary tactic against the Turks. Soon, however, what Lawrence sets in motion overtakes him and he also begins to learn that war and killing perhaps aren’t so romantic after all—with the end of the war also comes the end of idealism as political reality (and gamesmanship) sets in, with the partition of the conquered colonies among the victors.

The film won best picture at the Academy Awards and made lead actor Peter O’Toole and supporting player Omar Sharif international stars. It is both sweeping epic and intimate character study, yet at the end of the film, the figure of Lawrence and what drove him remains as opaque and inscrutable as when we first meet him.

For many reasons, this film could not likely be made today. Aside from its cost, the script has no female speaking parts (I think women appear in two scenes and you never see their faces since they are in burkas) and with the exception of Sharif (who was already an Egyptian matinee idol and hired to replace a French actor originally cast in the role), the two most prominent Arab characters in the film are played by Western actors—Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi (both were made up to bear remarkable resemblance to both real life figures). While both actors played the roles well and with great sensitivity—with Quinn particularly larger than life and chewing up the scenery to great effect—such casting would certainly not fly today! But it nevertheless is a lush, romantic, beautifully told and shot film—knowing it was shot on location suggests the production was as much of an adventure and daunting behind the scenes as what’s captured on film.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

10 Films in 10 Days: #6 - Three Days of the Condor

The sixth film in my 10 films in 10 days is Three Days of the Condor (1975), the second Redford film following yesterday's All the President’s Men and still one of my all time favorite spy thrillers, a film that tied together 1970s paranoia (anyone remember the Parallax View?), distrust of government, and the economic malaise and oil shortages of the era, all in one tidy package.

Redford plays CIA agent Joe Turner, codenamed “Condor”—not a field agent, but one who works at a desk job. He is a “reader,” someone who just reads books (“everything that's published in the world”), feeding it into a computer for anything that might benefit the agency—at one point, Redford incredulously asks, “Who'd invent a job like that?”

The film opens with the massacre of everyone in his field office in the heart of New York City while Turner is out picking up lunch, by a crew of assassins led by the mysterious “Joubert” played to Euro perfection by Max Von Sydow. When the killers realize they missed Condor, the hunt for him begins. Turner soon kidnaps a random civilian woman (Faye Dunaway) and at gunpoint forcers her to hide him in her apartment. At first, of course, she thinks he’s a lunatic, but when one of the assassins tracks him down and attempts to kill him in her home, she realizes there may be some truth to his paranoia and agrees to help him. Condor’s smarts and lack of field training makes him unpredictable, which turns out to be an advantage—he also soon discovers that he can trust no one and that sides and allliances can quickly change, often having nothing to do with ideology. By the end of the film, Condor exposes the plot and can seemingly finally come out of the cold, but the movie nevertheless ends on an uncertain note, causing Turner and moviegoers to question whether our government and its institutions can still be trusted.

Directed by the great Sidney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor, of course, reflects the deep distrust of the government and the establishment that emerged in the 1970s, particularly in the wake of the Vietnam War, the youth movement and Watergate, when much of the general public lost faith in the integrity of both our institutions and of the people in power. While in the years since the public's trust in government has ebbed and flowed over the years, in many ways, of course, we still haven’t fully recovered—indeed, in the current toxic and divisive political environment, we have witnessed a real nadir in public trust in our leaders and the government, with even those in office actively working to undermine people’s respect and trust for agencies like Congress, the FBI and others, often for their own personal and political agendas. (A new adaptation/update of the story, simply called Condor, is apparently forthcoming.)

Monday, May 28, 2018

10 Films in 10 Days: #5 - All the President's Men

My fifth entry for my 10 films in 10 days is All the President’s Men (1976). I can’t remember when I first saw this—it may have been not until college—but even though I was not particularly political as a kid nor particularly well versed on the details of Watergate, I was always fascinated by this film, even in my youth—I recall one day being with friends, trying to decide whether to see a movie, but no one was interested in seeing it when I suggested it, no doubt believing it was boring (I was 14 at the time). It’s a thriller without any violence or traditional “action scenes” and of course everyone knows how the story ends. But it’s how we get there that forms the spine and suspense of the film.

The film has inspired generations of new reporters and made journalism look like a noble profession.  In truth, journalism always has had a long rough-and-tumble history encompassing both serious news gathering and investigative work and partisanship and sensationalism. And today, most of broadcast and print journalism are part of large media conglomerates, part of the same establishment its supposed to cover and hold accountable, which does create a degree of conflict of interest. Nevertheless, the film demonstrates the importance the importance of holding investigative journalism and a free press in a democratic society—a democracy that actively seeks to undermine or delegitimize the press does so at its own peril.

The film is an amazing piece of work, especially when one considers it was done so close after the heels of the actual events (Nixon had resigned only two years prior to the film’s release). It continues to be an inspiration of similar films that have followed, such as Shattered Glass, Spotlight and the recent The Post.