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» 2007 » May

Monthly ArchiveMay 2007

Media 30 May 2007 08:56 pm

Organ donors

I’ve always believed “The Running Man,” both the Stephen King novella and the movie made from it, were prophetic visions of a near future where the line between entertainment and reality were irretrievably blurred.

In the story, the public is addicted to a television show where real-life convicts compete to escape from homicidal bounty hunters. Viewers vote to keep favorite cons alive for the next installment. In the movie, the game show host is portrayed to steely perfection by Richard Dawson, who never seemed quite so lovable on “Family Feud” afterward.

For evidence that the days of “The Running Man” are not too far off, I submit for your approval (and hopefully disdain) the Dutch “Big Donorshow,” where one donor must choose a candidate to receive her kidney. The producers claim the show is designed to spotlight the need for more organ donors, but come on, the real reason is to pull in high ratings, the same goal shared by American broadcasters.

Sadly, it will probably be a ratings bonanza. If so, look for an American counterpart. Money talks.

Media & Movies 25 May 2007 06:21 pm

Live Queen

Queen Live

“Queen: Live at Wembley Stadium” may be the finest concert ever captured on film.

I’m a bit biased, though. One of the first 45-rpm singles in my collection was Queen’s “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions,” and the first full-length LP was Queen’s soundtrack to “Flash Gordon.” The latter has all the staples of great rock and roll: Screeching guitars, stylistic excess, and bombastic lead singing.

Recorded in 1986 in front of 70,000-plus screaming fans, “Live at Wembley” perfectly encapsulates Queen at the height of its powers. John Deacon and Roger Taylor nail down the rhythm section, while Brian May and the inimitable Freddie Mercury prove why they are one of the most potent guitar/vocal combos of the twentieth century.

Listeners who find Queen’s studio work fussy and overwrought will have little to complain about here: For live consumption, the band tailored its catalog toward the fast and furious. Songs like “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “Hammer to Fall” are reimagined here as straight-on rockers and actually eclipse the studio versions.

From the opening strains of “One Vision” to the expected closing of “Rock You” and “Champions” (with the surprise “Friends Will Be Friends” sandwiched between), every second of Mercury’s vocal prowess (what range, though some have said that even in ‘86, he may have been losing some of his vaunted strength) and May’s shredding guitar licks are captured via multiple camera angles and pristine sound. The sight of Mercury working the crowd — inviting them to sing along and become part of the show – is stunning. Queen played on an immense stage, yet the show is still intimate.

A second DVD in the set provides behind-the-scenes interviews and documentaries, some recorded at the time of the show and others almost 20 years later.

Overall, ”Live at Wembley” is worth considerably more than the ten dollars I paid for it, and I recommend it highly to any fans of live music in general and Queen in particular.

(Universal Studio will release the movie “Flash Gordon” on DVD in August, hopefully with the band’s great music sounding better than ever.)

Commentary & Media 17 May 2007 09:03 pm

Proof of authenticity

Some people griped today that American Idol’s ousting of Melinda Doolittle, easily the most talented singer the television competition has ever had, and the advancement of two lesser talents to the final week of competiton is proof positive the show is rigged.

I guess these people feel that way because the two remaining contestants are different genders, ages, and races, yet still fit into that youthful demographic coveted by networks.

I take the other approach. The public’s removal of Doolittle is proof that the show is not  rigged and is, indeed, 100 percent authentic. I say this because the modern American public has a poor track record when it comes to voting for quality.

How else to explain a second term for George W. Bush?

Books 17 May 2007 08:52 pm

Lost forever

A good book stands the test of time, so the saying goes. But how many times can one read the same good — or even great — book?

 It’s a question with special resonance for English teachers, who often face beloved titles annually. How often can one stare down even great writers like Hawthorne, Twain or (dare I suggest it?) Shakespeare before facing a head-slapping, shoulda-had-a-V8 moment?

This year, as I have in past years, my freshman classes are reading Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” a compelling novel about a nine-year-old lost in the Maine woods and the perils that befall her there. While nobody would confuse King with the three luminaries listed above, I have always loved his work and find that this particular novel resonates with kids. Plus, there is a slight chance that they will seek out other King works like “The Dead Zone,” “Cujo,” or “The Green Mile,” something that seldom happens with the list of dead literati.

But with four classes reading the book simultaneously, alternating between independent reading, reading in groups, or listening on CD, and with this being — what? — the fourth year I have taught the novel, my grand tally of trips to the woods with King as amiable guide is somewhere in the vicinity of sixteen.

In my mind, this girl who loved Tom Gordon has been missing a long time. And while each time I find something new on which to focus — King really does explore some wonderful issues of faith and priorities (and finds nifty ways  to tie them into that great American pastime, baseball) that are fun to chat about with kids — I also am developing a certain fatigue with the novel, which makes me wonder if I’m not due to rescue this kid one last time and move onto a new book next year.

And this from a guy who often reads books twice and loves to watch movies he has already seen.

What titles do you find reward encore readings? Let me know and I’ll post them here.

Books & Media 11 May 2007 05:49 am

All things pulpy (except orange juice)


A month or so ago, I wrote a quick review of “Forever Odd” by Dean Koontz, a fast-moving novel that I likened to a vintage pulp magazine along the lines of Doc Savage or The Shadow.

