Review: Where the Wild Things Are

October 18, 2009

wild

FROM JASON’S MOVIE TICKET — I don’t want to be this guy, but I have to say it: The movie wasn’t really much like the book.

I mean, how could it be? The hard-copy version of Where the Wild Things Are is a whopping 10 sentences long. Let’s be honest: Author Maurice Sendak spoke more to us in pictures than words. But where the 1963 short children’s tale shows a young boy reveling in his imagination to “master his feelings,” the 2009 Spike Jonze adaptation is a ponderous ode to broken homes, loneliness, and the suburban blues. There’s no joyful escapism here — even the monsters have traded in their pure rumpus ways and toothy grins for emotional demons.

There are no answers, either. The troubling realities of Max’s anger and frustration, his fractured relationship with his sister, and his mother’s looming unemployment are all still waiting for him, no matter what personal discoveries he’s made by the end of Jonze’s retelling. We see our young Max wrestle to come to terms with his “growth, survival, change, and fury,” as Sendak puts it. But Jonze has no solution, no happy ending except for warm soup waiting at the dinner table.

This is heavy stuff — too heavy for the children who were packed into the theater when I saw the matinee Sunday. It was the first PG film I’ve seen in a while, and that rating didn’t help send signals to Grandma and Grandpa Midwestern America that this was no Pixar song-and-joke gig. The four- and five-year-olds expected My Pet Monster, not Being John Malkovich.

Misplaced marketing doesn’t mean the film was a failure. It just wasn’t the bedtime story we thought it was, full of color and comfort and joy.

Don’t let me sound like the flick’s a waste. It shines in many departments, not the least of which is the setting. Timing is just as important as location — and 90 percent of Where the Wild Things Are seems to take place in those waning moments during the last sun-drenched minutes of the day and dusk, just when the sun is losing its life. That’s when my imagination was always strongest as a boy, after all.

It’s clear that Jonze is attuned to that primal way kids think. He just gets childhood, or at least the kind I had — the version experienced by an outcast trying to understand the very adult situations all around him, and struggling to analyze context with no experience.

Let’s not overlook the acting. Eleven-year-old Max Records seemed like he’s had 20 years of acting experience and was able to show us a depth I didn’t expect from a child actor. James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, and the criminally-underrated Chris Cooper were so convincing as Wild Things that I forgot they were celebrities and simply accepted them as characters.

And then there’s the costuming. While it’s obvious the Wild Things are people in suits, what is dazzling is the range of emotions that the Jim Henson wizards manage to get from their faces (there is some CG overlay, too, but it all looks completely lifelike). They might as well be real creatures, raised in the East Village and coached by Shakespearean actors.

The dream-like soundtrack is what tied everything together, though. Without it, I might have tuned out early.

A couple of quick notes: To date, Where the Wild Things Are is ranked at 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.5/10 on IMDB. It also grossed $32.5 million in the opening weekend, in part due to the two $4 tickets I purchased.

To close, let me just address the “debate” about whether the island of the monsters is real. In Sendak’s book, the forest grew out of Max’s imagination. In the movie, though, Max runs away. We never see him bump his head. There is a seamless transition through the nightmare city streets and backyards to the sailboat that carries Max away. We see him leave and return with no obvious trauma. I choose to think it’s real, in much the same way I choose to think Douglas Quaid really went to Mars.

That is all.


Wallpaper of the Week: Kurt Vonnegut, or Slaughterhouse-4scrape

August 1, 2009

vonnegut02

FROM JASON’S IMMEASURABLE GRIEF — It’s true. That fool’s paradise of visual filth, flamboyance, and foolery known as 4scrape is no more. It’s just another 404 now.

So it goes.

When it comes to image boards, as we’ve said before, 4scrape was the best way to scan for new desktop art. It not only cut out everything but the wallpapers themselves, but it also reduced the need to click through hundreds of links and page loads.

On July 27, the creator’s blog said the site is down and he/she won’t cast rez on it. The source code and SQL were posted, though, so the entire engine is open to the public for any willing to continue the good fight. There might even be a torrent release of the 150GB of image data cached by 4scrape (though that kind of a download is impractical at best and retarded at worst).

