Friday, June 29, 2007

Reviewage - June 2007

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk

Ah, Chuck. I have a like / dislike thing with Chuck (love / hate is too strong).

I like what he attempts as an author, but he loves to dwell on the grotesque. I know there's an audience for that kind of thing, but I just slog through it because I think he's got an interesting perspective when he's not trying to make me chunder.

"Rant" is the story of the guy who inadvertently triggers a plague that halves the population in the near future, 12 Monkeys style. Actually, it has a LOT in common with that story, and is almost a retelling of it, with a dash of The Man Who Folded Himself thrown in.

"Rant" is structured as an oral history, so it's all individual paragraphs of supposed quotes introduced by the person's name. It makes for a tough read and Palahniuk almost pulls it off, but I think the form itself is flawed.

I just skim-read The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon (read roughly 50% of it), which was in the same format, and was an actual oral history in the exact same format. And even though it was about an interesting rock star, the format made it dull.

Which points to the achievement (however dubious) of Palahniuk's, since he manages to still propel you through the narrative, and have it gel (though not without the work the format demands).

I would recommend this one for fans, and for folks who like to take whacks at experimental forms of fiction, but for those looking for a nice summer read, just get the boy with the lightening scar on his forehead.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Full disclosure, I skipped 90% of the description and 67.8% of the characters in this windy novel.

That in itself if probably enough of a review.

When I hit about the 4th lengthy character introduction in the 1st chapter, I flipped back to the author's info page. And there was one of the classic warning signs: it was all about the author's awards and Ivy League schools she attended. I just gotta remember to stick to my guidelines. (Which are: (1) read the jacket notes until it starts giving away the plot, then stop; 2) read the "about the author" section (the more awards listed, the more likely the book will suck), 3) read the first few paragraphs and see if it grabs; and 4) read a random page in the middle to see if it gets boring (on the premise that most authors hone the intro, but can get lazy later).)

What intrigued me about her in the first place was her web site, and the stuff she had on her career thus far and the interesting fact that she was huge in Australia before she took off here in the states. Usually an increasing fan base means something, and I am gonna give her My Sister's Keeper a try, because that's supposed to be her best.

The core of the novel is an attempt (largely a failed one, imvho) of trying to show how the kid who does the shooting became the way he is. I felt it was unconvincing because the kid's just picked on somewhat brutally, something I have first-hand experience in, and it would take something more than that for someone to become a lone gunman. There has to be some other kind of psychotic break or sociopathy.

Which made me remember Vonnegut's advice on writing bad guys, which in a nutshell says, "don't explain why the bad guy is bad." It dilutes the character, and it might make the audience identify with him, which they won't like.

The only novel that has tried this and succeeded in my opinion is Harris' The Red Dragon. And even it makes you feel icky, because you DO understand the killer's motivations all too well.

I have to brand myself as a bit of a hypocrite here, though, because the only part of the novel I read had to do with the bad guy. I also read the parts about the girl who was his childhood buddy, but only when it had to do with the shooter and not her cruel boyfriend. So, I read the part I said the author shouldn't have attempted - and then have the gall to say she shouldn't have.

If I ever run into her, she has all rights to accuse me of being full of shite, I think.

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

Like Whisky Prajer, this album has me scratching my head.

Critics collectively had to go home and change their skivvies after a listen, but the sheer orgasmic strain in their voices made me skeptical, since the last time they acted this way was for The Strokes, who, imvho, are named appropriately.

Still, I had to have a listen, so off to the library.

The first thing I noticed was the abyssal monotony of the drumming. Dear God, from groove 1 (yes, CDs have grooves of a sort) all the way to the lead-out, it's the same freakin' beat. While I always prefer a real live drummer over a beat box, in this case they could've saved a salary and no one would have been the wiser.

Second, it sounds like crep. The production makes it sound as if they recorded in a muddy, windy field. Knowing that sometimes the artists produce for a specific sound environment (for instance, the Cars always listened to the final mix in a car to make sure it sounded good in there), I tried it in the car, on my good stereo, on my ancient backup basement stereo, through headphones and a boom box. Crep, crep, crep, and crep. Each environment actually brought forth another deficiency in the mix. Was their producer deaf?

If you want to hear an amazing production - outside of anything Alan Parsons touched as a producer - Radiohead's OK Computer is an achievement. On a good stereo, it sounds a thousand miles wide, yet you can hear the smallest sonic details, too. I hope they kick out a DVD version of this someday.

Arcade Fire, are you listening? (Pun intended.)

