29 December 2012

"Batman: The Animated Series" Volume Three

Batman: The Animated Series Volume Three
Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Loren Lester as Robin/Dick Grayson, Efram Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth
Date of Release: 24 May 2005
MSRP: $44.95
29 episodes/609 minutes
Volume One | Volume Two | Volume Four

Volume Three represents a bit of a dilemma. The first nine episodes here represent the end of Batman: The Animated Series proper; the remaining twenty episodes comprise The Adventures of Batman & Robin. Released between the two series was the feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. I debated the relevance of the chronology, particularly as the DVDs are not sequenced by airdate or production order. Ultimately, I elected to re-watch Mask of the Phantasm before resuming with The Adventures of Batman & Robin, but I suppose the argument could be made to go either way on it. I reviewed the movie in my Letterboxd diary.

For the most part, Volume Three is pretty far removed from the crime noir aesthetic of earlier episodes. There's a much greater emphasis instead on the rogues gallery, particularly The Joker and Harley Quinn. The Adventures of Batman & Robin was produced as a Saturday morning series, and changes reflect a more cartoon-y sensibility. Robin is a fixture in those twenty episodes. Some fans disliked that, but I was fine with it. I think the whole Robin-bashing thing is absurd.

There are a lot sillier schemes and more gags than were found in The Animated Series. The Joker kidnaps and controls the minds of three comics just to rig winning a comic contest in "Make 'em Laugh", for instance - a particular low in the series. "Baby-Doll" has an okay premise (a Shirley Temple-like actress becomes obsessed with the TV show that's defined her as an adult) but it just feels like a Saturday morning cartoon and not the kind of sophisticated drama that The Animated Series earned its stripes by telling. Even episodes that are played straight seem more obvious and less diligently crafted. "Bane" was almost disappointing, given the kind of potential open to the storytellers of that episode. It's reduced to a brawler, without a lot of tension and there are a couple of shots with Bane bulking up to Venom against a solid red background that just doesn't jibe with what we've seen in other episodes.

All those caveats aside, there are several gems to be found in this collection. Advanced is the Batman/Catwoman relationship, particularly in the solid "Catwalk", in which Selina finds it frustrating to walk the straight and narrow path - an issue that plagues Harley in "Harley's Holiday". Harley appears in three other episodes with The Joker, as well as "Lock-up", for a total of five appearances in twenty-nine episodes. Those are fine episodes, as is "Trial", but they fall just shy of the top tier for me.

Episode Highlights
"Shadow of the Bat" opens Volume Three, introducing us to Batgirl. Barbara Gordon dons the costume to appear as a substitute for Batman at a public rally for her falsely accused father, Police Commissioner James Gordon, who's been set up on corruption charges. Even aside from my fondness for Batgirl, the Gordon set-up alone is a solid mystery. The second part is a bit of a letdown, devolving more into pure action as Batman, Robin and Batgirl tangle with the villain behind the plot and his henchmen, but the first part is a great opening.
Notice the ill-fitting boots.
Though we've already met Ra's al Ghul, he appears in four episodes in Volume Three, including the terrific Indiana Jones-esque two-parter, "The Demon's Quest" and "The Demon's Quest, Part II". Ra's was created to bring Batman out of Gotham City and put him into international-level plots, and this tale does just that. It's fun to watch the rivalry emerge between Batman and Ubu, and also thrilling to see someone interact with Bruce who knows his secret. It makes Ra's unpredictable and a much more personal threat than anyone else in his rogues gallery. David Warner's British accent may be incongruous with Ra's intended Middle Eastern ethnicity, but his measured enunciation is so elegant that it feels right that this is how the head of the League of Shadows should speak.

I've always gotten a private thrill out of "A Bullet for Bullock" in part because it was based on Detective Comics #651, a comic that I bought and read when it was first published. That, to my knowledge, was the first time that a story that I read new was later adapted for the screen. Beyond that connection, though, it's a great crime noir yarn. Watching Bullock reluctantly collaborate with Batman is fun, and even though I knew the twist ending, I have to say it still plays very well in a repeat viewing. Plus, there's that killer sax-heavy score - the only score from the series to win an Emmy.
Ra's al Ghul returns in "Avatar", and it's every bit as great as "The Demon's Quest". Most impressively, Bruce Wayne appears in safari clothes for much of the episode instead of as Batman. That kind of thing is conspicuous anyway, but especially since this episode was part of The Adventures of Batman & Robin. Surely, there was at least one executive afraid that young kids would change the channel on Saturday morning if they didn't see Batman in their Batman cartoon...and that's to say nothing of the heavy exposition and relationship development between Bruce and Talia that dominates the story.

It was in "The Lion and the Unicorn" that we first really learned what a bad dude Alfred once was - and, really, still is. Red Claw, like Ra's al Ghul, draws Batman to the global stage where he shines. Here, her terror plot to blackmail the United Kingdom by threatening to destroy London raises the stakes in a way that somehow wouldn't have been the case had the target been Gotham City. We're used to Batman saving Gotham to the point that we never really feel that Gotham is in true danger. London, however, is different. Who knows? Red Claw might actually blow up London! Plus, there's that climax where Red Claw unmasks Batman from the cockpit seat behind him in the Batplane. Does she get to see who he is? We don't know...

Another bold storytelling decision was "Showdown", in which most of the story revolves around Jonah Hex tracking a bounty in the late 19th Century. Arkady Duvall is a nasty, abusive scoundrel who's done something unspeakable to a "girl" (read: prostitute) in some town somewhere and Hex aims to collect the $200 reward for bringing him to justice. It's fun to watch Hex track - and get - his man, and even more than that, it's clever to use Ra's to link Hex to Batman. This is one of two episodes in Volume Three written by Joe R. Lansdale, along with "Read My Lips" - the debut of Scarface and The Ventriloquist, another solid and fun episode. Both feature old school dialog that few contemporary writers can pen with the organic ease of Lansdale.
I bet Uncle Ruckus cosplays as Jonah Hex.
Harvey Dent is one of the most compelling characters in the mythos, and "Second Chance" is a perfect microcosm of why. Bruce Wayne has bankrolled a surgery to restore the left side of Harvey's face, to complete the hard work he's done in therapy to reassert himself over his Two-Face persona. Just as the scalpel is drawn, though, Harvey is kidnapped. Bruce becomes nearly obsessive about finding his friend, pushing aside Robin. The reveal of the actual culprit is brilliant, though the "never give up on a friend" motif at the end shows feels too forced and exposes how Robin was shoehorned into what should have instead been a solo Batman story.

We've not seen Mr. Freeze since his first appearance in the amazing episode, "Heart of Ice" (on Volume One). His return in "Deep Freeze" is even more affecting, as we see him extorted into servicing Grant Walker's Moonraker-under-water scheme of repopulating the world after wiping it out. Freeze recognizes that Walker is insane, but he's compelled to cooperate because Walker has Nora Fries's frozen body. We see Freeze rationalize going along with Walker, but we know when Batman plays on his fear of being ashamed before the eyes of a revived Nora that he's not as ambivalent as he would like to believe. Freeze is so compelling because he really isn't a bad guy at all. That's at the heart of "Deep Freeze".

The DVD Box Set
The lone featurette, "Gotham's New Knight", focuses on Batgirl. We hear from Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and others as they discuss decisions made about how their portrayal of Batgirl was influenced by, and differs from, previous incarnations.

