30 April 2009

Film: "Monsters vs. Aliens"

Monsters vs. Aliens
Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon
Screenplay by Maya Forbes & Wallace Wolodarsky and Rob Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
Story by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon
Starring the Voice Talent of: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Paul Rudd
Date of Screening: 28 April 2009
MPAA Rating: PG (For Sci-Fi Action, Some Crude Humor and Mild Language)

Just before taking her wedding vows with Derek (Rudd), Susan (Witherspoon) is struck by a meteor that causes her to grow to ginormous scale. No sooner has this happened, than the U.S. military apprehends her and whisks her off to a secret facility in which other such monsters have been housed for the better part of fifty years. Seeking the meteor's empowering abilities is the villainous Gallaxhar (Wilson). When his attack repels the military, the President (Colbert) authorizes the use of the monsters to combat the alien invasion.

Dreamworks has produced this in Real 3-D, though I saw a regular 2-D screening. Even without the red and blue glasses, it was obvious which moments were engineered to wow. I was impressed that only a few of these shots were contrived (including one moment in which Gallaxhar looks directly into the audience). Most of them were action shots that felt fairly organic in the context of the film's story.

The cast is great. I mean, any chance Stephen Colbert can be the President, something is working well. Hugh Laurie will be nigh unrecognizable for fans who know him only from House, M.D. The strongest part of the whole movie is Reese Witherspoon's voice work as Susan, who convincingly transforms from a woman in her fiance's shadow to having genuine self-respect and being proud of her own accomplishments. The messages of teamwork and respecting individuality are ones that resonate strongly with me (as baseball is my favorite sport, bar none) and they are handled well in Monsters vs. Aliens.

"Gods of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Gods of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Date of Publication: 1972 (reprint)
Cover Price: 40p (U.K.)
192 pages

John Carter returns to Barsoom (Mars) a full decade after the events of A Princess of Mars.  He arrives amidst the Barsoomian south pole, a land of sacred death.  Barsoomians undertake voluntary pilgrimages there to enter the afterlife under the watch of Issus, a powerful goddess.  To return from this land is to invite immediate expulsion and execution as a blasphemer.  What Carter discovers, however, is that the ancient religion is nothing more than a fraudulent cover story designed to lure unwitting victims into a land of death.

The Great Therns are white humans who act as priests and as spies, using their vast network of temples across Barsoom.  The First Born are black humans; they are marauding pirates who regularly take captive girls from the therns whom they eventually offer up as sacrifices.  They are the personal guards of Issus, who oversees the entire operation.  Carter escapes the white apes and strange plant creatures only to find himself in the middle of this dark secret.  His only quest, however, is to be reunited with his beloved Dejah Thoris and so he risks life and limb to escape to that end.

At times, Gods of Mars feels racist; Burroughs regularly refers to the First Born as "the blacks," though he does make clear that Carter finds the race beautiful and formidable.  It is also curious that these black Barsoomians should be so high up the slaveholding ladder, taking white therns for their captives (although the implication that they carry off and sexually abuse white girls certainly feels like a Jim Crow-era perception).  Of course, race isn't the only target of Gods of Mars, as Burroughs makes a clear assault on the foundation of religion as well.  Carter's expose of Issus as little more than an ugly old crazy woman is rooted in his narrative disinterest in the Barsoomian faith; as there is no attempt on his part to assert his own faith, we are left with the notion that Carter--and hence Burroughs--has little more than disdain for any faith.

Beyond these dallianecs with social issues, Gods of Mars is first and foremost an action thriller, and at this it largely succeeds.  There are only two nitpicks I have.  First, I find much of John Carter's account of events so full of machismo as to be off-putting.  This is beyond self-confidence to the point it frequently becomes self-aggrandizing arrogance.  Even knowing that, on Mars, Carter possesses superhuman capabilities, he speaks too pompously of the devotion other Barsoomians have for him.  Still, this was originally published in 1918 and the masculine ideals were yet to be tamed.

The other nitpick I have is that Gods of Mars suffers from a milder case of what I call the Ali Effect.  If you've seen Ali, you're bound to have noticed that some scenes happen in almost less-than-real time, emphasizing every word that was spoken and yet other scenes gloss over entire months or years at a time.  Most of this novel takes place in the literary equivalent of real time, but there are times when we simply leap ahead.  The most startling of these leaps is when, in the final thirty some pages, Carter is imprisoned for literal months.  That captivity is related in just a few paragraphs.  Somehow, despite being confined for nearly a full Earth year in a dark cavern, held in place by a leg chain so heavy even he cannot break it, he is able to emerge in peak physical form.  No muscle deterioration, not even an adjustment to light is mentioned.

These are my only knocks, though, and they reflect the style of writing that reigned supreme before writers became conscious of trying to sell movie rights.  Gods of Mars could be titled John Carter and the Temple of Doom.  I think I actually prefer this entry in the Barsoom/Martian series to its predecessor, A Princess of Mars.  I've yet to decide if I will limit myself to one of this series annually (as I have done with Ian Fleming's James Bond novels), though I confess that the cliff-hanger ending has me a bit excited to read the third in the series.

29 April 2009

Free Comic Book Day 2009

The first Saturday in May for the last decade or so has been Free Comic Book Day.  The first Saturday in May has also been, for the last century or so, the Kentucky Derby.  Consequently, I have not been willing to fight my way to a participating comic book shop since the FCBD promotion began, but I suspect others have and will, and many more are not forced to contend with such difficulties.

What is Free Comic Book Day? you ask.  Simply put, the main comic book publishers commission exclusive comic books to be distributed entirely free to anyone who claims a copy at participating comic book shops.  Learn more here.  This year's lineup:

Gold Comics
The Avengers (Marvel Comics)
Blackest Night #0 (DC Comics)
Bongo Comics Free-For-All (Bongo Comics) - publisher of The Simpsons comic books
Cars #1 (Boom! Studios)
Resurrection #0 (Oni Press)
Savage Dragon #148 (Image Comics)
Shonen Jump Special: Ultimo (Viz Media)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Dark Horse Comics)
Archie Presents The Mighty Archie Art Players (Archie Comics)
Transformers Animated/G.I. Joe (IDW Publishing)

Silver Comics
Aliens/Predator (Dark Horse Comics)
APE Entertainment's Cartoona Palooza (APE Entertainment)
Arcana Presents (Arcana Studio)
Attack of the Alterna Zombies! (Alterna Comics)
Comics Festival Volume 3 (Toronto Comics Art Festival)
Contract #1 (A First Salvo)
Cyber Force/Hunter-Killer (Top Cow Studios)
Dabel Bros. Showcase (Dabel Bros. Publishing)
DC Kids Mega Sampler (DC Comics)
FCHS (Adhouse Books)
The Fist of Justice (Digital Webbing)
Gold Digger #101/Prince of Heroes (Antarctic Press)
Impact University Volume 5 (FW Media)
Love and Capes #10 (Maerkle Press)
Love and Rockets (Fantagraphics Books)
Mercy Sparx (Devil's Due)
Nancy/Melvin Monster (Drawn & Quarterly)
NASCAR Heroes (Starbridge Media Group)
Owly and Friends (Top Shelf Productions)
Radical (Radical Publishing)
Sonic: Evolution of a Hero (Archie Comics)
Studio 407 Sampler (Studio 407)
The Stuff of Legend (Th3Rd World Studios)
Wizard Hot Lists (Wizard Entertainment)
Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 - 25th Anniversary Reprint (Mirage Studios)
Warhammer Online: Prelude to War (BOOM! Studios)
William Shatner Presents (Bluewater Productions)
Wolverine (Marvel Comics)
Worlds of Aspen (Aspen MLT)

