Monthly ArchiveJanuary 2008



Books 31 Jan 2008 03:48 pm

Scavenging for a sequel

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David Morrell, the creator of Rambo, writes books for the way we live today. Clean, simple prose. Long chapters broken into shorter sections. Highly visual situations. Easily identifiable characters.

He has mastered a style of writing similar to Michael Crichton and Dan Brown, who also propel the reader through their books by convincing him to read “just one more section” until hours have passed and the book is finished.

Morrell’s latest, “Scavenger,” revisits Iraq War veteran Frank Balenger shortly after the traumatic events of “Creepers.” There, he was nearly killed by a violent psychopath while exploring the abandoned Paragon Hotel. He also rescued Amanda Evert, who bears a striking resemblance to his dead wife.

In “Scavengers,” Morrell’s hardest task is to find a way to put Ballenger and Evert into a similar situation again, complete with a new violent psychopath, without making it feel too forced. He does this by moving the plot along at a brisk pace, diving right into a mystery involving time capsules that is intriguing enough to hide the obvious similarities with the previous book.

Meticulous research is another Morrell characteristic, and it is in evidence here. If anything, the author throws in too many intriguing concepts to do all of them justice. Time capsules. Letterboxing. Goecaching. Virtual reality. Video games. The connection between violence and the media. Any one of these would make for an intriguing concept; mixing them all together creates a brew that might be too heady.

The novel culminates in a subterranean showdown that echoes the conclusions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Richard Matheson’s Hell House, and MGM’s Wizard of Oz. No small feat, that.

“Scavenger” was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, and the observations of its main characters will likely have thoughtful fans pondering the issues raised. For example, exactly how long will it be before a contestant dies on a reality-television show, and once that happens, will networks begin to capitalize on mortality rates? Far fetched, maybe, but possible.

Morrell is also the author of an excellent book about writing fiction. The last I checked, his “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft” was out of print, which is a crime. It should still be readily available through used book stores and online, however, and I can’t recommend it enough. Unlike some authors of how-to-write texts who have written only about writing, Morrell has dozens of novels to his credit, and he practices what he preaches. Recommended.

“Scavenger” is due out in paperback on May 27.

Commentary & Movies 30 Jan 2008 04:01 pm

What do your favorite movies reveal about you?

Are you a passionate maverick? An enlightened healer? An invincible optimist? Go to cinescopes.com and find out.

The site offers a personality profile based on your list of ten favorite movies. It wasn’t terribly accurate in pegging me. Because of movie choices like “King Kong,” “Casablanca,” “Star Wars,” “The Maltese Falcon,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” the site labeled me a chosen adventurer. These types are “brave, daring” and “like to travel the world.” Instead, I am meek, mild and grow uncomfortable when I’m more than 25 miles away from home after dark.

Since I like sci-fi, fantasy, action and adventure films (especially from earlier decades), I was lumped with the Indiana Jones types. I watch movies like this to escape the day-to-day grind; it doesn’t mean that’s the type of person I am.

This is fun. Beware, though, because the site also tries to play matchmaker and connect you with others who share your personality type. I used a fake e-mail address when I registered. It also ties in with a recent book, “Cinescopes” by Risa Williams and Ezra Werb. The site promotes it at every turn. Keep the credit card in your pocket, unless you’re really enamored with the concept.

Family life 29 Jan 2008 03:38 pm

Close shave

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Every year or so, the knots in our Persian cat, Beckham, get away from us, and he has to be shaved. What you see above, believe it or not, is the same cat photographed on the same day — one pre- and one post-shearing. (Yes, on the left he is on the kitchen counter. Don’t worry, we washed it down; no danger of cat-scratch fever here, with apologies to Ted Nugent.)

Media 28 Jan 2008 06:43 pm

Too good to wait ’till Halloween

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Last October, the National Public Radio program “Weekend America” commissioned ten writers to create short (less than 30 seconds) horror stories.

As the title to this blog entry indicates, the results are too good to wait until next Halloween to read and listen to.

The most well-known writer is Neil Gaiman, writer of “American Gods” and DC Comics’ “The Sandman.” But his story is not the best. That distinction goes to John Langan and “The Visitor,” about a nightly ritual that all parents will be familiar with, but with a creepy twist.

As an added treat, the authors themselves read the stories, and the audio is included at the site. Click here or on the creepy kitty above to visit the Weekend America site. Sweet (or not-so-sweet) dreams!

Movies 27 Jan 2008 08:17 am

Meet Harold Lloyd

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It’s always a treat to discover an artist you didn’t know existed, but whom you really enjoy, then find out that this person has a large body of work waiting for you to explore.

