Reviews

Book Review: Ghost Story

Ghost StoryGhost Story by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was inspired to track this down after seeing the 1981 film adaptation last year. I’d heard the film left out a lot of material and was generally inferior. While it’s true that the movie does pare down the story quite a bit, as well as substantially changing the nature of the monster, I’m undecided as to whether I’d call it inferior or not, because the book really didn’t do much for me.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the book. I did. But I didn’t love the book. I thought it had a really interesting idea at its core, namely that the vampires, werewolves, and ghosts that have been talked about throughout human history are all in fact the same kind of creature, a very long-lived creature that preys on humanity and genuinely enjoys screwing with its prey. There were a few moments of genuine dread. And I thought the story was interesting on a metatextual level, as it was a ghost story in which many people tell ghost stories, and those stories both influence and explain the events the characters experience. But I’m sorry to say none of the characters, out of an entire townful of characters, ever really came alive for me. I’m afraid Stephen King has the corner on that market. And the author’s prose style kept me at arm’s length for reasons I haven’t quite been able to work out.

Bottom line, I respected it intellectually, but I just didn’t have much of an emotional response to it. A disappointment, but not a complete misfire.

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Book Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade's Greatest Movie!Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade’s Greatest Movie! by Bob Balaban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an in-depth history of the production of the classic Spielberg film, this isn’t it.

Instead, it is exactly what the title promises, a transcription of the diary kept by actor Bob Balaban during the time he spent working on CE3K. While there are some behind-the-scenes tidbits of movie magic — for example, I never knew that the curving mountaintop road where Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy Neary nearly runs over a young boy in his truck, and then moments later gets his first good look at several UFOs, was in fact built on a soundstage — the book really is just Balaban’s personal experiences on location and on set. Fortunately, he’s an engaging writer, and there is a certain wistful innocence about the the time he’s describing, when it was still very unusual for actors to have to react to objects that wouldn’t exist until the visual-effects teams constructed them months later.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is the growing friendship between Balaban and his costar, the famed French director and actor Francois Truffaut. Balaban plays Truffaut’s interpreter in the film, and he filled a similar role in real life, helping Truffaut learn his English lines and generally navigate an American film production that was shooting in very American locations. I’ve always had the sense that Truffaut was fundamentally a kind man, and I was pleased that Balaban’s descriptions of him support that impression. One moment in particular stands out to me, when Truffaut befriends some young boys on a Wyoming street corner and passes the time with them tossing pebbles at an old candy bar wrapper, the language barrier between them completely negated by Truffaut’s inherent warmth and openness.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of the film, or of Truffaut.

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Review: Runnin’ with the Devil

Running with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the TopRunning with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the Top by Noel Monk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Noel E. Monk managed the rock band Van Halen from its breakthrough in 1978 to the end of its first incarnation in 1985, when lead singer David Lee Roth left for a solo career and Monk himself was fired. Prohibited from publicly telling his side of things for many years, Monk is finally free to dish the gossip, and the result is this quick-reading memoir with the apropos subtitle “A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen.” (I don’t know why Goodreads claims the subtitle is something else. )

There are enough gossipy tidbits here to appeal to prurient interest, but if you’re a VH fan (or even just a fan of rock music in general), none of that will surprise you. Promiscuous sex, drugs and booze, trashed hotel rooms, and dickish behavior are hardly unique to this particular band. The basic outline of their rise and fall will seem familiar too: hard-working and talented young musicians break through, rise to immense heights, and then are undone by substance abuse and clashing egos. The thing that really distinguishes this book, however, is Monk himself. He’s led quite a swashbuckling life, before and after Van Halen, and he’s by turns funny, opinionated, and brutally honest. He doesn’t shy away from the really nasty aspects of the Van Halen story — Alex Van Halen comes off looking especially bad, in my opinion — but this isn’t a hit piece, and Monk never sounds like a guy with an ax to grind. He very obviously loved this band and loved the time he spent with them. But they weren’t always easy to deal with and the way things ultimately end up between the members of Van Halen and Noel Monk are downright heartbreaking.

