Saturday, July 31, 2004

Today we went with Baby Peter and his grandparents to scenic Crater Lake! (The lake is awesome but the baby cuter, so he gets to hog the photo)

Friday, July 30, 2004

Just got through watching John Kerry's speech, or as much of it as I could while balancing a squirming 5-month-old while everyone else went berry picking. It was a good, solid speech I think, one that started a little slow but really got going once he warmed up. Kerry will never be Bill Clinton as a talker and I think that's a good thing, but he looks and feels presidential to me. He spoke with solid conviction and managed to hit all the familiar bases. He hit a few home runs, such as when he hit the Republican tax cuts for the rich and particularly, his fantastic use of the quote by Abraham Lincoln about how he doesn't know if God's on our side, but he hopes we're on God's side (one of the best Lincoln quotes ever and a nice slap across George "I was chosen by God" Bush's nose).

Obviously, though, the speech wasn't for someone like me who made up his mind months ago. I don't know how it would play to the undecided, however many there are anymore, but I think it was at least the equal of one of Bush's slogan-draped rants. 100 days or so before the election, I have no idea how this is going to turn out. As Avril and I keep saying, we don't want to get our hopes up too much, but it's hard not to. Three months is a very long time to wait and see.
Straight from my newspaper video column to you, Thursday video reviews time!
‘The Butterfly Effect’
What if you could go back in time and change the future? Well, if you’re Ashton Kutcher, all you’ll do is keep screwing it up.
“The Butterfly Effect” uses the well-worn idea of time travel as a vehicle for a story of Evan Treborn (Kutcher) trying to rework his past for the better.
Evan has had a lousy life, filled with abuse, murder and loss. His father was institutionalized and the girl he loves (Amy Smart) was traumatized by her father’s pedophilia. No wonder the boy Evan keeps having blackouts. After a disastrous accident, Evan leaves town, grows up to become Ashton Kutcher and is a troubled college student.
But one day, Evan discovers that the journals he’s kept since childhood might be a valuable tool. Using those journals, he finds he’s able to travel back into his past, rearranging events so his friends and himself have better lives. Or so he hopes. As he discovers, changing your life is a lot harder than it looks.
It’s kind of like that great classic “Simpsons” episode where Homer goes back in time to the age of the dinosaurs and keeps altering reality through his actions. Except “The Butterfly Effect” is mostly funny unintentionally, and I don’t remember that “Simpsons” episode featuring snuff-film horror shocks.
Casual renters beware: “Butterfly” is extremely violent and sadistic in tone. The first half-hour alone is a roller-coaster ride of mutilation, homicide, abuse and infanticide. It’s a movie with a cruel streak a mile wide.
Still, I’m a sucker for time-travel movies, and perhaps I was in a forgiving mood. Despite plot holes you can drive a truck through and often repellent violence, “The Butterfly Effect” isn’t a half bad trashy little thriller.
The movie piles on the tragedies, time-twisting and angst. There’s barely an attempt to give a realistic explanation for the time travel (funny, when I read my old diaries I never end up in 1989).
“The Butterfly Effect” still works in its sleazy way. Shot with a jittery style that emulates “Seven” and other slasher flicks, writer/director Eric Bress tries to make this a deep Gothic fantasy, but it’s really a borderline camp classic.
Despite being the guy critics love to hate, Kutcher isn’t terrible in it. He gives a fairly soulful performance as a man constantly slapped around by fate.
There are two very different versions of the movie out there. The theatrical version features a downbeat but more traditional ending, while the “Director’s Cut” on DVD is an entirely different animal, with a logical yet startling climax surprising enough that it actually knocked the movie up a half-star in my view.
It’s not a good movie, really, but as trashy cinematic guilty pleasures go, this “Butterfly” has wings. But with its obsession with death and disfigurement, maybe “The Vulture Effect” would’ve been a better title.
*** of four for Director's Cut; **1/2 of four for theatrical edition

‘The Perfect Score’
Every high school student’s worst nightmare: The Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT.
“The Perfect Score” uses the world of the SATs and high college expectations as a setting for a teen flick. It brought back horrible high school flashbacks of my own testing experiences. But if I was giving this dull, by-the-numbers teen flick a grade of my own, it’d be a lukewarm “C-.”
Kyle (a very bland Chris Evans) is freaking out about the SAT and what it means for his future. He wants to study to be an architect at Cornell, but without a high SAT score, he doesn’t have a chance. Desperation breeds criminal activity, as Kyle recruits several other high school students — including a basketball player, an overachieving teen princess, a pothead and a Goth outsider — in a daring attempt to steal the SAT answers and get “the perfect score.”
The movie sees itself as a hip, modern cross between “The Breakfast Club” and “Ocean’s 11,” but it’s really nowhere near either movie. The student relationships seem insincere and the whole heist plot thread is carried out in a rather unbelievable, haphazard fashion.
Few of the kids really emerge as memorable personalities. “Lost In Translation” star Scarlett Johansson is typically superb as the misfit rich girl Francesca, but she’s not given much more to do but stand around and make witty putdowns. The rest are weak, badly acted stereotypes. Even the Asian pothead (Leonardo Nam), who’s around for comic relief, is amusing but grating after a while.
The movie feebly tries to throw in a critique of the American educational system and its heavy emphasis on standardized testing, which could’ve made for an interesting debate. But weak direction and a plot so predictable you can set your watch by it make this “Score” far from perfect. Ultimately, it all seems like an “Afterschool Special” that escaped to the big screen by accident.
** of four

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Blogging bits:
ITEM! For modern writer/directors, I think you can't do much better than Cameron Crowe. The man behind "Almost Famous," "Say Anything," "Singles" and more is right up with Wes Anderson and Peter Jackson as my favorite filmmakers these days. I own all five of Cameron's movies and never get tired of watching them again and again. Like his idol Billy Wilder, Crowe has cracked the nut of making movies that are funny, heartfelt and sad all at the same time, putting most so-called "romantic comedies" to shame and creating a real sense of warmth and humanity that's never cloying. This is all preamble to me eagerly awaiting his next flick, 2005's "Elizabethtown" starring Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. A really thorough, great interview with Mr. Crowe can be found here, and has me eagerly counting the days until "Elizabethtown" hits theatres....

ITEM!Last week's San Diego Comic Con is like the biggest fan-fest in the universe, and all sorts of interesting news came out of it. Originally just a comic-con, it's become a kind of all-media con as well, and as comic book movies are enjoying a spectacular renaissance they were a big focus. Yeah, we all got to learn Episode 3 of Uncle George's "Star Wars" saga is going to be called "Revenge of the Sith," but for my money one of the more interesting bits from the con was the latest report on Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's film adaptation of Miller's awesomely grungy and noir "Sin City" graphic novels. This ain't no superhero flick, but a hardboiled, gritty and violent Tarantino-esque series of crime epics that are sheer popcorn joy to read. Visually, it sounds like this movie will be like nothing else out there, and it's sure to be true to the ugly and brutal spirit of Miller's novels. With a cast that includes Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Benecio Del Toro, Michael Madsen, Michael Clarke Duncan and many more, it sounds fascinating. The year 2005 is shaping up to be a fine one for movies already!

ITEM! My in-laws are rapidly working their way up to Oregon from San Francisco, where they stayed for a few days after their arrival from New Zealand. They'll be visiting with us and meeting Baby Peter for the first time over the next 2 1/2 weeks, so I imagine my posting will drop a little bit for the interim. I'll be throwing a few new video reviews up soon and attempt to update on our exciting adventures as I can.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Whatta quote: "I wouldn't urinate down his throat if his heart was on fire."
--Democratic consultant James Carville, referring to independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader during a speech before the Michigan delegation today. 

It's convention week in Boston and let the hoopla fly! I always have a morbid kind of fascination at convention season, heavily scripted PR affairs though they are. I probably won't be able to bring myself to watch the Republican lovefest, but I've been tuning in to some of the Democrat events. Last night I watched both Clintons and Jimmy Carter speak. Carter gave a good speech, although he's really showing his age and his accent has gotten more mushmouthed with time, while Bill was typically erudite and witty. It was a good speech, not his best, but it got the message across. I'm definitely curious to tune in to Kerry's speech Thursday and see how he does. I think Kerry suffers a bit from the same malady as Gore -- would be a very good president, not a great candidate. But I think he's also learned from the radical right-wingers paintbrush of hate and won't put up with it. The Republican strategy basically boils down to platitudes and repetition (if you SAY someone's a liberal flip-flopper often enough, it has to be true, gosh darn it!), and the Dems are realizing they can't just cruise in on an ocean of Bush hate.

I still have no idea how it's going to shake out, although I fear for the republic if Bush wins a second term and can go nuts with no fear of election repercussions. I'd like to think we're smart enough to elect Kerry, but I worry the Bush mantra of fear, divisiveness and pious hypocrisy will triumph over our better instincts in the end.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

This week's internet Meme courtesy of jumpin' Joe Meyer: Take it and examine the minute details of your life --

The \\
Last Cigarette:Good lord, maybe 1994? For a while I thought beer and smokes went together.
Last Alcoholic Drink:Glass of wine, last week
Last Car Ride:To the car stereo repair shop this morning
Last Kiss:My lovely wife, a few minutes ago
Last Good Cry:I think the last time I cried for real was around 1990 sometime. Because I'm a man, dammit.
Last Library Book:"Bland Ambition," a history of U.S. vice presidents
Last book bought:"Oracle Night" by Paul Auster
Last Book Read:Reading "Bland Ambition"
Last Movie Seen in Theatres:"Spider-Man 2"
Last Movie Rented:"Freaks & Geeks" the complete series disc 1
Last Cuss Word Uttered:The F word, it's so versatile
Last Beverage Drank:Strawberry Kiwi juice
Last Food Consumed:Tuna, lettuce and cheese wraps
Last Crush:My wife (fantasy crush: Nicole Kidman)
Last Phone Call:My wife's parents
Last TV Show Watched:"Arrested Development" last night
Last Time Showered:9 a.m. this morning
Last Shoes Worn:Sandals
Last CD Played:The Mountain Goats, "We Shall All Be Healed"
Last Item Bought:Gasoline for the car
Last Download:Fiery Furnaces, "Single Again"
Last Annoyance:The willfully ignorant
Last Disappointment:It's all good
Last Soda Drank:Diet Pepsi
Last Thing Written:A review of Clinton's "My Life" for the bloggo
Last Key Used:On this keyboard
Last Words Spoken:Responding to my wife asking what I'm doing
Last Sleep:Last night
Last Ice Cream Eaten:Chocolate Brownie Thunder, and it's as good as it sounds
Last Chair Sat In:This one
Last Webpage Visited:Joe Meyer's blog!

Spent the last couple weeks working my way through Bill Clinton's "My Life". First off, it's bloody long, nearly 1,000 pages, and since it was a library book I had a deadline to meet to finish it off before returning it.
Is it worth your time? Yes and no. I mean, I'm a big Bill Clinton fan, but even I got a little sick of hearing from him by page 800 or so.
The book is a lot like the man -- fascinating, sprawling, undisciplined, intelligent and trying to do a million things at once. It starts off very well, and the first half of it or so is great reading. Clinton is relaxed, folksy, and thoughtful about his upbringing in rural Arkansas.
Whether or not you like the man, you have to admire his pluck at basically coming from a broken home, with a dead father and alcoholic stepfather, and the determination to make something of himself. Clinton does justice to these early years, with an astounding recall of detail and evocation of place. Clinton shows an insight into his own nature that's surprisingly unguarded, such as in this passage talking about confronting his drunken stepdad:
"…Because of the way Daddy behaved when he was angry and drunk, I associated anger with being out of control and I was determined not to lose control. Doing so could unleash the constant anger I kept locked away because I didn't know where it came from."
I thought, "Wow," when I read that passage -- it seemed pretty amazingly self-aware, not the kind of talk you picture coming from a President. Unfortunately, too much of "My Life" fails to reach that peak. Right up until he's elected President, it's great reading for anyone who's interested in presidential history and politics. I particularly liked his detailed tales of running for governor in Arkansas, the small-town politicking, gladhanding and meet-and-greets one has to do. The first half of the book, left alone, might've been a classic.
But much like his first few years as President, Clinton tries to do too much too fast. There's no reason "My Life" had to be a 950-page behemoth detailing his every action of the past 57 years or so. There were lots of tales of Clinton writing feverishly to make the publisher's deadline this spring, and it really shows in the second half of the book, which is a much less personal, stiffer piece of work than the first half.
As an editor myself, I would've told Clinton to make it two books -- the first his early years, and then, giving myself time to reflect and edit, a cohesive survey of his presidency. The second half of "My Life" reads like it was transcribed from Clinton's datebook from 1993-2001. Endless names, faces, dates and places slide by, with flashes of interest. I admit to skimming vast portions that went into solid, but digressive, detail about Bosnia, Israel, et cetera. Admittedly, the President leads a very busy life. It's as if Clinton feels he has to catalogue every moment of his presidency, rather than offering highlights. It just feels indulgent and unfocused.
Those looking for the so-called "good stuff" vis-á-vis Lewinsky, etc., will be disappointed, as that doesn't turn up 'til page 740 or so. Frankly, as a Clinton-hugger I agree with his defense that much of the political hay made while he was in office -- Whitewater, $200 haircuts, travel office, etc. -- was misrepresented, a waste of taxpayer money to investigate and horribly covered by the Beltway media. In my humble mind it pales when compared to the far more devastating misconduct of our current President.
But when it comes to the stuff Clinton did do, such as his affair with Lewinsky, he skirts the issues, turning vague and admitting to "behaving inappropriately." He unleashes a lot of anger, justifiably so, at Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich and the attempted Republican coup of impeachment. Die-hard conservatives won't dig "My Life," but that goes without saying, doesn't it?
"My Life" isn't a bad book, and I'd recommend it if you've got a few weeks to spare. But it's a top-heavy one, divided and failing to meet the potential of the early pages. I'll leave it to you to decide if that could also be said of Clinton himself or not.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

So I'm out there mowing our front lawn and I take a little break for some water. I left the front gate open (our lawn has a fence around it), come back and find two young deer busily making for the tomato plants. I clap my hands and shout at them as if they are cats. But they are not cats, they are nearly 100-pound animals with large sharp hooves. So they begin to panic. One deer is wise and realizes he can leap, jumps over the fence and scurries away. The other deer decides he is a squirrel and tries to scurry under the fence, gets himself jammed in and starts freaking out. Realizes this a bad idea and so backs out, begins to run frantically in circles in our very small front yard with me in the middle about to get disemboweled by a deer. In panic mode, he apparently is unable to realize the gate is wide open. Headlines flash through my head: "Newspaper editor killed by crazed deer; most humiliating death ever!" Finally the deer realizes the gate is open, hurtles through it and takes off.

Mere moments later, I resume mowing the lawn. I see a small, foot-long or so garden snake caught in panic who's heading the direction I'm mowing. I reach down to save him, nature lover that I am. The snake bites me.

The moral of the story is, nature sucks. I'm paving over the lawn tomorrow.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

The Catwoman movie has been the official Internet whipping boy of 2004 for some time now, with poisonous buzz and word-of-mouth. Before you ask, I'm not going to see it in the theatres, and if I see it on video it will be merely to meet my negative reviews quota. Because of my failings as a reviewer, I present to you this nifty little compendium of quotes about the cinematic stylings of "Catwoman," from the good folks at metacritic:

• Dallas Observer / Gregory Weinkauf:
Much like a cat, the movie is a superfluous gob of fluff with an attitude ranging from idiotic to nasty.
• Boston Globe / Wesley Morris:
Watching [Berry] run around in that getup I felt embarrassed, the way I do for people who put on makeup before climbing a StairMaster -- it's too much.
• Washington Post / Desson Thomson:
It goes down (and comes back up) like a hairball.
• Chicago Sun-Times / Roger Ebert:
The director, whose name is Pitof, was probably issued with two names at birth and would be wise to use the other one on his next project.
• Chicago Tribune / Robert K. Elder:
The "Showgirls" of superhero movies. This is not a compliment.
• The Globe and Mail (Toronto) / Rick Groen:
[Pitof's] managed to create an entire digitalized city that has all the allure of an underground parking garage. And his action, it's cluttered; his editing, it's confused. The result: blandness butchered, hamburger chopped, kitty littered.
Quick comics reviews!
Ex Machina #2
This is one of the more promising new titles this year, by Brian K. Vaughan, a guy who writes two of my favorite comics, "Y: The Last Man" and "Runaways." It's got a hell of a hook for a premise. "Ex Machina" is set in an alternate version of our reality, where everything is pretty similar to what happened here, right up to the 9/11 attacks. But on Sept. 11, 2001, Mitchell Hundred, a small-time aspiring superhero with the ability to control machines, stepped up and changed history. In this world, thanks to Hundred, only one tower fell on 9/11. A few weeks later, Mitchell Hundred is elected the mayor of New York City, defeating some guy named Bloomberg. Vaughan sets his story in the early days of Mayor Hundred's term.
"Ex Machina" is shaping up to a fascinating little comic, a combination between political thriller, action drama and satire with the same cutting edge Vaughan brings to his other works. Vaughan flips around in the timeline a lot here, going in #2 from an early tense meeting between Hundred and the police commissioner of New York during Hundred's "vigilante" superhero days, to shortly after he becomes mayor and dealing with an outrageous art museum controversy that wouldn't seem out of place in the real Manhattan. "Ex Machina" is still setting up its world, and it's not clear where Vaughan is going in the long run, but I love the bravado of using something as recent and sensitive as the 9/11 attacks for a springboard for speculative fiction. After all, all art comes from life somehow. Just two issues in, this series promises to be one of the more novel comics to come along in a while. Backed up by gorgeous art from Tony Harris of "Starman" fame, it's a compelling package. Grade: A-

Friday, July 23, 2004

Your tax dollars at work department: Fascinating little article (online here) in this week's New Yorker about how the military apparently, besides the many other exciting benefits, is offering free cosmetic surgery to soldiers. This includes such things as breast augmentation and liposuction, all valuable fighting tools. From the piece, "In the first three months of 2004, it performed sixty breast enhancements and two hundred and thirty-one liposuctions." All at taxpayer expense, naturally. Now, I support our troops despite the terribly inept situation they've been plunged into thanks to their chicken-hawk commander in chief, but methinks my tax dollars going toward some soldier having a boob job is more than a little unjust. Consider for a moment I live in a state so strapped for cash that many school districts have gone to a four-day school week, and our Oregon State Police are cut to the bare minimum. I weep for the republic.
We saw African singing legend Youssou N'Dour Tuesday night in a local free concert. Although we're in a tiny town, we do have this really nice free summer concert series that is held down at the park by the riverside each summer. It was a real kick to have Youssou N'Dour come to town — he's one of the finest singers you'll ever hear, perhaps most familiar to American audiences for his stunning vocal solo on Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" (firmly up there in my top five songs of all time list). Singing mostly in the Sengalese Wolof tongue and French, N'Dour manages to make beautiful sounds without you being able to understand a word of it. It was a real fine time to sit out at the park with the wife and Peter, and with the size of the park we were able to sit far enough from the stage to not have Peter get disturbed by the loud music. N'Dour was a rousing success, charismatic and energetic, with some amazing vocal turns. Little Peter even "danced" a little bit with some help from Dad, and spent most of the rest of the time wide-eyed at the many distractions to be found. More fun than sitting at home sweating in the summertime.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

One of the great pop songs of the 1990s was Oasis' "Wonderwall." I'm not even a big Oasis fan, and their "nü Beatles/battlin' brothers" schtick got real old real fast, but for that one song at least, they met every potential they ever had. A plaintive, hopeful and sweeping piece of pop, with its great primal chorus of "Maybe/you're going to be the one that saves me" --it's one of those songs that just works for me, and every time I hear the original I'm transported back to 1995 or so and that weird post-college abyss of hopeful fear and strangeness your life is in before you settle down to the job/wife/kids life. It's a song of the moment and a song that seems new to me each time I hear it.

"Wonderwall" is also one of the more covered songs of the 1990s by alt-acts, although it's always done with a vague sense of embarrassment (if Oasis were cool in 1995, they sure aren't in 2004). Ryan Adams did a lovely, almost holy cover on his "Love is Hell Part One" CD last year and it'd be perfect if it weren't for the goofy faux-Cockney introduction he gives it. Cat Power, she of the lovely cover songs, did a lush and gorgeous spare version I recently downloaded, while Weezerapparently also did a decent cover I've found. I've seen another on Limewire by The Beastie Boys of all people which I'm intrigued to hear but wasn't able to get earlier. I also downloaded an atrocious "drum 'n' bass" remix of the original Oasis song which sounds like nothing so much as the Oasis song heard while stuck in traffic waiting for a train. A good remix might be possible but that wasn't it. But like most things, the original is pretty darn cool and hard to top, although if Ryan Adams performed a serious version someday it might be a tough fight. Oasis may not have amounted to much despite all the hype, but for "Wonderwall" at least they deserve a couple of props.

Edited to add: Well, I tracked down the Beastie Boys cover, as well as an ever odder one by Metallica, although both are tinny-recorded live bootlegs and not very interesting. Also found a short cover by Radiohead that is actually quite good!

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Posting will be minimal for a little bit here (pauses to hear echoing sound of silence), as I'm gobsmacked by work obligations and getting ready for the New Zealand visitation. In the meantime, to amuse you, here is a picture of "Halfprong" the one-antlered, one of the many deer who like to call the meadow behind our house home. This is why we live in the country. (Of course Halfprong and his brethren do like to eat our tomatoes, but what can you do?)

Monday, July 19, 2004

I loved a lot about our four years or so living in Lake Tahoe, even if Avril went crazy because of the snow. We moved to Oregon in 2002 for lots of reasons but the cost of living was right up there. This article in today's San Francisco Chronicle does a thorough job of the gradual Disneyland-ification of Tahoe, where house prices have shot up 80% since 2000. Case in point -- Avril and I had an aging, cozy if small 2-bedroom house there for about $1100 a month and it was tight going; we pay $400 less now for a 3.5 bedroom house in Oregon. While I love the Sierra mountain vistas where I grew up and don't even mind the snow that much, the constant influx of smug, hectic summer tourists and the rising cost of, well, everything, chased us away probably for good. We knew there was no way we'd ever be able to afford a house in Tahoe on a journalist and book seller's paychecks; no way we'd ever be able to afford to have a kid there; no way we'd not live paycheck to paycheck. This unfortunately is the story for way too much of California these days in the zip-zip-zip world of housing. Great for those who make money from it, and heck, my own dad's a realtor. But there are a lot of have-nots, there are an awful lot of folks like me who just say forget it, and move to some state that's sane. When you can't even buy a decent house for $400,000, there's something deeply wrong with the world. I have no solutions, but it doesn't stop me being depressed about the way it all works.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

The reason vampires rock harder than werewolves or mummies is that they're much more complex. I've been ripping my way through the great fun Essential Tomb Of Dracula Vol. 1 from Marvel Comics, collecting the first 25 issues or so of this seminal horror comic from the 1970s by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. I'd been eyeing it for a while and finally picked it up last week. It's a blast; I'd read some of the old "Tomb of Dracula" comics back in the '70s but was born a little too late for most of 'em. A lot of horror comics are dated, clunky things but most agree "Tomb of Dracula" may have been the best. It certainly holds up better than "Werewolf By Night" or "Ghost Rider" do today. The black-and-white 'phone book' style Essential books, more than 500 pages of comics for under $15, may be the format "Tomb of Dracula" was born for. Colan's dreamlike, rich art actually looks better without color I think, and Wolfman's scripts, while florid and occasionally overwritten, have fun and go in unusual directions. The stories basically follow the resurrection of Dracula in the 1970s and his battles with descendant Frank Drake, vampire hunter Blade, Rachel Van Helsing and more. Dracula becomes one of the great comic-book villains, and the best issues in this collection are the ones that give him a bit of a human side, such as #9, where Dracula winds up wounded and forced to seek refuge in a small fishing town, or the multi-issue sequence where Dracula and enemy Van Helsing are lost in a Transylvanian snowstorm and forced to rely on each other despite their hatred. Even though Blade has an enormous Afro and the very nature of the comic requires Dracula to escape his just desserts again and again, it's got the feel of an old-fashioned serial movie thriller, and holds up far better than some of Marvel's other 1970s comics. For $15, this weighty tome is a great bargain. Now if only I could stop dreaming about black-and-white vampires...

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Ah, Hollywood. Comic movies seem to have settled into a realm where they're just like all other movies, I guess -- mostly crap, occasionally a gem. For every "Spider-Man 2" you have a "Halle Berry IS Catwoman" or a "Punisher." Just read on Ain't It Cool News that another old classic comic character will be hitting the big screen, although done for laffs and fart jokes rather than anything noble. None other than Jack Black will apparently be playing DC Comics hero Green Lantern
in a film that has been described as a “zany comedy version a la THE MASK.” Now, Green Lantern isn't the world's biggest name in comic heroes, but he is a kind of neat character when done well, a space-faring lawman who wears a "power ring" and fights for truth, justice and so forth. Could've been a nifty space opera like "The Last Starfighter" meets "Excalibur" or somesuch. Green Lantern's not anywhere near my favorite comic character, but turning him into a pratfall-laden vehicle for Jack Black (who I'm a big fan of in most of his works, and Tenacious D rocks hard) is another one of those things that just makes you shake your head if you're a comics fan, although who knows, it'll probably be a hit.
Forgive the incredibly immodest chest beating, but congratulate me and my paper anyways. Today was the awards banquet for the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association's Better Newspaper Contest Awards 2004, and we picked up 27 awards so far in our circulation category, the second-largest in the state, and yours truly scored a First Place award for Best Feature - Personality for the second year in a row, along with second and third place honors for Best Special Section. We'll find out tonight if we've won General Excellence or not, which is the top honor of the day.

That best feature award was hard-fought, by the way -- it was a profile of an 83-year-old Russian expatriate painter and former Nazi prisoner of war who was both extremely cantankerous and so heavily accented to be nigh-incomprehensible. (Sample response to question from yours truly: "Vat! Vy you want know dat? Vashdeboyshka! [obscure Russian curse?]") Some serious translation and interviewing on that one to make it work.
Happy happy joy joy! From TV Shows On DVD comes perhaps the greatest DVD news of our time: Paramount has quietly let retailers know that Ren and Stimpy - The Complete 1st & 2nd Seasons will be available to sell in-stores on Oct. 12!

The news: Over 30 episodes will be present on this release: "Stimpy's Big Day", "The Big Shot", "Stimpy's Storybook Land: Robin Hoek", "Nurse Stimpy", "Space Madness", "The Boy Who Cried 'Rat!'", "Fire Dogs", "Stimpy's Storybook Land: The Littlest Giant", "Marooned", "Untamed World", "Black Hole", "Stimpy's Invention", "In the Army", "Powdered Toastman", "Ren's Toothache", "Big House Blues", "Out West", "Rubber Nipple Salesmen", "Sven Hoek", "Mad Dog Hoek", "Haunted House", "Big Baby Scam", "Dog Show", "Son of Stimpy", "Monkey See, Monkey Don't", "Fake Dad", "The Great Outdoors", "The Cat That Laid The Golden Hairball", "Stimpy's Fan Club", "A Visit to Anthony", and "The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen".
For those of us who managed to get the short-lived direct sale offering before Time-Life's rights (quickly) expired, there's still good reason to also get the new set. Besides 10 episodes that weren't on the old discs ("Mad Dog Hoek", "Haunted House", "Big Baby Scam", "Son of Stimpy", "Monkey See, Monkey Don't", "Fake Dad", "The Cat That Laid The Golden Hairball", "Stimpy's Fan Club", "A Visit to Anthony", and "The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen"), Paramount's release will also have these extras:* Audio Commentary * Featurette * Image Gallery

Hoo ha! Time-Life put out a widely bashed, overpriced and incomplete Ren & Stimpy set last year available online only which I passed up on because it had such terrible word of mouth (apparently the video quality was terrible too, worse than an old VHS). Glad I waited for this release, which hurray, includes "Stimpy's Fan Club," which just might be the most paranoid cartoon I've ever seen in my life.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Gah. We're not panicking. Two weeks until the New Zealand in-laws arrive for a visit and to see their oh-so-huggable grandson and my father-in-law's namesake. It's been three years already since Peter and Sylvia have visited us, back when we were living in mountainous snowy Lake Tahoe, and more than a year now since we last visited them in Auckland.

