Monday, June 30, 2003

[MOVIES] The Environment

Every once in a while - like, once a month - someone at HTF will start a thread or resurrect one saying "I'm not going to movie theaters any more! The sound sucks, the people are rude, and it costs too much! I'm just gonna wait for the DVD from now on!" Sometimes there's a rider saying "well, maybe I'll see the big releases that have to be seen that way. But that's all!" Now, I'd argue that every film deserves to be seen in its native environment first, but whatever. Up until recently, I'd be one of the people defending the theatrical experience until it became perfectly clear that I and others who agreed with me were being totally ignored. Those threads are about people knowing that they are sacrificing an important part of the movie experience and wanting validation that they're not missing much.

Usually, I have to admit that I haven't had many bad moviegoing experiences - even though the new theaters (new in that they weren't open when I moved to Cambridge in 1999) at Fenway and Boston Common make the theaters I'd patronized previously seem inadequate in comparison, I can't say I found a whole lot of fault with the older ones. I was going there for a movie, and as long as it was competently projected, I figured I had gotten what I paid for. If the audiences weren't ideal, I must have been tuning them out except in extreme situations.

I'm not ready to join that crowd yet - heck, I just ordered 20 "Weekday Escape" tickets from the Loews discount ticket website - but the last couple of movies gave me some insight into their thoughts.

First, there was May last Thursday. Wasn't really fond of the movie, but what really shocked me was the room it was in - I counted 69 seats in Copley Square's #3 theater. Consider that, before GCC Fenway and Loews Boston Common was built, this place tucked into the Copley Square Shopping Center was one the mainstream first-run places for a city the size of Boston, and it's no wonder the city was considered seriously underscreened. But it's the design of the place that is truly aggravating - I arrived ten minutes early, and tried several different seats. There were no good ones. The room has a reverse slope, such that each row is actually lower than the one in front of it, and the screen itself is at least six feet above the floor. Which means everybody has to crane their necks up. The first row is about four feet from the wall, and the last row (actually only three seats plus spots for wheelchairs) actually sits underneath the projection booth's overhang. The projection itself was mostly all right, except for the "in the event of an emergency..." snipe, which was upside down and backwards (and thus without sound). This was on a Thursday... Did nobody in the theater really notice it all week, or did they just not care?

The lesson, of course, is not to go to Copley Place to see a movie unless that's the only place it's playing in the Greater Boston area. If you have a bunch of $4 Loews tickets and, being out of work, really can't afford the $6.50 for a matinee at Kendall Square or a book of discount tickets there, consider it incentive to get a new job fast.

Tonight I went to see 28 Days Later at Boston Common - one $4 ticket that had to be used by the end of June 2003, and Charlies Angels 2 was sold out. In contrast to Copley Place, all of Boston Common's screening rooms are stadium seating, with few bad seats. I'd say none, but there's probably not a theater on Earth where being stuck at the extreme left or right of the front row doesn't create the temptation to see if you can exchange for another show. But some jerk had a laser pointer. He or she seemed especially fond of trying to hit the irises of a character's eye, or trace the outline of his nostrils in a close shot, or something like that.

Explain to me the thought process behind doing this. If you're the only person or group in the theater and the movie's not holding your interest, I suppose it might be no big deal, but I was trying to watch the movie. I did not pay to watch 28 Days Later And A Guy With A Laser Pointer. It's just rude. Much of the movie was shot and edited in such a way that it was difficult to keep the pointer focused on anything (which I think is one of the movie's problems, from an aesthetic standpoint), but that meant that this was mainly happening during "character scenes", so to speak. I was tempted to join the person who at one point yelled to knock it off, but I wasn't about to give this doofus the attention he or she was clearly craving.

Also, someone sitting in the seats further up probably wouldn't notice it, but I certainly was able to recognize the telltale discoloration caused by soda meeting screen. Folks, movie screens aren't just white painted walls, or stretched-out bedsheets - they are made of a semi-reflective material that cannot be easily cleaned and cost over a thousand dollars to replace. If something in the movie displeases you to the point where you have to throw something, make it dry popcorn, all right? Otherwise, you're just lowering the quality of your experience next time you see a picture in that theater.

