Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What I'm Reading: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Somehow I never read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, despite reading Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers multiple times in middle and high school. Especially odd because at that time I tended to go deep on science fiction authors I liked, like Frederick Pohl and Frank Herbert.

But for whatever reason I never ventured further into Heinlein's oeuvre, and am making up for that deficiency now. And this is the big one. Along with SiaSL, this is one of Heinlein's best known, one of the ones that put him in the pantheon of the "big four" SF writers, along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.

The book is set on the moon, mainly in Luna City, one of several cities run by the Lunar Authority, a highly rigid and hide-bound bureaucracy based on Earth to mine the moon for the benefit of Earth's citizens, leaving the moon's inhabitants impoverished and unfree. Nor do the citizens of Earth care, since the moon is peopled mostly by convicts sentenced to life terms on the moon and their descendants, called Loonies. Especially since the grain produced on the moon in vast underground caverns and shipped to earth via a huge launch catapult is critical for feeding the Earth's billions of people.

The narrator is Manuel O'Kelly-Davis, who goes by Mannie, a computer technician on contract with the Lunar Authority, who one day discovers the Lunar Authority's main computer has "woken up." The computer, who adopts the name Mike, isn't a bad sort, although he has a childish sense of humor (for instance, sending out a paycheck to one Loonie for $10 billion). Mannie is Mike's only friend; indeed, the only one who knows he is sentient, and Mike controls virtually every vital service provided in the various moon cities (air, water, transportation, finance, etc.). When Mannie's friend, Professor de la Paz, gets him mixed up with a lunar independence movement, along with the beautiful revolutionary Wyoming Knott, Mannie is able to get Mike on their side, giving them a ghost of a chance to defeat the Federated Nations of Earth and earn freedom for the Loonies.

The moon in anarchic society--but not disordered! Because the Lunar Authority doesn't provide law, caring only if the grain shipments keep coming, it's up to the Loonies to determine their own way of living. This is where Heinlein's libertarianism comes in, which this book really explores. Justice, for example, is privately-administered. A judge is someone mutually acceptable to both parties, the fee for hearing a case is negotiated, the defendant chooses whether he wants a jury or not, based partially on if he wants to pay, with payment perhaps scaled to parties’ income. Poor judges don’t get repeat business, competition keeps prices low, balancing of interests ensures justice is achieved. Actually, the way Heinlein describes it makes our own system of justice seem fairly clunky.

The Loonies also have come up with alternative ways of arranging families and romantic matches. Mannie is part of a "line marriage," where a new husband or wife is brought into the family every few years, alternating by gender. Yes, that means there are multiple spouses, ranging in age from late teens to old age. His marriage has been around for more than 100 years, and he points out it works well for a farming family, as his is, because it allows for the accumulation of capital across generations. Like the privately-administered justice system, it may seem weird, but Heinlein describes it in such a way that by the end of the novel it seems quite natural, even preferable in some ways to our own way of doing things.

This book is not for everyone, but those it is for will really get into it. On one level, the story of the revolution itself is pretty exciting, and Mannie, Mike, the Professor, and Wyoming are likable characters who are easy to root for. But deeper than that, it's a novel packed with ideas, expertly presented so you hardly realize Heinlein is showing you how a truly libertarian society could work. It's those multiple levels that make this one of the all-time classic science fiction novels.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Place Names in Rock Lyrics: Girls, Girls, Girls

We've previously done Sweet Little SixteenDancing in the StreetsNight TrainRock'n Me, and Pop Muzik, so tonight let's get classy and do some Motley Crue! The song is Girls, Girls, Girls and was a biggish hit for the Crue in 1987. It's basically a tour of their favorite strip clubs in various cities.

I might add this song has a personal connection for me because when I was in the 9th grade, I took a tennis class at my school for my P.E. requirement. A buddy of mine and I played every day with some seniors on the farthest court, and one of the seniors would park his Jeep just outside the tennis court and open the doors, blasting this album on his stereo while we played. The coach mainly stuck to the other set of courts closer to school with kids from the tennis team, and didn't seem to care too much what we got up to. It was great.

Here's the first verse. It doesn't actually have any cities, I just wanted to note that it's a clear allusion to (is that too fancy a word for the Crue? How about "They ripped it off from") Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright For Fightin'."

Friday night and I need a fight
My motorcycle and a switchblade knife
Handful of grease in my hair feels right
But what I need to make me tight are

And the chorus:

Girls, Girls, Girls
Long legs and burgundy lips
Girls,
Dancin' down on Sunset Strip
Girls
Red lips, fingertips

The second chorus gets into the cities. Note the Seventh Veil is in Los Angeles (according to Wikipedia, not my personal knowledge!).

Girls, Girls, Girls
At the Dollhouse in Ft. Lauderdale
Girls, Girls. Girls
Rocking in Atlanta at Tattletails
Girls, Girls, Girls
Raising Hell at the 7th Veil

The third verse and chorus have more cities. The Body Shop and Tropicana are apparently also in Los Angeles, and the Marble Arch in Vancouver.

Crazy Horse, Paris, France
Forget the names, remember romance
I got the photos, a menage a trois
Musta broke those Frenchies laws with those

Girls, Girls. Girls
Body Shop. Marble Arch
Girls, Girls, Girls
Tropicana's where I lost my heart


Okay, so the cities we have this time are
Atlanta
Ft. Lauderdale
Los Angeles
Paris
Vancouver (admittedly a stretch since it's not named explicitly in the song, but I'll count it)




_______________________________________________________________________
And here's our master list as it currently stands:

Notes: The biggest cities we haven't heard from yet, as least in the United States, are Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, and Seattle.

Atlanta x3
Baltimore x2
(northern) California
Chicago
Detroit
Ft. Lauderdale
London
Los Angeles x3
Miami
Munich
New Orleans x3
New York City x3
Paris x2
Philadelphia x4
Phoenix
Pittsburgh
Raleigh
Richmond
San Francisco
St. Louis
Tacoma
(heart of) Texas
Vancouver
Washington, DC x2

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Secrets, Lies, & Sighs: New Anthology from the Writers of Chantilly Released!

We all have secrets, parts of our pasts we’d rather keep hidden. Inside the pages of this anthology, you’ll find secrets uncovered. A church confessional come to life, who knows what you’ve really been up to. A happily married woman reflecting on a college romance, and the unexpected revelation that ended it. A private school principal who finds kicking a student out of school may lead to public revelations of his own unsavory past. These secrets and more lie hidden in these pages, waiting only for you to discover them.


The new anthology from the Writers of Chantilly, Secrets, Lies, & Sighs, is available now at Amazon.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Place Names in Rock Lyrics: Pop Muzik

We've previously done Sweet Little SixteenDancing in the StreetsNight Train, and Rock'n Me, so tonight let's add M's Pop Muzik. This was an international number one hit in late 1979 for English band M, basically consisting of singer Robin Scott and studio musicians. The song has a definite New Wave sound with lots of synthesizers and a drum machine beat. It will also add some international cities to our list.

