The best parts of Wet Hot American Summer

WHAS4Back in 2001, Wet Hot American Summer became one of my all-time favorite comedies. I think it’s the only DVD I ever rented more than once (Remember video stores? The ones other than Blockbuster?). I even listened to the DVDs commentary track, which was pretty hilarious. With all that said, I’m as surprised as anyone that Netflix has brought the movie back for a prequel series, 14 years after it settled into its cult status.

If you’ve never seen the original movie, I say check it out. I’d also suggest you be forewarned, this is one of those bits of art that is fairly divisive. It’s like the cinematic version of a Vampire Weekend or a Velvet Underground album. You’ll either fall in love in the first 10 minutes, or you’ll scratch your head and wonder what all the fuss is about. WHAS_cast

At the very least, you’ll be shocked by the cast breakout stars: Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, as well as a lot of funny faces you’ll recognize: Michael Ian Black, Christopher Meloni, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino… all of them ‘young,’ before their careers took off. I put ‘young’ in quotes because most of them were in their late 20s, playing teenage camp counselors. The movie goes for the typical belly laughs that you might expect from an ‘end-of-summer’ sleepaway camp teen comedy from the 1980s. But the best parts of the movie are more subtle homage or skewering of the sloppy conventions of those movies.

First of all, as mentioned above, all sleepaway camp movies must feature twenty-something actors pretending to be teenagers. The editing, the effects, and direction have to look as shoddy as possible. If you have seen the original movie, then check out some of my favorite moments. Hopefully this will get you fired up for the new series premiere on July 31.

David Hyde Pierce and Janeane Garofalo have their first bit of hilariously awkward dialog. Listen for the canned ‘breaking glass’ sound effect whenever anything flies off screen. The producers use the same sound in the next scene with Christopher Meloni.

Blocking? What is blocking? Blocking is where the director plans positions for actors as they stand or walk—or how they enter or exit a scene—to create the most narrative impact, and to create the least amount of distraction. This is one of the movie’s first bits of ‘absurdist blocking humor.’ What do you do with Zak Orth to get him out of a scene so that Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks can have ‘a moment alone?’ You have him take a long walk off a short pier. WHAS5 25:10
Paul Rudd calls his Journal a ‘Gournal.’ No one corrects him.

Another bit of absurdist blocking humor. Several excited counselors frolic out of Garofalo’s car, to go stand against a cabin wall, Blair Witch style.

Ken Marino drives a van, sings ‘chain of love,’ and then rams a tree for no good reason. WHAS6 39:50
Check out the horrible wig on Joe Lo Truglio’s stunt double as his motorcyle chase is stymied by a single bale of hay in the road. This is made doubly hilarious (or maybe just disturbing) by the fact that the filmmakers seem to be throwing real child actors out of a moving van during several other scenes of the movie.

Zak Orth and A.D. Miles slyly exchange a secret handshake—which is pretty much a regular handshake. Right after that, Michael Ian Black and Bradley Cooper share sweet, sweet man love in their athletic socks.

Who’s the voice of that can? Why it’s H. Jon Benjamin, future star of Archer and Bob’s Burgers!

The movie launches into the obligatory 80s motivational musical montage. And the song (Higher and Higher) is that perfect blend of parody and actually cheesy greatness. Like the part in Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler sings The Touch, which was also in the BEST Transformer Movie.

Can’t afford a big river rescue scene to rev up the climax of your movie? Just pan in on Joe Lo Truglio mugging for 15 seconds over splashing sound effects. He can wow the viewers with ‘you shoulda seen what I just saw!’ awesomeness. Also, don’t bother to tell the child actors being rescued to bother acting scared.

That’s a few of my favorite scenes in WHAS. Wha’s yours?

A Family Parasite? (A Review of James Derry’s “Line of Descent”)

James Derry:

Thanks so much for the great review from the Word Smithe blog!

