Fall Guide 2011
In our annual guide to the great indoors, the RN&R looks at new releases in books, Blu-ray, video games and music
The first day of autumn is a mere two weeks away. Sure, it’s still too hot to sleep at night, but in just a few rotations of the Earth, we’re going to exchange our cotton bedspreads for down comforters.
As is our custom in fall, we like to look at ways to enjoy the great indoors, to enrich our minds and our souls with provocative, stimulating and fun new media. On the other hand, some of the new stuff will send shivers down your spine—and not in a good way—before the pumpkins are even ripe.
by Peter Thompson
Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop.
Forty-some odd years after its debut, Robert Coover’s darkly illuminating novel set in the bright summery sunshine of America’s national pastime is being reissued by Overlook Press as Coover’s genius continues to be recognized by new generations of readers. UBA is the story of an accountant whose fantasy dice baseball game overtakes his real life. What starts out as an exercise in grim statistics quickly becomes an alternate universe full of personalities, possibility and potentialities. Waugh’s official league archives contain a detailed narrative account of the goings-on of his league, on and off the field, with the dice providing the foundation and a limitless imagination providing the color commentary. As Coover writes, “There were tape-recorded dialogues, player contributions, election coverage, obituaries, satires, prophecies, scandals” in his baseball world. A book on a dice baseball league? Somehow, Coover manages to pull the whole thing off brilliantly.
When a random throw of the dice kills one of his favorite young prospects, Waugh’s obsessions take a dark turn. His game and his life become indistinguishable. Waugh loses his job and arguably, his sanity.
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is less about balls and strikes than the games humans play—the everyday chances that can profoundly change our lives. Coover’s masterpiece of metafiction is a study in madness and mythology. Waugh is a prophet in a new testament with the baseball diamond as Holy Land.
Like Moses coming down the mountain with scrolls, Waugh comes with a blank writing tablet and a trio of dice, the rules of his world yet to be decided.
Waugh rarely ventures outside of his comfort zone, made up of his apartment and his local pub, where he goes on benders and acts out his drunken delusions, getting lost in his own fantasy world as though it were made of whole cloth. Coover is both play-by-play and color man in one, painting his new world from a fascinating palate, proving the fallacy of baseball commissioners and gods alike.
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch
Simon & Schuster
What would it feel like to be sexually assaulted by the gang at McSweeney’s? Not necessarily as a person, but as a piece of paper. Because if there’s one thing Nicholson Baker proves in 272 pages of self-styled “raunch,” it’s that a blank piece of paper can, in fact, be raped silly, with emphasis on “silly.”
Baker, author of the squirmy novels Fermata and Vox, gives House of Holes: A Book of Raunch what it really wants and without apology. Throughout the book’s series of vignettes, Baker exposes his imagination’s hard cockles for the reader to admire. The horny characters demand their “cake iced” until they “feel like a breakfast pastry.” They want their “cameltoepussys” licked and their “Pollocks” sucked. Seriously.
House of Holes is an aptly named abyss filled with goofy smut: preciously witty, awkward obscenity. Provocative? A woman loses her clit. A man trades his right hand for a larger penis and then said hand tells its own sad “short-handed” story. The book is as gimmicky and sexually stimulating as a miniature golf course.
While good for the occasional chuckle, so is being a kid and finding a library book full of drawings of pee-pees and wee-wees. The only thing as painful as badly written low-brow pornography is badly written “literate” high-brow pornography. The Marquis De Sade, who Tsar-bombed smut into oblivion and ended up spending a good deal of his life in prison and insane asylums for doing so, has been dead for nearly 200 years. Ubiquity aside, porn has made precious little headway in the centuries since. Once you’ve proven you can blow up the world, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep building bigger and bigger sex bombs. So Baker arms his entire sexual military with toy guns that unfurl “BANG!” flags when fired.
In one scene, a woman attempting to go through airport security is engaged by men from a TSA-like agency. “I know it may seem a little strange to you that we don’t have pants on,” he says, then proceeds to inspect her mouth for contraband with his “Malcolm Gladwell.” It’s sort of funny if you haven’t flown for the past six months but also sort of tediously offensive.
BANG! Baker is shooting blanks.
In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir
Dick Cheney doesn’t blink once throughout the entire memoir, a record which turns out to be much more political (surprise!) than personal. For 500 pages, the former vice-president to President George W. Bush and apparent automaton, micromanages history with help from daughter Liz, the book’s co-author. Like a burnt steak, In My Time delivers a lot of chewing but little flavor. Cheney somehow manages to transplant the tedium of a filibuster into a biographical episode. A grandmaster of manipulation who made a 40-year career out of bureaucratic wrangling, Dick Cheney is, according to Dick Cheney, a man of very few mistakes, aside from strafing the occasional elderly friend in the face with birdshot. He is a man who bears the burden of living and working around lesser folk who are prone to fumbling the football.
Dick Cheney still uses the term “liberation” to describe what happened in Iraq. President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina was adequate and heartfelt and showed what “a visceral and forthright commander” he was. Gitmo is a triumphant success—a fondue pot of American values. He makes little mention of former aide Scooter Libby’s role in the Valerie Plame scandal, but throwing somebody under the bus once is one time too many, unless it happens to be Colin Powell. Cheney picks up the former Secretary of State, brushes him off, and shoves him right under the next Greyhound.
Those hoping for an intimate, or even human, portrait of the Darth Vader of early 21st century American politics will be disappointed. Dick Cheney may in fact be something of a control-freak with a bad heart and flawed judgment, but you won’t read it here. Ultimately, Cheney wants to portray himself as a loyal company man, though which company he’s working for, aside from Halliburton, remains something of a mystery. The revelation that Cheney received somewhat more intensive briefing on national security issues than the president will only further speculation about who was really pulling the strings in the Bush administration.
by Bob Grimm
Scarface: Limited Edition
I admit, the first time I heard Al Pacino’s fake accent and watched his over-the-top performance in this film, I thought it was a bit much.
Now that it has spent nearly 30 years marinating, I have to say, the whole thing is a sick blast.
Pacino, as most of us know, plays Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant who just wants to tear shit up. His quick rise up the drug kingpin ladder is epic, especially when things get so bad that he’s snorting mountains of cocaine off his desk without one of those cocaine straws or a dollar bill. He just sticks his whole face in there.
Brian De Palma cast the film with a lot of Italians, so that makes all of the Cubans pretty damn funny (Robert Loggia, BAHAHAHAHA!). There’s just a goofy feeling to all of the performances that make them hypnotic in a sad way.
De Palma, always a little over-the-top with the violence, just goes crazy with the machine guns, knives and chainsaws. This film spews blood everywhere, and often.
Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio do well as crazy ladies, and Steven Bauer rocks as Tony’s right hand man. F. Murray Abraham might actually be a funnier piece of casting than Loggia.
Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay, and he did come up with some cool angles on how an ’80s Cuban immigrant could be royally pissed off. And he wrote the fuck word … a lot.
Pacino breaks many performance rules in this one. I remember back in the day when critics panned him for overacting. He overacts, for sure, but it is nothing short of beautiful.
Special Features: The picture on the new Blu-ray is glorious, and the sound had to have caused my neighbors to make a few complaints to my apartment complex’s office—lots of machine guns.
It comes in a cool tin case with some collector’s cards, and a Blu-ray exclusive look back at the Scarface phenomenon with De Palma and many of the stars. You also get Scarface: The TV Version, which is hilarious, deleted scenes and more.
20th Century Fox
I missed this one in theaters, and I’m sorry I did. Paul Giamatti is vintage Giamatti as Mike Flaherty, lawyer and part-time wrestling coach who gets a little of the unexpected when a gifted and remarkably downbeat teenager named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) comes to him as the result of shady client dealings.
Giamatti does a nice job at playing a good guy who does some wrong things. He also makes for a helluva movie wrestling coach. As for Shaffer, a real life wrestling champion in 2010, he’s both physically impressive and hilarious in his role. He has a deadpan delivery that is funny at all times.
Burt Young is his usual offbeat self as a Giamatti client who is sort of getting used and doesn’t really know it. Amy Ryan turns in another winning performance as Giamatti’s wife, while Melanie Lynskey is appropriately unnerving as Kyle’s needy mom. Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor score points as Mike’s assistant coaches.
This is a good family drama, with some surprisingly good wrestling sequences. Watching Shaffer in action is an amazing thing. And, for a debut performance, he has mastered the art of droll. It’s definitely one of the better film debuts in recent years.
Of course, the main reason to watch the movie is Giamatti rocking out. The man can do little wrong, and this is yet another performance for the ages from an actor with great tools.
Special Features: You get a conversation with the director Tom McCarthy, Giamatti and McCarthy at Sundance, some deleted scenes and a music video from The National.
Deep into August, this remains one of the year’s better films, and a great superhero movie. Rainn Wilson delivers his best work to date as Frank D’Arbo, a depressed husband who puts on a makeshift outfit, grabs a pipe wrench, and becomes the Crimson Bolt, reactionary and violent superhero.
In what is one of my favorite performances of the year, Ellen Page is hilarious as Libby, the comic book store employee who becomes Boltie, Crimson Bolt’s hyperactive and chipper sidekick. Kevin Bacon is his usual awesome self as Jacques, the token bad guy, while Liv Tyler is good as Frank’s misguided wife.
The movie is like a combo of Kick-Ass and Hero at Large, the ’80s movie starring John Ritter as a vigilante who gets carried away. Wilson comes up with a great creation here, a total psycho you can’t help but root for. With this film and Hesher, Wilson is making a name for himself playing sad, pitiful guys who are also kind of cool.
The film has a big gore factor, and it might shock those who don’t like lots of blood in their movies. Hell, it will shock those who like bloody movies, as well.
Special Features: A commentary with director James Gunn and Wilson, along with a deleted scene, some behind the scenes footage, and a funny featurette of Wilson running around in costume during SXSW in Austin.
by Matthew Craggs
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Rift is trying to woo the Hell out of World of Warcraft (WoW). The massive multiplayer online game is the latest in a line of games very closely resembling the current king of the MMO hill, WoW. However, unlike all the other clones, this one is actually a great game. There’s no denying that this fantasy-based role-playing MMO pulls many components from WoW, to the point that the default hot keys are almost exactly the same, but Rift sets itself apart in a few important areas. The most important is regular Player versus Environment (PvE) world events in the form of rifts and invasions. Both are essentially waves of attacking enemies, but rifts are localized and invasions can take over the entire zone. They’re hard to avoid, which gives them a realistic feel—you have to deal with them whether you want to or not. Additionally, Rift drifts toward a more serious and dire approach than WoW. The graphics are more realistic, and you won’t find as many in-game jokes and pop culture references. If WoW is Harry Potter, then Rift is Frodo Baggins. Still, you can’t deny that in many ways this game boils down to a loose remake of WoW. As remakes go, it’s incredibly good, but after only six months—compared to WoW’s almost seven-year run—it’s hard to tell if Rift can create the most important thing for an MMO: A community of loyal players. At the very least, Rift gives WoW players a new dish to snack on between the same meals they’ve been eating every day for the last seven years. Riftgame.com; Retail varies, monthly subscription required.
Xbox Live Arcade
Small, independent video game developers continue to make Roger Ebert look like an old fool after he decreed that “video games can never be art.” One of the latest examples to reveal Ebert as cranky, out-of-touch and small-minded, is Bastion, an overhead action title with a touch of role-playing mixed in. Many people are throwing around the word “dynamic” in relation to this game because the world, story and narration evolve and spring to life as you beat down baddies while trying to decode the mystery behind the Calamity—a cataclysmic event that ripped apart a world and left it devoid of citizens. The graphics are slightly stylized, a watercolor hue rests upon the landscape, and it’s really cool to see the floating islands you’re exploring grow as you walk across them, but one of the most talked about features is the dynamic narration. A Billy Dee Williams-esque voice narrates the hero’s actions and provides exposition as the story unfolds. The narration could be annoying if it announced every action you took. Instead it pops up from time to time against a beautiful score to provide insight, warnings, and revealed pieces of the mystery. The gameplay is nothing special—your basic attack slots and upgradeable weapons and abilities—but the unique approach to the storytelling pulls you into a world you originally know nothing about, a perspective that matches the hero’s making the story all the more compelling. Sure, Ebert may not think it’s art, but he gave three stars to Cowboys and Aliens—do you really want to trust his opinion? Xbox.com; $15.
Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection
Midway (original developers)
Xbox Live Arcade
Misspelling “combat” for almost two decades is the last thing parents are concerned with when it comes to one of the original fighters. This collection is a port of Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat II—the roman numerals make it classy—and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3—not as classy as its predecessor but considerably more ultimate—and that’s all you should expect. Does it need more? No. The nostalgia of one of the most infamously violent series is enough. At the time of its original release, the “life-like” violence, which, by today’s standards looks like a flipbook compared to reality, outraged parents and secured the game a place beside the hidden Playboys in a young teen’s room. It’s amusing to see that the button combos for the Fatalities—uniquely graphic ways to kill your opponent—are still ingrained in our gamer brains. By today’s standards, the controls are clunky, and the graphics are worse. However, with online matches and a low price point, the bloody battles will appeal to a new generation of children—children whose parents had to sneak away to the arcade or wait until their parents were gone to pull out this forbidden game. Therefore, the only question left is for the parents of this new generation: Will you remember your clandestine childhood and let your kids engage in kombat trusting they’ll turn out OK in the end, or will you run to check under the bed for kontraband? Xbox.com; $10.
by Brad Bynum
Tha Carter IV
Even though he’s been a pop culture phenomenon for more than a decade, it’s still a little weird to me that Lil Wayne is one of the biggest music artists in the world. He’s so unhinged and idiosyncratic, with a voice so raspy and wheezy his nickname is Weezy, and innumerable lowbrow fixations—sexual, scatalogical and violent. He’s so unusual, it’s strange that so many listeners have connected with him; Tha Carter IV, his new album, is a follow-up to Tha Carter III, the bestselling album of 2008. All this isn’t to say that I don’t like him, because of course I do, but I usually expect my tastes to land left of the mainstream. His appeal, for me anyway, lies in his unpredictability and his facility with language. When he’s on point, his rhymes are wild, funny and exhilarating, loaded with head-spinning metaphors, striking images and bizarre free associations.
Unfortunately, on Tha Carter IV, he’s not always the point man. Many of the best verses on the record belong to the many guest rappers, including Tech N9ine, Rick Ross, Nas, Busta Rhymes and an uncredited rapper who sounds suspiciously like Andre 3000. But there are moments of Weezy lyrical brilliance. On the advance single “6 foot 7 foot,” which has been floating around for what seems like a year now, he raps: “Bitch, real G’s move in silence like lasagna/People say I’m borderline crazy, sorta kinda/Woman of my dreams, I don’t sleep so I can’t find her.”
Something I really like about this record is how difficult it is to contextualize. The traditional cop-out blank-meets-blank band description would be fruitless. I suppose there are strains of Brian Eno, Animal Collective, and TV on the Radio, but this music is so fractured, with huge swaths of space, and songs that take more left turns than a NASCAR driver, that those reference points aren’t much help. Nor would describing Singer’s 2008 album, Unhistories, because this record doesn’t really sound anything like that one. Also no help: describing the personnel or instrumentation, because the instruments often sound unrecognizable. Is that an organ or a guitar? Is that a synthesizer or an actual bell? It’s often impossible to tell, but the attempt draws the ear in, and the sounds seem to shift and change the closer you listen. Likewise, the three of four musicians in this band—sources differ, and it’s impossible to tell—all sing, and seem to use a variety of voices. Much of the singing is done falsetto with wide, weird three-part harmonies. The lyrics are likewise initially totally indecipherable.
So, the first listen or two of this record inspires nothing but quizzical expressions and perhaps an urge to adjust the volume knob—either upward to zoom in on some weird sound or downward in avoidance of the periodic bits of atonality. But, like all the best records, it gets better with each repeated listen. By the third or fourth time through the record, every song has a dramatic arc, accomplished musicianship, some great turns of phrase and perhaps most surprising, lovely melodies.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Pavement was my favorite band during the latter half of my teen years. I can’t hear Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or Slanted and Enchanted without thinking of the summer of 1997, when I was 17. It was a happy time. I was in love for the first time, had a great group of friends, and was discovering all kinds of new music. So I approach anything by former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus with nostalgic affection. (Though musical nostalgia can be a double-edged sword; some of my friends who saw Pavement last year on their reunion tour said it was a memory-tarnishing disappointment.) But I don’t have that sentimental feeling for Pavement just because I happened to listen them at an impressionable age. Some of my other musical obsessions at that age, like Sonic Youth or the Wu-Tang Clan, I still love dearly, and just as much as I love Pavement, but not with the same sense of memory-laden salad-days nostalgia. Certain songwriters just have a knack for writing songs to which memories stick like flies to flypaper. The Beatles had that knack. Springsteen has it. And so does Stephen Malkmus.
Or at least he used to. Often cited as the best rock band of the ’90s, Pavement broke up before the end of that decade. And, to my ears, the subsequent Malkmus solo albums of the last 12 years, mostly with backing band The Jicks, have been just … pretty good. Decent enough songs, though the focus has mostly been on guitar heroics. The records, like 2005’s Face the Truth or 2008’s Real Emotional Trash, were all pleasant enough listens, but not the sort of records to carry your memories for you, like any of Pavement’s five full-lengths.
Malkmus’ new record, Mirror Traffic doesn’t quite pound the Pavement, but it does have a renewed sense of songcraft. Credit for that might go to producer Beck. This record doesn’t have the same heavy Beck stamp as his other 2011 collaboration with an indie rock icon, Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts, but there are some instrumental colors—pedal steel here, what I think is a French horn there—and some cleanly articulated acoustic guitars that bear Beck’s influence. This is a good record, though it remains to be seen if I’ll still remember it in 15 years.