Entertainment

Alexander The Great by Erin Wade

I have a long-term Audible subscription that gives me two credits per month towards audiobooks. When I say "long-term", I mean that this is something that has been in place since well before Amazon purchased Audible. In fact, according to my account information, I’ve been a member since January 2001 - not quite since the beginning of its existence in 1995, but still pretty early in its lifespan.

I listen to a lot of spoken word content in a blend of podcasts and audiobooks. At times, the volume of podcasts means that it takes a while to get back to the audiobooks, and from time to time I’ll hit a point where I have to use some of my Audible credits or I will lose them. Long story short, this is how I came to purchase Alexander The Great by Philip Freeman. It reflected an area of interest - I do enjoy history and biographies - but a mild one. It was something that I figured it wouldn't hurt to have, but I wasn’t sure when I would get to listening to it.

I should not have put it off. The worry, with a biography on a long-past historical figure like this is that it will be a series of dry facts, that it will be an experience more like taking one’s medicine - it’s good for you, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that you enjoy it. The approach taken for this tome, however, was different. Rather than simply providing a series of facts, Freeman takes a cue from David McCullough. This book reads more like a novel than a history book, with the author providing descriptions of the locations, and offering (perhaps speculative) insights into the feelings and minds of the many players in the life and times surrounding the legendary man. That he is doing so is addressed early on in the book - there is no pretense that he actually knows what the people of the time were thinking, but rather the author notes that he intended to make a more picturesque tableau, and he does so quite nicely. The reader gets a sense of what it may have been like to be there marching through Macedonia, Greece, or Asia with Alexander.

Not that this should suggest that historical facts are left out of the picture. In fact, the book does a fine job of giving an impression of events during, after, and before the rise of Alexander. For myself, having a passing interest in his story with little to no specific background information, I found this book a wonderful introduction.

To provide clear context of the events that lead to the rise of Alexander, the author chooses to begin with going into detail on the rule of his father. I’d known that Alexander was not actually Greek, and that he was the son of Philip of Macedonia, but that was honestly all I’d known, a tiny bit of trivia retained from my undergraduate Western Civ class far more years ago than I’d care to admit. Who Philip was (the hard-won king of Macedonia) or how that provided the ground work that made Alexander’s conquests possible was something that, frankly, I’d never even thought to consider. Understanding that Alexander learned at the feet of a political and strategic mastermind who did considerable consolidation of the lands of Macedonia and Greece certainly provides a clearer picture of how the events surrounding the man himself are possible - such legendary figures do not simply appear, pristine, from the ether. Rather they rise up along the steps provided by those who come before.

Among the other things this book helped to provide was some clearer context in terms of the historical timeline. I’ve always though of Alexander as ancient, and he was, but my picture of him lacked context. This telling clearly puts him in a context with respect to other events in history, with touchstones such as battle between the Spartans and Xerxes (as reflected in 300), his relative presence to Greek philosophers, and the existence and his experience with the great pyramids in Egypt. At one point Freeman notes that the distance in time between Alexander and the builders of those monuments is akin to the distance between our time and that of Alexander. It makes one realize that the ancient world was a long time ago, but that it was also an incredibly long span of time itself, with huge swaths of history already past by the time this conqueror’s sandals trod the earth.

The narrator for this book is Michael Page. He sounds to be a British reader, and he is pleasant company for the journey in the book. The only caveat I’d make for this is that it may be beneficial for the American listener to visit the Wikipedia page on Alexander The Great to look at the spellings of some of the names and terms. Page has a delightfully English pronunciation style that will be different than we’d expect. The most frequent example is his way of reading the name of Alexander’s primary foe in the book - Darius the Third. Most of us in the States would likely say "Dare-E-Us", but Page pronounces it "Duh-Rye-Us". For the record, Dictionary.com agrees with him, as does Merriam-Webster, so perhaps I’m just off on this, but I suspect others may find it a bit confusing as well.

This book is a survey of the times, and rolls past like a story rather than a text, so it will likely be unsatisfying for someone well-versed in the lore of Alexander the Great. But if this is an area of interest for you, and particularly if you’ve wondered how to start in this, this book provides a very nice entry point.

