Saturday, July 21, 2012

EVERYTHING ELSE:

DVDs

Black Zoo (1963): Michael Conrad, played by a still quite young and virile Michael Gough, is a fairly well respected and charismatic owner of a private zoo, which he runs with his wife, a veteran of a circus chimpanzee act she still performs at the zoo, and his mute, adopted son.

At night, he lets the big cats out of their cages, plays organ music for them and talks to them like they are family members. He also occasionally visits a strange and unnamed cult that worships animals.

When pushed by, say, an arrogant developer who wants to buy his land, Conrad will sic one of his big cats or, on one occasion, a gorilla on the pusher, neatly solving his problem.

The movie poster somewhat over-sells the “kill lust” and the sexiness of the victims, but it’s a pretty clever concept for an old-school horror movie, and one I’m frankly baffled hasn’t been remade into a gory, R-rated thriller yet.

Gough’s performance is a dynamite one, and there are several very effective, very eerie scenes in which the big cats enter a room one by one, or, in another scene, make up a funeral procession through a lonely, foggy wood (you can unfortunately see where the edits were made in these scenes, as shots were glued together to give the impression of a procession, but it still works).

I like to imagine that before he became Batman’s butler, as a young man Alfred was apparently a maniacal zookeeper and animal-worshiping murderer.


Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia (2007): Donald Sutherland narrates this computer-animated documentary about a handful of dinosaurs and related species, united by their geographical origins and their enormous size. These are the sea-going liopleurodon, the flying Quetzalcoatlus, the giant sauropod the Argentinosaur and the carnivorous Giganotosaur (which Sutherland pronounces “Jig-o-no-to-saur”; I assumed it was “Jy-gant-o-saur,” because I am dumb).

It’s mostly Dinosaur 101 stuff, in the format of a modern animal documentary where various “characters” are given names and story arcs we follow them upon, with the most attention devoted to the Argentinosaurs and the Giganotosaurs that attempt to prey upon them.

There’s a pretty good “fight” scene, in which we’re shown how packs of the G-Rexes may have gone about trying to take down such giant herbivores, by nipping at them until they either bled to death or died of infection, while trying to avoid their crushing limbs and tails.


Double Dynamite (1951): Groucho Marx once joked that this comedy’s title was a reference to his co-star Jane Russel’s physique (The poster seems to bear out that theory). I’ve no idea where the title actually came from; the plot doesn’t seem to support it, whereas the title it was produced under—It’s Only Money—made a bit more sense, as the plot involves money, and Marx and Frank Sinatra share a song at one point entitled “It’s Only Money.”

Sinatra and Russel play bank clerks, neighbors and would-be spouses…if only they had enough money to get married on. Sinatra’s character lucks in to a small fortune in a bizarre chain of events that begins with him rescuing a gangster from a rival’s enforcers and ends with him being forced to bet on fixed horse races over and over again.

Coincidentally, his bank discovers someone has apparently been embezzling, and begins investigating all of their employees for anyone exhibiting sudden signs of new wealth, so Sinatra must hide his honestly ill-gotten gains, entrusting them to the couple’s friend, a waiter who works a the diner they visit daily, played by Marx.

Despite a lifelong affection, occasionally to the point of obsession, with the work of the Marx Brothers, I had never set out to track down any of their solo work, with this being my first experience with Groucho sans his brothers.

It’s rather strange seeing him play a more-or-less straight character. He’s sarcastic, wise-cracking and fearlessly insulting, but he seems somewhat out-of-place, lacking his regular foils and any opportunity to let his schtick run wild for longer than a sentence or two here and there. He also seems oddly out-of-place as the younger Sinatra’s confidant and best friend, more like a chummy uncle than a pal.

Oddly enough, the tone of the plot is barely serious, with a police dispatcher putting out an APB on Sinatra and Russell’s characters at one point, referring to the former as resembling Frank Sinatra and the latter’s weight being well-distributed. It’s just not as silly, or silly in the same ways, as your typical Marx Bros. fare (Groucho does seem more Groucho-esque here than he does in Room Service, though).


The Gorilla (1939): This was my first exposure to the Ritz Brothers, a minor comedy team, although it was neither them nor their co-star Bela Lugosi—playing a creepy butler—that attracted me to the film as much as the title character. I have, you may have noticed over the last few installments of this feature, been checking out a lot of gorilla movies lately.