Originally posted on TheWordSmithe: Description: “Some women dread the idea of turning into their mothers. For Elise Gardener, that dread has twisted into an all-too-real nightmare. Elise has always been the spooky misfit of her wealthy family—and a disappointment to her overbearing mother. Elise’s problem is that she’s supernaturally sensitive. She’s an empath who can’t help seeing and feeling the intimate emotions—sometimes painful or shameful—of every person she meets. While her cousins are starting glamorous and lucrative careers, Elise is happy working as an unseen housekeeper at a camp for underprivileged children. But Elise’s cloistered life is shattered when her mother seemingly drowns herself. Elise invites her tenuous best friend—Mallory, a girl she’s only known for two months—to the memorial at the Gardeners’ private isle on the Georgia coast. Together, they discover that Elise’s family have a sinister secret that they’ve been keeping for generations. They are in the thrall of a dark…

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I just read: Lock In

lock-inFirst of all, let me say that I’m not a big fan of police procedurals… or mysteries in general. Like most genre fiction, they require a swift plot, and a swiftly plotted mystery requires coincidences and synchronicities that push the limits of my credulity.

If a detective decides to check in on a key witness, then she will arrive just in time to find the door to that person’s apartment has been jimmied open. She’ll be the first to stumble upon a dead body, or to catch the assassin red-handed.

If the detective starts hanging out with someone with a weird area of expertise—say, a doctorate in Native American lore—then it’s a given that the case will hinge on some clue involving Navajo mythology.

If, early in the book, the detective attends a dinner party that introduces a handful of characters, then one of those characters will end up being the culprit. Or if there’s no dinner party, and the detective has a random, non-plot-related encounter with a—say, a Bodega owner or a neighbor of the victim—then that person will end up being the culprit.

So. At this point, you’re probably asking why I chose to read John Scalzi’s Lock In, which is quite clearly a sci-fi police procedural. First of all, John Scalzi is one of the embarrassingly large number of best-selling sci-fi authors whom I have never read. One of my goals in 2015 is to mark some of those essential authors off my to-read list. Secondly, my book Idyll touches on some similar ideas (people in weird comas, living in virtual reality networks or through avatars), so I wanted to see how an acclaimed writer dealt with those subjects. Thirdly… it had a cool cover?

Here’s my shot at explaining the premise: A flu-like epidemic sweeps across the planet, and leaves about 1% of its victims completely paralyzed. They have to spend the rest of their lives ‘locked in’ their bodies. Private industries and government programs emerge to help these people deal with ‘lock in.’ The Hadens (that’s what the paralyzed people are called) basically have two choices of how to live their lives: they can interact with the rest of the waking world through remote-control androids—or they can project their consciousness into a communal, virtual reality environment and confine their interactions to other Hadens.

So those are the two dichotomies that drive most of the plot and themes of the novel:
• Private vs. public sector
• An external, very mechanical life vs. a more cerebral ethereal life.

These parts of the book, when the Hadens focus on the philosophical ‘pros and cons’ of their life choices—and the turns that society is taking—are very interesting. For instance: If a person spends every waking moment in a V.R. environment, where they can be anything they want to be, are they even ‘human’ anymore? Also, if a for-profit company is running that V.R. habitat, is it ethically acceptable to insert ‘pop-up’ ads into people’s lives? Is that better than charging them by the minute to have a life?

Then there’s a whole other complicated part about physically functional humans who can let Hadens control their bodies for a limited time. That’s where things start to get a little wonky.

The plot centers around one of these ‘integrators,’ a murder suspect who may or may not have been controlled by a Haden while he was at the scene of the crime. It’s a very complicated set-up, but once the premise has been established, the mystery spins out by rote. All of the tropes that I listed above (friends with a weirdly useful specialties, coincidental run-ins, dinner party with suspects) you’ll find them here.

Wrapping up, I was surprised at the cleanness and simplicity of the plot, considering the complicated premise. Mostly, I take that as a good thing. If you’re a big fan of action-oriented mystery novels, I’d say give it a try. And even though I left feeling disappointed, I could totally see this as a kick-ass, free-on-HBO movie. (Something like Will Smith’s ‘I, Robot’ or Tom Cruise’s ‘Minority Report.’) In fact, I just checked and I’m not surprised that someone has already bought the rights to a Lock In TV series.

I feel like I have to read another one of Scalzi’s books before I can have a true sense of his writing style, because this novel seems anomalous to the majority of his works, which seem to be space-operas. I do have to say he used the words ‘said’ A LOT. I posted a treatise about the dubious writing tip that ‘you cannot overuse the word ‘said.’’ I didn’t believe it then, and I believe it even less now.

I just read: Seveneves

Wow, this was a really great book.

