December 9, 2005
book review: "The Man Who Japed" by Philip K. Dick
Amazon.com: The Man Who Japed (Vintage): Books: Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick has always amazed me. Not just for his imagination, which, if you take a certain point of view, was somewhat limited, but for his prescience and philosophy. Let me explain.
To a certain degree many of PKD's books are the same: disenfranchised man comes across something which trips up his understanding of reality and while he unravels the mystery of a simple "whodunit" discovers that there's an even greater "Whodunit" involving higher powers. There's nothing wrong with these boilerplate plotlines--he was, after all, a pulp writer and had to churn out stories by the truck load if he wanted to pay the electric bill. However, what this does do is raise the question, if he's got such a standard plot outline in so many of his books, why does he continue to have such a following? "The Man Who Japed" is one book which helps answer this question.
As I said, it's primarily his prescience and his philosophy that draw readers in and keep them. Like so many of his protagonists, PKD was looking behind the curtain to find out what made reality reality (or in some cases, what made unreality reality). In so doing he shaped worlds which sometimes reflected his own, sometimes were comically different, and sometimes were darkly, sadly, accurately satiric. The Man Who Japed offers us this last vision. In this book Earth has been ravaged by war, is left with a population which stoically refuses to leave despite better options on other planets, and sits as the centerpiece of a human colonization program which looks back on Earth as a moral compass despite the fact that it offers much less in the way of lifestyle and freedom than any of its colonies. Politics is not so much underlying choices in fundamental connections to reality as it is the surface message and presentation, and morality is controlled through language and media. In short, it's a metaphor for the United States. This is PKD's prescience. Despite this book's age (it was written in 1956) it stands alongside our (the reader's) era, no matter what era it is. I was struck as I was reading by the homage to our current political environment, the use of media to control thought, the un-1984-ishness of this "Big Brother" in looking over your shoulder with a smile on his face. PKD presents a morality which is McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, or Bush. It's the exporting of our ideals, which leaves us with nothing but empty husks.
This ability to paint a picture which reflects and comments on every age isn't his only ability; PKD also melds his philosophy to his writing in a clear and human way: subversion breeds freedom. PKD's heros all have one thing in common. They swim upstream. Sometimes they swim upstream only to find it was actually downstream. Sometimes it's the opposite. Whichever way they try to go, PKD invariably pulls the rug out from under them (here its the main character "Purcell" creating an alias when he goes to a shrink, only to wake up one day to find that he's in reality the alias) and us. He challenges his characters, and thereby us, to question what is real. To have a reader ask what is "really happening" while their nose is in a book is the mark of a skilled writer. What's "really happening" is that I was on a subway train reading words... or is it? Asking so much of his readers, trusting that they may "get" the message, or they may simply enjoy the adventure, makes him a favorite of many.
Thankfully, it's kept him in print. For us, and for the next generation, who will probably find that he's still, sadly, commenting on their reality.
Posted by sferrell at 10:07 AM
April 18, 2005
Marvel Comics: The Invincible Iron Man #1 - 3
Iron Man's latest incarnation (volume 4 by my count) is a gorgeous piece of work. Warren Ellis (writer) and Adi Granov (artist) have created a seemingly "realistic" interpretation of Tony Stark and Co., it's almost like reading about the hero as if he doesn't also appear in other Marvel books (New Avengers, Young Avengers, etc...).
The story so far has been a great terrorist/libertarian post-Gulf War tale which has reintroduced us to both Tony Stark and the state of the current political climate. IIM is the most politically current book I've been reading lately. Tony Stark (now a victim of an accident in the first Gulf War) is dealing with guilt from his weapons designer days, a past when he was more interested in "can I do it" than "should I do it?". Now that he spends his days trying to hide the fact that he's still functioning as Iron Man he's also having to lie to friends and colleagues, and spin tales about why he needs his "favorite car" flown all over the US in a big crate. Faced with the so current "super-soldier" serum problem (steroids anyone?) he's facing off against an enemy who could be anyone, a disgruntled US citizen, hidden in plain sight (I guess concerns about undercover threats is never out of style, is it?).