My one complaint with Runnin’ with the Devil is that it leaves the reader hanging on certain matters. It is to Monk’s credit that he stops talking about Van Halen at the moment his involvement ended, rather than speculating on events he didn’t directly witness. But of course the band did continue in a new form, with Sammy Hagar as lead singer (Monk doesn’t think too highly of that era, or of David Lee Roth’s solo efforts), and there were a lot of unresolved personal matters at the time of Monk’s departure as well. What happened with Eddie and Alex’s alcoholism? And Michael Anthony’s as well? If you’re curious about those subjects, you’ll have to find another book. But if you want a powerful evocation of life on the road for a young band just arriving on the scene, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how things went wrong in only a few short years, this one is highly recommended.

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Review: The Questor Tapes

The Questor Tapes
The Questor Tapes by D.C. Fontana
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the years between the cancellation of the original Star Trek television series and the franchise-reviving feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Trek‘s creator Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced a number of made-for-TV pilot films that he hoped would lead to a new series and a regular gig for him. None of them sold, but they all at least made it to the airwaves and many are fondly remembered today. Probably the best of them (and the one I personally think would’ve been most interesting as an ongoing series) was The Questor Tapes, the story of a highly sophisticated android searching for its creator, a mysterious genius who’s gone missing. Along for the ride is a young engineer who was a protege of Questor’s creator and helped to assemble the android, and whose assistance Questor now requires to successfully navigate through society and those ever-confusing human emotions.

This novelization of the Questor film skillfully adapts an open-ended pilot into a satisfying stand-alone story. Some of the ideas in the story are overly familiar today, if not outright cliche’d, and Roddenberry’s, shall we say, outdated attitudes about sex and the human female are occasionally a bit jarring to modern eyes. (Every woman in the story has a smokin’ body and gets her wardrobe described in great detail, and the female character with the most prominent role is possibly a prostitute.) But if you keep in mind when this was written — 1974 — it’s a short and brisk read that’s perfect as disposable entertainment for a summer afternoon. Star Trek fans will find it particularly interesting because Questor is so clearly a forerunner of the Commander Data character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made its debut over a decade after Questor. Roddenberry wasn’t one to let go of a good idea…

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Review: Billy Connolly’s Route 66

Billy Connolly's Route 66
Billy Connolly’s Route 66 by Billy Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Billy Connelly is a Scottish musician, comic and actor who, in 2011, rode a three-wheeled motorcycle from Chicago to Los Angeles, following the fragmented remains of the legendary Route 66. Naturally, the whole adventure was filmed for a British television series, and this book reads like what it basically is, i.e., a transcription of that series, complete with lengthy dialog between Connolly and the more interesting people he encounters.

As someone who has long dreamed of making a similar journey, this book was a bit sobering. Connolly makes it sound as if there are more ghost towns along the Mother Road than thriving tourist traps, a stark contrast to most of the literature on the subject. He’s also pretty harsh in his opinions of the greasy-spoon-style “road food” that I tend to enjoy. And yet the things he does enjoy along the way are enticing, from his encounter with an Amish furniture maker to his wonder at the Grand Canyon, and these make the moodier passages worth enduring.

One thing to note: Connolly has lived in America for many years and loves this country, but he is not American. Nor is he Christian. But he is opinionated, and he’s not the sort of person to soft-pedal his opinions, which some readers may find a bit off-putting. Personally I found his outsider’s perspective and blunt revulsion at some of the more excessive, fanatical, or just plain weird aspects of American culture rather refreshing. His writing style — assisted by cowriter Robert Uhlig — is more serviceable than poetic, but he can get philosophical from time to time. The overall impression is something akin to spending a couple hours hearing your colorful uncle tell you all about his vacation over a pint.

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Review: Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A recent discussion with a friend regarding what I disliked about the film Man of Steel led to us reminiscing about the Superman comics we’d grown up with, which led in turn to him recommending this collection of stories from the 1980s that I somehow missed back in the day.