There are two other free collectibles that will be available:
Free Comic Book Day 2009 Minimate (Diamond Select Toys)
Magic the Gathering: Agents of Artifice - A Planeswalker Novel: Sample Chapter (Wizards of the Coast)

"Star Trek: Countdown" TPB

Star Trek: Countdown TPB
Story: Robert Orci & Alexander Kurtzman
Writers: Mike Johnson & Tim Jones
Artist: David Messina
Color Art: Giovanna Niro
Additional Colors: David Messina and Paolo Maddaleni
Color Consultant: Ilaria Traversi
Letterers: Chris Mowry, Robert Robbins and Neil Uyetake
Creative Consultant: David Baronoff
Original Series Editors: Andy Schmidt and Scott Dunbier
Collection Editor: Justin Eisinger
Collection Design: Neil Uyetake
Star Trek Created by Gene Roddenberry
Originally published as Star Trek: Countdown Issues #1-4
Date of Publication: 21 April 2009
Cover Price: $17.99
104 pages

This is a prequel to the forthcoming motion picture, Star Trek.  In case you might be wholly unfamiliar with the Trek canon, allow me to put it this way.  In the 1960s, they made the TV show Star Trek featuring characters like Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.  This series was set in the 23rd Century.  There were a lot of spin-off TV series, starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation, which began in 1987.  It featured characters like Captain Picard and Data, and was set in the 24th Century, by which time Mr. Spock was an old man.

Now, what Countdown explains is the premise for the new movie.  In the 24th Century, a star explodes and begins destroying entire planets.  Old Man Spock, ever the scientist, has been studying this activity and warns the Romulan senate that it must act quickly to contain this destruction before it reaches the Romulan homeworld.  His argument is only supported by Nero, a miner who saw firsthand the birth of this destruction.  Spock and Nero are disheartened when the senate calls them Chicken Little, but resolve to act in defiance of the senate.

The problem, though, is that the material needed to contain this stellar force is an experiment of the Vulcans.  Spock is half-Vulcan, but his work to reunify his homeworld with their estranged Romulan cousins has cost him his standing.  The Vulcans, too, elect to choose mistrust over action and the consequence is that all of Romulus is destroyed.  Nero swears revenge on Spock, believing the aged Vulcan allowed Romulus to die before acting to stop this awesome power from reaching his beloved home.

And that's pretty much the premise.  Countdown takes place entirely in the 24th Century, and we get to catch up with some of the Next Generation characters not seen since 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis.  It is this context which gives me hope for the forthcoming project, as screenwriters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman provided the story for this prequel.  Time and again, official statements have been cryptic about how this new movie fits into established Trek lore, though they have frequently insisted that it is not a reboot (along the lines of Batman Begins or Casino Royale).  Countdown convinces me at least that Star Trek at least begins from a point of established continuity.  Of course, anything becomes possible in a time travel story, and that's what Star Trek is.

Marvel Comics at Taco Bell

This promotion began a couple weeks ago and with virtually no advertisement that I have seen.  In any event, there are four different comics available at Taco Bell.  You can get them free with a kids meal, or you can just pay the ninety-nine cents apiece for them (which is what I did).  Here's your lineup:
The Avengers
Captain America
Fantastic Four
Thor
These stories are independent of current Marvel continuity meaning two things.  First, readers who follow the stories will have to just accept these one-off stories for what they are; more importantly, new readers should not be discouraged.  Everything you need to know to follow what's going on is contained in the twelve pages of each issue.  Furthermore, the four issues do not connect with one another in any fashion, so you don't have to worry about getting an incomplete set and not knowing part of the story.

The covers, I'm told, are recycled from previously published issues but the interior stories are all new.  Each issue concludes with a one-page Mini Marvels backup story by Chris Giarrusso.  In these, the Marvel characters are depicted in a cute little kid aesthetic and have issues one would expect from children superheroes.  For instance, Thor is picked on for his style of speaking.  Fans of Psych might think of these as akin to "The Adventures of Lil' Shawn and Gus."

The stories themselves are pretty simple and all-ages appropriate.  Let's face it.  There really isn't a whole lot you can do in eleven pages.  I personally thought the Captain America issue was the best, as it sees Cap dealing with a terrorist cell leader whose prosecution is stymied by lack of physical evidence.  Other stories have the Avengers take in (and be betrayed by) the villainous Ultron, Thor and The Thing team-up against the vandalizing Wrecker and Mr. Fantastic & the Invisible Woman's anniversary night spoiled by a rampaging Hulk.

27 April 2009

"Indiana Jones" by Hasbro



Sadly, this line wasn't well supported last year and has since died a premature death.  Why did it fail?  Many theorize it was because the target audience of action figures--young boys, say 6 to 12 years of age--were not interested in the three prior Indiana Jones movies (and thus ignored many of the characters Hasbro made into figures), and while last year's Kingdom of the Crystal Skull sequel made a lot of money, it wasn't particularly popular.  As a toy line, many of the characters were boring to look at (unlike, say, Star Wars or comic book-based characters).

I can say, though, that I think the greatest problem with the line was that its release was bottlenecked.  The shelves stayed the same at every retailer I saw.  There were plenty of the first assortment, containing figures from 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark and the aforementioned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  That's all.  I never once saw any of the subsequent figures from the Temple of Doom or Last Crusade.  It didn't help that the paint jobs on the first batch were sporadic and shoddy, which I think discouraged many would-be collectors who never took a second look at the subsequent revised versions.

Anyway, for those who are interested in a rundown of produced and released 3 3/4" scale product, here they are (were):

INDIANA JONES
BASIC ACTION FIGURES
40074 Marion Ravenwood - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40075 Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40076 Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40077 Cairo Swordsman - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40080 Sallah - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40081 Rene Belloq - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40082 German Soldier - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40083 Monkey Man - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40591 Russian Soldier - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40592 Ugha Warrior - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40594 Colonel Dovchenko - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40595 Irina Spalko - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40597 Mutt Williams - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40598 Mutt Williams - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40599 Indiana Jones - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40604 Indiana Jones - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40661 Indiana Jones - Last Crusade
40662 Henry Jones - Last Crusade
40663 Dr. Elsa Schneider - Last Crusade
40664 Young Indy - Last Crusade
40665 Grail Knight - Last Crusade
40666 Colonel Vogel - Last Crusade
40679 Cemetery Warrior - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40765 Indiana Jones - Temple of Doom
40782 Chief Temple Guard - Temple of Doom
40788 Short Round - Temple of Doom
40790 Willie Scott - Temple of Doom
40824 Temple Guard - Temple of Doom
40834 Mola Ram - Temple of Doom

MAIL AWAY REDEMPTION
45027 Crystal Skeleton with Throne - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

