Bring Out the Gimp

Musings on pop culture by freelance journalist Shawn Conner

Graphic novel review – Polina by Bastien Vives

Graphic big

Polina, a graphic novel by French cartoonist Bastien Vives, was released in a translated version by Jonathan Cape in January of this year. I recently received a copy in the mail, so maybe the book is just reaching Canadian bookstores and online retailers. It was originally published in France in 2011. (That year, Cape published another Vives graphic novel, A Taste of Chlorine.)

I have to admit it took me awhile to get into this one. At first, I was more intrigued by Vives’ bold, minimalist illustration style and less so the seemingly typical coming-of-age tale. What was different, I wondered, about the story of a young Russian student learning her craft, and taking a few hard knocks along the way? There was the ballet setting, sure, but the disaffected artist (the young ballet student, Polina) routine did not seem particularly original, nor did the trials and tribulations she faced as she is shuttled from one demanding teacher to another.

And yet, I was intrigued. Depictions in comics of classical and contemporary dance are rare (off-hand, I can’t think of a precedent). But Vives, at least to my mind, is able to pull it off with a style that is fluid, minimalist, full of bold strokes and still somehow subtle and balanced. The arrangement of brushstrokes in some panels is so delicate that it seems that if one were out of place, or there were one more or less, the whole mood would be thrown off.

Through Vives’ art, Polina and the other characters are alive on the page. Though the story may be somewhat familiar, Vives makes something new out of them through clever storytelling. And the universality often works to Polina‘s advantage. For instance, any traveller will relate to the sequence in which Polina arrives alone in a foreign city (Berlin). It’s in these wordless passages that Vives is at his best, giving us the sense of arrival in a strange, lonely city or the grace of dance through pictures alone.

(Comics artist David Mazzucchelli created the brief animation below. It expands on Vives’ illustrated depiction of ballet.)

Lyrical and poetic, subtle and, in the end, beguiling, Polina will be enjoyed by graphic novel fans on the lookout for something a little bit different – and for the ballet student in your life.

The truth about ‘You Little Thief’ and a ‘A Good Heart’

Benmont Tench at the Hollywood Bowl, Oct. 1 2010 (from Wikipedia).

Benmont Tench at the Hollywood Bowl, Oct. 1 2010 (from Wikipedia).

Last week I had the opportunity to interview keyboardist Benmont Tench prior to the Tom Petty show Aug 14 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. While researching Tench, I came across this in his Wikipedia entry:

“Songs written by Tench and recorded by other artists include ‘You Little Thief’, a top 5 UK and Australian hit for Feargal Sharkey in 1985 (written about his affair with Maria McKee, in response to her song ‘A Good Heart’…”

I mentioned “You Little Thief” (a great song) to Tench, and this is what he said: 

“That’s really funny that you should bring that song up. That’s the third or fourth time in the last couple of days someone’s brought up You Little Thief. My sister called me the other night asking if I wrote that song about Maria McKee, saying she saw it on Wikipedia. And it’s so untrue. We were just friends. I would never write anything mean about Maria, she would never write anything romantic about me. You Little Thief was entirely made up and had nothing to do with her, and her song Good Heart has nothing to do with me. It’s a great story, and we were very close, we were the best of friends, so I can see where people would get that impression. But it’s so funny, this is maybe the fourth time it’s come up in the last two days. Hah! ‘You LIttle Thief’ is such a mean song, and ‘A Good Heart’ is such a heartbroken one. She’s one of my dearest friend. It sure makes a good story.’

You can read the rest of the interview at

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Dr. Strange art by Frank Brunner

10 Days of Leonard: Get Shorty

Elmore Leonard movies Get Shorty

In honour of the passing of Elmore Leonard last week, I’ve embarked on a mission to watch 10 movies based on the writer’s books. In the first entry, I reviewed 52 Pick-Up, a 1986 film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret. In the second: Killshot (2008) and Jackie Brown (1997). Now, here’s my take on 1995’s Get Shorty

Elmore Leonard movies Get Shorty

John Travolta and Rene Russo make an attractive pair.

Here’s another one I saw when it was first released, and recall enjoying. However, unlike Jackie Brown, which has gotten better with age, Get Shorty is a depressingly unfunny Leonard pastiche that gets everything wrong.

Elmore Leonard movies Get Shorty

A pre-Sopranos James Gandolfino as a ponytail-wearing stuntman.

Which is funny, a little, since 1995 movie is regarded as one of the best in the pantheon of Elmore Leonard novels adapted for the big screen.

Looking back on it now, however, the movie is obviously little more than a vehicle for John Travolta to strut the new cool he sported in the previous year’s Pulp Fiction. However, Travolta is the best thing about the movie, which is so broadly humorous that it thinks the height of hilarity is Gene Hackman‘s producer character going to the Ivy (a fancy Hollywood hang) in a neck brace and two arm casts. In another scene, a mobster (Dennis Farina) is shown sitting on the toilet. There’s no real reason for him to be taking a dump in the scene, except maybe director Barry Sonnenfeld thought it would be funny. (It’s not.)

