What is a Hipster Noir? Inspirations, Part One

When I first started writing my first hipster noir, now called The Muddled Mystery of the Murdered Muse, it began as a bunch of weird character sketches. Some of them were based loosely on folks I know in real life, while others were complete fabrications. And there were a few I pulled in from other ideas I’d initially drafted as screenplays or other kinds of creative writing.

But you may be wondering how this all began.

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Well, aside from being bored during my morning and evening commutes from Jersey City to NYC and back, what initially started me writing what back then was only a character sketch a day is Mind MGMT, a creator-owned comic book series by Matt Kind, published by Dark Horse Comics. The plot centers on a mysterious organization of super spies known as Mind Management and one man’s quest to take it down once and for all while another faction fights to recreate a new, more powerful management. Hand down, Mind MGMT has to be the best read in comics right now.

Something Matt includes in each issue is a character sketch to a new character in an opening and closing segment, one on the flipside of the front cover called “The Second Floor” and the other called “Mind MGMT Case Files” that takes up the last two pages. It’s here where Matt introduce his readers to characters that are now starting to play a more prominent role in the story –– characters like “The Futurist” Duncan Jones, “The Ad Man” Karl Box, and “The Hulk” (not to be confused with Marvel’s green giant). “The Second Floor” also occasionally delves into side stories that help us piece together what Mind Management is all about.

Two Sisters

What I really love about these is how they start to connect to the larger world and story arc of Mind MGMT, creating a more holistic continuity in the universe that Matt seems to be expanding on with each monthly issue. In many ways, this exactly what happened with my character sketches; at one point about ten characters in, I create Sebastian Holden, the hipster detective protagonist of my story, and from that point on, a plot started to take hold of the writing.

I probably haven’t told you all that much about Mind MGMT, Matt Kind’s greatest series since Super Spy and Revolver, but I cannot recommend this series enough, which is available in three hardcover graphic novel editions as the monthly series stories boldly on with a movie on the way.

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As for my hipster noir, I’m still writing them both a little bit every day. Instead of character sketches, the ones I’m writing now are chapters in the second novel while I revise and edit my Muddled Mystery and get it ready for the road ahead.

Stay tuned…

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Star Wars: Three “Lost” Episodes

With all the hype(rspace) lately about Star Wars: Episode VII, the inner child in me who once ran around his apartment holding onto the built-in handle of his Millennium Falcon has had his lightsaber reignited, especially by the news a few weeks back that the original cast will be joining the ranks of the Rebellion once more.

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At one point, I stumbled on this article from io9 about some of the best Star Wars Expanded Universe stories every told, and while there were some solid contenders like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy of novels and Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Empire, but I was a bit surprised that none of the novels by Kevin J. Anderson made the list.

Anderson’s Jedi Academy Trilogy was my re-introduction to the joy of Star Wars, which I sort of left behind during that one time I decided that maybe I should grow up. I picked up the first book because of the cover itself: a crash-landed Millennium Falcon and a female Imperial Admiral, all flanked by the familiar faces of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia Organa. Were it not for that evocative cover shining forth in the small confines of Bergenfield Bookstore back in 1994, I’d never have picked up with Bantam paperback; clocking in at a staggering 368 pages with no pictures, it was decidedly more than my sixteen-year old attention span could ever handle.

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But it was Star Wars, and this was the novel that launched me back into that galaxy far, far away, that reignited the lightsaber of my mind with a snap-hiss of a newfound excitement for the original (and only) trilogy.

I was able to get through Jedi Search, even though it took quite a while, as I’m a very slow reader, but I enjoyed every chapter. And once I was done, I went out and picked up the second book, Dark Apprentice, and devoured that, as well, and ended it all with the finale, Champions of the Force.

I supposed what I enjoyed most about this particular trilogy of books is the nostalgia factor, as so much of what’s in these books harkens back to the original trilogy. The opening scene pits Han Solo and Chewbacca crash-landing on the planet Kessel, where our one-time scoundrel “made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs.” The Jedi Academy is housed on the planet Yavin IV. Even Darksaber, Anderson’s follow-up novel to these three books, is loaded with references to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, from the “Banthas plodding single-file” on Tatooine to a rematch between Luke Skywalker and the wampa that lost its arm to his father’s lightsabre.

The cover artwork for Darksaber.

The cover artwork for Darksaber.

 Earlier this month, I went to the weekly book sale at Grace Church in Jersey City, and lo and behold, I saw the entire Jedi Academy Trilogy on the shelves beside classic science-fiction stories, and the Star Wars fan inside of me couldn’t help but smile. I don’t have my copies any longer, because I sold them to a woman from Vancouver who wanted to surprise her son with some Star Wars criteria reading. I certainly place these four books right up there with X-Wing: Rogue Squadron, the Thrawn Trilogy, and the greatness that will ultimately be Star Wars: Episode VII, though little to none of the Expanded Universe will be the same.

 

But these books will be with me, always.