Ah, well. Ultimately, neither situation was truly bad enough to try to get theater management involved - all they really merit is a rant on a blog that nobody else reads. As much as I love home theater - aside from having movies available to watch whenever I get the urge, the secondary effect of fewer people going to a second show and thus more new movies being released is great - I do fear that being able to watch movies in their living room may have conditioned people to act like they are in their living room whenever they watch a movie.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

[COMICS] Disney's throwbacks

The first comic book I remember reading was an issue of Richie Rich. It was sitting in "Crossroads", one of those restaurants small towns have which are open for breakfast and lunch but not dinner (of course, the name might have been different; I can remember it being called "Crossroads", "Fran's Place", "Atienza's Cafe", and "Stone's Restaurant"), right next to the newspapers there for adults to read while drinking their coffee. It had multiple stories, simple layouts - indeed, whenever the layout got a little complicated, there were arrows to lead the reader from panel to panel - and a house style so uniform that it could have been one artist or many.

The two "new" Walt Disney comics from Gemstone are kind of like that, only bigger and, yes, more expensive. At $6.95 each, they're on the pricey side, but that does get you approximately 60 full-color pages. That's about the same per page as a $2.95 22-page book (color optional), and if you're looking for good comics for kids, you could do a lot worse. The books have a good balance between long and short stories, and there's absolutely nothing in them that would worry a parent.

The word new is in quotation marks in that last paragraph because these aren't really new book; they just haven't been published for four years. "Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge" is #319, and "Walt Disney's Comics" sports a whopping #634, which would be over fifty years of monthly issues. For the most part, though, there aren't any continuity issues. Kids getting the books for the first time might wonder who this "Phantom Blot" character Mickey is fighting with is (unless the Blot has been showing up in ABC's Saturday Morning cartoon; the local station doesn't run it). I myself admit that it took me some time to reconcile the versions of some of the characters in this book with the versions that appeared on DuckTales 15 years ago. (Ain't multiple continuities a pain?)

Going forward, I don't know if I'll keep picking up "Walt Disney's Comics"; I just didn't hear the characters' voices while reading it (especially not Donald's), and it was pretty short on Mickey while being entirely Goofy-deficient (also no Pluto, Chip & Dale, and Daisy). I am, however, hooked on "Uncle Scrooge".

Part of the reason is that I really did like DuckTales as a kid, and that series was inspired by these comics, but mostly for the Don Rosa story that leads the issue off, "The Dutchman's Secret". It's 24 pages of great comic book - easy enough for a kid to understand, but filled with solid storytelling with plenty of adventure and humor for all ages. And it seems like a funny thing to say about a comic book about talking ducks, but it is meticulously researched. It's clear that Rosa put a lot of effort into this story even before reading his editorial where he talks about how "The Dutchman's Treasure" is actually the most famous lost treasure in the United States, and how he worked at making sure all the facts in the story are accurate (save, of course, the presence of Scrooge McDuck). I could tell that certain elements, like the "secret Spanish symbols", were likely genuine, because of how well everything fit together.

It makes for fascinating reading, as Scrooge, Donald, Huey, Dewey, and Louie bring their intelligence to bear on the problems in the story. And it's really encouraging to see someone paying that much attention to detail. We're in the middle of the season where people advise you to "turn your brain off" during a movie, and seem to simply not understand when you suggest that getting things right might make for a more interesting story that can be enjoyed by more people. Don Rosa gets it, though, making "Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge" my favorite comic from the past week.

[RED SOX] Running Up The Score

What's wrong with it? The Marlins overcame a seven run deficit last night to win 10-9. It's unlikely that they would have overcome a 20-run lead on Friday, but possible. After all, the Red Sox had scored 14 runs in one inning, and there was nothing except Boston's bullpen to prevent the Marlins from doing the same. And yet, Grady felt guilty about his team continuing to play aggressive baseball after they'd built up a good lead.

Happily, as you can see in this article, John Henry doesn't agree:

''If we're supposed to stop trying to score,'' Henry said, ''we should just put up a disclaimer on the scoreboard: `You should go home now, we're not trying anymore.'

''You've got people giving up their Friday night to be at the ballpark, spending a couple of hundred bucks, and we're supposed to stop playing? The idea is to score runs. If not, then why are we out there? We've got a sold-out crowd, and if we're not trying to score runs, no matter what the score is, we're not playing baseball.''

It was rumored, during the off-season, that Henry wanted to fire Grady Little and hire a new manager. I don't think they'll fire Grady during the season while the team is still winning, but I'd be surprised if he was given a new contract.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

[RED SOX] That's more like it

It's good to see the Sox properly crushing the Tigers tonight. Maybe it makes me a bad baseball fan, but I really have a tough time getting excited about "double, ground out to the right side of the infield to advance the runner, sacrifice fly" to "manufacture" a run. Productive outs, are, after all, still outs. Sure, they're better than double plays and infield pop-ups, but that sort of seems like purchasing a single run dearly. I always wonder why play-by-play guys are so complimentary over a groundout to second. Why not "well, if you're going to ground out..." as opposed to considering it a virtue.


