Monday, April 30, 2012

Stephen King's Top 13 Books

Since I just reviewed Stephen King's 2009 tome Under the Dome, and today Vulture ranks all 62 of his novels, I figured I would take my own stab. Although I haven't read hardly any of his books over the past 20 years, I'm still pretty confident that these are some strong rankings.

I was a total King junkie as a teen and into my early 20s (in those days, I didn't fall asleep 5 pages into every book I tried to read).

13. Cujo
12. The Shining
11. Misery
10. The Green Mile
09. Skeleton Crew
08. The Dead Zone
07. Under the Dome
06. Pet Semetary
05. The Dark Tower series
04. Different Seasons
03. IT
02. Night Shift
01. The Stand

Other King books I've read:
Salem's Lot
Needful Things
The Tommyknockers
The Long Walk
Four Past Midnight (featuring The Longoliers)
Nightmares & Dreamscapes
The Running Man
Just After Sunset
The Dark Half

What do you think? I would imagine everyone's favorite is The Stand, but is there something I'm missing out on? Something else of his I should read? I'm going to definitely put Vulture's #2 pick, On Writing, into my queue.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Under the Dome Adds to Stephen King's Still-Growing Literary Cannon

Back in high school, I devoured Stephen King novels. I must have been feeling reminiscent for those days several months ago when I picked up his massive 2009 work called Under the Dome.

The only other King book I've read in the past 20 years was Just After Sunset, but the Dome intrigued me because it sounded like my favorite King book, The Stand, which still holds up as one of the very best novels I've ever read.

Sometime after 2012, Chester's Mill, Maine is cut off from the rest of the world by a giant clear and unbreakable dome. The lead character is former Army Captain Dale Barbara, who is on his way out of town for good after a run-in with some of the local toughs. He doesn't quite make it before the dome comes down.

Used-car salesman "Big Jim" Rennie is on the town council and sees the perfect opportunity to become the town's leader in its time of need. His son, Junior, has an as-yet-undiagnosed brain tumor that is leading him down a murderous path right at the same time his dad is appointing him as one of a thuggish team of beefed-up police-force officers.

Colonel James Cox works the situation from the outside, instructing the town that the president has appointed Barbara as the town's leader. Needless to say, this doesn't go over so well with Rennie, who is able to frame Barbara for a handful of murders and have him locked up and ostracized.

Eventually, a small band of renegades is able to see through Rennie and break Barbara out of jail. They head to a farmhouse outside of town, near where they have discovered the source of the dome. The sci-fi part of this story is not as well fleshed out as the fascinating good-versus-evil relationships between the town's characters under such dire circumstances, although the dome creators (whose identity I won't spoil here) is a pretty ingenious concept by King.

A massive explosion of the methane tanks and crystal meth materials at Rennie's illegal operation ushers in the dramatic close of the novel, which the world watches on TV through the news media's lenses covering the events from just outside the dome.

Lots of love, death, and fun. Highly recommended. Just plan to spend a while with these 1,500 or so pages.

****1/2 out of ***** stars.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Olsen Twins' Sister Silently Rages in Martha Marcy May Marlene

I love exploring the sociological dynamics and behavioral reasoning for why people join cults and what keeps them involved over time.

So the psychological thrill ride of watching Independent Spirit Award winner Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) as the lead in last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene was just too tempting to pass up.

And the suspense is plentiful. While I might argue that the film could pick up the pace at times, I really have very little to complain about. Everything is eerie, especially when reflecting on the work as a whole.

The movie is a series of flashbacks to Martha's time with a dangerous cult in the Catskill Mountains of New York and flash forwards to her time living with her estranged sister and brother-in-law after escaping the cult. She clearly has no sense of how the world works, and the few glimpses into her worldview are simply restatements of the cult's leader, played by the wonderfully creepy and scaly John Hawkes (Winter's Bone, The Perfect Storm, Lost, 24, Eastbound & Down, and From Dusk Till Dawn).

The mysterious ending just adds to the pattern of suspense and makes the viewer feel for the characters even more, which is surprising since the back stories of the main players are not particularly detailed throughout the film's 90 minutes.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tommy Stinson of Guns N' Roses and The Replacements: Rockin' the Suburbs

Last Friday night's Tommy Stinson show at Jammin' Java in Vienna, Virginia was surely one of the underrated shows that will happen in DC this year. With probably 80 people in attendance for great bar-band openers Trapper Schoepp and the Shades, the crowd had winnowed down to about 35 people by the time of the legendary headliner's encore.

I mean, this guy is the bass player of Guns N' Roses! And more importantly, of The Replacements! And even more importantly, his solo material is an incredible cross of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Replacement Paul Westerberg. What more could any music fan ask?

Well, despite the strange choice of a suburban strip mall (even Tommy at one point asked, "Are we in Maryland or Virginia?") and the underwhelming crowd turnout, Stinson (who has also fronted great bands Bash & Pop and Perfect over the years) did not let down. He had also just arrived from Los Angeles after the funeral of a friend. He looked very rough when he walked onstage, but after a few coffee cups of what may have been straight vodka, he was looking plenty replenished by the end of the night.

With his wife on tambourine and backup vocals, he peeled through a great set list of his negative brand of club rockers:

One Man Mutiny
Light of Day
A cover of Elvis and Carl Perkin's That's Alright Mama
Zero to Stupid
Match Made in Hell
Loose Ends
A couple of rowdy numbers I didn't know
Something's Wrong (very poppy and very Replacements-y)
Seize the Moment
Turn it Up, the incredible Perfect song
Destroy Me, the first song he ever wrote with his wife
All This Way for Nothing
Some other song I didn't know, leading into Motivation

Never Aim to Please (see my video above)
Friday Night is Killing Me
And didn't know what the last bit was

My only complaint is that the band didn't play Fast and Hard, Hang Ups, Another Girl Another Planet, and Tiny Pieces. But all in all, a very special treat of a show.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Great Ad Alert: The iPhone is Now Our Personal Robot

This ad isn't really all that high tech or splashy, but when you stop to think about it for a moment, it's almost like the era of The Jetsons has finally arrived.

Zooey Deschanel has her own personal robot. And it's pretty incredible to think that your iPhone can almost effortlessly order a tomato-soup delivery, remind you to clean up tomorrow, and instantly begin playing "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" on voice command so you can dance whenever the mood hits you. 

Apple is very, very hard not to love.

Space Shuttle Discovery Zooms Right Over My Head

It was quite a treat to see the Space Shuttle Discovery riding horseback on a massive NASA jet over my condo this morning.

(The photo to the right is taken with my little iPhone camera and is the shuttle's third and final pass over Silver Spring, where I live.)

Despite knowing the shuttle was scheduled to pass through DC air space between 10 and 11, I was still diddling around when I heard my neighbors start to yell in excitement from our green roof. I stepped out on my balcony and heard a sonic, unusual boom headed our way.

And then ... I was standing directly under the jet and shuttle. It was literally right above me and very close to the ground. I ran to the roof and called Rachel to tell her it was headed to Ballston, where she works in Virginia. She excitedly said it was right out their 8th-floor window.

What a nice treat from NASA to allow all of the DC metro region to get a look at the shuttle before it rests west of the city at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum by Dulles Airport.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Batman: Year One is Essential Comic-Book Reading

As I lean more and more into the world of graphic novels (they're much quicker and more satisfying when you have a small child and not as much time to read anymore), I figured I absolutely had to dig into the best of the Dark Knight.

Batman: Year One is ranked highly on many best-of graphic novel lists, including #14 all-time by Forbidden Planet.

Created by the legendarily dark Frank Miller, with a resume that includes Sin City, Ronin, and 300, the truly mysterious origins of Batman are unraveled in this tale. It places the police investigator Gordon into the same corrupt city as Batman, who is in his first year of fighting crime in Gotham. Gordon has been transferred with his young wife from Chicago and Batman is returned from a long time away training in martial arts and science. The two men seem to be the only forces for good in the entire gangster, prostitute, and thug-filled place, and their paths cross several times. The final scene places them on a rooftop discussing someone called The Joker who may be planning to poison the city's reservoir.

This truly is a piece of art that "defines Batman for a new generation" and ensures that he will be a leading -- if not the flat-out best -- superhero for a long time to come.

***** out of ***** stars

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Roller Derby in DC: We Be Jammin'

Check one more thing off my list of things to do.

I recently attended a Sunday-evening edition of roller derby at the DC Armory. This is a fun punk, feminist, dramatic-leaning sport to watch, and the people-watching is great too. There are hardcore fans for this Will Ferrell-esque sport. It's almost enough to make me want to watch the Drew Barrymore roller-derby movie, Whip It.

My son Jackson was pretty excited to get his picture taken with Scare Force One's dominating MVP Lenore Gore.

Something I wouldn't mind doing again, since there is much more to learn. "Jamming" is the key term and I still don't fully get all its intricacies.

Another interesting tidbit: Roller Derby Worldwide claims there are more than 1,200 amateur leagues throughout the six inhabited continents. Perhaps another reason why nobody could explain how the competition I watched fit into the national or global context of roller derby. Like I said, still lots more to learn.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Tree of Life: Sappy or "Important?"

I'm not usually one to rule out something simply because it's artsy or experimental. That is probably why I watched The Tree of Life.  

But what a painful and pretentious waste of time. Director Terrence Malick has got nothing here compared to his early-career writing credit for Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. It didn't stop the typically-out-of-touch Academy from nominating him for best director. The film was also up for best picture.

The only nomination I agree with was best cinematography. The Tree of Life is gorgeously filmed and on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey. That said, the Big Bang interludes and dinosaur flashbacks, or whatever they are, couldn't be more boring. The lack of dialogue doesn't help build any kind of story.

Brad Pitt turns in a strong performance as a mildly scary and abusive father in the 1950s. Sean Penn plays Pitt's grown-up son and wanders around aimlessly as if he can't comprehend the fast pace of modern life, with no explanation as to why he entered the urban rat race in the first place.

I understand that this movie was aiming at a deep message about how fleeting everything in life is (except for perhaps that tree in Pitt's yard), but for anyone looking for Hollywood entertainment, The Tree of Life is a real piece of sap.

*1/2 out of ***** stars