I’ve heard people praise Neal Stephenson, but I’ve always assumed I would find his books to be somewhat… impenetrable. Mainly that’s because of their heady subject matter and their cryptic titles. For instance: Reamde, Anathem, Cryptonomicon. (See that last one even has ‘Cryptic’ in it!) And his author’s photo doesn’t help with his approachability quotient, since it shows him sporting a kick-ass, ‘evil-mirror-universe’ goatee. Pop-culture has conditioned me to stay away from the likes of that facial hair configuration.

Evil Doppleganger Goateesseveneves_coverJudging by Seveneves, I was very wrong to stay away. This is very fun ‘hard’ science-fiction. Imaginative and thrumming with intriguing characters and ideas and edge-of-the-seat action sequences. It’s an apocalyptic, sublunar space-opera that kept me riveted for all of its 850+ pages.

Here’s the rundown: One day, something (a mysterious ‘Agent’) flies through the moon and shatters it. There’s no explanation as to what the Agent is, and the astronomers in Seveneves are quick to point out that the cosmic phenomena we understand are far outnumbered by the phenomena that we don’t even know exist. Eventually, these scientists figure out that the destruction of the moon will inevitably lead to the destruction of all life on Earth. (I won’t tell you how. I don’t want to spoil it. But it is spectacularly awful.) Nations begin to ally themselves under a global ‘Ark’ project to get a robust representation of the human race into orbit, where they’ll have to survive for 5,000 years, until the Earth’s surface becomes inhabitable again.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 2.47.47 PMFirst of all, I have to say I’m fascinated by the idea of society on the verge of a doomsday that they know is coming. On the Beach, World War Z, The Last Policeman, Y the Last Man. What will happen to humanity in the face of certain extinction? Will we rise to the occasion? Will we devolve into violence and anarchy? How many people will resort to suicide? Does the birth rate drop? Does everyone quit their jobs and start working on their bucket lists? Are the DMVs and the gyms deserted? Are the beaches overflowing?

If all of that sounds a bit too morbid for your tastes, you’ll be glad to know that Stephenson doesn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on his doomsday scenario. That’s not to say he gives it short shrift, either. For most of the first part of the book, we’re following a Neil deGrasse Tyson analog who is nicknamed Doob. Just like the real-life Dr. Tyson, Doob is a world-famous astrophysicist who is present for a lot of the seminal moments in the planning of Ark project. For instance, he’s there for a solemn ceremony in Bhutan as one community send off their best and brightest to hopefully be selected to join the sampling of humans in space. There are also poignant moments with Doob’s loved ones. His second wife: whom he meets and marries AFTER the moon is destroyed. And one of his college-aged sons, whom he follows on a road-trip to a sort of populist space-launch platform.

Overall, the Earthlings in Stephenson’s book respond to their eminent extinction with gumption and ingenuity. Stephenson’s narrative is not focused on the potential for melodrama. Instead he’s often detours into the prospects of orbital mechanics, geopolitical wheeling-dealing, genetics, jerry-rigged space habitats, and more. Stephenson makes all of these subjects fascinating.

The second part of the book focuses on the exceedingly brilliant and/or brave people who have been chosen to be shot into orbit. Among them are a Hillary Clinton archetype, and a young muslim who seems to be modeled after activist Malala Yousafzai. (I guess Seveneves is big on cultural analogs!) One of the big themes here is leadership, and we see lots of different styles at work here. The Clintonian political maven. A Captain Kirk type. A tech billionaire who registers on the Aspergers spectrum.

And these pioneers have a lot to deal with. Cosmic radiation. Meteors. Solar flares. The drag of the atmosphere. Reactor radiation. Explosive decompression. Space travel has never seemed this lethal, and even though the first part of the book stacks up a body-count in the billions, the book’s second part seems particularly hair-raising.

The third part of the book begins with a time-jump 5,000 years into the future. I’m not a big fan of time-jumps. The first one that pops to mind is from the epic horror novel, The Passage. In that book, the story shifts from an apocalyptic vampire story, to a post-apocalyptic vampire story. And the plot—in my mind—hits a brick wall.