Elmore Leonard movies Get Shorty

If you think Gene Hackman in a neck brace and two casts is the height of hilarity, then Get Shorty might be the movie for you.

The end result is a movie that tries hard to be funny without having really anything funny to say, beyond the idea of a loan-shark successfully navigating Hollywood. But that’s a joke that, like everything else in Get Shorty, is hammered home again and again by crap artist Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, The Wild Wild West) and screenwriter Scott Frank (who also wrote the screenplay for 1998’s Out of Sight, another Leonard movie). And, besides missing the dry humour of Leonard’s writing, Get Shorty also fails to capture the menace.

For those new to Leonard’s writing, Get Shorty is a fairly harmless entry-point. For admirers, it’s not much better than the “Slime Creatures” movies Hackman’s Harry Zimm produces.

10 Days of Leonard: Killshot and Jackie Brown

Killshot Elmore Leonard movies

In honour of the passing of Elmore Leonard, I’ve embarked on a mission to watch 10 movies based on the writer’s books. In the first entry, I reviewed 52 Pick-Up, a 1986 film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret. Today I’m reviewing Killshot (2008) and Jackie Brown (1997). 

I’d already seen Killshot, but it was no less pleasurable a second time – it might even have been better. There’s nary a false move in John Madden‘s direction and Hossein Amini‘s screenplay captures Leonard’s spare, drily humorous tone.  (Amini also wrote the screenplay for the ridiculous Drive, but I’ll try not to hold that against him.)

Killshot features some stock Leonard types, including a well-meaning but ultimately disposable doxie (Rosie Perez; see also Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown, below) and a not-at-all-well-meaning wannabe career (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who teams with a much cooler and scarier customer, a Native American hitman named Blackbird (Mickey Rourke). Diane Lane and Thomas Jane play the salt-of-the-earth (she’s a real estate agent, he’s a beer-drinking steel worker and hunter) American couple forced to go up against the two serious criminals.

Killshot Elmore Leonard movies

Diane Lane and Thomas Jane are in it.

What I love about Killshot can be summed up at the point in the movie where any sane viewer will be going, “Where are the police in all this?” and then not just the police but the FBI show up. And then Leonard (and the movie) pulls a neat trick – he (and it) asks, Well, the next logical thing for this couple, who by the way are in the midst of a divorce, is to go into witness protection. And that’s what happens.

Killshot elmore leonard movies

So’s this guy.

Of course, the movie doesn’t end there, and it’s a pure pleasure to see how the plot develops. And to watch Rourke.

Killshot Elmore Leonard movies

And we can’t forget Mickey.

His Blackbird is not only cool and menacing but also sympathetic – he brings a depth to the role it’s hard to imagine any other actor bringing.  Jane and Lane are fine as a couple going through hard times that just got much harder; even Levitt seems to get it. The result is one of those rare adaptations where you can tell that everyone involved wanted to do right by the source material, and succeeds.

Killshot Elmore Leonard movies

And Rosario Dawson.

So, too does Jackie Brown – to my surprise.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

I’d last seen it when if first came out, in 1997, and remember feeling vaguely dissatisfied. This wasn’t the case upon a second viewing, though.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

Never cuter than when she was in Jackie Brown.

At two-and-a-half hours it’s typically Tarantino indulgent, with long scenes of colourful but inconsequential dialogue. (Leonard’s dialogue almost always servers a purpose.) But there’s little evidence of the flakey filmmaking the director would later foist upon us, and for the most part Quentin Tarantino (writing the screenplay based on Leonard’s novel Rum Punch as well as directing) captures the source material.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

What a face.

Especially surprising is the deft touch he brings to the romance that turns out to be at the heart of Jackie Brown. Wildly entertaining, Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s best movie. It’s hard to believe it’s by the same director gave us Django.

Elmore Leonard movies Jackie Brown

The queen.

Next: Get Shorty

10 Days of Leonard: 52 Pick-Up

Elmore Leonard movies

Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret in 52 Pick-Up, a 1986 movie based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.

It was with great sadness I learned of Elmore Leonard‘s passing yesterday. In honour of my favourite crime writer (at least, among the ones I’ve read, including Hammett, Chandler and Highsmith), I watched the 1986 adaptation of his novel 52 Pick-Up last night. I’m going to try to watch nine more Leonard movies over the next couple of weeks, though I may be challenged to find some of the more obscure ones (Stick, starring Burt Reynolds, and Hombre, with Paul Newman, are at the top of my list).

I wasn’t really expecting much from 52 Pickup, simply because I hadn’t heard much about the John Frankenheimer-directed film. But it features a screenplay co-written by Leonard and some awesome performance, not just from the leads (Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret) but also the supporting cast. John Glover is magnificent and scary as one of the bad guys, while Clarence Williams III (The Mod Squad) turns in a stellar performance as a killer. And Robert Trebor, as the weak link in the trio of creeps trying to blackmail Scheider’s character, is terrific in a scene where he breaks down in front of his supposed victim. Even Vanity (yes, that Vanity!) shines in a scene in which she fears for her life.

