Monday, August 14, 2017

Ten Graphic Novels for People Who Don't Read Comics

There are dozens of others that could fit this list. Note that I avoid super-heroes and their fellow travelers science fiction, fantasy, and horror in this list because all these things put some people off.


Louis Riel by Chester Brown

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse


Kings in Disguise by James Vance and Dan Burr


Maus by art spiegelman


American Splendor by Harvey Pekar and many artists


The Book of Genesis by God and Robert Crumb


Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez


Can't Get No by Rick Veitch


From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell


Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Junk Bonds

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): adapted from the Ian Fleming novel by Simon Raven and Richard Maibaum; directed by Peter Hunt; starring George Lazenby (James Bond), Diana Rigg (Tracy), Telly Savalas (Blofeld), and Gabriele Ferzetti (Draco): George Lazenby remains a mostly baffling choice to replace Sean Connery as James Bond. I say 'mostly' because I assume his status as an unknown fashion model caused the producers to believe that they would have much more control over him than they would over a more established actor.

Lazenby is terrible: wooden and totally absent of charisma. However, he isn't much helped by the movie. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is painfully long and slow.  It's also got some of the most ridiculous scenes in Bond history. A few problems...

  • It wastes its best asset -- Diana Rigg as Bond's love-of-his-life Tracy -- by sidelining her for the middle third of the movie. 
  • It gives Blofeld his least cinematically interesting Doomsday Plot (seriously, there's no way to dramatize a biological attack on the global food supply, so the film-makers don't even try). 
  • It gives Blofeld his most pathetic Doomsday Goal (to be made a titled nobleman and be granted amnesty for all previous crimes).
  • It dresses Bond up in a frilly shirt that's clearly the model for Austin Powers' frilly shirts.
  • It puts Bond and Tracy through a car chase that puts them inside a car race inside a tiny oval, thus leading to Tracy asking not once but at least twice 'How do we get out of here?'. The way you came in, maybe?
  • It involves not one (fine) but two (enough already!) downhill ski races.
  • It involves a climactic bobsled race because Blofeld uses a bobsled to escape his mountain-top HQ and Bond chases him in another bobsled. What is this, the goddamned Winter Olympics? Eventually, the two of them end up in a wrestling match in one bobsled. OK, that would be an interesting Olympic event.
  • It keeps the downbeat ending of the Ian Fleming novel for no apparent reason other than to see how a downbeat ending played with movie-goers, I guess.

Sean Connery would replace George Lazenby for the next Bond movie, (plus ca meme chose!) Diamonds are Forever, before giving way again to a new Bond. That would be Roger Moore, who would have a much more successful career than George Lazenby as 007. This stinker is not recommended except for its awfulness.

Becoming Bond (2017): written and directed by Josh Greenbaum; starring George Lazenby: Part documentary, part broadly acted docudrama, part George Lazenby's 77-year-old talking head. Becoming Bond tells the story of how Lazenby won and then intentionally lost the role of James Bond after only one movie (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), ostensibly because he refused to sign a 7-picture contract with the Bond producers. 

The Bond material is interesting but somewhat scanty -- the viewer will have to endure nearly an hour about Lazenby's pre-Bond life, which writer-director Josh Greenbaum seems to find nigh-endlessly fascinating. Your results will vary depending on how many scenes of Lazenby having sex, getting the runs, having sex, selling cars, taking LSD, and having sex you can tolerate. 

As another reviewer noted somewhere, you may also be distracted by the fact that the actor playing Lazenby looks and acts a lot more like Sharlto Copley than Lazenby. On the bright side, there's a lot of female nudity, if you look for that sort of thing in documentaries about George Lazenby.

If you're interested in the Bond movies, the movie is interesting though frustrating. Greenbaum spends perhaps 20 minutes on the material about On Her Majesty's Secret Service, far too little in a movie that clocks in at about 95 minutes. Lazenby himself comes across as a bit of a lucky yob, and the film itself strongly implies that he stopped acting after On Her Majesty's Secret Service, an implication belied by his dozens of IMDB screen credits after the Bond movie, including a stint as Superman's biological father Jor-El on the early 1990's Superboy TV series. The film also makes much of how popular Lazenby was as the new Bond, which seems like at least a bit of a stretch given that even adjusted for inflation, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the 21st highest grossing Bond film in North America out of 25. Lightly recommended.

