Friday, November 27, 2009

And a happy Thanksgiving to you Yanks

This is all over the Internet, true, but it's so incredibly awesome that it must be shared with all sentient lifeforms. Cheers!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, Part III

PhotobucketAs I just cracked open the 14,000-page monolith that is Stephen King's latest, "Under The Dome," I thought I'd get back to this occasional series. You can accuse King as a writer of many talents and some flaws, but nobody can ever argue that he's unproductive -- how many millions of words has he written in the last 30 years, anyway? An entire bookshelf in my house creaks with tattered King paperbacks. Yet this period, from about 1984-1994, saw a blue ton of new King works. For the first time, though, the endless churn seemed to affect his stories -- by the mid-1990s King's works were getting more bloated and less gripping. Nobody could keep up this pace forever, and King's life was going to change in a big way by 1999 with a near-fatal car accident.

PhotobucketThe Talisman: An unusual beast, a collaboration between King and author Peter Straub. Straub's voice seems to add a bit of surreal mystery as young Jack travels through a parallel world looking for a cure for his dying mother. A great fantasy novel with touches of King's gory reality, and a rare collaboration that really works. An unusual King book, but well worth seeking out. Grade: A-

Thinner: Another "Richard Bachman" pseudonymous piece by King, the last before his "secret identity" was revealed, and probably the best after "The Long Walk." A one-note idea -- nasty gypsy curse! -- but it's carried with a sinister charm and is a tight, fast and freaky read. Grade: B

Skeleton Crew: King's second collection of EC Comics-esque short stories, bitter little babies with hooky ideas. Some of these are just great, among King's best short fiction - "The Mist," "The Jaunt," "Word Processor of the Gods," the grotesque but very effective "Survivor Type." There's also a fair amount of filler and chaff but the gems here outshine the low spots. King's immense imagination in full flight. Grade: B+

PhotobucketIt: King's finest hour, even better than "The Stand" I'd say. An ode to childhood and a nightmare about the forces that end it, with King's best character work ever as he follows a group of lovable loser children into adulthood, and their ongoing battle against the forces of darkness -- in the incarnation of a serial-killing clown, of course. Well, clowns are creepy, aren't they? Anyway, in "It," King manages to have some of his most indelible characters, scariest moments and most inventive creations -- in other words, it's super-sized King at his peak. Biggest flaw - an ending that gets too mumbo-jumbo metaphysical for its own good. And well, yeah, it's bloody long, but in this case, it's a book I just didn't want to stop reading. Great books get to be as long as they want. Grade: A+

Eyes of the Dragon: It's almost "young adult fiction" for King, an unusual fairy-tale style fantasy story that's got ties to "The Stand" and a great deal of foreshadowing for styles and themes in "The Dark Tower" series. Very different than anything King had done up to this point; not as good as some of his later fantasy novels would be, but an interesting warm-up. Grade: B

The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three: Not as stark and unique as the first book in the series, but King's wider canvas becomes apparent as Roland the lone Gunslinger starts to form a ka-tet, or family, as he continues his quest for the Dark Tower. Not a lot to say about this one that I didn't on the first -- this saga would eventually swell to seven books and thousands of pages, and become one of King's biggest statements. Grade: A-

Misery: One of the classics. While King is known to suffer from authorial bloat, "Misery" is tight, tense and unrelentingly claustrophobic. King, like a lot of fiction writers, has done the "writer as protagonist" cliche a bit too much, but this one really delves into the symbiotic tie between fan and creator, and Annie Wilkes is one of his best characters. Plus, I'd rank this as one of King's flat-out scariest tomes. Grade: A-

PhotobucketThe Tommyknockers: This tale of alien invasion in backwoods Maine (where else?) is rather disliked by many of King's fans, but I kind of enjoy it for its unrelenting bleakness and the sinister vibe of mystery set up by an alien ship buried for thousands of years that comes back to life. And I like that King steps outside the horror milieu into a more creepy science-fiction realm. It's not perfect (too long, and too many characters -- unlike "It," this didn't need to be 700+ pages) but I actually find this one of my more favorite Kings. I dunno, maybe I just like alien invasions. Grade: B+