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What are some of your favorite Star Wars books, graphic novels, or other stories, and why?

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Still a GAME BOY at Heart: 25 Years in Eight Games

The other day browsing through my Instagram feed I discovered that April is not only National Poetry Month (I’d known this for decades, of course, being a poet since the age of thirteen), but that this year marks the 25th birthday of one of the most pleasurable aspects of my childhood: The Original Nintendo Game Boy.

 

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In all it’s bulky, black & white compactness, this paradigm of the portable game playing device absorbed hours of my life into mere minutes as I immersed myself in worlds both familiar and foreign, all the while migrating with the sun and stars through the day so I could play until the wee hours of the night.

At my game-playing fighting weight, I must’ve owned around twenty or so of the iconic Game Boy game cartridges, and kept them all in a black vinyl case until I gave it all to an ex-girlfriend when I prematurely decided that it was time to grow up. One of three times I’d told that to myself in my life –– thankfully, the growing up never quite takes.

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I still remember the thrill in my heart when I unwrapped this baby at Christmas time, 1989.

But I did have a few favorites, which I not only played time and time again, but which also inspired me to get creative with telling my own stories.

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters

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It must have been the Greek or the geek in me (or a little of both, perhaps), or maybe just the fact that I needed to know the origins of the strange Eggplant Wizard in the old Captain N: The Game Master series, that I picked up this version of the original 8-bit Kid Icarus game for the NES, which I never owned.

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 Double Dragon

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I’m a lot less violent now than I guess I was back in the ’90s, but I enjoyed kicking arse as Billy Lee and punching, side-kicking, and knifing my way through the scum-lined city streets, for which this black & white version shadowed a nice little noir aspect to it, especially when the contrast was adjusted just right.

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Super Mario Land

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Ever since playing the original Mario Bros with my dad, to elevating to Super Mario Bros., eventually falling in love with Super Mario Bros. 2, and having the Mushroom Kingdom culminate with SNES’s Super Mario World, there’s still a soft spot in my soul for Super Mario Land. It has a charm that the others lack. Perhaps it’s the fact that Mario flies in a plane and dives deep in a submarine and battles an all-new villain –– the evil alien Tatanga –– and rescues a different lovely princess named Daisy. I always wondered what Princess Toadstool thought about that. And where the heck’s Paula in all of this?!

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Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge

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With much better gameplay than the original Castlevania: The Adventure for Game Boy and the ability to whip while climbing up a rope, Belmont’s Revenge was a whip-cracking good time as I battled familiar monsters and a few gruesome new faces in four really interesting realms for Christopher Belmont to wander through before his final bout with Dracula ensues.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan

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By far, this is my all-time favorite Game Boy game. I could play a ton of others, but being an ardent fan of the heroes on the half-shell, owning all of the original action figures and loving the TV series more than any other cartoon series that came before it, I always slipped this cartridge into the back of my Game Boy and played for another hour or two. Even after beating The Shredder and Krang, I would simply restart and do it again, marveling at the graphics as I played each time as if it was the first time.

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Now, there were also a few games that, no matter how much I played them and how hard I tried to master them, I just couldn’t do much to get past a certain level on each one of these. But I still tried, and (most of the time) I still had a blast playing them.

 

RoboCop

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Playing this straight forward side scrolling shoot-‘em-up, and I could never get past the level where it became first person, and Murphy has to save a screaming woman from a thug holding her at gunpoint by positioning the crosshairs and shooting him to save her. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I never become a cop.

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The Final Fantasy Legend

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One of my favorite posters I ever hung up in my room was one for the NES Final Fantasy game. Final Fantasy II for SNES quickly became one of my most played games ever, partly for the role-play factor (the Dungeons & Dragons geek in me), but also for offering an mesmerizing storyline that took a Dark Knight turned Paladin from terrestrial worlds and airships all the way to the moon itself! The Final Fantasy Legend for Game Boy, however, with its much slower pace, nameless characters, and lack of a solid storyline, didn’t make as lasting an impression on me, though I did keep playing it, but would oftentimes get bored by the wandering around and battling lame monsters.

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T2: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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I never made it past level two in this game, in which players have to rewire the terminator into Schwarzenegger with shades. End of story. Before it ever begins.

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What are some of YOUR favorite (and/or least favorite) Game Boy games? Fill ‘em in the comments below.

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The “Word” in Jersey City Last Wednesday was Crowdfunding for Filmmakers

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Last Wednesday, I presented my seminar on “The Keys to Successful Crowdfunding for Filmmakers” at Word Bookstore in Jersey City, NJ. Here are some photos of the event, which went exceptionally well, according to members of the highly engaged crowd of future film funders:

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And yes, I am this animated!

Special thanks to my lovely fiancée Marinell Montales for snapping these awesome shots during the event. I’d also like to thank Word Bookstores for welcoming my words into their shop and for heping to promote, as well as Inside Jersey City (@iJerseyCity on Twitter), The Jersey City Life (@jerseycitylife), and everyone who RTed and “Shared” this event.

