BOOKSThe F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel (Scribner; 2011) by Dan Sinker: It would be easy to call Dan Sinker’s The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel a love letter to the city of Chicago, its politics and its culture, save for the fact that letters are the previous generation’s form of communication, and the metaphor feels too old-school for such a new kind of literature.
Sinker opened the Twitter account for @MayorEmanuel in September 2010 with a profanity-laden tweet, the first in a string of tweets that devoted many of their 140 characters to four-character words of the sort the former White House Chief-of-Staff and as-of-then unannounced candidate for mayor of Chicago was notorious for using.
Over the course of the campaign, the account’s followers swelled to over 30,000, eclipsing the number of the real Rahm Emanuel’s account, and uncovering the then-anonymous Sinker’s real identity became a popular pastime for local media.
Now the entire account has been collected and published in book form, the tweets put back in chronological order, and the result is a book like none other.
The Epic Quest is essentially narrated by Sinker’s version of Emanuel, in the conceit of collected correspondence along the lines of, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the short, succinct bursts of words grouped in lines evokes the look and feel of an epic poem.
And epic it quickly becomes. David Axlerod plays Enkidu to Emanuel’s Gilgamesh, and their entourage includes an intern named Carl, a duck with a black, moustache-like mark on his bill that Emanuel dubs Quaxlerod, and a puppy named Hambone.
Together they roll around Chicago in Axlerod’s Honda Civic, ostensibly campaigning for mayor, with plenty of surrealistic fantasy sequences co-opting series of tweets and providing story arcs, like when Axlrerod’s moustache takes a week off, or when Emanuel eats too much candy corn or a jar of fermented baby food and goes on hallucinatory vision quests, or the climactic storyline in which @MayorEmanuel realizes he might not actually be the real Rahm Emanuel.
Sinker’s most remarkable imaginative achievement, however, is transforming a lifetime politician into a regular Everyman character, albeit a foul-mouthed, hard-partying one. His Emanuel loves coffee and Friday nights, he loves watching football games and, more than anything else, he likes hanging out with his friends.
By moving from a Twitter account into the structure of a book, the parody tweets lose their original immediacy. When @MayorEmanuel responded to the news of the day, sometimes obliquely—like a simple string of swear words on the day he was temporarily kicked off the ballot—it would have been obvious to the original tweet-readers what the context was.
To make up for it, Sinker himself appears occasionally through the book, explaining what a particular tweet was referring to, filling in readers as to who certain Chicago politicians are, or various Chicago eateries and traditions and so forth.
It’s an almost constant interruption of the immersive fantasy of reading the account-turned-novel, as if he were reading along over your shoulder explaining his work. Sometimes it feel like Sinker showing you slides of his vacation, rather than a film he made, but it’s a necessary evil, particularly for those readers outside of Chicago city limits.
Of course, given Quaxelrod and Hambone’s debate prep, the revelation of alternate dimensions and the very idea of Emanuel conducting his campaign from inside an igloo made of heavy Chicago snow, it’s not like verisimilitude was ever the goal.
The characters are so fully realized though, Sinker’s presence never overpowers theirs. As unusual as the format is, as potentially groundbreaking the concept of a magical realist political Twitter novel is, and as colorful as the fake Rahm’s language is, the F***ing Epic Twitter Quest is ultimately a universal coming of age story, in which the hero makes important realizations about himself, about life and even about politics and public service—it isn’t about defeating your rivals, but losing something of yourself in order to serve others.
That, and it’s practically an encyclopedia of new swear word combinations.
The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files (University Press of Kentucky; 2004) by Joe Nickell: James Randi’s introduction explaining Nickell’s varied career and experiences—he was both a private eye and a stage magician before becoming a professional skeptic—made me hungry to read a Nickell biography instead of a series of articles in which the writer debunks various paranormal mysteries. Even those mysteries and their explanations, as Nickell describes them, don’t quite meet expectations. There always seems to be something more interesting to the story than what Nickell tells us. During a visit to Australia, for example, he and some colleagues go monster-hunting and, unsurprisingly, they find no monsters, but little verbiage is dedicated to what sounds like a fascinating subject to be reading about—the act of monster-hunting in the Australian wilderness.
It’s as much my fault for having the expectations I did, and the format of the book—a collection of articles Nickell wrote over the years as a senior research fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal—that I found it somewhat disappointing than it is Nickell’s fault. Simply put, it wasn’t quite the book I wanted to read, despite, my being very interested in the majority of the subjects covered and Nickell’s fairly fantastic career.
As a professional debunker, he’s basically the real-life Doctor 13, Ghost Breaker, and he travels the world seeking to disprove—well, he’d say prove or disprove, but everything’s always disproved in here by default because it can’t be proved—certain mysteries.