The Dark Half: For me, this is where King enters a gentle decline for much of the late 80s-early 90s. (Some would say it starts with "Tommyknockers.") An author's pseudonym comes to life and starts a murderous rampage. While the dual identity idea is interesting, King doesn't say much truly new, and I'm sorry, but the conclusion of this novel just got ludicrous (sparrows?!?). Grade: C+

Four Past Midnight: Another collection of novellas, but nowhere near as good as "Different Seasons." "The Langoliers," about an airplane trapped in an alternate world slowly being "eaten," is the best of the lot, but "Secret Window, Secret Garden" is just another draft of "The Dark Half" and "The Library Policeman" just awful. Grade: C

Needful Things: This overwrought 1990 book was King saying "goodbye" to Castle Rock, the town that featured in many of his previous works (although he has continued to use small-town Maine as a focus for much of his work, so no big difference really). A mysterious junk-shop owner (Satan!) moves to town and commences to wreak havoc. Overly long, more mean-spirited than usual for King and it feels like a "Twilight Zone" episode stretched out beyond bearing. Grade: D+

The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands: The Tower series really hits its stride here as Roland and his ka-tet travel through a series of strange and fascinating worlds. King's version of "Lord of the Rings," "The Dark Tower" combines his usual bloodlust and characterization with a pretty convincing fantasy realm. Grade: A-

PhotobucketGerald's Game: Or, "Misery Part II," with a woman instead of a man as the central character. "Gerald's Game" would make a very good short story, about a woman who, through a combination of accident and fate, ends up chained to a bed alone in her house in the middle of nowhere. It's got the same oppressive, tight feeling as "Misery," but I felt like it spins its wheels too much. Grade: C

Dolores Claiborne: The rare King novel I have no memory of having read, even though I'm sure I have. It's one of his least supernatural works, and well, if I can't remember it I can't grade it! Grade: Incomplete

Nightmares and Dreamscapes: King's third story collection, but not his best. It's a 900-page monster, but there are not as many little gems like "Survivor Type" -- although the visceral revenge saga "Dolan's Cadillac" is a brilliant piece. But something like "Chattery Teeth" (about just what you'd think) is just silly, and this one seems more of a motley grab-bag than other collections (a nonfiction piece about kids' baseball just seems out of place). Grade: C+

Insomnia: I think King starts to "come back" after a few lesser books here, and this novel marks the first time we really get an idea of the "King Universe," where the Dark Tower novels, many of King's novels and themes and characters are shown to be part of a giant puzzle that is unraveled in the final "Dark Tower" books. (The villain here is the Dark Tower's Crimson King, in another guise.) I like King's evocation of the main character's insomnia and the mythological links here; what I don't like is how cluttered the plot starts to feel and it ends up with another of King's mumbo-jumbo endings. Grade: B

Next time: "Rose Madder" to the present day

Thursday, November 19, 2009

'Tis the season to be covered in swaddling

Photobucket• There's nothing more disturbing in downtown Auckland than the creepy Santa statue for the Farmer's Parade every holiday season. Nothing, that is, except for Horribly Disfigured Shrouded In Bandages Mummy Santa Claus instead. (I know, they're going to "unveil" the Santa's new look in a week or two, but I still think it's really disturbing to have a giant mummified Santa Claus looming over downtown Auckland in the meantime.) "Daddy, why is Santa bleeding?"

• I found this piece a quite interesting (and discussion-provoking) musing on the future of the "blogosphere," even if there is such a thing. I have to admit that after nearly 6 years of doing this I don't know how much longer it'll go on, and several other bloggers I like have called it quits this year. Anyway, it's a good look at the longevity of blogging, which is something few really consider when they start it up. It's strange that suddenly thanks to Twitter and Facebook, blogging, which was like totally now in 2004, suddenly seems a bit retro in 2009. It's a damn fast world.

• Speaking of twitting, I am fairly Twitter adverse, I'm afraid, but have to make an exception for The Fake AP Stylebook, which is actually done by several fellow bloggers I "know". If you're a journalist and know AP style, this is hilarious, but it's funny even if you don't.
As in:
Guerrilla soldiers use unorthodox tactics. Gorilla soldiers are awesome.
References to Canada as "America's Hat" are frowned upon. The correct terminology is "Gateway to Alaska."
The passive voice should be avoided by you.

• I'm getting ready for my parents to make their every-few-years trek to New Zealand next week, and there's some family issues coming up as well, so posting is likely to be even more anemic than normal for a little while. Cheers!

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Classic Comics ABCs: N, O and P!

OK, it's time to speed this up a little bit, because I began my "alphabetical journey through my comics collection" all the way back in June 2008, and here I am just coming up to "N"! I'd love to finish this series while I'm still hale and hearty, so, it's a three-for-one alphabet extravaganza this time as I look at comics that've blown me away for various reasons in my nearly 30 (urk!) year hobby:

N is for Naughty Bits #6

PhotobucketIt's sad that there are pitifully few comics by women compared to those for the blokes (although I gather manga is doing better in that respect). But one of the great comics of the alt-explosion of the 1990s was Roberta Gregory's "Naughty Bits," which was as raw and unguarded a look at a woman's mind as anything by R. Crumb was for men. Gregory's signature character is, ahem, "Bitchy Bitch," a frustrated single 30-something hugely unpleasant office drone whose life is unending misery and, well, bitching. Bitchy is bitter, cynical and battered by life, and her ranting interior monologues are great visceral fun to read -- Gregory captures a truer voice for women than most comics artists have, even if this character isn't a pretty picture. Her comics are very lewd with plenty of sex, cussin' and bad behavior, but under all the naughty bits is a fair amount of heart, I think, which makes them worth hunting out. Perhaps my favorite story in the series was the three-parter that began in #6, called, er, "Hippie Bitch Gets Laid," which is a both tragic and witty tale set in the 1960s about Bitchy Bitch's teen days, her first time and first abortion. It's hardcore stuff but relentlessly honest. A great sampling of Gregory's bitch-fest is in "Life's A Bitch."

O is for The One #1

PhotobucketI have a particular love for this very oddball, somewhat forgotten 1985 miniseries about the end of the world, an early but kind of amazing work by Rick Veitch. It's a strange bit of 1980s paranoia time-capsule, all Reagan and Soviets and nuclear angst wrapped up in a superhero sandwich and crossed with a fair bit of hippie utopia. It's kind of like Veitch was trying to do his version of "Watchmen" but it's filtered through an LSD experience, with colorful superheroes, goofy punk rockers and plenty of ultraviolence. Veitch swings between loopy cold-war satire and a genial, optimistic dream. For 1985, and published by Marvel Comics of all places, it was pretty out there -- any series that ends with a giant rat devouring Washington, D.C. and a naked love-in probably would be. For my mind, "The One" holds together as a unit better than some of Veitch's other work like Maximortal and Bratpack, which are also quite spectacular superhero-deconstruction visions but marred by feeling rather unfinished. "The One" is a trippy comics experience indeed, and worth seeking out.

P is for Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #72

PhotobucketI know, I already had Spider-Man once on this list (as in Amazing...") but hey, I'm a webhead, so I can do him twice. And I had a strong spot for this long-gone 1980s series with the bulky title, which ostensibly focused as much on hapless Peter Parker, college student, as it did the superhero stuff. There was an excellent run on this series from #50 up to #100 or so, and many issues featured inventive, playful covers by the superbly underrated Ed Hannigan. I picked out #72 as a quite fun representative of the time -- Spider-Man is searching for an escaped Dr. Octopus, but ends up tangled up with a misguided misfit kid who idolizes the villain and has created his own makeshift "Dr. Octopus" costume. The tale of goofy fan Ollie Osnick is a fun romp that touches on Spider-Man's own outcast history. This one wasn't a pivotal comic that changed the medium forever or anything, but for me it sums up the essence of Spider-Man.

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty, H: Hate, I: Incredible Hulk, J: JLA, K: Kingdom Come, L: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and finally, M: Miracleman.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Movie review: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

PhotobucketIt's Heath Ledger's final film - but this isn't really Heath Ledger's film.

Strange and surreal, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is a Terry Gilliam film through and through. The director of Time Bandits, Brazil and 12 Monkeys is known for fantasies overflowing with ideas and imagination, with plot often taking a back seat to his astounding visuals.

Parnassus spins a fable about The Devil, an immortal con artist and a beautiful girl caught in between. Ledger is Tony, a mysterious stranger whose true nature is uncertain.

This wasn't meant to be Ledger's epitaph, but his sudden death at age 28 threatened to scuttle filming. Gilliam managed to save the project by using what footage remained of Ledger.

In scenes that take place in a "mirror universe," Ledger's friends Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell make cameos in his role, playing "aspects" of Tony. It's a nifty trick that pretty much couldn't have worked in any other movie.

PhotobucketIt's a shame that Ledger's character is one of the movie's weak spots. Ledger gave it his all, but the role is poorly written and no Dark Knight. The seams in the story used to work around his death are too obvious and his character's fate very unsatisfying. Ultimately he feels like a bystander to Gilliam's show.

Ledger will get all the press, but Tom Waits nearly steals the show as The Devil, all oily charm, and venerable Christopher Plummer is fantastic as the immortal Parnassus. Striking model Lily Cole is also good as young Vanessa, who proves the plot's main character.

Fans of Gilliam will love the elaborate design, such as Parnassus' colourful travelling show cart, or the dazzling scenes set in a world ruled by imagination, which are like watching Gilliam's old Monty Python animations come alive. Gilliam's endless whimsy can threaten to wear viewers out, but it's rarely boring.

Moviegoers expecting easy-to-follow storytelling may stay away but, in its sprawling way, Gilliam's film is a fine tribute to an actor gone too soon - and to the art of the story itself.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My 20 Top Albums of 2000-2009

So apparently it's like nearly a new decade or something. Or maybe not. I still get confused with the 9s and the 0s and so forth as to what is numerically proper. But anyhoo, many bloggers lately have been making with the decade-end lists, and you know I love a good list. So how about my Favorite 20 Records of the 2000s?*

*By the way I think it's really really weird that now that the decade is nearly over, we still don't have a "name" for it like the '80s, '90s, etc. The "Oh-Ohs"? The "Naughties"? (Which just sounds kind of dirty.) There's been a failure in the naming department.

My 20 Favorite Records of the 2000s, in alphabetical order:

PhotobucketRyan Adams, "Gold" (2001) The high point of an extremely prolific career this decade, a mix of Americana, country-fried pop and down-home longing.

Fiona Apple, "Extraordinary Machine" (2005) Whatever happened to her? This was a great album of soulful ballads, but haven't heard a thing since.

David Bowie, "Reality" (2003) Bowie has only put out two albums since 1999 and this was his latest. While it's not up to his '70s peak, it's still a great little mix of Bowie hitting all the right spots.

Calexico, "Feast of Wire" (2003) Beautifully evocative Tex-mex soundscapes, like soundtracks to a Clint Eastwood movie that never was.

Johnny Cash, "American III: Solitary Man" (2000) The best of his Rick Rubin albums, before his voice was shot.

Cat Power, "Jukebox" (2008) Usually albums of cover songs are seen as filler efforts, but Chan Marshall makes this selection of songs by folks like Sinatra, Dylan and Hank Williams very much her own with her unforgettable voice.

PhotobucketElvis Costello, "When I Was Cruel" (2002) Acidic and witty, inventive musically and lyrically sharp; the man has been a dabbler in everything from country to opera to soul this decade but this one seems his most "true" album.

Peter Gabriel, "Up" (2002) Gabriel has only released two proper albums since his 1986 smash "So," but every time he does it's an event for me. Dense, death-obsessed and gorgeous songs, lovingly labored over but very alive despite that perfectionism.

Green Day, "American Idiot" (2004) Bush bashing might seem passe now, but this "rock opera" spanned a ton of genres and still sounds genuinely passionate; this year's "21st Century Breakdown" seems a pale contender in comparison.

Photobucket"Hedwig and the Angry Inch," Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2001) This 2001 movie about a transgender rock star is a glam rock joy, and the soundtrack is fantastic, irreverent and yet soulful fun.

The Hold Steady, "Stay Positive" (2008) Working-class wordy rage and righteousness, from this year's Elvis Costello model.

LCD Soundsystem, "Sound of Silver" (2008) If Moby, Prodigy and the like had wry senses of humor, they might make techno-punk this much fun. The best David Bowie album Bowie didn't make this decade.

The Mountain Goats, "The Sunset Tree"
(2004) John Darnielle has released a ton of music, but for the tune "This Year" alone, I think this is his best.

New Pornographers, "Twin Cinema" (2005) If you put Squeeze, ABBA, Cheap Trick, ELO and The Beatles in a blender you might get this all-star alt-rock collective. Power pop pleasure.

Of Montreal, "Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?" (2007) Sorely underrated angst-ridden electro glam-pop, a concept album about depression and digging your way out.

PhotobucketRadiohead, "Kid A" (2000) Confession, I'm not a gigantic Radiohead fan, but I love this abstract, jittery album of gloomy experimentation; it might be heresy but I prefer it to "OK Computer".

The Shins, "Oh, Inverted World" (2001) Dreamy pop that sounded like transmissions from an alien planet the first time I heard it.

The White Stripes, "Elephant" (2003) Their best of an excellent career. I don't care what any "experts" say, I love Meg White's drumming.

PhotobucketWilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002) If I had to be pressed, this Jeff Tweedy masterpiece might just be my album of the decade. It's anxious and hopeful and marvelous, and I never tire of it.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Fever To Tell" (2003) Utterly ferocious grrl-power punk rock; the album Courtney Love wishes she could have made.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Wednesday shuffle: Animals they strike curious poses

Photobucket So anyway, I've been trying to be a bit better about the exercise -- my tricky work schedule and caring for the boy in the afternoons make it tough to get my favorite exercise, walking, in. But the other day I jogged/walked around a local lake and was feeling very pleased at the manly exercising.

Then I realized somewhere along the way my driver's license, that I'd slipped in my shorts, had fallen out. I then had to walk around the basin AGAIN to find my license. Which I finally found on the ground in the parking lot near my car.

Stupid exercise.

1. Pop Juice 4:23 Gomez
2. Interlude: Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 2 0:22 Elvis Costello*
3. Serve Yourself 3:49 John Lennon
4. Now My Heart Is Full 4:09 Morrissey
5. Nothing Is Good Enough (Instrumental) 3:10 Aimee Mann
6. Electric Feel 3:50 MGMT
7. Racing Like A Pro 3:26 The National
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday 1:37 Richard Cheese**
9. Let's Call It Off 3:39 Peter Bjorn & John
10. Innocent Bones 3:43 Iron & Wine
11. Attack El Robot! Attack! 3:17 Calexico***
12. Love Comes Quickly 4:18 Pet Shop Boys
13. When Doves Cry 3:48 Prince ****
14. Jungle Rock 2:35 The Replacements *****

* For some reason I've always loved this jazzy little pause on one of Costello's most underrated albums, 1991's eclectic as heck "Mighty Like A Rose."
** Nothing better than U2 done in a mambo fashion.
*** Any song with "Robot" in the title is automatically 1000% better.
**** Some things cannot be argued. That this is a Perfect Song is one of them.
***** Raucous live Replacements, which reminds me, one of my holy grails is laying my hands on a copy of the legendary sloppy live Mats set "The Sh*t Hits The Fans." Anybody? Anybody?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My Classic Comics ABCS: Miracleman #15

PhotobucketIt is one of my great comics-collecting mistakes that about 8-9 years ago, I took a punt and decided to sell my entire run of Alan Moore's comic book series "Miracleman" on eBay. As the series was mired in lawsuits between various creative parties, the original issues were very rare and hard to find, and paperbacks were out of print. I figured I'd make my cash and inevitably within a few years the lawsuits would be settled and I'd get shiny new "Miracleman" paperbacks then.

More fool me! Sure, I made a couple hundred bucks, but as 2010 draws near, the "Miracleman" legal labyrinth remains a mess; in theory a settlement came up recently involving Marvel Comics but nobody really knows what it'll mean, or if the original Moore/Neil Gaiman series will finally be brought back into print. Likely, Marvel Comics will stuff out some markedly inferior "new" material first.

I hope the old stuff is reprinted soon, though, as it truly is one of the best superhero comics series I've ever read, and worthy enough to boast a repeat turn by Alan Moore in my "Comics ABCs" list after he turned up last installment with "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." The comic I'd like to focus on today is 1988's "Miracleman" #15, otherwise known as the ultraviolent epic that blew young Nik's mind, man.

when Moore first took to it in the early 1980s, was a then-novel concept -- superheroes done "realistic." Moore took an old British Captain Marvel rip-off character, "Marvelman," and reinvented him (*quick nerdy note: the character later became known as "Miracleman" when Marvel Comics objected to the revival; while fans tend to prefer "Marvelman," I maintain "Miracleman" is actually a better, more evocative name and that's the one I use). We've seen "realistic" takes on every superhero under the sun in the 25+ years since Alan Moore redid Miracleman, but few have done it as well. The idea of a man who says a magic word and turns into someone else was nothing new, but Moore gave it real thought over "Miracleman's" run. He was joined for the final issues by John Totleben, one of comics' best artists, who leant an almost Renaissance painterly feel. By the end of Moore's series, a final battle was set up between Miracleman and his one-time young protege, the now hopelessly insane Johnny Bates, "Kid Miracleman."

PhotobucketAnd that's where the mind-scarring came in. "Miracleman" #15 is relentlessly intense, a purgative burst of horror in a full-scale battle issue that devastates London and sees Johnny Bates turn its citizens into his own hideously inventive slaughterhouse. John Totleben's art for this issue is gorgeous and awful -- packed with hideous, intricate details of what an insane superhuman really could do in a city -- skinned corpses hanging on a laundry line, cars hurled into the sky with screaming cargo on board and perspective horribly skewed, a pile of human heads -- trust me, this comic gave me nightmares and ain't for the kids. But Alan Moore didn't just deliver exploitative carnage without a kind of moral; in #16, we see Miracleman's reaction to this battle -- he and his comrades systematically take over human society, remaking it into a kind of utopia. By #16's end, the entire world has changed -- war, crime, money, even death is eliminated, and Miracleman is basically its benign dictator. There's a cost for having superheroes in "real life."

The series theoretically continued from that point, with some very fine issues by Neil Gaiman examining this brave new world, but as good as they were, they couldn't help but seem a bit redundant. In the space of two issues, #15 and #16, Alan Moore pretty much deconstructed and rebuilt the superhero to its omega point. Many writers have gone there since, but none have quite succeeded for me in capturing the superhuman as Moore and Totleben do with their final graceful shot of a no longer slightly human Miracleman, gazing at the glacial perfection he's created from the ashes of London. This is the superman. This is where heroism ends.

(*Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball, F: Flaming Carrot, G: Give Me Liberty, H: Hate, I: Incredible Hulk, J: JLA, K: Kingdom Come, L: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.