Category: Reviews

Book-A-Day 2018 #19: On the Ropes by James Vance and Dan E. Burns

“Aw, this is a sequel to somethin’!”
 – Crow T. Robot

I never read Kings in Disguise. On the Ropes is a sequel to Kings in Disguise. So anyone who is looking for a comparison to Kings in Disguise will be disappointed. Anyone wondering how many consecutive sentences I cram Kings in Disguise into, though, may be intrigued.

Kings in Disguise was a comics series by James Vance and Dan E. Burr, published by Kitchen Sink Press over several years in the mid-’80s and eventually collected into book form. Telling the story of plucky Depression orphan Fred Block, Kings in Disguise was critically lauded, winning both the Eisner and Harvey awards. Luckily, we’re not here to talk about Kings in Disguise. Because, as I said, I never read Kings in Disguise.

To repeat: On the Ropes is a sequel to Kings in Disguise, set about five years later. Since — and this will, I hope, be the last time I mention this — I never read Kings in Disguise, I’m not entirely certain which flashbacks in On the Ropes are to the earlier story and which are to things that happened after that story ended. I think Fred lost a leg in a freight-car-hopping accident after Kings in Disguise, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he’s now 17, and it’s 1937, and he’s working as the assistant to an escape artist in a WPA circus traveling the small cities of Illinois. [1]

Fred is also a labor organizer, or at least associated with a group of organizers trying to get together a major strike against steel mills across the Rust Belt (then still moderately shiny, at least for the bosses). In particular, he has a small but vital role in that organizing effort, which will cause him danger and distress.

His boss is Gordon Corey, who I’m afraid is that semi-cliche, the escape artist who yearns to die. Gordon also has secrets in his past, which would-be novelist Fred will ferret out as he tries to ingratiate himself with a female stringer who he thinks can help him with his writing and maybe make some introductions to help him get published.

The narrative also follows, in parallel, two very nasty men — one smaller, smarter, and fond of a knife, the other big and strong but not quite as stupid as you’d expect — who are employed by the usual shadowy rich people to do some union-busting, and who rack up a serious body count along the way. This element feels pretty melodramatic; they kill more people than is plausible for traveling freelancers — they need to be more solidly plugged into a specific power structure to have the cover-ups of multiple murders in multiple places be reasonable, even in a deeply corrupt time and place.

Again, I didn’t read Kings in Disguise; I can’t compare the two. This is a solidly lefty book about labor agitation in hard times, with a melodramatic plot and a certain stretching for meaning, which I didn’t find entirely convincing. My understanding is that it did not take twenty-five years to create — Kings in Disguise was published as a complete work in 1988 and On the Ropes came out as an original graphic novel in 2013 — but Burr’s art sometimes varies from page to page, making me wonder how long it did take. (He also sometimes draws different characters in slightly different styles in the same panel, which is mildly surprising — I couldn’t figure out if there was a specific artistic purpose there.)

On the Ropes is a solid, historically grounded graphic novel, shining a light on a piece of history a lot of people have forgotten now. (A lot of working people in this country, in particular, have forgotten how much blood people like them shed to get unions, as they run headlong away from them into the cold embrace of corporate generosity.) I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, but it’s worth reading for people interested in the period, the creators, or the subject. And, of course, for anyone looking for comics about actual people in real-world situations, of which there are always fewer than there should be.

[1] Note that this is the first sentence in this review not to mention Kings in Disguise. I could have kept it up, if I wanted. I’m not proud. Or tired.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #18: Equinoxes by Pedrosa

The hardest thing, for me, is to write on a book about normal people’s normal lives — without the genre trappings of excitement and violence, without the framework of some standard plot, without being able to do the Hollywood high concept thing of matching a new work with X and Y from the past. When that book is in comics form, and a lot of the heavy lifting of emotion and connection and scene-setting and time passing is done through art, it’s even harder: I’m not artistically trained, and I don’t have a strong vocabulary to talk about those elements.

