Saturday, December 31, 2016

What I'm Reading: Complete Peanuts, 1987-88

The Complete Peanuts is a noble project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  The project actually finished recently with volume 26, but I'm a little behind and have only reached 1987-88. I've reviewed five previous volumes of the Complete Peanuts: the 1977-78 volume herethe 1979-80 volume here, the 1981-82 volume here1983-84 volume here, and the 1985-86 volume here.

Marcie learns what it's like

This volume continues following the strip during its gentle decline into old age. The first half of the book has surprisingly few long story arcs, but plenty of the dull strips about Snoopy's brother Spike, who lives in the desert near Needles, CA, and doesn't do a whole lot. I don't object to the occasional strip with him, but does he have to come back so often? How many cactus jokes can Schulz give us? In the second half of the book we get a few longer arcs, including one where Snoopy heard a rumor that the summer Olympics have been moved to Needles and decides to go visit his brother to help him sell souvenirs. Of course, the Olympics did not really move from the actual location that year (Seoul, South Korea), and Snoopy soon returns home.

There a couple more interesting arcs. One is when Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty decide to trade their useless right fielders: Marcie and Lucy. So convinced is she that Marcie is the worst baseball player on the planet, Peppermint Patty throws in a pizza with the deal, only to discover that nope, Lucy's even worse. Too late, Charlie Brown already ate the pizza! But even so, they do decide to trade back.

In another story arc, Sally volunteers to write the Christmas play for her school, only to write a part for Geronimo instead of Gabriel. When she corrects her mistake in the script, the kid who was going to play Geronimo feels cheated, but the argument is moot when the school board cancels the play altogether for being controversial. Schulz doesn't spell it out, but I suppose the controversy is putting on a religious play in a public school. In any case, Sally's relieved because now she doesn't have to deal with the Geronimo kid.

There's also a new character who's fairly delightful (although I think she was actually introduced in the last volume), Lydia. Lydia sits behind Linus in class and he has fallen in love with her, a condition she uses to continually bedevil him. At first she refuses to tell him her actual name, going through Sarah, Melissa, and so on. (But wouldn't Linus know her real name from the teacher calling roll at the beginning of the day? Never mind.) Whenever Linus asks her if she wants to do something with him, she asks if he isn't too old for her. Later, they exchange addresses for sending each other Christmas cards, only Lydia gives Linus the wrong address and his card is returned. She's out-Christmased him! Of course all this drives Linus crazy, but when Lucy asks why he bothers to have anything to do with her, he admits that he finds her fascinating.

This is actually a little livelier than the last volume, and I noticed a number of strips where Schulz puts in a level of effort on the art we haven't seen in a while. Still, it doesn't approach the great strips from the Peanuts heyday from the mid-1950s to the early 70s. This one is more for completists then general Peanuts fans.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Scary Movies: Aliens

What am I doing reviewing a scary movie the week before Christmas? Well, every Saturday night, the  members of my family alternate picking a movie for everyone to watch, and my son's choice this past week was Aliens. (I reviewed Alien a few months ago here.) No, we didn't let my daughter watch, and my wife sat this one out too. So it was father-son bonding.

Though this is the sequel to Alien, it has quite a different flavor than the first movie. The first was directed by Ridley Scott and was about a monster loose on a spaceship--essentially a haunted house in space. This movie, however, was directed by action master James Cameron and operates as an action-horror film, full of guns and soldiers and aliens getting blasted. (I speculated here that 1982's The Thing was the first entry in the action-horror sub-genre.)

It follows Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, the sole human survivor of the first movie, who has returned to human civilization. She finds a job as a loader operator on an industrial work site but suffers from nightmares that keep her from sleeping and finds it hard to relate to others. A big corporation has recently planted a small human colony on the planet where she and her crew encountered the alien in the first movie, disbelieving her warnings that malevolent aliens live in an abandoned spacecraft there. When the Corporation loses contact with the colony, they start to think she might have known what she was talking about.

Despite misgivings, she  accompanies a contingent of space marines to the planet to investigate. Not surprisingly, they find on arrival that the colony has been taken over by the aliens, with all humans apparently killed, their bodies used to incubate baby aliens. A battle between the marines and the aliens ensues in the depths of the aliens' breeding chamber, and the stakes rise even further when Ripley discovers a seven-year-old girl still alive, named Newt, who has managed to survive for months in the ductwork beneath the colony's buildings. Ripley, Newt, and the few remaining space marines must escape the aliens and meet a ship that is returning to take them from the planet's surface, but will not be able to stay long if they are not there on time.

ALIENS (1986)

Story/Plot/Characters--Pretty good acting by horror movie standards and a well thought-out plot. Cardboard characters though, and with a whole platoon of marines, there are a lot of them to keep track of, with little to differentiate them. Though most are killed off early, we still know next to nothing even about the ones who last most of the movie. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--Like the first movie, the effects in Aliens are masterful and spectacular. Spaceships, slavering aliens, abandoned industrial buildings, and planetary surfaces are rendered completely believable. I actually wished at some points the movie would slow down and give viewers a chance to enjoy some of the beautiful scenes. (2 points)
Scariness--Like The Thing, the very nature of the movie as a hybrid between action and horror undermines much of the scariness. Scenes that would be chilling in other movies simply turn into shoot-outs. Some tense parts, but my son spent very little time hiding on the stairs, as is his wont with scary scenes. (.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Definitely some atmosphere in the abandoned buildings of the colony and the alien biology is disgusting and freaky. But again, as with The Thing, the fast action pacing undermines the atmosphere to an extent. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
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
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1976)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Saturday, December 10, 2016

What I'm Reading: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

My wife read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children when it came out in 2011 and thought I'd like it. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten to it on my reading stack until now. Apparently it was released as a movie a couple months ago; I'm not sure what kind of reviews it's gotten. I liked the book well enough, but had some reservations.

Before I get to the book, I have to describe how the author, Ransom Riggs, conceived of it. He started collecting weird old black and white photographs at flea markets--things like children floating in the air, or young women in elaborate mourning clothes, or a man covered in bees. Some of them must have resulted from photographic tricks, others simply begged the question why somebody would take such a picture. At some point, he started wondering if he could make a story out of them, and the idea for his first novel was born. The photos are, in fact, scattered throughout the novel, and act as an interesting complement to the writing.