DELUXE ACTION FIGURES 
40472 Indiana Jones with Horse - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40473 German Soldier with Motorcycle - Last Crusade
40490 Indiana Jones with Temple Trap - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40491 Indiana Jones with Temple Pitfall - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40610 Mutt Williams with Motorcycle - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
40710 Indiana Jones with Ark - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40712 German Soldiers - Last Crusade
40713 Marion Ravenwood & Cairo Henchman - Raiders of the Lost Ark
47385 Cairo Thugs - Raiders of the Lost Ark

VEHICLES 
40099 Cargo Truck - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40460 Troop Car - Raiders of the Lost Ark
40461 Jungle Cutter - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Toys "R" Us Exclusive)
46750 Cargo Truck - Raiders of the Lost Ark

PLAYSETS 
46035 The Lost Temple of Akator Playset - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The Lost Temple of Akator Playset - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [bonus figures]

BATTLE PACKS (Target Exclusive) 
84530 Tank Showdown - Last Crusade (Professor Henry Jones, Indiana Jones, Colonel Vogel, German Soldiers)
84693 Cairo Ambush - Raiders of the Lost Ark (Marion Ravenwood, Indiana Jones, Monkey Man, Cairo Thugs)
89850 Jungle Chase - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Mutt Williams, Indiana Jones, Irina Spalko, Colonel Dovchenko, Russian Soldier)

COMMEMORATIVE DVD 3-PACK (Walmart) 
78793 Set 1 of 2 - Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Mutt Williams with Sword, Indiana Jones with Crystal Skull, Irina Spalko)
84430 Set 2 of 2 Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Mutt Williams with Snake, Indiana Jones with RPG, Colonel Dovchenko)

Yo, Joe! "The Rise of Cobra" Figures

Snake Eyes,
Basic Assortment
I decided to continue this week's total geek-out by snooping around for an advanced look at the forthcoming G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; more specifically, its tie-in action figure assortment from Hasbro.  I found a lot of online pictures taken at this year's Toy Fair in New York, but Hasbro themselves have yet to put anything up on their website.  They did, however, supply some sites with official pics (such as the one to the left, of Snake Eyes).

Here's what I can tell you.  Hasbro is going all-out with their toys.  There will be 3 3/4" scale figures a-plenty (along with accessories a-plenty); some 12" scale figures that play sound; their cute little preschool-targeted Combat Heroes; the larger, Action Battlers (last seen being ignored by Star Wars fans) and the obligatory role playing toys.  The following is all I can confirm at this moment, with assortment numbers where I could read them:

89096 BASIC ASSORTMENT
89075 Conrad "Duke" Hauser - Desert Ambush
89076 Snake Eyes - Ninja Commando
89077 Storm Shadow - Ninja Mercenary
89078 Baroness - Attack on the G.I. Joe Pit
89080 Neo-Viper - Attack on the G.I. Joe Pit
89081 Wallace "Ripcord" Weems - Delta-6 Accelerator Suit
89301 Heavy Duty - Heavy Weapons Specialist
89302 Zartan - Master of Disguise
89306 Shana "Scarlet" O'Hara - Covert Operations
89307 Shipwreck - Naval Commando
89308 Abel "Breaker" Shaz - Technical Surveillance
89309 Cobra Viper Commando - Desert Ambush

MULTI-PACKS
M.A.R.S. Troopers - Military Armaments Research Syndicate

ACCESSORIES
89082 Mole Pod with Terra-Viper
89083 Snake Trax A.T.V. with Scrap-Iron
89093 Rockslide A.T.A.V. with Snow Job
89094 Armored Panther with Sgt. Thunderblast
Cobra Gunship with Firefly
Night Raven with Air-Viper

PLAYSET
Pit Mobile Headquarters with Exclusive General Clayton "Hawk" Abernathy

89329 ACTION BATTLERS
89340 Storm Shadow - Ninja Mercenary

68981 COLLECTOR'S EDITION
89295 Snake Eyes - Ninja Commando
89296 Storm Shadow - Ninja Mercenary

68975 ROLE PLAYING
89911 Signal Light

The accessories are in true Hasbro/Joe fashion.  All the vehicles I saw were packaged with a figure, and I even read a report that there will be a G.I. Joe Pit Playset...big enough to hold 84 figures!  That's simply got to be massive.

As for me, I have already decided that I'm interested in at least a 3 3/4" Snake Eyes, and possibly a Baroness.  Beyond that, I'm going to defer to what I think of the movie itself.  Plus, with several other action figure lines tugging at my sense of nostalgia (and wallet), it's safe to say I won't be completing any line this year, but rather adding the odd figure here and there.

Burger King. The Final Frontier.

Like my previous post about Playmates Toys's line of Star Trek action figures, I almost posted this in my movies blog but I decided that merchandise isn't something I want to start including in that at this point.  Anyway, in case it wasn't obvious yet, Burger King will have an assortment of Star Trek premiums in conjunction with J.J. Abrams's new movie.  Each toy has a soundbite of dialog.  Here's what's coming:
  • Captain Kirk ("Kirk to Enterprise")
  • Spock ("A rescue attempt would be illogical")
  • Bones ("I'm a doctor, not a physicist")
  • Scotty ("I'm giving it all she's got") - interestingly, sporting a goatee
  • Uhura ("Captain, we're being hailed")
  • Chekov ("Ensign Pavel Andreievich Chekov")
  • Sulu ("Warp factor three")
  • Spock Prime ("Live long and prosper") - Leonard Nimoy; called "Original Spock" in the Playmates line
  • Communicator ("Beam me up")
  • Tricorder ("Stardate 2248.22")
  • Hover Bike ("Vrooom")
  • Warbird (Something in Klingon)
  • Enterprise (Plays the Star Trek fanfare by Alexander Courage)
  • Kelvin ("Red alert") - reported to be George Kirk's starship
  • Shuttle ("Approaching drop zone")
  • Jellyfish ("You're gonna be able to fly this thing, right?") - reported to be the ship of Spock Prime
Also, for the first time in a long time, a fast food promotion includes collector's glasses!  There are four in the Star Trek line.  Each glass has a full body shot of a character and a secondary image within the famous emblem.  I can't determine the official glass names, so I re-used the names given to the toys:
  • Captain Kirk
  • Spock
  • Nero
  • Uhura
Posters that have already been on display tout a 4 May release date for these items, and early word suggests that the promotion is expected to run for about four weeks.  If past BK promotions are any indication, you can expect items to run out ahead of schedule, local employees to pilfer items for themselves and managers who just don't care to put out everything all at once.  Aesthetically, the toys bear a striking resemblance to the line of Star Wars toys that BK had in 2005 to promote Revenge of the Sith.  One cannot help but suspect that, if the promotion and the movie rake in enough cash, a second wave might appear in the Fall to accompany the DVD and Blu Ray Disc release.

Thanks to Trek Nostalgia for the heads up on the toys.  You can read his blog report, see the pictures I decided it would be in poor taste to repost here, and even subscribe to his blog here.

"Star Trek" (2009) by Playmates Toys, Inc.