So, um, Equinoxes is a big, stunning book, sprawling across a whole year and a large chunk of France, with a large cast, not all of whose names we learn. It comes from Cyril Pedrosa, who in that European-comics style is usually credited with just his last name, and whose work I haven’t seen since the heartbreakingly wonderful Three Shadows in 2008.

Pedrosa organizes his book around the four seasons, starting in autumn — and, yes, he is eliding solstices into equinoxes to make the structure work, but let’s not be too much astronomical sticklers right now, OK? Each section begins with a wordless series of small panels about a Mowgli-like hunter-gatherer, somewhere at some time. (We will get other hints about him later.) Then the main action begins, set in France in what I think is the present day. (But everyone has flip phones, so maybe it’s supposed to be about ten years ago, sometime in the mid-aughts.)

There are two main clusters of characters, one centered on the middle-aged divorced orthodontist Vincent and his teenage daughter Pauline and the other on the aged ex-radical Louis. There’s also a photographer, not connected to either of those groups, who wanders through the action, another young woman, a little older than Pauline, trying to find her place in the world and work that will give her meaning. There are two kinds of text interruptions to the flow of comics — one is directly the thoughts of the photographer as she grapples with her life, and the other, I think, is her flow-of-consciousness impression of the person she’s just photographed. She adds another level of art to Equnoxes, which already is about, at heart, the big questions: what gives meaning to life, how should we live, how do we relate to each other, what brings people together and pulls them apart.

This is not a book of plot. It is a book of connections and daily life, of moments that feel small at the moment but maybe aren’t, of what to do with today and tomorrow and tomorrow, of the things that break into your life and shake it all up.

If I were French, I think I’d know where this takes place: it’s somewhere specific, I think, a small city on or near the coast. The places in it are real and solid, and we see a few of them repeatedly from different angles and in different seasons.

The people are equally real: Vincent is a bit of an asshole, but he knows it and fights against it. Louis is worn out from his life and detached from the things others think he should engage in. Pauline is quiet except when she explodes, hiding behind earbuds like so many other teenagers. And there are many more — some of whose names we figure out easily, some who appear once in one context and then loop back doing something else, some who only wander through once.

The cover is appropriate both thematically — two people, in a moment of conversation but entirely separate and not looking at each other — and as an important moment of the story. But I’m afraid it will look cold and distant, and this is not a chilly book. Equinoxes does require time and a willingness to let events flow, like an independent film, but it is lovely and true and has a deep wellspring of humanity in it.

I thought Three Shadows was a masterpiece; Equinoxes is as much of one — big and expansive and gorgeous. (Pedrosa is also doing a lot of things with his art — colors for the season and places and people — that I can point to but not explain in any depth.) I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who cares about people and their lives…which I hope is all of us.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049

Sequels are always an iffy proposition. There was a time that a hot film spawned an almost mirror-image sequel as a fast cash grab. After it was clear that was not what audiences wanted, sequels grew smarter and more sophisticated. In many cases, though, the first question asked is, “Does this really merit a sequel?” Sometimes, the creators have more they want to say or, after time has passed, feel there is something new to explore.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner took Philip K. Dick’s prose work and envisioned a near future that was a darker reflection of 1982. We had gobs of atmosphere, some very restrained and impactful performances, and were left to wonder.  While talk of a sequel has bopped up every few years, everyone held out until now. Director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049, recruited many of the original cast and crew to take use a bit further into the future to see what has changed.

Judging from the box office, apparently the audience, which was wowed in 1982, has changed and shrugged at the sequel. That’s a shame, because the movie, out now on home video from Warner Home Entertainment, is well worth a look. Yes, it pales in comparison to the impact the original had, but so much has changed in filmmaking and society that it should be expected. A meditation on humanity and the decline of Western civilization is always a welcome subject, but this story left too many gaps, too much unexplained so ultimately proved a disappointing experience.

Screenwriter Hampton Fancher picks up thirty years later and Tyrell Corporation’s Nexus 8 is the cutting edge Replicant model, complete with an average human lifespan and finely tuned memories. We learn that Replicants have been invaluable in colonizing near-space, letting humanity escape the world they ruined. After a technology disaster in 2022 destroyed most of the world’s digital data, Los Angeles and other major cities are largely abandoned, sprawling slums.

No one machine is perfect and the imperfect 8’s get hunted down by blade runners and that’s where we meet “K” (Ryan Gosling), following commands from Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright). When he finishes his work, he returns to his tiny apartment and charming AI companion Joi (Ana de Armas). They have such an intimate connection that she later arranges to hire a hooker, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), and seemingly merges with her to pleasure K in one of the film’s most visually compelling scenes.

His most recent case, dispatching an 8 (David Bautista in a small but fine part), sends him on a case that eventually leads him to Las Vegas, where Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), has been living in solitude. Visionary industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who took over Tyrell, is blind and wants any hint of competition wiped out, issuing orders through his replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), contrasting with the K/Joi team.

There’s a hunt for K and Deckard, the revelation of an underground movement (isn’t there always?), and things blow up real well here and there.

Visual futurist Syd Mead nicely extrapolates his future over three decades and you can’t question that the money went into the production. It’s rich and textured, the effects strong, and Dennis Gassner’s production design superb. But the overall effect leaves one cold, and the story’s flaws leaves too many unanswered questions to be truly successful. It certainly leaves you thinking, which is a cut above much of the genre fare we were offered in 2017.

The disc does a strong job transferring the film to 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray at the standard 2.40:1 width, with nary a hint of the material shot at 1.90:1 for IMAX. If anything, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is better so you won’t miss a beat from the Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch score.

The film comes with complete with assortment of interesting special features. None are spectacular but given the look and feel of the future, makes for good watching. Perhaps the best is Designing the World of Blade Runner 2049 (21:55). There is also To Be Human: Casting Blade Runner 2049 (17:15); Prologues — 2022: Black Out (15:45), anime directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, 2036: Nexus Dawn (6:31), directed by Luke Scott, and 2048: Nowhere to Run (5:49), directed by Scott; Blade Runner 101 (11:22) — Blade Runners, The Replicant Revolution, The Rise of Wallace Corp., Welcome to 2049, Jois, and Within the Skies: Spinners, Pilotfish and Barracudas.

Book-A-Day 2018 #12: Satania by Vehlmann and Kerascoet

“There’s a world going on underground,” a great man once growl-sang, and Satania just is the book to explore that hidden underground world.

One might think the naked redhead at the center of the cover is Satania, but no — she’s Charlie (short for Charlotte), the teenage force behind an underground expedition to find her missing brother. Also in the group is the requisite old, crusty guide, Father Monsore, who was on the ill-fated prior expedition where Charlie’s brother Christopher disappeared. There are several others — the party starts out with about six people– but those are the ones to be concerned with.

Christopher had a crackpot theory that Neanderthals moved underground and therefore mutated into demon-looking humanoids who are the source of all worldwide stories of hell and its inhabitants. But these evolved Neanderthals are actually highly civilized, sexually free, and possessed of uniquely high technology that he will discover and share with the world. Now, Christopher deduced all of this — he has no evidence of any kind — and it seems that his book expounding his stupid theory was roundly panned out in the world. So, in a huff, he planned the expedition to prove his theories, heading into this cave somewhere in Europe to film the people he already knows everything about.

I think the reader is supposed to take Christopher’s theories seriously. But this, frankly, is impossible for anyone with a lick of sense and scientific knowledge — if he was right about anything, it could only be by pure happenstance. Luckily, it’s not necessary to believe in those nutty theories to enjoy Satania; he does not turn out to be entirely correct, though he did correctly guess that there’s much more going on in this massive subterranean cave system than surface-dwellers suspect.

So: Charlie, and Chistopher’s collaborator, and some other people somehow related to the crazy theory, are looking for him, in the cave system where a flash flood separated Christopher from the rest of his party months ago. And do they encounter their own flash flood practically as soon as the book begins?

Reader, of course they do.

They do not die in the flood, but their scrambles and running and propulsion by water leaves them somewhere they’ve never been before, with no way back. They set out to explore, in hopes of getting back to the surface. They have limited supplies and light, but, as with any self-respecting tale of underground worlds, they soon find edible and luminescent growing things to keep them going. (From that point on, everything is illuminated, and finding food not a serious issue.)