These mysteries are 41 in number, and they’re quite varied, from undercover investigations at psychic communities, to explaining how John Edwards of Crossing Over performs, to looking around supposedly haunted houses and attacking the credibility of religious artifacts like the Shroud of Turin and various weeping statues and icons. It’s a fun read, providing a nice cross-section of the “paranormal,” and Nickell’s is a refreshing voice on the subjects, given his point-of-view being one that falls between objective and skeptical, with the bias leaning toward skeptical.
I suppose one could say skeptical is the default mode of the majority of folks who write about or otherwise cover such subjects, although Nickell is rare in that he takes them seriously and devotes time and attention to them. That is, okay, yes, any time a newspaper or news magazine writes about Bigfoot it’s generally an unserious, skeptical, jokey piece; but any time anyone writes an entire book about Bigfoot, chances are they tend to be believers. Otherwise, why write a whole book?
Certain cases seem “solved” a little too easy, and with insufficient evidence to convince me. His theory that the 1966-67 Mothman sightings were simply a series of misidentifications of different species of owls, for example, seemed too quick and pat to be satisfying. A series of misidentifications of owls might seem more likely to be the real explanation than, say, Mothman was a demon summoned by vengeful Native American curse or that it was an ultradimensional emissary sent to warn of a bridge collapse or some sort of weird space alien. But a simple “something really fucking weird happened for a while, and we have no idea what it was” is more convincing still.
Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer: The Hawaiians got a pretty raw deal, but the overthrow of their country seems like it was perhaps the only “good” overthrow of a soveirgn nation the United States was involved in. At least, that’s the impression I got after reading (well, listening to) Kinzer’s book, which discusses the overthrows of what would eventually become our 50th state, in addition to the overthrows of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
In almost every instance, the results ended up being far, far worse for both the people living in those countries and the U.S.; perhaps not immediately, but certainly within a generation.
What’s the closest the world ever came to nuclear apocalypse? The Cuban Missile Crisis? Would there have been one if Cuba weren’t communist? Would Cuba have fallen before a communist revolution if the U.S. didn’t topple its regime in the late 19th century, paving the way for the eventual rise of Castro?
What looks like the most likely place for a nuclear war in the near future? Sure, North Korea could do something crazy, or Pakistan and India could finally go at it, but I’m personally more worried about Iran developing a nuclear weapon, Israel preemptively bombing Iran's missile sites (maybe with their own nuclear weapons!), and the entire Middle East breaking out in war as a result.
And how did Iran get to be ruled by religious fanatics that hate the United States? Well, funny story, when the country was being reformed by a democratic, nationalist who wanted to nationalize the oil wealth that was going to British companies, we kinda sorta helped depose him, gin up a fake revolution, and install a guy we liked better and the Iranians hated and eventually rebelled against and ta-da! We’re the Great Satan.
The jury’s still out on Afghanistan and Iraq, I suppose, although Kinzer is more focused on the first time we helped foment revolution in Afghanistan—which paved the way for Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, The Taliban and 9/11—than when we started the current battle to overthrow the Taliban. Both engagements in Iraq are covered, with more attention on the second U.S. war there. He notes all of the familiar things that went wrong or weren’t planned for, although he was writing a few years back.
There’s an irony that regime change was looked at as the less-evil way to bring a foreign country to heel, as opposed to the European conquer-and-colonize model, but even the lesser evil is usually pretty evil, and usually ends up hurting the U.S. more than helping.
The lesson, if there is one, seems to be that the U.S. should maybe cut it out in this next century, and try out a few other methods for controlling other countries, including engagement. (Kinzer notes that the U.S. eventually toppled the Soviet Union not through regime change, but by economic and diplomatic engagement).
Assembling as he does a beaded string of conflicts, involving political intrigue, spycraft and military battles, the book feels very much like a summary of the second half of the United State’s history, shorn of all the “boring” bits, and focusing instead on only the most dramatic international conflicts, save the ones that get covered the most everywhere else (the two World Wars).
It’s thrilling reading, even if it’s often quite depressing. And if, like me, you’re young enough to have missed out on living through anything prior to the Gulf War, due either to being not yet born or not yet able to read about these events, it’s extremely educational.
The audiobook was read by Michael Prichard, who has a great, reasonable, reassuring voice, although I found some of his pronunciations bugging me, particularly the way he says “crescendo.” He might be saying it correctly, but it still sounded wrong to me. There were a half-dozen words like that, but “crescendo” is the only one I remember as I type this up.
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard: I picked this up after a suggestion in the comments section of my last column of this nature, in which I discussed David Grann’s Lost City of Z, about Amazon jungle exploration, and Evan Thomas’ The War Lovers, about Theodore Roosevelt’s Spanish-American War experiences, and those of some of his contemporaries.
As the sub-title indicates, Millard's book is the story of the then-ex-president’s exploration of The River of Doubt, a then-uncharted river that Roosevelt explored with a large party including his son and his expedition co-commander, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon (Brazil’s greatest explorer).