The book is about a teen-ager named Jacob whose grandfather has always told him wondrous stories about his childhood in an orphanage on an island off the English coast where kids with bizarre powers lived separate from the rest of society. When his grandfather is killed by a monster that only he seems to have seen, Jacob is sent to a psychiatrist who recommends to his parents that Jacob should go to the island, where he can work out some of his mental issues. At summer break, his dad, an amateur ornithologist who himself wants to spend a few weeks on the island searching for a rare bird, takes Jacob. It's probably no surprise that Jacob discovers his grandfather's stories were not just made up....

It's actually quite a beautifully odd story, and the photos add something to the atmosphere. But they also take something away. When I read a book, I like to use my imagination, and I didn't need the pictures of the children. In fact, I rather came to resent the way the pictures dictated how I should picture the story in my head. I have to conclude that their use was a gimmick, and Riggs would have been better served using them simply as inspiration, and letting his story speak for itself. (Of course, he would have foregone a certain amount of publicity that's accompanied the use of the photos in his book, but that's a different matter.)

Another problem is that Riggs is clearly a writer who doesn't necessarily plan things out all the way, but just starts writing and sees where the story takes him. And that's great--that's the kind of writer I am, and I feel it lets characters breathe, and lets the story take turns that never would occur otherwise. But I do think there are one or two places in this book where Riggs writes himself into a corner and can only get out of it with plot twists that feel contrived. (I made a similar point about the Amber novels here, although in that case I felt the loose plotting worked a lot better.)

Nevertheless this was a fun and unusual novel, and quite easy to read despite some of its surrealistic touches. Any adult fan of fantasy literature would probably enjoy it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What I'm Reading: Blondie: The Complete Daily Comics Strips from 1930-33

This is one tough item to find. I saw it several years ago when it first appeared in stores, and declined to buy it at the time. But I've found since I would like some early Blondie strips to join my volumes of early Peanuts, Little Orphan Annie, Prince Valiant, and Popeye. Unfortunately, this is no longer in print, and copies routinely sell for more than $100 on Amazon. When I happened to check one day and found a copy for only $50, I snapped it up.

It covers the very early years of the Blondie comic strip, before they were married. In fact, the early strips revolved around Dagwood's romance with Blondie. However, their romance was constantly stymied by his fabulously wealthy parents, who didn't approve of his love for a poor girl of little social standing. The culmination of this early phase of the strip occurred in winter 1933, when Dagwood went on a hunger strike until his parents finally relented to his marriage, with the only catch being he was to be completely cut off from his inheritance--a small price to pay for the hand of his beloved Blondie! The wedding took place on February 17, 1933.

I think what surprised me most was that it wasn't just a gag-a-day strip in the 1930s, as it is now. There were some fairly long story arcs that went on for weeks or even months. I think my favorite was when Dagwood was unable to gain entrance to a university, so his father simply bought one and admitted Dagwood and Blondie:

Dagwood makes friends at school

Needless to say, the two weren't really cut out for college life and the strip soon moved on.

I'm leaning away from picking up the next volume, however. Despite the longer story arcs, this one was fairly repetitive, with the themes of Blondie's airheadedness and Dagwood's wimpiness hammered home over and over again. Still, it's fun to see the roots of a long-time strip that's still running more than 85 years after its creation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What I'm Reading: The Greek Way

I know Edith Hamilton best as the English translator of the most common edition of Greek and Roman myths--the famous edition of her Mythology is typically assigned in high schools. When I saw her book The Greek Way on the fundraising book sale table at work recently, I had to have it. It was published in 1930 and 1942 (not sure how that works--maybe certain parts appeared first in magazines?) and is a collection of critical essays on Hellenic-age Greek literature (i.e. the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.).

She moves more or less chronologically through ten of the most important Greek authors, starting with the poet Pindar and ending with the dramatist Euripedes, with a few essays on special topics like the religion of the Greeks or the Greek way of writing thrown in. She takes the characteristic she finds most important with each of these ancient authors and highlights it, typically by comparing him to a more modern author--the raw, heroic tragedy of Aeschylus with Shakespeare, for example, or the "exuberant, effervescent" comedy of Aristophanes with Victorian light opera librettist W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan)(!).

My favorite essay was on Xenophon, a Greek writer I was only slightly familiar with beforehand, whom Hamilton shows as the great portrayer of everyday Greek life, particularly for the leisured class in Athens. Xenophon is practically our only source outside of Plato to give an account of Socrates, but is also known for his autobiographical account of the retreat of 10,000 Greek mercenaries from Persia back to Greece after the general who had hired them was cut down in battle. The enemy didn't even bother mopping them up, assuming 10,000 leaderless foreign soldiers would simply perish, but that was not the case. Greek individualism and common sense carried them through a two-year journey across deserts and mountains, until they finally reached the Mediterranean Sea with most of their company intact. It is quite a stirring story.

I am not quite sure I could recommend this book generally. I think it would probably be most interesting to those who have somewhat more than a passing knowledge of ancient Greek literature and history. I found it quite fascinating myself, and my guess is if it sounds like a book that would interest you, you're probably right.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Scary Movies: Carnival of Souls

I have previously ranked horror movies hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. The final scary movie for this year is Carnival of Souls, from 1962. I have heard about this movie for a long time and have long wanted to watch it: the B-movie that somehow stumbled into being a highly influential classic.

It was filmed for a mere $33,000 and used a no-name cast, but director Herk Harvey had some advantages. First, he was a director of industrial films, and so had plenty of experience behind the camera. Second, his star, the exquisite Candace Hilligoss, only ever appeared in two other films, but had trained seriously as an actor in New York and had extensive stage experience. Finally, the musical score, by organist Gene Moore, practically tells a story in itself. Nobody who ever sees this movie forgets that eerie organ music.

The story is pretty straightforward. Mary Henry has just graduated with her degree in music and has accepted a job as organist at a church in Utah. The day before she is to leave, she is driving with some girlfriends when they accept a challenge to drag race a car full of boys. Going over a bridge, the girls' car goes over the edge. At first there are thought to be no survivors, but hours later, Mary emerges from the water. Others urge her not to drive to her new job, but she insists she must be there the next day.

As she drives to Utah, she sees a mysterious, spooky-looking man in the car window. Near her destination in Utah, she passes an abandoned dance hall by the Salt Lake and feels mysteriously drawn to it. Once in town, she starts her new job and moves into a boarding house where a neighbor, John, takes an interest in her. But as she goes about her new life, she keeps seeing that spooky man, and finds herself compelled to visit the dance hall again and again. She also has bizarre interludes when passersby don't seem to notice she's there or hear her speak. I won't give away the ending, but let's say it builds up to a surreal and frightening climax.