Elmore Leonard movies

John Glover in 52 Pick-Up.

The script is tight and unpredictable, Scheider is a great proto-Leonard-protagonist (cool but not too cool), and the suspense builds steadily into a satisfying conclusion. And there’s lots of ’80s-style nudity (titties!), including a scene featuring a bunch of ’80s porn stars (Ron Jeremy of course, but also Amber Lynn and Sharon Mitchell) for an extra touch of sleaze. This is one of the best adaptations of Leonard’s work I’ve seen and strongly recommended.

Elmore Leonard movies 52 Pick-Up movie poster

Don’t be fooled – Scheider hardly uses a gun. He doesn’t need to.


The Listener – graphic novel review

The ListenerThe Listener by David Lester

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hitler’s rise to power is one aspect of the Holocaust that I was pretty ignorant of. The Listener illuminates this part of the story while still putting characters – a present-day sculptor from Vancouver, a couple who lived in Germany during the ’30s – first. Although I found the theme of the role of the artist to be a bit unnecessary – and to get in the way at times – overall The Listener is a fascinating read. I liked Lester’s art, too – though his angled figures and the ink washes take some getting used to, he finds very creative ways to tell his story. Bonus for Vancouverites: there’s a brief sequence where the protagonist describes East Van.

View all my reviews

Canadian Music Comics # 2: The Sugar Shoppe

Sugar Shoppe comic

The Sugar Shoppe 1967-1970, by Shawn Conner.

Click on image for full, almost readable, size. Thanks!

Vacation reading: Rabbit at Rest, Slammerkin

Rabbit at Rest John Updike book cover

Books taken:

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
John Updike, Rabbit at Rest
Emma Donaghue, Slammerkin
Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects
Don Winslow, The Winter of Frankie Machine

The selection of vacation reading material is a task that this reader takes seriously. When planning for my first Momcation (just me and my mom, at a resort in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic), I knew I wanted some light reading (for around the pool) as well as some heavier stuff.

Falling in the “light” category, Gillian Flynn‘s Sharp Objects was the first book I started reading, on the plane trip south.

What a piece of crap.

I know Flynn is currently a critical darling for Gone Girl, which I’d read one chapter of and kind of liked but not enough to buy. However I decided to check out this earlier effort. After about 50 or 60 pages, when I realized what Flynn was up to – that Sharp Objects would basically be about 200 pages of red herrings and development of uninteresting (to me) characters, I decided to just skim it for the plot points and to see how the author resolves the tale of two dead girls. I’m glad I didn’t spend any more time on Sharp Objects than I did; this is one of those psychological thrillers where the psychology is all just a bunch of scenery-chewing thrown in to stall for time before the resolution.

I couldn’t even get through 50 pages of Don Winslow‘s The Winter of Frankie Machine. I liked Winslow’s Savages (which Oliver Stone turned into a movie last year) but this one did absolutely nothing for me. Winslow spends the first part of the book describing the main character’s near-perfect life to the point where I just wanted someone to shoot the son of a bitch.  When this didn’t happen – when, in fact, nothing really happened for the first 40 pages, which is definitely a no-no in a crime thriller unless you’re Patricia Highsmith (and Winslow is no Highsmith) – I was jonesing for some Elmore Leonard.

Then again, not too many crime thrillers could compete with Rabbit at Rest. I’d read all of Updike’s Rabbit series way back in the ’80s, when I was a mere lad, and loved them. I had a hankering to go back and the one I chose was the last in the series (although, in 2000, Updike published short story that picks up some of the series’ characters).

This was one of those great reading experiences – the perfect book at the perfect time in the perfect place. I started it on the plane and read 590-page tome every day of my vacation, usually around the pool, from late morning to mid-afternoon, by which time the rum had usually kicked in.

In Rabbit at Rest, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is 55 and retired, spending part of the year in Florida when he’s not back home in Pennsylvania. There is so much to love about this book I don’t know where to begin, but a few things struck me. One was how concerned Rabbit – and Updike – is about his (American) diet.

Rabbit at Rest was published in 1990, and though fast and processed food was already being blamed for health issues back then, it wasn’t nearly the topic of conversation that it is today, especially with the recent publication of Michael Moss‘s Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. But it’s on nearly every page of this book as Rabbit grapples with his increasingly poor health.

Another of Rabbit’s concerns is terrorism. The 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 Lockerbie air tragedy took place while Updike was writing the book and his protagonist spends a lot of time thinking and worrying about terrorism. Not exactly prescient, perhaps, since it was on a lot of people’s minds because of Lockerbie, but still a little eerie in light of what was to come.

One other thing I want to mention before going onto the next book: there is a scene in the first chunk of Rabbit at Rest that, for nail-biting suspense, is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Which just goes to show, I guess, that sometimes you find what you’re looking for – page-turning suspence, in this case – in unexpected places.

Stompin’ Tom Connors – A Proud Canadian

My first completed Canadian music comic strip!

StompinTomComic resized

Click on image to see full size.

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