The third section of Seveneves gets off to a bad start when the first character introduced is named Kath Two. (Enter Sci-fi trope #154: If you want your characters to seem ‘futuristic,’ drop a number into their name!) But Stephenson reveals a very intriguing reason for Kath Two’s nomenclature. It has to do with the genetic manipulation that the Ark’s leaders had to resort to ensure the survival of their descendants. (Again, I won’t spoil anything, by describing the last few harrowing and heartbreaking scenes in the second part of the book.)

After all this genetic tampering, the results are slightly troubling. Basically, the descendants are separated into seven different genetic stocks. And those genes determine almost everything about them, from their personalities to their competencies. In the interest of survival, these ethnicities have been created and specialized so that they’re like pure-bred dogs.

seveneves_mal_dragoFor instance, there’s a heroic race of Mal-Reynold-types. And there’s a race of Ivan Dragos. A race of science-focused Asians. And charismatic but shifty Romans. If you consider this for a while, it comes off as quasi-racist. Then there’s the unlikely fact that these racial pigeonholes seem to have held for 5000 years, with very little cross-breeding. That seems like a segregationist’s wet-dream.

But enough focusing on that. Again, Stephenson throws in all kinds of fascinating ideas, and characters that are easy to care about and to root for.

With around fifty pages left in the book, I was worried that the story wouldn’t have space to wrap up in a satisfying manner. But then we get one final excellent action sequence. And room for a sequel?

If you’re a fan of science-fiction, post-apocalyptic stories, or space operas, I’d strongly recommend this book.

Sonar Taxlaw. I love this character’s name, and the reason for it. (Again, no spoilers.) I’m just adding it here to hopefully add to it’s Google results. Long live Sonar Taxlaw!!

The Pulchritude Award: Inflammable

Nick_RivieraHi, everybody! The Pulchritude Award goes to words that don’t sound like what they actually mean. Today’s winner…

In the immortal words of the all-too-mortal Dr. Nick: “Inflammable means flammable? What a country!”
‘What a country,’ indeed, Dr. Nick. And what a word!
Or should I say ‘What a prefix?’
Or should I say ‘What a series of prefixes?’
Or should I just shut up?

You see, there are a couple of ‘in-’ prefixes, that come from a variety of Latin roots. Most obviously, ‘in-’ can mean ‘un-’ or ‘not,’ as in invisible, incredible, or inadequate.

But there’s also an ‘in-’ prefix that means ‘in,’ ‘into,’ or ’toward,’ as in income or inundate. This is also the prefix for inhibit, which comes from Latin roots that roughly mean ‘hold in.’ Therefore, uninhibited is not a double-negative. That’s also where inflammable comes from—an adjective that means something is liable to burst ‘INTO’ flame.

Now if someone could just explain why invaluable is better than valuable!

Past winners of the Pulchritude Award are:
Alacrity and Phlegmatic

I just read: The Martian

The MartianOK, I’m gonna almost brag and say I almost discovered Andy Weir before he blew up. A couple of years ago, I was looking to read a book about life on a planet with gravity that was lower than Earth’s. Mars seemed like an obvious place to start. I stumbled upon this self-published book, ‘The Martian,’ that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I added it to my to-read list. A few months later I went back to its page on the Kindle Store, and I was greeted with a weird message, something to the effect of: “The Martian is not available at this time. It will be re-released by Random House on such-and-such a date.”

Good for that guy, I thought. And I decided to keep an eye for the re-published ebook.

At this point, it would be nearly impossible to be regular reader and to not know about Andy Weir’s novel. In less than two years, he has rocketed to the stratosphere of self-published success stories, among the likes of E.L. James and Hugh Howey. Now he’s clocking in with a multi-spread interview in Entertainment Weekly, and a huge movie adaptation of The Martian starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kirsten Wiig… pretty much everybody. You can watch the trailer here.

What’s even more impressive is that Weir reached escape velocity with just one book. Guess what? The book is just that good.

The elevator pitch for the novel would be something like ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars.’ After a freak storm, Mark Watney, an engineer and botanist, is assumed dead and stranded on Mars by his astronaut buddies. The book takes place in the near future, so his landing zone is one of the few spots on the planet where he can find abandoned supplies and technology. It takes an Earth vessel something like a year to reach the red planet, and even longer to prep the flight. And Watney doesn’t even have a way to let NASA know that he’s alive.