It didn’t take Ice-9, a prison riot, a Martian invasion force, a timequake, or nuclear holocaust to bring down 4scrape. Apparently, there were too many problems with the code to put more blood, sweat, and tears into it:

  • Cache for searches (potentially just post searches) is broken.
  • Threads need to be cached as a whole unit — assembling them from a 500,000-row table is too slow.
  • General consistency errors — there’s a bunch of images missing (???)
  • The scraper likes to shit itself to keep things lively.
  • The backend would occasionally crash/spinlock (???)
  • The JavaScript shit is a horrible mess.

So it goes.

Right before the site folded, I had been searching almost in vain for Kurt Vonnegut wallpapers to share. The top-most one was easy to find; but when I went looking for others — well, that’s when the 404 struck.

vonnegut03

The subsequent announcement that the site will be abandoned put me in a particularly grouchy and very Vonnegut-story-defeatest mood. I stomped around a bit, and then figured the universe will manage to realign this mistake somehow.

Truth is, even with 4scrape’s help, Vonnegut ‘papers are awfully rare. I turned to customized Google Images searches. They turned up very little. The best I could find, aside from a few badly-patched-together and quite ugly photo mosaics were oversized scans of some of book book illustrations and one fairly large but grainly photo that didn’t make Kurt’s face look like a catcher’s mit.

Some Photoshop filters, sharpening, and color-tweaking later and here are some (moderately) presentable pieces of Vonnegut-icana to ease us all through the rough patches.

vonnegut05

As always, I’ve put the images in 1024×768 — which despite some protests is still the most widely used m0nitor resolution (and 4:3 is still the most widespread aspect ratio). Enjoy.


Read This: VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums

June 30, 2009

100greatestFROM JASON’S HESITANCE — Let’s get this clear up front: Normally, I wouldn’t rely on VH1 as the arbiter of taste. And usually I wouldn’t bother with a coffee table book, let alone recommend it.

But as I thumbed through this one while standing over the $2 clearance bin at Barnes & Noble, I realized that these pastiches were the story of my youth. They were the time-warped-and-faded record covers my dad played over and over as he burned through turntable needles like matchsticks.

In case you’ve never tried, let me explain that writing about music is very difficult. But here are compiled novelists’, biographers’, journalists’, VH1 produces’, songwriters’, and DJs’ insights and warm memories of how everyone from the King of Rock to the King of Pop to the King of Soul changed everything. And in-between, there are odes to Bowie, Aretha, u2,  Radiohead, Bob Marley, Jeff Buckley, NWA, AC/DC, Kraftwerk, Van Morrison, The Beastie Boys, Otis Redding… well, I’m not going to list all of them.

The rankings aren’t arbitrary — they were voted upon (in 2003) by 700 industry insiders “from Art Garfunkel to Britney Spears” and including radio programmers, critics, and disc jockeys.

The unmitigated victors, of course, and as they should be, are The Beatles, who in the countdown seal four of the top 10 spots (with a fifth album ranking in at number 11). I can hardly argue with reviewer Eric Wybenga’s praise of Revolver‘s sitar-versus-backmasking eclecticism, or editor Jacob Hoye’s colorful comparisons of Abbey Road to both Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein in the same breath.

It’s not a perfect list by any means, but that can be expected of direct democracy. Nevermind is sort of self-consciously thrust into the number two spot ahead of Pet Sounds (a travesty, possibly a capital offense), while Thriller, the dominant force in my life circa 1985-1995, ranks a lowly number 23. I don’t want to stoop to an ad populum fallacy here, but it’s the best-selling album of all time for a good reason; it could have easily replaced Joni Mitchell’s Blue at the 14 spot, or The Joshua Tree at 15. RIP, Michael.

Dark Side of the Moon, which I consider the most cohesive album and certainly the best concept album, didn’t hit the top 50. Crime. Meanwhile, Appetite for Destruction hit number 42 to edge out both Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II (Physical Graffiti also makes the list even further down).

The Pixies — who more than Nirvana birthed the alternative genre — do not even make the list. Enough said. Conversely, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer cripple the list by even being there.

All that aside, what make VH1’s 100 Greatest Albums work are the stories.

There are the historical looks at Fleetwood Mac’s tragically romantic entanglements (Rumours chronicles the break-ups of John and Christine McVie and of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks). There are musings on how Public Enemy’s potent rhymes about the black expierience really scared white parents on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. There’s the utter godsmacked-ness over how Stevie Wonder played every single instrument — no outside help at all — on Innervisions. And there’s writer Matthew Specktor’s almost embarrassingly personal essay on how he discovered Tom Verlaine’s “thyroidal singing” on Television’s Marquee Moon.

I could go on, gushing about the treatment of Sex Machine and Mothership Connection and Astral Weeks and Abraxas. But there’s too much too cover — just read it.


Read This: On a Pale Horse

June 22, 2009

palehorse01FROM JASON’S TRIP TO HALF PRICE BOOKS — Just ignore for a moment that On a Pale Horse is written by one Piers Anthony Dillingham Jacob, author of those hideous Xanth novels.

Up front: It has flaws. It’s simplistic to a Da Vinci Code fault, clearly pointed at the young adult audience. You get the impression that it was written in one long incense-fueled sitting, and the whole mass simply congealed on the pages. On a Pale Horse isn’t style over substance; it’s concept over substance.

I’m not doing a hot job of selling it, am I?

Still, it has its novelties, and that’s why I was willing to spend $3.56 to own it (can I plug Half Price Books any more ardently?).

Anthony does something quite rare; he writes into a unique niche I’ll call science fantasy, or sci-fa. The most interesting conceit of his Incarnations of Immortality series (of which this is book one) is the world in which it is set — a modern mirror Earth where dark magic is employed alongside nuclear energy. Where soldiers fired spells as well as bullets during World War II. Where car manufacturers compete for customers with flying carpet makers. Where Satan’s marketing department wages a massive billboard PR campaign for Hell. Where succubi can be had (for a price) and computer programs can summon demons.

Anthony does such an excellent job of fusing arcane arts, monsters, skyscrapers, and technology (early 1980s tech, anyway) that it many times overshadows the adolescent dialogue and clunky plot dynamics. Not all the time, mind you, but enough of a Band-Aid to pull it out of the proverbial hellfire.

The premise: Young Zane (an 80s name if ever I heard one) manages to shoot and kill the personification of Death and, just like in The Santa Clause, must take his place. Zane travels the world on his titular steed, harvesting the souls that are in perfect balance between good and evil and deciding whether those souls should go to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Thanks to the meddling of other Incarnations — War, Fate, Nature, and Time — he becomes ensnared in a plot by Satan to kick-start World War III.

Think Death Takes a Holiday on a Harry Potter level, but without the depth.

Again, I know I’m not being very persuasive on behalf of On a Pale Horse, and I do apologize. But my feelings on this one are complicated. While Anthony’s style is oversimplified and sometimes even vacant, I am completely taken with the idea of an anthropomorphic Death who exercises choice, and has personality, compassion, and rules.

Here’s a Death who struggles with the ethics of mercy killings (incredibly progressive for 1982), rails against the rules God’s instituted for original sin, goes on strike, and isn’t afraid to rescue a select few “clients” who he believes are getting shafted by Fate.

And hey — Zane even loosely inspired Bryan Fuller’s Emmy-nominated Dead Like Me on Showtime, which featured similar Grim Reapers working the Seattle area. That’s got to count for something.

So this review was less than glowing. Not everything on my bookshelf is literary gold. If you’re interested, then do what I did — read it in an airport.


Fuller says Trek needs new classic-era characters? Try Piper and Sarda!

June 21, 2009

dreadnought01FROM JASON’S VULCAN HALF — Hey Bryan Fuller, I’ve got a pitch for a fresh Star Trek television show that could potentially be set in the J.J. Abrams movie universe.

Why don’t you try using Piper and Sarda, the Starfleet Academy cadets who took center stage in Diane Carey’s Dreadnought! and Battlestations! novels?

Fuller, who has some free time now that his Pushing Daisies has been canned by ABC, told Sci-Fi Wire a few days ago that he’d like a crack at creating a new classic-era Trek show (for CBS, which owns the rights).

“I love the aesthetics of the new movie,” he said. “I think it has to be set in that world… [and] I think we need a new ship with a new crew and an entirely new adventure that is in the timeline and the aesthetic of the movie, but it’s telling a different story.”

Carey’s cadets fit that bill perfectly.

Piper is a wannabe Kirk thrown into the middle of a conspiracy against the Federation, and Sarda is a conflicted Vulcan she has mortally offended in the past, to whom Piper turns for help in her darkest moment. The result has a tinge of romance mired in a personal enmity — a dynamic Kirk and Spock never had to struggle through.

It’s all very reminiscent of the TNG episode Below Decks, and Piper as lead has enough dimension to warrant her own space legs.

