Saturday, September 17, 2011

EVERYTHING ELSE:

I occasionally consume media other than comics, books about comics, children's picture books that closely resemble comics and movies based on comics. Here are thoughts on some of the works from various media I've encountered in the last month or two, all of which were borrowed from my local library (and are, perhaps, available through or at your own local library).


AUDIOBOOKS

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell: I’m assuming I like the way Vowell writes, but I can’t be sure, since, like David Sedaris, she’s an author I’ve only heard read her books to me, and never actually read one myself.

I like what I hear though!

In this 2006 book Vowell travels to places of significance (sometime quite tangential significance) to the three 19th century presidential assassinations—Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley—in the process telling the stories of aspects of their presidencies, the lives of their killers, and the lives of the nation revolving around these crisis points in history. And, of course, what it all means today.

Her obsessive interest in the time period is presented as an endearing, oddball trait when she shares personal anecdotes, but it’s infectious.

It was a particularly surreal experience hearer her many disses of how boring Garfield and his presidency was while I was driving home from work, which is in Mentor, Ohio, birthplace of Garfield (his home, preserved as a monument/museum to him, and a large park named after his wife are actually both right down the street from where I work, and I drive by them almost daily).

I was actually pretty bummed the entire time I was listening to this, as it was the last of the Vowell books available in audiobook editions that I had to listen to, so it’s going to be a long, long time before I can look forward to another week’s worth of commutes or long road trip with Vowell again…


The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and The Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright: Like any grown-up who has paid much attention at all to the news over the last few decades, I knew many of the characters in Wright’s definitive history of the most talked-about terrorist group of the 21st century, and a handful of the most notable events in their history.

But this still felt like a new story to me, because of all the connective tissue Wright finds and highlights. It was a strange, slightly scary, completely revelatory experience to learn so much about something I thought I already had a pretty good handle on, and realize how little of the whole story American mass media tends to pay attention to.

This is a riveting work, and I was sorely disappointed that it ended when it did (it was a 2007 release), as I wanted to hear the rest of the story through the prism of Wright’s research and intense delivery style.


The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann: The author alternates between tales of his own search for the subject matter, which involves interviews, trips to libraries and museums and a trip to the Amazon jungle, and the search of that subject matter, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, the perfect example of a Victorian explorer who eventually disappeared into the Amazon jungle while searching for a lost civilization he believed existed there, never to be found.

Grann sucks the romance right out of exploring, describing the incredible, unbearable hell of trekking through the Amazon jungle with long passages describing various men being literally eaten alive by insects, to the extent that any exploration at all during that time period seems insane, even suicidal.

Fawcett is an amazing character though, and one who runs across many other amazing characters, and this was a blast of a story, full of suspense, and coming as close to solving an 85-year-old mystery as possible, I suppose. More thrilling still is Grann’s interview with an aracheological expert of the area, who ultimately proves Fawcett’s theories of a massive advanced civilization living in one of the most inhospitable places on earth true—sort of.


Misquoting Jesus: The Story Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman: I first heard of this during an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and tried reading the book when it was new back in 2006, but found it a rather dull slog.

Having someone read it to me seemed like it might be an easier way through it though, so I gave the audiobook a try.

It still seems a little too dull for my tastes, but listening to the audio version I was a more-or-less captive audience. Ehrman’s goal is to write the first book about Biblical textual criticism for a popular audience, and he does accomplish that, however, as educational as the book is, as effective as it is on communicating information about this important but little-understood area of scholarship, it wasn’t a whole lot of fun to read (or have read to you), which is something I sort of expect from great books for lay people. (Needs more jokes, basically).

Ehrman has a particularly well-suited biography for a book like this, though: His interest in the Bible began in his teenage years when he became a born-again Christian who literally believed that the Bible contained the inerrant word of God…and then he started to study the Bible and found out it was actually a living, evolving document that had changed thousands and thousands of times, in ways big and small, since its thousands of stories were first set to paper and, in the case of the New Testament (the major focus of the book, as the title alludes to), they weren’t even set to paper until a couple centuries after Jesus’ death.