Beyond that, the only bonus content are commentary tracks for "Read My Lips", "House and Garden" and "Harlequinade". "House and Garden" is a video commentary, which is kind of weird since the commentary isn't on-screen throughout the entire episode. It's not very clear why the video commentary format was chosen for that episode, when an audio commentary would have been entirely sufficient. It's moderated by Jason Hillhouse, who mostly uses it as an opportunity to make sure Bruce Timm knows what a fanboy he is. The other two commentary tracks are more entertaining, and informative to boot. "Read My Lips" and "Harlequinade" are both solid episodes, and I very nearly included both in my Episode Highlights list. "Harlequinade" would have made it had the final act not been so cartoonish and over the top.

26 December 2012

And the Givers Shall Receive...

Over the summer, my wife's sister moved back to Florida, meaning that my niece and nephew aren't nearby anymore. My nephew is 17 now and while we've always been close, he's at an age of independence now where he's building his own life with friends and girls and even if he was here now, he'd be preoccupied with that world instead of me. Hey, I was once 17 myself. I get it. It's cool.

Back in 2004, I tried getting my nephew into comics by giving him some Christmas-themed issues of Justice League Adventures and Teen Titans Go! - comics based on the Justice League and Teen Titans animated series that he enjoyed. I underestimated his resistance to reading, though. He refused to even open them, even to just scan the artwork. I still have them.

My niece, however, just turned 10 this July and she's enjoyed having me wrapped around her little finger her whole life. I've enjoyed being wrapped around her little finger, too, so it works well for the pair of us. I thought about it some and decided that the perfect book for her would be Jeff Smith's wonderful Bone. I own a copy of the first collected edition, Out from Boneville, and I found a copy for her. My hope was that she would read it, I could re-read it concurrently, and then we could talk about it some. I explained this to her tonight, and then something truly special happened.

My niece decided that we should read it together in the strictest sense. Right then and there, over the phone, we sat down with our respective copies and traded off reading. We decided to read the first three chapters tonight, and to save the last three for tomorrow. Our entire conversation lasted about 80 minutes, but that included chatting about Christmas and other things. We probably spent about 45 or 50 minutes at most actually reading.

We discussed it when we finished the third chapter. Her favorite character so far is Fone Bone. She says the rat creatures are more stupid than scary. When I asked what she thinks will happen next, she surmised that Fone and Phoney will reunite with Smiley, but she didn't speculate whether they would actually get back to Boneville. I found that interesting for some reason, that she would be so conservative about making predictions.

When I told her that there were nine books in the series, she immediately replied that she needed to get the rest because she already loved it. I'll have to keep an eye out for them. I enjoyed reading them the first time through a few years ago, but this shared reading experience tonight was something truly special for me.

Sometimes I write blog posts for you, Dear Reader. Sometimes, I write them for me. This one, I wrote for my niece so that years from now she'll have my account of this episode. I hope when she comes back to this years from now that it makes her smile and warms her heart as it has done mine.

24 December 2012

Christmas Eve, 2012

There's less than an hour before the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve as I begin to write this post. The weather has been cold, wet and bleak for the last few days. It's the kind of weather that annoys my steroid-ravaged hips and back, and sort of hypnotizes me. There was a midnight screening this past Saturday night of It's a Wonderful Life. I had tried to get my cousins my brother together for it, as I realized earlier this year that the four of us have not once gone to see a movie as a foursome. My elder cousin was a no-show, though, so the special occasion will have to occur some other time. I hope it does.

I've thought about why this matters to me. Conventional wisdom holds that as we age, we place greater emphasis on family. I've often wondered about that. Would it be the case for me? What is the reason for it?

My present theory is that we're competitors at heart, and there comes a point where the only ones left who can truly give us an honest, informed appraisal of our progress are those who were there with us all along. The ones who don't have to imagine what it was like to grow up in the home where we were children, because they were there. Family can be our most thorough prosecutors, but also our most sympathetic jurors.

For my birthday, I received a coupon for a free package of cookie dough from Papa Murphy's. I very nearly missed redeeming the coupon at all before it expired. I finally decided to bake them about an hour ago. As you can see, they didn't quite turn out the way they were supposed to, but they taste the same regardless.
This is what happens when Santa bakes his own cookies.
I've settled in with the cookies, which are quite good. I've begun to listen to Patrick Stewart's one-man performance of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, a tradition I've discussed in previous blog posts. Other than the CD, all is quiet. I've turned off the lights, but turned on the lights on the tree. It only just crossed my mind that I've yet to photograph or describe my decoration theme for this year. The general idea is that I picked ornaments that reflect specific times of my life. It's a fairly holistic tree, and I've enjoyed gazing at various pieces on it.

I've got the post-munchies daze now, so I think I'm going to stretch out on the couch and let Sir Patrick narrate Ebenezer Scrooge's infamous Christmas Eve from all those years ago.

22 December 2012

"Batgirl" #15 by Gail Simone (Feb 2013)

Batgirl #15
"Collision - Part Two: Engagement" | Death of the Family
Gail Simone - Writer
Daniel Sampere - Pencils
Vicente Cifuentes - Inks
Ulises Arreola - Colorist
Dave Sharpe - Letters
Ed Benes & Ulises Arreola - Cover
Katie Kubert - Assistant Editor
Brian Cunningham - Editor
Batman Created by Bob Kane
Date of Publication: 12 December 2012
$2.99/32 pages

The Context
I was pretty down about buying this issue. Shortly before it was published, it came out that someone at DC Comics had the intelligent idea to unceremoniously fire Gail Simone from the book. Editor Brian Cunningham emailed the news to her, though I'm not sure whether the idea was his or if he was the clumsy messenger. In any event, this was to be her penultimate issue, and I had resolved it would be mine, too. I would buy this and the next and then stop. I bought the issue this past Sunday, six days ago, but I've procrastinated on reading it. Being one of just two remaining, I didn't want it to end, you know?

Then yesterday, Simone sent the following tweet:





I'm not letting DC off the hook for this debacle, but I'm thrilled to hear that they've remedied this situation. I won't be fully satisfied until there's an explanation for why this happened in the first place, but I take at face value that if she's happy to rejoin the book then I can continue reading in good conscience. I began by finally cracking open issue #15 around one in the morning when I went to bed.

The Story
Issue #14 was one of the most intense comics I can recall reading, certainly in recent years and probably ever. We left off with The Joker holding Batgirl's mother hostage. It was unclear whether he knew that Barbara was Batgirl. In any event, what he wants is for Batgirl to "marry" him, a scheme explained here as appealing to his concerns about his own mortality.

I confess, this issue felt like a step down from the last. Yes, it was interesting to watch Barbara make the decision to exact her revenge on The Joker and to get in some blows, but that last issue was crazy intense. This felt more controlled, more "typical superhero"-y. That's not necessarily a knock, mind you; as that fare goes, this is a solid issue and one of the stronger issues in the series to date. It's hard to imagine much following that last issue, though, that wouldn't have felt this way for me.

The Art
Daniel Sampere's art, though quite different from Ardian Syaf's, is a great fit for the book. Check out that whimsical opening double splash page (story pages 2 and 3) of The Joker rollerskating around Batgirl and her mother! It's lively, it's fun and yet creepy as hell at the same time. Turn the page and check out the look on Batgirl's face on story page 4, panel 4. She's distraught but resolved, and she's just made peace with herself about her plan to kill The Joker. The tears around her eyes, the gritted teeth...this is our girl in a place we've not wanted to see her, but we understand.

Flip forward to story page 16, panel 3: Barbara, bound and gagged, bloody and tearful. There's a numbness to her face that makes her all the more sympathetic. My only real complaint of the entire issue is actually on that same page, the bottom panel of Batgirl dashing off. Her facial expression is devoid of any emotion. It could be a stock promotional image for all the feeling that's in that image.

