News and Notes
In the Night!!!
Recipe for a monster novelty album: Combine three chicks (including Sean Yseult from White Zombie), two guitars, and a set of drums. Add three fiendish alter-egos and a handful of goofy garage/surf songs about vampires, hairy eyeballs, and Satan. Throw in a Cheap Trick cover. Mix. Makes fifteen servings of easily digestible rock 'n roll pleasure.
Before there was a comics code authority, Dick Briefer wrote and drew a violent comic book based on Mary Shelley's famous fictional creation. Once Frankenstein had vanquished the Nazis, the series became a good-natured, supernatural comedy -- and that's when it really came alive. Reprints are hard to come by, but Pure Excitement Comics has posted two classic stories online (see issues 18 and 23) that will delight horror-comedy fans of all ages.
Age of Empires II: Age of Kings
While most computer games are first-person affairs -- you fly the jet fighter, you throw the touchdown, you shoot the zombies -- Age of Empires II is a "God game," offering a third-person, omniscient view of resource management, exploration, invention, and conquest. The premise: Try to lead your villagers to process enough wood, food, gold, and stone to support an ever-expanding society of fighters, scholars, and monks. Mix in 13 different historic civilizations, polished single-player scenarios, challenging multi-player action, and sumptuous visual design -- and you end up with a wholly addictive pastime.
The air-safety cards found in the seat-back pockets of airplanes offer simple drawings that can save your life in the event of a water landing or loss of cabin pressure. Airtoons livens up these familiar images with hilarious, often off-color captions (with an "under 18" section available for unescorted minors). The laughs are well worth the trip.
The latest incarnation of Mayo Thompson's well-traveled collective has produced an album that is as tuneful as it is challenging. Thompson has always made music that surely left some listeners scratching their heads, but on Hazel his young ensemble (which includes members of Tortoise and Gastr del Sol, as well as ex-Minutemen drummer George Hurley) has drawn out of him his most melodic and satisfying work to date.
A Random Walk Down Wall Street
Originally published in 1973, this investor's tour guide is frequently revised. The copy I own was updated in 1995, just months before baby-faced Internet stocks began their conquest of America's headlines. Yet, as I read, it seemed that Malkiel had seen it all before it happened. And in fact, he had -- in the form of the biotech boom of the 1980s, the IPO craze of 1983, the "Nifty Fifty" of the '70s, and wave after wave of irrational exuberance, dating all the way back to the legendary tulip bulb mania of the early 17th century. Random Walk is a truly enlightening read for those who have money to invest, as well as those who just want to understand how the game is played.
The first of Universal's classic horror movies, Dracula was filmed without music. Bela Lugosi has seduced virgins and drunk blood in silence for decades. However, for the film's 1999 re-release, Philip Glass remedied the situation with a subtle, yet powerful score for strings, performed by the Kronos Quartet. "The children of the night; what sweet music they make..."
A year after his upbeat, chart-topping "Brown-Eyed Girl," Van Morrison unleashed Astral Weeks -- a wholly different animal. Eight tracks, no hits, all genius. It still stands as Morrison's masterwork, and having come so early in his life and career, it's the benchmark by which he's been measured from that day forward. Still, Van's burden is your reward. Put on your headphones and get lost in the slipstream, wandering "Cypress Avenue" and crossing paths with "Madame George."
Taste of Cherry
A man drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to perform a simple, yet grim task for him. The pace of this Palme d'Or-winning film is languid, with long passages taking place inside the man's car, but it is also compelling and quite beautiful. Taste of Cherry offers a meditation, not only on life and death, but on storytelling itself.
Mom and Dad
Most Americans have probably never heard of him, yet William H. Johnson is one of our greatest artists. Classically trained in Paris, his work took off when he infused his academic skills with his folk-art roots. Johnson did most of his painting in Europe and Harlem, but Mom and Dad was painted during a trip back home to Florence, South Carolina. The National Museum of American Art has a fantastic archive of Johnson's works, many of which can be viewed online.
Robert Wyatt is your favorite uncle, prickly and eccentric and infinitely lovable in that daffy English sort of way. He is also the art rock icon who co-founded Soft Machine in the '60s. In 1973 he fell from a fourth story window and was paralyzed from the waist down. Since then he has released several astounding solo albums that have all been recently re-issued. Shleep, his latest effort, is odd and fanciful, intensely intimate like the rest of his work, and forthrightly political. It is a warm if itchy sweater of song. (CF)
I often think that history teachers are sworn to a particular vow of secrecy. While force-feeding meaningless dates and names to children, they revel in their secret knowledge of the salacious events that have shaped the modern world. Having aired under the auspices of Masterpiece Theater (imported from the BBC), I, Claudius is a likely participant in the conspiracy. After all, who expects debauchery, incest, and murder on PBS? It's time to tear down the curtain and expose the Caesars for what they were: incompetent, impotent, and insane. Thirteen episodes of historical drama may seem imposing, but don't be fooled; that's what they want you to think.
Sou Ni Tile
Like their compatriots Ali Farka Toure and Oumou Sangare, Amadou et Mariam combine bluesy guitar virtuosity with lyrics that make you smile and attempt to sing along, even if you don't actually speak French or Bambara. The story goes that Amadou and Mariam met at a school for the blind, fell in love against their families' wishes, started a band...the stuff of fairy tales. "Je Pense a Toi," the first track, would be the soundtrack to that fairy tale. ('Others might offer you the moon, but all I have is my poor guitar'...)
Generally acknowledged as one the freshest and funniest comedians to come along in years, Izzard's signature style is the one-man, multi-character improvisation. Whether treading familiar comedic ground -- God (as voiced by James Mason) bickering with Jesus -- or ranging to the farthest corners of the cultural zeitgeist, Izzard's genius is his ability to interrupt his routines, ramble discursively (and hilariously), and eventually meander back to complete the scene. His cable specials, Glorious and Dress to Kill, are tours de force both. It's true.
The Complete National Geographic
On gray winter days, I often immerse myself in the exotic full-color photos of National Geographic Magazine. My spotty collection is culled from yard sales and second hand stores. Now you can access every page of every issue (through 1998) on 31 CD-ROMs.
Despite Bill Murray's comic genius, a movie about a cynical weatherman forced to live the same day over and over has no right to be this good. That's not to say it's a truly great movie, but it's much better than it should be, which, for anything set in Punxsutawney, PA, is good enough. A spot-on group of character actors, including dolt extraordinaire Chris Elliott, helps the film easily overcome the casting of the slightly stiff Andie MacDowell as Murray's comic foil. Best quote: "I'm a god, not the God."
Why Buildings Stand Up
You don't have to be an architecture buff to get completely sucked in by Why Buildings Stand Up, which offers simple drawings and plain English to illuminate complex structural concepts. Anybody who has ever marveled at towering skyscrapers will find Salvadori's book compelling, as will just about anyone who's ever had a roof over their head. Plus, you'll impress your friends with your newfound mastery of words like "curvilinear." (TN)
A graphic novella about the last summer of the author's childhood, Perfect Example reminds us how nice and how awful it is to be a teenager. Pushed away memories are brought back into the light, from the awkwardness of telling a girl you like her, to the shock of seeing a friend holding a beer for the first time. The storytelling is sweet without being glib or syrupy. The illustration is sparse and lyrical, with a logic all its own; a comics equivalent to the "three chords and the truth" aesthetic that both country music and punk rock embrace.
The Long Good Friday
Bob Hoskins is Harold Shand, a tough London crime boss who has managed to turn himself into a legitimate businessman. Almost. He's about to close the deal of a lifetime when somebody starts killing his men and blowing up his property. Hoskins shines as the brutal, yet vulnerable gangster trying to figure out who's gunning for him and why. It's amazing how sympathetic he remains while exacting his revenge, even after performing a bit of ultra-violence on one of his own men with a broken bottle.
Spoozys are a streamlined, Japanese version of Man... or Astroman?, and like their American counterparts, they produce a sound that is out of this world. With songs that run the gamut from surf to hip-hop to disco, with samples from video games and MacinTalk thrown in for good measure, Astral Astronauts is an amazing distillation of American pop culture delivered in a frenzied blast that is pure Spoozys.
Ben, in the World
In The Fifth Child
Lessing describes what happens when an odd child is born into an emblematically normal upper-class British family. Wired differently than the rest of us, the child is a disturbing throwback whose otherness causes pain for both himself and his family. Twelve years later, she offers the sequel, Ben, in the World, in which the boy has grown into a man: more hurt, haunted, and lonely than ever. Now in her late seventies, Doris Lessing seems to be unstoppable in her craft and her curiosity, even, as here, when meditating on death and utter aloneness.
Quirky little indie films may be a dime-a-dozen, but this one is definitely worth the price of admission. Pokey (Don McKellar) is a small-town barber in rural Canada who agrees to drive to New Orleans with a woman, who may or may not be a drug dealer, to bury the corpse of a dead slacker, who may or may not be her brother. It's no easy journey, as a guy named Satan, who may or may not be the devil, seems to have a claim on the body. And while this may or may not be to everyone's taste, it makes for a truly inspired road picture.