Tuesday, November 30, 2004

" The only true currency in this bankrupt world... is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." - Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock critic Lester Bangs

Watched one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time again last night -- Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (or, in the extended 2 1/2 hour DVD cut, "Untitled," as it's called). This is one of those rare movies I can watch over and over again, and get something different from it each time. Cameron Crowe is probably my favorite current movie director, a direct descendant of Billy Wilder with his ability to balance funny and heartbreaking and never fumble the ball. A loosely-based autobiography of Crowe's years as a teen writer for "Rolling Stone" in the early 1970s (the prodigal Crowe started writing for them around age 15), "Almost Famous" follows Crowe stand-in "William Miller" (a nicely naive Patrick Fugit) as he tours with the band Stillwater, an Allman Brothers-esque rock band "struggling with their own limitations." Miller falls in with the band's groupies or "Band-Aids," including the luminous Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, in the only movie in her career so far she's been worth a damn in), and makes the cardinal sin of becoming friends with the band as he tries to write his story.

I think what I love so much about "Almost Famous" is it digs deeply but smartly into the romance of rock music, in a rose-colored view that still doesn't hide the potential for rot inside. Penny Lane's near-overdose at the film's end, or the viciously funny airplane scene where the band and its hangers-on unleash upon each other with hard-earned bile, show us rock ain't all pot and girls. Sure, it's nowhere near as real as, say, "Sid & Nancy," but I don't think I'd want to watch "Sid & Nancy" over and over again, either. "Almost Famous" has hope. Miller starts the movie as an innocent and ends it battered but still optimistic. Although Crowe seems to be telling us 1973 might be the last year rock 'n 'roll was "honest," he doesn't say it with loathing.

Crowe is a filmmaker who isn't afraid to be sentimental, yet he never feels cynically manipulative even when he's got Tom Cruise saying "you complete me" to Renee Zelwegger in "Jerry Maguire." Moments like Lloyd Dobler doggedly lifting the boom box to Ione Skye in "Say Anything," or Penny Lane's broken-hearted good cheer as she finds out exactly how much she means to the band in "Almost Famous," are the kind of scenes that skate right through sappy and into the realm of hard truth. Very few directors could pull off a scene like the "Tiny Dancer" sing-along in "Almost Famous" without falling on their faces. Crowe doesn't, because he believes it.

Each of Crowe's movies -- "Singles," "Say Anything," "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous" and the underrated mind-trip "Vanilla Sky" -- traffic in characters who still want to be optimistic, no matter what they've seen. Depending on which day of the week you ask me, I might pick a different movie of Crowe's as my favorite (well, except for "Jerry Maguire," which I sure like but has too much football and Cuba Gooding Jr. mugging for my liking). But as his objective "best," "Almost Famous" inches out above the rest. It's a pure labor of love, loaded with inside jokes about '70s rock culture, cameos and fanboy pleasure (is that Peter Frampton in one scene playing a roadie for Humble Pie? It is!). There's also some fantastic acting - Hudson, Hoffman, Billy Crudup as Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond, and an Oscar-nominated Frances McDormand as Miller's domineering mother. As movies about rock music go, "Almost Famous" is right up there near the top.

"If you never get hurt then you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely you can just go to the record store and visit your friends." - Penny Lane

Saturday, November 27, 2004

...Holiday miscellany... Turkey day went well, despite our stupid water heater giving up the ghost while my parents and brother were in town, and my dad managing to puncture the van's tire in a 5-minute drive from our house. Baby Peter ate his first meat ever (turkey of course) and all was fine in the universe.

ITEM! The cover of the new Marvel Team-Up #2 (another fun little issue) is that rarity from today's Marvel Comics -- a fantastic cover. This iconic image ranks up there with some of the other classic "Wolverine looking mad" covers such as Hulk #340 and Wolverine #1 (the '82 Miller miniseries). Unfortunately, too many of Marvel's comics these days, as many other blogosphere pundits have noted, sacrifice effectiveness for bland, generic pinup shots.

This Ultimate Spider-Man cover from a year or so back could be from almost any Spider-Man comic of the past 5 years. For some reason Marvel decided that rather than have enticing comics that have anything to do with the STORY, they'd just put file art on the cover. Used to be I could tell by glancing at the cover of a comic if I'd read it. With these shots, purty art though some of them are, I have no clue. Anyway, it's good to see Marvel inching slowly back toward providing covers that actually make you want to read the comic. A cover needs to be more than just a pretty picture to work effectively. Maybe word balloons on covers will return next and we'll get more gems like this one:

ITEM! Awesome fanboy reading indeed is the new DC Comics Encyclopedia. I actually scored a review copy of this massive tome from the beautiful folks at DK Publishing. Here's my thoughts: DK Publishing’s “The DC Comics Encyclopedia” puts a comprehensive eye to the 70-year history of DC Comics, home of the adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and many others.
DK is known for its graphics-heavy, huge encyclopedic looks at everything from the animal kingdom to wines of the world to basketball.
Now it digs into DC’s comic archives for an alphabetical look at their superhero universe, using hundreds of vintage illustrations and comic samples. It results in a colorful encyclopedia that should appeal to comic lovers.

Want to know how tall Batman is supposed to be? (6 foot 2 inches.) How many superheroes have been called The Flash? (At least three, not counting ones from the future, apparently.) Detailed profiles highlight thousands of characters. Old, forgotten heroes ranging from The Whip to Dr. Occult to Kamandi even get their moment in the sun. The book also does a nice job of spotlighting “key storylines” from over the years, referring fans on to further four-color reading.
It’s not a perfect volume — on a casual read I found a few errors that probably only a dedicated fan would notice, such as wrong dates and a few omissions. However, a book like this is made for the hardcore fans, so a little closer proofreading might have been useful. A few characters are omitted entirely, notably John Constantine — who’ll be played by Keanu Reeves in a big-budget movie coming in 2005, so he’s hardly completely obscure.
Yet for the sheer spectacle of it all, of whiz-bang biographies of heroes and villains from Air Wave to Zatanna the Magician, “The DC Comics Encyclopedia” is hard to beat. It’s one of those books that’s great joy to return to again and again. Any comic fan would be pretty pleased to find this hefty volume in their stocking.

Stuffed of turkey and mashed potatoes, but here is a Friday video review for you anyway ---

‘The Stepford Wives’
Vapid and pointless, the high-tech remake of ’70s camp classic “The Stepford Wives” has starpower and glitz, but it’s a big misfire. It’s one of these goofy star vehicles that looks like it was probably a lot of fun to film. On the screen, not so fun to watch.
The very phrase “Stepford Wife” has slipped into the vernacular since the original movie, meaning a woman who is too perfect to be true, a model housewife without a mind of her own. The updated movie tries to be relevant and satirical, taking on targets from reality television to gay rights, but it mostly misses the mark.
Nicole Kidman stars as Joanna, a high-powered TV executive who loses her job and moves with her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) to the idyllic Connecticut town of Stepford, where everything’s a little too nice. The women are smiling, empty-headed housewives, while the men are lazy overgrown boys who spend all their time at a special men’s club.
The high-strung, trendy Joanna rapidly grows suspicious of the carefree Stepford life, and tries to find out its secret. Let’s just say that the women of Stepford aren’t quite what they appear to be. The result is an uneasy mix of comedy and thriller that stumbles.
The superstar cast of folks like Kidman, Christopher Walken, Glenn Close and Bette Midler would seem to indicate a solid pedigree for “Stepford.” But it’s the kind of movie that apparently ran out of script material halfway through, and it ends with one of the most ridiculously inept sequences I’ve seen in months.
There are a few laughs in “Stepford,” and some sharp moments, but for every pointed joke there’s three misfires. It shows the harsh marks of much cutting and re-editing before release.
Perhaps the most telling thing about “Stepford” is that, underneath all its posturing, it has absolutely nothing new or smart to say about men and women and how they interact. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and it’s a waste of time.
*1/2 of four

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it. Due to family in town and the usual wackiness, posting will resume Friday or so.

In the meantime, here is a photo of Dobby the house elf.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Quick Comic Reviews!
She-Hulk Vol. 1: Single Green Female

Frankly, as a grown man, yes, I do feel a little silly buying a comic called "She-Hulk." But the most recent incarnation of this venerable character -- conceived 25 years ago or so as a female, intelligent version of the more famous Hulk -- has been drawing rave reviews from people I trust for its wit and satire, and I decided to drop a few bucks on this paperback collecting the first six issues. The "buzz" is right on with this comic, one of Marvel's best publications in recent years. Written by Dan Slott, it takes the character of She-Hulk and gives her poignant new life. Unlike The Hulk, She-Hulk is able to control her transformations, and originally the shy, mousy lawyer Jennifer Walters, she's more than happy to live life as a powerful, Amazonian 7-foot-tall green girl and be the life of the party. The new "She-Hulk" series looks closer at this split between lawyer gal and party animal, giving She-Hulk more real character than she's ever had -- she's usually either been played entirely for laughs or as a generic strong-woman in most other comics.

Slott has She-Hulk join a prestigious law firm working in their "superhuman" law department, which gives great opportunity for satire of superheroic and legal conventions. It's like "Ally McBeal" meets "Justice League." The first four issues in this volume are near-perfect, packed with story (unlike too many recent ssstreeetched-out, decompressed comics) and often hilarious. My picks for favorite stories include #2, which sets up She-Hulk's law firm job and has her involved with "Danger Man," a humble family man who wants to sue his company over the unwanted superpowers they gave him in an accident, and #4, which is a fall-down funny issue guest-starring Spider-Man, who decides to sue his nemesis, unscrupulous newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, for libel. The art for these issues is by Juan Bobillo, who does an expressionistic, neo-Manga type style that's really loose and appealing, The last two issues collected, #5-6, are a bit more conventionally superheroic featuring lots of rampaging evildoers and a jail breakout, and comparatively traditional art by Paul Pelletier. It's not bad art, but a comedown from Bobillo's rubbery appeal. She-Hulk Vol. 1 dances nicely on the edge between all-out satire and evildoing, with nice, refreshingly feminist perspective into a female crimefighter that never panders. I'm definitely interested in picking up Vol. 2, and might even find time to add another regular series pickup to my straining comics budget. Grade: A-

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Because, y'know, I felt like I wasn't getting enough political saturation coverage these last few months, I decided to dive into the first volume of Robert A. Caro's acclaimed biography series of Lyndon Johnson. I'm a big presidential history buff, but this is one biography I hadn't gotten around to reading. Just finished the hefty 750-page first volume, "The Path To Power", the other day, and found it fascinating stuff.

President Johnson is one of those character that most of us born post-1970 or so know by reputation only. His two biggest legacies are probably Vietnam and the Civil Rights Act. Yet he was a lifelong politician, a driven fella who worked himself into a fatal heart attack by age 64. Caro does an amazing job bringing LBJ to life in book one, and perhaps what's most interesting about "Path To Power," which spends hundreds of pages only covering the first 35 or so years of LBJ's life, is that his subject is clearly a borderline sociopath. You pretty much have to despise the LBJ you read about here, a gladhanding, sycophantic, plotting and utterly power-obsessed young man who is determined to become the first Southern president since the Civil War. Yet Caro's skill is that he makes his subject compelling reading anyway, and while LBJ's oily character turns you off, you can't stop reading about him. You grudgingly respect LBJ's incredible political skills, first evidenced in college and later as a driven congressional aide, and finally a congressman himself. He's the kind of guy everyone knows -- bragging, puffed-up and utterly insecure, coming from desperately poor background in Texas's impoverished "Hill Country" but rising to become the most powerful man in the world (and then a truly Shakespearean fall from grace as hubris and ego caught up to him). Caro digresses winningly a lot in this big ol' book to set his scene, bringing the Austin area of the 1920s and 1930s to life, detailed segments about political bargaining, Texas politics and the heart-wrenching strain of running for office in pre-wired days. It's an astounding work of research and craft. Sick of politics or not, "The Path To Power" is gripping reading about how the system works, and one of the best political biographies I've ever read. Looking forward to working my way through the two remaining volumes (a fourth and final one is still being written) in coming months.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Sing, damn you! So over here at Information Leafblower they gathered a panel of musicbloggers and came up with a fun list of the 40 bands 'n' musicians they considered "the best in America" right now, as in this very instant. For some unfathomable reason I was not consulted, probably both due to my overwhelming lack of hipness and my status as the unappreciated Cousin Oliver of the blogosphere (and that was your obscure "Brady Bunch" reference for the day.) But the beauty of the blogosphere is that anyone can play!

So by following the same criteria no David Bowie, no Peter Gabriel or White Stripes on my list as they didn't do much new this year. But I've modified the list to include non-Americans because, gosh darn it, I'm a global kind of guy. Anyway, my picks for the 10 top bands/solo acts in music right now in the year of our Bush 2004, in no particular order:

1. The Arcade Fire Heartbroken emo anthems with undeniable power.
2. Björk Mostly a cappella "Medulla" as weird and glittering as anything Icelandic queen has ever done.
3. Elkland Based entirely on two songs from forthcoming album, insanely catchy retro '80s keyboard-driven pop with an urgent edge.
4. Franz Ferdinand Duran Duran dipped in Strokes with a side dish of Talking Heads, fun, campy and decadent.
5. Green Day Old-school punks fail to elect Kerry, but record sweeping, epic rock opera instead.
6. Modest Mouse. Tried to resist hype but strong, wildly diverse tunes won me over.
7. The Pixies. Hugely influential cult band rises from grave, doesn't sell out and somehow manages to sound even cooler than before.
8. The Postal Service/Death Cab For Cutie. Two bands led by delicate-sounding singer Ben Gibbard, one twee and electronic, the other soaring and loud.
9. The Shins. No new album but a handful of singles this year from beautiful pop masters.
10. TV On The Radio Seething industrial doo-wop, heavy as heck on a highly promising debut.

At some point before year's end I'll post indulgent and lengthy lists of my year's favorites in specific albums, movies, et cetera because that's the kind of blather a blog is for. In the meantime, what's even more fun than making lists is being snarky in relation to selfsame lists. The bile 'n' rage unleashed after the Leafblower list entry is fun: "I'm going to go shoot myself in the head."
Zombies and ogres, oh my, here's some Thursday video reviews!

‘Dawn Of The Dead’
There’s something about zombies.
Creepy and hideous, they represent our darkest fears of becoming something monstrous and out-of-control. They’re people without the things that make us human, turned into brain-eating, lurching creatures.
And I have to say, I’m a sucker for a good zombie movie.
The new “Dawn Of The Dead” is a remake of George Romero’s low-budget 1978 film. Fast-paced, action-packed and gory fun, it’s a zombie-packed blast.
It all starts out as an ordinary day in America, when something horrible — and inescapable — erupts. People start turning into gibbering, cannibalistic monsters, not living yet not quite dead, either. And if they bite you, you become one of them.
As the panic grows, a few panicky survivors, led by a nurse (Sarah Polley) and a gruff cop (Ving Rhames) hole up in a shopping mall to try and survive. But the undead are gathering.
“Dawn” has one of the best eerie opening sequences of recent movies, with an apocalyptic sense of dread as the world is shown crumbling into anarchy with breathtaking speed. If the rest of the movie doesn’t quite follow up on that chill-inducing feeling, it still delivers a good helping of grim fun.
Perhaps in a nod to our rapid-fire video game era, in recent zombie movies such as this and “28 Days Later” there’s an added scare — these zombies are fast.
The movie toys with the idea of these survivors as a microcosm of society as a whole. They might be all that’s left. And outside the mall, a squirming sea of the undead waits. “Dead” really doesn’t dig too deep for subtext, though, and it’s not that scary after the initial scenes.
Despite some decent acting, all the characters remain pretty thin. “Dead” is basically a thrill ride, with a sly helping of end-of-the-world humor, rather than any kind of serious fright flick.
It’s certainly not for the faint-of-heart, with exploding heads, impalings and dismemberments galore. And don’t turn it off before the credits, or you’ll miss a humdinger of an ending. This “Dead” is alive with guilty pleasure.
***1/2 of four

‘Shrek 2’
Nobody cares what a humble critic has to say about “Shrek 2.” I mean, it’s the number one movie of 2004, earned $420-plus million at the box office and broke records in its first week on home video.
So it might be heresy to suggest that “Shrek 2,” while professional, amiable and often quite funny — isn’t quite as golden as the original “Shrek” in 2001.
The fairy-tale story picks right up where that movie left off, with the ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) now happily married to his fond Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz). Unfortunately, he’s got Fiona’s royal parents (John Cleese and Julie Andrews), the king and queen of Far Far Away, to deal with.
The King is aghast at his daughter “marrying an ogre” and determined to break up the young marriage and set up Fiona with Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), with a little help from a Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders).
The movie is your typical sequel, continuing the stories of characters everyone got interested in the first time around, but not really breaking any new ground.
“Shrek 2” is a finely tuned laugh machine, but doesn’t quite have the emotional heft of part one. A less-grumpy, lovestruck Shrek isn’t as interesting a character as he was, and Fiona is positively bland here.
The scenes are stolen by the supporting characters, from Eddie Murphy’s hilarious wisecracking sidekick Donkey to the purr-fect performance by Antonio Banderas as the furry assassin, Puss in Boots. The main characters kind of get lost in the shuffle, and too much time is given to the Fairy Godmother.
There’s also a few too many silly, forgettable musical numbers, and a surplus of pandering crude flatulence jokes. (I may be old-fashioned, but fart jokes in a Disney-style cartoon seem like throwing a car chase into a Shakespeare play.)
Pop culture “American Idol” and “Matrix” jokes seem to ensure that “Shrek” will seem a dated product of its time, not quite timeless like a “Toy Story” or “Lion King.”
Still, “Shrek 2” features some amazing animation, cute jokes, and a playful spin on the age-old fairy tales from the Gingerbread Men to the Big Bad Wolf. “Shrek 2” kind of melts away in the mind soon after you watch it, but it is a lot of fun while its tale unspools.
*** of four

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Every comic book fan's worst nightmare:

So last night Baby Peter accomplished his lifelong dream — dumping an entire glass of milk onto a stack of Daddy and Mommy's new comic books to see what would happen. Yee-haw! Thanks to stupidity from Daddy (for leaving the comics out on a coffee table the baby could reach the very edge of) and Mommy (for leaving a full glass of milk on the edge of that same coffee table), Peter reached his goal, and soaked about 25 comics, magazines and books. And there was much laughing by the baby.

Fortunately, most comics were salvagable, although they will never see the condition of "NEAR MINT" again, and a couple were so soaked with stuck-together pages that they had to be tossed entirely. (Farewell, DAREDEVIL #66, IRON MAN #1, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #67. I knew thee well.) I can live without getting another copy of Iron Man but will have to shell out a few bucks for the Daredevil and Spider-Man issues to replenish my until-now complete collections. Because this is the curse of the obsessive collector.

There I sat, with a hair dryer on the floor trying to dry off several milky comics before the pages stuck together, and I thought -- I may well be the geekiest man on earth right now. And the comics all go in the office from now on, which has a door that latches and where babies have no access.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

I'm gettin' too old for this. Had a great time up in Portland yesterday for the Guided By Voices farewell show tour, but nearly angsted myself into a nervous breakdown and spent far too much money besides. Thank god I also had today off work to recover from getting to bed at 4:30 a.m. this morning. The body creaks and groans every inch of its 33 years. Cannot RAWK! like I once did.

I also reminded myself what a sheer and utter spaz I am when I go to the Big City, sheltered lamb that I have become. Much missing of turns, looking befuddled and in one particularly gorgeous move, driving the wrong way down a one-way street at 1 a.m. The GbV show itself was good -- not GREAT, but that was mainly because of external factors and not the band for me. The show didn't start until 11 p.m. instead of like 10 as I'd hoped which irked me as I had a three-hour drive to look forward to. The opening band came on and it was another hour before GbV showed, after a funny little slide show tribute and then a kind of inexplicable and hard to hear 10-minute spoken word rant by some guy whose name I didn't catch but I think he is in the band's retinue. By then the crowd was getting kind of impatient and shouting "GbV! GbV!" The club was also pretty small which was nicely intimate, but it got jammed with people and my spot 10 feet away from the stage near the bar became a packed fleshy smoky mass. Usually I don't mind because at 6' 2" I can still see but everyone around me was 6' 4" and very wide for some reason. So after a few numbers I had a panic attack and fled to the back of the room where I could breathe fresh air and move a little bit -- still only 50 feet from the stage or so (like I said, small club). Also, the sound was not great, particularly to start, kind of sludgy and poor vocal mic, turning many numbers into wall of sound roars instead of the more intimate quirky pop record versions.

Now that I realize I sound like a whiny bastard, let me say that Guided By Voices was fab. Bob Pollard looking every inch the 50-year-old ex-schoolteacher beer drinker he is was in great high energy and humor, making fun of Northwest institutions like Seattle's Sub Pop and how we pronounce Eugene. Lots of awesome karate high-kicks and microphone-twirling. Good mix of new and old -- with more than 20 albums, EPs, etc of material to draw through there was stuff even a fanboy like me didn't recognize. I was particularly psyched to hear oldies like "Navigating Flood Regions," "The Hard Way," "Demons Are Real" and some great Bee Thousand tunes. Another brief report of concert here on a fellow Oregonian's blog -- They played 'til 2 a.m.?!? Aargh. Next time I'm getting a damned hotel. I got a nifty semi-sacreligious poster, too!

(I don't even want to get into my scary parking lot panic attack [yesterday was a great day for panic] when I thought I'd lost/had gotten stolen the little anti-theft device under the steering wheel that makes the car not work when you put the key in. This is after 1 a.m. and I'm sitting in the parking lot starting to freak and that's when the homeless guy tapped on my windshield begging for change. I shrieked like a 6-year-old and gave him $5 to make him go away; remembered after about 10 minutes of not breathing (how to get home? call loving wife and have her Fed Ex spare anti-theft device? call AAA? take up new life as street walker?) that I left anti-theft doohickie in the back of car on top of backpack before the show instead of putting it in my pocket like a sane man would. So the adrenaline rush from that little episode kept me wide awake for the drive home at least, what with the sweating and the fear.)

Also blew wayyy too much money at Powell's even with trade credit (shopping list included Da Capo's "Best Music Writing 2004," "Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey In North Dakota" by the reliable Chuck Klosterman, a remaindered copy of "The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature' which looked amusing, and finally got around to getting "America: The Book" by Jon Stewart) and at Music Millennium scored the new double-disc reissue of Pavement's "Crooked Rain Crooked Rain" and a sale set of The Kinks "Chronicles," both of which I proceeded to listen to as I drove at dangerous speeds south in extreme fog before reaching home and plummeting into bed shortly before the sun came up. Kinks are great for driving in the fog at 2 a.m. My solo urban adventure for the year is complete. And Avril says I'm not allowed to leave the house with the credit cards for many moons.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Hurray for me! I have written about my deep and throbbing abiding passion for indie-rock stalwarts Guided By Voices before on this here blog, and tomorrow night I'm going to be up in Portland checking out one of the shows on their fabulous farewell tour. Have a few much-needed vacation days coming post-election and plan to hit Powell's Books and music stores and generally geek out in the big city.

Excited to catch GbV one last time before they call it quits; admittedly, their last few CDs haven't been their best, but the quirky, insanely prolific song stylings of Robert Pollard remain one of my favorite musical signposts of the mid-1990s. I was going through my far too large GbV CD collection today making a little mix CD to listen to on the drive up, realizing that I own probably close to 20 of their CDs from the last 20 years or so -- and I'm nowhere near having all of them. The band and its side projects are so incredibly immense that, to preserve fiscal sanity, you really have to just draw a line somewhere. (And admittedly, the quality control starts to slip after a while.) But 1994-1999 or so GbV highlights like "Alien Lanes," "Bee Thousand," "Under The Bushes Under The Stars" and the underrated "Mag Earwhig" and "Do The Collapse" still stand the test of time as unique, untoppable pop pleasure. I like that GbV is calling it quits now rather than dragging it out too much longer -- most bands probably do have a shelf life, although a lot of them don't realize it.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Hoo-ha, time for Quick Comics Reviews! (Actually, not so quick -- wish I could perfect the art of snarky one-sentence reviews like most of my blogosphere counterparts. Maybe I need an editor; ironic, considering that's my day job, ain't it?)

Iron Man #1
Well... "eh" best sums up my reaction here to the 419th "reboot" of the armored Avenger. Y'know, Iron Man is always one of these characters I like in principle -- billionaire flawed alcoholic playboy inventor fights crime wearing high-tech suit of armor -- but in reality, the majority of Iron Man comics over the past 40 years have really stunk, with the exception of a few runs. This latest attempt to fly, written by Warren Ellis and with glossy computer-aided art by Adi Granov, revamps Iron Man's origin to make him relevant. But it didn't quite work for me. I'll admit, Iron Man's old origin was tied to the Vietnam war which kinda dates it. But tying it to Afghanistan and al-Qaeda has the exact same problem and will date him 10 years from now, and throwing it in jolted me right out of the comic in my fanboy way. Granov's art is technically gorgeous, but suffers from being a bit stiff with too much open space. The story really didn't go anywhere, with wayyy too many pages of exposition and set-up, necessary for an #1 these days but still a slog. It all strains to feel too important, with discourse about whether Iron Man Tony Stark is an arms dealer or not, if action equals inaction, about social involvement, etc., complete with incredibly dull scene featuring a Michael Moore stand-in documentary filmmaker. An awkward attempt to graft substance and style together with numbing results. In the end it was all kind of boring. Grade: B-

Marvel Team-Up #1
Hey, this I liked. It doesn't strain to be relevant, and is the comic equivalent of a Mountain Dew with candy bar on the side -- guilty pleasure. I dug the old "team-up" comics of the 1970s and 1980s, where everybody from Hercules to Black Panther to Quasar could pop up each month. If this one sells well maybe it'll stick around. So far, it's off to a solid start, with writer Robert Kirkman and Scott Kolins on art giving their "A" game for fun, no-frills comics. This first issue maybe goes for the overexposed, with a Spider-Man/Wolverine team-up, but it's told in a breezy way with great interaction -- and it's a pleasure to see an actual, compact 2-part story rather than the bloated 6-part epics that seem to dominate comics these days. More great, detailed art from Scott Kolins, and Kirkman's script has the same accessible flow as his "Walking Dead" work. Maybe I was in a retro mood, but I liked this a lot. I'm going to give this one a try for a while (the affordable $2.25 price also helps). The format dictates that it'll keep being surprising, and I hope for more oddball teamups now that obligatory Wolverine/Spider-Man thing is out of the way. With the hundreds of Marvel characters out there to play with, this could be a great joy ride. Grade: A-

Identity Crisis #6 (of 7)
Whoa. The DC serial killer mystery nears its climax, and the tension is pumped up to 11 or so this issue. Jolting scenes involving Batman's betrayal and reaction to the bloody ending of last issue, and an ending that truly caught me off guard. On the one hand, I'm going to be infuriated if the murderer revealed at the end of this issue is actually the killer -- I have a huge soft spot for this character going back many years, and would hate to see it all lost for a "grim and gritty" makeover. But I strongly suspect Meltzer's not done with the twists and turns here, and I'm really curious to see how he writes himself out of this corner. If what we've learned holds up, how on earth will he establish a motivation? "Identity Crisis" has turned out to be the opposite of those old universe-smashing, cosmic-struggle epics, but it's one heck of an engaging murder mystery. The only question now is if it holds together or falls apart in the final issue. Grade: A

Superman/Batman #13
OK, really, I need to stop reading this comic. I feel my IQ dropping with each issue. But I'm a sucker for the whole Superman/Batman dynamic and love the old "World's Finest" comics they used to star in, so I've been trying to hang tight out of old loyalty. But this latest storyline, featuring the return of (again) Supergirl and the evil of Darkseid, just seemed like a flash-no-substance mid-1990s Image Comics joint. This issue, Superman proceeds to kick Darkseid's gray butt, in a battle utterly lacking in suspense or logic (since when can people talk to each other IN OUTER SPACE?) and then we learn that, ta-daa, Supergirl didn't actually die last issue after all -- can't kill off valuable trademarks after all. Cheeseball and amateurish to the end, with godawful "monologuing" dialogue ("she will never know the simple joy of apple pie with vanilla ice cream"?) and really ugly, anatomically incorrect "bad girl" art by Michael Turner featuring women with 12-inch waists throughout. Pass on this. Grade: D+
Best birthday present ever?

He's Spider Soap-Man! Bitten by a radioactive spider while taking a bath, Peter Parker dedicates his life to fighting crime and staying clean. With an attractive soap nozzle on the top of his head, he's a hit with the ladies as he enjoys web-swinging, lathered-up action!

Friday, November 12, 2004

Happy Birthday to me!

Thirty-three. Dear lord. I'll be spending the rest of the day in a fetal position.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The menace of ... Babyzilla! Young Peter has made a quantum leap in development just in the last two weeks or so, hurtling boldly from the dragging crawl to the pulling-up-and-standing anywhere and everywhere he can. Once again, bookshelves have been moved, hard objects padded, and our pathetic attempt at living room feng shui has got up and gone. We live a barricaded life now, where anything we don't want chewed on or shredded has moved up into secured zones. Unfortunately, we own a lot of tempting baby targets, including zillions of books, comics and CDs that are all very tempting to Peter's palate.

Inconveniences aside, though, it's an amazing thing to watch, as the synapses congeal in his little round head and Peter discovers the delights of the world. He's so darned happy to be mobile in his halting, lurching way, as he "cruises" from couch to easy chair and sidestep-walks all the barricades. He falls a lot (and gets in the way -- Daddy managed to open the freezer door into his head yesterday and was consumed with guilt for hours, although after a bit of wailing Peter didn't have a mark). Baby "bonks," a few months ago, were incredibly dramatic. I remember his toppling backward onto his head when he was trying to sit up a few months ago and the trauma for Dad at least still hasn't quite dissipated. Now, he falls several times a day, most of the time shrugging it off with a giggle or a brief stunned look. It's amazing to think that less than 9 months ago he was in Avril's belly. Now here he is, on two feet like a real human being. Wow.
Here's my review of "The Incredibles," which any superhero fan worth his or her salt needs to head out and see right away --

Some movies are just critic-proof.
“The Incredibles” is from Pixar, the reliable creators of computer-generated animation classics from “Toy Story” to “Finding Nemo.” And it’s got superheroes. And cute babies. And Samuel L. Jackson.
What more do you really need to know?
OK, for those who didn’t contribute to the film’s sky-high $70 million opening take last weekend, here’s a brief summary.
“The Incredibles” takes place in a world filled with superheroes, and the biggest of them all is Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson from TV’s “Coach”). With his new wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), they lead the fight against crime — that is, until an avalanche of lawsuits by the people they were trying to save put them out of business.
Pick up 15 years later, and Mr. Incredible is now an insurance agent working incognito in a “Dilbert” style cubicle maze, while Elastigirl is a humble housewife helping raise their three super-powered kids, Violet, Dash and baby Jack-Jack. But Mr. Incredible feels the call of heroism and spends his free time secretly doing heroic deeds with fellow retired crusader Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson)
Then, a mysterious woman offers Mr. Incredible the chance to put back on his spandex and do undercover good deeds for big cash. But little does Incredible know an old enemy may be pulling the strings in hope of defeating the Incredibles once and for all.
If it weren’t for the superlative “Spider-Man 2,” this would be the best super-hero movie of the year. Writer-director Brad Bird piles on the heart without being sappy, and doesn’t stint on the action. His first feature, 1999’s excellent, criminally overlooked “The Iron Giant,” clearly was just a warm-up for this.
“The Incredibles” represents the first Pixar movie that comes from a mature adult’s perspective, rather than a childlike or outcast one. Mr. Incredible worries about putting food on the table, raising his kids and is haunted by the idea that his best days are behind him. This gives the film an emotional heft that makes it as appealing to grownups as it is the little ones.
But lest you think this is “American Beauty,” “The Incredibles” is also fast, funny and crowd-pleasing, parodying James Bond movies, The Fantastic Four comic book, family sitcom clichés and more. The entire final act is an ecstatic overload of bright battles, one-liners, killer robots and resounding heroism.
The animation, as always from Pixar, is top-notch. This is notable for being the first Pixar film to star human (or superhuman) characters, and they come off seamlessly, nicely balanced between being cartoony and realistic. They don’t look stiff and unnatural, as the upcoming “The Polar Express” actors do.
I appreciate that the producers went with lesser-known voice talents like Nelson and Hunter rather than a Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey.
Nelson, particularly, nails the world-weary resignation and unflagging heroism of Mr. Incredible, and Hunter is hilarious as the spunky Elastigirl. Jason Lee also shines as the villainous, bratty Syndrome. And although Jackson’s screen time is too short, he’s great fun as Frozone.
Quibbles? OK, the story does take a while to get going, and at two hours it might seem a bit long for a cartoon feature. But “The Incredibles” does a great job of setting up its universe, and it’s all done with such care and a lot of superhero in-jokes that it’s hard to mind.
With its PG rating, this is a slightly darker toon than much of Pixar’s earlier work. Characters die, and some of the humor will sail right over the head of the wee ones.
To point out the obvious, “The Incredibles” lives up to its name, and continues the winning streak of Pixar’s family-friendly, intelligent entertainment for all ages. It’s enough to make you want to leap a tall building in a single bound.
***1/2 of four

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

“The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved,” Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote in a five-page, handwritten letter to President Bush announcing his resignation from the Cabinet.

Well, thank god for that.

Me am living in Bizarro World me thinks.

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

"Rise... Darth Vader."
Shoot, I know I shouldn't get my hopes up after the tepid "Episode I" and the better-but-flawed "Episode II." But watching the teaser trailer for "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith" yesterday before I caught "The Incredibles" (review to come later this week of that one), I turned into a 13-year-old fanboy again. Lucas may not make the best movies anymore, but he sure knows how to tease you. The "Sith" trailer is short, just over 90 seconds, and about half of that is actually old, effectively used footage from the original trilogy, and a voiceover from the late Alec Guinness which nicely sets the stage for Anakin's fall in Episode III. As the suspense builds, we then get a series of ultra-fast quick cuts of action from "Sith" -- which, if you download the trailer, can be slowed down a little bit to get a better look at what goes on.
Some promising stuff here, including:
* Anakin looking more evil, including jaunty yellow eyeballs (apparently yellow eyes means evil)
* Some great-looking intergalactic space battles, including prototype X-Wings and TIE fighters from the looks of it
* More Yoda lightsaber action!
* Padme (Natalie Portman) shows us where Leia got her dubious "double-bun" hairstyle from in "A New Hope"
* My personal favorite shots in the teaser, a horde of a hundred of so howling Wookies ready to tear into somebody or something with a vengeance.
* A few shots of a boiling "volcano planet" where, ever since I can remember, Jedi geek lore has it that Obi-Wan and Anakin have their final terrible confrontation which apparently leaves Anakin a crispy critter.
* "Money shot" of Darth Vader himself, newly minted and ready to kick Jedi butt!

There's a whole cottage Internet industry devoted to tearing apart "Star Wars" (an entire lengthy thread I read on one forum dissolved into an argument about whether Darth Vader's HANDS were too small in one shot), but I try not to take it too seriously. "Episode III" certainly has more promise than the other two prequels, and leads up to the events we've all been waiting to see since 1983 or so. The very nature of the story means it'll be darker and meaner than any "Star Wars" movie so far (translation: no Ewoks or Jar-Jar). Let the countdown to May 2005 begin!
Time to look ahead at the January 2005 comix releases and what I plan to order from them from the good folks at my fix supplier, Westfield Comics:

JLA #110; JLA: Classified #3
Superman / Batman #17
WE3 #3
Y - Last Man #30
The "buzz" is gone some, but this is still one of the most reliably fun comics I read each month.
Authority: Revolution #4
Planetary #22
Amazing Spider-Man #516
Astonishing X-Men #9
Daredevil #69
Essential Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-Man Vol. 1
Another Essential must -- 600 pages of vintage 1970s Spider-Man goodness for $15 or so. Hoo-ah!
Fantastic Four #522
Incredible Hulk #77
Peter David returns! The Hulk is a character I've only really ever seen written well by Mr. David, so it's good to see him back for a hopefully long stay. His last one lasted 12 years and was the best the Hulk's ever been. Can you go home again? We'll see.
Marvel Knights Spider-Man #10
New Avengers #3
Having been burned by the "Chaos" storyline that Bendis kicked off his Avengers run on, I'm still hopeful his new series will be decent. It's got Luke Cage, dammit!
Pulse #7
Ultimate Secret #2; Ultimate Spider-Man #71; Ultimates 2 #2
Powers #8
Apocalypse Nerd #1
Hey, a new Peter Bagge comic, about the last man on a post-apocalyptic earth. I'm down.
Concrete: Human Dilemma #2
Black Hole #12
Wow, I've been buying this irregularly published noir horror comic from Charles Burns for something like 10 years, and finally, the last issue is here. It's a masterpiece, among the finest horror comics since the glory days of EC in the 1950s, and I'm eager to sit down and re-read the whole series in its entirety. Kudos also to Fantagraphics for offering a nifty slipcase for a few bucks that you can stick the whole series in -- each issue has been gorgeously designed, and frankly I don't need to buy a paperback of it when I can just stuff 'em in a slipcase. A good call I'd like to see more publishers do.

And a few things I'd like to get but will hold off for now --
Bizarro World hardcover Drooool... A new kooky comics anthology of alternative comics' best doing DC superhero parodies? Including work by Tony Millionaire, Kyle Baker, Evan Dorkin, Dylan Horrocks, Eddie Campbell, Harvey Pekar, James Kochalka, Gilbert Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Andi Watson, Bob Fingerman, Craig Thompson & Ivan Brunetti. This is hard to wait on -- awesome talent, and the first "Bizarro Comics" book was a hoot, but I'll wait for a cheaper paperback version instead of pay $30 for this right now.
Peter David: Hulk Visionaries, A nifty paperback featuring the earliest Hulk stories by the aforementioned Mr. David, nearly 20 years old now but still good stuff. But at $20, I'm going to wait until I can find it at a discount.

Saturday, November 6, 2004

It's 36 minutes 'til quittin' time and I'm too lazy to put my entire story over here, so here's a link to my review of "From A Basement On A Hill," the final album by the late, great, sad singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. Drink deeply.
Forget politics, here's Quick Comics Reviews (and one not-so-quick "Avengers Disassembled" rant):

Astonishing X-Men #6
Joss Whedon's impressive opening storyline comes to an end here, and it's just a little rushed. This issue isn't quite as good as what's come before -- too much clunky exposition, and a few hard-to-follow sequences as the X-Men regroup from their battle with the alien Ord and learn of a tangled conspiracy involving the American government and mutants. Still, the good moments -- the "fastball special," Cassaday's ongoing excellent art, and having Colossus back -- far outweigh the sluggish ones. B

Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes #1 (of 8)
This is a fun series -- an "Avengers: Year One" type tale by Joe Casey and Scott Kolins that fills in the blanks of those classic 1960s Avengers issues and tells us the details of putting together a world-beating superhero team in their uncertain early days. I enjoyed this issue, the personality clashes with the volatile Hulk and the general fanboy pleasure of it all. Gorgeously detailed art by Kolins -- his feral, angry Hulk, massive Thor and retro Iron Man leap off the page. But, despite it all, I'm not getting #2 -- because this series is absurdly overpriced at $3.50 an issue, and the already-announced collected paperback next spring will sell for only $18 or so -- or about $10 less than buying the eight "floppies." The only thing that makes it a $3.50 comic over a $2.50 one is a thicker cover. So I wait for the trade rather than get ripped off. And Marvel wonders why sales go in the toilet. A- for the content, though. D- for the marketing.

Avengers #503
...And then there's this. I was willing to give Bendis the benefit of this doubt, because I'm such a fan of most of his other work, but this four-part much-hyped "Avengers Disassembled" storyline... well, looking at the whole complete story now, it just stinks. This final part of four scurries along to fill in the gaps left by three issues of death and despair, and fails mightily. Rushed, nonsensical sloppy plotting and a total lack of authentic feeling. Tearing the Avengers apart in the face of menace is a good idea, and one that's been done to much better effect several times before. But this arc is all shock and no heart.
SPOILERS ahead -- the "villain" of the arc, the longtime heroine-gone-astray the Scarlet Witch, was telegraphed from the start, so there's no shock. I'd hoped it was a red herring instead of something so obvious, and Bendis builds his entire house of cards on a mediocre John Byrne story from 15 years ago, ignoring any character development since then. There's so little true movement in this story -- basically, Dr. Strange shows up to deliver exposition for 10 pages, the Avengers go look for the Scarlet Witch, Dr. Strange casts a spell on her, and that's it. Oh, and Magneto shows up for no particular reason. The Avengers come off as totally inept and passive throughout this entire storyline, from the absolutely banal death of Hawkeye in #502 to endless panels of Captain America with sad puppy-dog eyes. This team wouldn't have lasted for 40 years worth of comics if they'd always acted like this. It's like they're on valium. This story was hyped as featuring "every Avenger ever," but of a cast of dozens most of them simply stand around looking depressed. How many panels of Moon Knight hanging around in crowd scenes do we need? I fail to see how Scarlet Witch's treachery will lead to the "end" (for five minutes) of comics' greatest hero team. The Avengers have been through far worse over the years with less impact. Basically, this whole "Chaos" storyline feels like something cooked up in a boardroom to sell comics. Yeah, so are most big comic stunts, but this one reeks of a cynicism and desperation that's unique. There's no love here.
Gah. Enough ranting. Basically, this is a seriously flawed story. The Avengers, and Bendis, deserve better. Bendis is a great comics writer, but team books don't play to his strength. Because I don't learn, I'll still pick up the first few issues of Bendis' superstar "relaunch" New Avengers, but good lord, it'd better be better than this awful storyline or it's going to sink like a stone. Grade: D+ for the entire storyline.

Friday, November 5, 2004

... *Sigh* Many things I could say about the election, but they're all being said at varying levels of thoughtfulness and sanity elsewhere. Instead I'll let the inimitable James Kochalka Superstar! say it for me:

Many Spatula Forum thanks to James for his kind permission to reprint this toon from his daily strip. Go check out his Web site at American Elf and spend lots of money on his comix!

...And, to quote Forrest Gump, "that's all I have to say about that."

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Hey, Comic Relief is one of the best comic book stores in the country and a favorite stop of mine whenever I'm in the Berkeley area (sadly less often now that we're in Oregon). Unfortunately they're in trouble and losing their lease in Berkeley. Help them out if you can — here's details! A comics institution, this place needs a new home and fast.
...Nothing much left to say at this point but...


Monday, November 1, 2004

A Halloween salute to my favorite classic movie monster! I don't know why I have such a strange fascination with The Creature From The Black Lagoon. I dig a lot of the old '30s, '40s and '50s Universal monster movie ghouls, but for some reason, ever since I was a little kid, the gill man from the swamps was a favorite of mine. Maybe it's the green scales or the creepy alien look. Maybe it's the subtle theme of man vs. nature, primitive vs. society. Or just all the women in swimsuits being terrorized by the webbed menace.

The first, original "Creature From The Black Lagoon" flick, celebrating its 50th (!) birthday this year, is a classic drive-in movie monster show. Researchers in the Amazon discover the terrifying beast and try to capture it, but quickly become its pawn. The Creature's classic design still holds up well today, and the damsel-in-distress part played by Julie Adams, who spends most of the movie in a white bathing suit, is superb fun. Adams was one of my first screen crushes as a kid when I first saw this (the director almost has a fetish for her -- long, dreamlike scenes of Adams swimming in the lagoon unaware as the Creature almost -- but not quite -- grabs her dangling feet!). "Creature" is goofy, primal fun, "Beauty and the Beast" in the tropics, and a sense of isolation from the jungle setting. A memorable pounding musical score trumpets the Creature's spooky arrival each time.

This weekend I rented the two sequels from Netflix, which I hadn't seen in many years, courtesy of the spiffy new Creature of the Black Lagoon Legacy edition DVD set. "Revenge of the Creature" (1955) was the second movie, and "The Creature Walks Among Us" (1956) the final.

"Revenge Of The Creature" is a decent but bland sequel without the menace and subliminal sexiness of the first flick. The Creature, who basically is captured in every one of these movies, gets nabbed and taken to a "Marine World" type park in Florida to be put on display. But the gill man breaks loose, and havoc ensues. There's fun in watching the Creature -- weaker and less intelligent than it seemed in the first movie -- tear up an amusement park, but it's too similar to part one, really, and dull human actors with dull human problems. The first movie felt more organic and unpredictable. Notable in a tiny cameo here is young Clint Eastwood, making his very first film appearance!

"The Creature Walks Among Us" may have the best premise of all three movies, but it's also in most ways the cheapest and least of them. It's based on the Creature being captured - again! - and through a combination of fiery accident and experimental surgery, "modified" to breathe air and adapted to be more human. The Creature even wears clothes! We get a glimpse of the theme, hinted at in the other two flicks, that the Creature is really more of a victim than a villain, and the 'de-gilled' monster at the end is a tragic, lonely figure. But, filmed for what looks like a $20 budget, "Walks Among Us" is pretty silly, recycles footage from the old movies and moves incredibly slowly for a mere 73-minute film. The idea of the Creature forced to become a man is fascinating, but little is done with it, and the movie just kind of "ends" without any real resolution. In all of these movies the human characters are pretty disposable, and "Walks Among Us" gives far too much time to the mad scientist's domestic problems with his wife.

Still, while they're no Shakespeare, I've got a soft spot for these Creature features (they helped wash the taste of the recently reviewed, abominable new Universal monster movie desecration "Van Helsing" out of my system). Unlike other '50s monster flicks like "The Thing" or "The Fly," the Creature has yet to be resurrected for a new era. That might just be for the best, though.