They find a lot more than that, of course: dangers aplenty, strange landscapes both made by sentients and shaped by nature, strange and dangerous creatures, allies and enemies, deadly heat and chilling cold. Satania turns out to be huge, and full of horror and wonders.

It does not, though, correspond closely to anyone’s image of Hell, even though several members of this party really really want it to, and this leads to certain unpleasant disagreements within the party. This is a story of hardships and stunning vistas, of a series of strange revelations, each stranger and more revelatory than the last. (But, to be clear: this is not a fantasy. They are not in Hell and everything they see should be roughly acceptable to physics, biology, and chemistry as we know them.)

Satania is a gorgeous book, as you might expect from the wife-and-husband art team credited as Kerascoet. The colors are exquisite, giving color to emotions and places, and the book contains a succession of amazing images, culminating in a fantastic double-page spread near the end. Even if this book hadn’t been translated from the French, I think it still would be worth “reading,” just for their work.

But it was translated (by Joe Johnson) from a script by Fabien Vehlmann, here just credited by his last name. He previously worked with Kerascoet on the stunning Beautiful Darkness , and I also really liked his script for the chilly SF graphic novel Last Days of an Immortal . So Satania is just a little disappointing: Christopher is a crank, and his crankishness sets in motion the whole plot, and there’s no way around that. The story is also more episodic — bad things happen, they flee, and have a moment of peace until the next episode starts — than the stronger Vehlmann books I’ve seen.

Not being as good as something amazing wonderful is not that much of a criticism, though: Vehlman has excellent dialogue here, making his very different people all come alive, and he particularly has a way with mania…perhaps he does realize what a crank Christopher is. Satania is an interesting, gorgeous, twisty journey through a vividly imagined world, by a set of world-class talents.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Scooby-Doo! and Batman: The Brave and the Bold

REVIEW: Scooby-Doo! and Batman: The Brave and the Bold

I wish I had a grandchild to enjoy Scooby-Doo! and Batman: The Brave and the Bold with since I am far from the target audience. I was outgrowing Saturday morning TV when Scooby and the gang debuted and never warmed up to them. Over time, the troublesome teens have encountered countless pop culture celebrities in their storied career but this, their fourth meeting with the Caped Crusader, is a record.

It makes perfect sense that the 1960s homage version of Batman (Diedrich Bader) is used here since it is stylistically appropriate for this sort of crossover. Paul Giacoppo acquits himself well with a breezy script that uses touchstone elements from both series so fans are satisfied. Comics aficionados will appreciate the use of the New Look era Mystery Analysts of Gotham, even though the novelists have been replaced by the more colorful Martian Manhunter (Nicholas Guest), Detective Chimp (Kevin Michael Richardson), the Black Canary (Grey Griffin), the Question (Jeffrey Coombs), and Plastic Man (Tom Kenny). It’s funny to see Aquaman (John DiMaggio) trying to be a member while the Scooby (Frank Welker) and the gang are tested for admittance.

Since these sorts of mashups require a major threat, it seemed right that Batman’s rogues cause the trouble so of course we get to see Catwoman (Nika Futterman), Riddler (John Michael Higgins), Penguin (Tom Kenny), Clayface (Kevin Michael Richardson), Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy (both by Tara Strong).

There’s action, humorous hijinks, Scooby snacks, familiar catch phrases, and more all nicely handled by director Jake Castorena, who graduates from numerous art director assignments (Batman: The Killing Joke, Justice League: Gods & Monsters, etc.) to his third directorial job, following directing episodes of Justice League Action and Batman Unlimited.

The 75 minutes definitely feels padded but that’s to be expected given the limited range of the Scooby half of the match. Thankfully, the disc is rounded out with two classic episode from the New Scooby-Doo Movies:  “The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair” and “The Caped Crusader Caper”.

