Sunday, July 20, 2014

20 July 1969 … From the Earth to the Moon (HBO, 1998)

Produced by Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, and others.

Today is the 45th anniversary, to the day of the week, of one of the most vivid memories of my childhood, and – although few really recognize it as such, given how little fanfare it receives each year – one of the most important events of the 20th century, even of human history: When Neil Armstrong stepped off the landing pad of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle and planted his boot on the ground of another world, the Earth's moon, mankind left his infancy and became a toddler in the perspective of the universe. It's tragic that we barely followed up on that event and, realistically, do not look like we will be taking any further steps any time soon, possibly not even within my lifetime. I hope I'm wrong. I am grateful, however, that I did witness that event with my own eyes, late in the evening of Sunday, 20 July 1969. [LINK]

For my own celebration of this year's “Moon Landing Day,” I finally started watching earlier in the week the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. In 1998, of course, as a recently minted Ph.D. struggling to secure a tenure-track university position while cobbling together teaching assignments at several different institutions in and around Baton Rouge, I did not have HBO. I still don't, but I picked the DVD set up a couple of years ago. I was actually under the misimpression that From the Earth to the Moon was another product of collaboration between Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, done after Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It's obviously not, but it matters not. It is of similarly outstanding quality, telling the story in a docudrama format, varying the storytelling style and perspective in an interesting fashion from episode to episode. I am particularly impressed by the special effects, although I guess if I think about it by the late 1990s CGI had indeed advanced very far. Honestly, they look entirely modern, 2010s-era quality, to me.  My son says I don't have a very discerning eye, though.

Actually, since I typically limit myself to an hour of “summer series” watching, whether via Netflix or DVD, per day – working my way through various series that I've either never seen or not seen in a long time (I set aside my first viewing of HBO's Rome since its initial airing, and for which I benefited from a generous colleague who taped them for me then, after its first season in order to take up with this) – I'm only a few episodes in at this point. I'm hoping that this evening I can monopolize the TV and watch the few episodes I need, back to back, to get to their depiction of Apollo 11 at approximately the right time.

Cheers! – and Ad Astra!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Son of Batman (DC Universe Original Movie, 2014)

Directed by Ethan Spaulding

Although the outer sleeve of the Blu-Ray packaging sports a sticker touting this as “Based on the Graphic Novel Batman and Son,” that is only very loosely the case and in its broadest strokes. And if Grant Morrison, who wrote that story arc at the beginning of his seven-year epic run metatextually de-/re-/a-constructing the very definition of the Dark Knight Detective (for more on which, see the just-published Anatomy of Zur-en-Arrh by Cody Walker, see below), is actually acknowledged in the credits, I missed it. There's not much Morrison here anyway.  For all intents and purposes this movie takes the basic idea of Batman unexpectedly being presented with the fact that he has a son by Talia al Ghul in the context of a struggle for power within and over the League of Assassins and leaches it of any of Morrison's quirky psychological brilliance. I would have hoped for more, given it is now credited as “a story” by James Robinson, who can himself be awesome – but who can also be pretty uninspired. We get the latter Robinson here, depending on how much of his story passes into the final script by Joe R. Lansdale.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Apocalypto (2006)

Directed by Mel Gibson

This is a movie I've long wanted to see but never got around to for whatever reason. Thanks to TiVo and a BBC-America showing a couple weeks ago, I finally sat down and watched it yesterday. I do not believe it was edited in any way except cutting away to commercials.

It has a fairly simple plot (SPOILERS AHEAD): A Mayan forest village is raided and destroyed by city-dwellers, the majority of its adults being led away to be sold into slavery or sacrificed to Kukulkan. Desperate to save his wife and son, whom he had secreted in a deep pit at the beginning of the raid, one captive escapes the bloody altar and leads his captors on a running chase, picking them off one by one, until he and the last two pursuers emerge from the jungle-line to the stunning sight of Spanish ships landing conquistadores on the beach. He does save his family from drowning as rain fills the pit, and the little family, all that's left of their tribe, retreat further into the forest, “seeking a new beginning.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel (2010)