If anyone ever does make a Rough Riders film in the next few years, this would make for a hell of a sequel, opening as it does with a feverish ex-president on his death bed in a jungle, reciting the opening lines of Xanadu over and over before backtracking to the end of one of the most powerful men in the world’s experiences in politics, before he embarks on one of the most dangerous trips possible.
As with Lost City, Millard paints Amazon exploration as something so harrowing it’s hard to imagine people wanting to do it—these explorers basically suffered and existed just this side of death for weeks and weeks, with no treasure or tangible reward to motivate them. (Also, there's a passage devoted to the candiru, the scariest fish in the world; coincidentally, I'm currently reading John Hodgman's That Is All, and he writes an article about the candiru entitled, "An Important Cryptid Update." Hodgman doesn't call it by its proper name, but instead refers to it as "DICKFISH." He also names it as one of the 700 Ancient and Unspeakable Ones, the Lovecraftian god-monsters that will usher in Ragnarok next year. More on this and Hodgman's new book in general in later post).
I came away in further awe of Roosevelt, perhaps the only of our presidents who came so close to being eaten by cannibals, and of Rondon; both appeared in Lost City, but only as distant, supporting characters.
Millard has made the very best kind of non-fiction book, the kind that is so incredible and perfectly dramatic that, were it all fiction, a reader probably wouldn’t believe it.
It no doubt helped that I remain ignorant enough of history that there were some severe surprises for me in this book, despite knowing that no matter how close to death Theodore Roosevelt might have come, he was going to live.
The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin by Joe McGinniss From presidential history to Thank God This Will Never Be Presidential History.
I wonder if this book got more attention when its author was researching it than it did when it was actually released? You may or may not recall McGinnis is the life-long journalist who moved to Alaska for a while to do research for a book about then-governor Sarah Palin, and he lucked into being able to rent the home right next door to the Palin’s.
Palin herself accused him of being a voyeur and a pedophile, and sympathetic media followed her lead. Their coverage, and coverage of their coverage, made it political gossip news for a while, at least online and on cable news. The book was released a matter of weeks before Palin announced that she would not be seeking the Republican nomination for 2012 presidential race after all, effectively removing herself from the public eye indefinitely, as the “Will she or won’t she?” game surrounding her future political ambitions was the last bit of suspense in the last Palin clan storyline. (And I suspect she will never run now; if she looked at the crowd of clowns and nobodies currently running and decided against it, I can't imagine her trying in four more years, when she'll be even further removed from any practical political experience).
Because of McGinniss’ provocative move—that of moving right next door—and the way Palin, her husband and the media sympathetic to them responded to it, McGinniss is a central character in his book, almost as much so as the lady who’s name is in the subtitle.
It’s unusual, although I honestly can’t tell if it’s a benefit to the book or a detriment. It certainly reveals a lot about the Palins and the Palin phenomenon, and it’s hard to imagine the book without McGinniss living there. The book would still have been written, would have contained much of the same information—it would probably just be missing passages in which everyone McGinniss meets in Alaska offers him a firearm for protection and those where he expresses exasperation at a woman claiming he was violating her privacy taking photos of him when he wasn’t looking to post on her Facebook page.
I know I wouldn’t have heard of the book, or been at all interested did I not hear so much about it so many months ago when the Palins went on the offensive against McGinniss.
The author tells her history from Wasilla child to politician to Alaska government employee to national political celebrity to reality TV star to nobody, between passages in which McGinniss describes his own experiences researching and meeting with folks in Alaska.
Much of the “dirt” isn’t new, but it is given greater context here, and much of McGinniss’ information about Palin’s career in Alaska and her evolving popular perception there was new to me.
McGinniss has been attacked for his reliance on anonymous sources and for the focus on some of the more unsavory details. I think of one scene in which someone implies Palin might have been bulimic for awhile. I don’t know why, but that stuck out to me as particularly unnecessary to include. I suppose because there’s so much in here damning her as someone you probably don’t want to be a state governor or political candidate, let alone the actual president of the actual United States of America, that specific mental illnesses don’t even seem that salient.
Another point he was criticized for was his acknowledging, if not indulging in, “Triggerism,” the conspiracy theories revolving around whether or not Palin actually gave birth to her son Trig, or if she was just covering for her daughter Bristol, who had actually conceived and gave birth to Trig. I never really understood why Triggerism existed; it always seemed just as paranoid and weird and unconnected to reality to me as Birtherism did, but I at least understand its origins now. McGinniss doesn’t buy into any of the conspiracy theories, but he does mention and explain them. Essenatially, the Palins’ behavior was so weird in relation to the birth of their youngest child, that people aware of the circumstances turned to bizarre, unsubstantiated fantasies because even those made some amount of sense, whereas the specifics of what actually did made no amount of sense (Not that Sarah Palin gave birth to Trig, but that a mother of her age with a child who was going to be born with special needs had her water break in a big city in Texas on a business trip and, rather than go to a hospital, opted to go about her day as planned, and then flew some ten hours or so back to a small Alaska town to give birth to her child there).
