Tuesday, March 28, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Weezer's Geek Rock


This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

The X-Men references in Weezer's "In the Garage" resonated with me when I first heard the song in 1994. I'd grown up on a steady diet of comics and rock and pop music at that point, so Rivers Cuomo and the gang were landing squarely in my wheelhouse.

I've got a Dungeon Master's Guide
I've got a 12-sided die
I've got Kitty Pryde
And Nightcrawler too
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

Uncanny X-Men comic books changed my life. I was just a bit younger than Kitty Pryde when I first read her introduction to the series. She was a lot of readers' surrogate back then, acting as our introduction to the colorful, surrealist, and expansive world of Marvel's mutants. She and the X-Men gave voice to our own struggles with fitting in at school. Years later, the music on the Blue Album had a different, yet still measurable impact on me. With songs like "Undone - The Sweater Song," "My Name is Jonas," "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here," and "Surf Wax America," Weezer seemed to reflect the the geeky introversion of so many Gen X kids haunting the malls and study halls of America.

Cuomo must've read his fair share of X-Men. Also, like me, he probably watched every episode of Misfits of Science and regularly read Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. At this point in the '90s, the geeks had not yet inherited the earth; we were still scamming BMG and Columbia House music clubs for free CDs and goofing around with this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. Those moments of connection between like-minded nerds were more rare than they are today, when every other person you know is cosplaying as Harley Quinn. Just by being so earnestly dorky, Weezer stirred up the natural nerd tendencies that I'd been trying to suppress—halfheartedly and ultimately unsuccessfully—out of some fear they'd turn off potential friends or girlfriends.

During the height of the Blue Album's ubiquity across college campuses throughout the land—thanks in large part to the way their Happy Days-set video for "Buddy Holly" served as pure crack for Gen Xers raised on the Fonz—you couldn't escape its music. I was attending an outdoor festival with friends, summer of '95. Before the show, we hung out in the parking lot with everyone else, pre-gaming for the long day of music. I can still see us, sitting on the ground and leaning against the car, when one friend started humming, then full-on singing "No One Else." Soon we were all singing along to those vaguely unsettling lyrics about wanting a girl who'll laugh for no one but you.

Cut to recently, when I had a conversation with a Millennial friend about Weezer and realized that maybe you not only had to be a certain age to fall for them, but also needed to live in a certain time period to do so. This friend pointed out how narrowly immature the songs' narratives around women could be. She had a point (see "No One Else" above), one that I'd considered before but never really addressed. I stammered around a semi-coherent response, eventually coming up with this: when you remove them from the context in which they were first listened to with the most frequency—namely, by "alternative" kids in '94 and '95—then yes, they're definitely going to seem dated and out of touch in 2017.

Clearly, I could write a dissertation about my overwhelming love and affection for that era of Weezer, from about '94–'97. Even though I've outgrown much of their thematic obsessions (even if they haven't), I can still relate to those first two albums (Blue and Pinkerton) because it was the exact music I needed to hear at the exact age I needed to hear it. Any sooner and it might not have hit with as much force; any later and it might not have hit with any force at all.

In those days, through some misguided attempt at projecting depth, my friends and I saw ourselves as one pulled sweater-thread away from totally unraveling. Whether that was an organic or manufactured angst (it was likely a little of both), Weezer really did help keep us sewn together, at least for a little while.


Friday, March 24, 2017

This is not my beautiful blog


Sometimes I think this blog has multiple personalities.

Other times I think I have multiple personalities.

Synergy!


Every now and then I have a moment of cognitive dissonance around here: wait, wasn't I going to use the blog as therapy? Why am I writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then? And not even the beloved series, but the film no one cares about!

Writing about yourself has its limits. I've done it a lot here, but usually filtered through popular culture musings. That's how I'm most comfortable doing it, I suppose. Sometimes those reflections turn further inward. Things get real, as we used to say in the '90s. Mostly though, this space is for enthusing about books and movies and music and whatever else I'm hooked on at the moment, or have been hooked on at some point in my life.

I've started some recurring features in the last year in order to help organize my thoughts and provide a rough outline for future posts. "It Came From the '90s" has been an awful lot of fun to write, in fact, probably the most enjoyable stuff I've written here. I have at least countless more ideas for future posts in that series.

