Thursday, June 30, 2011

NaBloPoMo Wrap-Up

Last November, I took part in National Novel Writing Month and managed to write over 50,000 words worth of novel (it's not finished yet) that month. It was a blast. I had fun with the friendly competition going with some of my writing buddies. And, yes, sometimes it was a totally pain-in-the-ass to come up with 1667 word a day when I was tired, out of ideas, or really really wanted to do something else. But it was so worth it. It really felt great to be writing everyday. NaNoWriMo is definitely something I will do again, starting with Camp NaNoWriMo this August (gotta finish my novel somehow), and possibly also this November, despite having schoolwork again.

This past April, I did Script Frenzy and wrote 100 pages of a screenplay (I've got about 10 to go). I have mixed feelings about it. While I did have fun working on the project, I found it kind of counter-intuitive. The three and a third pages as a daily goal wasn't all that challenging--during grad school I churned out far higher page counts than that--but normally when I'm writing a script, I try to keep structure and pacing in mind. The idea behind these writing month challenges, though, is to write as much as possible in a month. It really goes against how I've been taught to write in script format. For example, normally in screenwriting, it's not a good idea to let a scene drag on, but in Script Frenzy, you're kind of encouraged to do that to meet your page count. It's really too tempting to over describe things or to write pages and pages of useless dialogue. And, finally, I didn't quite enjoy myself as much this time because, though my friends showed a lot of support and interest, I wasn't "competing" against anyone this time. At the beginning of May, I wasn't sure whether or not I would participate in Script Frenzy again. And I probably won't make up my mind until around February or March when I get a really great idea for it.

In case you haven't noticed, this month I've been doing National Blog Posting Month, which is held every month, participants choosing which for their convenience. I haven't enjoyed it in the least. Whereas with NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy writing everyday was, for the most part, fun, this has been a chore. When writing a novel or a script, sometimes it can be hard figuring out what to write for the day, but at least I know where I'm ultimately going, and can slog through till I hit some more inspiration. With NaBloPoMo, though, I have to come up with something completely new every single day. I wanted to get myself to post in my blog more often than once ever three months, but every day is too much. Nobody, not even the guy in the Dos Equis commercials, can come up with something truly interesting every single day. Yeah, sure, I could slap together a bunch of lists (which I did--fun though it was, it felt like copping out) or just talk about my life in general. There are a lot of people participating in NaBloPoMo who do so, and, sorry to hurt feelings here, but, unless you know them or have some reason to want to know what they're doing, that's pretty boring. If I remember right, when I started this blog, I swore that I would try to never be boring and also to have certain standards of quality for the writing I display here. That's another thing I don't like about NaBloPoMo. As with the other monthly writing challenges, it's quantity over quality. With NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy, that's no problem because they're first drafts. Anyone would be a fool not to revise a first draft. But blogs are instantly published. That's why I like to take time to really craft something I wouldn't be ashamed to let others read, or, rather, feel like I have that time, whether or not I actually bother to do it. Because speed is of the essence, NaBloPoMo doesn't allow participants to do that. Finally, I find the NaBloPoMo site to be much harder and, frankly, less fun to use. Shouldn't there be some way of cross-posting your actual blog to the site, instead of having to copy and paste to their blog? And it does kind of suck that, unless you participate in November, there are no prizes--not even a winner's certificate or HTML badge for your blog. And as for the social aspect of it, well, the site has a kind of outdated feel to it, especially since the profiles look like their programming was based on MySpace. I don't think I'll be doing NaBloPoMo again.

Anyway, here's a hub for everything I've written this month:

Continuing Features
How to Get Into Doctor Who
How to Get Into The Beatles
British Actor of the Month: Petrolhead Edition
More Advice for the College Bound

New Features
50 Favorite Classic Rock Albums, Part 1
50 Favorite Classic Rock Albums, Part 2
50 Favorite Classic Rock Albums, Part 3
30 Days, 30 Movies in One Day
30 Days, 30 Songs in One Day
30 Days, 30 Books: For Bibliophiles
30 Days, 30 TV Shows

Other Music Topics
Defining the Concept Album
Classical Rock
Notes on Gaga

Movie Guides and Reviews
A Selective Guide to Bowie's Movies
"Well, There Was This Movie I Seen One Time..."
Scottish Cinema
80s Fantasy Round-Up
Review: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy

Other Pop Culture Topics
Alien Invasion Survival Kit
River Song Is--Spoilers!
Graphic Novels and the Tradition of Quality
The Venture Brothers Funniest Moments
Modern Vampires Suck

Writing
NaNoWriMo: An Excerpt
Writing Prompts

Serious
Being Serious for a Minute Here

Stupid
5 Random Things I Like
5 Random Things I Dislike

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy

For those of you not into anime and manga, Lupin III has been, since the late 1960s, one of the most well-loved series in Japanese culture. It follows the exploits of the grandson of the great French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin as he pulls off heists and tries to pick up chicks, all the while accompanied by his friends Jigen, a marksman, and Goemon, a samurai; his on-again off-again lover, the not-exactly-loyal Fujiko; and the intrepid Inspector Zenigata from Interpol, who's always hot on Lupin’s heels. I got into the show the way I got into most of the anime I watch—though the good ol’ days of Adult Swim when it was shown in the wee hours of the morning. I tried to read the original manga, but had trouble getting into it because I wasn’t comfortable with it’s level of sexism. But the anime is no more offensive than the average James Bond movie, and is a very clever action-comedy. I’m glad I had the foresight to set my VCR to record all 26 episodes AS aired, because , unfortunately, all the North American DVD and video* releases seem to have gone out of print.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out the only live-action Lupin III movie ever made, 1974’s Lupin III: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy is actually available on Region 1 DVD, and that I could even get it from Netflix.

The film is, essentially, Lupin III’s origin story. Or one of them, I should say, as both the manga and anime have conflicting versions of it as well. Here Lupin first teams up with Jigen, falls in love with and is double-crossed by Fujiko, and comes to the attention of Zenigata. The only one missing is Goemon, who in both canon versions, was a later addition to the Lupin gang. His omission, then, is understandable, though nevertheless disappointing.

Strange Psychokinetic Strategy is a lot different from the manga and first (Green Jacket) anime series, though closer in tone to the second (Red Jacket) series which was broadcast on Adult Swim. However, it tends to focus a bit more on slapstick over action than the series did. It is good slapstick, though, which makes the film something of a Japanese version of the Pink Panther movies Blake Edwards was making at the time. In fact, though a lot of fans complain about the “cartoony” nature of the film, it’s what I liked best about it. Among other things, we see Lupin literally leap out of his pants in his eagerness to see Fujiko, rewind and play back in slow motion the film in order to show a thug how he knocked him out, and get serenaded by a group of girl assassins out to kill him. (Only Lupin would cop a feel while getting his ass kicked.) The film operates by the same logic of cartoons—disregarding the laws of physics and the fourth wall whenever possible, which I found incredibly refreshing. In a world where CGI Garfields, Chipmunks, and Smurfs can star alongside real people and act like live-action characters, it’s a nice change to see live-action characters literally behaving like cartoon characters.

However, a little of the focus on being silly should have been moved to the plot, which was thin and episodic. And while the actors playing Lupin and Fujiko were spot-on and cute in their scenes together, the ones playing Jigen and Zenigata seemed a bit out of character. Jigen seemed a bit more hot-headed than usual, though, to be fair, I base this mainly on the English dubs I’ve seen. I don’t know how the character is portrayed in the original Japanese versions. Zenigata, is, of course, always going to be the comic relief, but here they took it to the extreme. With the addition of his two bumbling assistants, he seems more like the Pink Panther’s Chief Inspector Dreyfuss, cast jokes and all. Finally, the subtitles, while far from awful, translate the dialogue well, but seem to be missing some cultural nuances.