You've got to wonder about the brain trust in Florida. They were just going to ship Kevin Millar to Japan and getting nothing in return? The next time Commissioner Bud talks about competitive balance, someone should bring up the hand-picked owner of that Marlins team who clearly wasn't even trying.


No-mar! No-mar!

Without looking at Alex Rodriguez's stats, and fully understanding that Nomar has just been on a tear lately, I'm starting to wonder whether the truism that "it's A-Rod and everyone else" is not quite so true any more. Right now, Bob Rodgers and Eck are talking about how you can't walk him, but it seems to me that he's showing some more discipline at the plate lately. Not to the point where he's actually taking a base on balls, but he doesn't seem to be swinging as much when pitchers throw him junk outside the strike zone. Then, once he's up 3-1... Triple.

Monday, June 23, 2003


Yes... Yes, I liked The Hulk.

But first, let us talk of trailers. Sure, seeing the Legally Blonde 2 preview for the 100th time was painful ("hey, there's Bob Newhart in a movie I'll never see! Why, Bob, why?"). But The Punisher teaser looks like it may be worth watching (or at least, worth watching if your inclined to like The Punisher), and I do love the look of The Cat In The Hat, which seemed to have disaster written all over it. And I'm stunned at how great Peter Pan looks - I knew a live-action version was in the works, but this looks like it could be something really special. Meanwhile, Tomb Raider 2 is just coming out too late; I was actually pretty curious a month or two ago, but now I can't help but remember how much the first one stank.

And how hard would it be to cut a good trailer for The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen? You run the camera through a library - or, better yet, a 19th Century reading room - stopping occasionally at leather bound volumes of King Solomon's Mines, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, etc., with grainy black-and-white clips appearing on the side while the narrator intones "Allan Quartermain, the century's greatest adventurer... Willhemina Murray, the beloved of Dracula... Edward Griffin, a man made invisible by his own experiments..." - and so on until you reach the other side of the room and the League stands there - "What threat could bring them together?"- then cue some action scenes. Sell what's cool and unique about the movie, rather than the rather generic trailer that's playing now.

But, that's not the comic book movie I saw today. I saw The Hulk, and enjoyed nearly every minute of it. I'd been afraid that Ang Lee would make a somewhat restrained picture - I loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it was sort of "Sense And Sensibility with martial arts", as he himself described it, a very proper kung fu film. Instead, though, this movie embraces its comic book roots, from the lettering of the credits and intertitles to the great cameo by Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno to the brilliant transitions and split-screens. Lee didn't invent this - you see a lot of the techniques used on 24, or in Star Wars, or in film much older. But he does use it to keep the screen in motion; even when there's nothing going on but two people talking to each other, this still feels like an action movie. And when he uses it to show the Hulk bounding across the desert by having three backdrops... But no, the visual defies easy description despite being so simple - see it yourself.

The Hulk is the film's main special effect, and he's a doozy. There were one or two scenes that didn't feel right, but for the most part the Green Goliath is solid and moves like I'd expect a ten-foot-tall mass of muscle and rage to move. The monsters he gets to fight aren't quite so good - some gamma-irradiated dogs look borderline cartoony, and a villain based upon frequent Hulk sparring partner The Absorbing Man looks very cool at times and very lame at others. You'll get no complaint from me, though, about the film's main showpiece, when the Hulk escapes from an underground bunker and General "Thunderbolt" Ross sends the military out after him. It's big and exciting, straddling the line between fantasy and realism almost perfectly. Really, I'm not sure why the filmmakers found a need to tack another set piece on afterward.

Performances are good enough. Everyone gives exactly what their character needs: Sam Elliot makes Thunderbolt Ross a heck of a lot more interesting than the comic ever did, and Nick Nolte knows when to be mysterious and when to be theatrical as David Banner, Bruce's father. Jennifer Connelly is a great choice as Betty, smart and playful and fully aware that her involvement with Bruce is because she never was able to connect with her emotionally unavailable father. She also singlehandedly makes the "Hulk Dogs" sequence work by being absolutely convincing as a woman whose life has just turned into a scene from Jurassic Park. Eric Bana kind of gets the short end of the stick by design - I completely buy him as a repressed Bruce Banner, but whenever his character has a strong emotion, out comes the CGI. I am glad they went with an unknown, though - like Hugh Jackman in X-Men, I see Bruce Banner, not a movie star.

