Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Movies: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

I think we can admit right off the bat that the studio and creators of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies got greedy. The Hobbit, one of my favorite novels of all time (I originally read it when I was 12, the perfect age for the book), is a breezy, folksy adventure tale of a hobbit and his dwarf friends and their Wizard pal going on a grand adventure. They travel, fight elves and trolls and end up torquing off a dragon pretty badly over ownership of his gold horde. The big battle at the end of the book, also about the ownership of said gold horde, is mostly told off-camera and exists to illustrate the futility and terror of war.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a different animal. Instead of telling that story, the producers have made a big-budget spectacle, full of sfx, massive battles and something around a million times the scale of what Tolkien originally envisioned. The end battle in the movie exists, if anything, to glorify the destruction of evil forces by the might of right. Surprisingly, I have room in my heart for both versions of the story.

Say what you will about director Peter Jackson, he loves Tolkien’s fictional universe and wants to portray it to the best of his ability. The new characters and storylines added to pad out the story into three films fit organically into Tolkien’s universe and their stories are interesting and well told. Their tales meander through the first two films in the series, but Jackson manages to make all diversions and sub-plots resolve themselves to the viewer’s satisfaction in the final film.  

The set pieces at the ending battle are awesome. Huge, troll-driven trebuchets, human-sized vampire bats and a cast of thousands of orcs, goblins, wargs, elves, dwarves and humans are all things Jackson unleashes on the final battlefield, and they create unlimited havoc. To his credit, Jackson never loses site of the narrative throughout all of the carnage. From wide-angle attacks with thousands of warriors to personal duels between combatants, Jackson goes from story to story with accomplished precision. He’s done this before, and he’s good at it.

In the end he wraps up the action with actually fewer main character casualties than Tolkien himself. Bilbo finishes as he does in the book and the stage is expertly set for Lord of the Rings. I really did love this movie, even with its excesses. However, I couldn’t help but notice that a real Hobbit movie, from my simple Hobbit novel, exists within this bloated Hollywood blockbuster trilogy. I’d pay good money for an alternate version of the movie in the inevitable Blu-ray set. A quieter, folksy version that follows the original novel, without any non-Tolkien characters or plotlines. A movie that would run maybe two to four hours and be faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original vision of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Oh well, I can dream.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tales of my Childhood - Christmas with the Shinhelms

Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in a suburban neighborhood, we had next-door neighbors named the Shinhelms. Mr. Shinhelm was the stereotypical “get off my lawn” mean old German. His grown daughter who lived with him wasn’t much better. Pray to God your baseball/frisbee/wiffleball didn’t go into their yard—there would be hell to pay. They mostly kept to themselves and browbeat the neighborhood kids. We used to have a profane nickname for them based on both syllables of their surname—I’ll leave that to your imagination. They had a well-deserved reputation of being unpleasant, and for the most part the neighborhood kids stayed well away from them. On Halloween, their house was always dark and foreboding. No visitors were welcome.

Every Christmas, my lovely stay-at-home mom would bake banana bread for the neighbors,  mostly for her friends and parents of the other kids I played with. I lived on a long street and it was packed with kids my age. One Christmas, when I was around 10, mom made a few extra loaves and asked me to drop one off at the Shinhelms. I really didn’t mind—it was Christmas. I thought they might not even answer the door when they saw it was a kid. I went around the neighborhood one Saturday morning on deliveries and many of the intended bread recipients weren’t home. I had around four loaves left in a big picnic basket when I got to the Shinhelms—I figured I would just give them their loaf and deliver the rest when the other neighbors got home.

When I got to the Shinhelm’s door, I nervously rang the doorbell. Miss Shinhelm opened the door and said “What?” with all the friendliness of an IRS agent beginning my audit.

“My mom baked some banana bread for you,” I explained.

Her attitude changed instantly. She invited me in. The old man was on the couch and seemed a little less menacing than usual. A little. They fawned over the bread and me a bit. Regaling me with how much they loved banana bread, she took all four loaves out of the basket and thanked me. I started to explain that all four weren’t for them, but something popped into my brain and told me not to. They were so friendly I didn’t have the heart to tell them the remaining loaves were for other people. Or to try and take them back.

When I arrived at home with an empty basket, mom asked, “Oh, was everyone home?” I had to explain that no, I gave four of the ten loaves to the Shinhelms. Mom didn’t lose her temper, but was understandably agitated. She had baked all day the day before to give gifts to many friends and neighbors, not just the mean folks next door. Now she would have to make more and had wasted all that work! I felt horrible, but I really didn’t have the words to explain why I gave them all the bread. I felt guilty about wasting mom’s time and upsetting her.

A few minutes later, the phone rang, and mom went to get the call. When she came back, her eyes were watering and she told me what I had done was totally okay. “Miss Shinhelm just called,” she said. “She was in tears. They thought no one in the neighborhood liked them, and then you show up with multiple loaves of their favorite bread for Christmas. Now she’s crying at what she called “such a generous gift.” She couldn’t stop thanking me for sending you over there. You know, giving them a loaf of bread was an afterthought. Now I’m glad you gave it all to them. I guess sometimes things work out for the best.”

