Book Review: Chris Ware – Rusty Brown

I received Rusty Brown as a Christmas gift from my wife. The book is an awkward, heavy rectangle that juts out of my bookcase. Before opening it up I knew nothing about its titular character or the author Chris Ware. When I sat down to read the book I thought, okay, this is about a funny looking kid who’s the class outcast. Now here’s a new girl at school that misses her best friend. Wait, this book is also about a burnout kid’s whole life?

I definitely didn’t expect all this. Rusty Brown is about isolation, self-destruction, sexism, racism, family dysfunction, and life in general. It evokes suburban tales like American Beauty and The Wonder Years, but without any kind of candy coating or overarching moral judgement. Life simply happens, and the characters influence their own lives in both positive and negative ways.

The characters and stories feel real and grounded, due in large part to the Omaha, Nebraska setting (the same place Ware grew up). Mundane rituals mix with signifiant happenings to create an experience that can be uncomfortably personal. The colorful pop art style and cartoony characters belie the complex themes and sometimes graphic events. Watching a little boy flee his abusive father is all the more horrific because the same art style could be used for a Family Circus type of story.

The more I read Rusty Brown, the more I wanted. It reminded me of reading Maus or Watchmen for the first time. The works have little in common aside from the fact they are all unique art pieces that showcase the graphic novel medium. In case I haven’t been clear enough, Rusty Brown is a must-read. Also, I discovered that Rusty Brown and Maus do share a connection. Many years ago Art Spiegelman invited Ware to contribute to Raw magazine, helping Ware move forward as an artist. Game recognize game.

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Movie Review: The Last American Virgin

What the heck is this movie? The Last American Virgin is about teenagers in high school, but it’s not a straightforward comedy. It does begin as a comedy, though. The 1982 movie follows three horny buddies – Gary, Rick, and David – on a constant quest for girls and booze. It’s all fairly lighthearted until pizza delivery boy Gary catches a glimpse of Karen and instantly falls in love. Gary manufactures a meet-cute and gives Karen a ride to school while “Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon plays (a great bit of foreshadowing). A different movie would wallow in Gary and Karen’s teenage romance. Instead, Gary’s suave buddy Rick swoops in and sweeps Karen off her feet. Then Rick impregnates her.

Heavy, eh? I won’t ruin the ending, but The Last American Virgin is the sort of movie you need to talk about after the credits roll. It’s more true-to-life than most movies, specifically teen movies. Nudity, debauchery, prostitution, abortion, infatuation, manipulation – this is teenage life. The Last American Virgin isn’t as twisted as Kids, but it lacks the rosy glow of most teen flicks. And I appreciate that. I also appreciate the excellent soundtrack. I wouldn’t place The Last American Virgin on the list of all-time best teen movies, but it might be a must-see experience. That ending hits like a sledgehammer. I wish I’d watched this movie back in high school. It would have crushed me.

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Music Review: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I looked through my top albums of all time and noticed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at number 16. I’m surprised it’s not higher. I played the hell out of this album in 2010 and on into 2011. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is peak Kanye West. It’s the closest we can come to peeling back the celebrity layer to party with the man underneath. All the pomp, the debauchery, the ego, the vulnerabilities, the unbridled aggression, the rap royalty. It’s all here, and it’s all for us.

Feeling feral? Transform into a “Monster” that Frankenstein would flee from.

Feeling disheartened? “Runaway” is one for the scumbags.

Feeling yourself? Embrace “Power” and don your superhero cape.

Want a banger? Take your pick.

For as low as Kanye’s reputation can sink – remember, President Obama once called him a “jackass” – this album is proof he can play well with others. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye brought together many voices and various genres to blend together some of the best rap music of the past couple decades. The album fizzles out a bit at the end with “Lost in the World” and “Who Will Survive in America,” but let’s forgive that because “Blame Game” is great and so is Chris Rock’s spoken word contribution. Today My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains legendary while Kanye continues to flirt with infamy. What more can we expect from a man obsessed?

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Video Game Review: Golf Story

Everyone is the hero of their own story, but no one believes in your Golf Story protagonist. The plucky hero dreams of golf glory, and despite conquering different courses, no one is convinced of his talent. It’s great. Far too often NPCs swoon in awe of a game protagonist, and it’s refreshing (and funny) to see so many characters brushing aside your golfer.

