Thursday, May 27, 2010

Heart-Shaped Box (Book Review)

I'm not a horror movie fan. In fact, I'm a wimp. I can't stand jump scares and over-the-top gore. I've never seen Nightmare on Elm Street or any of the Jason movies. In middle school, I watched The Exorcist at a sleep-over party and it haunted my nightmares for months.

So, no thank you to horror movies. On the other hand, with Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill, I'm becoming quite the fan of horror novels. I'm by no means well-versed in the horror novel genre but I've dabbled enough to found I enjoy a good scare and freak out if it is coming from the page of a book.

Heart-Shaped Box certainly has no lack of good freak outs and heebie jeebies. This is a good old-fashioned ghost story. The early twist in the novel is that the main character doesn't move into a haunted house or building but has the ghost delivered to him in the form of an old worn jacket in a heart-shaped box.

Joe Hill, the author, is the son of the famous horror writer, Stephen King. Hill has obviously learned from the best because he is a very fine writer with a knack for luring you into a sense of comfort and ever so nonchalantly revealing a OH MY GOD THE GHOST IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

I'm not going to go into too much detail because I think a lot of my readers will enjoy this book. It's a very easy read and the story flows nicely. I prefer when a novel doesn't jump from point-of-view to point-of-view and change perspectives with each chapter. In this book, when a chapter ends with a cliffhanger like my example in the paragraph above, the very next chapter begins with the main character running for his life.

Speaking of the main character, Judas Coyne is a mixture of Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Zombie. Judas is on the downside of fifty and he lives with his twenty-something goth girlfriend and his two german shepherds. He has a fascination with death and when the chance to own a ghost comes to his attention on an Ebay-like site, he jumps at the macabre opportunity.

Little does Judas know that there is tad bit more to whom put up the ghost up for auction and he'll quickly learn why he is the center of a vindictive revenge scheme determined to end his life in the most hauntingly way possible.

Heart-Shaped Box will creep you out. You'll want to read it with the lights on and if you have a dog, you'll want the dog by your side the whole time. Don't get the dog reference? Read the book, you will.

Lost (TV Review)

This isn't going to be an in-depth examination of the meaning and mythos of Lost. There are a great many places online with people way smarter than me examining Lost till they are blue in the face. I'll leave it to you to dig up some of their juicy assessments at your leisure.

I feel compelled to write a little about the show since it has been at the apex of pop culture media these last six years and, if nothing else, this blog is about cool pop culture media.

I think I can honestly say that Lost is my favorite television show of all time. No other show engaged me like Lost did or prompted me to venture outside of the series proper to find clues, stories, and theories.

With the show ending by focusing heavily on the characters versus the island mythology, a lot of commenters have said the show was about the people on the island and not the island itself. This is a sentiment shared by the producers as well. I think it's a nice sentiment but I think the makers of the show and it's fans are forgetting what made Lost so engaging in the first place.

I do feel we got a little short changed on some of the island questions. It's a shame because as great as love triangles, the lovable fat man, and the charismatic con man are, Lost became LOST because of the theories and the strangeness of the island. I'm not going to list every mystery that I personally felt wasn't answered to my satisfaction but the mere fact that almost every single viewer of Lost has one or more lingering questions points to the fact that the writers needed to do a bit more before the show was gone for good.

Going back to the characters, I may have just mentioned that the island and the mysteries were bigger than the people, but the stories and relationships of the characters were the glue that held it all together.

Has there ever been a more lovable character than Hurley? My favorite kind of writing is where the characters in a story are self-aware that what is happening to them is odd and they comment on it and try to figure out why it's happening. I just can't stand characters that are along for the ride and don't ask why. Hurley always asked questions that we the viewers were asking and I loved him for it.

I have to mention one other stand out from the show. Has there ever been a more obvious example that the the Star Wars prequels were missing the roguish charm of Han Solo then the character of Sawyer? The success of Sawyer as a character proved to me that these fish out of water, good versus evil stories need a little bit of ambivalence and blurring of the lines between what is right and what is wrong. The on again off again of Jack and Kate would have gotten old really fast if Sawyer wasn't in the mix too.