I’m not sure what happened to the Shinhelms. They didn’t live in the neighborhood much longer. I don’t remember them being particularly nice after that, but I don’t remember them yelling at us anymore either.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Comics - Fantastic Four Epic Collection Volume 1

As tough as I am on the Marvel Comics of today, and as much as they deserve it, they do come up with a good idea once in a blue moon. For example, I absolutely love their new Epic Collections. Epic Collections are large (400-500 page), color reprints of old comics. They are a nice thick chunk of comics goodness. Since Marvel can’t do anything 100% right, they have been printing the collections wildly out of order, sometimes as late as volume 10 or 17 of a series coming out first. They finally got around to printing the #1 volumes of some of their classic series and I’ve been snapping them up like Hungry Hungry Hippos.
The first such collection I had the pleasure of reading is the Fantastic Four Epic Collection Volume 1. This reprints the seminal FF issues #1-18 from 1961-62 (two years before I was born). I’ve read a lot of the early issues of the Marvel Universe, but nowhere near all of them. The chance to read how it all started, in order, in color, on crisp white paper is a rare treat. Hats off to Marvel for thinking of it. I was a mite concerned that these stories may turn out to be lacking; that they wouldn’t live up to the golden glow of my childhood memories. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of course these tales don’t have the sophistication of modern comics; no, in many ways they’re better. Turns out Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were geniuses from the get-go.
Fantastic Four #1 tells the group’s origin story, with the lovely and dated “beat the Commies into space” theme. The second half of that first issue introduces the villain Mole Man and his underground kingdom. The seeds of everything to come are here; Reed’s brainy aloofness, Ben’s anger and heartbreak, Sue’s motherly support of the team and Johnny’s humor relief. It is incredibly fun to see the creators and characters getting more comfortable in their skins as the series progresses. The group doesn’t even have uniforms until issue #3. Ben keeps changing back to his human self, then back into the Thing, compounding his bad attitude and disappointment. Issue #3 also introduces the Fantasticar and a full body uniform for Ben—this may have been the one and only time it was used.
Issue #4 introduces WWII character Namor the Sub-Mariner into modern Marvel continuity in one of the most memorable scenes in comics history. Continuing their red-hot streak, Lee & Kirby introduce the most famous and iconic comic book villain of all time in Issue #5, Victor Von Doom. It is also revealed in this ish that there are Fantastic Four comic books in the Marvel Universe. Apparently in the Marvel Universe, Reed Richards relates the team’s true adventures to Marvel Comics, and Lee & Kirby act as “stenographers” of a sort. Brilliant idea. Now totally on fire, Lee & Kirby have the first super-villain team-up in Issue #6. Namor and Doom work together to capture the FF, and in a breathtaking Kirby art scene, Doom’s technology actually lifts the team’s NY headquarters, the Baxter Building, into orbit. Issue #6 also introduces key Marvel concepts such as the FF’s uniforms being made out of “unstable molecules” and the Yancy Street Gang, who make life extra-miserable for the Thing.
Issue #10 is a fun body-switch story where Dr. Doom takes over Reed’s body and traps Reed’s mind in his. With a maniacal sneer, Doom/Reed tries to destroy the team from within. He completely underestimates Reed’s will and intellect, as he will continue to do for at least the next 50 years. Of course Issue #11 introduces the Impossible Man, a comedic treat that apparently Lee got a lot of guff for at the time. I’m not sure why, the story was hilarious and absolutely charming. Issue #12 was one of the first Marvel hero team-ups, as the FF attempt to capture the Hulk for the army. I remember reading this as a kid and being totally disappointed that the Thing and the Hulk didn’t throw down and have a major, city destroying battle. Those matches would have to come later. Luckily, come they did. In Issue #15, Reed faces another foe who rivals his intellect; the Mad Thinker (and his Android!). It’s a battle of wits until Reed humiliatingly puts the Thinker in his place. It’s great to see the Thinker strut and stutter and refuse to believe he’s been outwitted.
The alien, shape-changing Skrulls (introduced in FF #2) return in Issue #18, with their newest genetic experiment, the Super-Skrull! The Super-Skrull has all of the powers of the Fantastic Four and a really superior attitude, so he should easily defeat the FF, right? Well, one would think so. Also by now Ben Grimm is much more endearing and wisecracking, on his way to becoming the Thing we all know and love today.
These tales lived up to and surpassed every expectation I had of them. They nearly burst with energy and creativity. I had to remember while reading them that nothing like this had ever been done in comics before up to this point. A team bickering amongst themselves? The love interest who can’t decide between the lead and a villain? (Sue had a crush on Namor for years before she finally chose Reed, and is not shy about saying so). These stories invented internal continuity from one story to the next and are building the Marvel Universe one comic at a time. Reading them was pure pleasure, not to mention it was like looking through a time machine into the Cold War 1960s. I’m ready for Volume 2 next (not Volume 12)—Marvel, could you get on that, please?
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Prison Tales – My Friend Sam, Part Four