Original Spock, Galaxy Assortment
Thanks to the forthcoming film, Star Trek, former license holder Playmates Toys, Inc. have once again produced Trek toys.  I discovered many of the first wave already on sale at my local Wal-Mart this afternoon and was delighted to find "Original Spock," based on Leonard Nimoy!  Here is the complete breakdown of what's currently either on its way, or already out:

STAR TREK
FIGURES
COMMAND (12")
Kirk in Enterprise Uniform
Spock in Enterprise Uniform
McCoy in Enterprise Uniform
Original Spock
Sulu in Enterprise Uniform
Pike in Enterprise Uniform

WARP (6")
Kirk in Enterprise Uniform
Scotty in Enterprise Uniform
Spock in Enterprise Uniform
Chekov in Cadet Uniform
Original Spock
McCoy in Cadet Uniform
Pike in Enterprise Uniform
Nero
Sulu in Enterprise Uniform
Uhura in Cadet Uniform

GALAXY (3 3/4")
Kirk in Enterprise Uniform
Spock in Enterprise Uniform
Uhura in Enterprise Uniform
Original Spock
Sulu in Enterprise Uniform
Pike in Enterprise Uniform
McCoy in Cadet Uniform
Nero
Chekov in Cadet Uniform
Scotty in Enterprise Uniform

VEHICLES
U.S.S. Enterprise Vehicle

ROLEPLAY
Star Trek Electronic Starfleet Phaser
Star Trek Electronic Starfleet Communicator
Star Trek Electronic Tricorder

PLAYSETS (3 3/4" Scale)
Star Trek Bridge Playset w/Kirk
Star Trek Transporter Room Playset w/Scotty

What makes this line so attractive is that, for the first time since Galoob's 1987 line of Star Trek: The Next Generation figures, Star Trek is in 3 3/4" scale.  That means these figures are in the same proportion as Hasbro's Star WarsG.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and Indiana Jones toy lines!

Not only is the 3 3/4" scale compatible with those other lines, but Playmates has done something interesting with the two playsets.  Not only can you connect the Transporter Room to the Bridge Playset, but each of the ten individual figures comes with a supplemental component.  Imagine having Han Solo and Chewbacca at the helm of the U.S.S. Enterprise and Snake Eyes on hand to work security--and with no red shirt, you know he's not going anywhere!  This was a brilliant move on Playmates's part.

24 April 2009

The Numbers

Not that I suspect more than three people even know I have this blog, but in case you're reading this you might take a moment and look to the right.  There, you'll find a column of links for various movie and DVD-related resources.  Among them is a link to a website called thenumbers.com; you may also notice a few boxes with some statistics--those also come from thenumbers.com.

For those who are really into minutiae (and, really, who isn't?) this is a great resource.  For instance, let's take one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, The Transformers: The Movie.  I can tell you, from thenumbers.com, that that movie...
Now, were I so inclined, I could find out the average ticket prices of 1986 and calculate what percentage of the box office revenue actually came from me.  All I would have to do is go back to an August 1986 issue of the Courier-Journal and find an advertisment for Showcase Cinemas that lists ticket prices.  I know that I saw the movie thrice theatrically: once on opening weekend, then a second time with one of my mom's friends and her son and a third time mom took just me (my brother was at our dad's, if I recall correctly).  If you factor in mom's admission all three times (and why shouldn't you, since she only went because of me?), then I theoretically am responsible for six of the admissions sold.

The mind boggles at what to do with this kind of information, really.  Once upon a time, I had great enthusiasm for mathematics.  It waned over years of snotty teachers and my rising interest in history, but it has always stayed with me in one form or another.  I need to go to the laundro-mat now, but this is something I plan to revisit later today.  I encourage you to do so, as well.  Go on, you know you want to know how your favorite movies have performed!

23 April 2009

"Star Trek" Movie Lit

Star Trek
A Novel by Alan Dean Foster
Screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Based Upon "Star Trek" Created by Gene Roddenberry
Date of Publication: 12 May 2009
Cover Price: $15.00

Back cover text:
"Are you willing to settle for an ordinary life? Or do you think you were meant for something better? Something special?"

One grew up in the cornfields of Iowa, fighting for his independence, for a way out of a life that promised only indifference, aimlessness and obscurity.

"You will forever be a child of two worlds, capable of choosing your own destiny. The only question you face is, which path will you chose?"

The other grew up on the jagged cliffs of the harsh Vulcan desert, fighting for acceptance, for a way to reconcile the logic he was taught with the emotions he felt.

In the far reaches of the galaxy, a machine of war bursts into existence in a place and time it was never meant to be. On a mission of retribution for the destruction of his planet, its half-mad captain seeks the death of every intelligent being, and the annihilation of every civilized world.

Kirk and Spock, two completely different and unyielding personalities must find a way to lead the only crew, aboard the only ship, that can stop him."The wait is over."
I've read enough Star Trek and Star Wars novels over the years to know that most of them are so caught up in trying to connect to obscure trivia that they're almost impossible to read as an actual story.  Still, there's a part of me that's actually interested in reading the forthcoming movie tie-in novel by Alan Dean Foster.  Foster has been writing science-fiction novels and adaptations for decades now.  You may recall that earlier this month I read his Splinter of the Mind's Eye, for instance.  In fact, Foster has the distinction of having ghost written the novelizations of both Star Wars (credited to George Lucas) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (credited to Gene Roddenberry).

Since I'm planning to see the film before the novelization is published, I'll base my interest level on the movie itself.  Movie novelizations are sometimes illuminating because they're frequently based on early drafts of screenplays and include scenes and dialog that are revised or edited out entirely by the movie's release date.

Foster has kept busy with other movie novelizations.  On 28 April, his novelization of Terminator: Salvation and Transformers: The Veiled Threat will be published.  The former is a lead-in to this summer's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, whose novelization was also penned by Foster and will hit shelves 19 May.

Also, IDW Publishing has released a four issue limited series prequel, Star Trek Countdown, which has recently been collected as a trade paperback (what you kids today generically call a graphic novel).  Strangely, I haven't seen anything about an actual movie adaptation.

Free Audiobook Downloads from Barnes & Noble

Looking for some free entertainment?  Head on over to Barnes & Noble's website (just click here) and download any and all of the following nine audiobooks entirely free of charge!  They show up as one cent apiece, but in checkout you get an automatic coupon that negates that penny.  You'll need to install the OverDrive Media Player in order to download and access the files, but once you've got them you can transfer them to your iPod, burn them to disc or play them straight from your computer.  The titles available are:

  • "The Babysitter's Code" from Hardly Knew Her written by Laura Lippman, performed by Linda Emond
  • "Super Goat Men" from Men and Cartoons written and performed by Jonathan Lethem
  • "Best New Horror" from 20th Century Ghosts written by Joe Hill, performed by David LeDoux
  • "Great Day" from Armageddon in Retrospect written by Kurt Vonnegut, performed by Rip Torn
  • "Fathers" from The View from Castle Rock, written by Alice Munro, performed by Kimberly Farr
  • "Truth or Dare" from The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted written and performed by Elizabeth Berg
  • "Ysrael" from Drown written by Junot Diaz, performed by Jonathon Davis
  • Merrano of the Dry Country written by Louis L'Amour
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer written by Mark Twain, performed by Grover Gardner

"Decade" by Various Writers and Artists

Decade - Celebrating Ten Years of Dark Horse Short Stories
Various Writers and Artists
Date of Publication: 15 April 1997
Cover Price: $12.95
112 pages

Dark Horse Comics emerged in the 1980s and did something remarkable--it became an independent publisher capable of competing with DC and Marvel.  What attracted so many comic creators to Dark Horse was its policy vis a vis creative control.  Unlike the other publishers, which retained ownership of any character or story element that appeared in any of its properties, Dark Horse left the works in the hands of their creators.  The company launched an ongoing anthology, Dark Horse Presents, as its means of getting stories out there.  A fan might pick up an issue to read what Mike Mignolia's "Hellboy" was all about and discover in the process Paul Chadwick's "Concrete" or Frank Miller's "Sin City."  Along the way, Dark Horse picked up several lucrative movie licenses: Aliens, Predator and Star Wars among them.