I'm hoping to start a new series on music, focusing on one band or artist for a stretch, with each post looking at one song. I know what band I'm starting with, so that should kick off soon. This will likely supplant my older music feature, "Songs in the Key of Life," at least for now. I never found the groove with that one and I feel like most of them were overlong and could have used some tightening. Oh well. Live and learn, and all that.

My reading for pleasure lately has been derailed by the usual late-winter stuff: work, colds, and kids. "Barely Making a Dent" really keeps me honest about my reading though, so be on the lookout for more of that.  I'm toying with another book-related series: blogging about Stephen King's It as I'm reading it. This would entail a series of posts, spread out over months, most likely (because the book is long, you guys, and I'm busy). They won't be comprehensive reviews or anything like that. I'm thinking more along the lines of short, quick hits on what I've just read. If that sounds disjointed, well, so be it.

Doing a sort of "quick hits" regular feature sounds interesting to me also, where I might just write simply and briefly about things I'm thinking about at the moment—politics, daily life, music, etc.—without needing to expound. Sometimes my impediment to writing here comes from trying to fit everything into something else. That's fine and even necessary when I'm writing at other websites, but here it's nice to have fewer restrictions, more room to roam.

So those are a few potential things to look forward down the road. But what was my point, again? I don't think I have one, honestly, but I riffed on a line from a great Talking Heads song in the title of this post, so, that's cool.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Moonglow



I read Moonglow in January, then wrote up a very short review. Forgot about it until recently. Might as well share it now.

Released last November, Moonglow is the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. Except it's a bit more and a bit less than that; a hybrid of sorts. The publisher calls it, "an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir." The book begins with a bang, then takes some time introducing characters and concepts that will play important roles in the book's narrative. The narration is by a character named Michael Chabon, a barely fictionalized analog of the author, but is not explicitly about him. The story is based loosely on Chabon's own family history, except with plenty of deviations, artistic license, and other influences woven in to create a novelistic memoir of slyly epic proportions.

Our narrator acts as our conduit to the story of his family tree. His grandfather is seriously ill and nearing the end of life. The young Chabon, fresh off his debut novel Wonder Boys, begins to tease out snippets of the old man's life story. This proves challenging because his grandfather can be both taciturn and unimpressed with the details of his own life. These moments between Generation Xer Chabon and his "Greatest Generation" grandfather shed light on generational differences and challenges.

Eventually his grandfather's stories reveal a life less than ordinary, one that intersects with history in important and dramatic ways. Chabon gains a greater understanding of his grandfather, grandmother, mother, and other relatives. In the process, our narrator also unearths new ways of comprehending himself and his own life.

Ultimately, it's a heartfelt look at family, aging, mental illness, twentieth-century America, and love—in all of its many forms. Chabon is one of our most gifted writers, with a strong eye for revealing certain aspects of the human condition that we've all felt before but haven't articulated with such clarity ourselves. Moonglow is filled with those sorts of life-affirming moments, ones that will make you nod in recognition while also shaking your head in amazement. It beautifully showcases how we can always discover new perspectives on our parents, our grandparents, ourselves. Once again, Chabon displays an uncanny ability to make the personal feel universal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Leftover Thoughts on the Films of Paul Verhoeven


I'm on Paul Verhoeven overload, or, Verhoeven-load, lately.

After revisiting some of his films and reading Paul Verhoeven: Interviews for an article at Sequart I've had his films on the brain. Here are a few leftover odds 'n' sods, just some random observations about an underrated filmmaker. 

A recurring theme throughout his career is how often critics seem to misinterpret his work. This seems an especially common reaction to his Hollywood films. How did so many critics miss the point of the scathing satire in Starship Troopers? Some even deemed it a pro-fascist work. I suppose when you skewer fascism and the military industrial complex as well as Verhoeven does here, many viewers will simply take it too literally.

Similarly, Showgirls was panned during initial release and dismissed as trash. If they'd looked any deeper than the film's surface aesthetic—past all of the nudity—they'd see it's an age-old cautionary tale that somehow avoids passing judgment on its characters even as they use and abuse each other to further their careers.

Showgirls is high camp, as a film set in the world of Vegas strippers should be. The actors embrace this lunacy, none more so than the film's star, Elizabeth Berkley. The movie's critical lashing seemed to torpedo Berkley's film career before it even got off the ground. It's hard not to see that as sexist when you consider the actors in the torpid Magic Mike were certainly not shunned for playing male strippers. This is a starring vehicle for her, as her character Nomi carries us through the film on her journey, as she scratches and claws—and let's not forget, strips— her way up the ranks. Berkley goes in all with the camp overtones that Verhoeven establishes, whether its gyrating on stages, lasciviously (and hilariously) licking poles, or engaging in an absurd pool sex scene with a very game Kyle MacLachlan that has to be seen to be believed. That sort of off-the-wall approach is why Showgirls lives on as one of the more popular cult classics of the last two decades. Repeat viewings of it only enhance your enjoyment of the wild ride Verhoeven's taking us on.

In the book of interviews, Verhoeven talks about his vision for RoboCop as a Christ-like figure. It's that sort of allegorical storytelling that underpins most of his work, including in his big Hollywood films. Total Recall is all about there being no one "real" reality, and Verhoeven structures the film in such a way as to leave it open to interpretation: is it reality, alternate reality, dreams, or some combination of all three?


One of the more salacious stories that is returned to over the course of the interviews in the book regards that infamous scene in Basic Instinct. You know the one: the Sharon Stone interrogation scene. Apparently, Verhoeven wasn't completely open with Stone about his intentions to include that now-notorious leg-crossing, upskirt shot of her in the scene. Stone was livid when she saw how much it revealed of her at an early screening. Certainly, Verhoeven mislead her, and you can understand why this would break an actor's trust in her director. Soon after though, she came around to agreeing with Verhoeven's notion that it was the best shot for the scene, that it works artistically. She also recognized how that one scene made the film such a cultural touchstone, one that lives on today in numerous parodies and references.

One last thought. It occurs to me now that I can mark my growth during the release of many of Verhoeven's big Hollywood films. RoboCop? Geeky adolescence. Basic Instinct? Geeky teenage wasteland. Showgirls? Geeky college wasteland. His films were a huge part of my existence back then even if I never really gave them much thought beyond the surface. Even then, though, I could see that they were a too strange for big Hollywood productions. There was something weird about each one of them, something that made them highly memorable. Only as an adult did I start to see Verhoeven's usual themes emerge in most of these films: reality vs. unreality, identity, agency, corruption, free will vs. determinism, and so many more.

Verhoeven has been around long enough to see the inevitable critical reevaluation, but it's still good to see it happen. His films are not perfect but, they're uniquely true to his own cerebral visions and always highly entertaining.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Logan is the best superhero film ever made

Wolverine and X-23

When I reviewed Logan last week for FanSided I tried to reign in my fanboy gushing and keep it spoiler free. But there was a lot more I wanted to say about the film. This being my blog, where I'm free to let the fanboy freak fly and get spoilery, I'm about to do just that. I'm a huge X-Men fan. Like many of us, I've been waiting years for a truly great film in the franchise (besides X2, which is a very good movie). Logan is the film we've all been waiting for. So you've been warned: excessive geeking out and spoilers lie ahead. 

With Logan, director James Mangold has given us one of the most visually stunning films the superhero genre has ever seen. The cinematography beautifully reflects the film's themes and tone. More than a week after seeing it, I still can't get certain scenes and images out of my head. These are just a few:

The first of several brutally graphic fight scenes that made it clear this would be the most R-rated and unleashed cinematic Wolverine yet.

Logan, battered and bruised, carrying the sick and weakened Charles to his bed.

Caliban's death scene, when everything goes quiet for a brief moment before he sacrifices himself and blows the truck sky high.

Every single time Laura leaps and slashes and screams into action, matching Logan's own ferocity in battle.

The quiet normality of the family dinner scene, with laughter, even. The calm before the horrendous violence to come.

Charles' moving, elegiac speech about the perfect day he's just experienced, followed immediately by his death.

Logan, after so much trauma has transpired, choking back tears and breaking up in front of Laura.

Logan, asleep on Laura's lap in the truck. a rare moment of respite.

Near the end, when Logan tells Laura, "Don't be what they made you."

And finally, when Laura rotates the cross on Logan's grave so it resembles an "X."

