Wednesday, June 30, 2004

So I was hanging out with a U.S. Senator today and... OK, we weren't "hanging out" exactly, but I was in the room with him. U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, one of Oregon's two reps in Washington, stopped by the paper today while on a tour of Oregon's hinterlands, and I sat in with the rest of our 'editorial board' (includes me and other editors and the publisher) for an hour or so. We talked about Iraq, forestry, gay marriage, et cetera. For a more moderate Republican (and the chair of Bush's Oregon campaign), Smith's a decent fellow, which I imagine you have to be to make it in his line of work. Imposing chin, hair immaculate, and the sensation that whatever you're saying to him is REALLY IMPORTANT. Even though I'm politically opposed to most of his views he has the knack of making you halfway support him when he's talking. Like other politicos I've met, it's their gift.

Anyways, when he started talking about Kerry's socialist agenda and I tuned out a little, I wondered what it is about the word "Senator" before one's name that makes such an impression. You put "congressman" or "mayor" before someone's handle and it sounds OK, true, but "Senator" -- well, that shines up any name. "Senator Glittlespitt" doesn't even half sound bad. So it came to me that even though I don't have perfect hair and my chin is settling into its own remains that I should take the initiative now. No, I'm not running for Congress. But I think I might legally change my first name to "Senator." "Senator Dirga" -- hell, that's got a ring to it. At last, I am respectable.
This and that...
Every week I change the little "kicker" at the top up there below the "Spatula Forum" title. I use a different song lyric each week depending on what I'm listening to and throw my name in there (modeled after what one of my favorite newspaper columnists, the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Carroll, does) somehow. Last week's was from Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," "Phone my family, tell them I'm lost on the sidewalk." The week before that was a lyric by The Pixies. Can anyone guess this week's? This has been your pointless musical nerd digression of the day.

Just over 24 hours until I see "Spider-Man 2." Picked up my ticket last night for opening day. My spider-sense is tingling in anticipation of my most-awaited action movie of the year.

Still reeling over "Fahrenheit 9/11." Particularly notable to me, politics aside, is how well the movie did opening weekend. It made $24 million dollars, not only exceeding the ENTIRE box office take of Michael Moore's last movie "Bowling For Columbine," but it also instantly became the highest-grossing documentary of all time (excepting IMAX movies and special releases). What's interesting is if you look at the "Top 10" documentaries of all time according to box office mojo, you'll find that EIGHT of the top 10 money-makers were released just in the past two years. That's impressive. I loves a good documentary, and many on that list, such as "Touching The Void," "Winged Migration" and "Spellbound" are among the best movies I've seen lately, period. It's fantastic to see a new interest in this very valid, very pertinent theatrical form. Even in a world where "White Chicks" can make $20 million dollars, it gives me hope.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Hmm. Did Bush transfer the sovereignty of Iraq two days early because of Michael Moore? Because frankly, at this point, I wouldn't put anything past him.
Yep, I saw 'Fahrenheit 9/11' last night, along with several other liberal media buddies from the newspaper. I'm still digesting it, but it's by far Moore's best movie, scathingly partisan, humorous and devastatingly powerful all at the same time.
Moore restrains himself here, carefully building a case against George W. Bush brick by brick and never relenting. From the 2000 "election" to the Bush family's ties with the Saudis to the failed war in Afghanistan to the erosion of our civil liberties post-9/11 to the human effect of the Iraqi war, it's all here. It's a movie everyone should see if only to argue over. It's a powerfully controlled movie, lacking the wandering focus that marred "Bowling For Columbine" a bit for me. And only Michael Moore can have you laughing one moment by showing Bush and Saudi leaders commingling to the tune of "Shiny Happy People" and then tear your heart out by showing you wounded Iraqi children.
What's disturbing to me is that the movie's case isn't that Bush and co. are the heart of all evil -- even if sometimes it seems that way -- but instead, that they're motivated by common, pathetic greed. The amount of financial ties and money matters this movie links to the Bush family is staggering. And I thought about that at one point when Moore takes us right here to my state of Oregon, where Oregon State Police have suffered such severe cutbacks that around a dozen troopers are all that's left to patrol the highways of an entire STATE of 3.5 million people. Funny how little of that Halliburton contract money finds its ways to the little guy.
And that's Moore's cause as always, the "little guy," and while his movie is definitely anti-Iraq war, it's pro-troops and he's devastatingly adept at getting the undiluted, worried voices of the 19- and 20-year-old kids we have fighting our war for us over there. He shows this sadly oblivious kids talking about war like it's a video game, and then shows us a bunch of greedheads at a conference talking about the "profit" Iraq can make for businesses. His interview with a widowed mother is hard to watch, but you can't tear your eyes away. She's one of hundreds now.
Of course, this movie isn't like to change too many people's minds, because we're stubborn as a nation. But it's a welcome tonic to see Moore's movie do so well, and be reminded that FOX news, Rush, Ann Coulter et al don't have the market on partisan chest-thumping. I'm a journalist so I'm supposed to be "objective" and I strive to be when I'm on the clock, but frankly I'm counting the days 'til November 2 and this dangerous, corrupt administration is hopefully removed.
It's real curious that Bush decided to transfer power today -- two days early -- right after it's announced that 'Fahrenheit 9/11' which basically rips him a new one, was the number one movie in America for the weekend, making $20 million and shattering all records for documentary, Michael Moore movies, political power and so forth. I'm not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but gee, this one has me wondering.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

I'm a pop culture nut. So I love to read other people's pop culture musings. A great little book I just finished is Chuck Klosterman's "Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs." Besides the best title in the history of the cosmos, it's just a fun, frothy and surprisingly insightful little run through the pop culture blender, collecting articles and essays Klosterman's written for publications such as SPIN and ESQUIRE.
Like Dave Eggers or Nick Hornby, Klosterman does a fine job taking the epherma of today's world from Tellytubbies to Pamela Anderson and rambling about them for a few thousand words. Often, books of this nature can be smug and get dated really fast, but Klosterman might hold up a little better than that. Sure, he's snarky as hell, but funny and rarely vicious in his essays, and I particularly like his tactic of taking a reference-filled, name-dropping pop culture rant and giving it a meaningful spin at the end. Some fun words of wisdom from this tome:
* "For upwardly mobile women in their twenties and thirties, John Cusack is the neo-Elvis," on how movies like "Say Anything" make romantic love seem unattainable in real life.
* "The Sims forces you think about how even free people are eternally enslaved by the processes of living," on his addiction to "The Sims" video game.
* A hilarious defense of Billy Joel, a guilty pleasure of mine: "Billy Joel ... is not cool in the kitschy, campy, "he's so uncool he's cool" sense ... He has no intrinsic coolness, and he has no extrinsic coolness. If cool was a color, it would be black -- and Billy Joel would be sort of burnt orange."
* On the suffering nature of cereal cartoon mascots: "Random children endlessly taunt Sonny the Cuckoo Bird with heaping bowls of Cocoa Puffs, almost like street junkies waving heroin needles in the face of William S. Burroughs."
* And from the required "I'm a part of the 'Star Wars' generation" essay, a witty dissection of "Empire Strikes Back": "In a roundabout way, Boba Fett created Pearl Jam."
Now, none of this is terribly deep, but it's funny and Klosterman knows it won't change the world. Other essays touch on a Guns 'n' Roses tribute band, riffs on "Saved By The Bell" and "The Real World," or serial-killer celebrity. Only a few essays about sports kind of missed the mark for me. I don't know if 10 years from now this book will seem as dated as "Generation X" to me, but right now, it's a spunky tonic. The thing is, we're surrounded by pop culture these days, from "American Idol" to "Fahrenheit 9/11," and reality and pop are pretty much indistinguishable. Even our elections become pop events. It still all matters, though, even if we're not exactly sure why or how. "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs" is billed in its subhead as "A Low Culture Manifesto." Who says Billy Joel doesn't deserve the same serious analysis as Bob Dylan, anyway? This book's worth checking out, now in paperback.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Let's do the quick hits thing today, 'cause it's Friday and my stomach hurts and I want to go to eat BBQ for lunch.

ITEM! Great coverage by our news team on the wounding of three local soldiers in Iraq Wednesday. Like the death of Reagan, it's one of those moments when the newsroom pops into Mach 3 and shows what it can do. Fortunately it looks like the three guys will be OK, although the extent of their injuries isn't certain.

ITEM! So Vice President Dick Cheney told a senator to "fuck yourself" on the floor of the Senate yesterday. But as usual the right-wing apologists, who would make excuses for the Bushs if the president was found sodomizing a dead whale in the Rose Garden, will find a way to make this Kerry's fault somehow. You know, everyone uses the "F" word on occasion. It's human nature. That I have no problem with. It's the hypocrisy of the self-proclaimed moralists in the White House that bugs me. Let's use the wayback machine to go back in time a bit: (from The Washington Post) In December, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry was quoted using the same word in describing Bush's Iraq policy as botched. The president's chief of staff reacted with indignation. "That's beneath John Kerry," Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said. "I'm very disappointed that he would use that kind of language. I'm hoping that he's apologizing at least to himself, because that's not the John Kerry that I know." Is calling Bush's policy "fucked" worse than cussing out a U.S. Senator on the floor of the Senate? Is Cheney apologizing to himself in an undisclosed location as we speak? Pot, meet kettle.

ITEM! If you think you're having a bad day, you need to go rent 'Touching The Void, a documentary of sorts about a Peruvian climbing expedition gone horribly wrong. Falling off a mountain and breaking your leg is just the start of one rotten day. This is an amazing flick, using interviews and very effective reenactments to put you in the footsteps of climbers. Things happen in this film that if it weren't based on a true story, you'd say, "no way, man." Harrowing, gripping stuff and gorgeous scenery to boot. I dreamt I was climbing glaciers after watching this.

ITEM! Hoping to see "Fahrenheit 9/11" this weekend with some folks from work. Will post comments later on.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Holy smokes! Superboy lives.
The inevitable has happened: A couple of our county soldiers have been wounded in Iraq. Very sketchy details at this point, all we know are their names. We have a high population of military folk here, like most poorer rural areas, and a lot of local National Guardsmen are in Iraq.

It's infuriating to me. Whether or not you agree with the war, our armed forces are clearly undermanned, relying heavily on 'part-time' soldiers like these guardsmen to carry the load that professional lifetime soldiers should have to do. Far too many guardsmen and reservists are paying the price in Iraq for Bush's failure to understand the scope of this conflict.

Just hope these guys are OK, no word yet.
Hey, it's Thursday, and it's trashy gross comedy reviews day!

‘Along Came Polly’
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl are totally different. Girl is free spirit. Boy is uptight geek. Will boy and girl fall in love?
“Along Came Polly,” last winter’s surprise box office hit, stars Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston doing that age-old tale. It’s the kind of movie that raises a few chuckles without ever quite being truly memorable.
Stiller is Reuben Feffer, a “risk analyst” for an insurance company who is cuckolded by his wife on their honeymoon. Dejected, he meets an old high school friend, Polly (Aniston), who he begins dating. But Polly’s a swingin’ girl full of zest for life, while Reuben’s the kind of guy who calculates the risks and advantages of everything he does. Do they have a shot together?
While funny in spurts, “Polly,” written and directed by John Hamburg, has an amateurish quality. It lurches randomly from romantic comedy to gross-out humor. The gross bits have nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and they’re often just childishly lame.
Part of the problem is that we’re given no reason Polly would fall for a spaz like Reuben. No effort is made to make her more than a quirky stereotype. Aniston tries, but you can’t make gold out of a script written of lead. As for Stiller, he really needs to stop playing the same tightly wound control freak. Is there any real difference between Reuben or his “Meet The Parents” and “There’s Something About Mary” characters?
Frankly, it’s the supporting actors that make “Polly” more fun than it is — you’ve got Alec Baldwin as a gravel-voiced boss, Hank Azaria as a funny unintelligible Frenchman, and particularly, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a slob actor pal of Stiller’s.
Stiller and Aniston are talented, but this movie is just lowest common denominator time-waster. Underneath all the poop jokes, “Polly” is a kind of sweet comedy about a broken man finding new love. It’s a shame they didn’t try to play it without gross humor to drive the teens in, because it could’ve been a much better movie.
**1/2 of ****

Rude, energetic and unapologetically immature, “Eurotrip” is the kind of goofy teen comedy that sometimes is just what you’re in the mood for.
After high school senior Scotty (Scott Mechlowitz) is dumped by his girlfriend, he decides to head to Germany to meet his foreign female pen-pal. With his buddy Cooper (Jacob Pitt), and twins Jenny and Jamie (Travis Wester and Michelle Trachtenberg), the group encounter hi-jinks galore as they head from England to Germany, offending everyone in-between.
As teen sex comedies go, “Eurotrip” is fresh and not too vicious. Like the first “American Pie,” it helps to have good characters if you’re going to make a ditzy teen movie.
The teen actors are a pretty likable bunch, rather than a group of snotty anarchists. Mechlowitz comes off a bit like a young Tom Cruise, while Pitts is seriously channeling David Spade. They’re no young Brandos, but the cast makes the movie’s 90 minutes zip by.
Like “American Pie,” it’s a movie full of outrageous moments. A scene in a debauched Amsterdam sex shop is a funny squirm-inducing highlight.
We see French mimes, nude beaches, European trains and even the Pope all come in for healthy ridicule. “Eurotrip” makes fun of the wacky foreigners, but it’s pretty equal-opportunity bashing. The clueless Americans also come in for their share of the jokes.
It has no socially redeeming value, but not all movies need to, do they? If you’re feeling naughty, “Eurotrip” is a zippy little journey.
*** of ****

Thursday, June 24, 2004

The Beastie Boys have the number one record in America. Believe it or not despite my recent CD buying binge it's one I didn't buy -- and I own all five of their previous albums. Their hip-hop hi-jinks have always been a guilty pleasure for me. But for some reason, what I've heard of the new CD, From The Five Boroughs, just hasn't grabbed me. I've downloaded a few sample tracks but, while the rhyming is solid and the old attitude is there, they just aren't really jazzing me like "Intergalactic" or "Whatcha Want" did as singles. I guess I'm age-ist but I suddenly view the BB as a nostalgia act. The word is that this album is more "stripped-down" hip-hop and lacking the rich samples, jazzy breaks and free-form experimentation that made their last few albums such a joy for me. And while I'm as down with left-leaning politics as everyone, the Beasties have usually been pretty ham-fisted and lack subtlety when they start trying to get political, which seems to be a big theme with this record. ("I'm getting kinda tired of this situation/the U.S. attacking other nations" -- ehhhhh) I'll probably get "Boroughs" sooner or later in some form but for now it just isn't a priority.
What to make of Wilco? The uncategorizable band released their latest unclassifiable album, "A Ghost Is Born, yesterday. I've been digesting it ever since. Wilco is a fascinating act -- like many of my favorite bands (Beatles, Bowie, etc.), they've mutated and changed like crazy since their earlier work, becoming something wholly other from where they began. Rising from the ashes of half of alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo, Wilco was supposed to be a folksy alt-country act -- and that's what their first album, 1995's A.M., sounded like. But a decade on and four albums later, Wilco 2004 would barely recognize Wilco 1995.

"A Ghost Is Born" is willfully, obstinately experimental. A better title might have been "Fragments." It's a scattered, frail and often beautiful little record. Like most Wilco CDs, it needs many listens to fully sink in. Their "popular" breakthrough, 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," has become one of my favorites. "A Ghost Is Born" takes another step forward still -- once country/rock, Wilco is now a jamming, freeform combo that explores sonic boundaries and manages to combine bits of prog-rock, jazz, heavy metal, emo and more into a strange stew. Think Sonic Youth meets The Byrds, laced through with elements of electronica.

I'm still not sure what to make of "Ghost." I don't think it's as confident or cohesive as "Yankee," and it feels slighter somehow. There are beautiful songs, to be sure -- I particularly love the 10-minute Kraftwerk-meets-Velvet Underground jam workout of "Spiders (Kidsmoke), the jumpy pop-rock "Like A Wheel" and the album opener, chord-pounding "At Least That's What You Said." "Theologians" has a singalong feel like a lost 1970s Big Star track, while "Company In My Back" has a beautiful, glittering melody shimmering throughout. Frontman and Wilco's primary creator Jeff Tweedy has suffered from severe migraines and addiction to painkillers. The awful pain of migraines (I've had a few myself) kind of echoes throughout this album, maybe the first concept record on the subject. It feels fluttery, sparkling and vague.

But on early listens, this album also suffers from that fuzzy lack of focus. The flaws can be summed up by the grievous misstep of "Less Than You Think," a tinny piano ballad that is bloated by 12 minutes of indulgent, annoying and tuneless guitar feedback. In an Associated Press interview, Tweedy said this about the "song": “It was another way to encourage listeners to exercise their free will — to get up and turn it off." Cute. Maybe it's how Tweedy's migraines felt to him. But also a waste of disc space and energy, out of place with everything else here, and y'know, Lou Reed did the whole "an album of feedback" thing 30 years ago with "Metal Machine Music" and it wasn't that impressive then. The last song, the short those-were-the-days ode to music "The Late Greats," gets lost because it falls right after the unlistenable feedback workout.

Another thing that vexes about "Ghost" is how thin and buried in the mix Tweedy's voice is on too many tracks. Songs start in whispers and meander on for minutes before suddenly bursting into loud chords. The Pixies or Nirvana did the loud-soft dynamic thing well, but here it just seems like poor production. Tweedy's voice has never been a strong, dynamic one and losing it further in the sound is a shame because I love his lyrics, open-ended and strange poetry like on the tune "Muzzle of Bees." I feel like he's trying to hide them from listeners here.

Harping aside, I'm still enjoying a lot of "Ghost," but I hope it's a digression on the side for Wilco, and that they focus a little harder on making songs and less on studio mechanics for their next one. It's too early to give this a final grade, but right now I'm leaning toward giving it a B.

Edit: OK, listening to it still more last night, the flaws seem a little less important than the highlights. Also, Tweedy's voice doesn't seem QUITE so buried if you listen in a quiet room rather than while driving in a car or in a noisy living room with a baby babbling. :D Let's call it a B+ if we must grade and be done with it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Michael Moore will be in the news a lot this week, with the opening of his new documentary, 'Fahrenheit 911.'. You'll hear a lot of chatter about it, about how Moore is part of a 'vast left-wing conspiracy,' about conservative movements to boycott and suppress the film, et cetera et cetera yadda yadda. And the talking heads will talk about it as they are wont to do. Like this:

I'm of two minds about Moore myself. I agree strongly with most of his views but the way he presents them, I do have some problems with. He tends to shoot himself in the foot and go too far (Oscar speech, anyone?). I can see where if you're a right-winger you'd find his acerbic hectoring as vile as I personally find Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, et al. I actually feel his Oscar-winning "Bowling For Columbine" wasn't his best work, a tonally mixed bag with some very effective moments and a few clunkers. I prefer the work he did in his TV series The Awful Truth and TV Nation, where he'd take on a particular target each week and stick it to them. It might be that Moore's energy works better in short form than long form. Either way, though, I'm definitely interested in seeing "911" and what he's come up with this time. With all the Bush-kissing apologists out there (Hello, "fair and balanced" FOX news!), us fading liberals will take what we can get. :)

Roger Ebert over at his web site has posted one of the best pieces on Moore I've read for a while, one which manages to avoid either liberal lionization of Moore or conservative demonization. He rightfully takes Moore to task for some blurry fact-spinning, but also gives him props for what he does manage to accomplish. It's a shame that when the name "Michael Moore" comes up, few commentators can be quite so rational.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Happy Father's Day to me! It's strange to have holidays that mean one thing to you for most of your life suddenly start to mean something else. For years Father's Day to me meant remembering my own Dad, getting the gifts and cards and so forth, phone calls when I got older. But now all of a sudden I'm the subject of a Father's Day. Little Peter got me a nice little plastic folding map of Portland this morning (our other one is about 30 acres in size and torn to pieces) and a card with his handprint on it where he wrote this:
I love my Daddy
he makes me fly and
bounce and gives me
toys and he's the best
Daddy ever! (at least I think that's
what goo aaEEEgah means)

...I think Mom had some hand in translating some of that. ;)

Anyway yesterday was one of those days where fatherhood isn't all sweetness and happy faces. With our friend Sun we went up to Eugene for the day and their fantastic Saturday Market, eating fancy food and eyeballing the people, then we did a little shopping. Peter was great about 2/3 of the day, but started getting cranky in mid-afternoon. Then to our dismay he spent the ENTIRE hourlong drive back south screaming, whining and crying at the top of his lungs. Not so fun. He's usually good in cars but yesterday was a cranky day. It's very hard to not get distracted driving with a baby going WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA. We stopped a couple times to feed him/change him but something more existential seemed to bother him. Just tired and not able to sleep I think. By the end of the trip we were all gritting our teeth and tuning the poor lad out. He perked up when we got home and has been a smiling angel all this morning to make up for it. My friend Sun had the patience of a saint because if it were me I would've hitchhiked home probably.

But you take the good with the not-so-much good. When most of it is as good as it has been even the bad moments don't seem too rough by comparison.

And he's 4 months old and just started to be able to stay sitting up on his own! What a man! (Very wobbily, but hey...)

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Hey, I get a three-day weekend off work, it's a blazingly hot Oregon solstice, and my old friend Sun is in town for the weekend to see the bay-bee, so we're off to the cool Cascades waterfalls for the day. Bloggomania will resume in earnest on Monday or so.

To fill that aching void, here's a "classik column" from June, 2000, particularly appropriate because both my wife and Sun are vegetarians and I'm --- not so much.