Indie games often attempt to impress gamers with humor, and that humor often comes across as forced. Golf Story doesn’t fall into that trap. There are disc golf weirdos, the uninspiring coach makes awkward sexual advances toward his crush, and I love the rival Lara. She’s April Ludgate with the aggression meter cranked up, constantly throwing shade. The plot of Golf Story is nothing special, but the game’s bright environments, fun tone, and colorful characters make it a lovely little world to visit. Oh yeah, and the golf is real fun too. The game mechanics should be familiar to anyone who has every played Mario Golf or Hotshotz Golf. Adjustable attributes like power and spin combined with special golf clubs allow the player to make tactical choices. The gameplay is just the right amount of goofy. Golf balls can be carried off by moles, and they can bounce high off of ice, but piranha plants don’t block your shots.

If there’s one feature missing from Golf Story, it’s more versus challenges. Playing against a score card isn’t nearly as fun as beating individual players (especially if they’re talking shit). In one competition you’re forced to pair with an elderly man for a two vs. two game, and he sucks. But compensating for his weak shots makes the victory all the sweeter. One other critique – most golfers you play against commit regular errors, making the game easier than I’d like.

Side mission lists in a game can be annoying or overwhelming, but I would have liked one in Golf Story. I didn’t want to miss any of the fun. Golf Story is part golf simulator, part RPG, and an all-around enjoyable adventure. I’m highly anticipating the Sports Story sequel. I hope Lara shows up for it.

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Product Review: Nintendo Switch

In 2018 I wrote a review for Breath of the Wild that included this statement: “I don’t care about the Nintendo Switch’s portability (I prefer using a TV screen), and I probably won’t buy more than a handful of games for the system.” Times have changed. In the past few months I’ve played through half a dozen Switch games (Golf Story, Inside, Super Mario Odyssey, and so on), and I’ve completed most of those with the Switch in portable mode. The Switch is a kick ass console.

I still enjoy playing games on a big screen, but the convenience of picking up the console and playing in different rooms can not be understated. In portable mode it’s so easy to jump into a game like Bad North and defend a couple islands before putting the console to sleep with the push of a button. I didn’t think the joy-cons would feel very comfortable, but I have no problem with them; the Switch batteries always drain before my hands complain. So yeah, the console’s battery is not great, only lasting two to three hours. That’s why I said it’s great to take it to different rooms in a house, because the dock is nearby for a quick charge. A console like the 3DS is better suited for longer travels.

Most games nowadays are available across multiple platforms, so the console wars are much less of an issue than they were 20 years ago. Cutting edge graphics are the least of my gaming concerns; Sony and Microsoft can keep that war raging. The Switch graphics look good to me, and when it comes to exclusive titles, Nintendo has the one-two punch of Mario and Zelda. That’s a tough combo to beat. I’m also a big fan of the Switch pro controller – it’s almost as good as an Xbox controller and better than a Playstation controller. I’ll keep supporting Sony so long as they keep making excellent Spider-Man games, but my heart is with Mario and his pals.

The new OLED Switch screen looks fantastic, but I’m in no hurry to upgrade. My original gray and black model is a solid piece of hardware, which makes sense considering Nintendo’s history of building long lasting, durable products. The Lite model seems like a misstep, though. The Switch is a beautiful marriage between Nintendo’s home consoles and portable consoles, so why limit a gamer to just half the experience? After I’m done with this review I’m going to wake up my Switch so I can continue battling pixelated vikings. And after that the e-shop has much more to offer. Considering the quantity and quality of games available (including historic classics with the online membership), the Nintendo Switch may be the best console ever made.

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Key Character: Captain America (MCU)

We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.

All due respect to Iron Man and Thor, but I’m a Captain America guy. Some people consider the character bland or old-fashioned. Chris Evans himself felt reluctant about picking up the shield and representing an original American icon. I’m sure glad he took the role, though. Evans’s version of Cap is humble, empathetic, tough as nails, and a leader through and through. The other Avengers are cool and all, but Cap is the one guy I’d want backing me up in a fight.

Before beefing up with the super soldier serum, Steve Rogers felt the call of duty. He tried his best to sneak into the military during WWII despite his status as a “90 pound asthmatic.” In basic training Rogers showed his intelligence (why climb a slick flag pole when you can just unbolt it?) and an undeniable mettle. Most recruits leapt away from what they thought was a live grenade. Rogers covered the grenade with his small body and warned everyone away. Rogers has an innate desire to protect others, and he’s willing to sacrifice himself to do so. He’s special with or without a serum.

It says a lot about Cap that his weapon of choice is a shield. He’s a defender, and he stands up for what’s right even when it creates powerful enemies (including half the Avengers and the US Government). It’s easy to start a fight against someone you know you can beat. It’s much more difficult to take on an opponent who could beat you into oblivion. But I get the sense Captain America prefers to fight those out of his weight class. He spent most of his life being outmatched, so that’s where he’s most comfortable. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Cap is his moral compass. Power has a corrupting effect on humans; that’s beyond debate. But Cap never abuses the power of the serum. He has the same good heart he always did – the serum just gives him better odds in a brawl.

There are so many awesome Captain America moments to gush over. He broke up a fight between a metal man and demigod using only his shield. He went hand-to-hand against the Winter Soldier in a superbly choreographed battle straight out of a Bourne movie. He perplexed Thanos by holding back the fabled Infinity Gauntlet, if only for a moment. Then there’s the big one. Captain America saving Thor and becoming a thunder god is an unforgettable cinema moment, right up there with the emergence of the T-rex in Jurassic Park. I watched The Avengers: Endgame with a smaller theater audience, but when Cap proved his worthiness and picked up Mojiner, the room erupted with cheers and applause. We all knew we’d witnessed something special. Captain America called down the lightning and paid off decades of comic book history while simultaneously making movie history.

Captain America creates the perfect bridge between grounded hand-to-hand combat and galactic throw downs. And at the end of the day he’s just a kid from Brooklyn doing his best (and saving the universe). He may be old fashioned, but pushing back against bullies is never out of style. That sounds like a lame PSA, doesn’t it? That’s alright; I think Cap would appreciate it.

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Product Review: Landyachtz Dinghy Shape 9 Skateboard

This may sound silly, but until recently I didn’t realize cruiser skateboards are a thing. Mixing the casual fun of a longboard with the more portable size of a small skateboard is a no-brainer, though. The dinghy shape 9 is a mere 28.5” long, and it’s complimented nicely by wide and soft wheels that keep it moving through rough patches that would punish a classic popsicle board set-up. I once lived in fear of pebbles that stopped my skateboards in their tracks. Those dark days are over.

I bought a dinghy well aware of the fact that I hadn’t touched a skateboard in over a decade. I picked the dinghy shape 9 because it’s a bit wider and has a longer wheelbase than the standard dinghy (plus the BK T-Rex on the white backdrop looks sweet). Maybe it’s my old age, but I wouldn’t label this little cruiser as beginner friendly. With its 105mm trucks, the shape 9 is highly responsive and very nimble, which is a double-edged sword. It’s great in tight areas and around corners, but it’s easy to feel unstable on it when starting out. A beginner might feel easily discouraged by this, whereas a longboard or even a standard skateboard with wider trucks would be more forgiving to those finding their balance.

The dinghy shape 9 is a versatile board. It’s great for streets, sidewalks, and thanks to its kicktail it pops easily and is ready for tricks. Most important to me, it rolls over obstacles with ease. Rocks, cracks, twigs, no problemo. I’m regularly surprised by how easily I plow through sidewalk imperfections. I’m sure professional skaters could handle taking the shape 9 down hills, but I could feel speed wobble sneaking up even on mellow hills. That’s just the cost of a portable cruiser board. The shape 9 won’t flow easily down hills like a longboard, and it’s not made for elaborate skate tricks. It dabbles in all skate aspects without perfecting any of them.

I’ve been saving the most important question for last – is the dinghy shape 9 fun? Hell yes. The learning curve is a bit steep, sure, but practice itself is rewarding. I love cruising through neighborhoods on the BK. I actually pick out brick driveways to roll down simply to feel the bumps; I also feel secure knowing the fatty hawg wheels will keep me upright. I’ve read reviews that mention the dinghy is best for short rides of 15 or 30 minutes. I regularly take mine out for an hour or so at a time; it’s fairly comfortable and time flies when I’m cruising. My feet do get strained sometimes, but taking a minute break solves that problem.