This apparently lead to something of a crisis of faith for Ehrman earlier in his life, but I don’t think it all that hard to wrap my head around a truly omnipotent being creating thousands of human beings capable of writing these stories, and somehow being behind the inspiration of many of them—even if removed to the point of being the first domino out of 5,679 dominos—and the ultimate document still containing exactly what that being wanted it to, changes, mistakes and all, for whatever inscrutable, unknowable reason that being wanted them in there.

Anyway, if you read one book on New Testament textual studies…


Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: Read by Vowell, Keanu Reeves, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, John Hodgman, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph and John Slattery, and featuring mustic by Grant-Lee Phillips (and Michael Giacchino), this production has the talent and star power of a respectable feature film behind it, seemingly moreso than an audiobook production of a tome on Hawaiian history.

I could listen to a whole book read by Norton. Or Keener. Or Reeves. (The pleasure of hearing Reeves read actually really surprised me).

This was a fantastic story full of a dozen or so fantastic stories contributing to the overall narrative, and was a real revelation for me. Of the three Vowell books I’ve read (er, listened to)—including the above-mentioned Assassination Vacation and 2009’s Wordy Shipmates—this was the book about the subject I knew the least about, and thus expected to be least interested in.

The opposite turned out to be true.


The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by Evan Thomas: In addition to the title war-mongerers, Thomas focuses on two other men from the period, philosopher William James (brother of Henry) and the powerful speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed, both of whom opposed the various wars the other three were constantly seeking to stoke (eventually getting the Spanish-American War).

By force of personality and accomplishment, Roosevelt becomes the de facto star of the five and thus the book, and he’s a fascinating character, particularly as portrayed here in his pre-presidency years (His presidency is discussed, but Thomas’ focus is on Roosevelt and company’s lifelong love of war, and its climax in the war with the Spanish).

Someone really, really, really, really needs to make a modern movie about Roosevelt and the Rough Riders—Roosevelt is a fascinating character who seems at turns like a clown, an asshole, a madman and a hero, and the mixed-up make-up of his regiment (half rich dandies, half cowboys, few real soldiers) is pretty amazing.

Hearst and his participation in the war also seems like great film fodder, but you can’t beat the story of Roosevelt…as told here, rather than through his hagiographers.


DVDS

After.Life (2009): Two quick confessions. First, I had never heard of this film when it was in release in theaters a couple of years ago, and had no idea it existed until I saw it on the shelf at the media section at my local library.

Second, despite some curiosity about it (I like looking at and listening to Christian Ricci, and always enjoy seeing Liam Neeson in roles that I consider Un-Liam Neesonny), I didn’t actually borrow it and bring it home to watch until I overheard two boys talking about it, saying something along the lines of, “Dude have you ever see this? Christina Ricci’s like totally naked through the whole movie…!”

The one boy slightly overstated his case, but, um, yeah, Christina Ricci sure is not wearing a whole lot of clothes through much of the film, and when she is wearing clothes, it’s often just a red slip.

She plays a troubled young woman who suffers a terrible car accident and awakens (or does she?) on the table of undertaker Liam Neeson, who is either gifted with the supernatural ability to speak to the recently dead, or is he a sadistic monster trying to convince a still-living woman she’s actually dead so he can bury her alive?

Writer/director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s film is a relatively small one, the majority of it set in a single room, with only a few scenes set in a few different locales, but it’s quite effective.

Despite a few clichéd elements—a creepy kid, dream/reality confusion—Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s brings up a very universal, primal fear about death and what happens afterward, with enough suggestion to allow a viewer to dwell on it.

I enjoyed the performances of both of the principal actors, and it’s genuinely scary if a viewer is willing to give him or herself over to it. In fact, it was so good that, after having seen it, I was even more surprised by the fact that I had never heard of it.

And, poking around a bit online, I discovered that it must not have been just me. It apparently wasn’t all that popular a movie: According to IMDb, it made less than $60,000 on its opening weekend, and grossed about 3.6 million, almost a million less than it cost to make.