The screenplay takes liberties with the details of The Hulk's story, as created by Lee and Kirby, but I don't mind that. They took the basic themes - repressed emotion, science gone amuck, et al - and built a story that works as a movie. That it's partially a new story is a bonus - even longtime Hulk fans will have a chance to be surprised and astounded. No, it's not Stan Lee's Hulk (or Peter David's, or Bruce Jones's, or Mark Millar's...), but it being James Schamus's and Ang Lee's is no small thing.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

[MISC] Self-discipline

The name of this blog comes from the old saying "The only way to become a writer is to write"; the purpose of it being to force me to sit down every day and write something in hopes of improving my ability. But, today, I just don't seem to have anything to write about.

Nothing really happened. It rained a lot, and I read an article in the paper about how rainy weekends may be a result of pollution. This strikes me as the sort of argument the global-warming folks should seize and make use of. Saying that the greenhouse effect is making the world warmer, which in the long term will melt polar ice caps and cause disaster sounds bad if you're talking to people who think on that scale, but most folks will hear that and think "less shoveling!" But "human-caused pollution causes rainy weekends" is something your average joe can understand.

Then on comes the DVD player and Replay. Watched Adam's Rib, a couple episodes of Law & Order (get that second season out - I've only got four first-season ones left!), and Near Dark. The movies were pretty good, although neither of them will hit my list of favorites any time soon.

Saturday, June 21, 2003

[MOVIES] Ichi The Killer

If you click on the "2003 Movie List @ HTF" link on the side, you'll see that the movie sitting in dead last (as of this writing) is Adam Sandler crapfest Anger Management. Why, you may ask, has Ichi The Killer not displaced it, but instead wedged itself a little higher up, between The Recruit and The Warrior? Because, unlike those movies, Ichi never bored me. It shocked me, disgusted me, confused me, and I feel guilty for laughing at some of its grotesque absurdity, but never once did I feel like I was wasting my time.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart - if my mother is reading this, I'm warning her to stay away and promising that I will do everything possible to keep Matt away from this when he comes here this fall. The list of things that would get this movie an NC-17 rating if it was submitted are spelled out in the IMDB entry. It's exploitive, depraved, and violent without anybody becoming a better person in the end. It is, however, clearly the work of talented people. Hidden amidst the bloodletting are characters who, while nasty, are also a heck of a lot more interesting than they have any right to be. The movie is based upon a manga and retains a comic-book sense of style and absurdity (along with giving Ichi a costume many American superheros would love). I'd expect nothing less from Takashi Miike, but must admit I prefer something not quite so nihilistic.

I can't recommend this movie, not even a two-star "it's below average, but doesn't actively suck" rating. But, at the same time, I can't say it didn't grab me and hold my attention for two hours, even if I spent a lot of that time looking away.

Friday, June 20, 2003

[COMICS] Reviews of things that came out on 18 June 2003

I hate the term "story arc". Mostly, it's because I always figured that even a single-serving story progresses through a beginning, middle, and end, with characters and situations evolving through it. Indeed, I'm only half-joking when I say that "story arc" is a term used by lazy writers to tell one story using the same amount of time and space that more industrious authors use to tell six. So, one time when discussing Buffy, I start using the term "macrostory", just to indicate that, yes, the continuing storyline is important, but it should be made up of smaller units ("microstories") that function well on their own. Oddly enough, other folks on the HTF have picked it up, although they sometimes miss the microstory component.

I mention this because, for some reason, I keep using "arc" when talking about comics, even though I'll pretty much always use "macrostory" for every other medium. I think this is because, well, there often really isn't a microstory going on; these things are straight serials. That's not really a bad thing, but it's starting to irk me. I watch a whole bunch of TV, read a lot of comics, and go through bursts of reading a lot of sci-fi (where the standalone story is something of an endangered species). I'm starting to wonder how many distinct continuing storylines my brain is capable of managing, especially when TV shows will take the summer off or an entire year passes between issues of Fray.

American Century #25: "Bite The Big Apple"
So, here's the start of the last arc... er, macrostory, that is, for American Century, in which Howard Chaykin and David Tischman fantasize about writing comic books and midget wrestling in the mid-to-late fifties. I enjoy American Century as a sort of male-fantasy throwback. Harry Kraft lives a life men don't really dream about out loud any more, where he's the smartest, toughest badass in the room and all the women are beautiful and unable to resist his charms. He smokes, drinks, has a bunch of unprotected sex and never, ever apologizes for anything. This issue is all set-up, which really is what the book excels at; meeting the motley crew that populates each story always seems to be a lot more fun than what they wind up getting into. The characters are not terribly original, but they are colorful. For example, in this issue the creators give us midget wrestler Tiny Tim and his scuzzy manager, Phil Becker. Becker talks about himself in the third person, and that's about all the creativity involved in their characterization. But though they may be caricatures, they're caricatures who have everyday lives, and seem real because of it. With any luck, they'll be part of a story that lives up to their characterization.