Verses are sort of "pop music" nonsense lyrics, like so:

Sing it in the subway
Shuffle with a shoe shine
Mix me a Molotov
I'm on the hit line

While the chorus is this, which may have slight variations but, for our purposes, the same cities are repeated every time:

New York, London, Paris, Munich
Everybody talk about, mm, pop muzik
Talk about pop muzik
Talk about pop muzik
Pop, pop, pop muzik
Pop, pop, pop muzik

So the cities we have in this song are:
London
Munich
New York
Paris

_________________________________________________________________________
And here's our master list as it currently stands:

Notes: The biggest cities we haven't heard from yet, as least in the United States, are Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, and Seattle (but we do have Tacoma!).

Atlanta x2
Baltimore x2
(northern) California
Chicago
Detroit
London
Los Angeles x2
Miami
Munich
New Orleans x3
New York City x3
Paris
Philadelphia x4
Phoenix
Pittsburgh
Raleigh
Richmond
San Francisco
St. Louis
Tacoma
(heart of) Texas
Washington, DC x2

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

This Sunday strip from March 1954 shows Charlie Brown at his most impotent:


I really feel for him here. I mean, he could slug Patty, but I bet he's already internalized a code against hitting girls. What can he do but rage silently, and push it down inside?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Place Names in Rock Lyrics: Rock'n Me

In this feature, we've previously done Sweet Little SixteenDancing in the Streets, and Night Train. Tonight, as promised, we'll balance out the East Coast-centric Night Train with a song with lots of West Coast cities. The song is Rock'n Me, released in 1976 by the Steve Miller Band.

The second verse contains the sort of city list we're looking for:

I went from Phoenix, Arizona
All the way to Tacoma
Philadelphia, Atlanta, L.A.
Northern California where the girls are warm
So I could be with my sweet baby, yeah

Are the girls especially warm in northern California? We'll take Steve's word on it. That verse is followed by the chorus:

Keep on a rock'n me baby
Keep on a rock'n me baby
Keep on a rock'n me baby
Keep on a rock'n me baby
Baby, baby, baby
Keep on rock'n
Rock'n me baby
Keep on a rock'n
Rock'n me baby

Okay, not a real intellectual song, but it's fun to listen to and sing along with. The second verse is repeated again later, with no change in the city list. So here are the cities we have in this song:

Atlanta
Los Angeles
northern California
Philadelphia
Phoenix
Tacoma

_________________________________________________________________________
And after four songs, here's our master list.

Notes: Philadelphia is the only city mentioned in every song so far. Is Philly as especially musical city? Rock musicians seem to think so. I think the biggest cities we haven't heard from yet are Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, and Seattle (but we do have Tacoma!).

Atlanta x2
Baltimore x2
(northern) California
Chicago
Detroit
Los Angeles x2
Miami
New Orleans x3
New York City x2
Philadelphia x4
Phoenix
Pittsburgh
Raleigh
Richmond
San Francisco
St. Louis
Tacoma
(heart of) Texas
Washington, DC x2

Monday, November 30, 2015

What I'm Reading: The Elephant's Secret Sense

The Elephant's Secret Sense, by Caitlin O'Connell, is a non-fiction book about the author as she visits Namibia several times over the course of 15 years to study elephants. On some trips she's working with the Namibian government to find ways to reduce elephant raids on farms in a region called the Caprivi Strip; other trips are pure research funded by American and European non-profits.

On her earliest trip, just out of graduate school and with her new, South African-born husband, her close observations of elephants leads to a theory that elephants can communicate through the ground, sending out messages with very low-frequency rumbles and picking them up miles away through special soft pads in their feet and specialized ear organs. Over her subsequent visits she devises ways to confirm the various parts of her theory: using seismic equipment to pick up the rumbles, studying elephant anatomy, and finally conducting experiments on elephants in zoos to determine whether they can indeed hear such rumbles and respond to them. Finally, she is able to put the whole theory together and test it out successfully on elephants in the wild.

The book is full of lots of fascinating details about elephants and sometimes the odd lion, rhino, or hyena as well. Caitlin's insights into elephant society show dense webs of relationships, including among males, who were previously thought to be far more solitary than her research shows. Actually, male elephants as she describes them have whole social networks and are even capable of tender interactions with close friends. She also finds that the large female-headed family groups elephants are well-known for are not always headed by the oldest female elephant, as other researchers had assumed; rather the matriarchs seem to be selected by coalition-building within the herd and can sometimes be a younger but especially wise or bold female.

There is not as much in the book about Caitlin's own life in the wild, although we do get scenes with locals or Namibian conservation officials. She also includes a harrowing accident when she was driving a pick-up truck on a wet road, packed with hitch-hiking locals in the truck bed. Despite her slow speed and careful driving, she is unable to avoid a slick patch that slides the truck off the road, sending the riders in the back flying across the asphalt. One rider dies and several are injured, and she has to fight past her own horror and guilt at the accident to get the truck to the nearest town.

The book is written in an easy, vivid style that belies its hard science underpinning. Despite a paucity of human characters, Caitlin describes the personalities of the various elephants so well the book actually feels well-peopled, and we come to welcome a fresh sighting of an elephant we've met earlier. Anyone with an interest in elephants, southern Africa, or real-life adventure would find The Elephant's Secret Sense entertaining and informative.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Place Names in Rock Lyrics: Night Train

In this feature, we've previously done Sweet Little Sixteen and Dancing in the Streets. Now let's add Night Train. It's a very East Coast-centric song, basically consisting of James Brown shouting out the stops the Night Train is taking. (Next week, to make up for that, we'll do a West Coast-centric song.) It was originally done in 1951 by Jimmy Forrest, and has been covered numerous times, but James Brown's cover is by far the most famous version.

All aboard for the night train
Miami, Florida
Atlanta, Georgia
Raleigh, North Carolina
Washington, DC
Oh, and Richmond, Virginia too

Baltimore, Maryland
Philadelphia
New York City
Take it home
and don't forget New Orleans
the home of the blues

Not sure how the train jumps from New York to New Orleans there at the end. Here are the cities in this song:

Atlanta
Baltimore
Miami
New Orleans
New York City
Philadelphia
Raleigh
Richmond
Washington, DC

_________________________________________________________________________
And after three songs, here's our master list:

Atlanta
Baltimore x2
Chicago
Detroit
Los Angeles
Miami
New Orleans x3
New York City x2
Philadelphia x3
Pittsburgh
Raleigh
Richmond
San Francisco
St. Louis
(heart of) Texas
Washington, DC x2

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

This one, from June 1953, is perhaps not as bleak as some of the other strips I've posted, mainly because Charlie Brown brings this on to himself to a large extent.


That's what you get for being passive-aggressive Charlie Brown!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Place Names in Rock Lyrics: Dancing in the Streets

In this feature, we've previously done Sweet Little SixteenNow let's do Dancing in the Streets. Originally by Martha and the Vandellas in 1965 (and co-written by Marvin Gaye), this song also charted in the 1980s in a version by Van Halen.

I might add this song is a personal favorite of mine.

The difference between the verse and chorus is a little vague in this song, but there are at least "A" and "B" sections, with the lyrics in the "A" sections varying slightly each time to incorporate different place names.

Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancing in the street.
They're dancing in Chicago,
Down in New Orleans,
In New York City.


And the next time it's this:

It's an invitation across the nation,
A chance for folks to meet.
There'll be laughing, singing, and music swinging,
Dancing in the street.
Philadelphia, P.A.
Baltimore and D.C. now.
Can't forget the Motor City.


And then in the final "A" section the only city names is Los Angeles. So the list for this song is
Chicago
New Orleans
New York City
Philadelphia
Baltimore
Washington, DC
Detroit
Los Angeles

_________________________________________________________________________
And after two songs, here's our master list:

Baltimore
Chicago
Detroit
Los Angeles
New Orleans x2
New York City
Philadelphia x2
Pittsburgh
San Francisco
St. Louis
(heart of) Texas
Washington, DC

Friday, November 13, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

One from March 1953. This 1953-54 period seems like a rich one for my feature. I suppose Schulz didn't quite have the right modulation down yet for the tone of the strip.


Good Lord, look at Charlie Brown's expression in the second panel. Man, he's taking it hard. And the final panel. That's not just the sound of losing a marble. That's the sound of every date for which he'll ever be turned down, every promotion he'll ever be passed over for, every disappointment reverberating through his entire life. No wonder he can't sleep.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Place Names in Rock Lyrics: Sweet Little Sixteen

Here's something I've been wanting to do for a while. I've always liked it in rock songs when they sing about different places in the chorus. If you don't realize what I mean, I think you'll see in the lyrics below.

My plan for this feature is to count up all the different times various cities are mentioned. Which cities are the rocking-est? Let's start with perhaps the first rock song to do this, Sweet Little Sixteen, by Chuck Berry.

In the first chorus, he sings this:

They're really rockin in Boston
In Pittsburgh, P.A.
deep in the heart of Texas
and round the 'Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis
and down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen

And the next time he sings the chorus, he mixes it up just slightly, like this:

'Cause they'll be rockin' on Bandstand
in Philadelphia, P.A.
deep in the heart of Texas
and round the 'Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis
Way down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen

So the cities and places we have so far are

New Orleans
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
San Francisco
St. Louis
(heart of) Texas

Ranking the Man-Thing Movie

Okay, I graded the Man-Thing regarding it as a horror movie here, now let's regard it as a comic movie.

By the way, I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, and the non-Marvel and non-DC comic movies.  So let's add the Man-Thing.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Unfortunately, the Man-Thing rates even worse as a comic movie than it did as a horror movie. In the comics, he functions mainly as a way to get the story going and to come in and settle accounts at the end. Still, he is somewhat heroic, hating to see fear and mistreatment among humans despite his brainless state. The movie didn't capture any of that heroism at all. Nor, as I mentioned in the horror review, does the movie capture the sheer weirdness of the comic. As guardian of a dimensional nexus in the middle of the swamp, the Man-Thing is always encountering demons of despair, confused Vikings, evil cults, and talking ducks that wander through the portal or are otherwise attached to it. The movie did not make use of that crucial element of the comic at all.

Still, the movie wasn't absolutely terrible. It was lurid enough to be mildly entertaining, and kept the action moving, without the slow parts that so often plague B-movies. Really, it was just good enough to escape the dreaded red "avoid" color.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

A little something different this time, with a January 1975 strip focusing on Peppermint Patty rather than Charlie Brown:


This might not immediately strike you as being so bleak as some of the other strips. It ends with a moderately humorous punchline, rather sitcom-esque in its timing. And this strips also sets up one of the all-time funny sequences in Peanuts, when Snoopy stays in Peppermint Patty's guest bedroom as a watchdog (sorry, Watch-Beagle!) but proves unable to defend her house when thieves break in because he's trapped by the extremely wavy waterbed.

But think about all the strips where Peppermint Patty falls asleep in class, and gets poor grades. You might have thought it's just because she's athletic, not academic, and finds school boring and pointless. Maybe she's a little lazy too, and doesn't try very hard in class.

But here we learn differently. She's tired all the time because her dad (we know from earlier strips he's a single parent) has to work nights and doesn't get back until 2AM. She's scared to be home alone at night, and turns on the TV as a distraction. Puts all those strips about falling asleep in class in a different light, doesn't it?

To tell you the truth, for me, it puts her whole character in a different light. All that bravado she presents to the world is a false front. She really feels vulnerable, and opens up here to the single person she can trust with her feelings: Charlie Brown.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

House of Scary Movie Rankings

I have previously ranked horror movie herehereherehere, and here. So let's do another few. As per the rules, these must be movies I have seen in the past couple years and remember well.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
I watched this with my son last weekend. He was suitably scared/fascinated by this first of the modern zombie movies. I was afraid he'd be upset by the nihilistic ending (spoiler warning?) but it didn't bother him at all.

Story/Plot/Characters--Characters are thin and dialogue is functional, but it's well-acted and well-made for such a low-budget film. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--One of the first gory movies. Primitive by today's standards but still effective. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Yes. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--I've mentioned before that one thing I'm looking for in horror movies is a sort of sense of isolation, like there's no escape from the situation. This has that in abundance, plus it's atmospheric in a more traditional sense as well (fog, cemeteries, etc.). (2 points)
Total=7.5 points

DAY OF THE DEAD (1978)
The sequel to Night of the Living Dead and no, I didn't show this one to my son. Maybe when he's older. Like 22. I have seen it as recently as last Halloween. One of the best horror movies ever made, and possibly my personal favorite. A genuinely scary movie but also a cogent satire of materialistic 1970s American culture.

Story/Plot/Characters--Good pacing, tight plotting, many complicated action scenes are presented clearly and coherently. Well-drawn characters. Dialogue a little less than sparkling but not actually bad. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Cutting-edge effects at the time, possibly the goriest American movie made up to that point. Perhaps a little dated but grading on the curve gives it a full score here. (2 points)
Scariness--Some of the tensest, scariest scenes I have ever viewed. (2 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--So freaky. The scene near the beginning when the helicopter is taking off as the skyline of Philadelphia winks out behind it is one of the all-time great visuals. The scenes at the mall as zombies "shop" the corridors is unbelievably freaky. (2 points)
Total=9.5 points

MAN-THING (2005)
Here's a movie that counts as both a horror film and a comic book movie. I'll do it as a comic movie in a later post. I'm a big fan of the Man-Thing, especially his first comic series from the mid-1970s. It's set in a small town in the Florida everglades, where an ancient Indian site in the neighboring swamp has spawned a creature to protect it against the encroachments of modern industrialized society. I'll say right now this movie got some of the basics right but did not nearly capture enough of the weirdness of the comic in its heyday. By the way, this movie has nudity and gore and is not suitable for children

Story/Plot/Characters--One thing I really hate in movies is when Hollywood actors fake a Southern accent. The southern accents in this movie are terrible. Characters are thin (why did they do away with the nuanced characters in the comic?) and dialogue is god-awful. Still, the pacing moves well and the plot is mostly coherent. (1 point)
Special Effects--Some decent effects, but not anything to write home about. (1 point)
Scariness--If you rely on gore rather than suspense, you should really actually have more gore. (.5 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Actually some fairly atmospheric scenes in the swamp and the oil refinery on the edge of town. (1.5 points)
Total=4 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

There are plenty of strips with Charlie Brown striking out, but this one from June 1967 seems harsher than most:


I think it's the irony of the camp sign at the end that does it. Sure, that's the source of the joke, but it's also the source of the cruelty. It's not just that Charlie Brown struck out and the other kids mocked him, it's that so much more was promised to him that he didn't receive.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

What I'm Reading: The Martian

I admit I was a bit skeptical when someone loaned me The Martian recently and told me I should read it. The Martian? That new movie with Matt Damon? Isn't that an airplane book, not real literature? (Yes, despite my devotion to comics and genre science fiction, I am quite a snob in certain respects.) Well, I did read it, and am glad I did so, despite some reservations with the book.

The book that The Martian most reminds me of is The Da Vinci Code, although if that's unflattering, let me say I consider The Martian far more worthwhile. But what I mean by the comparison, is that The Martian relentlessly pushes its plot forward, leading to a sort of page-turning mania in the reader, and The Da Vinci Code is the only recent book I could think of that had this quality to such an extent. I don't read a lot of potboilers though, so forgive me if there's a more recent book I should be thinking of instead.

Yet, I think The Martian has far more value, because its tale of astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on Mars and forced to survive for years until a rescue mission can be mounted, is based in hard science, which Watney (and through him, author Andy Weir) shares with us in abundance. The Da Vinci Code, on the other hand, gave the impression of being based in fact but was actually mumbo-jumbo and conspiracy theory that no actual archeologists subscribe to. Watney's story, though, could practically be used as a manual, were any unfortunate astronaut actually to fall victim to a similar scenario.

But this propulsion of the plot also creates what I consider the book's greatest weakness: its lack of sensory detail, of scenery-setting and place-building, of any sort of evocation of the wonder of a distant planet. The book almost gets away with it, as its protagonist, who narrates much of the story via his mission journal, is a hard-headed engineer who probably would take little notice of the more poetic aspects of his situation. Yet, there's such a startling lack of place description, even as the book at a couple points goes into some detail on the 70s TV sitcoms he watches to pass the time, that Watney comes across as unbelievably superficial. A mechanical engineer, a botanist, with a great sense of humor and a genius for survival--but perhaps the dullest space explorer ever. Only his situation keeps us interested.

I've read plenty of Arthur C. Clarke in my life, whose stories were always grounded in hard science and who often emphasized plot and concept at the cost of characterization, Yet Clarke certainly would not have passed up the chance to convey to the reader the awesomeness of dwelling on a red planet with two moons. What do sunsets look like on Mars? What does the soil smell like? How about Watney's habitat? He tells us it smells bad, as he's reusing his own feces to fertilize his garden. But he doesn't make us feel it.

Still, I think I can recommend this book to anyone who would enjoy a page-turning science-fiction adventure solidly grounded in actual science and set in the near future. A reader can expect to be entertained and to learn a little, even if the book doesn't stick with you for more then ten minutes after you're done reading. This is Andy Weir's first effort at a novel, and before his next one, I hope he reads some Arthur C. Clarke, some Ray Bradbury, some Robert Heinlein, so he can see how to balance the science with the human.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

In his introduction to the first volume of the collected Peanuts, Garrison Keillor mentions this February 1954 strip as his favorite:


I can see why. That petty jealousy that you shouldn't feel, but you do anyway, seems like something a lot of Keillor's characters in Lake Wobegon feel. A quiet jealousy that worms its way into your brain and prevents you from finding real happiness.

What I like is that there's a real joke here, too. I laugh when I get to the end and I see Charlie Brown watching that pitiful little train go around in a circle. Oh, how we've all felt that way.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ghost of Scary Movie Rankings

I have previously ranked horror movie hereherehere, and here. So let's do another few. As per the rules, these must be movies I have seen in the past couple years and remember well.

NIGHT CREATURES (1962)
Another Hammer feature, this was our family movie last Saturday. Something of a rarity, and one of my personal favorites, with fine acting and a very clever script. Takes place in an English coastal town long known as a center for smuggling untaxed wine and spirits into England, as well as for its local legend about "marsh phantoms." When Captain Collier and his men show up to investigate smuggling reports, they find themselves stymied by the local parson, played by Peter Cushing, who is both a genuinely dedicated clergyman but also the mastermind behind the town's smuggling operation. Captain Collier disbelieves the local marsh phantom superstition and is determined to take his men out on the march at night to intercept the smugglers. This may not be a wise choice on his part!

Story/Plot/Characters--Well-acted, script fits together like a machine, great characters. Generally good pace except a couple scenes are a bit slow. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Effective effects for what they are. The marsh phantoms are fine, although I don't think they'd bear pausing the screen. Some scenes feel a bit sound-stagey. (1 point)
Scariness--Not especially frightening, but some tense moments. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Very atmospheric, although it lacks some of the isolated feeling I like in horror movies. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points

FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
One of our movies last year, and a true classic. I don't need to recount the plot, do I? I will just say that upon rewatching, I was greatly impressed with how much pathos Boris Karloff pulled out of a role with no speaking parts, limited facial expression, and clumsy movements.

Story/Plot/Characters--As so often in these older movies, some drawing room-type scenes play a little slowly. But well-acted, tight script, untouchable plot. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--The effects were so well done that even still the popular imagination of a mad scientist's laboratory brings this movie to mind, and despite a number of subsequent Frankenstein productions people still think of Karloff when they think of the Monster. (2 points)
Scariness--Grading a little bit on a curve here, but for its era, some scary parts. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The castle, the laboratory, the mob with pitchforks, the foggy woods: dripping with atmosphere. (1.5 points)
Total=8 points

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Another of our movies from last year, and one of the few horror sequels to actually top the original, with Dr. Pretorious an especially chilling addition to the list of characters and the Monster's attempt to make a friend truly emotionally affecting. Roughly covers the second half of Mary Shelley's novel.

Story/Plot/Characters--From start to finish a memorable classic, with only one minor, but extremely annoying flaw: a shrill, obnoxious old woman played by Una O'Connor, who mars several scenes near the start with her whiny antics. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--The effects are even better than the already excellent ones in the first movie. (2 points)
Scariness--Just as scary, or slight more so, than the first. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--All the atmosphere of the original, plus the sinister and freaky Dr. Pretorious gives this movie the full number of points on this score. (2 points)
Total=8.5 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

Here's one from April 1953.


Very noir-ish. Charlie Brown looks like he's ready to walk back to the office and wait for a dame to come to him with a new case. I think the lack of dialogue is what really sells this one. We're all alone in the universe, aren't we?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Son of Scary Movie Rankings

I have previously ranked horror movies herehere, and here. So let's do another couple. As per the rules, these must be movies I have seen in the past couple years and remember well.


PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)
This was our family movie last Saturday. Scary enough my son had to leave the room at one point! This was the version done by Hammer, and according to Wikipedia had an unusually large budget for a Hammer film, including renting out Wimbledon Theatre in London for on-location filming. The movie reflects the extra money, as it's beautifully done. The music the Phantom plays is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which seems natural, although apparently this is the only movie version that uses Bach.

Story/Plot/Characters--Great acting, all the characters are well-motivated, pacing is natural and moves well, though with a couple slow scenes. (3.5 points)
Special Effects--Not an effects heavy movie, but a fire scene and the various theatre scenes are well-done and effective. Bonus points for great period costuming and sets. On the other hand, the Phantom's face, when we see it, is...less than horrific. (1 point)
Scariness--Some frightening moments. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Highly atmospheric London settings. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points


CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
We watched this movie during our Halloween film series last year. Kids liked it a lot, and I found it entertaining if cheesy. Follows a team of anthropologists and their Brazilian crew as they explore a remote Amazon lagoon where a previous team disappeared after a major fossil discovery--a well-preserved specimen of an ancient amphibian man. Unfortunately, the species turns out not to be extinct!

Story/Plot/Characters--Acting is wooden, characters do a lot of stupid things because it moves the plot forward rather than out of believable motivation. Drags in parts.  (1 point)
Special Effects--One of the first movies to use SCUBA gear for underwater filming. The Creature's costume is rather laughable today but credible compared to other movies from the period. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Not really. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Some sense of isolation as the team finds themselves trapped in a remote Amazon upriver area. (1 point)
Total=3.5 points
______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bleak Peanuts

Of course, Peanuts was all about the psychological hang-ups of its characters, but usually this was expressed in a pretty humorous way. Sometimes, though, the veneer of humor didn't quite take, revealing the underlying bleakness. Here's an example, from November 1961:


I feel for Charlie Brown, here. I've been in this situation before. Not much of a joke in this one, is there?

I'll probably do some more of these strips in the future. Let's call this feature "Bleak Peanuts."

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bride of Scary Movie Rankings

We came up with a method to rank horror movies here and ranked some more here. So let's do another couple. As per the rules, these must be movies I have seen in the past couple years and remember well.

KING KONG (1933)
Surely I don't need to describe the plot, right? A giant gorilla, discovered by the obsessive Carl Denham on mysterious Skull Island, whom he takes back to New York in chains, only for the big guy to escape and carry Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) up the Empire State Building?

Story/Plot/Characters--It starts off a little slow and some of the dialogue is less than sparkling. The overall plot, however, feels natural, even mythical. It's hard to believe there was a time when this story didn't already exist. (3 points)
Special Effects--The effects at the time were groundbreaking, and hold up well enough that my kids were riveted, even 80 years later. I must say the effects hold up well even in the age of CGI. (2 points)
Scariness--I wouldn't say this is a really scare movie, but there are some moments of real horror: the villagers offering Darrow up as a sacrifice to Kong, Kong breaking free of his chains before the audience in New York. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The ship's voyage, Skull Island, Kong flipping over cars in streets and climbing skyscrapers. (2 points)
Total=8 points

THE WOLF MAN (1941)
My daughter really likes this one for some reason, so we've seen it the past two Halloweens in a row. I, however, found it to be the most disappointing movie included in Universal's two-volume classic monster collection.

Story/Plot/Characters--This movie is so. slow. paced. And everybody keeps repeating this dumb poem about werewolves throughout the whole thing. And the dialogue is cheesy. (1 point)
Special Effects--I was convinced by the "making of" featurette included with this film that the make-up and costuming were really groundbreaking. (1 point)
Scariness--Nope. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--I guess there's some nice fog and the gypsy camp is pretty cool. It all feels very sound-stagey, though. (1 point)
Total=3 points
______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far, and let's also add to it the color ranking I use with the comic movies.
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Favorite Peanuts Strip

Still experimenting/enjoying the new scanner. Here's my favorite Peanuts strip of all time, a Sunday strip from August 1960:


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What I'm Reading: A Family of Value

A Family of Value is a practical, hands-on book by John Rosemond on how to raise respectful, resourceful, and responsible children. John Rosemond is a child psychologist who believes that most of the child psychology of the past several decades has been counter-productive, and that old-fashioned methods in raising children are generally preferable to modern approaches.

That doesn't mean beating your children or sending them off to the orphanage or whatever Dickensian images "old-fashioned child-rearing" might bring to mind. Rather, he points out that until the 1960s, grandparents passed down to new parents a set of time-worn adages for child-rearing that worked perfectly well. Adages like, "You made your bed, now lie in it;" or, "I'm going to give you enough rope to hang yourself;" or, "A watched pot never boils." These age-old methods had wisdom behind them, but the best part was a parent didn't have to understand why they worked, didn't have to become an expert themselves, they simply had to follow the adages.

The book is divided in three parts. The first part is background on how Rosemond came to believe modern child-rearing methods are ineffective and is something of a rant against a lot of trends in modern society. I felt this was the least interesting part, and as the book was written in 1995, somewhat outdated as well. This part can be skipped without losing much. (By the way, I just checked on Amazon, and the book is still in print.)

The second part is where the good stuff starts. He puts forth how modern parents can revive the old-fashioned methods. I don't want to give away all his secrets, but he makes a lot of good points here. One of his main principles is that a family with a child who has problems that are worrying his parents is putting the worry in the wrong place. Many of his recommendations are for taking various problems (not doing homework, talking back, etc.) and putting the worry on the child. By making it the child's problem rather than the parents' things tend to get solved a lot more quickly.

Another principle of his I like is that children are resilient, not fragile. He thinks in most cases, if you treat a child as a responsible person (within the limits of his age) rather than a victim he'll be fine. Chores, homework, relations with friends and siblings are all things children could and should be handling for themselves, and parental involvement only causes more problems than it solves.

One thing I have already started doing is assigning more chores. Rosemond stresses that chores involve a child in the family, indeed, they give him a stake in family life by making him responsible for helping the house function. In fact, Rosemond thinks children should have one or more chores to do around the house every day. We already made our kids clean their rooms, help clear the table, and a couple other tasks, but this very week we have started upping their contributions to keeping the house clean.

The third part is a series of specific situations Rosemond has culled from parents he's counseled and letters he's received, and how he recommends dealing with them. As in the second section, we've already found a helpful approach for our daughter, who is a picky eater. He doesn't believe you should force a child to eat something she doesn't want to, but neither should a child be allowed to complain about her food (rude!) nor does the parent need to go to the trouble of making extra dishes for a picky eater.

Rosemond recommends you simply give your picky eater very small portions of all the same food the rest of the family is eating. If she complains, take an hour off her bedtime. If she eats it all, she may have seconds, dessert, or snacks the rest of the family is having. But if she doesn't finish it, set it aside. If she says later she is hungry, bring out the food again and say after she finishes it she may have snacks, dessert, etc. Otherwise, she must not be really hungry. The main thing is not to make a big deal about it. Over time, increase the portion size until the child is eating normally for her age.

Starting tonight, we put this plan into effect. Our daughter didn't eat much, but it did eliminate the complaining. Halfway there!

I heartily recommend this book for parents of children who could be more respectful, responsible, or resourceful, and are looking for a fairly straightforward way of dealing with it, without a lot of psychological theories or terminology.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

More Scary Movie Rankings

OK, let's do two more. Last night, as per the schedule, the family watched Village of the Damned (1960). I'll also rank John Carpenter's version of The Thing (1982), which I re-watched with my stepfather this past summer.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
This British movie is about a village in southeast England where one strange day in the late 1950s, everybody fell asleep. The British army moved in to investigate, and found drawing too near the town caused any intruder to fall asleep as well. A few hours later, everybody woke up, and so far as anybody could tell nothing was any different, except for one thing: all the women in town of child-bearing age were pregnant.

They gave birth five months later (!) to a dozen children. The babies developed rapidly and without any of the normal childhood sicknesses. These children stuck together and when one learned something, the others learned it as well, without needing to speak to one another. As they grew, they developed powers to read others minds, and to control others as well.

I don't want to say too much more, except that when I first saw this in high school, I think, it became one of my favorite horror movies, and upon seeing it again so many years later, my opinion remains.

Story/Plot/Characters--Acting is great, pacing is perfect, story is compelling. (4 points)
Special Effects--Already this movie challenges my system a bit, for there are few special effects. I can't count that against the movie, simply because it chose not to use them, can I? The trick with the children's glowing eyes is effective. On the other hand, there is a scene where a house catches on fire that is clearly a model, and also, cars do not explode simply because they hit a brick wall. (1 point)
Scariness--My daughter, 6 years old, says it wasn't that scary. On the other hand, my son, 10, covered his eyes at a couple points. I found it moderately scary. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--This movie is chock full of atmosphere and freakiness. (2 points)
Total=8 points

THE THING
John Carpenter remade the Thing From Another Planet (1951) in 1982. I wonder if this was the first example of the sub-genre of action-horror? Certainly, Aliens (1986), Predator (1987), Pitch Black (2000), and the 1999 remake of The Mummy, fall in this genre. But I can't think of any examples before The Thing. The first Alien (1979) may have been close, but not quite.

Story/Plot/Characters--Acting is great, pacing is fine, but the characters are thin. Also, a key plot point is ridiculous. When the station biologist, Blair (played quite well by Wilford Brimley!), performs an autopsy of the disfigured corpse, he realizes it must be an alien creature. Fine. But then he runs a computer program that calculates the alien, which can take the form of any creature it takes over, will overrun the earth within a matter of weeks? What? Did Blair just happen to have that program on his computer? Or did he program it himself while on break from the alien autopsy? This makes no sense, and is a major hinge in the movie. (2 points)
Special Effects--This has some of the best effects of any horror movie I've ever seen. (2 points)
Scariness--Some scary scenes. I feel the very nature of the movie as a hybrid between action and horror undermines some of the scariness, though. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The creature's transformations are pretty freaky, and the isolated nature of Antarctic outpost makes for a nice feeling of isolation. But again, the action aspects undermine the atmosphere. (1 point)
Total=6 points
______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rates so far:
Village of the Damned=8 points
Jaws=7 points
The Thing=6 points

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ranking Scary Movies

I've love horror movies. I always have, ever since I was a little kid. Not sure why, there's just something primal in them that appeals to me.

In my house, we have movie night every Saturday. We cycle so that my son picks the movie one week, my daughter the next, and my wife or I on the third week. However, in October I take over the movie decision-making for a selection of age-appropriate scary movies. I even make up a flyer and everything! Here's this year's:



As we've done with the James Bond movies and the comic book movies, let's rank the horror movies. As this blog topic continues in coming weeks, we'll do the ones I'm watching with my family this year, as well as last year's. In addition, we'll do some other ones I've seen in the past few years.

As with the James Bond movies, we'll come up with a little rubric so this is scientific. Let's score it out of ten points.

Story/Plot/Characters--Is it coherent and logical? Are the characters realistic? Acting, directing? (4 points)

Special Effects--This will be on something of a curve, so that movies from, say, the 1930s will be graded against other movies from the same era. (2 points)

Scariness--Duh, a horror movie should be scary. (2 points)

Atmosphere/Freakiness--This seems separate from sheer scariness to me. A lot of movies might not be that scary but are appealing as horror movies because of the atmosphere. (2 points)

Let's start off with Jaws, a movie I watched with my kids during October last year, and which my daughter asked to watch again on her movie night just a few weeks ago. She's six years old, by the way, so already her taste in horror is impeccable. I suppose my judgment as a parent might be more questionable, but that's another topic....

JAWS
Story/Plot/Characters--Characters are right out of real life, plot is plausible and flows naturally, directing and acting are superb. (4 points)
Special Effects--Steven Spielberg famously limited the amount of time Jaws is on screen because the robotic shark he had made up looked too fake. It was a good decision, because you can hardly tell, and mixed with real shark footage this is totally believable. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Medium scary. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Not especially atmospheric, but it has its moments, especially in the scene when Chief Brody and oceanographer Hooper are out on Hooper's research boat in the middle of the night. Certain moments on board Quint's boat, the Orca, at the end, also count. (.5 points)
Total=7 points

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Hark! A Vagrant This is a collection of comic strips by Kate Beaton, who creates erudite, smart-ass, and occasionally foul-mouthed comics revolving around historical and literary themes. Let me use our new scanner to give you an example, this one from King Lear.

Pretty funny, right? Her cartoons have appeared in the New Yorker and other publications. So if smart-ass and foul-mouthed New Yorker comics sound as awesome to you as they do to me, you'll probably enjoy this book. I understand she has a new collection coming out in the near future, as well.

Island This is a new comic anthology series published in magazine format. The editor of this project is Brandon Graham, who did the art on the revival of the Prophet series, which I reviewed here. As you might expect from that, this could be characterized as weird science fiction. Other artists taking part include Emma Rios, Farel Dalrymple, and many others. I think my favorite story so far was Simon Roy’s piece on a floating space station where humanity has regressed to the stone age, but with remnants of technology still around. Ludroe's story about a skateboarding mummy was also fun.

