Archive for August, 2013

[50/50] Genre Movie #12: X-Men

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Genre Movie #12: “X-Men” (2000)

wolverineWhen it comes to superhero movies, there is no shortage of flicks I could pick, from the 1978 big-screen “Superman” to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” on the DC side, to most of the Marvel films of the last decade (not counting the many unfortunate attempts at the Hulk and Fantastic Four). 1989 was a really good year, what with your Tim Burton “Batman,” and 1990 with the first Teenage Mutant Turtles, but really, nothing beats 2000 and the first “X-Men” movie. It was a near-perfect cast (Angela Bassett would have made a better Storm, but otherwise…) with Hugh Jackman nailing Wolverine, and receiving global fame as a reward for his efforts. While you can argue X-Men isn’t —now— the most entertaining superhero movie (X2 is certainly better), it did something more important: it was the first Marvel comic book movie that got it right. Without its success, none of the other movies would have happened. No Spider-man, no Iron Man, no Avengers. Director Bryan Singer showed that, if you cared about the source material and treated it with respect, you could make a great movie based on an old comic book.

[50/50] Book #12 “Galapagos”

Friday, August 30th, 2013

[50/50] Book #12 “Galapagos” — Kurt Vonnegut (1985)

“Hey you like to read? Ever read Vonnegut?” — every guy who ever hit up on my wife in the Midtown Tavern

200px-Galapagos(Vonnegut)For postmodern gonzo literature, it was a tossup between Tom Robbins and his “Still Life with Woodpecker” and a trio of Kurt Vonnegut books. Vonnegut gets the edge though, thanks to an inside joke between me and my wife, and the fact that his existential view of people and our place in the universe seems to get more and more veracious the older one gets. This was never more apparent than with his last great novel “Galapagos,” as the ghost of the son of the fictional stand-in for Vonnegut follows the evolution of mankind over the next million years, watching as they become fleshy blobs who sit around on the beach all day laughing at fart jokes. (Yes, decades ago, Kurt accurately predicted MTV’s current programming.) Bitter, cynical and beautiful, Galapagos deftly sums up Vonnegut’s philosophy in one neat package.

(For my wife’s brilliant take on Tom Robbins, and the hazards of meeting your idols, dig up her 2003 article in the Urban Hiker)

[50/50] Album #27: “Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs”

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Album #27: “Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs” — Andrew Bird (2005)

RYA_birdcapitaliOne of few fringe benefits of working at a daily back in the heyday of newspapers was the piles of free books and CDs sent your way. Didn’t matter if no one there ever reviewed them. In fact, you could not keep publishers, publicists, writers and musicians from sending you review copies, and asking them to stop only seemed to encourage them to send more. Of course, most of the best stuff was immediately snapped up by feature editors and music reviewers, but every great so often, a gem would slip through their notice and land in your lap. Such was the case with the amazing “Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs,” an infectious album that not only introduced us to the amazing Andrew Bird but to the amazing art of Jay Ryan, the Chicago poster artist who did the beautifully drawn booklet that came with. It is a mystery how I ended up with this jewel, but it spent the next several years in my CD player.

[50/50] Song #28: “Heaven & Hell/Movement 3”

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Song #28: “Heaven & Hell, Movement 3” (aka the Theme to Cosmos) — Vangelis (1975)

satpicAh, the instrumental. Do you know how hard it was to track down an instrumental you heard in passing, even after the internet and iTunes arrived? Song ID software now makes it easy, but before that, with no lyrics to google, instrumentals were songs that could haunt you for years. I once overheard a photographer at the Herald-Sun complain it took him weeks to find out the name of that Booker T. and MG’s tune was “Green Onions,” and I spent even longer trying to find out the name of the song AND the band on a mix tape a college girlfriend made for me after I lost the playsheet. (It was “Someone up there likes you” by Simple Minds by the way.)

Of course, an instrumental could still haunt you, even if you knew exactly who did it. This was certainly the case with “At the Heart of it All” by Aphix Twin, done with Nine Inch Nails on their “Further Down the Spiral” album.