Box Office Democracy: Bottom 6 Movies of 2017

6. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

If this was just about wasted potential, Valerian would easily be on the top of this list.  There are five worse movies this year but none of them have a fraction of the visual artistry displayed here by Luc Besson.  Valerian has some of the best design I’ve seen in a movie all year and two of the most inventive chase sequences maybe ever.  It also features a terrible script that meanders forever over trivial nothing and merrily skips past dense plot without a moment for inspection.  I loved watching the action but I never really understood why any of it was going on.  Toss on top some of the worst chemistry I’ve ever seen between an on-screen couple (and honestly maybe Dane DeHaan isn’t ready to be a leading man) and this is an unpleasant movie to watch at any volume above mute.

5. American Assassin

I sincerely thought that we were past making movies like American Assassin now that we’re on year 16 of the obviously never ending War on Terror.  I assumed we were past movies that seemingly exist solely to demonize and dehumanize brown people on the other side of the world.  This is a movie with no nuance or subtext or anything.  It’s predictable, dreary, and the worst kind of weighty.  It depicts a world in which people are nothing but weapons for the nation as one we should want to be in.  It also runs for 15 minutes past any events of consequence happening and expects us to sit and care about literally nothing happening.

4. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage

If you’ve ever seen those posts where someone feeds a computer a bunch of data about one topic or another and then the computer spits back an attempt at making original things of the same set, you could understand how they probably wrote the script for xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.  It’s trying to be every successful action movie of the last ten years all at once.  It has a multi-cultural cast, numerous exotic locations that all happen to be filled with parties full of white people, and a bunch of supporting and cameo roles given to people intended to draw in audience in foreign markets.  There’s nothing holding the movie together so it’s easily the most boring movie I’ve ever seen that also features trying to use an airplane to hit falling satellites.  Movies are more than the sum of their parts and XXx: The Return of Xander Cage is a great lesson in that.

3. The Mummy

I long for the days when studios would just make movies with the idea that they could make an obscene amount of money from them.  Now it seems like they don’t want hundreds of millions of dollars unless they know it directly leads them to the next 100 million.  There were fine ideas in The Mummy about a woman who would not be cast aside and wanted to seize absolute power to punish her family.  That character doesn’t get to exist on screen because we need develop Tom Cruise to be the hero of the Dark Universe and we need time for Dr Jekyll and for the people who hunt monsters.  It is needless and exhausting.  The Mummy might not be an objectively terrible movie but it is so impossibly frustrating it needs to be recognized here.

2. Ghost in the Shell

Just to get it out of the way: this movie would make it on to this list just because it’s racist and tone deaf.  Deciding, in 2017, that it’s a good idea to make a movie based on an iconic Japanese manga/film/media empire and cast almost exclusively white people is astonishing.  It’s an irredeemable failure solely from looking at the poster.  Then it’s not even a good movie.  They threw out all the stories they presumably licensed the material for and instead gave us a milquetoast cyberpunk paint-by-number.  When the studio found out the Blade Runner sequel would be released in the same calendar year they should have shelved the project until we all forgot what could be done.

1. Transformers: The Last Knight

I suppose I should have some respect for Michael Bay as an auteur at this point.  He can’t possibly be hurting for money.  Nothing would stop him from getting lazy and putting out shorter films to try and goose his grosses by squeezing in another showing.  Bay is going to make these monstrous, incomprehensible, films and they’re going to be exactly as he wants them to be and as long as he pleases.  It would be charitable at this point to call these movies pointless.  There’s definitely a point: People who know things are idiots and people who shoot things are awesome.  They’re never going to stop with these; we should all just adjust our lives to accommodate them.

Book-A-Day 2018 #9: The Someday Funnies edited by Michel Choquette

We all love a good story. And a behind-the-scenes story can be even better than the story told in the book itself. “Heroic editor spends years of his life trying to assemble a massive, global collection with contributions by the best in the field, but the book never sees the light of day” is a great story. That’s the story Bob Levin told in a 2009 issue of The Comics Journal, about Michel Choquette and his massive book The Someday Funnies, which was almost published in the 1970s, and how all of the pages of completed art were still in storage, never seen but ready to go at a moment’s notice.