At any rate, national crisis averted: Sarah Palin is not running for president of the United States of America, and now never will. (I assume/hope).
The part of the book that most interested me, however, was one I didn’t expect at all. During the 2008 campaign you probably heard about the 2005 blessing Palin received at her hometown church from Kenyan guest preacher Reverend Thomas Muthee, in which he asked the congregation to prayer for Sarah’s success in the campaign.
McGinnis explains that Muthee came to fame for praying away a witch in his Kenyan hometown. From there, McGinnis embarks on a tangent about the 1980s-‘90s movement of Pentecostal belief in an invisible world at literal war with the visible one.
Like, the devil and his demons are literally present on earth, often disguised as human beings, and through their presence can turn entire geographic regions away from God and to the dark side; like Satan and Christians are playing a game of Risk. Among the more powerful is what McGinnis calls “a female mega-demon” called the Queen of Heaven (whom correlates to the Whore of Babylon). She dwelt in a huge ice castle atop Mount Everset, and each of the surrounding mountain peaks also housed high-ranking demons. Mini-bosses, if you will.
Through spiritual mapping and strategic-level spiritual warfare, faithful Christians can find and destroy them through prayer.
Check this out:
One of [World Prayer Center co-founder and Breaking Strongholds in Your City: How to Use Spiritual Mapping to Make Your Prayers More Strategic, Effective, and Targeted author C. Peter] Wagner’s leading apostles in Mexico was a woman named Ana Mendez, a former witch in a Haitian vooddo cult. She established a 10/40 [between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude] window prayer tower in Mexcio City, which, Wagner wrote, was “continually occupied by fervent intercessors.” While Mendez herself was praying one day, God told her it was high time to launch an assault on the Queen of Heaven in her Himalayan stronghold. In Sptember 1997 she did, leading a team of twenty-six “intercessors” to Mount Everest in an assault she called Operation Ice Castle.
Some of the group chose to provide long-range support from the Everst View Hotel at an altitude of thirteen thousand feet. Others pushed on to a base campt at eighteen thousand feet. Mendez and a small cadre “scaled the ice cliffs and crossed bottomless crevasses,” Wagner wrote, eventually climbing to twenty thousand feet.
There, Mendez later said, God revealed to her “a large, brown stone formation, completely surrounded by walls of ice resembling a castle, and shaped exactly like an idol of the Queen of Heaven.”
She and her elite force launched highly targeted intercessory prayers directly and the queen inside her palace. Apparently the prayers found their mark, killing the Harlot Queen…
The effects, according to Mendez, were almost immediate. Within two weeks, she wrote, “there was a huge fire in Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation; in an earthquake destroyed the basilica of Assisi, a hurricane destroyed the infamous temple ‘Baal-Christ’ in Acapulco; Princess Diana died, a representative of the British throne, to which Sir Edmund Hillary dedicated Mount Everest, and mother Teresa died in India, one of the most famous advocates of Mary as Co-Redeemer.”
I don't generally like to judge the religious beliefs of others, because all religious beliefs tend to seem kind of insane to anyone who doesn't hold them, but that is some super-crazy crazy shit, like a boring BPRD where they fight with prayer instead of guns and stuff. G.I. Joe meets The Exorcist...?
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan: Two subjects I don’t know or care very much about are business and video games (the latter of which probably makes me pretty atypical for a 34-year-old comics geek and blogger), so please consider it an endorsement when I say this history of the video game industry through the history of a single company and its single most recognizable character wasn’t just interesting, but enthralling.
There are several passages that get a bit too technical for me when discussing the chips and programs in the guts of various Nintendo products and other companies' wares, but the vast majority of the book is seemingly written for outsiders, as a sort of cultural history of video games and the insanely fast changes the technology resulted in. Ryan seems especially adept at wringing drama out of business decisions, so that Nintendo often seems like an underdog, even when they’re on top of the world.
My own intersection with videogame history is relatively short—Atari 2600 to the Nintendo Entertainment System to the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, and that’s it—so it was particularly interesting to hear about the industry from the inside out during those times, when I was a little, clueless kid who didn’t even know that Nintendo was a Japanese company (I didn’t know until I heard this, for example, that Super Mario Brothers 2, one of my favorite post-arcade video games and one of only three I ever “beat”, wasn’t really made to be a Mario game, but was something called Dream Facotry with Mario sprites imported).
It was even more interesting to hear about things I never even considered, however, like Universal’s legal battles with Nintendo over the name “Kong” (as in both King and Donkey), and the world of video games after I quit playing, when they simply became things I saw advertised in comics or would hear other people talking about.
Of perhaps special interest to comics fans are the point at which Ryan quotes Scott McCloud’s discussion of abstract, cartoon characters being easier to identify with than “realistic” ones (something discussion of “the uncanny valley” hints at too; why is the trend in American comics art towards realism, if it’s so much harder to relate to, I wonder?) and the talk of the early ‘80s video game crash, which sounds like it could have been describing the ‘90s comic book crash, if you simply searched and replaced the words in that passage).
Anyway, this was a very good book.
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs: I’ve been holding off on this book for a very long time, since its initial release years ago, as I worked my way down my impossibly large “To Read, Someday” list. I eventually gave in and just got the audiobook, during the recent point in my life where I was commuting about one hour and twenty minutes per workday.
The sub-title reveals the premise: Jacobs devoted a year of his life to following the Bible as literally as possible for a year, a quest somewhat complicated by the fact that he is a married man with a young son and a full-time, important job. The fact that he’s Jewish, but non-practicing and somewhere between agnostic and atheist when his quest begins, only adds further drama.
It is, obviously, a very funny book, as many of the rules of the bible were created for very specific reasons, reasons specific to a very specific time and place, which was, obviously, centuries ago and thousands of miles away from Jacobs’ New York City.
A lot of the specific tasks Jacobs goes about completing seem completely insane therefore, and lead to lots of funny anecdotes, either in his retelling of what he did and how he accomplished it, or how his family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and strangers reacted to him.
It is, somewhat more surprisingly, kind of touching, as Jacobs finds himself being changed by the tasks and rituals and lifestyle choices he makes. For example, praying doesn’t come easy to him, and is a great challenge for him at first, but, a few months in, he starts to find great benefit in it and, eventually seems to start believing—if not always specifically, than at least in a way that transforms him into someone extremely open to religious faith and its positive effects. (From what little I’ve read of behavioral science, this makes sense; I know that psychologist suggest “acting happy” as a way of fighting depression and other psychological problems as, even if you’re not sincere in your emotion, your brain will pick up on the triggers and will start to work toward truly reflecting them).
Jacobs, because of his background and, I imagine, his location, focuses a lot of attention on the Old Testament and the “Jewish” parts of the Bible, which gave his book an additional layer of interest to me. As someone who was raised Catholic, studied in Catholic schools and gone through phases as both a practicing and non-practicing one, I’m most familiar with the New Testament, and the somewhat common Christian outlook that the Old Testament is to be more or less ignored, save for the out-of-context bits you want to pluck out to justify hating gay people or legislating against them.
Beyond Jacobs’ personal experiences, though, there’s a lot to learn from the book, as a reader (or, in my case, listener) learns stuff with him. He assembles a panel of religious experts and advisors to consult with throughout his journey, and when he tries to understand what something in the Bible means, and how to go about following it, we learn of all sorts of folks in the modern world with beliefs and practices, and even businesses devoted to those beliefs and practices, that we don’t hear a whole lot about anywhere else.
Battle Los Angeles (2011): How is it that Aaron Eckhart did not play Captain America…? Look at that face! That profile! That chin! God made Aaron Eckhart especially to play a blond, chinny superhero like Captain America…!
I kinda liked this one. I couldn’t quite tell if it was meant to be a parody of army movies given how cliché it was, and the constant presence of a syrupy Memorial Day montage score, but even if the filmmakers were playing it totally straight, it turned out to be a pretty good intense Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day (You know that’s how it was pitched).
Drive Angry (2011): Strange but true—Drive Angry starring Nicolas Cage is an infinitely better Ghost Rider movie than Ghost Rider starring Nicolas Cage was. Cage stars as a shotgun-wielding, fast car-driving killing machine out to rescue his baby granddaughter from a Satanic cult that plans to sacrifice her at the next full moon. At his side is Amber Heard, playing a bad-ass brawling waitress, and at his heels is William Fichtner, playing a supernatural accountant in a bravura performance that easily out-tics and out-over-the-tops Cage’s.
There’s a scene where a fully-clothed Cage has sex with a fully-unclothed lady in a motel room, while he smokes a cigar the size of a billy club and occasionally takes swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels. Their room is stormed in slow-motion by a small battallion of Satanist thugs wielding various firearms and gardening implements, and Cage slays them all while never pulling out. It’s a scene that’s ripped from the similarly gonzo Shoot ‘Em Up, except that Drive Angry sets the scene to a Raveonettes song, which is awesome…until you realize that the song is “Candy”, and the lady Cage’s character is having sex with is named Candy, which makes it a really dumb joke.
That’s Drive Angry—familiar, gonzo, awesome, dumb—over and over in an endless cycle, each of those adjectives increasing in intensity until the climax, in which Cage drinks beer out of the skull of a villain that exploded after being obliterated by a magic gun stolen from the Devil’s own arsenal.
Definitely one of the better action movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. Maybe since Crank II…?
Evangelion: 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone and Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance (2007, 2009): I used to be pretty into anime, and Neon Genesis Evangelion was one of my favorite series (not just anime series, but TV series of any kind from any country), and I had no idea these movies existed until I stumbled across the second one, and watched it. (Then I went back and watched the first).
They are awesome.
Essentially, they’re just re-doing the story of the TV series, although, because it’s animation, they can “reboot” it and have the exact same voice actors and the characters will look the exact same, so it doesn’t seem so much like a reboot as the creators covering themselves, the way a musician might re-do a song from their first, self-recorded and –published album after they get a major record deal—it’s the same song, but with higher production values, and now made with a clearer understanding that comes from experience and age.
The storyline seems quite streamlined too, so that the nebulous, often vague religious-themed conspiracy theory and the apocalyptic events that preceded the beginning of the story are now much clearer and easier to understand, and made more obvious and central.
Oh, and they introduced a brand-new character, a new Eva pilot child, which is interesting, but we haven’t seen a whole lot of her yet.
It’s really quite beautifully made—I can watch the scenes of commuters going to work, or Tokyo-3 unfolding or sinking into the ground before an angel attack over and over—and the angels themselves are all upgraded with more complex, more alien designs.
I sorta wish I could have gone a few more years before I realized these existed and were available in the U.S. though, because now I can’t wait for the next movie…
The Best of Green Lantern (2011): This was a nice little walk down memory lane. It’s a DVD collection of Green Lantern-centric episodes of various DC-related animated cartoons of the past decade or so, from a 1999 episode of Superman, in which Superman helps Daily Planet staff artist Kyle Rayner fight off Sinsetro, to a 2009 episode of Batman: The Brave and The Bold in which Batman teams up with Guy Gardner, G’Nort and a not-yet-evil Sinestro to save Mogo and the rest of the Green Lantern Corps from Despero.
In between are two episodes of Justice League, featuring John Stewart as Green Lantern, and an episode of The Batman, in which Batman and Robin team-up with Hal Jordan to take on Sinestro (The Penguin gets control of the ring for a while in there, too). About the only thing missing is that episode of Duck Dodgers in which Daffy Duck joins the GLC.
I had seen all of these before, but it was nice to see them in such rapid succession, allowing one to see the various ways different producers and animators chose to depict the same character over and over (I liked seeing the different mustaches of Sinestro, for example, or hearing the different voices), and to see the animation get slicker and slicker, the GLC cameos getting more and more detailed (And hey, that cycloptic cucumber with the Jewfro is in more episodes than John Stewart, Kyle Rayner and Guy Gardner put together!).
It was also revealing to see how, in such a short amount of time, DC Comics’ public face, Warner Brothers animation, chose different characters as the one, true Green Lantern, from the late ‘90s use of Kyle Rayner, who had Kyle’s name and day job, but the hair color and costume of the then-dead-in-the-comics Hal Jordan, to Justice League's “Hey, we need a person of color in this line-up!” choice of John Stewart (which had a pretty positive impact of making the character once again prominent in the comics), to Brave and the Bold’s decision to use the characters no other show had yet dared.
I hated the Justice League cartoon when it first began airing (It wasn’t until around the time that Wonder Woman got turned into a pig and Batman had to sing that I started to get into Justice League, and I hated this episode/these episodes (I believe they started out doing two half-hour shows mushed together for an hour-long presentation, originally).
Without skimming an episode list, I’m not 100% positive 2001’s “In Blackest Night” was the best choice, but I imagine it must have been. There were several GL-centric episodes, but this is the one in which John Stewart returns to his hometown, squares off against a GL enemy (The Manhunters), and takes place partially on Oa. Oh, and The Guardians are in it too.
Re-watching it now, it reminded me how much more I like Wally West than Barry Allen.
It also reminded me how violent the first season or so of Justice League was. Not in terms of gore or anything—it wasn’t like the modern DCU comics—but just in the amount of time devoted to fighting. As opposed to, you know, anything else. There was always just too much of it.
It was pretty funny watching Hawkgirl beat the hell out of the Green Lantern Corps in the cafeteria scene though, especially kicking around that one guy who’s just a big head with limbs and no body, and the aforementioned cycloptic cucumber guy.
Like the Superman episode, it didn’t age too terribly well in terms of animation, but all of the episodes have their virtues. Even the Superman episode had at least one really elegantly animated scene—as the ring zips around the Daily Planet office seeking a recruit, for example—and nice incidental music.
The two Batman episodes, the most recent on the disc, are both pretty great, and haven’t aged a bit. They’re nice illustrations of how two interpretations of Batman can be so radically different and both seem “right,” too.
Homecoming (2009): 90210’s Jessica Stroup stars in her second horror film named after a high school dance, following 2008’s Prom Night. This is a superior film, and she has a better, bigger role in it, although it is essentially a college freshman version of Fatal Attraction crossed with a college freshman version of Misery, and overly reliant on Idiot Plot plot-points.