So, did director Harvey really know what he was doing or did he luck into it? Did he intentionally use the hypnotic soundtrack and surreal imagery to achieve the film's considerable impact, or was that merely a necessary by-product of the low budget? Did he mean to homage 1920s German expressionist films? Not clear on any of the three counts, but whether by fate or design this movie came together perfectly.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)

Story/Plot/Characters--Surprisingly good acting. Dialogue better than the usual B-movie. Straightfoward plot at first, by about halfway through we're operating on dream logic, but it makes perfect sense within the movie's world. (2.5 points)
Special Effects--Not a lot of effects, really little more than make-up, but what little there is used well.  With even a slightly bigger budget this movie could have scored higher here, but maybe then we wouldn't have gotten some of the other virtues of the film. (.5 points)
Scariness--Yes. Not chills or shocks, but a sort of dread that builds throughout the film. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The abandoned dance hall on the lake, the feeling of isolation in the Utah countryside, the eerie town at night, and that organ music. This is exactly what I'm looking for in this category. (2 points)
Total=6.5 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

Alien (1979)=10 points
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
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Friday, October 21, 2016

Scary Movies: The House on Haunted Hill

I have previously ranked horror movies herehereherehereherehereherehereherehere and here. Today's movie is The House on Haunted Hill, a movie directed by B-movie gimmick-king William Castle, and famous for including real flying skeletons and other gags during its original run in the theaters. It's one I've long wanted to see.

I'm happy to say the movie holds up as more than a mere gimmick, though. It's not a real classic or anything, but it has a fairly clever script, pretty good acting, and some decent atmosphere. It runs the course of one night, where millionaire industrialist Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) and his wife are hosting a little party at a haunted house where seven people have been murdered in the past. They've invited five guests, and everyone who stays until morning will win $10,000 (or their estates will, if they don't survive the night).

Among the guests is Watson Pritchard, the house's owner (although he doesn't live there), who watched his own brother murdered on the premises. He believes the house is truly haunted, and although some of the other guests are more skeptical, he adds a note of plausibility to many of the unexplained events of the evening. Another notable guest is Nora Manning, a young woman who works for one of Mr. Loren's companies, and badly needs the money to help pay for hospital treatments for her sick mother. I found these two characters to be the most sympathetic and the ones I identified with most.


THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)

Story/Plot/Characters--Clever, coherent plot and surprisingly good dialogue for a B movie. The characters are cardboard, but the actors do well with what they're given. Vincent Price's performance, in particular, is a gem. (3 points)
Special Effects--Low-budget, some of the effects are laughable, a few, including the critical effect at the very end, are effective (.5 points)
Scariness--Not at all. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The best part of the movie is the haunted house itself with all its mysterious rooms, hidden passageways, creepy basements, old furniture and organs, etc.. (1.5 points)
Total=5 points

I couldn't quite bring myself to rate this as Pretty Good, so it lands on our list in the Okay category. Still, it was almost there--with just slightly better characters or effects, this would have been a real classic. Still comes in as a fun way to pass the time.
______________________________________________________________________________
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

Alien (1979)=10 points
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
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Gremlins (1984)=4 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Thursday, October 13, 2016

What I'm Reading: Sabriel

Sabriel by Garth Nix is a YA fantasy novel with epic sweep, an intriguing setting, and great characters. Nevertheless, I found it a bit disappointing--but that's based almost solely on my own expectations. Garth Nix is one of my wife's favorite authors, and I had a read a glowing review of one of his books a few years ago. Those two things led me to believe this would be one of those rare fantasy novels to transcend its genre and be true literature, like Lord of the Rings or the Amber series. It's not quite at that level.

Still, this is fantasy of a very high quality. It follows Sabriel, an 18-year old girl who is about to graduate from an all-girl's boarding school. The school is located in Ancelstierre, where cars, firearms, and even movie theatres work, but is only a few miles from the Old Kingdom, where such technology will not operate but magic does. The school is in an in-between zone where magic is possible, but combustion as well, so long as the wind is not blowing from the Old Kingdom.

Sabriel's father is the Abhorsen, who travels the Old Kingdom battling the risen dead, and the necromancers who raise them. Once the Old Kingdom was a more peaceful place, but the ruling family was overthrown decades earlier and now it is a land of ever growing horrors. Sabriel's father has taught her some of the magic necessary to travel beyond the veil of death to the river of death, where nine river stages advance towards the final death beyond which souls are irretrievable.

Her adventure begins when a creature visits her from beyond the veil, one controlled by her father, who is somehow stuck in the river of death and has sent the creature to deliver his sword and his bandolier. The bandolier holds seven bells that allow the ringer to manipulate various aspects of life and death. Sabriel must take the sword and bells on a journey into the Old Kingdom, which she has not visited since she was a little girl, to find her father's body and discover what has caused him to become stranded in the river.

Soon, she discovers she is being followed by a Mordicant, a greater dead creature of great power. But at her father's house in the Old Kingdom, she also finds Mogget, a talking cat with knowledge of the ways of the Old Kingdom who can help her in her search. Together they set out, one step ahead of the Mordicant, with only a vague idea where the body of Sabriel's father lies and only a few days to find it before his spirit passes beyond the final river stage and he can never be revived.

This book shows tons of cool artifacts, spells, and creatures. The world is dense with fascinating details and it is a treat in nearly every chapter to come across new aspects of the world we didn't previously know about. I especially like Sabriel's bells, with their powers to cause listeners to sleep, to send listeners to the river of death or retrieve them, and so on. Garth Nix deftly avoids fantasy cliches while still providing the cool "stuff" fantasy fans love. Like I said above, it doesn't quite transcend the genre but I think anyone who's already a fantasy fan would love this.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Scary Movies: The Last Man on Earth

I have previously ranked horror movies hereherehereherehereherehereherehere and here. Today I'm rating the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, and practically nobody else. I say that because Price's character, Dr. Robert Morgan, is the sole survivor of a sort of apocalypse that has turned everybody else on Earth into vampires, leaving him as the only human.

Everyday, Dr. Morgan has to go out in the daylight hours to collect the things he needs to live--gasoline, canned food, as well as objects to keep away the vampires at night, such as garlic and mirrors. He's also systematically searching the area around him for where the vampires hide during the day, hoping to find them and burn their bodies when they're helpless. At night, he has trouble sleeping as the vampires assault his home (weakly--they're actually rather zombie-like vampires, with little bodily strength, and dangerous only in their massed numbers). It's been three years since the apocalypse began, and life for Dr. Morgan has become rather tedious, until one day he discovers a sign that there may be other humans still alive....