That’s how I feel about my discovery of Harold Lloyd, a comedian from the age of silent film. I was looking for examples of silent movies to show students in my film studies class when I came across a two-DVD collection of Lloyd’s work at Rodman Public Library.

Lloyd is the guy hanging from the clock in the photo above, arguably the most famous scene in silent cinema. The still is from the movie “Safety Last,” the centerpiece of the collection.

So far, I’ve watched two of the films in the set, “Ask Father” and “Safety Last.” The former I showed to the class; at 13 minutes, it’s a perfect introduction to silent films. Lloyd plays The Boy, dressed in a straw hat and round-lensed glasses (his trademarks), who wants desperately to win the approval of his girlfriend’s father, a busy executive. His attempts to win Dad over take so long, however, that the girl marries someone else.

Lloyd faces many pitfalls (one literally) in his attempts to muscle into the father’s office, including some thugs in the lobby and a treadmill that whisks him back out. The proceedings are set to a wonderful score that perfectly punctuates the action on screen.

This weekend, I watched the longer (73 min.) “Safety Last.” It has a similar set-up: Lloyd leaves his hometown to find fortune in the Big City; he will send for his girlfriend once he has saved enough money to marry her and settle down in comfort. He finds himself in a dead-end job in a department store and eventually has a brainstorm that involves his roommate scaling the 12-story building in exchange for splitting a $1,000 prize. Because of a run-in with the law, the roommate can’t perform the feat, and Lloyd finds himself climbing.

I’m impressed by how visually sophisticated these movies are. Title cards with dialogue are needed only in the opening scenes to establish the basic plot; from then on, they are used very sparingly, with the visuals telling the story. Multiple camera angles, great sight gags and strong acting propel the stories along. In the 1930s, because of the difficulties in using sound, movies became less fluid, less visual and more stage bound. Watching silents, by comparison, is a joy.  

Roger Ebert has a good article on “Safety Last” that explains why Lloyd’s films have only recently re-entered circulation. You can read it by clicking here.

The Lloyd DVDs I’ve been watching are part of a seven-disk collection of his work. If the rest of volume one is as entertaining as what I’ve seen so far, I’ll definitely look for the rest.

Commentary & Family life 26 Jan 2008 10:06 am

How to jump-start a conversation

Here is my Left of Center print column, published in The Alliance Review on Jan. 24, 2008.

 Dolphins are the only mammals other than man to have sex for recreational purposes.

My daughter’s boyfriend shared this with me, an odd scrap of information that leads one to ponder how scientists tell the difference between an animal doing the deed for procreation or recreation. Maybe the male dolphin lights a Camel when he’s finished or immediately rolls over and falls asleep.

Despite my doubts as to the claim’s legitimacy, I tucked it away in the filing cabinet of my brain under “small talk,” cross-referenced with “desperation.” I’m always looking for things to fill awkward moments of silence because they happen so often when I engage — or am engaged by — people in conversation.

I am terrible at small talk. If a gene governs the skill, I was born without it.

Case in point: When I was on vacation a few weeks ago, a man sat next to my wife and me on a bus and started talking about the university name on my sweatshirt. He had gone to school there, and he gushed effusively about it. I had only attended classes at one of its branches; consequently, I had little to say.

This didn’t stop Mr. Loquacious from pressing on: What year did I graduate? What did I study? Had I been back to the school since? Weren’t all the changes to the campus wonderful?

It was late at night, and I was tired. Nevertheless, I answered politely. In a few moments, he shook my hand, wished me good luck (at what, I’m not sure), got up and changed seats.

“He wanted you to ask him about himself,” my wife whispered.

“I didn’t want to know anything about him,” I whispered back.

She sighed with the patience of the long-suffering. More than anybody, she knows my apparent lack of social grace.

I’m not cold or unapproachable. Quite the opposite, in fact — I smile at strangers, say hello and hold doors in public. Maybe that apparent openness is what leads people to strike up conversations, only to find themselves stymied by how quickly the open book slams shut.

Please know I’m not opposed to discussions with friends and colleagues about substantive, or even trivial, topics. Mindless niceties are what turn my brain and tongue to quivering masses of Jell-O — the woman in line at the store who fills me in on her orthopedic inserts, or the guy sitting next to me at the movies who assumes that any other person with a Y-chromosome is passionate about football.

Sports junkies are the worst. When I worked in sales, I memorized one or two facts about each sport and scanned headlines daily to have a fighting chance with every former high school linebacker promoted to manager.

“Boy, how about that Payton Manning, huh?” one of them might say.

