Archive for October, 2018


Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s not every day you come across the ultimate book for your barber shop, but this is in the running.  Along with a wall listing current local pro and college team scores and a stack of wrinkled sports magazines, a new book about Stan Smith should be on the table if your local haircut joint is like mine.  Who would have thought a style of shoe could reach across so many segments of pop culture?  Excepting basketball player Chuck Taylor’s association with the Converse All Stars shoe and Doc Martens’ famous boots, the Adidas tennis shoe (not sneaker, not trainer) that Smith put his name on is easily one of the most identifiable athletic shoes of the past five decades.  Smith and his shoes, known simply as “Stan Smiths” to most, have had a mutually beneficial relationship, and everything you’d want to know about the professional tennis player and his shoe can be found in the new book Stan Smith: Some People Think I’m a Shoe, a collection of stories about the athlete who was the world’s #1 tennis player in 1971 and 1972 and a two-time Grand Slam singles champion–and his famous shoe.

It’s said to be the shoe Harrison Ford wore as Rick Deckard in Blade Runner–a pair of Stan Smiths spray-painted black.  From The Beatles to hip hop, the unassuming white shoe with green trim and perforated lines instead of stripes has been a preferred accessory across popular music icons.  David Bowie and John Lennon made their own statements wearing Smith’s tennis shoe with their otherwise more stylish clothes.  They were a regular sight among The Beastie Boys years later, Jay-Z included them in lyrics to one of his songs, and custom Kylie Minogue, Pharrel Williams, and Elton John versions of the shoe sold for big bucks at auction.  The shoe went through technology upgrades over time, but it has always remained instantly recognizable.  An A to Z section of Stan Smith: Some People Think I’m a Shoe includes anecdotes from Smith from his trips around the world, history of the shoe from the decision by Smith to endorse the Adidas Haillet–the first leather tennis shoe invented in 1963–with his own name ten years after its creation, to Smith’s current status as mentor, coach, and philanthropist.  The hardcover volume with 336 pages of full color photographs feature Smith’s life, newspaper coverage of his key games, pop culture personalities and how they were affected by either Smith or the shoe, and dozens of versions, schematics, and designs that Adidas has introduced to the Stan Smith shoe since 1973.

   

The book is also a look at a long-lasting advertising idea, an endorsement that created an artifact of sub-culture tapped as a symbol of identity by Baby Boomers to Millennials, eclipsing a wide range of fields of celebrity.  The book reflects the art of self-promotion, including commentary from executives from Adidas past and present plus execs at places like PepsiCo, as well as artists and designers influenced by the shoe–the book itself is a promotion for the continuing sales of the shoe.  One commenter believes you’ll find more Stan Smiths on the streets of Paris than berets.  And it was added to the Guinness Book of World Records as the top-selling “named” shoe when it surpassed 22 million pairs sold.  The book interviews one fan who boasts 230 pairs in his home.  Former tennis pro Martina Navratilova wears Stan Smiths everywhere today.  According to a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, “The magic of the Stan Smith shoe is that it can pass as a normal sneaker but also be used as a dressed-up shoe to a black tie event.”  Some people even seek out beaten-up pairs of the shoe because they think they look better.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

For a movie that had some pretty rough previews, including Tom Hardy as a journalist with some indecipherable dialogue and a scientist who mispronounced a key word in the story, the end result may come as a surprise: Venom is actually a pretty good movie.  Do we credit a great post-production and re-shoots, including a complete redo of the strange “symbiote” explanatory scene, or does Sony need to simply work on improving its movie trailers?  Frankly all that matters is what made it to the screen.  Fans of the comic book anti-hero and villain, of alien invasion movies, of that unique character design from co-creator artist Todd McFarlane, of Tom Hardy, and non-traditional superhero movies, you’ll have to work to find anything wrong with this movie.  It’s a good Halloween month monster movie and you don’t need to know anything about the character or Marvel Comics to jump right in.  But you just might want to check out the comics after you see it.  Like Frank Miller caused Daredevil to become popular, McFarlane made Venom big in the 1980s.  Unlike McFarlane’s movie Spawn, an R-rated film that was too dark for mainstream audiences, the PG-13 rating for Venom makes this movie accessible to everyone.

A mix of the classic alien invasion flick, the horrifying McFarlane character look, with the grimy city vibe like the Detroit of Robocop, Venom has elements that make it feel like it belongs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, regardless of its origin as a Sony film.  As for quality and delivery, it falls somewhere above Blade, Iron Man 2 and 3, The Fantastic Four, the Hulk movies, and Spawn, X-Men 3 and X-Men: Apocalypse, and somewhere below Hellboy and Deadpool.  For most fans of adaptations of comic books on the big screen, that will be enough.  Full of good humor moments, the film doesn’t take itself seriously.  We meet the archetype from 80 years of superhero comics with Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock, an Everyman, a down-and-out guy who can never get a break who gets caught making a few mistakes.  Usually this archetype ends up captured by Batman (or insert other superhero here) and thrown into the slammer, but this time he encounters a body shifting alien presence that merges with him, blending the best and worst of both beings.  Beginning with a crash landing as a SpaceX-inspired ship returns with some specimens from outer space, we eventually meet four alien beings, the lowliest of rank who calls himself Venom.  Merged with Eddie, Venom needs to eat living lifeforms to continue on and he doesn’t grasp the subtleties of only killing bad guys just yet.  Audiences will get to watch these aliens, the symbiotes, body-shift through several random characters (like Denzel Washington’s character in the movie Fallen), including the key cast and an animal or two–and it’s mostly great fun.

Venom is probably a rare time audiences will see Michelle Williams in a stock role.  Usually every part she takes on results in an Oscar-worthy performance, but it’s nice seeing her do something less dramatic.  And she gets some great scenes directly with Venom (including an Easter Egg scene that points straight back to the origin of the character originally discussed between Marvel Comics editor Jim Salicrup and writer/co-creator David Michelinie).  This may be Tom Hardy’s best role since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (where he was the only good thing in the movie), as he at last gets to play a spectrum of emotions and demonstrate a broad acting range.  Despite what we heard in the movie trailers, his regional American accent is spot on in the final cut and his dialogue is delivered clearly–none of that crazy speech we saw him bring as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises Not hiding behind make-up or masks as in Mad Max: Fury Road, Dunkirk, or Star Trek: Nemesis, Hardy again proves he’s one of the best actors around.  The sound department gets it just right–Hardy’s voice is also the voice transformed into the monstrous, demonic sounding Venom, and it’s unique and effective.  No doubt some elaborate work went on behind the scenes for Hardy-as-Eddie to be arguing with Hardy-as-Venom.  Some of the best lines, and laugh-out-loud moments come from Venom, reminiscent of Gollum and Sméagol.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It was only a year ago, in Timothy Zahn‘s novel Star Wars: Thrawn, that Zahn returned to provide the backstory for the enigmatic military genius Grand Admiral Thrawn, who emerged from the sidelined Expanded Universe novels of the past to be part of the rebooted Star Wars canon as a driving force in last year’s season of Star Wars RebelsZahn has returned with another tale of Thrawn, this time partnering the strategist with two of the most important characters of the entire Star Wars saga (or three, from a certain point of view): Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala, and Darth Vader.  In his latest novel, the author of the most popular Star Wars novel series (the Heir to the Empire saga), brings us Star Wars: Thrawn–Alliances, one of the best character studies (in book form or on film) of Thrawn, Vader, Anakin, and Padme.

Although you’ll find the preface timeline indicates this story fits between Solo: A Star Wars Story and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (immediately following A New Dawn), a good half of Thrawn–Alliances 342 pages takes place just before the events of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.  This is important because it introduces significant events for its key characters that have never been mentioned outside this book.  Most important is an early partnership between Anakin Skywalker and Thrawn at a time when Skywalker was Republic representative and Jedi and newly married to Senator Amidala, and before Thrawn joined the Imperial Navy.  As with most Star Wars stories, a recurring theme is the echo or repetition of events (dialogue, scenes, etc.) among key characters in the Star Wars universe, across the movies, novels, and comics.  So readers now learn that before the events of Star Wars Rebels, Emperor Palpatine once decided to partner Thrawn with Darth Vader to investigate a disturbance in the Force occurring on the very planet Anakin and Padme first met Thrawn years before, an outlying planet called Batuu.  The twist is that Vader’s former existence as Anakin is a carefully guarded secret in the forward story, not even disclosed to Thrawn.  The helmeted and fully armored Vader is quite knowledgeable about his past with Thrawn, and so we get to watch a sort of dance between the characters over the course of the story.

Zahn gives some powerful dialogue to Darth Vader in this story, possibly some of his best lines in the saga, and you can hear James Earl Jones’s voice in each delivery.  Because the always angry and impatient Vader is shown as the only slightly progressed and naïve Jedi, neither incarnation is a match for the wits of the shrewd and dynamic Thrawn, Zahn’s original creation first introduced in the now mostly discarded novel Heir to the Empire In many ways Zahn takes this novel as his opportunity to create a better, stronger, more manipulative villain than Darth Vader, a feat that is great for Thrawn but it also could be seen to minimize what has always been the saga’s #1 villain.  Zahn also has an opportunity to finally give Padme a rich and heroic adventure–a sadly lacking component in George Lucas’s prequel trilogy.  Yet Zahn doesn’t take full advantage of that opportunity.  She is allowed to come to the aid of some tangent factions and gets a brief survival story, but her role is secondary to the two key parallel leads and unfortunately ishe s underutilized again.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

As part of the release of the new single-player action-adventure game Shadow of the Tomb Raider, two new companion books are coming your way, Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Path of the Apocalypse and Shadow of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book The game, available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, continues the adventures of Lara Croft following the conclusion of the story launched in the 2015 game Rise of the Tomb Raider Players accompany Lara on her harrowing journey to become the survivor we know as the Tomb Raider.  The Official Art Book features exclusive concept art and developer interviews detailing the conclusion of Lara Croft’s origin story.

Path of the Apocalypse is the official tie-in novel to the game, written by S.D. Perry.  As we catch up with Lara, she has taken the Key of Chak Chel, setting off an apocalyptic flood–the Cleansing–foreshadowed by the ancient Maya (but she only did it because the agents of the secretive organization called Trinity were going to get to it first!).  She uncovers several clues that may help her prevent the next three foretold apocalyptic events from happening, but it seems like she may be the character in the ancient stories herself, acting to fulfill their prophecy.  Her first adventure is escaping the remnants of a flooded village.  Next, she and her companion Jonah must hire a plane that can sneak them under Trinity’s wide net of operatives, to re-trace the very steps of Trinity inside a system of deep caves, a path to the hidden Peruvian city where the silver Box of Ix Chel is hidden.  Halfway through her survival story inside these caves, readers might wish they had started to draw out their own map of the caves, lay out some kind of bread crumbs to find their way to the surface.  Lara continues deeper into the cave as Trinity operatives kidnap her friend and a pilot.  Do they wait for her to emerge from the cave’s entrance or take their weapons into the cave and pursue her?  And what are these toothy animals appearing in the dark corners of the cave?  With the fate of the world at stake, Lara is in no position to just give up.

Beginning with artwork from the 2013 Tomb Raider game and including great images from Rise of the Tomb Raider, The Official Art Book chronicles the video game production process, from concept to final design.  Art director Martin Dubeau, character artist Michael Verhaaf, and concept artists Maxim Verehin and Yun Ling, and hundreds of others served as digital costume designers, prop creators, and environment location scouts–just as if they were making a full-scale, live-action motion picture–incorporating their historical research on ancient Latin American cultures.  The game goes deeper into the history than the novel, introducing ancient peoples and the artifacts of their world.  These were all designed by Dubeau’s team and are incorporated in full-color layouts in The Official Art Book.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Probably the second best-known work writer Alan Moore is known for in the U.S. outside of his Watchmen series, Batman: The Killing Joke was both a retelling of the origin story of The Joker and the story of his using a physical assault on Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl to attempt to torture and ruin Gotham police commissioner Jim Gordon.  The book is one of the 1980s big four revolutionary comics (along with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and Watchmen) that caused a shift in how superhero stories are told (and it was the only comic director Tim Burton had ever read, setting the tone for the dark 1989 Batman movie featuring Jack Nicholson’s version of The Joker that Burton would begin filming only weeks later).  It’s a controversial graphic novel–the sexual assault and gunshot that resulted in Barbara Gordon losing the use of her legs and resulting in her change of persona to the deskbound computer whiz called Oracle angered many readers, and the ending is ambiguous and perplexing–why is Batman laughing at the end of the story?  Following the lead of the Marvel Comics new library of novelized adaptations of comic books and graphic novels, Batman: The Killing Joke is now the first of at least three new hardcover novel adaptations of DC Comics stories (to be followed by Batman: The Court of Owls on November 13, 2018, and Harley Quinn: Mad Love on February 12, 2019) published by Titan Books (also the publisher of the Marvel paperback novels).  Written by Christa Faust (Peepland, Fringe, Supernatural) and Gary Phillips (Violent Spring, Peepshow), their adaptation is a straightforward, faithful take on the graphic novel with a few updates.

The impact of the graphic novel cannot be overstated.  A key draw was the prestige format and the fact the book was a one-shot story, not like the three big predecessor books mentioned above that were monthly single issues compiled into a trade comic.  At the time we didn’t think the story would be absorbed into the regular continuity of DC Comics, but it slowly became a reference point even beyond its impact on Batgirl stories for the next 30 years.  (The book was so popular we couldn’t wait a minute to read it–one of my oldest friends was reading his copy on his music stand during our high school band practice, prompting the band director to throw it across the room, to our horror).

So how is the new novel adaptation?

You can’t really come up with enough synonyms for vile and despicable to describe The Joker in the original story and in this adaptation.  Before this story–and only about nine months before DC Comics would use fans to allow The Joker to kill Batman’s sidekick Robin with a tire iron in the pages of the Batman monthly comic book–The Joker was a bit of a silly villain.  Sure, he was always dastardly and Batman’s age-old key foe, but readers never saw him in such “true crime” acts so explicitly.  This is commonplace in the Batman stories now, but before you wouldn’t find a character shot, stripped naked, and photographed and another one stripped naked and tortured, both as plot devices ultimately used by The Joker to get Batman to show-up for the battle.  Authors Faust and Phillips do the most justice to Commissioner Gordon’s character, whose focus during his torture in a revived old amusement park is only the thoughts of his daughter’s safety and survival.  By the end of the book readers have learned that they couldn’t blame Gordon were he to walk away from these events as a destroyed pool of a man.  On the flipside, Barbara Gordon’s attack is handled partially from her viewpoint trying to understand what happened to her in real time, and partially from the view of one of The Joker’s stooges.  Barbara plays a more active role here in saving her father (and surviving), and instead of seeing herself as the victim she uses the bystander stooge to help further her superhero self into a new persona in a smartly conceived update via a coda to the story.

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