I’d recommend the dinghy (whether it’s the classic, shape 9, coffin, or another variation) to anyone who is looking for a jack of all trades board. It excels in tight, urban areas, especially if dodging pedestrians and traffic is required. The dinghy would fit in perfectly at a college campus, especially since it’s small and relatively lightweight. I’m glad I bought the shape 9, and right now I can think of about five other Landyachtz boards I’d like to nab. The company’s boards are on the pricey side, so they may be outside the budget of some skaters. For me, the investment is worth it. The hours of enjoyment have already covered the cost. Also, wear protective gear when skating. Trust me on this one.

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Top Ten: The Challenge One-and-Done Competitors

The Challenge has featured hundreds of competitors since its inception in 1998. One of its main draws is it features recurring cast members growing up together in a real-life soap opera. It’s rewarding to watch young bucks like Chris “CT” Tamburello and Derrick Kosinski change and mature over time.

But what about the flash in the pan competitors? Some competitors are too entertaining, too athletic, and way too fun to just disappear after one season. In this feature I’m counting down my favorite one-and-done competitors featured on The Challenge. For purposes of historic diversity, I limited myself to choosing only two competitors per season, one man and one woman (it still bums me out to leave Kelly Limp off the list). I gave preference to competitors who lasted through to the final, showed a strong desire to win, had a personality, and otherwise stood out from the pack in some meaningful way. It’s been difficult cutting out competitors like Heather B. Gardner, Mitch Reid, Brittini Sherrod, and Antoine de Bouverie, but I’m happy with my picks. We should have had more time with all of them.

Note: This list originally featured Teck Holmes, but he’s since been featured on The Challenge: All Stars. Adam Kuhn, welcome to the list!

10. Adam Kuhn (Battle of the Exes II, 2015)

Does anyone else remember Adam? Alongside his partner/ex-girlfriend Brittany Baldassari he won three eliminations on Battle of the Exes II before getting sent to Exile (where Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio eliminated him for good). Adam looks like Superman, but he doesn’t act at all like a shy Clark Kent. During his time on Battle of the Exes II he performed a stripping routine, flipped Brittany upside down for a 69 style dance move, and overall gave off the stench of a type-A asshole. And that’s great. He could easily fill a Wes Bergmann type role, being the obnoxious young gun that brags about his good looks and penchant for winning. Apparently, Adam’s been spending time in Thailand doing some sort of fighting, and he looks lean and mean. Let’s get him back on TV so he can fight for a million bucks.

09. Ellen Cho (Battle of the Sexes, 2003)

I’m tired of fake drama and Twitter battles. Ellen brought none of that back in the early 2000s. In episode one of Battle of the Sexes she said “fuck you guys” to the inner circle and she later told David “Puck” Rainey his televised wedding was “just for show” and called him immature. Ellen never shied away from a fight. She also clawed her way into the inner circle and finished the season second in points behind superwoman Ruthie Alcaide. Ellen’s aggressive cheerleader personality sometimes rubbed people wrong, but she tried to act in her team’s best interest, even when her actions made waves. She’s a tough competitor, and I bet no one else in history has told Coral Smith “kiss my baby ass.” Puck told Ellen he would kick her ass, and Ellen told Coral to kiss hers. That’s legend status.

08. Johnnie McBride (Fresh Meat, 2006)

Johnnie only made if halfway through Fresh Meat with his partner Tonya Cooley. He wasn’t the best partner to Tonya, shouting at her in frustration when she struggled or moved too slowly during challenges. So why is he on this list? For one thing, the guy is an investment banker, so he’s already much smarter than the average competitor. More importantly, it’s a shame the Fresh Meat eliminations didn’t feature physical eliminations like x-battle, because I think Johnnie would dominate his opponents in a fight. While other competitors crawled along a rope suspended high over water, Johnnie swung using only arm strength. I don’t know if Johnnie could match the physical prowess of someone like Alton Williams, but I would have liked to see him try.

07. Heather Cooke (Rivals II, 2013)

Less than two percent of NCAA student-athletes become professional athletes. Heather – a professional soccer player – is part of that two percent. Cooke is a beast, and she probably hates losing more than she loves winning. Unfortunately for her, she and her replacement partner Cara Maria Sorbello only managed a second place finish on Rivals II. Cooke pushed Cara Maria throughout the season, and she didn’t take shit from vets. She actually had an argument with Diem Brown, which doesn’t seem like a great look, but it’s always cool to see someone (especially a rookie) unafraid of taking on a Challenge darling. Cooke is an intimating force, and it’s embarrassing to find out MTV only used her as an alternate on All-Stars.

06. Michael Ross (Rivals, 2011)

Look at that great photo of Mike Mike. He’s pissed off because the other guys in his room keep chucking cookies at him. We don’t see many folks like Mike on The Challenge, at least not anymore. He’s a big brain, and he looks more like a MTV viewer than a MTV reality star. But despite that, the guy always put in an honest effort during competitions, and he and his partner Leroy Garrett were one of the more competent teams of the season (they never fell to last place and thus didn’t see an elimination). The rookie team made it all the way to the final, though they didn’t come close to winning. Mike represents a time when The Challenge still held onto its goofiness, and he would have fit on the show much better back in the early days when it was all about the big team format and carnival games.

05. Svetlana Shusterman (The Duel, 2007)

Svetlana is the unicorn of The Challenge. The producers keep inviting her back, and she keeps refusing. I can see why she’s in high demand. She’s a bombshell, she provides the drama of a real housewife, and she’s much tougher than she looks. Svetlana latched onto Wes on The Duel, and their outnumbered alliance picked apart veteran players until both she and Wes made it to the final. Along the way she eliminated the legendary villain Beth Stolarczyk (albeit on a technicality), and she pushed Kina Dean over in an impressive elimination win. In Svetlana’s words, she “took that bitch for a ride.” Svetlana reminds me a bit of Jenna Compono. They’re both east coast girly girls who are extremely loyal to their friends/boyfriends and kick ass when they have to.

04. Noor Jehangir (Fresh Meat II, 2010)

Similar to Heather Cooke, Noor is one of the most athletic competitors the show has ever seen. Go back and watch him complete the 40-yard dash during the Fresh Meat II combine to witness an athlete in his element. His time of 4.84 seconds is comparable to an NFL defensive end (and Noor tackles like one). He wisely left the politics to his well-connected partner Jenn Grijalva and filled the role a college party boy. Apparently the show’s producers did not appreciate some of Noor’s antics, which included speaking directly to the camera outside of confessionals, which is a big no-no in reality TV. He also had some asthma issues, which never helps when running a final in high elevation. Regardless, Noor is abnormally fit, and he could have filled the role that champion Landon Lueck vacated.

03. Holly Brenston (Battle of the Seasons, 2002)

We have not had many competitors like Holly. She’s confident, strong, good looking, and unafraid of making enemies (even on her own team). She appeared on Battle of the Seasons alongside her awful husband Chadwick Pelletier who was voted out early by Dan Setzler in a great example of Challenge justice. Regardless of her husband’s exit, Holly persisted and formed a powerful duo with Theo Von. Holly’s attitude and religious fervor kept her isolated from other competitors, but you have to respect her competitive spirit. She refused to form a money pact with Coral for the final challenge, because she wanted to be 100% committed to winning it all. Holly reminds me of Susie Meister, except I believe Holly could have been better than Susie if she’d stuck around for more seasons.

02. Marlon Williams (Rivals II, 2013)

Let’s think about this. Marlon is a former Division I athlete, he participated in an epic hall brawl elimination versus Leroy Garrett and Ty Ruff, he put hands on CT in a swimming pool, he reached the final on his rookie season, he’s more fit today than he was in his Real World days (earning the nickname “Black Zeus”), and he’s bisexual, which creates vast hookup opportunities. So why are the show’s producers not tearing down his door to invite him back to The Challenge? I have no good answer. Marlon spent some time on Ex on the Beach, but really, who gives a shit about that show. MTV, please get your priorities in order and allow Black Zeus to fling lightning down on his enemies. I’d love to see him and Jordan Wiseley on the same season again.

01. Sarah Greyson (The Gauntlet, 2004)

Somehow when I first put this list together I forgot to include Sarah. I know, what a travesty. She’s the first contestant in MTV history to win an elimination. She’s the gauntlet queen, and against all odds she decimated the Real World team. It’s difficult enough to win one elimination – she singlehandedly won five in a row against both male and female challengers (which is unheard of nowadays). Best of all, she won the final challenge alongside the teammates that repeatedly sacrificed her to elimination. I’m actually glad that Sarah retired after one season. She suffered from nightmares after The Gauntlet due to the anxiety of the competition. And what else did she have to prove? She became the ultimate gladiator and won the final. There’s no better way to gracefully exit.

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