“Yeah,” I might respond. “Do you know the Colts’ stadium seats only 57,890? Where’s the justice?”

It’s too bad Miami isn’t in the running for the Super Bowl this year, because then I could drop my newfound conversation extender into the perfect context.

“How about those Dolphins?” somebody might ask.

“Yeah, what a team! Speaking of dolphins, did you know they are the only mammals other than man to have recreational sex?”

“You don’t say?”

Then I could lower the boom, zing the zinger, and serve the pièce de résistance: “Yeah, they don’t only do it with a purpose. They also do it with a porpoise!”

Come on, you know you’re going to use it to fill your next awkward silence.

Commentary 24 Jan 2008 08:46 pm

AC/DC = BD/ED

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In my quest to find new ways to make money, I’ve come up with a unique tribute band.

If you bump up each letter in the hard-rock act AC/DC by one, you get BD/ED. Now imagine putting together a cover band made up of school board of education members and sending ‘em on the road to play ”Back in Black,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and “T.N.T.”

Get it. Board of Education? BD/ED? AC/DC? You know it has potential. Contact me if you want to split ticket sales. I love to come up with ideas, but I hate to, you know, do the actual work.

Comic books & Commentary 23 Jan 2008 04:58 pm

A hero’s deal with the devil

The following is my print column from The Alliance Review, dated Jan. 17, 2008.

 With a puff of smoke, Spider-Man’s marriage has gone up in flames.

In recent issues of the wall crawler’s adventures, Spider-Man and his wife made a deal with the devil — in this case, long-time comic book villain Mephisto — to erase their marriage from existence in return for the life of Spidey’s doting Aunt May, the victim of a sniper’s bullet.

When Spider-Man woke the next morning in his civilian guise of Peter Parker, he was alone, his aunt was alive and well and cooking him breakfast and he had no recollection that for the last 20 years of his comic book history, he had been married. It was, as the title of this latest storyline promised, a “Brand New Day.”

The event hasn’t captured the attention of the mainstream press the way the death of Captain America did, but the odd end of the amazing arachnid’s marital bliss has garnered one USA Today story and lots of Internet buzz.

Readers are divided in their opinions. The general consensus is that Marvel Comics hit the Faustian reset button because younger readers can’t relate to a hero who is married, and that the other options — killing off the wife or having the couple divorce — would have been equally difficult to accept.

In many ways, this hearkens back to a problem that Review columnist John Whitacre addressed a few weeks ago when he wrote about aging in newspaper comic strip characters. Readers accept that Lucy has pulled the football out of Charlie Brown’s way for 50 years without either of them getting older, and that Dagwood Bumstead will take his dog Daisy for walks over three-quarters of a century, long after both should be pushing up daisies.

Only in a few strips do characters noticeably age and change. The “Funky Winkerbean” gang recently jumped ahead 10 years, and the stars of “For Better or For Worse” grow older at the same rate as the rest of us. Otherwise, characters exist in a time warp.

Comic books have faced big changes over the last 30 years. There was a time when most buyers were kids, reading comics for a few years before outgrowing them. To them, it didn’t matter that Superman was fighting Brainiac for the hundredth time, or that Batman had been around since 1939 but was frozen perpetually at 29, because by the time they noticed, they had already moved on to something else.

Readers who stayed into adulthood were the minority, and they had to accept the eternal quality of the heroes unless they wanted to read the adventures of Super Old Man or Batman and the Geriatric Center of Doom.

But when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and a few others began to feature more complex storylines and themes in the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, comic book readership began to skew older, and many fans hung on into college and adulthood. As the market further developed, and comic books moved away from newsstand distribution to bookstores and comic book shops, fans began to question why their favorite heroes didn’t age right along with them. Some of these fans became the next generation of comic book writers and poured their speculations — selfishly, perhaps — into scripts.

So Spider-Man, whose original charm was being a teenaged superhero with money problems and girl troubles that young fans could relate to, eventually graduated high school, then college, then got a super-hot girlfriend model whom he eventually married.

Suddenly, it became a lot harder for younger fans to relate.

Some readers who are opposed to the latest change don’t like the idea that Spider-Man, a bona fide good guy, made a deal with the devil, or that Marvel is still trying to have the hero appeal to kids, who they say get their primary Spider-Man “fix” from movies, cartoons and video games anyway, not from printed comics.

Me, I think Marvel will milk this newest wrinkle for a while before it finds a way to reset Spidey’s adventures again. After all, nobody stays dead in comic book stories, so why should a defunct marriage be an exception?

Comic books 22 Jan 2008 07:39 pm

Bring on the monsters!

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My “Cloverfield” viewing got me thinking about giant monster stories, and how some of the best were published by Marvel Comics in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

A 2006 hardback collection, “Marvel Monsters,” revisits these comic book creature features of old, along with several new stories that case an irreverent eye on the big baddies.

The collection starts off with a meeting of The Incredible Hulk and Devil Dinosaur. The Hulk is tossed back in time thanks to the meddling of an alien race. There, he throws down with Devil Dinosaur, a red, mutant dino who protects his primeval valley accompanied by Moon Boy, a talking chimp. The Hulk is a Jack Kirby co-creation (along with Stan Lee) and Devil Dinosaur is a product of Kirby’s solo muse. It’s a fun team-up.

The second new story, “Bring on the Bombu,” stars a voodoo-head monster who has a run-in with the law. It’s illustrated in a retro-’60s way by Keith Giffen and Mike Allred and is also a good read.

Peter David is up next with “The Return of Monstrollo, the Terror of Hollywood,” another updating of hoary old Lee/Kirby monsters. It works, but just barely. Jeff Parker’s “The Shadow of Manoo” is the book’s only real misfire, with the script feeling rushed and talky.

Two highlights are “Fin Fang Four” by Scott Gray and Roger Langridge, which puts four rehabilitated Marvel monsters in the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building. When one of them screws up and violates his parole, it’s up to the other three to lend a hand before total mayhem ensues. This one is worth reading solely to see Fin Fang Foom, perhaps the best-remembered creature of Marvel’s pre-hero age, working as a temperamental chef in a Chinese restaurant.

The last new story in the book is the most ambitious, even if it feels like a fine old issue of Marvel Two-In-One. In “Good Monsters,” The Thing and the Hulk take on a bunch of giant baddies in downtown New York. No time line is given for this story, but it has a definite Silver Age vibe, and the Avengers who guest-star add to that feeling. A great story by Steve Niles and exceptional art by Duncan Fegredo. Nobody’s taking the proceedings too seriously, but it makes for some seriously fun reading!

The collection is rounded out by some well-chosen reprints of old Marvel giant-monster stories from “Tales to Astonish,” “Strange Tales” and “Journey Into Mystery.”  Great art by Jack Kirby — and one by Don Heck — including the aforementioned “Fin Fang Foom” and “I Was a Slave of the Living Hulk!” The only bummer: Stan Lee doesn’t get a writing credit on these. How come?

“Marvel Monsters” is a great collection from a time when giant monsters could pillage a city (some of them even talking while they did so) and no lives were lost. It’s an all-ages collection worth having. Marvel has reprinted lots of their ’50s and ’60s monster tales in other collections, too. They all make for good reading!

Media & Movies 21 Jan 2008 05:20 pm

Star Wars — oh, oh, oh Star Wars!

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I’m not a big fan of “Family Guy.” I seldom watch the show, even though my daughter’s boyfriend gushes about how satirical and sharply written it is. On the few occasions that I’ve tuned in, I find it too often crosses a line of decency I would prefer it not cross. Worse, it breaks the cardinal rule of sitcoms by not being funny. I can forgive a lot, but not that.

All that explains why I didn’t know the sixth-season opener of Family Guy was a Star Wars parody. I’m a huge SW geek; even so, I wasn’t sure I wanted to subject myself to the Family Guy version when I learned about it. But I read a few reviews and eyed the DVD at my local Giant Retailer and, well, I was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. What can I say?

I’m glad I took the gamble. The episode is funny, a loving send-up of George Lucas’ creation. Some of the scenes are shot-by-shot recreations of Episode IV (which will always be the original SW to me). There’s a great little mini-tribute to John Williams, the conductor whose music is so integral to the movie, and a little bashing of Danny Elfman, whose music is not.

I’m sure this would be even funnier if I knew more about the Family Guy characters. As it is, I know enough to appreciate the roles played by the primary family members. Little Stewie as Darth Vader is especially appropriate. Fans of the show likely will spot many secondary characters in their Star Wars roles.

A recurring joke has to do with Obi Wan Kenobi’s pedophilia and his unhealthy interest in young Luke Skywalker. That should be enough to tell you that this parody isn’t for young kids and is better suited for teens and above. I guess that makes me sound like an old fogey, but so be it.

Even the DVD menu and scene selections are designed to invoke the feel of the SW DVD. The Family Guy theme has been reworked to sound as though it was scored by the London Symphony Orchestra, a nice touch.

Overall, then, I liked this much more than I expected to. I still don’t know if I’m ready for a weekly dose of the obnoxious Family Guy, though. I guess I’ll have to work up to that.

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