Story page 18, panel 2, has Batgirl arriving at a condemned church and her pose is a bit too much of the ubiquitous Contorted T&A style so prevalent in other DC Comics. That right leg is unnaturally high. Plus, it's unclear why she's landing anyway. Being in the middle of nowhere, she clearly wasn't descending from a skyscraper. It's possible she just scaled a fence, which is hinted at in the background though it's hard to tell just where it actually runs. I'm not saying we can't or shouldn't see Batgirl's physique. I'm just saying it should make sense and there's really no physiological reason for her butt to be so prominent in that image.

Final Thoughts
I'm thrilled to know that Gail Simone will continue writing Batgirl. I've jokingly taken credit for getting DC to reverse their boneheaded decision but in all sincerity, as I outlined in my Open Letter to DC Comics, I do appreciate living in the Internet Age where social media empowers me to weigh in on issues much more directly than I ever could in the past. There's no editorial filter to screen out complaints now, meaning that it's impossible to contain or spin a backlash the same way as in the era of letters columns. It's a power that I admire and appreciate, and it's why I use this blog to discuss such matters as my experiences with depression, the nature of health care in America and why there ought to be an MC Hammer Christmas album.

21 December 2012

My End of the World Confession

The Mayan calendar allegedly ends on this date and since it's been a while since Harold Camping last gave us a chance to mock doomsday prophecies, we've collectively latched onto this one as a sort of year-end lark. I was just about to go to bed when I saw #EndOfTheWorldConfession trending on Twitter and I got to wondering, "What if?" Well, here you go, Dear Reader. Something I've kept from even my closest of friends for decades.

I was in fourth grade, a new student at Centerfield Elementary. Half of my neighborhood had already been going to that school, but for whatever reason, my half was not. They redistricted us so that the whole subdivision went to the one school. The short version is that I was not very well accepted - by students or faculty.

One afternoon, for reasons never explained to me, I was invited to sit at the cool kids table. It was pretty obvious that I was being set up for mockery, but I thought I'd play along and see where it went. Somehow or other, I found myself challenged to a milk chugging contest by the star basketball player. I'd never deliberately chugged milk in my life, though I can guzzle with the best of 'em. I shrugged and so we started this stupid little contest.

Except that a few chugs in, the stupidity of it all hit me and I began to laugh.

In case it's been a while since you last watched a Three Stooges short, let me remind you that it is impossible to drink and laugh simultaneously. Chocolate milk went flying out of my mouth, onto my food tray and across the table. I couldn't control myself at that point. I dropped my carton of milk, spilling most of the rest of it. I ruined a perfectly good rectangular slice of cheese pizza. I was invited to leave the table. I was not invited to ever return to it.

Now, the confession part. The part I've never told publicly.

I peed my pants laughing.

I was content to let it be thought that I'd spilled the milk on my lap, which I actually did. But try as I might, I laughed so hard that I could not stop myself from peeing. In the fourth grade. At the cool kids table. Because chugging milk is stupid.

So there you have it, Dear Reader. My End-of-the-World confession. What do I care if you know? We won't be here tomorrow.

20 December 2012

"Batman: The Animated Series" Volume Two

Batman: The Animated Series Volume Two
Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Efram Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth
Date of Release: 25 January 2005
MSRP: $44.95
28 episodes/624 minutes
Volume One | Volume Three | Volume Four

Volume Two represents a different tone and wider range of episodes than Volume One. Supervillains are more prevalent here, versus the emphasis on mobsters in Volume One. The Joker appears in six episodes; The Penguin, four; Catwoman, three. Volume Two contains both appearances in the series of Kyodai Ken as well as Professor Milo, and two of the three episodes with The Riddler. Conversely, we only see Rupert Thorne twice in this collection. There are also eight episodes with Robin, versus just four in Volume One.

I've been ranking the series, episode by episode, as I've re-watched them. At present, thirteen of the bottom twenty are from Volume Two. However, eight of the top twenty are also from this set so there's that. I've gotten better at noticing differences between animation studios. I can't name any of the studios, but I've noticed that one studio consistently gave Batman a squiggly mouth instead of the sharp, singular line from Bruce Timm's model sheet. Gordon's hair also has a bit of a distinct flair depending on the studio. Just little things like that.

Episode Highlights
"Heart of Ice" and "Two-Face" set the bar pretty high, but "Robin's Reckoning" and "Robin's Reckoning, Part II" are even better. I know there are a lot of Robin-haters out there, but I'm not one of them. Aside from giving Batman someone to talk with, Robin offers two very important storytelling opportunities. Just like Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson was orphaned through violence. Yet Dick makes different choices about it than Bruce; he has a different (healthier) perspective on his life. In a lot of ways, it's Bruce who ought to be following Dick's example.

The other thing, of course, is that Bruce's paternal side comes out with Dick. It gives us a different side to him than we tend to see. It's something that Superman didn't have, and one more way in which Batman was made more accessible as a human character. "Robin's Reckoning" shows the murder of the Graysons in a heartrending, off-screen image that's a testament to the power of evocation. We don't need to see their bodies fall from the trapeze to know what's happened, and there's something about knowing without seeing that's even sadder somehow.

It's the end of "Part II", though, that demonstrates the importance of the relationship between mentor and apprentice. Robin says he understands why Batman didn't want him on the case to find his parents' killer; that he would lose his objectivity. "It wasn't that, Robin," Batman says. "It wasn't that at all. Zucco has taken so much, caused you so much pain. I couldn't stand the thought he might take you, too." There's a pause in Kevin Conroy's voice after the word "might" that tells us just how vulnerable Batman is in that moment. Perfect.

Kyodai Ken first appears in "Night of the Ninja", a very interesting episode, but it's his second appearance in "Day of the Samurai" that's the real masterpiece. Kyodai was Bruce Wayne's rival when Bruce studied under Sensei Yoru, long before becoming Batman. Embittered, he's set out for revenge against the "rich man's son" he blames for his expulsion from Yoru's dojo. This is personal, in a way that no other Batman enemy ever quite was. The climax of the episode, with Bruce fighting Kyodai - unmasked - on an erupting volcano? Amazing animation. Absolutely amazing. It's the most perfect homage to the Fleischer/Famous Studios Superman short films of the entire series, and that's a good thing.
That is pure awesomesauce.
If you're going to have supervillains together, there's no better way to do it than "Almost Got 'Im", in which The Joker, Penguin, Two-Face and Poison Ivy trade stories about the closest they've each gotten to snuffing out Batman. It's a fun episode, as much for the sparring camaraderie between the villains as anything else in the episode. Plus, it advances the relationship between Batman and Catwoman; each coming to the other's rescue. For twenty years now, my friends and I have quoted Batman-as-Croc: "It was a big rock." You'd be surprised how often the chance to use that actually comes up.

Batman: The Animated Series was at its finest with drama and melodrama, and the stakes were rarely higher than in "I Am the Night". During a raid on a gangster known as The Jazzman, Commissioner Gordon is shot. We'd seen characters in peril lots of times in cartoons, of course, but that was to my knowledge the first time we'd ever seen one actually injured by gunfire. Remember; bullets hadn't been part of any other cartoons, unless they were clearly over-the-top (as with Yosemite Sam, for instance). Gordon being shot was a striking bit of realism that stands out even more today than it did to me at the time.