Bubble Podcast by Erin Wade

Bubble

I love podcasts. Much of my audio-listening time is split between podcasts and audiobooks, and that split is about 70/30 in favor of podcasts. I’d prefer it were closer to 50/50, but the recurring nature of podcasts means that, each time I step away to listen to an audiobook, the podcasts stack up. I really shouldn’t care about that, but there’s a little voice inside of me that wants things to be completed, and a stack of unlistened-to podcasts is anathema to that.

All of which is to say that, while I love podcasts, I was not looking to add anything to my existing subscriptions - I have enough to keep up with. But then John Hodgman tweeted about Bubble...

Many podcasts -and certainly most of the ones I listen to of late - are just a couple, or a few, people talking, often around a loosely defined theme. That theme might be a movie review, a sport, or an historical or cultural phenomenon. But there are cases where people have decided to tackle the ambitious feat of putting together an honest to goodness, scripted radio play (or perhaps we should just say “audio play”, since there’s no radio involved).

Enter Bubble.

Bubble is a new, eight part audio series from Maximum Fun. It is written by Jordan Morris, and each episode (thus far) runs about a half hour. When I say new, I mean it - the first episode dropped on June 12th, and the second on June 20th. This is brand-spanking new.

There are multiple voices in the play, some perhaps familiar to the entertainment and podcast savvy. This is set in our time, but in a different place - in a world where the outside world is a harsh environment full of monsters - “Imps” who want to kill you, but where there are cities (or at least one city - Fairhaven) under protective domes, or if you prefer, in a bubble.

What quickly becomes clear, however, is that Fairhaven’s bubble is perhaps not so secure as one might think. And this is where the tension, and your lead characters - Morgan and Mitch - come in.

That description, of course, suggests this might be sci-fi horror, and I suppose it could be considered that, but with a hearty, healthy nod to shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a little Portlandia thrown in. The dialogue is fun and fast, and the characters are a lot of fun - you know these people already, and you enjoy hanging out with them. Well... with some of them...

I always prefer to refrain from spoiling much of what is to come when you listen to or watch a thing, so I’ll stop here with the description. Suffice it to say this is now on my regular listen list - its a weekly release, and I really could not wait for episode two to drop. And given that it’s only slated for eight episodes, it promises to be the sort of show you keep in your pod catcher for repeated listening (I’ve already listened to the first episode twice).

Enjoy!

Circle of Iron by Erin Wade

IMG_1395.JPG

And a horse has no udders and a cow can’t whinny and up is down and sideways is straight ahead. - Cord

Circle of Iron is a movie I came across by chance in my formative years. It was playing in rotation on HBO, and I was drawn to it because I was drawn to virtually anything that was oriented towards martial arts.

But Circle of Iron is different. This movie, which came out in 1978, is something different from the subtitled, sound-effect filled fight-fests that were available on Sunday afternoon TV in my youth.

To begin with, the movie was written by Bruce Lee in cooperation with others, including James Coburn. To the uninitiated, this might seem a difference without a distinction - after all, wasn’t Bruce Lee simply yet another martial arts movie star, churning out versions of that Sunday afternoon schlock?

What is not necessarily well known, however, is that Bruce Lee was, for all intents and purposes, a scholar of martial arts, with a distinct philosophical perspective on martial arts, life, and the intersection of the two. Within this, he was also an innovator and an artist, ultimately developing his own martial art - Jeet Kune Do - modifying his own training and borrowing from an array of other arts to make a more efficient, effective system.

Understanding that gives an important perspective on Circle of Iron. The movie absolutely does involve fighting matches - younger me almost certainly would not have watched it if it did not. But these matches are in service of the larger philosophical point the story is leading to. This is no simple revenge tale - no one in the movie ever shouts "you bastard, you killed my brother!" - and the outcomes of those matches, as well as the outcome of the movie - is not necessarily what one would expect.

I am being purposely vague about what the actual outcome is, of course. This is a movie better experienced. Other movies and stories have borrowed from it since, to be sure. This is true of older films, as well as those much more recent - for myself, I found a vital scene in The Last Jedi to draw heavily from the ending of this movie.

If this intrigues you at all, this movie is worth checking out. It’s available on iTunes and Amazon Video. I’ve had a hankering to see it again recently, and so had to go out and find it. Be aware that it is a martial arts movie from the 1970’s, with the acting and action quality one should expect from the era. That said, the quality of the story is shown in the actors that it drew in. Bruce Lee intended to star in the movie, but died before he could film it. The role he wrote for himself is filled by David Carradine, and Roddy McDowell, Eli Wallach, and Christopher Lee all appear in the film as well.

