What books have made the cold and gray of winter a little easier to get through?

What books have made the cold and gray of winter a little easier to get through?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Brief Asides #2

Welcome to the second installment of Brief Asides, the monthly column within a blog that briefly (hence the title) touches on various things that have occurred to me lately.  As I’d like to keep this whole thing to 800 words or so, let’s get started.

If the purpose of the Oscars is to draw attention to little-seen films of merit, then it is doing an excellent job.  If the purpose of the Oscars is to celebrate and acknowledge excellence among all types of films- the huge ones that fill theaters as well as smaller art-house movies- then perhaps an overhaul is needed.  I’ll probably write a little more on this topic via its own post.

Speaking of big-budget movies that fill theaters, I finally caught Pacific Rim, the 2013 movie about huge robots fighting huge monsters, on cable.  I know this won’t be a very popular opinion, but despite the artistic pedigree provided by Guillermo del Toro’s name in the screenwriting and directing credits, I didn’t think the movie was much better than Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.  But maybe the writer/director wouldn’t disagree with me, as he’s stated he just wanted to make something fun.  Anyway, it’s worth a look, even if you’re not a rabid fan of big robots and big monsters slugging it out.

Moving through A Dance With Dragons, the most recent book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series (currently being adapted into HBO’s Game of Thrones series), I’m still enjoying the story.  However, I find myself agreeing with many of the fan reviews online that express frustration over excessive bloat in the last couple of series entries, stating that too much attention is given to too many third-tier characters and plotlines, the pace is a too stately,  and there aren’t enough big, dramatic happenings. 

To be sure, the latest book or two are still enjoyable as an immersive experience in an interesting fantasy world, but they’re not the must-read page-turners of the first three.  And I’ve been doing the novels on audio, which almost always makes a book better and more fun, because someone else is doing the work of reading it, as well as providing an entertaining acting performance.  So, while artistic freedom is still a definite ideal in the creative world, more and more I’m seeing the value of the vulgar notion of a writer having to listen to an editor telling him or her to keep things moving and to be entertaining.  The television show has certainly been on the right track, dramatizing the best aspects of Martin’s story and jettisoning the excess.

Moving right along, via my cable system’s On Demand function, I’m about halfway through ABC’s seven or eight episode “series event” Agent Carter, or more precisely, Marvel’s Agent Carter.  Set in the late 1940’s and featuring lavish sets and costumes, secret agent Peggy Carter battles international crime as part of an agency that eventually becomes the SHIELD organization of the Marvel movies. 

Story-wise, the show is only a little better than okay so far, pretty good but not spectacular, which is how I feel about Marvel’s Agents of Shield (I pretty much like the Marvel movies a lot better than the Marvel TV shows).  But unlike that other show, Marvel’s Agent Carter will wrap up its entire story at the end of its small handful of episodes, and isn’t requiring me to make a long-term commitment to its modest pleasures.  I like that.  And if the series comes back, it’ll be in the form of another small batch of episodes.  Kudos to ABC and Marvel for trying to be a little innovative in its story telling.  Not everything on network TV has to consist of hundreds of episodes spanning six or seven years.  I’m a lot more willing to watch and enjoy “pretty good” if there’s a definite end in sight, and sooner rather than later.

The second half of the current season of AMC’s The Walking Dead recently commenced, and the three episodes shown at this point have been pretty solid, though so far they’re definitely emphasizing slow-burn emotions (especially fear and despair) over big action set-pieces.  But the stories have been compelling, being mostly about the difficulty of surviving on the road without the walls and security of a home base.  Though, from the looks of things, that last plot point may soon change.  But for the better?  We’ll see.

HBO’s Last Week With John Oliver, now back for its second season, continues to be a fun way to keep up with current news and issues.  In thirty minutes you’ll be brought up to speed on all kinds of current events and you’ll laugh a lot in the process.  So, even if The Daily Show tanks or experiences a reduction in quality after John Stewart’s departure, we’ll at least still have John Oliver keeping everyone honest...  and entertained.

Well, that’s it for this month’s dose of stream of consciousness.  Regular, more thoughtfully-developed posts will now resume, until Brief Asides returns sometime in March.  Be good, and if you live in the East, stay warm!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Pretty funny

Cute sign I spotted somewhere or other:

I need a vacation or a martini, and I'm out of vacation days.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscar bait

Best of luck to all of this year's Best Picture nominees as we approach the Oscar telecast this Sunday.  I already wrote a little about The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Boyhood in earlier posts, so here are some quick observations about the remaining Best Picture nominees:

Birdman is an intense but often fun look at the backstage madness that is undoubtedly part of every Broadway production.  It gets a little ambiguously arty at the end, but that's okay.  Great acting and bravura production values make this a must-view for movie fans.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a quirky, fun, fable-like tale, full of whimsical characters and situations-- in other words, it's typical Wes Anderson.  If you've liked past efforts by this director, you'll enjoy this one just fine.  Like Boyhood, this one is already showing on most cable systems.

Selma tells the gripping story of the famous civil rights march engineered by Dr. Martin Luthor King.  Dr. King is portrayed here as a dedicated but flawed person- an actual imperfect human being- which actually makes him more admirable, in light of what he accomplished.

American Sniper is (here I go using those two words again) gripping and intense, and you'll be pulled into it no matter your views on Iraq or Afghanistan.  This movie is about the guys on the ground, and yes, a particular sniper in his aerie, and you'll care about all their fates.

Whiplash is a cool-ass movie about the world of music students and the importance of rising to the top.  You'll probably appreciate drumming as you never did before after seeing this terrific drama about an unforgiving teacher and the star pupil who can never satisfy him.

Myself, I don't have a particular dog in the hunt this year, and will just enjoy seeing who wins.  All of this year's Best Picture nominees are worthy films.  Enjoy the Oscars!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Where everybody knows your name

Considering that you're reading a blog with a bar theme, this quick tip probably won't surprise you. Did you know that all 275 or so episodes of Cheers are right there on Netflix's streaming service for you to enjoy? We've been watching an episode every couple of days, and have been really enjoying the experience.

Cheers ran on NBC from 1982 to 1993, and because it still feels fresh now, it must have really felt like something new and exciting when it debuted.  I mean, for the most part, every episode takes place in a single room: a bar filled with people. The execs who considered whether or not to green light Cheers must have been terrified that the show- aside from promoting drinking- would be endlessly claustrophobic.

To be sure, things happen outside the bar, but we only learn about those things from the people inside the bar when they talk about them.  There's "plot", but again, it's imparted via the dialogue in the bar.  And they kept this going for eleven years! And it never was claustrophobic, or static, or dull.

My favorite movies, books, and TV shows always seem be dialogue-driven.  There's nothing like great lines, great banter, and even a great speech now and then.  Cheers delivered all that, and actually defined itself via those things. Anyway, it's been fun seeing the gang again every couple of days, and basking in sharp, funny, character-driven writing.

If you haven't visited Cheers lately, you might want to get reacquainted with this classic series.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Boyhood under glass

I recently saw and enjoyed Boyhood, but it was the first of this year's Best Picture-nominated films to feel a little bit like a homework assignment to me (I thought I would feel that way about Selma, but I found that film to be consistently riveting, but more on that later).

Boyhood covers 12 years in the life of Mason (and actually his mother, father, and sister, too), and the interesting thing about the movie is that the director, Richard Linklater, actually took 12 years to make the movie, so we see Mason and the other characters growing up before our eyes.  It's pretty astonishing, but the movie's strength is also its weakness: Richard Linklater is a subtle, thoughtful filmmaker, so the issues that Mason deals with over the course of his early life are the kinds of subtle, normal ones that all kids deal with as they grow up.  And subtle isn't always, well... riveting.

For example, Mason gets bounced between his divorced parents, has to deal with the idiosyncrasies of a couple of stepfathers, gets bullied, has to eventually figure out what interests him as a potential career, etc., etc.  It's all handled well, but the almost complete lack of any big drama- even broad, obvious, predictable big drama- is missed a little.  And this is especially true because the movie's running time closes in on three hours.

We actually watched Boyhood at home, as an On Demand cable rental, so we had the benefit of being able to take the occasional break to hit the bathroom or pour more wine.  But even that only somewhat distracted us from the long running time, so I have sympathy for those who saw Boyhood in a theater and maybe found it a little challenging to, well... completely enjoy.

Honestly, though, it's a very good movie, and one that's equally about the trials of being a single mom and the challenges facing 21st century families as it is about one boy's experiences growing up.  Just be prepared for a long film that provides a gentle payoff following a long accumulation of details rather than an intense (or even semi-intense) story laced with constant drama.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Rich, subtle story and... My GOD, what IS that??

As well as being a very edgy, very compelling reading experience, Stephen King's Revival also presented an interesting mix: the main body of the novel was a sweeping drama about a guy named Jamie Morton, covering (in Jamie's own words) his life, loves, challenges (personal and career oriented), tragedies, all that. It's a great tale, rich yet full of subtlety, and it'll probably remind you of some of Mr. King's other, more literary-tinged works (you know, the ones that get made into movies that don't advertise the fact that they come from Stephen King novels).

The other part of the novel, though, involves a guy named Charles Jacobs, who Jamie first meets when Jamie is a young boy and Jacobs is the town pastor. Jacobs then appears, disappears, and reappears throughout the novel, and every time we see him he is doing something new involving his intense interest in electricity. And this is where the novel's weird mix comes in: while Jamie's story is mostly subtle and naturalistic (basic life drama stuff), the Jacobs story is pretty much out and out horror, and ultimately the kind of intense, neon horror that Mr. King usually saves for his short stories (the ones that remind you of those gory EC comics from the 50's that got Congress up in arms). It's great stuff, but very scary, very over the top, and by the end, very slimy, gory, and disturbing-- disturbing because of what you see and what it all means.

I'm not saying that these two aspects- rich story, gory horror- don't fit comfortably together in one novel, only that it's a strange mix. But it's all involving and compelling, and (without telling you to much) it all eventually moves to a very effective communication of the idea that we should all really appreciate our lives right now, because... (well, to go further here would be telling you too much). But I will say this, the other strange mix in the novel occurs during the close, because in order to deliver his fairly upbeat message about smelling the roses in the here and now, Mr. King doesn't allow himself to pull any punches when presenting the disturbingly dark scenes and revelations that are required to deliver and contrast that message.

So, yeah, great rich story, small scares that escalate into some very big ones (and delivered via some very memorable imagery), and a fair amount of stuff to think about when you close the book. What more can you want from the Master?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Introducing "Brief Asides"

In addition to my regular posts here at Kindle Taproom, I’m going to debut a monthly column about what I’ve been reading and seeing, called Brief Asides.  Each column will include a bunch of short items and quick recommendations, things readers will hopefully find interesting.   Anyway, this is the first installment, which just made it under the wire for January’s offering!

Speaking of January, often at the beginning of each year I’ll try to take on a reading assignment, usually involving reading or re-reading a favorite series of years past.  This year it’ll be a sort of combination of those things, as I’m going to put Isaac Asimov’s famous Foundation series in my sights.  It’s a combination because I’ve already read the three central novels in the series- Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation (for decades those were the only books in the series, which were collectively described as The Foundation Trilogy), but I had never read the two prequels and two sequels Dr. Asimov periodically added to the central trilogy later in his life.  The books are great fun (well, the ones I already read are great fun, anyway), both mind expanding and laced with adventure. So now I’m going to try to do all of them this year, four for the first time.

If you want to join me, here are the seven books in the series, presented in chronological order as their events unfold (that’s how I’m going to read them, not in the order they were written): Prelude to Foundation; Forward the Foundation; Foundation; Foundation and Empire; Second Foundation; Foundation’s Edge; and Foundation and Earth.  I’m reading Prelude to Foundation right now on my Kindle, and enjoying it a lot so far.

Oh, one final thought on the topic.  HBO and Warner Bros. television are now working to adapt the Foundation series for HBO, with Jonathan Nolan (successful screenwriter and brother of director Christopher Nolan) producing.  This is exciting news, and it’s what gave me the idea to read all the books in 2015.  I’m sure the show will be great, but I want the original source material fresh in my mind first. 

On the television front, I’m also enjoying a few good things on both broadcast and premium channels.  On the CW (channel 13 on my Philadelphia area Comcast system), The Flash is great fun, demonstrating that a superhero show can have action, danger, and drama, while still remaining fresh, bright, and upbeat.  I hope this one lasts a while.

On pay cable, Banshee is finally back! Now in its third season on Cinemax, Banshee tells the tale of a gritty ex-con who (through a series of unlikely but entertaining circumstances) assumes the identity of sheriff of a small Pennsylvania town in Amish country.  And he’s actually a pretty good sheriff, though he still performs (along with his entertaining cronies) the occasional bank or armored car heist in his off hours.  Unapologetically violent, sexual, pulpy, and over the top, the series is great fun (I know, I’m using that phrase a lot here- but that’s what this column is all about: things I find to be great fun).  Also, I like the fact that the show is extremely cool, but doesn’t constantly remind you that it’s cool:  It just consistently does its thing and keeps moving.

For me, January is also a time to check out all the movies that have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars.  It’s not that I need the Academy of whatever it’s called to tell me what the very best movies are in a given year, but I find that making an effort every year to see the movies nominated for Best Picture always results in my seeing a bunch of very good movies, some that I might not have sought out otherwise.  This year I have a lot of work to do to see them all, as when the nominations were announced earlier this month I had seen only about one or two of the movies nominated (eight were nominated for Best Picture this time).  I’ve since seen three more of the films, with a few more to go.  Check out my other posts for some thoughts on these movies, but for now I’ll tell you that I really enjoyed The Imitation Game and The Theory of EverythingBoyhood was very good, too.

That’s it for now. The next installment of Brief Asides will be put up sometime in February, along with a few other posts, I hope.  I want to breathe a little more life into Kindle Taproom in 2015, and I want this column to be a successful part of that initiative.  And, please, share your own thoughts about some of this stuff.  It would be nice to get actual comments on this blog again!