By David C. Downing

I found this novel, also published by Ignatius Press, via Amazon's suggestions based on the fact that I'd read Toward the Gleam [LINK]. This is not Toward the Gleam. Although I found the description enticing – American graduate students in England in 1940, interacting with the Inklings, on a quest for an Arthurian relic – and was immediately hooked by the first chapter or so in the Kindle preview so that I immediately purchased it, I ended up being disappointed by it. There are elements of this novel I really liked. It opens at one of my favorite places in the world, the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in southwestern England, the reputed resting place of King Arthur, and much of the story takes place at other significant medieval sites that I'm familiar with or are on my list of places I would like to get familiar with (two trips are not nearly enough!) As the narrative progressed it takes an unexpected turn in that the object of the quest becomes ultimately less King Arthur than one of my subjects of historical interest, King Athelstan (r. 924-939), probably the most important of the late Anglo-Saxon kings of England, a true “Christian King and Hero” [LINK] who may well have come into possession of one of the most powerful relics of the Crucifixion.  Frankly, for all his importance, Athelstan is largely forgotten in the memory of later ages, overshadowed by his grandfather Alfred the Great, and it is cool beyond words to find his legend at the heart of a modern novel.  Looking for the King is suffused with the early medieval England that I love, and seems well researched as evidenced by a good set of historical notes and a bibliography at the end. (The mistaken identification of the foes defeated by Otto of Saxony at the Battle of the Lechfeld in 955 as “Mongols” rather than Magyars I'm willing to dismiss as a literary slip of the tongue.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Green Arrow (New 52), Volume 4: The Kill Machine (DC Comics, 2014)

Reprinted from issues #17-24 and 23.1 (2013) by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino

Green Arrow has never been a character I really followed. I liked him well enough in the context of Green Lantern's “hard travellin'” partner in the classic Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams stories of ca. 1970 (which I didn't really read many of or appreciate at all until much later, but I was only eight years old), in the context of the Justice League (especially as Hawkman's political opposite – although I was always far more on Hawkman's conservative side than Green Arrow's liberal side), even occasionally in his own stories (e.g, The Longbow Hunters), but beyond that, not so much. It was mainly as a second-tier character that he worked best for me. I had no interest in the new, beardless, younger Green Arrow of the series which came in with the New 52 in 2011, and frankly found him an uninteresting character those times he did appear in titles I did get. Green Arrow can be interesting – I particularly liked him in the Smallville TV series, and when I first heard that the CW was developing a [Green] Arrow follow-up, I was quite disappointed that it would be an entirely new reimagining of the character with no connection to Smallville. I've written elsewhere of my revulsion at the debut of Arrow in 2012 [LINK], but in the same place of my giving it a second chance at the end of the first season such that it became one of my most highly anticipated shows through the second season. It's surprisingly good, with a rather broad appeal. I was surprised along the way to find that my parish priest watches it, as well as our parish liturgical director and his wife (who are avid archers themselves); my wife doesn't actually follow it, but she will watch it with me if she happens to be in the room; the show is a runaway success by CW standards.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Batman Eternal #1-4 (DC Comics, June 2014)

By Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Jason Fabok, and others

DC Comics are trying to recapture the magic they inadvertently stumbled on back in 2006 (eight years ago?!) in the year-long weekly 52. As usual these days, it seems they are blundering right in with little thought – in the next few months no less than three (is that all? – this one plus Future's End and Earth 2: World's End) new weeklies will be going. Hey! – If one is a good idea, three must be a better idea, right? – Throw 'em at the wall and see what sticks!  Whether they will “stick” and be going “strong” is another matter, but I am happy to say that this first one out the gate is a winner in my book. I'm not going to say a whole lot about it, except that this is the kind of Batman story I like – characterization and action, fast-paced, an intriguing mystery, involving both the full range of primary Bat-family characters (including the New 52 debut of Stephanie Brown!) and secondary (sometimes new, sometimes just New 52 reintroduced) characters including the Gotham City Police – all graced by dark, moody, but cleanly realistic art. Makes me wish I had a local comic shop so I could be there every Wednesday for the newest chapter rather than waiting until the end of the month for my mail-order subscription service to dump them all on me at once. Which is part of the strategy of the weekly model in the first place – to encourage that weekly compulsion to get thee to a comic shop! I'll make do, but at the moment, just four weeks into the story, Batman Eternal has catapulted to the top of my short list of titles I'm really looking forward to each month. It sets a very high bar for those to come.

Cheers, and Thanks for reading!