On top of the sharp writing are some of the most nicely rendered images imaginable. Similar to the current Daredevil look, just not nearly as gritty, the attempt to make this book look "real" adds a lot of depth. It's so nice to look at, even when what you're looking at isn't all that nice (issue #3's battle on a highway had me actually thinking about "how many drivers got hurt!?"). Superb. And, the fact that Tony now looks a lot like Tom Cruise adds to a realistic, almost film-like quality.
Halfway through its first 6-parter, this book is off to a great start. I only hope that Ellis and Granov both stay on the team past this first six issue run.
(review by Sean Ferrell)
Posted by sferrell at 8:49 PM
March 13, 2005
review: "Action Comics #825"
Writer J.D. Finn and artist Ivan Reis have created one of the best Superman stories I've read recently. This is a definite keeper. Superman faced with the choice: your loved ones or countless innocents. Add to that the evolution of Doomsday and Gog's shifting personality due to countless years to debate his choices and you've got high action and deep concepts.
Reis' artwork too is memorable. This is a classic hero story and his work is up to the task (in a way that Green Lantern's current mini- isn't, from my perspective). There are some great images, including a future battle shot involving Doomsday that has "poster" written all over it.
(review by Sean Ferrell)
Posted by sferrell at 7:15 PM
March 12, 2005
review: "Atomika #1"
This is the first Speakeasy Comics book I've read (they are publisher for Mercury Comics, who created this Atomika book). I am very impressed. This has been described "an alternate past -- where the Revolution has become the State -- Liberty has been destroyed and the gods now walk the Earth", but I think they are selling themselves short by saying it's an "alternate past". It seems like this is about power and corruption (which we see every day). It's about how goals get lost and the machine--no matter how noble the intentions originally were--builds up steam and crushes those it meant to free. I see the dynamics of this story all too much in our current world politics, both at home and abroad. In short, even if this story is supposed to take place in the past, it is very timely right now.
Having made my little political soapbox statement, I loved this book. Writer Andrew Dabb has created a mythology that's compelling and disturbing. Sal Abbinanti images are equal parts dream and nightmare; powerful and evocative. The images, story and storytelling set it apart from alot of what comic book readers might expect (it's a bit more fablist than others), but it still has the feel of a mainstream book. Its more metaphorical than, say Superman, but that doesn't make it bad. The artwork is stylized as well, but it fits the story and is emotionally evocative. This book has left me wanting more.
I also look forward to seeing more Speakeasy books. From the looks of this one they know what they are doing.
(review by Sean Ferrell)
Posted by sferrell at 4:07 PM
review: trailer for "A Scanner Darkly"
This is it. I'm a huge Phillip K. Dick fan, and I've been patiently waiting for this one to come out. A Scanner Darkly is one of Dick's best, one of my favorites, and now, from what I've seen in this trailer, it's the best adaptation of any of his stories. Linklater seems to have gotten everything right. The casting, whether you're a Keanu Reeves fan or not, looks great, and playing with a blend of live action with an anime look is brilliant. I was anxious to see it before. Now I'm beside myself.
Posted by sferrell at 11:36 AM
February 23, 2005
review: "Muppets Overtime"
Check out this short film by two French film students: Muppets Overtime As a friend said, "Kind of creepy," but a tremendous job on the animation in this short. Despite the fact that these CG puppets are meant to be "Kermit" they have a personality all their own--a playful, macabre personality. Yet it's also very touching.
It does make me wonder about one thing: what did they do with Jim Henson's body?
Posted by sferrell at 3:14 PM
February 20, 2005
Advent Rising Trilogy
While watching the trailer for Advent Rising my wife yelled from the bedroom, "What in the heck is that?!"
That, my dear, is the sound of the trailer for the coolest looking game I've ever seen.
For those of you who haven't heard, this is the game that Orson Scott Card signed onto after the creators showed him the story bible. Basically, he wanted to take part because they didn't need his help. The story, the graphics, and the gameplay are apparently so mind-blowing that it should be the biggest game of the year.
This CBS news review (CBS does game reviews?? Who knew??) gives a nice wrap-up:
Forgive the comparison, but if you could combine the RPG (Role Playing Game) elements of KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic), the cinematic and great story scaling of the Lord of The Rings trilogy, mix in a little Metroid Prime, with a touch of Aeon Flux (a really cool animated cartoon that aired on MTV years ago), might get close to what Advent Rising offers its players.
And my wife says, "Oh, that's nice."
Posted by sferrell at 10:50 AM
February 10, 2005
review: "Sports Guy Cartoon"
I've been a fan of Bill Simmons' "Sports Guy" column for a while. He's funny (usually) and he's knowledgable, and he's able to connect pop culture to sports in unique ways (although his fixation with "90210" is starting to (1) seem a bit dated; and (2) be kinda creepy in an "axe-sharpening while giggling" sort of way). So when he came out with his Sports Guy Cartoon a while back I thought, "Hey cool!" Then I watched it. Not so cool. But it's getting better. Each episode is basically one joke, so don't anticipate any grand plots, but they can be clever and amusing. They also seem a bit like an audition for something bigger. (So, how's the script for that sitcom pilot going, Bill?)
Posted by sferrell at 9:46 AM
February 6, 2005
review: "Detective Comics #803"
After the "War Games" maxi-series bored me to tears I thought about dropping most every Batman title from my shopping list. The problem with War Games, other than the blatantly obvious marketing trickery of it, and the fact that much of the art stank, was that it was over-long (as a direct result of the marketing gimmick making it cover two or three issues of every Bat-Title). By the end very little was happening and it was taking forever for it to not happen. Instead of getting 12 issues of cross-over fun we had to be sold on 36 issues of crap with weak writing, lousy art and commercial excess.
So, what does all this have to do with Detective Comics #803? Not a lot, except this: this is a pretty good Bat-tale. It's dark (very dark actually) and it centers on Batman doing his thing. He's piecing together a mystery, he's angry about where it's leading him, and he's doing nasty things to nasty people to do it. One great scene gives us the Batman we've been missing scaring the be-jeezus out of a bar full of people when he throws a guy through the window and quietly explains that everyone but the guy he wants may leave in an orderly fashion. They leave.
DC needs to cut back on the attempts to get every red cent out of my pocket and let the quality of the merchandise do it for them. They've got some really great books right now (Superman, Superman Batman, the GL mini-series, Teen Titans). Why not get ONE really great writer to handle one or two of the Bat-books, let a rotating bevy of guest writers do the job on one or two others, phase out the rest and make Batman fans hunger for him a bit more. Right now it's like a meat-lover going to an all you can eat barbeque. Sure it's fun, for the first two servings. But then.... ugh.
(Recommended over most of the other Bat-titles.)
(review by Sean Ferrell)
Posted by sferrell at 4:43 PM
February 4, 2005
review: "Superman Batman #17"
This series is arguably one of the top three out there right now. Writer Jeph Loeb has been doing the best characterization for both of these heros. His Superman is somewhat alien and detached, looking for connections; his Batman is angry and removed, looking to break them. They know each other so well, but continue to surprise one another. They look at each other with respect and friendship, but there's also the hint of sadness and even jealousy. A sort of, "Why don't I have more of what he has?" comes from both sides.
This characterization of Batman is especially compelling, and in many ways better than what most of the Batman books have been providing (for the most part it seems that the Batman books are interested in the flair of the villians rather than the motivations of the hero--the current Riddler storyline in Legends of the Dark Knight being one example). With so many Batman books out there it feels like he's overexposed. But Loeb has a Batman who is utterly devoted to his cause AND conflicted. Impressive.
Meanwhile, artist Carlos Pacheco's work is reminiscent of classic comics, everyone rendered in a sort of idealized human form. Combined with the current complicated and dark storyline it forms a sort of Greek tragedy--the man is the father of the boy, who in turn becomes the man. It is emotive and entertaining.
I hope that this team continues (I mean both teams actually: Supes and Bats; Loeb and Pacheco) for a long, long time.
Very highly recommended.
(review by Sean Ferrell)
February 3, 2005
review: "New Avengers #3"
What can I say? When you see him on the cover, you want more of him in the book. Still, even without much of the Sentry in it, this is a great issue of what should be a great book. I was a fan of the Avengers before. But, like any "group" book, you eventually hit a point where you have more people who are on the team than off the team. In the end, how many heros were considered an Avenger? Last count was around a million.
This reconstruction of the team, by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist David Finch, is not one to miss. (As an aside, am I developing a fixation with Brian Michael Bendis? I can't get enough of his Daredevil books and now this? Should he be worried?) This issue takes a slower, more methodical approach to the story than the previous two issues. The jailbreak on "The Raft", the super-villian high-security prison island, is through and the entire experience is making Captain America realize the necessity of an Avengers team. He convinces Tony Stark that those who helped squash the prison break should be the new team. This issue's story is the round-up of those involved.
One of the nicer elements is the inclusion of Luke Cage. Somewhat of a B-level hero for a long time Bendis has him smartly demanding "to be heard." He clearly wants a leadership role and that's going to be interesting. It's also exciting to see who's approached and what their responses are. Bendis and the editors at Marvel have clearly mapped out a grand scheme of how their top tier heros would respond to each other and Bendis does a great job of capturing it.
All in all a great issue, with just that one minor itch I can't seem to reach... he's on the friggin' cover for crying out loud!
(Review by Sean Ferrell)
Posted by sferrell at 2:52 PM
February 1, 2005
Dhani, Dhani, Dhani...
Dhani Jones, Number 55 of the Philadelphia Eagles has a website that is... is...
How to describe it?
It's not filled with hype about himself. It seems to be filled with odd photos and marketing gimmicks for a guy who looks like a lot of fun to hang out with. He's just made my "People I'd like to invite to dinner" list. Too bad everyone in the NFL doesn't look like they are this funny.
Here's hoping that Dhani makes a splash at the SuperBowl.
Posted by sferrell at 11:40 AM
January 31, 2005
Annoying ads, part 1
One of the most annoying ads that runs regularly in the New York Times is the little beauty to the left. These two fools, whomever they are supposed to be, watch the cursor as it moves around the page. What's wrong with that? Well, for one thing it keeps the scroll wheel on your mouse from working properly. Second, what is it advertising? Third, why is this supposed to be so amazing? It stops the page from responding normally and makes them watch the cursor. So what. That's the nature of a computer. It makes an aritifical image behave in certain ways based on my control of a mouse or computer keyboard. You want to impress me? Make the ad disappear when I scream at the screen. That would be impressive.
Posted by sferrell at 1:09 PM
January 29, 2005
review: Daredevil "Golden Age"
The current story arc in Daredevil (from Marvel Comics), "Golden Age", written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Alex Maleev, has been a phenomenal batch of issues. Recently released issue #69 is the penultimate issue to this five-part piece which spans both the contemporary and the golden age of Daredevil comics. With wonderful use of retro imagry to evoke multiple eras (the hyper-pixellated images look just like comics from the pulp-paper and four color printing days, reminding me of the book's look when I was a kid and making me feel incredibly old at the same time) the story has introduced Bont, a pre-Kingpin kingpin, who made a name for himself by gunning-down a WWII era hero. Ruling Hell's Kitchen with a bloody and iron fist he brings all criminal bosses under his rule and leads them to power and money previously unmatched.
Of course, Daredevil plays a role in foiling Bont's empire and Bendis cleverly uses images and
storylines (and characters, notice his use of The Gladiator) from earlier writers as the backbone of his Bont story. With spot-on Frank Miller-esque techniques Maleev's art and Bendis' words do capture the sense of what it was like to read the comics from several decades ago, and having that mesh and conflict with the realities of today's books (how is it possible that Matt Murdock hasn't aged a day, or that his life hasn't progressed all that much from when he first meets Bont) are part of the story, constantly reminding us that we're reading a comic. It's a reminder to pay attention to the fun we're having while we're having fun.
Bont's imprisonment and grudge-holding lasts for decades, and when he's finally released he's an old man. He finds a new world, one he doesn't recognize and which doesn't recognize him. But part of the brilliance of this arc is the merging of old and new. Bont is using MGH--Mutant Growth Hormone. With his insanely monstrous hatred matched by his insanely monstrous strength he's able to bully his old cronies into helping him get a hold of Daredevil.
Truly interesting is the use of time: Bendis bounces us back and forth and creates jumps that are meant to remind us of the comic-book-nature of the story. Everything could be happening right now and the fact that we need constant tags to remind us of "when" we are shows that. I don't think that is accidental. It feels like Bendis wants us aware of how the world around Bont is one that doesn't fit his "story" of himself. I think Bendis wants us to realize that how the world of a comic fits the era of the reader and the era of the hero inside is constructed by the reader as much as the writer. How does the comic-book-world of Hell's kitchen, which for forty years has had Daredevil in it, fit him? How does it fit us? The book has gotten very complex over the years, with a lot of history, and even though the "restarted" the series a few years back it's still very much the DD of yesteryear... it's also not.
Part five should wrap this up nicely. (Highly recommended)
(review by Sean Ferrell)
January 28, 2005
review: "The Sentry"
When doing a history Marvel's heros you would follow a web of linkages between characters that would repeat and loop back upon itself, but you would not find that first pivotal starting point, no one "primary" character who started it all. You wouldn't, unless you count The Sentry by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee.
When Marvel put together the Sentry mini-series and the one-shot cross-overs in Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, The Hulk and X-Men they revised their own history to include one main hero who taught all the others by his shining example. What Marvel created is in fact a wonderful revision and recasting of not only the heroic universe at hand but the idea of heroism in general, and the personal stake individuals have toward themselves and the greater good. The story reflects on how memory plays into our sense of self, how we rely upon relationships to steady and maintain us, and how overcoming trauma is both simpler and harder than we can sometimes imagine.
Jenkins' story is gripping without melodrama; in fact, toward the end it loses some energy--but I think that's in part due to his focus: this isn't about battle, it's about the preparation. Jenkins provides us with a character in The Sentry/Rob Reynolds who is not only flawed, he's dangerous. People who've grown up in abusive or alcoholic families will certainly see the self-denial and intentional blindness at work here. Despite his flaws Rob Reynolds is a genuinely likable, and heroic figure. You root for him.
Lee's art is dynamic and emotionally gripping, and the use of styles from earlier eras perfectly captures the essence of why we read comics in the first place. A sense of awe, wonder, and a need for heros in an otherwise complicated world is shown beautifully through 1960s style covers with hyperbole and Stan Lee-isms at every page. One of the best elements is the simplicity of the characters, the almost mundaneness to them: Mr. Fantastic looks like he might have a bit of a paunch; the Hulk is childlike and unasuming. The humanity in the artwork is wonderful.
What's most compelling to me is the future of this character. Introduced as the "grand-daddy of all heros," how will his "re-introduction" into the Marvel universe affect the future of that universe. Now that it appears he's becoming part of the New Avengers I think we'll find out.
I can't wait.
(review by Sean Ferrell)
Posted by sferrell at 1:22 PM
January 7, 2005
NBC's new show, Committed, left me wishing I'd done anything else with my half hour. I could have cleaned my toilet, I realized. I could have walked the dog, brushed my teeth, stared stupidly at a hole in the carpet--anything. Instead, I'm left with the gaping hole in my head that was this show.
Tom Poston, by far the best part of the show, is wasted; so is his character, a dying clown who lives in the closet of one of the main characters. Why the show isn't about him is beyond me. I would love to have heard the pitch sessions in which they described all the characters and relegated the most interesting one (why is he a clown, why in the closet, why a pie fight by mail?) to a 60 second segment, and that's it. He's there for flavor, but he steals the show and leaves the rest of it looking like a horror/formulae.
I'm not kidding about his being underused. He's the most veteran comedian on the show. Take a look at the summary for the next episode, from NBC's site:
LOST IN LOVE--After several months of dating, Marni (Jennifer Finnigan) realizes she has never set foot in Nate's (Josh Cooke) apartment. Marni invites herself over to his place and Nate, in a state of panic over his crazy, pack-rat apartment, decides to turn off all the lights so she can't see the mess. Marni's curiosity over what Nate is hiding gets the best of her, so she breaks in the next day with Tess (Tammy Lynn Michaels). Elsewhere, Bowie (Darius McCrary) discovers the true meaning of the Chinese symbol that he had tattooed on his arm. Tom Poston also stars. TV-14
Notice the "Tom Poston also stars"? That's it. "Oh, yeah, umm... Tom Poston does appear on your screen at some point too."
And why the TV-14 rating? I couldn't figure that one out. Other than a mild joke using the phrase "get busy" (apparently the show is set five-years-ago?) and manhandling a crippled man, what made this a TV-14 show? Go ahead and re-read that last sentence. Yes, a crippled man get's manhandled. Oh, and it's even funnier because he's black. Wacka-wacka.
The rest of the cast is forgetable. The male lead channels romantic-comedy Ben Affleck most of the time. The female lead is annoying, and not in a George Costanza "I can't stand him, but have to watch him" way. Just in a "I can't stand her voice" way. The supporting characters were, oddly, the strongest part--clearly doing their best with absolutely NOTHING. Notice how I went to the trouble of looking up all the actors names. (cough.)
There was one very funny element: the laugh track. It was so poorly done that the drop-off to the laughter was easily noticed. It was like hearing a busload of people having a party as it drives past you. That made me laugh.
The rest of the show did not. It made me wish that Arrested Development was on two times a week. Wait a second, I have AD Season 1 on DVD. THAT'S what I should have done with that half-hour!
January 4, 2005
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search
Reviews of shows I've never seen, but in which I'll say anything I have to in order to get quoted.
NBC's new show, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search is a refreshing change of pace. Not only are the contestants darling, and the drama palpable (think the first and third seasons of "24", not the lackluster second season--yuck!), but the title says it all. Thank goodness we've entered an era where TV show titles are so honestly direct, right?
"Sports": That's what these girls are!
"Illustrated": Or, in other words, animated, which is what these girls are!
"Swimsuit": Where less is more!
"Model": ...as in "citizens!" Am I right?
"Search": In a nutshell that's what this show is.
NBC has a hit on its hands, and if they don't watch out it's gonna be Must See TV for all of America!
December 17, 2004
"Dubya: The Movie"
A biopic of a sitting president is a challenge for the simple reason that the president isn't yet done creating his (or, eventually, her) story. The producers of "Dubya" recognized what others didn't: our current president has already created more history than you could fit in a steamer trunk. So, with an eye toward capturing his past and enough of his present to reveal character they moved forward.
The brilliant casting of Don Knotts in the lead role won't surprise many. Knotts' ability to subtley capture the essence of his characters is reknowned. What is surprising is that he so perfectly captures a person who is so in the public eye that the audience has no questions about what would constitute a valid performance. Knotts so perfectly renders George W. Bush that one would swear that archival footage of the real president had been used. The producers assured the critics at the early showing that this had been debated, a la "Tuskeegee Airmen" but it was decided, due to heart-felt lobbying by Mr. Knotts, to not use archival footage but recreate some of his more famous moments.
With breath-taking sincerity and certainty the film-makers have provided an accurate and moving portrayal of a president's movements through adolesence, into maturity, and back again. Mr. Knotts' tour-de-force performance lends some moments such emotional weight that you marvel that these tests of courage were as recent as two, three or four years ago. Furthermore, he lends such strength to the president in his portrayal that our estimation of the real president will certainly benefit from this film, making him seem more inevitable and needed than he did before its screening.
(Dubya: The Movie; unrated at time of review, mild nudity and sexual situations, violence, drinking, binging, and unnecessary invasion of sovreign nations.)
November 16, 2004
great reviews of bad movies
This entry is a great example of how entertaining a review of a bad film can be. It's the NEW YORK TIMES review of "Polar Express" starring Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks and Tom Hanks.
My favorite paragraph:
It's likely, I imagine, that most moviegoers will be more concerned by the eerie listlessness of those characters' faces and the grim vision of Santa Claus's North Pole compound, with interiors that look like a munitions factory and facades that seem conceived along the same oppressive lines as Coketown, the red-brick town of "machinery and tall chimneys" in Dickens's "Hard Times." Tots surely won't recognize that Santa's big entrance in front of the throngs of frenzied elves and awe-struck children directly evokes, however unconsciously, one of Hitler's Nuremberg rally entrances in Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will." But their parents may marvel that when Santa's big red sack of toys is hoisted from factory floor to sleigh it resembles nothing so much as an airborne scrotum.
Posted by sferrell at 6:59 PM