The Spire I’m a sucker for giant, intricate, labyrinthine cities/buildings and the adventures that take place in them, so I've really been enjoying this new fantasy comic series. As per usual in this type of series, the elite humans live on the top level of the humongous Spire, while the less-privileged immigrant outlanders, who seem to be various types of monstrous humanoids, populate the lower levels. One of those less-privileged, Sha, has risen to be head of the Queen's guard, and she's investigating a series of murders that seem to involve the very highest ranks of Spire society. Well-written and with lots of fascinating little world-building details.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Recent short story published online

The blog maintained by the Writers of Chantilly recently posted one of my short stories. I actually meant to include the link weeks ago but I kept forgetting... Anyway, here it is now. It's titled Favor in Thy Sight.

I should add the WoC blog also has several other stories by other members of the group. Some of them are quite intense and moving. If you have never visited there, it will be worth your time to go and read some of them!


Monday, August 31, 2015

Ranking the James Bond Movies

So my son is 10 years old, and over the past year or so, we've been watching some of the James Bond movies together. Many of these I have not seen since I was in high school. We have half a dozen on DVD, so I'll rank those as well as Casino Royale, which I've watched twice since its release in 2006 and believe I remember well enough to rank.

Unlike the superhero movies, I'm going to put together a little rubric to make this an objective exercise. Since the Bond movies are formulaic and their quality is based on how well they fulfill the formula, I'm going to lay out the several categories a Bond movie can get points in. Most of the categories will award 2 points if the movie is one of the top 3 Bond movies (out of the 7 I'm rating), and 1 point if it's in the top 6. (Please keep in mind, I am only basing this on the 6 movies I have watched with my son, plus Casino Royale. In future, I may add more movies to the mix.) Here are the criteria, with a maximum of 14 points available:

Story/Plot--2 points--Is the plot coherent and logical? Are the stakes high?  (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 6)

Action--2 points--Are the stunts exciting? The car chases thrilling?  (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 6)

Villain--2 points--What's a Bond movie without dastardly villains and their henchmen? (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 6)

Setting--2 points--The Bond movies are all about exotic locations. (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 6)

Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--2 points--What's the cool stuff?  (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 6)

Bond girls--2 points--The ladies, oh yes, the ladies. (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 6)

Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?--1 point--These are the best Bonds (no need to debate) and get an automatic extra point if appearing in the film.

Musical theme--1 point if in the top 5

Goldfinger
Story/Plot--Cornering the world gold market by irradiating the gold in Fort Knox. Definitely top 3 (2 points)
Action--The car chase is good, the golf game is classic, but not a whole lot of stunts. Top 6. (1 point)
Villain--Goldfinger? Odd Job? Are you kidding me? Top 3 (2 points)
Setting--Scotland and Kentucky are creative, but not that exotic. Top 6 (1 point)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--Oh, God, the Aston Martin! Plus an extensive visit to Q's lab. And Goldfinger's laser. Top 3 (2 points)
Bond Girls--Everybody remembers Pussy Galore because of her name, but she doesn't actually make much of an impact in the movie. 0 points
SC or DC? Connery, +1
Music--Goldfinger, yep, +1
Total: 10 points

Thunderball
Story/Plot--Nuclear missile dropped underwater, top 6 (1 point)
Action--Great SCUBA scenes (and innovative for their time), a decent car chase. Top 6 (1 point)
Villain--Emilio Largo--Who? (0 points)
Setting--Opening scene in Paris, most of the action in the Bahamas. A little generic (0 points)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--Underwater breather, lots of cool SCUBA stuff, Largo's beachfront house is sweet. Top 6 (1 point)
Bond Girls--Fiona Volpe--not too memorable. Top 6 (1 point)
SC or DC? Connery, +1
Music--Tom Jones on the title song. I guess we'll say Top 5, +1
Total: 6 points

On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Story/Plot--The best plot of the movies, the only one that's a geniune tearjerker. (2 points)
Action--Some really beautifully done ski scenes, Top 3 (2 points)
Villain--Blofeld as played by Telly Savalas, plus the formidable Fraulein Bunt definite Top 3 (2 points)
Setting--Sardinia, but mostly in Switzerland, Top 6 (1 point)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--The Aston Martin again, and Blofeld's chalet is cool as hell. Top 3 (2 points)
Bond Girls--Diana Rigg, the only woman (until Casino Royale) Bond every fell for (and who can blame him?) (2 points)
SC or DC?--Nope
Music--Not too memorable
Total: 9 points

Live and Let Die
Story/Plot--Something about cornering the heroin market, I don't know, not too great (0 points)
Action--Gators, a boat chase in the bayou, but doesn't add up to a top 6 finish
Villain--Mr. Big/Kananga is forgettable, but Baron Samedi is worth a mention. Top 6 (1 point)
Setting--Some great shots of Bond really, really out of place in Harlem, some nice shots of New Orleans. Unfortunately, much of the movie is set in the fictional island of San Monique. Why? Is there any other Bond movie with a fictional location? Top 6 (1 point)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--A magnetic watch, some cool boats, top 6 (1 point)
Bond Girls--Not one, but two of the hottest Bond Girls ever--Solitaire (Jane Seymour) and Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry), top 3 (2 points)
SC or DC?--Nope
Music--Paul McCartney, +1
Total: 6 points

The Spy Who Loved Me
Story/Plot--Actually a fairly exciting, tense plot about some stolen nuclear missiles, top 3 (2 points)
Action--Great underwater action, the fight with Jaws on the train, top 6 (1 points)
Villain--Stromberg is forgettable (though with good taste in lairs), but his henchman Jaws is second only to Oddball in Bond history. Top 3 (2 points)
Setting--Great atmospheric scenes in Egypt, Sardinia, plus the opening ski scene in Austria--definite top 3 (2 points)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--A Lotus that turns into a submarine! An awesome undersea lair with transparent walls and an awesome bar that anybody would want to live in, or at least through a bitchin' party! (2 points)
Bond Girls--Barbara Bach, the hottest Bond girl of all time, and with a huge role in the movie, too. (2 points)
SC or DC?--Nope
Music--Nobody Does It Better, Top 5, +1
Total: 12 points

Casino Royale
Story/Plot--A plot to bankrupt a known terrorist at a secret high-stakes gambling event, top 6 (1 point)
Action--The initial parkour chase in Madagascar, plus a number of other great scenes puts this in the top 3 (2 points)
Villain--Le Chiffre cries blood, hits you in your gonads with a big rope if he doesn't like you, top 6 (1 point)
Setting--Miami, Montenegro, and some really great scenes in Venice, top 3 (2 points)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--A tracking device, an explosive keychain, top 6 (1 point)
Bond Girls--Vesper Lynd just barely misses the top 3 (1 point)
SC or DC?--Daniel Craig +1
Music--Not too memorable
Total: 9 points

