The Way of the Word

28. August 2010


This morning, I cleaned out my paper archive. As in, I tossed out printouts and carbons (yes, it dates back that far) and redundant photocopies of my early work. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Most of these are either also saved digitally (the problem is that my computer has no 3.5″ floppy drive), or completely horrible. So I either still have a version (note to self: buy a USB floppy drive for computer), or it’s not worth saving. Yes, honestly. My first novel? The world is better off if the paper it’s typed on is just recycled.

I did find some interesting stuff among these, though. Luckily, I found the one screenplay I wrote. Earlier this century, I was hired to write a teleplay for a no-budget sci-fi movie that was hoped for (by the producer) to be the pilot for a series. I completed the screenplay, but I was never paid. The production apparently failed to raise any money, and the producer vanished.

I also found the script for a Batman audio drama that I wrote back in 1989. At the time, a German company had the rights to produce Batman audio dramas based on the first Burton movie. I had written the script just for trying out if I could handle the format. The story had been fun: the Joker has to deal with his even more evil twin, and Batman had to stop them both. I wrote it over the Christmas holidays in 1989. When I sent out some more short stories to publishers in January 1990, I also submitted the Batman script. Just because.

A couple of days later, the producer called me. He not only wanted to buy the script, he offered me a job as regular writer for the series. Sadly, he lost the license before the deal came together.

I found one of my first comic book scripts, which I wrote for Visual Assault Comics. That one had been bought and sold, and even drawn. The editor had sent me copies of the pencilled pages. I might scan them and post them on my blog one of these days. I know that violates the artist’s and publisher’s copyrighst, I hope they’ll consider it free promotion. My usual luck: the series was cancelled before my script was used. This time, though, I had at least gotten paid.

Among my earliest work is a short poem that I already posted on my blog.

The real gem, however, is a script I had completely forgotten I had ever written. (Which should be a lesson to us all: look through your archives every couple of years.) It’s a young adult fantasy novel that combined non-traditional mythologies for a fun story. The idea behind it had been, what if someone finds a wonder lamp who doesn’t know that they get three wishes? Basically, it’s Aladin’s lamp found by Tahitian children. Just looking at the title page reminded me how much fun it had been to write this story. I still have it on disc, but since I have a printout, I’ll probably use the printout as the basis to do another draft of this. I’d need to look through my other set of files, but I don’t think I ever actually even submitted it anywhere. The story is 15 years old, I think, and if I haven’t improved as a writer since then, all hope is lost anyway. I remember the story was fun to write, so giving it another pass will probably also be fun.


Untitled Poem

Filed under: general,Uncategorized,writing — jensaltmann @ 08:04
Tags: , ,

When the black hole of despair

casts a shadow

and threatens to devour

the light of joy

that outshines a thousand stars

you won’t need him,

the knight in shining armor,

who rides on his white charger

to heroically save the maiden fair.

For there are no more dragons

The one is enough.

The one next door.

The unassuming little man

who seeks to banish the darkness

with the light of one lone candle.

The one who says:

“I am your friend.

Let me help.”

26. August 2010

RIP Satoshi Kon

Filed under: Animation,comics,Commentary,general,movies,RIP,Uncategorized — jensaltmann @ 10:10
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Satoshi Kon (born October 12, 1963), a director of anime, died on August 24, 2010, of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 46. He knew of his coming death since May 18, when he was told that he had at most 6 months left to live.

After studying to be a painter, Kon got his start as a mangaka working as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo. He entered the world of anime in 1991 as a set designer for Roujin Z, and sold his first screenplay, Magnetic Rose, in 1995. His debut as a director was the anime Perfect Blue in 1997.  In the following years, he created the anime Millenium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika and the TV series Paranoia Agent.

His work usually dealt with subjective realities, blurring the edges between reality, deams and fantasy. Yet his stories, as bizarre and over the top as they were, were very much grounded in humanity. Despite the tragedy of the human condition that was found in his work, it was always in its own way upbeat and humorous.

We had the privilege of translating Paranoia Agent into German a few years ago, an assignment that made me a fan of Kon’s work. Kon was a brilliant anime creator, and his passing is a great loss for the artform.

His final, incomplete work The Dream Machine will be released posthumously in 2011.