Wolverine and X-23

Logan absolutely wrecked me, for several reasons. First, I'm invested in Hugh Jackman's portrayal of the character at this point, after seventeen years and nine previous films. Like many, I wasn't sure about his casting back in 2000 (he was an unknown in America), but over the years he consistently proved to be one of the best aspects of every X-Men film he appeared in. Knowing this was Jackman's last time wearing the claws, I was prepared to be emotional.

The story, focusing on family—both the kind you're born into and the kind you create—also completely destroyed me. It was impossible not to see similarities to my own experiences, both in Logan's relationship to an aging father figure losing his mental acuity (Charles) and to his young daughter (Laura). I've felt as tired and resigned as Logan feels while caring for the aging Charles; I've felt, deep inside, the overwhelming fatherly instinct to protect my daughter and son, at any cost. At the heart of film, Logan is really about the love we have for family, and how we'll do anything to keep them safe. Even when we feel hopeless, as Logan does, we'll still muster the strength because we have to. We can't let them down.

Wolverine, X-23, and Professor X

So many aspects of Logan are unlike anything I've experienced in previous superhero films. The fight scenes, the cinematography, the direction, the pacing, and the acting are all first rate. Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Daphne Keen in particularly give performances that are so real that it's uncanny. After all these years, Jackman and Stewart are so in sync with their characters now that it's hard to see them acting at all. Keen is the real revelation though; it's remarkable to realize she was only eleven or twelve years old while filming. Together with Jackman, Keen completely commits to the fight scenes, which are all breathtakingly executed. The chemistry between the three leads is off the charts. Stephen Merchant as Caliban, the mutant helping Charles and Logan, and Boyd Holbrook as the relentless pursuer Donald Pierce are also standouts.

It's also worth mentioning just how well the studio advertised this film. The first trailer, last fall, was nearly universally praised. It was a work of its art for the form, frankly. Now having seen Logan, I can see how the trailer perfectly captured the essence of the film. From the music—Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt"—to the scene selection and editing, it conveys everything you need to know about the film in under two minutes. It carries similar a emotional weight as the film. That's incredibly rare. I've watched it again since seeing Logan (several times, in fact), and it only further reinforces my love of the movie.


I realize it's still fresh and this opinion could change, but as of this writing it's the best superhero/comic book film I've ever seen. There are so many reasons why: it's heartbreaking, brutal, thoughtful, exhilarating, touching, violent, funny, powerful. It seamlessly blends all of those elements into one truly memorable cinematic experience. This is what a superhero film can be when the filmmakers place the emphasis on characters instead of things blowing up. Certainly, Logan is filled with its fair share of pulse-pounding action scenes (some of the best I've ever seen, in fact). However, it's the journey that Logan, Charles, and Laura are taking together—and how it solidifies their bond and our investment in them—that leaves the biggest impression.

I've rambled, ranted, and raved here. Even with all of that, I still can't express enough just how much I loved Logan. Go, see it right now. Call out of work if you have to, get a babysitter if necessary, just do it. And be prepared to cry, both during the film and after the end credits roll.

Friday, March 10, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)



This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Just the idea of a blonde-bimbo-teenage-cheerleader as vampire hunter is so ludicrously over the top that you can't help but love it. However, when the Joss Whedon-penned Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit theaters in 1992, audiences were probably not prepared for this concept. It's bizarre, subversive, and just weird enough to turn off the masses.

Years later, Whedon massaged, expanded, and improved on the Buffy mythos in his long-running television series of the same name, relegating the movie that spawned the series to a footnote. Many fans of the series don't even acknowledge the film's existence. That seems harsh. While it doesn't compare in quality or lasting impact to the series, it's still worth revisiting.

When I first saw it I thought, "What the hell is this?" It's rare for Hollywood to create a truly original concepts, but Whedon did just that with the character of Buffy. Vampire slaying, like other macho work, have historically been relegated to the males of the species. With Buffy, Whedon gives us a vacuous heroine who learns of her slayer lineage, then steps up to the plate to kick copious amounts of undead ass. Imagine Kelly Bundy as an action star.

While Buffy's transition from Valley Girl airhead to major ass-kicker happens a bit too quickly, the result is still exciting. Buffy becomes Los Angeles' only defense against the legion of bloodsuckers rampaging around town. All the while, she's also navigating the treacherous landscape of an American high school, adding another layer of metaphor and symbolism. Again, Whedon would explore all of that in greater depth during the series.