This is part four of a continuing look at my friend Sam’s prison stay for selling overloaded fireworks. Sam is a law-abiding, well-educated entrepreneur who ran afoul of a government who really wanted to put someone in prison. This is his story.
If you care to read about our previous prison visits, Part One is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here.
This past weekend was my fifth visit to see my friend Sam in prison. I never thought I would know this much about the Federal prison system, but there you go. Signing in and getting past the guards (no wallet, no watch, no plastic explosives) is old hat now. Sam came out to the visiting area quickly and was extremely happy to see me. I’m sure he’d be happy to see anyone not dressed in a gray or blue uniform. It seems all the folks who know him are getting used to the fact that he is in prison. Letters, cards and visits have slacked off to only his closest friends and family. His other close friends and I continue to send friendly reminders to folks who would be inclined to keep in touch or send him a card occasionally. Presently communications from the outside world are sporadic at best.
Unfortunately, things inside are all too routine by now. Sam has spent 230 days in the “work camp.” He has approximately 195 days to go before he can go to home incarceration or a halfway house for two months; then he is out. That’s out of prison in June and out of incarceration in August. The day after he passed the halfway point he called me, jubilantly proclaiming he had less time to serve than he had already served.
Sam said two unusual things had happened recently. Morning counts of prisoners are usually conducted at 10:00am, but in reality it is 10:05 or 10:10 before the counts begin. One day he forgot something in his cubicle and was one minute late to the count. A nasty female guard who thinks she’s defending Stalag 13 climbed his frame and read him the riot act. He was not verbally resistant to her, but apparently didn’t show the proper amount of deference and she put him in her sites. The next day the other unusual thing happened; he thought the incidents were related but it turned out they weren’t. A guard found him and said he had to report to Administration right away. He thought he was going to get a dressing down and tossed into a well, but one of the Administrators had called him in to ask if he wanted a higher paying job at the prison. I believe the standard job of cleaning/organizing, etc. at the prison pays around $26.00 per month. This one would have paid around $35.00. It would have involved taking a shuttle to the maximum security prison across the street, cleaning the visiting room there, and sitting around for long hours waiting for the return shuttle several times each week. He thanked the Administrator and declined, admitting he was satisfied with his present duties.
By the way, I don’t mean to slight the guards at the prison. It’s true some are less than friendly, but most are just human beings trying to do a tough, stressful job.
I asked Sam what had been happening. He related a story of an incident with another prisoner. Each night, Sam puts his shoes on the top of the wall separating his cubicle from the prisoner next to him. The tips of the shoes overlap the wall on the other prisoner’s side an inch or two. The other prisoner didn’t like that, but said nothing to Sam. He finally started stealing and hiding the shoes until he came clean with Sam and lost his temper. He yelled strangely, “I don’t mean to be rude, but dust from your shoes falls on my bed and I don’t like it!” Sam agreed to put his shoes somewhere else and everything was resolved. But how many prison stories do you hear that involve someone yelling, “I don’t mean to be rude?” Minimum security could be a lot worse.
As a nosey busybody, it’s always interesting to hear what folks have done to be sentenced to prison. Sam mentioned some of the new offenses he had heard. One was a CPA that cooked the books and embezzled from his Fortune 500 company. Another was a drug offender that was in year 18 of a 25-year sentence. That’s a long sentence for minimum security. We figured he was either caught with a warehouse full of heroin or sold drugs to children. If it’s the latter, 25 years is way too lenient. Another unlucky felon was a farmer who grew and sold marijuana (alongside his legal crops) serving a 5-year sentence. That seemed like a lot, but Sam said the police found a few guns in his house and connected them to his drug crimes, turning the 18-month sentence into 5 years. The farmer swore he just likes guns, bought them years before he started the marijuana business and had the receipts to prove it. Nonetheless, an ambitious prosecutor connected them and the man got 5 years. If true, that’s punishing someone just for buying a gun, which is unconstitutional. But in prison everyone is innocent; just ask them.
Sam usually inhales the food from the vending machines during our visits, as he has a sweet tooth and little access to sweets. During our visit he had two large honey buns, two heated up White Castles, two packages of chocolate donuts, three cups of coffee and two cans of Pepsi. I got full just watching him.
As usual, the guards kicked me and the other visitors out at 3:00pm sharp. As we said goodbye, we agreed that there was a light at the end of tunnel. June is right around the corner. Unfortunately, the holidays are too. It’s never easy to serve prison time, but we both knew the holidays are going to bring even more loneliness and possible depression. I told Sam I would make it down again around Christmas—the rules dictate that I can’t bring him a present, but I can buy lots of honey buns from prison vending and have some type of celebration.
If anyone reading this would be willing to send Sam a letter, card or magazine—especially a simple Christmas card—please contact me at jerrysemail@fuse.net. I’ll set you up with his contact information. I know it would mean the world to someone who needs some kind words right now. He needs to know that the universe recognizes—and is pleased—that he is alive.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Around the ‘Net - The Comics Curmudgeon

One of my all-time favorite (and funniest) sites on the Internet is The Comics Curmudgeon. Writer and humorist Josh Fruhlinger is a comedy genius, pointing out the illogic, foibles and downright dumbness of modern comic strips. I grew up loving comic strips. My mom would read them to me on her lap before I could read. Even then I loved their colorful antics and simple, cartoony artwork. When my sense of humor developed above that of a three year-old (I’m definitely up to at least a seven or eight year-old now) I noticed that as the years went on, not many of them were actually funny. Especially the “zombie” strips, Josh’s name for strips where their original creators have died and been replaced by family members or other creators. Strips like B.C., Wizard of Id and Blonde.