Decade collects a four-issue limited series of short stories produced to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the company.  Included are sixteen tales (a few might best be characterized as vignettes rather than short stories).  Creating short stories for an anthology is not easy to begin with, but when they're based on long-running storylines I suspect it becomes even harder.  How much information can the writer assume a reader will already know and how much will need to be worked into the handful of pages alloted to this story?  At what point does it become alienating for first time readers, and when is it so diluted that longtime readers will be bored?

Some work better than others.  The Predator story surprised me, because I had never seen any of the movies and yet I was easily able to follow what was going on; the Mask story surprised me, because it was far darker and more violent than the Jim Carrey movie.  Frank Miller's Sin City yarn, "Daddy's Little Girl," is a great introduction to that sordid world that requires absolutely no prior knowledge.  Matt Wagner's Grendel story, "The Devil's Week," is similarly self-contained.  The end begs the question who and what Grendel is, but that's what makes this so brilliant.  Were it the only Grendel story Wagner ever created, it would be the source of great debate and wonder; since there are others, though, it is an open invitation to new readers to find those tales and explore his work.

I might just do that.

The stories are:
Concrete: "World Beneath the Skin" - story and art by Paul Chadwick, lettering by Bill Spicer, coloring by Chris Chalenor
Black Cross - story and art by Chris Warner
Trekker: "Mercy Killing" - story and art by Ron Randall, lettering by Steve Dutro, coloring by Cary Porter
Godzilla: "The Origin of a Species" - story by Randy Stradley, pencils by Scott Kolins, inks by Dan Panosian, lettering by Clem Robins, coloring by Art Knight
Aliens: "Lucky" - story by Mark Verheiden, art by Mark A. Nelson, lettering by Willie Schubert, coloring by Chris Chalenor
Nexus: "All and Sundra" - story by Mark Baron, art and lettering by Steve Rude, coloring by Perry McNamee
The Mask: "Night of the Return of the Living Ipkiss...Kinda" - story by John Arcudi, art by Doug Mahnke, lettering by Clem Robins, coloring by Chris Chalenor
Martha Washington: "Attack of the Flesh-Eating Monsters" - story by Frank Miller, art by Dave Gibbons
Predator: "1718" - story by Henry Gilroy, art by Igor Kordey, lettering by Steve Dutro
Grendel: "The Devil's Week" - story and art by Matt Wagner
Sin City: "Daddy's Little Girl" - story, art and lettering by Frank Miller
Exon Depot - story and art by Masamune Shirow
Ghost: "Sweet Things" - story by Erik Luke, pencils by Scott Benefiel, inks by Jasen Rodriguez, lettering by Steve Haynie, coloring by Chris Chalenor

Forthcoming "Star Trek" Soundtrack


Star Trek - Music from the Motion Picture
Music by Michael Giacchino
Release Date: 5 May 2009
List Price: $17.98

I haven't heard anything from this soundtrack, so this is not a review.  Rather, this is simply a heads up for anyone who might be interested.  Giacchino's track titles are interesting, and don't have anything obviously spoilerish to them (unlike, say, Dennis McCarthy's soundtrack for Star Trek Generations).  Here are the track titles, with running times (courtesy of record label Varese Sarabande's website):
  1. Star Trek (1:03)
  2. Nailin' the Kelvin (2:09)
  3. Labor of Love (2:51)
  4. Hella Bar Talk (1:55)
  5. Enterprising Young Men (2:39)
  6. Nero Sighted (3:23)
  7. Nice to Meld You (3:13)
  8. Run and Shoot Offense (2:04)
  9. Does It Still McFly? (2:03)
  10. Nero Death Experience (5:38)
  11. Nero Fiddles, Narada Burns (2:34)
  12. Back from Black (0:59)
  13. That New Car Smell (4:46)
  14. To Boldly Go (0:26)*
  15. End Credits (9:11)*
*Contains Theme from "Star Trek" TV series written by Alexander Courage and Gene Roddenberry.

Noting that only two of fifteen tracks include Courage's iconic theme, I recall that David Arnold's score for 2006's Casino Royale hinted at, but did not actually include Monty Norman's famed "James Bond Theme" until the very end of that film.  No word yet on any retailer exclusive, special digital content, etc. so it appears that only one standard release is forthcoming.  If I learn of anything, though, I'll be sure to post it.

I mean, really, how can you not be interested in a movie with a soundtrack that includes a song called "Does It Still McFly?"

22 April 2009

Disney Movie Club Lenticular Cards

My wife joined the Disney Movie Club a few years ago and shortly after we joined our finances changed and many releases have come and gone without our being able to purchase them.  In 2006, DMC began a running series of exclusive, limited edition lenticular cards.  Generally, these are produced for a new release when it debuts as the featured selection for a month.  They are only available to VIP members (i.e., those who have fulfilled their membership requirements and placed a few orders thereafter).  They measure about five inches by seven, large enough that you can actually insert them into your DVD case.  We currently only have one of these cards, but are awaiting Pinocchio in the mail.

These cards can fetch some serious coin on eBay due to their scarcity and the popularity of Disney memorabilia.  Periodically, it seems, DMC will make available leftover supplies at $9.95 apiece.  In case you're interested in beginning a collection--or just want to see if a card was made for your favorite Disney DVD release--I am told that the following is an updated, complete list:
  • Mickey Mouse - Welcome 1
  • Mickey Mouse - Welcome 2
  • Finding Nemo
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
  • Lion King 1 1/2
  • Freaky Friday
  • Brother Bear
  • Tarzan
  • Herbie Fully Loaded
  • Bambi 2
  • Kronk's New Groove
  • Valiant
  • Lady and the Tramp
  • Chicken Little
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Pooh's Grand Adventure
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Dumbo
  • Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp's Adventure
  • Mickey's Once/Twice Upon A Christmas
  • Muppet's Christmas Carol/Holiday Stories
  • Brother Bear 2
  • The Wild
  • The Little Mermaid
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
  • Cars
  • Fox and the Hound 2 
  • Cinderella III: A Twist in Time
  • Peter Pan
  • Air Buddies
  • Donald in Mathmagic Land
  • Bridge To Terabithia
  • Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh/A Very Merry Pooh Year
  • The Santa Clause 1 & 2
  • The Jungle Book
  • Ratatouille
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
  • High School Musical 2
  • Meet the Robinsons
  • The Aristocats
  • 101 Dalmations
  • Enchanted
  • Peter Pan: Return to Neverland
  • The Game Plan
  • National Treasure 1 & 2
  • The Jungle Book 2
  • Sword in the Stone
  • Nightmare Before Christmas
  • 101 Dalmations II: Patch's London Adventure
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • The Santa Clause 3
  • WALL-E
  • The Little Mermaid 2 & 3
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
  • Tinker Bell
  • Pinocchio
  • Oliver and Company
  • Bolt
  • High School Musical 3
This is the sort of thing that can add some collectible variety to your DVD library, so if you have a DMC account you might consider trying to get in on future releases.  There's always eBay, too.

