Monthly ArchiveDecember 2009



Books 31 Dec 2009 12:35 pm

Star Wars: Death Troopers

 death-troopers

I hadn’t read a Star Wars novel in years (maybe since I gave up in the middle of a Tales Of… anthology filled with sub-par stories) before giving Death Troopers a try. The idea of a horror story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away intrigued me, but I wasn’t sure Lucasfilm would green-light anything too extreme, so I was prepared to be disappointed.

Instead, I was surprised by how creepy Death Troopers is. Author Joe Schreiber gives us a cast of six new characters aboard a prison barge in a darker, scummier part of the Star Wars universe, and then mixes them with an Imperial Destroyer filled with a zombie-creating plague. To say much more would ruin the fairly straightforward plot, which unfurls at a breakneck pace. While I’m tired of the stranglehold zombies have on the current cultural zeitgeist, I appreciate the way Schreiber uses them here, and I am amazed at how graphic he was allowed to be, considering he’s playing in a kid-friendly franchse. This is an honest-to-goodness horror novel, set in the same world as R2D2 and fuzzy little Ewoks. Just imagine.

Commentary 31 Dec 2009 10:24 am

Hide the knives

Next week, I go back to waiting a day between the publication of my print column in The Review and posting it here, but since this one’s timely …

If somebody set out to design the most depressing holiday imaginable, he could do no better — or worse — than New Year’s.

Every part of this so-called celebration might cause lunatics to chew off their restraints or dogs to howl like they’ve heard those whistles that blow at canine-only frequencies. This year is even worse, because we’re ushering out a decade that nobody has successfully named (the Aughts? the Zeros? the Ohs?) and preparing to ring in a decade that also lacks a good name — the Teens won’t fit for a few more years, and the Tens sounds like a brand of adult diapers. How can you wave it goodbye or invite it in when you don’t know what to call it? Maybe that’s why the Aztecs predicted the world would end in 2012 — to spare us the inconvenience of deciding what to label another decade.

Anyway, here are just a few of the reasons I would avoid New Year’s if I could:
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Movies 28 Dec 2009 11:09 am

Sherlock Holmes

holmes

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law make a great Sherlock Holmes and Watson, but the movie that they star in isn’t worthy of their talents.

Oh, the new Sherlock Holmes paints a wonderfully muddy and dreary Victorian London, and the film gains points for going back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works instead of imitating earlier movies (especially nice was the use of Irene Adler and arch-villain Moriarty), but it’s all filmed in that breathless, let’s-see-how-often-we-can-cut style of modern films, with too much emphasis on physical action. Deduct a few points for accents that make it difficult to figure out what the hell the characters are saying and a few more for a soft second act that could have benefited from judicious editing, and you end up with two A+ actors in a C+ movie.

I hope the film turns on modern audiences to the original stories, and I would definitely buy a ticket to see how Downey and Law acquit themselves in a sequel, but this outing was only mildly entertaining.

Books 28 Dec 2009 10:52 am

The Giver

 giver

Reviewer Francine Prose, bemoaning what she sees as the sad state of affairs in the teaching of literature in high schools, has noted that “[h]igh school — even more than college — is where literary tastes and allegiances are formed; what we read in adolescence is imprinted on our brains as the dreamy notions of childhood crystallize into hard data.”

Perhaps what Prose terms “the intense loyalty adults harbor for books first encountered in youth” explains why my seniors were shocked that I hadn’t read Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a soft sci-fi novel that many of them encountered for the first time in middle school, and one that obviously packed quite a wallop, given their impassioned championing of it. Many of my freshmen have the same reaction when discussing Hatchet, a survivalist story against which they judge every other novel that comes their way. 

After one of my students announced her intention to compare Ayn Rand’s Anthem to The Giver, I vowed to read the latter over winter break. It was an easy promise to keep. Lowry’s book chugs along at an easy
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Commentary 24 Dec 2009 02:03 pm

What cost, Christmas?

Breaking my usual rule to wait a day before posting, here is today’s seasonally themed column from The Review:

Just what are “calling birds,” “lords a-leaping” and “maids-a-milking,” anyway?

Curiosity about “The 12 Days of Christmas” is a sign that the holidays are approaching and that the people doing the wondering have too much time on their hands. With gifts to wrap, cookies to bake and bowl games to watch, who has the luxury to ponder lyrics about French hens, golden rings and partridges in pear trees, let alone the mysterious “True Love” who gives all this stuff to the singer to begin with?

It turns out the good folks at PNC Wealth Management in Pittsburgh have done much more than that. Every year since 1984, they’ve calculated the cost of giving the 364 gifts mentioned in the tune’s twelve verses. This year, the cost is a whopping $21,465.56.

To determine the total, they did more research more than the good elves here at Left of Center Central have patience for, including contact with a Philadelphia dance company ($608.11 for each of the “nine ladies dancing” — a 15-percent increase over 2008) and the Pennsylvania Ballet (each “lord a-leaping” will set the buyer back $441.36). They’ve even adjusted for the only instance of unskilled labor on the countdown, the maids a-milking, determining that the cost of the lasses’ services has increased because of the federal minimum wage hike.
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Comic books 23 Dec 2009 10:19 pm

Archie #604

 archie604

Archie #604 is the penultimate chapter in the six-part “Archie Marries…” mini-series. This round, Andrews marries Betty and moves to NYC where she pursues her dreams of working in the fashion industry. Soon enough, they end up back in Riverdale to restore the status quo, courtesy of writer Michael Uslan and legendary artist Stan Goldberg. If you read parts one through three, you know that in the Archie marries Veronica version, the couple had twins. Not to be outdone, Betty drops her own baby announcement on Archie at the end of this issue; the only question remaining is whether it’s a boy or a girl.

While I still feel the concept has worn out its welcome, I can’t get too angry at a comic that references Casablanca: “We’ll always have Riverdale! Here’s looking at you, kid!”

Comic books & Music 23 Dec 2009 09:58 pm

Yuletide traditions

shacktown-ducks

Two things have to happen each year before I allow that Christmas may arrive: I have to hear the Kinks’s “Father Christmas” and read Carl Barks’s classic Donald Duck story, “A Christmas for Shacktown.”

The first thing occurred earlier today, and the second will happen later tonight. Last year, I wrote a blog entry about the Kinks’s song that you can be read by clicking here. Two years ago, I wrote about “Shacktown”  in an entry that you can read by clicking here. ‘Tis the season for blog repeats.

Animation & Comic books & Movies 22 Dec 2009 07:34 pm

Heavy Metal: The Movie

heavy-metal2

When I was a middle-school student, the hottest ticket going for a few months was the animated film Heavy Metal, based on an adult comic book that none of us was supposed to know about, but to which every red-blooded American male in the seventh grade had hazarded a peek when his parents weren’t watching. It was a supposedly sophisticated magazine of fantasy and sci-fi, but most of the stories were just excuses to show women without their clothes. So when we heard an animated movie of the same name was to be released, it was, of course, hotly anticipated.  

One kid in my class shot to instant notoriety because, allegedly, his mom didn’t check the rating and took him to see it, expecting standard Disney fare. He came to school the next week full of stories of violence, mind-bending concepts, and — of course — lots of scantily-clad women. Omitting this last part, I begged my mom to take me, and almost succeeded (”C’mon, how bad can a cartoon really be?” was the extent of my persuasive skills), but she balked at the last minute at that Restricted rating. The closest I would ever come to the movie was a single of Don Felder’s cool “Heavy Metal (Take a Ride)” single, complete with a record sleeve that showed Taarna, the amazonian warrior from the film’s last segment.

Years later, when the film finally became available on VHS, I told my wife it would make a great birthday or Christmas gift. Her experience in buying it was fraught with embarrassment: In one video store, the clerk sniffed and
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Movies 21 Dec 2009 08:34 am

Sunset Boulevard

 sunset-blvd

Gloria Swanson plays delusional silent-screen actress Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a gem of a movie from 1950 that also stars William Holden as screenwriter Joe Gillis. On the run from two repo men, Gillis turns his car into the driveway of Desmond’s run-down Hollywood mansion and finds himself mistaken for a chimpanzee-coffin deliverer.

And that’s only one of the bizarre surprises in the movie, written and directed by Billy Wilder of Some Like It Hot fame. Swanson delivers an over-the-top performance, Erich von Stroheim is suitably mysterious as an attentive servant, and some of Hollywood’s major power brokers — most notably Cecil B. DeMille, playing himself — make an appearance. It’s all swathed in the glow of Paramount circa 1950, as the studio system began to breathe its last, the old days swept away, just as Desmond’s career had been by the advent of sound.

Funny, sad, and a little scary, Sunset Boulevard is a terrific film, from the opening shot of Holden floating face-down in a swimming pool to the final shot of him doing the same, and everything in between where we learn how he got there, narrated by the dead man himself.

Commentary 18 Dec 2009 07:38 am

Quittin’ the mittens?

Here is my Dec. 17 column from The (Alliance) Review.

I’m wearing mittens this winter.

It’s girly. It’s embarrassing. It would cause Hemingway to turn over in his grave and Chuck Norris to buffet me soundly about the head and shoulders.

Mittens.

Oh, they’re awfully stylish, these man-mittens. They’re dark black, with insulated palms and elastic wristbands. The mitten part that covers the fingers peels back to reveal a half glove beneath, so that I can still do all the manly things that couldn’t be done wearing conventional mittens, like haul firewood or change a flat tire or pick my nose.
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