Sunday, January 30, 2005

Friday, January 28, 2005

Say, over here at the Village Voice is a great little essay peripherally about one of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, but it's really about the collector's mania many of us have, including myself. (I've not come close to getting a complete collection of Vonnegut's wry and witty fiction [and have I mentioned yet we share the same birthday?], although I did track down a copy of the mid-1980s novel "Bluebeard" last week at the used book store.)

"On the Internet, though, epiphanies become prosaic, since nearly anything is within electronic reach," the author writes. I remember 6-7 years ago when I first really started discovering the Internet, and by extension, the wonders of eBay. One of the first things I began hunting for on eBay were the great old Hugh Lofting "Dr. Dolittle" children's books from the 1930s and 1940s, which my Dad loves and I do too. We'd both haunted used book stores for years looking for those things, which were just rare as all get out for some reason. On eBay, I managed to put together a complete set, as did my Dad (even the holy grail, "Dr. Dolittle And The Green Canary"!) in a few months. While it was gratifying as heck to have 'em, in a weird way, having the hunt be over was kind of deflating, too...
Every time something bad has happened in Iraq the last nearly two years now, I tense up a little. In a community that has a very high military population, I knew it was only a matter of time before one of our local boys got killed over there, and we at our newspaper would have to cover it.

That day came yesterday, when a local Marine was among the 31 killed when a helicopter went down near the Jordanian border. He would've been 25 years old next week.

He's the 38th death in Oregon; one of more than 1,400 U.S. servicemen and women dead since we started "planting the flag of liberty."

Is it worth it, is it really worth it? I just don't know anymore. I'm just heartily sick of the whole damned mess.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Geez, this is the first year in a long time I find I haven't seen a single one of the Best Picture Oscar nominations when they're announced. I keep meaning to check out "The Aviator" while it's in town, and I'm excited to see that both "Sideways" and "Million Dollar Baby" are coming to my neck of the woods Friday, which means I get to spend a lot of this weekend in darkened theaters. Of the other two nominees, "Ray" comes out on video on Feb. 1 so I'll see it then, and the "Peter Pan" riffs of "Finding Neverland" don't interest me at all.

Blame my cinematic ignorance this year on the baby, busy work schedule, lack of money and lots else going on in the chaotic life right now -- it's far easier to pop in a DVD than take a trip to the theater it seems. The superb and, of course, totally overlooked "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" is the last movie I took the time to make a special theater trip for. A few scattered impressions on the nominees, though -- great to see Kate Winslet recognized for the amazing "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," a movie too trippy to get any other big nominations, apparently. Also good to see Jamie Foxx tapped for his great turn in "Collateral."

Some years, I feel "plugged in" to the whole Oscar madness mania, and can tell you who's been snubbed and who hasn't. But 2004 just seems like one of those years when the big Oscar movies all passed me by. Still, I'll have to check out "Million Dollar Baby" and maybe "Sideways" this weekend, just to see if they measure up to the hype.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Listen up! Nik's unheralded albums (#1 in a series)

David Bowie, "Earthling" (1997)

So every once in a while, I'll pick a CD out of the pile I think doesn't get enough respect or that you might never have heard of. Because I'm an enormous David Bowie geek with nearly 40 of his official CDs, *cough cough* bootlegs, etc., I want to give a shout to 1997's "Earthling," a somewhat acclaimed but not huge popular success for the former Mr. David Jones.

"Earthling" comes at an interesting time for Bowie; I call it his "midlife crisis" album, as it came out the same year he turned 50. Heavily influenced by drum 'n' bass dance music, "jungle" techno and industrial rock, it follows the same path started in 1995's "Outside," a strange and powerful Goth cyber-murder concept album that really began Bowie's modern critical revival after Tin Machine and various subpar '80s and '90s efforts. "Earthling" is less heralded by fans and critics, but it's one of my top 5 Bowie albums.

A lot of that is due to the time I discovered it; most great records evoke something in our lives, have some personal relationship to us beyond mere melody. For me, "Earthling" came along when I'd just moved rather haphazardly across the country, from post-college Mississippi to my old homeland of California. I moved without a real plan or job, and after a few months of bumming about and relying on the kindness of old friends, ended up working at a tiny little paper in the San Joaquin Valley south of Sacramento, a dull, strip-mall kind of nowheresville with endless valley landscapes. Didn't know where I'd go next, wondering if I'd screwed up by leaving all my old pals in the South, etc.

So "Earthling" was the soundtrack for much of fall '97 and early '98, as I kind of drifted in a job that was OK in a town where everybody my age seemed to have three kids and work at Kmart. (Obviously, life got better, my future wife Avril emigrated to the U.S. and we moved up to Lake Tahoe in summer '98.) "Earthling" is a really anxious, fretful Bowie album, one that kind of assaults you with rippling beats and distorted guitars. It's the loudest of all his albums, and it definitely feels a bit like a 50-year-old trying to sound cool. Yet it works for me to this day.

The lead track, "Little Wonder," is all skittering blips and screeching guitars, Bowie chattering away like a man on the edge of a breakdown. Lyrics in general aren't the focus of this album, but meant to help set the mood. Several tracks, like "Looking for Satellites" or "Law (Earthling on Fire)," are abstractions set to thumping, circling dance music, meant to create mood more than anything. A song like "Seven Years in Tibet," with a compulsive sway, roaring chorus and snippets of Mandarin, is as experimental in its way as any song on "Low." One of my personal favorites on "Earthling" is "Dead Man Walking," a rave-up defiant rebuttal to aging, colored with Bowie's trademark nostalgia and wistfulness, but with a beat you can dance to. Another sterling track is "I'm Afraid Of Americans," which could nearly be a novelty song if it weren't for the very real angst Bowie brings to the tune, wailing lines like "I'm afraid of Americans / I'm afraid of the world / I'm afraid I can't help it." You believe him. Yet my most replayed song on "Earthling" is probably "The Last Thing You Should Do," all raging at the darkness and jittery fear. It's claustrophobic but cathartic at the same time, and the kind of song many techno bands are striving for and miss much of the time. I listened to it a lot in the fall of 1997, wondering who I was and who I'd be a year from then.

Like I said, fear runs through the tunes of "Earthling," fear of death, losing power, potency and the world. Yet it never becomes too dark, and Bowie clearly is having fun with this experiment in techno-rock. A few of the songs are more disposable and meandering than others, but at the very least they get your fingers tapping. "Earthling" is very different from most of Bowie's catalog, with the exception of its predecessor "Outside." His next album, "hours..." heralded a move toward a gentler, more introspective phase, which he's continued with his last two excellent discs, "Heathen" and "Reality." But I think that's part of what I love about Bowie, his willingness to be that rock 'n' roll chameleon. Pick three random Bowie CDs from the past 35 years and play them to a novice, and I imagine he'd have trouble realizing they're by the same man. Despite appropriating the sound of bands like Chemical Brothers and Nine Inch Nails during this phase, Bowie still managed to be unmistakably himself. "Earthling" is one of his strongest albums in a lifetime full of peaks.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

I am of several minds about this summer's Fantastic Four movie. I love the comic, which has had three "somewhat great eras" so far -- the original, untoppable Lee/Kirby days back in the 1960s, John Byrne's vigorous work in the 1980s, and a "near-great," Mark Waid's recent work with Mike Weiringo. The original "superhero family" of comics (if you saw "The Incredibles" and you're a comics fan, you know how much of "Fantastic Four" it channeled/ripped off), the Fantastic Four are some of the greatest characters of comics -- brainy Reed Richards, beautiful Sue Storm, hotheaded Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm, the tragic Thing.

Yeah, I dig the comic, but now that the big-budget cinematic extravaganza has its first official trailer out, I'm more on the fence than ever about whether a "Fantastic Four" movie was necessary, or if the spirit of the comics can really be translated to a film. This trailer isn't terrible (although whoever decided the nĂ¼-metal of A Perfect Circle was a good accompaniment to the trailer's action should be shot), but neither is it hugely promising. Part of the pitfall is the very nature of the characters' powers -- Mr. Fantastic stretches, for cryin' out loud, which looks cool in a comic but rather, um, silly on screen. Or take The Thing, the rocky orange monster who pops off a comic page -- they've tried hard, but actor Michael Chiklis still kinda looks like a man covered in orange Playdoh to me. The Human Torch's fiery powers do look nifty, while The Invisible Girl -- well, as her name indicates, her powers aren't really flashy. And the movie's villain, Dr. Doom, a man encased in an iron suit -- imposing as heck in the comics, but on film, you only get a brief glimpse of him, and all I thought was "low-rent Darth Vader."

We're living in a great age of comic-inspired films -- I ranked "Spider-Man 2" as my single favorite movie of last year, and the "X-Men" movies have been great. I'm holding out great hope for "Sin City" and "Batman Begins," and more indie-comic minded movies like "Ghost World" and "American Splendor" have also been superb. Yet the conspicious bombing of twaddle like "Elektra" and "Catwoman" and Ang Lee's woebegone "Hulk" show you can't just toss every Iron Man and Captain Ultra onscreen and have a hit. Clearly the dollar signs began flashing in Hollywood's eyes after the hit flicks, but I feel like we're not getting Tim Burtons or Sam Raimis any more -- "Fantastic Four" is directed by the guy best known for "Barbershop" and "Taxi," for cryin' out loud, which doesn't fill me with confidence.

Besides, do all popular comics need to be movies? Everyone from "Ghost Rider" to "Man-Thing" is getting dredged up for the big screen. It's as if they aren't considered artistically valid characters by the mass media until some actor puts on spandex and makeup to play them. A movie doesn't usually better the comic it comes from; sometimes, it ruins its reputation. (There've been some pretty good "Catwoman stories over the years, but Joe Q. Public only thinks of Halle Berry in a tatty dominatrix outfit now. It took years for Adam West's Batman to marginally recede in the popular imagination.) Fortunately, you do get gems like Raimi's "Spider-Man" or Richard Donner's "Superman," every once in a while -- but for hardcore comic fans, watching a favorite comic get turned into a movie is kind of like a trip to Vegas -- sometimes, you get a pocket full of coins; more often, you leave with less than you came in with and a heck of a hangover besides.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Black Thursday

Sometimes, you just have to laugh to keep from crying...

Speaking of which, here's a joke making the rounds:
Q: How many Bush Administration officials does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: None. There is nothing wrong with the light bulb; its conditions are improving every day. Any reports of its lack of incandescence are a delusional spin from the liberal media. That light bulb has served honorably, and anything you say undermines the lighting effect. Why do you hate freedom?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Happy Birthday to my lovely wife Avril, who's mumbletymumblemumble years old today! In honor I refrain from further bloggery and indeed from working entirely; taking the afternoon off from the paper to spend with the little monkeyboy and give mom a much-needed baby break. Apparently it's the best present ever or somesuch.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

So I was scanning over the new Marvel and DC comics solicitations for April 2005 from... um... somewhere... (you'll see them all over the net shortly enough I imagine but I don't want to get anyone in trouble by um, revealing my sources).

Anyway, as usual, a pile of nonsense and a handful of gems. Notable stuff for me includes, with my comments in bold:

DC Comics

Written by Alan Moore
Art and cover by Kevin O’Neill
The second critically acclaimed LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN miniseries by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill is given the Absolute treatment, arriving as a stunning oversized, slipcased two-book hardcover set! The 224-page Book One contains the thrilling 6-issue miniseries, complete with the Almanac of fantastic places, while the 224-page Book Two contains Alan Moore's entire scripts for the graphic novel, a rare and wonderful treat for any fan of sequential storytelling.
Advance-solicited; on sale June 29 • 2-volume set • 448 pg., FC, $75.00 US
Gosh, I loved this miniseries, but $75.00 is wayy too much with a baby to feed, so I'm sticking to my trade paperback. Awesome if I ever win the lottery, though.

Written by Darren Aronofsky
Adapted by Kent Williams
Art and cover by Williams
Darren Aronofsky proved himself a filmmaker to watch with his provocative
debut, Pi. His follow-up, Requiem for a Dream, continued the accolades, receiving Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. His latest accomplishment, however, comes straight to comics in the form of The Fountain, a gorgeously painted, oversized original graphic novel about the timeless truths of life, love and death.
A very intriguing sounding graphic novel, but the $30 price tag kind of puts me off. Interesting to see Aronofsky doing comics, though, and apparently this ties in to the movie of "The Fountain" he's also doing.

Written by Dennis O’Neil, Jim Shooter and others
Art by Curt Swan, Dick Dillin, Dan Jurgens and others
Cover by Alex Ross
A thrilling collection of some of the greatest races between the Man of Steel and the Scarlet Speedster, from SUPERMAN #199, THE FLASH #175, WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #198, WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #199, DC COMICS PRESENTS #1-2, and more!
On sale April 13 • 208 pg, FC, $19.99 US
I have a soft spot for men in spandex having races around the world, so this might well be one to pick up eventually.

Frankly, not a lot else from DC that interests me this month, although DC's latest mysterious "super event" continues with Day Of Vengeance #1 by Bill Willingham and something called The Omac Project by Greg Rucka, and they might be fine and good, but frankly, after being burned by Identity Crisis, I'll pass on this one and stick to Grant Morrison's awesome-before-it-even-comes-out Seven Soldiers project, which has two MORE (apparently bimonthly) miniseries kick off this month, Klarion The Witch Boy and Zatanna. Yeee!

• Over at Marvel, they go nutty with the "New Avengers" tie-ins, and although I've been moderately enjoying the series so far, I'll pass on most of the ancilliary stuff. Bothersome to me is that they tie TWO of the ongoing Spider-Man titles, "Amazing" and "Marvel Knights," into all this stuff. Spider-Man moving into Avengers Tower? This moving Peter Parker into a high-tech headquarters and hobnobbing with other heroes all feels so not Spider-Man to my eyes, but I'm a helpless Spidey geek and so will still probably pick some of it up. At the very least, I'm curious to see where they're heading with it all.
(And dear God, was anybody crying out for a "TOXIN" miniseries featuring some goopy Spawn-of-Venom type character? Peter Milligan must need to pay the mortgage.)

• Cool stuff still at the House of Ideas, though, including the return of Power Pack in a miniseries, and nifty indeed, a "Great Lake Avengers" miniseries by "She-Hulk" writer Dan Slott, which promises to be goofy good fun.

Marvel Team-Up #7 features Spider-Man and ... Moon Knight! I'm there.

• Speaking of Dan Slott, a second She-Hulk trade appears, and the pretty acclaimed Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes gets the trade (the solicitation says it's a hardcover, but judging by the price, I'm thinking that's a typo.

• As usual, Marvel puts out 492 "X-Men" type books, the only one I'm buying as usual is "Astonishing X-Men." But here's your "apples and oranges?" solicitation of the month:
Cover by MIKE ZECK
Celebrating 65 years of titanic tomes from the House of Ideas, MARVEL MILESTONES makes its triumphant return to the comics scene! Experience the highs, lows and in-betweens of Marvel's finest – monthly -- in full color! This issue: In time for TOXIN #1, there comes a costume! It’s the first appearance of Venom, as Spider-Man’s new symbiotic black costume, from SECRET WARS #8! Plus: The first appearance of Hercules from JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY ANNUAL #1!
48 PGS./All Ages…$3.99
What does Hercules have to do with Venom? Did they just grab the nearest comic to the drawing board to toss in as a back-up?
Link of the day: At long last, we have a blog devoted entirely to how often we in journalism screw up:
Regret the Error

Amusing stuff. The worst typo I've ever seen at a paper I worked at involved the regrettable fact that "public" and "pubic" are very similar words, and so the school board was not actually holding a "pubic meeting" despite inital reports. Oy vey.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I have a confession. I love greatest hits CDs, which I think in some ways is considered uncool for a somewhat musically hip person like myself who buys 30-40 new CDs a year, writes the occasional CD review for print, interned at a major music magazine once, and so forth. But an impromptu survey of my music collection shows more than 100 of my 600 or so CDs are "Greatest Hits" collections of some kind, box sets, et cetera. From Al Green to Mudhoney to No Doubt to Johnny Cash to The Chills to Squeeze to -- you get the picture.

Far more professional music critics and fans than myself preach the gospel of the album, but it's a medium which is slowly losing traction in the days of mp3s and "Now!" singles collections. I do love great albums, from "Sgt.'s Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to Peter Gabriel's "So" to Iggy and the Stooges' "Raw Power" (but enough of the "from x to y" comparisions already). A great album has a flow and organic quality a hits collection admittedly can't touch.

Yet there's a lot of musicians out there whose work comes across better in quick single hits for me. I've been re-reading Nick Hornby's excellent essay collection "Songbook", which spurred me on to think about great songs as something separate from their albums. A perfect single is a gem. For instance, a recent CD purchase was (to completely abandon my attempts at being cool) Duran Duran's "Greatest." I used to own some Duran Duran albums on cassette back in the day, but you know, a lot of the non-hit singles stuff was crap. But on "Greatest," I have 19 songs of more or less gold to sift through (including the best James Bond theme of the last 20 years, "A View To A Kill," no matter what anyone says). Or take Eminem -- an artist who's created some utterly great singles like "Lose Yourself" and "Without Me," but his CDs - well, I like a lot of "The Eminem Show," but you know, the stupid comedy skits and half-baked trash talk songs are disposable on a first listen, and downright annoying on a second and third go-round. Which is why I'll probably pick up the inevitable Eminem "Greatest Hits" CD somewhere down the line. Fewer and fewer artists create music with an eye for the entire album these days, which is why so many albums are half gold, half lead at least. Green Day's awesome "American Idiot" is the rare example of a modern concept album that works, an album whose parts are less than the whole.

Snootier music critics look down at Greatest Hits CDs, and I'll admit a lot of artists whom I'd much rather listen to the entire albums of -- Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Wilco, The White Stripes. But as someone who likes to keep his horizons as broad as possible, and is pretty at home listening to Willie Nelson or Tool or The Ramones, greatest hits collections are like a fine steak -- all meat, not an ounce of fat, and filling as hell.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Get back to where you once belonged, here's some Quick Comic Reviews to liven up the weekend:

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #1 (of 5)

Ah, it's like welcoming back an old friend. Paul Chadwick's "Concrete" ranks among my top 10 comics of all time, and it's been far too long since the last series featuring the low-key adventures of gentle, thoughtful Ron Lithgow, trapped in an immense alien concrete body. This series shows Concrete realizing his stone form might well lead him to live for hundreds of years -- and what to do to make his life feel worthwhile? He's approached by a businessman who has an interesting proposal to have Concrete become spokesman for a radical anti-population growth organization. Chadwick's black-and-white art is graceful as always, and the story raises big questions about Americans' knack for consumerism and where that might lead. Chadwick does come perilously close to being too preachy (several little inserted environmental "factoids" disrupt the story a bit much), and the story's first issue lacks some of the easy charm of earlier stories, but as always, "Concrete" provides deep thought and solid entertainment. If only it came out more often, but I'm eager to read the rest of this miniseries. Grade: A-

New Avengers #2
It's still not the Avengers I'm used to, but writer Brian Bendis' "A-Team" take on the venerable team is growing on me. This issue continues the massive jailbreak we saw last issue, with heroes including Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man and Luke Cage trapped in a massive escape by dozens of Marvel's worst bad guys. It's light on content, but heavy on action, with some really ugly beat-downs for the heroes and a palpable sense of desperation. Yeah, Spider-Man's grim little fate has happened a few times too often lately, but it still worked for me. Several good moments tipped the book to the good side for me, including a great entrance by "The Sentry," the mysterious hero, and some very Barry Windsor-Smith-esque art by David Finch. I still don't know if all this will add up into great comics, but right now, it's fun enough to ride. Grade: B+

What If? specials
Suckered by the hype, I pre-ordered five of the seven new "What If?" one-shots by Marvel, which take established storylines and spin them in new radical directions for alternative history tales. Unfortunately, overall these "What Ifs" are pretty disappointing stuff, lacking the originality or the whimsical fun of the 1970s and 1980s series. The worst offender, sadly, is Brian Michael Bendis, whose two tales -- "What If Jessica Jones Joined The Avengers?" and a "Daredevil" tale, "What If Karen Page Hadn't Died?" -- are really sloppy hackwork. Each comic takes multiple pages to recap the events in the "real" reality before diverging into an alternate continuity - a feat the old "What If" comics managed in a page or two at most. The "Daredevil" issue is particularly bad because it's all exposition, and nearly no action. Having a "Bendis" character narrate the books just puts them firmly in the camp of fan-fiction. In a fanzine, this would be acceptable, but for $3 a pop these two books are just sheer mercenary.
Better are the "Fantastic Four" book,"What If Doctor Doom Was The Thing?" and "What If General Ross Became The Hulk?", which rely more on the "What If" fun of creating strange configurations of familiar characters. Writer Peter David's Hulk book particularly has a nice streak of black humor. Unfortunately, both comics feel too short and rushed -- the old "What If?" comics tended to be 48 pages, and these ones feel like sketches at shorter lengths.
The best of the five "What Ifs?" I picked up, though, is the "Spider-Man" issue, "What If Aunt May Had Died?" instead of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben. The answer is, Parker becomes a moody rebellious loner and Uncle Ben still gets a rather raw deal, but the story, like the best "What If's," is pretty gripping and not over-the-top dark like Bendis' "Daredevil" tale. Overall, though, these "What Ifs" aren't quite as good as "What Were." Grades: Daredevil, C-, Jessica Jones, C+, Hulk, B, Fantastic Four, B, Spider-Man, B+

Friday, January 14, 2005

It's Thursday, and the return of a few Quick Video Reviews!

‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy’
Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is the top dog in San Diego’s swingin’ 1970s local news scene. With his chauvinistic news team partners, he’s the very picture of macho cool. But when a female journalist dares to join the station staff and challenge Burgundy’s supremacy, the gloves come off in this witty comedy.
A lot of “Anchorman’s” appeal depends on what you think of Ferrell’s anarchist, borderline surreal brand of humor. I think he’s the funniest “Saturday Night Live” export since Phil Hartman, and he’s made some sharp movies lately such as “Elf” and “Old School.” “Anchorman” is no classic, but the off-the-wall gags keep you giggling.
Ferrell is hilarious as always, making Burgundy a bit of a schmuck but still likable deep down. Steve Carrell of “The Daily Show” nearly steals the movie as the almost brain-dead weatherman Brick Tamland. And as rival and love interest Veronica Corningstone, Christina Applegate, who’s been sorely misused in bad sitcoms and failed movies, has great rapport with Ferrell.
It’s one of those comedies that throws everything at the wall in an attempt to get something funny to stick — cameos by everyone from Jack Black to Ben Stiller to Tim Robbins, one particularly nasty scene of random animal cruelty, 1970s song numbers and journalist gang-fights. Some of it’s hysterically funny, some isn’t.
“Anchorman” suffers a little too much from “Saturday Night Live” movie-itis, feeling like a sketch that was expanded into a movie. Much of the dialogue was reportedly improvised. The story could’ve dug deeper, been a sharper parody of television news — lord knows it’s a ripe enough target — and felt less slapped together.
I found big parts of it funny as heck, enough to recommend. But imagine what “Anchorman” could’ve been if the makers gave it a little more effort.
*** of four

‘Napoleon Dynamite’
Maybe I just don’t get it.
“Napoleon Dynamite” was a sleeper hit last summer, about a ridiculously nerdy teen’s adventures in his hick Idaho hometown. From some of the acclaim avid fans have rained on it, you’d think it was the second coming of “The Graduate.”
But much like Napoleon himself, it’s an awkward, ungainly creature. It wants to be a cult comedy but feels staged and fake.
Dynamite (Jon Heder) is an uncool, gawky teen in Preston, Idaho — you know the type, fixated on his bike, kung fu and learning to break-dance. He befriends a new Hispanic kid at the school (Efren Ramirez), falls in love with a neighbor girl, gets involved in student government and tangles with his sleazy uncle in this free-wheeling, rambling film.
There have been many, many fine movies about quirky teenage outcasts, from “Rebel Without A Cause” to “The Breakfast Club.” But in most of those movies, you like the main character. Dynamite is so unappealing that it’s hard to care about his predicaments. He feels like a gimmick, with his deep bass voice, permed hair and 1970s fashions in a movie set in the modern day. It’s all attitude and no sincerity.
The pretty terrible acting by most of the cast doesn’t help. None of them feel like real human beings, and the deadpan humor mostly comes off flat. The most genuine character is Dynamite’s brother, Kip, who stumbles into love on the Internet.
Throughout “Napoleon Dynamite,” you can practically feel the first-time filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess sweating to make this edgy — but not too edgy. It’s a mainstream director’s idea of what an “independent” film should be. The cop-out of an ending shows the movie doesn’t have the courage to be honest.
That said, there are several moments of dry humor to be found in “Dynamite,” and I freely admit I may just not be the movie’s demographic. But the ground this movie treads on has been well traveled by many other, better movies.
** of four

Thursday, January 13, 2005

That's one small step for baby...

Baby Peter (whose face isn't really quite as red as it looks in this picture) took his first official step last night, or what we're counting as a step. He's been hesitantly standing by himself for the past two weeks or so (record: about five seconds), and then last night, he lifted a foot and moved it forward a few inches. Then fell on his butt. He's only 11 months old so we'll cut him some slack.

It's funny with babies; the biggest moments happen kind of gradually so you barely notice them if you're not paying attention. Like the whole "first word" thing, how do you tell when it's baby babble or an actual word? We're pretty sure Peter uttered his first non-babble word a month or so ago -- fittingly, it's "cat," or "tat" as he pronounces it. He says it only when he sees the cats so we're considering it an official sign of higher intelligence. Of course, for a long time before that he said such things as "mamamama," "eh?" and my personal favorite, "aiieeeeeeeeeeee!," but we're not sure those count.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Movies to anticipate in 2005! There's some good-looking stuff coming down the pike this year, and an excellent year for "Star Wars" and comic book fanboys lurks. Some I'm highly looking forward to:

• Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (May 20) Required listing on pretty much any blog discussing movies. Will it finish off the saga on a high note, or be as underwhelming as the other two prequels?

• Elizabethtown (July 29) Cameron Crowe is tied with Wes Anderson as my favorite writer/director these days, and I've yet to dislike one of his movies, even the oddball but tremendously heartfelt "Vanilla Sky." This new flick stars Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, and promises more of Crowe's trademark wit and insight.

• Wallace and Gromit: The Movie (October 7) Woo hoo! I love the clay animation shorts of these gentle, witty British characters, and finally an entire movie starring them is coming.

Jarhead (Nov. 11) Sam Mendes, director of "American Beauty" and "Road to Perdition," hasn't gone wrong yet, and this movie based on the gripping Gulf War memoir by Anthony Stafford sounds highly promising, and what a cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Sam Rockwell, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper.

• Batman Begins (June 17) Christopher Nolan wowed with "Memento" and "Insomnia," what can he do with the caped crusader? If they play it as straight as it sounds, this could actually be the first 100% great Batman movie. (1989's "Batman" had me until Prince songs began playing.)

• Sin City (April 1) A guarantee this movie will look like nothing else out there, with its impressionistic, semi-animated/live action combo based on Frank Miller's ultra grim and gritty violent graphic novels. This year's "Kill Bill," I can't see this being a popular success, but frankly I'm just hoping they get the tone of the source right.

• The Fantastic Four (July) With a huge amount of trepidation, I might add. The venerable Marvel superhero family has some huge hurdles to overcome on the way to the screen — no-name cast, director best known for comedy lightweights like "Barbershop" and "Taxi," and a worry that "The Incredibles" might've stolen its thunder. But still, I'm interested to see what they've come up with, even if it's this year's "Catwoman."

• King Kong (Dec. 14) Peter Jackson remakes the 800-pound gorilla of monster movies. It's gotta be better than the 1970s disco Kong version, right? And it's Peter Jackson, so I'm there.

• The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (May 6)
A big-budget improvement on the 1970s bargain-basement BBC television version, and a solid cast. But, I'm still worried Douglas Adams' verbal sci-fi humor won't really translate to the screen, and the book feels more like a dated product of its time now.

• Clerks 2: Passion of the Clerks (unknown) Not entirely sure this will drop in '05, but Kevin Smith going back to his roots and revisiting the "Clerks" gang 10 years later is definitely something I'm interested in checking out.

• The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (Christmas) Don't know many details about this one, but it's based on the famous, excellent series of fantasy novels and filmed in New Zealand. Sound familiar? I'm interested to see how it comes out.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Jumpin' Jehosophat on a popsicle stick, I'm going to have to turn in my David Bowie obsessive fan license! It took the inimitable Johnny B to remind me that today is Mr. Bowie's 58th Birthday. By coincidence this morning I was even watching one of my Christmas presents, the "David Bowie - A Reality Tour" DVD of his most recent tour. He still rocks. Now I must bow my head in shame for the rest of the day for forgetting his birthday.

(*Oh yeah, Elvis Presley would've been 70 today, too.)
Yeah, I'm like a week late with it, but anyway, here's my Nik's picks for Favorite Comic Book Moments of 2004 (remember that faraway year?)

Some days the snark-filled comics blogosphere seems to be mostly about bagging on current comics and superheroes and a general sense of disdain about the medium these days (not EVERYONE, note, just a general theme though). But I admit, I'm a meat 'n' potatoes comics guy, who likes a good ol' Spider-Man comic just as much as I do Dan Clowes, R. Crumb or Craig Thompson. Anyway, I'll try not to dwell on the negative here (so little shall be said about "Identity Crisis," "Avengers Disassembled," "Sins Past," and several other overhyped lowlights this year). Instead, here's just a handful of things that made me remember why I dig comics so much this year:

BEST GRAPHIC NOVEL/COLLECTION: It's hard to pass up "McSweeney's Quarterly Concern" #13, a massive, utterly gorgeous hardcover collection edited by Chris Ware. This may be the best LOOKING comic book of the year, with Ware's usual intricate design and a who's who of alternative comics, plus noted authors chiming in on their love for comics. A lovely old catalogue of a book that you can dip into again and again.

BEST SINGLE COMIC: For sheer weirdness, surrealism and pulpy fun, you couldn't beat Grant Morrison's "Seaguy" #1-3, about -- well, I'm still not quite sure what it's about, but it's a zappy trip to read, multiple times. An honorable mention to his incomplete but astounding "WE3," and the sheer comic-book spandex world-saving goodness of "JLA: Classified" #1. Morrison's madness and invention will be on full display in 2005, with his 30-part "Seven Soldiers" series for DC, a "Superman" series, and another intriguing miniseries, "Vimanarama!", plus the final issue of "WE3." I can't wait. Runner-up, "Eightball" #23, not quite as great as some of Dan Clowes' other comics, but still miles above most.

BEST REPRINTS: For years, I've hoped to see a comprehensive collection of Charles Schulz's masterful "Peanuts." Finally saw it this year, in the first two volumes of a 25-book, 50-year series done with impeccable style by Fantagraphics. I can't wait for more. Runner-up, Marvel's Essential series, which began delving into hidden corners of the 1970s "Bronze Age" of comics with big honkin' phone book reprints of series like "Iron Fist" and "Super Villain Team-Up," in highly affordable packages. This year, "Defenders" and "Marvel Two-In-One" are on the way, huzzah!

BEST ONGOING SERIES: While trade paperbacks are slowly taking over, there's still a good handful of comics I have to buy each month, even if the trend of stretched-out serials is making that less pleasurable than it was. Series I'm still enjoying every month include "Daredevil," "Ex Machina," "Y: The Last Man," "Supreme Power," "Marvel Knights Spider-Man," "Planetary," "Powers," and "Astonishing X-Men." This year, no one series really jumps too far out of the pack, but if I had to pick one comic that goes to the top of the read pile each month, it's still Bendis' "Ultimate Spider-Man," with its loose, funny and realistic take on a teenage Spider-Man, who remains my favorite comic book character, and this remains the best current comic starring him.

BEST BENDIS COMIC: He didn't have his best year, getting a little overextended methinks, but writer Brian Michael Bendis is still reliably one of the best mainstream comic writers right now. A lot of folks would pick "Powers" as his best comic, but IMHO it's a little too cynical and unpleasant, although I do enjoy it. "Ultimate Spider-Man" didn't have the best year, either, with the meandering Carnage storyline and a lot of OK team-ups, and "The Pulse," while strong, isn't as good as "Alias" was so far. I'd go with "Daredevil," which despite the naysayers remains a thoughtful character study of Matt Murdock covered up in superhero clothing. Best DD since Frank Miller, and Alex Maleev's woefully underrated impressionistic artwork.
(*Yeah, I'm aware there's a contradiction in naming "Daredevil" my favorite comic yet "Ultimate Spider-Man" by the same writer my favorite overall comic, but hey, I'm a man of contradictions.)

BIGGEST COMEDOWN: Dave Sim's "Cerebus" is the first "independent" comic I ever read, way back in 1985 or so. I still think the first 200 issues or so are some of the strongest achievements of comics, a dense, satirical and epic tale of one megalomaniacal aardvark's journey in a cynical world. But Sim started to meander off into increasingly wacky tangents on religion, anti-feminism and rhetoric, and by the time the series concluded at #300 this year, few people really cared. I hung on to the end, but the last 100 issues of "Cerebus" and its bleak final issue really have to be seen as a failure. No matter what you think about Sim's views, the main problem for me was that the views overwhelmed and obscured his storytelling ability, undermining what could've been a great piece of work for the ages.

BEST NEW SERIES: Brian K. Vaughan has had a good year, with the always-excellent "Y: The Last Man" and his underappreciated "Runaways" from Marvel, but his new series, "Ex Machina," holds promise of being the best yet. A political thriller with superhero overtones, it's topical and smart, with gorgeous art by "Starman's" Tony Harris. Runner-up: Marvel's witty and lighthearted "She-Hulk."

BEST BOOK ABOUT COMICS: "Comic Creators On Spider-Man," edited by Tom DeFalco (TItan Books) was a huge treasure trove of information for any Spider-Man fanboy like myself, with more than a dozen interviews with Spidey writers and artists over the last 40 years ranging from Stan Lee to Brian Michael Bendis. Insightful, trivia-filled and not afraid to criticize, a fun read indeed.

LOOKING FORWARD TO: 2005 has some great sounding stuff coming, such as the aforementioned Grant Morrison's "Seven Soldiers," plus Morrison and Frank Quitely on Superman, Frank Miller and Jim Lee on Batman, more "Peanuts" collections, new "Black Panther" and "Defenders" comics, new Alan Moore "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "Top 10" graphic novels, the goofy-sounding-but-potentially good "Young Avengers," the "Sin City" movie and "Batman Begins" (I'll skip over the "Fantastic Four" movie, which I'm slightly hopeful for, but it sure feels like "Catwoman 2" to me).
It's a good year to be a 33-year-old eternal fanboy, methinks.

Saturday, January 8, 2005

January is the month to rid ourselves of old things. Seven days into the year, we are changing things around. Our rattling old DVD player finally gave up the ghost (the last straw was when it refused to read several of my Christmas DVDs), after five years and hundreds of discs viewed, so I bopped out to the store and picked up a new one Tuesday. The speed of technology — in 2000, I paid $250 for our old player, and it was the cheapest around. In 2005, I bought one several times better (and able to play other formats of discs) for less than $70. The impermanence of technology. There will be no digital heirlooms in our house.

Then the futon that Avril has been sleeping on nights in Baby Peter's room was next to go. Cleaning it out yesterday, she turned the mattress to discover a most disgusting and lively colony of mold had infested the entire thing in our drafty home. Since we had an unused spare bed anyway, it was to the dump with the futon mattress and I gave the frame away to someone else. Pay it forward.

And now, sadly, we're contemplating getting rid of our second cat, Luna. She's a skittish and phobic but very cuddly half-Siamese we've had for the last four years, when some friends had to give her up. At 13, she's become increasingly crotchety and freaked out by the antics of the boy and our other cat, Kudzu, so after we returned from Christmas break we decided it was time to look for a new home for her. Neither of us wanted to just dump her in the river or give her to a shelter, but frankly, two yowling indoor cats and a tumultous baby are a little much for our quiet lives. Something had to give. So I've been asking around at work about a new home for Luna, and it looks like she might get one from one of our reporters who wants a friendly older indoor cat. We're crossing our fingers.

It is sad to give up a pet, but on the food chain of our house the priority changed when Peter came along. She's not as happy now trying to dodge Peter's clutching fists (the other cat Kudzu is younger and a little quicker to get away), and as we try to simplify our lives this January, she's one more thing we have discovered we can live without.

Thursday, January 6, 2005

I think I am about to embark on a foreign-film binge from Netflix. I've been guilty lately of neglecting good foreign films in favor of the Hollywood products I review for my video review column in the paper, but now that the December flood of new releases is slowing down a little, I'm looking for good non-American flicks to check out.

Here's some of the ones I've seen lately and liked a lot -- "Maria Full of Grace," "Swimming Pool," "The Trouble With Harry," "City of God," "Whale Rider," "Talk To Her." Am interested in seeing "Osama" from Afghanistan and maybe finally diving into the "Red-Blue-White" trilogy. Any suggestions for others?

(Also, it's somewhat easier to watch movies with subtitles with the baby, so I don't miss dialogue while he's babbling and/or hollering about something or another. Besides, maybe Peter will pick up a foreign language through osmosis!)

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Two stories about the late, great Will Eisner, master of the comics medium:

• In the mid-1980s, I had a girlfriend who gave me a huge stack of great graphic novels for Christmas one year (every fanboy's dream). One of those was Will Eisner's "A Contract With God", and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I was mostly a straight superhero comics man then, and this 1978 book was one of the first "graphic novels," with a series of four interlocking, very serious, spandex-free stories on man and faith, all set in the same New York tenement building.
It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say "A Contract With God" changed my impression of comics forever. Real people! Doing real things! The woeful tale of a rabbi who loses his faith; a miserable landlord whose only friend is his dog; a young man's coming of age, each rendered in Eisner's loose-limbed, expressive style. Adult topics such as sex, religion and racism are all dealt with here. It was a thunderstroke of a book for me, one that led me on to Clowes, Bagge, Crumb, more Eisner and other "adult" comix. It's amazing to me that it's just part of a huge, 70-year tapestry of work that dates back to his legendary "The Spirit" work of the 1940s (now being collected by DC Comics in a series of 15 or so gorgeous hardcover volumes, and something I hope to afford the complete set of before I die).

• The second story is of Will Eisner the man, who was incredibly gracious and friendly to all people, and a source of encouragement to countless artists -- including me. Back in the 1990s when I created, wrote and helped draw a little small press comic, "Amoeba Adventures," my partner and I would send copies out on occasion to the "pros," hoping for a kind word or two about our humble efforts. It worked sometimes -- I remember Dave Sim's wonderful thoughtfulness in doing a big pin-up of our main character, Prometheus, entirely unasked -- but of all those little notes and drawings, none affected me more than the day I got a letter from Will Eisner. A handwritten note, with fond words to say about my little scribblings -- from a man who was to comics as the Beatles are to modern rock music.

I framed that note, and still have it to this day. (Spookily, I just now noticed it was written exactly 10 years to the day before he died.) What gets me is, Eisner didn't have to write us back; heck, I would've been happy with a form letter with his signature on the bottom. But knowing this man, who meant so much to the maturation of comics as an art form, took the time to read my comic book and then write a few words about it — well, that's the measure of the man, isn't it?

He kept working right into his 80s, and had a final graphic novel on his desk before he died at age 87 Monday. He was the teacher, role model and the inspiration to so many. If there's a heaven, Eisner's in it right now, and I'm sure he's already working on the best graphic novel of all.

A legend is gone. Will Eisner, one of the greatest comic book creators of all time, inventor of the modern graphic novel, is dead at age 87. And for once I can barely think of anything to say. Seriously, the man is the equal of - if not the superior - of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and with his passing a huge part of comics history is gone for good. More to come later when I can think of something worthwhile to writer. R.I.P., Mr. Eisner.

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Is this bold genius or half-baked lunacy? Sent to me by a friend, but worth mentioning - take it as you will, I offer no judgments. Me, I'm at least wearing black that day, *sigh*...

NOT ONE DAMN DIME DAY - Jan. 20 2005
Since our religious leaders will not speak out against the war in Iraq, since our political leaders don't have the moral courage to oppose it, since Bush is wasting 40 MILLION dollars on his inauguration party...while the soldiers have inadequate armor and too few of them to create or maintain peace in Iraq... Inauguration Day, Thursday, January 20th, 2005 is "Not One Damn Dime Day" in America. On "Not One Damn Dime Day" those who oppose what is happening in our name in Iraq can speak up with a 24-hour national boycott of all forms of consumer spending. During "Not One Damn Dime Day" please don't spend money. Not one damn dime for gasoline. Not one damn dime for necessities or for impulse purchases. Not one damn dime for nothing for 24 hours. On "Not One Damn Dime Day," please boycott Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target... Please don't go to the mall or the local convenience store. Please don't buy any fast food (or any groceries at all for that matter). For 24 hours, please do what you can to shut the retail economy down. The object is simple. Remind the people in power that the war in Iraq is immoral and illegal; that they are responsible for starting it and that it is their responsibility to stop it. "Not One Damn Dime Day" is to remind them, too, that they work for the people of the United States of America, not for the international corporations and K Street lobbyists who represent the corporations and funnel cash into American politics. "Not One Damn Dime Day" is about supporting the troops. The politicians put the troops in harm's way. Now 1,200 brave young Americans and (some estimate) 100,000 Iraqis have died. The politicians owe our troops a plan - a way to come home. There's no rally to attend. No marching to do. No left or right wing agenda to rant about. On "Not One Damn Dime Day" you take action by doing nothing. You open your mouth by keeping your wallet closed. For 24 hours, nothing gets spent, not one damn dime, to remind our religious leaders and our politicians of their moral responsibility to end the war in Iraq and give America back to the people.
Wes Anderson, get out of my head! I bopped up to Eugene yesterday and caught Anderson's latest movie, "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," and absolutely loved it. But I expected to -- I've dug Anderson's other movies, "Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," and his latest is just as oddball and intricate as those movies. Really, I feel like he peeked into my brain and decided to make a movie out of all the things in life I judge cool -- Bill Murray, intrepid explorers, David Bowie songs, pirates, submarines, stop-motion animation, strange mythical creatures, Jeff Goldblum and the mysteries of the father-son bond.

I know Anderson's quirks and studied mannerisms wear thin for some, but to me they're pure gold. His movies remind me of those ornate jewelery cabinets where each section is carefully crafted, with layers inside layers and many hidden drawers. Like George Lucas, whom I imagine he's not often compared to, Anderson fills the entire screen with his made-up worlds, with tiny details galore (Legendary oceanographer Steve Zissou action figures and pinball machines!). "Aquatic" is the strangest of his movies by far, and comes close to the edge of "weird for weird's sake," but another excellent Bill Murray performance helps ground it. I can't wait for the DVD, which hopefully will be as packed with supplements as his other movie DVDs. It was worth the hour's drive to check out and I'd definitely amend my "top ten movies" list to include it. Thumbs up.

Sunday, January 2, 2005

Happy 2005 to all. I can't believe we're halfway through this decade and it still doesn't really have a name (i.e., "The 90s," "The 70s," etc.). What are we in? The "Aughts?" "The Thousands"? My petty annoyance at this knows no bounds.

In any case, being as it's a whole new year I really need to wind up my Nik's Picks, so without further ado, here's my Top 10 Television Shows of the year -- the shows I'll try to make time to catch, 'cause I honestly don't watch a ton of TV in my life, as there's babies to play with, books and comics to read and movies to watch galore.

1. Lost, ABC
From the dramatic first 10 minutes of this show's first episode, I was hooked. "Survivor" meets "Gilligan's Island" meets "X-Files," in the strongest new TV drama in some time, with a huge cast and infinite potential. I only hope it doesn't prove to be another "Twin Peaks," that gets tangled up in its own mythology and never satisfies. But so far, it's the only true "Must See TV" on the air for me.

2. Scrubs, NBC
The best sitcom on TV, full of quirk, heart and invention. Zach Braff and the gang make that tired TV setting, a hospital, a launch pad for the zaniest half-hour on TV, a woefully underrated comic treat.

3. The Daily Show, Comedy Central
Jon Stewart, the only television newsman I can stand to watch in a wasteland of yammering, pompous talking heads. And sadly, I'm a journalist for a living. The Comedy Central team's election coverage nearly made the deflating results worthwhile.

4. The Office, BBC America
Only a few episodes of this so-dry-it-hurts British comedy aired this year, but the farewell "Christmas Special" alone merits inclusion on this list. Starring David Brent as the most watchable pathetic character since Basil Fawlty.

5. Arrested Development
This show is far too smart for network television, so seeing it get a second season was a great pleasure. Surreal, complex, utterly hilarious and at long last the role Jason Bateman's deserved ever since "Silver Spoons." Will it last? Probably not, so enjoy it while it does.

6. Justice League Unlimited, Cartoon Network
I admired but didn't love Cartoon Network's "Justice League" series, but this revamp is pure comic book fanboy gold, tossing in every single DC character and then some as the League "goes global" and expands. Animated Atom, Dr. Fate and The Question? As Stimpy would say, Joy!

7. Reno 911!, Comedy Central
This "mockumentary" "COPS" homage featuring the inept policemen and women of Reno is mostly improvised and often fall-down funny. The best "reality" show on TV.

8. The Simpsons, FOX
In its 232nd season, this chestnut is still better than most shows on the boob tube, even if age and stiffness is starting to set in.

9. Frasier, NBC
Another fond favorite rallied for a nice farewell last spring. Despite the hype another departing NBC show got, this one is the one I'll miss more, and I suspect it will age better than "Friends." A great final season full of farcial classics.

10. Survivor All-Stars, CBS
Urk - guilty pleasure. Like most Americans I got sucked into watching "Survivor" years ago, but lost interest after Season 2. This "All-Stars" one I caught an episode of, then got hooked right through to the end. Still the best of the way overexposed genre, although after "All-Stars" ended I went right back to "Survivor" ignorance again.