Thursday, September 29, 2005

MUSIC: Awful album art

I recently was told about perhaps the finest Web site I've ever seen in my life: It's a repository of some of the oddest, weirdest, awfulest and ginchiest LP record album art ever – complete with reviews of the records themselves! It faithfully recreates an era long since vanquished by CDs, iPods and mp3s, when hideous album art could be displayed in glorious gigantic sizes. I remember my parents had some mildly amusing albums in their old LP collection, but nothing holds a candle to this stuff.

It includes these fine gems:
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And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Go glorify in it.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

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Sometimes, all you can do is nap.
(Note the hand still reaching to get cheese from the food bowl.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

TV: Hey, it's fall premiere time

I really don't watch a ton of TV. I mean, there's also DVDs to see, toddlers to play with, wives, books, exercise to all fit into the day as well (I gave up any attempt at a social life the day Baby Peter was born). So for a comprehensive look at the fall TV season, don't expect one here (however, Tom The Dog has been in rare form lately with his excellent TV season blogging). But of the half-dozen shows I watch, here's my impressions of the new season --

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My Name Is Earl is the only one of this season's new shows I was interested in seeing, based on great reviews and star Jason Lee ("Almost Famous," "Chasing Amy"), who I always like. Last week's premiere was terrific fun, about a bozo hick small-time criminal who undergoes a crisis of conscience and decides to start making the world a better place. The show's got an offbeat point-of-view and some clever characters, led by the reliable Lee in the lead role. Some great one-liners – "I know this might sound crazy in this day and age, but we live in a small town and I've never been face to face with a gay before. I understand now the runnin' probably wasn't necessary" — and a premise packed with potential mean I'll be coming back for more.

The Office - Like most fans of the BBC series, I was skeptical about a U.S. remake, but in its short run last spring the American version starring Steve Carell wasn't bad at all, albeit different than the original. This one is starting to find its own voice, spinning off in interesting ways and really nailing the laughter vs. cringe factor balance. It's not a comfortable comedy to watch -- last week's season premiere and the "Dundie" awards just made you ache with its spot-on awfulness -- but it's really pretty great and unlike most sitcoms on the air. Give it time and it might catch up to the reputation of its parent.

Arrested Development - It's hard to believe a show this subversive and intelligent has made it to a third season. The premiere last Monday was another layered mini-masterpiece. (How can you not love a show that creates fake Web sites like for a two-second joke?) However, while I loved it, I kept thinking about what a labyrinth of in-jokes the show has become, requiring you to have a pretty in-depth knowledge of the last two years to get half the references. While it works for people who are already fans like me, it sure makes me worry this show doesn't have a chance of making it to season 4 unless it gets a little more accessible - yet I don't want it sacrificing that unique "Arrested Development" vibe that makes it the best comedy on TV. Either way, I'm with it until it heads off into the sunset.

Lost - Last Wednesday's knock-you-on-your-ass-and-kick-your-teeth-in season premiere summed up every reason why this is my current favorite show on TV. The saga of the island castaways left us hanging back in May, but the first 10 minutes of the season premiere managed to be both fulfilling and left us with a dozen more questions -- the keys to any mystery. Who the hell is Desmond? What's going on? Heck if I know, but I can't wait to see where it goes. The biggest risk for this show is that it fizzles out in "X-Files"-style meandering, but right now "Lost" is at the peak of its powers.

The Simpsons - In its 439 or so seasons, I've consistently enjoyed "The Simpsons," ever since it premiered my senior year in high school (!!!). It's been up and down, but I've stuck with it, ignoring the naysayers who say the show stopped being funny at season 10 or whenever. But... this year, well, wife Avril and I are just not quite into it. There hasn't been a huge plunge in quality, but suddenly "The Simpsons" just seems really tired. Last night's episode was so lethargic that I barely felt interested in following it through (How many times has Marge gotten fed up with Homer now? And how can you mess up so badly a parody of as easy a target as "The OC"?). I'm not giving up the show, but it's suddenly no longer "must see TV" for us (particularly now that FOX has gutted their Sunday schedule so that "Arrested Development" is on a different night).

There's a few other shows I'll strive to catch when I can -- we're newly converted to "The OC," although so far season 3's episodes haven't been quite as cool as the first season DVDs we've been watching, and when they return next January, "Scrubs" and the campy jingoistic joys of "24" are high on our watching list.

By the by, if you're a fan of music, documentaries, or both, be sure to tune in to PBS tonight to catch the first half of "No Direction Home," Martin Scorsese's acclaimed documentary about Bob Dylan's early career. I watched the first half on DVD last week and it's great stuff - and I'm not the world's biggest Dylan fan. Scorsese does a great job though of establishing the context for Dylan and his amazing creative run in the early 1960s, and the filmmaking is phenomenal, cutting back and forth between revelatory mid-1960s footage of Dylan, interviews with many talking heads, and astoundingly erudite talks with Dylan himself (if you picture "mumblin' nasal Dylan," you'll be amazed at how, well, normal the man sounds here). It airs tonight ("check local listings" as they say for the time) with part two tomorrow night. Watch it.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

COMICS: Comics Creators on Fantastic Four

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I love books of all shapes and sizes, but I'm a total sucker for the behind-the-scenes comic book-history nonfiction genre. So I got a nice kick out of "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four," a book collecting a slew of interviews with writers and artists on Marvel's "Fantastic Four" series over the years, led by longtime comic writer and editor Tom DeFalco. This volume's a rewarding follow-up to last year's "Comics Creators on Spider-Man," which I also enjoyed a great deal.

The hefty tome goes from talks with co-creator Stan Lee, now in his 80s but still spunky, all the way up to recently departed writer Mark Waid, with stops at just about every era of the FF's 40+ year history. Like the "Spider-Man" tome, it's revealing, candid and trivia-packed stuff, full of both gossip and genuine insight into the creative process. The late Jack Kirby's talents are appreciated again and again, which makes up for him not being around to interview. Although John Byrne's been rather, um, temperamental in recent years, his interview on his excellent 1980s run on the comic is informative and good reading. I also really enjoyed Mark Waid's interview; the most recent great FF writer really goes into his storytelling process, and the controversial "firing and re-hiring" by former publisher Bill Jemas. The book isn't afraid to point out flaws in the comics or weak patches, which I also appreciate. It's a balanced look at the evolution of these four fascinating characters who helped start a revolution in comic books.

There's a few minor flaws -- sometimes the interviews do get repetitive (Each creator is asked what they think the Fantastic Four are about, and nearly to a man, they respond, "family."). And not every FF writer or artist is represented, although some were in the "Spider-Man" book as the introduction notes, and at closing in on 300 pages, there's only so many DeFalco could fit in here.

But overall, "Comics Creators on the Fantastic Four" is another sterling success by DeFalco and Titan Books, packed full of rare art and cover reproductions to break up all the words. Rumor has it next year's tome will be an "X-Men" volume to tie in with the release of "X-Men 3." If it's as good fun as these two, I can't wait.

Friday, September 23, 2005

LIFE: Holiday snaps

So here's a photographic tour of our weekend adventure to the wild remote southwesternmost corner of Oregon, one of the more secluded areas of the West Coast. Brookings, where we spent most of our time, is tucked right on the edge of the Oregon/California border. You're a good 3-4 hour drive from a city of any major size, but it's a gorgeous area, with the endless Pacific Ocean on one side, the craggy wilderness of the Siskiyou National Forest on the other.

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One of the wacky roadside tourist stops you can find on Highway 101 is the enjoyably kitschy Prehistoric Gardens, a roadside rain forest park that features giant life-size colorful statues of dinosaurs created by an area eccentric. Peter loved the dinosaurs and it was a fine pit stop on our journey south, cheap enough at $14 for all three of us.

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Once we got to Brookings we camped out for two nights at Harris Beach State Park, an excellent campground with a trail down to the beach. Peter enjoyed running up and down and exploring. He didn't enjoy his first taste of sea kelp, though.

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We also took a trek over to the California side to see the redwoods, always one of my favorite sights on God's green earth. We detoured near Crescent City to visit an excellent roadside grove boasting dozens of the giants (redwoods always seem even more impressive in groups). Words can't really describe the redwoods. It's like being in a tree church, and always leaves me awed in all the right ways.

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A Brookings sunset.

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On the way back, I had one of my inspirations. Instead of driving back up the way we came, why not take this road on the map that apparently cuts cross-country through the Siskiyou National Forest? Never go back the way you came if you can help it, by gum. So we went on a winding, epic journey that only covered 70 miles, but took more than 3 hours to drive. You see, as we moved east from the coast, the road became narrower and narrower, eventually becoming a tiny one-lane road winding through green hillsides and up ever steeper and higher mountaintops. Every once in a while, you'd come across a full logging truck screaming toward you from the other direction (good to get the heart pumping), but otherwise, no sign of life.
At about 40 miles, I started regretting the side trip, but because I am a manly man, turning around wasn't an option. That's when we saw the "Road Closed - DETOUR" sign, which took us on a gravel road so narrow it should've been a hiking trail. If we thought the road was steep before, this topped it. You had utterly amazing vistas like the one seen above; at the same time I was clutching the wheel with all my power as I went around switchback curve around switchback curve around switchback curve so many times I didn't know which end was up. Egad. (Thank the lord, Peter fell asleep during this part of the drive.) Finally, after what felt like three days of this, we popped out on a paved road and turned out to be only 15 minutes from Grants Pass and Interstate 5. All in all, it was a fantastic side trip, through some of the most amazingly raw and unspoiled woods I've seen, but I never ever want to drive that road again.

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So it was at that point I gave up driving, and let Peter take the wheel!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

CONTEST: And lo, there was a winner!

Oh yeah, that's right, I had a contest! Blame post-camping weekend daze for the delay in announcing the winners of my Super Soundtrack CD Giveaway. As you might recall, I asked you to e-mail me your favorite use of music in a movie, and as a prize, you'd get a free soundtrack CD from my mammoth CD collection I'm desperately trying to reduce. My thanks to all who entered.

So I picked a runner-up, and that had to be my man and fellow blogger Greg Burgas, who overwhelmed with sheer volume of responses - he sent FIVE answers in an attempt to utterly unman me, and I had to give a shout-out to his top pick:

"Eurotrip. What's that, you say? Okay, maybe others have used music better, but I just love how the song "Scottie Doesn't Know" is used in this movie. If you haven't seen it (and you really should, because it's very funny), the lead (a low-rent Freddie Prinze Jr.) is dating the obligatory hot chick, and when he goes to a high school graduation party, the band starts playing this song, which is all about the lead singer boning the girl behind the lead's (Scott) back. She gets up on stage and does some dirty dancing with the singer, effectively ending the relationship. He goes off to Europe to find his hot pen pal, and the song is playing EVERYWHERE. It's an international sensation! We get a punk version, a disco version, people humming it on the street - it's very clever. It's a catchy song, too, and I just love how the film makers kept bringing it back. Excellent. I know I win. Come on, it's EUROTRIP!"

I did see "Eurotrip" and got many guilty laffs out of it, and I have to admire Greg's low-culture mojo here for going for the sex-comedy romp. So Greg gets his choice of either the soundtrack to the movie "Dead Man Walking," which includes great rootsy stuff by Johnny Cash, Eddie Vedder, Steve Earle and more, or the soundtrack to the movie "Kids" by Folk Implosion, which includes one of my personal favorite singles of the '90s, "Natural One." Take your pick, Greg, and let me know!

But when it came to the winner, there wasn't much choice for me. The first prize winner came from my old pal Rob Rogers:

"My vote is this: The scene in "Almost Famous" where the band, Patrick Fugit and everyone else is on the tour bus. It's after the big fight and one by one, everyone starts singing Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." To me, it captured the emotional center of the film better than any line of dialogue or action from any character. It made me a little emotional. And it made me like an Elton John song. Don't get me wrong, I respect him as a songwriter, but I just don't get into his music that much. But the scene played everything perfectly because of the right choice of song."

Rob knows I'm a huge Cameron Crowe fan (and in fact spent an entire post blogging about "Almost Famous" a while back), so he gets points for sucking up, but also I'd have to put that particular scene high in any list of my own favorite movie music moments. That scene, like much of "Almost Famous," could so easily have tipped over into sappy melodrama, yet Crowe keeps it honest and true. It's suffused with a fan's love for music and Rob's astute picking of it ensures he gets this fabulous Ennio Morricone soundtrack CD! Now don't say I never gave you anything.

Honorable mentions as well to Richie, Jim, Logan and Gary, who all came oh-so-close. Thanks dudes!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

We're off to the Oregon Coast for a belated Labor Day weekend camping trip, so no posting until Tuesday or so.

Doesn't anyone want to enter my Swell Soundtrack Giveaway? Free stuff, dammit! I am so done with contests, I'm just not popular enough to pull it off. Anyway, the deadline is coming Monday if anyone actually cares.

In conclusion to carry in your heart in my absence, a photo of Manimal.
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Friday, September 16, 2005

MOVIES: Don't "Hitch" a ride with this "Guide"

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Honestly, I rarely go into watching a movie hoping it will suck. Life's too short to spend watching crap, so that's why I rarely review stuff I just know I won't like (hence no 'XXX 2: State of the Union' review for me). What really stinks is when a movie you're kinda hoping will be good is not. "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is one whopping big disappointment. It mangles most of what I loved best about Douglas Adams' classic comic science fiction novel, yet it also fails in trying to win over new fans. It jettisons wit for clich├ęd Hollywood chase scenes and love stories.

I dunno - maybe the time for a "Hitchhiker's" movie is past. It does seem a bit of its time to me, in the pre-Internet early 1980s when I first read it. But it's still a wonderfully funny book (originally a radio serial), as hapless Arthur Dent and alien Ford Prefect escape the demolition of Earth for wild adventures in a surreal, comic universe as they search for the big question - "what's it all about?"

First-time director Garth Jennings manages to do OK with the first 20 minutes or so of the flick — the Earth being destroyed is kind of hard to mess up too much — but as soon as the action moves into outer space, the whole affair takes on the moldy tones of a failed "Saturday Night Live" sci-fi parody, with mediocre effects and choppy editing. "Hitchhiker's" is rushed and sloppy - and it didn't have to be. Big chunks of the novel are chopped out and replaced with banal scenes (an entirely new character played by John Malkovich is added that serves little or no purpose).

Here's a good example of the movie's tone vs. the book, with one of my favorite little exchanges early on in the novel:
"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine month."
"Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything."
"But the plans were on display ..."
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the display department."
"With a torch."
"Ah, well the lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But look, you found the notice didn't you?"
"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard."

Here's the same sequence, more or less, in the movie:
"The plans were on display."
"They were in a cellar!"

Now, I know a movie's going to have considerable changes from its source, yadda yadda. I don't mind if it captures the spirit of the work, such as Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." But the "Hitchhiker's" movie only fitfully does. The gentle wit, rambling digressions and much of the "guide" itself are gone (they tell you a towel is important for interstellar hitchhikers, but they never even tell you why - the blasphemy!).

The plot wasn't the point with "Hitchhiker's", but the filmmakers don't seem to understand that. About halfway through it becomes a chase movie starring the Vogons vs. the heroes. And don't get me started on the ending, which utterly tears apart the book to graft on an unconvincing love story for Arthur and Trillian and manages to recreate the entire Earth as it was, people and all, with no lasting reprecussions.

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There are parts of the movie that work well -- the casting is mostly adequate. Martin Freeman from TV's "The Office" portrays Arthur Dent's nebbishy everyman well, and while Mos Def is an ethnically different Ford Prefect, he's solid. Alan Rickman's snide voice is perfect for the depressed Marvin the Robot. The highlight is Sam Rockwell doing a cowboy rock-star turn as Zaphod Beeblebrox. His character's two heads in the book are reworked for the screen in a rather silly and incomprehensible way, but basically the guy's still the same madman. Rockwell has got more energy than anyone else in the movie, while everyone else seems a tad subdued. None of the actors really embarrass themselves, though.

That responsibility goes to the eviscerated script and Jennings' "can you see how much money I'm spending" direction. Y'know, the old BBC television series of the 1980s had a special effects budget of about $22.50, but somehow seems more sincere and funny than this overblown muddle. I've been hard on "Hitchhiker's," I know, and I'll admit there are many worse movies out there than this. But compared to its beloved source, it's a pale, lifeless imitation.
** of four

Thursday, September 15, 2005

MOVIES: 'Crash'

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You see a young black guy walking down the sidewalk toward you. What do you do?

Writer/director Paul Haggis’ “Crash” asks this and many other tricky questions about who we are and how we see others. It’s a sprawling, melodramatic epic, full of people at their worst and, occasionally, at their best.

It’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

“Crash” follows the lives of several different people in Los Angeles over 36 hours. We meet in quick succession several people — a racist white cop, an affluent black TV producer and his wife, a grandstanding carjacker/philosopher, a humble Hispanic locksmith, a frustrated Arab store owner, the wealthy, isolated Los Angeles district attorney and his uptight wife — and we watch as everyone lives in their own little isolated racial and cultural bubbles, interacting mostly only in fear and distrust.

The “crashes” of the title are both literal and psychological, as almost every character is forced to confront hard truths about themselves. Only gradually do we learn how they all come together.

The cast of actors is enormous — Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, rapper Ludacris, Brendan Fraser, Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Ryan Phillipe and even Tony Danza. Many of the cast, including Dillon as an angry, racist cop and a startlingly raw Bullock, give what might just be the best performances of their careers.

“Crash” is an in-your-face, brutal movie that doesn’t pull punches. It’s not comfort food. The characters are all broad stereotypes, yet that’s the point. In “Crash,” Haggis is using these unsubtle characters to tell us something about how we treat each other. Haggis’ characters are intolerant, yet they’re also shown with sympathy.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and America’s ongoing racial divisions, it’s a true movie for our times. It has the weight and power of a modern fable.

Haggis was also the writer of one of 2004’s best films, “Million Dollar Baby.” As a director, he’s astonishingly confident, juggling his many characters and storylines with ease. Only occasionally does his foot slip and things get a bit hard to follow.

Is “Crash” manipulative? Absolutely, but in a way that never makes you feel cheated.

“Crash” sticks with you long after the final images fade from the screen. It’s meant to cause arguments, debate and thought. There are too few movies these days that can do that and also work as cracklingly good entertainment.
**** of four

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

LIFE: All hail the Flying Spaghetti Monster

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So of course you know about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, right? The noodly wonder that created life, the universe and everything? The Internet sensation that'll get you more than half a million hits if you pop it into Google?

Well, turns out the fellow behind that site, Bobby Henderson, is from right here in my hometown in Oregon, so I got to visit with him and do a profile of his pasta-fied religious movement for the paper. Read it over here and get converted.

And by the by, don't forget to check out my Swell Soundtrack Giveaway, which ends next Monday. Get in on the action!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

CONTEST: Super soundtrack CD giveaway!

For various reasons, loving wife and I have been clearing out a lot of the clutter lately. We have an unholy large amount of books, CDs, comics and so forth that seems to constantly multiply. So, lots of hardcore elimination going on lately - trips to the used book store (where I now have enough credit to buy the entire works of Stephen King twice), CD shop, eBaying, etc.

But anyway, I decided I'd share a little with faithful music-lovin' Spatula Forum readers, so here's a little contest. I must clear off the CD shelf, so here's your chance at one of 'em.

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For your pleasure - "Ennio Morricone: The Legendary Italian Westerns," packed with 31 tracks of classic budda budda bum-type music from Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and many other spaghetti westerns, eccentric film scoring at its groovy best. How to get this CD? Simple.

Ship me an e-mail telling me what your favorite use of music in a movie scene is, either instrumental or pop song, doesn't matter. I'll randomly pick one out to get this nifty Ennio Morricone CD. Stage Clint Eastwood-style man with no name showdowns in the comfort of your living room! And heck, I might even scrape up another surprise soundtrack or two for 2nd and 3rd prizes if there's enough entries, so the more entries, the more chance you'll win one.

Deadline is a mere week from today, Monday, Sept. 19; send your e-mail to nik dirga @ hotmail dot com (that should foil the spammers) or if you want just leave your entry in the comments, be sure to include your e-mail.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Saturday, September 10, 2005

MUSIC: Spoon - 'Gimme Fiction'

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I downloaded the single "Sister Jack" by the Austin, Texas band Spoon recently, and loved it - a snappy three minutes or so of pure pop bliss, complete with handclaps, singalong chorus, optimistic bounce and yet a hint of danger lurking behind rather inscrutable lyrics. So when I saw the album that birthed the single, "Gimme Fiction," I picked it up. And I'm now a big Spoon fan -- these guys are clever, catchy and confident tunesmiths, and for a fan of smart poppy rock like myself, "Gimme Fiction" is irresistible, retro and modern at the same time.

Spoon dances around sounds on "Gimme Fiction," including the Who pop joy of "Sister Jack," the funky, staccato Prince-circa-"Pop Life" rhythms of "I Turn My Camera On," the slinky Echo and the Bunnymen feel of "Monsieur Valentine," or the Wilco-esque wistfulness of "They Never Got You." It's eclectic as heck, but still has a cohesive unifying sound behind all the influences. I'm not a big "jam band" fan - I like most songs short and sweet. Yet Spoon manages to combine quirky pop sensibilities with a jam band's love for sheer music nicely. Several of the songs on 'Gimme Fiction' pulse along on propulsive sludgy rock jams that mostly don't wear out their welcome, turning pop tunes into epic melodies. They walk the line well; only toward the end of 'Gimme Fiction' do the noodling solos get a little tedious.

Frontman Britt Daniel has a great swaggering presence, authoritative and yet not too egotistical. The lyrics are my favorite kind -- dense and strange little impressionistic portraits of someone else's phobias and manias, open to endless interpretations. They remind me a bit of a darker version of The Shins. "Gimme Fiction" is a great CD, and a sure contender to make my list of 2005's favorites at year's end.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

MOVIES: Zombie-Rama, Part Three - Day of the Dead!

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What, did you think I forgot about the zombies? A while back I decided I'd check out George Romero's series of "Living Dead" movies from start to finish, recording my thoughts and impressions on 'em as a "zombie virgin." So I reviewed "Night of the Living Dead" here and its 1978 sequel "Dawn of the Dead" here a while back — and then I had to watch Disney cartoons for a while to feel clean and virtuous again. Anyway, I finally got around to resuming my quest, and that brings us to 1985's "Day of the Dead."

"Day" follows the template of the previous two movies — in a world overrun with flesh-eating zombies, a small group of people holes up somewhere and tries to survive. But it gives it an interesting twist, in that the survivors are composed of two warring groups, a desperate group of scientists and the jittery, paranoid soldiers charged with protecting them. The scientists and soldiers are staying in a claustrophobic underground bunker, where the scientists are working to find some kind of cure to the zombie menace. Outside, the dead await, while inside the military and the scientists are increasingly at odds. It's a gripping, suspenseful premise, but kind of jagged in the execution.

After a solid beginning sequence, the middle of "Day" starts to really sag, with barely any zombies and endless scenes of arguing among the humans. There's gaping holes in the plot — what exactly are the scientists trying to accomplish again? — and the militarymen are presented as one-dimensionally stupid and evil. And the movie, typical with Romero flicks, boasts a mix of adequate and just awful acting. The main characters here really never take off, with the bland Lori Cardille as the leading lady. Joseph Pilato, playing psycho zombie-hater Captain Rhodes, is so ridiculously over-the-top he's absurd, working himself up into frothing frenzies on screen. Pilato really resembles a beefier Jason Bateman from "Arrested Development," so I kept getting weirded out seeing Michael Bluth fighting zombies.

The zombies continue to evolve as protagonists - from the faceless monsters of "Night" to the ghouls reliving their old human activities in "Dawn," we come full circle in "Day" with scientists trying to retrain zombies to think. One borderline mad scientist is conducting all kinds of gruesome experiments on captured zombies, and has even managed to partially "tame" one zombie, "Bub." The scenes involving Bub are surprisingly effective, taking something that might've been silly and wringing actual emotion out of it. "Day" makes you feel some sympathy for the zombies; or at least, Romero seems to say, we're all equally awful. I imagine hard-core horror fans might've turned up their noses at the scenes involving "Bub," but I thought these were some of the most effective in the movie. Besides, who wouldn't love a zombie that can shoot a gun. He'll eat your brains, THEN he'll shoot you!

"Day" boasts the goriest, bloodiest conclusion of the three dead films to date, when the sadistic military men get exactly what's coming to them as the zombies break into the base. The mood of mounting disaster really pays off. Whew -- some of these scenes are not for the sensitive, even if it's just latex and pig intestines being yanked around the screen. Eww. The final 30 minutes or so of "Day" are full-throttle gore and retribution, which makes up a lot for the slower bits.

Romero apparently had big budget battles over the flick and it didn't turn out like he wanted it to, but while it's hardly a multimillion-dollar blockbuster, "Day" still looks better, more professional than either of its predecessors, with solid cinematography and great zombie makeup. "Day" is often called the least of the "Dead" movies, although I'm not quite sure where I'd rank it. I really enjoyed "Night" mostly as curiosity, as the beyond-cheap production kind of distanced me from it. "Dawn" is probably the best movie, more "epic" in scope and with the best character development of any of the movies. "Day," however, probably delivers more for the gorehounds and takes the entire idea of a world of living dead in interesting, unexpected directions. It's flawed, but it's not a huge letdown at all. It's a bleak, cynical movie, somehow even more so than the first two zombie flicks.

I'll come back with the conclusion of "Zombierama" and a look at the fourth and final (so far) "Dead" flick, last summer's "Land of the Dead," sometime next month. Until then, stay alive!

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

I'm a po' journalist but I'm tossing some bucks in and skipping buying a CD or something equally non-essential this week. Do the same if you can, this Labor Day.

Donate to the Red Cross

Sunday, September 4, 2005

BOOKS: What I Read, August

Yeah, Labor Weekend. Meaning I get to work both today and on Monday, hurray! Although to be fair I get to make up for it with time off later. So it goes... Anyway, to break up your holiday weekend, let's do Chapter 8 of "Books I read," my brave attempt to chronicle an entire year's reading in this here blog. To recap, I read 10 books in August - a year-to-date high! - bringing the year's total* to 59. Here's August:

“Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim” by David Sedaris. (Re-read) Lots of fun, and great breezy vacation reading by one of my favorite humorists.

"California's Over" by Louis B. Jones. Picked up this novel on a whim while back visiting in California; I liked the title. Turned out to be an excellent read, a sprawling bittersweet tale set in the '70s and '90s about post-hippie youth losing their idealism. Jones has a stylish, lush writing voice that echoes the longing, lost nature of his characters.

“Heroes and Monsters" and "A Blazing World” by Jess Nevins, "The Unofficial Companion To The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" comics by Alan Moore. It's hard to imagine most comics meriting a couple of hundred pages' worth of annotations, but Moore's "League" comics, steeped in Victorian fantasy esoterica, sure do. (Please, put any and all thought of the godawful "League" movie abortion from your mind, it has nothing to do with this.) I've always had an affinity for the Victorian speculative literature and Nevins takes you on a fascinating, digression-filled tour through the world recreated in Moore and Kevin O'Neill's two "League" series to date. The ultimate in comics geekdom, perhaps, but also incredibly rich with literary lore.

“Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” by Stephen Greenblatt has a tough task — writing a biography of a man dead 500 years, who although legendary little concrete is known about his life. It's immensely speculative about Shakespeare's life, tracing the few clues about who he was and making guesses galore. What makes it work is Greenblatt's extraordinary knowledge of the era, his readable style and the sense he's not just making it up as he goes. As a guide to both Elizabethan-era life and a thoughtful look at how Shakespeare became a legend, it's worth a read, and it definitely increased my appreciation for the Bard. But if your patience is tested by speculation, look elsewhere. If you can accept that the full truth of Shakespeare's life will never be known, it's very satisfying.

“Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain is a book I've been meaning to read, one star chef's gossipy, unrestrained tour of his world. Rawer and more titilating than I expected! I will never order seafood on a Monday again. Bourdain's got attitude to spare, but he's also quite open about his own shortcomings. Kind of like Julia Child crossed with Hunter S. Thompson.

“Living Among Headstones: Life in A Country Cemetery” by Shannon Applegate. This local author lives just 20 miles or so up the road from me, in a flyspeck town named Yoncalla, where she's the cemetery sexton and descended from a prominent pioneer family. In this quite well-written, informative tome, she meditates both on her own experience caring for an aging graveyard and on death and dying in general in our culture. It's quite a good book, one I'd read even if I hadn't been sent a review copy for work, with a nice contemplative tone I enjoyed. It's marred a bit by a few too many really poor proofreading errors that caught my editor's eye, which is a shame because it's put out by a fancy fairly major publisher and all. Otherwise, solid and thought-provoking.

"The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester (re-read). In the ongoing quest to thin out books from the herd, re-read this ode to word lovers before passing it on to the book store; still a fine read, combining mystery and murder with a detailed history of the Oxford English Dictionary and how it came to be.

"Kafka On The Shore" by Haruki Murakami is this Japanese writer's latest; and I'll review it soon for a separate post I'm working on about his amazing work.

"The girl in the flammable skirt : stories" by Aimee Bender. Still reading this, but most of the way through. I've heard Bender's name and decided to check her out. She does highly surreal, strange, regret-soaked short stories that are based on the most oddball of premises – a woman gives birth to her own mother, a man pretends to be a hunchback to win love, a mermaid and imp fall in love — but she grounds them in true feeling. Still, I kind of felt like a little bit of whimsy goes a long way, and some of these stories tilted too much toward cutesy or ambiguous for my tastes. Still, a very original voice.

*[The year to date posts: January, February, March, April, May , June and July ]

Saturday, September 3, 2005

LIFE: It's a gas gas gas

So, how about those gas prices? Seems like all many people are talking about in the non-flooded parts of the nation -- forget the dead, the homeless, why am I having to pay $3 a gallon for gasoline? Heard a lengthy rant behind me in line at the bagel shop this morning along the lines of that there's plenty of gas if we just tore up Alaska to get it, or invaded Saudi Arabia. I hardly like paying more for gasoline, yet at the same time, I find vaguely repulsive this attitude of all-American entitlement I sense from many of the gasoline complainers, as if the right to cheap gas was somehow inherent in the Constitution.

Yeah, $5+ a gallon as seen at some stations in the South is pretty insane. Yet in many countries, that price range is the norm. In most of Europe, gas runs anywhere from the equivalent of $6 to $8 a gallon these days. So why do Americans, who consume most of the world's resources, think they're somehow exempt?

Conservation is a word we don't see much when it comes to high gas prices. It's all about what can Washington do, how corrupt my gas station owner is, the oil companies suck, et cetera. Yet walking, driving less, and not taking the car on that half-mile jaunt to the grocery store are ideas few seem to take seriously. Many communities barely even have sidewalks anymore, just mile after mile of stripmalls geared to make you drive and spend and drive some more.

I'm unseemly smug about it partly because I don't drive that much, I think, compared to many. We chose to move into a house that was within walking distance from my job, so most days I walk the 1/2 mile or so. Wife Avril walks everywhere, putting me to shame. The days I don't walk to work, I feel vaguely silly driving that short a distance. I fill up my tank maybe twice a month. I drive a Subaru Forester that's pretty efficient.

But what do you do if you do have to live 50 miles from your job and commute? I can't really tell that guy to stop driving to work every day. I've got no easy answers. Perhaps it's time for everyone to start thinking differently, rather than expecting life to always continue the way it has, and everything to be easy, privileged and cheap. I'm as guilty as anyone of loving comfort and ease.

But you know, I feel a lot sorrier for the folks wading in filth and desperation in New Orleans than I do for the guy at the bagel shop bitching about paying $3 a gallon while he orders his triple mocha latte. It's funny to think which crisis is arousing more concern in the American psyche - the human one, or the financial one.

Friday, September 2, 2005

MUSIC: Goin' down South - R.L. Burnside, 1926-2005

As if there weren't enough rotten news from the South, just came across this: blues singer R.L. Burnside died today at age 78 in a Memphis hospital. The Fat Possum Records Web site in my old hometown of Oxford, Mississippi confirms it, and here's the obituary in Billboard.

Damn. Knew it was coming, of course - he was old and run-down when I first saw him, sometime in the early 1990s, doing his stripped-down gutbucket mournful Delta Blues in a bar in Oxford.

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Photo by David Raccuglia

It took me a while to appreciate this cat, with a voice that echoed like a dirty empty grave and a pounding, propulsive style that was guitar, blood and sweat all the way. This was no beer commercial Chicago-style blues -- the Mississippi Delta blues practiced by Burnside and some of his predecessors like Robert Johnson, Junior Kimbrough and Son House was grimy, caked in heat and long days. Burnside was just about the last of that generation.

I saw him play many times in Oxford -- he lived just up the road in Holly Springs, and sometime in the mid-1990s he became cool again. He was just kind of buried away in the woods, forgotten, but was rediscovered -- collaborated with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, hooked up with Fat Possum records, got featured on soundtracks and even put out a CD with rap-styled remixes that oddly didn't suck. I was glad for the old man, that he got his 15 minutes while he was still around to enjoy it a bit.

But before that mini-renaissance, it was sad sometimes to see this guy from another world playing to an audience of drunk, inattentive frat boys and sorority girls who had no idea what they were watching. He was like a dinosaur, still walking around, something scraped from the past still doing his thing in the modern day; I found I only really started to appreciate him fully myself as I started to think about leaving Mississippi. His record "A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey," rhythmic, pounding and raw, played in my stereo constantly in the summer of 1997. Songs so ramshackle that they threatened to collapse, lewd lyrics and as far from polite as you can get. He was one of a kind, rude, crude and original, and they don't make that kind anymore.

Goin' down South, I'm going down South
The chilly wind don't blow

I'm going with you, babe, I'm going with you babe
I'm going with you, babe, I'm going with you babe
I don't care where you go

COMICS: Quick Comics Reviews!

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Lethargic Lad Jumbo-Sized Annual #3
I've been a fan of Greg Hyland's goofily fun "Lethargic Lad" since it was a self-published minicomic back in the early '90s, and always get a bunch of laffs whenever he puts out a new comic these days. "Lethargic Lad" (whose power is overwhelming lethargy, standing around and saying "um") and a whole slew of wacky supporting characters, including Teen Lethargic Lad, Pelican Boy, Monkeyhead, the Zit, Bag Head Guy, and many more, bop around in funky parodies of comics and pop culture. Everything from the 'Daredevil' movie to Harry Potter to Paris Hilton gets poked - Hyland's frenzied characters doing a nice job of mocking the way today's hot topic is tomorrow's "whatever happened to..." Hyland has done indie comics series, but the last few years his main forum has been free strips over on This annual collects the funnies from the past 18 months or so and a bunch of other bonuses. Unlike most of today's overpriced comics, it's a pretty good deal, packed full of 48 pages of fun for $4. Hyland's deeply referenced comics almost require annotations sometimes to get all the jokes, but if you're schooled in geeklore, they're pretty darned funny stuff. Grade: A-

Action Comics #830
I haven't really regularly read the "Superman" comics in years, but the creative team on this book drew me in to check out a few issues - up-and-coming writer Gail Simone, and classic 1980s Superman artist John Byrne. It's good old-fashioned fun Superman comics, reminding me a lot of Byrne's stellar run back in the day, when he could actually write compellingly. This issue basically serves as a spotlight for the twisted villainy of Doctor Psycho, who's come to Metropolis to take Superman down in the most degrading ways possible. Simone does a great job making Psycho a sick little troll, and the story ties neatly into the very entertaining 'Villains United' miniseries, also by Simone. The final pages promise a big throwdown between Supes and "Shazam" enemy Black Adam next issue, so I'll be back to check that out. Solid fun, although I'm not quite hooked enough to read the Superman books regularly, really. Grade: B

Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #1
The teen Spider-Man gets a new girlfriend after breaking up with Mary Jane — and it's a pairing that actually makes a lot of sense, the X-Men's young Kitty Pryde. In the "real" Marvel Universe, the two characters have a big age difference that would make such a pairing a bit icky and illegal, but in the "Ultimate" universe, they're both too-smart outcast young teenagers, and Brian Bendis tells a funny and sweet-natured tale of their courtship in this annual. The ongoing 'Ultimate Spider-Man' series has been of varying quality lately, but this special really captures the series at its best, with Peter Parker's loneliness and dogged optimism. There's not a lot of "action" in this isssue, but it really does a nice job telling us why a teen superhero might find his best companion in a superheroine. The art by Mark Brooks isn't quite as appealing as Mark Bagley's on the regular series - a little too angular and manga-esque for me – but it's still a great, self-contained story that holds some fine story potential for future issues of Ultimate Spider-Man. Looking forward to seeing where this relationship goes. Grade: A
Because I haven't done one of these in a while, and I stole it from Beaucoup Kevin... And because I am a PUNK!!!!!

You're a True Punk. You know that punk isn't all
about studded jackets and mohawks. If you're
political, you're actually informed. Most of
the stuff you love is from before the 80s,
though you know bands like Fugazi kept the
spirit going.

You Know Yer Indie. Let's Sub-Categorize.
brought to you by Quizilla

I knew the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed CD box sets would one day come in handy proving my true music snobbery...

Thursday, September 1, 2005

LIFE: Hurricane Katrina

After looking through an Internet slideshow of dozens of news photos from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, I feel a little like I got slapped by a hurricane myself. The sheer scale of the devastation and wreckage is astonishing, and only getting more so as the hours elapse since Katrina walloped the Big Easy.

I've been to New Orleans twice, back when I lived in Mississippi, and in the Biloxi area several times. Beautiful countryside and N'awlins is one of the more visually impressive cities I've been, one I've often wanted to return to. Hope some day I'll get the chance.

Hard to come up with anything sensible to say other than my thoughts are with all the victims of this thing. I'm hoping some of my old Ole Miss friends that have relatives down there - Jean, Kevin, Rebecca, Melanie, anyone else I'm forgetting - are doing OK. It's a whole lot worse than it first appeared Monday, when we almost went with a front-page headline along the lines of "New Orleans gets lucky." Not so much, it appears.

MOVIES: The rage of 'Oldboy'

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He doesn’t know what he did. But one day, Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik) is grabbed from off the street and thrown into a mysterious prison, where he is locked up, unable to go outside, slowly going insane.

He is there for the next 15 years. When he is freed, one thing is on his mind — revenge. What he finds will astonish, change and possibly destroy him.

“Oldboy,” a South Korean movie, combines Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense with immensely brutal violence and psychological conflict. It’s often hard to watch due to its staggering intensity, but in the end it’s a harsh film you can’t quite get out of your head.

If you can handle the gore and malice, “Oldboy” sucks you in with its powerful tale of revenge and hatred spanning decades. Oh Dae-su has no idea why he’s been locked away, but gradually it becomes apparent there’s an evil mastermind behind the plot. Why and how the plan unspools requires paying really close attention to the plot, but the ending is devastating and tremendously effective.

Choi’s amazing performance as Oh Dae-su is something to watch. After 15 years away from the sun, he’s pale, with haunted eyes and a madman’s hair, the endless days of rage and frustration in his every movement. Choi’s tremendous acting makes watching his character’s abuse that much tougher.

Director Chan-wook Park has a dazzling visual style, using swiftly moving camera angles, lighting and colors to portray Oh Dae-su’s turmoil. The violence is portrayed in a brutal, ultra-realistic fashion — one amazing fight scene dances up and down a dingy hallway, as Oh Dae-su battles off an entire group of thugs armed with nothing more than a claw hammer. You feel every blow.

Still, in the end you wonder if the picture is nothing but style — does all the cruelty and horror really mean anything? As an admirer of pure cinematic visuals and storytelling, I appreciate “Oldboy,” but from an ethical and moral perspective, it leaves you feeling as battered as Oh Dae-su. It's unrelenting.

“Oldboy” is the very definition of a cult film that will only appeal to a select audience. With the violence, the subtitles and twisting plot, it’s a movie you must work to fully experience. But as unpleasant as it sometimes is, “Oldboy” is still a powerful statement.
*** of four