TLD: I'd like to address the summary on for Ok Computer, which says: "an album about the way machines dehumanize people". Uh, right. Y'know maybe that's the case, but the title, and even many of the musical themes are taken from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where "OK computer" was the typical sarcastic response the characters had to the ship's computer. The British TV series' theme music is laced throughout the album, too. So, I'd suggest that the album isn't as glum as Amazon suggests. It's got a nice sense of humor behind it.

Shut Up and Sing
A documentary on the Dixie Chicks and the infamous media shunning.

I've been avoiding most political stuff because when we're in the situation we're in (f'ed until the next election - assuming that one's not fixed, too), because there's no point in walking around pissed off all the time.

This documentary is worth the angst. It's a great snapshot of the group, and it's a phenomenal document of what it's like to be in the midst of a cultural perfect storm. I bet when the existing Beatles watch this, they'll be reminded of when Lennon made his famous "more popular than Jesus" remark (and pissed off the exact same bunch of rednecks).

The thing that still sticks in my craw is there is an entire industry (Rush, Faux News, and so on) built around bashing any Democratic president (any Democrat, really), and the same poltroons who got bent out of shape about Maines' mild "We're embarrassed that the president is from Texas" were the ones who typically said that Clinton was "not my president". Yes, pointing out this blatant hypocrisy is like pointing out that the wind is made of air, but apparently for these numbnuts, you gotta paint them a picture.


Anyway, even if you're not a fan, you'll enjoy Shut up and sing.

Especially gripping is the part where they're going on stage to do a show where they've received death threats. They fully expect to get shot at while performing. The looks on their faces, the hugs they give their husbands and kids -- it's chilling.

Get thee hence.

Btw, I tried to watch Jesus Camp, but since I have a lot of first-hand experience with these kinds of folks, I didn't need to subject myself to the horrors of this movie. If you don't know what goes on in right-wing, fundamentalist Christian churches, you should put yourself through this, maybe. But don't expect to enjoy the trip.

Fantastic Four, Rise of the Silver Surfer

I don't why critics and fanboys are so hard in the Fantastic Four films. They're a lot like the comics - light and somewhat clever.

I enjoyed the first one, and thought this one was a fine follow-up.

I have to give away one great line, so those of you who hate any spoilers, move along....

The Human Torch asks The Thing how he and his girlfriend have sex, to which The Thing barks, "None of your business!" To which THT says, "Ok, I just didn't want to discover that she'd died in a rockslide or something."

Music & Lyrics

A fun light romantic comedy about a 80s music has-been (not so subtle reference to Andrew Ridgeley of WHAM! fame) and a literary girl whose affair with her college prof. is the subject of a best-seller.

Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore are just about the best things we have going in the romantic comedy genre these days (both About a Boy and 50 First Dates should be on your must-see list if you haven't enjoyed them already). They are both willing to look silly, and manage to pull off believable characters in essentially goofy movies.

This is a perfect light entertainment on a night where you just want to chuckle a bit and not worry about shit. (Yes, I can be a poet.) Make sure you check out the blooper reel.

Ghost Rider

While I enjoyed this one, it was, to me, the second worst effort so far in the comic book character genre ("The Hulk" being the worst).

The problem is that there's a loooong leadup to the obligatory part where the hero morphs into whatever thing s/he's going to be. But then, without explanation, he suddenly begins screaming, and turns into a burning skeleton. WTF? essentially.

Another character later explains to him what's going on, so we're clued in too. But, if you're going to do an abrupt thing like that, you gotta telegraph it better. It's not effective in the same way as having Norman pop out of nowhere in a Sunday-go-tah-meetin' dress and stab the heroine in the shower. No, we want a little foreplay before we meet the bone-man, so to speak.

The rest of the movie is serviceable, though I wonder if the "three elements" demons were borrowed from Big Trouble in Little China or if BTILC borrowed them from the comic books (which I never read).

Oh, and this movie also trots out two of the hoariest cliches from the comic book world: 1) the Judeo/Christian religious view can't be adequately addressed unless the character is some incarnation of the devil (see Daredevil, Hellboy, and X-men), 2) girls are unattainable, but still remain virgins and wait around until the hero needs them, but then play hard to get anyway. Do you suppose Stan Lee ever got laid before the age of 30?

Hey, if you want to read better reviews than mine (not that finding them is all that difficult), but want to know who lines up with your tastes the best, try this site:
Which Movie Reviews Should I Believe?

It got me dead-on:
Rotten Tomatoes : 82%
James Bernadelli : 79%
Peter Travers : 74%
Roger Ebert : 72%

Don't give a rating to movies you haven't seen, btw. It throws it off.

Finally, I just love this jacket cover. I may have to get this framed for my cubie.

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