In this one, a very wealthy man played by Lionel Atwill is being threatened by a mysterious killer known only as “The Gorilla.”

One dark and stormy night, his sole heir, Anita Louise, and her fiancĂ©e, visit. He’s hired private eyes played by The Ritz Brothers to protect him. Also on hand Lugosi, a sassy maid played by the lovely Patsy Kelly, and a few other suspicious characters, including a real gorilla, which looks every bit as real as the fake gorilla.

Hijinks—including the lights going out, secret passages, characters disappearing, mysterious cominques coming via letter and radio—ensue. There’s an admirable complexity to the proceedings, and Louise and Lugosi are both welcome film presences, but it’s nothing to go out of one’s way for. The Ritz Brothers all have the same on-screen persona—dumb, cowardly—and one is distinguished from the others mainly by being meaner to them than they are to him or to one another.


Grimm’s Snow White (2012): It’s been a pet peeve of mine since as far back as I was 15 and first saw Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula when studios entitle literary adaptations with a possessive version of the author’s name…and then deviate in any significant way from the author’s original work.

In the case of Dracula, it might have been closer to Bram Stoker’s Dracula than Tod Browning’s classic 1931 Dracula, but there were some pretty dramatic additions to the story original to Coppola’s film, enough that calling it Bram Stoker’s seemed like false advertising.

This quick, cheap, direct-to-DVD release likewise uses the _______’s title convention while departing from the source material and, in this case, what a departure!

A prologue informs us that long ago an asteroid—a common concern in the European folk tales the Brothers Grimm collected in the 19th century—fell to Earth, containing a source of magical power and giving birth to both dragons and elves. The former guard the magical flame, while the latter wear cheap glass crystal jewelry through which they can somehow channel the power of the flame.

Not surprisingly, Grimm’s Snow White is from Asylum, the movie studio whose business plan apparently involves making movies based on trailers for popular, big studio movies, in the hopes of confusing gullible folks into accidentally renting or borrowing the DVDs, thinking they’re the real deal. This one, for example, seems to have been based on the trailer for Snow White and The Huntsman (Which we'll discuss in the next installment of this column).

They’ve made some pretty interesting creative choices here, beyond the involvement of asteroids and dragons.

Their Snow White, played by poor 20-year-old Eliza Bennett, is a blond, thus forfeiting one of the three defining characteristics of the character (skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony). This snow white is also garbed in blue and white, which, with her hair, makes her more closely resemble another Disney heroine entirely.

This is also the first visual Snow White adaptation I’ve ever seen where the wicked queen is so clearly so much more fair than Snow White.
Bennett isn’t unattractive, but she’s somewhat bland in appearance, and looks like a girl you might have gone to high school with, or might pass at the mall without turning your head. The 38-yea-old Jane March, however, is stop-and-stare beautiful, and has a charisma one can feel through a screen. She plays the wicked queen, here named Queen Gwendolyn, and I kept wondering if perhaps they should have switched roles, given the fact that the plot is entirely driven by the fact that Snow White is supposed to be so much more beautiful than the Queen.

The Seven Dwarves are out, here replaced by four or five elves, apparently because plastic elf ears are cheaper than fake beards, and the human-sized elves are easier to film than making regular-sized dudes appear to be fantasy-style dwarves.

The plot is roughly similar to the one you’re familiar with from either the original or its many adaptations, except for the fact that there are “dragons” that look like long-necked komodo dragons—the same shot of one of them rearing up to attack being recycled more often than the background of Hanna-Barbera cartoon—who live in the woods, and there’s a big, epic battle at the end of the film, which involves a vast army of about 36 of the queen’s soldiers fighting Snow White and eight elves.

The whole experience made me very, very sad; it’s not often I see a bad movie and feel sorry for it and everyone in it and everyone associated with it, but this was such a film.


Melancholia (2011): The first eight minutes of director Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic film—in which beautiful, mysterious, fantastic and slow motion imagery involving colliding planets and an especially ethereal Kirsten Dunst play out while Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde plays on—are among the best eight minutes of film I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it can be stated strongly enough that no matter what the rest of the movie contains, von Trier’s Melancholia was already at that point a superlative, must-see work, as beautiful as film-making gets.

The rest of the film, while often hard to watch—it’s a hard movie to recommend, because while I loved it, the taste, patience and mood of any potential viewers will likely dictate to what degree they enjoy it—is a great one, even if it never quite regains the heights of that phantasmagorical visual overture.

