Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Netflix Diary 7

Aguirre, The Wrath Of God [1972]
I wanted to see this after enjoying last year’s Rescue Dawn, because I had always heard how good it was, and how in a lot of ways it is the…technical forerunner to director Werner Herzog’s 2007 expedition. But ya know what? I was bored to tears by Aguirre. I understand how much of an impossible feat the production was, trekking a film crew and actors in full suits of real armor through the South American jungle – it’s all right there on the screen – but that doesn’t mean it makes a good film. The story is skeletal, with half the scenes being improvised, and the acting is alternately forced, amateurish or nonexistent. It’s not a completely bad film, illustrating madness and paranoia pretty well, and the craft does count for something, but I just found it profoundly disappointing for all the cultish hype it gets.

A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints [2006]
I really really wanted to like this movie, because, as I’ve said, I like Shia LaBeouf, and I really like the recent choices of Robert Downey Jr. Actually, I did like this movie, and I do recommend it, but I do so with some reservations. The movie totally hinges on the good performances of these two lead actors (playing the young and old versions of the same person, Dito Montiel), as well as the fact that it’s simply a filmed autobiography, adapted and directed by Montiel himself. NOW, the rest of the movie is merely good. The situations are interesting, though sometimes not well drawn enough, and unfortunately the characters are mostly unlikable, though Irish Mike is cool...but I can’t shake the fact that I wanted young Dito to escape his world not because I was rooting for him, but because I was rooting against the world. Apparently, this is just one of the short stories from the original book, which continues with Dito fronting a hardcore band among other things, so maybe that’s the place to start. Otherwise, this is just another in a long line of coming-of-age dramas that take place in the five boroughs of New York City.

Friday, May 23, 2008

[004] Paul's Boutique

Album: Paul’s Boutique
Artist: Beastie Boys
Release Date: July 1989
Label: Capitol
Producers: The Dust Brothers (Mike Simpson & John King), Matt Dike, and Beastie Boys, with Mario Caldato Jr.

“Well if your world was all black,
And your world was all white,
Then you wouldn’t get much color out of life now, right?”
- from “Dropping Names”