Reviews [LINK]

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy (Dark Horse, 2009)

Reprinted from three six-issue comic-book miniseries (1995, 1998, and 1999) based on the prose novels by Timothy Zahn (1991-1993), adapted by scripter Mike Baron and various artists

I was there, nigh on two and a half decades past, when Star Wars seemed a fad of the past after a dearth of several years in the late 1980s after the completion of the “trilogy” with the appearance of Return of the Jedi in 1983. Little if any merchandising was being published when suddenly there appeared in 1991 a new novel, Heir to the Empire. I was there … but I didn't actually pick it up until it appeared in paperback the next summer, and read it during that bit of a lull in my graduate studies between finishing up my M.A. thesis and beginning my doctoral studies. I thoroughly enjoyed it, of course, picked up the paperbacks of the sequels – Dark Force Rising and The Last Command – as they appeared in paperback the next two summers. Together, they told one long, fast paced, intricate story that basically created what came to be known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Characters, worlds, concepts, a history spanning millennia would be elaborated by many other creators in both prose and comics – some even being “canonized” by incorporation into the revived film series, most notably the Imperial Capital of Coruscant, which was first named and described in Heir to the Empire.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism (1993)

By Scott and Kimberly Hahn

I actually read this book back during Lent, so a couple of months ago at this point. I had been saying I would read it for several months before that, ever since my wife read it late last year. Not only did things she said about it intrigue me, but I've been familiar with Dr. Scott Hahn for many years as a great Catholic convert, theologian, and apologist. I'd only read a couple of books by him, however. Then, a couple of months ago, a friend approached me for help in dealing with a barrage of half-baked attacks from her sister, a convert from Catholicism to Baptist fundamentalism. Not really having delved into apologetics that much in recent years, her questions inspired me to deeper reading on a number of matters I'd gotten a bit rusty on – and I took up this book as well.

Here we have a deeply personal story, written in alternating chapters from the perspective of Scott Hahn and his wife, Kimberly, of what began as his but ultimately became their conversion from Presbyterianism to Catholicism. Making the journey much more rocky for them was the fact that they had met and married while in Presbyterian seminary – Scott was training to become a minister, Kimberly was herself the daughter of a minister and envisioned herself as the spouse, partner, and helpmate of an ordained Presbyterian minister. Which worked out well … for a short time. Scott was ordained and they began their career and a family. But then Scott's theological and Biblical studies increasingly convinced him that just about everything he had ever known about the Catholic Church and its teachings were not true, but rather that it is the most Biblical of all churches. Objection after objection fell before his willingness to put aside his preconceived notions and to follow the Biblical evidence where it leads, especially with regard to his own specialty of study, Covenant Theology. He was at last convicted of the Truth and must become Catholic. Which he did … on Holy Saturday, 29 March 1986. My jaw dropped at that point in my reading and I exclaimed, “Wow!” – because that was the very same evening, a thousand miles away, that I was accepted into the Catholic Church!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Orthodoxy (1908)

Not the edition I read; this book
is in the public domain and
is available in many forms,

including e-book
By G. K. Chesterton

How can I possibly epitomize this wonderful book in a short blog-entry review? Better men than I have summarized it to varying lengths and effect, none of which except where they directly quote the author capture a smidgen of the magic, wit, and – above all – wisdom that is the hallmark of this giant of early 20th -century thought. Such attempts to provide a short aide-mémoire may be useful, and I did consult them (three in particular, by A. Freddoso [LINK], J. Grabowski [LINK], and K. D. Rapinchuk [LINK]), but I can't say they really helped me process what I read. Really, I can't say I have truly processed it at all, despite what I figure at this point must be from two to four readings through – two visual, and two aural via a wonderful audio version on Podiobooks, read by David “Grizzly” Smith [LINK] (whose voice is perfectly suited to the material although he sounds nothing like Chesterton himself [LINK]); I have read and reread, listened to and relistened to parts multiple times, and “two to four” is just a wild guess. I feel like I have barely started to grasp what Chesterton has to offer. Sure, I've been charmed by his wit and audacity – and astonished at how many passages and turns of phrase sound vaguely familiar simply because they have contributed quotations and turns of phrase that I have heard in the past but never in context (I previously [LINK] cited my memory of hearing tradition described as “the democracy of the dead” without being aware it was Chesterton) – but I am absolutely inadequate to taking on the task of distilling his arguments into a short essay. In different ways, the three attempts I linked above do it much better than could I, with Rapinchuk's being the most readable prose summary; Grabowski's being the most analytical, virtually an expanded outline; and Freddoso's incorporating extensive quotations. All I can do is state baldly how life-changing I consider my belated “discovery” of Chesterton to be (I previously described [LINK] my earlier flirtations with his writings), make a couple of observations, and then offer my feeble best.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Directed by Bryan Singer