Divided neatly into two sections, the film chronicles in exhausting, exasperating detail the elaborate wedding of Dunst’s Justine to poor, badly facial-haired Alexander Skarsgard, which is being thrown by her well-to-do sister and even-better-to-do brother-in-law, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland.

It quickly becomes apparent that something is terribly, terriblly wrong with Justine—well, with everybody, just as it is in real life, but the thing wrong with Justine is harder to hide than the things wrong with most of the other characters—and we watch her as she tries to struggle through depression to make everyone else happy for one very long day and very long night, and ultimately fails.

During the second part, the now very-sick Justine movies in with her sister’s family, in the same house the wedding was in, and we watch as Gainsbourg tries to nurse her back to health. It’s as realistic a portrayal of depression—with all it’s most terrifying aspects—put to film as I’ve ever seen, or would want to see.

Meanwhile, a newly discovered runaway planet with the unlikely name of "Melancholia" is barreling toward Earth, the scientific community (and Sutherland) confident it will pass harmlessly by, while others (and Gainsbourg) think it’s going to collide and end the world.

Von Trier and Dunst explore the juxtaposition between a complete void, a cessation of life that comes from deep within oneself, with that which comes from the heavens, as strong a contrast between the interior and the exterior as you can imagine. Likewise, the feeling of the end of the world is played off of the actual end of the world.

I’m not prepared at this moment to definitively state this is the best movie I’ve ever seen or anything, but I must confess that I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one this good.

In fact, it was so good that I made it all the way through without ever once letting the runaway planet bit remind me of the premise of Thundarr The Barbarian, the 1980 cartoon set 2,000 years into a future after “a runaway planet hurtling between the Earth and the moon, unleash[-ed] cosmic destruction,” giving rise to “a new world of savagery, super-science and sorcery.” Why, not until this moment did I dare fantasize about Melancholia 2: Justine the Barbarian, in which Kirsten Dunst dons a fur tunic with a neckline plunging to her belly, pitting her strength, her courage and her fabulous sun sword against the forces of evil.


Pray For Morning (2006): A group of high school students, including EDILW crush object and 90210 star Jessica Stroup, plan to spend the night after a party in a local abandoned hotel, condemned and rumored to be haunted after five high school kids were brutally murdered in the mid-eighties, a crime that was never solved.

It doesn’t take very long before it becomes clear that the rumors of it being haunted are more than just rumors, and it quickly becomes an attrition-style horror movie, with the various kids—a fairly standard group of stereotype characters—picked off by a mostly-unseen ghostly force whose modus operandi is to crush them, limb by limb.

Writer/director Cartney Wearn wrings some pretty effective scares through a few of these killings, relying almost entirely on bone-breaking sound effects to get across the action, and there are also some surprisingly affecting scenes of a stressful, nightmare variety, as when a character will, say, run down a flight of stares only to find themselves back where they started, behind their companions, in defiance of what should be happening.

There’s a somewhat complex backstory, involving the ghost of a murderous magician, and one of the teens being the reincarnation of someone who ran afoul of the magician in his past life, at which point what horror is to be had gives way to tedium.

Still, it’s not the worst horror movie featuring Jessica Stroup I’ve ever seen. Not by a long shot.


She (1935): Producer Merian C. Cooper’s follow-up to his King Kong doesn’t have quite the reputation as its more popular predecessor, which in part explains why I’m seeing it for the first time in my mid-thirties, instead of having seen it, oh, once or twice a year since I was in grade school.

Based on H. Rider Haggard’s novels (several of which were smooshed together to provide the plot for this movie), it does bear some similarity to King Kong and other adventure films and narratives of the pre-war period, only instead of finding a giant, dinosaur-fighting gorilla at the end of their quest, here our heroes stumble upon a mysterious immortal woman and the strange culture she rules over as a goddess.

Randolph Scott plays our rugged American hero, Leo Vincey, summoned to England where his dying uncle and his uncle’s scientist best friend Professor Holly (Nigel Bruce, the Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock) tell him about their crackpot scientific theories regarding immortality.

Scott and Holly journey into Siberia (rather than Haggard’s Africa) with the help of and a mean, greedy old guy with dog sleds and stuff and the mean old guys’ super-hot niece, Helen Mack (who, oddly enough, also starred in The Son of Kong and had a small role in His Girl Friday, one of my all-time favorite movies and one of the films that helped convince young Caleb to become a journalist when he grew up…a career that lasted him, oh, about six years).

After the party is whittled down by an avalanche, The Hero, The Professor and The Girl find the lost civilization and meet the titular lady, who is supposed to be pretty pretty, but is completely eclipsed whenever she has to share a frame with Mack.

The sets are pretty astounding, and there’s at least one awesome action scene, where our hero rescues the girl from being sacrificed and they flee through a great hall full of people in exotic garb with exotic weaponry.

Transplanting the action from Africa to Siberia struck me as a strange decision, but having now seen the film, I appreciate the fact that doing so somewhat divorces it from the often uncomfortable racial subtext (and just plain text) that permeates such Victorian-inspired European Heroes Vs. The Dangers of Africa scenarios.

The somewhat primitive culture that the queen rules over in She doesn’t seem inherently African…or Native American or "native" at all. It just seems like a weird, lost culture. I suppose the black and white presentation helps, too, as it’s harder to see people by the color of their skin when everyone is merely a different shade of gray.


The Son of Kong (1933): Speaking of Cooper, Kong and Mack…

So having seen the original King Kong, who would you say is the star of the film? The rampaging title character, who dies at the end? Ann Darrow, the aspiring actress played by Fay Wray, who ultimately tames and dooms the beast? John Driscoll, Darrow’s suitor who risks life and limb to rescue her from Kong both in the monster-filled jungles of Skull Island and the heights of the Empire State Building?

Well, in this ill-starred, quickie sequel, the filmmakers chose to follow explorer, filmmaker and showman Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), whose supporting role in the original film was mainly one of necessity, moving the action along so that hero, love interest and monster could all meet one another, and play out one of film history’s most bizarre love triangles.

The movie picks up about a month after the events of the original film (and, remarkably, it was in theaters just nine months after the original was!), and Denham is holed up in a boarding house, desperately trying to avoid all of the members of the media and the various servers who are leveling lawsuits at him in the wake of Kong’s New York rampage.

To escape, he teams up with the captain of the boat that took him to Skull Island in the original film, and starts a very unsuccessful shipping business. A series of coincidences send them back to Skull Island in search of a treasure said to be there, this time accompanied only by a Chinese cook, a bad guy with the bad guy name of Hellstrom (who was the man who originally sold them the map to Skull Island) and Helen Mack’s Hilda, who ran a monkey circus show with her father.

The film takes forever getting them all to Skull Island, which seems to be simply a stalling tactic, or a money-saving one—surely the filmmakers didn’t think the audience who lapped up King Kong wanted to spend time with the Denham character instead of seeing a gorilla getting into dinosaur fights, did they?

When the characters do finally make it to the island, their stay is relatively short and uneventful, and the film ends there—no attempts are made to bring Kong’s son home to civilization this time.

That son is named by “Little Kong” by Denham, and he’s much smaller, much sillier and much more friendly than his dad; his interest in the humans seems motivated more by friendliness than interspecies lust. He’s also lighter in color; the color cover of the DVD I watched gives him golden hair, while the black-and-white film makes him appear to be either white or very light gray.

Rather than save the humans by fighting a therapod as his dad did—and usually does in later adaptations and riffs—Little Kong fights a more size-appropriate cave bear. It’s a neat sequence, and a pretty fun fight, although it’s certainly more silly than scary, in keeping with the rest of the film.

The other monsters that appear, all created by the original film's Willis O’Brien, are a Styracosaurus, an Elasmosaurus and a Nothosaurus, only the last of which Kong has to fight.

The film climaxes with the sinking of Skull Island, which takes Little Kong with it, which would seemingly put the kibosh on any plans for a third Kong movie.

Before actually sitting down to watch this, I never understood why no one ever tried making any more Kong movies, with the original being remade twice, but Son never being remade at all. Now I see it’s not so hot a film, even among giant gorilla films (1949’s Mighty Joe Young is far superior, if you ask me, even if Mack is something to stare at, and the bear vs. gorilla brawl is pretty cool).

If Peter Jackson or someone were to make a sequel to the 2005 King Kong—during production, they released an April Fool’s Day announcement that they were going to make a sequel in which King Kong’s son would fight the Nazis which sounded awesome—I imagine they’d be better off starting from scratch rather than seeking to use this as source material.


BOOKS


Primeval: Shadow of the Jaguar by Steven Savile (Titan Books; 2008) Immediately after watching the final season of the TV show Primeval, I was feelign pretty bereft and, in my grief, was desperate to continue the Primeval watching experience anyway I could. I suppose I could have just rewatched the show from the very beginning, but What the hell, I thought, why not try out one of these novels based on the show?

The answer should be obvious—because they're not very good, self.

This was written and published several years ago, I think fitting somewhere between the end of the first season and the beginning of the second, based on the characters who are most prominently featured—the original cast of characters, essentially, although after the point where the ARC is established and Lucy Brown's character Claudia Brown had been transformed irrevocably into Jenny Lewis.

The medium allows us inside the heads of the characters in a way television does not, and yet Savile can't reveal too much, because anything major and relevant happening in their lives, exterior or interior, will have either happened in the show itself, or will happen in the show. The result then, is that we spend a lot of time in the various characters' heads—written from an omniscient point of view, each character and plenty of others take turns being the protagonist and point of view character in different scenes—but we only get to know them superficially.

The plot deviates rather extremely from that of the television show, however, as the characters are sent to investigate the very first anomaly to have occurred outside of the British Isles (in future episodes of the show, this would happen again for the first time, so this novel doesn't seem to be "canonical," at least within the Primeval show's writer's room), and a hard-to-swallow coincidence prods their investigation.

The anomaly occurs in a South American jungle, where the creatures—neither the jaguar of the title or the saber tooth cat on the cover image there—attack the sons of a British government official who pressures James Lester to try and recover them.

These creatures are several in number, and of two different species—one from the past, one from the future. There's an awful lot of espionage and fighting, conducted by the military men assigned to our science heros', and because the focus shifts so thoroughly to them at times, the novel seems to become an airport paperback, action movie-like experience.

Basically, it didn't really replicate the experience of watching the television show, even when you adjust your expectations to compensate for the differences in media, nor did it seem to be striving very hard to do so.

I might try the other novels at some point in the future though, as each is written by a different writer, so perhaps it was simply Savile's approach that didn't make this the Primeval methadone I was hoping for.


PICTURE BOOKS


Bugs Galore by Peter Stein and Bob Staake (Candlewick Press; 2012): Given that it’s illustrated by the great Bob Staake and its overall high quality, I’d save this to cover in my next “Children’s Books of Note” column, but the legalese in the back was so thorough as to scare me away from scanning anything at all from it, so I’m just going to briefly mention it here.

Check it out:
No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, taping, and recording, without prior written permission from the publisher.
There’s not even anything about an exception for review purposes!

So this is a book about bugs, with four rhyming lines describing bugs on each page, and each pair of pages being a big spread in which a pair of big roundheaded children interact with an astounding variety of mostly invented species of insects, worms, spiders and other creepy-crawly types.

The bugs are all beautifully designed, and quite numerous. Few seem to be drawn to resemble actual bugs, but rather the ideas of bugs, and so they will have, say, four legs, or no legs but two arms, or 20 legs, and be segmented in strange ways.

They are almost all cute, and quite designer-ly; I like the ones that are supposed to be centipede-esque, although none of their segments actually connect, with space between each of them. There are also quite a few bugs that look like refugees from Golden Age of animation cartoon designs, with canes, top-hats and five o’clock shadow.

Among the many Staake bugs are several bugs and flowers that are drawn in a completely different style, and look like they were made by children, a whole classroom’s worth of children, and then digitally shrunk and added into the overall piece, so that, say, one in every 12 bugs will look out of place, but they are so small and so small in number, you have to hunt for them.

And that’s the great pleasure of this book, hunting for all the bugs in it. Next time you’re in your local library, look for this book, and then look at it and in it.


Listen to My Trumpet by Moe Willems (Hyperion; 2012): In Willems’ latest Elephant & Piggie book, his starting-readers series featuring Gerald the elephant and Piggie the piggie, Piggie gets a new trumpet, and subjects Gerald to an impromptu concert.

This allows for Willems to spend half of the book drawing Gerald with increasingly nervous, embarrassed and anxious expressions, as Piggie doesn’t play the trumpet very well, and to fill the large white spaces on each page with bright, cleverly angled and executed dialogue bubbles emanating from the trumpet.

Like all 5,000 or so of the books that have preceded this one in the series, Listen to My Trumpet! is, of course, great.

I wanted to post an image from it though, as it’s such a representative image of how good an artist Willem is.

I’ve talked a great deal in the past about his mastery of facial expressions and how he does so much with so little. Well, check out this drawing of Gerald, lying flat on his back (after Piggie has thrown him from his stool with “the big finish,” which includes seven trumpet blasts, the biggest of which is “Blaz-zap-Blap-BLONK!):
Look at just how flat on his back Gerald is! Even without anything save a white void to draw on, Willems flattens and straightens his character out on the floor or ground, spreading him perfectly there...even though there is no there there, beside the one the artist implies.

These books make me wish I were eight-years-old again. Not simply because they are so fun and funny that they make me feel like a kid reading them, but because I wish I was exposed to such a great example of great illustration work when I was first starting to learn to draw.


Mr. Nervous by Roger Hargreaves (Price Stern Sloan; 1976): This entry into Hargreaves “Mr. Men” series features a pink-ish, pyramid shaped man whose very shape reflects shivering, whose eyes are two big, bland empty sockets of vacant shock, and whose mouth is always open in silent shock.

You’ve got to give it to Hargreaves: When he’s on, he’s on, and this design is perfect; the super-simple cartoon character he crafted to depict nervousness says “Nervous” just as eloquently as a pure visual as anything in the text does.

Mr. Nervous, we learn, “was frightened of everything and anything,” and this constant state of fear, which we would now diagnose as extremely pronounced case of generalized anxiety disorder, has severely, negatively impacted Mr. Nervous’ life.

He lives “as far away from anybody as he can…miles and miles from anywhere.” When a falling autumnal leaf gently brushes against the sleeping Mr. Nervous’ window, he awakes with a start and immediately jumps to the worst possible conclusion, thinking that his house must be falling down due to an earthquake and/or the end of the world (In psychobabble, he’s “catastrophizing”)

He wastes an hour of his day in bed, afraid to get out of it (This story is heartbreaking!). He has several similar experiences getting breakfast, going for a walk, and meeting a talking worm (Although, to be fair, a worm talking to you is a legitimate cause for concern.

Eventually, he’s walking through a meadow, when what should he discover but a giant hobo:
Hargreaves’ text refers to him as a “vagabond,” but we know better. Bindle = Hobo.

I was somewhat taken aback by the giant hobo’s size (giant hobos, by the way, are another legitimate thing to be nervous about; in fact, giants of any kind are generally worrying). This was my first “Mr. Men” book, so I didn’t know if maybe the Mr. Men, and their female counterparts the Little Misses, were tiny in size. But the next one I read (see below) featured another human character, and it as the same size as the Mr. Man in it.

So either Mr. Nervous is tiny, about the size of a mouse, or that vagabond is a giant, in which case I don’t blame Mr. Nervous for fainting when he encounters him.

Anyway, the hobo imparts some wisdom to Mr. Nervous:
“I used to be nervous like you,” said the vagabond, “but I learned how not to be! Would you like me to tell you the secret?”



“It’s very simple,” continued the vagabond. “All you have to do is count to ten, and you’ll find whatever is frightening you isn’t quite so frightening after all!"
Well, it should come as no surprise that this works for Mr. Nervous, and, after testing it out, he becomes “a changed man,” able to relax and smile and only very, very rarely hide under the bedclothes.

He’s still kind of lumpy by the end of the book, but he’s not quite as jiggly (the English name for this character and this book, by the way, was “Mr. Jelly”), and his “The Scream”-like, gaping moan of existential dread has become a broad smile.

What is surprising is that the hobo’s advice is actually very good advice in the real world, too! I’ve read several self-help books about dealing with anxiety (“bibliotherapy,” in psychobabble), and several recommend counting slowly to ten while taking deep breaths when one feels an anxiety attack coming on. In fact, one recommended the technique as the easiest one anybody could do, as by breathing deep and slow for ten breaths, you’ll slow your body down, which will immediately combat the physiological effects of anxiety, whether you are convinced/believe the technique will work or not.

Mr. Nervous: Great character design, great advice and also a giant hobo.


Mr. Worry by Roger Hargreaves (Price Stern Sloan; 1978): One might think that it would be redundant to have both a Mr. Nervous and Mr. Worry among the Mr. Men, but Hargreaves has created several such characters that seem to overlap in certain places. Looking at the back cover of this book, for example, I see there’s a Mr. Silly and a Mr. Nonsense, a Mr. Grumble and a Mr. Grumpy and a Mr. Cheerful and a Mr. Happy. The distinction between a character defined primarily by his worrying and another defined primarily by his nervousness might seem somewhat subtle, but worried and nervous are different states of being.

