Archive for February, 2013

[50/50] Comedy #14: “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset”

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Comedy #14: “Before Sunrise” (1995) & “Before Sunset” (2004)

beforeWe have momentarily passed out of the comedy half of the rom/com equation into full blown romance … albeit, one with a few laughs.

Boy meets girl. And they talk. That’s it. That’s the whole plot of “Before Sunrise,” Richard Linklater’s 1995 ode to romance. Ok, there is a lot of walking as well, as two strangers meet by chance in Vienna and decide to see the city before their respective trains leave in the morning. We then get to watch the couple, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, get to know each other in (almost) real time. It is honest and awkward and sweet, and the chemistry between the two is palpable.

So much so that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy got together a decade later to see what happened to the pair. This time, a chance encounter in Paris reveals that the night in Vienna was a life-altering affair for both. “Before Sunset” is more bittersweet but resonates with a knowing confidence of what its like to be in love.

Of course, the big news is that the trio decided to make this set a trilogy, and plan to check in on the couple another decade later. “Before Midnight” comes out this summer, after being secretly filmed at the end of 2012. It is a huge risk for the director and two actors, but one which — like their characters — they are willing to take.

[50/50] Short story #14: “Arena”

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Short story #14: “Arena” — Fredric Brown (1944)

Gorn PornBest known now as “That Episode Where Kirk Fought the Guy in the Lizard Suit,” “Arena” began its long life as a short story by Fredric Brown. Oft reprinted, drawn for comic books, or outright stolen for TV fodder, the plot is simple: On the brink of intergalactic war, one man and one alien are chosen to fight for the fate of their respective species in hand-to-hand combat. Man’s ingenuity vs. a truly alien alien, in a battle to the death. That’s it. It’s a gritty, exciting sci-fi pulp classic.

Turns out it was also a thinly-veiled metaphor for those alien invaders, the Japanese. Who knew?

While Star Trek’s adaptation has a more “enlightened” ending, it kept the gritty, rock-throwing mano-e-monster physicality of the original. And while Fredric Brown’s story has inspired many iterations and updates, it took William Shatner to inspire this:


Marvel Comics also did a pretty good version in the early ’70s. You can read the whole thing here.

[50/50] Album #45: “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack”

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Album #45: “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack” — Various Artists (1977)

fever“I always hated Saturday Night Fever because it forever ruined the white suit.” — Tom Wolfe

“You should be dancin’, yeah” — The Bee Gees

A review in four part harmony

1) What the hell were we thinking? I don’t mean, “why did anyone ever like disco” but — “why did anyone hate this movie?” (Beyond Tom Wolfe and his somewhat-justified loathing.) Clearly no one who ever screamed “DISCO SUCKS!” actually saw “Saturday Night Fever” — a dark existential affair where the music served as much to ironically undercut the bleak, nihilistic lives of its characters as it did to get their asses out on the dance floor. Sure it had disco and dancing, but it also had a gang rape, ethnic violence and someone plunging to their death from a bridge. Are we having fun yet? Far from being some cheesy flick exploiting a craze (which, yes, it did eventually become) “Saturday Night Fever” had gritty cinematic aspirations born out of the ’70s auteurism of “Midnight Cowboy” and “American Graffiti” — in many ways an updated “Rebel without a Cause” for the Me Generation. If any argument remains, one of the fairest assessments of the quality of a movie is how easy it is to satirize, and “Saturday Night Fever” has been endlessly parodied —especially it’s cocky, strutting opening scene:

Then again, one of the reasons most of my 8th grade friends never saw the movie when it first came out was it’s R rating. In an effort to capitalize on both disco and the soundtrack’s popularity, “Saturday Night Fever” was eventually rereleased Rated PG with most of the violence and bad language left on the cutting room floor — and leaving it open to arguments of simply cashing in on the disco craze. “Saturday Night Fever” was the 1970s hitting bottom: It tried to have its quaalude and eat it too.

2) Spin the bottle. Whatever you thought about disco or this movie, there was no escaping the soundtrack. You couldn’t turn on a radio in 1977 or 1978 without hearing a cut from it. It was the No. 1 album for 24 weeks and spun off at least five #1 singles. Heck, even songs cut from the movie and the soundtrack — such as Samantha Sang’s “Emotion” — were Top 10 hits. Most of my friends had a copy, and I remember Side 1 was in heavy rotation the night we played Spin the Bottle (ironically, of course) down in Anne Dunlap’s basement. And if you ever needed an 11-minute cut of The Trammps “Disco Inferno,” you were set. The soundtrack also had one of my all-time Guiltiest Pleasures, the epically awful/awesome “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy. (If it pleases the court, let the record show that Walter Murphy’s LP was the first album I ever bought with my own money, and as it is nowhere on this final countdown, this is my only chance to play his one and only #1 hit. Number One, do you hear me? At some point in American history, this was the most popular song in the country. The only possible explanation is that everyone was on drugs.)

