Friday, December 31, 2004

Nik's Picks '04, continued: My top five CDs of the year. Sometime before 2005 gets too far along I'll throw up my television and comic book picks of the year, and then we'll all move on with our lives.

#1. Green Day, “American Idiot”
The punks are older, but they’re still angry. Ten years ago, Green Day helped spur a punk revival. Now, they’ve put out a fierce, loud manifesto, an epic “punk rock opera” about alienation, loneliness, drugs and broken hearts — or, being a confused teenager in 2004. “American 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. Toss in two soaring, magnificent 12-minute-long multipart songs, and you’ve got a modern-day version of The Who’s “Tommy.” Ambitious as heck, and their best album yet.

#2. Björk, “Medulla”
Icelandic chanteuse Björk steps back from the electronica trip-hop feel of much of her earlier work, and unveils an album of sounds almost entirely created by the human voice. You hear a variety of sounds here — ululating cries, looming choirs, bizarre “beat box” grunts and bass beats, even a “human trombone” in one song — all mixed with Björk’s floating croon. It’s utterly alien, not for everybody, yet this experiment really works at creating a whole new world of music. And Baby Peter absolutely digs it, too.

#3. TV on the Radio, “Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes”
This New York-based group is a fascinating cultural mix. Caucasian and African-American members come together to create industrial-strength alternative rock crossed with doo-wop and gospel sounds. The result is hypnotic and soulful, a record filled with grand, epic singing and a tense kind of passion. Songs like “Staring At The Sun” or “Dreams” combine great pop imagery with an urgent funky feeling. A captivating debut album, one that makes you eager to hear what sounds this artsy combo comes up with next.

#4. The Pixies, “Live in Eugene, Oregon, 4/28/04”
The alt-rock forefathers, one of the late 1980s and early 1990s’ finest bands, reunited this year for a hugely successful tour. Their uniquely skewed, raw surf-punk fusion, influential on countless bands ranging from Nirvana to the aforementioned Modest Mouse, hadn’t aged at all, as they proved at a stellar two-show stop at Eugene’s McDonald Theater. Best of all, the band contracted with a company called DiscLive ( to put out “official bootlegs” of all the shows on their tour, recorded on the spot. The audience was able to buy discs burned and produced right after the show, a triumph to modern technology and a great souvenir. Hopefully other bands will catch on.

#5. Modest Mouse, “Good News For People Who Love Bad News”
Paranoid, catchy and diverse rock from this Northwest-based band, which struggled unheralded for years before breaking through with the hummable, hopeful single “Float On.” Lead singer Isaac Brock always sounds like he’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but his twitchy angst brings great power to a record that springs from guitar balladry to jam-band singalongs to screaming rage-filled metal. It almost sounds like a mix tape featuring several different bands.

Honorable mention: Franz Ferdinand, “Franz Ferdinand”; Elliott Smith, “From A Basement On A Hill”; The Arcade Fire, “Funeral”; Death Cab for Cutie, “Transatlanticism,” Tom Waits, “Real Gone.”

Thursday, December 30, 2004

OK, finally, here's the next installment of Nik's Picks for 2004: My 10 favorite movies of the year!
Unfortunately, as usual, many of the most anticipated Hollywood films of the year wait until the last minute to come out. So at this writing, I haven’t seen “The Aviator,” “Sideways,” “The Life Aquatic” or several other big Oscar-bait movies. Today's top 10 could be entirely different a month from now. But for now, here's my picks of '04:

1. Spider-Man 2
“Spider-Man 2” is just about as perfect as summer movie blockbuster sequels get, with returning director Sam Raimi balancing action, drama, intelligence and humor. Peter Parker doesn’t live the glamorous life of Batman’s Bruce Wayne, and gets beaten up left and right as he tries to do the right thing in this thrilling sequel. A combination of great storytelling, screen-shaking action and subtle acting by Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Alfred Molina as the villainous Doctor Octopus.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A brain-twisting love story, a head trip and a strange science-fiction film. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are star-crossed young lovers who break up, and Clementine uses the technology of a half-baked “memory-erasing” company to rid her mind of any thoughts of Joel. But when Joel decides to have the procedure done too, he has second thoughts. This incredibly creative, vivid funhouse of a movie, from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the mind behind “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” pushes the limits of storytelling. Featuring a subdued, deeply powerful performance by funnyman Carrey, it’s the romance of the year.

3. Collateral
Here’s the pitch: Slacker taxi cab driver picks up fare. Fare is a contract killer. Sit back and watch sparks fly. Michael Mann’s beautifully shot, gritty ode to Los Angeles soars with Tom Cruise as the hitman and Jamie Foxx as the hapless cab driver. Whoever would’ve thought Foxx, from TV’s “In Living Color,” would become such a fine, restrained actor? He balances well against Cruise’s scenery-chewing psychopath in this tense battle of wits. A smart thriller full of unexpected depth, gorgeous cinematography and some incredibly tense sequences. Not groundbreaking, perhaps, but at the top of its class for what it is.

4. The Incredibles
Pixar Animation scores again, with its best animated comedy yet, and the year’s second-best superhero flick. The Incredibles are a family of superheroes who have been put out of business by lawsuits and the government. When Mr. Incredible has a midlife crisis and wants to do good work again, he suits up in the spandex and becomes involved in a conspiracy that soon drags his whole family along. Sidesplittingly funny and from a more adult perspective than “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo,” with breathtaking computer animation and characters worth rooting for.

5. Shaun of the Dead
There was already one near-great zombie movie in 2004, the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, but this British import goes it one better, balancing horror, comedy, drama and gore to make a splatter/action flick that’s also packed with metaphor and Monty Python-esque humor. Slacker Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a bit of a loser who doesn’t even notice at first when the dead start to come back to life. But he soon discovers hidden depths of courage and ability as he and a rag-tag group of family and friends struggle to survive in an overtaken London. Are zombies any different than the crowds you see at Wal-Mart? “Shaun of the Dead” is a zombie flick for the ages.

6. Kill Bill Volume 2
Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge epic wrapped up with a bang and a sword slash or two, but it was also quieter and suprisingly thoughtful compared to the colorful blood-soaked chaos of last year’s “Volume 1.” The baleful Bride (Uma Thurman) continues her vengeance against her former employer Bill and his assassins, while flashbacks continue to fill in the Bride’s back story. While a bit slow here and there compared to the frenetic pace of part one, “Vol. 2” has more heart and soul. Plus, there’s an utterly magnetic performance by David “Kung Fu” Carradine as the strangely likable killer Bill. Put together, the “Kill Bill” series nearly equals Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” peak.