And, of course, I’d like to thank the amazing crowd that attended –– after all, without the crowd, where would I be?

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Robots I Can Recall and the Robo Force I Can’t

I’ll be the first to admit it –– I had an amazing childhood.

Being the baby of the family, my Mom, Dad, and siblings always wanted me to have the best. In fact, some of my fondest childhood memories are of family trips to the Toys R Us in the neighboring town of Union City (or is it North Bergen? –– There’s some weird border issues around those two towns) and picking up the latest Transformers or M.A.S.K. toys.

Other times, I’d go with my Dad to the dollar shop across from the Pathmark in Weehawken where my sister worked part-time as a cashier, and I’d spend some of the hard-earned money I made bagging groceries at the back of her aisle on Saturdays.   Spoiled? Perhaps just a little.

But last month while I was searching for some images for one of my upcoming blog posts, I stumbled on this poster:

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I was propelled into my past. I remember sitting Indian-style in my playroom (formerly my brother’s bedroom) at the apartment where I grew twenty-six years tall and strong surrounded by cardboard boxes that once held Löenbräu and Carlo Rossi burgundies and instead held my Masters of the Universe, Star Wars, and Secret Wars action figures, and fumbling around with these awkward-looking suction-cupped robots, with accordion-style arms, stickers on their chests, and ridiculous names like “Coptor” and “Vulgar.” My favorite was Hundred the Conqueror because of his evil slotted red eyes and the hidden guns that lay beneath his visor. I never really liked Maxx Steele the Leader simply because he was the one of the lot who just couldn’t hang upside down –– his suction cup was a bit “sucky” compared to all the rest (I had to…)

I don’t quite recall these bots being my favorite toys; they were a bit effeminate, with Hundred the Conqueror, in particular, looking very much like a bustier version of Rosie from The Jetsons; back then, this would’ve been reason enough to steer clear of the toy line –– during a time when boys were not interested in playing with girl toys; that is girl action figures like April O’Neil from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Playmates toy line or Wonder Woman from the Super Powers figures by Kenner. However, I did own Teela from Mattel’s Masters of the Universe, which was the closest to owning a Princess Leia figure I ever got back in those days.

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Good ol’ Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons, one of my favorite cartoons growing up.

But the interesting thing is this: I can tell you to this day where I got most of my action figures and vehicles, and oftentimes from whom, too, but I can’t, for the life of me, recall where the heck all of these Robo Force protagonists and antagonists came from! I remember clearly my sister Renee buying me the original first generation Optimus Prime Transformers figure and my Uncle Chris getting me the Millennium Falcon one Christmas in the early ’80s; and I can still see my brother and sister-in-law bribing me down the aisle on their wedding day with a brand new Whiplash figure and unwrapping He-Man’s Talon Fighter at another family gathering around 1885. But these Robo Force figures? I can’t even remember the packaging these things came in, and certainly not the family member who bought them for me.

What’s the deal with robots, you ask? Although I’m a fairly rabid science-fiction fan, robots were something that took me a while to fully appreciate. I mean, I only saw The Day the Earth Stood Still last week. To this day, I’ve yet to watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica even though thanks to some good friends on Facebook I realized that a figurine I’d held onto for years was actually from the original TV series. As a matter of fact, the only TV show I ever watched show that featured a robot was Small Wonder. No Six Million Dollar Man. No Bionic Woman. No Star Trek: The Next Generation until I was much older.

But I am intrigued by the idea of robots, cyborgs, androids, and other forms of artificial intelligence, and even more so now than ever before since our own world is inching closer and closer to making these once staples of science-fiction storytelling an everyday reality. Drones are one thing, but other things like Google Glass and Oculus Rift, which allow the Internet to have an up close and personal seat in our psyches to control at the blink of an eye, is simply one step away from putting that Internet inside of us? Borg, anyone? For me, it’s a little too RoboCop for my comfort.

The only robot I had any remote liking to back in my younger days was C-3PO, and I think it was because, besides Transformers and even the GoBots, Threepio was all-too human deep beneath his golden shell. Then you have robots like the nameless one from Lost in Space, Robby from Forbidden Planet, and the Daleks from Doctor Who, which are not humanoid in any way, but intriguing in shape, function, or even its purpose for existence.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

So it doesn’t surprise me that I really can’t remember where these Robo Force figures from my younger years had come from. But I do remember playing with them on a somewhat regular basis whenever I tired of my SilverHawks flight laps around the apartment and the Ghostbusters adventures during my weekend visits to my brother’s house in Bergenfield.

And just as I don’t remember where I originally got this particular line of toys from, I also don’t remember how they left me, either. It’s as though they appeared when I needed some robotic buddies most, then exited through the gift shop just as mysteriously as they came.

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So remember that figurine I mentioned earlier? This it is: the small figurine that partially spawned this blog post. Thanks to my friends Ian Dangerfield, Geoff Mosher, and Patrick Boyle, we discovered that it’s an original 2-inch Cylon Centurion figure from Mattel’s Cylon Raider vehicle from 1978 –– the very year I was born.