*The feature films and direct-to-video releases still seem to be available. The critically acclaimed The Castle of Cagliostro, in fact, is very accessible; it currently streams on Netflix.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

80s Fantasy Round-up

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Labyrinth’s premier, so to celebrate, here’s a rundown of ten of the more memorable (or, in some cases, the unfortunately unforgettable) fantasy films of the 80s.

Excalibur, 1981
Premise: From the moment young Arthur plucks Excalibur from the stone, his destiny begins…
Based On: Malory's Le Morte d’Arthur.
Magical Kingdom Of: Camelot (It’s only a model.)
Big Star, Early Role: Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Patrick Steward pre-TNG.
Hot Villain: Morgana, the sexy metal bustier-wearing sorceress.
Beloved Muppet: There is a dragon, briefly.
Soundtrack By: Wagner.
Sparkle Quotient: Shiny, shiny armor.
Head Trip? Sir Percival’s Grail quest gets a little—abstract—at times.
Cult Status: There are films that are cult films, and films that are bad films. This is not the former.
Aged: Other than being an awful movie, it holds up pretty well as far as special effects go.

The Dark Crystal, 1982
Premise: Jen, the last of his kind, has to go fix a crystal so the world can be right again.
Based On: Buddhist philosophy. Or was it Taoist?
Magical Kingdom Of: Thra, a world where everyone is a Muppet.
Big Star, Early Role: Directorial debut of Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
Hot Villain: None. The Skeksis are some of the creepiest figures ever to grace the silver screen.
Beloved Muppet(s): Everyone!
Sparkle Quotient: Well, there’s this big purple crystal…
Head Trip? Whoa, man, it’s, like, deep.
Cult Status: Doubly so, as it has the reputation of being loved by fantasy geeks and stoners alike.
Aged: Considering it was so carefully made at the time, very well.

Return of the Jedi, 1983
Premise: After rescuing Han Solo, Luke Skywalker finally confronts the Dark Side as the Rebels make their final play against the Empire.
Based On: The genius mind of George Lucas... and some stuff he ripped off of Japanese movies.
Magical Kingdom Of: A long time ago in a galaxy far away, specifically the Forest Moon of Endor.
Big Star, Early Role: Warwick Davies as an Ewok.
Hot Villain: Averted when Darth Vader takes off his mask and reveals he's an ugly old white guy.
Beloved Muppet: Master Yoda, puppet he is!
Soundtrack By: John Williams. Yeah!
Sparkle Quotient: None, but it's got light sabers!
Head Trip? Not even if you haven't seen the first two films.
Cult Status: It's frickin' Star Wars!!
Aged: The weakest of the original trilogy, it's still far better than Attack of the Clones.

The Neverending Story, 1984
Premise: A bullied kid finds a magical book that lets him in on Atreyu’s quest to save his world from The Nothing.
Based On: Half of the book by Michael Ende.
Magical Kingdom Of: Fantasia (the book's Fantastica). Oh, and some creepy school attic.
Big Star, Early Role: Where are those kids today?
Hot Villain: The bad guy is an abstract concept, so, no.
Beloved Muppet(s): Falkor!!!
Soundtrack By: Title song from that guy from Kajagoogoo and some chick
Sparkle Quotient: Blindingly high.
Head Trip? Maybe not for everyone, but when you realize that the whole thing is a metafilmic commentary on how viewers identify with the cinema…
Cult Status: And how! The Neverending Story is beloved by a generation who grew up watching it on VHS.
Aged: Not well. The effects look cheap, and those kids really can’t act.

Ladyhawke, 1985
Premise: Two lovers cursed—she’s a hawk by day, he’s a wolf by night—to be always together, eternally apart.
Based On: Fairytales, though none in particular.
Magical Kingdom Of: Medieval Europe.
Big Star, Early Role: Matthew Broderick, pre-Ferris Bueller.
Hot Villain: An aging, lecherous bishop, so not so much.
Soundtrack By: Alan Parsons.
Sparkle Quotient: Going for a more authentic medieval look, so very low.
Head Trip? It takes them a while to explain what’s going on, and Broderick talking to himself is a bit odd, so more confusing than anything.
Cult Status: High. It’s somewhat obscure and not very good: the makings of a perfect cult film.
Aged: Not very well. The fancy dissolves for the changes are really cinematic, but in the era of digital technology, it looks like a cop-out. And the acting is more wooden than a baseball bat.

Legend, 1985
Premise: A feral young man has to get his girlfriend back and help some dwarves save the last unicorn to prevent the Lord of Darkness from ushering in eternal winter.
Based On: Vaguely, fairytales and folklore.
Magical Kingdom Of: Somewhere that has fairies and unicorns and stuff like that.
Big Star, Early Role: Tom Cruise after Risky Business but before Top Gun.
Hot Villain: The Lord of Darkness, a.k.a. Big D, a.k.a. Tim Curry in more makeup than Frank N. Furter.
Beloved Muppet(s): Not as such, but the makeup makes some of the actors look like Muppets.
Soundtrack By: Tangerine Dream, with a video by Bryan Ferry.
Sparkle Quotient: More glitter than a kindergarten art project. And unicorns!
Head Trip? Like all Ridley Scott films, it takes a while to get to the point, but other than that, it’s fairly easy to follow.
Cult Status: Somewhat, though the fan base may be a bit smaller than some films mentioned, especially since the original US release was crap.
Aged: Well, thanks to the director’s cut.

Highlander, 1986
Premise: A bunch of Immortals fight each other to the death because there can be only one.
Based On: Sort-of the Scottish literary tradition of tartantry, but not really.
Magical Kingdom Of: Bonnie Scotland, as well as 1980s New York City.
Big Star, Early Role: No one went on to fame from here, though, of course, Christopher Lambert was in the sequels.
Hot Villain: You'd have to be really kinky to find the Kurgan sexy-evil as opposed to scary-evil.
Beloved Muppet: Pffft, who needs Muppets when you've got Sean Connery... as a Spaniard?
Soundtrack By: Queen.
Sparkle Quotient: Lightning. And lots of it. What else would you expect from the Quickening?
Head Trip? Only if you start thinking about why you're still watching it.
Cult Status: Sequels, a TV show, spin-offs, books... Yup.
Aged: Look, it's a terrible movie, and the effects looked cheesy even in the 80s. And yet, there's something that you just can't help but love about this film.

Labyrinth, 1986
Premise: Teenage girl wishes her baby brother away to the Goblin King and has to make her way through a magical labyrinth to get him back.
Based On: Freud. Um, I mean, Froud. Drawings by Brian Froud. Yeah, that's it....
Magical Kingdom Of: The Labyrinth.
Big Star, Early Role: Future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly.
Hot Villain: Jareth, the Goblin King.
Beloved Muppet(s): Hoggle, Ludo, Sir Diddymus… pretty much everyone but Connelly and Bowie. Even the baby gets replaced by a puppet at one point.
Soundtrack By: David Bowie.
Sparkle Quotient: Jareth enters in a shower of glitter. It’s Bowie, what did you expect?!
Head Trip? Not very. Unless you really, really want to unpack the Freudian stuff.
Cult Status: Loyal fan base. Many people might think of Labyrinth just as that weird kid’s movie with David Bowie, but there is a whole generation of fans who grew up watching it. Also, has sparked a religion devoted to Bowie’s crotch.
Aged: Pretty well, other than a few special effects fails it holds up as a family/tween film.