7. Garden State
Zach Braff, the star of TV's superb “Scrubs,” turns in a strong, melancholy big-screen debut as writer and director of this quirky independent-film romance. Braff stars as Andrew “Large” Largeman, a struggling actor numbed by his life and medications. Large returns to his native New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Stumbling into a romance with a sassy local girl played by a dazzling Natalie Portman, Large starts to come back to life. By equal measures witty, surreal and sweet, with a sincerity that can’t be faked, “Garden State” isn’t perfect but it’s heartfelt. Anyone who’s ever returned to their old hometown to catch up with the people they left behind will emphasize with Braff's skewed take on the world.

8. Before Sunset
A sequel without shooting or gunfire? Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his 1995 cult hit “Before Sunrise” is a movie about words, about possibility and potential. In “Before Sunrise,” Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were Jesse and Celine, young, single travelers who met on a train in Europe and spent one talk-filled, incredible night together, the kind of conversation you only have rarely in this life — and then they parted. “Before Sunset” picks up the story 10 years on. The movie is basically a single conversation, filmed with beautiful Paris as a backdrop. It’s also richly involving, thoughtful and truer to life than most movies ever are.

9. Fahrenheit 9/11
You already know by now whether you hate or love Michael Moore. Calling this a “documentary” isn’t quite right — it’s more of a filmed editorial, obviously slanted toward Moore’s views, but no more biased toward a viewpoint than any episode of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Political opinions are radioactive these days, with the media pushing the whole “red state/blue state” divide as if we aren’t all still Americans under the skin. Moore’s movie pulls no punches and certainly has an agenda, but as a provocative, compellingly filmed argument, it’s something all Americans should see — if only to utterly disagree with it.

10. Hero
This Asian import by director Zhang Yimou is hands-down the year’s most attractive film. It riffs off Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” with a tangled tale of assassination and nobility, told multiple times through different viewpoints in ancient China. Similar to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” it’s kung-fu chopsocky wrapped in a gorgeous skin, with simply amazing feats of stunt work, color photography and scenery. Structured with the depth of mythology, but with emotions that can’t be denied, it turns combat into art.

And three of the worst movies from 2004…

1. Dogville
Avant-garde “art” film at its worst, a cynical, bleak and hateful three-hour meditation on small-town American corruption by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Despite an interesting look and an excellent performance by Nicole Kidman as a woman on the run abused by a small Colorado town’s hospitality, it’s basically a movie without hope and no other message than “gosh, people are bad.”

2. Van Helsing
Video game junk cinema that desecrates the fond memory of the 1930s Universal monster movie flicks, with a sleepwalking Hugh Jackman as the titular monster-slayer. Terrible computer special effects overwhelm the incomprehensible plot, and by the end of it all, you just feel pummeled and exhausted.

3. The Punisher
While “Spider-Man 2” rocked, this Marvel Comics adaptation sank without a trace. “The Punisher” is basically “Death Wish” in spandex, with no soaring superpowers to really wow the audience, some of the most annoying supporting characters in recent memory, and another truly rotten villainous John Travolta performance. It’s also revoltingly ultraviolent, with none of the satire or insight of the best “Punisher” comic books.
What I Did Over My Christmas Break
...Whew, OK, glad that's over. So we had a most excellent Christmas, Baby Peter enjoyed his first holiday and got lots of cool toys, caught up with lots of old friends, and ate ham and drank egg nog. It all went so well, that Avril said it was one of her "best Christmases ever."

Which of course jinxed us. Our return trip to Oregon Sunday became a 36-hour epic, rather than the usual 7-8 hour drive, thanks to a massive snowstorm between Redding and Medford. We arrived in the Redding area around 1 p.m. and it was lightly raining. Before we knew it, we got stuck in a huggggggge five-mile-long backup of traffic on Interstate 5 for chain control in the mountains north of Redding. We spent three hours there because yours truly still foolishly believed we could make it home, even as the snow began to fall and got thicker and thicker. Anyway, to make a long story short, once we finally got past chain control checkpoints we realized the snow was worse than we thought, Baby Peter wasn't happy after hours in the car seat, and it was getting dark. So we turned around and went back to Redding with hundreds of other angry travelers, found a Best Western and checked in for the night.

The first time in my dozens of times traveling through snow I've actually been stranded, but with a 10-month-old baby in the car it wasn't worth taking chances (they actually closed I-5 entirely soon after we turned around). Peter enjoyed his hotel room experience and we ate Mexican food and he tried tortilla chips. Called in stranded to work for Monday which wasn't great since we were already down several key editors. Monday morning, I-5 was still closed and it was still raining/snowing and we decided rather than hang around for hours in Redding, get stuck in massive backlog whenever I-5 opened, we'd take the long way around, all the way over land to the coast at Arcata from Redding, up from Arcata to Crescent City and then over across the border to Grants Pass and back onto I-5, with all the mountains behind us. Basically added 200 miles to the trip.

However, it was a beautiful drive through some of the country's finest scenery, and fortunately the snow was left behind even if the rain wasn't. Hadn't traveled that route in years, and Avril never had. Would have been nice to drive that way when I wasn't in a rush to get home, but in a twisted kind of way it was actually a fun little adventure, and Baby Peter was about as good as you can expect after his ordeals. Finally arrived back in Roseburg at 6 p.m. Monday night, 33 hours after leaving my parents' house 450 miles away. Collapsed into pile of goo.

And am still catching up with huge backlogs at work -- this of course being the week I write my annual gigantic 2,500-word roundup of the year in music and movies for the paper. And I lost my time Monday to work on it. Ack thppp.

Anyway, will post some more of my Nik's Picks later today, and transmissions should gradually resume a normal schedule.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Man of the world!

Baby Peter got a special package today -- his official citizenship papers for New Zealand. Now he's a dual citizen of both the U.S. and of his mom's homeland, which makes life easier for the future day we plan to move there for a while. (Yeah, I know all the good liberals are going to Canada, but honestly, we planned to move to NZ even before Bush got re-elected...)

That's it for blogging until the 27th or so, so Happy Holidays to all and to quote the Ramones,
"Merry Christmas, I don't want to fight tonight
Merry Christmas, I don't want to fight tonight
Merry Christmas, I don't want to fight tonight with you"

Nik’s Picks 2004: Favorite Books Read

...And so we kick off the “list-o-mania” that comes with the end of every year. I’m a total sucker for the “best of” lists that multiply like rabbits on crack this time of year, and always enjoy throwing my own two cents in there. Since I now have my own little corner of the Internet to blog and blather on in, I’ll be posting my periodic ”Nik’s Picks” (catchy, eh?) over the next few weeks on movies, music, comics, et cetera ad infinitum.

To kick it off, here’s a look at my favorite books I read in 2004. Most of my lists will concentrate on things that came out during 2004 (like movies, f’r instance) but in the case of books, I don’t discriminate because heck, there’s a mighty lot of good books out there written before this year. Actually, most of the books I read came out before this year. Anyway, without further ado, the five favorite books I read in 2004, complete with mind-numbing Appendix.* So hang on, this is a long post (but probably the only one for the week, as we’re off to California Wednesday to visit the folks).

“The Dark Tower” by Stephen King, Book 6, “Song of Susannah,” and Book 7, “The Dark Tower.” King’s impossibly epic, 30-years-in-the making magnum opus draws to a close, the tale of Roland the Gunslinger and his quest for knowledge at the Dark Tower in a ruined world. Sure, King went on a bit -- more than 3,000 pages for the whole series -- and there are those who will quibble with the fateful, startling ending to it all in Book 7, but overall, the heart and soul of this series stands with fantasy classics throughout the ages. It’s King’s crowning statement.

“Hard Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World,” by Haruki Murakami I love all the books I’ve read by this thoughtful, surrealist Japanese author, so almost any of them could go here (and his enormous epic, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which I read in 2003, is a great place to start). This early work is more cyber-punk and labyrinthine than his later novels, but it’s a fascinating tale of dual natures and reality. Half the chapters are set in Tokyo, where the narrator engages in a strange high-tech conspiracy set deep under the city, while in alternating chapters, an entirely different story seems to be taking place, set in a fantastical, prison-like village. How the threads come together under Murakami’s exquisite prose is strange indeed, but it all makes a twisted kind of sense. It’s the sort of book that’s really hard to describe, but haunts you for weeks after you finish.

“The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” Volumes 1-3, by Robert A. Caro. I’m still reading the 1,100-page third book, “Master of the Senate,” and the fourth and final book isn’t even written yet, but this remains one of the finest political biographies of modern times. What’s striking is that the central figure, LBJ, really is an unknowable, driven near-sociopath with an immense lust for power, with little to redeem him; yet he accomplished many good things, and Caro’s incredibly well-researched, smoothly-written prose is compulsive reading. More than just a tale of a future President, it’s really a microcosm of the entire American political system in the rags-to-riches tale of LBJ and the century he lived in. Few writers could make election intrigue, Senate parliamentary procedure and Texas wheelin’ and dealin’ read so well.

”Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota” by Chuck Klosterman As written about just a few weeks back, this is a quirky, borderline profound piece of pop culture criticism, using ‘80s hair metal as a metaphor for growing up confused in a small town. Even if you’re not a fan of the bands he writes about, Klosterman’s mix of humor, trivia and memoir will ring bells for anyone who’s ever been a passionate fan of something. (2002)

The Known World by Edward P. Jones. This first novel won the 2004 Pulitzer prize for fiction, and tackles a controversial subject -— black slaveowners in the pre-Civil War South. It’s something rarely acknowledged in history books -- how could a black man own slaves? -- but it did happen, and author Jones, a black man himself, does a stunning job reimagining this strange subculture and its conflicts. “The Known World” takes us into the plantation owned by freed slave Henry Townsend, and over nearly 300 pages we learn his past, his fate, and what happens to his plantation after he was gone. Jones grapples with slavery in ways I’ve never seen in fiction before, with some lyrical yet not overblown prose reminiscent of Toni Morrison or “Cold Mountain.” It’s a complex book filled with dozens of characters, a grand, sprawling, sad and thoughtful success in historical fiction.


*Appendix A
And to truly get wordy, if anybody’s actually interested, the pool from which I drew, here’s all the books -- excepting comic books, graphic novels, that sort of thing -- that I read in 2004. Yes, I do keep track of such things religiously, and yes, I have never known the touch of a woman.

“A Short History of Nearly Everything,” by Bill Bryson
“Dude Where’s My Country,” by Michael Moore
“Monster Of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and in the Mind,” by David Quammen
“Stiff: The Curious Life Of Human Cadavers,” by Mary Roach
“Reefer Madness,” by Eric Schlosser
“The Life of Mammals,” David Attenborough
"What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias And The News”, by Eric Alterman
“Cheaper By The Dozen,” by Frank B. Gilberth, Ernestine Gilberth Carey
“The Mosquito Coast,” by Paul Theroux
“American Sphinx: The Character Of Thomas Jefferson,” by Joseph Ellis
“40 Ways To Look At Winston Churchill,” by Gretchen Rubin
“The History of Murder,” by Colin Wilson
“Belles on their Toes,” by Frank B. Gilberth, Ernestine Gilberth Carey
“Deadlines Past” by Walter Mears
“Strangers on a Train,” by Patricia Highsmith
“Heavier Than Heaven: A biography of Kurt Cobain,” by Charles Cross
“Personal History,” by Katherine Graham
“Drop City” by T. Coraghessan Boyle
“Clinton and Me,” by Bill Clinton’s “joke writer” Mark Katz.
“Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the ‘90s” by Jim Derogatis
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“Hard Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World,” by Haruki Murakami
“The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time,” by Mark Haddon
“The Secret Lives of U.S. Presidents" by Cormac O’Brien
“Paper Trails” by Ellen Goodman
“Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” by Chuck Klosterman
“Dress Yourself In Corduroy and Denim,” by David Sedaris
“The Dark Tower Book 6: Song of Suzannah,” by Stephen King
“My Life,” by Bill Clinton
“Oracle Night,” by Paul Auster
“The Elephant Vanishes,” by Haruki Murakami.
“Down and Dirty Pictures” by Peter Biskind
“Comic Creators on Spider-Man,” edited by Tom DeFalco
“Taboo Tunes, A History of Banned Bands And Censored Songs” by Peter Blecha
“Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden and the Stolen Election of 1786,” by Roy Morris Jr.
“Surviving The Extremes: A Doctor’s Journey To The Limits of Human Endurance” by Dr. Kenneth Kamler
“Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live’” by Tom Shales
“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde
“The Dark Tower Book Seven: The Dark Tower” by Stephen King
“Give My Regards To The Atom-Smashers: Writers on Comics,” edited by Sean Rowe
“The Plot To Destroy America,” by Philip Roth
“Slipping Into Paradise: Why I Live In New Zealand” by Jeffrey Masson
“A Galaxy Far Far Away: Writers and Artists on 25 years of ‘Star Wars,’” edited by Glenn Kenny
“Star Trek: The Return” by William Shatner
“Coast of Dreams, California on the Edge, 1990-2003” by Kevin Starr
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path To Power” by Robert A. Caro.
“Planet Simpson: How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined A Generation,” by Chris Turner
“America: The Book” by the staff of “The Daily Show”
“Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004,” edited by Mickey Hart
“All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians and Artists” by Terry Gross
“What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won The Heart of America” by Thomas Frank
“Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota,” by Chuck Klosterman
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent” by Robert A. Caro
“South of the Border, West of the Sun” by Haruki Murakami
“The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate” by Robert A. Caro

Sunday, December 19, 2004

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff."

I watched the great movie, and I think, very overlooked comic book adaptation, "American Splendor" again this morning. What a wonderful little flick this is, and how perfectly it captures the quixotic life of Harvey Pekar. Its oddball nature, though, kind of left it in the ghetto frequented by movie critics and alternative comics fans.

On a second viewing, "American Splendor" might just be one of the best comic adaptations of all. It takes Pekar's consciously mundane autobiographical comics and translates them into a kaleidoscope of a movie, putting animation, reality and re-creation all into a blender. The structure of this movie, which many critics put on their best of 2003 lists, amazes me. It takes real advantage of the comic book form to play with our perceptions of reality -- the real Harvey and actor Paul Giamatti as Harvey switch places throughout the film, making you wonder what's "real." Harvey's just a file clerk at a VA, a luckless cynic who's left failed marriages and is borderline obsessive-compulsive. But his sideline of doing an infrequent autobiographical comic book has somehow transformed his ordinary life into something emblematic of us all. Although I know I should know better, it depresses me a bit to see all the yahoos on the IMDB message boards talking about how the movie is "boring" and wondering why Pekar "deserves" a movie about him. They totally miss the point.

Topped off with that marvelous, frowning, clenched performance by Giamatti (also drawing applause in this year's "Sideways," which I have yet to see) as Pekar, "American Splendor" is the kind of movie I can watch over and over again, and get something a little different from it each time. I know we all like our heroes, our Batman and Spider-Man, and I like 'em too, but in the end most of our lives are a hell of a lot more like humble file clerk, curmudgeon and cynic Harvey Pekar than we'd care to admit.

I picked up Harvey's latest graphic novel, "Our Movie Year," this week, too, and have enjoyed flipping through it. It's kind of a grab-bag compared to some of his other books -- as you can guess from the title, it focuses on his life post-movie and how having an acclaimed film and touring the world to promote it has (or hasn't) changed the ol' grouch's life. Some really good work here, but there's also a little redundancy in this collection, as it comes mostly from various newspapers and magazines rather than Harvey's own comic book. We get several scenes repeated in different strips (three times we see the movie winning a Sundance Film Festival award), although it's not done enough to be truly annoying. I also would've liked to see credits telling me where pieces were reprinted from. Also, there's a lot of Pekar's music biography strips about obscure early 20th century artists and musicians, which I dig. They are very different in tone from everything else in the book, though. Still, all of Harvey's work has this shaggy dog quality to it, messy and untamed and rambling -- kinda like life.
Quick comics reviews!

Madrox #4 (of 5)
This X-Men spinoff miniseries has managed to be the second-best of the 328 X-titles currently going (Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men" being the best). Peter David picked fifth-tier mutant Jamie Madrox to focus on here, and his unusual power to create duplicates of himself. This noir-tinged miniseries has a most offbeat murder mystery -- one of Madrox's own "dupes" is killed, and he has to find the killer -- and the hook of it really is a man who can be in two, or ten, places at once. David's done a great job exploring Madrox's unusual power, which is going off the rails as his dupes develop distinct, conflicting personalities (one of his dupes tries to kill him this issue). Moody, dry humor and a really interesting take on superpowers; I don't know if Madrox could sustain an ongoing series but this mini has been a great read. Grade: A-

Shaolin Cowboy #1
Boy, this is weird. I picked this up on the recommendation of my comic shop guy and because I love the insanely detailed artwork of Geoff Darrow (his influence can be seen in "The Matrix" movies). But this comic really is more of a portfolio of Darrow's awesome art and ultraviolence rather than a real story or anything. I can sum it up in one sentence -- mysterious loner cowboy monk rides into canyon, is attacked by a zillion bad guys, killing most of them in immensely gory ways. End of issue. No real explanation for anything. What little dialogue is mostly riffing and jokes. The main character never talks. Kind of zen, ain't it? But wow, that art. You know Darrow's kind of goofing when there's an amazing, impudent ten-page single panel of art, an unbelievably long pan across a gallery of bad guys, each rendered in astounding detail. Courtesy of Jog's Blog, check out the first few pages of it here and marvel at the purty pictures. The craft here is undeniable, but being more of a story man than an art man, I don't know if I'll pick up a second issue, though, unless there was more to it for my $3.50. But you have to marvel at Darrow's chutzpah with this comic. Grade: D for story, A+ for art

Ocean #3
Am still enjoying this latest Warren Ellis sci-fi miniseries, about a mission to Europa and a mysterious long-asleep civilization buried under the ice, although I still feel like not a lot has really happened with the main plot halfway through. Great technobabble and a really intriguing point here, where workers for a corporation voluntarily give up their free will to receive "downloaded" programming and work instructions, in exchange for a huge paycheck at the end of their service. Notions like these are what keep me coming back to Warren Ellis, comics' own Harlan Ellison. Grade: B+

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Friday miscellany...

• Between the disappointments of some comic I won't mention again and the comedown that was "Ocean's 12" (doesn't suck, but was hoping for more), it was good to find something that was as good as I hoped, Michael Mann's "Collateral," which I watched the other night and dug the heck out of. Moody and stylish thriller supreme. And when did Jamie Foxx actually become a good actor? Wow. Check it out if you like thoughtful movies about people who kill people.

• Sometimes I wonder exactly what it will take for Bush to dump Donald Rumsfeld. Now even Republican senators who don't feel the need to toe the party line on every issue are dumping on the man, whose incredible tomfoolery and unprecedented arrogance in running our armed forces should really dismay conservatives and liberals alike, and anyone concerned about the men and women on the ground who get hurt the worst. I think my favorite comment lately came from "The Daily Show", which did an inspired bit about how ordinary screwups get booted from the Bush cabinet, but those who rise to a truly extraordinary level of idiocy get to stay. If Rumsfeld screws up much more, perhaps he'll get nominated to the Supreme Court.

• After talking about it for, like, a million years, we finally upgraded all the Macs we use at work to OS X, and while we were at it Quark 6, this week. Entertaining in the extreme to hear all the usual complaining from the slow-to-embrace-change crowd, and dealing with the various bugs that come out of these upgrades. I've been using OS X for more than a year now at home so it wasn't too big a transition for me. Finally decided to give Firefox a spin too while I was at it and am enjoying it so far, have been using Safari at home for several months but while it's definitely better than IE, it has a few bugs and speed issues that so far Firefox doesn't seem to have. Will see if it lasts over the long haul.

• Some quick comics reviews coming tomorrow, including Shaolin Cowboy #1, Ocean #3 and Madrox #4. Onwards.
Holy Moses on a stick, I should write about DC's "Identity Crisis" and my profound disappointment in it every day. Yesterday's hits went through the roof here, with more than 160 visitors Thursday -- not a lot to most, probably, but consider this humble little nub of the blogosphere usually pulls 30-40 hits a day. Many thanks to links I got from Near Mint Heroes and All These Worlds. I feel so loved.

Friday, December 17, 2004

A review of Identity Crisis #7, or, how I got screwed out of $3.95 by Brad Meltzer.

Alert for the uncautious -- SPOILERS LURK, by gum!

Wow, what a huge disappointment this issue is. The most disappointing comic book epic conclusion since... well, since Brian Bendis's equally incompetent but less odious Avengers #503 last month. Not a good year for world-changing overhyped storylines. Thing is, as I've said before on this blog, I've enjoyed the first 6 issues of this "whodunnit" murder mystery set in the DC Comics universe, but parts of it -- the unsettling violence toward women, the sense this might come to nothing -- left a bad taste in my mouth. I held out hope it would all come together in a powerful, sensible ending.

Enter #7. The killer of Sue Dibny, the mastermind behind the murder of Jack Drake, is revealed and ... it's Jean Loring (who?), the ex-wife of the Atom, who's gone all crazy because she can't get enough of that Atom love, and who "accidentally" killed Sue Dibny in an attempt to drive the Atom back into her arms by spreading fear and discontent among the loved ones of superheroes everywhere.

That sentence sounds like poorly written fan fiction, doesn't it? It's hard to believe this issue is written by the same Brad Meltzer. How hard is it to end a story well? The climax here is insulting, contrived and inconclusive. It feels like a trailer to an inevitable sequel, "Identity Theft" or somesuch, so many plot threads are left untied. Never mind the countless red herrings that come to absolutely nothing here, including the highly controversial rape and "mindwipes" we saw several issues earlier -- those have absolutely nothing to do with the murders. Clear out the filler, and about 50% of the plot over seven issues actually goes somewhere. The sheer cynicism that oozes from every page of this series is stunning.

And then there's the misogynism. I don't raise that charge lightly, and refused to jump on the "DC hates women" bandwagon that some folks were on from the start with this intense series. But looking at the whole, how can you NOT see it? A woman is beaten, burned and killed in #1; in #2, to top it all off, we learn she was pregnant, oh, and by the way, she was raped once by a supervillain. In #7, we learn the culprit is ALSO a woman, driven crazy because her man done left her. (Never mind that in comics I've read over the past 20 years, the Atom's wife has actually been shown to be a pretty stone-hard chick who actually cheated on the Atom and left him, ending their marriage. Not the type to suddenly go wacko with remorse.) I'm not saying Meltzer's a misogynist, because I can't read the man's mind, but the comic is certainly not women-friendly. And they wonder why few women read comics.

I don't mind "dark" comics. Some of my favorite superhero comics have taken a dark eye to the cape genre. But this is WALLOWING, gratuitous and over the top darkness, darkness that sheds little light on the theme. What irks is there is talent behind "Identity Crisis." I've found the first six issues entertaining in their knack for juggling suspense, some very nice character moments and dialogue, and some dynamic art by Rags Morales. But the ball gets dropped hard here, so hard that my very faith in good superhero comics -- and I'm a believer, honest -- is a bit marred. Grade: D- (the pictures are pretty)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Ocean's Twelve
Three years ago, Tess Ocean’s husband Danny and his friends stole $160 million from Las Vegas casino owner Terry Benedict.
And now Terry Benedict is knocking on her door, wanting that money back — plus interest.
That’s the captivating setup for “Ocean’s Twelve,” the sequel to the 2001 all-star heist picture by Steven Soderbergh.
Unfortunately, “Twelve” shows signs of diminishing returns. The sequel isn’t a total failure, but it lacks a smooth plot and compelling storytelling. It works too hard — or maybe it doesn’t work hard enough — to pull off the effortless charm of its predecessor.
All the stars are back — cocky leader Danny Ocean (George Clooney), beautiful Tess (Julia Roberts), strong, silent type Rusty (Brad Pitt), plus the rest of the gang, including Matt Damon, Elliott Gould and Don Cheadle. The team of thieves is forced to reunite when Benedict (Andy Garcia) tracks them all down, telling them he’ll have them killed if they can’t pay him back within two weeks.
The total they owe Benedict now is nearly $200 million, and Ocean decides Europe is the only place they can make that big a score. But their attempts to rob Europe are being thwarted by a mysterious rival, known only as “The Night Fox” (played by French star Vincent Cassel).
To top it all off, a detective (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has a romantic past with Rusty is hot on their trail.
Needless to say, there’s twists and turns galore, with things not quite turning out how Ocean’s crew would like — or do they?
The easy chemistry of the actors involved goes a long way toward obscuring “Twelve’s” considerable flaws — and it’s a real “who’s who” of Hollywood gossip columns, with Zeta-Jones, Albert Finney and a hilarious appearance by Bruce Willis added for good measure this time.
Unfortunately, the cast gets too large, with some, particularly Bernie Mac and Carl Reiner, nearly reduced to cameos.
Clearly, the stars had a blast with this globe-trotting shoot, but unfortunately, the fun doesn’t always come up on screen. The movie takes a good while to get going.
It’s almost as if director Soderbergh set out to subvert all the blockbuster expectations — Ocean’s team fails, repeatedly, and things rarely turn out as expected. This kind of backwards satire sort of works, but the plot is nearly incomprehensible at times.
The story moves in sputters and jerks, and entire scenes seem superfluous or are hard to follow (I’m still trying to figure out how Ocean learns who the Night Fox is). The movie isn’t sure if it’s a romance, a heist picture or a postmodern indie comedy.
There’s a lot of great one-liners, particularly a few jabs about Clooney’s age and a hilarious satirical sequence involving Roberts’ character that might just be the highlight of the movie.
Really, “Ocean’s Twelve” is a movie more about the madcap glamorous life to be had putting on heists rather than the actual heists themselves. The theft here doesn’t really matter or become a central part of the story. The plot is a framework for good-looking actors with pithy quips and one-liners.
“Twelve” is still oozing with hipster style, and Soderbergh’s visual imagination saunters off the screen. There’s lot of jump-cuts, tinted colors and imaginative transitions, and a throbbing music soundtrack that makes the movie seem like more fun than it really is.
By the end, you really don’t care who’s double-crossed who and who’s being scammed. Trickery overload sets in, and the resolution lacks the clean symmetry of “Ocean’s Eleven.”
You’re starting to suspect the biggest con victim might just be the audience, hoping for something as carefree and snappy as “Ocean’s Eleven” but getting warmed-over reruns instead.
(Rated PG-13 for language and adult situations.)
**1/2 of four

Monday, December 13, 2004

Baby Peter meets Santa Claus! Peter came away with a fistful of Santa's beard clutched in his little paws.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Shazam, it's the return of the revenge of the son of Quick Comics Reviews!

New Avengers #1
Writer Brian Michael Bendis' "Avengers Disassembled" storyline was one of the weakest, most poorly plotted major comic events in some time -- a real shame because I dig most of Bendis' work, and his take on the comic superteam legacy of the Avengers seemed promising. Now that he's "taken apart" the old 500-issue run of "Avengers," here's the first issue of his "New" Avengers with artist David Finch. It'll be an "All-Star" team from the looks of it, with non-Avengers such as Spider-Man and Wolverine added to the lineup. But adding overexposed characters to the team doesn't make it "Avengers," really. There's some good set-up in this issue, with nice use of an old "Spider-Man" villain to trigger a massive jailbreak, and some solid character moments. The plot feels tighter than the sloppy "Disassembled" arc, even if we don't know where it'll end up yet. But, one hang-up for me is that it's just not "Avengers." It's "Bendis Team-Up," and reads like a crossover between his "Daredevil," "Secret War," "Alias" and other books. Maybe that will change over future issues as characters like Iron Man and Wolverine come aboard, but I just feel like the very creative element that made the Avengers last for 40+ years is something Bendis doesn't quite know how to recreate. A better comic than "Disassembled," surely, but still nowhere near most of Bendis' other work for me. Grade: B-

JLA Classified #1
Shee-oot, this is ice cool. Grant Morrison's writing run on the Justice League in the 1990s was one of the things that got me excited about comics again, all cerebral cyber-action and four-color madness. Grant's JLA lives in a world constantly about to explode or be invaded, with the JLA the last line of defense, unflappable and ten steps far ahead of all of us. Now Grant's back with this three-part story that includes all the things that make him one of my favorite comics writers -- a spiraling sense of invention, technobabble galore and a sheer sense of fun. The Justice League's gone missing in a "infant universe," leaving Batman alone with some third-string heroes to battle a plot to destroy mankind. How can you not love a comic that features world-conquering gorillas, trips to Pluto, Batman in a flying saucer and nebula-men? What's great, though, is like most of Grant's JLA run he plays it straight -- there's no winking done here. This is Superheroland -- this is what happens there. If half of the superhero comics out there were done with this kind of lunatic cool, the world would be made of spandex. Only bummer is this storyline's only 3 issues long. Grade: A-

Amazing Spider-Man #514
I realized the other day that I've been collecting "Amazing Spider-Man" on and off for nearly 300 issues, or more than 20 years. Ye gods. Guess I'm an addict. But the "off" times, for me, have usually been because a piss-poor writer or plotline has taken over the book (Spider-Clone saga, I'm looking at you). Right now, I'm on the fence. Writer J. Michael Stracyznski has been wearing thin for me the past year or so, and I'm mostly buying out of habit. JMS started strong several years back with a series of dynamic, original storylines that brought a nice element of mystery to the title. But lately, JMS has been coasting, putting too much emphasis on lame villains and mystical plotlines that've gotten old. Now this latest storyline, "Sins Past," has riled up some of the old guard fans for how it takes a character who's been dead in the comics for 30 years, Peter Parker's old girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and revealed the hithero-unknown children she had with Spider-Man's foe the Green Goblin. Reaction to the story has ranged from disgust to rage online; mainly, I'm just disappointed because it's such a poorly told story, with terrible plot holes and completely uninvolving emotionally. This issue concludes the storyline, with Gwen's previously-unknown children (who, because it is a comic book, have superpowers and accelerated aging so they appear to be in their early 20s) finishing a vendetta against Spider-Man orchestrated by the Goblin. A good story might have been told from these basic elements, perhaps. But it ain't here. We've got clichéd scenes of Spider-Man battling yet another Green Goblin wanna-be, saving a Gwen Stacy look-alike, and basically a story that relies heavily on ancient, far better stories rather than creating anything new. If I never see another scene re-enacting the death of Gwen Stacy on the Brooklyn Bridge 31 years ago, I'll be a happy man. It's lazy pastiche masquerading as homage. I'm about ready to kick the "Amazing" habit again until JMS is off this book and gives a fresh writer a shot.Grade: C-

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Goddammit all to hell. I can't believe I missed this and had to find out from The Oregonian's books page. One of my favorite Southern authors, and a hell of a nice guy to boot, Larry Brown of my old home-town of Oxford, Mississippi, dropped dead of a heart attack on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving. He was only 53.

I'm mad, sad and irritated (I work at a freakin' newspaper, yet somehow never heard about this, good lord), to know that Larry's gone all too damned soon. I'm the least of the writers who would give him a tribute by a long chalk -- nice tributes were printed in The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today recently, as well as a somewhat less eloquent one in my old paper, The Oxford Eagle.

Larry was pure Mississippi to me, one of the writers I think of when I think of the great place I spent seven kudzu-tangled years of my life. Oxford was a town loaded with great writers, packed to the gills with the likes of Brown, Barry Hannah, Cynthia Shearer, and of course the ghost of Faulkner hovering over it all. But while I liked a lot of these writers, it says something that Brown is the only one whose career I've tried to avidly follow ever since I moved out of Oxpatch in '97. His prose had stones.

Brown was a great, understated writer in the mold of Flannery O'Connor or Raymond Carver, with crisp, fierce sentences that told hard tales of dark lives. Through eight books, he wrote "Southern gothic" in a plainspoken, heartwrenching way. His novels "Father And Son," "Joe" and "Fay" are excellent places to start, although I've always had a soft spot for his great nonfiction book "On Fire," a unsparing, fascinating account of his days with the Oxford Fire Department, and the book that launched his career.

He was a nice fella, too, grizzled, down-to-earth and a man of few words, but his good friends -- which I'm sad to say I could never call myself -- would swear by him. I had a few beer-fueled conversations with him at City Grocery down in Oxpatch back in the day, and we featured him on one of my favorite "Oxford Town" covers of the newspaper I edited back in 1996-1997, in celebration of his novel "Father And Son."

Here's a great bit from USA Today's tribute: 'When 'Fay' was released in 2000, Booklist, published by the American Libraries Association, called it an "awful, beautiful work from the King of White Trash." That made Brown laugh. He told his daughter, LeAnne, "If I'm the King of White Trash, then you're the princess." His own label? "Aw, I'm just a common man who was real lucky to find out what I wanted to do with my life."'

Larry Brown managed to be pretty successful at his trade, but should've been hugely popular in a just cosmos. Larry had a handful of great books still in him, I know he did, and it saddens me beyond belief that I'll never get the chance to read them.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Filled with ennui this week, the early holiday ennui that seeps in and sucks the life force from you like a vampire dressed in candy canes.... But so as not to leave this space too vacant, here's a Thursday video review!

‘The Terminal’
We all pass through airport terminals, sometimes many times a year. But what if you had to live in one?
That’s the appealing premise of Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” starring Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski, a plucky foreigner who becomes “trapped” at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.
Viktor’s homeland, the fictional Krakozhia, erupts into civil war while he’s in the air for a touristy visit to America, leaving him officially without a country, and unable to get permission to either leave or enter the United States. An officious airport bureaucrat (Stanley Tucci) shuffles Viktor out to the no-man’s land of the terminal to make his way, considering him “not my problem.”
What’s expected to be a day’s delay stretches into weeks and even months, in this tale loosely based on a true story.
The main attraction of “The Terminal” is a wonderful performance by Hanks, whose huge popularity sometimes makes you forget his immense talent. He burrows into Viktor’s skin, with a funny little accent and a fumbling, innocently comic approach that borrows heavily from Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.
However, Viktor is almost more appealing earlier in the movie, as we feel his fear and uncertainty. The opening hour or so is gripping, with Hanks at the top of his game as Viktor, who can’t even speak English, has to find his way around the terminal labyrinth and learn to survive.
But as Viktor grows more comfortable in his airport home, even getting a high-paying job, he gets less interesting. A romantic subplot with a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones goes nowhere, and eventually swamps the movie entirely. Jones’ character as presented is unlikable and unappealing, and there’s no real spark between her and Hanks.
This is Spielberg’s third movie with Hanks, but it’s not quite as dazzling as “Saving Private Ryan” or the frothy “Catch Me If You Can.” It’s solid entertainment, but it dissolves into too much Spielbergian sentiment by the end.
If you buy the central premise of “The Terminal,” you’ll probably enjoy it. Admittedly, “The Terminal” is a fable, and it seems to take place in a world where 9/11 never happened. But as fables go, it’s got decent wings.
*** of four

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Found myself hypnotized into watching the 5,423rd airing of that venerable holiday chestnut, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," last night. This toon has been on TV longer than I've been alive -- coming up on its 40th anniversary next year! There's something highly comforting about this old "Peanuts" special, in its cheerful almost anachronistic squareness.

Watching it last night for the first time in years, I realized how quiet the humor is, even when Lucy's yelling at Charlie Brown. It seems world away from most of today's cartoons and anime, like something from a time capsule. The classic smooth jazz music of Vince Guaraldi bubbles constantly in the background, giving a mellow vibe to the whole show. The kids sound like real kids, rather than trained voice actors. The animation is limited, but effective, and the story -- the kids try to put on a Christmas pageant -- is really just a framework for a lot of reworked gags from the original comic strips to be portrayed. (And some wayyyy goofy dancing to the rockin' piano sounds of Schroeder, shown above.) It's got a message few Christmas toons today would dare, about avoiding Christmas overcommercialism (never mind the irony that "Peanuts" characters have been used to sell everything from pillowcases to insurance) and finding love in the humblest of places. Schulz's bleak, dark humor was always hidden by his cute little kids and dogs, but the cartoon still seems quite cynical, almost, under its colorful skin -- the scene where everyone laughs cruelly, unsparingly at Charlie Brown's Christmas tree pick, for example. I still dig Charlie Brown picking the littlest, shriveled Christmas tree and making something of it, and admit to even trying to buy less-than-amazing trees myself in the past to be follow Charlie Brown's example that it doesn't always have to be bigger, better, more expensive at Christmastime.

Some fun 'behind the scenes' trivia on the special can be found here -- it's interesting to note that the special was seen as oddball, too religious and strange, even back in 1965. It's one of a kind, and great to see that in the age of "A Clay Aiken Christmas" and action figure-selling cartoons that TV can still find an hour to spare each year for good ol' Charlie Brown.
It was twenty-four years ago today....

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." The older I get, the truer it seems. R.I.P., John Lennon. He would've been 64.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

D'oh! A book that promises a 'sprawling, multidimensional critical look' at "The Simpsons" as seen through the lens of pop culture analysis? Could such a book actually be any good?

Actually, Chris Turner's "Planet Simpson: How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined A Generation," is a pretty fun read, with solid depth but not too pretentious. Books that try to take pop phenomenons like "Star Wars" or "Seinfeld" and find the deeper sociological meaning in them are often pretty hit-or-miss for me. Flipping through "Planet Simpson," I saw phrases like "Bart Simpson, punk icon" and "a partial taxonomy of Simpsonian humor," which didn't exactly warm me up, but as I looked closer, it becomes apparent this is an accessible book done by a diehard fan. It's also full of good-natured humor (most of it coming straight from "Simpsons" lines and episode recaps).

Turner breaks down his thesis, which is basically that "The Simpsons" is a microcosm of the American character, showing us in multiple parts -- chapters on Bart, Homer, Lisa, Marge, Mr. Burns and others and how they represent parts of the American dream. One of the interesting things about "Planet Simpson" is that Turner is a Canadian, so he comes from a perspective not quite so invested in American ideas, and is able to judge them a bit objectively. Turner definitely takes a liberal slant to "The Simpsons," but it's hard to argue that the fiercely anti-authoritarian show or its underground-culture spawned creator Matt Groening wouldn't agree with his views. Turner also frequently digresses, using "The Simpsons" as springboards to touch on everything from western capitalism to existential angst to Kurt Cobain to He skirts the edge of preachiness, but doesn't hit you over the head with it. While it may be a bit long-winded sometimes, it all makes for interesting reading.

I wouldn't argue that "Planet Simpson" will change your view of life or Springfield, but if you're a "Simpsons" fan, it will get you thinking deeper about the show, and the multiple layers of satire and thought that go into the gags. I think Turner errs sometimes on the side of pushing the show's significance too hard -- are we really a Simpsonian generation? Is it in fact the biggest pop culture icon in the last 20 years, or not? It might well be, come to think of it. But Turner's fairly egalitarian in criticizing the show, admitting its peak days are probably behind it (while even subpar "Simpsons" is better than 90% of what's on TV, IMHO). I dug "Planet Simpson," for digging a little deeper into the subtext of one of TV's best programs ever to muse over what it all really means. Mmmm... subtext....

Saturday, December 4, 2004

Now this is how to tease a movie:

Seven months and counting until "Batman Begins." I'm down. Everything I've seen so far about this movie tells me they're doing it right. Will they break our hearts again with rubber batsuits and Arnold Schwarzenegger in blue body-paint?
The older I get, the more I want to light a blowtorch to Frosty the freakin' Snowman and pop a cap in Santa Claus' head. I try, I fervently try, to hold on to that old-time Christmas Spirit of yore, the one that involves Jimmy Stewart movies and roasted chestnuts and Charlie Brown TV specials, but sometimes it's a losing battle in this Wal-Mart consumer world we have. I feel like I need to just stay away from any shopping centers the entire month of December. The simple matter of getting a haircut at the mall on my lunch break becomes an ordeal of fighting traffic, battling my way to parking, clusters of doddering shoppers (do any of these people work?) only to find the mall haircut place too crowded with people who, like me, for some reason have to get those holiday haircuts. And I don't generally live in a crowded kind of town. It's like the whole world becomes Wal-Mart for a month, jammed with overweight, pasty-faced and dazed shoppers pushing at each other for bargains.

(Don't get me started on the middle-aged women -- sexist, ageist as it may be, I have recently decided the single rudest element of our society is that same faction that complains so much about rudeness. Every time lately I've had someone "road rage" me, nearly run into me while babbling into a cell phone, or simply barge their way through shopping aisles, shoving and pushing without even an 'excuse me' or a look at my face, the culprit seems to be one of these harried 50-something women, not a rude teen or a grumpy grandpa. Why is this? Maybe I'm reading too much into it. Maybe I should do my thesis on it.)

ANYway, it crumbles away at the things I do like about yuletide, to deal with the pulsating flow of consumers, consumers, consumers every time I leave the real world to go to ShopLand (TM). Hell, I'm as guilty as any of them with my consumer madness, I know. And it is only 30 days of the year or so (well, 90 from when the stores start to decorate). Besides, it's Baby Peter's first Christmas and that's the main thing to celebrate this season -- it'll be at least a few more months before he learns the words "gimme," I hope...

Friday, December 3, 2004

Air guitar! ...Zipped my way through cultural pundit Chuck Klosterman's highly entertaining ode to vintage 1980s hair metal, "Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey In Rural North Dakota", last weekend. It's a good romp, with lots of shout-outs to vintage metal madness like Motley Crüe, Winger, Warrant, Van Halen and et cetera. Being the highly suggestible consumer rodent I am, after finishing it I ended up buying a discounted copy of Guns 'n' Roses Greatest Hits while shopping the other day, and I blushed with guilty shame. I am 33, and I bought my first Guns 'n' Roses album.

Klosterman's one of my favorite music critics, and writes a monthly column in "Spin" magazine. He does a fine job evoking what it's like to grow up in a nowhere town where heavy metal was the only escape from blandness, and how music can change your world. "Fargo Rock City" is a decent mix of trivia, analysis, memoir and humor. The funny thing is, I'm not even a big hair metal fan -- but the themes are universal. And even Klosterman is semi-apologetic about his admiration for "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "Paradise City" long after they stopped being hip. Hair metal was everywhere in my misspent '80s youth, and even though my personal tastes leaned more toward Depeche Mode, Howard Jones and Erasure (yeah, I was one of those kids), hair metal was like air -- you couldn't help inhaling some of it. So while I'm not up on all of Klosterman's references, I still had major '80s flashbacks when you start talking about Poison and Lita Ford. It's a light read, but it speaks to anyone except for those cultural elitists who sneer at the very thought of Tawny Kitaen writhing on a car hood in a Whitesnake video.

And that Guns 'n' Roses CD? You know, back in 1987 if asked I would've told you they were trendy metalheads, they were more my skateboarding brother's speed, and I had some synth-pop to listen to while I pined over women wistfully. Maybe I'm just angrier now, because suddenly a cheeseball ballad like "November Rain" sounds like a long-lost friend. It's still cheeseball, but now it's nostalgic cheese. Gosh darn it, sometimes we need a little Axl Rose screeching in our lives. And I can't help but turn into a Beavis & Butthead head-rocking fool to some of Slash's riffs. Uncool? Yeah, but dang it, they don't all have to be Elvis Costello tunes, do they? Rock on.
Spent yesterday up at the state Capitol in Salem, at an Associated Press meeting with about 20 other Oregon newspaper editors and publishers. Got to meet the leaders of the state Legislature, and Oregon's Governor, Ted Kulongoski (who is much shorter than I'd expected). It was the day Oregon's state budget for 2005-2006 was released, so the Capitol was buzzing with activity, and the various politicians that addressed our meeting all had their spin on the budget (Democrats good, Republicans "meh").

Oregon's Capitol building is one of the nicer ones I've seen, all marble and impressive, and the big golden statue on top of the dome that manages to shine no matter how overcast it is. Odd sight of the day was a scruffy-looking dog who appeared to be wandering around the polished floors of the Legislature unattended. The governor's dog?