Unfortunately, this was not a very good movie. In fact, it was terrible. It was based on the 1954 novel I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the script but was so disenchanted with the final project he insisted the script be credited to a pseudonym. (The novel was also the basis for the Omega Man (1971) and I am Legend (2007) movies--not sure why what by all accounts is a good book should result in so many awful films.)

Let's do the rating:

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)

Story/Plot/Characters--The main problem is the poor pacing. It's so slow-paced, and not in a way that builds up tension, just boring. I suppose Vincent Price's acting is good, but since he hardly interacts with anybody else it's not put to much use. Flashbacks are placed awkwardly. (1 point)
Special Effects--Low-budget, but doesn't even take advantage of what it might have done well. A film full of vampires, but with little more than a smear of make-up to indicate that. Hardly any effort put into it. (0 points)
Scariness--Not at all. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--The one thing the movie manages to even approach doing correctly. There are some fairly effective scenes with abandoned housing estates, shopping areas, and churches establishing just how isolated and lonely Dr. Morgan's world is. (1 point)
Total=2 points

Oh my, the lowest-rated movie I've covered yet.
______________________________________________________________________________
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

Alien (1979)=10 points
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
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Gremlins (1984)=4 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Scary Movies: Alien

I have previously ranked horror movies herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. It's that time of year when things turn scary, and we have a real classic this time! Last Saturday, my son and I watched Alien together. I know it was scary because when a scene is too tense, he likes to go hide on the stairs until it's over--and there was a lot of stair hiding this time. After the movie was done, though, he said he loved it.

ALIEN (1979)

Sort of like Jaws, I don't think I need to explain this one too much. The spaceship Nostromo, a mining vessel, is returning to Earth with a full cargo. However, the ship wakes the crew from hibernation early when its sensors detect a world with non-human life on it, as per the programming of the ship's computer. When the crew investigates, an insectoid alien attacks one of their members, Kane, and, unbeknownst to the others, lays an egg in his body.

When Kane returns to the ship, the alien hatches inside him while they're eating dinner in one of the most famous scenes in movie history. From there, the alien slowly hunts the crew members one by one, until only Sigourney Weaver is left (plus the ship's cat, which she manages to save).

I might add I hadn't seen this one since high school and it's even better than I remembered it.

Story/Plot/Characters--The dialogue is realistic and the performances fantastic, the plotline is taut, and the moment to moment pacing is perfect, starting slow and ominous and building to an almost breakneck pace. (4 points)
Special Effects--The movie applied the most advanced effects available for both horror and science fiction in 1979 and in my opinion they hold up quite well. (2 points)
Scariness--There may be a few movies scarier, but not many. (2 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Spaceship and alien designs by Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger give this movie a unified, and very weird, aesthetic that's been enormously influential in the decades since. But so many freaky individual scenes: the windstorm on the planet's surface, coming across the giant skeletal corpse of an alien on the crashed spaceship, the steam vents and chains and weird industrial equipment in the vast ore storage chambers on the Nostromo, the cramped air shafts and utility spaces, all add up to perhaps the most atmospheric horror film ever. (2 poins)
Total=10 points

Huh, the first perfect score. I wasn't expecting that before I saw the movie. But I found nothing to object to throughout, and nearly every moment had something to admire.
______________________________________________________________________________
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

Alien (1979)=10 points
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
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Gremlins (1984)=4 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Scary Movies: Lady Frankenstein

I have previously ranked horror movies hereherehereherehereherehere, and here. I'll have a lot more scary movie reviews in October, but I couldn't wait that long to test out a movie from a new DVD I received for my birthday with a dozen or so public domain horror films on it.

LADY FRANKENSTEIN (1971)
Lady Frankenstein is an Italian-produced horror film, though it has mostly American and British actors, including Joseph Cotten (!) as the Doctor himself. It's not rated, but it should be pointed out this is a movie for adults, with several scenes with nudity and sexual situations.

In this version of the story, Dr. Frankenstein has been conducting his experiments on recreating life in the lab for 20 years along with his faithful assistant Dr. Marshall. His daughter, Tania, has recently returned from college, where she became a surgeon. Dr. Frankenstein tries to keep from Tania what he is working on, indeed, that his life's work has almost reached its culmination, with a stitched-together body ready to be brought to life. However, she reveals that she's long known what he has been working on, and she became a surgeon so she could assist him in his great experiments.

On the fateful stormy night, Dr. Frankenstein, Marshall, and Tania bring the monster to life with a well-timed bolt of lightning. The monster, however, is quite murderous and bloodthirsty (no sympathetic Boris Karloff here!) and kills Dr. Frankenstein almost immediately upon awakening, after which he escapes and commences a killing spree in the countryside.

Tania believes the only way to defeat the electrically-powered monster, who has massive strength and is impervious to bullets, is by creating another monster. Dr. Marshall objects that there is no way for them to gather the necessary body parts, which he and Dr. Frankenstein had been collecting for years. Ah, but Tania has an idea: they shall use Dr. Marshall's brain, and put it in the freshly murdered body of Thomas, the mentally retarded but physically imposing houseboy. Dr. Marshall does not want to commit the murder, but Tania reveals she knows he has always loved her, and she could love him in return if he were in a young, vigorous body like Thomas's, rather than his own aging body.

Dr. Marshall agrees. Tania seduces Thomas, and Dr. Marshall sneaks in and commits the deed. Tania then performs the brain transplant and brings the new monster to life, with Thomas's body and Dr. Marshall's mind. The procedure works, and the new monster soon battles the old monster, defeating and killing it. However, the castle is set on fire during the fight. Before they can flee, the new monster demands Tania consummate their love, but alas, it seems the new monster is as evil as the old, for the new monster strangles Tania during their lovemaking before both of them are consumed by the flames.

As you can tell, this is something of a feminist take on the Frankenstein story. It seems rather historically implausible--I think it would be simply impossible for a woman to become a surgeon in the 19th century. Still, if one is willing to accept that, it certainly gives a lot of power to Tania. She is the main driver of the action in this story, especially after her father is killed by the monster, and she is shown as being an intelligent, passionate woman who knows what she wants and goes after it, able to operate in the man's world of science better than the men who surround her. It also depicts her as utterly without scruple or morality, but I suppose in that she takes after her father.

I actually enjoyed this movie more than its score below is going to indicate. It was fast-paced, fairly exciting, low-budget but no glaring deficiencies. With plenty of nudity and rawer violence than usually scene in a Frankenstein movie, its pleasures were more of the lurid kind than the purely artistic. For those who don't object to that sort of thing, I could recommend this as a fun way to pass 90 minutes.

