30 August 2009

Playstation 3

The Blu-ray player I mentioned in the last post is actually a PS3--Sony's latest game console. I skipped the video game revolution. I was around, and watched it happen, but for a few forays into some PC sports games I ignored the expanding popularity of this youth-oriented medium for the last thirty years. I'm not sure why I had no interest--admittedly I'm on the leading edge of the age group of game consumers--but I know that I often reject new technolgies at first glance before surrendering to them down the road. In the case of video games, I suppose I will never achieve any sort of skill or mastery in a world of rapid sensory input requiring even more rapid dexterity, but I felt the need to at least explore and find out what all the fuss was about. I started with Bioshock--a shooter/adventure game a young friend recommended--which fortunately has a "newbie-level" difficulty setting. I found the controller to be remarkably sensitive and fast-acting, and more often than not I would find myself hopelessly lost and turned around in the game's world. Thank goodness for the maps and hints feature, I would have given up without them. The graphics, design, and layout of Bioshock are superb, as rich and satisfying as a movie, and the story you become involved in has the sophistication of a novel. Some day, not soon, I'll "get to the end," but in the meantime it has been fun to spend a few spare moments playing around in an imaginary space, like reading a comic book that lets you re-arrange the panels. Another game, in fact the one that started me on this path, is also by the same company, 2K Games. It's a baseball game, of course, MLB 2K9, and it features Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants on the cover. When you're a fan like me, you don't need much of an excuse to indulge in something Giants-related. I got that one installed and running, and immediately was overwhelmed by the myriad of choices presented to me. I've got left and right buttons in the front of the controller, two each, and then four buttons on top for each side, as well as two sticks which also toggle another set of commands. I have to keep stopping and looking at the directions so I can remember how to throw, pitch, hit, catch, run and all the rest of the stuff you have to do in a ballgame. I feel like a kid in T-ball who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a high school hardball contest. I tried a game with the Giants and Matt Cain against the Milwaukee Brewers. After Prince Fielder's 3-run homer in the first inning I set it to "practice mode." I then managed three innings of a 1-1 duel with the same lineups, including a bases-loaded single by Matt Cain! I was so tired keeping track of every little thing by then that I quit and took a long break. Eventually I'll learn to play an entire game, and maybe even play against someone. That could be some time though. I just don't think I've got the thumbs for it.

23 August 2009

Blu-ray debut

I bought a Blu-ray player (a PS3!) and my first Blu-ray movie was Richard Linklater's A SCANNER DARKLY. Based on the 1977 novel of the same name by SF master Philip K. Dick, the film is notable for its use of rotoscoping, and particularly Flat Black Films' proprietary Rotoshop software. It would be a shame if that was the only memorable thing about this brilliant and engrossing movie. Set in a near-future world of total surveillance, undercover cop Keanu Reeves discovers that he has become the subject of his own investigation. The paranoia runs deep, and the layers of betrayal and double cross overlap and force him, ultimately, to question his own identity. The drug culture is dominated by a new scourge--Substance D--which gradually makes its users unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. The War on Drugs has enlisted a corporate partner--New Path--to provide incarceration and rehabilitation of the legion of D-junkies on LA's streets. The movie manages to be hilarious at times, like when the zonked-out druggies argue about whether a stolen mountain bike has 8, 9, or 18 gears, or when Robert Downey Jr. claims to have invented a pistol silencer, only to make the blast louder. Mostly, though, it's dark, like the title suggests. It has lots of noir elements, like the low-life characters and their aimless schemes, but it lacks noir's melodrama and brisk pacing. The colors and animation (like a filmed comic book) are gorgeous and perfectly suited to the futuristic setting. It is a highly unusual film, and not for everyone, but I found that it captured the sense of loss and devastation of the Dick novel, yet had a smart, contemporary take on the futility of drug politics and law enforcement. There's an ominous foreboding throughout the story, as if the truth about the state of things will be too great for any one person to bear. In the end, that spirit-crushing revelation comes as no surprise to our washed-up hero, yet he manages to find a shred of hope and still looks to the future for redemption. I think you should watch A SCANNER DARKLY.

16 August 2009

Hoka-Hoka-HEY!

I was not prepared to like, let alone read Larry Marder's Beanworld. I like color in my comics, and I like "realistic" drawings (even if they are of supernatural or metaphyiscal events). Beanworld puts you off with its 2-D simplicity and spartan layout. But don't be fooled! There is a lot going on in Beanworld, and you are better off for diving in and joining the adventures of Mr. Spook, Proffy, and the Chow Sol'jers as they bask in the divine grace of their protector, Gran'Ma'Pa, and fight the Hoi-Polloi Ring Herds for Chow. Part fable, part allegory, part yuk-yuk, it is indeed "a most peculiar comic book experience." It was hard to get started--but my buddy Marcus usually feeds me things that he knows I'll like, so I plowed ahead and tackled Book One, Two, and Three of Beanworld from the now defunct Eclipse Comics. These collections include quite a bit of commentary and history from Mr. Marder himself, and I held off reading them until done with each story set. The tales speak for themselves, and are open to quite a bit of interpretation. They can be viewed on many levels, and Marder himself says his goal was a comic for "thinking about" (and not just "looking at"). I found them to be funny and fun on the most basic level--just reading them.

09 August 2009

Gangland

Who says you can't judge a book by its cover? I bought this comic collection from DC/Vertigo precisely because I liked the Tim Bradstreet cover. He also illustrates the first story, "Clean House" by Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets), which is my favorite in the bunch. Jamie Delano of Outlaw Nation contributes a story as well, I'm in the middle of that sprawling saga right now. Dave Gibbons (the artist for Alan Moore's Watchmen) writes and draws one of the tales also--I love his style, it has the feel of the old EC adventure comics. A particularly interesting story by SF/fantasy writer Lucius Sheperd, "Platinum Nights," is drawn by James Romberger in a more modern, frenetic style but perfectly suited to the material. I also liked Ed Brubaker's "Small Time" (art by Eric Shanower). The whole thing is only 1/4-inch thick (108 pages), compiling the first four issues of Gangland. There's a nice mix of styles, and the stories have a broad range that includes gritty urban realism and even some SF/fantasy and horror elements. There's a lot in a small package! I'm only beginning to discover the world of noir and crime comics, so stay tuned for more.

08 August 2009

Rainbow delight

On our drive home from the coast on Thursday, we saw a magnificent rainbow in the Shasta River canyon. The rain had come and wetted the rocks and soil and washed the greenery of its summer dust. Everything was boldly colored and the gray sky was broken with patches of bright blue and shafts of pale yellow light. From just past Pioneer Bridge we could see both the primary and secondary bows seeming to grow out of the hillside and leap up above Anderson Grade before plunging into the jumbled rocks of the ravine below. All the colors from red to violet were visible on both bows--I don't recall them ever being so vivid--and the "ends" of the rainbow were clearly visible on both sides. Those refracted beams would make a circle if the ground wasn't in the way! We were driving south on the Old River Road, the ribbon of river well below us, the ribbon of freeway well above us, and with the sun setting, the west face of the canyon was the backdrop for the rainbow. Gold was pulled out of the rocks on both sides of that river, and out of the river itself. I've been in one of the old hardrock mines on the east slope, in fact, and you sure get a taste of gold fever when you see rusting ore carts and overgrown tailings piles in the rugged countryside. Maybe the original miners saw what we saw and took it as a sign that their pots of gold were close by.

02 August 2009

Kubrick, Killer's Kiss, and The Killing

Before he became the famous ├╝ber-auteur, Stanley Kubrick cut his movie-making chops on noir. The 67-minute Killer's Kiss (1955) was Mr. Kubrick's second feature, and it tells the story of a washed-up boxer, a girl, and a gangster. The Kubrickian touches are everywhere--the overhead shots, the geometric composition, the sharp shadow lines, tunnels, entrances and exits, more staircase scenes than ought to be allowed, and breasts, lots of breasts. Since it's a 50s flick, the breasts aren't real, just on mannequins. There's a crazy fight scene at the end in a dress-maker's shop, and there are several dozen unclothed female mannequins that get knocked about. You knew he had to get those mammaries in somehow! His third film, The Killing (1956), is also in the noir bin, and he seems to satisfy his breast-fetish by having Marie Windsor in tight blouses. Ms. Windsor is one of the queens of the b & w cheapies, and delivers a memorable performance as the shrewish, two-timing wife of one of the criminals. Coleen Gray, another of the dames populating the dark side of the street, co-stars. Killer's Kiss is a simple, straight-ahead tale, while The Killing is famous for its narration and its use of non-linear sequences (used so notably by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs). The highlights for me include the brilliant chase sequence in Kiss, and the fine ensemble acting of Killing. Kubrick made some spectacularly great movies (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and some spectacularly bad ones (Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut), with the whole range in between. I enjoyed seeing his evolution as a film-maker with these early pulp pieces. The great noir writer Jim Thompson got the screenplay credit for Killing.

01 August 2009

E. Howard Hunt's actual dick!

House Dick is E. Howard Hunt's 1961 novel of robbery and murder in Washington D.C. Yes, the same E. Howard Hunt of Nixon and Watergate infamy. He wrote dozens of books over more than fifty years (he lived to be 88), using several names, mostly spy novels or intelligence-related non-fiction. House Dick is Pete Novak, the hard-boiled detective of the Hotel Tilden. He gets himself involved with a beautiful woman, an ex-con, a drug pusher, an honest cop, a rich lady, a casino boss, and a bag of jewels, all while smoking, drinking, skulking, and wisecracking. It was a fun read despite the dated feel--the action was brisk and the story moved forward. The last chapter had a familiar denouement, with the gritty and determined detective wearing one of the characters down enough so that they'd finally cop to the truth. It was originally published as Washington Payoff by Gordon Davis.