I could literally list every character and twenty great moments but there's no need. Everyone that watched the show has their favorite moments and we each cherish them differently. Now that the story is complete, it feels good to have some closure but it's sad at the same time. I've heard people mention that every great book has to have an ending. Yes, this is true. Every great book or movie wraps up nicely. However, the majority of books and movies don't live with you for six years. You don't wait week to week and then eight months for the next chapter. If I live to be in my 80s, the six years I spent with Lost will represent almost 15% of my time on this earth.  That's quite a good chunk of time and it explains why people were so emotional to see the show end. I loved every second of it and I thank all the writers and actors for taking me on such a tremendous ride.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

80s Toys: Part Deux

I had such a nice response from the two or three people that follow my blog when I did my top ten 80s toys that I thought I'd do a list of honorable mentions.

And, yes, I'm sorry to say to certain readers, the Thundercat's Lair will still not be on the list.

Honorable mentions in no particular order:

Zartan from G.I. Joe
Always one of my favorite characters from the G.I Joe cartoon, the Zartan action figure was pretty unique. In the cartoon, Zartan had an allergic reaction to sunlight. For the toy, Hasbro made the figure's skin sensitive to heat so if you took Zartan out into the sun, his skin turned an amazing sickly neon green. This was by far my favorite action figure to take outside.

Alpine from G.I. Joe
Sticking with G.I. Joe toys, I have to mention a personal favorite that may seem an odd choice. Alpine was by no means one of the major G.I. Joe figures but he came with possibly the coolest accessory of any action figure from the 80s. As you probably deduced from his name, Alpine was the Joe mountain infantry man. The action figure came with two plastic hooks connected by about a foot of thin nylon rope. Alpine's grip enabled him to hold the rope and zip back and forth or he could simply hang at the end of it. On a family road trip to Washington D.C., I entertained myself for hours by attaching Alpine to the clothes hanger above my door and watching him swing with the motion of the car. By the way, I was easily entertained.

Cobra Terrordrome
This behemoth showed up late in my G.I. Joe collecting days. Still, I got a few good years out of playing with it. It didn't really do anything spectacular besides be a neat staging ground for my action figure battles. The coolest object it came with was the tiny red ship you can see there in the middle. It was absolutely huge and took up quite a bit of space. An interesting toy that I felt needed to be put on the list just for the audacity of it's size.

Next to the Millennium Falcon, the AT-AT from Empire Strikes Back was probably my most cherished Star Wars toy. I actually didn't get this one right away. My parents used some fiscal restraint and held off a few years until the price on this (admittedly) overpriced toy came down to a reasonable area. But, when I did finally got it one Christmas, I was overjoyed. First of all, The AT-AT in concept is amazing. It's a huge troop transport that looks like an enormous walking animal from another planet. It was very posable and had lots of fun accessories and things that detached. And, in what is becoming a theme for this list, I could hang Luke Skywalker from underneath it and reenact the scene where he slices open an AT-AT with his lightsaber.

Dagobah play-set
Such a simple piece of molded plastic gave me untold hours of fun. This is a version of Yoda's house from Empire. Hasbro condensed the entire terrain of Dagobah seen in the film down to a few inches of plastic surrounding Yoda's hut. Whatever, it worked for me. It had little sponges that were supposed to be the swamp where R2-D2 sank. It had little action figure sliders where you could battle Darth Vader and Luke. It also had these horrible little plastic nubs that stuck out that you could put some boxes on. This was supposed to create the illusion of Luke using the force on the boxes. It was pretty funny in it's ineffectiveness but still pretty clever toy engineering.

Ewok Village
The Ewok Village is a good juxtaposition to the Dagobah play-set in that it shows the evolution of Star Wars toys from the second to third movie. The village was a pretty nice play-set. It had a cage that you could wench up and down. There was a net for capturing your figures. It even had a hanging plastic boulder for smashing stormtroopers. I didn't learn about the hatred for all things Ewok until I was much older. When I got the Ewok village, I was in the height of my Ewok mania and absolutely loved everything that had to do with Endor whether it be speeder bikes or Wicket.

Transformer's Omega Supreme
Looking at these two pictures, I can't help but think how very Japanese robot this looks. However, back in the day, Omega Supreme was the granddaddy of all huge Transformer Toys. When Omega Supreme showed up in the cartoon, you knew Autobots were about to seriously kick some Decepticon butt. The toy kicked major butt as well. As you can see, it was an enormous robot but then it transformed into an actual working train. It was quite the multifaceted toy and I really loved playing with it.

I got some flak from some of my female readers for not including any toys that girls liked to play with during the 80s. Of course, being the manly boy that I was, I didn't play with any girl toys but I was certainly aware of some of the major brands.

My Little Pony
My sister had a nice little collection of My Little Pony. She liked to display them on the shelves in her room. I appreciated the collecting aspect of getting all the different ponies and how each one was unique and came with a different little accessory.

The Care Bears
I actually really dug the Care Bears. I enjoyed the cartoon and really liked the two later animated movies. Once again, this tapped into the collecting gene that all little kids had by making each bear unique, with their own personality.

The Smurfs
The Smurfs cartoon was actually appealing to both boys and girls but in my circle of friends, I didn't know any boys that collected the toys. They weren't action figures at the height of the action figure craze so they had that going against them. They were actually really small collectibles and I think this appealed to girls more than boys. Still, I loved the Smurfs and I wouldn't mind having a complete collection of all these vinyl figures from the 80s.

Cabbage Patch Kids
This was the huge one for my sister and most American girls in the early 80s. Tickle-Me Elmos, Nintendo Wiis, Zhu Zhu Hamsters, etc.— all these can't even come close to the craze that these dolls inflicted upon the general parenting public in the early 80s. Every girl wanted one for Christmas and no store could keep them in stock. When my sister finally got hers, I remember her loving it to death and it was always by her side. I have a special place in my heart for the Cabbage Patch Kids. The preschool/summer school I went to for most of my early years put on really elaborate plays every summer and one year they decided to do a Cabbage Patch Kids play. I was really young at the time but the director of the play must have seen something in me and she cast me to play the narrator of the the play, Colonel Casey the stork. It was quite the part with lots of lines and from what I remember and what people told me, I pulled it off quite well on performance night.

There you have it. The honorable mentions for 80s toys according to me. Feel free to comment with some of your favorites.

Part 1

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2 (Movie Review)

What's this? An actual movie review of a movie that's still in the theaters? You don't believe it? Well, I'm here to tell you that it is indeed true. I saw Iron Man 2 and lived to tell the tale. Although, waiting through the end credits to see the little teaser piece nearly put me in a coma. Do we really need to list every single graphic artist that works at every one of the 50 digital effects companies you used in making the film?

But, I digress. The original Iron Man shouldn't have been a monster hit. In a world of Batmen, Spider-Men, and Supermen, Iron Man just isn't in the same league in the comic book world or in the viewpoint of regular Joe moviegoer. However, when something is cool, it's just cool and the original Iron Man was freaking cool and audiences ate it up.

Robert Downey, Jr. is the living embodiment of Tony Stark. He's got the swagger and the presence to play exactly what Tony Stark is supposed to be, an over-the-top, brilliant playboy. Mix in some superb directing by John Favreau, a very competent script, and really convincing special effects and the result was simply oozing with coolness.

Iron Man 2 picks right up where the first left off with Tony revealing to the world that he is Iron Man. This brings all sorts of trouble his way. The U.S. government wants the suit. A competing weapons manufacturer envies Tony's success and wants everything that Tony has.

These are major threats but they turn out to be side events compared to an unknown threat that Tony must face from the other side of the world. Stark enterprises certainly couldn't achieve it's lofty status without making a few enemies. Along these lines, a genius, ruthless Russian played by Mickey Rourke decides his mission in life is to destroy all that Tony Stark stands for because of perceived wrongs that Tony's father inflicted on his family.

All this and Tony is slowly dying because the element that powers his suit is contaminating his blood. It's quite the deck stacked against Iron Man and he doesn't exactly deal with it well. He alienates his friends and allies as he collapses in on himself in self pity.

That's the basic set up of the film. Now, what really works in the film is Mickey Rourke as the villain. We get a good glimpse into his agenda and he's a great mix of a terrifying brute and a super brain. Iron Man 2 also takes its time a little more than the first film and has more character moments that work pretty well.

The action, on the other hand, didn't quite do it for me. There are no moments in this film as cool as the flight with the fighter jets or blowing up the tank from the original Iron Man. The action can best be described this way.

Pretty amazing sequence against Whiplash at the car race. It's by far the most effective action set piece.

Man in suit vs. man in suit.

Man in suit vs. robots that look like men in suits. And, then there's more robots that look like men in suits.

Finally, there's two men in suits vs. angry guy in suit.

Universally, the one negative thing most fanboys agreed was disappointing in the first film was that the last action sequence revolved around Tony slugging it out with Warmonger in a battle of iron suits. It didn't live up to the rest of the film and felt very simplistic when the rest of the movie had been so masterfully put together.

In Iron Man 2, it seems that the producers of the first film absolutely loved the big machine vs. machine ending and decided to do that times ten in the sequel. All the fights take place at night and except for Iron Man, all the evil machines are gray or black and it's quite boring to look at.

Iron Man does not have the gallery of villains that Batman or Spider-Man has and, unfortunately, it really showed in this film. Iron Man is still cool but he needs his version of the Joker or this franchise will get stale really quick.

Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, have minor parts in the film but they are really just set up for the Avengers movie that is coming in a few years. I'm still really a fan of what Marvel is doing with their shared universe of movies and I really am looking forward to the Thor and Captain America movies.

However, for me, Iron Man 2 was a marginally sized bump in the road that didn't live up to my lofty expectations. I hope the future Marvel movies can  recapture the magic of the first film and just make everything cool again.

Sherlock Holmes (Movie Review)

Welcome to Robert Downey, Jr. corner. For my next two reviews, I'll be examining the most recent additions to Mr. Downey's oeuvre.

First up, is this past holiday's smash hit, Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey, Jr. plays the title role while Jude Law plays Dr. Watson. Both actors do a great job in this new, action hero-light version of a Sherlock Holmes story.

Holmes can be played many different ways. In this film, Downey portrays Holmes as an eccentric genius whose barely holding onto his sanity. Holmes needs a constant challenge to his intellect or he becomes dangerously depressed. If he lived in modern times, he'd either be working for the NSA or locked up in a mental institution as a danger to society.

Luckily for the detective's brain, he becomes engaged in a twisted mystery of demonic cults and witchcraft that tests his wits to the fullest. I came into this film knowing his stories were rooted in reality so it was a tad predictable that Holmes would eventually pick apart each seemingly supernatural event that happens in the film and explain them with simple, real world logic.

However predictable the plot of the movie, the ride the movie makers take the audience on isn't any less enjoyable. There are great gag sequences where Holmes and Watson bumble their way through insurmountable odds. I also enjoyed how Holmes broke down a fight in his brain and then executed every move to perfection. The physical special effects in these fighting spots were really tremendous. It really looked like Holmes was breaking jaws and delivering devastating blows to his enemies.

Rachael McAdams plays a quasi-romantic interest for Holmes. I'm not sure if her character has an established history in the universe created by Sir Author Conan Doyle or if she was created for the film. She just felt odd to me and her effect over Holmes seemed out of character for him. The detective's advanced intellect almost makes him incapable of real human emotion and his fumbling over her every step felt a little forced.

A few more quick points, both in the positive and negative categories.

I thought the score of the film was really unique and really stood out.

I had a lot of trouble understanding Robert Downey, Jr. throughout the whole film. He kind of mumbles in this gruff understated voice and I'm certain I missed half of what I'm sure were witty one liners.

Overall, the special effects worked perfectly in creating the world of historical London. In a movie like this, it is really the job of the effects to put you squarely in the world and they shouldn't pop out at you like they do in a sci-fi or superhero movie. The effects succeed quite well in this regard.

I can't wait for the sequel which will delve into Holmes's rivalry with Professor Moriarty. If it's anywhere as close in execution as this first film, is should be tremendously fun.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Monster of Florence (Book Review)

I've been a huge fan of the writing duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, for quite some time now. For over a decade, they have kept me entertained with their novels that are mixes between Michael Crichton thrillers and Michael Connelly mysteries.

Their books started off as one-off murder mysteries that usually involved a seemingly supernatural killer or beast. Slowly, they started to build a universe that all their books existed in and eventually, the star of the novels, the odd and enigmatic, Special F.B.I. Agent Pendergast, rose to take center stage.

I'm going to review the newest Pendergast novel in the near future but my current review deals with an extraordinary nonfiction book by just one of the writing duo, Douglas Preston.

The Monster of Florence not only recounts the tale of the most famous serial killer in modern Italian history, but, Preston also tells how his Italian journalist co-author and himself became embroiled in the shady police investigation and were themselves charged with serious crimes that could have seen them spend years in jail.

Whether it be Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Devil in the White City, or City of Falling Angels, the last few years has seen some pretty great literary accounts of little known or forgotten murderers and serial killers. The Monster of Florence takes its place amongst the best of these types of books.

Between 1974 and 1985,  a serial killer stalked the Tuscan countryside outside of Florence, Italy. Every few years during this time, he came out of hiding and brutally murdered young couples who had snuck off into the countryside to make love in their cars. He simply shot the couples at point blank range but it was what he did to the female corpses that made him a horror figure of epic proportions to the Italian people.

To make the tale of the monster even more tragic, the local police and government detective agencies bundled the investigation at every opportunity. They made up bizarre, satanic conspiracy theories. They ruined the lives of countless innocent people as they directed their misguided investigations at one person after another.

All along the way, journalist Mario Spezi, Preston's Italian co-author, was their to chronicle each horrific killing and each monumental investigational blunder. In 1998, Preston moved to Florence. Upon arrival, he learned that his little chateau was literally within sight of one of the infamous spots where the monster had struck.

Preston was told to look up Spezi. After a few meetings, it was obvious they would become fast friends and they both started digging further and further into the killings and what they believed to be the true avenue to find the killer.

One thing Preston quickly realized, though, was that in Italy, even more so than most countries, making the police look bad and lose face was going to cost him and his co-author deeply.

The last 100 pages of the book is a surreal account of how the vindictive government officials, judges, and local law enforcement closed in on Spezi and Preston with outrageously trumped up charges. They were bullied, interrogated, and one of them was even thrown in jail. Preston acknowledges that he wouldn't put half of what he experienced into one of his fiction novels. It was just too unreal to believe.

The Monster of Florence is a tremendous book. It reminded me why I love nonfiction. More often than not, real life makes fiction look like bad melodrama. The monster was an epic story in Italy and most of Europe and even today, most Americans don't know a thing about it. The monster was a killer more brutal than Jack the Ripper with more murders than the Zodiac, Son of Sam, and Boston Strangler combined.

Start this book to learn about one of the most notorious killers in history. Finish the book to find out how corrupt a judicial system can be and to learn the fate of Douglas Preston, one of the best authors out there at the moment.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Madagascar 2, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hangover, Terminator: Salvation

Let's pump out some movie reviews that most of you probably saw a year ago but I'm just now getting to watch.

First up, Madagascar - Escape 2 Africa. It's OK. The penguins are funny. They are in Africa this time and the story is a poor man's Lion King-type tale. Did I mention the penguins are funny? Alright. Let's move on to the the next review.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is up next. Natasha and I enjoyed the movie. It's a little quirky and drags at times, but, overall, the story and characters kept us entertained. I really like the score to the film. It was a nice mix of folksy songs and funky beats. The most amusing part of the film was that the animals are completely humanized for 90% of the film and then out of the blue they'll just snap and become animalistic and devour the meals on their plate or growl at the weirdest times. Actually, this dichotomy is kind of the whole point of the film.

I was really expecting The Hangover to be over-the-top raunchy, but, unless you sit through the pictures that run through the end credits, the movie is refreshingly reserved in its raunch. Now, don't get me wrong, the movie goes places that are hilariously wrong and squeamishly awkward to watch. However, they don't quite cross the line into vulgarity and my wife and I finally found a movie that sat nicely on the border of being sick and twisted enough for me while not completely offending her.

Speaking of being offended, let's briefly touch on Terminator Salvation. What a wasted opportunity. Someone finally ponied up the money to let a director tell a story that takes place in the machine-ravaged future of the terminator universe. The movie makers then blow it by choosing to tell a tiny yarn to fill in a gap of information from the original movies that I could care less about. I wanted to see John Connor in full leadership mode and completely taking it to the machines. Instead I get the equivalent of the Star Wars prequels. I know you know that the audience knows that we know that Kyle Reese is going to go back in time and get it on with Sarah Connor while avoiding a terminator that has human skin. So, if I know all of this, what's the point of filling in the gap? Really, what's the point? Oh, I forgot to mention the acting is sub-par and the directing and production design just felt very weird and uninspired.