Tag Archives: Reviews

Reviews: Graphic Novels by Michael Cho, Derek McCulloch, and Anthony Peruzzo

Reviews: Graphic Novels by Michael Cho, Derek McCulloch, and Anthony Peruzzo

I wrote these book reviews a couple of months back; I forgot to post them on my blog, silly me. These first appeared online at the San Francisco Book Review. 

 

Reviewers aren’t supposed to toss hyperbole around lightly, but it must be said: I loved every cringe-inducing moment of Shoplifter. It’s been ages since a graphic novel spoke to me on such a personal level. I wish I had the cash to buy copies for every friend who reminds me of the protagonist: overeducated, unfulfilled, and stuck in a rut.

Shoplifter focuses on Corinna Park, a writer plagued with ennui and lack of motivation. Life hasn’t turned out as she envisioned it, and now she’s merely going through the motions at her ad agency job, where she gets to write copy for silly products that nobody needs. Corinna’s only thrill in life is minor pilfering. Corinna knows she has the potential to do great things; she just can’t fathom how to get there.

Having met a fair share of shoplifters and disenchanted copywriters over the years, I can sympathize with Corinna’s first world problems while wanting to hit her with a bat at the same time. Corinna’s doubts, fears, and failed attempts feel intensely real. I wish there were more stories like Shoplifter out there: short, elegant, and even a little groan-inducing.

 

The creators of Displaced Persons have a great love for San Francisco, as the book starts with Emperor Norton, who finds an abandoned child and promptly delivers him to the nearest orphanage. The orphan in the prologue is only one of the mysteries the reader’s invited to unravel: there’s a missing heiress, a love triangle involving twins, a drug bust gone bad, and an amnesiac. Clues include a locket, a photograph, and a house.

The main conceit of Displaced Persons, however, is that the mysteries cross three timelines, each with its own color palette. Only the cover and the last page break out into vivid color as the book tries to answer the main question: where do all missing people end up? Are they only lost to their loved ones, or are they also lost to themselves?

Displaced Persons is a high-concept, unusual work; it’s obviously a labor of love. Unfortunately, its ambitious plot is also mildly convoluted. This book might be more satisfying after a second reading. Even the sharpest reader might have difficulty keeping track of everything.  Clarity does come at the end, but one might be too disheartened by the book’s melancholic outlook to notice it.

Emperor Norton Lives On

Emperor Norton Lives On

Totally in character throughout the tour.

I enjoy walking tours and historical curiosities. The more obscure the detail is, the more my mind ties itself in knots over it. So when Auey told me there was an Emperor Norton walking tour, I just had to go.

Who is Emperor Norton? That’s a good question, something that the tour tried to answer over the course of a summer afternoon.

On the surface, Emperor Norton was a nineteenth century businessman named Joshua Abraham Norton, a man who lost his fortune with one unfortunate deal. After disappearing for a few years, Norton re-emerged to declare himself the first emperor of the United States.

As tour operator Joseph Amster noted, in any other city Emperor Norton would have been sent straight to the nearest asylum. But he was in San Francisco, the most tolerant and freethinking city in North America. Originally an object of interest to the local newspapers which needed to fill column inches, soon Norton became a mascot, a tourist attraction, and even an unofficial spokesperson for city’s downtrodden.

Here's a replica of the money issued by Emperor Norton.

Some of Emperor Norton’s far-sighted proclamations addressed the need for a bridge between San Francisco and the East Bay, and the need for an international council that promoted peace among all nations. Many people may have laughed at his ideas when he was alive, but the Bay Bridge and the UN were created anyway.

How an entire city could have humored and even encouraged the eccentricity of one man is fascinating. It’s unthinkable that this feat could ever be duplicated. Over a twenty-year period, Emperor Norton became an accepted part of city life. He was fed for free at certain restaurants, he was given free tickets to new shows, and he was even issued clothes by the local government.

The emperor's last moments, as depicted in The Sandman #31. A Vertigo DC Comics image.

Despite his obvious eccentricities, Emperor Norton was never declared insane. I asked specifically if anyone had tried to have him committed. According to his research, Joseph said that the Emperor was even autopsied after his grand funeral. The doctors could find no sign of brain damage. The consensus was that there was nothing wrong with him at all.

It’s as if the man—gasp!—lived upon a dream.

For my Neil Gaiman-loving friends, Emperor Norton may be a familiar name. He appears in one issue of The Sandman as the object of a bet between the Endless siblings. It’s a memorable one-shot, punctuated with a Mark Twain cameo. When I first read it years ago I thought it was all fiction, so it was a pleasure to find out that Gaiman embroidered little on reality. It was definitely an amazing treat to walk the streets where this strange man once trod.

II.

The walking tour started promptly at two thirty. We started at Union Square and crisscrossed all over the city, and somehow ended up in Chinatown. My favorite points included the history of Maiden Lane, all the many anecdotes connected to Lotta’s Fountain, and the origins of Bummer and Lazarus, the city’s most famous stray dogs.

Joseph is an engaging, entertaining guide, with an encyclopedic and intimate knowledge of the city. He’s not afraid to improvise either. He simply burst out into song at one street corner, when he realized that the two opera singers (who sideline as buskers) weren’t working that day!

Emperor Norton is the central figure in this mural found in Maxfield's Pied Piper Bar.

Probably the best—and totally unscripted—moments of the tour were the locals who were delighted to see Emperor Norton (or at least someone cosplaying him). Around Barnaby Coast one bicyclist roared, “the Emperor has returned!” while several foreign tourists couldn’t resist photographing “the Emperor” in all his splendor. It was a momentary glimpse of how the real Emperor Norton was treated during his heyday.

While the tour ends at the corner of Grace Cathedral and it’s a thirteen-minute drive from there, I think the best way to finish up an Emperor Norton tour is to drop by Elixir, a lovely saloon-styled bar on 16th Street. I interviewed the owner, H. Joseph Ehrrman for Gastronomique En Vogue magazine, a week or so before I went on the tour so it was a bit of serendipity. Among the many fabulous summer concoctions H. made was the refreshing Emperor Norton’s Second Mistress. Since I love fresh strawberries and I have a soft spot for bourbon, I have to recommend this cocktail.

Whether you think Emperor Norton was a crazy coot or not, the drink named after him is certainly fit for a king.

 

Film Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Film Review: Moonrise Kingdom

This review contains some minor spoilers for the film. To read them, highlight the invisible text with your mouse. 

 

To prove that I just don’t watch dusty old DVDs, I went out and caught Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom a few days ago. Of course I sought out something new—and happened to pick a film set in 1965. I have no excuses to offer in defense of my taste, except “hey, at least it’s a couple of decades past World War II.”

Moonrise Kingdom takes place in a sparsely occupied island somewhere in North America. It is a tale of two not-quite-children who meet briefly, become pen pals, and decide to run away together. It’s as quaint as only knee-high socks, Boy Scout uniforms, and portable LP players can make it. Update the era and substitute the words “tween” and “email” and the film probably won’t work, simply because teen runaways in the current decade would probably involve alcohol and gratuitous nudity.

In an alternate universe, Sam and Suzy could have been Romeo and Juliet. But because they are in an oddly cheerful Wes Anderson movie, they traipse around the shoreline in their underwear while playing French pop music, ignoring that almost all the adults on the island are searching for them.

Why they get along becomes obvious even if they have little in common. Suzy doesn’t fit into the natural order of her well-to-do household. She longs for adventure. Sam, an orphan shuttled between foster parents, is an expert at camping and just wants to be loved.

The children are natural in their roles; it’s a testament to their skills that they don’t seem to be acting. (Maybe they aren’t.) Kara Hayward could probably be cast as a young Scarlett Johansson. I find Jared Gilman is a little harder to peg down and that makes him more intriguing. He has great timing and delivery; his eyes are older than the rest of his face.

The adults of Moonrise Kingdom. Images on this post belong to Focus Features.

Whenever there are up-and-coming young actors in films I like, I wring my hands like a maidenly aunt over their futures. I’d prefer if these kids end up to be more like Elijah Wood and less like Lindsay Lohan. Still, even if these kids decide not to pursue any more acting in the future, this movie ensures they will be remembered for being part of something beautiful. Moonrise Kingdom is full of fascinating, subtle details and lovely landscapes. The art direction alone merits a second viewing, and even a third.

The adults aren’t given much to do in the film, but honestly, Moonrise Kingdom is not about them. I’m not sure what it’s all about either. All I know is, once it was over, it was over much too soon—just like the thunderclap of youth.

Review: Dumbledore as a Detective

Review: Dumbledore as a Detective

While going through the DVD section of the Berkeley Public Library, I lucked out and found Michael Gambon in ITV’s Maigret (1992-1993). Since the mental image of Dumbledore as a detective earlier captured my imagination, I just had to borrow it.

I’ve been watching the twelve episodes all out-of-order since not all of the DVDs are available at the same time. Still, I have to say that the series is a perfectly corking bit of work. Gambon’s expressive voice is crisp even if the video quality (alas!) is not.

Gambon makes an excellent Jules Maigret, whether he’s chasing criminals or the freshest seafood and local wines. Gambon just makes it seem natural that a French Chief Inspector should speak so authoritatively in English.

Screen captures from the first episode. Images from Granada Television.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading some Simenon, but not enough to make me a hardcore fan. This adaptation brings to life all the minor officers in the books, from Sergeant Lucas to all the young detectives who flock to Maigret for mentoring. Madame Maigret was cast a bit younger than how I mentally pictured her, but the actress does well so I have no complaints.

From the six episodes I’ve seen, my favorite is currently “Maigret’s Boyhood Friend.” Edward Petherbridge is excellent as the sleazy Leon Florentin, whose been living off his mistress and the cash gifts of her four other lovers. Of course when the woman is murdered, Maigret spends a lot of time wondering if his loser buddy is the real killer!

I know Petherbridge mostly from his romantic portrayal of one of my favorite detectives—Lord Peter Wimsey—so I couldn’t help from sniggering with joy with his character in this episode. He’s such a good, solid British actor, I hope I can dig out more of his work.

Hitting two birds with one stone—surveillance work and eating well.

Now, some mystery lovers insist there are only two types of fans: the hardboiled and the cozies, and never shall the two types mingle. It’s rather silly, seeing how much I love the genre.

In my mind, the Maigret books represent the beginnings of contemporary police procedurals. Here’s a guy who’s not an amateur genius, but an honest, working man of the official police. He’s not a Golden Age silly ass with arcane habits and hobbies. Yet he’s also not a cynical private eye who boozes up in speakeasies with double-crossers and corrupt cops.

Upright but not uptight, Maigret is the kind of police officer whom you’d actually want to live across your street. Michael Gambon plays the character so well, I almost wish he hunted out bad guys for real—especially when the bad guys turn out to be murderous little grannies.

Music and Nostalgia at the Indie-Pino Underground Music Fest

Music and Nostalgia at the Indie-Pino Underground Music Fest

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Indie-Pino: Underground Music Festival, which was held at the Yerba Buena Gardens yesterday. I should have never doubted that the Filipino-American community can manage to bring the temperature and mood of home to central San Francisco.

From the crazy old guy dancing Pandanggo sa Ilaw with imaginary candles to the summer heat beating down on our heads, it certainly felt like a world away. I can’t remember the last time I stood around and endured the heat so aimlessly, and yet so determinedly. It reminded me of a cross between annual Labor Day celebrations at the old Post Office to any street gig held at Cubao X. From the free-range children running around the performance area to the power accidentally cut off mid-song—these elements were familiar and oddly comforting.

A blurry cell phone photo of the Jack Lords Orchestra.

It would be unfair to all the bands if I pretended to have a professional opinion of their music. I have a tin ear at best; at worst I am a scourge of videoke machines. Years of listening to musically gifted friends debate about guitars and effects does not make it any easier to fake it.

Still, even someone as tone-deaf as myself was delighted with the Jack Lords Orchestra. I understand that they hail from New York and they brought a bit of East Coast style with them. The old fogey in me really appreciated the vintage vibe they projected. Their polished aura goes well with their color coordination and their lovely harmonies.

Since I’m awful with these things, I cannot fully describe or classify their music; their set  simply reminded me of many beautiful things. That may be beastly unhelpful, so here’s their official YouTube channel instead. Please lend them your ears and listen well.

All Clues, No Solution: Two Reviews

All Clues, No Solution: Two Reviews

Movie poster from Icon Productions.

Some say that Robert Downey Jr.’s 2003 film The Singing Detective is better left forgotten. I have to disagree with that assessment. It is an interesting failure, as only a film with gratuitous sex, cheesy musical numbers, and a sprinkling of seething anger can be put together to make a whole. Several times while watching I tried to shut it off but I couldn’t. It made me think so much my head hurt.

Based on the beloved British series starring Michael Gambon (Dumbledore, a badass detective?), the movie is one hot mess, but that’s pretty much the point of the exercise.

Downey plays two men in the film: one is a swaggering ‘50s gumshoe and the other is the bedridden, bitter writer who created him. The film starts with the vicious killing of a prostitute who is drowned in a bathtub.

Who is the woman? What does she know? As the film unfolds, at first it seems there is one central mystery. Then the clues begin to pile up and an overwhelming feeling of bafflement sets in. Is the writer so sick that he can’t tell reality from pulp fiction? Is he remembering the novel he wrote or is he living it? Is the murdered woman merely a memory of his mother or is it wish-fulfillment regarding the fate of his estranged wife?

I wish I knew. The film certainly doesn’t. I wonder if digging out the original series would help answer some of these questions, but my gut tells me the unsettled feeling will only get worse.

A promotional still from Almega Projects and Native Voice Films.

The 2011 film The Bengali Detective, oddly enough, continues with the merry disarray that The Singing Detective started in my head. As a documentary, one might expect it to be dark and gritty, and nothing more. Reality, however, likes to surprise the genre-savvy.

The Bengali Detective follows the life of Rajesh Ji, the head of the Always Detective Agency. He’s a simple, kind man, who loves his wife and child and treats his employees with paternal affection. He likes to sing duets with his wife, and for relaxation he and his employees try to shimmy to the latest Bollywood dances. So yes, just like The Singing Detective, there are dance numbers in this one, too. Sometimes it seems like a detective’s life is all fun and games.

The three cases we are allowed to see, however, are not of the heartwarming sort. A young man needs to know who murdered his cousin and his cousin’s two best friends. A middle-aged woman, physically and emotionally abused, needs proof of her husband’s infidelities in order to move on with her life. A local manufacturer of hair products demands to find the sellers and source of counterfeits.

The Always Detective Agency relies on its men to get to the facts, which they manage to do for most part. The murder case, however, is beset by tremendous hurdles, including a missing witness and suspects who are on the run. They become preoccupied with proving motive, since most of the physical evidence are in the hands of the police. The official police are portrayed as bureaucratic and unhelpful: they don’t want to give any of their information away, even if they don’t seem to be solving the case themselves.

That the bodies of the three men were found by the railway tracks might stink of red herring to a mystery fan (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, anyone?). Of course it is highly possible that they did die there, but not even this angle can be fully explored. It’s a bit frustrating for the viewer.

So, does the agency catch the unfaithful husband, the hair product fakers, and the murderer? Sort of. Only one case is fully resolved. The Bengali Detective ends on several notes for everyone involved—for the people who hired the agency to the detectives themselves. Distrust, resignation, and hope all abound.

Personally, I’m curious to see what the feature film adaptation of The Bengali Detective will be like. Will it leave many things open-ended, or will it go for absolute closures? I guess I’ll have to wait for 2014.

 

Some friends might be wondering why I’m bothering to review these two films together. Thematically, they stand together in my mind as deconstructions of my favorite genre. There are other detective films that may be more brilliant and satisfying, but I would probably have less to say about them. Enamored as I am with Golden Age mysteries, these films serve as a reminder that the genre has shifted, in so many crazy ways, since Dupin and Holmes were first written.

I cannot recommend these films, good and flawed as they are, to whodunit fans who demand justice and a neat tying up of loose ends. These films will only infuriate and frustrate anyone seeking quick catharsis. To anyone who wants to experience films that mirror, as closely as possible, the mystery of living, then these films might just fit well.

Review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

Review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

The San Francisco Book Review published this review last March 2010. It’s no longer available on their website so I’m adding it here for my archival purposes. 

 

Nevin Martell’s Looking for Calvin and Hobbes is made of equal parts of solid research and obsessive fanboyism, akin to an unauthorized biography of the “J.D. Salinger of cartoonists.”

Publicity-shy Bill Watterson is a difficult yet sympathetic subject. The first chapters make for slow reading, but the rest of the book provides insight into the artistic challenges of cartoonists. The behind-the-scenes look at syndication and licensing sheds light on Watterson’s decision to end his award-winning series.

What’s missing most from the book, however, are Calvin and Hobbes. The lack of illustrations seems absurd. It would have been nice to see the development of Watterson’s work for oneself, and not just have it merely described.

This is essential reading for die-hard Calvin and Hobbes fans who want to stalk Watterson. Martell will give you all the reasons why you will never find the man. So instead of attempting something both discourteous and criminal, read this book instead.

Review: Wizard People, Dear Reader

Review: Wizard People, Dear Reader

A longer version of this post first appeared on my old blog last June 27, 2009. 

 

Okay, let me start at the beginning. There’s this cartoonist named Brad Neely. He recorded an audio track meant to be played alongside Harry Potter’s and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) with the original sound turned off. In fact, you can download the entire thing and play it as an audio book over here. (Update: the original link is now dead! Sorry.)

If you’re lazy, though, other HP fans have made it easy by playing Neely’s audio over the film and posting it all over YouTube. Since it’s an unauthorized piece of genius, the videos keep getting flagged, so most of the links might go stale after a couple of months (or years).

Why am I reviewing this? Because it’s funny in an insane sort of way, and it kept Adam and I in stitches for over a week (we were watching it in installment.) With his harsh, raspy voice, Neely re-imagines the space of the film into something superior to the original. The humor is spontaneous, with a lot of ad-libs and meanderings. His language is colorful, with the most purple prose never seen in print since The Fireless Inferno.

For instance, Neely refers to Harry most of the time as “HP” or “Harry fucking Potter,” and never fails to give him a moment of badassery, profanity, and drunkenness. Coupled with the moving images of a very young (and clueless) Daniel Radcliffe, it’s just… brilliant.

I guess it’s easy to laugh when Maggie Smith is called “Hardcastle McCormick” and you are being told that Alan Rickman is a woman, and that Turkish Massage Owls are on the to-buy list of school supplies for freshmen, and…

Oh, forget about me, just watch it on YouTube. Seriously.

Since I am being an effusive, complete dork about this, I hope someone starts a campaign for this guy to make the sequels, although I’m pretty sure he can’t because of all the lawsuits already filed. Sigh.

Ten Reasons Why Wolverine Really Isn’t Canadian

Ten Reasons Why Wolverine Really Isn’t Canadian

A slightly different version of this post first appeared in my old blog last May 7, 2009. 

Spoilers for what does NOT happen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. 


Adam and I were talking about X-Men Origins: Wolverine and we concluded we were both disappointed in the movie, but for different reasons. Adam wanted blood and gore because how can Wolverine use his lethal claws without spilling a drop of blood? It isn’t reasonable.

As for myself, I wanted a Sabretooth that had fur and grunted like a crazed animal. I wanted a Gambit with a decent Cajun accent. But most of all, I wanted some other plot twist for Wolvie to lose his memory, ugh, because his mysterious past was an epic thing when I was reading the comics back in the ’90s.

Anyway, Adam also pointed out that the movie proves beyond reasonable doubt that Wolverine really isn’t Canadian. I asked him to come up with ten reasons. Here they are:

1. Wolverine was born before Canada was a full-fledged country.

2. Canadians invented peacekeeping; Wolvie keeps fighting in American wars.

3. Wolvie doesn’t sit around all day watching hockey and drinking beers.

4. Can Wolvie don a pair of ice skates?

5. He is never shown having a double-double.

6. He never makes a patriotic stop at Tim Horton’s.

7. He doesn’t use the metric system.

8. He hates a lot of people but doesn’t seem to hate Americans in particular.

9. None of his X-Men costumes are plaid.

10. Wolvie never wears a maple leaf toque.

 

Regarding the last item, I decided to rectify this matter immediately. See how much better Logan looks with the right headgear?

Film Review: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Film Review: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

This was posted to my old blog last February 25, 2010.

This review mentions some minor plot spoilers.

 

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is one of those films that lingers at the back of one’s mind, long after it’s been viewed. I watched it last January, began a review, then got too busy to finish it. More than a month later, here I am, still thinking about it. So here goes:

I was excited to get a couple of hours off from Serious Family Matters to go to the local cinema to watch The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Ricky may have introduced me to the cult of all things Monty Python, but I was a Terry Gilliam fan before knowing who he was a member of that gang. I loved Time Bandits and The Fisher King long before I knew the same guy directed both films. (Yes, I remember the Jurassic era known as pre-IMDB.)

I also have to admit to a morbid sort of curiosity towards what others simply call “Heath Ledger’s last film.” In case you didn’t know, Gilliam is notorious for being the most unfortunate director in Hollywood; his films are always plagued with accidents, budget problems, and fights with producers and distributors. When I first read about Gilliam’s predicament, I was like, ZOMG! Just how, exactly, would Gilliam deal with the problem of his lead actor passing away before filming was completed? It boggled my mind.

Enough rambling and useless trivia, though.

The first onscreen image of Heath Ledger is uncanny and ominous. He is shown, dressed in a white suit and half-strangled by a rope. It’s kind of shocking to see a dead guy play a half-dead guy! He dangles under a bridge until the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a seemingly low-budget sideshow troupe, cut him down and rescue him. His name is Tony, and that’s all he can remember. For the lack of anything better to do, Tony tags along with the Imaginarium and tries to help their “show” reach an upscale market… if only he understood what he was actually selling to the crowd.

One of the subplots of the film revolves around the recovery of Tony’s memory, and the awful crimes he committed. Make no mistake about it: Tony is a con man… but such a charming, passionate one.

After his establishing scenes, I expected for Ledger to simply fade away, but no. There was more Heath Ledger than I was initially led to believe. There are just a handful of scenes each for Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell who took turns playing Tony, too. (I love Johnny Depp but the crazed look in Jude Law’s eyes was simply awesome.) Gilliam was quite lucky that the story was flexible enough to accommodate the change with actors; I can’t imagine something like Brothers Grimm or Brazil with the same conceit.

But what is the Imaginarium? I won’t spoil that major part of the film, except that its one of those amazing places that is clearly the product of a chaotic genius. It’s the perfect setting for a character like Tony to make amends with his past and decide the course of his future, and for the art direction to run amok with visuals ripe with metaphors.

The film is full of the usual Pythonesque elements: giant sculptures with gaping mouths and rolling tongues, dancing bobbies, crossing-dressing young men. But even if someone is not familiar with the TV series, these visuals are still funny, and sometimes overwhelming. They definitely make it essential for the film to be watched on a large screen.

Like most of Gilliam’s work, The Imaginarium is a crazy roller coaster ride into fantasy and the dark side of the soul. Dr. Parnassus may be an immortal who is easily tempted into making bets with the devil, but Dr. Faustus he’s not. Everyone who hitches a ride with him takes a chance with the Imaginarium must make the choice between his own imagination and his most base desires.

It’s tempting to say that Tony and Dr. Parnassus are cinematic stand-ins for the late lead actor and the director, and that all film-making is one long con. Perhaps its a cheap sort of insight to say that Dr. Parnassus’ dilemma is merely a metaphor for Terry Gilliam’s lifelong struggle to tell the stories he wants vis-a-vis the compromise that Hollywood producers always demand from him.

It’s obvious that he’s contemplating the delicate balancing act between telling the tale or letting the devil do it for you. But whether he feels that the greed trumps imagination, I have no idea. Perhaps Gilliam doesn’t know the answer to that either.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed most of The Imaginarium, the sharp shift of focus at the end felt slightly unsatisfying. Gilliam is not known for clear-cut happy endings, but I feel it might have ended differently if Ledger was around to film the original ending. I would love to read of the script before the rewrites — perhaps they’d put the old storyboards in the DVD release? — to see if I’m right, or just suffering from a very retro desire for Aristotelian dramatic structure.