Birds Of Prey #56: "Of Like Minds"
A new creative team, including writer Gail Simone, comes on board and while it's not quite the "Bold New Direction" the cover promises, it's looking like fun. Ed Benes and Alex Lei have a sexy, exaggerated style that I like, and this is a pretty good first chapter (or first and second chapters) of a story. If I'm disappointed at all, it's my own fault - just because Ms. Simone has made a reputation as one of the few writers able to be funny for the entire length of a comic means I almost expect that of her, where here that talent is put to use for banter. Fortunately, the result is really good banter, for what looks like a solid story.

Captain Marvel #11 ("Coven", part 3 of 4): "Accessory After The Fact"
The "Coven" storyline just doesn't ring true for me. It's one thing for Genis to be nuts and really not care what happens as a result of his actions any more, but giving Coven incredible power... Well, it strikes me as creating a threat just so that there'll be a threat. Peter David plays with some nifty ideas, and I really am enjoying Genis as a loose cannon, but a great deal of this storyline seems contrived.

The Crew #2 ("Big Trouble In Little Mogadishu", part 2): "Kasper"
The Crew is the one exception to my "don't pick up any new Marvel books, since they'll be collected in a month anyway" rule. Black Panther hasn't, so why should I be more confident about Priest's new one? And I'm not going to miss out on new Priest. Although maybe I should have waited a couple of months, since it looks like I now know how the current (and, apparently, final) storyline in Panther will end. Still, I'm digging Kasper's new look, and even though Priest has had a new commitment to linear storytelling ever since Kasper took center stage in Panther, he's still telling a dense story. Thus far, though, the good characterization and urban action is making it worth sticking around to see how all the threads (including, I imagine, two or three we haven't seen the start of yet) come together.

The Crossovers #6 ("Crosscurrents", part 6 of 6)
I'm a sucker for stories that cross genre barriers cleverly; my favorite TV show of the 90s is The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr., a comedy western with sci-fi elements. Just throwing a bunch of different styles in the blender won't work, though - you've got to navigate carefully, respecting each genre's rules at all times. The Crossovers, so far, has done that wonderfully, while also piling the comedy up higher and higher. By the end of the story, everything was gleefully insane. Give Robert Rodi credit, though, for finding a way to end it so that the book doesn't have to go off in a "Bold New Direction" next month but which is, within the book's gonzo universe, completely believable (and very funny). And bon voyage to Mauricet, who really found a nice balance between CrossGen's fantasy/sci-fi house style and the whimsical, cartoony nature of the story.

Outsiders #1 ("Role Call", part 1): "Opening Offers"
Woo-hoo - bonus comics (30 pages of story for $2.50)! And it's good, too, which was not necessarily a given - Judd Winick is one of my favorite writers in comics, but Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day (this book's direct predecessor) was pretty weak, and Blood & Water hasn't done much for me (but I really don't like vampires). Of course, I wasn't really attached to Donna Troy - I mostly knew her as a Wonder Woman supporting character - so the event which devastated Nightwing wasn't a big deal to me. How he reacts to it here, though, is believable, and it's a nifty change to see Dick Grayson as the off-balance one, when he so often has functioned as Batman's voice of reason. The rest of the team doesn't get short shrift, either - Winick had already hinted about Thunder in Green Arrow, but gets a nice intro, as do Grace, Indigo, and Metamorpho (the latter two, really, more than they got in Graduation Day). And while the big reveal of the villain didn't bowl me over (didn't The Flash just beat him?), the responses were fun.

The Power Company #17 ("Hostile Takeover", part 2 of 3): "Mergers & Acquisitions"
I know, next issue is the last, but Warner Brothers should really think of making a TV series out of this. When Busiek is dealing with the idea of for-profit superheroes, this book is a blast. Unfortunately, much of this issue takes place in another dimension, which means a lot of stuff you can see in any other team book, without the top-tier characters. And it looks like we're going to wind up with a new, twenty-first century Haunted Tank - I'm not sure I want the conept made less goofy. I guess, in a way, this issue is like the whole series - a nifty idea that too often became ordinary superheroics.

Promethea #26
Visually, this is jarring - almost ever previous issue of Promethea has these incredibly intricate layouts, big double-page spreads that loop back onto themselves, with details lurking in every corner. They're almost exhausting to read, really, but the 3x3 style used here is another neat trick - it's claustrophobic, and along with the muted color scheme, conveys a sense of urgency that the story doesn't quite have yet. It's not all coming from the art - Moore's transfer of the real world's culture of fear is quite effective, and seeing Tom Strong (created in Superman's image as a man certain about right and wrong) acting nervous about what's coming is effective. And though I was uncertain about the Tom Strong characters showing up in Promethea (why take a big world and make it smaller?), it seems to be working.