New TV by Erin Wade

I had finally come to the conclusion last week that our dead TV was not going to miraculously heal itself (again), and ordered a new one.

It has since arrived, and I've learned a few things in the process:

  • Though it doesn't sound like a lot, 40" looks a lot bigger than 32".
  • A decade of improvement in LCD technology, and moving from 720p to 1080p, makes for a noticeable difference in picture quality.
  • That decade of improvement also results in a larger television that is noticeably lighter in weight than its smaller predecessor.
  • As is true for so many things, having Amazon deliver a TV to your home is infinitely better than going to a store and hauling the thing home yourself.
  • Taking measurements ahead of time is vital. The new TV fits in the cabinet, but only just. It presses up tight against the sliding doors, and you would have to turn it if you wanted to access the manual controls on the side. Any larger and it simply would not have fit unless I were to take off the cabinet doors.

By way of comparison, here's a picture of the old TV in the entertainment center:

32" Vizio TV in Entertainment Center

And here's the new one:

40" Spectre TV in Entertainment Center

All in all, though it is not yet the big-ass TV that I want to have in the long run, it's an improvement in nearly every respect. It literally took minutes to hook up, and continues to work with all of the various and sundry devices that we had attached to the old one.

The only thing that doesn't work as before is the audio-out. We have the TV hooked up to an external sound system - an older Panasonic surround-sound set-up that continues to work quite nicely. This is fed through the analog audio-out port on the television. For the old TV the sound level on the audio-out was controlled through the television volume, while this one does not appear to be. What this means, in practical terms, is that we can no longer control the volume by means of the TV remote. And because I do not have a remote control for the Panasonic setup, I have to get up and walk across the room to change the volume.

Like an animal.

I've spent some time trying to get the old Vizio remote (which, unlike the TV, still works) to accept the programmable remote code for the Panasonic, but it refuses to accept it. Perhaps it is in mourning for its lost partner. There are other solutions, of course - you can find the Panasonic remotes on eBay, or I could pony up for a modern universal remote. Still - given the price that some of the universal remotes run, I may need to continue to be an animal...

Spring Forward... by Erin Wade

So it's time for the time change again.

Twice a year - essentially every time this comes around - it makes me think of WLS Radio).

Now - not the current, talk filled version of WLS, but rather an older, more entertainment oriented version of the station, the version I grew up with out on the prairie. Every year, twice a year, if you happened to be listening at the right time, you'd come across a host earnestly reminding you of the time change, and just as earnestly telling you either to "spring back" or "fall forward".

This was Jake Hartford, who was a weekend and fill-in host at WLS for quite some time.

What would follow his initial statement about this would be a series of callers trying fervently to correct his "error". Their efforts would be met by some variation of this explanation:

Look, it's simple: when you compress a spring, it springs back, and when you fall, you usually fall forward. That's how you remember - spring back, fall forward.

This would always be delivered in a perfect deadpan, which clearly caused at least a portion of the listening audience to think that he believed what he was saying was true. This perspective probably accounted for about 2/3rds of the callers, and a final third were the folks who wanted to chastise him because he would confuse people and cause them problems in the morning. He was unrelenting in his absolute certainty of the memory device throughout.

Sadly, I could only find the very brief clip above, which proves that it happened, but doesn't offer any of the wonderful back and forth.

I found the entire thing delightful each and every time, and I've been known to repeat the gag and then tell the story about where I learned it from time to time (if, by "from time to time" one means every time change, because it is never not funny. Never).

Memory is a funny thing though - I've always remembered this routine as being done by John Records Landecker (his middle name truly is "Records"), another prominent WLS and Chicagoland radio host. Searching for a version of it for this article, though, I've learned that my memory clearly was off. Not only did I not recall this being Jake Hartford, I actually don't remember the name Jake Hartford at all. I listened to hours and hours of WLS growing up, and I clearly cemented this routine into my mind, but I don't recall him. No slight intended - it's just the vagaries of memory.

Jake Hartford - Real name Jim Edwards - died a few years ago. His obituary included the reference to the Spring back, fall forward routine. This is the only way I was able to find even the short clip. Hard to turn up something by him when you are always searching for John Landecker...

Legion and FXNOW by Erin Wade

Legion Promo

A week or so ago saw the premier of Legion on FX.

This is a show based on a character) that represents a deep dive into the Marvel comics universe. But this isn't your average comic book character (or show).

Like all of the best of storytelling, you'll be rewarded here by paying close attention to the detail happening as the show goes on. And you may have your trust shaken.

I was a kid, reading The New Mutants when I first came across Legion as rendered by Bill Sienkiewicz. The artwork was presented in a style that represented a frankly jarring change from both what had been seen in the series prior, and from anything I'd ever seen in a comic before. Jarring, yes, but in a magnificent way that opened my teenage mind to far more possibilities for comic art than I'd considered before. I continue to remember his art in a way that isn't true for many others.

The first episode of the new series maintains the spirit of that drastic artistic shift. It's delightfully, magnificently off kilter. I'd like to say more, but I don't want to give anything away - it's better to experience it directly.

But when you go to watch this excellent, twisted work of art, choose carefully. The first episode is available streaming through the FX Network's FXNOW app on your iOS device and, one assumes, also through other streaming options. It is also available through iTunes and Amazon Video. The first episode is free on iTunes and FXNOW (you can watch an hour of FXNOW without logging in). The season is $19.99 for HD on iTunes and Amazon Video. If you have a login from a cable or satellite provider you can log in through FXNOW and watch it there for "free".

If you want to live that way...

We watched the first episode through FXNOW. The app worked fine, and streamed the episode smoothly. Unfortunately, that's where the goodness ends. FX, in its wisdom, chose to pack six separate commercial breaks into the Legion premier, some of which contained up to 10 different spots in a single break. It structured the commercials so that there is an extended portion of the episode that occurs before the first break (the first taste is free, apparently), but after that the breaks are stacked on top of one another at fairly regular intervals. The breaks were all long, and distractingly frequent during the second half of the episode.

It's like the folks who set up FXNOW have absolutely no idea why people choose to watch video over streaming.

I highly recommend the show - that should be clear. I'd also highly recommend that you experience the first episode through iTunes (first episode is free, remember) if you want to try it out first, or through either iTunes or Amazon Video if you are sure it's your thing.


Update 2/26/17: Legion is now available on Hulu, with a much more reasonable volume of commercial breaks.

Cinderella Men by Erin Wade

We delved into the movie Cinderella Man on Netflix yesterday. The movie is over a decade old, and I recall hearing about it before, but it must not have registered at the time. That's too bad - it's an excellent boxing movie, and it pulls at the heartstrings in just the right ways, without being overtly manipulative. 2005 me missed a treat by not seeing it when it came out.

Seeing this movie now reminded me about the recent passing of Muhammad Ali. When the news broke that Ali had died, it had occurred to me that I might want to search for video of The Rumble in the Jungle. Turns out you can find the entire fight broadcast - a little over an hour long, including Ali shadow boxing in the ring, warming up, waiting for Foreman to arrive, the commentators speculating on the outcome of the fight - on YouTube.

It's a great match, and well worth the small investment of time. Ali was not expected to win. At one point, before the match begins, a commentator refers to him as "the aging former champion", reflecting Ali's age of 32 years versus the 25-year old George Foreman. Besides being younger, Foreman was a monster in the ring. He entered this match with a 40-0 record, 37 knockouts (that's 92.5% of his matches ending in knockout, for the statistics nerds out there) with a reputation for delivering those knockouts within the first couple of rounds of a match.

But Ali, well... Watch it. It's astonishing how fast a 200lb, "aging" man can move...

Also of note is the excellent work of the referee, Zack Clayton. He's right there, throughout, rapidly breaking up clinches and unflinchingly separating two huge, dangerous men. As his obituary from 1997 will attest, they chose the right person for the job - he was an accomplished man in his own right.

And - as is often the case with Internet searches - this find lend to others. It appears that there are a lot of vintage boxing matches available on YouTube. For myself, I found it necessary to watch the Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvelous Marvin Hagler bout from 1987, a match I remember watching live with my parents back when it originally aired. I distinctly remembering asking my Dad whether, since he was heavier than both men, he thought he could beat them. He thought not, and suggested there might be more to fighting than just weight...