How to Build Your DVD Library

I suppose I should call this "How I've Built My DVD Library," but of course I would go so far as to suggest that the method I have employed is the same that should work for you.  You might, at first, think me arrogant but you would be mistaken.  Rather, I have worked very diligently over the years at this and so I have come to believe this really is the best approach.

Step 1: Your Favorites
Simply put, there is no reason to have a DVD library that does not include those movies you love to rewatch.  I don't care if your favorite movie is 8MM, if you love it then it belongs in your library.  I suggest you make a list of your top ten favorite movies of all time.  This is a good place to start, because in the process you will likely think of at least ten more that you really like.  Keep a separate, ongoing list of these.

Step 2: Your Childhood Favorites
For some, these are guilty, nostalgic pleasures; for others, they're the crown jewel.  Whatever they mean to you, you should indulge and add at least a few of them.  My wife and I were excited, for instance, to add Howard the Duck to our library when it was finally released on DVD earlier this year.  The younger you are, the trickier this is because of course you may not have had enough time pass that you feel that fondly about such things.  Don't fret; because you're of the home video generation, you won't find many releases that you will have to wait decades to have when you decide you want them.

Step 3: The Things That Make Others Take Your Library Seriously
Now, it's important to note that I don't mean anyone should buy any movies for the whole purpose of impressing other people.  That is not only financial absurdity, but it runs contrary to my longheld endorsement of individuality.  No, I titled this step the way I did because these are the movies that were probably over your head as a kid and may not be among your top ten favorites.  I only know one person who ranks Doctor Zhivago in her top ten, for instance, but would expect to find it in quite a lot of libraries (I know it's in mine).  I suggest you start with the American Film Institute lists of the last decade or so, and rent some of the titles on them.  If you find yourself really enjoying something, pick it up.

Step 4: TV Series
For me, this is the trickiest part of the whole process.  I'm really not that likely to re-watch a TV season set, but I have found that DVD is my preferred way of watching a season.  On a bleak day, my wife and I might do a marathon viewing of a season, though mostly we prefer to watch an episode or two each night until we finish a set.  "But my favorite show is Friends and they re-run it seventeen times a day on four different channels," you say.  Well, either skip Friends and explore another show or go ahead and sit down with the first season DVD release of Friends.  It may surprise you how even watching an episode you can quote verbatim can feel different when it's exhumed from under advertising graphics and not interrupted every nine minutes.

Step 5: The Collectibles
Okay, this is the purely self-indulgent/show-off step.  For a great many movies, there are various releases.  Sometimes, one release replaces another; other times, they are release contemporaneously.  Let's take the Indiana Jones series as our example.  You might be like me; you enjoyed the movies enough to add them to your library, but that's about it.  Here have been your options:
The Adventures of Indiana Jones boxed set - Contains Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first two sequels and a fourth disc of bonus material.  Available in Widescreen and Full Screen Editions.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Special Editions, sold individually.  Also collected in Indiana Jones: The Adventures Collection boxed set.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Available in single disc and two-disc special edition releases, and the single-disc release is also included in Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures Collection with the previous three films.

Now, unless you're particularly into bonus features, The Complete Adventures Collection is the way to go.  You get all four movies and the nice thing is that they're individually packaged in slimline cases, so the whole box takes up the same shelf space as two regular DVD's.  But, of course, you might be into bonus material.  The Adventures of Indiana Jones boxed set is the only place you'll find that fourth disc of bonus interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.  On the other hand, the subsquent releases of the original three movies include bonus material

DVD: "Mrs. Henderson Presents" - Widescreen Edition

Mrs. Henderson Presents
Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Martin Sherman
Starring: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Christopher Guest, Kelly Reilly, Thelma Barlow, Anna Brewster, Rosalind Halstead, Sarah Solemani, Natalia Tena
DVD Release Date: 25 April 2006
MPAA Rating: R (For Nudity and Brief Language)
List Price: $28.95
Cinescopes Personality Types: Charismatic Performer, Passionate Maverick

The Film
Based upon true events, widow Laura Henderson (Dench) decides to occupy herself by investing in the Windmill Theatre.  Knowing nothing of stage productions, she hires equally strong-willed producer Vivian Van Damme (Hoskins) to run the shows for her.  Though the reviews are favorable, the competition soon copies their shows and Henderson decides to strike back with nude girls.  Finding approval for such a concept in 1930s London is difficult, but she makes it work--up to and through World War II.

The DVD
The principle cast and crew are all interviewed for a making-of featurette, and director Frears provides a rather uninformative commentary track.  Mostly, his remarks are confined to praise for Dench and Hoskins, and remarks about how several backgrounds were completed digitally ("electronically," he says) without his understanding of how they did it.  Finally, the obligatory original theatrical trailer completes your set of extras.

The Recommendation
The concept behind the Windmill nudity was certainly to pique ticket sales, but was done artfully so as to avoid any semblance of shamelessness.  The nudity in the film conforms to this ideal, so if you're looking for Showgirls, this isn't it.  Frears is absolutely right to praise his two leads, as both Dench and Hoskins are a joy to watch throughout.  The only problem is that the third act is so rushed it feels forced, contrived and empty, and the ending feels as though they simply ran out of time, or decided arbitrarily to just stop telling the story at that point.  Don't look to Frears's commentary for illumination, though--he doesn't say a word about it.

DVD: "Major League" - Wild Thing Edition

Major League
Written and Directed by David S. Ward
Starring: Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen
DVD Release Date: 10 April 2007
MPAA Rating: R
List Price: $12.99
Cinescopes Personality Types: Respected Champion, Invincible Optimist

The Film
A trophy wife (Margaret Whitton) becomes a widow, and in the process inherits the Cleveland Indians from her husband.  Loathing the city, she discovers a clause in the lease contract that allows her to break the lease--and move to Miami--if the attendance drops to a specific level.  To ensure that it does, she rounds up the worst players she can find.  Remarkably (or predictably, if you prefer), this ragtag assortment of has-beens and never-weres coalesce into a competitive team in defiance of her wishes.

The DVD
Writer/director Ward is joined on a commentary track by producer Chris Chesser, in which they mostly praise the city of Milwaukee (where the lion's share of the film was actually shot) and the cast.  There is a brief featurette on the film and its characters and another in which Indians players and commentators discuss their affinity for the film.  The highlight is a third featurette spotlighting Bob Uecker (who portrays alcoholic broadcaster Harry Doyle in the film).  An excised scene from the end of the film is the lone deleted scene presented (though some of Uecker's outtakes appear in the featurette on his performance).  Rounding out the features are a quick look through the voodoo-filled locker of Cerrano, guided by actor Dennis Haysbert in character and a photo gallery.