Briefly, in 1986, after decades of publication and hundreds of issues, DC Comics announced plans to reboot Superman… to toss everything that had come before and start over at issue #1, the destruction of Krypton, Ma and Pa Kent finding the baby in the crashed spaceship, the whole thing. But before that new series debuted, the publisher saw an opportunity that’s rare in ongoing comic-book titles, the chance for closure, to provide a definitive ending to the classic era of the Man of Steel… or, as he was once known, the Man of Tomorrow.

The two-part tale that lends its title to this collection, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (originally published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583), is flat-out brilliant. Written by comic legend Alan Moore (Watchmen) and structured in the form of a flashback (from the futuristic year of 1997!) narrated by Lois Lane, the “last” Superman story tells of Kal-El’s old enemies and allies coming together for one final confrontation, with fatal consequences for many of them, including — apparently — Superman himself. While there are plenty of deaths and an overall elegaic tone, the story never gets too heavy, and it ends on an absolutely perfect note, quite literally with a wink and a smile. For older fans who loved the Superman of an earlier era, it’s a wonderfully satisfying, nostalgic conclusion. The art by Curt Swann and George Perez is perfect as well, clean and bright, a touch old-fashioned perhaps but very pleasing, and exactly the way I remember Superman comics looking when I was a kid.

Rounding out this trade paperback are two additional stories by Moore that are unrelated but have a similar tone and theme to “Whatever Happened.” In “The Jungle Line,” originally published in DC Comics Presents #85 with art by the great Al Williamson, Superman has been infected by an extra-terrestrial fungus. Delusional and not trusting himself to fly safely, he drives south, intending to die well away from anyone who might be hurt by his super-powered death throes. But the jungle he finds himself in is home to another denizen of the DC universe, the hideous but kindly Swamp Thing, who makes telepathic contact with the stranger in his realm and tries to help him fight the ravaging hallucinations.

Finally, in “For the Man Who Has Everything” from Superman Annual #11 (art by Dave Gibbons), the Man of Steel is held captive by a telepathic alien plant that grants the illusion of the victim’s greatest desire… in this case, a “normal” life on an unexploded Krypton. While his friends Batman and Wonder Woman fight to save him in the real world, Kal-El comes to realize the “life” he’s living is nothing but illusion…

Taken together, these four stories all form an interesting meditation on the core of the classic Superman’s character: his desire for a normal human life as a husband and father balanced against his superhuman nobility and sense of duty. Unlike more modern superhero stories, which would present these ideas with clenched jaws and grim self-loathing, these tales have a lighter touch, more humor and optimism, and a sense that, while Superman may wish he had a different life, he’s not all that unhappy with the one he’s got, because he’s serving a purpose. It’s a refreshing change from the modern superhero idiom, and a lot of fun to read.

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Review: Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham

Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham
Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am amazed by the seemingly infinite flexibility of the Batman mythos. I’ve read Batman stories set in the Victorian era and the far future, seen him teamed up with (or placed in opposition to) characters as offbeat as the monster from the film Predator, and of course he’s been interpreted through cinematic visions as wide-ranging as Adam West’s, Tim Burton’s, and Christopher Nolan’s, and yet, somehow, it almost always works. In The Doom that Came to Gotham, the Caped Crusader and his rogues’ gallery of regular sidekicks and villains are transplanted into an HP Lovecraft story, and it works very well indeed.

