February 7, 2012

Let's look back

Things I've seen, read, and heard of late...

Methland by Nick Reding - One of the things I'm working on this year is actually reading some books that don't have bunches of pictures. This was #1 toward that goal...

I remember reading an article about crystal meth in Rolling Stone almost nine years ago now. It was a terrifying look at something I had never heard about before and that I was ever so hopefully I would never have to know about later on. A couple of years ago, then, The Girl read Methland and suggested that I give it a try.

Reding looks at a lot more than just crystal meth addiction in the small town of Oelwein, Iowa. He explores the underlying causes that have bit by bit rotted the heart out of small town, rural America which makes for a much richer book than it would have been if he had only looked at addiction and drugs and poor people and guns. Instead, Reding explores the underlying causes that weakened the structure and left a hole that could only be filled by addiction and drugs and poor people and guns.

It's not always cheery - though there is a hopeful finale to the book - but it's well written and an impressive exploration of a far more complex problem than I knew.

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (unedited) - There's some online discussion about the value of the cuts to this direct-to-video release that came out in the middle of the Batman Beyond run on television, and there's good reason for that. The movie is surprisingly dark and violent. It's nothing that wouldn't probably air on television right now, but it certainly runs a darker tone than did the series.

The series, if you aren't aware, was an underrated little gem that updated the Batman mythos for the mid twenty-first century with an aged Bruce Wayne hiring Terry McGinnis to take on the mantle of the Batman now that he has become too old to carry the wings himself. Throughout the series, the writers managed to tie in numerous touches from the 'current' era of the Batman cartoon, one of the finest to ever be produced. In this tale, the Joker seems to have reappeared in spite of the fact that he was killed more than two decades ago.

The mystery, of course, must be solved as McGinnis finds out that there's a very dark history to how the Joker initially disappeared / was killed those many years ago. It's that flashback that is the primary source of darkness in this film with the Joker having kidnapped and brain washed Batman's second Robin, Tim Drake, to take on a Joker personality, intending to have Drake kill Batman. It's a scene that clearly couldn't be shown within the more child-friendly scope of the television series (in spite of B:tAS having shown the phenomenally dark "Over the Edge" episode), but it's what provides a strong emotional tone to the film.

The entirety of Batman Beyond was a wonderful exploration of to effects Bruce Wayne's career as Batman - on himself, on Barbara Gordon, on Gotham - and his eventual emotional rehabilitation through the growing trust in McGinnis. The coda of the series - "Epilogue" from the Justice League Unlimited series - brought all of these together into a masterful, well, epilogue.

Do yourself a favor and watch this series in its entirety - and this film in the middle where it belongs. (I have all the series episodes on DVD if you wanna...I'm not saying, I'm just saying...)

Bad Teacher - I was a little surprised at how poor the reviews for Bad Teacher were. Sure, it's not exactly Shakespeare, and the actions of the titular bad teacher are reprehensible and unreasonable to imagine a teacher getting away with in this day and age of increasing administrative oversight, but it's actually a fun film.

Cameron Diaz's lead character is a true piece of work, teaching only until she can find a sugar daddy to take her away from the school in favor of a life as a kept trophy wife. When her first attempt falls through, she turns her attentions to the new-to-school Justin Timberlake, finding a naive but wealthy target. In the process she finds a foil in the crazy to teach and just plain crazy 'better' teacher across the hall.

Diaz dishes out bad messages, lazes her way through a semester of movie showing, slips a state testing official a mickey to steal the state test, drugs and sluts her way around, and finally realizes that what she's been doing isn't the right way to get through life. She eventually and predictably falls in love with the schlubby gym teacher (Jason Segel) and turns over a new leaf becoming a good guidance counselor. In the course of her messy journey, Diaz headed my favorite film with her in a long while.

South Park: Season 14 - Finally, Muhammed came back to South Park.

Well, at least, Muhammed supposedly came back to South Park. In episodes 200 and 201, Trey and Matt explored the lampooned the threats of violence for depicting Muhammed - even though they've already shown Muhammed back in the Super Best Friends episodes. Turns out there Comedy Central does have a limit as they chose to cover up Muhammed's appearances and bleep out any mention of the prophet in the second of the two-part episodes as well as a lengthy, summative monologue from Kyle at the end of the episode - even the DVD versions of the episodes are so censored.

All in all, it's a good season and one I'm happy to have added to the collection. The three-part Coon and Friends/Cthulu cross-over episodes left me with my jaw on the floor in the shocking climax and particularly the exploration of Kenny's knowledge that he continues to die and be reborn every week. Kenny's scenes in these episodes are among the finest moments that South Park has ever put together.