Story/Plot/Characters--Acting is decent though not great, the story is coherent and presents a fresh spin on an oft-told tale. Characters have believable motivations, although except for Tania they were still two-dimensional. (2 points)
Special Effects--The Frankenstein's monster is quite gruesome--you can really believe he's stitched together from corpses. The all-important laboratory is fairly lackluster though, the coming-to-life scene is dull, and there are few other effects to speak of other than copious blood. (1 point)
Scariness--More campy than scary. (1/2 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Some atmosphere, the cynically wisecracking graverobbers in the cemetery are a nice touch. I think some of the outdoor and village scenes were filmed on location rather than in a studio, which added a little something, Does not live up to its Universal or Hammer predecessors, however. (1 point)
Total=4.5 points

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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
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Gremlins (1984)=4 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ranking Die Another Day

I previously ranked some of the James Bond movies herehere, and here. I watched Die Another Day last weekend with my son. I had remembered this as being the best of the Pierce Brosnan films, and though I haven't seen the others since they first came out in theaters, I'm pretty sure my opinion still holds in that regard. I picked this one because my son takes fencing lessons, and this movie has a big fencing scene. In fact, that turned out to be the best part of the movie.

Since the Bond movies are formulaic and their quality is based on how well they fulfill the formula, I created a little rubric to rank the Bond movies, with several categories a movie can get points in. A Bond film gets 2 points if the movie is one of the top 3 Bond movies for a category, and 1 point if it's in the top 7, plus a couple special categories. 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 7)

Action--2 points--Are the stunts exciting? The car chases thrilling?  (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 7)

Villain--2 points--What's a Bond movie without dastardly villains and their henchmen? (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 7)

Setting--2 points--The Bond movies are all about exotic locations. (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 7)

Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--2 points--What's the cool stuff?  (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 7)

Bond girls--2 points--The ladies, oh yes, the ladies. (2 points, top 3; 1 point, top 7)

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

Die Another Day
Story/Plot--The story is coherent enough, even if the villain's plan isn't very common-sensical. The villain, rogue North Korean Colonel Moon, has world domination on the mind and plans to use his satellite, which can redirect the sun's rays, to blaze a path through the DMZ in Korea. But it's not really clear what that will do? Dialogue is full of action movie cliches. (0 points)
Action--The aforementioned fencing scene, where Bond and Colonel Moon's alter ego, British adventurer Gustav Graves, swordfight throughout an old English fencing club, destroying priceless paintings and sculptures on the way, is a masterpiece of movement and humor. Other action scenes are fairly generic. Top 7 (1 point)
Villain--Colonel Moon, even in his Gustav Graves disguise, just doesn't have much charisma. His henchman, Zao, has an interesting look with diamonds embedded in his face, but never actually does anything. (0 points)
Setting--Fun locations in Cuba and an ice hotel in Iceland. I don't believe any other Bonds have ever had parts set in North Korea, either. Top 7. (1 point)
Gadgets, Vehicles, Lairs--The ice hotel is cool, and although James Bond's invisible car is a little silly, points for creativity. I believe this pushes Live and Let Die out of the Top 7. (1 point)
Bond Girls--Halle Berre plays Jinx, an American agent and Bond's love interest. Beautiful, sassy, and every bit Bond's equal. I don't think she quite cracks the top 3, but Jinx is definitely Top 7. (1 point)
SC or DC? No
Music--Theme song is by Madonna and god-awful. I'm not sure if the music in this or Man With the Golden Gun is worse, but they're both at the bottom (0 points)
Total: 4 points

Rejiggered points for other movies:
Live and Let Die (-1) for Gadgets/Vehicles/Lairs
The Man With the Golden Gun (-1) for Bond Girls
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (-1) for Setting
Goldfinger (-1) for Action


And, here are the updated results:
1) The Spy Who Loved Me, 12 points
2, 3) Goldfinger, Casino Royale (tied with 9 points)
4) On Her Majesty's Secret Service (8 points)
5, 6) Skyfall, Thunderball (tied with 6 points)
7) Spectre (5 points)
8, 9) Live and Let Die, Die Another Day (4 points)
10) The Man With the Golden Gun (3 points)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

What I'm Reading: When I Was a Young Boy

When I Was a Young Boy is the translated title of Erich Kästner's 1957 book Als Ich ein Kleiner Junge War. Erich Kästner was a German author for children from the 1930s to 60s, probably best known for his book Emil and the Detectives. It would be an understatement to say Kästner was beloved--he was the German equivalent of a Beverly Cleary or Roald Dahl. This book is a memoir of his youth, up to about age 15, written in a style appropriate for late elementary or middle school.

Kästner was born in 1899 and lived until his teen years in Dresden, so much of the interest for the modern reader is in how life was lived in pre-World War I Germany. There is plenty of detail about the street cars, horse carriages, food, and clothing of the time. His mother was a hairdresser and his father worked in a factory, so he was not especially privileged, but his parents sacrificed a great deal for the son's education when he proved to be a good student. They also took in boarders in their apartment, by coincidence all of them teachers, so young Kästner grew up with the goal of becoming a teacher himself.

I think my favorite chapter was the one where he described he and his mother's increasing love of wilderness hiking when he was an early teenager. They would take the train from Dresden out to the end of the line and hike all over Saxony, their trips advancing from afternoon excursions to day- and then week-long trips as they grew more experienced. They would hike all morning  through Saxon hills, meadows, and valleys, and stop at a village pub for ice cream and beer in the mid-afternoon (yes, this is Germany, where a teen drinking a beer with his mom is not a big deal!).


There are also interesting stories about how his Uncle Oscar became a millionaire and what it meant for the family, how he learned that a hated teacher at his middle school wasn't such a bad guy after all, and how he discovered the solution to the bizarre mystery of the woman who hired his mother to do the hair styling for a wedding, only for the address she gave to prove to be an abandoned house, with none
 of the neighbors knowing the woman or having heard of an upcoming wedding.


Kästner's writing achieves a sort of beauty through simplicity, and he sometimes wanders off into later, sadder periods, only to write the German equivalent of "but that's neither here not there." A page or so when he laments the fate of Dresden in World War II, when the world-historical Baroque-era city center was reduced to rubble by Allied bombing campaigns, is especially moving. (Note he was anti-Nazi and was questioned by the Gestapo several times, though he was lucky enough never to have to flee or spend time in a concentration camp. But that's neither here nor there.)


Unfortunately, I don't believe this book has ever been translated into English (although Emil and the Detectives has been), so it's not really accessible to non-German readers. But for me, it was a lot of fun. This is the first German book I've read in I think three or four years, so this was a good way to get back into reading with a book that's not too difficult. Kästner was a great author with an interesting life, so if this ever did appear in an English edition I would not hesitate to recommend it to others.