Stroup is the new girlfriend of the high school football hero of a small Pennsylvania town, a young man who is returning home to have his jersey retired during homecoming weekend. His high school sweetheart, played by Mischa Barton (who starred in a post-Beverly Hills 90210, pre-90210 teen drama set in California) is still sort of crazy about him though, like, homicidal maniac crazy, and kidnaps Stroup’s character while trying to win back her his ex.
It’s pretty loopy, and while Stroup is always an engaging presence and there are some super-tense scenes, it verges into torture-porn territory a little too often for my tastes (like, once being too often for my) it’s never, ever loopy enough to transcend its cobbled-together-from-other-movies plot and premise.
Piranha (2010): This was very, very strongly recommended to me by a friend whose taste is usually fairly impeccable but, I don’t know, maybe it’s an entirely different experiencing watching it in 3-D in a theater full of a loud and enthusiastic crowd, instead of watching it alone in the afternoon on your laptop…?
The “Girls Gone Wild + man-eating piranhas” high-concept sounds appealing, and there was a refreshing willingness to make the exploitation movie actually exploitive (i.e. tons of nudity, instead of tons of near-nudity in order to secure a PG-13 rating), but beyond seeing Jerry O’Connell’s high-voltage impersonation of GGW’s Joe Francis and a thoroughly bizarre “OMG! Get out of the water!” scene which plays like a reverse Saving Private Ryan Normandy landing, only with cheaply CGI-ed antagonists and gore, there’s not much too any of this.
Oh, Richard Dreyfuss’ appearance was kinda cool, I guess. But it’s still basically one of those made-for-SyFy or direct-to-DVD monster movies, with more toplessness and a (slightly) higher budget, the bulk of which went to hiring a slightly higher caliber cast than Dinoshark.
Red State (2011): What the...Kevin Smith? Challenging himself?! For the first time since 1994’s Clerks the writer/director/sometimes co-star completely abandons his lazy, over-written, under-cooked comedy genre for something completely different. Not only is there no role for Jason Mewes, there are hardly any gay jokes!
Red State is not a perfect movie and, in fact, is bizarrely structured, switching focus and protagonists about halfway through, and petering out with an ending reminiscent of that of Burn After Reading, only more random than funny. There is a really great climax though—you’ll know it when you hear it, not see it, but hear it—and there were a few minutes during that scene where Smith had me on the edge of my seat, wondering if I was being shown something I had never seen in a film before.
As for the rest of it? A trio of teenagers in a small town get shanghaied by a Fred Phelps-like cult leader, who plans to sacrifice them (the…methods of which don’t really ring authentic for a Christian cult leader, even a batshit insane one). Things get much more complicated when the ATF shows up outside their compound, leading to a high-stakes stand-off straight out of ‘90s headlines.
Here’s hoping Smith keeps challenging himself.
Scream 4 (2011): As completely pointless as Scream 2 and 3, but at least aware of it’s own pointlessness to the degree that it rushes to acknowledge any of your complaints about its existence before you can even voice them, and a far better film than the unfortunately undercooked Scream 3.
The principal surviving stars, director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson are all back for this one, and it’s as good at red herring scattering and jumpy surprise scares as anything from earlier in the series.
The appearance of a svelte Anthony Anderson scared me more than anything else though—I mean, it’s cool these overweight comedic actors keep getting skinny if it’s a health thing and not just a male body image issue thing infecting their psyches from working Hollywood for too long, but it’s still upsetting to see guys like Anderson whither away like Christian Bale in that one movie he only ate an apple and can of tuna a day to star in.
Anderson had a great death scene.
The other big surprise for me was a small role given to a 90210 actress, this time Shenae Grimes, whom I hadn’t previously seen in a horror movie (her fellow 90210 starlets Jessica Stroup, Jessica Lowndes and AnnaLynne McCord have all already appeared in horror films).
Season of the Witch (2011): What kind of maniacs title a movie after the name of a classic rock song, and not play any version of the song at any point during the film? This is a movie in which Crusaders Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman witness one slaughter of Muslims too many, and quit, eventually getting forced by the Catholic church to escort a suspected witch to trial in some monastery where a maguffin is kept. It is, of course, ridiculous from start to finish. The most interesting part is the alternate ending, when compared to the actual ending. The latter features a CGI version of a pre-CGI 80's horror movie demon as the main adversary, summoning possessed monks to fight off the heroes in a special effects heavy fight scene that is visual bullshit. In the alternate ending, the demon never emerges from the possessed witch (er, spoiler...?), and it's a hell of a lot creepier to watch a bunch of big guys with swords trying to fight off the girl from The Exorcist than the dumb-looking demon. Also, with the goofy special effects of demons "dying" when the monks get their heads cut off, the monks all move around in super-creepy ways.