Oriental girls, Italian women, Upper East Side nubiles, topless dancers, Southern belles, stewardesses flying around the world. House parties, aluminum bats, rocking mics, staring at radios, B-Boy limps, Mardi Gras floats, billy-goat beards, disco calls, the Funky Four + 1, onion rings, DJ Hurricane, lava lamps, Patty Duke, peg legs, “Full Clout”, bong rips, Sam the Butcher bringing Alice the meat, Fred Flintstone’s bald feet, whippets, dookie rope chains, ‘Clarence’, the bump. Johnny Ryall the rockabilly bum, Mayor Ed Koch, the Bowery, “Maggie’s Farm”, hand-me-down Pumas & tie-dye shirts, Memphis, gold teeth & gold records, Louis Vuitton & Gucci, Nighttrain & O.E., Donald Trump, Wonder Bread bag-shoes, “Helter Skelter” & “Blue Suede Shoes”, Elvis in the army. Superfly, Egg Man with his egg gun, Humpty Dumpty, a Rastaman, “You’re Gonna Get Yours” & “Bring The Noise”, the Easter Bunny, Dolemite & The Mack, Eric Haze, Green Eggs & Ham, Yosemite Sam, crack pipes, Jaws & Psycho. High Plains Drifter, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, 8-tracks, Kool cigarettes, cellular phones, Travis Bickle, plowing over mail boxes, Motel 6 porno flicks, black and tans in brandy snifters, K-Mart & 7-11, Jell-o & lemonade, Steve McQueen, Ballantine with the puzzle caps, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry & Dirty Harry, “Your Momma Don’t Dance”, Otis the drunk, Nix Check Cashing, Harry Houdini (as a verb), Off-Track Betting, “Suzy Is A Headbanger”. The Beatles, Range Rovers, Naugels, Isaac Newton, Ben Franklin, the times-table, J.C., Shea Stadium, The Palladium, B.D.P., “waxing and milking all of your square heads”???, girls covered in honey, a Quarter Pounder deluxe, ‘jimmy protectors’, facials, cops cooking up the crack, Ponce De Leon & the Fountain of Youth, Robotron, Pro: Adidas & sinsemilla, Anti: Fila (?) & cocaine, Cheech Wizard, Galileo. Ping Pong, Dragnet, Mr. Roper, the N.Y. Yankees, Mrs. Crabtree & Spanky, “Proud Mary”, Ring Dings, hopping turnstyles, “Doo Wah Diddy”, chillin’ like Bob Dylan, sucking your mother’s dick, Mothership Connection, ‘sorry, Charlie’, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, coconut lotion, Are You Experienced, P.C.P. Sadaharu Oh, Tom Thumb, Tom Cushman, or Tom Foolery, Chuck Woolery, the Grand Canyon, moccasins & a bib, Welcome Back, Kotter, the gift of gab, the blue-plate crab special at Woodman’s in Essex, Mass., James at 15 or Chachi in charge, white Sassoons, a Coupe De Ville, “Ain’t It Funky”, Vincent Van Gogh’s ear, throwing trash cans through windows, the 6 train, a one ton ho, beatnik chicks just wearing their smocks, “Ballroom Blitz”. Jethro’s too close to the BBQ, Skin the cat. Chuck Chillout, stolen cars, “Mississippi Queen” & “Funky Cold Medina”, Rambo, Bruce Willis, Dave Scilken, the Son of Sam, A Clockwork Orange, curse words, headless chicken, free-base, racism. Pool hall brawls, bingo & lotto, townies & hash brownies, Mookie, ‘I’m a farmer’, Ecstasy, elephant tranquilizer, money-hungry miser…Rush not Rush, the ‘Bowie coke mirror’, Ricky Powell, The Godfather of Soul, St. Anthony’s feast, wife beaters & tax cheaters in the White House, cops with rope chains selling cheeba, space cake cookies, “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, more Five-O. Cherry red Lee press-on nails, Rapunzel, ‘the wet look’ vs. baldness, pasta primavera & Geraldo Rivera, brown-noses, Dolomite (again), “Beat On The Brat”, Phil Rizzuto, ‘Funky Pam’, Alabama, Penicillin, Doris the finkasaurus. “Loose Booty”, The Batman 60’s TV show, smokin’ and drinkin’ on a Tuesday night, “For Those About to Rock, We Salute You”, “Amazing Grace”, Al (from S.S. Decontrol), Shadrach, Mesach, Abednego, the Putney Swope sequel, Jacoby & Meyers, the Atlantic Antic, Adidas, Rambo (again), Robin Hood, J.D. Salinger, Charles Dickens, The Colonel’s chicken, Harry S. Truman, Alfred E. Newman, Jerry Lee Swaggart or Jerry Lee Falwell, Mario Andretti, Fleetwood Brougham D’elegance. ‘For the best in men’s clothing, call 718-498-1043 - ask for Janice’. DMC, The Fat Boys, Dick Butkus, Jelly Roll Morton, over in Fresno, Rolos, Hasenpfeffer Ale, taking the D train to Coney Island, transfer to the 1, the New York Post, Fulton Street, trench coats & wing tips, Captain Kirk, pick-pocket gangsters, Bernie Goetz, prostitutes in spandex, turtlenecks & creased Lee’s, Dunkin Donuts, Jamaica, Queens, El Diario, Orange Julius, George Dakoulias, skiing, lions with wings, more black & tans, ultimate destiny, Disco Dave, gold finger knuckles, buffalo soldiers with sawed off shotguns making bombs, “Broader Than Broadway”, M-O-N-E-Y, Annabelle & Slick Nick, “Folsom Prison Blues”, seeing ghosts, Shamrock – not Shamus, O’Houlihy, nor Brian, Bob Marley, Chinese suits, Hawthorne Wingo, Napoleon Bonaparte, Cezanne, Joe Blow the Lover Man, Fruit Stripe Gum, butter your muffin, bait & tackle, Red Lobster, Spinach D, Raymond Burr, “The Village”, trips, funky beats, & bugging out to it, good times & going A.W.O.L in Amsterdam…

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Paul’s Boutique.

This is a lost world, a place that no modern map can lead to, a utopia that nurtured us but that we can never find our way back to. It is like the Lost island of Hip-Hop. They always say (you know, “They”), “They broke the mold when they made it.” Well, on this one, it’s true. And who is “they” who broke the mold? Greedy lawyers and bitter, short-sighted out-of-touch former artists that forgot what it means to make something new and challenge the status quo. They delivered the devastating blow to sampling with a blade thrust into Hip-Hop’s side, right under the ribs, left to bleed out; but Hip-Hop and sampling survived, begrudgingly learning to live with the new limitations. Sure, feeling ripped off can be a valid reaction – I’m not going to discount that – but maybe have the heart to recognize the New that is steam-rolling the world around you whether you like it or not, and be selfless for once...not to mention fuckin’ manning up if someone takes your song and makes a better one out of it. What did Jay say? “You made it a hot line. I made it a hot song.” Yeah, exactly.

As we come to the end of this list, and I assert my celebration of Hip-Hop (always unfortunate that it must also act as a defense), it is only right that I note that this is the most visionary Hip-Hop album of all time – musically. Let’s be honest, the Beastie Boys are good MC’s, and on Paul’s Boutique they did present what can now be seen as their best rhymes and best flows – so many years before nadirs of “ice is cold and fire’s hot” (from the otherwise cool “Unite”) or the regrettable single “Ch-Check It Out” (save for the ‘fressshhhh attire’) – not to mention creating the kitschy, widescreen new dimension I illustrated above, but this album was really all about fresh tracks. If the beat is Hip-Hop’s heart, then sampling was its blood for the entire 80’s and the beginning of the 90’s. In finding its foothold as the new voice of the youth of the world, Hip-Hop’s artists chose as the music’s vehicle the dismantling of the culture of their parents’ youth. Sampling in early Hip-Hop was the ultimate in youth rebellion; it is the opposite of the cover song. The cover song is a tribute, not to just a song being musically sound, but also to the idea. Sampling rejects the idea, or at least intends to rewrite it; it says to the older generation, “Yeah, we hear what you’re trying to put across, and we see that you and yours get such-n-such out of it, but this is what we’re getting out of the same sources over here, one generation removed”. The artist doing the sampling chooses his or her samples for maximum impact, for shock value – it’s a question of force, even if the music he or she is making is not forceful. Hip-Hop in the late 80’s was an art form fighting for respect and recognition, and so the artists had to make that much more noise to get attention. At the time, the Beastie Boys were growing to be experts in this, and on Paul’s Boutique, they united with more genius minds that worked like theirs did.

According to the legends, the unsung hero of the Paul’s Boutique sessions was Delicious Vinyl co-founder Matt Dike. First an assistant to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, next a DJ and club promoter, and then mastermind behind Tone Loc and Young MC, Dike has been described almost as the Hip-Hop Syd Barrett; he was known to DJ parties from closets, and even when he was actively working on this album, he’d lock himself alone in his bedroom and just pour over his crates of vinyl for samples, while everyone else was in his living room where the equipment was. But it is through him that all the pieces came together in Hollywood in 1988 that would lead to this massive record. Mike Simpson and John King, soon to be dubbed The Dust Brothers, were college DJ’s dabbling in making tracks, and met Dike through Tone Loc when he got signed to Delicious Vinyl. Recording engineer (and future Beasties producer) Mario Caldato had hooked up with Dike to help with both sound at his clubs and with the recording equipment in his apartment. The Beasties, in a heady malaise from their Def Jam woes, simply came to Dike looking for the tastemaker to point them in the direction of a good time. Instead Dike played them a tape of The Dust Brothers’ new tracks, tracks so hectic that Young MC and Loc could never hope to rhyme over them, and it was all over.