The year is 1928, and the globetrotting adventurer Bruce Wayne has just discovered the remnants of the overdue Cobblepott Antarctic expedition… as well as the tentacled thing they found in the ice that apparently drove them all mad. Wayne destroys the monster with explosives — or so he thinks — and returns to Gotham City, the home he hasn’t seen in 20 years. But he soon encounters a talking dead man and a demon called Etrigan, who warns him that an old debt is coming due. An ancient evil from before the time of men is waking up, and if Wayne can’t find a way to stop it, humanity is doomed…

One of the pleasures of an “alternate history” tale like this is seeing how familiar characters and tropes get reworked in service of a new framework, and in this case, the reworking is clever, organic to the story, and frequently surprising. (This story contains the most logical explanation behind The Penguin that I’ve ever encountered!) But I suspect this story would also be effective if you didn’t know a thing about Batman or his usual sidekicks and adversaries. Co-writer Mike Mignola is the creator of Hellboy, another series that draws heavily on Lovecraft’s dark tales of Elder Gods and cosmic dread, and this story is an effective pastiche of those. It’s a taut, spooky yarn that effectively ratchets up the dread panel by panel until the climax, which casts a whole new light on the eternal question of whether the Dark Knight’s true identity is Bruce Wayne… or the bat.

Mignola did not do the artwork in The Doom that Came to Gotham, but the general look will nevertheless be familiar to fans of Hellboy, although it’s less stylized. Rendered mostly in a subdued palette (except where fire is involved), with nice detail overall and a suitably squirmy look to the creatures, the art contributes greatly to the final effect of the story.

Overall, a highly satisfying read.

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Quick Take: Sing Street

sing-street_cast-hero-walkI feel like I’m late for the party on Sing Street, as it’s been making its way around the U.S. since April, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, take my word for it: you will. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

An Irish import filmed in Dublin, Sing Street is a rare cinematic treasure: a movie that is both joyous and poignant, fanciful and authentic, with an ending that is exactly what you need it to be without it feeling predictable. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who forms a band to impress a girl and escape from the grim realities of his daily existence, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a love letter to the mid 1980s and the synth-pop music videos that dominated MTV at the time. It’s also a slice-of-life picture about a gritty urban school milieu that is no more. It’s a comedy-drama about brothers and brothers in arms, as well as the struggle to find yourself in spite of the petty bullies who want to squash your spirit. And it’s a clear-eyed depiction of young romance. Mostly it’s about that time in everyone’s life when you feel both hope and disappointment more keenly than you ever have before and ever will again.

This is the kind of movie I sometimes see and think “I wish I’d written this,” while secretly fearing that I don’t have enough talent to pull it off, at least not this well. The music is great and the evocation of 1985 is spot-on, as is the casting. It’s refreshing to see a movie about teenagers in which the actors actually look like teenagers. And I’ve got to say that Lucy Boynton, who plays the mysterious older girl who claims to be a model and catalyzes the entire plot, is some kind of amazing. When I was a teenager, I’d have become a musician for her myself.

Sing Street is charming on every level. Don’t miss it.

Oh, one final note: the makers of this movie must’ve cleaned out every vintage clothing store in the UK to find all that acid-wash. Wow…

 

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Review: Razor’s Edge

Razor's Edge
Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Razor’s Edge is the second of the two books in the aborted Empire and Rebellion trilogy that made it to press before Disney’s acquisition of all things Star Wars and subsequent termination of the existing “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials. (Well, technically, Razor’s Edge was the first of that trilogy, but I read it second; there isn’t a unified story arc connecting the two, so it doesn’t matter what order you read them in.) Remember, the idea behind Empire and Rebellion was to give each of “the big three” characters — Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo — a book focusing on them during the little-covered period between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, i.e., between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Razor’s Edge is Leia’s entry… and I’m sorry to say that it was pretty disappointing after the rollicking good time I had with the Han Solo book Honor Among Thieves. Also, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain exactly why.

The plot isn’t bad. It begins with Leia and Han on a secret mission to meet with merchants who can provide supplies for the construction of the new rebel base on Hoth, but their ship is attacked by Imperials shortly after arriving at the rendezvous point, suggesting they’ve got a leak somewhere in the Alliance. Fleeing their attacker, they come upon a pirate vessel attacking a freighter… and to Leia’s shock, the pirate is a former Alderaanian ship that survived the destruction of their homeworld and turned rogue to survive. One thing leads to another, and Han, Leia, and the Alderaanians find themselves at a pirate armada’s “clearinghouse,” surrounded by cutthroats, trying to figure out how to save a group of innocent captives as well as themselves, and uncover the identity of the spy in their midst, as before the Empire catches up to them.