The Living Daylights (1987): adapted from the Ian Fleming short story by Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum; directed by John Glen; starring Timothy Dalton (James Bond), Maryam D'Abo (Kara), Jeroen Krabbe (Koskov), Joe Don Baker (Whitaker), and John Rhys Davies (General Pushkin): Competent, occasionally bland movie introduced the world to Timothy Dalton as James Bond. He's fine, for the most part, though he and the film-makers strand Bond between Sean Connery's grimly mocking Bond and Roger Moore's self-mocking Bond. Like Rambo in Rambo III, Bond gets help from the Afghanis who would become the Taliban. Oops. Jeroen Krabbe and Joe Don Baker make for an underwhelming pair of Bond villains, while Maryam D'Abo is fine but a bit bland as Bond's (only) love interest. Lightly recommended.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Price and Nesbo, White and Red All Over

The Whites (2015) by Richard Price: Richard Price's newest crime novel is a delight from start to finish, a pungent look at police and criminals and New York City. Our protagonist is Billy Graves, a Manhattan night-shift detective whose past as a member of a group of patrol cops who called themselves the Wild Geese may finally be catching up with him.

Billy is a flawed, wounded, introspective protagonist. He's also a very good detective who finds himself in two parallel situations that may not be so parallel. Someone seems to be stalking Billy and his family in pursuit of vengeance for some unknown wrong. And the lives of perpetrators investigated by Billy and his former Wild Geese are being snuffed out -- these perpetrators were never convicted for their crimes and are thus known to Billy and company by the slang term 'Whites.'

Price deftly draws the characters and their relationships, presents cop life in all it sordid details, and presents page after page of note-perfect dialogue. It's the sort of novel that someone who loved The Wire would love. Highly recommended.

The Redbreast (2000/ Harry Hole#3-Oslo Trilogy#1) by Jo Nesbo, translated into English by Don Bartlett: The Nazi Occupation of Norway supplies the back-story for this, the third of Jo Nesbo's detective-thrillers about Norwegian police officer Harry Hole and the first of the 'Oslo trilogy'-within-a-series. Harry gets caught up in trying to track down an assassin who was one of the Norwegians who fought alongside the Nazis during the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two.

Harry is on pretty good behaviour in this novel as he fights his demons (alcoholic and otherwise). Section dealing with the Norwegian collaborators of World War Two and the war's aftermath fascinated me -- it's not an area of history I knew anything about beyond the name 'Quisling.' The depiction of Harry's detective work is also top-notch. Norway itself fascinates, in the past and present, in Nesbo's depiction of Neo-Nazis and apologists and unctuous civil servants and historians and many others. Recommended.

Chaplin on Chaplin

My Autobiography (1964/ This edition with new introduction 2007) by Charlie Chaplin: The first third of Charlie Chaplin's autobiography was excerpted and sold as its own book, My Early Life. This suggests that Chaplin (or someone in his estate) knew that his autobiography was excellent pretty much right up to the point that he became the most famous person, film star or otherwise, on Earth -- in 1916, roughly speaking.

The first third details Chaplin's Dickensian childhood in London, England. And it is detailed, and marvelously described. Chaplin didn't use a ghost writer -- the prose is all his, with some corrections for spelling and grammar. He's a gifted memoirist, at least until he becomes famous. Then he becomes an anecdotalist, with the narrative switching to an exhausting string of Chaplin's encounters with famous people.

The first third of My Autobiography, though, is dynamite. Chaplin draws a picture of late Victorian England that is grimy but often full of life and heartbreak. His early adventures on the stage as a member of a travelling acrobatic troupe, as an actor, and ultimately as a dance-hall comedian are memorable and informative.

The introduction to this edition -- written 40 years after the initial mid-1960's release -- notes some of Chaplin's curious omissions. Unless his long-time collaborators are actresses, he omits them almost entirely. He also omits almost any mention of the process of making his films, especially once he's on his own. His first two wives get less than a page's worth between them. He does deal with his 1940's trial and subsequent exile to Switzerland, along with his last marriage, to the then-18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill when Chaplin was in his mid-50's. He fails to mention his last movie -- A King in New York -- at all. 