First off, if ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ sounds even more boring than the original Robinson Crusoe (take THAT Daniel Defoe!), let me assuage your concerns. Sure, the hero spends most of his time holed up inside tiny habitats or an even tinier rover vehicle, and these settings COULD get monotonous. But Weir deftly turns the narrative to the colorful characters at Mission Control at just the right moments. We also check in with Watney’s heroic former shipmates, who are still traveling back to Earth.

Because of those breaks, Watney’s story stays fresh—and it is riveting. Our lonesome astronaut has to make his own food, recycle his water, recycle his poop, nourish the bacteria in his poop, create oxygen, create electricity, generate heat, get rid of heat, get rid of carbon dioxide, customize a land vehicle, rebuild his shelter. Watney’s challenges are constant, and his solutions are fascinating. There’s no question that Weir knows his science, and his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. I’ve heard that the publishers are considering excising the swear-words from the book to make an educational version for school curriculums. I think that would be great. If this book doesn’t inspire a whole generation of impressionable youths join NASA, I’ll eat a Sputnik!

But Weir is not only an excellent teacher, he’s an expert storyteller. He uses several POVs and narrative devices to wring drama or  funnies from each scene. Most of the story is told in 1st-person, from passages in Watney’s log. But when the narrative occasionally shifts perspective—and time-frame—to explain how the outer shell on Watney’s habitat was manufactured and assembled… Well you have some good old-fashioned sweaty-palm foreshadowing that something bad is about to go down with that outer shell. Weir uses these narrative shifts to great effect. There’s one toward the end of the book—I won’t explain it here, to avoid spoilers—where the ‘perspective’ of the book shifts cinematically to a very faraway shot of Watney on the silent landscape of Mars. I think that will make a great scene in the movie.

Lastly, let me gush over the character of Mark Watney. Dude is like the nerd version of Indiana Jones. Weir writes him to be funny, and rousingly positive, considering his dire situation. Sure some of that is ‘whistling past the graveyard,’ and it is explained as such. But an upbeat protagonist is a welcome surprise, considering the subject matter. Honestly, I was expecting long, pensive passages as the castaway struggles with depression and loneliness. There is not much of that.

Often in sci-fi or fantasy, you’re presented with a hero that other characters will totally mark out over, and all that fictionally generated admiration can get a little grating. (I’m looking at you, Doctor Who!) But when characters in The Martian start saying stuff like “If anyone can do it, Watney can…” or “With Watney out there, anything is possible…” you start to believe it too. I’m sure Watney is meant to encapsulate what should be our can-do aspirations on space exploration, and Weir flat-out pulls it off. The book ends with a ‘Rah-Rah’ speech about the innate goodness and ingenuity of humanity that almost made me well up. And I never almost do that over a book.

Here’s hoping that Weir’s next book, a more far-flung sci-fi story, will be half as good.

Shadow Sideways

Shadow SidewaysFor a moment allow me to channel cinema bad-ass Steven Seagal, who, according to legend, once had this conversation:

SS: “I just read the greatest script ever written.”

Random person: “Wow! Who wrote it?”

SS: “I did.”

With that said, I’d like to say I just published the greatest sci-fi novelette ever written about super-powered ex-spies living in a nudist colony! OK, maybe it’s the greatest sci-fi novelette about super-powered nudists—WRITTEN THIS MONTH. OK, the month is still young. Maybe I should just drop it and go right into the blurb:


SHADOW SIDEWAYS reads like Carl Hiassen meets Robert Ludlum meets H.G. Wells. It’s a near-future science fiction thriller—a novelette that is a quick, witty beach read.

Sly Severance is a retired spy—a man with extraordinary ‘enhancements’ who served with the United States’ most cutting-edge and clandestine special forces team.

Now he lives on a Mexican beach with an adopted family of similarly enhanced retirees. Together they have created the world’s weirdest—and most reclusive—nudist colony. They used to be thieves, mercenaries, and assassins, and now they will go to great lengths to maintain the safety and the secrecy of their beach.

“We don’t like strangers. We don’t like prying eyes.”
“I’ve pried eyes before. I didn’t mind it.”

When a CIA officer ambles onto the colony’s beach, Sly is forced to return to his old way of life. To protect his home, he will lie, steal, fight, and draw blood. And he will find himself in a very dark place, a vantage point where the differences between right and wrong can be as hard to see as a SHADOW SIDEWAYS.

Check it out on Amazon!