“I made her female, because if I’d made her male everyone would have said I was trying to do a young James Kirk and outshine the captain,” the author said in Voyages of Imagination, a 786-page summation of every Trek novel through 2006.

“In fact, James Kirk remained the hero of Dreadnought!, which was very important. He was one step ahead of [Piper] the whole way…. My [new] characters were young, imperfect, and clumsy, but they had heart and integrity,” Carey said.

The novel broke pretty much every Trek rule theretofore established by Pocket Books, and the editors loved it when it shot up the New York Times bestseller list. Carey followed six months later with a sequel, Battlestations!.

And then we never heard from Piper and Sarda again. That’s a shame, because the original series Star Trek universe has needed new life — new characters and perspectives — for a long time.

dreadnought02Carey’s imagination also gives us new technology that (to my knowledge) never again manifested in the Trek-iverse, but which would give a new and dangerous spin to the Abrams one. There are the Tycho class interceptor and the Arco class attack sled, which are X-Wing-ish fighter shuttles.

There’s also the titular war machine, officially Christened the Star Empire, which boasts a strange, phaser-resistant hull, unimaginable weaponry, and a holographic projection system that can fool scanners into “seeing” dozens of realistic copies of the ship.

The top-secret battlecruiser is stolen — seemingly by terrorists with connections to Piper — but the cadets (and Kirk) eventually find evidence that nothing is quite as it seems, and the real enemies could be posing as allies….

Dreadnought! would make a good two-hour pilot.

Disclaimer: Trek novels tend to settle into the young adult subcategory of science fiction a little too easily. I wish they had more substance, a grittiness more in line with, say, Battlestar Galactica than The Phantom Menace. Dreadnought! is the only Trek book I still own; that’s a testament to its ingenuity. And my reluctant nerdiness.


Read This: Inside-Outside by Philip Jose Farmer

June 12, 2009

insideoutside01FROM JASON’S REPLENISHED BOOKSHELF — Take heart, the banana-hammocks shown on the cover are never actually described inside the book. Or if they were, I repressed those memories.

No, what gets top priority description-wise in Philip Jose Farmer‘s Inside-Outside is the vicious, artificial world of Hell, where humans and demons suffer side-by-side.

It’s a cavernous and barren dessert domain, revealed mid-novel to actually be (spoilers here, folks) the hollowed inside of an asteroid where souls are imprisoned more or less as laboratory animals at the whim of a highly-advanced alien race.

In many ways, it’s a pre-treading of Farmer’s Riverworld Saga — not a re-treading, because he published Inside-Outside seven years prior to To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It also seems to foreshadow the route writer-director Alex Royas would take more than two decades later in Dark City (1998).

Farmer gets credit for being a master of American science fiction, but in my mind he’s not so much a crafter of great stories as he is a crafter of great fantasy settings. A good 80 percent of Inside-Outside is spent tromping through the bowels of Hell and meeting its challenges, not actually getting answers to the teleological puzzles the netherworld presents.

insideoutside02This is where Farmer succeeds: His version of the afterlife is like the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights brought to life. It’s debased. It’s surreal. It’s pain and doubt and vice at every turn.

But it’s also a tangible world ruled by its own peculiar physical laws, not some protoplasmic spiritual dimension, even though there are unearthly monsters a-plenty.

Corporeal though it is, Hell is lavished with religious iconography. I mentioned the demons; there is also a baffling and perhaps ghoulish Christ figure, stone idols, sewers filled with Inferno-esque denizens, the curse of eternal life through resurrection from the dead, machine-made “souls” reminiscent of Scientology’s so-called thetans, and (for all intents) omnipotent alien “gods” with their own agendas.

As well as Farmer creates his environment, he doesn’t do a terrific job of sculpting characters. There’s nobody to like in this novel. We have a protagonist, sure, but he’s a spiteful, violent, selfish brute. Jack Cull is not really a hero, although technically you could probably say he’s on a hero’s quest.

Cull is looking for hope, but by book’s end he does not find it — in fact, he finds the opposite, that he is doomed to help his masters subjugate other races to a grinding, pathetic Purgatorio for their own supposedly “ethical” but still very, very flawed reasons.

And it’s all due to a big mistake. With a big twist in the final 10 pages (again, spoilers), we find that Hell is not really the afterlife… Cull and everyone else are alien-made souls who have never lived, and who were injected with false memories of time on Earth. The planet has long since been destroyed by nuclear war, and there will never be more human babies born in which Cull and his companions’ souls may be placed.