Oh, well. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, depending on your tolerance for name-dropping, especially when many of those names have faded into history. The several pages devoted to Chaplin's relationship with William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies are probably the most rewarding of the lot.

One thing is certain -- Chaplin was no Communist, even if he did get branded as such for some of the speechifying he did in person and on film. He really, really loves money and he lets it show. Given his impoverished background, it all makes sense.

In all, My Autobiography is immensely rewarding for the first 150 pages or so. After that, one really must proceed at one's own risk. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Austin City Limits

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): written by Mike Myers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil), Elizabeth Hurley (Vanessa Kensington), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): The first and by far the freshest of the Austin Powers movies was a moderate hit in theatres and a giant hit on home video, thus paving the way for two sequels.

Canada's Mike Myers indulges his love of many things English and a few things Scottish (and a few thing Canadian) in creating his groovy hero -- the glasses are a nod to Michael Caine's bespectacled spy in The Ipcress File and others, while the film parodies James Bond movies and The Avengers spy series while also homaging Our Man Flint and a lot of other previous comedies, including The Pink Panther movies. The distinctive, Quincy Jones "Austin Powers Theme Song" (not its real name -- that would be "Soul Bossa Nova") originally came to Myers' attention when it was used as the theme song of the El Cheapo 1970's Canadian game show Definition.

Anyway, Myers just gets in there and keeps swinging with physical comedy, body-horror comedy, puns, and winks to the audience. It works beautifully for the most part, as does co-star Elizabeth Hurley, who's funny and fresh and seems to have real chemistry with Myers. Myers' Blofeld-parody Dr. Evil is also funny here, possibly because Myers doesn't have him do a parodic rap number as he will in the subsequent two movies. Highly recommended.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999): written by Mike Myers and Michael McCullers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, and Fat Bastard), Heather Graham (Felicity Shagwell), Elizabeth Hurley (Vanessa Kensington), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), Verne Troyer (Mini-Me), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): More of the same, only louder and grosser. Verne Troyer still steals scenes as Mini-Me all these years later, and Mike Myers continues to be a gamer, this time playing three characters. 

Sending Austin back to the 1960's jettisons much of the first movie's 'Fish Out of Water' comedy. And Heather Graham, also a gamer, just isn't all that funny as the perpetually wide-eyed Felicity Shagwell. Myers' comic grotesque Scotsman Fat Bastard grows on you, especially his repeated verbal riffs on eating babies (and Mini-me). That he wears a delivery-man outfit with an 'FBD' patch on it (Fat Bastard Delivery, I presume) cracks me up with its attention to detail. Recommended.

Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002): written by Mike Myers and Michael McCullers; directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers (Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, Fat Bastard, and Goldmember), Beyonce Knowles (Foxy Cleopatra), Michael York (Basil Exposition), Seth Green (Scott Evil), Verne Troyer (Mini-Me), and Mindy Sterling (Frau Farbissina): The Austin Powers franchise runs out of steam pretty quickly here. An opening piece of meta-comedy doesn't play as funny as it sounds, while the celebrity cameos now seem like something of a drag. 

The funniest bits all seem to involve Michael Caine as Austin's swinging spy daddy in a nod to Caine's formative influence on the glasses-wearing Austin as a glasses-wearing superspy in 1960's spy films The Ipcress File and Billion-Dollar Brain. Beyonce and Myers have no chemistry, which at least allows Beyonce to escape the movie with her dignity intact (unlike Heather Graham in the previous installment, stuck in bed with Fat Bastard).

Padding the movie are lazy parodies of British boarding schools (and perhaps the first Harry Potter film), The Silence of the Lambs, and possibly Myers' dramatic turn in the film 54. Beyonce is charming and cute as a bug. Roller-skating Dutch egomaniac Goldmember (Myers again) is grotesque without being particularly funny. There are enough laughs for an Austin Powers completist, but the subtitle of this third film in the Austin Powers 'trilogy' could very well have been So Very Tired. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Passengers (2016)

Passengers (2016): written by Jon Spaihts; directed by Morgan Tyldum; starring Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora Lane), Chris Pratt (Jim Preston), Michael Sheen (Arthur the Android Bartender), and Laurence Fishburne (Gus Mancuso): There was a lot of (rhetorical) hand-wringing when Passengers hit theatres last winter over a particular decision made by Chris Pratt's character. And yes, it's a terrible decision. And the ultimate reaction of Jennifer Lawrence's character is going to be disturbing for a lot of people. But Passengers was still a lot more entertaining than I expected.