That all sounds good, and I liked the primary setting — an abandoned asteroid mine filled with broken-down machines and senile droids, now taken over by the pirates — but I found I just didn’t engage with the story in any significant way. The secondary characters were largely indistinguishable from each other, the Imperial pursuit never seemed all that threatening, and I wanted something… more from Leia. Her lingering feelings of guilt and trauma over what happened to Alderaan are mentioned, and supposedly play a big role in why she’s so interested in these hometown pirates, but the feelings don’t have any palpable presence, and I kept thinking they ought to. Not that I wanted the book to become too dark and heavy — remember, that’s my complaint with so much of current popular culture and a place I definitely don’t want Star Wars to go — but a little more exploration of the princess’ mindscape would’ve been appropriate in this story.

On the positive side, Leia is convincingly portrayed as capable of independent action, Han gets in one of his trademark insanely reckless rescue stunts, and some of the banter between them is nice.

In the final analysis, I’d give Razor’s Edge a lukewarm recommendation. It’s mediocre and disposable, but it’s an adequate diversion, and it is better than some of the Star Wars tie-ins I’ve read. But I wanted it to be so much better than it was…

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Review: Star Trek: Captain’s Log

Star Trek: Captain's Log
Star Trek: Captain’s Log by David Tipton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This graphic novel, which I suspect will be of interest only to hardcore Trekkies, collects four stories about starship captains whose names aren’t Kirk or Picard: Pike (from the original series’ first pilot episode “The Cage”), Sulu, Harriman (briefly seen in the feature film Star Trek: Generations), and Jellico, a character who appeared in the two-part Next Generation episode “Chain of Command.” While it’s an interesting idea to more fully flesh out some of the background characters of the Star Trek universe, the results are decidedly mediocre, in part because three of the four stories follow essentially the same formula: the starring captain experiences (or is told about) a specific incident, then finds himself in similar circumstances and uses the trick that worked years ago to save the day again. Only the Jellico story breaks the mold… as does the Jellico character himself, perhaps the only truly abrasive Starfleet captain we’ve seen in all the many, many years of Star Trek stories.

My favorite of the four stories involves Harriman, captain of the Enterprise-B, and his struggle to come to terms with his role in the incident seen in Generations, in which the legendary Captain Kirk was (apparently) killed saving Harriman’s ship. Harriman is widely believed to be “responsible for the death of a monument” because he froze when the crisis began, and his confidence isn’t helped when an angry Doctor McCoy dresses him down. Overall, the story is somewhat banal — McCoy apologizes and shares some wisdom, the Klingons attack, Harriman outwits them and regains his mojo — but there are some really nicely written exchanges between Bones and Harriman, and the dialog is all in-character and authentic. (My favorite: “You’re a wise man, Doctor.” “Nah, I’m an old man. People just mistake the one for the other.” That’s Bones McCoy, at least in his later years; I even “heard” the words in De Kelley’s voice.) It helps that this segment has the best artwork of the four, too; Andrew Currie really captures Kelley’s and William Shatner’s expressions.

The Pike story has some nice emotional moments as well, expanding on a relationship only hinted at in “The Cage” between the captain and his attractive young Yeoman, but overall it’s just a generic shoot-’em-up tale. The Sulu story was completely forgettable (seriously, I can’t even recall what it was about). As for the final story about Jellico… it’s a nice change from the others, in that it’s told from the perspective of a newly transferred officer who’s trying to get used to her new captain, but I find Jellico such an obnoxious bully that I can’t believe he’d be an effective leader, and I can’t bring myself to care too much about him. He’s a jerk at the beginning of the story, he’s a jerk at the end of the story, and the protagonist has simply learned to live with it.

Ultimately, this is a fast, but disposable read aimed at a niche audience. But it does have its moments…

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