Tuesday, January 31, 2006

MOVIES: 'Brokeback Mountain'

Image hosting by PhotobucketSo Avril and I finally got around to seeing 'Brokeback Mountain' last night, sticking Peter with the sitter for a few hours... It's one of those rare movies that lives up to the hype, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it win Best Picture. I was surprised at just how many gray heads I saw in the theater last night in our small, pretty conservative town; clearly this movie isn't just appealing to one demographic. It's a great, heartbreaking romance, with a measured, tranquil pace and some great performances, particularly by Heath Ledger, who I never would've expected this from. Director Ang Lee definitely makes up for the abomination that was "Hulk" and has won back my favor.

One of the things I found so interesting about Lee's direction is that the landscape is almost a third main character. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is utterly gorgeous, with wide-open skies, shattered mountains and endless fields all sort of acting as a silent chorus to Jack and Ennis' dilemma. The role of landscape and surroundings in a film is something you rarely notice actively, but it plays a huge part in how successful the filmmakers are at crafting a believable world. "Brokeback Mountain" takes the raw West and rough-and-tumble cowboy lifestyle and twists it a bit, in a way that isn't quite so much subversive as it is insightful. I'm admittedly a flaming liberal type, but "Brokeback" still seems to me the kind of movie only a hardcore homophobe will dislike. It's ultimately a doomed love story, as tragic in its own way as "Romeo and Juliet."

...As I've been writing this post on this cloudy Monday off work, I went to the kitchen to make coffee. And now Toddler Peter is running around the house bleating, "Drink coff-ee? Drink coff-ee?" So it begins...

Saturday, January 28, 2006

COMICS: Quick Comics Reviews!

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Nextwave #1

"Healing America by beating people up." That's what Nextwave #1 promises on its cover. Now that's my Warren Ellis! This is good fun high-octane superhero comix by Ellis, who takes assorted C-list Marvel heroes (the black female Captain Marvel, Machine Man, Boom-Boom) and tosses them together to fight a giant dragon this issue. Nextwave embraces the fundamental silliness of the medium, but in a non-contemptous way. It's a lot like Ellis's "Authority" work done with a lighter touch so far. It's good to see Ellis moving away from the standard dark, chain smoking loner against the system archetype he's been a little too reliant on lately (see: "Fell," "Desolation Jones," "Ocean," "Jack Cross"...). It's also helped by the highly colorful, animated art by Stuart Immonen and lots of wonderful one-liners, amusing narrative captions and a fine sense of walking the line between parody and action. This issue is mostly set-up and promise of impending battle, but it gets the job done. It's not quite revolutionary, and still a bit soon to judge the series, but a solid grade A-.

Local #3

Continuing one of my favorite new series and even better than the first two issues. Another self-contained story (with a slight link to the first two), it's the tale of a band, Theories and Defenses, after it's broken up and returned home to Richmond, Va., after years of traveling and touring. Each of the band's four members look at picking up the pieces of their lives. Writer Brian Wood weaves all four stories around an interview the band's acerbic frontman is giving to a music magazine, and it's a real masterpiece of pacing, storytelling and setting. Each character is drawn with fine details in a tiny amount of space -- the weary, witty frontman, the sleazy drummer, the quiet professional. You get a feel for the nomadic life of a musician and how easy it is to get lost in it. Loving details by artist Ryan Kelly such as album cover art and a vivid imagined history for Theories and Defenses make this issue feel real and lived-in. Local #3 is just a great, compact and evocative little comic book, and one I'll pass on to people who think comics are all capes and spandex to show them otherwise. Local blog. Grade: A+

The All-New Official Handbook Of
The Marvel Universe A-Z #1

OK, first off, "A-Z" it ain't. I'm a geek for these fake encyclopedic looks at comic-book characters, where they combine art and prose to tell the history of four-color fellows from Hulk to Wolverine to Aunt May. Marvel's been putting out some nifty if pricey one-shots the last few years devoted to certain characters and cast like the Spider-Man books, X-Men, etc. Now they're making a companion for those with this A-to-Z 12-part series fitting in everyone else that wasn't included so far. While that's a nice idea, I was a little annoyed at the scattershot way they've categorized this whole project. This issue goes from Abraxas to Bastion and manages to include tons of totally obscure characters I've never even heard of. (I'm a geek, but who the hell are Akhenaten, Americop and Atleza?) It's trivia-packed and painstakingly detailed, yet there's something off about how they arrange these books so you have to hunt through a few dozen random issues to find, say, Ant-Man, who's in the "Avengers" book, not this one. This particular issue is so random in its inclusions (the only really well-known character in here is the D-list heroine, Alpha Flight's Aurora, to tell you something) that it all just leaves me a bit cold. By its very nature, it's a navel-gazing narrow-appeal project, but it could've been done better. It's aimed at getting you to spend more money picking up the many separate handbooks Marvel's published in the last few years, and that dilutes my appreciation despite the Handbook's overall fanboy inclusiveness and high quality. Grade: B-

Friday, January 27, 2006

BOOKS: Stephen King dials up 'Cell'

Image hosting by PhotobucketI don't much care for cell phones. Got rid of my own last year when I realized I hardly ever used it.

Stephen King doesn't much seem to like them either. They're the trigger that leads to worldwide apocalypse in his taut, invigorating new novel, "Cell." It's the best non-"Dark Tower" novel the man's written in several years, satisfyingly gory and frightening, with a magnificent hook.

"Cell" launches like a rocket and doesn't let up the white-knuckle tension for several chapters. It all starts one bright autumn day in Boston as aspiring comic book artist Clay Riddell stops in a park to enjoy an ice cream cone. Suddenly, half the people around him go insane. The cause appears to be an unheard pulse that affects anybody who uses a cell phone — the majority of Americans, in other words. The Pulse erases their minds, turning them into savage, zombie-like beasts. It's nothing less than the end of the world.

Clay and a small band of survivors meet up and together try to make their way in this awful new reality. But those affected by the Pulse aren't staying animalistic killers — they're evolving, into something terrible and new. "Cell" is fast-moving, relatively compact (it doesn't suffer from the excessive bloat that's marred some of King's novels), and in the end, it's a vision haunting enough to stick with you.

Stephen King is like a good cheeseburger for me – not the fanciest thing on the menu, but gosh darn it, he fills you up. The man can tell a story, and I've enjoyed many of his 30-something novels. After a certain point, a writer repeats himself a bit, and "Cell" does bear some resemblance to one of King's best, the equally apocalyptic "The Stand." It lacks that novel's enormous scope and cast, but "Cell" is his strongest since 1999's "Hearts of Atlantis."

King nicely taps into a primal fear about technology, that all our gadgets and geegaws might one day overwhelm us. "They saw we had built the Tower of Babel all over again … and on nothing but electronic cobwebs," one character realizes. "Cell" is particularly tapped into the zeitgeist in the age of iPods and Blackberrys. We get used to technology so fast, that we never consider there might be a dark side.

Whatever caused the Pulse is ultimately uncontrollable, and in his homespun way, King makes us consider what a man is at his core with the terror of "Cell." Are we just another machine? King puts a nice spin on the zombie/world's end mythos (the novel is dedicated to "Night of the Living Dead" creator George A. Romero and "I Am Legend" author Richard Matheson). The evolution of the "phone crazies" is compelling and works within the story's logic.

"Cell" does suffer with its characters, who don't quite come off as indelible creations. There's spunky girl, plucky homily-spouting old man, computer-savvy kid, and so forth, conventions not quite individual enough to be unforgettable. Only the main protagonist Clay gets more than a few dimensions. The plot pushes the story more than the characters do here; they tend to just come off as gears in the machinery. When the story moves as propulsively as it does in "Cell," though, that's a failing I barely noticed. It's King quite close to the top of his game.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

LIFE: The Great Migration Q&A

To follow up a little more on my recent announcement that we're moving to New Zealand later this year, I arranged with myself to sit down with an interview with myself on some frequently-asked questions. I was a good interview although a little evasive and had poor table manners.

Q. Why are you doing this?

A. Reason #1, for Baby Peter, who'll be able to start attending preschool there at age 3 in 2007. We want him to be closer to his grandparents, auntie and cousins, including one who's just a few months older than him. And, y'know, it's New Zealand. I've wanted to live in a foreign country since I was a kid, and Avril's had to put up with the U.S. for 8 years, so turnabout is fair play.

Q. What will you do for work?

A. Um... Well, the way I look at it, first we have to actually move there, and then due to various residency issues I probably won't work for the first few months while Avril might. I'd like to stay in the media industry somehow, but kind of feel like I'm ready to move on from newspapers into perhaps magazines or publishing. Or perhaps my vast mad blogging skillz will earn me a paycheck (ah, the dream). Anyway, one thing at a time, and I'm not too concerned about whether I can find a job or not. I'm plucky, darn it.

Q. How long will you live there?

A. Answer uncertain. Anywhere from 2 years to 10 years, but it really depends on how it all works out. We're leaving things open-ended for now. I kind of imagine we'll be back in America someday. Maybe if I write the Great American/Kiwi Novel we can buy homes in both places and commute.

Q. Are you pulling an Alec Baldwin? Why do you hate America?

A. Although the political climate in the U.S. ain't exactly blowing my way these days, it's very, very low on the list for reasons for actually moving. Everything's cyclical in history, and the repressive excesses of the Bush era will likely turn around into something else in another 5-10 years. The good things about America don't get changed by politics that easy. Besides, I didn't vote for the jerk either time, so there.

Q. Will you get a funny accent?

A. Apparently I will instantly acquire a funny accent upon moving to New Zealand, although it will only be apparent to the natives.

Q. Can we come?

A. You'll find it difficult unless you married a Kiwi like I did. And no, I'm not sharing her.

Q. Is New Zealand the promised land?

A. It's easy to get that impression but the grass is always greener, etc. I fully expect to encounter the same hassles, irritations and complications that are part of one's life wherever you are. The problems you got, you'll bring with you no matter where you go I think. At the same time, it'll be nice living in a country where you're never more than 70 miles or so from the ocean. It's actually a bit like Oregon already, really.

Q. What are you doing with all your stuff?

A. Well, we're not going to take it all with us (a shipping container runs into the many thousands of dollars). We're cramming as much as we can into our six allowed suitcases next month and the same when we leave for good, and we also plan on shipping a handful of boxes via surface mail. The majority of our books, comics, music, etc. that we keep will go into cold storage here in the states to be dealt with "eventually" on return visits and the like. As for furniture and bigger objects, we've always been pretty minimal about that kind of thing and will probably yard-sale most of it. We'll sell the car and are giving our cat Kudzu to my parents which when I think about it is probably going to be the hardest part to leave behind, but it's just way too much money and hassle to take an 11-year-old cat to NZ.

Q. Will you blog?

A. Probably, although there'll be some hiatus I imagine and I might change the name of the blog to "Expatriate Forum" or somesuch. Or I might disappear into the bush with the tuatara and weta and never be heard from again.

Q. Do you like Vegemite?

A. I said, do you speak-a my language?
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

MUSIC: Cash and Cheese

Here's a look at a couple fine new CDs I've recently acquired (from a man named "Vito" in a black limo in the alley behind the pizza joint, but I digress).

Image hosting by PhotobucketRosanne Cash, "Black Cadillac"
Rosanne Cash has been a critical favorite for years, crafting literate country-flavored rock along the lines of Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams. Her latest, "Black Cadillac," is both a eulogy and a moving ode to things lost. It's universal in scope yet very personal in feeling.

In the space of just a few years between 2003 and 2005, Rosanne lost three parents — her father, singing legend Johnny Cash, her stepmother, June Carter Cash, and her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash, Johnny Cash's first wife.

Sure, she's paying her respects to Cash's musical legacy, but part of Rosanne Cash's own appeal has always been her dogged insistence on going her own way. She carved out her career separate from her father's years ago.
But how do you deal with private grief in the public eye? You pick up your notebook and guitar and sing about it.

"Black Cadillac" is a searching quest, for meaning and the small epiphanies that follow death. What happens next? Does love die when the loved one does? Cash's quest here is deeply personal, full of tiny observed details that flesh out her songs and make them true stories, rather than just treacly bombast. "Black Cadillac" doesn't offer firm answers about life and death — how could it? — but it offers melodic food for thought.

These are beautiful, heartfelt songs about loss that will only fail to move the stone-hearted. "I Was Watching You," as Cash pictures her young parents meeting for the first time, has the sweet tang of ever-optimistic first love. "The World Unseen" nicks a line from the hymn "We Three Kings" to craft an affirming ballad about the search for faith, while "God Is In The Roses," with its chorus — "God is in the roses / and the thorns" – aptly captures the bittersweet, wise feeling of "Black Cadillac."

Despite the serious tone, the music, with hints of folk, soft rock and juke joint-stomp, isn't dour — Cash rocks in the anthemic "Like Fugitives," and the bouncy "World Without Sound" turns from a witty lark into a haunting ballad and back again at the drop of a hat. The title tune even includes a trumpet deep in the mix that evokes Cash's father's classic "Ring of Fire."

It's sometimes a melancholy tonic, but it goes down warmly, unforced, without manufactured sentiment. Rosanne Cash is simply telling us stories, about how she feels and the things she's seen. With "Black Cadillac," she's made a rich, layered CD that honors the memory of her family yet continues down her own unique path.

Image hosting by PhotobucketRichard Cheese, "Sunny Side of the Moon: The Best Of"
Lounge music and rock 'n' roll. Dare I say, it's a match made in heaven.

The bastard child of Bill Murray's "Starrrrr Waaaaarrrs!" singer from "Saturday Night Live," Richard Cheese and his band Lounge Against The Machine take on the heavyweights of alt-rock, from Slipknot to the Beastie Boys to Snoop Dogg, running them through a purifying rinse of sheer lounge-lizard smarm and charm.

"Sunny Side" culls the best of Cheese's first three CDs with a selection of new and reworked tunes. It's a great primer to one of the more oddball talents in music, out there on the fringes of parody with Dread Zeppelin and the godfather of the genre, "Weird Al" Yankovic.

You can't beat his gloriously offensive cover of Nirvana's "Rape Me," which starts off with a sleazy, "This one's for the ladies!" and ends with a conga-line chorus of "Rape-rape-rape-rape-rape-me!" That right there will give you a clue if you're in tune with the Cheese-meister. Other highlights on this collection are Cheese's classic take on Nine Inch Nails' industrial anthem "Closer" (complete with chorus of "I want to f__k you like an animal"), and a cover of Radiohead's "Creep" that manages to be the opposite of everything Radiohead's ever stood for.

It's all a fine line between wit and worn-out, and the Cheese joke — uncool lounge versions of raunchy, often profane modern tunes — could easily get old fast. Yet what makes this Cheese fresh is how hard they work. He sings the hell out of these goofy songs, and his band gives them the lounge treatment with smooth-flowing skill.

"Best Of" offers a solid collection of Cheese, even if it's not all-inclusive. The CD is short enough that a few more tracks could've been packed on (I'm partial myself to his covers of Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" and Green Day's "American Idiot"). Sure, Cheese is a novelty act, but he's a darned groovy one. It's lounge livin' large, and guaranteed to be the hit of your next party. Or as Cheese himself would say, "Par-tay!"

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

LIFE: Still Here

...OK, I'm back. Hope most of you had a more fun weekend than I did. I won't get into the messy details of it all, but basically spent the last four days lying in bed which isn't half as fun as it sounds. My semi-surgery required me to wear a catheter for a few days, which is now easily in my Top 10 Experiences of My Life That I Did Not Like. And I've interviewed a Republican congressman and saw Stephen King's Sleepwalkers in the theater. I did get to catch up on reading (seven books in four days!) and really closely analyze the dinosaur wallpaper in our bedroom (long story). Faithful wife catered to my every need and Toddler Peter poking his head into the bedroom every once in a while to say solemnly, "Daddy hurt." Anyway. Am at perhaps 75% of normal strength and heading back to work tomorrow. Regular irregular posting to resume concurrently.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

LIFE: Ides of the 18th

Image hosted by Photobucket.comHey, it's January 18! That means it's exactly one month until someone turns 2 years old!

And it also means it's one month until we leave for New Zealand for 2 weeks on a scouting trip prior to our big move next fall!

And it also means tomorrow is my darling wife's birthday!

And for no particular reason, go read My Band Name For Today. I come up with great band names all the time, too. (In case you're wondering, my band will either be called Skeptic Epileptic or Pumpkin Prostitute.) Now I just learn to play an instrument.

Unfortunately, despite it being Avril's birthday tomorrow I have to go in for some minor but unpleasant surgical type stuff. ...So no more posts for me rest of the week, I hope to return next week intact and erudite. Cheers!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ashcroft and the Bush administration's totalitarian attempts to overturn Oregon's assisted suicide law, the only one of its kind in the nation, gets slapped down by the Supreme Court in a 6-3 vote. If you want to see me get opinionated, read my editorial applauding the decision here. The issue of assisted suicide is a grim one, but it's one I'm quite passionately for. I simply don't think it's anything the government should step in and tell a horribly ill cancer-ridden patient they can't choose their own fate. Funny how the Bush-ites claim to be for "state's rights" and keeping the government "off your backs," but only when it comes to issues that dovetail with their own philosophy...

MOVIES: 2006 Movie Preview

Forget "King Kong" and "Brokeback Mountain." That's all so 2005. What's coming up in 2006 at your local movie theater? Here's an alphabetical look at the dozen movies I'm most interested in announced for 2006 so far:

Art School Confidential. It's another movie combining the talents of one of the great comic artists of our time, Daniel Clowes, and director Terry Swigoff. Their last movie, "Ghost World," was fantastic, and this one takes on the scary world of art school, loosely adapting one of Dan's strips. April 28

Image hosted by Photobucket.comClerks 2: Passion of the Clerks. Catch up with Dante and Randall ten years on, still mired in dead-end jobs. This is either a really great idea or a really bad one. Will it catch the unique vibe of 1994's "Clerks"? It's in color, for one thing... Either way, it's got to be better than Kevin Smith's very so-so "Jersey Girl." August.

The Da Vinci Code. The gazillion-selling novel isn't the best thing I ever read, but it is a catchy page-turner. With Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen and many more on board, it should make for a decent thrill ride of a movie -- heck, half the time the book felt like a screenplay, anyway. May 19.

For Your Consideration. Writer-director Christopher Guest, co-writer Eugene Levy and the rest of their wacky ensemble turn their satiric attention to Hollywood's award season. Another film from the minds behind "A Mighty Wind" and "Waiting for Guffman"? I'm there. Sept. 22

The Fountain.
Hugh Jackman plays a time traveler who struggles for 1,000 years as a Spanish conquistador, a scientist and an astronaut to save the woman he loves. Directed by Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream"), it has a very promising mind-bending story. Opening TBA.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comMarie Antoinette. Sofia Coppola follows up "Lost in Translation" with something completely different — a take on the legendary Antoinette, played by Kirsten Dunst, in historic France. A really mesmerizing trailer with a fascinating choice of music has me quite looking forward to this. Oct. 13.

Mission: Impossible III. Yeah, yeah, everyone's sick of Tom Cruise, and the first two M:I movies were brain-dead, disposable but still solid high-octane entertainment. Extra points for casting the great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain. Worth seeing if it's more like Part 2 and less like Part 1. May 5

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack is back. The first was surprising fun. The sequel could either be another blast or a bloated over-hyped mess. But Depp is back, so I'm hoping for the former. July 7

Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny. The origins of Jack Black and Kyle Gass' frenetic rockin' duo are finally revealed. If you don't want to see this, you do not rock. September.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comSuperman Returns. This year's "Hulk" or this year's "Spider-Man"? I really don't know what to expect from this production. I've read some interesting press on it, and worry about the potential for letdown. But director Bryan Singer helmed the first two "X-Men" movies, so I'll be at the head of the line to see what he's done with the Man of Steel. June 30

X-Men 3. Despite losing director Singer to "Superman," the first trailer for this is quite entertaining, and the first two movies were excellent. Plus, "Frasier's" Kelsey Grammer is blue as the Beast. Cautious because director Brett Ratner doesn't come with a great reputation, but big fan of the series, so I'll give it a shot. May 26

V For Vendetta. Yeah, Alan Moore has a terrible track record with movie adaptations of his graphic novels ("League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "From Hell"), and it does sound like this movie about a totalitarian future terrorist has taken some liberties. But it's starting to build some interesting buzz, and Natalie Portman is great whenever she's not in a George Lucas movie. March 16.

Least looking forward to: At least two big-budget 9/11 themed movies are planned for next year, "Flight 93" by Paul Greengrass and Oliver Stone's as-yet-untitled World Trade Center movie with Nicolas Cage. I have to admit I have zero interest in seeing what happened that day reenacted by actors on the big screen. I only wonder that anybody could. The events of that day inevitably will lead to great art (I personally loved Jonathan Safran Foer's novel "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"), but Hollywood all too often cheapens reality. I suspect these movies will be seen as too much, too soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

LIFE: In memory of Dan Phillips

Working on a fairly slow Saturday night here and doing some aimless Internet surfing, I just belatedly discovered that one of my old bosses — really, one of my first bosses – died suddenly one month ago.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comDan Phillips was assistant publisher at The Oxford Eagle in Oxford, Mississippi, and he died Dec. 12 at age 47 due to complications after a kidney transplant. His brother, Tim, who I also worked with, had donated a kidney to try and save Dan's life in the face of failing health. I am just heartbroken and sick over this, and discovering it I felt like I'd been punched hard in the throat in the way that only truly awful news can do you.

The Eagle and its "alternative entertainment weekly," Oxford Town, was where I got my "training wheels" in journalism, the first real paper I ever worked for after my college days. I was hired as Oxford Town's assistant editor a month before graduation in 1994, and later, Dan hired me to take over as editor of that publication. He had faith in me, and always encouraged my education and inspirations, tolerated my flights of fancy and occasional blasphemy.

I always appreciated Dan giving me that chance, and that time I served as editor of Oxford Town, up until 1997, was both the hardest work of my journalism career and the most fun I've ever had at a paper. There were lots of 10-, 12-, even 15-hour nights, but there was a freewheeling kind of creativity and what-the-hell spirit at Oxford Town I've rarely recaptured quite the same way in my career. We were the "wacky younger sibling" of the more staid and respectable Oxford Eagle, our task to get the college-age readers and cover Oxford's surprisingly booming entertainment scene. It was an awesome job.

The Eagle is a pretty small paper - around 6,000, five days a week, but Dan was a player on the national newspaper scene regardless. He was the president of the National Newspaper Association in 1999, the first Mississippian in 50 years to head up the 3,600-member group. People who knew Dan liked Dan, simple as that, and the tributes flowed in after his death. The dean of Mississippi columnists, Sid Salter, wrote a fine ode to him.

Dan was the kind of person I've discovered is kind of rare in journalism — a fundamentally decent man, relaxed and rarely ruffled by the chaos of daily deadlines. He and his father, Jesse, and brother Tim helped shape my impression of journalism as a calling that can be harrowing, but one that's also humane. Dan left far too early and in far too tragic a fashion, and his passing is deeply unfair to everyone who ever knew him.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

LIFE: The Big Announcement

So, I have to admit I've been a bit secretive the last six months or so about some major stuff going on in our lives, mainly because we didn't want to let the cat out of the bag to everyone just yet, and also because our plans weren't real far along. Anyway, to cut to the chase -- we're moving later this year.

To New Zealand.

Some of you know about this already, but this is the big migration that kiwi wife Avril and I have talked about ever since we first met in 1993, moved in together in 1998, got married in 1999 (you get the picture). She's been the foreign sidekick in this marriage for a while now, but we've long thought it would only be fair if we moved to New Zealand at some point in the future so I could be the wacky foreign spouse. With baby Peter's arrival, that became an even more important notion -- we really want P to grow up knowing about both sides of his half-Kiwi, half-Yank heritage. Free state health care and being closer to my wife's family are also nice bonuses. Plus, it's real purty there. So anyway, last year we finally decided, how about now?

So. We're moving. Our trip next month is actually a trial run for the final migration sometime around October or early November. We'll be laying some groundwork, hauling a bunch of our stuff over, etc. We'll be staying with my lovely in-laws in Auckland for the immediate future until we get on our feet.

It's a huge, major change in our lives, no doubt about it, and I'll likely be babbling on about the ins and outs of it all a fair amount here before we go. Now you know what's up with us, and the glamorous and chaotic months ahead.

Questions, ask if you want below... cheers, mates!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

ETC.: Gossip and self-promotion

Alas, I have little actual to post about today. It is wet. It is Oregon. So it goes. However, some random celebrity thoughts: So, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are having a baby. Thus begins the perpetuation of the ultra-hottie master race that will soon overtake us all.

This may be the coolest movie plan I've seen in a long time: Maurice Sendak's classic "Where The Wild Things Are" children's book to become live-action movie. From a script written by Dave Eggers whom I dig. Directed by SPIKE JONZE ("Adaptation," "Being John Malkovich"), who in my book can do no wrong. I'm already in the theater, waiting in line, and it's cold outside.

Want to read more by this humble scribe? Go over to my other online haunt BlogCritics, and read other stuff by me that I haven't gotten around to posting here:
The latest CD by cool Seattle-based band The Minus 5, featuring guest appearances by members of Wilco and R.E.M.
That nifty book I mentioned recently, "Strange Red Cow: And Other Curious Classified Ads From The Past" by Sara Bader.
Also, thanks to the kind folks at BC for naming me one of their Picks of the Week recently. I am humbled.

Coming Friday: big news.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

TECH: One Apple to rule them all

Ahhhh. Mac geeks the world over are slobbering at the latest MacWorld presentation in San Francisco today by Apple guru Steve Jobs. Lots and lots of interesting stuff announced, which I paid a closer eye to than normal.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comWe're definitely in the market to replace our creaky 1999-era home iMac sometime this year. I'm not one of those people who has to have the newest and shiniest toys, but our iMac is definitely falling behind the curve, especially when I compare it to the groovy flatpanel 2005 iMac I've got here at work. When we use our iPhoto program at home, the whole computer slowwwwws down to a crawl, and don't even get me started on importing music on that thing. It's amazing how fast the field changes. My iPod, smaller than my fist, can store 30 gigabytes on it, while our home iMac barely fits 6. This Mac at work has something around 150 GB of space!

Anyway, I was hoping to get a new laptop computer, but am a bit dismayed to see they will start at a cringe-inducing $1999 for the new MacBook Pro line. Anyone know if their lower-end laptops will also be updated with the new Intel chips? Whatever I do end up getting (probably this spring or summer), it'll be a Mac. I've been using the beasts since high school (pretty much every paper I've worked at uses Macs, it's the quirk of the journalism industry it seems) and adore them unconditionally. You may pay a little more, but I'd take one iMac over 10 Dells or other PCs any day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Image hosted by Photobucket.com
Don't look at me like that. I swear I didn't mean to forget that yesterday was David Bowie's 59th birthday. But it was Sunday, and I was y'know, hanging out with toddlers and lying on the couch and such. I hereby abdicate my title of dedicated BowieGeek and dedicate myself to having a thoroughly boring life. ...Anyway, sorry, Dave, hope it was a good one...

And yes, I'm a tremendous nerd.

MOVIES: "Unforgivable Blackness:
The Rise And Fall of Jack Johnson"

Image hosted by Photobucket.comHe was bigger than Eminem, Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan put together. His name was Jack Johnson, and he was the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, nearly a century ago. Yet few people today even remember his name. Shown last year on PBS and now out on DVD, Ken Burns' grand documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," reintroduces Johnson's fascinating story to a world he helped pave the way for.

It's got that high-prestige, sepia-toned feel of most Burns documentaries, and the formula -- rare film footage, stills, recreations and a variety of bow-tied experts interviewed for the camera -- can get old in some of Burns' other work. But "Unforgivable Blackness" is fresh and compelling, largely because few Americans know much about this mysterious, pivotal figure.

"For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous, and the most notorious, African-American on Earth," Burns says. Burns shows us that Johnson was post-Civil War white America's worst nightmare — big and tough, headstrong, eloquent, a fine dresser, an inventor, given to mocking his white opponents in the ring, and without a doubt worst of all to people then, he loved white women. Johnson was married three times to white women and dated countless others. Given the tenor of the times, it's amazing he wasn't assassinated.

Born in 1878 to ex-slaves, Jack Johnson knew how to fight. He become a professional boxer around the turn of the century, developing a powerful reputation. Johnson was proud, refused to be deferent to whites, and wanted to become the first black heavyweight champion. But no white would fight him for the title, even though his skills were clearly worthy, not wanting to "sully" it. After years of trying to get a shot, Johnson finally took on the champion, Tommy Burns – and beat him decisively, winning the title he longed for. "The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here," recalls one of Johnson's biographers.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe white ruling class was determined to find "the great white hope" and win back the title. After numerous easy wins for Johnson, the former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries was persuaded to take him on in a hugely hyped battle in Reno in 1910. Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round. The fight and win by the "savage" spawned fatal race riots throughout America.

They couldn't bring Johnson down in the ring. So they went after him in the courts, using the Mann Act -- an anti-prostitution law -- to go after him for his relationships with white women. Though the act wasn't aimed at consenting adults, no matter. Johnson was convicted, but fled the country to avoid prison. Even after, at age 37, he was finally beaten in Cuba by a white contender and lost the title, Johnson wouldn't "play nice." Ultimately, he did come back to America to face "justice." Ten years after being champion of the world, he was in prison for a year-long stay. But even then, he persevered, and lived to age 68, when the speed-loving Johnson died in a car wreck.

The deeply ingrained, utterly unapologetic mass racism of the era shown in "Unforgivable Blackness" is more than disturbing -- it's disgusting and will turn your stomach. Johnson seems impossibly heroic, in an era where lynchings were commonplace, standing alone in the ring battling a white man before a gigantic crowd of jeering whites, many of whom would love to see him dead. While we're a long way from perfect today, American has certainly come a long way since the ugly public white superiority of Johnson's time.

"Unforgivable Blackness" is given life by a treasure trove of rare, nearly 100-year-old films and photos. Johnson leaps off the screen; if he were alive today, he'd be a media star. The amazing fight footage is mesmerizing, like watching gladiators from the inky past come to life. And who else could voice Johnson here (in excerpts read from his autobiography) other than Samuel L. Jackson?

Even if you're not a big fan of boxing, the broader struggle of Johnson's life makes for compelling viewing. Burns really evokes the pre-World War I American society, where most blacks were facing conditions not all that different from slavery. We see excerpts of the 1915 hit movie "Birth of a Nation," the appallingly racist pro-Ku Klux Klan PR film, and countless examples of Johnson being condescended to, ignored and berated by the media of the time. While at four hours (over two DVDs), "Unforgivable Blackness" isn't a short film, the time speeds by. It's a fine ode to a remarkable life.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

ETC.: Five for Friday

Five things this week that make life interesting:
Image hosted by Photobucket.com1. "Grizzly Man." This heartbreaking, amazing documentary is perhaps the best movie I've seen about the strange line between man and nature. It's the tale of Timothy Treadwell, a peculiar combination of Mr. Rogers and Grizzly Adams who devoted years of his life to studying and "protecting" Alaska's grizzly bear population — until he met an awful end. Director Werner Herzog has crafted this documentary using the hours and hours of footage Treadwell shot of himself in the woods, and it's utterly fascinating, voyeuristic and sometimes horrifying stuff. Treadwell is a kind of holy fool, who managed to convince himself he was the savior of the bears. His monologues are strangely hypnotic, and Herzog does a masterful job of reassembling Treadwell's life and looking at how a bear lover ended up bear food. Despite his many flaws, I ended up admiring this poor doomed guy anyway. We are truly in a golden age of the documentary right now, and "Grizzly Man" is one of the best of them.

2. The return of "Scrubs"! Finally, one of TV's best comedies is back on the air after a lengthy fall hiatus. Even better, right now they're airing two original episodes back-to-back on Tuesday nights. While it's not as madly innovative as "Arrested Development," it's still better written than 90% of TV's sitcoms.

Image hosted by Photobucket.com3. Wallace and Gromit! Peter has entered that endearing phase when he fixates on one thing over and over and over again. In Oregon's rainy winter weather, he's not able to play outside so much, so TV sometimes steps in as a playmate. His absolute favorite thing in the world right now is watching our Adventures of Wallace & Gromit DVD multiple times. He often gets very sad (well, OK, throws a mini-tantrum) if he's deprived of watching his "dog," as he calls it. Oh well. At least it's the great, quiet humor and British claymation of Wallace and Gromit and not McDonald's ads he's watching. These quirky, veddy British short features hold up to even the amount of repeated views a toddler demands.

4. Getting a huge box o' graphic novels from the fine folks at DCBS today. I will spend the weekend geeking out with:
Demo Collection by Brian Wood - At last!
Showcase Presents Justice League of America Vol. 1 - 500 pages of silver age goodness!
Omega The Unknown Classic - Ultra-quirky 1970s Marvel Comics madness!
Fantastic Four Visionaries John Byrne Vol. 5 - So glad they're continuing this reprint series. Great stuff.
Fables Volume 6 - Who is the Adversary? How have I avoided the spoilers?
Superman "True Brit" softcover - Remember when DC Comics made a big deal about John Cleese "writing" a Superman comic? Then it came out (with apparently pretty minimal contributions from Cleese) and I pretty much never heard another word about it. Nevertheless, for a 50% discount it seemed like it'd be worth checking out, and I always like John Byrne's art on Superman.

Friday, January 6, 2006

MUSIC: The Perfect Songs, Part III

Still more songs that make the world a finer place! You can find part one here and part two there. These are the songs that I will take with me in my space capsule when I go out and fly beyond the stars. Here are three more of my Perfect Songs for the countdown, in no particular order --

Image hosted by Photobucket.com7. "Down Under" by Men at Work. I've loved this song since I was 11 years old and "Business As Usual" was the very first album (OK, cassette) I bought with my own money. This kooky hit single may be oddball (a flute solo? Come on!), but it also evokes for me the mysteries of the sea, foreign lands and strange customs not your own. Colin Hay's amiable, jargon-filled patter amused and confused me ("chunder"? "vegemite"? huh?). Perhaps stretching the coincidence too far, in 1999 I married a woman from "Down Under." (OK, New Zealand, not Australia, but still...) One of the songs I never get tired to listening to, and it always makes me smile. "Lying in a den in Bombay / With a slack jaw, and not much to say."

Image hosted by Photobucket.com8. "Without Me," by Eminem. I tell you, when I'm in the right mood I do dig the Eminem, and this song is the perfect distillation of his essence — all rampaging id, quick quippery, profane and boastful, yet with undeniable humor. Eminem is like a rage-addicted Weird Al Yankovic with Tourette's syndrome, and the hooks that drive this song will move you unless you're a stone. A lewd, crude manifesto, but rapped with just the slightest suggestion of a wink, which makes it all go down smooth. The song to listen to to decide if you like or hate the man. "Now this looks like a job for me / So everybody, just follow me / 'Cause we need a little, controversy."

Image hosted by Photobucket.com9. "My Sexual Life" by Everclear. For about six months in 1996 or so, I listened to Everclear's "Sparkle and Fade" CD so many times I wore it out and had to buy a new copy. Power-chord rock with razor-edged lyrics, Everclear hit their peak with their second album, an ode to being down-and-out and trying to find the way back up, closely based on lead singer/songwriter Art Alexakis' own addiction past. One of the few post-grunge rock bands to make a dent in the ugly late 1990s, and the song "Santa Monica" from off this album was their biggest hit. But the one I listened to the most on this so sad, so gorgeous and angry album was the final track, "My Sexual Life," where all the hurt and frustration of the album boils over into a brokenhearted kind of lullaby. It's a song where the relationship is all but over, you're going through the motions and resentment is pretty much all that's left, but you just can't quite accept that yet. Alexakis went back to the same well a few times too often with his pain, as later albums started showing ever-diminishing returns to the Everclear "sound." But for an album or two, they were the best band in the world to me. "You always say you want a simple life / You and me both know that You are a liar."

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

MUSIC: Do the iPod shuffle!

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Tonight's exercise bike iPod shuffle, which achieved near-Nirvana (but no Nirvana tracks played for me, ba-da-bump!).

The Bleeding Heart Show - The New Pornographers
Beetlebum - Blur
Shadowplay - Joy Division
Down Under - Men At Work
The Way I Am - Eminem
Sometimes - Erasure
Home - Iggy Pop
World In My Eyes - Depeche Mode

...And best of all, although I didn't lose any weight over the holidays, I did maintain at a steady 188 or so. The goal: 180 or less by 2007!

BOOKS: What I Read, 2005 wrap-up

The final chapter... Back in January I decided I'd chronicle here every book I read this year (not counting comics, graphic novels, etc.) and write something about it. It was an interesting exercise, and I think I'll keep it up in some form in 2006, if not in these rather lengthy monthly recaps. Forcing yourself to write a bit about every book you read might smell of book-report flashbacks, but it actually helped strain the ol' brain muscles a bit and made me think about the books I was reading in new ways. It was worth doing.

The grand total for 2005, then, was 90 books read*, 10 of them coming in December (I read a few short books this month). That's not bad for an overworked journalist/father to rampaging toddler/blogger/husband with very little life, I guess. The breakdown of what I read, just to get even more geekily methodical:
Nonfiction: 52
Fiction: 27
Essays: 7
Short stories: 4
I felt like I had been reading more nonfiction lately -- I've been on a big biography and history kick -- but didn't realize it was by that much! The real world is endlessly interesting to me these days, though, as I feel like I can never "know it all" -- and I read barrel loads of fiction in years past, anyway.
And to wrap it all up, here's a few capsule reviews of December's readin':

“Presidential Campaigns” by Paul Boller. A detail-filled look at presidential politicking from Washington to Bush that includes lots of historical trivia as elections evolved from casual affairs where it was unthinkable for candidates to directly campaign to today's multimedia million-dollar races.

“How We Are Hungry,” short stories by Dave Eggers. Eggers' fiction is too self-consciously quirky and clever for some, but I like the naked edge and passion he brings to his writing. This collection has hits and misses (several short-short fiction pieces are just decorative filler), but there's a handful of tightly wound observational, vivid classics too, such as "Climbing To The Window, Pretending To Dance," about a suicidal friend, or "Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly," a tale of a doomed trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.

“33 1/3: R.E.M.'s Murmur” by J Niimi. Yet another of those tiny 33 1/3 music chapbooks I like to enthuse over. This one tackles R.E.M.'s classic Southern Gothic debut with a sprawling multi-part song-by-song critique, band history, art criticism and a look at listening theory itself in this tidy book. Niimi gets lost in the fog of "critic-speak" a few too many times for my taste, but definitely provides a lot of food for thought and made me think in new ways about "Murmur" (about which the sum of my thinking has always been more or less, "gee, that sounds mysteriously cool").

After watching the new "Narnia" movie, I felt inspired to re-read the series I hadn't checked out in years. I'll do a post on my adult impressions of them when I'm done, but in December I re-read C.S. Lewis's "Prince Caspian" "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and "The Silver Chair." You can get all the Narnia books in one book these days apparently but I still have the single ones I had as a kid.

"Strange Red Cow: And Other Curious Classified Ads From The Past" by Sara Bader. A very cool esoteric book, with a review forthcoming for Blogcritics I will also print here.

"King Of The World: Muhammad Ali And the Rise of an American Hero" by David Remnick. I got onto a boxing kick this month, watching the great documentary "When We Were Kings" about the Ali-Foreman '74 "Rumble in the Jungle." Then I picked up this excellent book at the library, which focuses on Ali's early career in fluid, elegant prose. Something about good writing about boxing really appeals to my couch potato non-combative self, and Remnick really captures the sweaty, gladiatorial combat of it all. He etches fine portraits of three black boxers -- Ali, Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson -- and makes them all unforgettable, tragic heroes. Highly recommended stuff.

"Throwim' Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds - On The Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea" by Tim Flannery. Now that is a title. As mentioned a while back, loving wife gave this to me for Christmas, and it's really pretty cool. I love natural history books, and this guy Flannery braved unimaginable hardship to explore New Guinea, one of the last "lost horizons" and home to forbidding lands and rare species. A combination of biology, exploration and humor, it's a great read, with nicely gory trivia you can share with your friends. (And you learn all about what "penis gourds" are!)

"The Truth (With Jokes)" by Al Franken. Preaching to the converted, of course, but Franken's liberal manifestos are good reading in this Age of Bush. In this one, he gives a fiery response to the 2004 campaign and what he calls the Bush strategy of "fear, smears and queers." You either agree with the man or you don't, obviously. Not life-changing reading (Franken has this oddly arrogant tone a lot of the time that distances me a bit), but a breezy, quick affirmation that not everyone rides the Bush train these days.

*And finally, the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May , June, July, August, September, October, November, amen.

Monday, January 2, 2006

Not what they meant to say at all

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...To give you a hint, the first word on the reader board had said "photography." This is in front of our local arts center on one of Roseburg's major roads. Urk. At least it was creative vandalism...

Sunday, January 1, 2006

LIFE: Happy New Y--*glub glub*

Image hosted by Photobucket.comAnd so 2005 ends like it began -- with a crapload of water and a lot of upset people. Well, the constant rains and flooding we're getting up here in Oregon and most of the west coast in no way compares to the Asian tsunami, obviously, but it's still a lot of water. Been raining nonstop all week, and all the creeks and rivers around here are running at capacity.

There's an apartment complex just down the street from work that flooded yesterday. One of my coworkers, Ginny, and her husband Sean, live there and so yesterday afternoon a whole group of us led an impromptu evacuation party. We had to clear everything out of their very full apartment as water began sneaking in to all the ground-floor apartments in the complex, turning carpets into a soggy swamp. Good times. Fortunately they got most of their stuff out without it getting too wet, but still a hell of a thing to have to go through, and not a fun way to ring in the New Year. As often happens in the newspaper biz, it's meant a lot of scrambling around rearranging packages planned for this weekend and sending reporters and photographers out to run around in the rain.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe downtown park where we spent a lot of time this summer is about halfway under water, too. That South Umpqua River in the photo doesn't usually include the trees and sidewalks. I'm just glad our own house in on a hill (as long as it doesn't slide off it!). Check out Patrick's blog for some great before-and-after photos far better than mine showing how this rain has turned out sleepy cricks into raging torrents.

Hope your new year is drier than ours is shaping up!