I blame the dumb title, with its random placement of a period in the middle of it.


Dinoshark (2011): Despite the fact that Roger Corman helped produce this movie about a prehistoric monster feeding off of often swimsuit-clad people visiting a Mexican resort beach, and despite the fact that there are not one, but two scenes that set in the locker room of a women’s water polo team, there is not a single bare breast in this entire movie.

There is a scene where the hero jumps off a flying jet ski to throw a hand grenade into the face of a leaping prehistoric shark monster, however, but still, no nudity.


Law & Order: UK: Season One (2010): I can’t tell you how delighted I was to find this on the TV series shelf when looking for a Criminal Intent collection. I had no idea this even existed.

I just converted to Law & Order a few years ago, during a, um, rough time when I found myself alone a lot, and Law & Order was one of the only things on my four channels. It’s formulaic nature and focus on plot above character or interesting visuals makes it an ideal TV show for my current purposes—something to have on in the background while I’m drawing or scanning pictures from comics to blog about later.

This was a pretty exciting Law & Order experience, as it is comfortably similar to the original show (I think the episodes were even adapted from the American show’s episodes, based on the opening credit sequences), but simply setting it in the UK rendered everything exotic about it.

While a lifetime of pop culture and news consumption has given me a working knowledge of the US. legal system, the UK’s is completely mysterious—the police have different procedures and different titles, they say something different when they arrest people and, best of all, in court they wear robes and wigs and the lawyers or barristers or whatever all share a locker room where they take off and put on their costumes. Neat!

This cast was also probably the best-looking L&O cast I’ve encountered. Smoking hot Freema Agyeman plays Alesha, the attractive assistant district attorney-type role that the various U.S. shows usually have an attractive young lady play, and Jamie Bamber plays the younger member of the two cops couple, and he’s a very, very, very handsome man—more handsome than Jeremy Sisto or Skeet Ulrich, in my inexpert opinion (Agyeman was apparently in a couple of those Doctor Who shows so many of my fellow American nerds seem to like so much, but which I have somehow managed to completely avoid).

The guys in the Lenny Briscoe and Jack McCoy-like roles are pretty swell too, particularly Bradley Walsh, in the former; everything just seems more dramatic in a British accent, I guess.

Also, it has a great theme song—at least along the spectrum of Law & Order theme songs, none of which I really care for.


MST3K Vs. Gamera (2011): The back of this Shout Factory-produced, five episode collection declares it the “first-ever themed collection” of Mystery Science Theater, and it consists of the Mystery Science Theater crew’s first attack on Gamera and his four sequels (-Vs. Barugon, -Vs. Gaos, -Vs. Guiron and -Vs. Zigra).

Gamera, as you’re probably aware if you didn’t skip over this entry upon seeing the acronym MST3K, is an off-brand Godzilla type of kaiju, a gargantuan, bipedal turtle with tusks, the uncanny ability to breathe fire, and the even more uncanny ability to draw his limbs and head inside his shell, and then fire jet propulsion flames out of those holes, allowing him to fly like a flying saucer. And he is the friend to all children.

The film series was a perfect fit for a slightly insane, no-budget TV series dedicated to making fun of totally insane, no-budget films, and these episodes are among some of the more fruitful of that period of the show.

Seeing all five back-to-back like this allows one to really enjoy the nuances of the Gamera films, and to better differentiate them—like the Saturday afternoon Godzilla movies of my youth, all of the Gamera episodes of MST3K had previously just blended together into one big episode in my head—although that also probably makes this set more of one for fans than for the casual, What’s this crazy puppet show all about then? viewer.

Each DVD opens with a crudely computer animated Gamera storming out of the theater doors before they close on his way to the Satellite of Love set, where computer animated Crow and Tom Servo perform weird little skits comprised of remixing their riffs and dialogue from the episode into something that makes (some) sense.