3) No escape. Of course, none of this explains why this album is in my 50/50 countdown, or why I still like it 35 years later. Quite simply, I was on drugs. In the spring of 1978, I spent several weeks hopped up on goofballs after tearing a muscle in my lower back trying out for the track team. The first week I spent recuperating at home — drugged out on the biggest muscle relaxers you’ve ever seen — with little to do except read “Lord of the Rings” and listen to the radio. The potent combination of pain killers, epic fantasy and Top 40 pop forever fused in my brain and that was that. When I think of Dungeons & Dragons or The Hobbit, even now, I don’t hear “O Fortuna” but Yvonne Elliman.

“Watch the hair!”

Goddamn could that Travolta boy dance. Seriously.

[50/50] Song #45: “Girl U Want”

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Song #45: “Girl U Want” — Devo (1980)

I think high school would’ve been more fun if I had listened to more DEVO.

That is all.

[50/50] Video Game #15: Xevious

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Video Game #15: Xevious (1982)

Xevious_PosterIn retrospect, this is just a really good scrolling shooter where you (again) shoot down hordes of invading aliens intent on conquering Earth. (This seemed to happen a lot in the early ’80s.)

At the time however…

Xevious came out at the very peak of the first great wave of video games — Atari even produced TV commercials announcing its arrival (unheard of at the time) — and incorporated every lesson Japanese and American companies had learned up until then about what made a successful and addictive arcade game. It was fun, challenging, rewarded successful hand/eye coordination, and its oversized cabinet came with booming speakers that bathed the player in an array of mesmerizing, cascading sound.

Xevious also introduced a number of concepts — such the idea of defeating a “big boss” to win the game — that have been thoroughly incorporated into other game designs over the last 30 years.

What I remember most though is the strange joy my brother and I felt whenever we walked into the Space Port (the arcade at the Colonial Park Mall) and didn’t see anyone playing Xevious. The game was hugely popular when it first came out, and for the longest time you had to queue up to play. It was in the prime spot at the front of the arcade entrance, and you would hover about hitting lesser games, trying not blow your precious horde of quarters on something you really didn’t want to play while waiting your turn. So if, after riding your bike all the way out to the mall, you turned the corner into Space Port and saw the machine was free, you knew it was going to be a really good day.

Speaking of free, you can apparently now play Xevious here online — no quarter, and no queueing, needed.

[50/50] Comedy #15: “The Love Bug”

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

herbie-profileComedy #15: “The Love Bug” (1968)

If I had done this list when I was 10, every movie on it would have been from Disney. And in the No. 1 slot would have been #53 — Herbie, The Love Bug.

While no other Disney flick made the 50/50 list, I’m pleased to see that “The Love Bug” is still here. We watched it a few years back, and it turned out to still be a sweet, goofy ride. Even the broad mugging of Buddy Hackett and its awkward counter-culture references are kinda cute. And for a kid’s movie, it sure has some dark undertones — I mean, when was the last time the main character in a Disney movie tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge?

Herbie’s become such a pop culture artifact, the plot of the movie is almost irrelevant. Car with real personality and a will of its own helps washed-up loser find love and success. Wackiness ensues. “The Love Bug” still works — long after its many sequels and reboots have been forgotten — because it has a real charm, helped along by a ear-worm of a calypso theme, and some great racing scenes. (It was also the very last film Walt Disney himself worked on directly before his death in 1966.)

At its heart, though, is the genius of making the VW Bug, one of the cutest and most iconic cars ever built, a character with a wider range of emotions* than most of the humans in the movie. Contrived as hell, but it works. Even now, 45 years later, I still want to own a bug with blue & white racing stripes.**

Here’s a montage of Herbie racing, set to Blur’s “Song Two” … just because.


*It’s curious, too, that this came out the same year as that other movie about a sentient machine with a strong personality — HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

**Actually, in a way, I finally do. When I was designing Speed Rally a few years back, my brother tracked down the official Herbie toy car from Johnny Lightning to use in my boardgame. Needless to say, it is the single most popular car in the box, and almost always the first to be picked.

[50/50] Short Story #15: “The Eighth Room”

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

vacuum-diagrams-stephen-baxter-paperback-cover-artShort Story #15: “The Eighth Room” — Stephen Baxter (1989)

Stephen Baxter has to be the most ambitious sci-fi writer working today. Not only did he have the big brass balls to seek out and write an official sequel to H.G. Wells “The Time Machine” (that, I might add, did NOT suck), he has also been acknowledged to be the successor to Arthur C. Clarke by no less an authority than Clarke himself. And Baxter spent the first two decades of his prolific writing career knocking out novels and short stories that aimed at spanning nothing less than the entire history of the universe, and cover the entire history of the human race.

While he didn’t initially plan it, with his first few short stories Baxter quickly realized all of his far-flung characters and situations shared the same setting. Eventually these were all linked together in his epic Xeelee saga, the story of a million-year-long war with an alien race so powerful they use whole galaxies as weapons. Yet as fantastical as Baxter’s concepts are, he grounds them all in deeply researched hard science … science that will blow your mind.

Baxter-Xeelee-An-Omnibus-2010-UKTo be fair, before you get to “The Eighth Room” you should probably read the rest of the short stories collected together in “Vacuum Diagrams” — if nothing else, you need to read the story before it, “Shell.” Both combine to tell of mankind’s ultimate fate in this universe. Utterly defeated by the Xeelee, the human race has been locked away in vast tesseract — a hypercube bigger on the inside than on the out — and imprisoned within an artificial world constructed on a mobius strip. Reduced to a handful of primitive tribes, humanity has been there so long (several million years when the tale opens) they no longer remember who they are, or that they’re even living in an artificial construct. A construct that is finally, slowly, and horrifically, failing.

One young girl — yes, using science — eventually realizes there is a way out. The alien Xeelee, not completely without compassion, have left an escape hatch for the humans … if only they can find it time.

Often creepy and surreal, “The Eighth Room” is Baxter’s forlorn exploration of human nature, ignorance and elaborate multidimensional puzzles.

(Oh yeah, and if anyone ever sees a copy of the Xeelee Omnibus, let me know — Vacuum Diagrams is still in book stores, but Baxter’s ultimate singular collection is out of print and getting hard to find.)

[50/50] Album #46: “Just Say Yes Terday”

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Album #46: “Just Say Yes Terday (Vol. VI of Just Say Yes)” — Sire Records/Various Artists (1992)

55352149The sampler. The mix-tape. The compilation. Hell, just say it: “New from K-Tel!”

Sometimes the best album is nothing more than a collection of singles. Sometimes they are carefully constructed with the highest of aesthetic and historical intentions (such as Rhino Records’ seminal New Wave collection “Just Can’t Get Enough”) — but most are thrown together just to make a quick buck (the aforementioned K-Tel, and their bastard demon seed “Now That’s What I Call Music?!”). Every record company puts out compilations as well, usually to hand out as swag, and sometimes — like Sire Records did in the late ’80s and early ’90s — to sell directly to the public.

The Just Say Yes series drew heavily on Sire’s new wave and alternative bands, and for Vol. IV they dove back into their archives to resurrect The Dead Boys and The Undertones, as well as unearth such gems as M (“Pop Muzik”) and Madness (“One Step Beyond”). The real revelation though, was a pair of ’70s songs I’d never heard of before: “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal, and “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand. I still can’t get enough of them. In fact I’m playing both, at the same time, as I write this.

Many of the singles on this sampler were also included in the Rhino series — and I briefly considered picking one of its 15 volumes for “the compilation album” — but “Just Say Yes Terday” was a birthday gift from my brother, and although he and I have exchanged a few mix CDs over the years (at least 50 at last count), this is the one commercial collection I keep returning to.

And the countdown continues:

[50/50] Song #46: “Cathedrals”

Friday, February 15th, 2013

Song #46: “Cathedrals” — Jump, Little Children (1998)

WORLD TRADE CENTER“In the shadows of tall buildings / of fallen angels on the ceiling”

I knew there would be at least one local band in this countdown — however, “Cathedrals” by Winston-Salem band Jump, Little Children was on this list long before I moved to North Carolina. A powerful and moving ode to the search for meaning in life, its lyrics took on unexpected (and unanticipated) meaning after 9/11 and the early years of the misguided “war on terror.”

I know this was never the band’s intention, but it is hard not imagine it with lyrics like “Someone is watching all of the outsiders/
The line moves slowly through the numbered gate/ Past the mosaic of the head of state”

None of which changes the fact that this is one of the most beautiful and haunting songs of the last few decades.

[50/50] Video Game #16: Q*Bert

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Video Game #16: Q*Bert (1982)


If the best video games let you do stuff you can never do in the real world, then Q*Bert is a shoe-in for one of the greatest. Where else can you hop about an Escher-like pyramid floating in the void, as killer marbles and snakes made out of springs relentlessly pursue you? Based on a classical optical illusion of 3-dimension cubes in a 2-dimensional space, Q*bert was deliciously disorienting — especially when creatures whose floor was your wall began drop in from the side of the screen.

Land on a cube and it changed color; change all the cubes and you advanced to the next level. It sounds easy, and it is at first, until the accumulation of opponents catches up with you and you miss a jump,  plunging into the abyss. And Q*Bert had attitude, swearing in cartoonese whenever he was squashed. It was great, goofy fun that challenged your spacial and pattern recognition skills like few other games.

Catch up on the complete list of games here: