Sunday, July 31, 2005

MOVIES: Gates of Heaven

Image hosted by
“There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”
- from Gates of Heaven

I finally got to see a movie I've been curious about for years, Errol Morris' 1978 documentary "Gates of Heaven." It belatedly showed up on DVD recently, after being impossible to find on video for years. It's the very first movie by Errol Morris, who won an Oscar for his "The Fog of War" last year. This cult-ish film is about two pet cemeteries - one that's closed, one that's new, the people who run them and the people who use them, and what it all means about life, dying and dogs and cats. Deadpan funny, heartfelt and low-key, it's a unique and interesting flick.

The reason I was so curious about it was pretty much exclusively because one of my favorite critics, Roger Ebert, is a huge fan. He lists the movie as one of his "Top 10" of all time - yet it's one few people have even heard of. In his excellent book, "The Great Movies," he features an entire essay on "Gates of Heaven," and it's far more eloquent than anything I'd have to say on the movie, so go read it here.

Back? OK. Anyway, watching "Gates" was an interesting experience. Few movies we're told are great live up to our impossible expectations in advance. "Gates" is, like most of Errol Morris' movies I've seen, stark and unadorned. Unlike, say, Michael Moore, Errol Morris is the invisible documentarian, not interested in being the star. "Gates" features no narration, no questioning at all from Morris - it's entirely his subjects talking, pure observation, in frank, unstaged language about their lives. It makes for compelling viewing, often, although sometimes it becomes the equivalent of being stuck in an elevator with a boor, and other times it's a little confusing not having the ubiquitous narrator telling you what's happening onscreen.

"Gates" moves slow for those used to zip-bang-boom modern storytelling, but there's a timeless, Faulkner-esque rhythm to his work. Certainly, the first half-hour you wonder, are we just going to get people talking directly at the screen the entire time? Yet it's hypnotic in a way - the bragging, insensitive rendering plant owner, the strange, rambling monologue from the elderly woman in the middle of the film, the very different worldviews of the two sons of a pet cemetery owner, one a wistful hippie, the other a deluded "motivational thinker." There's a sad vibe, but it also feels vaguely silly, as passion often does in the light of day. A montage of grim pet tombstones is all bundled up emotions at once. For a movie ostensibly about pets, they're barely in it - except for one bizarre scene featuring a "singing dog."

Morris' point isn't just about pets - it's about things we leave behind, the unknowable voids before and after our lifetimes, and how we find happiness while we're here. It's the kind of movie you could return to every few years and find a new meaning in. It's easy to see why Ebert was so high on it - it's not for everyone, but "Gates of Heaven" is a film that is worth viewing at least once.

LIFE: Birthday greetings

Image hosted by
A special salute today to my father-in-law, painter Peter Siddell, who celebrates his 70th birthday July 31 (which is today right now if you're with them in New Zealand, but tomorrow right here if you're not in New Zealand. Or it's yesterday if you read this Monday. Or two days before? Damn this International Date Line). That's one of his paintings right there above, by the way. They're even nicer in person.

Anyway, we in the Spatula department wish him all the best and wish we could be there.

(And how cool is my father-in-law? Cool enough that he asked for a Queen Greatest Hits CD and the new Harry Potter for his birthday.)

Friday, July 29, 2005

MOVIES: Constantine

Image hosted by
When you think Hell, do you think Keanu Reeves?

Very loosely based on the long-running horror comic “Hellblazer,” “Constantine” features Keanu as dark, haunted demon-fighter John Constantine.

Constantine is cursed with a kind of second sight, enabling him to see visions of the heaven and hell that lurk just beyond our ordinary world. It’s driven him nearly insane and to suicide attempts over the years. He’s since turned into a kind of bitter private investigator who uses these skills as a cut-rate exorcist, battling secret demons and doing his part to keep “the balance” between God and the devil.

But chain-smoking Constantine is dying of a festering lung cancer when he stumbles upon a plot involving a cop (Rachel Weisz) whose sister killed herself. The dead sister is somehow tied in with a hell-spawned conspiracy to bring demons to Earth, and only Constantine can stop it.

Director Francis Lawrence is not sure whether he’s staging a creepy horror movie or a guns ’n’ explosions action film. “Constantine” seems terribly conflicted. It’s all pretty far from the source material — and lacks the grimy nihilism of the original comics.

Constantine is British, blonde and roguish in them, but here, he’s a sulky Keanu with an attitude and a smoking habit. That wouldn’t be so bad if “Constantine” worked as a great movie on its own, but it’s sloppy.

The visuals are all drenched in sepia tones and glamorous squalor, like a cross between “Alien” and “The Exorcist” with a helping of “Seven” thrown in, and there’s plenty of arty MTV-style editing and camera effects. Everyone mumbles lines of ominous portent, broken occasionally by sequences of computer-generated demonic mayhem.

There are lots of cool little bits and pieces — freaky demons, an arsenal of holy weapons, a good ol’ boy Satan, Tilda Swinton’s charismatic performance as a powerful angel, eerie visions of hell — but the plot moves in fits and starts.

There are some fascinating concepts, including the idea of Earth basically caught in a kind of Cold War between God and Satan. But the movie never uses these ideas to their full potential.

And Keanu — well, he’s Keanu Reeves, dude, and I’ve yet to see him in a movie where I feel like he’s really acting. He frowns a lot and growls menacingly, but there’s no real interior weight to his portrayal of Constantine as a man facing damnation.