The blueprint for this campaign was “Full Clout”, the Dust Brothers’ cut-up instrumental Funk breakbeat dancefloor monster - featuring samples of Funky Four +1, Average White Band, Afrika Bambaataa, Led Zeppelin, Brothers Johnson & more - that they would kill Cali clubs with; when they played it for the visiting Beasties, the Boys begged for a copy to take home and try to rhyme over. The Dust Brothers thought: no way – it’s too erratic and fast to rap on. But sure enough, the Boys delivered. Redubbed “Shake Your Rump”, and complete with a disco call and an infamous bong hit, it kicked off the creative avalanche that would amount to Paul’s Boutique. The record was getting made. It was a meeting of the geniuses. Dike had the ideas, Simpson had the DJ chops, King and Caldato had the tech know-how, and the Beasties brought the warped, irrepressible energy and open minds.

The ultimate example, or at least the biggest statement, of the Beasties role in the sampling rebellion is “The Sounds Of Science”. The Dust Brothers and Dike smashed all preconceived notions of what the music of The Beatles, the world’s most famous band, could become, grafting bits of “Sgt. Pepper’s” to “The End” and a whole chunk of “When I’m Sixty-Four”. The admittedly very white and mostly un-funky Beatles were kind of a Hip-Hop no-no, for legal reasons; they’re even more of one now. It’s like getting away with sampling the anti-sampling Prince (Arrested Development, raise your hands). You sit on the edge of your couch, staring at the phone, waiting for your lawyer to tell you you’re getting sued. So in that way, the Beasties were able to put on the table a slice of sampling gold, and not only prove as fresh and rebellious as Public Enemy or N.W.A., but by deconstructing the most-beloved touchstone of the baby-boomer culture, they also bucked the rest of Hip-Hop sampling James Brown, structuring the majority of the song’s lyrics around very un-Hip-Hop subjects (like, um, science). Of course, the second half of the song also contains tossed off lines like “Went berserk and worked and exploded, she woke up in the morning and her face was coated,” as lascivious as anything they oozed out on the first album.

In fact, critics are constantly talking about the leap in maturity on Paul’s Boutique, but other than not talking about wiffle ball bats and smoking dust, they didn’t mature that much; “59 Chrystie Street” would be right at home on Licensed To Ill. In fact, most of their “advances” would fall under Chris Rock’s ‘Whaddya want: a cookie?’ scenario. It’s like, yes, we realize that coke & crack are wack, and yet other forms of drunken and/or drug-assisted adventures are apparently OK. Built over an obscure Funk Factory sample, “Car Thief” (where Fun Lovin’ Criminals stole their sound from) is much more than its title, loaded with all sorts of drug use (smoking elephant tranquilizer = cure for Def Jam headache) rubbing elbows with sly social commentary. They’ve just painted their pictures and written their fables in new, vivid, and much funnier ways. While, yes, there is “Johnny Ryall”, the detailed tale of the plight of the homeless, that homeless man is a hysterical caricature, a fictitious rockabilly star with no royalties to collect and left to begging on the street. Shit, there’s less in the song about helping the homeless as there are parallels to be drawn between Johnny and the Beasties’ new attitude towards the record company’s treatment of artists in the wake of their stressful extrication from Def Jam’s clutches.

The reprehensible activities are found throughout the album, and their new crime narratives almost act as multiple extensions of the debut’s immortal “Paul Revere”; it isn’t just the Superfly-sampling, egg-tossing drive-bys in “Egg Man”. “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun” seethes about ultra-violence, and “Hello Brooklyn” deals with a sociopathic bomb-maker targeting city officials and sticking up old ladies. The most obvious example is “High Plains Drifter” - constructed out of little more than a loop of the beat from the Eagles' "Those Shoes" - once again mining the American outlaw myth for their dangerous cool, but this time a much grander tall tale, laced with intricate asides and footnotes, and one of the best examples of the Boys’ masterful vocal interplay, at times trading lyrics word by word. In fact, this turns out to be one of the enduring triumphs of the album: as, specifically, a Hip-Hop unit, the trio is unparalleled in wordplay. Simply trading lines like Run-DMC was not nearly enough. The three of them experiment with all different configurations and doubling effects, giving the impression that they are parts of a whole, operating as one consciousness; their arrangements on “Shadrach” are just as incredible, somehow avoiding ever stepping on each other’s toes.