I have tried to be a vegetarian. I have really tried.
My vegetarian flirtations began in high school, when, of course, my girlfriend was a vegetarian and to impress her I gave up meat as well. For about four months, anyway.
My periodic vegetarian episodes over the years have often been tied to that kind of outside stimulus – the girlfriend, the social crowd I was in, et cetera.
I have never particularly loved hardcore red meat, anyway – I’ll always go for sushi or shrimp over steaks or sausage – so it usually wasn’t too much of a challenge to veg out for a while.
I even married a vegetarian, so there’s not a lot of ground chuck or offal in the ol’ household fridge, and I’m not so attached to meat that I miss it much. I indulge occasionally in restaurants, and that’s about it.
In college, my best pal Kemble and I were both part-time vegetarians a great deal of the time (again, the girlfriend influence, usually).
Kemble took to it much better than I did, so when I went to visit my old buddy down in his current stomping grounds of Austin, Texas, last weekend, I expected lots of sprouts and tofu in our diet.
Instead, we ended up at a place I will call The Red Meat Hall Of Doom.
About an hour west of Austin is a spot called Enchanted Rock, a big dome of granite like the kind we have out here, except utterly alone and unique out in the middle of Texas hill country. The locals there climb the slow-rising dome and stare down at the green and brown rolling hills – on a clear day, you can see forty miles easily.
After our rock-climbing adventure, Kemble and I detoured to the flyspeck town of Llano, Texas, where he told me I’d eat the best barbeque I’d ever seen in my life.
The joint – one cannot call it anything else, not in Llano – was a place called Cooper’s, and you could gauge its popularity with the locals by the number of battered pick-ups in the parking lot with farm dogs in the cab.
You go to Cooper’s and stand in line in the parking lot, where a bunch of huge grills are set up and raw, red meat in all its permutations bubbles over the heat – pork chops, brisket, ribs, turkey sausage and more. The bearded chef wears a camouflage apron and has probably been cooking meat since he was ten years old. Huge stacks of hickory logs are in the parking lot, awaiting their turn in the flames.
You do not read a menu at Cooper’s. You go up to the grill and point, picking your meat then and there without preamble. The cook spears the meat and slaps it onto a plastic tray – no plates at Cooper’s.
You then take your tray of steaming, dripping meat into the tin building that looks like a high school cafeteria and give it to the counterman, who weighs it, wraps it and charges you for it.
You pay for your meat by the pound.
You then grab your “fixins” – beans, sweet barbecue sauce, apple cobbler so fine it belongs in Heaven and iced tea in a styrofoam cup.
It’s all terrible for you, I’m sure, but it’s unadorned and simply some of the best red meat I’ve had in my life, erasing every piece of tofu I’ve ever tasted.
What good is life, anyway, without a little bit of barbecue?
The people in Llano know if you’re a stranger in town, and they don’t hold it against you. The average age in Cooper’s was about 67, and the elderly folk there took us right in, chatting amiably about whatever.
The woman next to us sat down with her plate, and then pulled out a huge quart pickle jar from her purse. She took out some pickles for herself and her husband, and offered some to us.
“Grandma makes her own pickles,” she told us with a wink.
At one point during this food orgy Kemble and I looked at each other, and remembered the long-haired vegetarians we were in college, and knew our past selves wouldn’t know what the heck to make of us now as we chomped down on brisket and ribs.
Kemble and I spent hours groaning and moaning following this decadent gluttony, fingering our distended abdomens and mumbling about what obese fools we were, all the while knowing we’d do it again in a second.
Grandma makes her own pickles there, and perhaps Cooper’s ought to throw in a free angioplasty with every meal, but it’s the kind of meal that makes a man quit being a vegetarian. Again.
Only in Texas…

Friday, June 18, 2004

Drool... a visit to the set of the new "Batman Begins" movie can be found right here at Newsweek's web site. Man, this is sounding better and better all the time. "Memento" director Christopher Nolan clearly has his heart in the right place. And I love this line from the article: "The new chapter … is called "Batman Begins," presumably because "Batman Sucked The Last Time So We're Starting Over" sounds too clunky." As someone who has STILL never managed to watch the unholy abomination that was 1997's "Batman & Robin" all the way through (never made it to theater, rented it, caught bits on TV), I fully look forward to a Schwarzenegger-free installment next year.

Another great line that has me looking forward to star Christian Bale's take on the caped crusader: "On this particular day, Bale has been in the Batsuit for nine hours, and his brain is starting to boil. But he keeps up his good humor. After one take, Nolan instructs him to try a line again with more intensity, and Bale answers with a riff inspired by "This Is Spinal Tap": "How much more Batman can you get? The answer is: none. None more Batman."

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Just finished reading The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, a witty, thought-provoking and very readable short novel by Mark Haddon. It's about a 15-year-old autistic British boy who fancies himself a detective, and begins investigating the case of a dead dog in his neighborhood. Now, it could've been awful, "Rain Man" meets "Columbo," but it's written with understanding and a lot of humor by Haddon.
The hero of the book, Christopher John Francis Boone, narrates and we see the world through his eyes. Haddon inserts little graphics and charts to show us Christopher figuring out the world around him. Haddon has an understanding of autism, having spent several years working with autistic children. He doesn't play it for laughs or cheap sentiment. Autism is a hard thing to understand, as it creates a kind of separate universe for people who deal with it, with a system of rules and barriers unknowable to the rest of us. Haddon does one of the best jobs I've yet seen at conjuring an austic's world for us. Haddon's language is simple, but the story he tells is pretty profound. "Curious Incident" also reminded me a bit of the great "Adrian Mole" books by Sue Townsend. A quick, short read, it's a good novel worth seeking out.
Spending far too much money lately for someone with a 4-month-old baby. I told myself I'd cut down discretionary spending when Peter was born, since the plan is for Avril not to work for his whole first year if we can swing it, but June is a bad month for me. In the past week or so I've bought, god help me:
* The new CDs from PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth -- only listened to SY so far, but it's excellent
* "Song Of Susanna," the sixth book in Stephen King's excellent "Dark Tower" series
* "The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season" DVD set. How can you pass up a set with "Mr. Plow" on it?
I'll do better in July, honest. Um, except for the new Wilco CD coming out next week...

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

A couple movie reviews to throw your way --
‘Bubba Ho-tep’
Some movies become cult movies over time. And others are born to be cult movies.
“Bubba Ho-tep” was a cult movie from the day filming began. How else would you categorize a horror comedy with a serious subtext about aging that stars Elvis Presley, a black John F. Kennedy and a mummy?
But what’s odd is that despite the weirdness, or perhaps because of it, “Bubba” is actually kind of a great movie.
Bruce Campbell, best known for starring in the “Evil Dead” series, plays a sixty-something Elvis Presley living in a Texas nursing home, suffering from old age and a general malaise. He faked his death years ago, but now is consumed by bitterness and regret.
Despite the elaborate makeover Campbell gets for the film, his performance transcends the latex. He gives Elvis a crotchety, fighting spirit.
Elvis soon hooks up with an elderly African-American rest home resident who’s convinced that he’s President John F. Kennedy (“They dyed me!,” JFK, played by the great Ossie Davis, tells the King). The dynamic duo become involved in investigating some strange deaths at the rest home, and the case leads them to a thousands-of-years-old curse. Can the King and Kennedy beat back an ancient evil?
Oh, and to top it all off, Elvis has rather gruesome and debilitating problems with his, um, “little King,” if you will.
As you can guess, “Bubba Ho-tep” isn’t for everyone. Directed by Don Coscarelli, the man behind kooky flicks like “The Beastmaster” and the “Phantasm” series, it’s a weird, foulmouthed hybrid of low-budget horror and psychological drama. Elvis pretty much spends the first half-hour lying in his bed complaining. It’s got a slow pace — and unlike most horror flicks, its “stars” are both decrepit senior citizens. No screaming teens in sight.
But “Bubba” is also a strangely funny and touching oddball experience, filled with the kind of witty one-liners movie geeks quote to each other at parties. How can you not love a movie with a line like, “I think you know what I’m gettin’ at Mr. President. We’re gonna kill us a mummy”?
What’s surprising, and resonant, about “Bubba” is how sincere it is. It doesn’t make fun of Elvis nearly as much as you’d think. It’s a cult flick to be sure, but it’s a cult I don’t mind belonging to. It’s a guarantee you won’t see anything quite like this movie this year.
(Rated R for language, sexual content, walking dead)
***1/2 of four

Or, Ben Affleck’s losing streak continues. The limp sci-fi thriller “Paycheck” combines aspects of “Minority Report” and “Total Recall” — without actually being as good as either of those movies.
Affleck is Jennings, a computer whiz who works for big companies on top-secret jobs, getting his memory selectively “erased” afterward so he can’t leak secrets, and taking home nice paychecks for his work. When an old friend who owns a Microsoft-like software company (Aaron Eckhart) offers him a huge job, one that would require him to erase three years of his memory, Jennings takes it, with reservations.
Yet when the job ends, Jennings finds he’s been betrayed and becomes a hunted man, part of a dangerous cat-and-mouse game manipulated by forces he doesn’t understand.
Because this is directed by movie mayhem maestro John Woo, all this memory mystery boils down to is a bunch of unexciting explosions and action sequences in the end.
“Paycheck” has a taut, exciting beginning, and behind all the nonsense are intriguing ideas about memory, time travel and fate. But the movie jumps the shark hard about halfway through, turning into a substandard, bloated action movie. It’s filled with plot holes you can drive a truck through.
What happened to John Woo? This film lacks the spark of his hugely influential Hong Kong flicks like “The Killer” or “Hard Boiled” or even his American work like “Face/Off.” It’s nearly a parody at some moments. Memo to Woo: Next time, lay off the shots of two men each holding guns in a standoff, and please, no doves!
Affleck is, well, Affleck. He’s at his best playing a “regular Joe” but here he’s a poor man’s Bruce Willis. Uma Thurman, so great in “Kill Bill,” is wasted in a forgettable girlfriend’s role.
Sorry, Ben. Maybe you can erase the memory of this movie from your resume.
(Rated PG-13 for action violence, language)
*1/2 of four

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Chuck Austen is widely blasted in the world of Internet geekdom as one of the worst writers in comics. Here, from DC Comics' September solicitations, is the solicitation text from one of the books he writes:

Written by Chuck Austen, art by Ivan Reis and Marc Campos, cover by Arthur Adams.
Introducing Sodom & Gomorrah, a new husband-and-wife super-villain team prepared to give Superman a sound beating.

Wow, Superman goes S&M!!

So um, assuming the writer understands what the name "Sodom" implies to most these days, that would mean Sodom sodomizes and Gomorrah -- well, she gives them gonorrhea or somesuch. Or so I imagine. Can't wait 'til next month when Chuck gives us "The Social Disease and his kid sidekick, Herpes."
We packed up Peter with a very kind baby sitter yesterday and saw Harry Potter and the Prisoner Of Azkaban, third in the Potter movie series. Liked it quite a lot, and think it's definitely the best movie of the three. Although I enjoyed the first two while watching them, somehow they were so featherweight that the movie was barely over before I started forgetting them. They were slick and professional, but somehow, they felt like, as Avril put it, documentary versions of the books. Too reverent to be substantial. Director Alfonso Cuaron put a very nice spin on "Azkaban," probably my favorite of the series anyway. It's hard to pin down what the different between Cuaron and the director of the first two movies, Chris Columbus, is, but in the end it boiled down to "tone" for me. This movie truly felt magical, and I felt sucked up into Harry's world so it was real to me, rather than as if I was riding a theme park ride like with the first two films. The scene where Harry joyfully rides a hippogriff over a soaring sky and lake was possibly the moment that summed up the gleeful feelings of the book better than any part of the films so far has.

Cuaron was smart to make this a "movie," rather than obsessing over keeping every line of the books intact. As with "Lord of the Rings," I think a better film is made when the director and writer keep true to the spirit of the original work, rather than slavish fidelity to every line. I know there's a lot of Internet fanboy complaining about what was cut here and what was cut there from "Azkaban," but these cuts didn't ruin the movie at all for me. The books are still there. Abbreviated though it is, "Azkaban" is purer to Rowling's visions than anything else onscreen so far.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Reagan in the funnies
...One thing that's been sorely lacking in this week's effusive explosion of Reagan weepy, rose-colored memories and pageantry is what is perhaps his greatest legacy — I speak to you of Ronald Reagan's appearances in comic books.
Now, Reagan was a caricaturist's dream, all wrinkle, gleaming hair and squinty eyes. He turned up in comic strips and editorial cartoons so often you could wallpaper the Pentagon with 'em. But what of Reagan's adventures in superhero comics?
This is really just off the top of my head here, but there were a few in the gloriously gauche '80s. There was a lot of satire, such as the propaganda piece Reagan's Raiders, which "Toonpedia" does a great job of eviscerating right here. This one I never had the pleasure of reading but it sounds like I haven't missed much.
Another Reagan appearance, played more realistic, I recall was his cameo in #4 of the Marvel Comics miniseries The Falcon, written by James Owsley, now known as "Priest." This was actually a kinda cool series, I recall, but it reached a rather preposterous conclusion in the final issue, where a disaffected group of black street gang members kidnapped Reagan (this was before Homeland Security, you understand) and rapped it to him straight about the hood. I wish I still had a copy because it had a hilariously weird final scene where Reagan and his homies, along with Captain America of course, had a dialogue.
But the grand champion, the oddest of the oddball of Reaganian comic epherma, has to be this wonderful wackiness from the late 1980s run of that cult cabinet of comic oddballness, Captain America:

In this issue, #344, ("giant-sized," true believers!) Captain America battles Ronald Reagan, who, I kid you not, was turned into a snake-man thingie by the Serpent Society. I actually managed to hunt down a copy of the cover online, and it's a marvel, pun intended. I vaguely recall reading it back in the day, but all I remember is that Reagan got the crap beat out of him by Cap and turned back into a plain old president again. "The greatest snake of all" -- holy hannah, is there a political subtext there? If I had a copy of this today I could eBay it for millions. It may be the oddest appearance by a president in superhero comics "played straight" in modern times.
I know there must be more Reagan appearances in superhero comics, but these three are the ones that jumped out at me the most. Any others?
Still more quick comics reviews!
A few more of this week's purchases, and now I spend money no more for a few weeks...
The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye
Quick, dirty and fun zombie comics. Rick is a cop in Kentucky who's shot and goes into a coma. He wakes up, and the end of the world has happened. Zombies are everywhere, and there's only a handful of humans untouched left. Now what? "The Walking Dead" trade paperback collects the first 6 issues of this buzz-bin comic for a very decent $10 price, and it's worth checking out for fans of comic horror. Writer Robert Kirkman takes the always compelling theme of "the world ends, now what?" and does a nice spin on it. It's similar to fellow comic "Y: The Last Man," with heavy elements of "The Stand," "Dawn Of The Dead" and every other zombie movie of the past 25 years involved. Occasionally the dialogue is stiff and the action a little Hollywood for me, but the characters, as Rick wanders around the South reuniting with friends and forming a band of survivors, are solid individuals. The art by Tony Moore is cartoony, but also highly expressive and detailed and conveys the horror of the situation well. This isn't a really "deep" book so far -- like I said, I prefer "Y: The Last Man" for end-of-the-world comics for its deeper knack at getting into the head of characters and more unpredictable action -- but I compulsively read every page and probably will pick up the next volume. The big picture isn't revealed here -- we never learn why the zombies took over -- and it's more about simply trying to survive. It makes you want to know what's going to happen next, and that's not a bad feat. Grade: B+

Uncanny X-Men #444, 445
I get most of my comics by mail order but like to patronize my decent local shop on occasion, so sometime I'll buy comics on a whim. This time, I wasted a few bucks. I'd heard a few encouraging things about Chris Claremont and always good artist Alan Davis returning to "Uncanny X-Men" as part of their latest revamp of the X-titles, "Reloaded." So I picked up a couple issues here to check them out. These first two issues of the new run sum up the "status quo" dullness pretty much all X-Men titles other than Grant Morrison's run have excelled at the last 15 years or so. The entropy drips from these books. There's nothing bad about them, but neither is there much new. Alan Davis' art is nice, but frankly the inking of it is a little rushed-looking. But it's Claremont's fossilized writing that's the main problem. We see the typical X-Men clichés -- the chummy team baseball game, the rapport between Wolverine and Nightcrawler, the clunky dialogue, etc. -- but there's nothing new here. An old Alan Moore villain is exhumed and proceeds to trash the team. What I liked about Grant Morrison's run is how novel it was -- he took the X-Men off in compelling, thoughtful directions branded with his own patented weirdness. What Claremont is doing here is exactly what he did in 1986. It's hokey soap opera. For nostalgia fans, that's fine, but frankly I'd like to see the X-Men idea continue to evolve. This stuff got old long ago, and I've moved on. Grade: C-

Friday, June 11, 2004

Quick comic reviews! Some good stuff this week, and here's one of the highlights:
Identity Crisis #1
This DC miniseries has been hyped to hell and back, a murder mystery that incorporates the entire DC universe of heroes and villains. But if you discount the hype (and the ridiculous attempts to compare it to "Watchmen") and inevitable fanboy bitching online about it all, it's pretty darn good so far. Mystery novelist Brad Meltzer, who did a decent run on "Green Arrow" a while back, makes this a story about character rather than the huge cosmos-shaking nonsense that makes most crossovers in the past 10 years repetitve, cluttered numbness ("JLA/Avengers," anyone?).
I don't want to give away "who dies" this issue, although I'll note it's someone most people will never have heard of except for longtime comics fans, and it's hardly a marquee name. Yet that's not really the point. You know they aren't going to kill off Batman. The death here is real, as a comics death can be, and has a genuine effect on the Justice League and other heroes shown.
I've always had a fondness for the late '70s/early 1980s "satellite" era Justice League, and from the looks of it, the Green Arrow, Black Canary, Hawkman, Atom and Elongated Man combo will be the main part of this series. Meltzer knows that a good line of dialogue or a telling gesture matters more than seeing universes juggled about, and it's a very solid first issue, well written with great art by Rags Morales, and more importantly, the death is just part of what appears to be an even larger puzzle. If the next 6 issues can keep up the pace, this will be one of the best crossovers in a long time. It's good superhero comics, to be sure. Grade: A-

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Over at Otto's Coffee Shop, Otto had the fun idea to list your top 10 favorite concert memories. I always write too damned much anyway so I'm only going to do my top 5 and they're off the top of my head and probably would be different an hour from now, but here you go:

1. Elvis Costello, September 2002, Eugene, Oregon. One of the best songwriters of our time put on a show that would've worn out the Energizer Bunny -- nearly THREE HOURS of solid tunes, from "My Aim Is True" to "When I was Cruel," all done with impeccable showmanship, amazing singing by Elvis and a band that wouldn't quit. The show left me wrung out and exhausted for days afterward, but it still sticks in my mind as the best example of a performer giving his absolute all, no matter who he's playing to. Amazing stuff. Wish I had a tape of it, I'd listen to it still.
2. Blue Mountain, too many shows to count, 1995-1997, Oxford, Mississippi The late great Blue Mountain were a wonderful rock/country/folk band with two good friends of mine, Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt, and a constant in my college days. Singer/guitarist Cary was guaranteed to put on a barnburning show no matter the occasion, singing his heart out and making the music matter. I saw them one last time in San Francisco in 2000, and not long after that they broke up, after putting out a half-dozen or so fine CDs. Alas.
3. Sonic Youth, September 2002, Bumbershoot Festival, Seattle I've seen them twice now and Avril's seen them more than that, and they're always great, but this show was particularly spectacular to me. I remember hearing the chiming shards of noise of "Rain In Tin" echoing around the walls of the stadium, seeing the Space Needle in the sky, and thinking, ah, this is bliss.
4. Son Volt and The Old 97's, 1996, Oxford, Mississippi. I saw a lot of good shows in my college days -- Morphine, Uncle Tupelo, The Connells, R.L. Burnside, Dick Dale and many more -- but for some reason I often think of this excellent double-bill of alt-country acts from before most people knew what "alt country" was. When Uncle Tupelo broke up everyone thought Son Volt, led by Jay Farrar, would go on to bigger things than Jeff Tweedy's Wilco, but Son Volt fizzled out while Wilco is still going strong into new and stranger places. But for a moment in '96, Son Volt was on fire with their excellent, haunting hoedowns, and The Old 97's were this spunky yee-haw Texas band nobody had heard of. Together, they were a bill that lit the joint up and put on a show I've never forgotten.
5. I'm embarrassed about this one. Billy Joel, spring 1990, Oakland, Calif. What can I say? Billy Joel's a guilty pleasure and I think he's written some decent songs, although I don't think I'd be as interested in seeing him today as I was at 18. This is one of those though where the company and the experience meant more than the music, which in truth I barely recall. But it was a fun trip down to the Bay in a motorhome with my old high school pal Scott Reeves (Scott, where did you go in life?), Jennifer Hurst and others, and the first real "big stadium show" I ever went to.

And the worst, not counting lame bar bands that couldn't play a note: Smashing Pumpkins, spring 1994. They gave a very short, very lousy, very angry concert at my college, The University of Mississippi which ranks as the epitome of rock-star snottiness. Über-diva Billy Corgan apparently didn't like the venue or the crowd (which admittedly included a lot of bonehead moshing frat boys) so he staged a tantrum and left after barely 40 minutes. Smashing pumpkins, sucky concert.

Your favorite concert memories?

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

The predictable hysteria over Ronald Reagan's death is now fully under way. Expect the backlash in about 20 minutes, if it hasn't begun already. The reactions run across the spectrum, from James Kochalka's online cartoon yesterday (Two panels: first panel, James watching TV with news of Reagan's death. Second panel, James spits out: "F**k Reagan!") to folks ready to raise Reagan from the dead just so they can vote for him again: “He should be on Mount Rushmore," Humbert Cabrera, 38, of San Diego, told the Associated Press while waiting in line to view Reagan's coffin.

I already mentioned my own conflicted equivocating thoughts on Reagan the other day, which boil down to "Hate the politics, but gosh darn it, he seemed like a nice fella..." Tossing politics aside, which is tough for anyone these days, I'm always kind of fascinated by the ritual and pageantry we bring to a president dying. We Americans refused kings and queens long ago, but kill a president, and you will see them treated like kings. Nixon's death in '94 was lower-key than this, because, well, Nixon was eviler and didn't like jelly beans. The first state funeral for a president since LBJ's 31 years ago is going to be a fascinating thing to watch Friday, unless you're one of those who's already sick of the whole business. There's something oh-so-Hollywood and gloriously Americanly overblown about it all, I can't help but be intrigued by it.

For some reason, the death is provoking a kind of brow-mopping panic among some, even thought we knew it was coming for so long now. Even as I condemn media follow-the-bandwagon hysteria while engaging in it at the same time, this is probably the most covered death since Princess Di's. You've got Republican congressmen trying to get Reagan put on the $10 bill. (Really, there should be a 10-year 'cooling off' period before anything like this is done after someone's death, IMHO.) You've got 17% of Americans voting Reagan as the best president ever in a CNN online poll, beating out Washington -- y'know, the father of the country and all -- and Kennedy. However, Lincoln and FDR still smoke Reagan in the overall vote.

Give us a week and we'll all move on to other things. But for a few more days at least, it's all Reagan, all the time. Unless Ford kicks off this week, too.

Look up "stylin'" in the dictionary, and this is the picture you shall see.
Fans of great comic art, run, don't walk, to your favorite bookstore and pick up a copy of McSweeney's #13, the eccentric magazine/literary journal published by Dave Eggers. This beautiful creation may just well be the comics anthology of the year.

I got my copy last week from amazon (which has it at 30% off, hint hint) and we have been oohing and aahing over it ever since. Like most McSweeney's publications, it's visually a gorgeous book. It's well worth the $25 list price — a massive hardcover with a gorgeous fold-out dust jacket featuring a comic strip by Ware (plus two minicomics stuffed inside as a bonus), it's soaked in comics love. But it's the content that makes it a keeper. Eggers and editor Chris Ware of "Acme Novelty Library" fame have assembled a huge, nearly 300-page goodie bag of alternative cartoonist greatest hits, buffered with interesting essays and ruminations on the comic form. This is a "who's who" of modern comics artists who aren't all biff-bang superheroics (which I like just fine too, but hey, a man can't eat nothing but candy bars) — beside Ware, you've got the Hernandez Brothers, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine, Lynda Barry, Joe Sacco, Kaz, Ivan Brunetti, and many others that are "new to me." The material will give you hours of reading pleasure -- I've still only read maybe half the book. Also excellent are essays by authors like John Updike, who contributes one of my favorite essays by him, a look back at his childhood desire to be cartoonist, and a piece by Chris Ware on a 19th-century German who was one of the "first cartoonists" — and I'm still not sure if the carefully researched piece is a put-on or not. This issue is comics for adults, without being snarky or elitist about it.

Like I said, I'm still digging through this treasure trove of material, but it's just amazing. Anybody who thinks comics aren't as capable and diverse as any other art form needs to read this and rearrange their views.
In case anyone's interested in reading that D-Day profile I spent much of last week yammering about, you can see it here.

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Lookit the T-shirt I found while shopping today!

Man, I loved "M*A*S*H." Now I can wear the shirt and insist that you call me "Hawkeye."

Monday, June 7, 2004

From the Weird Tales department:
...So back before Peter was born, sometime in January, Avril lost her wedding ring. It just disappeared one weekend and she was quite bummed. It wasn't a fancy ring; neither of us go in for spending lots of dough on jewelery, so we got the set of rings back in 1999 quite cheaply, but it had sentimental value and such, especially as we approach our fifth anniversary this fall. But the ring was nowhere to be found. We figured it maybe had gone down a drain as she'd been having trouble keeping it on her finger.

Fast-forward to six months later, and we have a baby boy instead of a big belly, and Avril's making strawberry jam in the kitchen while I'm bonding with Peter. One of my quirks is that I like to suck on ice cubes sometimes and so I went to the freezer to pick one up. I dig, and I saw a funny goldish looking ice cube buried in the ice cube maker. I pull it out -- and the long-lost wedding ring appears! Avril was quite shocked.

We figure it slipped off her finger last winter when she went to get ice. And sat there all along. The ring doesn't have a diamond on it but it appeared to be "ice" just the same. Curious....

Sunday, June 6, 2004

The death of Reagan
There's nothing quite like working with a skeleton crew on a Saturday night shift at the paper when big news happens. I saw this morning on that President Reagan was in poor shape, and thought to myself, wouldn't it be typical if he died today and as acting editor of the paper I had to scramble to deal with that for Sunday's paper? Of course, that's what happened, and the last 8 hours or so were quite interesting, but in the end I think we put out a "good sheet" as my editor would call it.

We had to balance the wire coverage and local reaction to the death of Reagan with our already-planned gigantic D-Day anniversary package I've been working on all week, as well as various other breaking and already planned news. It's like putting a puzzle together to figure out how everything is going to fit. I even managed to whip out a little brief editorial commentary on Reagan's death for the paper today.

I'm a big presidential history buff, too, so I take a clinical interest in the analysis and pomp that goes with the death of a president. He's only the second one to die in the past 30 years, and the first in 10 years. The death of a president is probably as close as we come in America to treating our leaders like royalty, down to the lying in state and ceremonial mourning day.

It's a curious thing. I have to admit I pretty much am on the opposite side of everything Reagan's policies stood for, but I never quite felt the visceral dislike for him I do for our current president. Maybe it's because I "grew up" with Reagan, the first president I really remember vividly (Carter I recall only as a set of disembodied teeth). Through junior high and part of high school, he was "the" president, and so I've always viewed him more as icon than man. He could be great -- I still maintain his reaction to the Challenger explosion was one of the finest speeches ever delivered by a president -- and he could be awful. But he was a unique president, comforting in his vagueness for some reason. I think of Reagan, I think of his honey-toned voice and impeccable timing. The substance of what he said always slid off, less important than how he said it. He was a kind of hollow vessel, and you could see what you wanted in him. There was always something a little unknowable about him, a little machine-like. He was the perfect president for the glossy 1980s, and despite the inevitable canonization that will happen in coming days (remember when Nixon suddenly became a great tragic hero after his death?), Reagan was deeply flawed, but also unforgettable in his stage-polished, showman's way.

Saturday, June 5, 2004

So I've spent much of the week hunkered over doing a profile of a local veteran for the 60th anniversary of D-Day for Sunday's newspaper. The gentleman, an 88-year-old old former lieutenant on a minesweeper, was a kind fellow, still hale and hearty enough, and a pleasure to write about.

During the course of the week I did a bit of research and have been looking over other stories on the D-Day invasion. It's pretty hard for us callow twenty-and-thirtysomethings raised in the age of irony and Gulf Wars to comprehend what D-Day was like. I'm pretty much as against our current war as you can get, but it's hard to argue that D-Day, despite the massive loss of life, was an invasion that had to happen to put the final nail in Hitler's twisted dreams. The numbers are staggering: 150,000 Allied troops invaded France that day in 1944, an army that boggles the mind. Of them, thousands died. The total numbers aren't even known for certain today, but around 5,000 Allied troops, up to 10,000 Germans and as many as 20,000 civilians died in the events leading up to the invasion and in the battle itself, according to the Associated Press.

I have to admit I'm usually a cynical postmodern kinda guy, but there's not a lot you can say when confronted with numbers like that. I shook the hand of the D-Day veteran I interviewed this week, and told him it was an honor to meet him. "They saved the world," this man's son told me during our interview. That just about sums it up, too.
Meant to post this yesterday, but there you go -- Thursday's video reviews today!

‘The Cooler’
Poor William H. Macy. He’s the sad sack, the lovable loser, the hapless patsy, in films ranging from “Fargo” to “Boogie Nights.”
But Macy, while one of our most engaging character actors, isn’t the kind of guy who gets to play a romantic lead very often.
Cue “The Cooler,” a snappy, engaging Las Vegas love story and fable. Macy is Bernie, a “cooler,” a man whose luck is so bad he’s retained by a crooked casino owner, Shelly (Alec Baldwin), to hang around and “break” winning streaks with his gloomy mojo. If you’re winning, you’re losing when Bernie comes to your table.
But when Bernie falls for cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello), things start looking up — and his knack as a cooler starts to fall apart, to Shelly’s dismay.
To dig this flick, you have to suspend your disbelief a little to accept that there is such a thing as a “cooler” and that a man’s luck can be an infectious force. Indeed, “The Cooler” overplays the luck angle a bit and starts to get a little ridiculous by the ending, but for the most part it’s a taut, sexy Vegas mood piece.
Macy is a true pro, and it’s hard not to love Bernie and cheer him on even as he keeps failing. Bello is his equal as Natalie, the girl who seems too good for Bernie but who has a few secrets of her own. Baldwin very nearly steals the movie, though, with his vile casino owner, a masterful portrait of greed who longs for the “good ol’ days” of Vegas before it became a family playground. This ferocious Academy Award-nominated turn is the best Baldwin’s ever been.
“The Cooler” is surprising in how it veers wildly from light comic romance to bursts of very adult sexuality, shocking violence and drama. There’s a moment or two that’ll make you gasp with its intensity. If you’re expecting a cozy ride, it’ll throw you, but I find it holds together. It’s worth taking a gamble on for lovers of quality small films.
***1/2 of four stars

‘The Girl With A Pearl Earring’
An “art” film in every meaning of the phrase, “Girl With A Pearl Earring” takes a famous painting — the one of the title — and imagines how it was created. “Pearl Earring” is one of only a handful of paintings by the realistic Dutch artist Vermeer, but it’s a glowing image that’s justifiably legendary.
Little is actually known of Vermeer, but a novel by Tracy Chevalier, adapted here, imagines that Vermeer (Colin Firth) and an uneducated but inquisitive housemaid of his, Griet (Scarlett Johansson) forged a bond that led to art. Griet is hired by Vermeer’s family, including his jealous, ever-pregnant wife. She is fascinated by the new worlds she sees in Vermeer’s art, and gradually becomes a kind of muse to him.
This is a slow but captivating little movie, about the impact of art on a life, and it’s a visual feast, with luminous, painterly cinematography that mimics the look of Vermeer’s classic art. It comes close to dull and plodding in a few scenes, though. Take away the gorgeous look, and it seems a little like sub-par “Masterpiece Theatre.”
It’s also not truly a romance — Vermeer and Griet don’t fall madly into each other’s arms. It would’ve been unthinkable given the time. “Pearl Earring” ends up far more about what is not being said than what is said.
Johansson is excellent, one of the rare young actresses today able to pull off a period acting role without seeming too modern. Firth captures the obsessive nature of any good painter. It’s a very subtle movie, but rewarding in its quiet way. Just like a good painting, I suppose.
**1/2 of four

Thursday, June 3, 2004

The Never Ending Battle...
Ah, the comics budget. Some people have crack, I have my monthly comics purchase from the fine folks at Westfield Comics. I fondly recall the days when comics were a mere 60 cents or so a pop, instead of the $3 they average these days. I cut wayyyy back on the monthly buys a while back when Little Peter's arrival was announced, and these days I'm trying to keep the budget down to a manageable $60-$75 a month instead of the $100 or more it's been known to hit. There are more important things than comics to spend money on but it would be tragic to reach the point where we can't buy them at all.

But it's difficult. There's a lot of good stuff out there, in addition to the ever-corpulent tide of crapola. Take a look at my "likely to buy" list for Westfield's August order form and see what I mean:
Doom Patrol #3(probably won't last long but I'm a Doom Patrol junkie and loved Byrne before he got cranky)
Identity Crisis #3
Superman/Batman #13
WE3 #1
Y - Last Man #25
Amazing Spider-Man #511
Avengers #501
Daredevil #63
Essential Iron Fist Vol. 1
500+ pages of '70s kung fu goodness for $15. I love the essential books
Fantastic Four #517
Runaways #18
Secret War #3
Spectacular Spider-Man #18
Ultimate Nightmare #1
Ultimate Spider-Man Set (#63 & 64)
X-Statix #26
Powers #3
Tales from the Bully Pulpit One-Shot
(it's Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt in a time machine! How can you NOT buy it?)
Wanted #6
A1/Bloodman Special: Mr. Monster - WWII
(I loves the Mr. Monster and can't pass this up)
Love & Rockets Vol. 2 #11
Comics Buyer's Guide #1597
maybe -- I like the idea of the revamp for this although I haven't seen the final product yet.

...Fortunately or sadly "X-Statix" and "Runaways" are kicking the bucket soon so that's it for them, but there's always something to take their place. That list is $80+ of comics even with Westfield's excellent discounts (it'd probably be $100 straight from a shop). Alas, addiction is painful... Comics freaks, how much do you spend a month on average? Tell me I'm average!

Wednesday, June 2, 2004

I’m swamped at work this week working on a big D-Day survivor profile for Sunday’s paper so posting is going to be slimmer, but to feed the rabid fan base out there (hi, mom!) here’s a review I wrote last fall of the new CD by one of my favorite bands, The Shins.
Check ‘em out if you haven’t, Nik-bob gives ‘em high accolades.

Meet The Shins: Portland’s great pop music hope
It’s rare these days that you find something that feels truly new in pop music.
I first encountered The Shins at Seattle’s Bumbershoot music festival in 2002, and during their concert was wowed by their cozy, hummable sound. I soon picked up their sparkling 2001 debut CD, “Oh, Inverted World,” and put it into heavy rotation.
The Shins aren’t a whole new genre, exactly, but they manage to splice some of music’s past and present into a sonic stew that is offbeat, fresh and undeniably catchy.
The Shins whip together a giddy blend of smart wordplay, tight harmonies and jangling guitars that evokes everything from early R.E.M. to the Beach Boys. They’ve become an underground, word-of-mouth success now on the verge of breaking through.
The Shins started out in Albuquerque, N.M., but have since relocated to Portland. Their newly released second album on Sub Pop Records, “Chutes Too Narrow,” was recorded there in lead singer/songwriter James Mercer’s basement studio.
“Chutes,” like its predecessor, is a compact record, just over a half-hour, but with a plethora of pop pleasure crammed into its margins.
The Shins work in layers, with songs that grab you with plucky hooks but then sink in with secretive and fascinating lyrics, and flurries of orchestration that only come out on repeat listening.
There’s beauty a-plenty on “Chutes,” such as the sweeping buildup of the kickoff track, “Kissing The Lipless,” with Mercer’s rock star wail, or the marvelous two-minute bouncy first single “So Says I.” They branch out into an alt-country sound on “Gone For Good,” while “Turn A Square” has a keyboard-pounding intensity that makes it sound like a lost Top 40 hit from 1982.
The open and sunny production on this CD contrasts interestingly with “Inverted World,” which had a murky, deep mix that sometimes made it sound like you were hearing the record through gauze. While that otherworldly echo worked in a lot of ways, the clarity of “Chutes” really lets you feel Mercer’s soaring voice.
It’s a bright album on first listen, yet the lyrics, when they sink in, are often searching and wistful.
Mercer’s songs are almost as densely laid as those of Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello, ripe with rattled-off imagery that seems like coded journal entries: “Though the saints dubs us divine in ancient fading lines their sentiment is just as hard to pluck from the vine.”
Now, wordy stuff like that could easily come off as pretentious as early 1970s prog-rock, but the bouncy rhythm and ease in Mercer’s voice give even the most tongue-twisting of lyrics a sprightly spin. The “la la la”’s dotting the gorgeous “Saint Simon” make it as cheery an ode to fatalism as you’ll find.
“Have I left my home just to whine in this microphone?” Mercer sings at one point.
The fascinating “Chutes Too Narrow” shows that The Shins have a real kick to them, and as a bright spot in the Northwest music scene, they’re a band to watch.

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

OK, this is too cool not to use, courtesy of Johnny Bacardi. Here's my name acronym (note the use of 'grungy'), what's yours?


Name / Username:

Name Acronym Generator
Finished reading a superb novel last night, The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It's a fantastic read, 2004 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it tackles a controversial subject — black slaveowners in the pre-Civil War South. This is something rarely acknowledged in history books, and seems inexplicable to us now – how could a black man own slaves? — but it did happen.

"The Known World" takes us into the plantation owned by Henry Townsend, a black man, and over nearly 400 pages we learn his past, his fate, and what happens to his plantation after he's gone. "The Known World" is filled with rich characters, black and white, from the white man who owned Henry Townsend's parents and becomes his mentor, to an aristocratic black slaveowning woman, to the slaves themselves. It's thought-provoking and Jones -- a black man himself -- grapples with slavery in ways I've never seen in fiction, showing us its evil is a lot more complex and graduated than we might believe. Jones, in his first novel, does an amazing job with a very complex subject. Perhaps appropriately, nothing here is black and white. The novel takes an omniscient view, scuttling about in time and giving us glimpses of how the characters' actions echo long after their demises. Jones is lyrical yet not overblown in his prose, reminding me a bit of Toni Morrison or "Cold Mountain." There are an awful lot of characters to keep track of here, and Jones' style of juggling timelines can be offputting, but it's overall a grand sprawling, sad and thoughtful success of a book and one of the best novels I've read lately. Check it out. Excerpts online here.