I remember as if it were yesterday reading my subscription copies of the original Uncanny X-Men #141 and 142, 'way back in 1980, only a few months after the shocking conclusion of The Dark Phoenix Saga in issue #137 and, unbeknownst to me, only an issue away from the break-up of the very best creative team ever to grace those pages. Writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne were at the top of their respective games at that point – in sharing co-plotting duties they created a whole that was considerably more than the sum of its parts – and I remained what I had been for the previous four or five years, a rabid “X-fan” during the only period of my life when I may well have been buying more Marvel comics than DC. My devotion to the franchise would slowly wane over the half-dozen or so years after the departure of John Byrne (his last issue was the tour-de-force #143), arrested only briefly during the tenure of Paul Smith (#165-175). Glee at the return of the “New” X-Men's inaugural artist from the mid-late 1970s, Dave Cockrum, with issue #145 quickly gave way to dismay that the artist whom I had long regarded as my absolute favorite had lost something in the interim – I found Cockrum's art much cruder this second go 'round, especially in contrast to the incredibly smooth, expressive draftsmanship of John Byrne.

One of the most homaged
covers ever
But as so often happens, I ramble on. The point is this: “Days of Future Past” (Uncanny X-Men #141) and “Mind Out of Time” (#142) – yes, it was a mere two issues, but in those days a typical issue of a comic book packed in as much story as a modern-day five- or six-issue story arc! – had an incredible impact on my late-teen-year-old self, and (I suspect) on others as well. Let's just say that in my opinion the commentary implicitly or explicitly attributing this new movie's time-travel plot – heroes in a dystopian future dominated by giant robots send one of their number into the past to change history and prevent the apocalypse (errr... Can I use that word?) – to Terminator have things as incredibly backward as those who ignorantly called John Carter [of Mars] a rip-off of a century of science-fiction cinema! I have believed that James Cameron had to have read Uncanny X-Men ever since I first saw Terminator in 1984. I've never seen that discussed, and I figure it's about as likely to be admitted as that Gladiator was a turn-of-the-century retread of 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Another of the most homaged
covers ever
… And there I go again....

Anyway, I have read and reread the original story many times – I have owned it in at least five different printings from the original issues (which I still have) to the most recent deluxe hardcover of the same title (X-Men: Days of Future Past) compiling the original story with thirty years of follow-up stories as Marvel could not resist going back to the “DOFP” well over and over again! I have been looking forward to this movie with my typical mix of anticipation and dread (my default attitude regarding upcoming comic-book movies) ever since it was announced during the unexpected success of X-Men: First Class several years ago. I began getting more excited about it a year ago almost exactly when I had the pleasure of hearing both Chris Claremont and Patrick Stewart express their own enthusiasm (which seemed genuine, but you can never tell how much is real and how much is just wanting to make sure their own paycheck is as big as possible) for the movie at Comicpalooza 2013 (LINK). As usual, the barrage of trailers and clips leading up to the big release this weekend looked good, but it's almost impossible to tell from those whether the final product will be an incomprehensible mess (a real danger with this type of movie compounded with the huge cast of characters brought into the story) or not. Nonetheless, this was a movie I had to see as quickly as possible.

And so, on its first day of release I was there for the very first afternoon showing. To cut to the chase, I really liked it. I don't consider it the best super-hero movie ever made, and probably not the best of the year, but it is without a doubt the best non-Marvel Studios effort at a Marvel Comics movie (don't get me started on the licensing issues) … and Marvel Studios is going to have a tough time living up to this film's achievement in one hilarious sequence where there is a unique licensing overlap between Marvel itself and 20th-Century Fox!  they have been thoroughly one-upped in advance, I feel.  It is, of course, the best X-Men movie, and reconciles (for the most part) the differences between Bryan Singer's first two offerings and the reboot/prequel First Class, while simultaneously wiping the slate of the unfortunate story consequences of X-Men: The Last Stand and in no way invalidating that film – time travel and alternate universes can be extremely useful! I think the X-Men franchise is perfectly poised to go forward from here.

(And going forward from here there may well be SPOILERS...)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Toward the Gleam (2011)

A Novel by T. M. Doran

I have a fondness for novels featuring historical characters experiencing fantastic but fictional adventures. By this I mean not “historical novels” retelling historical events in the form of a novel, where the author strives to adhere as closely as possible to events as they actually happened while necessarily supplying dialogue, minor incidents, and even peripheral characters as necessary to create a dramatic narrative out of the facts as we know them (examples abound, but springing first to mind are Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series), or even fundamentally fictional stories featuring a fictional character set firmly within a historical context and events, interacting with historical persons (e.g., Max Allan Collins' Nathan Heller Mysteries [LINK]). No, I mean something more akin to Paul Malmont's novels, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown [LINK], the former placing the 1930s writers of hero pulps in their own hair-raisingly pulpish adventures complete with reanimated corpses and the Yellow Peril, the latter similarly focusing on the 1940s pioneers of science fiction in a fantastic war-time plot to recover a Death Ray defense against the Axis. In fact, as I write this I realize that those latter two novels exemplify what I really find compelling, imagining the writers of fantastic fiction plunged into the midst of their own fantastic adventures.

A couple of months ago, I read (and reviewed) No Dawn For Men: A Novel of Ian Fleming, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Nazi Germany [LINK]. My assessment of it was somewhat mixed, both because of a rather pedestrian writing style that did not successfully emulate that of either author and because it did not succeed in imparting a necessary suspension of disbelief that these could indeed be “the real story” behind the authors and the creation of the the literary monuments for which they are known. Neither of those criticisms apply to this book, however, which was recommended to me by our parish priest, with whom I share a love for all things Tolkien, around the same time I had heard of and already ordered No Dawn For Men. The intriguing prospect of a mash-up of Tolkien and Fleming in a spy adventure on the eve of World War II had me read that book first, inadvertently saving the better for later. If No Dawn For Men is a simple pot-boiler thriller, Toward the Gleam rises to the level of literature – while remaining an edge-of-your seat thriller. Which is no mean accomplishment given how much discourse and dialogue is contained in these pages, working in a great deal of the changing philosophy and world-view of the early twentieth century. That latter feature, as well as the characters and literary connections posited, make it obvious why Ignatius Press, a relatively small Catholic publishing house specializing in orthodox theology and philosophy as well as fiction picked up this book [LINK]. (As with many other of its books, Ignatius' page for this book [LINK] site hosts a reading guide [LINK] as well as a great embedded Youtube “book trailer” [LINK].)

Before I get to a more spoiler-filled discussion of some particular elements of this book that struck me as noteworthy, here's a general overview of the plot: A young English scholar, recuperating from injuries suffered on the front-lines of the World War I, discovers a mysterious box containing an ancient manuscript bound in red, written in an unknown language. His linguistics training allows him to laboriously decipher over a decade and a half or so the lost tales of a long-departed age – but his obsessive quest to understand the historical context whence came the book brings him to the attention of a great enemy who demands the knowledge contained within the book for himself, toward the end of world domination. Much of this tale is a tense cat-and-mouse game in which we experience along with the scholar the dread of an approaching doom that seems almost a force of nature, tempered with the support of a close fellowship of academic colleagues as well as a loving family and clear-headed, eminently practical and down-to-earth wife, climaxing in a one-on-one confrontation within the hallowed halls of Oxford University itself.

The rest of this review contains spoilers which, while not giving away the overall story itself beyond the brief summary above, may well ruin a lot of the reading experience; if you've not yet read the book for yourself, I would suggest you do so before going any further....

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tales of Honor #2 (Image Comics-Top Cow, 2014)

Continuing a five-issue adaptation of On Basilisk Station, by David Weber.

There's not a whole lot I can say about this second issue that I didn't say about the first [LINK]. My overall assessment remains the same, that it holds up very well as a graphic novel adaptation of the introductory volume to David Weber's ever-expanding Honorverse, told through the memories of the main character, Honor Harrington, looking back on her first starship command from captivity and probable execution as a war criminal. I will emphasise that script-writer Matt Hawkins seems to know the Honorverse like the back of his hand and by this narrative device provides a unique perspective that makes this a refreshingly original version of a story I've read and reread in Weber's original prose. It is not simply a straight illustrated retelling of the original “tale of Honor,” but manages to be something that both contributes to this longtime aficionado’s appreciation of the Honorverse and is, in my opinion, accessible to someone unfamiliar with the world and characters. I hope there are comics fans who will be turned on to the novels by this new presentation, although I've seen no sales data and have no idea how these first couple of issues have done. My hope is, very well.