Kristy Swanson will forever be overshadowed by Sarah Michelle Gellar's 144-episode run as the slayer, which allowed Gellar to grow with the character over time. In many ways though, Swanson seems more appropriately cast as the vapid teen queen who becomes fiercely adept at wielding a stake. Fairly or not, Swanson's career is most notable for her sex symbol status, which works to her advantage as Buffy. She also more than handles the physical demands of the role. Not only does Swanson look like she could be a cheerleader, she's also athletic enough to pull off Buffy's many dexterous fight scenes. You actually believe that she can kick this much ass.

It's also worth noting that the film is a wonderfully dated artifact of the early 1990s. From Paul Reubens hamming it up (he may be the one actor who truly commits to the gloriously camp of the film) to 90210's then-reigning teen-dream heartthrob Luke Perry as teen-dream heartthrob Pike to the obnoxiously loud fashion (see header image for visual evidence), the film is littered with plenty of so-'90s-it-hurts moments.

Buffy was famously not what Whedon envisioned in his initial script. He was disheartened, eventually walking off the set. He would make amends later by molding and shaping Buffy into something more personal. But the movie shouldn't be summarily dismissed. It's still a fun, salty-sweet popcorn flick, worth catching up with, even if only to be reminded of where it all began.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: March 2017 Books


In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

Writing about books and working in publishing both make it far too easy—you might say even dangerously easy—to acquire more books than I can read at any given time. That's the reason for the name of this recurring series.

Guess what? It's happened again: I've recently received several review copies and became the proud owner of a mammoth set of books that I've wanted for awhile now. The shelves are filling up fast.

Recently acquired

Love and Rockets, by Los Bros Hernandez. My editor at Sequart has been unloading some of his collection, so I was able to snag these for a song. This is quite a windfall: five thick paperback collections and the Fantagraphics reprint of the very first issue of the series.

I'm most excited to read Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" trilogy of books, all of which I know own. I've always gravitated towards Jaime's work, due to both his art style and weird sci-fi slice of life stories. One of the trades in this set is the Love and Rockets Companion, which Fantagraphics put out a few years back to celebrate the series' thirtieth anniversary. It's packed tight with creator interviews that span three decades.

Growing up, Love and Rockets didn't really hit my radar until college. Already at that point it seemed to have a vast and labyrinth back catalog, which scared me off from taking the plunge. I sampled some here and there, loving what I did read. Still, where do I jump in, I wondered? Now that decision is easy.

This series has always been one of, if not the most, beloved indie comic books of all time, both by critics and fans. It's practically a fact. There isn't enough hyperbole to describe how important Love and Rockets is to the medium. It's a true auteur work in an industry that doesn't always encourage such endeavors. I'm over the moon to finally have such a surfeit of it for my shelves.

I also recently received a batch of review copies of new books from the University Press of Mississippi, two on underrated and misunderstood filmmakers (Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven) and one on author Michael Chabon. I've got a piece on Verhoeven scheduled to run soon at Sequart, where I discuss the book the interviews in it. And speaking of Chabon...

Recently read

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. This is another winner from one of our very best contemporary writers. Obviously I have more to say about it and hope to at some point, here or elsewhere.

Pleasure and Pain, by Chrissy Amphlett. Honest, uncompromising, and above all entertaining. Those adjectives not only describe Divnyls' late singer Chrissy Amphlett, they also apply to her autobiography. Learning that the pre-Divinyls teenage busker Amphlett spent several months detained in a Spanish prison (for singing on the streets!) was at first shocking, but also seems wholly appropriate for a tough cookie who claims to never apologize (an exaggeration, clearly). Certainly it suffers from the same sorts of issues that hamper all celebrity bios—namely some portions of a performers career simply aren't as interesting as others. Thankfully she spends most of her time on hers and the band's best years and work, highlighting some of what went into her songwriting and her epic live performances. As happens when I listen to Amphlett's music, reading the book brought on a wave of sadness over her passing at only 53 years young from breast cancer.

Jack Kirby's O.M.A.C.: One More Army Corps is as ridiculously absurd and over the top as the name implies. It's not usually considered one of Kirby's major works, but it's terrific fun, filled with the King's trademark explosive and energetic art.

Currently Reading

1984, by George Orwell. I just started this one, which a reread of a book I last read in high school. Orwellian times call for Orwellian rereads, apparently.