The Red Star Volume 2, #2: "Brother Against Brother"
I love The Red Star. The art is gorgeous, and the idea behind it - the fall of the Soviet Union retold in a "science fantasy" fashion - is one of the more clever ones in recent memory. But, man, it's a long time between issues, and though "Brother Against Brother" is a fantastic battle, it's also a very quick read. That's partly a good thing - early issues of The Red Star were packed full of the fantasy elements and too much "what you thought you knew was wrong" to keep straight on a book that came out so seldomly - but the story lines may be too simple now. The art is beautifully rendered, but there's really not enough going on to cause me to linger over that gorgeous art.

Robin #115 ("The Wrong Town", part 4 of 4)
Oooooooooo-kay. I guess the best thing that can be said about "The Wrong Town" is that it ended pretty cleanly, without any loose ends that need further tying up. Other than that, I think I'd drop Robin in a minute if I didn't know a new team was coming on board. Worst Of The Week

Route 666 #13
Remember what I said, way up at the top, about "story arcs" being a way to stretch a single story out for months? Prime example here. This really feels like it was stretched from last month's issue and next month's, without much of a story of its own. And it's sort of unfortunate that it comes out the same week as The Crossovers #6, because it features the same kind of "antagonists fight each other instead of the protagonist, who is wrapped up in her own problems" structure, but doesn't pull it off nearly so well.

Sidekicks: Super Fun Summer Special
Yeah, I'll buy most anything Oni throws my way, especially if J. Torres is involved. I wound up having two contradictory opinions on this: First, that it seemed to be assuming more familiarity with the characters than I really have from four issues spread out over a couple of years, and second, that it was enjoyable even without that familiarity. The three stories are neat little throwaways, my favorite being the guys at the concert - in just eight pages, it established them as distinct characters, had some nifty art, and if the ending was predictable, it was also at least cute. The girls trying on swimsuits didn't work nearly as well for me, as the characters seemed too close in design physically and didn't really differentiate themselves enough to get past that.

Superman: Metropolis #5 (of 12): "Small Favors"
Chuck Austen's doing some really good work here - I really haven't cared for a lot of his other projects, but he seems to be in his element with Jimmy Olsen and Lena. It's funny, though, that this limited series is structured more like I'd expect an ongoing to be than most open-ended series. Take this issue, for instance - though it refers to events that occurred in previous issues, and is doubtless setting up for later ones, it's a complete story. It's also full of good characterization, including a nifty visual bit as Jimmy lectures Lena about acting like a child while walking around his apartment, which certainly looks like the home of someone who has never completely grown up. That this backfires shows how Jimmy isn't quite fit for the adult part yet, but he's getting there. Really, this might be best Superman book going right now, and the big guy is barely in it.

Y: The Last Man #12 ("One Small Step", part 2)
Even folks who don't read comics should be checking this out. It's fast-paced, thought-provoking, funny (but never at the expense of the suspense), and nobody does a cliffhanger better. To be frank, this story would have me hooked just by the question that's sort of percolating in the background - what happens when the male astronauts come down to earth? - but throwing the Israelis in just ratchets the tension up another notch or three, as does the revelation of how they're tracking Yorick. Best of the week, easily.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

[TV] The Amazing Race 4

So, who are you rooting for in The Amazing Race? Yeah, me neither. It's a pretty thoroughly uncharismatic field, with three teams I actively dislike (the NFL wives, the models, the married guys), several who made basically no impression, and only a few who I actively enjoy watching enough to cheer on. And out of those, my favorite (Amanda & Chris) were eliminated early.

Folks just don't seem to be having as much fun as they were earlier; of the teams that are left, only the clowns and the guys who've been dating twelve years even seem to like each other. Too bad; a big part of the show's appeal to me is being less cutthroat than other unscripted programs.

(Not that I'll stop watching or anything like that, mind. It's still the most entertaining show running new episodes this summer)

[RED SOX] Good pitching vs. Good Hitting

So, a split with the other Sox, where the White Sox throw up some pretty decent pitching and strange things happen, like games where Boston scores fewer than six runs. I'm not too terribly worried, though, since even though the Red Sox only scored 4 runs with few hits, there were more than a few outs that were going to the warning track and required pretty impressive catches.

