Sunday, February 19, 2017

I'd buy that for a dollar

Robocop is one of my top five favorite movies. I think I love it so much because it has a greater depth than it really deserves and it's an unrelentingly well-crafted piece of cinema.

I know that sounds over-the-top when you're discussing a movie with the elevator pitch of "He's a robot cop!" but it's just the truth. The writing is campy without falling into self-parody and handles issues that remain relevant thirty years after its release. The actors are pitch-perfect and crafted line readings that make sentences as simple as "I like it" endlessly quotable. The music is driven and driving, adding subtle undertones of humor and paranoia throughout. The art direction is flawless, the effects are genius (except for maybe Dick Jones' ridiculously long arms at the very end), and as a whole the movie is just entertaining. It's easy to watch but doesn't feel like junk food - it's popcorn cinema that makes you think.

As a huge fan of both Robocop and Twin Peaks I was saddened by the recent passing of the irreplaceable Miguel Ferrer and so jumped at the chance to go to a memorial showing featuring a Q&A with Peter Weller and Ed Neumeier. I got off work and drove to Hollywood to see it with my dad, my sister, and my dad's movie blogging buddy Michael (we didn't get a chance to talk much, Michael, sorry about that, hi! It was nice to meet you). The theater was packed with fans and I actually got a chance to speak to an awesome cartoonist whose work I admire, Kelly Turnbull, who was in the audience as well (her comic is Manly Guys Doing Manly Things and has a Robocop cameo, which you can see below) - she was super sweet, just FYI.

Anyway, Peter Weller was sitting about twelve feet away from me while we watched the film and that was an odd experience. As both Alex Murphy and Robocop his characters endure so much pain that it was more difficult for me to watch knowing the man who had emoted that pain so beautifully was so close - it made it more real for me, I guess. I didn't feel so much of the giddy joy that I normally do when watching Robocop during Weller's scenes because I was busy hurting for him.

Miguel Ferrer's scenes were, of course, more painful this time around too. He's just so fucking good as skeevy businessman Bob Morton. His delivery is perfect, you like him and hate him at the same time, you laugh at him and with him by turns. He was a wonderful actor and watching him in one of his most entertaining roles so soon after his passing is painful. My parents, sister, and I are also currently watching Twin Peaks on our weekly hangout nights so I'm getting a double of this particular sadness.

I don't know how much there is to say about Robocop that I haven't already said. It's a great film, it's funny, it's tragic. I love it and if you haven't seen it you should watch it. And hell, even if you have seen it you should watch it again and pour one out for the fantastic Miguel Ferrer when you're done.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

All of the things

I've spoken in-depth about my adoration for Randall Munroe here in the past so I won't go off that much about wonder and science and just how amazing it is that we get to live in and explore the universe. Like it's great, it's fantastic, it's the everyday miracle but I've been over it.

So instead I'll say that Thing Explainer is REALLY FUCKING FUN AND FUNNY Y'ALL. The goal of the book was to explain complicated concepts using the 1000 most common words in the English language, so words like "International Space Station" become "fast sky boat" and "ink" becomes "writing water" and oil becomes "old dead things." The Periodic Table of Elements written in the Thing Explainer style is particularly entertaining (I didn't realize four elements were named after one tiny town) but the book as a whole is a friggin fantastic thing to give as a gift to a kid who's getting into science OR to give to a grownup who's into science who maybe needs to chill on the jargon a little.

There are some fantastic fold-out pages (at least two gatefolds that I can remember but also a couple larger, more complicated vertical pages) and the illustrations throughout the book are done in Munroe's perplexing style - there's warm simplicity in his stick figures accompanied by a terrifying attention to detail in technical drawings and the two meet up in a spectacular fashion. There is an incredibly detailed drawing of the interior of a building with random shark tanks and dinosaurs thrown in for shits and giggles. That kind of thing is everywhere in the book and is part of what makes Munroe such a fascinating and successful cartoonist - his big, complicated, thinky, interactive comics draw huge audiences but so do his comics of two stick figures walking along and talking about programming.

Anyway, Thing Explainer is great and I loved it but it took me over a year to read. Because the details are so fine, and because I know there's humor hiding in every page, I wanted to read it very carefully and make sure I didn't miss anything. Unfortunately this means that each page takes longer to read than ten pages of a Stephen King book would take me. The pages very rarely follow the left-to-right, top-to-bottom structure that most English-readers are familiar with and so it's jarring to jump from one part of a page to the next. I ended up losing my place a lot and got frustrated if I tried to read more than a couple pages at a time. This ends up making the book a good rainy day book or puzzle-replacement book but it does slow down your reading.

I enjoyed the hell out of it but I want to give anyone thinking of purchasing it a heads up - it's not as easy at it seems.

     - Alli

Where you can find it in English and Other Languages.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The book of Book

It's nice to learn about the Shepard. He probably ties with River for the most interesting character in the whole 'Verse and his appearances in Serenity and Firefly are chock-full of cryptic clues about his past.

Of all the Serenity comic collections I've read in the last year The Shepard's Tale is by far the most cohesive and compelling. Its structure is unique to the series, largely running backward, and it reveals enough of Book's backstory to give him gravitas but doesn't get into enough minutiae to bore you with the character.

I think the graphic novel is helped by the fact that it's largely plotless. Book's story is a closed circuit, we know he was born at some point and we know when he dies so there's a limit to what can be done that erases the need for an action-driven plot and lets you wallow in characterization.

I mean it's not completely without a plot, the book has a skeleton of a story that runs backward in time but the story is totally secondary to learning Book's motivations and personality. He comes away stronger when you know the secrets he's full of.

I liked The Shepard's Tale a lot better than I've liked any of the other Serenity books and I think it's probably the end of the line for me; I don't want to read any more, I think this is the best I'm going to get out of this world, and it feels like it's okay to walk away from the story now. Maybe someday I'll want to hear what ever happened to River or Simon but for now I have enough answers about this world and I'm happy to walk away from it with The Shepard's Tale as my last step along the way.

     - Alli

Here's where you can find it on Amazon.

Unadorned poetry

Michael Arnzen's Dying is a chapbook of poetry written as a parody of Martha Stewart Living. The concept is compelling but each of the 16 poems seems like it was going for the easiest laugh possible.

Most of the poems are under 100 words, the final poem is the longest, and all of the poems ask how a murderer who was also into crafting and home decor would consider the uses of their victims.

The poems themselves aren't bad, and there are bright spots of linguistic cleverness that make the book fun enough to read but overall I'm glad I didn't pay for this.

The best part of the chapbook is the concept, the most well executed part is the cove art. You're left wondering why someone dedicated the time and money to making this one silly idea into a 20-page reality.

It seems like it was a lot of fun to write but there's a problem when your 16-page book is tedious.

     - Alli

Suicide Club

Nick Hornby is an author I've read more than my fair share of and it's someone else's turn. Really this is only the third Hornby I've read (High Fidelity and Slam were the other two) and I think I may already be tired of his style.

Hornby's books seem to be all surface and no substance with a lot of bland narration by unsympathetic English men. A Long Way Down shakes that up a bit by including a dull American man, an unsympathetic English woman, and an actually fascinating character into the narrative mix.

The story is told from the perspectives of four people who happened to run into one another when they all attempted suicide in the same location on New Year's Eve. There's a scummy journalist who has lost his family and been to prison for having sex with a fifteen year old girl (the book never commits to saying rape though it probably should), a musician with a band that has recently broken up, a young woman who probably has undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and a devout Catholic woman who has spent twenty years caring for her severely disabled son.

The premise, of course, is that there's really not a good reason to kill yourself and that there's always a tomorrow to look to and you're responsible for seeking out your own happiness and satisfaction is possible but I just have trouble buying it. Everyone is very kind to and understanding of Maureen, the woman who cares for her disabled son, and everyone totally understands why she would want to kill herself because caring for a disabled person is a living hell.

Which is ableist as fuck. And that never gets addressed - Maureen wishes her son would die and we only ever hear that from her narrative perspective, that isn't something the other characters challenge or attempt to help her cope with, that's just left to lie. Eventually Maureen doesn't wish for her son to be dead because she's learned that she can distribute the burden of care. That's just not a good thing. There are giant systems that create people who feel the way that Maureen does and they've spawned the anti-vax movement to try to avoid the possibility of being "burdened" with autistic children.

Martin, the skeevy TV host, accepts that he's never contributed anything to the world and gets his happy ending by teaching a terrible child to read but who the fuck is letting a convicted rapist tutor their child? That's a huge problem with not addressing that his divorce, the loss of his job, and his imprisonment aren't the result of easy-to-make mistakes but are the result of him having sex with someone who is below the legal age of consent. We're given a lot of perspective about his conservative middle-class attitudes but all that we're told about his victim is that she looked older than fifteen and met him at a party. That's pretty classic victim blaming coming from an author who's supposed to be something of a humorist.

The whole book attempts to understand and sympathize with people who are suicidal, it wants you to laugh with their pain and think about what might make you suicidal and how petty and strange it would seem to outsiders, but the whole thing really seems dismissive. Suicide is complicated and there can be very funny elements when discussing it with people who are suicidal but attempting to get into the head of someone suicidal in a novel that doesn't know where it wants to go doesn't seem to be a really good way to get at the heart of the issue.

This was a fairly quick read, but not one that I enjoyed.

     - Alli

Hornby, Nick. A Long Way Down. Riverhead Books. New York: New York. 2006. (2005).

Like Stephenson without the scifi

Maximalism is a term to describe literature that I hadn't heard until a couple of years ago and I have no idea why it didn't occur to me that it applied to Michael Chabon. While I haven't read Wonderboys I know that one character criticizes another for the fact that he was incapable of editing details out of his book - she accuses him of not making any choices.

Telegraph Avenue is actually only the second Chabon novel I've read, the first was a copy of The Yiddish Policeman's Union that I had picked up as a free book on a buy-two-get-one-free sale and actually now that I think about it the only reason I got Telegraph Avenue was because I found it at the 99 Cents Only store.

Good news: It's totally worth a dollar.

I really enjoyed reading the book it just seemed to drag a lot. I wasn't as interested Archy, the central figure of the novel, as I was in all of the characters surrounding him but I'm sure that was intentional. Archy is a lost man who doesn't know what to make of his life while the people around him are all very sure of what they want. His wife wants to make midwifery and intimacy with pregnancy more accessible to women of color than it is to her granola-infused customers; his father Luther wants very very badly to make a sequel to the film that was the centerpiece of his glory days; his business partner wants to sell records and keep a sense of community; his business competitor wants to create an empire. Archy is lost while being surrounded by people who know exactly what they want and that contrast serves to make ALL of the characters more interesting.

There's a lot going on on every page, and a lot of cool details, but it sometimes the writing felt like it was showing off for the sake of showing off. There's a whole chapter that is about ten pages long and all one sentence and it almost made me tear the pages out of the book. That's some Hawthorne bullshit right there and I will not stand for it.

But other than some ostentation and a drifting center the book is a fine read and, again, totally worth the dollar I paid for it.

     - Alli

Chabon, Michael. Telegraph Avenue. Harper. New York: New York. 2012.

Missing pieces and quiet pages

Better Days and Other Stories is basically a collection of Firefly vignettes. None of the stories is long enough for an arc on its own but all of them are worth adding to the Firefly Universe.

That said, you can probably skip it. I liked reading these little bits and bobs that filled in details of the 'Verse, but none of them really seemed to give any extra dimension or depth to the characters. We know Wash is awesome. We know he kicks ass. We're all sad he's gone. Turns out the characters are sad too. Okay.

Zoe's story about being a resistance fighter after the peace was signed is probably the most interesting add-on, but even that is something that viewers could have put together from the materials in the TV series and Serenity. Having extra details doesn't make her more compelling, it just gives you extra details.

I have one more Firefly collection to review and I think that's it for me. I'm bored with these books to the point that I'm glad the series got cancelled. If it had continued like this instead of progressing as a story I'd have given up on it. When I finished watching the show I wanted more, when I saw Serenity it felt like not enough, but after having read these comics I feel like the movie was really all the closure that fans needed. These comics could theoretically run forever and that's a daunting, depressing thing to contemplate. I don't need to see Zoe coping with single motherhood, I don't need to see Mal and Inara bickering over her work forever, I don't need to watch Kailee tinkering with a ship. River and Simon are interesting characters who DO have a lot that could be done with them, maybe tracking down other kids who were experimented on like River or finding help for her that could also cure the Reavers or *something* but that's not the sort of story I'm seeing from these comics and so I sort of don't want to continue reading them.

Which is a bummer. But also kind of a relief.

     - Alli

I'm pretty sure no one is using this blog as reference so I don't give a shit about putting together an MLA-correct citation for this book here's the Amazon link.