The film-makers even tried to go for a certain level of scientific accuracy, at least as we know it now. The Starship Avalon is a colony ship delivering 5000 passengers in some form of suspension to a colony world roughly 60 light years from Earth. The ship rotates those sections that require artificial gravity, as would we. And it's restricted to slower-than-light travel, as would we be. So kudos for that, though implausibilities creep in throughout as to how spin-generated AG would work.

The trip takes 120 years, so everyone onboard sleeps for most of it. Except something happens and Chris Pratt, a lovable mechanic, wakes up with 90 years to go. He's increasingly lonely. Then Jennifer Lawrence, a lovable writer, wakes up. Then some other stuff happens.

Passengers goes pretty much everywhere I expected it to go. But the set design and the CGI are actually interesting, and Lawrence and Pratt make for an engaging pair (along with lovable android bartender Arthur, played by Michael Sheen). There are a number of Idiot Plot moments, but not enough to destroy the viewing experience. And at least this is neither a superhero movie nor a giant epic. Jennifer Lawrence gets top billing, possibly because the plot requires her to strip down to her underwear or bathing suit every 20 minutes. Next time, make her the mechanic and Pratt the writer. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Movies About Androids and Food

Office Space (1999): written and directed by Mike Judge; starring Ron Livingston (Peter), Jennifer Aniston (Joanna), David Herman (Michael), Ajay Naidu (Samir), Diedrich Bader (Lawrence), Stephen Root (Milton), and Gary Cole (Bill Lumbergh): Mike Judge's cult favourite about the dehumanizing effects of office work remains a mostly masterpiece nearly 20 years later. Now as then, only the limp, comedy-killing dishrag that is Jennifer Aniston in romantic comedies strikes a sour note. Otherwise, the cast and writing are impeccable. Nearly highly recommended (Damn you, Aniston!).

Deli Man (2014): written and directed by Erik Anjou: Thoroughly enjoyable documentary about the rise and fall of the Jewish deli in North America (well, Canada and the United States, anyway). Extremely tasty and surprisingly nourishing, though Montreal is a no-show (but Toronto does show up). The story of present-day Deli Man Ziggy Gruber, who "co-owns a large deli in Houston and is also the grandson of the original owner of the Rialto Deli, the first Kosher deli to open on Broadway in New York City in the 1920s," (IMDB) unifies the documentary's narrative. He's an interesting fella. Highly recommended.

Becoming Cary Grant (2017): written and directed by Mark Kidel and Nick Ware: While this documentary gets a bit too arty at times (and could use a lot more captioning to explain who people are in photographs and home-movie clips), it's still a captivating look at the life and work of Cary Grant (born Archie Leach in England). While there are interviews with critics, historians, friends, and family members, most of the heavy lifting is done by Jonathan Pryce reading sections from Grant's never-published autobiography. It's fascinating stuff, augmented by the fact that Grant found success in LSD-aided therapy. Recommended.

Morgan (2016): written by Seth Owen; directed by Luke Scott; starring Kate Mara (Lee Weathers), Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan), Rose Leslie (Amy), Toby Jones (Ziegler), Paul Giamatti (Shapiro), Michelle Yeoh (Dr. Cheng), and Boyd Holbrook (Skip): Or, Ex Machina for Dummies. Nothing in this 'AI seeks to escape its creators by any means necessary' film makes much sense if examined too closely, from the convenient;y breakable glass skylight in the AI's cell to the idea that a major corporation would have scientists developing super-dangerous, super-expensive super-soldiers without having lots of supervision and security on-site. Kate Mara elevates the material with her performance as a security wetwork specialist sent to clean things up at the rustic mansion of a lab, as does Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as the eponymous Morgan. But it's pretty dumb, though it marks the directorial debut of Ridley Scott's son, Luke. Not recommended.