That was a wonderful story, and it led to the actual publication of The Someday Funnies in 2011, with those hundred-and-fifty pages of 1970s comics displayed on oversized pages and introduced with commentary by comics historian and critics Robert Greenfield and Jeet Heer plus Choquette’s own account of the path to creating Someday, and closed out with the usual author bios and behind-the-scenes details and an index.

Unfortunately, the actual comics don’t live up to the hype. They’re often jokes, almost all time-bound — because the stated theme of the anthology was to be a look back at the just-ended ’60s — and only a page or two apiece. Yes, the list of contributors is impressive — from Russ Heath and Jack Kirby to art spiegelman and Vaughn Bode, from Frank Zappa and William S. Burroughs to Rene Goscinny and Jean-Claude Forest, from R.O. Blechman and Ed Subitzky to Harlan Ellison and Federico Fellini — but what they contributed is much less impressive. There’s nothing here that I’d expect to see again outside of this context, other than spiegelman’s strip “Day at the Circuits,” which he reworked from the ’72 Someday original into a ’75 version for his comic anthology Arcade. Some of it is OK, some of it is incomprehensible without notes or specialized knowledge (I remembered who Vaughn Meader was, but how many people will?), and some of it rises to the level of pretty good. And some just looks like self-indulgence, of the kind that the ’60s has been inspiring at the time and ever since.

Now, it’s true that thirty-nine years is a long time for expectations to build up, and Someday Funnies grew out of a planned comics supplement for Rolling Stone magazine in 1972. But it kept growing, until the Rolling Stone piece would be just a teaser for the upcoming book, and then RS pulled out, and then a series of actual or potential book-publishing deals also fell through, leaving Choquette with a Montreal self-storage unit full of comics and correspondence and no use for them in 1979. It’s not Choquette’s fault that it didn’t happen…well, maybe it was. He could have delivered that original RS supplement and then moved on to a larger project. He could have closed out the book at some point, and kept the scope limited and specific. Frankly, at this distance, it looks like the usual story of a deal-maker high on his own deal-making, wanting to keep going with the fun part of the job (signing up artists, finding new talent, flying around the world) and avoid the vital anthology work of making choices and finalizing the package. (I think he did do the latter, eventually — but probably too late, and maybe not strongly enough to make a publication date in the 1970s.)

Someday Funnies is an interesting artifact, a comics time-capsule of both comics-makers in the early ’70s and the cultural impact of the ’60s when it was still fresh; as far as I can tell, all of these strips were done between 1970 and 1974. (For all of the details of Choquette’s travels and work here, there’s no explanation of which strips were delivered and finalized when; no timeline of the actual work assembled here.) One of Choquette’s less inspired requirements of the original project, that every piece include a blank space that would be used for some unifying element to be decided on later, was eventually filled by new 2011 art by Michael Fog, depicting Choquete’s travels in the ’70s. Again, the background story is the more interesting, vital one — the way this book came to be is more exciting than the actual thirty-five-year-old strips it contains.

One last consumer note: Someday Funnies is a physically big book, the size of a tabloid newspaper. So it can be cumbersome to hold and read as well, and some people may find it difficult to store. (I don’t intend to keep my copy permanently, so I don’t have that problem.)

I’m glad Someday Funnies was eventually published, and all of the contributors — well, those who hadn’t died in between — got to finally get paid and see their work in print. That also was the perfect end to the real story of interest here, of Choquette and his travails. But you don’t need to read or care about the book to know and appreciate that story, and it may be easier to care if you haven’t read it.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2016 #6: Baking With Kafka by Tom Gauld

Is Tom Gauld our most erudite cartoonist? From the evidence of his work, he well could be — there’s a parade of authors both classic (Shakespeare, Austen) and genre (Ballard, Gaiman) and modern literary (Franzen, Mantel), and a dazzling awareness of tropes and ideas and genre furniture in his work, and it’s hard to think of any other cartoonist who has worked so much with this material.

Naysayers might point out that all of this material originally appeared in the book section of the British newspaper The Guardian, and so one could thus expect that bookishness would be baked into the premise. That’s true, but, still Teh Grauniad asked Gauld to be their cartoonist in the first place for a reason, and it’s not because of his amazing facility at drawing likenesses of famous writers.

(Just in case: Gauld does not have an amazing facility for drawing likenesses of famous writers. At least, I’ve never seen such from him, and his minimalist style would tend to go in the opposite direction. But there I go explaining the jokes again.)

Baking With Kafka is a collection of Guardian cartoons. Some of them may have appeared elsewhere, before or instead of or also, because this book, like so many others, doesn’t explain where it’s contents appeared previously. (Cue my standard if-I-ruled-the-world complaint.) They are all about books, in some way or another, or, at least, about the kinds of things that bookish people care about.

It contains such awesome works as “The Four Undramatic Plot Structures” and “My Library” (with books color-coded as to whether or not they have or will be read), “The Nine Archetypal Heroines” and “How to Submit Your Spy Novel for Publication,” “Jonathan Franzen Says No” and “Niccolo Machiavelli’s Plans for the Summer.” All of those are a single page in size; no one must keep a thing in memory from page to page — except, perhaps, a sense of object permanence and the ability to read the English language.

Some people will hate this book. Perhaps they hate it because they hate literature, or books in general. Perhaps they hate it because Gauld’s style is too simple and illustrative for them. Perhaps they hate it because they are hateful people full of hate who live only to hate. There are many reasons, none of them, I insist, good ones.

All of the smart readers will love it. And you consider yourself a smart reader, don’t you? There you go.

(For those unsure as to how smart they are: the cartoons here are much like those in You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack . You might also want to consider Gauld’s recent full-length graphic novel Mooncop .)

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Box Office Democracy: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I think The Last Jedi is my favorite Star Wars film.  It’s hard to say, these movies need so much time and will be seen over and over again.  I’m unwittingly comparing it in my head to my more recent viewings of the original trilogy and not the dazzling first ones but I have to trust it will hold up.  The Last Jedi is ambitious, and thought-provoking and fun in a way that none of the “core” Star Wars films ever have been.  This is the kind of movie someone would make if they spent their childhood loving the material but realized as an adult that it depicted a world that would never function.  Rian Johnson makes a more functional galaxy with more authentic characters and he’s made the best big-budget science fiction movie in some time.

It’s tough to write this review after having seen the battle lines being drawn across the Internet over the movie.  People are polarized and it’s pushing opinions to the far reaches.  I believe Kylo Ren is the most interesting character in all eight Star Wars movies but that might be an overreaction.  I know that his internal struggle and strife is the only time the dark side has seemed like a real thing people would be interested in.  This is a movie that took the laughably bad Anakin Skywalker arc from the prequel trilogy and made those feeling feel real.  Here I can find the nuance and conflict that we had to paste on to the prequels with speculation and supplemental material but all here in one go.  I would say that this is probably how people thought about Darth Vader after watching Empire Strikes Back but I’ve seen that movie, there are only a handful of meaningful head tilts signaling anything at all.  For the first time I feel like I’m not being asked to fill in big gaps of narrative or run to read some tangential novel released years later.

I’ve heard people say that none of the characters changed or grew in this movie and I simply can’t agree with that at all.  If after the events of this movie Poe isn’t doing some big time soul searching, this whole trilogy is a massive failure.  Granted we don’t see him become less of a reckless hotshot but it’s certainly what I expect to happen.  You can grow and change and not have it be immediately visible.  Finn, the person who lived to be a soldier, starts to see the galaxy that isn’t in a state of constant war and starts to see the context.  His relationship with Rose is engaging and exciting.  I enjoy the look at military heroism and idealism as Rose moves from idolizing Finn for his supposed deeds in the first film and then seeing that he’s a flawed person and kind of lapping him by the end of the film.  I need more of those characters pushing and pulling on each other.  Maybe even smooching but I do not want to wade in to the intricacy of Star Wars shipping politics.