The Princess Bride, 1987
Premise: Having lost her beloved, Buttercup is kidnapped on her way to marry an odious prince and gets a surprise from the mysterious man who rescues her.
Based On: The book by William Goldman.
Magical Kingdom Of: Florin.
Big Star, Early Role: Robin Wright, before she added Penn to her name.
Hot Villain: The Dread Pirate Roberts, who wasn’t quite what he seemed…
Beloved Muppet(s): ROUS!
Soundtrack By: Mark Knopfler.
Sparkle Quotient: Surprisingly low for such a staple of 80s fantasy.
Head Trip? Nah. Solid family film.
Cult Status: Low. I know a whole bunch of people quoting "My name is Inigo Montoya..." are about to argue with me, but come on. It's shown on basic cable ALL THE TIME.
Aged: Very well. Like I said, it gets a lot of play on TNT and the like.

Willow, 1988
Premise: A Little Person takes it upon himself to protect the baby prophesied to destroy the evil queen.
Based On: Given that George Lucas wrote and produced, Joseph Campbell’s writings on mythology, probably.
Magical Kingdom Of: Several Kingdoms, actually, made up of people of different sizes.
Big Star, Early Role: Val Kilmer.
Hot Villain: Jean Marsh is the evil queen, so only if you have a thing for aging head house-parlor maids.
Beloved Muppet(s): Sadly, this is one of the first movies to use a new technology called the digital morph.
Sparkle Quotient: Not as much. High Glitter was on the wane by the end of the decade.
Head Trip? Not really. Unless Madmartigan’s drag bit confuses you.
Cult Status: Yes. Though perhaps not as big as some of the other 80s fantasies, it does have it’s loyal followers.
Aged: Once groundbreaking, the special effects look a bit behind the times. And it tends to lag.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Modern Vampires Suck

Allow me to elaborate on a statement I made yesterday about modern vampires being “a bunch of emo pussies.” Now, though I have no doubt my comments made the Jacobites cheer, before those Edwardians get up in arms—which they should—let me fill in a little vampire history.

In the pre- and early-modern world, the vampire was a monster from folklore. Vampires were a reanimated corpse who would rise from the grave, drink its victim’s blood, and, upon their death, that victim would become a vampire. For the most part, they were little more than animals preying on the living to quench their thirst for blood. Though we are most familiar with the Easter European variant, cultures around the world have their own version of an evil undead killer.

Then came the Nineteenth Century, wherein the vampire moved from monster to bad guy. What’s the difference? The vampire was still an evil killer, but now he had a motive. He didn’t just want to kill, he lusted after the heroine. He wanted to infect London and create a modern empire as great as that of his Magyar ancestors. In works of fiction—from penny dreadfuls like Varney the Vampire to novels like Dracula—the vampire became not a creature from folklore, but a character.

Next was the Twentieth Century and cinema. The vampire was still the bad guy, but now, he was sexy. Bella Lugosi and Christopher Lee both played Dracula not as a crusty old count, but as a suave sophisticate. Because girls love their bad boys, the biting=sex metaphor was played up as much as standards of the day would allow.

And then, the 1970s, people were being all post-modern and questioning cultural assumptions. Was the vampire really evil? Did we maybe just misunderstand him? Stuff like Dark Shadows and, most importantly, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire showed the vampire as not evil, not a monster, and not even always a bad guy. The vampire had become an anti-hero.

The alleged turning point: 1997. Buffy the Vampire Slayer hits the airways. We have two male vampires who (sometimes) aren’t the bad guys, both in love with a teenage girl—who incidentally in the beginning of the series is an outsider with divorced parents starting at a new school. (Sound familiar, Stephanie Meyers?) Some people have claimed that the likes of Edward Cullen are the direct descendants of Angel and Spike (mpreg slash shippers rejoice), but I disagree. Spike isn’t always a bad guy, but he’s always a badass. And the one time he was acting like a whiny emo pussy was because something powerfully evil was making him do it. Angel, admittedly, is a bit of a wuss (although at times he can be a bit of a deadpan [pun intended] snarker), but with a pretty good reason. As Angelus, he’s so unimaginably awful that, with a soul, Angel has to be kinda wimpy.

Enter the Twenty-First Century, with its vampires who love, and don’t kill, and are just filled with wonderful sparkly goodness. Ok, I exaggerate based on one text, but the point remains that vampires are now the heroes. How is that different from before? Throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the vampire was gradually humanized. However, as the new millennium began, vampires were bowdlerized. Lestat, Angel, Spike, and all the other anti-hero vampires had moral conflict. They struggled because being good guys conflicted with their evil natures and the bad things they did. In modern vampires, though, this struggle is lacking. We automatically accept that the vampire protagonist is a creature of good. Yes, there are still bad vampires around, but only to make the good vampire seem more heroic. In short, whereas the anti-hero vampire had an inner monster to fight, the in the modern vampire, there is nothing to fear.

Writing Prompts

I’ve been ignoring blog prompts all month, but today I thought, why not?

The twist: I will be answering them all at once.

And in 140 characters or less.

Purpose: Defeated.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Are you a fan of a sports team? When did you become a fan?
Iowa Hawkeyes, since birth. Thanks, Dad. *sarcasm*

Thursday, June 2, 2011
Tell us about your favourite band/musician.
Isn’t that kind of obvious? What, do I have to re-title this blog “Emily’s Beatles/Bowie/Dylan Shrine” or something?

Friday, June 3, 2011
Which author made you want to be a writer (or blogger)?
Far too many to name, tho I think I started blogging (back in the LJ days) just because my friends were doing it and it looked interesting.

Monday, June 6, 2011
What is the difference between being a fan and being a fanatic?
Mere “fans” don’t get arrested for stalking.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Are you the fan of a certain brand?
No. (This answer brought to you by Diet Mountain Dew. Do the Dew!)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011
What are you not a fan of?
Stupid corporate bookstores that used to have good books but now only sell crap. Among other things.

Thursday, June 9, 2011
Are you a fan of a certain actor or actress? Would you watch anything they're in?
Yes, but I do have limits. Like, I’d never willingly watch a Michael Bay film even it if had both Ewan McGreggor and David Tenannt in it.

Friday, June 10, 2011
Have you ever drastically changed your opinion of an author as you read their book? Become a fan? Lost your fan status?
My opinion of J. K. Rowling changed as I read The Graveyard Book. (Not that I love HP any less, but Gaiman is the better writer.)

Monday, June 13, 2011
Who is your greatest fan?
My cat. Though she is not afraid to offer “constructive” criticism of the claw and fang variety.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Which band have you traveled the farthest or paid the most to see play live?
The most I ever paid was about $65 for Bob Dylan tickets at the BU hockey arena.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011
What food are you really not a fan of?
Tomatoes. Blech.

Thursday, June 16, 2011
What is the best way to fan the flames of creativity?
Read, listen to music, go to a gallery, watch a movie, etc. Draw inspiration from others' creativity. Or just get really really drunk.

Friday, June 17, 2011
Is there a book that made you a better person?
No. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” --Oscar Wilde.

Monday, June 20, 2011
Would you rather deal with vampires or zombies?
Given that they’ve turned into a bunch of emo pussies, Vampires. Zombies are becoming exponentially badass.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011
What is one thing you would never in a million years eat?
Didn’t I just answer this? One thing I would like to try that others probably wouldn’t eat, though, is haggis.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Do you prefer big crowds or small groups?
Small groups. Unless I want to practice my (nonexistent) ninja skills.

Thursday, June 23, 2011
What is the hardest goodbye you've ever had to do?
Saying goodbye to college. I’m still not over it and have had a series of rebound relationships with grad school.

Friday, June 24, 2011
Which author made you want to be a reader?
No particular author, though the American Girls series had a lot to do with it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

If you could live in any other time period, what would it be?
The 70s, because my tastes in music, clothes, politics, and theory are there already.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Scottish Cinema

I’m sure none of you out their reading this have given much thought—if any—to Scottish film. Well, it’s time you discover that there’s more to it than Brigadoon and Braveheart. Here are ten cinematic offerings from this nation-within-a-nation that you simply must see—and are conveniently available in Region 1 formats.