Also, there's depressed/furious Bruce Wayne blaming himself for Gordon's injuries. It's a level of self-recrimination that rings all too true, and it's well beyond the level of reflection that we'd seen from anyone else in animation. There are real consequences for these characters, and they're consequences that you and I risk in some way on a daily basis. We could feel responsible for something happening to those closest to us. We could be shot - a point we know all too well in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

Animation used to be afraid for us kids to be aware of such things, but Batman: The Animated Series did not shy away from them. Why should it have? These were, and are, very serious matters.

A personal favorite of mine has always been "The Man Who Killed Batman", in which Sid the Squid takes credit for killing Batman after an apparent fatal accident. His notoriety quickly attracts some unwanted attention from The Joker, who becomes distraught at the idea that his vicious cycle with Batman has been broken; much less by someone as irrelevant as Sid. It's the stuff with The Joker that makes this one so much fun. Another immortal line from the series comes from this episode: "Well, that was fun! Who's for Chinese?"

We see Dr. Leslie Thompkins a few times in Volume Two. Her best appearance in the series remains "Appointment in Crime Alley", but "Paging the Crime Doctor" here is also a strong outing. Like other characters, Dr. Matthew Thorne was reinvented as a far more sympathetic character than his comic book counterpart. Here, he's tried to eek out a living on the black market after losing his medical license on account of his brother, Rupert Thorne. When the mob boss needs a procedure, though, Matthew coerces Leslie Thompkins into assisting him. Motivations and relationships are complex in this episode, and while the entanglements are a bit too cute, the finale is genuinly touching: Bruce Wayne offers to pay for Matthew's legal defense on the condition that he "Tell me about my father." The look on Bruce's face is full of palpable longing. Amazing stuff.

The last episode I want to highlight from Volume Two is the last one, "Harley and Ivy". Though Harley Quinn originated as The Joker's henchwoman/girlfriend, it was through her relationship with Poison Ivy that she really evolved. Ivy benefited even more. Before hooking up with Harley, she had been a rather one-note character. With this partnership, though, she took on a whole new persona. Batman: The Animated Series had a lot of great female characters; even the villains were well-developed. The chemistry between Harley and Ivy was a pure delight.

The DVD Box Set
We get four commentary tracks this time around, all interesting and candid. "Robin's Reckoning", "Heart of Steel, Part II", "Almost Got 'Im" and "Harley and Ivy". I've never been big on the "Heart of Steel" two-parter as far as its story, but the animation is spectacular and it was a lot of fun listening to Kevin Altieri explain some of the influences that went into the action sequences.

"Robin Rising" is a little featurette about how Robin was developed in the series. I always found it interesting that they had already used the character a few times before ever delving into his back story in "Robin's Reckoning".

"Gotham's Guardians" is a fluff piece about secondary characters. There were better ways to spend ten minutes on bonus content, but this is what they gave us.

More interesting is "Voices of the Knight", a piece in which Kevin Conroy (Batman), Efram Zimbalist, Jr. (Alfred), Adrienne Barbeau (Catwoman) and Mark Hamill (The Joker) discuss their work on the show, along with voice director Andrea Romano. I've always been fascinated by voice actors and the chance to actually see some of them is always exciting for me. Even when it's someone as well known to me as Mark Hamill, it wasn't until I actually saw him on camera talk about working as The Joker that I could finally, truly believe it was him.

Lastly, there are trailers for Batman: The Animated Series Vol. 1, Challenge of the Super Friends and Superman: The Animated Series Vol. 1. They're so ho-hum that I defer to depressed Batman for a reaction:

19 December 2012

For Your Consideration 2012: Free Screenplays

One of the neat little perks of living in the Internet age is that movie studios promote their potential nominees with online websites dedicated exclusively to engaging and swaying voters. These sites include information about special screenings for voters of various awards, but several studios go an extra step and offer some free downloads of screenplays. Here's this year's roundup.

20th Century Fox

  • Life of Pi

Disney

  • Brave
  • Frankenweenie by John August, based on a screenplay by Lenny Ripps, based on an original idea by Tim Burton
  • Paperman
  • Wreck-It Ralph by Phil Johnston & Jennifer Lee; Original Story by Rich Moore, Phil Johnston & Jim Reardon

DreamWorks

  • Lincoln by Tony Kushner based in part on the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin

DreamWorks Animation [screenplays "coming soon"]


Focus Features

  • Moonrise Kingdom
  • Paranorman
  • Anna Karenina
  • Hyde Park on Hudson
  • Promised Land

Fox Searchlight

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Sessions
  • Hitchcock

LionsGate


Paramount Pictures

  • Act of Valor
  • Mirror, Mirror


  • Zero Dark Thirty
  • Skyfall

Sony Pictures Classics


Universal Pictures

  • Dr. Seuss' The Lorax by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio, Based on the Book by Dr. Seuss
  • Snow White & The Huntsman by Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini; Story by Evan Daugherty; Inspired by the Brothers Grimm's "Little Snow White"
  • Ted by Seth MacFarlane and Alec Sulkin & Wellesly Wild; Story by Seth MacFarlane
  • This Is 40 by Judd Apatow
  • Les Miserables

Warner Bros.

  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • Argo
  • Cloud Atlas
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • Magic Mike

The Weinstein Company

  • Bully
  • Django Unchained
  • The Intouchables
  • Killing Them Softly
  • The Master
  • Quartet
  • Silver Linings Playbook
You may also want to check out 2010 Screenplays and 2011 Screenplays. Some of those links are still active!

17 December 2012

December Miscellania

It seems that I've sort of fallen off the blogging wagon recently. We've had a rash of public shootings, including a mall in Portland, a movie theater in San Antonio and an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. I've already said everything I have to say about our gun culture. My thoughts are with the grieving families.

Friday night I found myself again in the situation of using someone else's tickets to go to a performance at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. In July, it was to see Billy Elliot: The Musical. This time, it was to see The Nutcracker by the Louisville Ballet. Just to show you how small a world it is, the two original ticket holders are cousins, and my dates for the two outings are sisters. I'd never seen The Nutcracker, though of course I've heard parts of the music over the years. It was a lot of fun, though the set included a pair of portraits on a wall that had glowing red eyes like some kind of demonic Scooby-Doo thing and they were disturbing. They even followed me wherever I moved my eye line.

Erica De Le O played Marie (changed, I'm told, from the original ballet's Clara). I know that cramming feet into ballet shoes alone is painful, but I have to imagine that her lovely face hurt after maintaining permagrin throughout the evening. It's intrinsic to the character to be awash with wonder, of course, and she conveyed that from start to finish. It had to be uncomfortable, though.

The performance I saw was accompanied by The Louisville Orchestra. I don't keep up with such things, but the last I recalled, the Orchestra had been disbanded due to lack of funding. Apparently, some performances this season of the ballet will be set to recorded music. It was especially nice to have caught one of the shows with the live music. It makes a world of difference.

Saturday night was the annual Christmas party with my friends. I was starting to fall asleep just before it was time to go. Even at that, I got there around 6:30 instead of 6:00. I didn't last long, leaving before 11:00. It was a lot of fun all the same. When bedtime came for my friends' daughter, I once again read her nighttime story. This time, I selected 'Twas the Night before Christmas, which I'd never actually read. By that, I mean I've never performed it, though to be truthful, I'm not entirely sure I can account for ever having read the original text myself. I've heard it performed countless times, of course, so it's not like it was unfamiliar to me. It was no How the Grinch Stole Christmas! but it was fun all the same.

Yesterday, I went out to The Great Escape to pick up Batgirl #15. I've not yet read it, but in some ways I'm really not looking forward to it as it's the penultimate issue of Gail Simone's run as writer. It's also my penultimate purchase of the book. I elected not to buy Detective Comics #15, having committed myself to not buying any DC Comics until such time as I see evidence that they're no longer committed to boneheaded editorial decisions.

En route, I decided on a whim to check out the movie offerings at the Village 8. I was just in time to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I knew virtually nothing about it save its title and that it starred Emma Watson. I found some problems with it, but on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed it. As has become my custom, I reviewed it in my Letterboxd diary. Logan Lerman's performance as Charlie was highly impressive.

I also started my first eBay auctions in a few years yesterday. Up for sale are my personal copies of Garfield Holiday Celebrations and My Favorite Year on DVD, and the Amazon exclusive edition of Chely Wright's Lifted Off the Ground album with bonus DVD. In recognition of Wright's activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community, I'm donating 20% of the final sale price of that specific auction to The Trevor Project. All three have been out of print for a while now, so I'm hopeful that I might come out okay on these auctions. Fingers crossed!

Muffin has taken to an obnoxious habit in the last week. He gets right up against my face and runs his whiskers across me. It tickles, and he just keeps doing it over and over! I have no idea what this is about, but the fact he insists on it while I'm in bed and trying to sleep is not working out well for me at all.

Speaking of such things, it seems my month-plus of insomnia is now yielding to a new thing where I'm drowsy all the time. I'm starting to nod off now, so off to bed I go for an afternoon nap. Somebody wake me if Melody Gardot releases a Christmas album.

13 December 2012

2012 Christmas Cards

I decided to once again put up a tree, which of course required me to dig through stuff in storage around Thanksgiving. I happened upon a small box of Christmas cards bought some time ago but never actually used. I set them aside and then decorated the tree. A few nights later, I returned to the unused Christmas cards. I was feeling a bit of a creative impulse, so I sat down and set about dashing off sketches inside the cards. Just for the fun of it, I picked subjects that I had never before sketched at all with just a couple exceptions. Some turned out better than others.

I started by going through my contacts list and addressing an envelop for each person for whom I had a current mailing address. Then I made a pile of Christmas cards, one for each envelope, and over the course of about two hours I dashed off the following pieces. I then randomly grabbed one card and one envelope and that was that. I did add some captions, most of them taken from associated dialog, but I didn't inscribe any of the cards because I had no idea who got which card. I had rather looked forward to being surprised myself when my pals received them in the mail and let me know what I'd sent them.

(Side note: as of posting time, I've only heard back from three recipients that they've even got their cards and no one knew they were coming. Some may have their surprise spoiled by this post.)

Card exterior
I have no idea what order I did these things in, so the scans are alphabetized by subject.
Donatello
This was one of the few subjects I'd previously drawn. I could have told you this was any of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it's based on an ornament featuring Donatello so I thought I ought to be consistent with the reference material. Of course, there's the matter of his missing chest strap and bo, to say nothing of where the rest of his skis have gone!
Donkey
Never again will I attempt to sketch by hand a character that was created with CGI. Others can do it, but I'm not on that level!
Dumbo
Dumbo is one of my all-time favorites. The inscription here is taken from Timothy Q. Mouse's encouragement of Dumbo as they begin to inadvertently get drunk.
E.T.
I like the caption selection (though not my handwriting!) and I'm really pleased with the idea of this one, with E.T. holding up his finger and that really big wrapped box next to him. I just wish E.T.'s face had turned out better.
I loved the way this one turned out! The concept is taken from the Garfield: Holiday Celebrations DVD artwork. There, Garfield is sitting inside a jack-o-lantern. I moved him to a present box, though it's unclear just what's keeping the ribbon in place on either visible side!
Gizmo
I like the way Gizmo turned out, but the sketch itself is kind of plain. I wish I'd added something else to this one. It kind of looks like he's hitchhiking, or welcoming you into his parlor (don't go in!). I do recall this was one of the first sketches I did, and I think at the time my thought process was to just get through them instead of fully developing each one.
The Grinch
This is from the page where "The Grinch got an idea. A wonderful, awful idea." It's my favorite image in the entire book and one that I've sketched more than once over the years. This is the one card without any captioning, because I felt it worked better in its simplicity. To be honest, I think most of them would have been better without captioning though maybe that's just my self-consciousness about my handwriting.
Jack Skellington
This was the one that I think most excited me when I finished it. Jack turned out so well, in fact, that I very nearly kept him for myself! I can't recall now whether his right eye still needed to be fully darkened or if that was something with the scan that I took, or if maybe I fixed it after taking the scan. Still...I love this one!
Master Shake
I think I may have scribbled off a Shake once or twice, but I don't have any such work that I can find so who knows? Unlike Donatello's skis, I think Shake disappearing into the fold of the card works well here. I wish I'd given him more of his excitable look, though.
Peter Griffin
In the first few sketches, I went over the pencils with an ink pen. Nothing elaborate, just a typical ink pen. You can see how much ink was smeared on this card, and that's why Peter was the last card on which I used the pen. Ink aside, I thought this one turned out quite nicely.
R2-D2
I've done a few Artoos over the years, though it's been a while. I like that he's so "close" that even the arc of his dome is cut off on the side. I deliberately did not try to align each of his little compartments, to ensure that it had an organic sketch feel.
Scooby-Doo
Scoob turned out very nicely, I thought. I wish my handwriting wasn't so terrible because the use of negative space here is more effective than on most of the others.
The Tin Man
This may have been the most satisfying of the entire lot for me. I've loved The Wizard of Oz since my early childhood, and The Tin Man was always my favorite character. This card represents my first ever attempt at sketching him, and I was very pleased by it. Notice that I replaced his oil filter hat with a Santa Claus cap. I love the expression on his face!

Those are the Christmas cards I sent out this year. If you've received one, I hope you enjoy knowing the story behind it. Otherwise, I hope you got a kick out of seeing this gallery.

07 December 2012

"Batman: The Animated Series" Volume One

Batman: The Animated Series Volume One
Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Efram Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth
Date of Release: 6 July 2004
MSRP: $44.98
28 episodes/625 minutes
Volume Two | Volume Three | Volume Four

It's astounding to me that 2012 marked the 20th anniversary of this series. I can still vividly recall the excitement it generated. I came to Batman in 1989 amid the marketing frenzy surrounding Tim Burton's Batman. By 1992, I'd become caught up on the then-current comic book arcs and I'd seen the original 1966 TV show and movie starring Adam West. I could wrap my head around various incarnations of Batman, but The Animated Series was something different. Because I wasn't already a fan when Burton's first film opened, I always had a sense that I didn't have the same kind of claim on that film as other fans.

The Animated Series, though...that was my Batman.

I love Burton's original film - it's been #1 on my Flickchart for an entire year now - but when I think about Batman, this is the version I think of first. Batman sounds like Kevin Conroy, The Joker sounds like Mark Hamill and they both look the way Bruce Timm designed them. Gotham City has red skies and a lot of art deco architecture. It's a place where the police use a blimp and the TVs are all black and white. This isn't just the definitive animated Batman; it's the definitive Batman. Period.

I can vividly recall even now watching "On Leather Wings", the first weekday episode, at my grandmother's apartment. The consignment shop she ran with my mom was closed on Sunday and Monday, and periodically after school on Mondays we'd go my grandmother's apartment for an early dinner. I was thankful that everyone else indulged me and let me watch the episode without interruption. Then again, maybe I was just so totally engrossed that I was oblivious to whatever anyone else may have said or done. It's hard to say.

The most important aspect of Batman: The Animated Series was that it was sophisticated. I grew up a child of the 80s. My generation watched "cartoons", not "animated series". In cartoons, guns shot laser beams that only ever stunned people. Everyone always escaped exploding planes in parachutes, people always landed on awnings when they fell from buildings. "Good" characters were all good because it was just their natural default state, whereas antagonists were always intrinsically bad without any obvious motive save unadulterated greed.

The modern viewer, then, may not quite appreciate how striking it was in 1992 when the villains in Batman: The Animated Series used guns that fired actual bullets. True, they never killed anyone on the show...but Batman had to bend over backwards sometimes to keep it that way, which was in keeping with his philosophy against killing. Instead of "They'll make Batman save that guy, ho-hum", it was more a matter of "What kind of hoops will Batman have to jump through to save this jerk?"

Another little thing that I didn't consciously appreciate at the time was that, unlike our cartoons, this series featured an original score written for each episode, played by an actual orchestra. We were accustomed to a handful of stock synth tracks endlessly recycled. The Batman: The Animated Series composers wrote scene-specific music to accompany the story at hand; much more effective and engaging. Plus, the music was interesting to hear. I think my favorite was that harmonica-based score for "The Forgotten" that Shirley Walker wrote.

Batman: The Animated Series did not pander. Yes, there was plenty of action, but we see Batman spend as much time investigating, collecting and analyzing evidence and doing basic detective legwork as we see him throwing punches. Fans may have favorite lines and moments, but the show's writers never created catchphrases; certainly not intentionally. No "By the power of Greyskull!" or "Yo, Joe!" here. Furthermore, the writing assumed a certain vocabulary size and stuck to that standard. No one ever translated $5 words for viewers who might not know them. You were expected to come to the show; the show was not going to come to you.

What struck me most about revisiting these first 28 episodes was that they showed a tremendous amount of confidence in storytelling that got away from traditional superhero vs. supervillain fare. Eight of these episodes don't even feature anyone from the rogues gallery! The Joker (four appearances) and Scarecrow (three) are the most prominent of the recognizable villains, but they're matched by Rupert Thorne and Roland Daggett, respectively.

Episode Highlights

The sense here is that flashy supervillains are still something of an aberration in Gotham City. Organized crime is the order of the day, best showcased in one of my personal favorite Batman stories of any medium, "It's Never Too Late". Thorne is putting on the pressure to consolidate his power grab against aging mob boss Arnold Stromwell, whose teenage son is missing. Stromwell is certain Thorne is responsible, only to discover instead that his son has been comatose after overdosing on drugs procured from his father's underlings. It's melodrama at its finest, and it gets me every time. No one had told us stories like that in our cartoons. They did in this sophisticated animated series, though.

Often with TV shows, the early stuff is harder to get into because it was made before the show found itself. Not so with this DVD collection, which features some of the finest gems of the entire series. "Heart of Ice" gives us the origin story of Mr. Freeze. Prior to this episode, Freeze was a fairly marginal, gimmicky character. It's all but forgotten today, but Freeze was considered so irrelevant that The Joker actually killed him in the mainstream comic books a year before The Animated Series debuted. Then "Heart of Ice" completely redefined the character and made him into a compelling and tragic figure, and a year later, he returned in Detective Comics #670.

Mr. Freeze became a new breed of antagonist. If we accept the concept of the antihero, then Freeze is surely an antivillain. Prior to Freeze, no one dared give us a modicum of sympathy for an antagonist in our cartoons. Just imagine if someone had tried to make the case that Cobra Commander was simply misunderstood! We were kids. We couldn't be trusted to suss out when people deserved our compassion or wrap our heads around there sometimes being understandable reasons why people sometimes do bad things. Then came Paul Dini's take on Mr. Freeze and all of a sudden, there was a third dimension to storytelling that hadn't been there before.
Remember, kids: this was all done by hand.
There's also "Two-Face", the two-part story of how Harvey Dent became the titular villain. We had already met Dent in "On Leather Wings" and then watched as Batman fought to save his life from Poison Ivy's toxin in "Pretty Poison", so we've already become invested in Dent when he falls. That two-parter is worthy of an entire blog post of its own, but the particularly noteworthy part is that this wasn't just about giving Batman a new supervillain to fight. This was a truly Shakespearean tragedy, complete with Dent's shattered life costing him his betrothal to a woman actually named Grace. It may be ham-fisted symbolism on paper, but it works brilliantly in the episode. If there's one medium where melodrama can actually work, it's animation.

I didn't think much of "See No Evil" at the time, but it's a perfect microcosm of what made this show so unique and impressive. This is one of the eight episodes in the DVD box set without a member of the rogues gallery. An ex-con has stumbled into an invisibility suit that lets him carry out a rash of lucrative robberies, and that part of the story is a bit ho-hum.

What makes it so captivating, though, is that it's really a domestic drama. Lloyd Ventrix isn't just robbing Gothamites for kicks. His incarceration has estranged him from his now-ex-wife Helen and their young daughter, Kimmy, and he wants to reconnect with his daughter. It's misguided, of course, but watching the episode as an adult I found it actually very moving. It's also another example of the kind of storytelling that no cartoon had dared to explore. There's nearly an entire minute and a half in the middle of the episode in which Lloyd watches Helen drop off Kimmy at school and then he approaches Helen during her lunch break at work. Batman isn't part of any of that, and it doesn't matter because their story is interesting enough on its own.

"Beware the Gray Ghost" is an overachiever of an episode. The premise is that someone is running a bomb extortion scam taken from the plot of an old pulp-style TV show, The Gray Ghost, that Bruce Wayne watched as a young boy. The story itself is actually fairly solid, but it's the fact that Adam West voices Bruce Wayne's boyhood idol that's of interest. There's a sort of "aw, neat!" factor there that's irresistible.

Again, though, I have to give credit to the storytelling maturity of the series. In a cartoon, Batman would have teamed up with The Gray Ghost outright. In Batman: The Animated Series, though, that's not sufficiently thoughtful. Instead, "Beware the Gray Ghost" focuses on Simon Trent as the actor who played the Gray Ghost. Now typecast and unable to find work, Trent lives alone in a shoddy apartment and has to pay his rent by hawking the last of his Gray Ghost memorabilia.

The novelty of the Gray Ghost being voiced by a former Batman is admittedly pretty cool, but what elevates the episode is that Simon Trent isn't just our hero's hero. He's a sympathetic character himself. He's just an out of work actor trying to get by in a world that won't let him be anything but the Gray Ghost. That's the basis for an outright drama - and a compelling one at that.

Perhaps the strongest episode of the entire collection is "Appointment in Crime Alley". Roland Daggett wants to get his grubby paws on some new commercial property. Stymied in his efforts to just buy the slums, he hires an arsonist to create an explosion to be blamed on a gas line. Not only are there innocent, downtrodden people still living there; this is also where Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered and where Dr. Leslie Thompkins still lives. Leslie helped look after young Bruce in the wake of his parents's murder and is as dear to him as is Alfred.

The episode is based on a Dennis O'Neil story, "There Is No Hope in Crime Alley" (Detective Comics #457), one of several in the series to draw from comic book tales. I won't lie: I nearly teared up during the final shot of the episode, of Batman laying a pair of roses on the sidewalk for his parents, with Leslie Thompkins kneeling down and just holding him. Powerful stuff.

The DVD Box Set

One nice thing is that Warner Bros. actually created four discs for the content in each of their Batman: The Animated Series volumes. Other shows such as Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond featured double-sided DVD discs often called "flippers" since you have to flip over the disc to get to the rest of the content. I hate flippers.