Skyfall
Story/Plot--A villain who used to be in MI6 but feels betrayed, top 6 (1 point)
Action--Really cool fight on the top of the elevator shaft in a Shanghai skyscraper and several other scenes puts this in the top 6 (1 point)
Villain---Raoul Silva, one of the more believable Bond villains, top 6 (1 point)
Setting--Shanghai, Bond's childhood home in Scotland, London, including the bowels of MI6, top 6 (1 point)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--Not a lot of that stuff here (0 points)
Bond Girls--Severine, but really M functions as the Bond Girl in this one (?!), top 6 (1 point)
SC or DC?--Daniel Craig +1
Music--Adele, +1
Total: 7 points

And, here are the results:
1) The Spy Who Loved Me, 12 points
2) Goldfinger, 10 points
3, 4) Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, tied with 9 points
5) Skyfall, 7 points
6, 7) Thunderball and Live and Let Die, tied with 6 points

Sunday, August 30, 2015

What I'm Reading: Grit Lit

Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader collects short stories from the past 30 years or so in the sub-genre the collection calls "Rough South." These are stories set in the South among mostly blue-collar families or the rural underclass, folks with a tendency towards drink, violence, and short-term employment. The authors are the heirs of Faulkner and generally come from a poor, rural background themselves.

The book was something of an eye-opener for me. My own stories and novels tend to be set in the South, with a lot of the types of characters as found here. Although generally, I work in YA and have a somewhat less bleak worldview that most of these stories. I guess I must have had the sense there were others working in this area, hence my seeking the book out, but I had little concrete idea of what exactly such a collection would entail.

There is not a weak story among the bunch, and a number of them will stay with me a long time:

Tim McLaurin's hero, Bubble, decides to drink all the wine in the world in The Acorn Plan after his nephew cuts a soldier up while drunk. At best, this will leave nothing left for his nephew to drink, but more realistically, he wants his nephew to get a good close-up look at where his path is taking him, even if it means his own dissolution.

Wylie Greer is a new father is Will Allison's Atlas Towing, and not real confident he will be a better father than his own drunk and mostly-absent old man. But when a casual buddy of his accidentally kills his own newborn, Wylie reassesses what he might have to offer his family.

In Jim Gautreux's Sorry Blood an alcoholic loser kidnaps a senile old man from the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, intending to force him into physical labor at his house for a few days. But the loser learns even an apparently vulnerable old man has hidden strengths.

These three were some of my personal favorites, but honestly, you could pick up this book and flip to a random page and wherever you land it will be well-worth your time to read. Every single story offers a mini-seminar in how to write a meaningful, moving short story.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ranking the Spider-Man Movies

So far I've ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies and the non-Marvel and non-DC comic movies.  There's only one major franchise of super-hero movies yet to do, and that is the Spider-Man franchise.  So here we go!

(P.S. Loyal reader Pat wondered in a recent comment when I'd be getting to the Fantastic Four movies. Those will be coming up under the "other Marvel movies" category, which I have planned for the (not-too distant?) future.)

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Spider-Man (2002)--At the time, this was one of the best comic movies that had yet appeared. Comic fans have had a wealth of offerings since then, but this still holds up as highly entertaining. Willem Defoe as the Green Goblin is nicely menacing, Kirsten Dunst makes an excellent Mary Jane, and Tobey Maguire is...perhaps not the perfect Peter Parker, but much more than adequate.

Spider-Man 2 (2004)--And this was even better. It had a lot of themes that really resonated. It took the old trope from the comic of Spidey running out of web fluid and made it a symbol of impotence. It paralleled the scientist Dr. Octavius with Peter Parker, an aspiring scientist, showing how he could navigate a life of science, super-heroing, while also maintaining romantic and personal relationships. But when Dr. Octavius turned to Dr. Octopus, it also showed Peter the dangers of putting too much ambition. Well-paced, perfect tone, fun but some things to think about it.

Spider-Man 3--This brought the series back to earth. Not actually terrible, but over-stuffed and muddled with villains and secondary characters.

Amazing Spider-Man (2012)--Looked terrible in previews, got awful reviews, so I decided to skip it.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)--Same as above.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

What I'm Reading: The Courts of Chaos

The Courts of Chaos is the fifth book in Roger Zelazny's Amber series of fantasy novels (see herehere and here for write-ups on previous novels in the series). I've previously described these as grown-up fantasy without the usual cliches, and that continues to hold true for this volume.

This is the final of Zelazny's original five novels and wraps up the story of Prince Corwin, who in volume three found himself unexpectedly ruling in Amber, the one true kingdom whose throne he had been fighting his siblings for, and who, in volume four, found ruling wasn't all it was cracked up to be. In The Courts of Chaos he travels to, well, the courts of chaos, where the final battle is taking place between the heirs of Amber and the Lords of Chaos, the two primeval realms of existence of which all the other worlds (including Earth) are but shadows.

I won't give away the ending except to say that it is wholly satisfying and yet, as usual with Zelazny, does not follow the expected fantasy path. In fact, Corwin's role in the battle is rather small though he has many other important tasks to take care of which bring him in contact with a variety of humorous and dangerous characters. Also as in previous volumes, though there is no lack of physical conflict, opponents are really just as likely to use trickery, seduction, wit, or even philosophic argument to achieve their ends.

I highly recommend this book to any fans of fantasy, or for those who think they might like fantasy but aren't interested in elves. I'll probably take a break from Amber for a while, as the next five books (all contained in my giant "Great Book of Amber" tome) form a separate story, started some years after Zelazny finished the first five.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Ranking the Summer 2015 Marvel Movies

So far I've ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, and the non-Marvel and non-DC comic movies.  There's only one major franchise of super-hero movies I haven't ranked yet, and that is the Spider-Man franchise.  But I'll continue to put that off for a while, while I rank this summer's comic book movies.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Avengers 2: Age of Ultron--Not nearly as good as the first one. Too bombastic, too long, a few interesting character moments but not enough of them. We learned a lot about Hawkeye, who it turns out differs significantly from his comic book version. He has a wife and children tucked away in some safe place in the Midwest, and the moments we saw of his household were among the best in the movie. The new characters Quiksilver and the Scarlet Witch didn't really resonate. This wasn't terrible, but it felt like a time-filler, and what a lot of time it filled.

Ant-Man--Just saw this today. A lot of fun, if a little trifling. Because Ant-Man can't rely on his strength to get by, he has to rely on cleverness, so that's a nice change of pace from most other comic book movies. For the nerds, the Ant-Man in the movie is Scott Lang, with Dr. Hank Pym as his mentor. Hews pretty closely to Scott Lang's comic backstory, although Dr. Pym had lots of changes, which makes sense as his is a character that was damaged by some really bad story-writing choices decades ago (depicting him as a wife-beater, for instance). Funny and fast-moving.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)