Which makes for a fun trip down the peroverbial rabbit hole.

It’s a good read for atmosphere, if nothing else. And at just 169 pocket-sized pages, it’s a quick read (I think I buzzed through in five or six hours). That’s not bad for $1 spent on the spinner rack at my local Half Price Books.


World War Z + swine flu = paranoia

May 2, 2009

zombies01

worldwarzFROM JASON’S BOOK SHELF — I might have picked the exact wrong time to read World War Z, Max Brooks’ geek-celebrated “oral history of the zombie war.”

I was raised in a deeply superstitious household that embraced Christian mysticism. One of the most basic tenets of Christian mythology is that resurrection from the dead is actually possible.

I’ve since shrugged off the shackles of that thinking in exchange for atheism. But no matter how much intellectual growth you experience, childhood religious indoctrination leaves behind a tiny, immutable nag in the mind that panics at the sight of religious iconography.

So you can’t help but jump and shiver and glance over your shoulder when dealing with tales of the undead. America being so thoroughly saturated by Christianity (76 percent of citizens self-identify as adherents), maybe that explains why we hold such a fascination with works of horror and supernatural thrillers.

I was reading Brooks’ novel with that baggage already weighing me down, and then reports of the swine flu hit the airwaves.

Now, it’s important to understand that one of the reasons that World War Z works is that it shows how real people would react to news that a mysterious epidemic is spreading. It portrays complacent characters who don’t react until too late; folks who discount media reports and underestimate the danger of the zombie plague. They disbelieve accounts of the living dead. They look for a rational explanation under the seeming supernatural tide.

And it all started off small, with reports of a mysterious, unstoppable disease spreading across borders. You can see why “swine flu” had my Spidey Sense tingling.

Compounding my Brooks-induced paranoia is an RSS toy built by our fellow Front Row Crew forum friend, Sonic. The gadget, called A.Z.O.N.S., or Automated Zombie Outbreak Notification System, is a gag based on the ol’ nerd joke about the “pending zombie apocalypse.”

I mean, any geek worth his salt has thought about what they would do if suddenly dropped in a nightmare world out of the mind of George Romero, right?azons A.Z.O.N.S. scours Web news sites for a list of terms related to said apocalypse. It analyzes them and reports “threats” to your RSS reader — in my case, to a widget on my iGoogle page.

Some of the key words it hits on are “strange disease,” “unknown disease,” and other medical terms. Guess what has its alarm klaxons sounding these days, right as I finish up World War Z?

I’m not honestly suggesting that I believe swine flu has anything to do with zombies. But when a work of fiction interlaces just so with real-world meta events, it can be enough to make your skin crawl. I did a literary double-take before I could settle down and remind myself that it’s just a book.

zombiehippyThat’s the beauty of Brooks’ writing. He makes the undead uprising seem so plausible. Sure, his zombies are the shambling, moaning ones. They aren’t the rampaging, quick-footed plaque zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (which I really liked).

But that doesn’t make them cartoon-ish Scooby Doo apparitions, either. They aren’t for instance, the lovable reanimated clowns of ExtraLife artist Scott Johnson’s 56 Zombies Project.

They are terrifying and unstoppable demons. They are the traditional horde zombies that sweep down and close in, never stopping, never giving quarter. They are not afraid. When one falls, another takes its place. And every human they kill joins their cause.

Oddly enough — and here is where I was happiest with World War Z — the zombies aren’t the most intriguing part of Brooks’ work. They provide an excellent backdrop, but they aren’t the soul of the book. Like the very best plot devices, they are merely there to facilitate character stories.

In this case, the zombies are just the grind stone used to wear down the humans. The real genius of the novel is how deep a psychological toll is taken on the survivors of the war: They suffer everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to self-delusion, cannibalism, multiple personality disorder, and stunted cognitive progression.

Some, called “quislings” in the book, are so badly damaged that they are knocked into a dissociative state where they actually think they are zombies though they remain uninfected. A suicide pandemic strikes other survivors, while others are so hope-lorn that their minds shut down. They simply go to sleep and never wake up.

This is my fear for the big-screen adaptation helmed by director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Monster’s Ball): That it will be an action film and not a story of the human spirit’s breaking point. Perhaps Forster’s track record with thinking-man flicks is why he was chosen to spearhead the 2010 project. I can certainly hope that he finds the right angle instead of just cutting and running with another living dead gore-fest.