Saturday, July 16, 2016

What I'm Reading: Roundup



Complete Peanuts, 1985-86 The Complete Peanuts is a noble project to publish every strip of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, from its inception in 1951 to its final panel in 2000.  It's a gargantuan undertaking, and a new volume covering two years is issued every six months.  The project is now nearly finished, having reached the late 1990s, but I'm a little behind and have only reached 1985-86. I've reviewed four previous volumes of the Complete Peanuts: the 1977-78 volume herethe 1979-80 volume here, the 1981-82 volume here, and the 1983-84 volume here.

Definitely starting to lose its sharpness here. Lots and lots of strips with Spike in the desert or Snoopy leading the Beagle Scouts on hikes. My personal favorite strip is up above. Don't worry, Lucy, we all feel the same way! (Notice also the first panel, where we get a rarely-seen three-quarters view of the classroom.)

Another highlight was the annual visit to summer camp, which in 1986 took the gang to a wilderness survival camp where they had to dress in camouflage and learn to eat grass. I also liked a week-long arc from 1985 where Peppermint Patty and Marcie decide they'll be "mallies," hanging around the mall and looking fashionable. Schulz would have been 63 and 64 at the times these strips were published, but he remained admirably up to date on societal trends. Yet, though still capable of quality, Peanuts was clearly in its long, slow decline by this point.

Conan the Slayer New Conan series from the Dark Horse comics company. I wrote about a previous Conan series Dark Horse put out in 2012, Conan the Avenger, here. Conan's one of those characters I don't have to follow all the time, but I do like to check in on him every once in a while. The first issue of this new series was one of the most brutal Conan comics I've ever read. I mean, he was really in a bad mood. I like it, and I think I'll stick with this new one for a while.

Hip Hop Family Tree A comic series written, drawn, inked, and colored by Ed Piskor, and a real work of love. Follows the history of hip hip and rap music from its early days in the mid-1970s. The latest issue, #11, has reached the mid-1980s and the second-generation of rap artists, the first ones to gain nation-wide attention: Run DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys.

Oddly, these issues are expanded versions of comics that have already appeared in hardcover form (usually the floppies appear first, only to be collected later). At the end of a couple of issues, Piskor has included all his sources for the information and visuals. He's really done an astounding amount of work to get everything just right--the faces, the cityscapes, the clothes. One thing I like is that he also imitates the look of comics from the time period--the art and page layout styles, the washed-out colors created by the cheaper paper and printing processes of the time.

I'm not sure this would be of much interest to somebody who didn't like hip hop, yet it's so well-done I feel like anybody would like it if they gave it a chance. Let's say it would help to be a rap fan, but only a low threshold of fandom is necessary to enjoy it.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What I'm Reading: Chomp

Chomp is a YA novel by Carl Hiaasen, and I have to say, I adored this book. It follows Wahoo Cray, a young man (maybe around 13) whose father is an animal wrangler. That is, they keep all sorts of wildlife in their backyard in a small town on the outskirts of Miami, and whenever a TV or movie company wants to film a commercial or movie with wildlife in it, they call Wahoo's dad. The Crays have a very large but tame (-ish) alligator, a huge boa constrictor, monkeys, all sorts of birds, and so on. Wahoo himself is missing a thumb because one time when he was feeding the gator, Alice, he wasn't careful and she took off a little more than she was supposed to.

Unfortunately, there was a freak deep freeze in southern Florida and a frozen iguana fell out of a tree and knocked Wahoo's father unconscious. That was months ago, and ever since he's had horrible headaches and doublevision and they've been unable to take on any TV jobs. Since they're behind on their mortgage, Wahoo's mom has flown to China to teach Chinese lessons to visiting executives, leaving her son and husband to fend for themselves. When an offer comes in from a nature show offering big money, Wahoo tells them his dad will take the job, planning to do most of the work himself.

The nature show is a reality TV series about Derek Badger, a supposed survivalist who is dropped into various remote, tropical settings every week and has to rely on his wits to survive. In reality, Derek is a nincompoop with a fake Australian accent who relies on his crew to make him look good and takes a helicopter back to a luxury hotel every evening after filming is over. His one asset that makes his TV career possible is that he's willing to eat anything. The Crays' agreement to supply animals for an episode set in the Everglades sets in motion a series of events that will challenge all participants in unforeseen ways.

Last year I read an anthology called Grit Lit collecting "Rough South" stories. In a lot of ways, Chomp reminds me of a kid's version of one of those stories. In my review of that book, I said that most of the characters were "folks with a tendency towards drink, violence, and short-term employment," and that's the case here is well. Although the younger age group it's aimed at necessitates a brighter style of storytelling than the stories in Grit Lit, this book has an awful lot of backwoods drunkards and layabouts up to no good. In Chomp, that makes for a lot of very funny scenes.

Chomp has a great voice, a definite and unique setting, and tons of great humor. My son (11 years old) has read it and really liked it, and I think anybody from his age on up to adult would enjoy it as well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Place Names in Rock Lyrics: Rip This Joint

For this feature we've previously done Sweet Little SixteenDancing in the StreetsNight TrainRock'n MePop MuzikGirls, Girls, GirlsFire Down BelowTruckin'Everywhere That I'm NotMess Around, Back in the USABack in the USSR, and America.

The next song is Rip This Joint, from the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street album. The lyrics sound to me like the Stones are ready to go on tour but have some trepidation US authorities will let them in to play:

Mister President, Mister Immigration Man,
Let me in, sweetie, to your fair land.

I know they sometimes had some trouble with local police in the US (if you can believe it). I'm not sure I remember hearing about trouble with US immigration, but maybe they did, or maybe it's just rhetorical. In any case, once they get in, they have an expansive list of cities they want to play:

I'm Tampa bound and Memphis too,
Short Fat Fanny is on the loose.
Dig that sound on the radio,
Then slip it right across into Buffalo.
Dick and Pat in ole D.C.,
Well they're gonna hold some shit for me.
Ying yang, you're my thing,
Oh, now, baby, won't you hear me sing.
Flip Flop, fit to drop,
Come on baby, won't you let it rock?
Oh, yeah!

From San Jose down to Santa Fe,
Kiss me quick, baby, won'tcha make my day.
Down to New Orleans with the Dixie Dean,
'Cross to Dallas, Texas with the Butter Queen.
Rip this joint, gonna rip yours too,
Some brand new steps and some weight to lose.
Gonna roll this joint, gonna get down low,
Round and round and round we'll go.
Wham, Bham, Birmingham, Alabam' don't give a damn.
Little Rock fit to drop.
Ah, let it rock.

So the place names in this song are:
Birmingham
Buffalo
Dallas
Little Rock
Memphis
New Orleans
San Jose
Santa Fe
Tampa
Washington, DC

And lots of cities new to our list: Birmingham, Little Rock, Memphis, San Jose, Santa Fe, Tampa

_______________________________________________________________________
And here's the master list:

Notes: The city that has been mentioned most often is New York, with New Orleans in second and Los Angeles and Philadelphia tied for third. The biggest cities we haven't heard from yet, at least in the United States, are Cleveland, Kansas City, and Seattle. Odd to me that Memphis, a huge blues city, has been mentioned only once.

Atlanta x3
Baltimore x3
Baton Rouge
Birmingham
Boston
Buffalo x2
California
--(northern) California
--(coast of) California
Chattanooga
Chicago x3
Dallas x2
Delaware (Bay)
Detroit x3
Ft. Lauderdale
Georgia (country)
Houston
Las Vegas
Little Rock
London
Los Angeles x4
Memphis
Miami
--Miami Beach
Moline
Moscow
Munich
New Jersey (turnpike)
New Orleans x5
New York City x6
--Queens
Nova Scotia
Paris x2
Philadelphia x4
Phoenix
Pittsburgh x2
Raleigh
Richmond
Saginaw
San Francisco
--Berkeley
San Jose
Santa Fe
St. Louis x3
Tacoma
Tampa
(heart of) Texas
Tokyo
Ukraine
Vancouver
Washington, DC x3

Saturday, June 11, 2016

What I'm Reading: The Republic

Last year, I read Five Dialogues by Plato and reviewed them on this site. This year I've revisited Plato's Republic, which I read in college. In this most famous of Plato's dialogues, Socrates, who is always the main character in Plato's works, makes a proposal to some friends: he can demonstrate that a virtuous man is always happier than an unvirtuous man. Some of his interlocutors scoff, saying that virtuous men may be happier because society esteems them, but if they were able to be unvirtuous without anybody knowing, they would do so in an instant.

To demonstrate his point, Socrates builds a perfectly virtuous city, with the idea that by examining a larger entity (a city), it may be easier to spot virtue and its effects and then transfer those lessons to a smaller entity (a man). This conceptual building of the city takes up the bulk of the book. By the end, Socrates has described a city guarded by a well-educated warrior class, and led by a philosopher-king. He then compares this city, which he demonstrates to be the happiest of all cities, with four other types of cities in order of their happiness: first, honor-loving cities ruled by warriors; second, money-loving cities ruled by merchants; third, democracies ruled by the people; and finally the unhappiest of cities, despotisms ruled by a tyrant.

Then, he compares each of the type of cities to different types of men: philosophers who love knowledge and truth correspond to his perfect city; followed by honor-loving warriors, money-loving merchants; undisciplined democrats, and tyrants.

Thus, he demonstrates to his friends' satisfaction (if not quite the modern reader's) that each succeeding type of city is less and less happy. Correspondingly, he also shows that philosophers, who with their love of knowledge and truth are the most just of men, are also the happiest, and each succeeding type of man is less and less happy.

What I found interesting is how he believes the guardians and the philosopher-king in his perfect city should be educated. He thinks as children they should receive training in poetry and music, elementary mathematics, and physical training. Those who exhibit the right temperaments will move on as teenagers to three years of vigorous physical training followed by ten years of mathematics (!), at which point they'll be ready to be guardians. Those guardians who might advance to leadership roles will then receive five years of "dialectic" training (i.e. making and weighing arguments), followed by ten years of studying what we would call political science. Only then, in their mid-forties, would they be ready to lead a city.

If this sounds simplistic, it is not, for Socrates also anticipates all sorts of counterarguments and negates them. One counterargument I found impressive was his explanation of why an unjust man may appear to others to be successful and admirable. He compares such a man to a runner who gets a fast start in a race, and appears to spectators to be far in the lead. But as time goes on and the lead runner tires and falls behind, so the unjust man finds his way is not so easy as creditors, friends, and neighbors discover his true nature and gradually stop interacting with him.

Like the Five Dialogues, this book is pretty easy to read, at least on a line by line basis. Socrates' language is straight-forward and conversational, as indeed, it is supposed to be a conversation among he and his friends. The simplicity of the language frees your attention for the consideration of his sophisticated arguments.

I don't think I would recommend this to somebody looking for light reading (although as I say above, it is not actually that hard to read), but for those willing to think about ethics, virtue, and how we order our society, this is arguably the most basic text in Western literature on those topics. Actually, the book has much the feel of a late-night bull session in a dorm room, so for the right kind of person, I think the Republic might be not only thought-provoking, but even fun to read.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Ranking Captain America: Civil War

Last night my son and I went to see Captain America: Civil War. Let's how this stacks up against other comic book movies I have reviewed.

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, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic movies, and the Man-Thing.

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

This one was pretty good. Not as good as the first Captain America movie, maybe a little better than the second. I read a review that said it was a relief to have some smaller scale fights after the huge, city-spanning explosion fests of many recent super-hero movies. I'll go along with that. A lot of one-on-one or two-on-two hand-to-hand combat scenes. And in the movie's big set piece, a battle between two groups of superheroes on a runway at the airport in Berlin, there was no world-saving at stake. Just a well-choreographed, fairly clever fight between two groups with different goals.

Calling this a Captain America movie is a little bit of a misnomer. It does carry forward some of the themes of the second Cap movie, but it's really an Avengers flick. Iron Man has almost as much screen time as Cap, and most of the others show up as well, along with Avengers newcomers Spider-Man and Ant-Man, who bring much needed levity.

A fun movie, not great but quite watchable--at least for those who've been keeping up with all the Marvel films. I'm not sure how this would play for someone watching it cold. There are a lot of references to things that've happened in earlier films, a lot of baggage between characters that explain their motivations but aren't spelled out. So maybe not one I'd recommend for everyone, but only for viewers who like superheroes and have been keeping up with developments in the Marvel film universe.

_______________________________________________________________________________

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: Civil War
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)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (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)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Prince Valiant Volume 1: 1937-38 Absolutely beautiful over-sized hardcover of the first two years of the Sunday-only strip Prince Valiant. Drawn by Hal Foster, who brought an unprecedented skill and dedication to his work, this was an influence for decades on comics artists.