Green Arrow: Year One - I'll admit that I didn't have any thoughts that we needed a retelling of Green Arrow's origin. Admittedly Green Arrow is a solid B-level DC hero, and I was pretty sure I knew his origin story, but I found myself pleasantly surprised at the quality of this volume. It's a good read.

The team of Diggle and Jock - the team behind The Losers series - produce a very lean, rugged look which works very well for a shipwrecked, drunken playboy forced to survive and find his real identity. The female villain is drawn exaggeratedly nubile and stands around in inhuman poses, but the rest of the mini-series is well enough crafted that I can't see that as anything more than a slight annoyance.

Worth reading even if it doesn't recast any of the events as anything other than what we've seen from Oliver Queen before.

Ides of March - There's nothing revolutionary about this film. A charismatic political staffer (Ryan Gosling) is managing the campaign for a presidential candidate who isn't just his boss but who is also his ideal, someone in whom he actually believes.This is perfect because he's running the campaign of someone who he clearly sees as a hero.

Then things all go to hell, and the candidate turns out be less than perfect, to have faults of his own.

Shockingly, politics isn't the place for the faint of heart, and anyone who hopes to succeed - either behind the scenes or as a candidate  running on his own - is going to have to get his hands dirty, and the most successful have their hands a little bit dirtier.

There's not much joy here, but there is a well acted, well told flick.

Great cast all around, too - Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright. 

Forgetting Sarah Marshall -Apparently there's something about Jason Segel. First he gets Cameron Diaz, and now he gets Mila Kunis. Big props to mack daddy Segel.

Great top four actors, especially Russel Brand who knocks his part as a free loving rock star out of the park. Kristen Bell, Segel, and Kunis are also pretty good as they manage all the meet cutes and mistrust scenes and romantic missteps that a standard romantic comedy requires. Yeah, it's just a standard romantic comedy, but it's one done with light-hearted goodness and without too much heaviness at any point and done with a lot of charisma.

Plus it has a puppet musical number at the end...

Friends With Benefits - I can't remember the last crappy rom-com that had me in tears by the end. This is pathetic to write, but this one wrecked me. This one worked for me. I think it was the chat between JT and his dad just before the grand finale.

It's funny and touching and has pretty charismatic leads. It's a whole lot of fun.

And it doesn't hurt that there's a great poster for the flick.

Diving Bell and the Butterfly - When The Girl first described this one to me - one of her profs in the speech-language pathology program showed the opening scenes in class in early January - I was admittedly pretty leery of the film.

Let's see why - entirely in French with subtitles, the story of a man who loses all ability to move any part of his body except for blinking his left eye, a book written by him blinking his eye when the correct letter was spoken aloud. There's nothing there that suggests anything I wanted to see.

And that would have been a crime...

This is a gorgeou, inspirational film that opens from Jean-Dominique Bauby's - the aforementioned stroke victim -  point of view, presenting us with only what he could see from his one functioning eye and continues to allow us into his thoughts while he moves from shock and fear into depression and eventually acceptance of his life as it has come to be. Bauby travels the world in his imagination and memory, allowing us to see his dreams and hopes in spite of the fact that he would never leave recover any increased motion, remaining clinically 'locked-in'.

The film is beautiful, impressive, and moving. Give it a try.

Spider-Man/Fantastic Four - Horrible...bad story paired with poor artwork..it's not Widening Gyre bad, but it's very poor...

Batman: Noel - The pitch for this one had to be pretty awful. Let's give it a try...
So, there's a narrator telling the story of Dickens's A Christmas Carol and at the same time we have Batman in pursuit of the Joker using Bob as bait. And Bob's got a sick kid, and Batman gets visited by three 'spirits' - Catwoman, Superman, and the Joker - but finally recognizes the error of his ways, finding a charitable spirit.
It sounds awful and actually turns out to be pretty good. It shouldn't work at all but does.

Songs and Stories by Guy Clark - I wasn't expecting too much here as it's just a late-career collection of previously-released songs from a busted old singer-songwriter.

Turns out, however, that I got a live recording of a spectacularly loose and rewarding live recording of a master storyteller doing some of his most meaningful songs and letting his band members and friends take a little bit of the stage, as well, when they sing some of the songs that they wrote but that Clark had recorded and brought to bigger popularity.

The songs here are absolutely marvelous, knock-out great ones. I'm particularly caught with "The Randall Knife," "Maybe I Can Paint Over That", "The Cape", "Sis Draper" and "Out in the Parking Lot." They're all amazing, however. Clark - a singer-songwriter who has stayed true to the singer-songwriter/country territory even as country has moved into poppier territory in the decades of his career - comes out with a late-career (he's 70 years old now) highlight here that is as easy as it should be.

Check this one out.

Moneyball - Finally! I've now seen a second film up for best picture this year. This one's far more accessible than the other, Tree of Life. It's also far less ambitious, seeking only to tell the story of the building and playing of the 2002 Oakland A's and their General Manager, Billy Beane.

For those of you not in the know, Beane became the General Manager of the A's in 1997. In a great run of success, particularly for a small-payroll team, as they finished first or second from 1999 through 2006, averaging almost 94 wins a year through the stretch run. Beane's run was based partially on the idea of exploiting market inefficiencies in the baseball talent market, choosing to pay for players who could get on base rather than players who could slap singles and bomb home runs. Beane - and his player evaluation staff - saw this as their only way to compete with the larger-payroll teams who would constantly be able to outspend the A's and would certainly beat them if both teams looked for the same value in players.

Instead, Beane found a front office staff - Paul DePodesta, assistant Oakland GM, foremost among them - that was able to look beyond the 'good face','ugly girlfriend', and a dozen other cliched ways that baseball scouts predict the future performances of the same players that the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, and every other team was trying to predict as well. Instead, Beane and DePodesta - played as a fictional character, Peter Brand, by Jonah Hill - took a serious left turn, challenging every scout in the A's organization and went after a team of misfit toys, a catcher who couldn't throw turned first baseman, an outfielder well past his prime (who happened to go to elementary school with Calen, by the way), and dozens of other players who had been passed over by the wealthier teams because their skills weren't appreciated, weren't valued - taking a walk, seeing dozens of pitches per at-bat, not walking batters as pitchers - but their valued skills - hitting home runs, driving in runs, stealing bases - had eroded or were never there.

The book focused more on the changing culture, the economic ideas behind finding market inefficiencies and used Beane and DePodesta as the means to tell those stories. The movie, instead, brings in Beane's daughter from a prior marriage, eliminates Beane's then-current wife, and makes this Beane's story, which Brad Pitt knocks out of the park, showing a man whose charisma isn't as easy going as he would like it to be, who struggles to maintain relationships with his players and grows through the course of the film as he softens and realizes that he has to be a little more human, a little more open, while also being a little more confident in the numbers.

It's a great film and an excellent character study. This isn't a sport film. It's a character piece that just happens to be set in baseball. Check it out...

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - The first new Sherlock Holmes movie was a'ight. It wasn't any sort of knock out, particularly because it didn't feel like any sort of Sherlock Holmes story. It was a fine Guy Ritchie film that happened to be set in some sort of Victorian/Elizabethean/Queeney England and had some character who was named the same as a detective in a bunch of detective stories back in the day. There was a good give and take between Holmes and Watson. As a buddy flick with slow/stop-motion Guy Ritchie fighting, it was enjoyable.

In this sequel Holmes actually feels like Holmes. Yes, the fight scenes are still there, as is some pretty impressive cinematography in the forest scene, but what really kicks this flick in the backside is the competition between Holmes and his arch foe, Dr Moriarty, an open, above-board, horribly nasty but gentelmanly nasty battle between the two most brilliant English minds of the era. The conflict between the two, with Moriarty being Holmes's opposite number - academic, predictable, wildly respected, wealthy, straight laced and EVIL! - drives the film and provides just what the first movie was missing.

It's cracking fun, and every anachronistic - or seemingly anachronistic - weapon and plan and explosive can be set aside because the fight scenes are just friggin' cool - especially the aforementioned forest battle scene - and make it all worth while.

It's not spectacular - because it's silly at times and deadly serious at others, because Holmes is just a little too crackers to actually some through with what he understands about the world, because Holmes is a little too chatty - but it's fun.

GI Joe: Cobra -  Really? GI Joe comic books?

This is what I'm down to reading just because I've read pretty much everything else in the Sharonville library branch's graphic novel situation. Volumes 2-4 were hanging in the section, and I went and requested volume 1 because I'd read something online somewhere (I can't find the reference right now, sorry) said that this series was actually pretty enjoyable.

Turns out they were right. The series takes a trio of story arcs and ties them together under the grand arc of Cobra recruiting some of the Joe's soldiers and contractors through duplicitous means, hypnosis and drugs, torture and cognitive dissonance. It's a fascinating turn of events, particularly as Chuckles - the infiltrating Joe - finally gets his payback in the end. Good stuff.

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