He left a final message on his blog. Excerpts from it have been posted on various places on the internet, so I’ll leave you to find those. In his final blog, he writes about how he was in constant pain so he went to see a doctor. He writes about the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, which had alread metastatized into his bones, and how he was told he had only a few months left to live. He writes about how he made his final arrangements and set his affairs in order. How he arranged, against the wishes of his doctors, to die at home. He describes an out-of-boy experience he had while he was taken out of the hospital.

The greatest gift he has for the readers of this last message is that he lets us know that he was at peace. He wasn’t angry at his fate, or upset that he was dying. He accepted the fact and had made his peace with it. That, at least, is a comfort.

22. August 2010

Made of Fail Backstory: Curses, Foiled Again!

Today’s offering introduces a new semi-regular character: Evil Mastermind. Unlike almost every other evil mastermind in fiction, EM really is a criminal genius.

I mean, how many other villains in movies, TV, novels and comics do you know who actually know to quit while they’re ahead? Who somehow acquire a billion dollars so that they need to set their masterplan in motion, which usually essentially boils down to becoming insanely rich. Those masterplans usually fail, and the evil mastermind loses everything.

The CM-logo on his chest was based on the original name: Criminal Mastermind. I like the character, though, and I had the thought that I might want to reuse him, specifically for those strips where I need someone to be evil, but for whatever reason don’t want to use Mefisto. In order to fit him in with the rest of the gang (Amy, Ben, Craig, Don), I decided to change his name to Evil Mastermind (preserving the alphabetic order — I’m weird that way).

His look, by the way, is based on the classic supervillains of the 1960s. Dr. No and Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld, to name just two of them.

Actually, you can expect to see him again fairly soon. I have plans for Evil Mastermind. Evil plans…

9. August 2010

Mad Pulper Project: Return to Grover Springs

I’m halfway done. Yes, work slowed down a bit, due to various circumstances, but at least it never stopped (outside that week I took off from this to do some Made of Fail). I’ve set up all the twists, the bad guys are now showing their true colors. I know how the rest of the story goes. I mean, I really know, as in, I have the completely written scenes in my head. All I need to do is type them out. I’ll need to do two scenes I don’t like the way they are in my head now, because they have clumsy transitions. They use characters I haven’t had as POV characters yet, and doing that in the second half is not a good thing. But at the moment, I see no way around it. I need those scenes to advance the story. It would be easier if I could use Jake or Jerry as a POV character, but that would open several other cans of worms. In any case, since I now know how I want to wrap this up, I expect the second half will flow much more smoothly than the first half did — which was the half where I was still figuring out what story I was telling.

6. August 2010

Review: Ninja

USA 2009. Directed by Isaac Florentine. Starring Scott Adkins, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Mika Hiji. Runtime 86 minutes

Casey (Scott Adkins) is a Westerner who studies ninjutsu in Japan. When his sensei (Togo Igawa) has reason to fear that his former student Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara) plans to steal the mythic Yoroi Bitsu, which contains the equipment of the last ninja, sensei sends Casey and his own daughter Namiko to take the trunk to a safe place in New York. Unfortunately, Masazuka not only finds out about it, he is also connected to a cult-like organisation that has enough manpower to try to steal the trunk. Of course things deteriorate to a point where a showdown between Casey and Masazuka becomes inevitable.

Ninja is not an ambitious movie. The sets actually look like studio backlot, the actors are so wooden that trees would be ashamed to be associated with the same adjective. The dialog is clichéd, the script has plenty of plotholes. The movie does not have a single original idea, and the movies that “inspired” certain scenes are obvious. Then again, how many action movies have by now “borrowed” the “Terminator attacks police station” scene from Terminator 1?

Where the movie excels, however, is when it comes to its prime directive: the martial arts action sequences. They don’t go too far over the top, but instead appear quite realistic and yet stunning. There are a few digital effects which are used to enhance some moments (Masazuka’s hypnotic swordwork comes to mind), the fights however are stunts and wire-fu rather than computer effects.

Adkins’s physical presence in this film is most impressive, and his past as a martial artist and stuntman makes his work here convincing. Ihara’s acting is extremely uneven, as if he’s not quite sure what kind of character he’s supposed to portray. Almost from one scene to the next, he switches from being a swaggering thug to someone who just wants to be accepted by his father figure. Which would be fine, if it were made to appear as two facets of the same character. Instead, it seems like two different characters. Mika Hiji’s role suffers from bad writing. Her character is supposed to be the daughter of the ninjutsu dojo’s sensei, and she was supposedly trained in this art since birth. So how does it happen that she has to be rescued by Casey all the time? She shouldn’t have any more problems with the waves of attacking henchmen than he does.

Despite its flaws, however, Ninja delivers what it is supposed to: stunning and amazing martial arts action. As any b-movie connoisseur knows, story and acting are secondary in b-grade martial arts movies. Action is everything, and Ninja delivers it in spades, making this movie a very enjoyable and entertaining way to spend an evening.

Verdict: recommended

5. August 2010

Review: The Expendables

USA 2010. Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Eric Roberts, Dolph Lundgren. Runtime 100 minutes

The mysterious Mr Church (Bruce Willis) hires Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his team of mercenaries to take down a South American dictatorship. When Barney scouts it, things go wrong and their contact, Sandra (Giselle Itié) is captured by the rogue CIA agent Monroe (Eric Roberts). Barney decides to go in and rescue her.

The Expendables is not a movie. It’s a testosterone therapy. It’s the ultimate guys movie. The only women in speaking roles exist for the heroes to rescue them. If a vehicle with an engine exists, it’s in the movie. The characters talk tough, act tougher, and each has his signature weapon. There is martial arts and explosions. The bad guys are vile, the good guys are… well, not exactly good, but doing the right thing, even if it is for their own reasons. And everyone happily chews scenery.

This movie is what A-Team should have been. It’s cheesy and over the top, in the same way of the action movies in the 1980s that made most of the cast into action stars. The stakes are almost as big as the explosions, but the heroes are unflappable and mostly indestructible. It follows the trend set by this year’s The Losers and The A-Team, in that it makes the vilain a rogue CIA spook, and has said spook act very much over the top, but unlike the previous two, Eric Roberts is actually menacing enough to pull it off without becoming ridiculous.

I’m cynical enough to think that Sylvester Stallone, who not only plays Barney Ross but also wrote and directed this movie, created it in a “paint-by-numbers” way. Not by trying to craft a fantastic story, but by going down a checklist of what men (and boys) like in an action movie, and then working it in. There are some random motorcycle scenes that don’t add nothing to the plot. There is a terrific car chase. There is a scene with a plane blowing up a pier. There are martial arts (the scenes with Dolph Lundgren vs. Jet Li are terrific) and, well, the aforementioned explosions. The women are all damsels in distress. There are one-liners. About half of which misfire. Almost everyone cast in this movie is a big name in the action movie genre. That is perhaps the most compelling reason to see this film: watching all these action legends together for the first time.

If you’ve followed my reviews, you know that I’m… let’s say not very fond of big CGI scenes for the sake of having big CGI scenes. Expendables is old-school enough that it doesn’t do that. The stunts are stunts, and Stallone the director uses CGI to enhance, not replace, the traditional effects. The results are that the over-the-top action scenes, while still implausible, never go so far to take the viewer out and say, “But that is absolutely impossible.” And while it certainly is fake, nothing ever looks fake.

The Expenables is a very old-school action movie that takes the newer generation (the aforementioned Losers and A-Team) to school and shows them how to do it right. Women won’t like this movie. Despite the fact that Mickey Rourke gets to have an emotional moment and shed a tear, there is no room for emotion in Expendables. Men… Well, guys really, will love this movie. It’s been designed for us, made for us. If you look for dumb summer fun, you’re looking for The Expendables. It’s definitely the most fun (and not even dumbest) movie I’ve seen all year.

Verdict: very recommended

4. August 2010

Review: A-Team

Filed under: Commentary,general,movies,review — jensaltmann @ 09:43
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USA 2010. Directed by Joe Carnahan, Starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Sharlto Copley, Jessica Biel. Runtime: 121 minutes

Fair warning first: I’m a fan of the original TV show. So I saw the movie through that filter: how does the movie measure up?

Fair to middling, actually.

As we all know by now, Hollywood loves its prequels, and with A-Team they actually get three for the price of one:

– We see how the four guys met before they became the team we all know and love. (We also discover why BA is afraid of flying.)

– We’re told the story of the mission that ended so desastrously that it got them court-martialed.  The original had the team rob a bank in the last days of the Viet Nam war. The movie has them active during the Iraq war. This change actually makes a lot of sense, since otherwise we would be watching a team of semi-geriatric action heroes.

– We attend their court-martial, see how they break out of the “maximum security prison” and try to clear their names.

The movie ends on a note that makes any fan of the original sit back and be relieved. If you didn’t like this movie, you can pretend it was the series pilot, and the entire cast was replaced by cooler guys.

Izzatso? Not quite, really.

Liam Neeson tried to make the role of Hannibal his own by injecting the character with more gravitas than George Peppard brought to the part. Neeson’s Hannibal is more a military man than Peppard’s was.  He should have stuck to that, because when he actually tries to out-smarm Peppard, he falls way short of the goal.

Bradley Cooper is perfect as Faceman. I imagine he spent a lot of time watching the original when he prepared for this. He goes so deep into Dirk Benedict mode that there are moments when you think it is Dirk Benedict in the part.

Sharlto Copley doesn’t even try to emulate Dwight Schultz. He provides his own interpretation of HM Murdock. It works, and it is by far the smarter choice. Because nobody can emulate Dwight Schultz.

Rampage Jackson does the best he can with BA Baracus. The problem is that Mr T’s portrayal of BA is absolutely iconic. Like Murdock, it’s impossible to come even close. Rampage might have had a chance, though, if the script had let him. Which it doesn’t. On the surface, the idea is cute: BA discovers religion while in jail and wants to stop killing. In practice, unfortunately, this turns badass BA into emo BA. The moments where he’s allowed to be badass, Jackson convinces.

The movie tries to imitate the original’s campy fun, but it falls short because it tries too hard. One of the problems is the movie’s mail villain, CIA-agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson). Lynch fits perfectly into the new breed of action movie CIA villain, in that he is ridiculously over the top. Too much so. Lynch is “too cool for school,” and that is the problem. He doesn’t come across as a smart and dangerous menace. He comes across as a half-wit juvenile who has seen too many Mission:Impossible movies and now plays pretend secret agent. His team of henchmen are equally incompetent. Lynch’s henchman Pike (Brian Bloom) and his Black Forest mercenary team would have made a better villain for this movie. I’m not too fond of evil twin scenarios, but the A-Team facing off against someone who is actually their equal would have been more fun. Heck, even Lt. Sosa’s (Jessica Biel) team of A-Team-hunters would have been a better choice. A hero is defined by the quality of his villains, and if Agent Lynch defines this A-Team, then it’s sub-standard.

The movie itself has several other problems. So many of them that it makes me wonder of the occasional out of focus camerawork is supposed to be innovative and artistic (in which case it fails; in the showing that I attended, it irritated even those who otherwise liked the movie), or simply incompetent. Another problem are effects:

The movie has four major action pieces. One being a helicopter chase, which works nicely. The things Murdock does with the helicopter are improbable, but it doesn’t break suspension of disbelief because if someone as good as Murdock is crazy enough to try it, who knows, they might succeed.

The second action piece, the theft in Baghdad, also works. The only problem is that the CGI is a bit too obvious in several places. But here, the CGI is used to enhance the effects, so it’s not too distracting.

The third piece, an aearial chase sequence that climaxes in a free-falling tank (yes, you read that right) destroys suspension of disbelief. Done entirely in rather wonky CGI, it culminates in the A-Team surviving a crash in a tank that is in almost free-fall from over 20,000 feet altitude. I don’t mind my action being larger than life, but this is nuking the fridge. It requires too much suspension of disbelief.

The final and largest action piece has a hundred or so shipping containers fall off a freighter. Which would have been exciting, if the CGI had been more realistic. The level of CGI used in this movie, sadly, makes it look unrealistic.

Speaking of which: a major part of the movie is set in the German city of Frankfurt. One establishing shot of what is supposed to be the Frankfurt Central Station is, sadly, clearly the central station of Cologne, easily recognized by the famous cathedral. Just a goof, but a major one. To use an American comparison: imagine a movie prominently showing the Statue of Liberty, but claiming to be in Chicago. It’s a goof on that level.

All in all, The A-Team wants to be a major summer tentpole actioner and (probably) franchise-starter. For that, it was too sloppily made. As I’ve already mentioned, the blame lies not on the shoulders of the cast. All the movie’s problems can be put squarely on the shoulders of writer/director Joe Carnahan.

Verdict: not recommended

3. August 2010

RIP Tom Mankiewicz

Screenwriter and director Thomas Francis Mankiewicz (born June 1, 1942) died on July 31, 2010.

As the son of writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, it’s not surprising that he sort of drifted into the film business.  His first credit was “production associate” on the movie Best Man, in 1963.  He started to write shortly after that, with his first produced screenplay being an episode of the Bob Hope Chrysler Theater. He felt that his byline of Thomas F. Mankiewicz  looked too pretentious, so he shortened it to Tom Mankiewicz for the rest of his career.

And what a career that was. Mankiewicz worked on the screenplays to the James Bond movies Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. Often, serving as what’s known as a script doctor (someone who rewrites problematic screenplays, usually for little or no credit), his work remained uncredited. His revisions on the movies Superman the Movie and Superman II earned him the title of “creative consultant.” He also wrote the screenplays to the Rutger Hauer/Michelle Pfeiffer fanasy movie Ladyhawke and the comedy Dragnet (which he also directed).

If you need more: Mankiewicz script doctored and/or participated on The Cassandra Crossing, The Deep and The Eagle Has Landed, Goonies, Batman, Gremlins, WarGames. Peter Falk saw to it that he was brought on as script consultant for Columbo. Nice work if you can get it: Mankiewicz’s job was to read the scripts and comment on them, no actual writing involved.

When Sidney Sheldon offered the script for a potential TV pilot, called Double Twist, to Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, they couldn’t sell it. So they brought it to Tom Mankiewicz, who rewrote it into the pilot to the TV show Hart to Hart. The rest, as they say, is history.

Okay, so much about the bullet points. Tom Mankiewicz was a terrific writer. The list of movies above? I’ve seen almost all of them, I have most of them on my DVD shelf. I very much loved his work. Even the uncredited stuff; in hindsight, it’s easy to tell that those movies had the extra something that set them apart from the rest.

He had mostly retired from writing, instead spending his time on the board of directors of the William Holden Wildlife Association.

1. August 2010

Made of Fail Backstory: Give A Pet A Home

Made of Fail update: Adopt a pet advertisement

It’s my soapbox, and I’ll climb on it if I want to…

This particular Made of Fail strip isn’t meant to be funny. Rather, it’s something near and dear to my heart.

I love animals. Sadly, there are too many people who only think they do. They take a cat or a dog into their homes, but as soon as it becomes inconvenient, they discard it. Usually, that happens around this time of the year. Summer vacation time. Everyone wants to get away… oh… there’s that dumb animal that we can’t really take with us. I know, let’s just drop it off at some rest stop along the way. Maybe it’ll get lucky and some truck runs it over. Or, let’s just set it loose somewhere in the city. Sometimes these people show at least enough sense/compassion to turn their pet in at their local animal shelter, where it at least has a chance of finding a new, friendlier home.

Would it surprise you to learn that a lot of those animals were brought into these unloving homes as Christmas gifts?

Anyway. A lot of these animals, although not all of them, end up in shelters. Now, depending on these shelters (and the country), if they get overcrowded, they kill the animals. They feel they have no choice, and as much as I hate it, under their bureaucratic circumstances, perhaps they actually don’t. We all know how little our bureaucracies care about people. It’s no surprise, then, that they care even less about animals.

What this amounts to is that these cats and dogs and assorted other animals are given the death penalty for not being loved.

That is where today’s Made of Fail comes in. It’s an advertisement. If you think of bringing a pet into your home, at least look at your local shelter. But not after having given the matter a lot of thought. If you bring a pet into your home, you’re stuck with it for life. Their life. And that can be quite a bit of time. Cats for example have a life expectancy of around 20 years. You’ll have to care for it throughout those years. In that regard, adopting a pet is not that different from adopting a child.

If you run a shelter, or an organization that promoted adopting and/or rescuing pets from shelters, you are welcome to use this particular strip to advertise. You are free to use it as posters, for print advertisements, leaflets, on your Facebook page, your website, any way you feel it can be useful. You are welcome to customize the text to better fit your specific needs – for obvious reasons, I made it generic. The only condition is that you use the entire strip, including the ownership and permission notice at the bottom.

Just download the graphic from the site. If that doesn’t work, or the graphic is too small for your needs, drop me a line and I’ll provide you with the original-size scan.

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