It occurred to me while watching this that iI don't think I've ever seen a cool looking demon in a movie before. Like, not outside of anime, anyway. The medieval setting of this would have been a great excuse to put together one that looked like something from The Garden of Earthly Delights or the demons that tempted and tormented Saint Anthony.
Taken (2008): The voice of Aslan stars as Old Jack Bauer in a mid-90’s Steven Segal movie in which he must kill his way back into his estranged daughter’s heart by saving her virginity from a series of European stereotypes attempting to sell her into sex slavery to a Final Boss villain who appears to be King Tut from the 1960’s Batman TV show (or, perhaps, Herrod from Jesus Christ Superstar).
With virtually any other lead actor, the ultra-efficient thugtagonist might have made this unbearable, but having Liam Neeson taking a couple dozen guys apart with well-placed, lightning-quick karate chops and gunshots creates enough cognitively dissonant classiness that you might want to see Maggie Grace’s character get kidnapped by a second gang of sex-slavers, if only to see Neeson do it all over again. Quick, who would win in a fight: Batman or Taken?
By the way, did you know Grace, who plays the kidnapped daughter and has been in a whole bunch of movies I’ve never seen, like the Twilights and The Fog and Knight and Day and Faster is from Worthington?
This Christmas (2007): Jessica Stroup is a member of this large ensemble cast Christmas comedy. What can I say? I’m madly in love with Jessica Stroup, and 90210 is only on once a week.
Loretta Devine plays the matron of a large family of adult children who have returned to her very large house to celebrate Christmas with her and her boyfriend Delroy Lindo. Each of the children have a conflict of some sort, sometimes with each other, but always in their own lives, and those conflicts all come to a head by Christmas Eve, so that everything wrong in everyone’s lives can be solved simultaneously.
You know, a holiday movie.
It was competent in every way, and I can’t find anything wrong with it other than a lack of ambition, which more on me than on the movie: It is what it is, and it does what it wants to do quite well. Other non-Stroups in the movie include wants-to-play Luke Cage Idris Elba as the jazz-playing black sheep of the family, guy I don’t like rooting for much Chris Brown, guy whose name I like pronouncing Mekhi Phifer, as well as Regina King and two other pretty black ladies I have never seen in movies before.
(I have no desire to watch The Hills Have Eyes 2, the sequel to the remake, but Stroup is in that, and its one of the last film in her filmography I haven't seen yet...)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011): One day at work, I heard a young co-worker (still in high school, so maybe 17…?) talking about this movie and I asked if Grimlock was in it.
“Who is Grimlock?” he asked.
“Grimlock? The leader of the Dinobots…? He turns into a Tyrannosaurus Rex?”
He looked at me as if I had suddenly broke into an entirely different language.
It drove home how, Peter Cullen’s voice-work aside, these movies are the Transformers of and for an entirely different generation. Which might explain why they make me confused and angry.
This one is better than the first two, but only once the insipid first hour and a half or so ends, and we get to the part where Shia LaBeouf’s character and a small group of soldiers try to infiltrate the city of Chicago, which has been completely conquered by The Decepticons, who have destroyed all of the Autobots and taken over Earth.
That is a pretty intense movie, but, because Michael Bay is insane, it follows a regressive, aggressive comedy about nothing other than how ashamed of themselves Bay can make Turturro, Kevin Dunn, Julie White and other poor characters feel about themselves.
As for the robots-fighting-robots (and sometimes humans), that stuff is all pretty top-notch, and better in this film than in the two previous. You can usually even tell what’s going on, and who’s doing what to whom!
The Transfomers themselves remain soulless ciphers, with the exception of the handful of Decepticons who get speaking parts, and are at least defined by their alignments: Evil, Really Evil, Self-Interested Evil, Sneaky Evil. That’s a lot more than the Autobots gets.
I’m still disappointed by how little of the Transformer catalog of characters the movies exploit, but this time they get around to Laserbeak, giving him a voice (unlike the silent, animal version of the original cartoons) that makes him sound like a Disney villain and, instead of making him a cassette tape that turns into a bird, he’s a monstrous bird that can turn into any office appliance, like a copier machine or a flatscreen computer or whatever.
I can’t help but root for the Decepticons, given how hateful Bay makes humanity seem in these things. Sadly, they all die pretty brutal, final deaths, with Starscream dying so ignobly I can’t bring myself to type the name of his killer, and Optimus Prime pulling Megatron and others apart like he was doing Mortal Kombat finishing moves on them.
Since the movies seem to be getting better instead of worse with each sequel, and are still making money, I assume there will be another one. Maybe they’ll put Grimlock in that one.
True Grit (2010): Say, I really liked this movie. This was a very good movie. I've never read the book, so maybe they bowlderized it, and I never saw the original (but I remember laughing at my dad as a child when I walked in on him watching it and he told me that the dude's name was Rooster Cogburn), so maybe this isn't even the best movie with that title, but I liked this a whole lot nevertheless.