Much has changed, of course, notably the addition of the squirming bouncy monkey-man Peter to our lives. It'll be a whirlwind of activity for all concerned; the Kiwis fly into San Francisco in about 10 days, spend a little time there and then drive 8 hours (!) north to remote Oregon to visit us folks. They'll stay here for about another 10 days, and Avril and Peter will attempt to show them the glories of the Beaver State (which is sadly bereft of beavers). Crater Lake, the Coast, Portland and Powell's all on the menu if they can do it. I have to work still for most of it. Fortunately we have a pretty spacious 3.5 bedroom house right now (only one bathroom though) so all five of us plus two spastic cats should be OK. Then, Aug. 6 or so, I get a week's vacation and the whole caravan of us drives back down to California to spend a week with my parents. It's pretty rare all the in-laws and relations get together -- the last time really was our wedding almost five years ago -- so it should be a blast, as long as baby doesn't get too temperamental. There will be much entertaining cultural mixing and pollination ahead, and Peter finally gets to meet his other grandparents. Hurrah!

In the meantime there is much cleaning and spiffing up of the house to do. The infernal new screen door is attached more or less but there's always other things to do. Wash the doors! Scrub the tub! Polish the refrigerator! Bleach the cats! Etc etc etc etc....
The Hulk has taken over the Internet, by gum! Check out Hulk's Blog and be amused. I command it.
Thursday movie reviews!
‘Bad Santa’
There’s never been a more appropriate title for a movie than “Bad Santa.”
This Santa is more than just mean — he swears, he fornicates, he insults little children and he steals. Oh, and sometimes he passes out drunk while kids are sitting on his lap.
This Santa movie, definitely for adults only (let me emphasize that — it’s NOT FOR CHILDREN), is a rude, crude sputtering raspberry to traditional holiday cheer. It’s also wickedly funny, although probably a little too extreme for many viewers.
Billy Bob Thornton, that superb character actor, is Willie, an angry, alcoholic con man, who for one month out of the year plays a lousy Santa Claus at various shopping malls. He doesn’t do this because he’s secretly a jolly man, but because he and his elf partner Marcus (Tony Cox) rob the malls every Christmas Eve and live off their ill-gotten gains the other 11 months of the year.
But Willie’s drinking and self-loathing is getting out of control, making it difficult for the hoods to even pull off their crimes. Clearly he’s at the end of his rope. Throw in a Santa-loving, borderline demented outcast kid (Brent Kelly) and it’s likely this will be Willie’s worst Christmas ever.
Thornton is hilarious and repulsive as one of the most unlikable characters you’ll ever see. There’s a rumor floating around out there he actually was drunk during most of the filming of the movie to better get in character. Now that’s dedication.
“Bad Santa” is a very quotable future cult classic, although not for mixed company. It may feature the “f-word” more than any film since “Scarface.” Perhaps the funniest line in the movie is one I can’t even print here, but it revolves around a Santa-obsessed bartender (Lauren Graham, a long way from TV’s “Gilmore Girls”) and what she shouts out when Willie and her are, ahem, “intimate.”
It’s a movie for all those who get sick of “Jingle Bells” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” being shoved down their throat starting around Labor Day each year.
Yet “Bad Santa” kind of overstays its welcome after the film’s main joke settles in. It’s a short, 90-minute movie, but still feels about 15 minutes too long. There’s only so much rotten, amoral behavior most can watch, and the movie can’t resist a somewhat redemptive ending that feels like a cheat.
But for lovers of bad taste, and the Grinch in all of us, most of “Bad Santa” is a comic present worth opening, if only to gawk at its unrelenting ugliness.
*** of four

Serial killing is mostly a man’s world — or at least, so it was thought until Aileen Wuornos came along.
Wuornos, a prostitute who killed at least seven men in Florida in the 1980s, was executed for her crimes in 2002.
Now, “Monster” attempts to look at the woman inside the killer. Charlize Theron, best known as the sexy love interest in movies like “The Italian Job” and “The Cider House Rules,” utterly transforms herself to become the heavyset, bloated and corrupt Wuornos. It’s a stunning performance that won her the Academy Award for Best Actress this year.
“Monster” is a somewhat fictionalized look at the final downward spiral of Wuornos, who went from a youth of abuse to a life as a prostitute working Florida’s highways. When one of her “johns” turns violent, she kills him. Then she discovers she’s developed a taste for murder.
The angry, alcoholic Wuornos says she “isn’t gay,” but she ends up in a strange co-dependent lesbian relationship with Shelby, a meek young college girl (Christina Ricci) who has been kicked out of her parents’ house for her “unnatural affections.” Wuornos’ life is teetering on the edge, and clearly about to collapse.
This is a brutal, painful movie. Relentlessly bleak, “Monster” wallows in the dark corners of life most of us can’t even think about. It’s often hard to watch, such as when Wuornos, burdened by a lifetime of abuse, tries to get herself straight with a series of failed, desperate job interviews.
“Monster” is smart in that it shows a faint belief in redemption and hope, and it ultimately is a heartbreaking tale. It’s a strangely affecting, doomed love story.
Theron deserved her Oscar, pulling a real “Marlon Brando” here to turn herself into a different person. She adopts a hunted, angry look, using a combination of makeup and old-fashioned acting to emulate Wuornos’ tortured figure. It’s a portrait of a woman who’s rarely known genuine affection, filled with hatred of the world. Her eyes are fiery and pained like a mad dog’s.
One troublesome point is how the movie, written and directed by Patty Jenkins, half-heartedly tries to defend Wuornos’ indefensible actions. The first killing Wuornos committed is shown here as an act of self-defense after she is horribly raped and beaten — but the court records are inconclusive as to what actually happened. Part of “Monster” feels like it tries to portray this as her revenge on the evils of the male society that created her.
Despite this lapse, “Monster” pulls little punches in making it clear Wuornos was still a monster, pathetic and sad though she also was. It’s gripping drama and a look at a seamy, sick world most of us couldn’t even imagine.
***1/2 of four

Thursday, July 15, 2004

I've dug several of the recent comic book movies, but make no secret of my disdain for Ang Lee's Hulk debacle from last year. This editorial by The Onion is Hulk's hilarious defense of said film and proposals for a sequel. "Why no one appreciate daring vision of Ang Lee? Aaargh! Ang Lee genius!" Or, "Hulk visualize Hulk trilogy like Matrix, but no spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Crazy mumbo-jumbo make Hulk's head hurt!"
Quick comic reviews!
Star Wars Tales #20
I grew up reading Marvel's old "Star Wars" comics, but I really don't follow most of the ones being published today. However, I had to check out the latest issue of this anthology series, because it gathers together some of alternative comics' biggest names -- Gilbert Hernandez, Bob Fingerman, James Kochalka -- for irreverent takes on the "Star Wars" icons. It's a fun-packed book, much less hit-or-miss than these anthologies typically are. The emphasis is on "loser" characters -- there's several Jar Jar Binks stories here. Highlights for me included Tony Millionaire's tale of Jar Jar Binks and his father -- turns out his family think Jar Jar's as much of an idiot as the rest of us, Kochalka's awesome tale of "Melvin Fett," Boba's loser cousin, and Fingerman's tale of "Fred Jawa, Consumer Advocate!" A couple of the stories are played straighter, such as Hernandez's "Young Lando Calrissian" and Rick Geary's Luke Skywalker tale, but they're all well done. If you're a "Star Wars" fan of old looking for a fun spin on the movies, this is a decent anthology to pick up. Docked a bit for a ridiculously high $6 price tag for 64 pages, though. Grade: B+

X-Statix #24
Man, am I going to miss this series, ending at #26. The gonzo wicked stepchild of the X-Men line has been a witty, wacky satire of superheroes and fame, but it couldn't last forever. This is part four of the ongoing "X-Statix vs. Avengers" story, which gives creators Peter Milligan and Mike Allred a chance to put their spin on "reg'lar" superheroes. It's been standard hero vs. hero plotlines, as both teams struggle to find pieces of Doop's brain (if you don't know, don't worry about it). But Milligan's ultra-hip style makes old new -- this issue features X-Statix's "Mr. Sensitive" versus Iron Man, and it's hysterical. The two heroes face off and confront their demons at a French nudist camp. There's nudity, one-liners and more in this send-up that sums up everything I've loved about "X-Statix." Oh, and there's also a French villain called "Surrender Monkey." Further proof the best comix never last. Grade: A

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Blogging blah. Took a break from posting past few days while I proved myself utterly inept as a handyman. Had a three-day weekend off work and Friday we had a fine trip to Coos Bay and the coast where we introduced Baby Peter to the ocean again. Saturday and Sunday I spent much of the time in an increasingly epic struggle to install a screen door at our home.

Handyman skills don't come easily to me. I have long accepted that anytime I put something together whether it a bookshelf or table or what-have-you, I will put it entirely together once, realize I screwed up somewhere along the way, take it all apart and start over to get it done correctly. It's hard not being handy. My father is the kind of man who can and has built entire decks, rooms, cars and probably airplanes without breaking a sweat, whereas I have trouble assembling bookshelf kits from Kmart. I lack some essential element of patience and understanding of physics to make things work easily.

Anyways this all leads to the great screen door battle of '04, which is nearly won after much cussing. We need a nice screen door on the front of our house, which gets rather stuffy in summer, and just leaving the door open isn't an option because of the cats and the bugs that like to fly in. So I bought a nice door kit at Lowe's Saturday and began the tricky work of installation. Turns out our door frame is quite unusual so I had to yank part of that out leaving an unsightly bit of wiring, mortar and unpainted house exposed. (Did I mention we're renting the house?) Then I had to file down part of the frame to fit the hinges on. I drilled multiple holes in the metal door which is quite hard on the hands after a while. But the worst by far has been the installation of the friggin' door handle, a torture device that the Nazis would be proud of. So far I have managed to install the handle only to find it won't open from the outside, a problem only if you want to actually enter the house; taken it apart and put it back on to find the handle doesn't line up on the inside and bangs into the frame; torn the whole mess out again with a sigh and decided to work on it again another day. Will make another attempt to get the handle right tonight. Or just drink heavily. Haven't decided which. Next time I'm just buying another fan.

Friday, July 9, 2004

Damnation. Get well soon, David Bowie. Sucks to see your idols growing old. He's almost 60, I realize, but really certain people ought to just be made immortal and have done with it. Still full of regrets I didn't make it to his Portland show in April, especially since this might be his last major tour for a while.
ITEM! Well, it couldn't be worse than "Cats" -- Spider-Man: The Musical is in the works: Variety reports that Tony Adams, co-producer of the stage musical Victor/Victoria, and Marvel Comics are planning to bring the comic book tale to the stage. The industry paper says that Neil Jordan — of "The Crying Game" fame — would pen the book with a score by U2's Bono and the Edge. Julie Taymor, who received a Tony Award for her direction of the international hit The Lion King, looks likely to direct. Lot of interesting talent behind this, although superhero musicals have never been a genre that particularly appeals to me. "Spider-Man, Spider-Maaannnnnn...."

ITEM! The world is far stranger than fiction. So I was interviewing this fella Craig yesterday, who runs a local punk rock record label that is doing pretty good business, and I'm working on a future story about. Anyway we got to talking and in the course of conversation realized that we both went to the exact same high school in Northern California, and he was one class behind me. We didn't know each other -- it was a large high school -- although we both thought our names sounded familiar. Really bizarre to encounter someone from the old digs, both of us 500 miles away. It's a weird world.

ITEM! This little mp3 compliation may be the coolest thing I've ever heard of. I haven't acquired it yet myself, but what a nifty idea.

ITEM! On my can of Diet Pepsi at the end of the ingredients list it says this in big bold red print: Phenylketonurics: contains phenylalanine. Don't know what this means, but I think I need to start drinking more water.
Thursday movie review time, with a look at the somewhat disappointing Mystic River:

‘Mystic River’
“Mystic River” comes with a heavy pedigree.
It was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning two of them. It was directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood, and features some of America’s top actors in its cast. It’s based on a best-selling, acclaimed novel.
I know I’m out of sync with most critics on this one, because, for all that, it’s a somewhat stiff, bitter movie that feels created to win awards, rather than win over audiences.
The dark “Mystic River” is about pain and death and what it does to the survivors. Three boys grew up together in lower-class Boston, and one of them was kidnapped and abused as a child.
Now all grown up, the three have taken very different paths — Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con liquor store owner who still has “connections” in the underworld, while his old buddy Sean (Kevin Bacon) has become a cop. The abuse victim, Dave (Tim Robbins), is a hollow shell of a man, still living in the neighborhood near Jimmy.
When Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, it sets off a chain reaction of grief and vengeance in the neighborhood. Jimmy wants revenge upon whoever killed his girl — no matter what the cost. The murder brings out the best, and the worst, in the three grown boys and their families.
“Mystic River” feels like several movies at once — a police procedural, a revenge thriller, a domestic drama. There are some gripping, effective parts, but other sequences feel clumsy and overwrought.
The highlight is Robbins, Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor, who gives a haunting performance of a man wounded by abuse.
Penn, despite winning the Oscar for Best Actor, chews the scenery a little too much here. It’s good acting, yes, but I found his character very unsympathetic and unlikable, a problem when he’s supposed to be the center of the film.
A veritable parade of great actors, including Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden and Laurence Fishburne, all contribute mightily to “River.” Bacon, too, is forceful and dynamic as a flinty detective trying to forget his past.
It’s all put together very prettily, but I can’t escape the feeling I was watching actors maneuver on a stage. It’s very cynical about human nature, and somehow lacks a natural feel.
The ending, particularly, comes out of left field, resolving an intricate mystery with a bit of a cheat that seems suited to a bad Sam Spade novel. Like “21 Grams,” another over-praised movie starring Penn from last year, “Mystic River” is a fairly routine story made palatable by good actors.
Eastwood’s best work as a director, to me, remains “Unforgiven,” which was equally dark but attained a kind of iconic power the straining “Mystic River” doesn’t quite reach. It wants to be the “King Lear” of crime thrillers, but it’s not quite there.
**1/2 of four.

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

• ITEM! Wrap-up of recent strange Google searches that brought unwitting visitors here lately:

"brain spatula holder" -- ewww!
"i will be eternally hateful" -- which of course, I am (OK, it's a Guided By Voices lyric, really).
"Along Came Polly Hank Azaria took workout"
"how much are Ronald Reagan comics worth?" -- whatever you're willing to pay, of course

• ITEM! Hey, Michael Moore has a blog now.

• ITEM! Spent much of the holiday weekend and all yesterday evening tearing my way through The Song of Susannah, book six (of seven!) in Stephen King's epic Dark Tower series. I've been a King nut for years, and an entire bookshelf in our bedroom is weighed down heavily with about 30-40 King paperbacks (the best format to read him in IMHO). The "Dark Tower" is King's "Lord of the Rings," a sprawling, eccentric beast that is a genre-mixed casserole of horror, fantasy, western and even autobiography. It's very different from his more mainstream work like "The Shining" and "Misery," set in an entirely fantasy world but with echoes to our own. Book six is another corker of a tale, although probably incomprehensible if you haven't read the other five volumes (I feel like I need to sit down and re-read all 3,000 pages or so myself of this increasingly labyrinthine work before the final book comes out this fall). I'm not a huge fantasy man -- I pretty much start and stop at Tolkien -- but King's take on the genre has been memorable, and it's all starting to come together nicely. He's been working on this story on and off since 1970 or so, which boggles the mind, and even turns up himself as a character in this volume in a particularly memorable sequence. King still gets scoffed at a lot by the "lit'rary critic" types and admittedly his work is more hamburger than filet mignon, but I proudly would and do put the "Dark Tower" books side-by-side in my own collection with the works of John Updike, Paul Auster, Kurt Vonnegut or Haruki Murakami. Good stuff.

• ITEM! This week's "kicker" above is a lyric from Modest Mouse's "Bury Me With It," a rocking little Pixies-esque song from their new album. Last week's was willfully obscure, from The Mountain Goats' awesome song "No Children," one of the bleakest sing-alongs you'll ever hear from this rather cool emo-folk type act, about a relationship gone to hell. Dark as Satan's pupils but man, what a great song, it's my lyrics of the day. Here's a sample (imagine it sung in a high-lonesome über-nasal Bob Dylan-meets-Violent Femmes voice:
"I hope that our few remaining friends
Give up on trying to save us
I hope we come up with a failsafe plot
To piss off the dumb few that forgave us
I hope the fences we mended
Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it's already too late
And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here
Someday burns down
And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away
And I never come back to this town
Again in my life
I hope I lie
And tell everyone you were a good wife
And I hope you die
I hope we both die

And on that note, Happy Tuesday!
Everybody makes mistakes. But when newspapers make them, they're in print for everyone to see. For example, today's New York Post:

And this is why the New York Post is considered a model for journalists throughout the land. You can find your copy on eBay today!

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

The pundits are saying Kerry will announce his vice presidential pick tomorrow. Hopefully in time for us to get it in the afternoon paper. I'm hoping it'll be John Edwards myself -- the guy has the political populist knack just like Clinton did and would rouse the faithful -- although I wouldn't be disappointed by the other two main names being bantered about, Gephardt and Vilsack (who?). Might see a total ringer like Wes Clark or Dianne Feinstein but I think this year the Dems are smart to stick to stability rather than picking someone who might tick off valuable voters (i.e. Hillary Clinton).

Of course, a decaying mongoose as running mate would still be preferable to the vp we have now. Has there been ANY politician since, say, Richard Nixon, who has been as obviously uncomfortable in his own skin as Dick Cheney? The man can't even smile properly, instead offering more of a half-grimace scowl. Cheney to me nicely sums up the big-biz warmonger monarchy of the current administration, and I am sure whoever Kerry picks will be an improvement, if the cosmos are just and he wins...
OK, this is petty and small but it annoys me so -- It's Spider-Man, not "Spiderman." Hyphen, hyphen, hyphen! On the other hand, I can see why folks don't get it correct -- I mean, you have "Superman," "Batman," "Hawkman," "Aquaman," all the way on down to "Robotman." No hyphens there. What makes Spider-Man hyphen worthy when so many are not? Does the hyphen indicate his divided nature, that he is in fact torn more between Spider and Man than Batman or Superman, who are more comfortable with their dual identities and therefore less conflicted in life? Perhaps that was writer "Stan the Man" Lee's way of setting up the Mighty Marvel method of superhero storytelling way back in the 1960s.

Or perhaps I'm reading wayyy too much into it and it was just punctuation run amok. Then again what to say of lesser-known heroes such as "Iron Man" or "Animal Man," who have neither hyphen nor one word.

They call us comic book geeks. I can't for the life of me imagine why.

Sunday, July 4, 2004

Part of what's fun about having a baby is that it's like having your own personal doll to experiment on. Lately Peter's practicing rolling over although he can't quite do it, he likes to flip onto a side or be on his stomach and then fall onto his back. He will lie on his little round stomach and kick about like a frog on cocaine, or on his back he will thump-thump-thump on the floor like a horse kicking in its stall. I can sometimes hear the kicking on the other side of the house.

He also likes sitting up with our help and he can sometimes sit for a few moments until he flaps his arms or something and falls over, thud. It's fun to do on the bed because he can't hurt himself and has a rather stunned happy expression at suddenly being on his back again. Wheeee!
I've spun my review of Spider-Man 2 for next week's paper, and here it is for your reading pleasure. Happy Fourth!

