Tuesday, May 31, 2005

COMICS: Rapmaster Kool Mo Pope XVII

I normally leave the comic strip metacommentary to Josh at his superb Comics Curmudgeon blog, but this "Family Circus" cartoon demands extra ridicule:

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I mean, seriously, what the hell? Am I missing something? Or did the Keane gentlemen just look at a random magazine next to the drawing board, see stories about the new pope and rap music, smashed them together and figured, "Hell, that's a cartoon punchline!" and toddle off to the golf course for a quick nine holes? Josh has a whole section of his blog about the mysterious interior world of "Family Circus," and it's worth a read.

This is Exhibit #1321 on why 90% of today's aging, unkillable comic strips need a merciful death sentence. I'm looking at YOU, "B.C."!

Happy Memorial Day, all.

Monday, May 30, 2005

LIFE: Gots to get paid

Ah, back to the salt mines tomorrow... A holiday for most, but I agreed to come in and act as city editor on the skeleton crew putting out tomorrow's paper, then it's back to work as usual starting Tuesday. Two weeks off is nice, but by the end of it I definitely get a bit itchy for structure and deadlines again. Part of it is that our "getaway" was over last week, so this week has been relaxing, hanging around the house, lots of cool quality time with Peter, various errands and catching up on reading. Watched "Team America: World Police" today and covered Peter's ears for the copious swears and puppet sex scenes (four-word review: fitfully funny, but scattershot).

Work is weird, we all bitch about it when we're in the middle of it but taking a break from it and you suddenly see what a big part of the system of your life it is. I'm relatively lucky, I get paid for doing something I enjoy about 80% of the time, even if some days I want to be at a larger paper or in a different town.

And Avril's looking more seriously at working again by some point this summer... Before Peter was born we kind of decided the first year she'd stay at home and we'd see how we did, now it's going on 16 months and we've done OK, but to keep our savings from dwindling any more it's time she got a part-time job. (She had a solid well-paying job pre-baby, but unfortunately the employer doesn't do part-time work.) Which means we also have to figure out day care for P since our families are hundreds and thousands of miles away respectively. Aargh. I know millions of families across this fine land deal with this kind of stuff every day, but for us it's daunting. Our boy in the hands of strangers! But for his sake and our sake, I guess we have to take it to the next level. Wish us luck...

Sunday, May 29, 2005

TV: "Lost" for "24" hours

So the TV season has officially wrapped up for us, with this week's finales of "24" and "Lost" marking the end of the shows we officially watch. (Which really isn't that big a list - it also includes "Scrubs," "Arrested Development" and "The Simpsons," and that's about it for appointment TV. Oh, and I do like "Justice League Unlimited.") Anyway, "Lost" and "24" are our two big serial dramas, although in tone and execution they're widely different.

We loved "24's" second season, the one with the nuclear bomb explosion, but lost interest about halfway through season 3 when Jack Bauer started running around Mexico. This season started with one heck of a bang - the kidnapping of the Secretary of State by Islamic extremists and his threatened public execution - and although it had ups and downs, it remained a reliable thrill ride the entire time. I, like most, find "24" equal parts exciting and infuriating. The willfully cartoony, careening plot is brain dead as often as not. It's unintentional comedy, with the writers sweating to stretch out their non-stop 24-hour plot with new menace after new menace. (I can only imagine watching all 24 hours of a season in a row would show what an insanely relentless storyline it really is - and when do these characters eat?) What saves it from bombastic lunacy is Kiefer Sutherland's remarkably grounded performance as Jack Bauer. Sutherland has grown up from his old movie "bad guy" roles in stuff like "Lost Boys" into an actor of immense presence and gravity, and no matter how inane the plot gets - we're invading China! we're killing the President! the new President is looney tunes batshit! hey, here's the old cool President! -- Sutherland's steely resolve keeps it in focus. And that's what will keep me coming back for Season 5, I guess, with its promise of less CTU soap opera (it's the world's only counterterrorism organization that has the social interaction level of a high school drama class) and more lone wolf Jack Bauer action.

"Lost," on the other hand, is a more thoughtful show all around, even with the invisible dinosaurs and mysterious goings-on in this desert island. "Twin Peaks" style, it's piled on mystery after mystery, yet so far I don't think it's running the risk of getting stale. The finale this week was another excellent episode, balancing character and excitement, leaving us several big questions for next fall (what's down the hatch? who were the pirates? what's up with Locke? why doesn't Hurley lose weight?) but answering a few (who stole the baby?). I keep seeing message board posts from folks irritated the writers aren't giving away every little secret, whining about lack of closure and so forth. Yet I don't see that as the sole point of "Lost" -- it's a journey, and the heart of the show is really the meaty character flashbacks to their pre-castaway lives. The saga of constant loser Sawyer, secretive Sun and conflicted gangster Jin, fumbling addict Charlie or newfound father Michael - these are equally as rich and exciting as the latest island drama. (Only hottie Kate's flashbacks fall short, mired in feeble bad-girl antics and shock value that never feels sincere.) I'm curious to see if in season 2 some of the other faceless castaways get in the spotlight (although if they suffer the fate of blowhard - literally - 'Arzt,' then maybe they should stay in the background). After a sterling first season, "Lost" remains the show I'm most eager to see return next year.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

COMICS: Quick comics reviews!