Recently, Scott Edwards of Alliance wrote comments concerning the history and audience of pulp magazines that were too good to let languish at the bottom of the “Forever Odd” post, so I’m reprinting them here, as well:

“I know this is an old column but I thought I might update a few statements regarding pulp magazines. While it is true that they were mostly aimed at men in the beginning, by the 1930s there were a variety of pulps for women: Love Stories, Ranch Romances, etc.

“Also, many of the hero and science fiction pulps were mostly marketed to teen boys. As to frequency, some were monthly, some were weekly or bi-weekly, etc. Whatever the market would bear, the magazines and writers poured out. Many authors wrote 10 or more stories a week just to eek out a lowly living. Certainly there was a lot of dreck put out, but many famous authors — Tenessee Williams, H.P. Lovecraft, John D. MacDonald,to name a few — cut their teeth in the pulps. It was a very creative market for fiction and sorely missed today by the many fans of pulp fiction.

“Enough boredom. I commend you for even being aware of pulp magazines and their influence on literature. Kudos to Koontz (who is too young to have written for the pulps, but did start his career in the Digest SF magazines) for the fun.

“Keep on plugging away with your entertaining blog. If you had been born 70 years earlier you would have been a shoe-in for the staff of Spicy Mysteries!

Best wishes
Scott (yellowed & brittle like pulp paper)”

Scott’s comments also give me the opportunity to plug E & C Books, 335 E. Main Street, in Alliance, of which Scott is the proprietor. It is a most excellent place for books — pulps, first editions, sci-fi, fantasy and much, much more. Definitely an four-star establishment and well worth your time to seek out.

And one of these days, I’ll get around to writing a review of Koontz’s latest entry in the Odd Thomas series, “Brother Odd,” which is equally as pulpy.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of pulp magazines, a company called Nostalgia Ventures is now reprinting the vintage pulp adventures of Doc Savage and the Shadow on a monthly basis. Each book, which in shape and size is much like a pulp magazine (although the paper is better), reprints two novels along with original art and new commentary. I picked up the first Doc Savage edition; it was a blast!

Media 08 May 2007 06:33 pm

Gumming up the works

Advertising disclaimers are a source of amusement for me, sometimes more entertaining than the commercials themselves.

They are also a window into our modern, litigious age, where every stunt or claim must be accompanied by an asterisk on the printed page or a crawl on the bottom of the screen to indemnify companies against stupid consumers.

Take a popular brand of gum often featured in television commercials. The perky model flashes her teeth and claims the product has left them white and fresh, or some such nonsense.

One of the bits shows a man buried in sand, his buddy pouring a bucket of sand into his mouth. The point is that his breath, after gulping down grit, isn’t fresh.

Along the bottom of the screen, the viewer reads this simple message: Do not attempt. Whether put there in jest, a sly parody of the very thing I was talking about above, or because the gum makers aren’t sure if idiots will truly try this at home (or on the beach), I cannot say.

Do not attempt. Professional driver on closed track. It’s all the same, yes? Yes.

Comic books & Movies 06 May 2007 12:44 pm

Spider-Man 3


As a follow up to yesterday’s post, let me just say that I saw “Spider-Man 3″ last night, and I loved it.

Overall, I can’t say it was better than its predecessors, but it is a worthy follow-up. Critics have noted that there is a lot going on in the film, maybe too much, but I found it appropriate for Spidey to have three main challenges in a film labeled “3,” all inextricably linked — like a spider’s web. It is also a rollercoaster ride of a movie, with something going on at every turn to keep the audience gasping, laughing or sniffling back the occasional tear. (Really.)

The three plots revolve around the movie’s trio of villains: The New Goblin, Venom and the Sandman. Of the three, the New Goblin is the most effective, because he is (no spoilers needed for those who have seen the previous two films) Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osborn, seeking revenge against Spidey for the death of Harry’s father, Norman.

Venom is an alien substance that attempts to take over Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire), turning him evil. The Sandman is, visually at least, the most impressive, his appearance lifted directly from the comic books. An interesting plot twist halfway through the movie attempts to wring some more poignancy from his story, and it is mostly successful.

Periodically, the film falls into the video game trap of having action sequences drag on too long, leaving the audience with little to do except admire the CGI effects that bring Spider-Man and his colorful cast to life. And the set-up for the film’s climactic battle is clunky with exposition, relying on television reporters to tell us that Spidey’s love, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), is in trouble once again, and that only Spidey can save her.

But the climax itself is well done and emotional. Emotion, believe it or not, is the movie’s great strength; no matter how outlandish the situations, the spine of the story is always Peter Parker, nebbish college student, and his quest for true love and friendship.

Word on the street is the film is shattering box office records, deservedly so. This is a summer popcorn movie to end all summer popcorn movies. For Spidey fans, it’s cinematic nirvana.

Comic books & Movies 05 May 2007 02:21 pm

Webslingers, unite!

“Spider-Man 3″ is poised to take over the world, or at least the boxoffice portion thereof.

The movie opened at midnight yesterday, and business was  brisk. I’m a big Spidey fan, and my wife agreed to accompany me to the movies to see it on its inaugural night, a sacrifice which made me question whether she was feeling ill.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. The movie was sold out, despite being booked on five screens at the Canton Cinemark. We ended up seeing the low-budget “Vacancy,” a hotel thriller that wears its love of “Psycho” on its sleeve. It was a fun little movie, so I wasn’t too disappointed, but it did little to curb my appetite for the new Spider-Man.

Tonight, we try again … !