Archive for February, 2012

The TV series Cops is in its 24th season.  Survivor began its 24th season this month (although its been around half as long as Cops).  Cops began because of scrambling network executives who needed to put something on TV in light of a writer’s strike.  And its all gone downhill from there.  Like Huey Lewis used to say, “sometimes bad is bad.”

Yet someone is watching this stuff.  American Idol and Dancing with the Stars show little signs of fading away.  What part of the collective psyche of the modern TV viewer makes so many of us show up each week for this kind of programming?   And it’s not just an American pastime.  As an example, Survivor variants can be found all over the planet.   Networks love these shows because they don’t need to hire the best, aka most expensive, writers.  They can basically put anything out there and we will watch it.

Back before “immunity” and “voting people off the island” there was an earlier counterpart to shows like Dancing with the StarsBattle of the Network Stars was a series of 19 specials back when we had three networks to watch.  Like Dancing with the Stars, sometimes the celebrities were just barely celebrities, but more likely than not the general population would be able to identify who was competing on the semi-annual show.  Battle of the Network Stars pitted stars from each network against each other in several physical games, such as football, running, biking, golf, volleyball, swimming, and even kayaking.  At the end of each 2-hour tourney the two highest scoring networks would compete in a tug-of-war battle to the death (OK, not really, actually just a good old-fashioned tug-of-war).

Then again, Robert Conrad and Telly Savalas look like they have some serious money wagered on the outcome of this episode.  I hope someone told Ron Howard to get out of Penny Marshall’s way

Overall the shows were successful.  They were fun, generally light-hearted, and only rarely did competitors seem to be fiercely competing or all-out angry when they lost.  The shows weren’t about ostracizing anyone, or making fun of competitors.  They generally reflected what you would see in neighborhood softball games at home.  More like Dancing with the Stars than other current reality shows, you found yourself cheering for someone to succeed more than hoping anyone would fail.

A single race had many celebrities–some still on TV, including David Letterman and Billy Crystal.   MmmA Hulk team-up with Geordi LaForge?  Awesome!

The shows began in 1976 and ended in 1985.  To add to the spirit of competition, Howard Cosell was the host of the shows, announcing the play-by-play as if he were announcing the Super Bowl, often over-exaggerating and parodying his own animated announcing style.

One of the best parts of the Battles were the networks’ coaches who served to anchor the teams and cheer on the sometimes athletically-challenged participants.  The first captains were Gabe Kaplan, Robert Conrad and Telly Savalas.  William Shatner and Tom Selleck would later serve as popular captains, among others.

For fans of these actors and actresses in the years before most of the country would have access to Fan Cons, this was a rare chance to see that these celebrities were normal people like the rest of us.  Of course, in hindsight it is hard to get past some obvious style changes, especially “short shorts.”  Ultimately the shows were about being good sports, although there was plenty of humorous trash talk between the networks.  You could imagine that these actors, many still on TV and even in movies, would probably not want to go back and watch these shows, celebrities like Bruce Boxleitner, Michael J. Fox, Heather Locklear, Rosalind Chao, Morgan Fairchild, Stephen Collins, Jameson Parker, Cheryl Ladd, Valerie Bertinelli, Howard Hesseman, Lynda Carter, Richard Hatch, Adrienne Barbeau, Levar Burton, Kurt Russell, David Letterman, Lou Ferrigno, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.

Kids got to see an even better show, the Saturday morning parody cartoon version

The biggest difference between Battle of the Network Stars in the 1970s and 1980s and reality competition shows of 2012?  Back then Battle of the Network Stars was the exception.  It aired twice per year.  We weren’t saturated with battle shows and celebrities not doing what celebrities were meant to do on TV, like act in dramas, mysteries and comedies.

When you see good TV you know it.  If you’ve watched shows like the popular Downton Abbey and The Hour from BBC TV and public television, shows like Mad Men on AMC, Homeland on Showtime, long-running network shows like House, MD on Fox or the several Law and Order series on NBC, you know a lot of time and effort and creativity went into the formulation of these productions.  We can’t help feel a little guilty when watching a show about a couple guys running a pawn shop.  And maybe we should.

Captain Shatner

Did audiences in the 1970s and 1980s know something we don’t know?  Did the networks?  It may sometimes feel like we will never come out of this glut of reality TV.  But there’s always hope.  Creative and interesting series like NBC’s new supernatural mystery Awake, dramas like The Closer and In Plain Sight, comedies like Psych and New Girl, genre shows like Warehouse 13 and Lost Girl, all make you think there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.  And just for the fun of it, how about dumping all the reality shows and bring back some goofy fun like Battle of the Network Stars?

C.J. Bunce

Review by C.J. Bunce

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.  Ted Bentley was just served his lay-off notice and is free for the first time in years to make a fresh start.  He was tired of the politics of the job, making and building with no knowledge of the point of all he did.  But he was determined to make all that change.  His plan was to go directly to the top and work for the Quizmaster, specifically Quizmaster Verrick, as one of Verrick’s biochemists.  But if you’re living on Earth in 2203 that means giving Verrick a fealty oath.  What Bentley did not know was that the oath he had just taken was a personal oath and not a positional oath–to Verrick, who was just removed as Quizmaster.

In the world of Philip K. Dick’s first novel, Solar Lottery, first published in 1955, society is upside down.  Western philosophy is no more.  Over-production became the problem of our future and all the excess is being burnt on an ongoing basis.  Natural law is at the fringe of society.  Statistics and odds and predictions and luck ultimately lead to the lottery as the means to divvy up goods across the world.  And power.  The ultimate prize?  The title of Quizmaster and with it the ability to run the Quiz itself.  But power corrupts.