The bonus features include behind-the-scenes pieces entitled “So Happy Together: A Look Back at MST3K & Gamera” (featuring talking head interviews with Joel Hodgson, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein and Jim Mallon), “Gamera Vs. The Chiodo Brothers” (featuring a casual, rambly interview with old-school special effects masestro’s The Chiodo Brothers, whom I had never heard of) and “Gamera Obscura: A History” by August Ragone.

The last of these was my favorite of the bonus features, and it is basically just Ragone talking about the history of the Gamera franchise and its place in Japan for a really long time in front of a static camera. It’s poor filmmaking, but interesting film history (even if it would have been better read than watched). It set me scouring the catalogs Ohio’s libraries for newer Gamera movies, which Ragone talks up as being particularly high quality.

The DVD set includes five posters by artist Steve Vance, in which the ‘bots share a new movie poser with Gamera and/or his foe for each of the films.

An unfortunate side effect of seeing so many MST3K Gamera episodes in a row, however, was that their various versions of the Gamera theme song were stuck in my head for weeks...right up until I saw a DVD of the Master Ninja episode, and had their beat box/scat version of the "Master Ninja Theme Song" stuck in my head...


90210: The Third Season (2011): In preparation for this week’s debut of season four, I spent a big chunk of last week watching all 22-episodes of the third season of this, my second favorite TV show ever (Behind Beverly Hills, 90210).

That is a lot melodrama and teen angst to watch in a short amount of time, but the cliffhanger endings made it very, very difficult to stop watching after an episode or two.

Comparing this season to the last, I found myself wanting to yell at the characters more often than usual (and, in fact, doing so now and then—I live alone; might as well take advantage of it), as I would say a full 80% of these kids’ problems they brought on themselves by lying.

Sure, outside forces often come into play causing conflict, but in almost every case they compound the conflict by either not telling the truth about it or lying about it.

That’s the takeaway here kids—always be honest, with yourself, with your friends and with your family. That, and be very, very, very careful when you have sex, which you should do only safely, and preferably not until your out of high school.


Paul (2011): I just rewatched E.T. for the first time since childhood (you’ll see why in a few months, when I get done drawing my next comics project), which reminded me of this movie’s existence and made me want to see how a post-modern magical alien movie from the writer of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and the director of Superbad and Adventureland might turn out.

It was a surprisingly sweet movie, but ultimately a more sweet movie than a funny one. The special effects that brought the title character to life were accomplished, but the Paul character and his party hardy attitude was a bit much at times (he seemed like the mascot for a product of some kind, like a chatty alien version of Spuds MacKenzie) and a lot of the talent involved seemed to have been wasted or, at the very least, ill-served. It’s definitely the weakest of the films co-starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.


Shades of Gray (2010): I’m glad I don’t feel all that strongly about UFOs, because if I did I would probably have very weird, very conflicted feelings about Gray Barker, who did a lot to popularize UFOs, their public discussion and various aspects of their study, but he also seems to have been an inveterate hoaxer, a bad apple that I’m sure many of the more serious students of the phenomena though spoiled the bunch.

This 2009 documentary offers a pretty interesting and relatively thorough introduction to Barker, a controversial, polarizing figure that they present as part Fox Mulder and part Mark Twain.

I felt it revealed an awful lot about the man, and made me want to find out more about him (Sadly, I can’t find any of his books in any Ohio libraries, and I’ve been looking for his Silver Bridge for well over a year now.)

I hope someone writes a thorough biography of Barker sometime soon, preferably before his friends and family pass away and are no longer interviewable.

What stuck with me most after watching this was just how much Barker contributed to American pop culture, including the so-called paranoid theory of UFOs that informed the X-Files TV show and two feature films, the “Men In Black” that also got two feature films, the Mothman and the so-called Philadelphia Experiment (each of which also earned at least one film apiece). Most of those contributions, some of which he simply had a part in popularizing or playing up, have gone unacknowledged and uncredited. I guess that was inevitable, given that Barker traded in true, or "true" stories, instead of turning his considerable imagination to the production of fiction.


Warbirds (2009): Were I more disciplined, hard-working student, my childhood fascination with dinosaurs might have lead me into a career in the field of paleontology. Instead, I realized early on that science is hard, and so I abandoned science for the arts, and channeled my love of dinosaurs into foolishly watching movies like this made-for-TV (according to IMDb) movie that is no damn good at all.

There’s a triple-meaning to the title, which refers to the WW II-era lady pilots themselves, the airplanes they fly and the giant winged dinosaurs they spend the majority of the movie trying not to get eaten by.

The premise isn’t bad. The lady pilots, who apparently test-fly airplanes before the male pilots take them into battle against the Axis, are tasked with a top secret mission delivering an imperious American officer, his men and mysterious cargo to a secret location. They’re downed by a mysterious attacker, and land on an uncharted island under Japanese possession. It’s swarming with the flying reptiles, who have picked off most of the Japanese soldiers.

It’s cheaply made, cast, acted and executed, and it’s the sort of movie I don’t understand at all. They don’t play up the sexual under-undertones in a way to make it exploitive. It’s not the least bit funny. It’s not the least bit scary. It’s just bad. Because the filmmakers play it perfectly straight, it would need Jurassic Park-level special effects and filmmaking to even be tolerable; but with that option taken away, they don’t bother finding an angle, but just plow ahead making a terrible, terrible movie.


Your Highness (2011): I meant to make a rare trip to the movie theater to see this on the strength of the thrailer alone. The combination of sword-and-sorcery, Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy with an excessive amount of swearing and dick jokes is, after all, something I’ve been keenly interested in for well over ten years now, plus, Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman in the same movie? Swooooon.

But either it didn’t stay in theaters long enough or I was way too busy during the weeks it was to make it, so I had to wait for a DVD.

It turned out to be an extremely weak endeavor, although there’s something quite charming about so much money being spent on costumes and special effects simply to tell the sorts of junior high school lunch table gay panic jokes one might expect to find in cheaper movies featuring SNL alum. (Whether or not one ultimately finds a minotaur trying to hump one of the questers in the middle of a labyrinth and then having his erect penis cut off and worn as a trophy is funny or not, I think it’s kind of funny that some special effects folks had to spend hours putting together the minotaur. Then there’s a clockwork bird, which exists only to take light jabs at Clash of the Titans…not the 2010 remake, which did away with the clockwork owl, but the 1981 version).

There’s also plenty of charm among the principal cast, most of whom don’t get nearly enough to do (Deschanel seems particularly wasted), and they certainly help sell the inherent humor in a clash between modern slang delivered in highly affected English accents.

It ultimately scans like the trailer padded out to feature film length, but it has its moments, and God knows there are worse, less ambitious films to waste one’s time on…


CDS

The Green Album: I like the idea of this previously mentioned album—“alternative” bands covering Muppet-related songs—more in theory than in practice.

I think much of that had to do with my relative unfamiliarity with many of the bands, and my unfamiliarity with many of the songs themselves. Outside of the theme song, “Mahna Mahna” (by The Fray) “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (by Andrew Bird) and a few from Muppet movies I’ve happened to watch in the last few years, I didn’t really recognize many of them, or think them really worthwhile songs, no matter who was covering them.

The OK Go theme song, probably the strongest entry, is quite different than the one in the video, as it’s Muppet-voice free. This allows for a pretty long vocal-free stretch between the “To introduce our guest star…” portion, as the part where Kermit says “Ladies and Gentleman, OK Go!” and the Waldorf and Stadler comment is simply musical, allowing you to sing along your own lyrics to introduce your own guest star, even if it’s someone with a long name, like, say, “Jaaaaaay! Caaaaaleb! Mozzoccoooooo!” (Hey, does anyone out there know what makes that sound heard between 2:13 and 2:22, in the video version? I like that sound).

Brandon Saller's version of "Nightlife" from The Great Muppet Caper, with its extended drum solo, and The Alkaline Trio's version of "Movin' Right Along" from THe Muppet Movie are pretty solid upbeat songs, too.


La Roux: A chance hearing of “Bulletproof” on some Top 40-ish pop radio station my young, female relatives listen to got me interested in this act, and I spent a while last summer looking them up on YouTube and watching their videos (This one's my favorite).

The singer, whom the Internet tells me is named Elly Jackson, sports a look that looks a bit like the young Tori Amos amalmagated with the young Morrissey.

I really liked the album. A lot of the songs sound like, if you subtracted the vocal tracks, they could be songs form a video game, particularly from the early part of the album. I couldn’t help imagining a little red pompadoured sprite jumping around on platforms and avoiding enemies in a Super Mario-like sidescroller while listening to them (the second song, “Tigerlily,” is set in a haunted house level)


PICTURE BOOKS


Dracula and Frankenstein Are Friends by Katherine Tegen and Doug Cushman : Sarah Vowell mentioned this book in her Assassination Vacation, as a present she gave her young nephew Owen, to demonstrate his interest in the macabre or, as he himself termed it, “spooky stuff.”

In addition to that kinda sorta recommendation, I like the simple, declarative nature of the title, so I sought it out.

The book begins with a two-page spread depicting the two neighboring monsters’ houses—Dracula’s house-sized castle, Frankenstein’s a ramshackle house with an electrical device on the roof—and every lot on the street is dedicated to a different kind of monster.

Here’s the right half of the spread, and the first two sentences of the story:“Dracula and Frankenstein are friends,” it begins, “They live in two side-by-side houses, in a town where all of the houses are spooky.”

It’s followed by two more two-page spreads, each dedicated to a cutaway view of each of the two famous monster’s houses, before plunging into an overview of their relationship and then introducing the conflict: At a café one day, Frankenstein mentions his desire to throw a Halloween party, and Dracula retorts that he was going to have a Halloween party as well.

It’s not a brilliant book by any means, and I wasn’t overly impressed with artist Doug Cushman’s artwork, although the idea of all these movie monsters living in a town together, and the little cameos and details Cushman fills the pages with.

I particularly liked the fact that Dracula changed from his traditional black tuxedo and serrated, high-collared black cape into a bright red suit and cape for his party.

Niece #1, who also enjoys spooky stuff (but not stuff that’s too spooky), liked the book. She particularly liked the Invisible Man, whom she figured was a ghost (I believe it was her first exposure to the Invisible Man), and the pages showing their houses, commenting that she wouldn’t like to sleep in Dracula’s bed (a coffin), but it seemed preferable to Frankenstein’s bed (a large wooden slab of a table that can be rotated so that it can move from horizontal to vertical).

She did ask why Dracula’s welcome mat said “Velcome” instead of "Welcome." That was one of the things I thought was funniest in the book, but I guess my eight-year-old niece hasn't seen as many old Dracula movies as her 34-year-old uncle...

6 comments:

The League said...

I've not read "The Lost City of Z" or "The War Lovers" (I've now added these two and the Vowell book to my audiobook to-do list), you might want to try reading "River of Doubt" by Candice Millard. Sort of a mixture of both those books. Maybe.

Nick Ahlhelm said...

Speaking to La Roux and video games, I discovered them thanks to the commercial for the video game Bayonetta which featured a remix of "In For the Kill" as its backdrop. They're definitely a solid act that makes great background music.

jheaton said...

I was going to make the same recommendation as The League, for the same reason. Very interesting book

Jackie W. said...

If you're looking for something along the same lines of "The Lost City of Z" and "Assassination Vacation," I'd recommend "Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger" by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson. It's about the authors' trip to Tasmania to seek out the thought-extinct Tasmanian tiger, and it has a great narrative style that reads like the other two books.

Anthony Strand said...

If you like Sarah Vowell's long-form books, you should definitely seek out her essay collections. "Partly Cloudy Patriot" is especially excellent.

And it will give you the chance to see how you like her writing on the page!

Caleb said...

Thanks for the "River of Doubt" suggestions; both "War Lovers" and "Lost City" mentioned Roosevelt's Amazon exploration and made me want to look into learning more about it, so I was glad to hear that book is already written and waiting for me.

Thanks for the other suggestions too, guys; I shoulda started doing a feature like this a while ago in order to rack up recommended reading (well, listening)...