Worry’s design isn’t as strong as Nervous’, in my opinion. He has the orb-shaped body of many, perhaps most of the Mr. Men—Happy, Silly, Noisy, Funny, Impossible, Mischief, Wrong and so on—and is entirely colored blue, save for a bulbous red nose. He has a few strands of wavy, scraggly-looking hair pasted to the top of his orb, and his mouth is generally either invisible, or in the shape of a worried “O.”

His deal, of course, is that he worries. A lot. Too much.

“Poor Mr. Worry,” Hargreaves introduces him. “Whatever happened, he worried about it. If it rained, he worried that his roof was going to leak. If it didn’t rain, he worried that all the plants in his garden were going to die.”

Like Mr. Nervous, Worry’s quality of life seems to be severely hobbled by his condition, as his worries dominate his life. He can still function—he lives near other Mr. Men, each of whom he worries for in some way or another—but dwells on negative thoughts. I believe the people who write psychological self-help books would call these racing or repeating thoughts.

One day Mr. Worry meets a wizard (Which Hargreaves relates in this beautifully straightforward sentence: “He met a wizard.”)

The wizard, like the hobo in the previously discussed book, is also a human being, but he is the same size as Mr. Worry, which means that hobo was either a giant hobo or this is a tiny wizard.

The wizard instructs Mr. Worry to go home and write down every single thing that he's worried about, and that he will then “make sure none of these things ever happen.”

Worry does so, and ultimately presents the wizard with a list that Hargreaves draws in the same manner that artists generally draw Santa Claus’ list: One long, snaking, coiling scroll of a list.

From that day on, Mr. Worry only has one thing to worry about, but that’s the puchline of the book, so even though the book is older than I am, I probably shouldn’t spoil it. It’s worth noting that this list-making is also a good, real-life strategy for dealing with one’s anxieties—the first step in addressing any problem being naming that problem, after all—and while this story has more of a jokey ending than Mr. Nervous, it’s still a pleasant exercise in watching a cartoon of a character confront and partially excise a cripplingly negative mental problem.


Such a Silly Baby! by Steffanie & Richard Lorig and Amanda Shepherd (Chronicle Books; 2008) This is the story of the very worst mother in the whole world, who takes her baby to a different outing every day—the zoo, the circus, a farm—and on each occasion she accidentally leaves her baby there, taking an animal of some kind home instead, thinking it is her baby.

I could see maybe mistaking a small chimpanzee (which Shepherd draws as monkeys) for a baby, but a dancing bear? A buffalo?

The story is told in rhyming verse, and each mix-up ends with,
Well, I went back the very next day.
I found my baby right away.
My babe was pleased as he could be,
And this is what he said to me:
Followed by a series of animal noises, which grows with each encounter, followed by “I’m such a silly baby!”

Shepherd’s artwork is quite attractive (it’s what got me to pick up the book in the first place), and I’m sure young children will like having this book read to them, given all the opportunities to be loud and noisy that come with it, but me, I’m calling children’s services.


AUDIOBOOKS


The Black Banners: The Inside story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda by
Ali H. Soufan and Daniel Freedman:
This is one of those books that one sees more and more in these post-9/11 days then one saw before, wherein the book is apparently very thoroughly vetted by various intelligence agencies, and given an okay by them, and then the publisher goes ahead an puts the book together, laying out which words and which paragraphs appear on which pages, and then the agency comes back and changes its collective mind, and asks for loads of information to be redacted, but it's so late in the book-publishing process that the publisher has to just go ahead and publish it as it was laid-out, only with black bars over it.

Listing to the audiobook version, read by Neil Shah, the results are...somewhat surreal, as he will say either "blank" or "redacted" when he gets to something that has been redacted; generally the former when it's just a word here or there, and the latter when it's a whole section.

At certain points, particularly when we get to the point in Soufan's story where the U.S. agencies, preseumably either the CIA and/or a Department of Defense-affiliated intelligence agency, is participating in "enhanced interrogation"/torture—either by conducting it or by watching it occur in a country in which it is more legal—it can sound silly enough to be almost comical, as in "Blank turned to blank and blank and said blank."

It's a surreal experience, listening to the story and trying to figure out what the blanks are there for. One sentence, for example, refers to a "blank" in the corner, and in the next sentence the "blank" is referred to as a snake...so readers/listeners are allowed to know there was a snake in a facility where enhanced interrogation was going on, but not the species? So it must have been a species that someone who knows about snakes would be able to place geographically...?

In other scenes, it seems as if Soufan was made to take all of the personal pronouns out—the I's and me's—and replace them with "blank" over and over, because it is clear he is on the scene and witnessing things, but the person's identity is never revealed by a pronoun, so, if it wasn't him, it was the reader/listener, and the book avant garde-edly shifted into second-person narrative for some reason, or Soufan suddenly decided to stop using pronouns, and just use the person's name over and over again, as in "John Smith couldn't believe what he was seeing, 'Are you kidding John Smith?,' John Smith said."

Anyway, this is the story of America's initial battles with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, told by a former FBI interrogator, who was an Arab-American, a Muslim and who spoke Arabic and understood Middle Eastern culture. That he's not still with the FBI is a kind of tragedy in and of itself, as his is the sort of resume you'd think we'd want fighting terrorism.

Soufan was involved in the investigation of the U.S.S. Cole bombing and, later, interviewed suspects involved in the 9/11 plot. He worked with the late John O'Neil, who was one of the main "characters" in Lawrence Wright's must read The Looming Tower (which Soufan was apparently interviewed with), and it's actually kind of fascinating to see the overlap between the accounts of some of those events told here from a different but complementary perspective than they were in Looming Tower.

The interrogation sequences are bravura pieces of writing; it's downright shocking how intense and suspenseful these are, and telling that they aren't the sort of thing you could see in, say, a television show or movie, because they would take too long to play out. That fact is, I think, an important one, because, as Soufan forcefully argues and successfully demonstrates, interrogations take a very long time and involve a great deal of subtle mind games in order to produce results, and the stuff you see in the movies and television shows, the stuff involving good cop, bad cop and threats of violence or actual violence, don't work, yet everyone—including a depressingly high number of people involved in law enforcement and terrorism-fighting, if Soufan is to be believed—think the Hollywood approach works, because they've seen it work so many times. In movies and on TV.

There's a lot of sad and infuriating stuff in here, much of which you've probably heard elsewhere, some of which is new, and while the scope is smaller than Tower, it's also more focused, and the interrogation sequences are as thrilling as any make believe prose I've ever read.

Here's Soufan being interviewed about the book on The Colbert Report, an appearance he devoted to talking about torture vs. mind games in interrogation, which makes for a better overview of Soufan's career, accomplishments and point of view than I can in a few poorly-written paragraphs. I think it's important to keep in mind that Soufan isn't making any kind of political or moral argument against torture, he's attacking its efficacy: It just doesn't work.

You guys should read it. Or at least listen to it.

5 comments:

ealgylden said...

Wait, Jane March is 38? Jane March from "The Lover"? Ugh, I'm so old.

Random factoid about "She" (which I've seen a weirdly high number of times over the years, nine or ten anyway. I just keep tripping over it)- Helen Gahagan, who plays She Who Must Be Obeyed, was a stage actress who made only the one movie and then became a Congresswoman from California. I like to imagine her pulling her Dread Queen schtick on the other Reps., just for kicks.

Akilles said...

Torture doesn`t work, eh? Then I wont use it in my comics. Or if I do, I`ll use it accurately.

Anthony Strand said...

"This is also the first visual Snow White adaptation I’ve ever seen where the wicked queen is so clearly so much more fair than Snow White."

So . . . you didn't see Snow White and the Huntsman?

Seriously, though, I kind of enjoy Son of Kong. It's silly, but it's a pleasant little time-waster.

Also I should see a Ritz Brothers movie someday.

Caleb said...

So . . . you didn't see Snow White and the Huntsman?

Heh. I hadn't at the time of writing that little review, but I've seen it since. I think Kristen Stewart is fairer than Charlize Theron personally, but I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder, huh? I guess the fact that they made their wicked queen a constantly aging hag who had to keep old age at bay with magic and blood and milk and weirdness would justify that wicked queen being (potentially) hotter than Stewart.

But if I were judging a beauty contest between Stewart and Theron, I'd give it to Stewart and crown her Miss Snow White and The Huntsmen.

I'll probably discuss that movie in the next edition of this column; I've been dying to talk about my feelings about Theron's character's brother's haircut.

Dean said...

I think that's meant to be a wrinkled brow on Mr. Worry, rather than hair.