Here's my Cylon Centurion, which has been with me for as long as I can remember.

Here’s my Cylon Centurion, which has been with me for as long as I can remember.

What vintage toy robots did you grow up with, that you either remember fully or vaguely. I’d love to know!

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A Real Dead Ringer for ‘Loaf: A Brief Look at the Second Helping of Meat

Last month, for #ThrowbackThursday (or #FlashbackFriday), I posted an image of the first CD I ever purchased –– Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, Meat Loaf’s “follow-up” to his debut album Bat Out of Hell from back in 1977. It spurred on some swell conversations on Twitter between myself and a bunch of other Meat Loaf fans. @RealMeatLoaf even  favorited the photo.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all heard the classic songs from the original Bat album –– the evocative seventies sex, love, and rock-and-roll anthem “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”; the melancholy “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”; and, of course, the title track that pits us in the pangs of a one-night stand gone awry.

Then, with the release of Back Into Hell in 1993, the motorcycles revved, the electric axes wailed through a familiar fog yet into an all new ‘90s sensibility with the unforgettable “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” –– and it always baffled me how I seemed to be the only person who understood what it was that Meat and writer/producer Jim Steinman “wouldn’t do” for love.

Once I got through with these two albums, I embarked on a quest to discover what other Meat Loaf albums were in existence. It wasn’t as easy as it is today to discover and even listen to Meat’s entire repertoire with just a few taps of your fingers on a keyboard. Back then I actually had to go from music store to record shop, from Sam Goody and Nobody Beats the Wiz to Bleecker Street Records discover new music on vinyl, CD, or cassette.

And it was on one such trip that I discovered Meat Loaf’s sophomore album, Dead Ringer, released back in 198. One thing that always immediately struck my fancy with Meat Loaf albums were the covers, and this one by noted horror artist Bernie Wrightson was no different –– a macho Fabio kind of cat riding through an ocean and accosted by nymphs or sirens, and the word “Meat Loaf” emblazoned on the sails and carrying the songs through the waters and into our ears. It’s easily one of my favorite covers of all time, one that captures the entire essence of the 1980s era of music, and also resounds with dark allusions to Homer’s Odyssey.

Meat Loaf Dead Ringer

A great album cover is par for the course of a Meat Loaf hit.

Now I didn’t know it back when I first listened to Dead Ringer that it truly was an album of comparable quality to Bat Out of Hell. With lyrics yet again by Steinman, who wrote both Bats in their entirety, and Meat Loaf’s signature sound and flare for the dramatic, I played side A of my cassette tape numerous times before popping it out of the deck, turning it over, and playing side B, which ran through the tape with just as much vigor and heartbreaking guitarmanship as the previous side.

It’s probably been a good seven years since I’ve listened to Dead Ringer, so I recently dug it up on Spotify, and I was instantly reminded of just how solid an album it is. But I also really listened to the lyrics of each song –– I mean really listened to them, with a mind full of different experiences and a more refined sense of  and how beautifully messed up they were, more so than even the most sultry lyric in “Paradise.”

My top four Dead Ringer favorites are “dead ringers” enough of this:

“I’m Gonna Love Her for Both of Us”

As if the title alone doesn’t say enough (or too much), the lyrics themselves go a step further:

And I’ve been closer to you now than any other boy
And you know that what I’m saying is true
You’re gonna break her up and tear her down and fade her away
And then there’s no telling what I’m gonna do

So basically, a guy tells his buddy he’s fed up on how he’s treating his girl. Now, if that isn’t enough, the chorus get’s even more intense:

But if you give me your girl and then you give me your trust
And if you give me till the end of the night
I’m gonna love her for both of us

You turned her into a ghost but she’ll be burning when the night is done

“More Than You Deserve”

This whole song burns with empathy for the main character, who loves a girl, but this girl “makes love” to his best friend. Things escalate to epic proportions when this guy sees her making love “to a group of [his] best friends,” but it also throws it in their faces, too: our narrator ultimately comes out on top, so to speak, when he finds the courage it takes to “look them right in the eyes” and say:

Won’t you take some more it’s what you came for
And don’t mind me I won’t throw you no curse
Go on and have yourself a ball with my good women
Won’t you take some more boys it’s more than you deserve

“I’ll Kill You If You Don’t Come Back”

My favorite lyric in this song happens at the bridge, where the music slows down, becomes a ballad, in which Meat Loaf “blesses” all the different types of high school girls, and out of all of them, there’s just “one girl [he'll] never forget.” (It starts at the 4:02 mark in the above video, though much of it’s power comes from listening to the entire song.)