I imagine how much more effective a Ralph Fiennes or even Nicolas Cage could have been as Constantine. At least it’s not Ben Affleck. That really would be hell on earth.
**1/2 of four

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

LIFE: Day at the beach

So I had a day off yesterday and we took the boy to the beach to get some cool air in before 90-degree temperatures return later this week. It's nice living just an hour to 90 minutes away from the ocean, although for those of you who live in more southerly climes Oregon beaches can be a bit of a shock.

Usually you can take the inland temperature and subtract 20 degrees from it, but if you're actually on the beach, howling winds can sometimes make it feel like midwinter even in July. I love wind myself, but few other people do, and you can always tell the tourists (i.e. Californians) by who you see wearing tank tops and shivering on an Oregon beach.

Anyway, we spent the day at the Oregon Dunes, which is one of Oregon's unique places — a 40-mile long stretch of sand dunes right out of the Sahara desert, but tucked up along an ocean coast in between the sea and green low forests. They're real popular with loud ATV-riding folk, but fortunately big stretches of it are marked off as vehicle-free so you can enjoy them in peace and quiet, which is where we took Baby Peter yesterday. He loved it, the biggest sandbox he's ever seen:
Image hosted by
Image hosted by
It's a cool place -- you step out a few hundred feet onto the dunes and suddenly you're Lawrence of Arabia, nothing but blank sand stretching away on either side of you.
Image hosted by
Peter loved tossing sand in the air and repeatedly running and falling down, at one point making "sand angels" as he lay flat. Of course, like most things for a 17-month-old, the novelty wore off fast and he got a little freaked out, but it was fun while it lasted...

Monday, July 25, 2005

COMICS: How do you keep it sane?

Warning: this is an über-geek post. 'Normal' folk beware. Ah, lazy Sunday, and finally had a chance to clean up the piles and stacks o' comics in our office-slash-Nik's comic book library, and toss a bunch of stuff on eBay. Keeping your collection manageable is something all comic nuts have to deal with - how much is too much? When to sell? My god, will this addiction ever END? And all that jazz. All us collectors have different ways of keeping things at a level that works for them.

My comic boxes of single issues are the lowest amount I've had in years - just 10 short boxes or so. At one point, I had around 25, but I've trimmed a lot of the fat off in recent years (thank God for eBay; seller ID Prometheus11 if you're buying!). I'm learning what I really want to keep (lots of Spider-Man comics, things that have sentimental value, and less of the "flavors of the month"). Sure, in my millionaire fantasy I'd like to have 100 boxes of comics in a vaulted sub-basement, but for now, this is good enough.
Image hosted by
I have carted my collection all over the place in the past 23 years or so, from California to Mississippi to Oregon, to dorm rooms to apartments to houses. Moving comics (and books for that matter) is a real pain. They're heavy!

Unfortunately, while I've gotten rid of many single comics, in the last decade I've stacked way up on trade paperbacks and collections of comics. Trades are the big thing these days - it seems increasingly silly to pay $3 for a single comic when you can buy a nice, more permanent book for $15 collecting several single "floppies." So the trade comic shelf has grown, and grown, and grown....
Image hosted by
This isn't even all of it. Several other spots in the house have had to accomodate the spillover. I love my trade comics, and find it harder and harder to find ones that are "disposable." It's the obsession. What can you do? Despite all the complaints you sometimes hear, there really are an awful lot of good comics out there, far more than one man can buy in his lifetime.

• • •

With all this comic talk, I should squeeze in a few QUICK COMIC REVIEWS of recent purchases:
Image hosted by
All-Star Batman And Robin #1
Wow, this is really kind of bad. It sounded awesome on paper - "Dark Knight" legend Frank Miller writing, ultra-hot artist Jim Lee drawing. But so far, this latest "reinvention" of Batman is a clunky mess. Miller's in full-on clenched-teeth hardboiled parody mode here, which might work, but it utterly fails to mesh with Jim Lee's slick Image-style artwork. Read this comic aloud and try not to laugh. ("I'm having a date with Bruce Wayne. How cool is that?") It could get better, but this issue is just too lazy and over-the-top and I'm simply not that big a fan of Jim Lee's art. I'm much more looking forward to this winter's "All-Star Superman" with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Grade: D

New Avengers #7
It's heresy to like this series it feels like, but I feel like the "superstar" Avengers book is starting to gel with this issue. The combination of Spider-Man, Wolverine, Spider-Woman, et al is blatantly commercial, yeah, but the clash of personalities and sense of novelty is something I'm enjoying. The art improves tremendously this issue with work by Steve McNiven that's smooth and fluid, less stiff than David Finch who drew #1-6 (I don't hate his work like other seem to, but it does feel like he has two facial expressions in his repetoire). This story arc focuses on the mysterious Sentry, a kind of psychiatric case version of Superman, and so far, it's good stuff with a very interesting cliffhanger. Guilty big-bang comics pleasure, but not as bad as everyone else seems to think. Certainly better than most of the last 5 years of the old "Avengers" comics, in my humble opinion. Grade: A-

Y: The Last Man #35
"Y" has consistently been one of my favorite monthly reads, the tale of the sole survivor of a plague that killed every man on earth, leaving a world of women trying to survive. This is the final part of "Girl on Girl," a sea-going adventure as Yorick and his companions try to make their way to Australia only to encounter female pirates at war with the Aussie navy. Another fine issue, filled with action and adventure, although like Yorick, I'm getting a little tired of seeing all his potential romantic interests bite the dust. It's getting a little formulaic. Treading water a tiny bit, but hopefully the arrival in Australia next issue will give us some exciting new locations in this brave new world. Grade: B+.

Anyway, anyone else want to share their comic collection size and how they keep it under control?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

BOOKS: Harry Potter and the week from hell

Image hosted by
Well, last week was the kind of week that slapped you upside the head, kicked your ass and then dropped a tractor-trailer on you. Gah.

Anyway, in between working, working and sleeping, I managed to tear through "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in about 24 hours (then wife Avril did the same thing). What a great read -- I can't quite call it a "fun" read, as it's the darkest and nastiest of the HP books so far, but it's right up there as the best in the series (I think I'd rank them in order of quality, Book 3, 1, 6, 4, 2, 5 but ask me again tomorrow).

I won't do a big in-depth spoiler-filled thing here, other than to note the final 100 pages just moved like greased lightning and were as effective as all hell, and this book definitely isn't for eager 5-year-olds. There's a few moments of horror that are at near-Stephen King levels (I'm thinking Inferi and potions here). You finish it wishing Book 7 was coming out tomorrow... author Rowling does a fantastic job building our appetite for the inevitable conclusion. Harry's growth as a character continues (hard to believe he's nearly a man now), and unlike the bloated "Order of the Phoenix," Rowling doesn't feel like she has to hit us over the head with Harry's latest personality quirks (his "angry young man" routine got old in "Phoenix" fast). Yeah, there's a lot of lovey-dovey huggy-kissy going on in this one, but if I recall when I was 16 that was pretty much all my brain could focus on too.

The books have matured as they go, which is a rarity in this kind of kid-aimed serial fantasy fiction as far as I can figure. I grew up reading the "Oz" books, "Narnia" series, the great old Hugh Lofting "Dr. Dolittle" series and more, but really, none of those books matured as the readership did. But flipping through "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," the first in the series, I was fascinated to see how basic it seems now, how the language and characters are all a lot less unadorned. It's not a radical shift, here -- we're not talking going from "Dick and Jane" to Shakespeare -- but it is an interesting tone. By the final book, we may be in full-fledged adult fantasy genre territory here (and I do think "Prince" flirts with that a lot in the final acts).

Anyway, there's 10 million or so copies of "Half-Blood Prince" out there being read or bought as I write, so I'm hardly the only one to blog a bit about it. It's a good series, nearly worthy of the insane amounts of hype it gets -- and boy, it sure does my heart good to have an old-fashioned book become a bona fide media event these days. Ain't it great?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

COMICS: Jim Aparo, R.I.P.

Damn - Fred Hembeck brings us the news that seminal Batman artist Jim Aparo is dead at age 72. Growing up in the 1970s, this guy was the Batman artist to me. Back when Batman was actually costumed in blue-and-gray rather than all black, and even smiled every once in a while, Aparo's style was professional, not too flashy, but crisp and dynamic. His run on the '70s Batman team-up title (gosh, I miss team-up titles) "The Brave and Bold" was a kid-time classic for me. Fittingly, last week they announced a revival of "The Brave And Bold" will start next year sometime.

I know Neal Adams' sinewy and tough Batman is considered "cooler," and I like him too, but Aparo's Batman is the style that somehow jumps to mind whenever I think Batman. His lean, mean pointy-jawed interpretation of The Joker was also a personal favorite. Aparo never quite got the kudos that a Kirby, Romita or Adams got, but I bet he was a lot of kids' first exposure to some fun old comics back in the day. From the Great Comics Database, a few favorite covers:

Image hosted by
Image hosted by
Image hosted by

...I'll be posting rarely this week and actually for most of the rest of the month I imagine, as I'm snowed under at work with special projects, vacations, etc. and the time I'm at home is spent with us all lying in front of the air conditioner gasping for breath.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

BOOKS: "The Historian"

Image hosted by
Hope your weekend was swell. My parents came up and we had adventures with them and Baby Peter in the 90-degree heat, and somewhere in there, I finished a book I've been reading. Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian" is being pushed as the next "Da Vinci Code" — "Da Vinci" meets "Dracula." She famously got a $2 million advance for this, her first novel, which combines Dan Brown-style history, conspiracy and mystery with a dose of Gothic horror.

Unfortunately, the book isn't quite a vampire classic. It's got a great hook — a teenage girl discovers evidence that 15th-century tyrant Vlad Dracula is still alive - well, undead - and well in modern times, that the Dracula legend is no myth. She discovers a mysterious book that's the tip of an iceberg of hidden legend and secrecy dating back 500 years. She learns through a series of letters from her missing father about the search for Dracula and his role in it, and how it changed his life.

For most of its 650 pages, "The Historian" is a solid page-turner, a good summer read that brims over with intelligence and historical tidbits. It's got that tantalizing sense that the "Da Vinci Code" also excelled at. Kostova clearly did her research, and her passages will often make you feel as if you're walking the streets and forgotten corners of Istanbul, Bulgaria, Hungary or Italy. There's some good scary moments. The characters are solid, if not tremendously deep, and the haunting legend at its core is given some intriguing new dimension.

But one big problem for "The Historian" is the structure. Kostova poorly chose to make most of the the book a flashback within a flashback – and frequently, there are flashbacks WITHIN those flashbacks within flashbacks. The story's main thread, told through a series of letters, completely takes over the book for hundreds of pages, and you almost forget the other stories being told. Flashbacks can work well, but Kostova's clumsy structure distances you from the book a little too much.