There's not much in the way of bonus content. Two episodes feature commentary tracks: "On Leather Wings" (producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski) and "Heart of Ice" (Timm and Radomski, joined by writer/story editor/producer Paul Dini). They're well worth listening to, and my only complaint is that there should have been a commentary track of comparable value for every single episode!

"Batman: The Legacy Continues" is a collection of interview comments from various people - either people who worked on the show or are in the comic book industry - discussing the impact of the series. It's a solid overview and a nice primer for newbies but longtime fans won't really learn anything from it.

"The Dark Knight's First Night" presents the original test footage that Timm and Radomski whipped up to get the job of producing the series, along with their individual recollections about the origins of the series. It's really cool, but only lasts five minutes.

The "Tour of the Batcave" is one of those things where you click on different screens to bring up clips from the show and text bios of characters and gadgets, etc. On a computer, that kind of thing might work but on a DVD I don't really want to have to keep navigating just to read such obvious information. The fourth disc's bonus content is simply a trio of trailers for other DC animated DVD releases (The Challenge of the Super Friends, Justice League: Starcrossed and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman).

02 December 2012

The Best Is Yet to Come

A few nights ago, I happened across a few sample size bottles of booze. They were originally tied to Christmas gifts from friends of mine several years back and I've kept them. I decided to drink them. I started with Mount Gay Rum (my favorite). That was nice. Then onto the Jim Beam black label, which became my go-to bourbon in my drinking days because its taste is very close to Knob Creek but its price is about $10 less.

The third and final 50 mL bottle was Old Whiskey River.

You may recall, Dear Reader, that this was the bourbon I very nearly used to kill myself by combining with a bottle of sleeping pills. I very nearly just threw it away. Instead, I drank it. It was surreal to think that this was going to have been the last thing I ever tasted. I always liked that bourbon, sure, but it was clear to me the other night that it was not deserving of being the last taste I would ever have. I don't know what would be, but it certainly isn't that.

I didn't imbibe, incidentally, out of a self-destructive impulse. It wasn't that at all. It was more about testing my boundaries, since booze isn't particularly compatible with either Crohn's or depression. I figured a combined 150 mL spread out over three drinks wasn't going to be particularly dangerous, especially with nothing else to go with them. I won't lie: I miss getting buzzed every now and again. I miss the warmth in the cheeks and the dissipation of tension. I even miss how time slows down when you've got a drink or two in you.

But I also don't have any compulsion to carry on with it. I indulged. I was grateful that it didn't do me any obvious harm, but I have no intention of pressing my luck.

I quit wanting to do anything about my birthday some time in my 20s. I tried to stop acknowledging that I even had one. The farther behind I felt I had fallen in life, the less I wanted to confront an annual review of my life to see that I'd made no meaningful progress. Birthdays became audits, then, with all the intimidating power one would expect of such an event. I wanted to sleep from 30 November until 2 December and not even hear anything about it.

Last year, I was still too tentative coming out of my hospitalization to do much about my birthday. I went out to The Great Escape and bought some Batman comics. I stopped at Steak & Shake for a bite to eat. Checked out the ornaments at Hallmark in The Summit. It was a pretty low-key day. I didn't catch up with anyone.

This year, though, things were different.

In August, when I went out to celebrate the birthday of a friend, I wasn't very hungry so all I ordered was a dessert. My inner 7-year-old was happy about that. Then last month, while celebrating another friend's birthday, I very nearly repeated myself. Discussing that led me to decide that this year, I didn't want dinner plans. I wanted dessert plans. All we were going to do was get together somewhere and have dessert. I requested that no one even order actual food wherever we wound up meeting for the dessert.

We picked The Cheesecake Factory in Mall St. Matthews. Not only do they offer a lot of dessert choices, but they're right across the street from Ten Pin Lanes. I haven't bowled in several years, but I always liked it. Dessert and bowling became the plan. I invited my friends and (some) of my family. The turnout was terrific. I was joined by 16 others, including my baby brother. Things didn't go as planned time-wise, but because everyone had already eaten, everyone was fine patiently waiting for us to finally be seated.

The thing that I've thought most about all day today - other than how sore I am from bowling and why I quit doing it in the first place - has been that this year, for the first time in a very long time, my birthday was an actual celebration. It wasn't an obligatory event, as it had become in my early adulthood. Nor was it the test I wasn't prepared for that it has become in recent years. This year, I sincerely felt that I had cause to celebrate.

My depression is under control. I've gone another year without needing surgery to treat Crohn's.* I've reconnected with some old friends and made new ones. Because of all of this, and other nice things that have gone my way, I'm still standing.

In light of the drinking experimentation and then the celebration last night, I keep thinking about the old song, "The Best Is Yet to Come" (lyrics by Carolyn Leigh) - 
The best is yet to come, and won't that be fine
The best is yet to come, come the day that you're mine
Come the day that you're mine
I'm gonna teach you to fly
We've only tasted the wine
We're gonna drain that cup dry

22 November 2012

Giving Thanks

Today has been Thanksgiving and mine was pretty good. Great, really. I tossed and turned last night until nearly 4 AM or so, and didn't wake up until a little after noon. I took my time lazing about for a bit, then had the traditional meal with my family. I met my cousin's new girlfriend, and she seems nice. She looks like Juliette Lewis, but not high. That got me thinking about From Dusk Till Dawn, of course. [Side note: From Dusk Till Dawn is awesome.]

From there, I was off to visit my friends who'd invited me to their house for the occasion. The weather was gorgeous; a high of 62 and a low in the 50s without much wind. The kids were outside in the backyard throwing around a foamy football, and I even managed to throw it a little with them before my Prednisone-ravaged back insisted I sit back down. The funny part was that the only other adult outside with me the entire time was one of my friends who actually doesn't have any kids herself. So there we were, the two childless, single adults on informal babysitting duty. We laughed and had a lot of fun anyway.

I had seen that Walmart's Black Friday ad featured an assortment of $3.96 Blu-ray Discs and one of the pictured titles was Die Another Day so I hoped that portended other 007 titles at that price point. They opened at 8:00 tonight, so I left my friends around then. I got there to discover a parking situation comparable to the Kentucky State Fair, but without even the charade of anyone helping coordinate traffic. I found the display easily enough but the only two Bond titles were the aforementioned Die Another Day and Goldfinger. Sure enough, those are two of the very few Bond movies I already have on Blu-ray so that was a bust. I didn't see much else that appealed to me. I did try to find Brave for my niece ($8.96 advertised price for the Blu-ray + DVD combo pack) but those were long gone by the time I got inside the building.

So, empty-handed, I began sort of meandering around the place. I ran into my middle school music teacher, who had also been the pianist at the very first church I attended as a child. I always liked her. She has a daughter just a little older than me and we played together as tots. Later, we worked together in the late 90s at Cracker Barrel. I was in attendance at her wedding 8 September 2001. They honeymooned at Disney World, which was of course shut down in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. After the ceremony and the reception, I went back to the church with my friend's mom and aunt (who had been one of my high school English teachers, and I feel okay being honest here in my own blog that she was my favorite) to make sure the place was properly cleaned for the next morning's service. We discovered a candle had remained burning the whole night and dripped wax all over the floor. We spent about an hour or so just trying to clean up that mess.

These are all random memories, of course, but they make me smile to recall them all. There was one brief period where my friend and her now-husband had a rough patch. She was a huge Tim McGraw fan, and she made mention to me one night that her then-ex-boyfriend had taken her McGraw CDs in what was clearly a spiteful play. That upset me, so I went out and bought her every single CD in McGraw's discography at the time - including his eponymous debut album, which I learned she hadn't even owned! I could afford such generosity in those days. I miss having money.

Cut to earlier this year. I signed into Facebook one morning and discovered a message from her that she had been thinking about that incident and wanted to repay me, about 12 years later, and so she sent me an Amazon e-gift card! I had forgotten entirely about the whole thing until she had messaged me about it. I was very touched that she had remembered it. That she had also sent the Amazon e-gift card was nice, I won't lie, but it was secondary to the fact she had held onto that specific memory all this time. It was a testament that we do make an impact on others, even if we don't realize what that impact is.

Tonight, after I all but literally ran into my friend's mother and as I began wandering the jungle of Walmart, I found my friend. She was looking for her mom, but I knew only the general direction in which she had been moving when we had parted so we elected to find a (relatively) safe place in one of the main aisles to just stand and catch up, which was fun. She likes to laugh and I like making people laugh, so we've always gotten along great. She was one of my favorite coworkers partly because she would laugh at things I said or did that no one else quite realized were meant to be funny - like the time when I first started working there and she caught me talking to the leftover croutons as I was munching on them at the end of the night.

She and her husband just celebrated their eleventh wedding anniversary in September, they have some happy, healthy kids I couldn't be happier for them. If at any point you read this blog post thinking there was some kind of sumthin' sumthin' between us, I'm afraid I have to disappoint you. I won't say we're "just friends" because I hate that term. It suggests there's something inadequate about friendship, and if I've learned anything in my life - particularly throughout the last year - it's that if there's anything at all for which we should truly give thanks, it is friendship.

I have much to be thankful for, and I am.

18 November 2012

The Great CD Purge of 2012

Note: This is a live-blog post which will be updated as I progress through my library.

It's been a while since I last weeded out my music library. It occurred to me recently that my taste in music has changed dramatically in the last few years. Not only have I quit bothering with contemporary country music, but I've largely lost my interest even in the music I used to listen to on a regular basis. Part of it is that I've come to feel excluded from country music because of the culture war. I'm still a Southerner, but I can't really stomach many of the anthems anymore. Anyway, I've decided to go through and listen to a lot of the albums in my library again and see what's worth keeping and what I'm better off purging.

I'm Alright - Jo Dee Messina

One of my friends was completely obsessed with this album when it came out in the 90s. I still think of her when I hear anything from it, particularly the singles "I'm Alright" and "Bye Bye". It's clearly the album of an adult woman with a certain amount of life experiences under her belt, but also the self-confidence to look forward. It's an empowerment album, from start to finish, and one that's definitely crafted for a drive.

The drawback is that my favorite songs here were all singles and appear on Messina's Greatest Hits collection, which I also have. That includes a few other songs of hers that I also dig. Do I really need both in my library?

Verdict: Purge

That's How They Do It in Dixie: The Essential Collection - Hank Williams, Jr.

There's no shortage of Bocephus compilations, but this is one of the best. The problem I have with Hank, Jr. is that I've reached a point where I can't even really enjoy his music anymore because all I can think about is how we're diametrically opposed to one another on socio-political matters. I just can't get into "Born to Boogie" knowing that Hank honestly believes that President Obama is waging an actual war threatening "real" (read: white) Americans.

Verdict: Purge

Some Hearts - Carrie Underwood

I bought this from BMG Music Service (I know!) in large part because my wife and cousin were both into Carrie Underwood's music. "Jesus, Take the Wheel", " Before He Cheats" and "Don't Forget to Remember Me" were all hit singles and they're part of the soundtrack of my life around the middle of this past decade. How many times did we play this disc in the Escape, either running errands around town or even making the drive to visit my in-laws in Ohio or Daytona? Quite a few.

Some Hearts was an important album in my life. On the other hand, I've had to let go of that part of my life. Maybe it's time to let go of this album, too?

Verdict: Purge

Your Man - Josh Turner

The truth of the matter is, I only got into Josh Turner because I liked "Long Black Train" and the fact that when I saw him in concert at Coyote's Music and Dance Hall, he sang a few Randy Travis covers. He seems like a nice guy, and I like some of the songs here: "Would You Go with Me" and the title track are both solid, and I've always liked "Me and God" even though I tend to be ambivalent toward that kind of song in general. "Loretta Lynn's Lincoln" is a pretty stupid song, but it's catchy and kind of fun. Where the album loses me are the banal redneck anthems like "Way Down South" and "White Noise" - a song lamenting that there aren't enough country songs in a world full of hip-hop. Seriously? "I'm talkin' 'bout white noise/comin' from the white boys"? "Take me where those honkies are a-tonkin'"? Really? I just can't.

Verdict: Purge

Super Hits - Outlaws

I have a hard time getting rid of a thing if I received it as a gift. This was a Christmas gift from my wife in 2006, along with Vince Gill's These Days box set (which I'm definitely keeping). The thought was kind, but it's entirely superfluous since I have all of these songs on other discs.

It's a decent enough compilation, truthfully, and if we weren't living in the era of digital music where I could compile a playlist of these same songs from the other albums I have where they appear, I'd be inclined to keep it.

Verdict: Purge

Songs from Here and Back - The Beach Boys

As with Some Hearts, I have an obvious, direct emotional connotation to contend with here. This live EP was a Hallmark store exclusive for Father's Day, 2006. I've gone six years without acknowledging the timing of that and what it meant for me and I'm not about to start now. Speaking of it strictly as an album, it's pretty brief. The live performances sound good, but I think I'm content with the classic studio versions I have on the Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of The Beach Boys compilation CD. This is a nice supplement to a Beach Boys library, but the truth is that I'm only a casual fan and the Sounds of Summer disc is more than sufficient for my purposes.

Verdict: Purge

I Hope You Dance - Lee Ann Womack

This CD single includes the regular, country version and the pop-crossover mix. I've always been a fan of the song and even during my I'm-Sick-of-Country-Starlets-Trying-to-Go-Pop phase, I liked this one. Still, the truth is that I don't really need both versions in my library and I have the regular mix elsewhere.

Verdict: Purge


Some People Change - Montgomery Gentry
Best Buy exclusive edition with bonus tracks

MG's debut album, Tattoos & Scars, was one of my favorites of its era. Then I saw them play at Coyote's one night and got to hang out for a bit after the show with Troy Gentry and I became a fan for sure. I still like the guys, but their aesthetic changed dramatically after they started touring with big acts like Kenny Chesney (who had previously recorded the title track of this album). It's not necessarily a bad thing that they changed their style, but they changed it to something a little more...generic, I hate to say. "Hey Country", "Takes All Kinds" and "Your Tears Are Comin'" are all examples of this forgettable style.

To be honest, I've kept this CD as long as I have because it was a Best Buy exclusive with two bonus tracks and I didn't want to part with it only to have seller's remorse.

"Lucky Man" is one of the better songs in their catalog, though, and one that I've enjoyed since I first heard it. Unfortunately, it's on an entirely disappointing album.

Verdict: Purge

Stand Still, Look Pretty - The Wreckers

I liked "Leave the Pieces" and "My, oh My" as singles enough that I ordered this album from BMG. Oddly enough, those were the two tracks on the album not produced by John Leventhal. Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp sound great together. The lyrics, most written by Branch and Harp, are a cut above the standard radio fare.

The problem with this album is that there isn't enough variety. It's hard to really tell when one song ends and another begins because the album maintains the same tempo and aesthetic throughout. I'd be interested to hear more from The Wreckers (a shame they disbanded after just two albums), but I don't feel the need to keep this in my library.

Verdict: Purge