“Read ‘Em and Weep”

The most heartbreakingly beautiful ballad since “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” and we’ve all been here before, but Jim’s lyrics, coupled with Meat Loaf’s painfully honest rendering of these lyrics make this song a heartache and a half, putting into words the fact that some feelings just can’t be put into words:

If I could only find the words then I would write it all down
If I could only find a voice I would speak
Oh it’s there in my eyes, oh can’t you see me tonight
C’mon and look at me and read ‘em and weep

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It’s funny –– when I was younger, I remember listening to the lyrics of “Bat Out of Hell” and envisioning an epic scene about a motorcycle jacket-clad hero who rides his bike, crashes and is “dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun,” and all that. And perhaps that’s really what the imagery Steinman and Meat Loaf want us to envision. But why was he trying to escape “like a bat out of hell,” hmm? Same reason the guy and gal in “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” go back and forth in the sexual scoring metaphor of a baseball game: guy wants girl; girl wants guy to promise forever else guy won’t get girl’s “forever”; so guy either says “I do” and tries for the hit and run. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

One other thing I couldn’t help notice about Bat Out of Hell and Dead Ringer is that they both follow essentially the exact same track format. The heavy growling opener (“Bat Out of Hell”/“Peel Out”); the sultry siren song (“You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth”/“I’m Gonna Love Her For Both of Us”); the soft-spoken ballad (“Heaven Can Wait”/“More Than You Deserve”); then we kickstart back to a bit of fast-paced action (“All Revved Up with No Place to Go”/“I’ll Kill You If You Don’t Come Back”) before going all rock ballad again (“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”/“Read ‘Em and Weep”); and disregarding “Nocturnal Pleasure” as an intro to “Dead Ringer for Love” the way the whole “On a Hot Summer Night” bit introduces us to “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth”, there’s the duet (“Paradise By the Dashboard Light”/”Dead Ringer for Love”); and finally, we end with a heartfelt, thoughtful closer (“For Crying Out Loud, You Know I Love You”/“Everything is Permitted”).

Hey, if it ain’t broke, then it might just be a dead ringer for success.

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And for those of you who aren’t aware, Meat Loaf is still churning out the rock & roll tunes, and he’s also not holding back on the crazy lyrics. Here’s one of my favorites off one of his more recent studio albums from a song called “California Isn’t Big Enough”:

I can barely fit my dick in my pants
Come and lend me your hand
With my
Forthcoming release
Because
California isn’t big enough for me

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So what’s your favorite crazy Meat Loaf (or any) song lyric? Fill ‘em up in the comments section, folks!

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What Exactly Is a “Hipster Noir,” You Ask?

Well, I’m happy to report that I’m finally able to tell you all what exactly a “hipster noir” is, now that I’ve finished the brief synopsis of my very first supernatural, metaphysical mystery novel.

What started out as a series of comic character sketches back in May of 2013 during my morning commute to work somehow took form and became my very first 60,000-word novel by January of 2014. I had been calling it Hipster Noir, mainly because my main character, a private eye named Sebastian Holden, was inspired by a noired-up fellow I saw while waiting for a table at Otto in NYC. He was dressed like an old school detective, complete with trench coat and matching hat. The only thing that struck me as off-kilter was his great bushy beard, straight out of a day trip to Williamsburg (or, these days, Jersey City).

If Fred McMurray here had a grizzly beard, he'd be a dead ringer for Sebastian Holden, P.I..

If m’man Fred McMurray here had a grizzly beard, he’d be a dead ringer for Sebastian Holden, P.I..

After a bit of crowdsourcing for a more proper subtitle for the actual story being told, I settled on a title that I think captures the mood, tone and quirky flare of Hipster Noir –– The Muddled Mystery of the Murdered Muse. Special thanks to my Twitter pals @ABOVEtheLine, @fuegopazzo, and @peacepumpkinpic for some amazing suggestions and brainstormings on Twitter.

And now, here’s the official “Story in Brief” lifted from the proposal I’ve been putting together:

Blending nuances of noir with geek subculture in a supernatural, metaphysical mystery, Hipster Noir introduces us to the queerest holistic detective since Dirk Gently –– Sebastian Holden, P.I., a Jersey City hipster whose host of fine-honed skills helps him crack even the most cryptic of cases, like “The Muddled Mystery of the Murdered Muse.” When muse for hire Annie Hathaway is murdered, the fuzz quickly pins the rap on her spoken word-spouting boyfriend in Williamsburg. But Sebastian’s trusty gut instinct tells him there’s more to this mystery than meets even his third eye, and he thrusts himself head-first into a bizarre Universe teeming with vampire cabals, orange-blooded androids from tomorrow, and a haunted beach house that holds a dark secret, which just might be the key to solving Sebastian’s most perplexing case yet.

With a sundry cast of unconventional champions and supernatural scoundrels that includes a suicidal vampire, a world-jumping monkey-spanker, Death, and The Devil himself, plus boatloads of Bogartian banter and enough esoteric references to superheroes, indie flicks, and Castlevania to sink your battleship, The Muddled Mystery of the Murdered Muse will prove a hell of a whodunit that will scramble minds, steal hearts, and leave its readers eagerly anticipating further misadventures of the strangest P.I. this or any Universe has probably never heard of.