The Recommendation
If you've ever wondered about how something could not be greater than the sum of its parts, Major League is the answer.  Scene-by-scene, the film is enjoyable and yet when it's over there is a sense that several plot lines were neglected.  Much is made in the second act of the film, for instance, of Jake Thompson's (Berenger) quest to reunite with his lost love (Rene Russo); there is nothing else about her until the final scene of the film.  In fairness, though, Major League did break from some sports movie cliches.  It also birthed at least one that has carried over into real baseball--that of the closer taking the field set to a crowd-rousing song.

21 April 2009

"The Gun Seller" by Hugh Laurie

The Gun Seller
Hugh Laurie
Date of Publication: 1 October 2008
Cover Price: $15.00
339 pages

Americans reading The Gun Seller will likely be tempted to think of it as an indictment of the post-9/11 Bush administration's rhetoric and doctrine, but it is important to remember that this was first published in 1996.  This 2008 edition includes a brief interview with author Laurie and a few prompts for book club discussion.  Thomas Lang is an ex-military Brit who is approached out of the blue with the offer of a hit contract.  Lang declines, and decides to warn the target instead.  The target, Alexander Woolf, is a wealthy and powerful man.  Who is Woolf, though, and who wants him dead?  Trying to answer these questions drives much of The Gun Seller, eventually working its way to a point where Lang has uncovered a plot to engineer an act of terrorism as part of a marketing strategy for a new attack helicopter.

Laurie is best known these days as "star of the FOX-TV series House," to borrow from the cover blurb, but once upon a time he played the role of P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster in Jeeves & Wooster.  Fans of Wodehouse will immediately recognize Laurie's affinity for the esteemed author in the relationship between Lang and fellow agent David Solomon (who even addresses Lang as "master" and "sir").  Similarly, fans of the TV series adaptation featuring Laurie will likely picture him in the role of Lang, and Stephen Fry as the dry, scheming Solomon.  According to the interview, Laurie himself has completed a screenplay adaptation for United Artists, and one imagines the story crossing media rather easily.

The predominant weakness is that Laurie's sense of humor starts on page 1 and ends on page 340.  There are spatterings of taking things seriously, but the wall-to-wall comedy sometimes gets in the way of a genuine action-thriller.  I read this over a few nights, and another problem I ran into was that, for some reason or another, each successive night required me to go back mentally to what had last happened so that I knew what was going on now.  Typically, this is only something I run into with particularly dense material, but (no offense, Mr. Laurie) The Gun Seller isn't quite on par with Plato's The Republic.  I attribute this lack of staying power to the saturation of humor.

Of course, if you want a genuine action-thriller, there are plenty of other books by plenty of other authors that will fulfill this demand.  Still, with the third act of any story relying on rising tension and action, the humor tends to deflate these crucial story elements.  Ian Fleming declared that he was a writer, not an author, and that his novels were intended strictly to entertain and not necessarily make the reader a better person.  Laurie is an heir to this approach and The Gun Seller is a worthy debut.

20 April 2009

The Bathroom

Of all the chores to be done around a home, cleaning the bathroom has always been my least favorite.  Having been one of the earliest assigned to me, this disdain may be among the longest-standing dislikes of my entire thirty-year-old life (older even than my dislike for the designated hitter).  Cleaning dishes?  I have yet to meet the pot or pan capable of withstanding my time-honed attacks.  Dusting/polishing furniture?  I can do that with my eyes closed and not even remember doing it five minutes later.  Taking out the trash?  Honestly, I've always enjoyed this one, because it was a removal of things.  I've always enjoyed getting rid of things.  One would think it at odds with my collector mentality, but I have often postulated that my purge side exists as yin to my collector side's yang.  They help me find a balance of how much material crap I need at any one time.

What I think I hate most about the bathroom is not only is it by far the most time-consuming of weekly chores, but it's the most exhausting.  I can spray the glass cleaner on the mirror, wipe it down and realize how unshaven I've become in about two minutes.  I can clear a counter of deodorant, hand soap and the shaving supplies I have clearly neglected; spray some cleaner; wipe down the entire sink area and have the aforementioned items restored in about four minutes.  So, in about six minutes, I've entirely wiped out the sink and its mirror.  Wiping down the toilet tank of the odd stray hair is no big deal (though it has always baffled me that a hair can find its way onto the side of the tank cover), and running a scrub brush around the bowl takes less time than flushing.  Even adding the cleaner is no big deal; you just douse the bowl and leave it until you need to flush.  Another five minutes, and we're up to eleven minutes.

By floor plan design, I've already knocked out two-thirds of the room (or half, if you count the floor itself).  Somehow, though, that bathtub/shower looms larger after each of its predecessors goes down for the count.  Eleven minutes ago, I thought the shower wasn't too bad this week.  I would spray, wipe, smile.  Five minutes ago, when I started the toilet, I noticed the shower was a bit worse for wear than I'd realized.  I would need to spray, scrub, wipe, smile.  A little extra work, but not as bad as last time.

I never know how to dress for cleaning the shower.  Instinct says it's wrong to wear anything into the shower, but it also says exposing flesh to chemicals is also a no-no.  I usually compromise and clean in my boxers and a T-shirt I can live without if it comes down to it.  My feet always want me to protect them in socks, but the foreman says that safey precaution would endanger the rest of the crew so they involunatarily go without.  So I remove the Gillette products that keep me fresh and clean and the few things of my wife's (including her loufa, and I never know how to handle it out of the shower).  They get wiped down until they're dry and then they get to visit the recently cleaned sink counter, or maybe sit atop the closed toilet.  This time, I line them up along the vacant towel rod.

I spray, and unlike the previous targets, I can channel my inner Sundance Kid and just keep pointing and spraying the whole thing.  When I'm feeling spunky, I jerk my spraying hand from left to right, picking off rooftop snipers.  Today, I'm sore so I just go left-to-right, top-to-bottom and wait.  The dish fairy has ignored my request and so after two days I finally get around to those in the kitchen while the cleaner works its way into the shower's grime.  How many forks did we use last week?  When did we get a third style of knives?

Fifty-nine pieces of silverware and fifteen minutes later, I return to the shower.  I scrub, letting the sheer size of my new brush do most of the work for me.  I rinse it, run it back over the shower, rinsing away the filth that I'd just exposed by scrubbing.  It really didn't look this bad fifty-nine pieces of silverware ago, but that's the funny thing about cleaning.  At the end, it always looks better than it did at the beginning, but for some reason it always looks far worse in the middle.  Three scrub/rinse cycles later, I wonder if I'd be better off never cleaning it again.  I mean, it looked a lot better originally than it does now, right?

Eventually, of course, I manage to find a stopping point.  I could always keep going, but there comes a moment when the brain says, "I'm not getting enough oxygen in this room anymore" and you're forced to call it a day.  You step away, knowing you have to return to mop the floor at some point.  And when you do reach the finish line, there's a disappointing sense of irony.  You want to leave the room in its current, clean state to be admired by one and all.  "Did you see that bathroom?  It was spectacular!" bystanders will say.  I'll order brochures from Vista Print and hand them out in the neighborhood, and have to tell the overflow crowd that I'm sorry, but the fire marshal simply will not allow more spectators to come inside and see my handiwork.