In Josh’s world, Marmaduke is a demon from Hell, Pluggers are rustic animal-men/women who wait and long for death, and Mark Trail is automaton who struggles to understand humans and their emotions. Funky Winkerbean is a morass of depression from smug, pun-obsessed hipsters and death-obsessed losers. But Josh saves his most hilarious and on-target observations for the Queen of All Media: Mary Worth. Question: Is the writer of Mary Worth being ironic? Or is this vast desert of oh gosh homilies and moronic advice for real? Who knows? Either way it’s entertaining, with or without Josh’s witty observations.

The Comics Curmudgeon is updated daily and ALWAYS makes me laugh. Here are some of Josh’s recent observations:

Dennis the Menace, 12/2/14


Pluggers, 11/27/14

Pluggers would like to remind you that if you serve a frozen pie to your family you’re human garbage.

Mary Worth, 11/19/14

Let me be clear: I may joke about this increasingly less coded elderotica storyline in Mary Worth, but, as someone with aspirations to someday be old and to also continue to be sexually active, I am 100% in favor of it. Today we learn helpful techniques! If you think your partner has mobility issues, let them set the pace. There are a wide variety of different kinds of movement that can feel good!

Funky Winkerbean, 11/15/14

This doesn’t involve any sort of flashback or anything, but it does nicely demonstrate that joy is so rare in the Funkyverse that people have no idea what it looks like when it’s happening. “Is he … is he having some kind of seizure?”

Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, 10/22/14

The tragic illiteracy of so many of Hootin’ Holler’s voters goes a long way towards explaining why the community is so poorly governed.

Hi and Lois, 10/18/14

Hi and Lois wraps up its nostalgia week on a particularly grim note. “Remember when you used to be able to yell at people and make them do what you want, instead of just putting a credit card into a machine and seething with ambient, targetless rage?”

Marvin, 10/16/14

It’s pretty impressive that, in a strip whose punchline is that Marvin’s family is in such constant terror of his poops that everyone keeps careful track of his digestive velocity, the most unsettling part is actually his smug little smile in panel three. “That’s right, my bowel movements are so vile my own grandfather refuses to deal with them! Heh heh.”

The Comics Curmudgeon content © 2004–2014 Joshua Fruhlinger

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Comics Capsule Reviews

Alex + Ada #10
Alex + Ada #10: I don’t know if writers Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn have every step of this book planned or are making it up issue by issue, but they are building one of the finest sci fi stories I’ve ever read. “Epic” is not the correct term; it’s just a quiet character study of a guy and his robot girlfriend. But the themes in the book hit many emotional hot buttons, especially if you’re single. In this issue Ada, an android with her sentience activated illegally, searches out Alex’s friends for help after an awkward rejection from Alex and an unexpected loss of energy. As she collapses on their doorstep, the couple assist happily enough, but they also contact Alex to alert him, against Ada’s wishes. When Alex arrives, he sets the tone for a major change in their relationship.  

There are some key turning points in this issue, as Alex receives a visit from an old girlfriend and finds resolution to their relationship. At least one person walks away unhappy. How will he relate to Ada after that? The ending is what readers have been waiting for since issue #1, with a final page plot point that moves the story into its next phase. Excellent. Every issue of A+A is a treat.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars.

The Kitchen #1
The Kitchen #1: The ‘70s. Hell’s Kitchen, New York. When their gangster husbands go to prison, Irish-American housewives Kath, Raven and Angie decide to take over their husbands’ various rackets. Running protection, numbers and prostitution games are not the problem; running them profitably and being taken seriously is. Kath is volatile and wants to shoot first and ask questions later—how dare some mook stand up to her? “Do you know who my husband is?” is a question she asks more than once. Raven is on board with the plan but wants to do things the smart way so as few people as possible get hurt—including them. Angie’s not that bright and is basically along for the ride. If they get any cooperation from anyone, she’s happy. 

Interior page from The Kitchen
This introductory issue sets up the premise and shines a bit of light on the characters and their personalities. The ladies also get themselves—or rather Kath gets them—into a situation in which they’re in over their heads before they get started. Kath lets her husband’s regular “clients” know the new status quo. The pushback begins instantly and I’m sure will continue to be a large part of the series. It remains to be seen if this is just a study in female violence or a cautionary tale with things to say about the human condition. Written in a hard-boiled, serious vein by Ollie Masters with outstanding art and design by Ming Doyle, I’ll stick with The Kitchen for now to see where it goes. Hopefully the series will pay off some of the early promise of this debut.  

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

Grendel vs. The Shadow #3
Grendel vs. The Shadow #3: This city-shaking battle of Titans comes to a close. So far it’s been a game of wits, guns and blades and both sides have taken their losses. The Shadow thwarts Grendel’s every initiative, but can’t outright stop him. Grendel can hold his own in confrontations with the Shadow, but can’t defeat him. Tired of the detente, The Shadow tracks Grendel down to a smoky New York rooftop for a final battle. Unknown to them both, they have already been betrayed by the least expected player in their drama. Although no one’s mortality is definitively threatened (did you think it would be?), there is a clear and final winner to their contest.

In the end all the toys are put back in place, but Grendel vs. The Shadow is a brilliant, pulpy look at what might have been. Highly recommended.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

The Fade Out #3
The Fade Out #3: I am an enormous fan of both writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, especially the projects they have created together. But their newest collaboration just isn’t resonating for me as much as their previous work. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like here. The art, starting with this issue’s cover, surpasses even Phillips’ high standards. And the noirish story is well-told and keeps the reader’s attention. But unlike most of Brubaker’s previous work, there is no real point-of-view character, it is more of an ensemble cast than his other books. There are no likable or even sympathetic characters to root for or be horrified by. It doesn’t help that I have read up on that period in early Hollywood history and the truth is far more interesting than this fiction. I tend to look forward to the Hollywood essays in the back of the book even more than the main story. This issue’s subject is “Johnny Stomp,” the story of Lana Turner’s Italian torpedo boyfriend Johnny Stompanato. The story is fascinating, with the abusive and jealous Johnny abusing Lana, scaring a young Sean Connery so bad he left town, and ultimately being stabbed to death by Turner’s lesbian daughter.

The Fade Out is good, and manages to stand out just fine in a sea of duller comics. Only being on issue three, I hope it eventually manages to amaze as much as Brubaker/Phillips stories usually do.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

Spider-Woman #1
Spider-Woman #1: Spider-Woman #1 is one of the worst first issues I have ever read. The book does not do one thing that makes debut issues work. First issues should explain who the characters are, what they want, and introduce the reader to the cast and their world. Instead, readers are thrust into the middle of part 37 of an 84-part crossover. None of the myriad characters are introduced, the storyline is both complex and dull, and nothing is explained. There is a two-paragraph text introduction in the front of the book, but that’s not where the story should be told, especially not in a first issue. Who are these characters? Why are they together? Why do they all have spider powers? Who are the villains? What do they want? Why do they want it? I guess you have to read all the parts leading up to this to have a clue. Fledgling writers take a note, this is exactly how not to do it. This is easily the worst comic I’ve read this year, and I’ve liked writer Dennis Hopeless’ work in the past.

Censored Variant Cover 
The art by Greg Land is fantastic, and the main reason I bought this issue. I did notice Marvel chickened out on the Milo Manara alternate cover, blocking any objectionable parts with the logo, even though there was nothing wrong with the art. The politically correct self-censorers at Marvel should just bring back the Comics Code. That way no one will ever have to be offended, ever. I won’t be coming back for issue #2.

Rating: ** out of 5 stars (for Greg Land’s artwork)

Winterworld #4
Winterworld #4: Chuck Dixon keeps brilliantly building his post-apocalyptic, deep-freeze world. In this issue, Scully and his fourteen year-old charge Wynn are visiting a nice coastal town with an unusually friendly demeanor. The townsfolk even nickname Wynn “El Nina” and welcome her as one of their own. Then they ... give her a cowbell? That’s a little strange, until they imprison Scully and send Wynn out on the ice as a human sacrifice to ... something. When Scully gets free, he decides to teach the “Wicker Man” villagers it’s not polite to abuse teenage girls, or abandon them on ice flows. And boy do they get the message. This is the last issue with Butch Guice art, and he will be missed. He is one of the outright best storytellers in the business, and his collaborations with Dixon have all been top-notch. I really like this book.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Birthright #2
Birthright #2: Birthright is a bright new book with a strong storytelling voice. A unique premise is like gold in any storytelling medium, and every page bursts with original ideas. Mikey is a normal 8 year-old kid who likes to play in the woods. One day, he doesn’t come back. Five years later, a thirty year-old man appears, armed to the teeth and dressed like a Renaissance Faire reject, claiming to be Mikey. The police don’t know what to make of it. His parents, out of their minds with grief, guilt and relief, don’t either. And Mikey’s older brother Brennan, now much younger, is both glad to see his brother and intensely curious about what he’s been up to. And why he’s dressed like Aragorn.

In bits and pieces, it is revealed that Mikey has been raised and trained as the chosen warrior in a fantasy world, where time passes differently, fighting the usual evil monsters. He says he returned to Earth because the evil he defeated in the other world now threatens to destroy us. In police custody, Mikey pleads with Brennan and his parents to believe him and welcome him back. When the fingerprints come back proving the stranger is Mikey, everyone has some big decisions to make.

While I hate to ruin the main twist in the story, I would like to give people a reason why this book is different. Let’s just say ... while Mikey is being honest about who he is, he may not be telling the truth about what happened in the other world. And he may not be working for the good guys ... Birthright is a fresh look at some traditional fantasy ideas from a welcome yet skewed point of view. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Weird Love #4
Weird Love #4: Perhaps the best issue yet of the greatest and most twisted romance tales from the '50s, '60s and '70s! Stories include:

- Too Fat to Frug (Love Diary #47, 1967). I think this story boils the mad, mod ‘60s down to their patchouli-scented essence. Life was wonderful for Sharon Carr, the go-to Cage Queen at the local discotheque. Until she met Bus Wayne, the new Beatle-esque band singer. She falls quickly and hard for Bus, but is mortified when he takes a side glance at the new singer Sheila. Yup, that’s right, Bus didn’t try to break it off with Sharon or express any desire to date Sheila, he just gave her a sidelong glance. This is enough to make the volatile Sharon give the Bus a good slap and shout “Casanova!” at the top of her lungs. To quote Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” Immediately sorry for her minor overreaction (ah-hem) Sharon drowns her lonely sorrows in fried foods, ice cream, and fried ice cream. When Sharon goes to the doctor for help losing her new folds of fat, he tells her, “I’m sorry, Sharon, there’s nothing I can do for you! Your glands have been disturbed by your over-eating! I’m afraid you’ll be this way for the rest of your life!” To which Sharon replies, “OOOhh NOOO!” Really, what else is she going to say? Thanks for the true and accurate medical advice, Dr. Mengele. Distraught, the now morbidly obese Sharon makes her peace with losing Bus, continues her strict Ho-Ho diet, and finds a fat guy to date. Really. That’s how it ends. The ‘60s, ladies and gentlemen! I’m still not sure what “frugging” is.

- I Was a Border Racket Girl (Sweethearts #107, 1952). Amy is poor and wants more out of life. Her pal Dot turns her on to the Border Racket—marrying foreigners who want to get into the U.S. for some easy cash! They come to the U.S., then get a divorce a few months later and Dot goes back for the next terrorist upstanding immigrant. Was that really a thing? Amy meets French Canadian Rene and assumes he wants in on the Border Racket. As their romance turns real, Amy is not sure she can go through with it. But she wants Rene to meet his terrorist pals achieve the American dream, so she marries him. When she holds out her hand for some cash, Amy finds out Rene loves her and truly wanted her hand in marriage. Repulsed by Amy’s mercenary lifestyle, Rene leaves in a huff (probably to find an ATM). He later returns, cause, ya know, she is hot. Amy agrees to turn herself in and come back to him an honest felon. I guess they’re staying married after all, at least for 3-5 years!

- Flirtation on Wheels (Teen-Age Temptations #4, 1953). Pam is too ashamed to live, as she should be. She is the lowest form of life—a trailer park girl! Because her father is a freelance engineer, they must uproot regularly and go from town to town in—a trailer! Pam quickly gets the message from other kids in her various schools—you’re trailer trash! The only type of man to pay attention to her is her latest scummy neighbor, Don. When she meets rich boy Adam, she pretends to be the granddaughter of the richest lady in town. After their dates, Adam drops her off at the gates of the richie mansion, and poor Amy has to hoof it home on her own! But how can she tell Adam she’s ... trailer trash? When Adam finds the truth, which he’s known from the beginning since he’s the grandson of the richest woman in town and he’s not dating his sister, he’s okay with slumming a bit. But Pam is so ashamed—thinking Adam will reject her, she runs straight into Don’s arms. Avoid the lit cigarette, Pam! And the cheap Vodka breath! Will our lovebirds find happiness? I’m sure they will, these things always work out, don’t they?

Other stories in this issue include “Two Faced Woman,” about a man who likes ugly women, and “A Monster’s Kisses,” about a new bride who loses it over the fact her husband won’t shave every day on their honeymoon. There are also some priceless one-page features, such as “Men You Shouldn’t Marry” and “Love Dancing.” Weird Love is a perverse, subversive commentary on American romance, and should be banned from all decent and law-abiding homes. How I love it!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Princess Rap Battles: Galadriel vs. Leia

This nerd catnip made me laugh:

From very talented comedienne Whitney Avalon. If the video has trouble loading , follow the link here. Totally worth your valuable time, especially the last dig from Galadriel.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fan Film: Batman vs. Darth Vader

This, my friends, is truly awesome.

This 6-minute fan film seems to have trouble loading. If so, the direct link is here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Books - Sanctuary Seeker by Bernard Knight

This is the first volume in the "Crowner John" medieval mystery series. Sir John is a county coroner, a newly established office in England in the 12th Century. His job is to investigate deaths in his county. A former crusader, he took the post mostly because his shrewish wife wants him to improve his station. He is at odds with his brother-in-law, the weaselly local sheriff, about jurisdictional and authority issues. I love medieval stories, and this book sheds some welcome light onto the culture and justice system (or lack thereof) of that time.
In Sanctuary Seeker, Sir John is on the trail of a murderer, and there are many suspects from whom to choose. In the 1100s, England still made use of trial by "Ordeal," where innocence or guilt is decided by some bat-crap crazy ideas. For example, one suspect must reach shoulder-deep into a boiling caldron and pull out a pebble. If there is no damage to his arm, he is innocent. Of course burns mean guilt. God would protect an innocent man. You'd think someone would notice that every suspect who ever underwent such ordeals turned out to be guilty. People weren't dumb then ... just too superstitious? Did they cling too much to their swords and religion?

Sir John is a different kind of detective. He's intelligent, but no genius. He's not that curious, and has no drive to find the absolute truth, like some fictional detectives. He's just doing his job, and as an honorable man, trying to do it well and fairly against an unjust system. The story is a rather straightforward mystery that is more about characters and motivations than shocks or big reveals. The ending is satisfying and wraps up the story nicely. I will read the other mysteries in the series, but not with a particular sense of urgency.

Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars

Monday, November 17, 2014

Movies - Kahaani

As a movie buff, I love films from all over the world. Subtitles do not bother me. Any well-told story that keeps my attention and offers fresh ideas or storytelling is welcome. I’ve seen movies originating from France, Spain, Canada, England, Norway, Japan, China, Thailand and Korea. However, until recently I’ve never seen a Bollywood movie.
Bollywood refers to the Hindi language film industry, based in Mumbai, India. People often mistakenly refer to every Indian film as a Bollywood movie, although technically the term refers only to films produced in Mumbai, the “Hollywood” of the Far East. Bollywood is only a part of the enormous Indian film business, which includes multiple production facilities producing films in multiple languages. Popular subjects include Indian historicals, crime thrillers and large-scale musicals with spectacular dance numbers. There is incredible energy in Indian films.
Vidya Balan
In Kahaani (Hindi for “story”) Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) is a very pregnant woman who travels across India to the city of Kolkata to search for her missing husband. It seems he left her some weeks ago for a short IT job in the city and never returned. Shuffling pregantly across town, she reports him missing to the local police and is befriended by a kind-hearted cop, Satyoki "Rana" Sinha (Parambrata Chatterjee). Rana feels sorry for her plight and agrees to help her track down her husband. The problem is, no one has ever heard of him. The office where he was supposed to work has no record of him. He never checked in to his reported hotel. Vidya and Rana travel to her husband’s nearby hometown, only to find his neighbors and even his aunt and uncle claim to have never heard of him.
Vidya, an IT expert herself, uses the police computers to try and get a line on her husband. As the search gets more and more complex, outside forces make it clear that Vidya’s husband—and Vidya herself—would be better off if he remained missing. Through the search, Rana falls desperately in love with Vidya. The actors portray it so organically—a touch here, a glance there. It is never even mentioned by the characters, but it is sweet how Rana’s pity turns to admiration to a crush to head over heels. As they follow clues and get in way over their heads, the story falls together like a massive jigsaw puzzle. At the end is one of the most mind-blowing twists I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. It was a shocking surprise out of nowhere, yet made perfect sense and was a satisfying resolution to the story.
The production values of Kahaani are amazing—the city of Kolkata is almost a main character. It didn’t hurt that the movie takes place during the Indian festival of Durga Puja, so the streets are filled with performers, dancing and color. It’s sort of like an Indian Mardi Gras. I absolutely loved Kahaani, from the story to the acting to the lush cinematography to the astonishing ending. It may have been my first Bollywood movie, but it won’t be my last. Try it, you’ll love it.
Kahaani is available on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Manga: Another by Yukito Ayatsuji and Hiro Kiyohara

Yomiyama Middle School in Yomiyama, Japan is a strange place. Starting in the 1980s, every few years several students in third year class 3, or people close to them, die. The deaths are from accidents or disease, everything looks perfectly natural—but it’s not. There is a powerful curse on the class. After a year where the deaths happen, students slowly forget about the phenomenon, and parents are never alerted to the danger. However, there is a slight shadow of class memory that realizes something is wrong and forces students to take precautions to stop it.
Koichi Sakikibara is a late transfer to third year class 3. He doesn’t know the rules and no one has time to tell him, so it’s not his fault when he breaks them and people start to die. But can the deaths be stopped? That’s what Koichi and his friend, the beautiful and mysterious Mei Misaki, have to find out.
Another is a brilliant horror manga that is all the more disturbing for the ages of the characters involved. These are older teenagers, some of whom die horribly because of the curse. It can also strike family members, up to two degrees of relation away. Because Koichi broke the rules and started the deaths, and Mei was involved unwittingly in helping him, they are blamed by the class and shunned by their classmates. The two, especially Koichi, whose mother was killed by it the year he was born, are obsessed with the curse and stopping it before anyone else dies. Particularly him.
Although over 700 pages in one volume, Another is an enthralling, fairly quick read. I kept turning pages to see who was next to go and how Koichi and Mei find the next clue to stopping the curse. Also, why is there a curse? How did it start? And can it really be stopped? The answers have some unexpected twists, especially regarding how things involve Koichi’s own family. Creepy and addicting, Another is a page-turner you won’t be able to put down. Highly recommended.
Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

TV Rampage

TV Rampage - Television Reviews
A look at some current television offerings.

The Gotham pilot was excellent, immersing viewers in the early origin of Bruce Wayne as Batman and explaining what kind of city Gotham is (corrupt, naturally). What it didn’t explain is why it exists. Is this a superhero show? No. Is it a police procedural? Not entirely, but somewhat and we don’t need another one. Is it straight action/adventure? Sort of. I’m still not sure, which means the writers and producers aren’t either. Ben McKenzie does a good job playing Detective (eventually Commissioner, I presume) Gordon. He’s a square and a sincere good guy—the only one in Gotham City, apparently. Donal Logue plays Harvey Bullock, a cop on the take with a lazy—but not absent—sense of right and wrong. David Mazouz is a bit dry as the recently orphaned Bruce Wayne, but hopefully he’ll be a more intricate part of the show as it ages. Several proto-Batman villains are introduced, including the Falcone and Maroni crime families, the Riddler and the Penguin. Robin Lord Taylor as the Penguin is the breakout character—the actor steals every scene he’s in and is an absolute delight. Otherwise, I’m not sure what we’re doing here. There are seeds of a good crime show—recent episodes are improving exponentially—but at its base this is a Batman show without Batman. I really don’t want to see Bruce Wayne mope around Wayne mansion taking boxing lessons from Alfred for 10 years. The jury is out as yet, but overall I generally like it. It could go either way depending on what they do with the concept. Convince me it has legs and a reason to exist and I’m in.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

Based on one of my all-time favorite comics, Hellblazer, Constantine does a damn sight better job adapting the source material than the 2005 Keanu Reeves movie. In the long-running comic, John Constantine is a rake and rogue who would sell you his mother if he hadn’t already sold her to five other people. He’s a crass, snarky, chain-smoking scouser who dabbles in magic and usually ends up getting anyone close to him killed. Or worse. I didn’t imagine a character on NBC would be half of that, and he’s not. But an argument can be made that they did as much as they could to keep him Constantine while making him safe for network television. I liked, but didn’t love, the pilot. The comic book Constantine is darkly funny and almost always keeps his cool in the most dangerous situations. The TV Constantine (Welsh actor Matt Ryan) is a voice-raising, gesticulating git who puts “Master of the Dark Arts” on his business cards—at least he has the decency to be embarrassed about it. The comic book Constantine would have this guy for breakfast, but there is charm and a hint of darkness in Ryan’s portrayal. And physically, he is the comic book Constantine (originally visually based on the singer Sting). I liked the second episode better, and they even let Constantine hold a cigarette and lighter for five seconds (without lighting up, of course). I’m 100% anti-smoking, but that’s who the character is. Let him be that. The show is enjoyable so far and, while not the comic book character, may be a version of the Hellblazer I can grow to like.

Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2
Sorry, I just can’t get into this show. I gave up in disgust about the middle of the first season last year, then gave it another chance this year. Despite the occasional Marvel Easter Egg thrown in, it’s a dull exercise in viewer torture that should be called S.H.I.E.L.D: Project Supermodel. Not recommended.

Rating: ** out of 5 stars

Arrow and The Flash
Gee, I’d really like to review Arrow’s third season and the new Flash show, but Dish Network, despite their promise to carry local stations, doesn’t carry the CW Network. It’s not as if the CW is a backwoods UHF station out of Baton Rouge. This is a national network with popular shows. When I called Dish to politely ask if they could, as promised, carry the CW, they suggested I buy a rabbit ears antenna and try to catch it on the airwaves. It’s 2014, fellas. I don’t want a rabbit ears antenna on my TV. That’s not why I pay you a king’s ransom every month. I have 400 channels I don’t watch and they refuse to carry the one I want. Just do the right thing, will you Dish?

The Killing: Season 4
This is the final season of the murder drama The Killing, only available on Netflix Streaming. These last six episodes are a Netflix original. The Killing is about an annoying drug addict and the world's worst mother teaming up as Seattle detectives and solving crimes. This season’s plot deals with a boy in a military school whose family is brutally murdered. He is the prime suspect, but could a teenage boy really kill his entire family? Including the little sister he adored? There really is some great writing and drama here as the writers close the doors on this show. The always-great Joan Allen guests as the head of the military academy and does her usual outstanding job. The detectives are also dealing with events of last season, which had the world's worst mother committing a crime herself and dealing with the consequences this season. This is a satisfying ending to an above average series. Well worth watching.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Sons of Anarchy: Season 7
SOA has been written like Shakespeare on Harleys for six brilliant seasons. But they’re wrapping it up this year and it’s time to go. Reminiscent of Oz and other violent crime dramas, they have to keep upping the ante every year; the sex, the violence, the body count, the treachery. It was a great run, but now by Season 7 there is no good man or woman left, and certainly no one to root for. If it lasted any longer the show would be a straight parody of itself. That’s sad; protagonist Jax was never a choirboy, but now he’s more evil than the bad guys he used to battle (if he was ever fighting for anything other than power). His mother Gemma (the Lady Macbeth of SOA), the one person who kept the family together with an iron hand, is a compulsive liar and homicidal maniac. Her actions this season have led to the deaths of scores of innocent and not so innocent people. Every member of SAMCRO is an irredeemable, murderous thug now. The only acceptable ending for those left alive is a long prison sentence. I can’t wait to see how it all ends, but in the few episodes left I predict a lot more death. And no one, especially Jax or Gemma, should be able to just walk away. Anything less than death or prison will not provide proper closure to the series.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Walking Dead: Season 5
Commentator Bill O’Reilly had some friends recommend The Walking Dead to him. He tuned into it for five or so minutes one night and was completely repulsed. Talking about it on his show, he declined ever watching again and said, “No thanks. I’ll keep my humanity.” What a drama queen. But I do understand that attitude from sci-fi civilians—it’s not for everyone. If you don’t mind violent zombie attacks and a minute examination of humanity at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, tune in for a riveting hour of television each week. This is probably, without Fargo, True Detective or Mad Men on the air right now, the best-written show on TV. The show is sometimes non-linear, and takes advantage of its sprawling, talented cast. No show is cast better, and no show has better special effects. Who would have thought a show about the zombie apocalypse and its aftermath would be must-see TV? But it is. Sometimes an episode will end and I will literally let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Just when you think the show is going to zig, it zags violently to the left. And leaves a mark. Watch it. If you have a strong stomach, it will both entertain and make you think.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars