Saturday, December 22, 2012

Favorites from 2012

These are my favorites from the past year. They're not necessarily books, movies, tv shows or music that were created in 2012, but this past year is when I discovered them for myself!

Remnants of the Storm by Charles T. Sellmeyer
The Twelve by Justin Cronin
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Redshirts by John Scalzi
Ender's War by Orson Scott Card
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin
Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber
Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz

As I mentioned before, these are works I enjoyed over the past year. Most of them were written prior to 2012, so what was new to me, may not necessarily be new!

My list of favorite books from this past year leads off with my brother-in-law Chuck Sellmeyers historical action/suspense novel Remnants of the Storm. Taking place during the Civil War, it’s the story of a legendary treasure being sought after and fought over by a Union soldier, a Confederate scout and the Femme Fatale niece of Napoleon. It’s fast moving, action packed and I would be recommending it even if I hadn’t known the author for over thirty years now.

The Twelve by Justin Cronin is the sequel to his book The Passage. Taking place both in the near future and several centuries into a post-apocalyptic America, the book picks up the story from the last book, with humanity’s struggle to survive a Vampire-like epidemic. It has a tighter plot and is a more focused read than its predecessor, which is good and bad news. The Passage may be the most literary horror novel I have ever read. Missing from The Twelve are the kinds of literary passages in the first book that set it apart from being just another genre offering. The Twelve is a good sequel, but not as good as the first book.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell can be read as a collection of interwoven short stories or a treatise on reincarnation. The book’s multi-layered approach to the subject matter, actually benefits from the movie version, which brings the themes from the various stories into sharper focus than Mitchell’s prose. Read the book, and then see the movie.

Old Man’s War and Redshirts are both by the new dean of hard science fiction, John Scalzi. What sets his books apart from many in the genre are their humor, humanity and at times poignancy. Scalzi creates characters the reader cares about, and inserts them in worlds with deviously clever technology. He writes like a cross between Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison, yet always with an original voice.

It’s interesting to contrast Scalzi’s Old Man’s War against Orson Scott Cards Enders Game or Suzanne Collins Hunger Games Trilogy. The latter two are about sending children into battle, where as true to its name Old Man’s War is about sending the elderly off to fight an intergalactic war.

Even more interesting is to contrast the fictional cruelties of The Hunger Games or Enders Games with the very real and tragic plights of the children written about in The Children’s Blizzard. In January 1888, a blizzard took the northern Midwest by surprise. What began as an unseasonably warm day quickly deteriorated into one of the worst snow storms of the decade. Even worse, many children returning home from school were caught in its wake –often without coats. Over the course of storm over 258 died –mostly school children. Just a grim reminder of what those who settled this land before us endured and sacrificed to make their mark here.

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber was the 1977 winner of the world fantasy award. Leiber was a career Fantasy author who coined the phrase “Sword and Sorcery.” His series of stories involving Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are considered some of the best of that genre. Here, he writes a horror novel about an author living in San Francisco’s Castro district, who realizes he may have stumbled onto the remnants of an ancient occult society. The book has some nice creepy moments, but since its publication, horror masters such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Clive Barker have all upped the ante of what is expected in contemporary horror fiction. Still, if you’re in the mood for an old school occult fantasy that reads like an updated H.P. Lovecraft novel Our Lady of Darkness is a good read.

Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz is a surreal, funny and dark novel about an affable young man, Jimmy Tock, whose life is inexplicably intertwined from birth with a family of evil circus clowns; Konrad Beezo and his son, Punchinello. Jimmy Tock’s grandfather warns through a death bed prophesy of five dates which change Jimmy’s life, and the book tells how the Tock family face these dates, and the events that subsequently occur. Dean Koontz has written some of the scariest books I’ve ever come across –but this isn’t one of them. Still, it reads like a wild ride, where you have no clue what is about to occur next. It may not be high art, but it is a lot of fun. And strangely enough, it has a lot of heart and observations on the nature of family.

John Carter
Hunger Games
Cloud Atlas
Super 8
The Girl On the Bridge
The Fall
La Horde
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

It took Disney nearly 100 years to bring Edgar Rice Burrough's 1912 Science Fantasy "A Princess of Mars" to the big screen, and it seems my nephew Bill and I were the only ones excited about seeing it. The film, which was actually quite good, seemed to have the world's worst PR going for it. For reasons no one understands, the initial title John Carter of Mars was shortened to just John Carter. Because Burrough's series appealed primarily to middle-aged men (and their nephews!)its plausible to think that perhaps most young people in the ticket-buying demographic had no idea who John Carter was, or that his adventures occurred primarily on Mars.

I'm glad to hear the film actually turned a profit on the international market, but here in the states, it certainly was no Hunger Games, which came with its own built in audience -and justifiably so. The film, based on Suzanne Collins' successful novel, had a story with all the classic elements of popular science fiction: heroic heroes and heroines, villainous villains, action, adventure and romance. Both The Hunger Games and John Carter had the elements, but only The Hunger Games had immediate name recognition among the all-important tween demographic. Both films represent Science Fiction at its best.

Prometheus may have been the most controversial science fiction film of the year -at least among science fiction fans. The film was director Ridley Scott's follow-up (or rather prequel) to his 1978 classic Alien. Here, what is being examined aren't so much the aliens from the previous films, but rather the race that created them -and possibly humanity. Bringing LOST's Damon Lindelof in as a script doctor, was good news for those of us who enjoyed the puzzle-solving and mystery inherent in the show LOST but bad news for those who wanted straight answers in a one-up story, rather than a possible series.

Cloud Atlas is an epic about souls meeting and reuniting again and again, through various lifetimes, and how each lifetime effects the decisions they make. I've already written about it in the book section, but once again, my advice is to read the book and then go see the movie.

Klovn is a 2010 movie I saw on Netflix. Based on a Danish tv series of the same name, it stars Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, as a pair of bungling former show business types, whose awkward life experiences lead to uncomfortable comedy situations. This particular film finds the friends taking a canoe trip to a rock festival, with Hvam bringing along a child his girlfriend is supposed to be babysitting, so prove that he is "father material." All the while Christensen is trying to have sex with strange women and do drugs -activities that Hvam also enjoys more than he want to admit. The film is gritty and far more extreme than most American raunchy comedies (like the Hangover movies) but in the end, also exhibits quite a bit of heart.

Dogtooth is a Greek movie that I also saw on Netflix. It's about a husband and wife who keep their children ignorant of the world outside their property well into adulthood. The film is surreal and bizarre, with the parents attempting to sabotage any possible life their children might pursue beyond their property by telling them the wrong meanings for words (sea=chair and zombie=small flower)and keeping them cloistered from the outside world.

Super 8 is the 2011 pairing of J.J. Abrams and Stephen Spielberg. The film plays out like a dark version of E.T. Abrams and Spielberg both have long shown their ability to create compelling characters, and this film is no different. Its funny, exciting and poignant. I highly recommend it.

The Girl on the Bridge This 1999 French film centers around a knife thrower and a girl who intends to kill herself by jumping from a bridge. He intervenes to prevent the suicide and persuades her to become the target girl in his knife throwing act. The film is tense and suspenseful.

The Fall This 2006 movie stars Catinca Untaru as a little girl recovering in a Los Angeles hospital who befriends an injured stunt man, in the early days of the motion picture industry. The stunt man begins telling her an epic story as a ruse for getting her to steal enough morphine for him to kill himself. His story and her actions have unforeseen consequences for both. Directed by Indian director Tarsem, this film has location shoots from all over the world, and some of the most striking and beautiful photography ever filmed.

Antichrist and Melancholia are both Danish films by director Lars von Trier. Von Trier may well be the new Ingmar Bergman, for his ability to get into his characters' heads and present their psyches on screen. Both films are profoundly disturbing, with Antichrist the story of a couple seeking healing after the death of a child in a forest cabin, in a forest that may well be haunted. Melancholia is about a young bride, whose wedding is overshadowed by the end of the world. Both films are the cinematic equivelant of an emotional beating, and yet, there is much to be said about how artfully and beautifully both films are done.

La Horde what starts out looking like a gritty, violent French cops and robbers flick, quickly morphs into a gritty, violent zombie flick. Lots of action and copious amounts of gore and blood!

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop This behind the scenes "warts and all" documentary on O'Brien's national tour after being banned from the air by NBC after his quitting the network, made me a Jay Leno fan, after years of being a loyal follower of Camp Coco. Here we see O'Brien whine about the public always wanting autographs, and his back-up singers families who want to have a meet and greet with him after a show. The usually affable O'Brien comes across as yet another petty, ungrateful prima donna that the American public has unfortunately raised to celebrity status. I've never found him funny since seeing this film.

The Kevin Pollak Chat Show
WTF with Marc Maron
The Nerdist Podcast
The Pod F. Tomcast
The Tobolowsky Files
Doug Loves Movies
Rob Has A Podcast
Coast to Coast AM

Podcasts are fun to listen to if you own an iPod or some other kind of MP3 player and get tired of hearing music. They're like radio shows designed to be listened to at your convenience. In fact, some actually are radio shows.

The Kevin Pollack Chat Show features working comedian and character actor Kevin Pollak in lengthy discussions with show business types. Of the current crop of comic podcasters, Pollak most represents the "old school" of show business, being a favorite of the former godfather of late night, Johnny Carson. His show is slick, fast paced and funny.

WTF with Marc Maron Maron also has an interview show, which he tapes in his garage. As a former Air America personality, as well as colleague of the late Sam Kennison, Maron's show is grittier and edgier than Pollak's, asking tough questions Pollak would probably avoid like calling Carlos Mencia on stealing material, or asking Weird Al Yankovich about the death of his parents. If Pollak's show is like the Tonight Show of the 1960's, Marc Maron's is possibly most like Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show of the 1970's.

Likewise, Chris Hardwick and his crew at The Nerdist Podcast might well be compared to Dick Cavette's Show, being by far the hippest and most up to date on current trends, as Cavette was in his day too.

The Pod F. Tomcast is a monthly variety show by comic Paul F. Tomkins. Tomkins does stream of consciousness monologues set to piano accompaniment, phone conversations with his friend comic Jen Kirkman, sketches with special guests from his live shows, and a continuing sketch called "The Undiscovered Project" in which he imitates John Lithgow, Ice T, Garry Marshall, John C Reilly, The Cake Boss and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber working on a musical together.

On The Tobolowsky Files character actor Stephen Tobolowski shares a series of short stories about life, love, and the entertainment industry. Tobolowski has appeared in such films as Memento, Groundhog Day, and recently on the TV series Glee. His stories are self-effacing and profound.

Doug Loves Movies features comic Doug Benson (of Super High Me fame) playing what he calls The Leonard Maltin Game with a panel of comedians and celebrities. The game play is similar to Name That Tune where contestants bid to guess a film using the fewest number of names from Leonard Maltin's film directory.

Rob Has a Podcast features former Survivor contestant Rob Cesternino as he leads discussions and interviews for all topics related to Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, and many other reality-based game shows. Cesternino's infectious good humor makes the podcast addictive.

Coast to Coast AM Of all the podcasts listed, this is the only pay podcast, and the only one which is created as a radio show, before being recorded and sold as a podcast. At $54 a year (or 15 cents a day,) you get three hours worth of programming daily, dealing with everything from UFOs, Ghosts, the Occult, Urban Myths, Conspiracy theories. The stories here are fascinating, though I make no claims towards their truthfulness or accuracy.

TV Shows
Breaking Bad
Game of Thrones
Sons of Anarchy
Walking Dead
Mad Men
Arrested Development
Big Brother

If you own a TV, you know what these shows are. If you don't, there is no sense telling you about them!

Big Station by Alejandro Escovedo
Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan by Various Artists
Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen
Live At Billy Bob's by Billy Joe Shaver
Tempest by Bob Dylan
Mystic Pinball by John Hiatt
In the Time of the Gods by Dar Williams
4th Street Feeling by Melissa Etheridge
Heroes by Willie Nelson
A Different Kind of Truth by Van Halen
Flying Colors by Flying Colors (Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater.)

If there is an underlying theme to the first nine on the list, its that all of these recordings are the work of singer/songwriters (with the exception of "Chimes of Freedom" which is a salute to a singer/songwriter.) Whether they fall into the category of Folk/Rock like Dylan, Cohen, Williams or Etheridge; Country like Billy Joe Shaver or Willie Nelson, or adult contemporary like Hiatt or Escoveda, my favorite recordings have always been of singers who wrote their own songs.

That said, new ones by Van Halen and Flying Colors are fresh collaborations by bands of perennial favorites that should not be missed.