Enter one “unk”—a member if the “unclassified class”–one Leon Cartwright, still driving a 1982 Chevy in 2203. Somehow he knew he was going to replace Verrick.  But how?  Armed guards arrive to take the new Quizmaster Cartwright into protective custody.  He now has supreme power of the nine-planet system, surrounded by a vast army, warfleet and police force, and a telepathic Corps, all to protect him.  And, unfortunately that includes a publicly appointed assassin to attempt to murder him.  Worse yet, a million gold-dollar bounty has been put on his head by ex-Quizmaster Verrick to call out anyone to take down his replacement.

With a world based on a lottery system, the real focus of day-to-day life is loyalty.  Who are you loyal to, and who is loyal to you?

Dick’s future world, where television commercials are the highest art form, is as complex, innovative–and as desperate–as the future dystopia of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron.  The chaos around such a planned and unforgiving system runs far deeper and resonates better than later efforts at a random selection-based society like those found in much later works like The Running Man, The Hunger Games, or even Logan’s Run.  And there is something more ancient here that is harkened back to, something more primeval, like the search for a new emperor in ancient Rome that resulted in the crowning of Claudius, five Hills that run the industry of the planet mirror the hills of Rome, and the concept of “protectors” that individuals must give fealty oaths to almost has a Cosa Nostra vibe to it.

Class conflict, transfers of power, the role of the individual in society, stolen identity, artificial intelligence, Machiavellian constructs, reality exploited on TV, and fake realities created for TV–it all can be found in Solar Lottery.  Look for a plot that moves forward like a freight train.  As strange as this unfamiliar world is for readers, Dick has no problem putting his characters in exciting, grave situations.

Dick’s dialogue includes great, crazy lines, like “During the Final War the big research installations at Livermore were hit by a Soviet missile.  Those who survived were badly bathed. We’re all descendants of one family, Earl and Verna Phillips.”

Early concepts later to be seen in Total Recall, Blade Runner, and Minority Report can be found in this very first novel from Dick, showing that he took no time to ramp up his storytelling.  Oddities of other, later science fiction works by other authors are here as well, including Star Trek: The Final Frontier’s “Great Barrier,” real world avatars, and the pursuit of the unknown in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  A hallmark of Dick novels are his ability to include an enormous array of prophetic ideas, some as full-on plot points, other as merely passing thoughts.  Like all future predicting science fiction writers of the past, some things don’t play out, outdated gender roles that never seem to let up in Dick’s works, the entire planet-impacting economic societal change happening before the 1980s.  If you’ve read Dick before you notice he “over-describes” the female anatomy and often relegates women to annoyers of men.  If you can overlook that, you’ll find more redeeming elements to take away from the book.

Then there are other ideas, like GM building space vehicles and a news network run by Westinghouse—both companies still around more than 50 years after Dick wrote Solar Lottery.  Who knows what will be re-conjured for the future?  The only thing that doesn’t dazzle is maybe one too many denouements and a title that is not very interesting.  But don’t hold that against this solid debut novel from such an important author.

As with all Philip K. Dick novels, Solar Lottery is still widely available.

DC Comics announced that it will be issuing a softcover trade paperback edition of the first six issues of the New 52 storyline, titled Green Arrow: The Midas Touch.  Since the new CW television series that is currently filming the pilot episode appears that the new Green Arrow may more closely follow the current storyline of Ollie balancing street fighting derring-do with running a major corporation, this is a good time to get caught up on what Oliver Queen has been up to for the past six months.  And this storyline includes its own bit of cyborg villany.

In Chapter 1, “Living a Life of Privilege,” we find Oliver Queen juggling his duties as CEO of Q-Core, apparently a subsidiary of Queen Industries, with his Green Arrow mantle as he busts an odd bunch of thieves in Paris.  He does this by taking a conference call via wireless earbud and also using Q-Core technical resources via techno-savvy assistant Naomi and ex-M.I.T. techno-gadget maker Jax.  Queen is attempting to use the Q-Core division to allow him to continue his crime-fighting life, and Naomi and Jax act as Oracle was utilized by the Birds of Prey.  This chapter echoes Green Arrow’s origins as Batman knockoff and mirrors Bruce Wayne’s past antics a lot–his attempts at using Wayne Enterprises to build him wonderful toys to use in his crime-fighting while dodging his corporate responsibilities at Wayne’s corporate offices.  The action is more “Superfriends” than other incarnations of Green Arrow–his one man march to take out a band of thieves ona  boat with no back-up, for example, is more reckless and unreal than we’ve seen past versions of the character.

In Chapter 2, “Going Viral,” a group of wanna-be twenty-something villains tap into social media and the latest retail technologies to try to “get noticed.”  Oliver and Jax’s relationship seems to match James Bond and Q, as Jax supplies more gadgetry for Queen’s missions.  The wanna-be criminals are in Seattle and have set a trap for Ollie–planning to get Green Arrow streaming live over the Internet in a death match.

This is where the story picks up in Chapter 3, “Green Arrow’s Last Stand,” the leader of the gang, named Rush, takes on Green Arrow mano a mano.  And of course this ends up not as Green Arrow’s last stand but another thwarted attempt at taking Green Arrow out of the picture.  Oliver smartly realizes the kind of headstrong fighting that he made it through in Chapter 1 may have finally caught up with him, and credit goes to writer JT Krul for not letting the early path for Oliver get too far off-track.  CEO of parent company Queen Industries “Emerson” busts Oliver’s chops for not paying attention to the business despite Queen giving a public “Jerry Maguire” speech.  Emerson either has some secret vendetta, or really just doesn’t like Queen’s apparent lack of devotion to the company that Oliver’s father founded.  One oddity is that the end of Chapter 2 foretold a visit from Black Canary in Chapter 3 that never comes to fruition.

In Chapter 4, “The Things We Do for Love and Hate,” we meet female assassin Blood Rose, who is an agent for some boss named Midas.  The bulk of the issue is a face-off between Oliver and the new villain, Blood Rose succeeding with her guns and quick moves and Ollie with his trick arrows.  This is mirrored in Chapter 5, “The Midas Touch,” when a walking “toxic dump” that is devoted to Blood Rose takes the fight directly to Oliver Queen.  Again, the issue is primarily a fight to the death, and only this time there is a winner and a loser.  Blood Rose shows up, but again, Ollie and his wireless crime-fighting back-up team of Naomi and Jax, and we readers, have been left with no answers and little clues to go on.  It is worth mentioning that JT Krul left writing duties on the Green Arrow series with Issue #3 (Chapter 3 of the new TPB) and Keith Giffen took over for the rest of the issues/chapters.

Which brings us to the final chapter of this first Green Arrow storyline in the new DCU.  Titled “Lovers & Other Dangers,” we learn what is behind the titles about love in Chapters 4 and 6.  It begins with Blood Rose shooting Oliver is the head–a surface wound only, but enough to knock him out.  The rest of the story takes us into a strange mix of beauty and the beast with a dose of borg elements.

As a complete story in 144 pages, Green Arrow: The Midas Touch is not a stand-out story.  It seems to suffer from a lack of focus that only comes together in the last three parts, and even then, leaves us uncertain as to Green Arrow’s new place in the DCU.  The only thing keeping it together as one complete work is Dan Jurgens’ art, and this would not be considered his best work.  With so many great titles making their mark in the New 52, the decison makers at DC Comics will have to carve out a niche for this character soon to avoid losing readers.  With compilations for other titles not yet announced, there are certainly other titles more worthy of a trade paperback edition.  Green Arrow: The Midas Touch will likely be a purchase only for the Green Arrow completist.

The trade edition will be published in May and is available for pre-order at online online retailers.

C.J. Bunce


(***some spoiler photos lie ahead, and even more spoilers abound if you scan the Internet, including one that may show the outcome of the above scene that is not shown or discussed below)

Will this be the year of Benedict Cumberbatch?  The star of the BBC’s successful TV series Sherlock also was tapped to play the villain in The Hobbit, and not soon afterward was tapped to be the villain in the next Star Trek movie.  This week the Web was bombarded with the first released set photos from the 12th entry in the Star Trek film franchise.  But still no word yet from the studio on the nature of Cumberbatch’s character.   But that won’t stop some spirited speculation from the fan base.

Early on rumors surfaced that J.J. Abrams might be thinking of a reprise of Ricardo Montalban’s Khan from the original series and the second Trek movie.  Javier Bardem was supposedly signed up for the role as an unspecified villain, but then backed away.  Is it possible much younger Cumberbatch was selected for the same villain role?  It would seem unlikely Abrams would risk a Khan remake.  We know from Star Trek 2009 that Abrams did take steps to cast at least similar looking actors for roles played by other actors previously in the franchise, such as Spock’s father Sarek.  Cumberbatch may be a similar villain, but seems like an unlikely choice as Khan.

But the new photos definitely show both strength–withstanding a Vulcan nerve pinch–and a certain level of… derangement?

Is it possible that Cumberbatch will reprise an original series character like the imbalanced Commodore Matt Decker?  The official Star Trek magazine’s most recent issue featured a history of Starfleet characters who went a little mad.  Is that a coincidence, or something to prepare us all for our next favorite Trek villain?

Arguing against that line of thought is Cumberbatch’s outfit.  He appears to be wearing standard slacks and a black Starfleet shirt similar to James T. Kirk’s in Star Trek 2009, before Kirk was promoted as second-in-command of the Enterprise.  Yet this same shirt appears to be standard dress under all male Starfleet officers’ uniforms… so maybe he just removed his color-identifying tunic and that doesn’t help sleuth out much here.

Will Abrams address the cornerstone of the new movie series–fixing the timeline?  If so, could we see a visit from Captain Braxton, the timecop from Star Trek Voyager?

Note the Starfleet emblem on Cumberbatch's chest

Better yet, has Abrams decided to break away into his own new stories and leave all original secondary characters behind?  If so, this may just be a new disenfranchised Starfleet crewmen who is just a little tired of Spock’s logic.  Speaking of logic, does anyone else think it odd that the master of controlling his emotions is yet again seen a bit out of control?

We also can see the new production will be saving money on uniforms, choosing to keep the same costumes and props from the last film instead of mixing it up a bit.  This was a common money-saving move of prior Trek films.

Confirmation that Zoe Saldana will return as Uhura

There’s really just one thing this fan is hoping for: Klingons.  Isn’t it time to face the #1 nemesis of the original crew?  And how about a visit from Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand?  And some more outworld aliens like we saw in the Riverside, Iowa bar scene, like Lieutenant Arex from the animated series–who can finally realistically be depicted in a live action film?

Ultimately we won’t know until the movie premieres in 2013, and hopefully the studio won’t leak too many more images before then.  It’s like eating a cake before it has been baked.  More often than not studios tend to show you the entire movie in the previews, and who wants that?

C.J. Bunce


Review by C.J. Bunce

If you have yet to recover from Mardi Gras, you’ve a yen for more jambalaya and gumbo, and you didn’t find the baby in your king cake, there may be hope for you yet.  Consider it another strand of purple, green and gold beads, if you will.

In case you missed it, 2011 was a banner year for Hugh Laurie.  Depending on where you’re from and what medium you lean on the most, you may know Hugh Laurie as the brooding genius doctor who entered his eighth season on House, M.D.  If you’re an Anglophile you may know him as part of a classic comic duo on the British series A Bit of Frye and Laurie, who then performed piano and sang as part of a vaudeville revival in Peter’s Friends, and performed various characters in various Blackadder series.  Costume drama types may know him as Mr. Palmer, one of the best performances in Emma Thompson’s Sense & Sensibility.  Or if you’ve really been following Mr. Laurie you might have read his 1998 spy novel The Gun Seller, Laurie’s first foray into fiction writing.

But what connects all this to February in Louisiana is Laurie’s debut album of soulful jazz, New Orleans blues singing and old-time piano playing.  Let Them Talk is an album you wouldn’t expect from a British actor, who speaks in real-life with an accent as English as they come.  Of course, some would be surprised from his perfectly done American accent on House, M.D., that Laurie is even British at all.  Adding certified blues musician to his bag of tricks as actor, comedian, and author, Laurie proved himself from all angles to be a true renaissance man.

Actors excel at “faking it.”  They get to pose as anyone else, and just as Laurie can play 19th century gentleman and modern new England doctor-turned-ex con, it may be no surprise that Laurie could fake it as a musician.  Yet, faking it is no where close to what is going on with Laurie and Let Them Talk.  Not only is Laurie a spirited pianist and guitar player who knows his stuff, he also knows what good blues is all about and you just can’t fake soulful sounds like Laurie was able to record onto this album.

As New Orleans blues is concerned, Laurie will fully admit he doesn’t have the street cred to begin with.  As he states in the liner notes to the album, “I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south…. If you care about pedigree then you should try elsewhere, because I have nothing in your size.”

Yet Laurie proves that a life-long love of a genre plus skill can equal if not the real thing, then something pretty darned close.  Laurie can quote numerous influences and idols from classic jazz and blues, but his singing favorites he narrows to Ray Charles and Bessie Smith.  At times, you can hear Laurie and his soul-sister/vocalists conjure up the sounds of both on this album.

His choice of music is a mix of gritty and street gospel.

With St. James Infirmary is a familiar tune played here with a classical twist that moves into a down-and-out anthem of despair straight out of the Great Depression.  Laurie then sweeps into a honky tonk romp with a Cab Calloway-vibed back-up band.

You Don’t Know My Mind is a party of pure zydeco rhythms.  Laurie’s vocalizations are as strong and powerful as any singer then or now, and his sound and feel echo a bit of Tom Petty when Petty has dabbled off the beaten track from Southern rock.  A pretty cool duet those two would make.

Not surprisingly Six Cold Feet is Laurie at smooth traditional blues with a nice sultry saxophone beckoning the listener to some ill fate at the crossroads ahead.

Buddy Bolden’s Blues is as classic blues as it gets, and Laurie hilariously shows he can play a great Leon Redbone (or maybe it’s just Laurie and Redbone both reaching back for inspiration from the same old singers?

In the next song on the playlist Laurie may have created a contender for best-ever version of Battle of Jericho thanks in part to Jean McClain and Gennine Jackson’s soulful background echoes.  The ever-building spiritual is sure to stick with you long after your first encounter and beckon you back for more.

Laurie’s meandering piano takes backseat on After You’ve Gone to Mac Rebennack’s rousing sounds, accompanied nicely by Robby Marshall on clarinet.

Laurie takes Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home and mixes honky tonk piano with early vestiges of Chuck Berry in his version he calls Swanee River, sneaking in from outta nowhere an Italian virtuoso violin sound that twists itself into a “devil down in Georgia” wrap-up at the end.

In John Henry Laurie sings back-up vocals to Irma Thomas.  In a lot of albums you can get annoyed when the featured performer steps away and other performers take over.  Not so on this album.  Laurie’s deference of sorts is well placed and well timed and his selection of performers is well made.  If Laurie’s album is credible, it’s in part to the sharing of roles between the singers and instrumentalists on each song.

If Police Dog Blues, Winin’ Boy Blues and the Whale Has Swallowed Me show off Laurie’s voice as the featured musical element, Tipitina is Laurie showing off his best piano playing.  It’s that master playing you see Laurie performing in Peter’s Friends and at the tail end of select episodes of House, M.D.

That's one bad hat, Laurie

They’re Red Hot is Laurie performing a quick-paced (and short) Robert Johnson tune, which is bound to be fun to hear in-person in concert.  (Check out his website for a list of concert dates stretching up the West Coast beginning in May).  Baby, Please Make a Change features Sir Tom Jones in a solid Louisiana blues tune.

Finally, the title song Let Them Talk features Laurie almost quietly poking fun at himself and the audience that may be skeptical of an Englishman delving into the taboo classic sounds of The Blues (how dare he!).  It’s a nice finale and reminds this listener of the piano playing and singing of Billy Joel on Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.

Maybe best of all, Laurie’s reverence for this genre of music brings together honest and modern interpretations of traditional folk songs, spirituals and blues, all with deep American roots, and manages to offer a fresh and entertaining collection to accompany you as you while away the weekend on your porch with a cold glass of lemonade or sweet tea.  If Laurie is a faker, he’s a faker of the best kind.

Let Them Talk is available everywhere records are sold, online and at certain Starbucks coffee houses.

By C.J. Bunce

In March 1952, on his estate called Goldeneye in Oracabessa, northeast Jamaica, ex-British Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming finished his first spy novel, penned over the past two months.  As the 60th anniversary of the birth of James Bond approaches, what better time to read the twelve novels and nine short stories written by Fleming?  Casino Royale was a collection of Fleming’s ideas and experiences, and the result of a long-time desire of Fleming to write his own spy novel.  The character of Bond was a compilation of several spies Fleming had met while in the military.

Can the Bond novels hold up after 60 years?  Even considering Bond’s 1950s era womanizing that has been to one extent or the other in 24 Bond films (the original comedy plus the 23 films including the forthcoming Skyfall) the Bond of 1952 is as familiar as the current Bond.  The James Bond novels remain in the top 25 best selling novel series of all time.

As theatrical adaptations go, Casino Royale is very faithful to the original novel.  But there are enough twists and turns that anyone who has only seen the Bond films will find new elements to enjoy in the original novel.  It begins with a dossier read by head of the Secret Service “M,” on one Soviet agent, Monsieur La Chiffre, who “stole from the till” and lost on bad investments over time and with a bounty on his head he is in need of millions of francs to save his own life.  La Chiffre has cleared out accessible bank accounts to turn that money into greater wealth come June at the casino at Royale-Les-Eaux in France, and La Chiffre is reputed as a formidable player.  The recommendation: “the finest gambler available to the Service should be given the necessary funds and endeavour to out-gamble this man.”

Despite that seemingly silly premise, readers can look forward to tight writing, great characterization, and well-plotted action.

What doesn’t come through in the movies is Bond’s inner thoughts.  Modern audiences see Bond as polished and perfect.  The original Bond story shows a different man.  This could reflect a character not yet firmly established or the fact that the character himself was only recently made a 00 agent, the designation of a British agent who had made two kills.  His inner-workings are fun–at one point he plots to rob the bank at the casino and how many men it would take to do the job successfully, simply as an afterthought between pondering how we will proceed next in his actual assignment.

Bond is a renaissance man.  Sure, in the movies he is portrayed as suave and knowing what drink to order, but in Casino Royale we see Bond fluent in French cuisine and culture.  And he is also fluent in subtlety.  His extreme paranoia, required to keep a spy in the danger game alive comes across over and over.  No rest for the weary?

It’s difficult not to approach Bond novels without reference to the corresponding films.  Thankfully Fleming’s first Bond novel can now be compared to the first Daniel Craig Bond film, as opposed to the funny 1967 comedy spoof version with David Niven. In that regard the movie reflects the novel with familiar characters M, head of the Secret Service, assistant Moneypenny, René Mathis, from the French service, CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Vesper Lynd, assistant to the head of the S (Soviet) branch of the British intelligence.

Unlike James Bond of the movies, James Bond of the novels is self-correcting.  He may have classic womanizer thoughts or presumptions, but does not hesitate to adapt or change his mind and act against his baser instincts, something we rarely see in the movies.  Hard-hearted is not yet the established Bond as featured in Casino Royale, and he is a bit more likeable, more personable, apologetic, less automaton.

The plot revolves around a game of baccarat of the highest stakes (literally in the game they break the world record for high stakes play), with Bond strategically placing himself opposite La Chiffre, and they become the key competitors despite a dozen other players.  Bond withstands a few attempts on his life, including one at the table, and ultimately loses millions in the first round of play.  American Felix Leiter comes to the rescue with an endless pot of CIA money, that Bond uses to re-enter the game and finish the job.  From there, Bond and assistant Vesper Lynd are kidnapped as part of a trap, and La Chiffre attempts the most brutal torture to exact the money from Bond, money Bond hid at the hotel.

Iam Fleming’s writing is evocative of the time and place: “Bond lit a cigarette and settled himself in his chair.  The long game was launched and the sequence of these gestures and the reiteration of this subdued litany would continue until the end came and the players dispersed. Then the enigmatic cards would be burnt or defaced, a shroud would be draped over the table and the grass-green baize battlefield would soak up the blood of its victims and refresh itself.”

Negatives?  Readers may encounter a few quirks.  One may be nits like over-use of the word “ironical” once preferred to the modern “ironic,” which after several uses grates a bit.  Fleming also has Bond over-explaining his actions to Mathis in the last chunk of the novel.  And there is a long sequence that is not so much the modern Bond tongue-in-cheek encounter with the “Bond girl” of the week, but reads a bit like a scene from a Harlequin romance novel.

But certainly there is more of what you’d hope for than not:  Bond’s love of wine and food.  A fast car (here a Bentley).  Bond’s vodka martini (the “Vesper”).  A heightened awareness of surroundings.  Pleasure in relationships with other agents.  Pursuit of the beautiful woman of the moment.  Calculated risks.  Confidence to the point of over-confidence.  A car chase.  A crash.  A hand-to-hand fight.  A card game.

A W carved on the back of Bond’s right hand is a curiosity–carved by a Soviet agent who chooses not to kill Bond, but brand him with the symbol of the Russian word for spy.  (Did this come up later in the series?)

There is also much explanation that makes sense of Vesper’s role in the card game and aftermath, that was rather rushed in the film adaptation.  And the ending fully explains why readers were eager for the next and subsequent James Bond spy thriller.

No question–Casino Royale is a fun read, and although it may be obvious, it explains why the successful franchise got off to a good start.

It may be the year of dark and chilly genre flicks.  The Woman in Black, reviewed here, had some of the best atmosphere of any film in recent memory.  Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, previewed here and coming this June, also features a dark and spooky vibe.  If there is something enticing about the forthcoming The Raven from the new trailer, it is mood.  The filmmakers appear to have nailed the “once upon a midnight dreary.”  Check out this new trailer–the film’s UK preview, just released:

This is a great lesson in what a good editor with some marketing sense can do when he/she knows how to do the job right.  Compare the UK version above with the U.S. version of the trailer:

The UK trailer is pretty ho-hum.  Yet the U.S. trailer makes this one look pretty exciting.  Why would you bother releasing the UK trailer when the U.S. trailer is so well done?

Like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, The Raven takes a real-life character and places him in a new, fictionalized, alternate history adventure.  The challenge will be that not only does the viewer need to suspend disbelief to participate in this cinematic work of fiction, the viewer is forced to put aside his or her assumptions about the historical figure.  The harder task may be for the filmmakers addressing a wild rail and vampire splittin’ Abraham Lincoln.  But Edgar Allan Poe as a bit Sherlock Holmes and a bit less-than-willing-participant Ichabod Crane?  That doesn’t seem too far-fetched for the avid fantasy viewer.

The casting of John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe is interesting.  Poe is always shown to be far less outgoing than Cusack’s typical character.  To his credit Cusack is often grouped with some of the finest “serious” dramatic actors.  Just look at his performances in Eight Men Out, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Bullets Over Broadway.  John Cusack is in a rare league of people we like and want to see more of, like Matthew Broderick, and from the same era.  But like Broderick, his choice of film projects is often a letdown (The Road to Wellville, Con Air, 2012), even if his performances are well done.  Cusack was great fun in Say Anything, The Grifters, Grosse Point Blank, High Fidelity, Serendipity, Igor and even Hot Tub Time Machine.  But where his movies seem to disappoint are his ventures into horror, such as Identity and 1408.  Can Cusack give us a good horror thriller with The Raven?

A major marketing plus is the reference that this is directed by James McTeague, who also directed the brilliant V for Vendetta. (although he also worked on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, the Matrix films and Speed Racer).

The trailer feels a bit like From Hell, Sleepy Hollow, and Sweeney Todd, all based on historic stories.  Makes you wonder why Johnny Depp isn’t in this one, doesn’t it?  One concern is the rating notation, which I usually ignore, but Rated R for “bloody violence and grisly images” and some of the images in the trailers probably says all we need to know, and would certainly group The Raven with those three grisly concept films.

The Raven hits theaters on April 27.

C.J. Bunce


Review by C.J. Bunce

Not five minutes into the pilot for NBC’s new crime drama/thriller Awake–you are wrenched into the dilemma suffered by the series’ star, L.A. Detective Michael Britten, played by British actor Jason Isaacs (Case Histories, Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, DragonHeart, Armageddon, Event Horizon).  Britten wrecked his car with his wife Hannah (Laura Allen, The 4400, House, M.D.) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette), and one of them died.  In his sleep, he lives the reverse of the life he lives while awake–in one reality his son lived, and the other his wife lived.  But which is reality?  “This is not a dream,” each psychiatrist tells him, one in his dream state, the other while awake.

As the title indicates, Detective Britten is perpetually awake.  And the show moves forward with the vibe that he never gets any sleep, not letting up through the pilot’s last scene.  And “wrenched” is the right verb, because as cool as the concept is, the weight of the real-life drama nags at you.

He wears a different colored rubber band to remember which reality he is in.  Has he selected the true reality?  Will he know?  Does he even want to find out?

Halfway through the pilot, Britten’s predicament becomes even trickier.  A clue in one reality–611 Waverly–appears to cross into the other reality.  Can he follow the clue in one reality to help solve the crime in the other?  Are details in his dreams manifesting themselves in his reality, or vice versa?  The psychiatrists are clever (Dr. John Lee played by BD Wong (Jurassic Park, Law and Order: SVU, The X-Files), and Dr. Judith Evans played by Cherry Jones (The Village, Signs, 24), finding ways to prove the other’s advice is wrong.  One psychiatrist is gentle, the other is tough.  Is all of this his brain’s way of dealing with loss?

We meet two detectives, one, Britten’s long-time partner, direct and confident Det. Isaiah Freeman, played by Steve Harris (Minority Report, Bringing Down the House), the other, less confident but cool rookie Det. Efrem Vega, played by Wilmer Valderrama (Fez from That ’70s Show).

Along with the ongoing question of what really happened to Britten, not one but two crime dramas must be sleuthed out by the end of the hour.  Which murder came first?  The cab driver?  The kidnapped girl?  Has his subconscious turned his crisis in real life into a case he must solve in his dreams?  As soon as he decides which is dead, will that person stop appearing in his dreams?

The maneuvering from each reality is seemless and unrelenting.  The weaving of the two realities is well constructed.  Along with the lead role, Isaacs also serves as producer on the series.

Isaacs as the tormented father/husband/cop is the highlight of the new series, along with the supporting roles of the detectives played by Harris and Valderrama.  Ultimately the pilot plunges us into Britten’s world too quickly and feels a bit off.  The psychological and almost supernatural nature of the plot lends itself to comparison to the Life on Mars TV series.  But will Awake be a success like the British version or short-lived like the U.S. version?  If the story stays on-track this could work as an ongoing must-see, but if not it risks being another show with a gimmick like Christian Slater’s My Own Worst Enemy.  The chemistry between Isaacs and Allen as husband and wife is not quite there yet, which is to be expected for a pilot, but it may have to do with the 11 year age difference of the actors which is strangely obvious.  The storytelling device of the dueling psychiatrists is a bit convenient, but in the introductory scene it works nicely.  The pilot is wrapped up neatly–maybe too neatly.  That said, Britten says if the price of not letting go of one of his family members is no sleep and his very sanity, then so be it.  Knowing that, the challenge will be where the series’ writers can take the first season.

Awake premieres on NBC March 1.

Review by C.J. Bunce

Anytime I get the chance to go behind the scenes in any industry I have tried to take full advantage of the opportunity.  I once performed in a band at Disney World in Orlando and enjoyed seeing the underworld that made the Disney operation work literally underneath the city.  I later worked at the Smithsonian Institution and got to witness a similar but greater operation in the vaults not under the museum but in the upstairs floors.  From the standpoint of a musician it is fascinating to stop and take stock of all that is required to make a symphony perform a complex work and make it sound perfect.  I get a similar level of excitement when interacting with writers and artists at conventions or via email or other encounters, and in particular watching an author build a universe where nothing had existed before.  Watching any artist in action is an education, an opportunity to learn, admire, and maybe even emulate if you have the discipline and desire.  Reading great words helps you become a better writer, and viewing great art gives you a better feel for design and form in general.

When an artist reveals his or her process, it is a lot like a magician showing how a magic trick works.  The risk is that some of the knowledge could make later viewings somehow less meaningful.  But when dealing with a great creator, no matter how much you learn about process, none of it takes away from the experience, because ultimately, merely having the knowledge of the “how it’s done,” doesn’t mean you can wander off and replicate it, because skill and artistry are greater than mere process.

Following my review this weekend of The Art of Drew Struzan, I think this is a great follow-up book in a similar vein.  I received my personal copy of Alex Ross’s Rough Justice: The DC Comics Sketches of Alex Ross from Alex Ross’s business partner, Sal Abbinanti around Christmas time.  It was like an early Christmas present.  Among other things, Sal is a long-time friend of Ross, and I can never get over the fact that Sal was a model for Ross’s classic Captain Marvel, maybe Ross’s most iconic superhero re-imagined.  If you ever are fortunate enough to deal with Sal, look for a great experience.

Rough Justice is a play on words.  “Roughs” are what Ross refers to as his work that is created in order to get to a final painting.  He uses thumbnails to get down the big picture and often to lay out the design for an entire work.  He often free-hand sketches with fluid movements, with sprawled out reference images surrounding him, in order to mock-up the image he sees in his head, well before he dips his brushes in gouache.  And of course the “Justice” in the title comes from his ongoing themes underlying his great superhero subjects and the title of one of his key series for DC Comics.

Maybe artists of equal or better skill will find things to critique in Ross’s artistic process revealed in Rough Justice.  But, if so, I bet that small group of artists is so small that I’d wager there would still be more praise given than not.  Ross isn’t apologetic that his images are realistic (some folks prefer more abstract elements).  Neither does he apologize for using actual models for his development of a scene.  His process is his process, yet it is likely using any other process would get him to the same results.  The same type of photo references are used by Drew Struzan and Frank Cho so it’s almost as if the very best artists use this method for a reason–it helps to make them the best.

I’ve mentioned before that I met the late Michael Turner at a convention a few years ago and he let me flip through all his great original art pages.  When you page through Rough Justice, you get a similar experience.  I found myself actually checking my hand for pencil smears, because the reproduction of Ross’s original pencil work is so nicely reproduced.  Ross notes that he does not rely on tracing or projections in his work.  Ross is as much penciller as painter, although the public rarely gets to see anything but his finely tuned painted works, and except for some convention sketch books, this book is the ultimate collection in a single volume.

Alex Ross's original sketch design for the new Batwoman

In Rough Justice the reader learns the great role Ross has in the development of sculpts for maquettes or action figures based on his version of characters.  This explains why so many of the figures based on his work are so accurate to the painted renderings.  We also learn Ross’s role in re-designing Batgirl and Batwoman–resulting in the singular look that became the current Batwoman.  And look for a number of “What ifs”–renderings that did not make it to a final form or comic book series.

Like Struzan, unfortunately Ross has encountered the same letdowns with the industry, less collaboration and more direction by the Powers That Be to punch out a final product, and similar bumps.  Yet his work reflects none of this.  Rough Justice includes extensive images of Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel, as well as images from Kingdon Come, Justice League of America, Justice Society of America, and Ross’s many anniversary edition over-sized coffee table editions.  Rough Justice does not include a lot of text, but what is there highlights Ross’s thoughts behind his work and process.  And along with the images Ross includes all the margin notes from the original art, indicating notes to himself or others, giving the reader yet another angle into his creative process.

Rough Justice is a good companion to The Art of Drew Struzan.  It’s a good reference work, a fine chronicle of Ross’s art, and its great presentation and superb images qualifies this as a nice coffee table book.

Rough Justice: The DC Comics Sketches of Alex Ross lists for $30.00 but is available for much less at online retailers.

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

I just finished rereading Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut as I go through my idea to reread his novels in the order that he wrote them.  (Why?  Possibly because I didn’t realize Player Piano was his first novel and I wanted to put it in context with what followed it. Maybe a love of order?  Maybe I just wanted an excuse to read Vonnegut.)

As I was reading, a passage from pp. 86-87 of the Dell Paperback, copyright 1963, struck me a little differently, especially due to the news out of Washington, New Jersey and Maryland.  I’ll give you most of the whole thing:

‘He’ll never marry her.’
‘Why not?’
‘I’ve said all I’m going to say,’ she said.
‘I’m gratified to meet an indexer who respects the privacy of others.’
‘Never index your own book,’ she stated.
…(paragraph break)…
Sometime later, Ambassador Minton and I met in the aisle of the airplane, away from his wife, and he showed that it was important to him that I respect what his wife could find out from indexes.
‘You know why Castle will never marry the girl, even though he loves her, even though she loves him, even though they grew up together?’ he whispered.
‘No, sir, I don’t.’
‘Because he’s a homosexual,’ whispered Minton. ‘She can tell that from an index, too.’

I point this out, not because I think Vonnegut is making a moral judgment or an opinion on homosexuality, but rather its place in 1960s America.  In a plane with only a few people on board, homosexuality is something to be whispered about and is not appropriate for regular conversation.  It’s almost fifty years later and now gay marriage is legal in some countries and states, but still not even viewed as decent in others.  In fifty years, that seems a pretty big difference in acceptability, from what I captured in less than a page in a book and then moving to Stonewall, Harvey Milk, Rock Hudson and many other moments as the conversation on gay rights has evolved.

Despite being assassinated in office more than 30 years ago and posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, there's still no U.S. postage stamp to commemorate the "Mayor of Castro Street"

Fifty years can be examined in two ways. In the view of all of time, it is but a blip.  In the view of a single lifetime, it can be everything. (R.I.P., Whitney Houston, 1963-2012.)

For people fighting against injustice, they can fight their whole lives and never see change.  The Fifteenth Amendment, giving people the right to vote no matter, “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870.  The Nineteenth Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  It was ratified in 1920.

Along the way, both before and after these dates are times where rights for both groups improve and recede and there are many landmarks.  Just looking at one though, 138 years after African Americans had the right to vote, an African American became president.  92 years after women got the right to vote, there has yet to be a female vice-president or president.

Barack Obama, inaugurated as president in 2009, and made the cover of The Amazing-Spider-man

Unless you are very lucky, both of those time spans cover more than one complete life.  Fortunately there is happiness and joy from smaller milestones and hopefully those can make the setbacks of a lifetime more palatable.  To me and I’m sure many others, the U.S. Presidency is one of the ultimate proofs that you can do anything in this world, and until the time you see it done, open doors everywhere still might seem like a pie in the sky idea.  However, even the U.S. presidency doesn’t guarantee that racism or sexism will stop.

Those are the big issues and the important ones as far as equality and kindness to our fellow humans go.  However, generally when we talk about science fiction books, we talk about technology.  We talk about different ways of looking at things (ice-nine!) and future possibilities.  Does every aspect of our life really move that slowly?

In the 1890s, Thomas Edison and Louis Lumiere created the ability to make a motion picture.  Thirty years later came the first “talkie.”  Thirty years later and color pictures are ubiquitous.  Twenty years after that and most homes have a VCR and the ability to watch movies at any time of day in the comfort of their own home.  Ninety years from beginning to end of this timeline, and you see how the world has changed for viewing images, people and places from all over the world as you sit in your comfy chair, though the endpoint could be argued as arbitrary.

Another one I find interesting relates to baseball and F.C. Lane.  Almost 100 years ago, he argued that the press didn’t measure the contributions of baseball players correctly.  Today, after Moneyball and many, many blog posts by intelligent, interesting and rabid fans of the game, we have started to actually measure the contributions of baseball players in that way.

In his 99.5 years, F.C. Lane not only became the first sabermetrician, but wrote about a variety of subjects

In the even broader picture, for music we went from wandering minstrels to prominent people owning musical instruments in their homes. We went from having to know how to play an instrument to have music in our homes to pressed vinyl.  We went from pressed vinyl to reel to reel to 8-tracks to cassettes.  We went from a Walkman to a Discman to an iPod and its increasingly small forms.  Where we used to depend on a single person to crack their knuckles and tickle the ivories around 220 years ago (Mozart died in 1791 and if I remember my Amadeus correctly as my source for history, that’s exactly how life in those times was) we can now hold thousands of songs by thousands of artists in our front pockets.

You haven't heard Mozart until you've heard him in the original 8-track format.

As a friend likes to say, “Change equals death.”  (I don’t think he got it from Woody Allen, but who knows.)  Even on the small things and the things we know we want, it takes us a bit to adapt, to figure out how things work, to make things better.  As The Artist shows, not even the idea to make movies with dialogue was met with universal approval.  But, when change does happen, eventually we all adopt it and it comes to pass as “normal.”

When we look at science fiction, we look at the future, we look at what’s possible and at the same time, we look back to when the book was written to see from where we came.  Those dreams give us a chance to imagine a better world through love and technology in a time that so far to date, is always tomorrow.  (As it says in The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, entitled “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”  “Nothing.”)  Those glimpses back sometimes let us know how far we’ve really come and sometimes, it is a little bit more than nowhere.

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