Saturday, March 28, 2015

Graphic Novels – The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

Writer/artist Scott McCloud, of Understanding Comics fame, turns in an ambitious and thoughtful new work. 

David Smith is a twenty-something sculptor already abused and washed out of a cruel system, the modern art world. He lives by his own code; one of whose tenets is never accept charity. That’s tough to do in New York City, as his free apartment's lease is expiring and he’s down to his last dollar. When he meets Death on the street (in a familiar guise), he gets an offer: he can live for only 200 more days but be able to sculpt anything he can imagine. Depressed and half-suicidal anyway, David takes the deal. Of course that’s when he meets Meg, who turns out to be the love of his life. Now that David has this amazing ability, how does he use it? Sculpting up a storm of new pieces, he tries his former art outlet with less than desired results. Then he hits on a brilliant new canvas for his work; the city of New York. 

The ideas and concepts of The Sculptor are universal. Although David himself is not a likable character, the supporting cast has their moments. Most of them are portrayed as real and relatable human beings. Meg has issues with depression, his best friend is a selfish and lonely gay man who does not have his best interests at heart. Death stays in touch throughout the book, reminding David how many days he has left and urging him to accomplish great things. There are some curves in the end leading to a bittersweet but satisfying conclusion. And McCloud’s renditions of David’s sculptures are brilliant and wondrous to behold. 

While well paced and plotted, some of the relationships in the book, especially David and Meg, fail to connect emotionally to the reader. But that is a somewhat minor quibble overall. Clocking in at 500 pages, The Sculptor features some weighty themes resulting in a substantial, rewarding read. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Monday, March 16, 2015

Prison Tales: My Friend Sam, Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of stories about my friend Sam, former owner of the Premium Fireworks Company. He is currently in minimum-security prison (unjustly) for selling fireworks for which he did not have a valid license to sell. If you want to start from the beginning:

Over the weekend I made one of my last visits to see my friend Sam in prison. Sam is in for approximately 100 more days. In the end he will have served around 13 months of an 18-month sentence. He will then serve two months in home incarceration (or a halfway house) and spend three years on probation. His debt to society will then be paid in full.

Sam is not one to be down, even in his present circumstances. Still, he was more of his old self during our visit than I’d ever seen him. There was a palpable change to his demeanor—mentally he is on the other side of this experience. Only a little over three months to go! Our conversation veered much more toward his plans after getting out than what an unpleasant experience prison is. Still, prison is no picnic. There aren’t as many episodes of violence in minimum-security prison as there are in maximum security. Still, there are some. Sam told me two stories. The first was about an unhappy convict who wanted to read the New York Times. In the prison library, convicts put their names down for periodicals and when one person is finished, he passes it along to the next in line. One man didn’t want to wait for the NYT. He demanded his “mother******* NYT now!” When the librarian wouldn’t produce it, he left, found a piece of pipe, and was on his way back to the library to pound someone when the guards caught up with him. He was quickly shipped off to maximum security. 

The other story happened to Sam himself. He has had trouble for months with his next-door cubicle neighbor, we’ll call him Mr. Young. Mr. Young is a bit anti-social, and has tried to pick fights with several other prisoners. Recently, as Sam sat on his bed and read a magazine, Mr. Young marched into his cubicle and slapped him in the face with no provocation. Sam stood up to defend himself and other nearby convicts broke them up. Guards descended on them, and for once other convicts were happy to report Sam did nothing and Mr. Young attacked him for no reason. Put in segregation with another prisoner, Mr. Young then tore the other man’s bed apart and threw all of his belongings on the floor. Mr. Young was then removed to another facility, presumably for mental evaluation and assistance. 

As we were in the visitation area talking, Sam pointed out a nearby convict in his 20s visiting with his mother. Sam said he was a drug dealer from London. “How thick is his accent?” I asked. Sam said it was thick and did an imitation of what was the worst British accent I’ve ever heard. Worse than Kevin Costner in that Robin Hood movie. Later we struck up a conversation with the man and he had a thick US Southern accent. “I thought you said he was from London?” I asked. “Yeah,” Sam said. “London KENTUCKY, moron!” Oh. In my defense, I have been reading a lot of British history lately. Explains why his mother was there though. 

Sam did point out a few of the acquaintances he had made who were currently in the visiting area; a well educated inside trader, some friendly drug dealers, and the marijuana-growing farmer he had mentioned before. He talked about the long sentences for some minor, non-violent felons, and the unfairness of some harassing prosecutions. We reflected on his own case; a lying prosecutor and an unjust system that has destroyed a business that had 99% legitimate merchandise. There is no reason a fine wouldn’t have been just punishment. It’s not as if he had military grade explosives; most of the “illegal” merchandise is perfectly legal in most countries. The federal government did not want Premium Fireworks to be in business anymore, so they destroyed it. Sad. 

As I said, Sam’s attitude was better than it had been since he was sentenced to prison. He went over his options of what to do next; he still hasn’t fully decided. We went over the first restaurant where he wants to eat when he gets out (steak, natch) and how he’ll spend time during his home incarceration. At least we hope it is home incarceration—he could be forced to go to a government halfway house. I’m not sure how they decide such things, and apparently neither is anyone else in the prison system. He’s close to getting out and can’t get a straight answer about where he will go. We’ll see. 

Sam usually puts away a few pounds of food from the prison vending machines during our visits, but he had just had lunch. Today he had only a honey bun, two cinnamon rolls and three coffees. Yet he’s still thin as a rail. 

As usual, the guards kicked everyone out promptly at 3:00pm. As I headed to the door, I told Sam the last 100 days will fly by. I hope it’s true. It will be good to have my friend back home and on to the next phase of his life. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Supergirl Costume Revealed

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl
So there’s going to be a new Supergirl show on CBS. I am withholding any opinion, but I have to say the costume is a pleasant surprise—it is actually recognizable as Supergirl. I don’t much care for it being another CBS crime procedural—I find them boring as all get out--or the politically correct casting. It’s rare that anything on Network TV is worth watching—but the costume is great!

Here's how CBS describes the show:

Supergirl stars Melissa Benoist as Kara Danvers née Zor-El, who since arriving on Earth years ago in the wake of planet Krypton’s destruction has been hiding the powers she shares with her famous cousin (Kal-El aka Superman). At age 24, Kara decides to embrace her super abilities and become the hero she was destined to be.

Also recently added to the cast are former Supergirl Helen Slater and former Superman Dean Cain, two actors I enjoy. I’ll definitely catch the pilot.

10,000 Page Views!

Wow, 10,000 Page views! Took a little over a year of doing this, but I don't mind saying I'm proud of that. All it took to get over the top was putting the name "Bettie Page" in a post title. It wasn't on purpose, but that was the hottest entry with the quickest page view count I've ever had. Who knew! Bettie and I are now moving on to our next goal--20,000 page views. Maybe I'll toss in Farrah Fawcett and Helen of Troy for good measure!

Pageview chart 10006 pageviews - 127 posts, last published on Mar 7, 2015

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Me and Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison

Note: While I try to keep Humble Opinions family-friendly, the following story contains some harsh, adult language. It’s what actually happened, and I include it to make a point about the speaker. Please be warned. 

I’ve never much followed science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. His famous Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever,” was probably the best overall episode of the Original Series (it was also heavily rewritten by ST creator Gene Roddenberry, to Ellison’s eternal chagrin). I’ve read a smattering of his spotty comic book work, and the stories struck me as mediocre at best. I haven’t read much—if any—of his prose, so I have no opinion on his books or stories. I realize he does have his fans, and has had a long, generally successful career. 

I also know Ellison has a reputation for curmudgeonly behavior. He’s brash, opinionated and sometimes violent. He’s the only personality I know that has actually had a hate club formed in his honor, “Enemies of Ellison” (later changed to “Victims of Ellison”). That was what I knew about him when I went to see a speech by Ellison at the Mid-Ohio Con in Columbus, Ohio when Ellison was Guest of Honor in the fall of 1999. 

Ellison gave his talk on stage in a large banquet room. The room was packed, the crowd was standing room only. For some reason, he had his younger, attractive wife sitting in the middle of the stage on a chair. She didn’t say anything, but just sat in her chair and smiled while he walked around the stage and spoke. It was odd. 

Ellison began the presentation by calling out the event managers’ typos in the show program. This seemed a bit ungracious to me; they had paid Ellison a lot of money to be there and he was angry about a few typos in a program. After belittling his employers, he started one of the most unusual presentations I’ve ever seen. 

Ellison is a natural storyteller. He did something amazing; he would start telling an interesting story or anecdote; get interrupted or lose his train of thought, then start telling another, unrelated story. He was on the stage a good 90 minutes or more, and never lost track of his stories. Eventually, he would backtrack, not necessarily in order, and finish every story he started with a grand payoff. It was like a giant puzzle box opening slowly, then closing back into a perfect package. What was so unpleasant was what was inside that package. 

Again, I didn’t know much about Harlan Ellison when I attended this presentation. I have no ax to grind. I just want to report as accurately as possible what happened and how I feel about it. 

Ellison is ruled by his ego. I know some consider him a good writer. In his own mind, he is a monster talent, sex god and judge of all humanity. I’ve rarely experienced someone so full of anger and their own hubris. Ellison is obsessed with his sexual exploits and prowess, and insists on sharing his experiences. With his wife on the stage beside him, he bragged endlessly of his sexual exploits, of how many women he had “in his bed,” as he put it, and most of his stories consisted of at least some aspect of his sex life. That was bad form, especially with his wife there. He bragged of his intelligence, his talent, his putting others in their rightful place, his toughness and ability to intimidate others to do his will. He is a protector and defender of women (whether or not they share his bed—what a stand-up guy). 

If someone walked down the aisle to leave the auditorium, Ellison would stop his talk and belligerently ask where they were going or why they were leaving. One unfortunate, probably fed up with the tidal wave of narcissism, gave Ellison the finger. Ellison roared with indignation, shouting obscenities and insults at the man all the way out of the room and into the hallway. For those who didn’t learn their lesson and stay put for the great man, a line of abuse was ready for anyone who had the gall to leave. Small bladders were no excuse, even if the person planned to return. 

I was somewhat amused by this man proving to be an insecure, puffed-up clown, until his attention turned to the mass murders in Columbine, Colorado in April of 1999. Ellison was addressing fan culture and how nerds and kids who are into sci fi, fantasy and other “geek” things are picked on and ostracized from normal society, especially in high school. Through some tortured logic, Ellison positioned murderers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris as fatalities of said culture. Referring to the Columbine victims, Ellison shouted into the microphone, “Motherfuckers had it COMIN’!” The crowd froze. The air seemed to be sucked out of the room. Famous and popular writer Harlan Ellison, until now to me a harmless crank who made a living by being in a bad mood, had just said that children mowed down in a hail of gunfire by sociopaths ... deserved it? I couldn’t believe my ears. I think my mouth actually dropped open. Did he truly believe that? I listened to make sure I had heard him right. I had. Ellison made the case that this was some kind of mass nerd payback for years of being marginalized, picked on by jocks and ignored by civilization. Children’s deaths were justified payback for other kids being picked on. Children’s DEATHS were justified PAYBACK for other kids being PICKED ON! What a crock of crap. I wracked my mind for what may have happened to this man as a child to make him think this way. Was he beaten by bullies? Abused by his parents? Denied going to the prom with the most popular girl in school? That could be it ... if he had a hot prom date, we most assuredly would have heard about it by now. “Motherfuckers had it comin’!” That still rings in my ears today, as one of the most asinine, hateful sentences I’ve ever heard. If Harlan Ellison had been the parent of a murdered child, would he say they “had it coming,” no matter what the cause? 

At this point, more people started to leave, each subjected to further Ellison abuse. Ellison began to close the loops on all of his stories, each one making him look like a superhero. What to make of this man? Small, petty, seething with self-loathing ... no description or adjective can capture the revulsion of what I felt and heard that day. I wasn’t a Harlan Ellison fan before that performance. I’m definitely not one now. Motherfuckers had it comin’. Wow. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Books - The Deputy/Bettie Page: Queen of Curves

The Deputy 
by Victor Gischler
The Deputy is the first novel I have read by Victor Gischler and it instantly made me a major Gischler fan. Toby Sawyer is a careless slacker who works part time as a deputy in a small southwestern town. When a body is found in a pickup truck, Toby's only job is to keep an eye on it for a while because all the "real" cops are busy. But he can't even do that right. When he abandons his post for a brief booty call, he comes back and the body is gone. That leads to a downhill-rolling snowball of felonies, drive-bys, thug beatings (getting them, that is) and unexpected results Toby has to deal with. Taking place over the course of one night with some mind-blowing twists and turns, The Deputy will surprise you in a good way. The time it takes to read is roughly similar to the time it takes to happen, making it a unique and satisfying experience. A double highly recommended crime novel, and one of the best books I’ve read lately. 
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Bettie Page: Queen of Curves
by Petra Mason, Photographs by Bunny Yeager 
One of the great joys in life is the classic American pinup. I love the work of the masters, artists such as Elvgren, Vargas and Olivia. Photographs work too, and the greatest American pinup girl of them all was Bettie Page. 
Page was a flat out natural beauty and the camera loved her. She was the subject of thousands of photos in her life, and some low budget “bachelor” films. She did many naughty and fetish sittings for Irving Klaw in New York, but to me her best stuff was with photographer Bunny Yeager. They worked together for several months in Florida in the 1950s, and this book contains the bulk of those photographs. 
The book is packed with color and black and white photos and divided up in sections, such as Naked Truth (Bettie on the beach), Sweet & Savage (in a jungle outfit at a nature preserve)  Gone Fishing (in the water), Jungle Land (with wild animals at the preserve) and Sunshine State (in the Florida sunshine). Some are nudes, but most of the book is Bettie is in costumes or various types of swimwear. I’ve never seen anyone more comfortable, unassuming or natural in front of a camera. 
The book also features an interview with Yeager about her work and some interesting biography blurbs about Bettie, but mostly it is pages and pages of photographs. Betty on the beach, Bettie at sea on a yacht, in the trees, in the ocean. If you love to see one of history’s most beautiful women doing what she does best, this is where you’ll find it. Bettie Page: Queen of Curves is a stylish book of pinup photography, and does contain some tasteful nudity. 
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Movies – Focus

I find con/caper stories incredibly entertaining; the more plausible and twisty the better. Movies such as The Sting, House of Games and even Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are all fresh, interesting takes on the conman film. On television, Britain’s Hustle is vastly more engaging and compelling than the noble American effort Leverage. Focus holds its own among these various endeavors. 

Will Smith, in his best film in years, plays Nicky, nicknamed “Mellow” by his grifter father for being too soft. Beautiful Australian Margot Robbie, with her perfect American accent, plays Jesse, a novice who becomes a con expert over the course of the film. Nicky meets Jesse in a bar and instantly recognizes her as being on the grift. Outsmarting her simple con, the chemistry between them is instant and powerful. Nicky gives Jesse a quick education, recruits her for a con they’re working, then abandons her as not to get personally attached. 

Years later, the two meet again during another big international con. Jesse is now an established and professional grifter. Nicky finds he still has intense feelings for her, but neither can totally trust the other. 

Focus features fine acting and some twisty writing. During an intense scene at the Super Bowl (cleverly filmed in part during the real Super Bowl), the tension is so high you’re not sure if any particular character is going to win, lose, or be killed instantly. Viewers aren’t even sure if what happens is a con or a situation gone hopelessly out of control. 

There is a great comedic turn by Adrian Martinez as a fellow grifter, and it was nice to see Gerald McRaney growl through his role as security for the mark in the big international con. I heard one critic say the last five minutes ruined the film for him; I thoroughly enjoyed them. In the end, Focus holds its own as a caper movie and one I would heartily recommend. Although waiting for home video/streaming to see it would be just fine. 

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5