OK, so Paul’s Boutique is a classic record an all, but it’s more than that, and it’s only after so many years that we can recognize its real achievements. First, it’s one of the greatest artistic turning points in music history, a startling sharp left like What’s Going On, London Calling, or Kid A. We all know the story – the Beasties quit Def Jam cuz Russell wasn’t handing over the Licensed to Ill cash, the critics all thought they were a joke, as good as the debut was, and that they were destined to be a one-album wonder. No one expected anything this futuristically retro in aesthetic. And we even know that when it came out, despite great reviews, Paul’s Boutique was a relative bomb, never even touching the top ten (whereas Licensed To Ill was the first Hip-Hop album to hit #1). But the Boys hadn’t set out to make a hit. They wanted to make whatever they liked. Like the aforementioned classics, it is a brilliant example of an album smashing artistic preconceptions and helping an entire genre to turn a corner. But there’s something more in there, in between the doubt and the triumph, something that’s more than music.

The Boys now claim that they were in-character on Licensed To Ill, playing the roles of drunken misogynists, but they also admit that the roleplay became reality as they spent most days inebriated and hopping on groupies. With Paul’s Boutique they slide into what could be considered their ‘true character’, the personas they would hold for the rest of their career – Adrock always the fast-mouthed clown, Mike D the suave connoisseur of art and kitsch, MCA the musical and spiritual vagabond, all three lovable laidback stoners. These personalities, of course far deeper and more multi-faceted than these simplified descriptions allow, ooze out of the Beasties’ music starting with this album, and have carried the group to a rare level of…not popularity, but of acceptance into our homes and lives. On “What Comes Around”, we get to hear the Beasties as close to their true selves as they had let on up to that point, just screwing around in the studio, riffing on “Funky Pam” Turbov’s name just for laughs, and there’s plenty more flippancy where that came from on the separated Siamese “Get On The Mic” and “Mike On The Mic”. Even on a song as understated and hassle-free as the dubbed-out “3-Minute Rule”, the personality and attitude come through loud and clear, no softer than their earlier Def Jam personas, and yet miles removed. We’ve all grown up with the Beastie “boys”, and they’ve grown as men in many obvious ways, traveling figuratively farther than most acts ever even consider being possible. The Beastie Boys have become like the fun uncles that make tedious family gatherings worth the aggravation.

Furthermore, the Boys’ unquenchable thirst for the edge of entertainment and pop culture novelty amplified their musical evolution, and in that evolution, that warm fuzzy feeling that the Boys give us, lies the reason Paul’s Boutique is one of the essential albums of its generation. Their entire way of being while recording Paul’s Boutique informs the all-inclusive spirit of the soon-to-be-launched Alternative movement, which is to say that while these songs don’t necessarily sound like the ragged Rock to come, the musical open-mindedness that Perry Farrell would promote with his Lollapalooza festivals was already proposed and best demonstrated on this album by the Beastie Boys. It’s somewhat strange to think that when a piece of art is hailed as ‘ahead of its time’, the implication is a kind of prescience, aimed at “The Future”; Paul’s Boutique was ahead of its time, but only by a couple years, and so it’s that much more perplexing why it wasn’t more successful.

And while it didn’t take off immediately, Paul’s Boutique was vindicated three years later, when the Beasties released Check Your Head, and were hailed as Alternative innovators, pushing the idea wider by picking up their instruments again (they do it here for the first time since the hardcore days, on the lumbering “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun”) tossing groovy instrumental funk and Latin Jazz in the same mixing bowl as hardcore rants, spiritual tone poems (first touched on here by MCA’s mysterious “A Year And A Day”), and the usual boom bap. The influence is endless, with the best examples being Beck – as the quintessential 90’s Alternative artist, the perfect synthesis of second-hand Rock and Hip-Hop, the approach of this one album applied to an entire career – and the soundtracks to Quentin Tarantino’s films. Tarantino understood like the Beasties did that good music is good music, no matter if the genre it’s stuck in is supposedly currently out of favor; the landmark soundtrack for Pulp Fiction had teenagers who were into Soundgarden and Alice In Chains all of a sudden grooving to past classics by Dick Dale, Kool & The Gang, Dusty Springfield, and Al Green. Those teenagers were primed by the Beastie Boys, no doubt about it, and it makes you wonder how the swirling declaration of independence “Shadrach” and the disco-puzzle masterpiece “Hey Ladies” weren’t certified hits. Some things can be so good they can defy a backlash, especially when they’re based on pure fun, but that doesn’t mean that the world is ready; sometimes they just want the same ol’ crap. But instead of delivering a boring sophomore platter set in the same raw black and white as Licensed To Ill, the Beastie Boys went with their hearts, flanked by other creative people that shared they desire to paint in the entire spectrum of color, and gave the youth of the world the blueprint to their future.

01. “To All The Girls” [interlude]
02. “Shake Your Rump”
03. “Johnny Ryall”
04. “Egg Man”
05. “High Plains Drifter”
06. “The Sounds Of Science”
07. “3-Minute Rule”
08. “Hey Ladies”
09. “5-Piece Chicken Dinner” [interlude]
10. “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun”
11. “Car Thief”
12. “What Comes Around”
13. “Shadrach”
14. “Ask For Janice” [interlude]
15. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”
- a) “59 Chrystie Street”
- b) “Get On The Mic”
- c) “Stop That Train”
- d) “A Year And A Day”
- e) “Hello Brooklyn”
- f) “Dropping Names”
- g) “Lay It On Me”
- h) “Mike On The Mic”
- i) “A.W.O.L. / To All The Girls (Reprise)”

"Shake Your Rump" [single edit - video]

"Egg Man" [live in NYC, 10.06]

"Hey Ladies" [video]

"Shadrach" [video]

- BONUS: "Shake Your Rump" [live at the 1996 Tibetan Freedom Contest]
- BONUS: "Shake Your Rump" [live in NYC, 10.06]
- BONUS: "Shake Your Rump" [live in Montreal, 09.07]
- BONUS: "Shake Your Rump" demo [audio]
- BONUS: "Johnny Ryall" [audio]
- BONUS: "High Plains Drifter" [fan video]
- BONUS: "High Plains Drifter" [audio]
- BONUS: "The Sounds Of Science" [audio]
- BONUS: "3-Minute Rule" [audio]
- BONUS: "Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun" [video]
- BONUS: "Car Thief" [audio]
- BONUS: "What Comes Around" [audio]
- BONUS: "Ask For Janice" part 2 [home video]
Black & white home video of the album cover shoot, soundtracked by the original Paul's Boutique radio ad that the album version was based on.
- BONUS: "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" parts B-H [audio]
- BONUS: "Hello Brooklyn" [live in NYC, 10.04]

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Netflix Diary 6

2 Days In Paris [2007]
I want to recommend this, but I hesitate because your enjoyment kind of depends on your sense of humor. If you like slapstick and Adam Sandler lowbrow type of stuff, you’ll hate this. If you like what I call “uncomfortable humor” – like if you love Christopher Guest’s movies, love The Office, but prefer the Ricky Gervais Office to the Steve Carrell Office – you’ll probably dig this. I was on the fence, because I did an equal amount of laughing out loud and cringing in discomfort. If I was Adam Goldberg’s character, I would’ve split way early in the trip. Overall though, Julie Delpy does a pretty good job of juggling the raunchy writing, semi-guerrilla directing and bi-lingual acting.

The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters [2007]
I don’t want to form too much of a pre-opinion for you – I’ll just say that it’s a fucking masterful documentary, one of the best I’ve ever seen. If you like documentaries or just movies in general, you need to see this. Hollywood wishes it could write a screenplay this fuckin' perfect.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Who is Yorick Brown?

“Comic book, ever the entertainment choice of juvenile delinquents...
...The format has all the advantages of film and none of the drawbacks. It’s the cheapest way to get our unfiltered vision into as many hands as possible... We could create something new, something that challenges our audience at the same time it’s helping them escape. Artists are supposed to hold a mirror up to society, but ours could be a...a fucked-up funhouse mirror!”
- from Y: The Last Man #54 (April 2007)

I am not breaking any news here; I am admittedly late to this party. This is certainly common knowledge to anyone that keeps up with comic books. Y: The Last Man is among the greatest comics of all time. In my opinion it can stand along side Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and pretty much anything else you care to nominate. I might even say it's the best of them all. My friend Rick, who turned me onto the book, compared the thirst for new issues during its recently concluded regular run to heroin addiction, and I've fell into fixing just like everyone before me. 60 issues equals about 1500 pages, and I read them all. In three frantic, euphoric days. Wizard Magazine, comic bible for the last 17 years, recently named the first issue as the best comic released during the magazine's lifetime, suggesting you "dig out your copy of Y #1 and give it to any of your non-comics-reading friends with the simple instructions 'Read this.' We guarantee the first issue won't be their last."

Running from 2002 through this past January, this masterful work by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Pia Guerra is so many wonderful things at once. It's sci-fi, it's comedy, it's tragedy, it's a road story around the globe, it's romance, it's political and societal commentary. The story revolves around an unemployed 22-year-old English-lit grad and budding escape artist named Yorick Brown, the greatest fictional character for our times, full of smart-ass sarcastic wit, hidden smarts, and endless pop culture references, and of course the most important part - he's the last man on Earth.

One day, every mammal with a Y chromosome on the planet drops dead, except Mr. Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand. They are alone together adrift in a world of women. Now every guy always says 'oh, awesome'. Yeah well, if you were the last guy on Earth and were being chased by an angry gang of chicks intent on snuffing out the last remnants of the oppressive patriarchy - or whatever - you wouldn't be so stoked.

The comic ends up developing 4 or 5 concurrent plots at once, and by the time you're in the final 20 issues, that's doubled. The obvious questions - Why did Yorick survive? How will they repopulate? - are combined with emotional human drama as Yorick & Ampersand are joined on their journey by spy/bodyguard Agent 355 and genetic engineer Dr. Alison Mann, asking deeper questions like how does one continue a life after such a global tragedy, or why do men & women really need each other, and of course, how does Yorick get from Brooklyn to the Australian Outback to reunite with his girlfriend? These sixty stories, one-issue fables or parts of larger arcs, will make you ache with joy or deflate with sadness, sometimes both at once. When I finished, I felt small and insignificant in its presence.

I recommend this book, now collected as 10 trade-paperback volumes (#10 is released in June) about as highly as possible. In the end, it's a spectacular piece of fiction, possibly this generation's On The Road - it is indeed that good - though Vaughn is less about revolutionizing prose than he is a slave to his vivid characters and their world. His story was good enough to win him his hero, Buffy/Firefly creator Joss Whedon, as a new colleague and friend, not to mention a position on the writing staff of ABC's Lost (as magnificent a show as this is a comic), and his obvious genius with wrapping up all loose ends of a huge, multi-plotted story bodes well for that show's final two seasons. And of course there's already a movie in development, optioned before the comic was even finished. DJ Caruso (Disturbia) is at work on the first of a planned trilogy to star his go-to star Shia LaBeouf (a pretty good casting choice for Yorick). But the comic is so deep, I don't know if a trilogy is enough; maybe that's just my intense love for this book talking. Regardless, it's not important for now. What is important is everyone getting their hands on Y: The Last Man. Buy it, then lend it to all your friends. That's what I plan to do. Mostly because then I can shut up about how fuckin' good it is.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Netflix Diary 5

The Wild Bunch [1969]
Easily one of the ten great Westerns of all time, this is just as revolutionary as Bonnie & Clyde when it comes to pushing the boundaries of film in the late 1960’s. Besides the fact that the violence is still fairly excessive by today’s standards, with the body count up around 150, it’s also one of the earliest films I can think of off the top of my head with gratuitous nudity in it (nothing like a few Mexican whores swimming in vats of red wine). Not just that, but the film’s finale is a pioneering example of the kind of jump cut editing that would become popular in the post-MTV late 80’s and early 90’s, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine are spectacular as aging desperados attempting to retire, and Sam Peckinpah’s direction is flawless throughout, especially on the tense (and improvised) train robbery sequence.

Bridge To Terabithia [2007]
I read a really good review of this movie when it came out, but never found the time to see it. I was flipping past the SAG Awards and saw that the girl lead, AnnaSophia Robb, was nominated for Best Young Actress, and so I was curious again. I had it on my Netflix, but ended up catching it on cable one weekend morning, and I was surprised how good it was. The studio totally botched the advertising for this one, because not one ad hinted at the power of the story, instead trying to pimp the Walden Media effects team, which is really only 20% of the film, if that much. All the kid actors are great, especially Robb, who looks like a future star from the moment she gets on screen. The climax is heavy duty, so have your tissues at the ready. It’s not a film revolution, but it is a really good movie about how kids deal with loss, guilt, and regret, and the filmmakers made an honest movie that doesn’t insult their audience’s intelligence like the studio’s marketing did.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Overpriced Popcorn: Iron Man

Overpriced is right - $5.45 for a medium that would be a small at any other theater. But that's OK. Last night, I'm at the world-famous Ziegfield Theater in New York City. For as long as I can remember - literally, since I was like 2 years old - I've wanted to see a movie in this theater, because for my whole life, seeing TV stories on the rampant success of the original Star Wars Trilogy, the Ziegfeld was always shown as the theater to premiere these great fan-friendly summer blockbusters, like NYC's less pretentious answer to Mann's Chinese Theater in LA. And now I'm here, with the ornate lights on the walls and velvet and leather everywhere. It looks like the Playboy Mansion. The reason I am here is because my oldest friend Chris recently completed an internship at Marvel Comics, and before he left, they put him on the list +1 for the company's Iron Man screening. What, I said? I get to see Iron Man with the Marvel offices, complete with rah-rah speech by former comic-art-genius and present Marvel head Joe Quesada?? Count me the fuck in, for realz son! But let me get to the point - is the movie any good?

Yes. A hundred times yes. Taken with the grain of salt that comes with the genre of comic book films, this is nearly as much of a success as Batman Begins was three years ago. Director Jon Favreau (Zathura, Elf) has put together a flashy action film that is stuffed to the seams with emotion, fun and A-list acting. Robert Downey Jr. carries this film on his (come)back the whole way, with at least as much coolness as he had in the masterful (and sorely overlooked) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - CSR's top film of 2005; he exudes so much charm and honed personality as the billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark that you have to know something special is going on here. It is. Having realized the folly of hiring two first-time writers to draft the screenplay, Favreau and Marvel Studios (this is the comic powerhouse's first experiment in developing a film on its own; Hulk reboot to follow in June) went out and got the writing duo who worked magic with Children Of Men - CSR's top film of 2006 - to add some weight to the high-speed smashings and bashings. It definitely worked, but also of note is that they weren't done writing when the film started shooting last year. Downey joked on David Letterman's show last night about throwing out the script every morning, and it turns out he wasn't entirely joking; Downey's ability to improvise flawlessly within the tone of the scene coupled with Favreau's feel for the whole piece apparently need to get a hell of a lot of credit for the success of this film.

As a blockbuster chosen to open the summer, Iron Man is perfect. Audiences will have so much fun with this movie even if they have no idea about the comic book background like they did with the big four - Spidey, Supes, Bats, & the Mutants. In the scheme of superheroes on the big screen, only the aforementioned Begins and Spider-Man 2 are better. Downey inhabits the role of the self-centered, alcoholic womanizer with flair, and his efforts are followed by an equally kind & sexy performance by Gwyneth Paltrow and a correctly-measured over-the-top villain turn by Jeff "The Dude" Bridges. Even further, the combinations of physical effects (robot suits by action movie GIANT Stan Winston) and brilliant visual effects by - duh - ILM are almost as good as Downey. The Iron Man suit is every bit as good as the Transformers were bad, and the aerial sequences and climactic battle are wonderfully orchestrated, divebombing kamikaze popcorn spectacle. No matter how much the popcorn costs, the price of admission is cheap for the rollercoaster thrills you'll get at Iron Man.

Special superhero film rating: