Saturday, October 30, 2004

Spooky Friday and some scary DVD reviews!. I watched "Van Helsing" so you don't have to.

‘Van Helsing’
“Van Helsing” wants to be a goofy monster mash — instead, it’s a soggy monster mush.
This movie’s failure to entertain on almost every level offends me, because I’m a big fan of the old Universal 1930s and ’40s monster movies this draws so much inspiration from. Just like a vampire, “Van Helsing” sucks out the brains, mood and heart from those movies and replaces it with nonstop computerized mayhem.
What really irks is that it’s not a bad idea for a movie, updating those classic characters for a new era. But did it have to be done in such a hyperactive, uninvolving way?
Hugh Jackman is Van Helsing, a mysterious monster-slayer working for the Catholic church in the late 1800s. He’s sent to Transylvania, where the evil Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is working on a nasty plot to create millions of new vampires, using Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley) and a werewolf (Will Kemp) as tools. Van Helsing teams up with vampire-hater Anna (Kate Beckinsale) as mayhem breaks out.
Most of the blame for “Van Helsing’s” failure can be laid squarely at the feet of writer/director Stephen Sommers. Sommers is also responsible for the recent “Mummy” movies, the first one of which was decent popcorn fun, the second overblown and exhausting wall-to-wall computer tomfoolery.
Sommers obviously didn’t learn anything from “The Mummy Returns,” because “Van Helsing” has all that flick’s problems and then some. You’ve got an incoherent script (the Frankenstein monster is being used to bring baby vampires to life — huh?) and uniformly terrible, plastic-looking and fake special effects.
“Van Helsing” also features some of the worst acting I’ve seen in a movie this year. Beckinsale and Roxburgh are particularly horrible — Roxburgh’s swishy Dracula is more campy than frightening — and Jackman appears to be sleepwalking through the flick for the paycheck. The dangerous menace of his Wolverine in the “X-Men” movies is sorely missed.
“Van Helsing” is so relentlessly over-the-top that it might’ve worked as parody, or the “so bad it’s good” realm. But Sommers takes this slop so seriously that it’s hard for an intelligent person to watch the movie without laughing.
Frankly, I’d rather watch a non-computerized, spooky old classic like 1931’s “Frankenstein” for the tenth time than this vapid, brainless nonsense again.
* of four

‘The Day After Tomorrow’
“Global warming” might not be the most terrifying monster to ever stalk the screen. But in “The Day After Tomorrow,” it’s got horrible consequences.
Climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) has discovered evidence that man’s actions are going to create a new Ice Age. But disaster strikes a lot sooner than Hall expects, as sudden changes in climate devastate North America, with tornadoes in Los Angeles, icebergs in New York.
But for Hall, nothing’s more important than reuniting with his teenage son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), trapped in an ice-bound Manhattan.
“Tomorrow” is openly a B-grade disaster movie, and I have a soft spot for skyscrapers toppling and landmarks being wiped out. The template is straight from ’70s flicks like “Earthquake!” There’s some pretty jaw-droppingly cool effects as Los Angeles is erased and New York is submerged.
However, “Tomorrow” also slows down enough to involve you in the story. I enjoyed seeing Quaid and Gyllenhaal, neither of whom are traditional action-hero material. They bring solid heft to even the silliest of scenes.
“Tomorrow” blows stuff up in highly entertaining ways, but it doesn’t hold together very well. There’s some attempts to give the story an environmental moral, and the vice president of the United States is a clear ringer for Dick Cheney, but “Tomorrow” lacks teeth.
The climate changes we see don’t really hold up to serious thought. And as is typical for one of these movies where millions of people supposedly are killed, there’s no real sense of loss or trauma.
Like director Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day” or “Godzilla,” “Tomorrow” can’t follow through a decent buildup with a good resolution. Things get more and more ridiculous (one word: wolves) and the disastrous climate change is never really “fixed.” It feels unfinished.
It’s a shame, because it takes what has been a pretty entertaining movie and makes it unfulfilling in the end.
**1/2 of four

Friday, October 29, 2004

Spider-Man glut: Well, it's no great loss to the comics world, I guess, but Spectacular Spider-Man has been cancelled -- again. This poor title has been the "second banana" of Spider-Man titles for a while, after the flagship "Amazing Spider-Man" and upstart "Ultimate Spider-Man." Under one title or another, "Peter Parker: Spectacular Spider-Man" has been cancelled and restarted at least three times in the past few years. This new run barely made it 25 issues. The last made it 60 or so.

It originally began back in the late '70s as "Peter Parker: Spectacular Spider-Man" and for a while there in the early '80s, the stories by Roger Stern and Bill Mantlo were as good as any Spidey stories ever were, gritty and realistic without being grim. The title always traditionally focused more on Peter Parker's life, hence the name, and started to lose its way when it became just another Spider-Man action comic. It was cancelled, for the first time, around issue 260. The more recent stories, written by Paul Jenkins, were really great for a while there (the story of a young African American inner city kid who idolizes Spider-Man to escape his miserable home life, a story that didn't even feature Spider-Man at all, is one of the best superhero tales of recent years). But for the past year or two, the book has been on a downhill slide, with mediocre stories I only bought about 25% of the time and utterly miscast, spastic art by Humberto Ramos.

The novelty of a second monthly Spider-Man title faded long ago. Take a look at the January 2005 Marvel solicitations -- there are 12 Spider-Man books out there, including his appearance in "New Avengers" #3. Of those I'll buy probably three. Flooding the market isn't unique to Spider-Man. There are a staggering 21 "X-Men" or "X-Men" related title up in January 2005. And there's a dozen or so "Batman" family books coming. Who can -- or wants -- to buy all this stuff?

I have nothing against Spider-Man or X-Men comics. I love them, when they're good. But the failure of "Spectacular Spider-Man," again, shows that there's a need for quality control. A good, solid monthly secondary "Spider-Man" title could still work, in theory, but with the clutter from endless miniseries and the very good "Ultimate Spider-Man" line competition, it doesn't seem necessary at all anymore. Maybe "Spectacular Spider-Man" should just be allowed to die for a while.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Ten years on: 1994 nostalgia! Nineteen ninety-four was a pivotal year for yours truly — last year of college, a summer internship in big-city New Yawk at Billboard magazine, got my first job at a real-live newspaper and never looked back. The music of 1994 made a big impact on me, and other sites are dredging up their own "Best Of 1994" lists. Made me think of my own.
Maybe it's misty hindsight talking, but 1994 still seems like an uncommonly good year for music, 10 years on. Maybe it was working at Billboard for the summer, where comp CDs rained down like confetti upon the staff, and getting a chance to explore more tunes than I knew existed.

Cool albums from '94 that I still listen to on a regular basis:
Guided By Voices - Bee Thousand - Not just the best album of 1994, but one of my top 5 albums ever. Quirky, alien post-pop that hums and shudders like rock from another planet. Get it now and be saved.
Nirvana - Unplugged In New York - Undeniably tragic, but also perhaps their finest hour.
Elvis Costello - Brutal Youth - Great vintage EC, overlooked and very angry.
Freedy Johnston - This Perfect World - Utterly gorgeous, lost-love ballads that sting sweetly. An artist who deserved to be bigger than he was.
Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral- Too bleak to listen to often, but a high-water mark in sheer rage.
Soundgarden- Superunknown- Hey, kids, remember the grunge?
Weezer - The Blue Album- For some reason I lost my copy of this and keep meaning to pick up the new "special edition" when I have some cash. But it's great pop.
Green Day - Dookie - Whatever happened to these guys?
• Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain - Released 10 years before its time. Just now re-released with extra goodness.
Beastie Boys - Ill Communication - "I can't stand it I know you planned it / But I'm gonna set it straight, this Watergate!"

And to top it off... 1994 albums that I used to own that are embarassing to see on ANY "Best of" list:
The Rolling Stones - Voodoo Lounge. What was I thinking?
Counting Crows - August And Everything After. I like "Mr. Jones" but the rest of the CD now seems like high-school poetry set to bad music.
Live - Throwing Copper - And this is bad "goth" high-school poetry set to grunge. Overwrought and pretentious as all get out, in hindsight.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Peter decided he'd rather wear his pants on his head.
I suffer from a curious condition. Call it punditblogomania. I'm thoroughly sick of the election, yet, I cannot help myself from spending far too much time browsing endless political blogs and web sites. I don't watch TV punditry much anymore (FOX News and Bob Novak make me break out in hives), but I find myself hideously drawn to Internet flim-flammery about the pending election, a mere week away now. I'm on tentative eggshells about how it will all come out (and not looking forward to a very hectic few days at the paper next week), have already voted myself, but the polls (he's up! he's down! Bush inches ahead in Wisconsin! Kerry owns the Jewish southcentral Ohio vote! Hawaii is tied!) are compulsive reading.

Part of it I guess is the desire to know, to figure out the answer before the election, as if that were possible. Unlike TV news, too, I can find much more rational discourse online. The essential site for political numbers geekery is the awesome Electoral Vote Predictor. Check it out and stare for hours at Alabama poll numbers. Amazing undertaking. Favorite talking (writing?) heads of mine include the nonpartisan analysis at Columbia Journalism Review, left-leaning thinker Eric Alterman, Howard Kurtz at The Washington Post, and here in Oregon, this guy Basie! gives good bloggery. There's many others, of course, but in the end, they're all saying pretty much the same thing -- we don't know what will happen, but we're more than willing to guess... Gonna be a long week...
Can't believe I missed this: John Peel is dead. One of the most influential DJs of all time -- right up there with Wolfman Jack, Alan Freed and Murray the K "the fifth Beatle." Peel had a huge impact on pioneering British music and, particularly, as an advocate of punk rock. Whenever an act appeared on BBC Radio for a "Peel session" on his show, you could guarantee you'd hear some of their best work. Among my favorite Peel sessions I own are discs from David Bowie, Joy Division and The White Stripes. The man constantly challenged his listeners by promoting new acts and breaking boundaries.
“If it wasn’t for John Peel, there would be no Joy Division and no New Order,” band member Bernard Sumner said. “He was one of the few people to give bands that played alternative music a chance to get heard, and he continued to be a champion of cutting-edge music throughout his life.” Read more about the man here or here.
Peel's death reminds us the radio can actually matter sometimes. I don't think I've actually regularly listened to any non-NPR radio since college, and that's because most radio stations in the U.S. today are timid, corporate owned mouthpieces with playlists determined by some boardroom somewhere. I loved our radio station in college, where the DJs could actually choose what music they wanted to play. Peel promoted reggae, hip-hop and punk on the sometimes conservative BBC, and championed acts ranging from Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie to The Smiths, The Fall, Pulp and Northern Irish punks The Undertones, whose “Teenage Kicks” Peel rated his favorite song. Peel was the world's most influential modern DJ. It's a shame the radio industry apparently wasn't listening.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The doctor is in: Hunter S. Thompson emerges from the mist and unleashes a nice rant against the Dubya you can read over here at Rolling Stone. HST is a favorite of mine, although he's been professionally kind of a shadow of his vigorous kill-em-all-and-eat-their-brains gonzo self since about 1980 or so. But for every lazy hackwork essay he does, he still occasionally turns out a gem like this:
Did you see Bush on TV, trying to debate? Jesus, he talked like a donkey with no brains at all. The tide turned early, in Coral Gables, when Bush went belly up less than halfway through his first bout with Kerry, who hammered poor George into jelly. It was pitiful. . . . I almost felt sorry for him, until I heard someone call him "Mister President," and then I felt ashamed.
I only hope he's right about the end.

Picked up the new Tom Waits and the lamentable final Elliott Smith CDs this week. Through a quirk of the cash register, I actually got one of them for free! The pimple-faced dude behind the counter apparently only rang one of them up, and I didn't realize it until I was in the parking lot, it was raining, I'm unscrupulous and so forth... I stuck it to the man. Anyway, they're good stuff, totally opposite of course. I'm working on an actual review of Smith's "from a basement on a hill" for the paper and will post eventually.
Waits' "Real Gone" is a gutbucket blast, though, all tearing engine-driven punk blues, louder and more hardcore than anything Waits has done in a long time. It lacks the saloon lullaby feel some of his work has but makes up for that in sheer noise. Good stuff to listen to in the car as you screech through traffic and knock down old ladies.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Quick comics reviews!

Identity Crisis #5 Wow. Things are picking up speed in this seven-part murder mystery miniseries, and I think this might be the best issue to date. The search continues for the serial killer who's picking off the loved ones of DC's superheroes, and the body count begins to rise. A longtime superhero apparently dies this issue in a rather abrupt fashion, but the real meat of this issue is the stunning climax sequence, a tension-filled, beautifully staged and tragic scene that raises the ante of the series. Hard to write without spoilers to give it all away, but suffice to say this issue gets back a little bit of lost momentum from the last issue. The harsh brutality of this series has a lot of old-school fans up in arms, but the sheer craft of an issue like this redeems that for me at least. It's grim, but it works for me. I'm only curious to see if it can be wrapped up in two more issues without copping out. Grade: A

Ocean #1 Another week, another Warren Ellis miniseries. I'm a big fan of Ellis' hard-edged sci-fi noir, but I have to say I haven't been blown away by his slow-moving "Ultimate Nightmare" or "Ultimate Fantastic Four" work recently. Fortunately, "Ocean" moves a little faster than those, although the first issue is still mostly setup. Something mysterious is happening on Jupiter's moon of Europa in this futuristic tale, as a dour investigator is sent to investigate. This issue sets up the future of space travel, has some brief ultra-violence, and makes you want to read #2. Great art by Chris Sprouse and a building sense of mystery and menace, it's one of Ellis's better recent works and holds a lot of promise. Grade: B+

Spider Man/Doctor Octopus: Year One #1-3 What the world needs now is probably not another Spider-Man miniseries, or another Doctor Octopus story. I'm a Spidey buff but I rarely buy the thin cash-in spinoffs that proliferate like flies in a web. Still, this one, written by Zeb Wells and with art by Kaare Andrews, had gotten good reviews, so I decided I'd pick up the first three (of five) issues. If it's not essential, it's still a remarkably good look into the psyche of Spider-villain Dr. Octopus (despite the Spider-dude's name above the title, this is definitely more of a Doc Ock solo tale than anything). I never thought I'd be interested in learning about Doc Ock's tragic childhood, but Wells does a remarkable job at getting into the head of a lonely, dweebish child who grows up to be filled with arrogance and a fatalistic hatred. Picture Norman Bates as a supervillain. It's a very solid piece of back story that explains why Doctor Octopus is such a psychopath today, and Andrews produces some great, expressionistic art that's like a cross between Keith Giffen and Alex Toth. There's still way too much Spider-product cluttering up the racks today, which is a shame because it keeps a genuinely good one like this from being noticed. Check it out if you can, and look for the final two issues. Grade: A-

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Hey, here's a video review!

‘Super Size Me’
Imagine eating at McDonald’s for every meal of every day. If you were 7 years old, that might sound a lot like heaven. But for documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, it ended up a lot like hell.
Spurlock, a Manhattan filmmaker, saw constant reports on America’s obesity problem, and news of lawsuits filed by hefty customers against McDonald’s. He wondered just how bad fast food is for you, and decided to find out by eating nothing but Big Macs and Chicken Nuggets for thirty days.
The result is a witty, startling and insightful look at pop culture and what we’re eating.
Spurlock undergoes a startling transformation. He starts out looking like a pretty healthy guy — but soon his face goes gray, his eyes cloud, and by month’s end he’s gained a shocking 25 pounds. It’s clear the speed of his decay under a diet of French fries and milkshakes surprises even him. The doctors he consulted with at the start are soon begging him to quit as his internal organs suffer and his cholesterol skyrockets.
A lot of what makes “Super Size Me” work is Spurlock’s amiable, goofy presence. It’s hard not to feel for him as his health suffers over the course of his 30-day experiment.
Obviously, nobody sane would have a three-meal-a-day McDonald’s diet, but the results of Spurlock’s experiment are still shocking.
“Super Size Me” doesn’t quite condemn the very idea of fast food, but clearly takes a stand against the corporate mentality that rules the market, or pushing fast food to kids (one telling sequence shows a group of schoolchildren who don’t recognize George Washington or Jesus Christ, but know right away the merry Ronald McDonald).
Spurlock looks at the food kids are getting in schools, at McDonald’s junkies and talks to various nutrition experts. It goes without saying that Spurlock’s girlfriend, a vegan chef, is horrified at his new diet.
As a novice filmmaker, Spurlock does occasionally lack focus. There’s a lengthy, grotesque sequence of a gastric bypass surgery that seems gratuitous.
Documentaries like “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Super Size Me,” whatever their flaws, do engage the audience, and forcefully attack apathy wherever it’s found.
Sometimes they even make a difference — shortly after “Super Size Me” premiered, McDonald’s decided to eliminate the oversized meal options the movie gets its very title from.
*** of four

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

As a fan of both alternate history and self-loathing Jewish authors, I enjoyed the venerable Philip Roth's latest novel, 'The Plot Against America'. It's getting more press than some of Roth's other recent works for its fascinating premise — during the chaotic, isolationist days leading up to America's entry into World War II, the famed pilot and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh makes a surprise rise for president, defeating FDR in the 1940 election. Under Lindbergh's leadership, America not only avoids entry into World War II, but anti-Semitic policies gain strength. "Voluntary" relocation programs are created, aimed at breaking up Jewish communities by sending families to places like Montana and Kentucky. Roth extrapolates Lindbergh's aim from historical fact about the pilot's admiration for Hitler; he takes it to an extreme, of course, but shows the potential ease in which a fascist government could arise.

"Plot" chooses to follow one Jewish New Jersey family's experience under the Lindbergh administration. Roth actually makes his own family the main characters, and himself, as an 8-year-old boy, the protagonist, in a kind of "what-if" imagining. It's a smart choice that gives real emotional heft as young Philip deals with a cousin being wounded after he joins Canada's army to fight the Nazis, his older brother becoming a poster boy for Jewish "assimilation" and his parents' outrage, worries and fear under President Lindbergh. The novel features Roth's usual great characterization and dialogue. The alternate history never feels forced, and the war vs. peace, liberty vs. oppression arguments are just as strong today (I don't think, however, Lindbergh is meant to be a straight analogy for George Bush). It may not be Roth's best book, but you're talking about a man who's written a dozen classics, and it's certainly an excellent read.

Where it fails a bit is in the ending, where the credible alternate history suddenly dissolves into a series of fantastic developments, pushing the edge of believability and getting a bit absurd. It'd work if the rest of the novel had this farcical tone, but it seems a bit abrupt. Weak climax aside, "The Plot Against America" is well worth reading.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Because it is cold and rainy in Oregon and because we have no lives, much of our weekend was taken up by watching all three movies of the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD, complete with commentary. It was the first time I'd seen the original movies in total since the 1997 re-releases I think, and certainly the first time I'd ever watched all three in three days like that. I'm due for Jedi dreams.

What was particularly interesting to me, though, was listening to the commentaries as the movies unspooled (dialogue on subtitles), and something George Lucas kept talking about during "A New Hope" -- how he'd created this world and intentionally tried not to over-explain it. He really wanted to just throw you into an entirely different galaxy and cultures, and not fill in every gap in details. I'd never really thought about it before hearing that, but boy, that really seems like the key to the "Star Wars" movies for me; they encouraged imagination. They were interactive, especially if you were a 9-year-old kid besotten with all things Star Wars. Because you weren't told everything about the galaxy far far away, you could find endless layers of character, details and speculation in the movies, even things Lucas might not have intended.

My friends and I came up with detailed ideas of the back stories of each alien in the cantina scene, no matter how briefly glimpsed. This in the far-flung days before DVD or even VHS. By not telling us, say, what the story was with the hammerheaded alien in the cantina or what the deal with the sandpeople is or what's under a stormtrooper's helmet, Lucas let us imagine. I remember for some inane reason actually taking the novelization of "Empire Strikes Back" at one point and hand-copying it out laboriously, up to Chapter 5 or so before I lost interest. I guess I thought I'd figure it out through osmosis. My elementary-school-age chums and I would try to figure out, say, the back story for those nifty bounty hunters glimpsed oh so briefly in "Empire," who they were and where they came from.

What any good work of fiction does is draw you in. "Star Wars" drew us in. One of my first "creative" works circa fifth grade was a terrible, long-lost C-grade comic book/novel called (I think) "Starblazers" that was a mashup of "Star Wars" and "Battlestar: Galactica" that'd get my ass sued today. And thousands of other kids just like me did their own half-plagiarized homages to "Star Wars" fantasy, in comic books and stories and drawings. It got us thinking.

The word "Earth" never comes up in the "Star Wars" trilogy; there is no Earth, only other places. Was there ever a successful sci-fi movie before 'Star Wars' that dared to leave its audience's home planet entirely out of the picture? I can't think of one. The revolutionary aspects of "Star Wars" have become obscured by its success, by the plainspoken, even hokey nature of the storytelling. It became fashionable to bash "Star Wars" long ago, and I'll admit Ewoks and Jar-Jar Binks certainly don't help Lucas' case. The entire "new' trilogy is a mixed bag, at best. "Star Wars" has been analyzed and over-analyzed into infinity; like any work of pop culture it has never-ending facets. That doesn't make it the best movie of all time, but it certainly makes it one of the most fertile for young imaginations, I think. The kid who spent far too many hours poring over storybook movie still photos, sucking down Marvel comic books and always excavating Lucas' work for the elusive "keys" to it all is grateful for that.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

So it may be a couple weeks until Election Day, but Avril and I cast our votes today. One of the cool things about Oregon is its unique vote-by-mail system. It's a great system that has no real down side -- despite claims it would lead to voter fraud in 1998 when Oregon started the program, it's actually turned out to be safe and led to a voter turnout jump. Oregon's rate is higher than most other states.

I like the idea of taking the ballot and giving it a good going-over in the comfort of your home. It gives you more time to research the candidates, think over your vote, and send it in at your leisure. It's regrettable that we barely have had 50 percent voter turnout nationally in the past few presidential elections -- while apathy is inexcusable, you have to wonder if the rest of the country adopted Oregon's lead, would we see more interest from people who can't be bothered to head to the polls on Election Day? Vote-by-mail might be hard to do for the rest of the nation, but frankly it's safer, easier and less likely to see Florida-type problems than other methods. It works for 2 million Oregonians, anyway.

So we've voted, but unfortunately we still get to wait 17 days or so and see what our votes mean. Ye gods!

Friday, October 15, 2004

This is why bands like the Strokes and the Killers need to try harder. From The New Book Of Rock Lists:
25 of the most absurd rock group names of the psychedelic era. All 100% true historic names, honest.
1. Autosalvage
2. Ball Point Banana
3. Bubble Puppy
4. The Charging Tyrannosaurus of Despair
5. Chocolate Watchband
6. The Crab Cometh Forth
7. Daisy Overkill
8. The Electric Prunes
9. Everpresent Fullness
10. The Fifty Foot Hose
11. Frosted Suede
12. Frumious Bandersnatch
13. Hmmm
14. It's A Beautiful Day
15. The Jefferson Airplane
16. Jesus Christ And The Nailknockers
17. Lothar And The Hand People
18. The Only Alternative And His Other Possibilities
19. The Peanut Butter Conspiracy
20. Purple Earthquake
21. Strawberry Alarm Clock
22. 13th Floor Elevator
23. Transatlantic Chicken Wicken No. 5
24. Ultimate Spinach
25. Uncut Balloon

They don't make 'em like they used to. I would resurrect any one of these band names in a Vegas second.
Oregon is on the map. Despite the Kerry lead most polls are showing, you'd think Oregon was Florida this week. Yesterday VP candidate John Edwards visited Portland, Eugene and the Medford area in an all-Oregon dash. An estimated 3,000 people cheered Edwards on at the University of Oregon. Today, none other than President Bush himself is making an appearance in Medford and Central Point (Kerry visited the same area a month or so back). A reporter-photog team from our paper will be heading down there to cover that. And to top it all off Michael Moore is popping into Eugene on Monday. Plus, you can't turn on the TV these days without seeing ads for some vote or another.

Of course, our own little 20,000 population town isn't seeing any of this action, unless the caravans pass by on the freeway on the way to somewhere else. Our sole presidential visitor this year? Dennis Kucinich. Kind of like hoping to see The Beatles and getting a cover band. Oh well...

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Superman is dead. What a lousy thing to wake up to on a Monday morning. Christopher Reeve put up a brave, good fight, like any superhero would, and somehow, despite dehabilitating injuries that would've killed many other men years ago, I just kind of thought he'd keep on ticking forever, and that, just maybe, he might even fulfill his promise to one day walk again.

For me, no matter if or when they ever get that long-delayed new Superman movie off the ground, Reeve will always be the Man of Steel. His performance stands as one of the best comic book transformations of all time -- he became both Clark Kent and Superman and you never thought, "this is the wrong guy." Unlike Michael Keaton, where you kind of had to stretch your imagination, Reeve just was it. We've had a lot of great comic book movies in the years since, from "Spider-Man" to "X-Men," but in my kid's heart, my favorite comic movie will always still be "Superman II," which put four-colored action on screen like nothing before or since. The moment I'm thinking of that sealed it for me was, at the movie's climax, when Superman appears, hovering, outside the Daily Planet offices to confront the nasty General Zod and his allies: "General Zod — would you care to step outside?" I can't adequately describe the geeky chill that line gave, and still gives me, every comic book clash of titans come to life in one glorious line.

Reeve became typecast as Superman, and the two pretty lousy sequels "Superman III" and "Superman IV" didn't help matters. But he still appeared in other decent movies, such as "Somewhere In Time," and was heavily involved in environmental causes before the 1995 horse riding accident that changed his life. Afterward, to millions Reeve became a real-life superhero, championing disabled causes and using his clout to push for advancing research into one day repairing paralysis such as his. He didn't live long enough to see that research goal reached, but I suspect if one day it is a lot of that credit should go to Reeve's fierce activism. But in my comic nerd way, I'll still always think of Reeve in the red and blue tights, the friendly charm and the way he captured Clark Kent's bumbling exterior. I remember the uncanny acting skills he showed as Kent, in the scene when Lois discovers his identity in "Superman II." The shrunken, withdrawn Kent suddenly expanded, his entire bearing changing, and we saw an ordinary guy become something much more, something strong and powerful hidden within him all along. Come to think of it, that kind of sums up Reeve himself.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Mishmash: The inimitable Johnny B reminds us that were the world a kinder place, John Lennon would be turning 64 today.

Yesterday our local library was holding their occasional book sale -- usually these things offer just piles of old travel guides and westerns, but I found a real bonanza of cool stuff. For a mere 6 bucks I gathered up a novel by Jonathan Lethem; one of Roger Ebert's massive movie yearbooks; an old David Bowie biography I hadn't read, "Stardust"; the way-out-of-date but amusing "Rock Book Of Lists" (lots of Vanilla Ice jokes in it to give you an idea of its age); a book of Pauline Kael's film criticism, "Hooked," (they had several big hefty Kael books but I relented and only bought one) and a funny battered paperback called "The New Comics," dating from '88 or so, that turned out to be a nifty compendium of interviews from The Comics Journal with everyone from Eisner to Alan Moore to Bill Watterson to the Hernandez brothers. A nice snapshot of 1980s alterna-comics, with amusing jacket copy written around 1986 in the height of the Watchmen/Dark Knight wave of attention: "Bam! Pow! Zap! Comic books are on the rebound!" reads a quote from TIME on the cover. I'd never seen this book before, and it's well worth the buck I spent.

Debate #2: Well, Bush did better, in that he didn't make monkey faces, but he also came off very aggressive and still too defensive for my tastes. I felt like was shouting at the crowd much of the time. By comparison, Kerry still seems reasonable, intelligent and made his case like the former prosecutor he is. I'm still not getting my hopes up, because a lot of dirty tricks are likely in the next few weeks, but I kind of felt like Bush needed to knock this one out of the park and he didn't. As a debate, the town hall formats are always interesting, much less scripted than the other format, and it was good to see Bush get some real questions thrown at him. Both candidates did a little too much speechifying and avoided solid answers -- Bush STILL wasn't able to come up with "three mistakes" he'd made, Kerry's answer to the loaded abortion funding question sounded nice but it really didn't signify much. I admired Gibson's attempt to pin the candidates down once or twice, but knew that was probably not going to happen. I still feel Kerry is giving much more detail and planning than Bush is. Bush's rhetoric feels like "more of the same," the loaded combo of fear, slogans and tired labeling he's so good at. Enjoyed seeing Kerry try to slough off the relentless use of "liberal/conservative" labeling that turns most of us in the middle off; probably his best moment of the night.

Friday, October 8, 2004

Five Things That Are Cool, Part II*
*(part one here)
1. Interpol's song "Evil" from their hip new CD "Antics". The alterna-rock group moves past their Joy Division fixation that kinda marred their first album as derivative, and creates happier, bouncy but pensive robot dance music. This boppy track keeps going through my head nonstop. It's like a Smiths tribute band reunion mixed with a New Order convention. "You're weightless, semi-erotic / You need someone to take you there..." Groove on.

2. Snikt! I haven't bought a "Wolverine" comic in years but picked up Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s debut on the book, Wolverine #20, yesterday. It's a fun ride, with always-great Romita art backed up by a decent Millar script wherein Wolverine is captured by ninjas (ninjas!) and brainwashed to become EEEvil. Not the freshest idea but good execution and the promise of a mean Wolverine tearing his way through the Marvel Universe (confrontations promised with Fantastic Four, Captain America and X-Men in future issues) is inviting carnage. Ol' fashioned superheroics but who can resist a Wolverine run amok? Part one of six, off to a good start. Grade: B+

3. The season's niftiest new TV show "Lost" continues to impress. Episode 3 last night was a nailbiter, with honest tension as more about the castaways and their past is revealed, characters are more developed, and mystery heightens. Just what is the deal with the mysterious Mr. Locke? What did Kate do? When will they run out of food? Why a polar bear? Great action soap opera drama with style, the best reality show that never was.

4. Clerks X 10th anniversary 3-DVD set. Hours and hours and hours more of snoochy-boochie goodness. Spent much time this weekend poring through the contents of this disc, including full-length documentary and cast reunion Q&A. A must for any Kevin Smith fan.

5. Babies who eat squash!

Thursday, October 7, 2004

Oh, the humanity. I can't wait for Election Day. Yeah, I'm dying to know who our next president will be, and hope it's not the current guy, but in general I'm just so ready to get past the bickering, sniping and sloganeering that passes for political discourse these days. You see, the last couple weeks, while my editor's been on vacation, it's fallen to me to approve most of the letters to the editor that come in to the paper. During an election year, with presidential, state, local issues on the ballot, it's a frickin' flood of letters. I've been averaging anywhere between 20-40 a day recently. And let me tell you, it's gripping reading.

Most aren't worth the paper they're written on -- regurgitated talking points endorsing candidate A or B. They're just dull, and I fail to see how they persuade anybody but the writer's immediate family. Then there are just the pure savage ones, using slash-and-burn venom to attack the candidate they're against. Some of them are just plain kooky and get tossed out entirely -- for being too long or violating common decency or just being bizarro. I'm thinking of this rejected 4-page handwritten gem the other week that managed to quote extensively from the book of Revelations, let me know that AIDS is God's punishment, the Jews will burn soon, and warned of the end times, before finishing up to tell us to vote for Bush because God put him there. Hey, if it's the end times, why vote at all? The occasional letter that actually makes an original or thoughtful point stands out like a diamond in the sewers.

Anyway, reading so much dogma just sickens you that much more of the whole circus. It's part of it, and part of the democratic process, but sometimes it's hard to hear the "truth" for all the noise in between. I put my bias aside to read the letters with an open mind and only can those that violate the aforementioned rules. You just kind of shut off the opinionated part of your brain when you do this. It's like being a Stepford Wife.

Best of all are what other editorial page editors call "astroturf" -- campaign-created form letters spammed out from all over the country. I got one, pro-Kerry, last week that was the exact same letter from four different people. Both sides are doing it, and see nothing odd about the idea of having someone sign their name to a letter not actually authored by them. When we call people on it, their response is often "but I agree with it!", as if that makes sanctioned plagiarism OK. I at least respect the people who go to the trouble to actually WRITE a letter far more than those who just rubber-stamp one because they're too brainwashed to think for themselves. A month from today, it'll all be over, for better or worse, and regardless of the results I'll be happy to put this ugly political year behind me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

The Shipping News
Owch. December is shaking up to be a hefty month for comics fans. I order my monthly comics stash from the good people at Westfield Comics so I do it a few months in advance to when the comics actually come out. So, it's October and I'm looking at comics that come out in December, which means I actually will get them in early January. I need a time machine.
Anyway, this month is a pretty great one from my p.o.v. -- it features the return of Paul Chadwick's Concrete, easily one of my 10 fave comics of all time, and Bob Burden's surrealist masterpiece The Flaming Carrot, which would be #11 on that same list at least. Plus there's new comix by Pete Bagge, Evan Dorkin and all my usual Marvel/DC guilty pleasures. I'm unapologetically a superhero geek when it comes to comix, although I do try to narrow my focus and get the good stuff -- which of course is all in the eye of the beholder anyway.
Let's look at the haul, all (urk) $80 or so of it (hey, remember when comics used to be 60 cents each? Them were the days...):
Identity Crisis #7 This series has been controversial as heck, but well crafted so far. I'll admit for all the hoopla it hasn't left much lasting change so far -- one third-tier supporting character dead, and that's it for the first four issues. We'll see if it wraps up in style.
JLA #109
JLA Classified #2
Grant Morrison back on the JLA and Gorilla Grodd. 'Nuff said.
Question #2
Superman / Batman Set #15 & 16
As guilty pleasures go, this comics is the New Kids on the Block of them for me. It's up and down, mostly down in the latest arc, but I'll give it this next storyline to go. I'm a sucker for Batman/Superman team-ups, old-school style.
Y - Last Man #29
Authority: Revolution #3
Tom Strong #30
Astonishing X-Men #8
Daredevil #68
Fantastic Four #521
New Avengers #2
Everyone in the blogosphere seems to hate Bendis' "Avengers Disassembled" storyline, and I certainly think it's one of his weaker efforts so far, but I'm willing to give his new title a try for a little while based on my admiration of most of his other work. Besides, Luke Cage in the Avengers automatically erases the stupidity of having Wolverine join.
Ultimate Nightmare #5; Ultimate Secret #1 These on the other hand might not make the cut. Warren Ellis has been his work to painful lengths lately, especially in "Ultimate Nightmare's" first two issues (which Stan Lee woulda done in about 4 pages), and while I like his writing it's feeling more and more like his Ultimate work is paycheck fodder. It looks purty, but is there a "there" there? These two may well drop out before I send my order in an effort to cut costs this month, methinks.
Amazing Spider-Man #515; Marvel Knights Spider-Man #9 ; Ultimate Spider-Man #70 Yeah, I'm a Spider-Man freak. What of it?
Ultimates 2 #1
What If Aunt May Had Died Instead of Uncle Ben?; What If Dr. Doom Had Become the Thing?; What If General Ross Had Become the Hulk?; What If Jessica Jones Had Joined the Avengers?; What If Karen Page Had Lived?
I'm still irked at Marvel for releasing seven "What If?" comics in one month (somebody needs to introduce the idea of "flooding the market" to them, but the talent involved and my kooky love of alternate universe histories will still probably lead me to buy five of them. Ack.
Powers #7
Supreme Power #14
Concrete: Human Dilemma #1
See above -- my favorite comic from the 1980s, I think, with stone-encrusted philosopher Concrete living the most extraordinary of lives, told in the most evocative and ordinary of ways. Gentle and good-humored and more thoughtful than most of the rest of these comix put together, it's been too long an absence for this rocky mountain man.
Flaming Carrot #1
Biff! Bam! Pow! #1
Stray Bullets #36
Hate Annual #5
Jay's Days Vol. 3
By my good ol' pal Jason Marcy, sure to be an excellent tome of autobio comix. Support him and get a copy yourself!

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Green Day 'American Idiot'
Can you be a punk rocker when you’re in your thirties?
It’s been 10 years since Green Day’s “Dookie” became a hit record. You wouldn’t expect the punk-pop trio to have much steam left in them in the year 2004.
Yet they’ve gone and shocked us all by rocketing past their punk-pop proteges like Good Charlotte and Blink-182 and putting out what may be their finest record yet, “American Idiot.” Their artistic daring was validated when it became their first album to debut at number one on Billboard’s charts.
“American Idiot” is, of all things, a “rock opera.” But don’t worry, this isn’t “Bohemian Rhapsody, Part II.” It’s classic Green Day brazenness married with a new, more thoughtful insight.
“Idiot” takes as much influence from The Who and The Clash as it does The Ramones, with a soaring epic feel married with pounding punk attacks and songs as catchy as TV commercial jingles.
If there’s a flaw, it’s that, like most concept albums, the “story” of “American Idiot” is rather obscure. It’s loosely the tale of “Jesus of Suburbia,” a bored suburban kid, and his adventures as he leaves home and explores the world around him. Jesus rises and falls and ultimately gains some wisdom in his quixotic quest.
Even if the story isn’t clear upon first listen, the emotions behind it certainly are. It’s about being young, aimless and confused in 21st century America, with evocative song titles such as “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” References abound to the Bush administration and 9/11, but “American Idiot” is less specifically political than it is about waking up from apathy.
But none of that would matter if the songs didn’t have sing-along, catchy hooks. It kicks off with a bang in the lead-off single, also titled “American Idiot,” powered by the rage of a punk engaged: “I’m not a part of the redneck agenda / now everybody do the propaganda!”
The heart of “American Idiot” is found in two lengthy, multi-part songs, both clocking in at more than nine minutes long each. In “Jesus Of Suburbia” and “Homecoming,” Green Day wrap alienation, rage and regret into sonic assaults marked by sudden tempo shifts, lyrical flights of fancy and epic choruses. A few choice ballads break up the rhythm nicely.
Not every chance taken on “American Idiot” works, but by and large it’s a tight, remarkably focused album that leaves you battered and smiling at the end.
Punk doesn’t have to be shallow to make an impact. “American Idiot” takes the raw energy of punk rock and sculpts it into a powerful, crisp song cycle. It’s as American as apple pie and tearing electric guitar solos.

Monday, October 4, 2004

Ode to crawling babies! OK, Peter isn't always happy all the time, and spends his fair share of time yelling, wailing or weeping, but really, all things considered, he's a generally joyful little fellow, inordinately pleased to be here and curious and smiling about the world around him. Now he's even more ecstatic as he's started to develop the ability to crawl. Like most big changes, one day he wasn't doing it and the next day he was. He's been "practicing" for a while with getting up in the position, bouncing up and down like a cheerful gnome, and just in the past week he's suddenly discovered forward motion. It's a curious crawl, full of lurching sideways and occasional bonking of heads against the walls, with his body fishtailing every which way. And a spunky grin on his face the entire while. It's slow so far, but we know it's gonna speed up real soon.

What really draws his attention the most is our two cats. We have been experimenting with having a cat on one side of the room and baby on the other and learning that the baby is far more motivated to crawl when there's a cat tail to grab. Unfortunately the cats have not been fond of this. One of our cats, Kudzu, is speedy and wily and only lets Peter grab her if she drops her guard. The other, Luna, is older and attention-starved and will often let Peter come up to her and start digging his hands into her shiny white fur. He will then pull on it hard and watch it come out in big clumps, which Luna does not approve of. So she'll leave, but then, still wanting attention, she'll come back and the whole cycle starts over again. Also caught Peter jamming Luna's tail into his mouth yesterday. We have entered the age of more dilligent supervision to make sure neither cat nor baby get injured in the process. It's a fascinating world for Peter now, full of all kinds of things to see and chew on. For the cats, it suddenly got a lot more interesting as well.

Friday, October 1, 2004

Well, I know I'm a biased member of the liberal media, but I just can't see how anyone other than people on the Republican party payroll can say Bush won the first presidential debate. Seriously, I think Kerry did pretty darned great, confident and authoritative. Heck, he looked a lot more like a president than the slouching little gremlin on the other podium. Did anyone catch how Bush kept ducking Kerry at the handshakes so their 5-inch difference in height wasn't apparent?

Anyway, enough snideness since there's plenty of that on the Net already. If I try to pull back and look objective, I just can't see how Bush did well. He was hesitant (enough .... long.... pauses.... before thinking of another way to say "this job is tough," OK?) and it felt like he was surly and defensive the entire time. Obviously, a debate tends to be a referendum on the incumbent, but despite Bush's efforts to turn it into "Kerry changes his mind!" he was pretty much against the ropes the entire time. The reaction shots of him grimacing like a chimp who hasn't been fed didn't make him look good at all. Bush stuck to the time-honored GOP tactic of "slogans and repetition" that seem to have worked well 'til now, but in this format they hurt him. He felt strident and blockheaded.

Kerry, on the other hand, seemed confident and pretty solid. He avoided "gov-speak" for the most part (a few too many facts and figures though) and used his lawyer's training to hammer away pretty solidly on Bush's many mistakes. He didn't quite have the "common touch" of a Clinton but neither did he appear to be a soulless robot. The word that comes to mind is "professional," which ain't something I've felt about Bush. I admit to worrying a lot about the polls and so forth the past few weeks, and it's a month to go yet, but Kerry sure didn't hurt himself tonight. It'll be interesting to see what the spin and pollsters tell us in a few days when this all sinks in, but I'm daring the hubris of feeling hopeful again. Which surely means I'll get let down, I guess...
Wow, don't post for a few days and I break the 5,000 visits mark anyway. Not bad for only doing this thing since mid-April. Thanks to all who stop by here and hopefully I provide some small diversion with my goofy ramblings. Have been swamped at work all week (half the editorial desk is on vacation and we've got a position open right now, so I'm doing the job of about three people), but to at least get somethin' up on this blog, here's a few of this week's video reviews:

‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’
A brain-twisting love story, a head trip and a strange science-fiction film, “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” is one of the best and boldest movies of 2004.
Imagine that there was a machine where you could willingly erase your memories, and what it might do to the fragile emotion of love.
Joel (Jim Carrey) is a lonely, dull and quiet man who meets an outgoing, quirky and opinionated woman, Clementine (Kate Winslet). The couple have fun for a year or so, but when the relationship goes sour, Clementine wants to move on.
In screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s quirky world, Clementine can do this literally, by going to the mysterious company Lacuna, Inc. and having all memories of Joel’s relationship with her erased from her brain. But when Joel finds out Clementine has done this, he decides to have the procedure done himself, tit for tat.
Yet memory erasing isn’t quite as easy as flicking a switch, and when Joel changes his mind in mid-procedure, things get really weird, unleashing a torrent of fantasy and reality as Joel struggles to hold on to all he’s got left of Clementine — her memory.
Stuffed to the brim with heady ideas, “Eternal Sunshine” is funny and heartfelt, but it’s also twisted and oddball, and invites the kind of serious thought few Hollywood movies do. You have to keep up with it.
That’s mostly thanks to Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”). It grafts a love story to a “Twilight Zone” idea and creates a dizzyingly creative movie directed by Michel Gondry in a down-to-earth fashion that works well with the story’s constantly shifting visions of reality and fantasy.
Fans of Carrey only in wacky “Bruce Almighty” type roles, stay far away. Carrey is in his “serious actor” mode here, a far cry from Ace Ventura. But it’s a great, heartfelt and raw performance of a desperate man.
Despite all the plot trickery and layered metaphors, in the end, “Sunshine” is a hopeful love story grounded in gritty, imperfect reality. Love ain’t perfect, Kaufman seems to say, but it beats the alternatives.
**** of four

‘Mean Girls’
High school is another world. You tend to develop amnesia about it when you leave, but teen movies like “Mean Girls” are there to remind us how strange and unreal it really is.
Smart and funny, “Mean Girls,” written by and co-starring “Saturday Night Live” veteran Tina Fey, is in the sorority of teen movies that includes “Heathers” and “Clueless,” skewering girl fights with witty absurdity. It’s got a wit and style that set it apart from the pack.
Cady (Lindsey Lohan) is a sheltered teen who grew up in Africa with her researcher parents. Now the family has moved back to the U.S., and at age 16 Cady’s off to her first American high school. When she gets there, she discovers it’s a mess of cliques, rules and conventions, with firmly entrenched social groups from outcasts to jocks to the popular “Plastics,” snooty pretty rich girls who rule the school.
As a joke put on by her less popular friends, Cady decides to “infiltrate” the Plastics and become one of them, destroying them from the inside. But she soon discovers that the difference between hating the popular girls and becoming one of them is a thin line indeed.
Lohan, who’s shown the kind of comic spark and acting chops other teen-lite stars like Hilary Duff haven’t even discovered yet, is funny and charismatic here. She’s meant to be an innocent, but of course by story’s end she’s learned the ropes. Her charming performance goes a long way toward making “Mean Girls” work.
Fey’s script is a wry highlight, and she has a good role here as a sympathetic teacher working with Cady. “Mean Girls” has a crackling deadpan humor that is refreshing, and it’s the kind of movie both teens and adults can enjoy. Despite the title, it’s not really that mean, but it does point out the viciousness that runs through high school society.
“Mean Girls” loses momentum toward the end, as it dissolves into a few too many feel-good lessons and peculiar plot leaps.
“Mean Girls” doesn’t rewrite the book on high school humor — it’s neither as raunchy as “American Pie” or as satirical as “Heathers” was. A fairly familiar story hits the clich├ęs, but there’s enough spark to keep it humming along as it takes you through that unique, alien world known as high school.
*** of four