"The Historian" also wallows a bit too much in historical detail. You know the saying - a great book can never be too long, an OK one definitely can. There's great bits about secret societies, mysterious woodcuts and strange journeys, and I found it interesting to learn about the habits of Bulgarian monks and Wallachian warlords. But around halfway through the book you feel like she's stalling, and the search becomes way too drawn-out and meandering. Too much exposition, not enough forward movement.

I could've forgiven "The Historian"'s quirks if it led to a great payoff. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite. While Kostova's vision of the prince of darkness is compelling and fresh, her climax is peremptory and rushed. Some of the dozens, hundreds of pages used as Eastern European travelogue could have been shifted over to give more weight to her ending. "The Historian" is worth reading if you're a fan of the pulpy pleasures of Anne Rice or "Da Vinci" style globetrotting history. But I don't think it quite works, and it won't ever be as immortal as the Bram Stoker novel it's so heavily inspired by.

Now, on to my next read, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"!

Saturday, July 16, 2005

MOVIES: Zombie-Rama Part Two: 'Dawn of the Dead'

Image hosted by
Let the dead rise! Continuing my ongoing mission to view, for the first time, all of George Romero's "Living Dead" zombie movies, as begun right here last week. After "Night of the Living Dead," where else to go but 1978's "Dawn of the Dead," often acclaimed as the best zombie flick ever and one of the best horror movies of all time.

As I mentioned before, I had previously seen the 2004 remake of "Dawn," which I liked quite a lot. So I was in the odd position of seeing an original after a remake, never the best way to approach something fresh. That aside, I quite liked "Dawn," which has some of the clunky aspects of all of Romero's work, but has tremendously involving characters and a claustrophobic horror.

"Dawn" is a loose sequel to "Night," taking place in the same world where a mysterious zombie plague is slowly taking over society. Since nobody survived the bloodbath that was "Night," we've got all new characters to deal with — four survivors – nervous helicopter pilot Stephen, his pregnant girlfriend Francine and cocksure, courageous policemen Peter and Roger. They hop a copter and flee the city, searching for a place to hole up. After some misadventures, they end up at a shopping mall that looks like an ideal sanctuary. Unfortunately, they've got the growing army of the dead outside and even worse living survivors to contend with.

Compared to the really chilling 2004 "Dawn" opening act, I didn't care much for the muddled opening 15-20 minutes of the 1978 "Dawn," until they got to the helicopter. It starts off with some rather confusing transitions between the TV station where Stephen and Francine work and Peter and Roger on a brutal police mission to clear the unwilling residents of a ghetto out. Clumsy opening aside, once the story really gets moving it's got a focus and that Romero-esque escalating sense of dread galore. The characters really become vivid during the mall siege, each reacting to the exile in different ways, looting the mall, becoming paranoid and violent, or discovering their inner hero. Unlike 2004's "Dawn," the characters here are full-blooded and real. Having a small number of survivors makes it easy to get drawn into their plight, and the movie is often quite funny as the survivors "clear the mall" of zombies and try to evade them. The actors also give superb performances, particularly Ken Foree as Peter, who starts out as a shallow macho figure but becomes a deeply realized protector and warrior at the end — and another of Romero's "strong black men."

The zombie makeup isn't quite as cheap as it was in "Night," although it's not as fancy as modern latex, CGI and goo allows. (The "Hare Krishna" zombie looked rather like she just had a deep gray tan.) It's still plentiful gory – the infamous zombie-meets-helicopter moment springs to mind – but actually, less gruesome than I thought it'd be. The "slow" zombies here are in a lot of ways more compelling than the "fast" zombies we've seen in "28 Days Later" or 2004's "Dawn," because they sneak up on people taking them for granted. The survivors at the mall clearly think they can "outwit" the zombies, but suffer fatal errors when the sheer force of numbers overwhelms them.

The "zombies as metaphor" shopping mall setting has been analyzed to death and beyond, but it's worth pausing on again for a moment here. Watching the living dead shuffle through the flourescent lights and displays, you think, gosh, this ain't so different from real life. The zombies have been mentioned as representing everything from American consumerism to the Cold War to the spread of STDs. It's a concept rich enough that you can bring what you want to it, or you can just watch it as a bunch of decomposing ghouls wreaking havoc on the lives they once lived. It's worth noting that the mall sanctuary only goes completely to pot at the end of "Dawn" when other humans discover it.

Compared to the 2004 remake, I find they both have a lot to offer. The 2004 one is definitely "MTV"-audience aimed — faster-paced, with glitzier effects, cinematography and gore, but it's also a little shallower and you never see the characters as much more than zombie food. 1978's flick is definitely not as smooth, and dated in terms of special effects, fashion, etc., but it's got a bit more heart. I like both movies, though, for different tastes of your zombie pleasure.

So far, I'm enjoying my run through the "Dead" series — the clunky production values can be an obstacle to someone in 2005 seeing them for the first time, but the core appeal of zombie annihilation is still there and strong, particularly with the excellent "Dawn." I'll try to check out the less acclaimed third in the series, "Day of the Dead," sometime in the coming weeks and we'll do an autopsy on it!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

COMICS: Street Angel Vol. 1

Image hosted by
OK, I'm late in coming to this, but I want to give a shout out to the exceedingly cool comic all the hip kids are reading, "Street Angel." I just got the first paperback collection of the series in the mail the other day, and it's a load of skateboarding, ninja-kicking, space-pirating, afro-wearing fun, like many other bloggers out there have said. Published by Slave Labor Graphics by Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca, it's a series to watch.

The theme is simple — Jesse Sanchez is "Street Angel," a homeless orphan eighth grader and avid skater living in the squalor of the inner city. She's also a butt-kicking superheroine who battles the forces of evil wherever they occur, even if it means she might have to ditch class. With equal amounts wacky humor, high action, pathos and occasionally startling violence, Rugg and Maruca tell freewheeling tales of Jesse's adventures.
Image hosted by
This is the kind of comic people are thinking about when they think, "what will get more people reading comics?" While I'm a superhero junkie, it's a pleasure to see a comic that isn't mired in decades of past continuity, is easily accessible, satirical (as opposed to a parody) and playful. It's got echoes of the style and viewpoint of great 1980s-1990s indie comics like "Eightball," "Zot," or "Dork," but also a distinct voice developing of its own.

The five issues in this collection go through some pretty big tonal shifts. The first issue, for instance, is all high humor and goofy action, with Street Angel battling the nefarious Dr. Pangea, master of the Dark Arts of Geology. But the fourth issue is a pretty much straightforward and remarkably serious look at Jesse's life on the streets. My favorite of the tales is probably the second story, a go-for-broke zany piece featuring pimp-stylin' ancient Inca gods, lost Irish astronauts, time-traveling pirates and ninjas. Only the third story, an oddball religious thriller featuring a cameo by Jesus Christ, doesn't quite work as well as the rest for me.

I love how the creators are able to balance genres and styles so fluently. And Rugg's cartooning is just top-notch, tightly controlled yet fluid and loose, with fantastic senses of storytelling and layout. The trade paperback is an excellent buy - $14 or so for a complete collection of the series, several new short comics, pin-ups and biographies and more. Plus, the cover is pink, and it's in that cute little "mini book" size (about 5 x 8). As an introduction, it really whets the appetite for more adventures of Street Angel — check it out, amigos.
Image hosted by

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

LIFE: Why I Can't Work in PR

OK, I can't help myself. Look, I own a Subaru, actually I've owned two Subarus, and they're really great cars, I have very few complaints, they're hip without being trendy and swell and smell nice and all that jazz.

So, as a proud Subaru owner, every couple months I get in the mail the official Subaru Magazine, Drive. (As opposed to the unofficial magazine, Busted Crankshaft.) And in this issue was this essay, this piece of literature, that I feel compelled to share, on the 2006 Subaru Forester. Exerpts follow, with smart-ass interjections in bold:

"In the 2006 Forester, the essence of the 2005 model remains, but with features sharpened and emphasized to make it look more like the performer it is. The 2006 Forester has a clean-cut, chiseled appearance that complements its quiet athleticism. (It's not just a car, it's Lance Armstrong.)

The new face is cleaner and more unified. The eyes and eyebrows formed by the headlights are straightforward and without guile. (I hate those Toyotas, they're always sneering and full of deceipt with their lying, trickster windshield wipers.) The grille is well-defined, with chrome lateral bars filling the space without requiring a border. (What?!) The grille, bumper and lower air intake leave a stronger impression of unity. (When I think 'unity,' I think 'lower air intake.') The revised fog lights punctuate the strength of the front end without distracting from the other elements. The fog lights are smaller, but more effective. (And with much less guile!)

In short, the new 2006 Forester has a more serious appearance. Its exterior states that it’s not a toy. It’s not cute. (Take that, Volkswagen!) Rather, it has grown up to face today squarely, on contemporary terms and without excuses. (Optional master's degree in leadership challenges not installed at the factory.)

...OK, that's enough of that. Y'know, I figured out a while back I could leave the ill paying, stressful world of newspaper journalism behind and go work in public relations somewhere; but then my life would be spent writing gibberish like this. It's all too short, ain't it?
Image hosted by
Baby in a bucket!

Sunday, July 10, 2005

MOVIES: Fantastic Four

Image hosted by
Well, I'll be damned — the "Fantastic Four" movie may not be the highest achievement of the cinematic art form, but it's really not all that bad. After the awful reviews and bad pre-release buzz, I wasn't even sure if I wanted to see it, but for the most part, I had an enjoyable time at the picture show. I walked out with a grin.

"Fantastic Four" is no "Spider-Man," but in its own way, it's solid popcorn summer-movie fun, with action, humor and decent effects. I'm not sure what the critics are reviling it for -- and I have to say, the constant comparisons to "The Incredibles," a movie that "FF" only has the most superficial of resemblances to, is a pretty lazy crutch in most of the reviews I've read. "The Incredibles" is about parenting, really - this is about friends.

Is it perfect? Hardly. But it gets the job done. I appreciated its lighthearted tone, and that's why this movie is going to turn out to be a rather unexpected hit (completely unexpected, if you go by the armchair Internet prognosticators). Kids are loving this movie. The pre-teens at my show seemed to dig it like it was by Pixar. It made a pretty amazing $20 million Friday alone, meaning it should clear $50 million easy for the weekend - which, shockingly, will be more than "Batman Begins" made in its first weekend. Who woulda thunk that?

Even though I quite liked "Batman Begins" and its dead-serious take on Batman, and it's definitely a better movie than "FF," I was ready for a more joyful comic movie. After the gritty, sometimes dour takes like "Hulk," "Elektra," "Daredevil," even the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" movies to lesser extents, it started to feel like every hero is shrouded in shadows and self-loathing. I also was very glad this movie didn't fall back on the movie comic cliché of modern times, the big ol' technological doomsday device that will destroy the city/area/world if it isn't stopped. (Even "Batman" was guilty of that one.)



The good:
Chris Evans as the Human Torch and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm, The Thing, just make the movie. They're both right on in capturing their characters' essences, and Internet quibbling aside, I think the film gave them a decent look. Evans gets all the movie's best lines, and his arrogant, cocky Johnny Storm is the most dynamic of all the characters.
• Does the Thing look silly? Well, frankly, he's going to look a bit goofy no matter what - he's made out of ORANGE ROCKS, people. I liked that they didn't go with some soulless CGI and instead put Chiklis in a pretty effective suit. He looks as good as a live-action Thing possibly could. And for the few scenes when he's fully "on fire," Evans looks cool as hot can get.
• The movie did manage to capture that sense of bickering family that has been a perennial of the comics for years. They love each other, and they hate each other sometimes, too.
• I also felt like this movie really worked on making us care for the characters. Ben Grimm comes in for the hardest treatment adjusting to his monstrous new form (the scene where he gets dumped by his wife - twice! -- was hard to watch, yet fully plausible). The Fantastic Four here are all people first, heroes second (well, except maybe for Johnny Storm, who's all boy, all the time).

Image hosted by

The less good:
• As Mr. Fantastic, Ioan Gruffudd is just kind of adequate (my dream casting for Reed Richards? Tim Robbins). He lacks any real presence and overplays Reed's nebbish, unassertive side. And unfortunately, the "stretching" effects of his character probably are the movie's least realistic (again, like the Thing, it's something hard to pull off).
Jessica Alba sure looks purty but I don't buy her for a second as the Invisible Woman. This woman's a scientist? She can act, kinda, but there's no real strength in her words. The relationship between the two would've had a lot more weight with stronger actors.
"Dr. Doom" in this movie bears so little resemblance to the comic Doom, I'm calling him "Earth 2 Doom." A combination of the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" version and Gordon Gekko from "Wall Street," this Doom is just kind of OK as a sneering zillionaire villain, played with oily menace by Julian McMahon, but he gets real close to plain silly when he puts on his armor for the movie's climax.
I don't mind changing things from a comic if they stay true to the essence, and the comic book Dr. Doom's origin is way too complicated to do well in a 90-minute movie. But this Doom lacks any of the imperious presence, power or intelligence that has made him one of comic books' best foes for decades. This Doom - well, he's just another deranged madman out for revenge. Didn't ruin the movie, but didn't really help it, either.
• The dialogue is often comic-booky to the extreme, but sheesh, have you ever tried reading Stan Lee's classic "Fantastic Four" dialogue out loud yourself? For the kind of movie it is, few lines left me cringing. (OK, "I'll get a second opinion" was a bit lame.)

Now I'm going to go ahead and just toss my comic blogger credibility out the window to the street below and say that the recent Marvel comic movie this most reminds me of is "Daredevil" - and that's not a criticism! I, alone in the cosmos, liked "Daredevil," even if it too was flawed. I honestly think Ben Affleck was not that bad, the mood was nicely dramatic, there were no technological doomsday devices and I liked the villains. The hard-rock soundtrack stank, yeah, but I honestly feel like the movie "Daredevil" was true to the essence of the characters, details aside. I had fun watching it, even if I didn't get a warm feeling in the gut like I do watching the near-perfect "Spider-Man" movies or "Superman II."

I'll buy the "Fantastic Four" DVD, and if they make a sequel, I'll check it out too. It may not be "Fantastic," but it's at least a solid "B."

Friday, July 8, 2005

MOVIES: Zombie-Rama, Part One - Night of the Living Dead

Image hosted by
Zombies are huge in the blogosphere right now, so I have a confession to make. Despite my card-carrying geekdom and fanboy love of many things in life, until now I have never seen any of George Romero's "Dead" zombie movies - the 1968 "Night of the Living Dead," 1978's "Dawn of the Dead", the '80s "Day of the Dead" or the just-released "Land of the Dead." Sorry, Zombie Tom, but I officially suck. I am zombie-deprived, or at least... I was.

Really, I'm not a big horror movie dude. I love certain horror movies, like the "Evil Dead" flicks, "Silence of the Lambs," David Cronenberg's "The Fly" (which I wrote about here), and I have an abiding love for the cheesy ol' Universal horror pics (especially the "Creature From The Black Lagoon"). I also saw and quite liked last year's "Dawn of the Dead" remake. I'm not a fan at all of the slash-up-girls "Friday the 13th" type movies, though.

Anyway, I digress. In the interest of educating myself more about all the beautiful bounties in this glorious world (yeah, I could read Faulkner, but too many words), I'm going to view all four of Romero's zombie classics intermittently over the coming months, and ramble on here a bit of my first impressions. (I could watch all four in a row I admit, but that's a lot of zombies.)

So, for Zombie-Rama, Part One, last weekend I finally watched the one that started it all, "Night of the Living Dead." It's a clumsy yet powerful movie, one that is more interesting as influence than flawless entertainment on its own. The plot is simple - a "zombie plague" erupts, and a small band of survivors hole up in an abandoned farmhouse and try to escape a fate worse than regular ol' death.

Underneath the mostly high-school play caliber acting and nonexistent special effects is a still-powerful little parable. It's funny, but watching "NOTLD" for the first time, I found it an interesting transitional movie between "classic" and "modern" horror films. In black-and-white, with a blaring symphonic soundtrack like any number of '50s monster movies, with cheesy actors - yet the movie features an escalating amount of gore, and a nihilistic core unlike its predecessors. There's no happy ending in store here. Another thing that sets aside "NOTLD" from the crowd is that the male hero (Duane Jones) is black - rather revolutionary in the '60s, really. However, Romero has said he didn't cast Jones intentionally, but just picked the best actor for the job. Regardless of intent, having a black man be the leader of the survivors certainly puts an interesting subtext on the movie - and renders its bleak, ironic end all the more startling.

"NOTLD" starts very much like a traditional monster movie, but its unrelenting nature also was quite unique at the time. The movie isn't gory at all at the start, and the zombie makeup seems to consist of blank stares and a little dirt. But once the siege in the farmhouse begins, the zombies get more and more oppressive, and the gruesome fate of a couple of would-be escapees suddenly tears the movie into really gritty territory, with shots of zombies gleefully eating body parts. "NOTLD" is still quite tame by modern standards, but there's a powerful spell it casts, once you get past the rather slow and dull first 40 minutes or so. (Am I the only one to note panicky survivor Harry Cooper's (Karl Hardman) unsettling resemblance to current "Daily Show" cast member Rob Corddry?)

Romero's notoriously thrifty, and "NOTLD" cost a mere $114,000 to produce. And boy, does it show. (Admittedly, the ultra-crappy no-name DVD I rented from Netflix didn't help - "NOTLD" is one of these movies that have been put out on DVD about 42 times so far, and I ended up getting the most basic, low-frills edition out there apparently, with a very poor transfer of an already-low budget film.)

The "Dead" movies have fanatical support out there on the Net, it seems, so it's interesting to come to them as a novice and see what all the fuss is about. Despite my rather zombie-free past, I do see the appeal of the concept - losing your identity, being swept up in a horde of grim not-quite-death, being eaten alive; there's metaphors by the bucketful in zombies, and I'm hardly the first to mention that. (Not that it quite fits anywhere in this post really, but I'm also a big admirer of the current "Walking Dead" comic book and its serialized, character-driven approach to the time-honored zombie survivor tale.)

I'll be checking out "Dawn of the Dead" this weekend (having seen the remake, of course, I imagine it'll feel a little less fresh to me, but it'll be interesting to compare them anyway), and continue "Zombie-Rama" next week sometime.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

TV: '30 Days'

If you've got the FX Network on cable, give the dial a spin tonight and check out Morgan Spurlock's reality TV series "30 Days" if you haven't. It's one of the most rewarding shows on TV right now, based on the two episodes I've seen, and a rare gem among the slapdash reality TV genre. It's a simple premise, coming from the "Super Size Me" director who notoriously lived on McDonald's food for one month and lived (barely) to talk about it. For his TV series, Spurlock takes that premise and expands it - for 30 days, subjects will live a lifestyle very different from what they're used to. In last week's episode, a diehard West Virginia Christian was transplanted to Michigan to live in a devout Muslim community and live and pray by Muslim law. The results were thoughtful, funny and overwhelmingly open-minded.

Spurlock himself was the guinea pig in the first episode, where he and his fiancee moved to Ohio to work and live on the national minimum wage - still a shameful $5.15 an hour - and learning just how impossible that really is. It was a great show - I'm no millionaire (welcome to journalism), yet even I'm making a few times minimum wage by now. Can you imagine surviving on $5 an hour, let alone doing it with kids? Spurlock is an old-fashioned liberal, Michael Moore in a gentler, more genial form. He's an appealingly easygoing host who isn't too preachy (he even has a nifty blog).

Tonight's episode, "Straight/Gay," involves a very homophobic straight man who moves into San Francisco's gay neighborhood, The Castro. If it's like the episodes before it, it'll be fascinating TV. Too often, reality shows appeal to the lowest common denominator, reveling in people at their worst and ugly behavior (Paris Hilton, I'm looking at you). "30 Days" works because at its heart, it's an optimistic show that wants to teach us a little something about worlds outside our direct experience. Check it out.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

LIFE: Owie owie owie

Happy Fourth to all you Americans out there. I regret I am forced to work today although only for a half-day and I do get holiday pay, so it all works out. We'll take Peter over to a fireworks display tonight if we can stay up that long; then tomorrow night the cool African band Ladysmith Black Mambazo is playing a free concert at the park in town (we have a great free concert series over the summer here).

Yesterday, the three of us went to hang out at a local park, where Peter managed to get his first somewhat nasty injury of his young life. He's an explorer boy for sure, always running around, heedless of peril, up concrete steps and on tables and so forth. So while running around yesterday at the park with a pointy stick in his hand, Peter fell over. It's a common enough thing, until we saw the blood. Somehow (squeamish readers be warned), he caught his finger on part of the stick and -- ewwwgh -- ripped off most of one tiny little fingernail. Ye gods. Of course, mom and I were far more horrified and freaked out than he was. He wailed for a couple minutes, then settled into a kind of bemused shock at the injury. We carted him back to the car, washed him, put a couple bandages on it, and within a few minutes he was ready to run around the playground again. It was a nasty-looking injury, and I imagine I'd still be yelling about it if I did it, but apparently baby boys are partly made of rubber.

It wasn't the worst pain in the world and could have been nastier, and I'm sure with his disposition he'll inevitably get hurt worse and our first trip to the hospital will happen (my brother and I gave our parents many wonderful moments like that when we were kids). Being a parent is partially being in a perpetual state of fear, I read somewhere recently. Totally true, too.

Saturday, July 2, 2005

BOOKS: What I Read, June

Image hosted by
From "Orwell: A Life," George Orwell, 1946, a few years before his death from tuberculosis at age 47. It's a cheery Friday photo!

Halfway through the year and my epic attempt to chronicle all the books I read. I made it through 7 books in June, making a total of 41 as of June 30. Can I break 100 for the year? Can I stop my eyeballs from falling out of my head? What if I decide to start watching "American Idol" instead? Stay tuned!
[And for the curious, here's the year to date posts: January, February, March, April and May.]

June's books:
"Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America" by Dan Savage. America often combines a kind of public prudeness with a personal libertarianism that is one of our biggest contradictions. Sex columnist Dan Savage examines those who "give in" to their desires and the seven deadly sins in this American travelogue, which looks at greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, pride and anger and how some people indulge in them, from Las Vegas casinos to gun clubs to "swingers." Despite Savage's pretty way-out newspaper sex columns, I found "Skipping" tamer and less shocking than I thought it might be, with the chapter on gluttony (and fat-enabling "feeders") probably the most gripping chapter. Unfortunately, his liberalism is kind of preaching to the converted with me, and most of his potential readers. It's an entertaining read, though, and a decent look at some of the hedonistic parts of society.

"Eisner/Miller" edited by Charles Bronwstein. It's a book-length conversation between two of the biggest masters of the comic art form, "Sin City" creator Frank Miller and the late, great Will Eisner. For extreme comic-book nuts, obviously, but utterly fascinating if you are, as the "old" and "younger" generations go back-and-forth on everything from censorship to publishing to creativity to proper uses of zipatone. It looks at how comics have changed since Eisner was one of the pioneers in the 1940s to where they're going, and makes great points on a variety of subjects. Packed with nice art, too. A must for any comic book fan's library.

"Orwell: The Life" by D.J. Taylor is a curious book, which I alternated between loving and hating while reading it. I'm a huge admirer of George Orwell, and I'd easily put his "1984" in my top 5 books of all time list. This is the first biography of the former Eric Blair I'd read, and the life is fascinating – undercover journalist, member of the Burma Police, aspiring socialist, volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and victim of crippling tuberculosis. Yet I felt like author Taylor was overly intrusive, borderline pretentious in his approach -- his labyrinthine prose is the opposite of Orwell's clean, cool efficiency. Taylor works mightily to humanize Orwell, to seek out details of his life, but too often he's speculative or trails off with "we'll never know" or some such. His Orwell is often seen as cold and forbidding, yet at the same time there's many nice details that illustrate a conflicted figure torn between a classic British boarding school upbringing and a deep sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. Ultimately, something central about Orwell seems to elude Taylor, keeping this book from great biography. The book also bogs down with name-dropping of long-forgotten literary figures and dull analyses of pre-World War II socialist organizational efforts. I wouldn't say I don't recommend the book - it's inspired me to read some of Orwell's work that I've missed - but I'm curious to find another Orwell biography sometime that isn't so much of a slog to get through.

"The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed" by John Vaillant. An amazing book that knits together Northwest history, Indian legend, logging ethics and more into something fascinating. I wrote a full review recently for the day job; check it out here.

“A Long Way Down,” by Nick Hornby. I do like Nick Hornby's novels, lighthearted, conversational and funny novels about interesting, quirky people trying to be better. But like 2001's so-so "How To Be Good," Hornby writes himself into a corner with this novel. It starts with a premise that grabs you, but is impossible to really follow up well -- four very different strangers meet on a roof on New Year's Eve, each intending to commit suicide. They don't, right away, obviously, but instead form a peculiar bond as they try to convince each other life is worth living -- or it isn't. Hornby gives it a go, and this is still witty, humane work, but it's hobbled from the start by its premise. I didn't feel for a minute that most of these people were really going to kill themselves, and with the exception of one of the four, a mother with a severely disabled son, none of their rather self-centered and egotistical problems felt all that crippling. Hornby spends the entire book trying to escape the trap his premise has put him in; while it's an entertaining, quick read, "A Long Way Down" never quite feels truthful to me.

"Created in Darkness By Troubled Americans: The Best Of McSweeney's Humor Category" by Dave Eggers, editor. Collecting all kinds of short humorous pieces from the good people at McSweeney's magazine and Web site. Humor is utterly subjective, of course, but if you like McSweeney's/Eggers-esque humor (i.e. their lists), you'll dig this; it's a quick read, but there were some gut-busting bits in here that will appeal to us geeks, including "Unused Audio Commentary by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Recorded Summer 2002, for the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring DVD (Platinum Series Extended Version), Part One," and "Journal of a New COBRA Recruit." Nothing that will change your life, but a fun beach read.

"Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I don't typically read economics books, but Levitt was on "The Daily Show" recently and the book, which takes an analytical look at a variety of subjects, sounded interesting. And it is, as economist Levitt argues that many apparent mysteries of everyday life don't need to be so mysterious: they could be illuminated and made even more fascinating by asking the right questions and drawing connections. This includes looks at drug-dealer economics, real estate agent tactics, the history of the Ku Klux Klan, what people's baby name choices mean, or perhaps the book's most controversial portion, considering how the legalization of abortion and a drop in crime are related. Thoughtful stuff, in accessible language, with lots of good anecdotes and material for chewing over. One flaw though, and the creators make no bones about it in their foreword and afterword, is that there's no central thesis or point being made. It makes for a rather scattered book thinly linked by a kind of "way of thinking," yet it's hard to pin down. That keeps it from being quite as essential as thematically similar books like "Guns, Gems And Steel" or "The Tipping Point." Nevertheless, worth a spin.