If we want to accept the premise that the entire Star Wars series is the story of the Skywalker family (and I’m not sure I do want that, but here we are) this was another smashing success for me.  Mark Hamill has spent most of his career at this point as a voice actor, and it was so apparent in his performance here.  There are lines and readings where you can still here the kid annoyed at his uncle because he wanted to go get power converters. But there’s also the person who has had to live the last thirty years in a galaxy that he didn’t change nearly as much as he thought he would.  I wish we got a little more Leia but they didn’t know they weren’t going to get another chance with her.  It’s a sad thing but it is what it is.

The Last Jedi has the inside track to become my favorite Star Wars movie because it is challenging.  It takes a universe that, for all the turmoil depicted around the margins, has been a place of very safe storytelling and shakes it all the way up.  It shows us not just the corrupt slug gangsters but the people in glittering casinos making money off of selling fighter ships.  It’s willing to show us heroes getting old and instead of being cagey or clever like Obi-Wan or Yoda, becoming kind of hopeless and despondent.  It gives us villains that are complicated and conflicted at moments before their sudden but inevitable betrayal.  I’ve never felt this excited, this alive, after walking out of a Star Wars film in my lifetime as I did after The Last Jedi.

REVIEW: Dunkirk

REVIEW: Dunkirk

Regardless of the subject matter, director Christopher Nolan remains an interesting, inventive director. It’s no surprise, then, that this summer’s Dunkirk was a sober look at war through the eyes of the participants. That it lacked a traditional story and characters was just par for the course.

The film, out ow on disc from Warner Home Entertainment, is 106 minutes looking at the first day of the British withdrawal from the shore while dodging German gunfire from the ground and the air. The film offers up a 360-degree view of the carnage and heroism from the point of view of enlisted men, officers, pilots, and civilians.

Beyond the slightly unorthodox storytelling, the film is a visual masterpiece, with Nolan relying on traditional special effects, eschewing CGI, which gives the story a gritty, raw feel. He shot it with director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema, using IMAX 65 and Panavision 65 cameras, releasing the film in differing formats depending on the house. The commercial video push is for the 4K Ultra HD edition but the film looks pretty spectacular on Blu-ray although it is said to pale next to the 4K version.

The events of Dunkirk, rescuing more than 300,000 men over eight days, largely though civilian vessels, is a small item in the history of World War II and is often overlooked here, especially since we hadn’t entered the war yet. As a result, the story unfolds like something brand new in all its tension-filled glory. We are made to feel as if we were also on the beach, tired, hungry, soaked, and certain death was seconds away.

While the cast is filled with familiar faces – Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy among them – every performance is unstated, the dialogue kept to a bare minimum. The role with the mot lines is like that of the civilian fisherman, Mark Rylance, an actor known for his subtle, quiet work. Most of his work is with his character’s son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their friend, George (Barry Keoghan), both reacting differently to getting this close to the war. The first man they rescue is a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), a stark reminder of wounds that go deep.

You have to pay attention while getting caught up in the story since there are three main storylines and each unfolds at different speeds.

The Blu-ray was overseen by Nolan, color correcting and pushing the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer to its limits. Similarly, Nolan eschewed Dolby Atmos for a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track. It is a perfect complement so no one should feel there was loss.

Nolan also insisted the Special Features be packed on a separate Blu-ray disc. The strong Behind the Scenes material is organized into five chapters with a “play all” function. There are sub-chapters as well.

Recreating the look and feel of the 1940 setting takes up much of the material in these diverting featurettes:

  • Creation (22:19)
    • Revisiting the Miracle
    • Dunkurque
    • Expanding the Frame
    • The In Camera Approach
  • Land (16:39)
    • Rebuilding the Mole
    • The Army on the Beach
    • Uniform Approach
  • Air (18:30)
    • Taking to the Air
    • Inside the Cockpit
  • Sea (36:57)
    • Assembling the Naval Fleet
    • Launching the Moonstone
    • Taking to the Sea
    • Sinking the Ships
    • The Little Ships
  • Conclusion (1519)
    • Turning Up the Tension
    • The Dunkirk Spirit

Additionally, there is a featurette about the U.S. Coast Guard (2:02).