Most notable is that the bullpen seems to be shaping up. Indeed, I think the only real meltdown came Monday, as Grady Little brings Ryan Rupe in two days after he'd thrown 100 pitches and bad things happen. And as much as I'd like to see him turn it around, I have to wonder why Little played Jeremy Giambi so much this series. Just not afraid of the White Sox? I'm starting to wonder if there's any chance of a phantom injury that sends him to Pawtucket on a "rehab" assignment.

Something that worked out well: Derek Lowe, by dint of the rotation, will not pitch in the Philadelphia series, meaning no turf for him. The thing that I wonder is this: If the rotation had been off by a day - say Wednesday's game wound up being rained out - would he have been sent out to pitch in an environment clearly not suited for his type of game? I'd like to think the Sox brain trust would have said no, but you always hear about baseball players being creatures of habit, and craving defined roles. That's why you get the bullpen-o-matic system driven by a pitcher's individual statistics, rather than the best pitcher for the hitters he'd face.

Basically, I'm wondering what it would take to set the starting pitchers on a basis other than strict rotation. Wakefield, for instance, pitches well in domes (or claims to); make sure he gets a start whenever you go through Minnesota, even if it would be Lowe's turn. Similarly, Pedro should almost never miss a series with the Yankees and face the Devil Rays in the opener of the next series - a good opposing offense calls for a good pitcher more than a lousy one. It would require a lot more thinking and planning to implement a "starter by committee" concept like this, but that's what you pay the managers and coaches for, right? Wouldn't it possibly be worth a game or three in the standings?

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

[MOVIES] Dracula x 3

This is mostly going to be about Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, in part because it's the best of the three versions of "Dracula" that I saw during the past four days at The Brattle Theater's "Dracula On Screen" program, as well as being the one that's not, at the very least, forty-five years old. I don't think seeing it first gives it an unfair advantage, in that the versions I saw later just felt like more of the same - it's legitimately incredible.

Guy Maddin directs. I've run sort of hot and cold on him - his short film "Heart Of The World" is one of the most exciting short movies I've seen, but his features just tended to peter out. He'll have a vision, and some quirky characters, but after an hour both Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs and Careful just stopped holding my interest, and napping ensued no matter how beautiful the stuff on-screen was. D:PFaVD avoids that by being fairly short - about an hour and fifteen minutes - and by having someone else do the story work. Maddin takes Bram Stoker's story (and Mark Godden's ballet adaptation) and rearranges things, adding some things uniquely his own, but there's a strong structure in place for him to work his magic on.

And he does work magic. Shooting with mostly Super 8 and digital video, and primarily in black and white, lets Maddin put the audience into another time. To be sure, you could do that while using 35mm color stock, but making it look like it was shot in the early twentieth century gives him some latitude for unusual sets to accomodate the ballet, while also not requiring Maddin to soften certain characters. Van Helsing and Lucy's suitors can be quick to react violently despite that not necessarily being palatable for a twenty-first century audience, the underlying fear of immigrants feels more real and immediate, and Lucy's overt sexuality and interest in playing the field seems daring, instead of merely ahead of her time.

He also knows when to break the rules during the action sequences. As beautifully as the ballet works for seduction, when Van Helsing opts to open a can of whoop-ass on the vampires, the characters don't quite stop dancing, but Maddin allows the sound effects of swords and stakes finding their marks to enter the soundtrack as blood flows (and gushes) red. As much as the film sneers at the repressed Victorians, it doesn't make heroes out of the vampires, either - they're monsters and get their just desserts.

Seeing Tod Browning's Dracula two days later was kind of underwhelming. No question, this is a deservedly iconic version of the story - Bela Lugosi gives a great performance, with elements of the noble whose sophistication attracts women despite his age and an otherworldly stare that is genuinely unnerving. It is also, however, clearly based on a stage play: Even for its period, the camera remains very stationary, forgoing close-ups and reverse angles; characters describe things happening off-stage which could be shown in a motion picture.

Still, it's much better than Hammer's Horror Of Dracula. The screenwriter basically takes character names from Stoker's novel, and strings together a story that mostly works. One thing that irked me was that the good guys fire the first shot, so to speak - the movie opens with Van Helsing and Harker already out to destroy Dracula. I sort of like the idea of being proactive where vampires are concerned, but it makes everything that happens feel like little more than the plot of a movie - this is all happening because Van Helsing needs to fight Dracula, not because of what drives the characters. It's got a lot of energy, but not a lot of passion.