Comedians in Cars... by Erin Wade

For most of the past decade we've been a streaming family. This started with a Netflix subscription, where we cancelled the cable subscription and relied upon the DVD's that came in from Netflix for our video entertainment. As technology has evolved over time it's grown to include streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, or Crackle.

Crackle? Yes. It's right there in your Apple TV Menu.

Crackle is the home for Sony Video offerings, both old and new. If you want to see Barney Miller, you go to Crackle.

It's also where you go to see Jerry Seinfeld doing Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. And this is delightful. Jerry picks up a Comedian in - that's right - a car, to go get coffee.

There's a period of brief focus on the car itself - be it a Ferrari, a Country Squire, or an ancient two-stroke Saab - all selected based upon it's likely relationship to the comic in question. The rest of the show focuses upon the comic his or her-self, and the questions Jerry Seinfeld can think of. Guests include Robert Klein, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Howard Stern, among many, many others.

It's delightful - check it out!

Game of Thrones Season 6 by Erin Wade

Whoo-hoo!

Tonight is the night for Game of Thrones fans around the world. We wait for the beginning of the new season the way football fans pine for the opening of the next season.

Or - at least - I hope tonight is the night. Since we'll be streaming the show via HBO Now, it's a bit of a mixed bag. The app itself says that HBO Now subscribers will have new episodes “every Sunday”, but the company hasn't always been super reliable at turning these types of things around. I'm a huge fan of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which also comes out every Sunday, but the folks who post it to HBO Now are often several days behind in getting new episodes up. But I digress - one suspects they will be more vigilant with a property as popular as Game of Thrones.

Season six is something extra special. GoT is, of course, a television adaptation of a series of books - A Song of Ice and Fire - by George RR Martin. While modifications have been made to the storyline to make it work better on the screen, the TV series has been largely faithful to the ultimate focus and intent of the storyline found in those books.

But: The end of season five reached the end of the storyline in the books.

This is, of course, not news to anyone who has slogged their way through all of the existing books. Those of us who have spent that time - whether reading words on paper or screen, or listening to it via audiobook as was the case for me - have been well aware for some time that the pace of the TV Series was such that it was going to reach the end of the books before Martin had an opportunity to put out the next installment in the series.

I, for one, am very excited by this prospect. In part this is because this will be the first time since season two that I have no idea what to expect (I started listening to the books after watching the first couple of seasons). Like many, perhaps most, I have ideas about where things might be going, but I don't actually know where they will end up now. This, in and of itself, is exhilarating.

But there's something more. Frankly, I think the TV writing team does a better job with the series than Martin does himself. I described the books as a slog and, in many ways, they are. While they are ultimately entertaining as a whole, Martin gets lost in details and secondary (and tertiary, and perhaps quaternary) storylines that spend pages and chapters often, it seems, to little effect. It often seems as if he has been given a book contract without being assigned an editor.

The show writers, given the limitations of time to tell their story, has chosen to eliminate several of those components. They have consolidated characters, choosing instead to focus on a relatively limited set of primary and secondary players (yes - all of those people you are keeping track of in the TV Series really is a much shorter list than you'd need to manage if you were reading the books), and removing entire sections of storyline. There is a seemingly endless period of river flooding that seems it will never end in the middle of the series, for example, taking place during the time Arya is traveling with The Hound. Their travels end much the same in the show, but there is no flood, it doesn't take nearly as long, and Brienne and The Hound do not face off in the book. The TV writers are able to communicate the key components of the relationships and lessons learned much more succinctly, and in a more satisfying fashion.

To be clear, I do realize that the show runners are following the outline provided by George RR Martin. I'm happy to acknowledge that the show is his creation. But the originator of an idea isn't always it's best caretaker (I'm looking at you, George Lucas), nor it's most skillful operator. And sometimes the application of limitations leads to better outcome than having the world at your hands. The constraint of a fixed number of hours to tell a story, a fixed budget for cast, crew, and sets versus the seemingly unlimited space of a book makes a difference here in the decisions that are made.

So I'm excited to see what they do with the remaining story, and I'm excited to let them resolve it for me. I find, for now at least, I prefer that to waiting to see how Martin chooses to portray it on the page. It's questionable, in fact, whether I will choose to read (listen to) the remaining books after I've finished the TV series.