And, while reflecting on this time consuming chore that robbed my brain of some oxygen it insists on having, I hear the flushing of water.  Before I have logged onto vistaprint.com, or even mopped the floor, someone has already ruined the whole afternoon's progress.  Oh, maybe a shower wasn't taken, but I know there'll be water spots all over the sink and mirror when I return.  Maybe the unappreciated visitor had to blow his or her nose, and I'll find the empty garbage can blemished with litter.  I don't have OCD, but I'll be tempted to start anew.  I won't, of course, because my brain won't allow it.  My feet will demand socks if they're to work overtime on this project.  So, I'll try to just wipe away the spots with some toilet paper.  I'll struggle between tossing it in the garbage can and flushing it away.  The garbage can would be the eco-friendlier solution, but it would also be a visible blight on my day's work.

Maybe I can chug some water before I go in and justify another flush.

18 April 2009

Ronald Reagan, He-Man and Literacy

I was born in December 1978, so I really have no memory of the 70s.  I grew up in an America where Ronald Reagan was president, our society professed its love for hard, honest work and we did things because they were right.  Of course, out of those three, only the Reagan presidency was entirely true, but as a child you believe these things.  After all, few have seen or heard enough to be a cynic at five.

I didn't know about it at the time, but the FCC under Mr. Reagan lifted a longtime ban on having cartoons and toys based on one another in 1981.  On 22 June 1983, I had a baby brother; on 1 September that year, while he was starting to work on crawling, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe debuted on syndicated TV and changed my world.  Whether I watched that first airing I cannot say, but it wasn't long after the show first appeared that I discovered it and was completely captivated.  Plus, He-Man's alter ego was Prince Adam, and that was my baby brother's name.  (Except, of course, he didn't have the title of prince.)  This was controversial, of course, because the series was dismissed as nothing more than a half hour long toy commercial (since Mattel already had the figures on the shelves), and that debate continues.  What I can say about the animated toy commercials of the 1980s is that I learned to read because of them.
This guy wanted my generation to watch...

...this cartoon so we'd want our parents to buy us...

...this toy.  It worked.
To this day, I consider myself an expert (if not a master) of the English language.  I have always loved learning words and prided myself on not only being able to use them--correctly--but to spell them properly, as well.  Classmates who did not want to have to revise their writing never shared papers with me in revision groups.  I delight in typing with an automatic spell-checker running that never flashes red.  Frequently, I am consulted by my wife and friends when they are in search of a word, or spelling thereof.

Strangely, I did not develop this aptitude under the guidance of any language arts teachers in school.  I learned to write by spelling the names of Masters of the Universe characters from the back of action figure packages.  Theoretically, I was maintaining an evolving wish list of action figures, but in reality I was not only taking my first steps into literacy, I was also initiating a lifelong obsession with list making.

I learned more words from comic books than I think I ever learned in school, at least during my elementary years.  I would be lying to say that I read the comic book standards as a child; I never picked up a super-hero comic until 1989, when Tim Burton's Batman piqued my curiosity and I asked to buy Detective Comics #603.  In my formative years, though, I was drawn exclusively to comic books based on the cartoons I watched, chiefly G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero and Transformers.  Briefly, there was also a run of ThunderCats comics, but it was primarily those other two that sustained my interest in reading.

One of the things I loved most about those comics was that their continuity was separate from that of the animated series I also followed.  In the animated world, Optimus Prime commanded the Autobots until 2005, when he died fighting Megatron and was succeeded (eventually) by Rodimus Prime.  In the comic books, Optimus is killed within a video game in issue #24 (January 1987) and is succeeded by...Grimlock!

I grew up with a puppy-kicking terrorist.
I was ready for 9/11.
In the world of G.I. Joe, the difference was even more pronounced; in the place of harmless laser violence, the comic book characters shot real bullets at one another.  Sometimes they died.  Larry Hama imbued that title with very well-researched military realism (he being a Viet Nam vet), and Joe was my child's way of identifying with the rhetoric of Mr. Reagan.  I think Cobra being a "ruthless terrorist organization" is why I so easily accepted the implications of September 11.  While other Americans were frightened to discover people out there wanted to bring death and destruction to our shores, I'd learned to read with such activities.

There were, of course, other things that I read.  I remember Beverly Cleary novels (especially Ramona Quimby, Age 8), and when I discovered baseball I checked out all kinds of books about that subject and its key figures.  There was a startling moment when I learned that Johnny Bench could hold five baseballs in one hand.  A lightbulb of analysis went on when I read about a little boy who helped Stan Musial out of a slump by telling the famed slugger that when he watched him on TV, he couldn't see his jersey number lately.  Musial revised his stance and swing and voila!  Not only was the Cardinals' first baseman out of his slump, but I began to understand the nuances of our national pastime.

I learned "myriad" from this book.
In 1991, I discovered Star Trek and quickly began absorbing countless novels and comics based on that property.  To this day, I know for certain that I first encountered the word "myriad" in the novelization of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pilot episode, "Emissary."  It was used in the back cover synopsis, and before I even opened the book I looked up that word.  (It is synonymous with "plethora," in case you wanted to know.)  Bibliophiles have a low opinion of such books.  Certainly, J.M. Dillard's Star Trek - Bloodthirst (Book #37) lacks the literary significance of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; I do not dispute that.

Licensed works are often a gateway into a new medium for people, though, and so I have always defended them.  This is true of any form of entertainment, really.  How many video gamers started by playing an adaptation of a movie?  How many movie fans discovered their favorite films were, in fact, based on a book?  Maybe Marvel Comics's Transformers isn't on par with Alan Moore's Watchmen, but you know what?  I might not have ever read Watchmen had it not been for the enthusiasm I cultivated reading Transformers.

There is an idea that has circulated for at least most of my lifetime that children should learn to read by being handed books with as few words as possible, and then gradually move them on to more complex sentences.  I'm sure there's a blog entry somewhere by someone who learned to read this way.  I, on the other hand, do not believe that such coddling is helpful for children.  This is not to say that I am any kind of expert on childhood literacy, or that I think every six year old should be handed War and Peace and told to finish it by dinnertime.

Based on what I have seen in my own cousins, nieces and nephews, though, I do not believe that books with limited vocabularies are helping young ones to develop either the ability to read and write better, nor (more significantly) the interest in doing so.  Maybe by removing words like "dirge"--which is a mournful song, and a word I learned because it was the name of a Decepticon--perhaps we've taken away the tantalizing lures that drew children like me into reading.  I know, I know--the average kid is so lazy that he or she would just skip over the word the same way so many of my own peers doubtlessly did.

I cannot help wondering, though, as I reflect on the children in my own family where we went wrong.  For Christmas three years ago, I gave two comic books to my nephew.  They were Christmas-themed issues of Justice League Unlimited and Teen Titans Go!, the comic book versions of the popular Cartoon Network animated series I knew he watched.  He wouldn't so much as remove them from their polybags to browse the art.  My cousin received for last Christmas a gorgeous boxed set of hardcover editions of the Twilight series, inspired by her near obsession with last year's movie.  She has yet to begin reading any of the four volumes.