And who could forget the still-freaky-even-after-30-years of Herbie Hancock:

For me though, the winner has to be the first Vangelis I ever heard, Movement 3 to his Heaven & Hell album, or as it’s better know, the theme to “Cosmos.” The PBS show that made a household name of Carl Sagan in 1978 also showcased Vangelis’ elegant, grandiose, and occasionally bombastic electronica long before he would go on to win the Academy Award and American Top 40 for “Chariots of Fire” or do the soundtrack for “Blade Runner.”

It turned my brother and I into such fans, we even got his weirdly experimental stuff, which for Vangelis meant teaming up with Yes frontman John Anderson for the strange ode to film noir, “Friends of Mr. Cairo,” a favorite late-night staple of DJs on Starview 92 who used the 12-minute epic whenever they needed a bathroom break or to go get stoned.

None of which takes away from the angelic ambiance of “Movement 3,” which I once thought would make great music at my funeral. While I realized now that would probably be a mistake, it was certainly the perfect pick for Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.”

[50/50] Computer game #13: “Spectre Supreme”

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Computer game #13: “Spectre Supreme” (1993)

6968245506_377bae96dfOnce LANs (Local Area Networks) became commonplace in the early ’90s, it was finally possible to link up computers in the same room and play live head-to-head. While the Macintosh suffered from a dearth of games compared to what was available for PCs, we did have one classic to ourselves: Spectre. Widely considered the grandson of “Battlezone,” Spectre was a sci-fi tank game played on a TRON-like grid. And when “Spectre Supreme” came out, you could play against your friends on the LAN.

Around this time I spent a year working for a tiny design firm. It was just the two of us, the owner and me, and at the end of the day, we’d boot up “Spectre Supreme,” he in his office and me in mine, and spend an hour or so hunting each other down in cyberspace. It was the most productive we were all day.

[Photo via amatecha … for about a decade, computer game companies put a lot of effort into designing the boxes the game came in, and the Spectre series (Sumpreme, VR, etc) were notable for how elaborate and beautiful they were. Strange but true.]

[50/50] Genre Film #13: “Miller’s Crossing”

Monday, August 26th, 2013

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Genre Film #13: “Miller’s Crossing” (1990)

Speaking of brother filmmakers, I was almost done tallying this list when I realized there was nothing from the Coen Bros. Considering how often my wife and I quote from Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou, and yes, The Big Lebowski, it would be an oversight not to include at least one movie from Joel and Ethan Coen.

From 1984 to 2001, the writer/director duo put out nine great, indisputably stylish films, including “Miller’s Crossing,” a prohibition-era gangster fairytale that focused as much on language and the way people talk, as it did on blowing shit up.

For all it’s emphasis on snappy writing, however, Miller’s Crossing’s most famous scene is an amazing dialog-free shootout, as gang boss Albert Finney takes on an army of assassins in his bathrobe. For some reason, You Tube won’t allow this snippet to be posted, so we’ll just have make due with this student-shot recreation of the scene.

[50/50] Book #13: “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Great Divorce”

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

Book #13: “The Screwtape Letters” (1942) /”The Great Divorce” (1945)  — C.S. Lewis

52934_w185Somehow, I never read “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea Trilogy, A Princess of Mars, Judy Blume — all the fantasy you’re supposed to read when you’re young, I read. But not C.S. Lewis’ best-selling epic. Not the series that J.R.R. Tolkien’s best friend is best known for. No, in our house, we skipped right over the kid’s stuff and went to straight to his adult sci-fi trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength), before moving on to his earnest religious allegories.

“The Great Divorce” is Lewis’ run at creating a modern day Divine Comedy. As in Dante’s “Inferno,” the protagonist gives the reader a tour of Hell — in this case with suitable, and sometimes humorous, updates. Lewis’ damnation is a tad different from the pit of eternal fire we’ve been pitched; his Hell is always rainy and gray. Hitler waits at a bus stop for a ride that never comes, while Napoleon lives in a mansion with an infinite number of rooms and still isn’t happy. In Lewis’ Hell, you can take a bus to visit heaven, but no one ever goes because all those happy people annoy them. The protagonist eventually takes the bus, but finds the sun too bright and the grass hurts his feet. His angel tour guide explains that anyone can leave hell at any time, but they’re all too stubborn and refuse to let go of their hate. As with most of Lewis’ work, there are some lovely metaphors for love and faith and looking at Christianity and the universe in a different light.

C.S. Lewis applies similar modern-day metaphors — and sly humour — in “The Screwtape Letters,” a religious tract disguised as a work-place satire. Written as a series of memos from the “home office” to a salesman in the field (in this case, a devil who having trouble corrupting a good christian and keeping up his quota of hell-bound souls), the book is an exploration of both theology and human nature. Originally dedicated to his BFF, J.R.R., “The Screwtape Letters” has been turned into several stage plays, and has even been recorded by Andy Serkis, bringing the Tolkien connection full circle.

[50/50] Album #28: “Panorama”

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Album #28: “Panorama” — The Cars (1980)

“With nothing to do/except think about you” — Ric Ocasek

220px-Cars_-_Panorama“Panorama” is always known as The Cars’ ‘dark album.’ After two records full of jangly pop tunes about wanting and longing, “Panorama” spends most of its time venting in frustration over never getting. Often set in minor keys, the songs vacillate between whining and begging, self-pity and adolescent sadomasochism. In other words, until Morrissey came along, it was the perfect album for a mopey teenager.

“Panorma” came out the week I turned 16.

It was only later, when I was much older, that I realized how perfectly this record encapsulated the next two years of high school for me. Between the desperation and depression, it could have been a road map for the bleak terrain I was about to pass through, if only I had listened to the lyrics more carefully. (This goes doubly so for the ironic album cover: it waves the checkered flag, while every song leaves the protagonist stranded as yet another potential lover takes flight in the opposite direction.)

Of course, for all the sympathizing Ocasek and crew do with loserdom, they aren’t above turning on their own fans and reminding them how harsh and unforgiving the world is if you forget your place. As Benjamin Orr cuttingly drives home in “Down Boys”: You were tryin’ to be, hysterical/ And I still ain’t laughin.’ There’s 11th grade, right there.

At no point during the album does anyone get lucky. Even with “Up and Down,” the hard-pounding punch that ends  “Panorama,” Ric Ocasek is reduced to begging:

Do you have to be so hard to get
Especially with those emerald eyes
You might have been a neon lover
But you didn’t have to advertise
Come on, come on, well, come on

It’s okay Ric, I know just how you feel.

[50/50] Song #29: “The Ghost in You”

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Song #29: “The Ghost in You” — Psychedelic Furs (1984)

The_Psychedelic_Furs“Inside you the time moves and she don’t fade/The ghost in you, she don’t fade”

I missed seeing the P-Furs when they came thru town the other week; still couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes, so joining a crowd on the concrete floor of the Cat’s Cradle was out of the question. Maybe it was appropriate that age and injury kept me from seeing The Psychedelic Furs. While “Pretty in Pink” was their biggest hit (thanks to the John Hughes film of the same name), their best song was unquestionably “The Ghost in You,” a quintessential New Wave ode to reminiscence as you get older. It’s chorus is quite possibly the single best lyric written about memory and falling in love.

[50/50] Computer Game #14: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Computer Game #14: “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (1989)

Romance_of_the_Three_KingdomsWhile you could play against a single opponent from the earliest days of Pong, games that allowed you to take on a multitude of friends were a rare thing. Back before there were fast modems, LANs, and real-time strategy software, the only way you and your buddies could play a computer game together was via the hotseat. Each gamer would take a turn in front of the same computer while everyone waited in the next room, usually talking trash and how they were going to wipe out your army next turn. All of your plotting, scheming, and attacking would have to planned and executed quickly, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear diabolical cackling come from the person in the hotseat — either that or copious swearing, when they realized you had just wiped out their army the previous turn.

The best of these hotseat games was “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” a rich, dense wargame set in 3rd century China. For all the limitations of the hardware and software, you (and up to a half dozen other players) could still recruit hundreds of historical characters in your bid to take over ancient China. You also had to make sure your followers were happy, your fields full of rice and your people safe from flooding. With the right group of gamers, like we had a couple of afternoons on the Amiga in a friend’s basement, it could be a chaotic, challenging and hilarious session. RTK was so successful it is now in its 12th version, and is available on the iPhone, playable against anyone anywhere. While no doubt faster, it probably doesn’t give you the same experience at the hotseat, with your friend cackling in the next room as he burns your crops.