What do you think? Sound like something you’d be interested in reading?

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I Believe in Lonesome Rhodes: Dual Natures and Darkening Knights

Confession: I’m hooked on the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a humble folk singer from the country who quickly becomes corrupted by the fourth estate of the media, in this case, radio and television.

One thing Elia Kazan’s masterpiece taught me when I first watched it was that influence is indeed power, –– of the individual and the crowd. Most importantly, it reminded me that “there ain’t nothing in this world you can’t do when you let the best side of you take over.”

But A Face in the Crowd also demonstrates how one’s own influence can corrupt oneself; how the ego, even when expelled from within, leaves a lingering trace of itself like a cancer waiting for an opportunity to rise again.

How there’s nothing in this world you can’t do when you let the dark side of you take over, too.

Perhaps the greatest show of filotimo ever.

Darth Vader: Perhaps the most conflicted character ever to grace the screen.

Those of you who know me well enough know that I love movies that dive deep into the duality of their protagonists. Films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, and of course the original Star Wars trilogy (and those pesky prequels, too) are a few of my favorites.

My second time watching A Face in the Crowd was partly as research for a talk I’m giving this March, but it got me thinking, for some reason, about Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight. A single phrase kept knocking at my mind, which is repeated throughout the film, though the writers borrowed it from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s classic graphic novel Batman: The Long Halloween:

The final page of Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale's Batman: The Long Halloween.

The final page of Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween.

Harvey Dent, former Gotham City District Attorney turned two-headed kingpin when he’s not behind the gates of Arkham Asylum. From the original Batman and Detective Comics to Batman: The Animated Series, Two-Face has fascinated me as a conflicted character, and Nolan’s Bat-film brought him to life in ways that make Joel Schumacher’s purple-faced fool in Batman Forever all the more laughable.

But let’s backtrack for a moment to A Face in the Crowd. At the beginning of the film, we find Lonesome Rhodes fast asleep in a small town jail cell and abruptly awoken by Marcia Jeffries, who hosts a little radio show called “A Face in the Crowd,” in which she discovers talent from the people of her own town. After hearing Rhodes rock the jailhouse, she invites him to host his own morning show. Immediately he’s a hit, charming listeners and viewers alike with his folky jams, fun anecdotes and stories of his days in his hometown, which may or may not exist. Soon after, he starts to realize the power he wields over the people of this small town.

Eventually, Rhodes becomes the host of a TV show, and his ratings soar. Soon enough he’s partying with industry players, hobnobbing with political influencers, and even teaches an unpopular Senator what it takes to connect with a younger voting audience. Drunk with his newfound power, Rhodes becomes filled with hubris, which does him in by the end, brought down by the same forces that set him atop the pedestal –– the crowd.

In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent is frequently referred to as “Gotham’s white knight” –– the counterpart to its Dark Knight –– the stereotypical “good cop” who can’t be bribed or brought down, and who will do whatever it takes to ensure justice is upheld.

Well, he’ll do almost anything.

But when Dent fails to uphold justice, and his failure costs him the life of the woman he loves, Two-Face takes over, and “the white knight” formerly known as Harvey Dent crashes and burns away by the very system he fought so ardently to defend.

No comment.

No comment.

Dent serves as a visual representation of the duality that all memorable protagonists have struggling within them, which makes for dynamic, three-dimensional characters, in which we invest more of our attention and ourselves. Instead of seeing the shades of gray, Two-Face makes life and every decision about light and dark, black or white, clean side or scarred side on the flip of his custom coin.

The interesting thing is this: with Lonesome Rhodes, as with Harvey Dent, as we watch their rise and fall, we never lose sight of their good sides –– the man with the laugh that encompasses his whole self and the white knight we want to believe still believes in justice, not murder on the edge of a coin toss.

By contrast, no matter how “dark” the Dark Knight becomes, he’ll never fall to the depths of darkness that envelope Harvey Dent. And similarly, no matter how much Lonesome Rhodes blights the color from Marcia Jeffries’ cheeks and dress, she still sees the shades between right and wrong, which ultimately gives her the strength to destroy the cancer that once humble folk singer has become.

That’s these two films teach us –– the test of true power: the ability to do right, so long as it doesn’t cost us our own selves in the process.

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Ain’t No Anton Karas Blues: My Vienna Recap

Freshly baked apfelstrudels, morning and evening mélange (cappuccino), and the textural stylings of old world cobblestone streets and Romanesque-to-Baroque buildings are probably what come to mind to the many people who have made the journey to Austria’s Imperial City, Vienna.

For me, it was all that, and a little bit more.

Third Man Poster

Once my girlfriend Marinell and I got finished untying the various knots that the pretzel-twined city streets tied us into since we were without the luxury of Google Maps and forced to use only physical maps, we discovered a charming world of cafés, classical music, and foodie culture.

Some of my favorite moments besides attending my first concert of classical music at Mozarthaus and a Sunday matinee of Hänsel und Gretel at the Volksoper revolved around food and drink. This should come to no surprise to those of you who know Marinell and I well enough; that’s what we enjoy doing most when we go anywhere we haven’t been to before.

Goulash in a bread bowl started our first night off in Vienna on the right boot –– and the hot red wine served to us in little red boot mugs also made our first trip to Stephansplatz, the city’s center, a wonder despite all the designer shops that surrounded the plaza.

Yes, that is the awe-inspiring Rathaus behind me and my expression of utter impress.

Yes, that is the awe-inspiring Rathaus behind me and my expression of utter impress.

Christmas Markets are the big thing in Vienna during holiday season, and that’s where Marinell and I found ourselves frequenting most evenings. My favorite was the one in the Rathaus, which quickly became my favorite building in the Imperial City ever since I started Googling images of Vienna a week before the trip, but others included a rather large one at Maria Teresa Plaza and, of course, the one at Stephansplatz.

The Third Man Door was probably the biggest highlight for me. One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Vienna was because of Carol Reed’s 1949 movie The Third Man, starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. I longed for years to stand in the doorway where the mysterious Harry Lime (Welles) makes his first appearance in the film, and I did. And it felt awesome.

Not as smooth as Orson Wells, but hey, I'm standing in the same doorway he stood in during the Third Man shoot.

Not as smooth as Orson Wells, but hey, I’m standing in the same doorway he stood in during the Third Man shoot.

Schloss Schönbrunn, the summer palace of Vienna’s royal family, the Habsburgs, was an amazing experience as well, and one in which I learned a great deal of Viennese history (‘cause, y’know, I didn’t do any research before jumping on the plane to Austria). Marinell and I toured through some beautifully decked-out rooms, and also scaled the hills and dips in the Garden.

Upper Belvedere and Klimt’s “The Kiss” rounded off our extended weekend in Vienna. The Belvedere is a museum inside a Rococo-style palace and houses an impressive array of artistic voices, including Egon Shiele and Gustav Klimt, who’s “Kiss” haunts art lovers to this day, and there is nothing quite like seeing it there in person.

Some of my least favorite things (aside from our navigational difficulties) included this little trio:

Cafés are really just restaurants, and more so, many of them, even the top ones that were listed in both DK’s Top Ten Vienna and Lonely Planet’s Vienna Encounter, like the Café Museum (which proved near impossible to find) and Café Sperl, which was featured in the Richard Linklater film Before Sunrise, had a very Jersey Diner feel, only with much more grandiose chandeliers.

The Café Mozart, another location in The Third Man. What delicious cakes we ate that night.

The Café Mozart, another location in The Third Man. What delicious cakes we ate that night.

Not finding the Third Man Museum on the one day of the week it’s open because, well, after an hour and a half of searching for the street it was supposedly on, we gave up the search for the elusive Pressgasse, deeming it nonexistent.

Not seeing some of the sites I wanted to see, like the statue of Marc Antony in a chariot pulled by lions or Reisenrad, the famous Ferris wheel on which Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton have their tense discussion in one of the cars in The Third Man was a slight downer. But hey, when you’re beginning most days after 10AM and spend half your time just finding the places you actually want to see, you’re libel to miss out on a few things during a mere four day long visit.

The one thing Vienna seemed to lack, however, was the romance I was expecting, either of the Third Man or Before Sunrise varieties, even during the onset of winter. I suppose it was my fault for expecting something, since the secret of true happiness, I’ve learned, is to be without expectation. But after an entire year of non-stop work-related travel across the U.S. and to England and Canada, just being able to see something new with Marinell was all the romance I really needed to call this a vacation one very well-spent.

Love this lil' Lady of mine!

Love this lil’ Lady of mine!

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All that said, I’m planning out my vacation for summer, 2014. Where should Marinell and I soar off to this time? Add your suggestions in the comments, and thanks for reading!

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Linklatering Perfekt, Plus Five Lessons to Perfect Your Filmmaking

Yesterday morning, my body instinctively woke me up at 6AM, which would normally be 7AM, but due to daylight savings time it was an hour earlier. And as I lay in my bed, I started thinking about the one film I made that I’m most proud of. It’s a short sex comedy called Perfekt. I shot this story about an aging Don Juan searching for his perfect match back in 2006, when I had only two other shorts under my director’s belt, The Coconut and The Hotel Edwards. What begins as a fun little sex comedy, with main character Matt (Bill Schineller) looking for the perfect woman, one who embodies everything he loves and who also happens to be a virgin –– culminates in an unorthodox confrontation with the near perfect Nellie (Kate Kenney).

Well, I’ve been gearing up to work with my girlfriend Marinell on shooting a book trailer for my good friend James Broderick’s book Stalked, his first work of fiction after a lifetime writing nonfiction like The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek and Now A Terrifying Motion Picture! For the trailer, I enlisted the aid of both Bill and Kate. Each of us go way back; Bill and I first acted together in a 1920s/flapper era production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and I’d met Kate when I was casting for my sci-fi themed rendition of Antony and Cleopatra, in which I originally chose her for my female lead, but she wasn’t able to accept. I was so impressed with her, I kept her contact info, and when I had my script for Perfekt, which back then had a very different original title, I reached out to Kate immediately and offered her the role of Nellie.

Looking back on all the years and other film projects I’ve worked on like my Indiegogo-funded Cerise and Mating Dome, no film contributed more to my education as a screenwriter, director, and filmmaker than Perfekt. The film is far from perfect, but the poignant performances from Bill and Kate, the visual story arced by Alain Aguilar, the poetry beneath the subterfuge of seemingly simple dialog, and Ventzi Assenov’s evocative score; and even the sexual comedy at the beginning that paves the path to a heart-rending finish –– all of it pulled together in a way that none of my subsequent works have yet been able to achieve.

Perfekt Postcard designed by Marinell C. Montales

Perfekt Postcard designed by Marinell C. Montales

And this is why I’ve decided to pull a “Linklater” –– to get the band back together in the spot where it all the drama went down for Matt and Nellie, and bring about a second installment of Perfekt.

And we’ll call it Perfect.

Of course, there are some definite things that will be different this time around; after all, it ain’t 2006 anymore. And like I said, as a self-taught filmmaker with over a dozen shorts under my belt, here are five lessons I took away from the making of Perfekt that I will perfect further when I start shooting Perfect in 2014.

5. Hire the right amount of crew with the right skills to do the job right. When I shot Perfekt, the budget had a hard stop at $5,000. With that, I was able to hire my first assistant director, sound recorder, boom operator, and a couple of productions assistants. Factor in Alain and myself, and we were a modest crew of around seven members. One thing I learned back when I shot Cerise with its larger budget of $15,000 and a crew of fifteen folks) is to always hire the right people for the right job. Oh, and always, always hire a producer.

4. Document the filmmaking process with photos, video, and (now) social media. It’s hard to think where I’d be without social media. I made Perfekt, Myspace was really just starting to be something. I didn’t know about Facebook, and there was no Instagram so you could easily and immediately share your on-set photos; I mean, we were still using digital cameras to take continuity shots, and not one of us thought to use that camera to take some shots of the crew working on the film. It was a vastly different time, and looking back, I’d love to have more than a tiny handful of photos of me on the set of Perfekt. So this time around, we’ll be documenting the process, and maybe even livestreaming the shoot, too.

3. There are many more factors than money involved in getting great audio. Audio prides itself in being the bane of every filmmaker’s existence, and it was no different on the set of Perfekt (or any of my other films, for that matter, with the exception of The Coconut, Speed Musing, and the Pepper Coat video, being silents.) Back then, I thought that if you put most of your budget into audio and hire a good sound guy, Hollywood-caliber sound will abound. Not so. There are many more factors at play in the battle for quality sound, like location, electricity, airplanes, and the like. This time around, I’ll be factoring them all into the shooting of Perfect.

2. Shoot the most important scenes first, especially when in an uncontrolled environment (like a bar). One hefty mistake I made while shooting Perfekt’s many bar scenes was shooting certain less important scenes before the most important scene in the whole film –– the climax. We were shooting at Bar Majestic in Downtown Jersey City, now a lovely spot called Razza, and we had the entire bar to ourselves all morning until 4PM, and I chose to shoot various quick scenes during that time, thinking we’d have plenty of time. By the time the clock struck four, the bar opened to the public, and I had to shoot the finale, a long, Woody Allen-esque conversation between Matt and Nellie, with a roomful of bar patrons having conversations in the background. We made the most of it, though, and still managed to walk out of the then Bar Majestic at a little after midnight with some solid shots and slightly subpar sound.

1. Be more organized in the editing room. This is the biggie, and if I were the kind of person who held onto regrets, this would be the only one: Not having a single copy of Perfekt in digital form to date. See, when I was prepping the film for delivery to Ouat Media, distribution was more about physical copies back then (evidenced by the $90 DigiBeta tape I had to ship to Canada), and because I had secured distribution for Perfekt, I couldn’t show it anywhere online ‘cause they had the rights for three years. Flash forward a couple years, when I swapped my MacPro tower for a MacBook Pro, but never loaded all of the files that pieced together Perfekt in a single location; there were files on every hard drive I owned, internal and external. So when I finally tried to make a digital file to share with friends, there were gaps in the original cut of the film because I simply couldn’t locate all the missing files. The good thing is that by the time Perfect is shot and ready for your eyes, it’ll only be available in digital form, and you can bet the farm that all those files will be in a single location.

Now that I’ve recapped what not to do in the filming of Perfect next year, and I’ve got my two actors 100% onboard, it’s time to start writing the script!

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Filmmakers –– What are some lessons you’ve learned from shooting your previous films that you’ll be sure to steer clear from when shooting your next? List them in the comments below –– perhaps I’ll be able to add a few more lessons to my utility belt.

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