The strip still runs today, although unfortunately today's newspapers don't provide artists with the full-page canvases they had in the 1930s, when the Sunday comics were entertainment for a whole family and one of the main draws of the newspaper. According to the introduction, Hal Foster wrote over 1,000 pages of notes on the details of Prince Valiant's life, from childhood to death, and when he turned the strip over to an assistant in 1980 shortly before his death, was still working from that original plan. I wonder if the artist today, Thomas Yeates, who has done the strip since 2012, still uses those notes?

This was a Christmas gift. Provided I can find the funds and the time, I will definitely be getting Volume 2 at some point.

Squirrel Girl Marvel nowadays has a whole little corner of their universe dealing with the humorous adventures of quirky, lesser-known characters. She-Hulk, Patsy Walker (i.e. Hellcat), and Howard the Duck all have or have recently had fun series, and the creators seem inclined to let them interact. In fact, several of the characters hang out with each other in a building in Brooklyn where She-Hulk's alter ego, Jennifer Walters, has her law office and Howard the Duck has a detective agency.

Squirrel Girl is my favorite of these titles. SG is Doreen Green, a computer science student at Empire State University (where Peter Parker used to attend college). She can talk to squirrels and even has a squirrel tail she uses to help her fight bad guys (and when it's tucked up in her pants it gives her a bodacious booty). Doreen really prefers talking it out with villains and seeing if their are ways they can achieve their goals without using violence, but she's willing to take 'em on physically if that doesn't work out. It's really hilarious and appropriate for kids ages 5 to 100.

Mirror I recently started picking up this series drawn by Emma Rios, one of my favorite artists. It's set on an asteroid inhabited by humans who have been doing experiments on animals to breed warriors (or something) for a big war in space. But that's just the background, the emphasis is on the relationships between the humans and their intelligent human-animal hybrid creations, some of whom rebel against their human masters, some of whom fall in love with them, or serve them for their own reasons. Really, each character has his own unique motivations. Gorgeous, highly intricate artwork and interesting character work.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

What I'm Reading: Game Time: A Baseball Companion

Game Time is a collection of essays by Roger Angell, who covers baseball for The New Yorker magazine. I believe most or all of these essays appeared in that magazine. They range from the very beginning of Angell's career in the early 1960s to 2002.

The essays are uniformly of high, even literary, quality, with an emphasis on personalities, lives, and relationships, rather than action on the field. I notice that even when he does cover action on the field, or over a season, it comes out like a story. It's a joy to read, although when reading a lot of essays back to back certain New-Yorker-ish tics come to the fore. For instance, everything is always fine: it was a fine game, so-and-so is a fine player, it was a fine play at third. And the reflex to get deeper, to figure out what it all means, on one or two occasions in the book becomes almost comical. But all in all, the writing is superb (or fine, even).

I think my favorite essay is one titled "Distance" from 1980, which is mainly about Bob Gibson, a once-fearsome pitcher who had at that point been retired for five years. Gibson was the most dominant pitcher in baseball in the late 1960s, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who did not hesitate to plunk batters crowding the plate. He was African-American and grew up poor in an era when blacks got little respect, so he carried himself with a certain pride than many interpreted as stand-offishness. Angell caught up with him in Omaha, his hometown, where he had opened up a popular bar-restaurant after retiring but lost none of the old prickliness.You can sense the difficulty Angell had in interviewing such a reticent man, yet he succeeds in giving the reader a detailed and moving look at an athlete past his best years, who never really had a place in life except on top of the baseball mound. He also succeeds in making us sympathize with Gibson, quite a feat for a man who previously had a well-earned image as a cold and emotionally austere man.

My least favorite essay was called "One for the Good Guys," about the New Yankees late-season surge in 1996 that brought them to the World Series against Atlanta for their first Series appearance since 1978, and what a great group of players they had, and how well-deserved it all was, and how the city and country fell for them, and barf barf barf. Fortunately, this appears to be a one-season lapse on Angell's part, and for most of the rest of the book he avoids Yankees boosterism.

Now Angell has a number of books, most of which appear to be collections of already-published essays like this one. I would imagine they are all of similarly high quality. Game Time would be a great read for any baseball fan with literary leanings, though probably any of the others would be just as good.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Peanuts in Real Life

I must have the exact conversation presented in this May, 1956, Peanuts strip at least three times a week:


Friday, April 22, 2016

Place Names in Rock Lyrics: America

For this feature we've previously done Sweet Little SixteenDancing in the StreetsNight TrainRock'n MePop MuzikGirls, Girls, GirlsFire Down BelowTruckin'Everywhere That I'm NotMess Around, Back in the USA, and Back in the USSR.

Our song today is America, by Simon & Garfunkel. It came out in 1968 on their Bookends album, but was not released as a single until 1972, to promote their Greatest Hits album that came out that year. Oddly, it only hit #97 on the Billboard chart. It's a pretty song with some pretty great lyrics. Personally, my favorite version is the lengthy prog rock workout (10 1/2 minutes) Yes gave it in 1970.

There aren't really verses and choruses, it sort of just flows. Here are the first three stanzas:

Let us be lovers,
We'll marry our fortunes together.
I've got some real estate
Here in my bag.

So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner's pies,
And walked off
To look for America.
"Kathy", I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
Michigan seems like a dream to me now.

It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
"I've come to look for America."


Look, I understand they're looking for the real spirit or meaning of America, but I don't get why they hoped to find it in Saginaw, Michigan? Anyway, here's the final stanza:

Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike
The've all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.

So the place names in this song are:
New Jersey (turnpike)
Pittsburgh
Saginaw

_______________________________________________________________________
And here's the master list:

Notes: The cities that has been mentioned most often is New York, with Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Philadelphia tied for second. The biggest cities we haven't heard from yet, at least in the United States, are Cleveland, Kansas City, and Seattle. Also surprising to me is that Memphis hasn't yet appeared on the list.

Atlanta x3
Baltimore x3
Baton Rouge
Boston
Buffalo
California
--(northern) California
--(coast of) California
Chattanooga
Chicago x3
Dallas
Delaware (Bay)
Detroit x3
Ft. Lauderdale
Georgia (country)
Houston
Las Vegas
London
Los Angeles x4
Miami
--Miami Beach
Moline
Moscow
Munich
New Jersey (turnpike)
New Orleans x4
New York City x6
--Queens
Nova Scotia
Paris x2
Philadelphia x4
Phoenix
Pittsburgh x2
Raleigh
Richmond
Saginaw
San Francisco
--Berkeley
St. Louis x3
Tacoma
(heart of) Texas
Tokyo
Ukraine
Vancouver
Washington, DC x2