Friday, April 22, 2011

This is a Book Review of 'This is a Book' by Demetri Martin

Fans of comedy books might almost instantly draw comparisons between This is a Book and Woody Allen’s classic comedy texts. It’s a fair parallel. Like Allen before him, Martin presents a bemusedly skewed version of the world, all bent to meld with the ironies and ambiguities of the information age. Allen envisioned a moose mingling with a married couple dressed as a moose and an alien race demanding that the population of Earth do their laundry. In This is a Book, Martin throws out such gems as a set of frequently asked questions a genie gives to his lamp’s new owner, and a conversation between an alien and a human on what exactly pets are, if not slaves.

Known well among hipsters, sardonic teens and even intellectuals (the book jacket includes an endorsement by Malcolm Gladwell) for his standup specials and his delightfully oddball Comedy Central show, Important Things with Demetri Martin, it would be easy for Martin to simply recycle his stage show into book form, to present something that’s little more than a volume of gags from his live act that can be easily pored over while on the john. This is a Book has all the things fans love about Martin’s standup, to be sure, but the author also embraces the book form to take his humor in bolder directions.

All the Martin hallmarks are here: doodles of things like what varying lengths of beard mean and what a Christian beach towel looks like, ironic stating of the obvious (it’s called This is a Book, for God’s sake) and observant one-liners that are both zany and freakishly wise (“CHALLENGE: To wear a visor and appear credible at the same time.”).

But there’s something more at work in This is a Book. Though most of the “chapters” or just snippets of gags or conceptual flights of fancy, some of them are full-blown stories with a solid voice and the kind of bizarre insight we’ve come to expect from Martin’s comedy. Also present are plenty of gags that just don’t work when you’re saying them. But they work when you read them, and Martin proves here that he’s just as funny in prose as he is live.

This is a Book is the perfect companion for any Demetri Martin fan, and the perfect introduction/antidote for someone who isn’t yet a fan. It’s the kind of book that would be just as satisfying in one sitting as it would be over weeks, reading a Demetri-ism a day like some strange new platitude system. This is a Book is more than its title; not just a book, but a good book.

 This is a Book is on sale April 25.

Advance Reading Copy courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

'The Conspirator,' an American parable

The Conspirator is a film set in 1865, but its message, its rhetoric and its arguments could just as easily be transposed to 2011. There’s little doubt that director Robert Redford intended this, but what makes the film particularly impressive is that it manages to take an argument that’s literally at least a century and a half old (in all honesty it’s surely much older than that) and give it fresh voice in the guise of a classically conceived courtroom drama.

Everyone knows that John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. Most people remember that Booth met his end in a barn in Virginia, but often forget that several other conspirators were tried before a military tribunal, found guilty of conspiring to kill Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, and hanged in the summer of 1865.

Among those conspirators was Mary Surratt, a Southern woman running a boarding house in Washington D.C. where the conspirators met to plan the crime (several of them lived there). Though Surratt was placed on trial as having an equal role in the assassination, it’s still very much a question just how much she knew.

The Conspirator documents the trail of Surratt, played here by Robin Wright in top form, as she is defended by the reluctant lawyer and former Union solider Frederick Aicken (James McAvoy). Though initially convinced of her guilt, Aicken is urged by a US Senator (Tom Wilkinson) to dig deeper, and soon discovers that the truth is not so easily arrived at. As the trial goes on, and the lack of judicial process becomes more and apparent, Aicken’s job becomes less about Surratt’s innocence or guilt and more about the moral imperative of a fair trail for everyone, even as he is alienated from his best friend (Justin Long), his girlfriend (Alexis Bledel) and a man he once respected, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline).

It sounds like it might be boring, but in Redford’s hands it becomes both a convincing costume drama and a parable about American liberties that’s less about sides of the political aisle and more about a search for universal truth. Aicken hates that his president is dead, hates the people who dead, but knows that when all rationality and rule of law falls away, the chaos that’s left is worse than the death of any leader. As he sinks deeper into the quagmire of the case, fighting against the ever-increasing futility he faces, he fights to keep hold of the belief that, guilty or no, Surratt deserves true justice, not a quest for vengeance against a fallen icon.

Authentically photographed and well-acted, The Conspirator is a film in the tradition of 12 Angry Men and Inherit the Wind, a film that’s less about the acts and more about the effects of the acts as they ring through history. This gives it a timeless quality that rivals even the weightiest of its predecessors. Never does it feel dull, or forced or overwrought, though Redford sometimes fudges details of Surratt’s imprisonment and treatment.

McAvoy and Wright must carry the movie together, and the young McAvoy does a stellar job of sticking with his older, more experienced counterpart. Wright’s dignified restraint and stalwart self-assuredness are the perfect foil for McAvoy’s uncertainty, determination and simple passion for finding the truth, regardless of what it may be. Wonderful supporting performances are also turned in by the likes of Wilkinson, Kline and Evan Rachel Wood, who is wonderful as Surratt’s fiery daughter Anna.

There’s little to complain about when it comes to The Conspirator. It’s the kind of film that stopped showing up in theatres long ago, the straight drama that’s been replaced by thrillers and blockbusters of the more explosive variety. A lesser filmmaker would have attempted to make this into something John Grisham would construct, a breakneck legal thriller with lots of intrigue and suspense. Redford chose to go another way, and The Conspirator is all the better for it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

'The Pun Also Rises' by John Pollack

John Pollack’s new book The Pun Also Rises is more than just a defense of the humble pun, considered by many to be among the lowest forms of humor. It’s a study of the evolution of the English language, how words came to have two meanings in the first place, how our brains deal with double entendres and just how and why we find things like knock knock jokes, “Swifties” and other wordplay funny in the first place.

Pollack, a former champion of Austin’s world famous “O. Henry Pun-Off,” begins by examining just how a pun comes together, in all its various forms. He examines the origin of many of the most famous varieties of pun (yes, they have names), how they evolved, and how they’re assembled in the brain. He also provides plenty of examples, among them: “’Next time, I should probably use a chair to fend off Leo,’ the lion tamer sighed off-handedly.”

After establishing the basic structure of everyone’s favorite kind of wordplay, Pollack examines the history of the pun, from its roots in the ancient world to its heyday in the Shakespearean age to its decline and denigration. And then it really gets interesting.

The Pun Also Rises would be entertaining enough if Pollack just stuck to the history and evolution of the pun, and threw in a few choice examples for added chuckle. But he goes further, delving not only into how puns are constructed, but why they work on us at all. It’s a curious thing for your brain to consider when someone hands you one word with at least two meanings. Strange things happen up there, and Pollack explains how and why in an engaging, plainspoken fashion peppered with puns of his own.

The Pun Also Rises is one of those simple pleasures of the book world: a thoroughly entertaining book that’s also academic, so you can feel smart and learn new jokes at the same time.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

'The First Clash' by Jim Lacey

Marathon is inarguably among the most pivotal battles in the history of Western civilization. It’s also one of the most shrouded in legends and ancient historical mist. In The First Clash, Jim Lacey seeks not only to break down the myths and speculations surrounding the battle through a mixture of contemporary accounts and military historiography, but also to bring both sides of the battle – the Greek and the Persian – into sharper focus.
It’s a surprisingly slim volume for an exploration of one of the ancient world’s most important engagements, and as a result much of The First Clash is a build-up, a history of the rise of the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states, as well as a history of the military power that each packed in the age leading up to the battle and how events led to the pivotal clash at Marathon. The story of the actual battle, as well as its immediate aftermath, is reserved for a thin section at the tail end of the book.

This is irritating only to the extent that it means the book doesn’t live up to its subtitle: “The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization.” The impact is almost to obvious to bother being explored, and as a result Lacey’s treatment of it is reserved for until the very last. What remains is a contextualizing of the battle itself.

It’s in that contextualization that Lacey shines, explaining how the growing might of the Persian Empire and the loose alliance of the Greeks came together, as well as how the Greek and Persian systems of government and even their fighting systems came to bear on the process. From a meticulous examination of how exactly the Greek phalanx would have functioned to an understanding of just how and why the Persians swelled and expanded as they did, Lacey manages to prove himself an insightful yet concise historian with an eye for detail.

For fans of a more sociological kind of history writing, The First Clash might seem incomplete, or even disappointing. But for those looking for a stirring volume of military history that delves deep into a legendary clash, Lacey’s work is a highly entertaining, lightning-fast read.

Friday, April 8, 2011

'Your Highness,' unworthy of any throne

The're watching this year's Oscars. It's not pretty.

If there’s a secret to making a good spoof movie, it lies somewhere in finding a way to deliver the same good the films you’re spoofing did. A war spoof has to have choice explosions. A horror spoof has to have a suitably creepy setting. And a fantasy spoof like Your Highness needs to have all those things that make an epic fantasy fun: swordfights, creatures, sweeping visuals and a general sense of heroism and daring.

Your Highness has some of these things, but what makes it a misstep is not what it lacks, but what it has too much of: overly crude, repetitive jokes, cursing for cursing’s sake and the kind of derivative plot that makes you wonder if they stole it from a junior high school student’s Dungeons and Dragons notebook.

Danny McBride (Tropic Thunder) co-wrote and stars in the flick as Thadeous, a lazy prince who would rather spend his time drinking and whoring than embark on epic quests. The opposite is true of his brother Fabious (James Franco), who has just returned from another triumphant victory with a new bride to be, the beautiful Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). On the day of the wedding, the evil warlock Leezar (Justin Theroux) crashes the party and abducts Belladonna, leaving Thadeous and Fabious no choice but to go off on a quest to rescue Fabious’ love and slay the villain. Along the way, they meet monsters, wise wizards and the sexy but standoffish Isabel (Natalie Portman), who might be a better fighter than either of them could ever dream of being.

The plot is basic, and theoretically that’s a good thing, since it means there’s plenty of time to set up gags along the way to the resolution of the story. Where Your Highness fails is the gags themselves. Every one of them is a variation of a sex joke, a toilet joke or a drug joke, and after a while they stop finding ways to make it seem clever. What begins as chuckle-worthy devolves into boring and redundant. It’s not that it isn’t funny anymore, it’s just that you’ve heard the joke already…about 15 times, and it’s lost its zing.

On top of that, the good just aren’t delivered. The action sequences (apart from a carriage chase that is actually pretty cool) seem to just be roads to more zingers about the male anatomy or opportunities to somehow work pot smoking or breasts into the plot. No offense to pot smoking or breasts, but it just gets tiresome after a while. What’s the point of posing an elaborate fantasy setting and the ability to get really imaginative if you’re just going to squander it on jokes one might hear in a movie half this size?

The case (even McBride, who had this idea in the first place) is wasted on this flick. Franco seems to be going through the motions with almost as much boredom as his Oscars hosting gig. Portman is just as capable an actress in this film as she is in any film, but it’s wasted on what she’s left to do, and Theroux isn’t convincing enough to make his jokes matter.

Perhaps the greatest sin of this film, though, is its failure to pay homage to the genre it claims to spoof. It doesn’t feel like a fantasy film. It feels like a stoner film in chain mail, and a stoner film that’s not very funny at that. It’s not that the content is objectionable, or that the people involved are talentless, or that the execution of the jokes fails. It’s that the whole thing is just an empty exercise in cursing, penis humor and clich├ęs, and by the end the whole film feels like a waste of time.

Matt’s Call: It’s a cross between Lord of the Rings and Pineapple Express that fails to be even half as good as either of those films. I could endorse it, but since you’d probably have to be on an illegal substance in order to enjoy it, I just can’t.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Where I've Been

I know my faithful readers (all four of you) might be wondering why the stream of posts that previously wound up here have slowed to a trickle. Well, there's an explanation, and it's not that I've been lazy.

Two weeks ago I was offered a chance to begin contributing to, a growing nerd culture blog where I can write about superheroes, time travelers and Star Wars to my heart's content. I accepted, and a week later I was made a full-time writer.

This means that I will have less time to devote to A Walrus Darkly, but by no means is this site going away. My weekly movie reviews, as well as all my book reviews, will still be here every time I write them, and I've been told by NerdBastards' illustrious editor that I should feel free to repost anything from there here.

So, that covers it. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit and subscribe to NerdBastards.There's lots of fun nerdy stuff besides what I write, but if you're exclusively in love with my work, you'll probably find an average of two new bits of writing a day from me.

So, that explains it, I suppose. Happy reading.

Friday, April 1, 2011

'Sam Houston,' the definitive portrait of a Texas icon

Denton Florian with genuine Sam Houston artifacts on the set of 'Sam Houston: A Documentary.'

Sam Houston led a remarkably cinematic life. His tale is one filled with battles, Indians, political intrigues, the pursuit of liberty, hardship, great oratory, close friendships with other historic icons and even romance. It’s remarkable, almost unforgiveable, that he hasn’t had a greater presence in the world of film.

Denton Florian, a Texas man bitten by a history bug and a dream, has changed that with the release of Sam Houston: A Documentary, a nearly three-hour treatment of the life of Texas’ first president from his birth in Virginia to his death at Steamboat House in Huntsville.

Though it doesn’t pack the flash and polish of a more expensive production, Sam Houston manages to stand alongside the works of great documentarians like Ken Burns as a work of immense gravity, ambition and heart.

Five years in the making, Florian’s film is a collage of re-enactments filmed at their actual locations (including Woodland Home, Steamboat House and the Texas Governor’s Mansion), restored photographs and documents, new artists’ renderings (including works by Huntsville painter Lee Jamison) of scenes from Houston’s life and interviews with 15 experts and dignitaries, including Houston biographer James L. Haley, Sam Houston Memorial Museum Director Dr. Patrick Nolan and Governor Rick Perry, all punctuated and colored by Florian’s own steady narration of events.

The first thing you notice about Sam Houston is its sheer scope. It’s something that’s made with care, that takes the time to linger over every important event in Houston’s life. It’s thorough enough that history buffs can be steeped in detail, but engaging and visually enthralling enough that even a casual viewer will never think of looking at their watch. The lengthy run-time would be a disadvantage for most films, but for this one it would be a crime to remove anything from consideration.

Though the history is sound and the experts are engrossing, it’s the visuals that really make this film a great work of documentary film. Florian and his team went the extra mile to see through the eyes of someone living in Houston’s time, from the porch of Woodland Home to the calm river where Houston was baptized late in his life. It’s an intoxicating hybrid of the leisurely deliberateness of Ken Burns and the cinematic daring of David Lean. The history makes it a great story, but the visuals make it an epic.

But the most impressive thing about Sam Houston might be that never in its nearly 180 minutes does it feel like the work of a beginner. It finds a way to become more than just a chronology of the life of an interesting man. It’s a meditation on leadership, statesmanship and honor, the kind of film that says at much about the era it covers as the era in which it was made. It’s a wonder no one felt that such a film should have been made sooner, but the fact that Florian has done it, and done it so well, means it was worth waiting for.