1. Trainspotting, Danny Boyle, 1996
The adaptation of the Irvine Welsh novel that brought international attention to Scottish cinema and made stars of Ewan McGreggor and Robert Carlyle. A story of friendship and betrayal, it deals with addiction, alienation, and AIDS along the way with a good helping of dark humor and surrealism and a killer soundtrack.

2. Gregory’s Girl, Bill Forsyth, 1981
A delightful coming-of-age film about Scottish teens desperate for a date. It might not quite give us the closure we want (Forsyth was over a decade late with the sequel) and the accents are thick, but it is very funny.

3. Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay, 1999
A boy growing up in Glasgow’s slums longs to escape to a new housing development in the suburbs while a garbage strike rages and rodents overrun the neighborhood. Ramsay made a bit impression at Cannes with the film, so it’s a bit arty, though not incomprehensible. Although you may not want to turn those subtitles off.

4. Red Road, Andrea Arnold, 2006
A woman uses Glasgow’s CCTV system to track and ensnare a criminal who’s recently been released from prison. Her actions might seem a bit confusing at first, but the film is brilliant in the way it slowly reveals her motives.

5. Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle, 1994
Three flatmates and friends take in a fourth lodger, and when he dies mysteriously with a huge amount of cash on him, they decide to cover it up and keep the money. As their friendship dissolves, the film gets darker and darker, making this film a classic modern thriller.

6. Orphans, Peter Mullan, 1998
A dysfunctional family nearly unravels after their mother dies, and during her vigil, each of the four siblings has a wild night that ultimately brings them closer together. I’m not entirely sure if this was overly melodramatic or an extremely dry dark comedy, but it was pretty funny.

7. Rob Roy, Michael Canton-Jones, 1995
The legendary Highlander (no, not The Highlander) has to defend his family and his honor against an evil English aristocrat who’s set him up to take the fall from his own crimes. Though it hardly resembles Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Rob Roy nevertheless has some great action, beautiful scenery, and one of the greatest sword fights of all time.

8. Young Adam, David Mackenzie, 2003
A young man working on a barge on the River Clyde has an affair with his boss’s wife, and through flashbacks we see his relationship with a young woman whose body was pulled out of the water at the beginning of the film. Young Adam is a rewarding viewing experience, though both the temporal shifts and the main character’s sexism can make it difficult to watch at times.

9. Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay, 2002
A young woman’s boyfriend commits suicide, leaving her a mix tape and a request to get his novel published. So she does—putting her own name on it instead—and takes the money and her best friend off to Spain. Another art film, it’s a little bit more dense than Ratcatcher, but the great tunes on the mix tape help the viewer get into the main character’s head.

10. The Bill Douglas Trilogy: My Childhood, My Ain Folk, My Way Home; 1972, 1973, 1978
Director Douglas made these three autobiographical films on an extremely low budget provided by the BFI. Cheap looking, barely feature length, and very arty, they won’t be for everyone, but they are very important films in the development of both Scottish national cinema and British art cinema.

Friday, June 24, 2011

British Actor of the Month: Petrolhead Edition

Technically, since this is about TV presenters, I’m cheating, but it’s been so long since I’ve done this feature, but, hey, any excuse to bring it back, right?

Anyway, some say they have the best job in the world, and that they are single-handedly responsible for the hole in the ozone layer. All we know is, they present

Top Gear

l-r: Hammond, Clarkson, May, Stig

I don’t know why I like this show so much. I hate cars. And yet, I can’t seem to get enough of Top Gear. Perhaps it’s their humorous approach to all things automotive or their wacky antics. Or maybe it’s the great chemistry between the three presenters.

Jeremy Clarkson is the show’s opinionated jerk. Clarkson never holds back his great disdain for safety regulations, speed cameras, and “ecomenatlists,” and is probably on the P.C. Police’s most wanted list. He loves fast, powerful cars and has shredded about a small rainforest’s worth of tires on the show. However, Clarkson is also known as the least practical of the three of them and has seemingly no understanding of anything mechanical. Any time he tries to fix or build something is a disaster waiting to happen.

Richard Hammond is the youngest and most decent looking of all the Top Gear presenters. His shiny teeth and short stature have gotten him the nickname “Hamster” and much ribbing from the other two. Hammond always seems to get the dangerous tasks, though not as often after his accident in 2006. Hammond seems to have a soft spot for American muscle cars, and has a strange attachment to the 1963 Opel Kadett he bought for the Botswana Special and named “Oliver.”

James May, a.k.a. Captain Slow. Bizarrely dressed, directionally impaired, and fastidious to the point of O.C.D., May is by far the most eccentric of the Top Gear three. His preferences for luxury cars and classic designs make him seem the most sophisticated of his co-hosts. However, his other shows with wine expert Oz Clarke reveal just how relative this perspective is. May is also Clarkson’s opposite when it comes to mechanical matters: sometimes they have to shut him up when he gets too scientific.

Last but not least is Top Gear’s tame racing driver The Stig. Not much is known about him. Apparently awkward in all situations that do not involve driving, Stig’s voice is only heard by the celebrities he guides around the Top Gear Test Track. No one knows what the face behind the mask looks like—if, indeed, there even is a face behind Stig’s mask.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Well, There Was This Movie I Seen One Time..."

Last month, I had a few ideas for blogs relating to Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. I was only able to write one of them in time, so here is the first of two others I had planned.

Anyway, whether you’re a Dylan fan or just curious, here’s a list of the movies you must see and those you should be glad I saw for you.

Dont Look Back. D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. One of the classics of the direct cinema movement and a seminal rockumentary, Dont Look Back captures Dylan on the cusp of transitioning from folkie to rocker.

Festival! Dylan is one of many performers in this documentary on the Newport Folk Festival. Here you can see him from his earliest days as a folk singer straight up through his infamous electric set, and there are performances of his songs by the likes of Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, and Peter, Paul and Mary as well.

Eat the Document. Pennebaker shot this film of Dylan’s embattled 1966 world tour which combines documentary footage with some staged scenes. Then Dylan got ahold of it and reedited it himself. It was shown once on a New York television station, and has since existed as a bootleg film.

Concert for Bangladesh. Dylan was the surprise guest at George Harrison’s star-studded benefit concerts for flood and famine relief in Bangladesh. And the best part is, the proceeds of the film—and the DVD release—of this great concert still go to UNICEF.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Dylan made his proper acting debut in this Peckinpaw western, and, it’s, uh, well, a good thing he didn’t quit his day job. But, on the other hand, he contributed several songs to the soundtrack, including “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Renaldo and Clara. The film of the 1975 Rolling Thunder Review tour is part concert film, part art film exploring the nature of identity, and part documentary on wrongfully imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—all directed by Dylan himself. As a part of Dylan’s overall artistic career, it’s interesting. As a movie, it’s… got great concert footage. Panned horribly on it’s initial release, the full four-hour version of the film has only aired a few times on European TV since then, but luckily for us, someone set their VCR to tape it. A few scenes have been officially released as a bonus DVD with The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan 1975, The Rolling Thunder Review.

The Last Waltz. Around the same time, Dylan played with The Band for their farewell concert which was directed by Martin Scorsese. (Yes, the concert and the film.) An amazing film with great performances all around, but the chemistry between Dylan and The Band is its highlight.

Hearts of Fire. Dylan is one of the many classic rock stars who seemed lost in the 80s. Among his WTF? moments in that decade is taking a role in this truly awful take on A Star Is Born. The only redeeming quality is that everyone is so bad—even Rupert Everette—Dylan's acting doesn’t actually seem as unbelievably awful as it usually does.

Wonder Boys. Dylan doesn’t actually appear in this film about a writing professor failing to finish his second novel, but a lot of his songs are on the sound track. Written specifically for the film, “Things Have Changed” won him an Oscar.

Masked and Anonymous. Dylan once again tried to make a film himself—thankfully, this time, directed by someone else. With so many stars in the cast—John Goodman, Jessica Lang, Luke Wilson, etc.—it was either going to be a colossal failure or a big hit. And it was neither, really. Once again receiving poor reviews because it’s “arty,” Masked is nevertheless more comprehensible than Renaldo and Clara, especially if you’ve been paying attention to certain themes in Dylan’s recent work.

No Direction Home. Martin Scorsese was commissioned to take a whole bunch of footage Dylan had—including exclusive interviews with himself—and make a documentary for PBS’s American Masters Series. However, it is anything but boring. At three and a half hours long, it is a fascinating and insightful look at Dylan’s career up to his 1966 motorcycle accident.

Factory Girl. Dylan makes no appearance in this film about Edie Sedgwick and her relationships with Andy Warhol and an unnamed folk singer who totally isn’t supposed to be Bob Dylan even though he looks like him, sounds like him, and acts like him. What reason could he possibly have had threaten to sue the production? (Maybe it being so horribly inaccurate that Lou Reed refused to license any of his songs has something to do with it?) It’s bad, but not quite as bad as the critical reaction made it seem. I read the original script. It could have been worse.

Bob Dylan 1965 Revisited. Pennebaker opened up his vault to restore Dont Look Back, found hours of great unused material, and edited it into a new documentary. Nowhere near as influential as the original film, but it still provides an interesting glimpse into Dylan's transitional state, as well as providing more musical performances.

The Other Side of the Mirror. All of Murray Lerner’s footage of Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival are in this DVD comprised of outtakes from Festival! Since the footage is just pieced together in chronological order, you get the feeling it would have made a better bonus disc accompanying the original film like Pennebaker’s 1965 Revisited, but it is pretty cool to get a near-complete version of Dylan’s 1965 electric set.

I’m Not There. Todd Haynes's biopic—if you could call it that—of Dylan has him played by six different actors of different ages, races, and genders. A much more successful exploration of identity than Renaldo and Clara, I’m Not There has a great soundtrack full of covers and Dylan originals.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Venture Brothers Funniest Moments

The Venture Brothers is one of the funniest shows on TV right now and the best Adult Swim has to offer. Later this summer they're showing a 15 minute special, but here are three of the funniest episodes from each of their four seasons so far:

“Ghosts of the Sargasso.” While searching for the wreck of his father’s experimental space ship, Doctor Venture leaves Hank and Dean at the mercy of fake pirates who get haunted by the ghost of Major Tom, whom Doc has accidentally awakened.
Epically hilarious moment: The cold open, which acts out “Space Oddity” using lyrics from that song and “Ashes to Ashes.” Major Tom: “Tell my wife I love her very much—“ Jonas Venture: “She knows!”

“Tag Sale—You’re It.” Things get pretty rough when super-science and arch villainy meet at Doctor Venture’s yard sale.
Epically hilarious moment: Henchman 21 uses the Monarch’s money to buy a real working light saber and tries to use it on Brock Samson. Uh-oh….

“Return to Spider-Skull Island.” The boys, thinking that their father is having a baby, run away from home. But it turns out they’ve just got a new uncle, as Doctor Venture’s twin brother Jonas, Jr. whom he absorbed in the womb decides it’s time to come out and take what is rightfully his. Meanwhile Henchmen 21 and 24 cross items off the imprisoned Monarch’s to-do list—with deadly consequences.
Epically hilarious moment: What could possibly top the boys’ ignorance of basic biology and homages to Rocky Horror and Easy Rider? The Monarch’s “scared straight” prison speech, that’s what.

“Powerless in the Face of Death.” As the Monarch plans his escape from prison, Dr. Orpheus discovers why he cannot find the boy’s souls in the afterlife: They are clones.
Epically hilarious moment: Death scene montage.

“Escape to the House of Mummies Part II.” With Brock and the boys in the clutches of the evil Osiris cult, Doctor Venture helps them… by getting into a science versus magic shrinking contest with Dr. Orpheus.
Epically hilarious moment: Doc, Billy Quizboy, and Pete White make “guilty pleasure” lists. Billy misunderstands the question.

“Showdown at Cremation Creek (Part 1 and 2).” The Venture family gets roped into attending the Monarch’s wedding to Dr. Girlfriend. Phantom Limb crashes the ceremony and kidnaps Dr. Girlfriend as part of his ploy to bring down The Sovereign (a.k.a. David Bowie), so Brock and Hank help him get her back as Dean has a Neverending Story-inspired freak-out.
Epically hilarious moment: Where to begin? The Star Wars references? Bowie? How about Hank’s little disguise as “how you say, Russian Guyovitch?”

“Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny.” While the Guild of Calamitous Intent holds a hearing to see if the Monarch was arching Doctor Venture without permission, 21 and 24 get a little help dealing with Dr. Mrs. The Monarch’s Murderous Moppets.
Epically hilarious moment: Phantom Limb reveals his true self to Dr. Girlfriend. “You eviled your legs?”

“The Invisible Hand of Fate.” After hitting his head in the toilette, Billy finally remembers how lost his hand.
Epically hilarious moment: The Nozzle.

“The Buddy System.” Doctor Venture opens up the compound as a day camp for boy adventurers. Naturally, things don’t quite go to plan.
Epically hilarious moment: Brock asks the disguised Moppets to beat up annoying teen Dermot for him, and they get a little carried away. “F—ing knife.”

“Handsome Ransom.” Hank, angry at his father, runs off with Captain Sunshine when the Monarch’s ransom plan goes awry.
Epically hilarious moment: Every single time Captain Sunshine gets just a little too creepy.

“Everybody Comes to Hank’s.” While Dean’s off in New York for his internship, Doc orders Hank to get a job. So he opens his own detective agency and investigates the mystery of Dermot’s real father.
Epically hilarious moment: The whole thing’s a brilliant film noir parody, but you gotta love a low-speed cart chase.

“Operation: P.R.O.M.” As Sphinx gets ready to hand Monstroso over to the O.S.I., the boys have their homeschool prom. Will Dean win Triana back? Will Hunter Gathers find the mole? Will 21 find out who killed 24? Will anyone get laid?
Epically hilarious moment: A Rusty Venture.

Notes on Gaga

I’ve been listening to Lady Gaga recently. Not a lot because I’ve been working on my 50 Albums project, but more than I normally would. Which would mean “some.” I’ve got a lot of thoughts about her and her music, but instead of writing them in essay format, I thought I’d jot them down as notes a la Susan Sontag. Kind of appropriate, as no one overdoes it like Lady Gaga overdoes it.

  • I don’t quite know what I think of her music. Usually, I’ll know right away if I love something, hate something, or just think it’s ok. And sometimes the more I listen to something, the more it grows on me. But no matte how much I listen to Lady Gaga, I can’t decide whether or not I like her music.
  • Granted, it is awfully catchy. I don’t like much pop music, or any dance music for that matter, but I’ve got to admit that this is some of the freshest sounding stuff I’ve heard for a long time.
  • I think I’m half-afraid to like her music. Not because of anything she says or stands for, but because it might ruin my classic rock cred. I do have a fair amount of punk and folk music, but she’d look a lot weirder sitting on a shelf between Carole King and Led Zeppelin. Although, really, if anyone got a look at the collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber original cast recordings hidden under my bookshelf*, I think that would probably do much worse to my reputation.
  • Another reason why I’m hesitant to count myself among her fans: It’s a generational thing. Obviously I’m not so old that I’d look stupid dancing to her music. (I’d look stupid because I can’t dance.) I’m only about three or four years older than she is, but it seems like her core fan base skews much younger. When I was their age, we were listening to Green Day and—ugh—Britney. One summer I had this hippie boss who let me borrow her CDs while I worked. Alongside the usual suspects—Pink Floyd, the Dead, etc.—was a lot of hardcore gangsta rap. It was… weird. I don’t want to be like that.
  • Has Lady Gaga made the best music videos since Michael Jackson? Quite possibly yes. I especially love the beginning of “Born This Way.” Not only is it a nod to the spoken-word intro to Diamond Dogs, but it’s awesomely Xanadu 80s fantasy. Obviously I wasn’t the only one watching My Little Pony cartoons.
  • And speaking of the 80s, Born This Way is thoroughly seeped in it. Seriously, the only thing missing is a declaration for the desire of a music-oriented cable network of one’s own**. But the album’s references seem a little too obvious. The 80s sound isn’t at all organic (see Weep’s Worn Thin for comparison). And yet it kind of works. I mean, the only thing organic about Lady Gaga’s public persona is the meat dress, so why shouldn’t her latest album be similarly superficial?
  • Yet another reason why I’m not all that keen to join the bandwagon: I want to see where she’s going. For all that she seems to have ripped off—uh, I mean, learned from the likes of David Bowie and Madonna, has she learned the lesson from their careers that every artist should? She seems to do her “borrowing” intelligently, but has she been able to pick up that an artist must evolve to stay alive? That's something only time will tell.
  • On a related note, in a recent Rolling Stone profile/interview, she was starting to sound a little bit messianic, like she’s thinking of herself as the savior of her “little monsters.” Granted, most of the time she seems rather self-aware of her pop stardom, so it would be rather surprising if she didn’t start saying something like that at this point as part of the formula. At least, I hope so. It never bodes well when rock stars start talking like that.
  • And there’s another thing. She seems very sincere when she talks about her fans and her concern with LGBT issues, but because her persona is so, well, plastic, I don’t know whether to believe her, or if it’s all part of the performance, especially since certain other performers who have been very influential on her have used sexuality as an easy way to get attention and then recanted when it wasn’t convenient anymore. I mean, I want to believe her, but it’s hard because she’s in character all the time. Generally, though, I take her word for it because there’s no rule saying the character and real person can’t feel the same thing, right? And even if she wasn’t sincere, it wouldn’t entirely undo the positive effect she’s had, would it?
  • Generally I have a zero-tolerance policy for skanks. I will never forgive Britney Spears for turning my generation into a roving gang of sluts. However, even though her music is just as—if not more so—sexualized than Britney et al’s and she does tend to show a lot of skin, it’s different somehow. I think she’s using the art of her performance to draw attention to assumptions we make about the (female) body. Maybe? Anyway, that rumor about her having a penis shows that it’s working. I mean, if my fifteen-year-old half-brother thinks she’s a dude, then I’d say she’s successfully got people asking questions about gender identity.




*They’re there because that’s where I keep my cassettes, not because I’m ashamed of them or anything. *Pushes TV cart in front of bookcase so no one can look*
**In normal person speak, “I want my MTV!” Remember that?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

50 Favorite Classic Rock Albums, Part 3

50-48, 47-44

43. Synchronicity, The Police, 1983
If you, as a band, are on the brink of imploding, then you’d better go out with a masterpiece. And that’s exactly what The Police did with their 1983 release Synchronicity. Afterward, the band broke up (for a while) and Sting went on save the rain forest. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that Synchronicity is merely an example of lightweight 80s fluff pop. The lyrics display an interest in human realities—just think of the meaning of the title—and psychologies (listen to the incredibly Oedipal “Mother”), and the production brings The Police’s Caribbean-tinged punk to its full sonic potential and beyond. The album will always be remembered for the stalker-romance “Every Breath You Take,” which, in addition to being ripped off—uh, I mean, sampled by Puff Daddy for his tribute to Biggie Smalls, has one of the most iconic music videos of all time. Those black and white (or the rarely seen tricolor) images of Sting, Andy Summer, and Stewart Copeland are what come to mind when most people think of The Police. Other notable songs include, “King of Pain,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “Murder by Numbers,” and “Synchronicity II.”

42. Exile on Main St., The Rolling Stones, 1972
Exile on Main St. is the the most quintessentially Rolling Stones of all Rolling Stones albums. Though—odd for a double album—only a handful of songs stand out strongly on their own, every single one is clearly identifiable as the Stones. Exile, perhaps, is the darling of music critics because it is precisely what we hear in our heads when we think of a typical Rolling Stones song. All the usual influences are present—rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, delta blues, country, even a little gospel—yet here they are more integrated than on other albums. For example, “Sweet Virginia” transcends being the album’s country songs by virtue of its backing horns, unlike “Country Honk” or “Faraway Eyes” which remain truer to the genre. Thus, Exile on Main St., in the way it presents a unified sound throughout, just might be the most cohesive album the Rolling Stones have ever produced. Plus it’s an incredibly well-sequenced album. Among side openers are “Sweet Virginia,” “All Down the Line,” and the Richards-sung “Happy.” “Tumbling Dice,” “Let It Loose,” and “Loving Cup” all finish sides. The sides start strong and end strong. Exile on Main St.’s big surprise, though, is Side 4’s “Shine a Light,” which, up there with Dylan’s “Forever Young,” is one of rock’s great benedictions. It really sounds like it should be the album’s conclusions, but instead we get “Soul Survivor” as an encore.

41. Imagine, John Lennon, 1971
We like to remember John Lennon in his solo years as a stalwart activist for peace. While his political involvement is certainly nothing to be forgotten, I think sometimes we forget what an acerbic wit he had in our efforts to beatify him. In 1971 when Imagine was released, he was in the middle of the famous Lennon-McCartney feud, in which the former songwriting partners exchanged blows via their albums, here notably on “How Do You Sleep?” in which he—no kidding—calls Paul a pretty-boy. But one of the great things about Lennon was that he knew he could be a jerk—as he explains on the tender “Jealous Guy.” Imagine strikes a nice balance between the personal and the political. As to the latter, there’s the anti-war “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” and the politically disillusioned “Gimme Some Truth.” But there are also plenty of songs written to and about his wife, including the previously mentioned “Jealous Guy” and the joyous “Oh Yoko!” Of course, you can’t talk about Imagine without mentioning the title track. “Imagine” is one of the greatest songs ever written, and has become an anthem for world peace. With little instrumentation other than its simple piano rhythms, it asks us not to take up picket signs or overthrow the government, but merely to picture a better world. Lennon understood that, in order for change to occur, people first have to believe that things can be different. And that is why “Imagine” remains such a powerful song these 40 years later.

40. Station to Station, David Bowie, 1976
At just six songs, Station to Station is a weird little album. Recorded during the darkest days of Bowie’s cocaine addiction, it comes from and takes the listener to very strange places. The album starts with what sounds like a train in motion and soon moves on to some ominous—though funky—chords. It is not until over three minutes later that we get lyrics: “The return of the Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” We don’t know exactly who this mysterious Duke is, but it’s clear he’s into some dark shit and probably up to no good. Don’t let that fool you, though, into thinking the album is a work of coke-fueled paranoia. “Station to Station” switches to a literally more upbeat tone mid-way through. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” Bowie sings, “I’m thinking that it must be love.” The rest of Station to Station remains fairly positive, though the darkness is always there, lurking at the edges. Following the title track is the album’s big hit “Golden Years,” which, as close to a love song as Bowie ever gets, was supposedly written for his then-wife Angie—or so she says—and “Word on a Wing,” a prayer that, though offered out of desperation, still feels hopeful. Side 2 opens with the playful “TVC 15” which Bowie once described as about a girl in love with her television set, and is thought to have been inspired by his involvement in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Next is the funky “Stay,” which also offers a plea, this time a lover’s more earthly concerns. Finally, the album ends with a cover of “Wild Is the Wind.” Again—another plea, and yet the understated vocals lend the song a gentleness that make it a perfect conclusion to the otherwise strange ride that is Station to Station.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Graphic Novels and the Tradition of Quality

As an aspiring comic book writer, I often browse the graphic novel section of book stores. In the last five or so years, as interest in graphic novels has increased, these sections have increased from one case at the end of the science fiction row to whole walls or more. Now for those of you still wondering, the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book is merely that, instead of being printed on glossy magazine paper, the former is printed on regular paper and bound like a paperback book. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I first heard the term “graphic novel” I pictured a whole book where the story was told in images. There are a few graphic novels out there that have originally appeared in this format, but most of them have first been published as comic books, then later bound in this way once the story is finished. Think of it as closer in format to the Victorian "Novel in Three Volumes" rather than the modern novel. To add to your confusion, the trade editions of comic books—when story arcs or a set number of a continuing comics series are bound and published—are usually displayed in book stores and some comic shops in the graphic novel section.

Of course, “graphic novel” holds another connotation as well. A comic book, well, that’s something you read as a kid. They had superheroes and monsters and generally contained nothing for the intellectual pallet of an adult. A graphic novel, now, that’s sophisticated. It’s Fitzgerald with pictures. In a society which dismisses popular culture as a lower form, graphic storytelling as such can be considered an art. In short, the term “graphic novel” is pretentious.

I’m not entirely against a little pretension now and again. Heck, why not push the boundaries of the visual narrative to see what it can do? There’s nothing wrong with getting a little arty and experimental in any medium. But why must we sacrifice the comic book to do so? We don’t call Agatha Christie’s novels something else just because they’re not as complex as Henry James. So why should comic books’ appeal to a popular audience keep them from being considered art?

Here’s something else: read the titles of any graphic novel section, and you will see a lot of familiar names. Discounting the superhero comics for now—we all know Superman and the X-Men—and you’ll see that a lot of TV shows and movie franchises, from Star Wars to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, use comic books to continue their adventures. This is nothing new—it dates back at least to the first Doctor Who comics of the 1960s if not before—and has done a lot to increase their fan bases and maintain interest in the original product. But keep looking, and you’ll find a lot of titles that are adaptation of novels, movies, and--yes--even a Neil Young album.

I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. A large part of me suspect that this is just publishers’ attempts to cash in on the latest craze, hoping that, for example, people who love Neil Gaiman will buy the graphic novel version of Neverwhere, never mind that he’s a great comics writer and yet didn’t do the adaptation himself. But, I suppose, as is often said of movie versions of things, that people who would not otherwise read the book or see the movie might change their minds once they’ve read the graphic novel. I would like to believe this is true, though I’ve never come across a study that suggests it is so. I do, however, think that people who might otherwise not read comic books because of the assumption that they are for kids and middle-aged men who still live with their mothers would be attracted to graphic novels if they saw a title like Pride and Prejudice on the shelf.

And that’s troubling. In the 1950s, François Truffaut criticized contemporary French cinema for relying on a “tradition of quality.” No, he didn’t think that films should be badly made, rather that they were too reliant on the already proven art of literary texts to legitimize themselves. For Truffaut, these literary adaptations were trying too hard to be novels instead of being films. And this is what worries me about trying to make the graphic novel version of everything. In trying to lure readers into accepting the graphic novel as a legitimate art form by trying to convince them that they’re just like the novels or movies, we run the risk of losing what makes a comic book a comic book.

A Selective Guide to Bowie's Movies

Although I wrote about David Bowie as an actor before back in the old “British Actor of the Month” series (maybe I should bring that back one of these days), I thought a more thorough guide to his appearances at the movies was needed. Now, he’s been in a lot of movies, so these are only the ones I can recommend to you. Or, as the case may be, strongly recommend that you don’t see. (And they’re features only. No Sponge Bob, no Jazzin’ for Blue Jean. The latter I strongly recommend.)

Recommendations
The Man Who Fell to Earth. In Bowie’s first ever major film role, he plays an alien who’s come to Earth on a rescue mission but who quickly gets taken advantage of and turned into a drunk. Uh… maybe? It’s very arty, so you’re never quite sure what’s really going on. Infamous for its full frontal alien scene, it's really one of the classics of 70s sci-fi. And if you don’t get it, at least the cinematography’s nice.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. No, Bowie isn’t Mr. Lawrence. (That’s Tom Conti.) Here he plays a paratrooper causing trouble in a prison camp who catches the attention of the Japanese camp leader. The director claims the attraction between the two isn’t supposed to be gay. Whatever. It’s a very interesting contemplation of two very different cultures in conflict. Many fans and critics agree that this is the best performance of Bowie’s film career.

Labyrinth. Hold it—stop rolling your eyes. Yes, I know this is a kid’s movie. Yes, I know they aren’t exactly the best songs he’s ever written. Yes, I know how tight those pants are—I’m not blind, you know. But, even though its key demographic is twelve-year-old girls, Labyrinth is far more than a kid’s movie. It’s fun and imaginative (Jim Henson directed, after all), has some complex psychological stuff going on, and is even the teensiest bit empowering. It makes quite a nice package… Ok, wrong choice of words there.

Basquiat. In this biopic, Bowie plays Andy Warhol, who, late in his life, collaborated with Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s a good indie film about an interesting artist, and Bowie is great as Warhol, even though, other than the authentic wig, he doesn’t look much like him, nor is he doing an impression per se. I once had a professor who is one of the premier Warhol scholars, and he said this is his favorite on-screen version of the artist.

Zoolander. Bowie has a cameo as himself to judge a walk-off between two male models. He’s in it for less than 5 minutes, but this is perhaps the most hilarious scene in a movie full of hilarious scenes.

The Prestige. In this film about competing magicians, Bowie plays inventor Nikola Tesla, who, in his day, was the coolest person around and way ahead of his time. Sound familiar? And given that Tesla is rumored to have traveled back from the future, who’s to say they’re not the same person? Anyway, it’s a pretty good movie with a big twist ending and “a lot” of Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman.

Velvet Goldmine. Not exactly a Bowie movie—especially since he bashed the script and refused to allow any of his songs to be used in it. Todd Haynes uses this Citizen Kane-like story about a glam rocker who is similar to but in no way supposed to be David Bowie *wink, wink* to examine identity and biography and to pay loving tribute to the 70s. Despite the lack of actual Bowie, it’s got a great soundtrack and is a fun, glittery fantasy. A must for Ewan McGreggor fans.

Anti-Recommendations
The Hunger. Bowie and vampires! Yay—hold that thought. In the movie’s first act, Bowie is very compelling as an immortal who finds himself aging… very quickly. After that, it’s a postmodern mess with some weird lesbian thing between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. But, for some reason, goths really seem to like this movie. So before you watch, ask yourself just how much the world doesn’t seem to understand your inner torment.

Absolute Beginners. Or, as I like to call it, Absolute, uh, Something Else*. Julien Temple of Sex Pistols documentary fame directed this musical tribute to the swinging sixties and racial tension. But if you think that sounds bad… you’re right. Bowie, in addition to writing the title song—which is the only good thing this movie’s got going for it—has a small part as an advertising exec, but gets upstaged by Ray Davies.

The Linguini Incident. Bowie plays the male lead opposite Rosanna Arquette in this extremely quirky romantic comedy. It’s not awful, but it is pretty weird. And it has a brief though amusing cameo from Iman. Kind of hard to find, and you might not want to make the effort.

Arthur and the Invisibles. Bowie does a fine job voicing the villain in this half-animated children’s adventure, but the CGI characters look weird, and the premise is a little thin. I didn’t think it was that believable as a fantasy, and, anyway, it leaves too much to be answered in the sequels, which have never been released in the US. (Incidentally, Lou Reed takes over for Bowie in those two movies, and Iggy Pop voices his son. Very clever, M. Besson.)

