Monthly Archives: December 2009

Christmas with Avatar!

Hey everyone, how was that holiday weekend? Hmm? Did you have fun? Did you get some great Christmas presents? Eat some Christmas ham? Or did you, like me, decide to spend the majority of your day asses to elbows with 300 other coughing, text messaging, fist pumping civilians in a large dark room, all adorned with goofy glasses and popcorn? Did you commit to a Christmas with Avatar?

it's French, bitch!

Avatar is, if nothing else, the most all-encompassing blockbuster I’ve ever seen. There is not one single cliché or device this film does not utilize. All of the ingredients here are store-bought, selected for their instantaneously recognizable, and therefore comforting, reminiscence. All the directions taken, the paths followed here are worn to the core, their surfaces trekked by countless footprints before, a steady and true path nonetheless.

James Cameron has taken everything that has come before, starting with “A Trip to the Moon” way back in 1902 (the world’s first sci fi film). Every nuance, every line, every piece of footage can be traced to an ancestor, be it Dances With Wolves, Aliens, Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, take any instance you’d like and it can be analyzed to demonstrate its already proven maximun entertainment effect.

In short, James Cameron has made the movie to conclude all movies, if not end them entirely. And we love him for it.

yeah, my cat does the same thing in the morning

This film has made me realize that I am a bit of a cynic, a humbug, a skeptic to say the least. I went into Avatar with my objective side of the brain in full alert. I did not want to allow the story to overwhelm me, to take me away to this fantastic new world. I wanted to see the strings. And mostly I did.

To begin, the 3-D effect, though about as good as I’ve ever seen it, is still not a natural look to me. I did not think I was seeing a fully realized look. There were obvious layers, like characters looming in fore- or backgrounds that looked blurred or simply 2 D within a 3 D image. It was like paper stacked on top of paper, not a true three dimensions to every shape.

The other CG effects were all very good, but I’m not sure how this took 15 years to create. LOTR looks just as real, just as tangible. The alien species and even plants around them usually looked as fake as they were. They looked rendered, not real.

The floating mountains... mm hmm... right.

The story and characters are all so ONE dimensional it’s hardly worth a mention. You have seen these characters before. Sam Worthington plays the soldier character about as wooden as possible, and little weight is given to the science behind him inhabiting a lab grown alien body! I mean, jeez, it’s all so matter of fact, “yea, we got these human alien hybrid bodies we grew, and I’m going to plug in Matrix style and walk around in it.” Try just brushing that one off on Mulder and Scully

Even the Na’vi tribe that Avatar Sam infiltrates totally knows what he is, a human controlling a lab grown hybrid creature made from their DNA (maybe not that much), and they’re all, “come in, it’s not weird that you are here like that at all. We are an incredibly spiritual people, but that doesn’t mean we’re not cool with alien technology as well. ” There is only one instance, where Avatar Sam gets unhooked and the body falls limply, that one Na’vi guy is all, “See? He’s not actually one of us. It’s a guy controlling a body like a toy car.”

The villain, Colnel scar tissue is a great villain, one part Patton, one part Duke Nukem. Though his actions are so predictable you feel like you could’ve written his lines. Giovanni Ribisi basically watched the beginning of Aliens the day before heading to the set. There is absolutely no unique character under Pandora’s Sun.

psst ... is Michelle Rodriguez still behind us? Yes, sshh, she'll hear you. You don't want to make her mad! She scares me. -cough cough-

We know exactly where this movie is at all times, and we know where it is going. James Cameron lays out his map as wide as can be, pinpointing the places where a romantic scene happens, where a motivating speech must occur, where the battle seems lost, where the crowd needs to cheer. And we happily followed him, tracing those steps. All of us. Everyone who clapped at the end, who rooted for the CG characters on screen, (my God she was actually throwing punches alongside them!) we all bought it.

And for that I give the movie credit. I don’t think ANYONE could have packed this movie so full of rhetoric, so full of obviousness, predictable fluff, stereotyped clichés, the black and white/good vs. evil simplicity, all of it, every single drop of familiarity in this “brand new world” and gotten away with it.

For critics and audiences to proudly say that they saw and did not object to the plot or characters in any way is mind boggling. For them to trump, even critics, to trump the FX over story is very telling. What we are willing to give up for some eye candy, eh?

For Cameron to make this film a success, he needed to show us everything we already love about, well, everything; from sci fi to war films to romance and religion. Everything that has shaped us since movies were invented. And he did it. And we loved it.

But, still… I saw the strings.

-Charlie

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Some of the Best Albums of 2009

So here we are, ready to sum up a year in a top ten list. Now, when I originally set up this blog one year ago, it was intended to be a space not only for movies and geekiness, but music as well.

In fact, most of my writing not associated with Fun Run is music journalism, has been since college. So, yea. I have been listening to a boat load of albums lately, trying to catch up enough on 2009 to collect a best of list. I don’t think I quite got it all, but here are some of my favorites of the year.

And for the record, no, Animal Collective will NOT be on this list. They get enough attention and I have not actually listened to it. But also, some of my favorite bands like Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Morrissey will all be absent from this list. Just know that I still love them.

Ok, here we go. In no particular order, here’s what I remember from 2009.

Built to Spill – There is No Enemy

There is no enemy, but also there is no way a Built to Spill album is coming out and it doesn’t go in my top list. They are simply one of those bands who can do no wrong. They excel at both the heavy psych rock, the short and sweet pop song, the blazing at both ends heavy shit, everything. These guys are the consummate professional, the masters of their craft, and it comes through in every second of There is No Enemy. Not one note is wasted, not one minute misguided. Simply put, Built to Spill rule.

Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why There are Mountains

I discovered this band in the course of writing assignments, and they blew me away almost instantly. “…And the Hazy Sea” is one of the best opening tracks of the year, and the rest of the album is a chaotic, catchy and enticing blend of the best of indie rock in the 90’s (I know, right?) and some good post rock thrashing about. Plenty of good stuff to pick and choose from, but the whole album works as a single musical statement.

David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Ever since Pedro the Lion stopped me cold in my tracks, singer/songwriter David Bazan has been one of my musical heroes. With an emotional and lyrical weight, Bazan has been exploring more and more personal issues in his solo material. This culminates on Curse Your Branches with a fall from grace of sort, a break up with God, and some of Bazan’s best writing in a decade. This was the album I was hoping for, so it’s all the more satisfying when the songs get stuck in my head for weeks on end.

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

I had always kind of been on the fence with Grizzly Bear until this year. They were always interesting enough, but does that make them a good band? Well, Veckatimest puts all that fence-sitting to rest, as the album breaks down any walls (or fences I suppose) one might be tempted to build. Utterly gorgeous and pitch perfectly arranged, this offering from the Brooklyn based group proves their hype and signals a new step in their rapidly maturing prowess. “While You Wait for the Others” might be my favorite song of the year.

Mount Eerie – Wind’s Poem

I’m always a fan of anything Twin Peaks, so when Phil Elverum took that and the forests surrounding his own small northwest town as inspiration for this album, he had me at “Through the Trees.” Add to it moments of utterly brutal metal and scenes of wanton vulnerability, and you have one of the most diverse and original sounding records of the year. Full of nature and the fury contained within, Wind’s Poem is the bleakest of Mount Eerie’s material, but also the most accomplished.

Nurses – Apple’s Acre

My new favorite Portland indie pop band, Nurses excel at a whimsical and disarming psych pop blend of electronics and harmonics. While their long hair and capes may signal hippie rock, their music is anything but. With unique and hook laddened rhythms abundant throughout, Apple’s Acre is a great introduction to a band that is just months away from breaking wide open. Get in on it now, thank me later.

Papercuts – You Can Have What You Want

Where to begin with Papercuts? San Francisco’s Jason Quever has been making his off kilter brand of indie rock for years, mostly on his own, and mostly under the radar. This album is easily the best of his career. It’s an unnerving concoction of vintage organs and falsetto shakes. Quever helms some dark territory throughout, playing up his isolation and disconnect to the majority of his surroundings. For me, it doesn’t get much better than “Future Primative.” Not only does it have one of the best bass lines of the year, it breathlessly propels itself and the final act of the album to some unbelievable heights.

Russian Circles – Geneva

You know that RCA ad where the guy is sitting in his chair and the TV is just blowing a hurricane of sound into his face so hard he’s got to wear shades to protect himself from the unstoppable onslaught bearing down on him? Russian Circles is like that. Only more so.  Each output by this group gets louder, crunchier, heavier. And Geneva tops all with its gut punching, face tearing, maniacal gleam in the eye brand of instrumental post rock. Get your metal face on kids, Russian Circles is not fucking around here.

Woods – Songs of Shame

The lo fi buzz of Songs of Shame comes as no surprise to fans of Woods, but may raise a few unsuspecting eyebrows otherwise. Certainly it’s the most accessible album of their career, though it’s also one of the more diverse and eccentric works they’ve produced. The boys in Woods are a restless lot, as evidenced in their myriad of side projects and label ownings, but that doesn’t mean Songs of Shame is unfocused, it’s just a spirited and, well, kind of kooky brand of indie rock. Really, I’m not sure how to recommend it, except to say just jump on in. The shock is bracing, but the water’s fine.

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

Yo La Tengo is in the running for best band of the last 25 years, and they should be. Their music is no less than spectacular. Time and time again they break barriers, exceed expectations, and prove themselves both as sensitive artists and freaks of the scene. Trying to out shred guitarist Ira Kaplan is an exercise in futility, as is any attempt to one up their overall craftsmanship. Popular Songs continues this tradition of kicking everyone’s ass with pop painted aural soundscapes. Long live Yo La Tengo.

That’s enough. I’m spent.

-Charlie

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Today in why I can’t take comic books seriously anymore

Exhibit A:

What in the Hell is this thing?

I mean. It’s just.

I’m stunned. Fucking speechless.

This just might be the LAMEST cover of a comic book I have seen in my life. I just can’t even describe how awful I felt when I first looked on this monstrosity. Like Crap! That’s how I felt! Like fucking crap! This is a medium I take, or rather took, seriously for most of my life. This is an art form I grew up on and that shaped me into the nerd I am today. This is a character that I have spent countless nights reading after, following, sharing in the highs and lows. This is my nightmare.

Enter: The Flamingo!

What the Hell is wrong with your face?

For starters, all you need to know right now is that everything is wrong with Batman.  Bruce Wayne is dead.  Buried and Gone. In his place the original Robin and current Nightwing, Dick Grayson stepped in to preserve the Batman mythos. He knew that Batman could never “die.”

But Grayson is a poor substitute, and the current Robin, who is supposed to be Bruce Wayne’s flesh and blood child(!) is a complete jerk off. We also still have the Robin who was so universally disliked back in the 80’s, Jason Todd, that Bat fans voted TO KILL HIM.

So we have this “definitive” Batman stroy, sans Batman of course, following Dick Grayson and this kid fighting off even older throwback characters like the Red Hood (who originally appeared in motherfucking 1951) and these new henchemen who look like Wind in the Willows rejects.

Now you must be asking yourself, WTF? What’s the deal? Well, we can all thank Grant Morrison, the writer and ring leader in this freak show of a series. Morrison has been fucking with the dark knight proper ever since his seminal Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel.

With that becoming a best seller and launching Morrison’s now prolific career, the creative mind in him keeps taking things in weirder and weirder directions. I already talked about him in my All Star Superman post, but here it just needs to be reinforced that this guy has a “do whatever the Hell you want ” pass at DC comics and he is fucking going for it.

But that brings me back to the Flamingo. Whips, tassles, pink jackets and all, this is one of the worst characters ever to pop up in a Batman comic. We’re talking 1960’s retro Adam West lunacy here. This overly colorful and flamboyant bore poses a threat to Batman, even a stand in?

I seriously could not stop gawking just at the cover. And then it hit me. Oh God. I have seen this man before. I know who this is supposed to be. It’s  so clear to me now! It’s him! It’s him!

Even down to the smoke in the background. The Flamingo is … Prince!?!?

This is why I can’t take comic books seriously anymore. Here’s the most telling thing. When Annie looked at the cover featuring the Flamingo, she immediately asked, “Is that Alfred?” She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.  It’s an embarrassment.

But Wait! There’s more.

Exhibit B:

Now, wait a minute. Just wait. Stop and look at this picture. I will explain.

That’s Bruce Wayne as a Cave Man.

He’s coming back, people. Bruce Wayne wasn’t dead at all! And that’s not even a spoiler because DC has been telling us this almost since Bruce bought it earlier this year.

In the move that proves NO ONE DIES IN COMIC BOOKS, Bruce Wayne is simply “Lost in the timestream.”

Please, DC could you expand on that nugget for just a sec?

“Blasted by the mysterious and powerful Omega Effect in the pages of FINAL CRISIS during a deadly battle with the malevolent New God Darkseid, Bruce Wayne must battle back through the waves of time to reclaim what was his – his city, his life…his cowl?”

His cowl? His cowl? Why is the cowl part a question? Is Dick Grayson seriously not going to give it back? Is Bruce really going to get back to his own time, fighting throughout history, to give up the cowl? Fuck are you talking about DC? You don’t really think we’re hanging on to every one of these little clues do you?

We know how these stories work. We’ve seen it. Superman died, remember? How did that go? He came back. Even Marvel knows this formula. They killed Captain America a few years back. Get how this worked. He died, his sidekick Bucky took over as Captain America for some time, and then Cap came back. It’s pretty played out by now guys.

And guess who’s helming this return of Wayne? Why, it’s Morrison, the man who brought us the Flamingo is also the man who will be giving us Cave Batman, and this guy!

That’s a pirate Batman. I know. I know.

Some of you might be thinking, wait, this is kinda cool. Batman as a pirate? I like it! I want to see this! Yea, this could work.

No people, this does not work. I will tell you why. The most bankrupt period in Batman’s history occurred in the late 50’s and 60’s where the character had gone from a dark crusader to a kid friendly stooge. The writers constantly had Batman turn into a number of mutations or characters. You may not know it, but there were issues featuring Bruce Wayne turned into a super smart baby, or a zebra, or a martian. This really happened.

And now, it’s happening again. Pirates and cave men are cooler than babies and zebras, but still. It kinda kills the mood for me. Bruce Wayne is a detective, a crusader, he’s not Bill and Ted’ excellent adventure. He’s not H. G. Wells. He’s not Jack fucking Sparrow over here!

I don’t really know how to end this ramble except to say I am really sad to see my Bats in such a state. Please stop destroying my Batman DC. Now when the dust settles and Bruce is back, I will start to pick up the book again. Until then, take your Flamingos and pirates and shove ’em. I wash my hands of you.

-Charlie

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The Walking Dead

Ever since I saw Zombieland a few months ago, my appetite for the undead has hit the roof. I finally bought a copy of one of my favorites, Shaun of the Dead, going back to Max Brook’s amazing World War Z, and am now catching up on the survival horror comic book epic The Walking Dead.

I say epic, because that is writer and creator Robert Kirkman’s intention, an epic story, sprawling cast and locations, a character driven and emotional rollercoaster of a comic. This is no mere slash and run, shoot the head gore fest, though that does happen often throughout. This is more of a portrait of man in a changing, lawless world, and how he changes with it.

Robert Kirkman is the man responsible for the classic and classy Battle Pope. A stinging action book also of apocalyptic proportions, Battle Pope was hilariously blasphemous, toting a cigar smoking, bar brawling Pope, complete with Jesus for a sidekick. (my favorite part was the “what would I do?” t-shirt JC sported)

For this book, Kirkman has altered his style greatly, telling a serious story sans tongue in cheek or adolescent humor. In fact, this book is deadly serious.  It’s an intense study focusing on the breakdown not only of society, but of the individual.

Our hero is Rick. He’s a small town cop who goes down in the line of duty and subsequently wakes up in a hospital bed a la 28 Days Later. In fact, Rick’s awakening and initial wanderings are almost step for step those of Cillian Murphy, only we’re talking about rural Kentucky instead of  London. Rick seeks out his wife and young son, who aren’t at the house naturally. He heads to Atlanta and eventually meets up with a band of survivors in the woods, and look, there’s the fam. A bit of luck after all. The rest of the book is concerned with the group struggling to survive not only their undead attackers, but the coming winter.

This is the kind of book that does not hesitate to kill off characters at a moment’s notice, so yea, most of the supporting folks are going down eventually. Things are increasingly bad in the woods, so the group gets a hold of weapons and an RV, traveling a bit before settling on an abandoned federal prison, where they stay for a long stretch.

So far, at 60 plus issues, the timeline for the events has reached around a year, maybe year and a half, and these characters go through major changes in the process. Without their previous lives, some adapt better than others. Some learn they’re a dead eye with the rifle. Some with a samurai sword.

Kirkman really allows us to get to know these people, at times playing it like a soap opera, at times a simple ’round the campfire confessional. This has the distinct effect of making every death, every loss that much more intense. You literally gasp when some of this shit goes down. (at least I did)

The best parts are the ones when events move quickly. Scenes of target practice and gardening are all well and fine, but this is familiar territory for the zombie genre at least. But, when a helicopter goes down overhead, or the survivors undergo an assault by the living, things quickly heat up and the action is really superb.

Kirkman’s greatest strength in the book is his realistic, but all together enthralling plot. I mean, holing up in a deserted prison is brilliant. What a concept! The discoveries and obstacles are always thrilling, the zombie fights are always engrossing, it keeps you turning pages like few books out there.

This is all aided by the excellent art of both Tony Moore and, later, Charlie Adlard. In a pale and gray composition, the hungry monsters are absolutely repulsive and awesome. Great concepts, perfectly disgusting. The zombie art is worth the price of admission on its own. Adlard’s scratchier style is also a great help to give the characters true misery and pained expressions. We can see the strain, see the worry, the stress. It’s dirty and rough. It’s perfect. Romero would be proud.

I would only say this, Kirkman needs to keep working on the dialogue. A lot of characters basically talk exactly the same, with only little catchphrases standing out. There’s one guy who says “you follow me?” after every fucking dialogue bubble sometimes. I get it. He says that. Do I need to read it fifteen times an issue? Other characters all use these awkwardly sounding little expressions like “let’s just say” or “man/bro/c’mon” before and after every word. Does anyone talk like this in real life? Let’s just say it’s annoying as Hell sometimes, you follow me?

See? That’s annoying to read!

In fairness, I thought the dialogue’s gotten better as it’s gone along. And the story has taken a lot of twists and unexpected turns, making it a new kind of angle on the zombie story. Kirkman himself has said that the worst part of any zombie movie is that it ends. We want to know what happens next. We want to know what became of these characters after we had to leave them. This book does that. It’s the never ending story of zombie horror. And a damn fine read.

My suggestion is collecting (or borrowing from the library like I did) the hardcover collections. They look really great, and encompass 12 issues each, enough to keep you up late into the night.  There is also a massive volume collecting the first four hrdcovers, or 48 single issues. That’s a lot of zombies!

If you want a taste of this book, the first issue is online for free. Check it out.

-Charlie

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