Just a few reads from yesterday's comic shop visit...

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Green Lantern #1
I have to admit, Green Lantern is one of those characters that's never really jazzed me up, like Thor or Aquaman (sorry, Tegan). I don't actively dislike him, but neither have I been a huge fan. But I did pick up the first issue of the latest relaunch of the character, featuring the return of the most famous of several Green Lanterns over the years, test-pilot Hal Jordan. And it's decent superhero comix, enough to excite long-term fans with a good reintroduction to Hal, a risk-taking adventurer given one of the most powerful weapons in the universe and a job as a protector of Earth. Fine art by Carlos Pacheco and Ethan Van Scriver and competent scripting by Geoff Johns, with plenty of foreshadowing of upcoming adventures... But really, nothing to make me excited enough to pick up #2. If you're a Hal fan, check it out, but if not, merely OK. Grade: B-

Fantastic Four #527
I was a big fan of Mark Waid's run on this comic, and this issue, J. Michael Straczynski takes over as writer. JMS is very hit-or-miss for me, with his Amazing Spider-Man ranging from exciting and novel to experimental, off-character garbage, unfortunately a little more of the latter. As a first issue, it doesn't stray too far from Waid and other writers' take on the Fantastic Four as first a family, then superheroes. Ben Grimm, the Thing, comes into a great deal of cash, while team leader Reed Richards learns of a government plan to attempt to duplicate the experiment that gave the team their own powers. Fine clean art from Mike McKone, but JMS's writing tone seems a little unsure -- he has a nice grip on Reed Richards, but his Ben Grimm seems overly juvenile and there's some lame toilet humor that simply doesn't work. Overall, not a lot truly new here. I do like bits of it, but given JMS's weak track record with Spider-Man and his tendency to write without any apparent editing, not sure what the future holds for this title. I may pick up a few more issues, but it's definitely not quite the must-buy for me it was under Mark Waid's authorship. Grade: B

LIFE: Vacation slide show

OK, if you don't like hearing about other people's vacations, move along. As mentioned in the last post, we just got back from a week exploring the lands north of Oregon. Had a great time overall, although carting a 15-month-old whirling tornado of a temperamental toddler along for the ride adds a whole new dimension to vacation stresses. It was worth it, but we've both agreed we're not doing any more long trips until Peter's, oh, 23 or so.

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Peter in Vancouver
First stop on the trip was all the way up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, about 9 hours north of home. It's a great city, a surprise to find such a huge metropolis kind of on the northern edge of civilization like that. It feels like a cross between a cleaner San Francisco and my wife's home of Auckland, New Zealand, but with its own distinct vibe. It has a huge Asian influence; in fact there were times we felt we were in an Asian city, but then it's surrounded by these huge snow-capped mountains like Anchorage is. We liked it quite a lot, even if finding our way around was sometimes daunting. There were a ton of restaurants -- we could've spent a month just eating out in the places within a few blocks of our hotel.

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Totem poles at Stanley Park
It was both of our first trips to Canada - it was awesome to see an actual Petro-Canada store like my old pal Jay Marcy worked at, and like Jules in "Pulp Fiction" says, "it's the little things" -- the currency change (like most countries it has far more colorful money than the U.S.), no left turn lanes, the queen's image all over (she happened to be visiting Canada too that week), they call the bathrooms "washrooms," in general drivers seemed more courteous (everyone was using turn signals). But then again, we're judging a huge country from a tiny little bit of it we visited. It was swell, though, and I'd love to see more of British Columbia someday, the natural part of it.

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A fantastic beluga whale we saw at the Vancouver Aquarium
Following three days and nights in Vancouver, we came back to America and down along Puget Sound, taking a ferry across to avoid Seattle traffic and ending up in Port Angeles, Washington, on the northeastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula. From there, we made another brief trip into Canada, crossing the ocean on a ferry to the British Columbian capital of Victoria, on Vancouver Island (a huge place nearly the size of Oregon). We were on foot, so we couldn't see a lot of Victoria but the compact and visually stunning downtown, full of Victorian style architecture and nice shops.

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The enormous parliament building
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An ivy-encrusted hotel far beyond our price range
We only had an afternoon there, but Peter cooperated, sleeping through most of our exploration. Then a very queasy ride back over on the ferry to America. Curious about customs -- driving into Canada via Vancouver, we had only the most cursory check - basically, a guy asked us where we were going and for how long. But crossing on the ferry, we were definitely in John Ashcroft's America. An armed Coast Guard boat escorted us until the sea border, and we were quizzed several times by American officials about our intentions, duration of stay, passports checked, what we bought, etc. Just in case Baby Peter was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent, I guess. Of course, we could've driven through the border with a trunk full of anthrax, but so it goes...

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"How green is it?" "None more green."
Returning to Port Angeles, we explored the Olympic Peninsula some. The peninsula is an amazing place, one I'd been wanting to return to since my last visit in 1997. It rained a lot, but then again it is a rain forest. We had a nice soggy trek through the Hoh Rain Forest.

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Very wet in the Hoh Rain Forest
After spending three nights in Port Angeles, we drove southwest along Washington's west coast, a grand green rolling countryside, skirting the edges of the Olympic National Park. It's a place that's been heavily logged and the forest is at all different stages of regrowth. We motored through Aberdeen, Kurt Cobain's hometown, then down across the border and a three-mile bridge across the Columbia River into Astoria, Oregon, where we spent our final night away from home (in the best hotel yet, with an indoor swimming pool!). We made a visit to Fort Clatsop, the place where Lewis and Clark camped for the winter 200 years ago on their expedition. I'm quite interested in Lewis and Clark and had been wanting to visit Clatsop for a while - they have a nice replica of their fort which puts you back into how remote and damp and dismal it must have been for them, two centuries ago. How much that area has changed since then. From Astoria, it was a mere 5-hour drive home, and Peter even obliged us by napping for nearly two hours of it.

I've lived in various parts of the West and South and am pretty sure the Northwest is my favorite part of it. We live in the southern edge of it, where it's a little too hot and dry in the summers for our taste, but it was terrific seeing some of the damper, greener and slightly more culturally active parts of the region. Soon as Baby Peter is off to college, maybe we'll do it again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

MOVIES: Full of "Sith"

Whoosh, back from vacation, and an excellent time was had up in Canada and Washington. Full report and pics to come in the next day or so (I'm off work 'til Monday still, so plenty of time to recuperate from the post-vacation daze -- should plan time off this way more often).

Anyway, today I finally saw that small independent art-film about a young boy who learns the ways of the world, "Star Wars Episode III." I'm not going to do a huge essay about it because 98.4% of the blogosphere already has. I will say I dug it, and Avril will go see it tomorrow (we're trading off Baby Peter watching duties to see it in shifts). It's better than the previous two for sure, some great moments and popcorn-munching fun, and even a little lump in my throat at the end, and what more can you really expect from such movies? It's not like it was when I was 10, but at 33 it's still a pretty good time.

One thing non-movie related that gets me, still, is the merchandising juggernaut we see every time one of these comes out. Traveling through British Columbia last week I saw the same nonstop advertising that's consumed the Western world, such as cell phone ads, soda pop, etc. Rather odious this time out, for the first time I'm aware of George Lucas has authorized his actual characters appearing in TV ads. Hey, they're his babies, but man, Chewbacca hawking ring tones is so far beyond selling-out they should create a new name for it.

And does anyone else find it odd, using Darth Vader's image to sell so many soda pops? Think about who this character is, what he does in this movie and the original movies. It's like having Jeffrey Dahmer Barbecue Sauce or Saddam Hussein brand toothpaste, isn't it? I guess an intergalactic mass murderer and butcherer of the Jedi as a product spokesman is cheaper than getting Paris Hilton, though...

Monday, May 16, 2005

That's all, good night. As previously mentioned, I have finally managed to get two weeks of glorious deadline-free vacation time, and we're all off tomorrow morning for Vancouver, British Columbia and some wacky Canadian adventures, as well as some trekking around Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula for a week or so. Regular blogging will return around May 25. Until then, cheers!

MOVIES: Ode to "The Life Aquatic"

"I'm going to go on an overnight drunk, and in 10 days I'm going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it." — Steve Zissou

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I've rhapsodized before about this wonderful piece of quirky whimsy, one of my favorite two or three movies from 2004. Now that it's out on DVD, it's become one of my favorite material possessions. Yep, I'm a card-carrying member of Team Zissou.

Director/writer Wes Anderson is an accomplished miniaturist, an obsessed detail man whose movies like "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" have been as much about setting as they are about character. His worlds are fully inhabited, with a glimpsed background wallpaper or throwaway book cover the result of hours of work and thought. In "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," his obsession takes control, creating a bizarre adventure story/comedy/drama fusion unlike anything else, but utterly wonderful if you let it take you for a ride. It's the kind of movie that polarized both audiences and critics, some of whom felt Anderson's self-referential insular worldview is getting a bit tired. If you see "Bill Murray" and "comedy" and are expecting "Ghostbusters III," you ain't getting it. It's not a "comedy," although there are some very funny moments despite Anderson's constant melancholy tone. It's in the "Brazil" or "Buckaroo Banzai" school of dry deadpan comedy.

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What's fascinating about it is it's a study of a famed adventurer in his decline, the story of the heroes after the curtain falls and they face aging and irrelevance. Murray so wonderfully embodies Zissou in all his cranky, embittered curmudgeon-hood. His crew of misfits (Willem Dafoe's strange German man-child really stands out on a second viewing, and Owen Wilson gives by far his most effective, least smart-assed performance yet as Zissou's possible son) are all distinct personalities. There's a sharp turn at the end which seems almost mawkish, yet it's possible it tells us it's not all we expect it to be (at least in my theory -- hint -- in the very final scene, look at the man smoking a pipe on the ship). I like my movies with layers, and Anderson excels at giving us things to look at and think about.

The DVD is a treat and a half, produced by the always-amazing people at The Criterion Collection. The two-disc set features a commentary by Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach (which I've only listened to a small part of, but which sounds great), deleted scenes, several short featurettes, a documentary (which boasts lots of great on-the-set Bill Murray impromptu footage, but could've used a little more structure), production design spotlights and more. There's a nifty mini-concert by Seu Jorge, the Brazilian actor who performs David Bowie songs in pidgin Portuguese throughout the movie. (Why? I don't know why. But I have to admit his interpretations are strangely catchy and otherworldly, and it's great to see them spotlighted apart from the film.)

I don't guess "The Life Aquatic" is a perfect movie, but it's perfect for me. Like I said in my earlier review, it's got ships, pirates, Bill Murray, imaginary wildlife, David Bowie, Jeff Goldblum -- what more do you need? And despite all the wretched events and horrible setbacks that befall Team Zissou, it retains a shimmering, bruised optimism at the end of the day. "This is an adventure," Zissou says as the credits roll, and he's talking about the whole shebang. Just so.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

TELEVISION: Phasers set to 'suck'

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Phew. On a whim, the wife and I tuned in to watch the final episode of the final (for now) "Star Trek" series last night, "Enterprise." After four seasons, it's been cut off, canceled, assimilated. And judging from the pretty rotten quality of last night's finale, I can see why. Astoundingly mediocre by almost any standard, and it's a shame. We had watched several episodes of the first season of this spinoff, set before all the other "Treks" at the dawn of space travel, but like millions of other viewers, quickly lost interest in it all. I dig Scott Bakula from his "Quantum Leap" days, but the rest of the cast were complete ciphers. This finale was basically a slap in the face to the few remaining "Enterprise" fans, and a reminder to the rest of us why we stopped caring.

If you actually care,


lurk, so beware --
• The "framing story" involving guest-appearing "Star Trek: The Next Generation" stars Riker and Troi was hamfisted and made no sense. As it was clunkily explained, Riker is so confounded by some ethical dilemma that he decides to spend hours of his time in the ol' Holodeck, watching images of the "Enterprise" crew on a pivotal mission, because apparently that will help him make up his mind what to do in the here and now. The Riker I recall from TNG episodes was never quite so ineffectual. (And what was up with Deanna Troi's voice? Did Martina Sirtis lose her accent? She sounded like a transvestite.) Other than being an obvious ploy for ratings, there was no need at all for the "Next Generation" guest-stars; in fact, it muddied and diluted the impact of the "Enterprise" plot. The "then/now" transitions were incredibly awkward, with logic changing to dictate the whims of the writers.
• Apparently, the finale shot forward in time about 6 years from the previous episode, so it's been 10 years since the original "Enterprise" left Earth. Not that you could tell this from the way the characters acted or appeared.
• A major character is killed in a random manner, only to apparently provide some shock value. A few scenes later, nobody seems to be affected at all.
• Much of the episode is built up to a pivotal speech by Bakula's character, Capt. Jonathan Archer. We're told how important this moment is in early space exploration history, how legendary this speech will become. The episode cuts away before he gives that speech.
• Four season in, that faceless crew is still faceless. There's Asian girl, Wacky Alien, Black Guy and Doctor Dude, plus the George W. Bush doppleganger Trip and Jolene Blalock as the world's most emotional nonemotional Vulcan. All characters we've seen before, with little new to say.

There's an interesting essay making the rounds by Orson Scott Card, a writer I'm not really familiar with, that pretty much lambastes the entire idea of "Star Trek." I don't agree with most of it, but in general he makes some thoughtful points about whether there's a "need" for "Trek" at all these days. It's a debate worth having.

I think good stories could still be told, as always. I mean, I'm not a huge "Trek" geek by any means, and don't consider it some sacred cow beyond criticism. I quite like most of the movies and was a big fan of "Next Generation" mostly due to Patrick Stewart, dug the original "Deep Space Nine," (probably the best-written of all the series) never much liked "Voyager" and (heresy!) pretty much found the original series too cheeseball to get into. But like most fanboys, I have some attachment to the ideas of "Trek." "Enterprise" shows how dry the well of ideas has run. The same producers have run the franchise for nearly 15 years, and right into the ground of late. Maybe it is indeed time to take a break.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

COMICS: Graphic Novel cornucopia

A few years ago I re-discovered the joy of the public library, having moved to an area with an excellent one. Best of all, they stock a pretty decent selection of graphic novels, so my cash-poor self has gotten to check out stuff like Craig Thompson's "Blankets" and that huge "Palomar" collection from the Hernandez brothers. Here's a few recent reads:

"The Originals" by Dave Gibbons. The artist behind "Watchmen" and "Give Me Liberty" returns with this hardcover graphic novel, a breezy, heartfelt tale of youth and violence. Set in an unspecified future or alternate history England, it takes place from the eyes of teens Lel and Bok, who want to join the hover-bike riding gang "The Originals," whose mortal enemies are the greaser crowd, The Dirts. We watch buddies Lel and Bok work their way into Originals membership, rising up the hierarchy and eventually learning a few valuable lessons. Despite the title, it's actually not the most original story, but Gibbons tells it with style and feeling. His art is done in black and white with gray tones, and has a clean, classic look as always. Gibbons does a nice job building up his imaginary world, which has a kind of "Clockwork Orange" vibe to it. Still, "The Originals" doesn't quite rise to the level of classic - I would've felt a bit cheated if I'd paid the full $25 for a 160-page graphic novel. Wait for the paperback, and give it a spin. Grade: B

"Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood" and "Persepolis: The Story of A Return" by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi's not the world's fanciest artist, with basic, simple linework and cartooning, but what a story she has to tell, of her days growing up in revolution-wracked Iran. One of the best autobiographical comics I've read in a while, Satrapi does a magnificent job reimagining her child's eye view of Iran's changing political scene, continuing up until she's shipped away to school in Europe at the end of Book 1. I actually found Book 2 even better, as a more mature Satrapi experiments with the freedoms found in Europe, all the while still tied deeply to her homeland. When she returns to fundamentalist-controlled Iran as a rebellious teenager, the two worlds don't mesh as she might hope. Like "Maus," which it's compared to, this is a smart, gripping use of the comics form to tell a story without a single cape or hero in sight. It's worth reading by lovers of great comics and great stories alike. Grade: A-

Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes by Joe Casey and Scott Kolins. Avengers fanboy that I am, I actually bought this one. It's a collection of the recent 8-issue miniseries billed as a kind of "between the panels" look at the early days of Marvel's superteam The Avengers. It's given pretty swanky hardcover treatment, the better to enjoy Kolins' great artwork, detailed and dense with fantastic coloring. Casey does a nice job filling in the blanks of the classic 1960s Avengers tales, showing the team coming together in the early days with the widely different personalities of Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk and Captain America all having to mesh. Some nice insight into Captain America, a man "out of time" and forced to readapt to the modern world. It's really pretty mandatory that you read the original issues this springboards from, though, as most of the "action" takes place off panel or in brief flashes, which makes it pretty disjointed if you're not a huge Avengers fanboy. It's insular superhero comics aimed at a pretty select audience - recommended for those who are part of that group, though, myself included, as a nice bit of nostalgia in a purty modern package. Grade: B+

Thursday, May 12, 2005

MUSIC: All you need is memes

Because my brain is too strained to come up with an original post, I'm taking a cue from nifty fellow bloggers Lefty Brown and Shane and posting a Q&A music meme making its way around the Internets. I'm in a musical frame of mind because I just got an excellent deal on Lucinda Williams' new "Live At The Fillmore" 2-CD set -- our local Sam "Rip You Off" Goody had it for a whopping $23.99, nothankyou, but I went to Fred Meyer and they had it listed at $19.99 BUT it was on sale for $16.99 BUT they had a coupon in the paper for $3 off any CD over $14 so I got it for a mere $13.99 - $10 less than the "music store" in town. Hurray!

Anyway, I meme --
1. Of all the bands/artists in your CD/record collection, which one do you own the most albums by?
David Bowie, by far, with more than 50 albums and assorted *coughcough* bootlegs.

2. What was the last song you listened to?
"Beautiful Sorta" by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, which is catchy pseudo-Paul Westerberg rawk. The chorus had been sounding to me either like "Beautiful Sword" or "Beautiful Soda" (awesome!) but I looked at the CD and it's actually neither. Oops.

3. What's in your CD player right now?
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, "Cold Roses"

4. What song would you say sums you up?
Damn, that's a hard one. Today I'd go with "Ooh La La" by The Faces.

5. What's your favorite local band?
Unfortunately we have no good local bands here in the hinterlands. In college I was a big champion of Southern roots rock combo Blue Mountain though.

6. What was the last show you attended?
One of the final shows of Guided By Voices' career, back in November in Portland. (Review here)

7. What artist do you consider to be very underrated?
Most of the ones I listen to except The Beatles.

8. What's the worst band you've ever seen in concert?
Smashing Pumpkins gave a godawful show back in Mississippi in 1994.

9. What band do you love musically but hate the members of?
Well, I probably never would have wanted to hang out with Kurt Cobain, but I do love Nirvana.

10. What is the most musically involved you have ever been?

A buddy and I made some awful gawky "Weird Al" style music parody tapes under the name "Abraham and the Dead Slugs" using a cheap keyboard and off-key puberty-afflicted vocals back in the teenage days... Ten-CD deluxe reissue coming sometime soon to an imagination near you.

11. What show are you looking forward to?
With a 15-month-old baby at home, none in immediate future, although hopefully we'll catch some outdoor shows this summer. Gee, and Ted Nugent is playing the county fair!

12. What is your favorite band shirt?
Of all time, I had a great Billy Joel T-shirt from 1990 that I wore for a ridiculously long time before I ended my rather embarrassing Billy Joel phase. (I don't dislike the guy now, but I recognize the hefty coating of cheese that goes with his nice melodies.)

13. What musician would you like to hang out with for a day?
Three-way tie between Bowie, Elvis Costello and Peter Gabriel, I think.

14. Metal question- Jeans and Leather vs. Cracker Jack clothes?
What the hell are "Cracker Jack" clothes?

15. Sabbath or solo Ozzy?

16. Commodores or solo Lionel Ritchie?
Um, neither again.

17. Blackjack or solo Michael Bolton?
Who? and Are you kidding me?, respectively.

18. The Eagles or solo Don Henley?
I've never really been amazed by the Eagles, and for some reason always loved Henley's tunes "The End of the Innocence" and "Boys of Summer," so I'll go for the underdog.

19. The Police or solo Sting?
Police, man.

20. Doesn't emo suck?
No opinion.

21. Name 4 flawless albums.
Off the top of my head:
Peter Gabriel, "So"
The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
David Bowie, "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)"
Guided By Voices, "Bee Thousand"

22. Did you know that filling out this survey makes you a music geek?
Well, duh.

23. What was the greatest decade for music?
Approximately 1973-1983. Does that count?

24. How many music-related videos/DVDs do you own?
Six - "The Beatles Anthology," "The Pixies," "David Bowie: A Reality Tour," "Tenacious D: The Complete Masterworks," "David Bowie: Best of Bowie" video collection, "Peter Gabriel: Play"

25. Do you like Journey?
Ummm... In low doses. Never owned an album by them though.

26. What is your favorite movie soundtrack?
Tough call - among my favorites, "Rushmore," "The Piano," "Pulp Fiction," "Say Anything," "Crumb," "Dead Man Walking"

27. What was your last musical "phase" before you wised up?
I don't regret any of the phases I've gone through in the last 10 years or so.

28. What's the crappiest CD/record/etc you've ever bought?
Far too many to remember, although I suspect briefly owning a copy of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" is pretty high up in the list.

29. Do you prefer vinyl or Cd's?
Never liked vinyl, and grew up with cassettes long enough to learn to loathe them. CDs.

30. What is your guilty pleasure CD, that being the CD you love but would be ashamed to admit you have in your collection?
Um, I do own a copy of Phil Collins' greatest hits and have been known to rock out to "Easy Lover" alone in my car.

MOVIES: 'Daggers' not too sharp

Let's do the video review thing!
‘House of Flying Daggers’

Kung-fu movies aren’t for everyone, I’ll admit. The violence, madcap pace and often rather inane plots tend to appeal to a select crowd.

But a few years back, along came “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Ang Lee’s fine flick won several Academy Awards and fused classical storytelling and elegant visuals with high-kicking martial arts action. Call it “art-fu.” It made millions and won over audiences of all tastes.

Now, the latest in this “art-fu” genre is Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers,” which stars “Dragon” co-star Zhang Ziyi. Set in ninth-century China, it’s an epic tale of love, war and betrayal.

It features the signature visuals of “art-fu”: stunning cinematography, and slow-motion, visually inventive battle scenes that are like moving paintings.
Yet, this “art-fu” flick doesn’t connect. It’s gorgeous to look at, but the overwritten plot and banal script never really grabs the heart like such “art-fu” movies as “Dragon” or even Zhang Yimou’s own “Hero” of last year.

Ziyi is Mai, a mysterious young blind woman who has ties to the “House of Daggers,” an elusive rebel organization battling the Chinese throne. Soldier Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) goes undercover and on the run with her in an attempt to learn more about the House of Daggers. The army gives chase, as Jin tries to balance his secret loyalty to the throne with a growing affection for Mai.

Based on looks alone, “Daggers” succeeds. There’s some amazing sequences here, including knife-hurling battles in fields, a snow-drenched showdown, and a fantastic and elaborate ambush set in a bamboo forest, with fighters dancing in trees like monkeys.

But eventually it begins to feel like all style, no substance. There’s very little chemistry between any of the actors, whose performances range from too restrained to scenery-chewing awfulness.

The strained, slow-moving love story ultimately takes over, and by the end, I was ready to start fast-forwarding through the longing, achingly poised shots of lovers staring forlornly into the distance. A two-hour movie easily could have been edited down into a punchier 90-minute film.

The plot in “art fu” movies isn’t always smooth-running, but “Daggers” is particularly bumpy. If you look at “Daggers” as a kind of “art-fu” slide show, you’ll get more out of it than if you take it as seriously as its producers apparently did.
**1/2 of four

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

LIFE: Baby camping

We survived our weekend getaway to Newport, rainy on-and-off though it was (damn those weather forecasters!). It was warm-up for our bigger weeklong vacation that starts next Monday up to Canada and Washington, to see if traveling with the 15-month-old will cause sheer and utter brain death. Got to try out the best $5 purchase I've made in weeks, the baby leash. Yeah, I was one of those people who saw somebody toting a toddler along with one of these contraptions and thought, gosh, that's so inhumane, it's a baby, not a dog, and other squishy-hearted nonsense. That was before we discovered the damage to himself and others a toddler can cause at this point, when ideas such as "I think I'll run off the edge of that cliff now" and "If I climb to the top of the picnic table and hop around, surely I won't fall off and crack my head open like an undercooked egg" make a lot of sense. So the leash worked wonderfully on the beautiful seaside beach next to our campground (Seal Rocks, which we highly recommend if you're in the Newport, Oregon area), and elsewhere we took the little monster.

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We also survived camping with Baby Peter, although for some reason the lad has a pathological fear of tents. He was nervous going inside and if either Mom or I left the tent with him still inside he would freak out quite loudly, even if the other parent was still with him. It was all quite tragic, but he calmed down enough with us both in the tent and we all slept pretty good actually. And the people in the next campsite had an annoying barking dog so I didn't feel too bad about the occasional baby screech bugging them.

Any time we think it's too tough traveling with him, I have to remind myself that my parents actually spent an entire year traveling around Europe in a motorhome in 1979 with my brother and I, when we were 5 and 7 respectively. Compared to spending a year in a motorhome with two battling boys, one is probably a piece of cake.

Friday, May 6, 2005

ETC.: Good grief

This and that about nothing in particular....

• Man, there's nothing more pathetic in my mind than these "fake blogs" that are basically a blog version of spam. If you click on the "next blog" button at the top of this page to take a merry spin around the random blogworld (and we all love to do that), you'll probably hit one eventually (or although I loath to give a link to one of these things, it's probably the best way to show you what I'm talking about -- here's one right here I just spotted. Buy nothing). I guess it's being all entrepreneurial in a way to use a blog to splatter random ad-lets on there in hopes some sorry bastard will want to buy "Mexico Travel Review" or "Gucci Outlet" stuff, but somehow it just feels rather tawdry and sad to me. That's not what the blog revolution was about, man!

The Complete Peanuts 1955-1956! Recently got book three of the hugely ambitious, 25-book program to reprint the entire span of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip (the best strip of all time and anyone who says otherwise is a kite-eating tree). This is one of my "dream projects," frankly, and Fantagraphics has done a pretty great job restoring the strips and putting them in these very handsome, 300+ page hardcover volumes, each collecting two years of Charlie Brown goodness. Book 3 is where it really starts to become the "Peanuts" we all know and love, with characters turning into their recognizable forms. What's been cool is watching Schulz expand his range from the cutesy "kid humor" strips of the early days (lots of mud pie jokes) into a more desperate, existential tone, that tone that really made "Peanuts" the masterpiece it was. In this book, Linus evolves from baby into quester, seeker and the strip's most aware character. One of my favorite strips is this gem:

Nobody combined wit and despair quite like the late great Schulz, IMHO. Twenty-two more volumes to go over the next decade or so!

Memo to CNN, FOX, et al: Can you please for the love of God and Baby Jesus stop covering this inane "runaway bride" nonsense? If I pull up CNN's Web site one more time and see this moo-eyed cow's face staring back at me I will blow a synapse. In the name of all that's intelligent, is there seriously no story in the world bigger than some ditz having a mental episode? Does this affect my life at all? Your life? (Aside: Ever notice how the "woman in peril/dead baby of the week" type story the TV news stations salivate over always revolve around cute white women, by the way? What up with that?)

As someone who is an actual wage-earning journalist, it dismays me to see the trivialism and lowest common denominator continue to prosper on the brain-dead TV news end of things. Meanwhile, here in my small Oregon county we just had our second local soldier die in Iraq this week, a tragic death way too soon and way too unnecessary. I doubt you saw his name on CNN once.

• Been a wacky few weeks at work, three people leaving (it always happens in threes), one rather suddenly after a short stay which has dumped a lot on my plate. Worked last 11 days right through with one day off in the middle somewhere -- which is why I get a three-day weekend this weekend, and faithful wife and baby and I are off to camp on the Oregon Coast and visit the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, which we've meant to do the last 3+ years we've been in Oregon... Then, we come back, and I work for another week or so, and I get my real 2-week vacation (the first actual vacation we've had that wasn't to visit one or the other of our parents in more than three years) and we're off to explore the Olympic Peninsula, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada for a week or so. Vacation madness! Blogging hiatus! See you Monday or so!

Thursday, May 5, 2005

MUSIC: Elvis Costello's "King"

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Like many of us bloggers, I'm an obsessive collector type. I get it from my mother. So it was with a happy little squeal of joy that I opened my package recently containing Elvis Costello's 'King of America' from the Rhino Records 2-CD reissue program. It's the final piece of the puzzle, the last in the 16 classic Costello albums from the 1970s to 1990s re-released in this series, which is top-of-the-line archival remastering work. Each Costello album from "My Aim Is True" on up to "All This Useless Beauty" has been given the royal treatment, with a thick booklet essay by Elvis, the original album, and an entire CD of bonus tracks, demos, live songs and more. Some of the reissues have had as many as 50 songs! If you're a big E.C. fan like I am, it's been like Christmas for the past few years as the reissues have trickled out, 3 at a time or so. (Here's a swell Web site that gives an ultra-complete obsessive amount of info on the program.)

So anyway, 1986's acclaimed "King of America" came this week - the last of the CDs, and also the last "major" Elvis Costello album not counting assorted bootlegs and compilations that I had never heard. I was familiar with many of the tracks on there, of course, such as "Brilliant Mistake" and "Indoor Fireworks," but over my 15-16 years of E.C. fandom, it was one album I'd never bought, and once the reissues began 3-4 years back I figured I'd wait to buy it then. It's great stuff, rootsy and Americana-drenched, with dashes of the experimentalism that would come along on later albums like "Spike" and an underappreciated personal favorite, "Mighty Like A Rose." And I haven't even dipped into the bonus disc yet.

There's something always a little sad about finding the "last" thing to finish a collection, that last book or CD you hadn't had, because once you've got it, the collection is finished (unless you decide to get ultra-crazy and start looking for obscure bootlegs of Elvis' sound check from 1984 in Waldorf, Penn., or something). The "Elvis Costello" section of my CD rack is finished, now, to me - joining the similar David Bowie, Beatles, Pixies and Peter Gabriel sections, a testament to the appeal of having it all, by gum, every little bit of it. More more more more!

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

LIFE: Baby rampage!

Cool things about having a boy, #128 in a series:
Taking your son to the park!

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

BOOKS: Books I Read, April

If Blogger ever stops screwing up long enough to let me post this, it's Books I Read, the April 2005 edition! (January, February and March, respectively, can be found here, here, here) Definitely read less last month, between heavy workload and desire to spend more of my dwindling free time with the boy... Five books vs. eight in March. Ah well. I still strive on!

"Angels & Demons" by Dan Brown. I felt like a light "airplane read" after all my heavy reading in March, so I dug into this book by the writer of the entertaining enough "Da Vinci Code." Quite by coincidence it turned out to deal with the death of a pope and terrorist machinations around the conclave to replace him, so it felt topical. Not great literature, but I have a weakness for thrillers based on arcane history, and it "keeps the blood moving." Succumbs to ever-escalating ridiculous plot twists and explosions about two-thirds through, but still not a bad read.

"Notes From A Small Island" by Bill Bryson. I love Bryson's conversational, intelligent and witty nonfiction, including such books as "In A Sunburned Country" and "A Short History of Nearly Everything." This is one of his earlier works, and I have to admit preferring his later ones -- the smart-ass tone is a bit more strident in his earlier books than the gentler satire he later developed. Still, it's a good travelogue he takes of England as he prepared to move to America, exploring Britain and the quirks and contradictions of its culture. Worth reading if you're a fan of the man.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safron Foer - check out my full review of this one here.

"Into The Wild" by Jon Krakauer (re-read). Doing one of my periodic "purges" of the bookshelf I came across this paperback I hadn't read in years, and what a fine little book it is. The true story of Chris McCandless, a privileged teenager who abandoned traditional civilization to wander America, eventually setting out to live off the land in raw Alaska - where he met his final fate. This smart, sad book says a lot about the conflict between the modern world and what we idealize about nature, about being young and hopeful, and how unforgiving the woods can be. Worth reading, and reading again.

"Voice Of The Fire" by Alan Moore. This strange, glittering book deserves a full post of its own, and hopefully sometime soon I'll do that (although you can head over to Jog's blog for some great readin' on it that's much smarter than anything I would write). This is the only prose novel by Moore, whom most would consider the greatest comics writer of all time. Experimental, with highly visual and baroque prose, it's 12 interconnected stories that take place in Moore's English hometown of Northhampton over the past 6,000 years or so. Horrible deaths, the collision between magic and Christianity, and strange symbols are repeated and echo throughout. It's not easy reading - the first 40 pages or so are narrated in a bizarre pidgin English by a feeble-minded Neandarthal boy and it goes slowwwwww - but it casts its own unique spell, wrapping up with a fourth wall-breaking blood and fire conclusion narrated by Moore himself. It's not always successful, but it definitely tries hard to be something new.

Sunday, May 1, 2005

COMICS: Craig Thompson's 'Carnet de Voyage'

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My fellow Oregonian Craig Thompson had one of the most acclaimed graphic novels of 2003 with "Blankets," a sprawling epic of young love and faith illustrated in beautiful sweeping linework. His latest book, "Carnet De Voyage", was characterized as a "travel sketchbook," a kind of stop-gap before his next big project. But in its own way "Carnet De Voyage" is nearly as satisfying as "Blankets," filled with Thompson's trademark yearning, insight and that almost insufferably fine artwork.
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Set during three months of research for his next book, Thompson takes us with him on a book tour and sightseeing trek through France, Spain and Morocco, cataloguing the sights and feelings of his trip along the way. He alternates his style between straight-out portraiture, sequential cartoony art and more realistic storytelling. I love travel literature and graphic novels, and the two tastes go great together. Thompson is episodic and expansive, making many foreign friends along the way despite his self-pitying demeanor, or "whining" as he calls it. He's painfully aware of his American gawkishness compared to his suave European pals, and combines a child-like love for beauty with a fear of what's to come.
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I half-expected a book of simple sketches and scattered impressions, but Thompson really fashions a narrative out of his diaries, with a rise and fall and emotionally rich ending, particularly poignant seen as a kind of sequel to "Blankets." That this was crafted "off the cuff" makes it even more remarkable that it reads so fluidly. The lovingly rendered scenes of Spanish architecture and Moroccan market chaos are finely detailed -- so much so that later in the book we learn Craig has developed incredibly painful arthritis due to all his drawing. "Carnet De Voyage" doesn't have pretenses toward being an epic statement, and Thompson's self-aware cuteness might be cloying to some, but I heartily recommend this compact book, as both autobiographical comix, sketchbook and purely as a nice little "souvenir" of another man's journeys.