The Last Temptation of Christ. Though perhaps not as scandalous as when it was first released, this film is still controversial. Kind of interesting, though, honestly, Scorsese has made a lot of better films. Bowie has an unremarkable cameo as Pontius Pilot that leaves you wishing you were watching Jesus Christ Superstar.

Recommended Documentaries
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. A documentary that captures Bowie’s final concert as Ziggy. The cinema verite (yes, it’s supposed to look that cheap) style is perfect for capturing the raw sexual energy of the performance. It’s very simply shot, but its one of my favorite concert films because it lets the event occur with very little interference.

Cracked Actor. This BBC TV documentary followed Bowie around during his Diamond Dogs tour in the mid 70s. Two interesting things about this one: First of all, it contains pretty much the only footage of that tour, which was the first major tour by a rock star to use elaborate sets and staging. Second, off stage it captures Bowie at his coked-up best. For some reason, the BBC refuses to give this doc an official release, so YouTube is your friend.

Serious Moonlight. A direct-to-video concert film of the Asian leg of Bowie’s tour supporting Let’s Dance. Granted, a lot of people think he sold out on that record, but the band here is kick-ass, and they do justice to his late 70s stuff. Sure, the concert production was a little overblown, but it’s still good music.

Ricochet. Another direct-to-video documentary, this one uses Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour to examine the role of Western pop culture on the East. Concert footage is mixed in with Bowie driving around Singapore and some staged stuff about Chinese teens trying to score tickets. It’s kind of intellectual, but it’s included on the same DVD as Serious Moonlight, so you might as well give it a go.

A Reality Tour. This direct-to-DVD concert film captures performances from Bowie’s last tour. At well-over two hours it has some of the finest performances of Bowie’s later career. The sheer energy of the show is amazing considering he was over 50 at the time and months away from a heart attack. There will most likely be no more new Bowie concerts to film, but what a high note to go out on.



*That begins with "s," ends with "t," and has an "h" and an "i" somewhere in the middle.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Five Random Things I Dislike

I'm too busy enjoying WDRV's Album Side Thursday to put any serious effort into blogging today, so here's a follow-up to Monday's similarly brainless activity.

  • Raw tomatoes. If you stew them, puree them, turn them into salsa, or cook them in any other way, then I'm fine. But raw, they are nasty, squishy, soggy, evil fruit pretending to be a vegetable.
  • Cooking with the pan handles inward. It annoys me to no end, because if you brown, saute, or mix in something, you need to grip the handle to do it right. I know a legion of mommy bloggers is now thinking, "But that's dangerous!" because kids can reach up and dump hot Hamburger Helper on their heads. Yeah, and they can also get into the knife block while you're struggling to mix in that flavor packet with one hand. The point is you always need to be vigilant of what kids/pets are doing in the kitchen no matter where your stupid handles are. If you're so worried, then move the handles in when you're not gripping them. And you don't need to keep doing it once your kids are old enough to know not to do something stupid like that.
  • That new opening for Doctor Who that's apparently just for the American audience. I know there suddenly has been a lot more interest in it starting this season, but do we really need to be told the premise every time we watch? I mean, we may be a former colony, but I think we can follow a basic TV narrative from week to week. And for those of us who have been watching since 2006--let alone the 70s!--it's not just condescending, it's insulting.
  • Cover songs on YouTube. You know the kind. Some guy films himself playing a Dylan song or something in his bedroom and puts the video up on YouTube. In theory I'm not opposed to this. You want to share your artistic expression with the world? Fine, be my guest. But there's so many of them! It's really annoying when you're searching for the original version of a song. Seriously, the other day I was searching for a particular U2 song--which I know has an official video that the record company has online--and the first few search pages were all cover songs and fan vids. YouTube needs to figure out how to make the search function precise enough to filter these out.
  • Bad DVD commentary. No, I don't mean the kind where the commentators end up having their own conversation that has nothing to do with the actual film you're watching. I actually quite enjoy those. There are two types of commentary I don't like. The first is when the commentators get so wrapped up in the film that they forget to talk about it. Now, when it's a really great film, I can kind of understand being speechless for parts of it, but, all too often, the commentators haven't actually seen it for awhile, and so, not remembering much, they just watch it. The second type I don't like is when none of the commentators were in the same room together. For one thing, since it has to be edited together later, it totally kills any spontaneity. For another, I don't want to hear someone talking about the film, I want to hear a conversation among people to whom this film means something.

More Advice for the College Bound

It’s summer, and high school sophomores and juniors all over the country are starting to make college visits. But how do you know which schools to look at? Here’s a brief guide to what you can expect at the different types of institution in the US.

Large Private University. For the best students who want the best education possible. Here you will be attending classes with future senators, CEOs, and Nobel Prize winners. Incidentally, former senators, CEOs, and Nobel Prize winners may also be teaching those classes. These are the places with money to burn, and they spend it all on getting the best at everything. Yes, you probably won’t be taught by an actual professor for a year or two (they are busy with their groundbreaking research), but even the TAs you get will be the best of the best.
Cost: Extremely Expensive. If you’re not a legacy or don’t have a full scholarship, I hope you don’t need both kidneys.

Large Public University. For good to average students who want a good education in a specific area and have a lot of fun while doing so. Quality of large publics can vary, but usually they’re very good in at least one subject. Your first couple years, you will be taught by grad students. After your core courses have been met, expect to focus on your major. Because there are so many people there, this type of education provides ample opportunities to socialize, especially when their Division I sports team is in season.
Cost: Very Expensive. Not a lot of funds to add to your FAFSA packet, so be prepared to borrow.

Small Public University. For average students who just want a degree. Although there are some exceptions, these regional state colleges are pretty much the second tier of higher education. They don’t have the nationally televised football team, and, though they may have some great teachers, their programs aren’t exactly top of the field. But they get the job done. If all you care about is having the college experience and getting the diploma so you can get a decent job and move on with your life, then you’ll be fine.
Cost: Expensive. You get what you pay for.

Liberal Arts College. For good students who want to learn a lot. Since they’re fairly small, most classes are taught by professors, so you’ll benefit by their wisdom. More than that, though, most liberal arts colleges focus on “life education”—making students well informed citizens of the world. You can expect critical thinking and community service to be major emphases, and taking classes outside your major, study abroad, and participation in extracurricular activities are often encouraged. Plus, a small campus means a close-knit campus.
Cost: Very Expensive. They do, however, tend to had out scholarships like candy.

Community College. For those who couldn’t get in four-year college. Granted, many community colleges offer two year degrees or certificates in subjects—like cosmetology or dental hygiene—that a lot of four-year colleges don’t offer. But if one of those fields isn’t something you’re interested in, then community college is basically where you’ll go if you couldn’t pull the grades to get into four-year college. Choose the right one, and they’ll help you transition from high school to college smoothly. Those of you who could get into a four-year college but couldn’t afford it—I’m sorry. Hang in there. Your teachers will love you, though.
Cost: Expensive. Sometimes, however, if you did well in a local high school, they’ll give you a scholarship.

Trade Schools, Conservatories, Art Institutes, Etc. For those who want a thorough education in a very specific subject. So if you just want the training for your career without bothering with those pesky math and English classes (though better arts schools may still make you take them), then this might be the place for you. Of course, be wary. Because it’s so focused, you may have trouble convincing future employers that you are qualified for a job that might not be exactly in your field. Also, some of these are less reputable than others. Aspiring artists, musicians, actors, etc., generally, if they haven’t asked you to audition or submit a portfolio, then I’d stay away.
Cost: Varies. Legit places may offer you financial aid, but fat chance at a for-profit school.