Spider-Man 2
As an ethical journalist, I have to confess right off the bat: I’m not objective when it comes to Spider-Man.
I picked up my first “Spider-Man” comic book in 1979, and have been reading them more or less constantly ever since.
So when it comes to an impartial review of “Spider-Man 2,” I might not be your man. This fun-filled, heartfelt ride of a movie instantly reverted me back to a 13-year-old comic book nut again. That kid would simply say of this movie, “Cool!”
“Spider-Man 2” is the perfect summer movie blockbuster, with returning director Sam Raimi balancing action, drama, intelligence and humor.
We pick up two years after “Spider-Man,” and Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is now a college student, struggling to pay his bills, make his grades and care for his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris). But complicating his life even more is that he’s also Spider-Man. Superhero duties has kept him from confessing his love for longtime friend Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and now he’s starting to wonder if it’s all worth it.
Meanwhile, a devastating experiment deranges inventor Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), fusing super-strong metal arms to his skin and turning him into what the tabloids dub “Dr. Octopus.” Octopus hooks up with Peter’s embittered former friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), who blames Spider-Man for his dad The Green Goblin’s death in the last flick.
Is it even worth being Spider-Man anymore with all this hassle? Peter Parker’s decision may surprise you.
“Spider-Man 2” has a lot in common with my other pick as the best superhero sequel of all time, 1981’s “Superman II.” Both movies dispensed with the lengthy origin exposition and got right to the heart of things, and both ask, can you be a superhero and still have a life of your own? It feels real, which is something even as solid a comic movie as the “X-Men” series couldn’t quite manage.
What makes Spider-Man work is he’s a regular guy. Peter Parker lives in a dingy apartment instead of some palatial “Spider-Cave.” And can you picture Superman delivering pizzas to make rent?
Parker takes a lot of punches in this movie, real and emotional, and Maguire is just perfect. He’s a young man paralyzed by his overwhelming sense of responsibility, unable to live the care-free life a normal college kid would have. Maguire’s puppy-dog gaze goes a long way toward making Spider-Man more man than spider.
Dunst is the perfect match for him, sexy and smart, and tough enough to punch the bad guys back this go-round.
Character actor Molina (“Boogie Nights,” “Frida”) is a superb choice as Doctor Octopus, giving a fearsome villain a sense of humanity. He’s not all that bad — he’s just arrogant and had a rotten run of luck, and his spooky mechanical tentacles are doing a lot of the thinking for him.
Director Raimi seems looser and has more fun with this movie than the first “Spider-Man.” Some of the trademark crazed quick cuts and editing he brought to his classic “Evil Dead” series are on show here, and there’s a playful but never campy tone, highlighted by the gorgeous, colorful cinematography of Bill Pope.
The action sequences are faster, slicker and feature far better special effects than in part one. You feel the punches fly. A spellbinding sequence aboard a moving train might just be the best action scene you’ll see all year, with a tense climax that’ll nearly stop your heart.
The movie does come perilously close to being the tragic story of Peter Parker, perpetual loser, but Raimi has an uncanny knack for ramping up the mood whenever it gets too sappy. The movie might also be a little talky for young kids, some of whom squirmed through my screening, but I found it gave the flick more substance than an all-flash, no-substance movie like “Van Helsing.”
What really tilts “Spider-Man 2” into four-star territory for me is that the characters grow and change. Peter Parker grows up here, as does his longtime love Mary Jane.
The creators don’t feel obligated to return everything to the status quo (remember Superman’s awful “memory erasing kiss” in “Superman II”?), and the finale manages to be both uplifting and ominous. “Spider-Man 3” in 2007 just can’t come fast enough.
The key thing about Spider-Man has always been his refusal to back down even when faced against overwhelming odds. “Spider-Man 2” beats back the toughest foe of all — the curse of high expectations — and emerges a winner for the ages.
(Rated PG-13 for violence, scary moments.)
**** of four

Saturday, July 3, 2004

Hey, let's do a couple of Quick comic reviews!
Ultimate Fantastic Four #7, 8
Say, this book suddenly got interesting. I read the first two issues of the latest "Ultimate" book a while back and was underwhelmed. While I like Bendis and Millar's writing usually, the "decompressed storytelling" technique -- where it takes 6-7 issues to tell a story that would've once been told in one -- was carried to extremes for me, and the idea of turning the Fantastic Four into teenagers did little for me. So I didn't read any further. But with issue 7, the origin out of the way, new writer Warren Ellis takes over, and the Ultimate Fantastic Four seems like more than just another money-making Ultimate title. Ellis, of "Planetary" and "Authority" fame, has always combined hard-edged, snappy dialogue with a science-geek realism. In these two issues, the first of the five-part storyline "Doom," we meet the "Ultimate" Doom, a radically different version from his mainstream Marvel counterpart. Ellis makes him a descendant of an infamous European royalty and gives him a different look. While these two issues don't quite tell us what his evil plan is, it's refreshing to see a new spin on a classic villain. Doom is more of a terrorist than a king. But what really sold this book for me is Ellis' take on the Fantastic Four's powers -- stretching Reed Richards is revealed not to have internal organs, for instance, and Sue Richards asks the question we've all wanted to know: how does the monstrous Thing go to the bathroom? Thankfully we don't answer this in gruesome detail but that inquisitive, real-world curiosity makes Ellis' "Four" much more intriguing than the first storyline. Grade: A-

Superman #206
Well, this is a disappointment. I reviewed the first issue of Jim Lee and Brian Azzarello's "reinvention" of the Man of Steel a few months ago, and was pretty impressed with it. It had stunning art, and a really ominous, intriguing tone. Strange vanishings worldwide, a doubt-filled Superman and a spare prose style made this seem like it'd be a classic Superman story. But by part three, this projected 12-part story has already lost my interest. Superman fights a generic villain who's a strong rip-off of the Authority's Seth, gets involved in a boring war in the Middle East, and generally doesn't do very much. It's not terrible, but it's incredibly plodding and average with an overblown sense of its own relevance, which is a shame since at first I hoped this storyline might move Superman to a new level. Even Lee's artwork seems a little more rushed and less detailed than before. Don't believe the hype; this is dullsville dressed up in pretensions. Grade: C-
Just came over the news wires that Marlon Brando is dead at age 80. A bit of a shocker, even though he's been in rotten health for years and a long way from his lean, mean '50s persona.
Brando is one of those stars any self-respecting movie buff should explore, but now, as I look back, I realize my own Brando education is horribly patchy. I've seen Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront of course, and in both of them Brando is a magnetic, forceful presence. Or Apocalypse Now, where Brando achieved a performance so bizarre and memorable that it became a shorthand for madness. And then there's The Godfather, which if you HAVEN'T seen you've got no business calling yourself a movie buff. But there's a lot of holes. I haven't seen "Last Tango In Paris," "The Wild One," or "Mutiny on the Bounty."
It's weird but a person's death often inspires me to educate myself more about them. After Gregory Peck died last year, for instance, I felt compelled to watch "To Kill A Mockingbird" again for the first time in a decade or so. It's a sad thing, I guess, that it so often takes a death for us to pay attention to the greats again. Brando's legacy is considerable, although film historians will argue for years about how much of it was squandered on eccentricity. But when all's said and done, Brando's influence can't be ignored. Like his most memorable role, Don Corleone, Brando was a massive, dominating presence, the father of an entire family of actors who grew up worshipping him.

Friday, July 2, 2004

Short review: Spider-Man 2 kicked 48 different varieties of butt. Long review: to follow soon. Great webswinging fun all around.

Thursday, July 1, 2004

What day is it? Oh that's right, it's Spider-Man 2 Day! T-minus five hours and counting... (Panel from Amazing Spider-Man #199 from December 1979, the very first Spider-Man comic I remember buying and the instigation of an addiction that continues to this very day...)

Oh, and Spider-Man 2 Day is ALSO the first birthday of my New Zealand nephew Louis! Hurrah!

And it's not any day in particular for Peter but he enjoys Spider-Man 2 day too.