All in all, Pages From A Virgin's Diary is my favorite of the three, although I wish finances had allowed me to see Nosferatu on the big screen again. I like my Dracula to be a monstrous figure of walking death; vampires with sex appeal always seemed off to me. (And, when I saw it at The Movies in Portland, it wasn't framed correctly - they tried to fill their 1.85:1 screen with a 1.33:1 Academy-ratio film. Lots of heads were cut off, and even some of the intertitles)


Aside: Usually the new Brattle schedules are available by now, with only 8 days left on the current one, and I'm getting antsy. I know Le Cercle Rouge will be the first thing on it, but I've taken to trying to guess what the other programs will be based upon the posters hanging in the lobby (In The Mood For Love, Bob Le Flambeur and Ghost In The Shell).

[MISC]: Looking for Work & Roommates

Short version: It stinks.

Mostly for being mind-numbingly boring. Yesterday, I spent a couple hours going through 110 matches on, filtering out the 19-year-old girls, the folks who didn't want a place until at least September (although at the rate I'm going, I'll be checking them out again in a month), or the people who, despite entries saying no pets, actually did have a flying squirrel that would stay in their room, honest. Then I'm left staring at the people with $2000 as their maximum rent. Are these people who are in the market for the type of apartment that could double as a sitcom set, or people who just didn't fill in that field when entering their information?

Similarly, mornings are spent going through on-line job listings on Monster, HotJobs, and BostonWorks, trying to figure out which of the "new" job listings are actually new. I have probably sent my resume to KForce about twenty times for the same job on BostonWorks, but if they're going to keep marking it as "added [today - 1]", they're going to keep getting my resume.

Now, at this very moment, I am pondering the "follow-up call". This is the call made after an interview, apparently to make sure that the other person is still aware of your interest. I can't imagine how useful it is - if a company hasn't called me back, I would assume that it is because they have someone they believe would be a better fit. What possible good is calling going to do? Do hiring managers really get swayed by that and think along the lines of "well, we were going to go with that guy who had used C++ more recently than his junior year of college, but you're so eager that we'll go with you instead"? The only use I can think of is that if they've got a number of equally qualified candidates, the one to call first is probably either the most organized or the most desperate for work (and thus willing to take the lowest salary).

Well, that's me, no question about it. And I don't mean "organized".

Monday, June 16, 2003

[MISC]: On Toys

So, in hopes of making the living room less scary to potential roommates, I tried to reduce the amount of toys lying around.

The end result, I think, looks better - the shelf in front of the main window has the Muppet figures, and the oversized entertainment center has the Peanuts toys, and I'm not quite sure where the robot from Metropolis (1927) will go. She does stay out, though, because she gives as much class as possible to a living room filled with toys while still being part of it. Meanwhile, most everyone else is getting put in plastic bags and stored away. And my reaction to them (I don't think I've actually touched them in two-three roommates) is kind of surprising:

Buffy: Now I recall why I haven't picked any up since Series 2. They're a pain in the neck, with dozens of little pieces that the toys can't hold, less-than-impressive likenesses (at least in Series 1), and little posability. Heck, just try to get Cordelia to stand up straight for any length of time.
Farscape: Not much more posable than Buffy, but spiffy looking. I really wish this line had gone a lot further, much like the show; it just looks cool.
The Tick: From the live action series, they kind of have cachet - they show you had good taste, and they look top-of-the-line. Nice for decorating, if you know that the people who seem them will be folks who liked that short-lived show.
Babylon 5: Ugh. What was I thinking? Sure, some look nice (even if Kosh is the lamest inaction figure ever), but some don't, and I was never that big a fan.
Star Wars: I haven't been buying them lately, what with the lack of funds and how nifty so many of the larger-scale figures look, but I was really struck by how much detail and posability these little 3.75-inch figures have. And how well balanced they are. And even if CommTech wound up being a sort of silly feature, I like having the chips for stands. I made a resolution to pick up some of the discounted ones at Kay-Bee and remember to buy them when Episode 3 comes out like I didn't for Episode 2.

Anyway - what I picked up from this is that these things are really decoration for me now. I know, I've been saying for a long time that the purpose of a toy is to be played with, and I still prefer ones that aren't so locked into position that they're more "figurine" than "toy". But as I wiped the dust off and rearranged them, I have to admit that what was going through my mind wasn't how much fun they were, but what they said about me to someone coming in the room. I think the Muppets and Peanuts guys communicate the whole "young at heart" thing pretty well (although maybe having both sets out overstates the point), the Red Sox figures from MacFarlane get across my fandom there, and Maria points out my love for classic movies - seeing the wall-o-DVDs doesn't necessarily mean varied tastes; it may just say "will buy any new release". But that I'd buy merchandise for a 75-year-old silent... Ah... He's a smart one, that Seaver is.

Oh, and the rare-ish "home uniform Manny Ramirez" is still in the box. I tell myself it's because I don't want two of the four Sox on display to be basically identical and not because I'm protecting an investment. So far, I believe it.