Tuesday, February 28, 2006

LIFE: Day at the beach

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Yesterday we went out to the family bach, or beach house, at Kare Kare, about 45 minutes northwest of Auckland proper. It's a beautiful place, tucked away in a rain forest with towering canyons and a fantastic beach. It might look vaguely familiar to anyone who's ever seen "The Piano." Several scenes at the start of the movie were filmed here. It wasn't the best day to take photos - summer weather has fled us for a few days - but you get the idea. Fantastic place.
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Also, some advice:
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Go hard or go home. Slip slap sloppy!

Monday, February 27, 2006

TV: Don Knotts, we salute you

A moment of silence, now, for the great comic genius Don Knotts, who died this weekend at age 81. Barney Fife, Mr. Furley, Mr. Chicken and Mr. Limpet, we salute you. Image hosting by Photobucket
Knotts took up an unseemly amount of my TV-watching time as a tot, when in retrospect there were days in my pre-teen, homework-avoiding life when I spent 3 to 7 p.m. entirely glued to the tube watching re-runs of 1970s and 1960s sitcoms.

"The Brady Bunch," "Gilligan's Island," "Happy Days" -- these were my Chaucer, my Socrates, leading to the warped child of the media I am today. And Don Knotts, he was the court jester - both in his classic role as Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show" and even more iconic for me in his sleazy lounge-lizard loser persona as Mr. Furley on "Three's Company." I watched far more "Three's Company" than any man really should have (I even stuck around for the woebegone spinoff "Three's A Crowd"), and Knotts' pop-eyed buffonery was part of the guilty-pleasure fun of it all. He also made lots of silly little movies in the '60s like "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," but the one that sticks out for me is the ghost-comedy "The Ghost And Mr. Chicken." I don't know how old I was when I saw this movie -- maybe 8 or 9 -- but to me at the time, it was actually scary. Part of that was because Knotts was so convincingly startled as the fumbling Mr. Chicken. In my own personal TV Hall of Fame, Knotts is one of the great. Godspeed, Mr. Furley.
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Sunday, February 26, 2006

LIFE: New Zealand briefing

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...We admittedly haven't had the most adventurous first few days down here in Auckland; visiting the family mainly and unfortunately it now looks like all three of us caught some minor cold bug between the whiplash travel over the past week between chilly Oregon, snowy California, plague-filled plane and humid Auckland. Peter has had particularly impressive displays of mucus and crankiness what with all the new situations. But we're here and it's fine to be here; tomorrow we hope to head out to the family beach house and next week we're off for a few days to scenic Napier on the other side of North Island.
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Today we did take a trek over to One Tree Hill (which I don't think has anything to do with the American TV series); also known as Maungakiekie, it's actually 'no tree hill' now which is kind of a long story. But in any event, it's a big grand park or domain, a volcanic cone looming out of the greenery to overlook all of Auckland. There are several of these domes thorughout the city but this is one of my favorites, an oasis of countryside in the midst of the city. It's a great place to wander, we took little Peter to the gigantic playground there with the grandparents, and I ended up going on a rather steep hike up to the top of the cone, which features a great big obelisk and commanding view of Auckland. I didn't intend to hike all the way up to the top but I was rather swept away by taking photos of the sheep that dot One Tree Hill; I still find it novel to have a herd of grazing sheep wandering about in the middle of a city of 1 million people. And great views from the top. Unfortunately in my haste to head back down I decided to be adventurous and take the mountain goat route, which is at about a 65-degree angle and nearly undid me. Owch.

Friday, February 24, 2006

LIFE: The news never stops

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND -- Well, we made it and are fighting off jet lag, Peter playing in the sunshine with all the great new cars and trucks his NZ grandparents gave him. And so I click on CNN's Web page this morning to see a headline reading, Teen wounded in Oregon school schooting. "Uh-oh," some tiny voice in my head says, and I click on it -- "Roseburg, Oregon" says the dateline.

Ah jeez. So one kid shot another 16-year-old at our local high school this morning, apparently. Fortunately it doesn't sound like anybody was killed, but man, as they say, "You never think it will happen here." The paper has been going in high-octane overdrive today I bet and it looks like they're doing a spectacular job getting what they can. Frightening stuff, though, not the kind of thing that should happen in a tiny town like Roseburg. I hope everyone's doing OK and the victim pulls through.

We already made the decision to move over here this fall, as I've been chronicling, for many reasons. There's stupid random violence everywhere, in every culture, but high school kids shooting each other over is a uniquely American phenomenon it seems like. I'll worry every day about my boy like all parents do, but over here I think I'll worry less he might end up someone's target.

Confused toddler crying, more New Zealand-centric posts later...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

...Well, we're off! Leaving for San Francisco tomorrow and then on to New Zealand, so no more posting for a little while. Wish us luck traveling 13 hours or so on a plane with a 2-year-old. Hopefully I'll get some Spatula Forum: New Zealand posting in during the trip... Thanks for reading!

COMICS: Inside the 'Ultimate Avengers' DVD
with writer Greg Johnson

I hooked up recently with Greg Johnson, the screenwriter of the new "Ultimate Avengers: The Movie" DVD that hits stores Tuesday.

Image hosting by PhotobucketJohnson happens to be from Roseburg, Oregon, where I hail from, and I thought it'd be fun to do a profile of this local-boy-turned-animation writer. Johnson, 45, has been writing stories for cartoons featuring characters from Spider-Man to the X-Men to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Johnson’s latest creation is a movie — the new “Ultimate Avengers” DVD from Marvel Comics, which comes to stores Tuesday. The straight-to-DVD release, rated PG-13, is first of a series of eight original “animated Marvel features” planned for release in coming months. Based on “The Ultimates” comic book series from Marvel Comics, it’s the story of a team of government-sponsored superheroes including Iron Man, Thor and The Hulk, who awaken the legendary World War II hero Captain America from suspended animation.

Johnson has already been tapped to write future installments in the animated films, including “Ultimate Avengers II” for release later this year, and “Iron Man” and “Dr. Strange” features. He also is developing a new television series spinning off from the popular “X-Men” comics and movies, “Wolverine And The X-Men.”

Greg was great fun to interview, but in my fanboy eagerness (I'm a big admirer of "The Ultimates" comics), I sent him a veritable flood of questions, which he very kindly gave great answers to -- but far too much to all fit in the print article for my day job. So for Spatula Forum readers who might be interested in this "inside look" at the animation industry and a pretty-cool sounding new DVD, here I present a much longer "director's cut" Q&A with Greg (and if you care to compare with the more traditional print article, you can find it over here).

How did you end up being approached for the "Ultimates" job?

I’ve written for various Marvel shows since the mid-1990s, and my latest job prior to the “Ultimate Avengers” was as head writer on a series for KidsWB called “X-Men: Evolution,” which ran successfully for four seasons. So when these direct to video projects came up, they gave me a call. I was right in the middle of developing a series for Cartoon Network called “Ben 10” at the time, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I jumped ship.

How did you end up in an animation career? You studied art at Southern Oregon University – how did that lead to ‘Toon Town’?

When my wife and I first moved from Oregon to California, all I had on my resume was some work I’d done directing a couple of educational films in college, and a stint as a production assistant on a low-budget movie that was shooting in Ashland, Oregon. Persistence was the only thing that got me hired on at a small film company called Apollo Pictures, where I read scripts and wrote evaluations for the executives. I worked my way up to director of development … My experience there taught me one thing – I didn’t like being on the executive side of the desk. I wanted to be writing. So I took advantage of some professional relationships I’d made and got my first job writing on an animated series called “Biker Mice From Mars.” I loved it. Coming out of the development-heavy feature world, it was so refreshing for me to be involved in a process where you write something and it immediately gets produced.

I’ve always loved cartoons. My tastes when I was younger went from Spider-Man to Scooby Doo to anything Disney. What’s odd is that most of my focus as a writer seems to be in the superhero realm, though I was not an avid comic book reader as a kid. I picked them up occasionally, but I certainly didn’t follow any of them. Actually, that has probably helped me in my career, because I’ve never been swayed by a purist’s point of view or the decades of baggage that accompany most of the Marvel heroes.

When you sat down to adapt "The Ultimates," how faithful did you want to be to the source material? You're pretty much adapting Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s first 12 issues or so in a 90-minute movie.

Image hosting by PhotobucketAdapting a comic story is really no different than adapting any other form of literature for the screen, in my opinion. The first thing you have to do is take it apart and determine what will translate and what won’t.

Using “The Ultimates” as source material served two purposes, though. One, it was an incredibly successful book in which Millar and Hitch re-envisioned how the Avengers assembled for the first time, and so capitalizing on its success made good business sense. And two, it was a very cinematic story, not afraid to reveal the flaws of America’s favorite superheroes. The books established a well-conceived and exciting origin for the Avengers, particularly how Captain America became involved with them.

However, “The Ultimates” is a very mature approach to this origin, and some elements in the book were just not appropriate for young children in my opinion. So some deviation from the books was necessary. If you were to explain the story of Volume 1 in a sentence, it would be: The Avengers are formed, they can’t get along, they drift apart, and they end up banding together to fight the Incredible Hulk. One of the benefits of telling this kind of story on the graphic page is that you have the liberty to explore a kind of “day in the life” of the characters without necessarily needing the urgency of a larger plot escalating in the background. What is a fun read on the page can sometimes feel aimless on the screen.

What's the appeal of the Ultimate Avengers to you as a writer?

Image hosting by PhotobucketI view the Avengers as “The Dirty Dozen,” one of my favorite movies. They’re a group of diverse personalities all thrown together because of their abilities, not because they like each other. Teams are only interesting if they let their differences get in the way. I mean, you give five people special powers, and each one will handle it in a different way. Some let it go to their heads, like Hank Pym, and some only want to be good soldiers, like Captain America. Overall, the Avengers in this film are a blend of both The Ultimates and the Classic characters – so that’s why we’ve called it “The Ultimate Avengers.”

Did you have any problems trying to deal with the baggage of years of continuity with these characters like Captain America and The Hulk, or just try to approach them as clean slates?

I tend to cut loose the baggage immediately. Try running a PowerPoint presentation on any one of these characters, and it would be a confusing mess. You’ll find yourself trying to unscramble lives that extend into alternative dimensions, space travel, time travel, and family trees so broad that it would choke a genealogist. That is a product of nearly half-century of comic book writers trying to do their jobs and tell new stories. So Marvel has done something with their Ultimate line of books to remedy this, like Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Spider-Man, etc. The universe has basically been rebooted so new readers can enjoy them from a fresh take on their origins.

Who's your favorite member of the Ultimate Avengers to write and why? Who was hardest?

Image hosting by PhotobucketI loved writing Steve Rogers (Captain America). He’s a man out of his own time, having been the only superhero of his day back in 1945. And now, pulled from the ice after 60 plus years, he not only has to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings, but must come to terms with a world where he’s not the only superhero, but one of many.

The toughest was Hank Pym. He has the potential to be such a dark and unpleasant character. After all, there are even issues of spousal abuse in the books. On the same token, there is time in the books to work on redeeming him during the length of the succeeding issues. But in this movie, where Hank’s storyline is one of many, there just isn’t the time to redeem him to any satisfying degree. … Finding the balance with him was a challenge, but ultimately as a result, he’s become one of our most interesting and complex characters. You’ll see a lot more of this explored in the sequel.

How does writing a script for animation differ from writing for live action?

Animation has a very unique pacing to it. The scenes are shorter and the dialogue must serve two agendas simultaneously – furthering the plot, and reinforcing the character arc. In live action you can put two people in a room, and let their performance sustain a ten minute scene that’s fun to watch. That’s real tough to do in animation, where emotions often times have to be supported with dialogue, because you just can’t count on the ‘acting’ of an animated face to carry it alone.

What's your favorite project you've worked on?

For television, I really enjoyed writing “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command” because it had a nice blend of comedy and action. I’ve always had a love for Disney, and this was as close as I’ve ever come to contributing to the House the Mouse built. The most fulfilling was probably “X-Men: Evolution,” because the network handed us such restrictions that it seemed the series would die an embarrassing death after the first season. But then the network loosened the reins a bit, and I was able to take the series from “X-Men Lite” to a series that strived to respect what the X-Men were all about. The most exciting project would be the third direct-to-video, which is “Iron Man.” I had the freedom to create a new story around the established origin, and I think it came out very well. For fans of Iron Man, this one is going to be a real treat.

You've already got a full slate for the future it sounds like with "Ultimates II," "Iron Man" and more. What's the next project coming?

I’ve already written the first four of a planned eight DTV movies for Marvel and Lions Gate. “Ultimate Avengers,” “Ultimate Avengers II,” “Iron Man” and “Dr. Strange.” Each one takes twelve to eighteen months to animate, and I can still remember working on the script for “Ultimate Avengers” two summers ago while visiting my folks in Roseburg. I sat out on their back patio, the beautiful and peaceful Umpqua River spread out before me, and wrote superheroes battling alien Nazis. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I’ve got my fingers crossed that “Ultimate Avengers” is a success, because that will be what decides if there will be a fifth movie or not.

Can you tell us anything about the "Wolverine and the X-Men" series you're developing?

All I can say about this new show is that it will be a blend of the 1990s “X-Men” series, “X-Men: Evolution,” and the “X-Men” movies. Other than that, stay tuned…

What do you think of the final product? How does it feel to see your words come to animated life?

When I write, I always visualize the scenes in live action. So there’s always a moment of adjustment when seeing them animated. The director and the board artists do veer from the script on occasion, and I’m thrilled when they improve it. But sometimes they try things that aren’t as strong, in my opinion. And occasionally the director will add dialogue during the recording sessions, and it’s a surprise to see it on the screen. That happened a few times in “Ultimate Avengers.” So any dialogue that falls flat in the movie, just assume it was the director. Just kidding...

Sunday, February 19, 2006

LIFE: Peter is 2!

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NEVADA CITY, Calif. -- So the first of the vacation blogposts begins. Hurray for Peter! He's having a good second birthday, with lots of car toys and wagons and books to play with, "dandma" and "gandad" to visit with, and a cake that had a train on it. We made it down here to my parents' house in California last night (after a stop in Redding to visit our friends Rob and Becky and their kids; gratuitous shout-out and thanks for the dinner!). The 7 1/2-hour drive was perfect, nice clear weather until the final 15 minutes of the drive when it began sleeting. And this is what we found when we woke up this morning:
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Peter's first actual snow! A good 4-5 inches, not enough to shut the town down (it snows often enough in Nevada City in winter for it not to be a total shock, but February is a little late in the year for it) but enough to make everything real purty and white. The sun is now out and skies are blue so it's quite a fine mid-winter day. Hard to imagine we will be in Auckland in a few days where it's been in the 70s, it's the equivalent of August or so down under right now. Season whiplash!

Our little man P is 2 years old today, we can officially no longer call him our baby, which is kind of sad. It's great that he's older now and able to communicate in his pidgin English, but the notion that our cuddly boy is going to one day be gone for good is kind of a hard one to swallow. At least for several years to come we can enjoy his toddler-hood. The "terrible twos" haven't been bad so far; he's generally a good-natured bloke except when he's tired. Hopefully he'll stay that way for a while...

Friday, February 17, 2006

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Today I am a nerd!

You are Will Riker
At times you are self-centered
but you have many friends.
You love many women, but the right
woman could get you to settle down.

Click here to take the Star Trek Personality Test

I actually did better than I thought. Thank god I'm not Will Pfeifer!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

LIFE: Countdown to Kiwi-town

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...We're entering the final packing frenzy as we get ready to depart for New Zealand in a week's time for our vacation. We leave Oregon Friday, go stay with my folks for a few days and celebrate Peter's 2nd birthday Saturday, then fly out of San Francisco next Tuesday. Anyway, as the final chaotic preparations and planning begin for 3 weeks or so away, posting likely to slow down to a trickle this week. I do plan on trying to post a couple times from Down Under if I get a chance, tho, so look for special New Zealand-style Spatula Forum updates.

It's been tricky packing as we get ready for the big migration this fall. Because we're not investing thousands of dollars in a shipping container (as previously discussed), we're cramming as much as we can fit into 6 suitcases and 3 carry-on bags. Keeping vacation clothes to a bare minimum (heck, it'll be summer down under), that means six very heavy suitcases packed to the gills with about 100 CDs, a couple dozen books and photo albums, and about 30 DVDs. Unfortunately, that doesn't scratch the surface of the total Pile o' Nik Crap that is our house. Witness the somewhat full CD rack after emptying a bunch out and selling another 60-80 CDs recently: Image hosting by Photobucket*Sigh*

Anyway, between trying to keep the bags under the 70-lb. weight limit and my abrupt changes of mind ("I must take Elvis Costello's 'King of America' CD to New Zealand! Wait! What am I going to do with our "Simpsons" DVDs? Holy mother of god, I forgot all about our six to seven photo albums!"), there's been an extreme amount of packing and repacking and rearranging, still not entirely done yet with a few days before we leave town. I'm all spazzed out, worrying that I might suddenly discover I really really want to have that one Haruki Murakami novel with me in New Zealand and why o why did I pack that stupid book I'll never ever re-read instead. One thing more, surely I can fit one thing more in the bags! The part of me that is warmed and comforted by my sweet material possessions just hates the idea of them moldering away in storage in California somewhere for years.

Lord only knows if we'll remember things like our passports and tickets. (We will, of course. Avril is obsessive about the lists.) I'm still hoping we can actually cram all this luggage in the car.

And of course Air New Zealand is lowering their weight limits later this year, meaning that we'll only be able to cram 50 lbs. in each suitcase on the final trip over in October or so. Ye gods. We'll be shipping a handful of boxes over via surface mail, but are leery of sending anything extremely too expensive or irreplaceable for a 2-month boat ride.

At times like this, the obsessive-compulsive in us comes out. And he is hungry.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Vice President Cheney shoots fellow hunter
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Has anyone ever seen them together? I'm just saying...

(*And did you know there was an Elmer Fudd version of Google? What a wonderful world we live in...)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

TV: A salute to 'Arrested Development'

Image hosting by PhotobucketMan, I'm going to miss this show.

"Arrested Development" ended its third season, and maybe its last, on FOX last night. Watching the final four episodes this morning (we had a party to go to last night and taped them; hey Patrick!), they were as top-notch as ever for TV's funniest sitcom, a delirious frenzy of in-jokes, taboo humor, double entendres, and a kind of wacky closure to the saga of the Bluth family. At the moment, the show's future is uncertain -- it might get picked up by another network -- but if it had to end, last night was one heck of a swan song.

What a calvacade of all the ideas that made "AD" great -- ventriloquism, cousins marrying, incest jokes, Saddam Hussein, scrapbooking, William Hung, a demented spin on the Terri Schiavo case, magic tricks, strange guest-stars (Judge Reinhold, Richard Melzer, Ron Howard and star Jason Bateman's sister Justine among last night's highlights). The final episodes were like a great gift to the fans. Classic stuff.

Image hosting by PhotobucketIt's not hard to see why the critically acclaimed "AD" never quite clicked with mainstream America, though. The show was defiantly oddball, with unsympathetic, unlikable characters for the most part (it's a credit to the actors that they pulled off their roles, making them roguishly charming and funny). Sentimentality was avoided at all costs usually, often mocked. It's not a show I instantly felt nuts about, even though I watched it from the start -- I kind of preferred "Scrubs" warmer humor; yet after a while, I realized I was hooked on "AD's" labyrinthine pop culture spin. It had some of the air of a British program like "Fawlty Towers," but paired that with a determinedly American hyperactivity and playfulness. It definitely wasn't accessible for newcomers – the twisting plot gyrates every which way, and a momentary aside in one episode might come back around randomly months later. It really probably was too smart for its own good.

Yet that was part of the joy of "AD," the sense that us few fans were all in on one wacky game. This one of the few shows that rewards endless re-viewings -- I must have missed a couple dozen jokes in last night's mini-marathon, ones I only spotted later reading about them online. Sight gags, background wit – "Arrested Development" threw everything at you including the kitchen sink, and it was up to you to catch up. Without a doubt, it had more jokes per 22-minute episode than any other show on TV (except, of course, "The O'Reilly Factor").

And of course, such high-achieving comedy couldn't last. I can't blame FOX, as they did give it three seasons. But last night, it was not only beaten in the ratings by the Winter Olympics opening (a no-brainer) but even by "Friday Night Smackdown!" wrestling on UPN. Ah, the public appetite. At least we had it while it lasted, and thank god for the DVDs.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

ETC.: Wake me up before I go-go

Woke up at 4:30 a.m. or so this morning absolutely alert, and that was that. Eurgghhhggg. It's going to be a long long day. Did manage to read some more of "The Golden Compass" before stumbling out of bed to shower, quite an interesting book. I'd heard it was fantasy in the lines of "Harry Potter"/"Narnia" type stuff, Avril read them a few years ago and liked them, but it's actually quite a few shades darker, and quite inventive stuff so far. Be interested in seeing where it goes and if I'm up for reading the rest of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy...

Anyway, sleep deprivation means random unfocused posting*!
(*As long as freakin' Blogger cooperates and lets me post this sometime today; I only wrote it six hours ago...)

ITEM! At one point in one of my geekier moods I was planning on posting a huge dissection of the awful recent storyline in the Spider-Man comics, "The Other." This story is shocking in its sheer badness, ineptness and failure to succeed on almost any level (not to mention extraordinarily bad editing, such as a character breaking an arm one issue and being totally fine the next). It had potential, but wow, was it dribbled away. Anyway, I'm saved from having to write this because one of my favorite Spidey bloggers, MadGoblin, is back in action and delivers an excellent analysis of this inept story that echoes my feelings exactly. One of my favorite comic reviewers is spot-on as always; check out his Web site (under re-construction still a bit).

ITEM! I missed the boat on the whole "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" thing way back when, because while it was really critically acclaimed it was one of those shows it looked like you had to get in on the ground floor to appreciate, and because to an outsider's eyes the vampire makeup looked a little dorky. But now that I am Joss Whedon's bitch thanks to "Firefly," I decided that I should take advantage of Netflix to catch up on "Buffy" and see what all the fuss is about. So my ambitious (likely TOO ambitious) goal is to watch all seven seasons gradually in coming months. We watched the first three episodes recently and quite dug it; it's clear now the plastic-vampire look is part of the show's mojo, and while in the early episodes it's still a little clunky, there's already a lot to like - it's all like "Beverly Hills 90210" meets "X-Files." Watch this space as I become a "Buffy"-braniac in coming months...

ITEM! Finally, piss away some time today (er, sorry) with Urinals.Net, perhaps the most fascinating Web site of our time. Ever wanted to know what the johns look like in Berlin, Sudan or Chicago? I find this site mysteriously addictive. Best of all, one of Roseburg's proud establishments is featured on this page – and I might add, this urinal is freakin' gigantic. It dwarves moral men and makes us all feel inadequate. And that's a fitting note to leave for the weekend on...

Man, my brain feels fuzzy.

Friday, February 10, 2006

MUSIC: The Perfect Songs, Part V

Click it, roll it. Part five of the ongoing series on The Perfect Songs (rewind: part one, two, three, four). For this installment, something a bit different: Perfect Songs that jump-started my interest in a band. One song can act like lightning, inspire you to check out a musician's album, then to obsessively pick up as many other albums as you can until the world ends and you realize you have 600 CDs to move to New Zealand somehow. But I digress. Here's three more of the songs that make the world a sunshiney place:

Click here13. "My Impression Now" by Guided By Voices. The impossibly prolific band released about a zillion CDs before calling it quits in 2004; back in 1994, yours truly was a humble intern for Billboard magazine in New York City, working in an ivory tower in the heart of Times Square, riding the subway every day and generally a tiny cog in a big machine, but having a blast. Working at the music industry's biggest trade magazine, it goes without saying I got lots of free stuff from the promo pile. This one short EP by this band I'd never heard of caught my eye. I put it on back in my dorm room cubbyhole, and heard the song "My Impression Now," which sounds like a pop song from another planet beaming through space dust to faraway earth, a greatest hit that never was. Hooky, happy and sad together and just darned fun to listen to, "My Impression Now" got me hooked on GBV, following the ups and downs of their career through a cascade of great albums. It's low-fi silly pop song goodness and one of the many things I took back from New York with me at the end of that strange humid summer. "My impression now / Stand on the edge of the ledge / Jump off cause nobody cares"

Click here14. "I Feel So Good" by Richard Thompson. This venerable British folk/rock guitar whiz has been crafting smart songcraft since the 1960s, but he's always been more or less a cult figure. I first heard this tune back around my freshman year of college circa 1990 or 1991, one of Thompson's few songs to break through to the radio market. And what a song it is, a raging breakup song anchored by Thompson's dazzling guitar work. It's all cocky bravado, a grin full of malice, about the guy who's over his girl and ready to head out and cause some pain to someone else to get even. Somehow Thompson's gleeful singing of the song makes it an anthem for all of us who've been hurt and want to just dish a little out every once in a while. Listen to it full-blast driving southbound on the interstate at sunset with the window rolled down and your head sticking halfway out. "Well I feel so good I'm going to / Break somebody's heart tonight..."

Click here15. "Sister Jack" by Spoon. And here's a more recent find. I wrote about discovering my first CD by this Austin, Texas band last year, and months on it's still a genre-twisting delight of a record. Here's the song that kicked it off for me when I downloaded it; three minutes or so of blissful bop that recalls early tunes by the Who, with Beatlesy (I'm not using the word Beatles-esque, dammit) harmonies, handclaps, and more. It may not mean much of anything – after reading the lyrics, I'm even less certain what it's about ("I was sold for suspect drawings / Underneath a makeshift awning"??) but like all good pop songs, it's whatever you want it to be. I picture a van leaving town, saying goodbye to friends on a fine autumn day, and hitting the highway to see what's next. It was a good run. "Always on the outside always looking in / I was in this drop D metal band we called Requiem"

Special bonus round! Because it's almost Valentine's Day and I forgot to buy you any candy, the first three people who post comments below I'll mail you a copy of my nifty Nik's Perfect Songs Vol. 1 CD which contains all 15 of the songs listed so far in this series plus a secret bonus track. Shazam!

Thursday, February 9, 2006

BOOKS: 'Consider the Lobster And Other Essays'

Image hosting by PhotobucketWant to feel dumb? David Foster Wallace's brainy, sprawling and funny essays will leave you worrying you didn't read the dictionary enough as a child. His latest, "Consider The Lobster And Other Essays," is a rollicking ride through Wallace-world, where essays balloon out with footnotes[1], flow charts and interjections into free-wheeling performance art. It's brain food that tastes good.

Wallace is also known for his fiction, including the hefty novel "Infinite Jest," but I find his style works best for me in nonfiction. This collection and the earlier "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" are microscopically detailed examinations of life as we know it. What's appealing about Wallace's essays is how he turns simple subjects – lobster festivals, John McCain, pornography, dictionaries — into thoughtful epics.

Image hosting by Photobucket"Consider the Lobster" collects the best of Wallace's nonfiction from the last decade or so. Highlights include "Big Red Son," where Wallace attends raunchy adult video industry awards, and "Up Simba," where he tags along with John McCain's doomed presidential campaign in 2000. Wallace's prose ripples with a lusty adoration of sheer wordpower, and that enthusiasm helps make some of his indulgences palatable. Ten-dollar words like synecdoche, anapest and prolegomenous are peppered in, but Wallace still strives to keep his prose non-academic and straightforward in its conclusions.

His fluid words can dance, describing the Adult Video News awards ceremony as "a kaleidoscopic flux of stilted acceptances and blue one-liners and epileptic strobes and spotlights following winners serpentine and high five-studded paths to the stage." But they can also bite in short form, like a spot-on line describing a frightened elderly lady as "poor tendony Mrs. R."

What puts some people off of Wallace is that it can look like he's showing off. The man writes novels with footnotes, sometimes with footnotes to those footnotes, and that can scream of "ain't I smart?" His works sprawl, without borders (of the 10 pieces in "Consider the Lobster," several are over 50 pages long). Yet it's an honest outgrowth of the man's polyphonic interest in any- and everything. His enthusiasm is contagious.

Sometimes it does get a bit much — the essay "Host" has some fine insight into a conservative radio host's career and the appeal of such demagoguery, but the piece is dotted with countless boxed asides and interjections. If you get into the rhythm of it all, it flows, but honestly, how many readers will be willing to make that leap? The piece "Authority and American Usage" is a lengthy debate on ideological factions in American lexicograpy, or, in other words, the arguments between people who make dictionaries. It's interesting, yet may be hard for some readers to get into. On the other hand, essays on John Updike and Dostoyevsky are sharp, bracing book criticism.

Wallace is best when his literary gymnastics pay off with golden insights. Take "Consider The Lobster," a piece from Gourmet magazine that starts off as a carefree dissection of a Maine lobster festival, but then slowly turns into a musing on the morality of boiling lobsters alive. Or my personal favorite of the collection, "The View From Mrs. Thompson's," Wallace's memory of his neighborhood's experiences on 9/11. It strikes a shellshocked, often morbidly funny note that stands out from the ocean of similar essays.

"Consider The Lobster" and Wallace's highly distinctive voice makes you think, laugh and strain the brain in all the good ways.

I considered doing footnotes for this review, but then realized that'd be a bit too much.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

LIFE: Too busy to post words

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Me and P at a fun little family fair event up at the local college Saturday. Ain't we cute? (Note: P is red in the face and has a vaguely dazed look because he just spent nearly 2 hours running around playing with birdseed, playdoh and glue sticks. Photo taken approximately 4 minutes before P passed out in car.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

MOVIES: 'Capote' stands tall

Image hosting by PhotobucketTo the people of Kansas, the writer from New York City must have looked like a freak.

Truman Capote, just over 5 feet tall, slight, effeminate, with a high, lisping voice, had come to town to write about a murder, the awful slaying of a family of four in tiny Holcomb, Kansas. Despite his outsider’s ways, he prodded, quizzed and probed the Kansans in search of the story. The result was one of the most acclaimed nonfiction books of the 1960s, “In Cold Blood.”

In the brooding, thought-provoking movie that I finally saw last weekend, “Capote” comes to life again. Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor, “Capote” is a powerful look at how far a writer will go in search of a story, anchored by an astounding performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the late writer.

When the Clutter family is slain, rising young writer Capote spies a small article about it and decides to journey to Kansas with his friend, novelist Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), to cover the case for The New Yorker.

When two drifters are arrested for the awful crime, Capote finds himself drawn closer and closer to the slayings. He plans a pioneering “nonfiction novel” to cover it all. “Capote” raises the question — how much can a writer get involved in a story before it consumes him? Capote’s work came at the dawn of our current age of celebrity, and paved the way for nonfiction writers from Tom Wolfe to Rick Bragg. Yet the writer, who was gay, fame-obsessed and eccentric, lived a deeply unhappy life before his death in 1984 at age 59.

Hoffman’s performance is one of those rare, utterly transformative acting feats where the actor completely becomes another person, like Jamie Foxx’s “Ray” or Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot.” He avoids mimicry, getting at something deeper. When Hoffman first appears on screen, prancing and talking in Capote’s high, squeaky voice, he almost appears a bit cartoony. Yet we gradually come to see how much of Capote’s flamboyance is a mask, and how his endless role-playing hides a wounded heart. It’s a sharp, brutal portrait of a man who’s lost his moral compass in pursuit of fame and adulation.

Forming a close bond with murder suspect Perry Smith (played strongly by Clifton Collins Jr.), Capote uses friendship as a way to get dirt for his book. Yet he also can’t deny a strange attraction between him and Perry: “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front.”

I’m still trying to figure out how they made bulky Hoffman, who’s appeared in everything from “Boogie Nights” to “Almost Famous” to this summer’s “Mission: Impossible III,” look so convincing as the 5-foot-3 Capote. It’s a mesmerizing, career-topping performance, and they might as well engrave Hoffman’s Best Actor Oscar right now. It's sparked a re-interest in me of "Capote" — I want to go back and re-read "In Cold Blood," and I'm really interested in reading the Gerald Clarke biography of Capote much of the movie is drawn from.

The movie bogs down a little in the midsection, as Miller spends a little too much time on the strange relationship between Capote and Perry Smith. Smith’s partner in crime, Dick Hickok, is given short shrift in this adaptation.

First-time feature director and Oscar nominee Bennett Miller has applied a crisp, keen eye to this tale of writers and killers. It’s a tremendously confident movie, with the huge, empty plains of Kansas swelling on the screen, Capote’s towering ego at sea in the fields and vast sky. Miller leaves it to the viewer to decide if the phrase “In Cold Blood” refers to the murders, or the spiraling, self-centered actions of the writer himself.

Monday, February 6, 2006

ETC.: Winners and Super Bowls

Image hosting by Photobucket...So thanks to everyone who entered my little Write Your Own State of the Union impromptu contest. I was greatly amused by all of the entries, and it was hard to pick a winner from them. I had to disqualify wife Avril, because she's got a compromising relationship with the judge, and ultimately, I ended up picking Nat, who tickled my funny bone with her short but sweet entry:

"Kermit the frog has decided to join our nation in the fight against weasel terror. He may look and smell like asparagus, but greatness of leadership burns within his amphibious heart. Our world will be united, with one penguin economy growing stronger every second."

I ask you, how can you go wrong with "weasel terror"? The answer is, you cannot. Anyway, Nat wins a copy of my super-swell Perfect Songs Mix CD, which features 15 of the Perfect Songs I've been nattering on about so far hereabouts (and three more I haven't even gotten around to writing up yet!).

Image hosting by Photobucket...Anyway, I'm like pretty much not a Sports Person, in case you haven't figured that out from my blogging trends. I watch the Super Bowl about every 2-3 years though, just to keep myself looking appropriately manly, and I'll be checking out today's matchup today for a few reason — (1. We've got a local boy made good playing for the Steelers, safety Troy Polamalu; (2. The Seattle Seahawks are about the closest Oregon has to a "local" team, so I'll root for them; (3. It's probably the last one I'll see in the U.S. for some time, so I might as well enjoy the beer-and-pizza, commercial-laden tradition one last time. Anyway, I'll cheer for the Seahawks, although in my artsy manner I have to admit it's not mainly because of the skill of their QB or their rushing techniques or whatever, but I've always just thought they had really cool helmet designs.
And this is why I don't blog sports often.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

LIFE: ...And now, poetry

Poetry is like the third rail of newspapers. Quality newspapers stay away from the stuff like it's the plague, except maybe in special arts sections. There's nothing worse than some of the poetry people submit as letters to the editors ("I had a cat, squashed flat, died / the day this happened, angels, they cried"). It's like a terrible door that once opened can never be shut if you let poetry in the paper, so most editors swear off the iambic stuff and stay far far away to avoid problems.

All this is apologia for my little bit of poesy that appeared in today's paper (or as wife Avril put it, "doggerel"). But really, who wants to write a dull editorial about how much rain we got, anyway? (Buckets, I say!) Cheerfully boss editor Bart let me get away with it and tonight 40,000 or so readers are groaning at my lameness:

The New Year dawned here full of rain and flood,
On January 1 the clouds created much mud.
Little did we know as the year embarked
It wouldn't let up until we started an ark
We almost floated away, so great was the flow
Some considered moving back to LA or Modesto
The flow came down throughout all January,
for most of the days, umbrellas we carried
The forecaster called and gave us a tip
Told us the month would give "record precip."
The rain that came down was amazing to see,
Inches totaling 12.03 swept to the sea.
If by inclination you want to measure over time,
It was the wettest January since 1899,
beating all the years that came before,
Including even the wet '50, '56 and '64.
We like rain, mostly, because it keeps things green
But too much of a good thing makes some folks mean
If there's a moral to be had from this soggy month's bounty,
It's that it's good to have a raincoat here in damp Douglas County.

Now if Bart gets a flood of equally bad poetry as letter submissions, it's all my fault. Perhaps I should update my resume...

MUSIC: The Perfect Songs, Part IV

Cue up the mix CD, once again, here we go, three more of the songs I deem in my mild-mannered way to be as perfect to my ear as a song can get. And to review, here's Part I, Part II, Part III. Onwards:

Click here10. "Sweet Jane," by the Velvet Underground. The VU were one of the all-time greats, the missing link between Beatles and Bowie, the slinky, leather-clad, smoky underside to 1960s hippie pop. They were odd and kind of creepy, but man, could they play a tune. And maybe none of their drug-and-debasement-obsessed songs was any more cheerful than this dreamy sing-along, with its snap-your-fingers beat, Lou Reed's nonchalant croon and that can't-ignore-it chorus. It's sunny pop... except if you actually listen close to the lyrics, and then you realize it's all a lot more complicated than that. Is the singer making fun of sweet, innocent Jim and Jane? Or is he envious? Like everything the Velvet Underground did, it's several things at once, but you can't help nodding your head to this one. "You know that women never really faint / and that villains always blink their eyes."

Click here11. "Tomorrow Never Knows," The Beatles. You could make a list of Perfect Songs with nothing but The Beatles on there, of course. This is one of just a couple dozen that could spring off the top of my head, but I thought it'd be an interesting one to include because it's not one of their most heralded. But it's a fascinating track from "Revolver" that almost precisely marks the dividing line between "yeah yeah yeah" Beatles and "I am the walrus" Beatles, John Lennon's psychedelic ode to... well, not sure exactly, but it's a hazy red apocalypse of a song, full of doomsday imagery and a feeling like a merry-go-round slowly running out of steam. For some reason, I always imagine seagulls flying over a deserted beach in a blood-red sky when I hear the opening (And I just learned from this wiki that seagull noise is actually Paul McCartney laughing playing backwards. Freaky, man.) Anyway, it's one of the best album closers ever, in my mind. "Turn off your mind, relax / and float downstream / It is not dying"

Click here12. "In Your Eyes," by Peter Gabriel. Is it obvious? Oh yes, it's obvious, the backbone of every romantic lad and lass's mix tape in the past 20 years. We're the Lloyd Dobler Generation, grew up watching John Cusack hold that boombox in "Say Anything" and realized hey, that's the way to be. Romantic but not a wuss (he kickboxes, for cryin' out loud), Lloyd was a stone-cold player. And "In Your Eyes" is one hell of a song, Gabriel's yearning, religious ode to love as an ideal. It's not the way the world is, but how it ought to be in some ideal universe. After a particularly rocky high school love affair, I must have played this song 4,219 times. In fact, if I had to be pinned down, I might have played this song more than any other song in my life. I don't listen to it as much these days, but it's still that Lloyd Dobler anthem that cuts into the heart of truth. "Love I get so lost, sometimes / Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart"

Thursday, February 2, 2006

POLITICS: Write your own speech!

Image hosting by Photobucket...Yeah, I didn't watch the State of the Union last night, and I'm a journalist. Bad form, eh? I can't handle the things. Even when Bill Clinton, who's a far better public speaker than either Bush, was in office, I tuned out usually. These glorified cheerleading opportunities/wish lists are long on rhetoric, short on substance, and I can't handle the breaking-WHOOOHOO--into the --CLAPCLAPCLAP-- speech every few sec—HURRAH!—seconds for applause.

Instead, I'm making my own speech. Yes, kids, you too can be the President! Write your own State of the Union speech!

You must use at least 8 of the words below in your speech excerpt. Extra points for squinting a lot! The best speech excerpt you put below in comments gets a special prize!! Just a couple sentences, if you want.
"Kermit the frog"
"malt liquor"
"weapons of mass destruction"

MOVIES: Oscar picks and pans

Image hosting by PhotobucketSo, how about them Oscar nominations? It's a pretty good list this year. Some years, I've seen barely any of the contenders, but this year, I've seen three of the five Best Picture nominees (and "Capote" finally comes here this weekend, and I plan on seeing it then), and several of the other big nominees. There’s a definite independent flavor to the Best Picture nominees of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Crash,” “Capote,” “Munich” and “Good Night, And Good Luck.” None of these movies have made more than $60 million at the box office.
Many of the pictures that were touted as “front-runners” last fall proved to be less impressive than their hype. Casualties included “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Producers,” “Rent” and “Cinderella Man.”
So here’s a look at the top categories and my picks for the winners:

Best Picture
Strong contenders all, but barring a major upset by “Crash,” it’s “Brokeback Mountain” riding home with the gold. Not having seen “Capote,” which never came to Roseburg, or “Munich,” I’d say “Brokeback Mountain” is the best of the bunch too.
Overlooked: As always, there’s a lot of fine movies that get passed over when there’s only five slots, such as “Cinderella Man” or “A History of Violence.” But I was particularly bummed to see the great “Walk The Line” not make the cut; I think it’s the equal of last year’s “Ray” as music bio-pics go.

Best Actor
One of the night’s tightest contests, it’ll go all the way to the finish line with Joaquin Phoenix, Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman the strongest contenders. I’d give the edge to Hoffman, a widely admired actor who reportedly is amazing in “Capote.” And while he’s not likely to win, it’s great to see Terrence Howard nominated for his fiery, mesmerizing turn in “Hustle & Flow.”
Overlooked: In David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” Viggo Mortensen plays a man balanced on the line between a bloody past and a hopeful future. It’s subtle, fascinating acting, and deserved recognition.

Best Actress
I’m going to go with my gut here and say Reese Witherspoon beats out close competitor Felicity Huffman of “Transamerica” for her spunky show of talent as the late June Carter Cash in “Walk The Line.” She stole the movie and her win is likely to be the big one “Walk The Line” takes home.
Overlooked: When you’re starring opposite a giant computer-generated ape, it’s easy to be overshadowed, but “King Kong” starlet Naomi Watts turned in a layered, sympathetic performance that evoked the classic stars of the silent-movie era.

Best Supporting Actor
George Clooney has gone from the cesspool that was “Batman & Robin” to a triple-Oscar nominee in less than a decade. His nomination here for “Syriana” joins two more for his behind-the-scenes work in “Good Night, And Good Luck.” Since I don’t think he’ll wrest away Best Director from Ang Lee, look for Clooney to win this one as a consolation prize. It’s another well-stocked category, but if I had my pick, I’d give it to Matt Dillon for his career-best performance as a racist white cop who discovers a kind of redemption in the chaos of “Crash.”
Overlooked: Call me crazy, but Mickey Rourke’s latex-clad, disturbing turn in the bloody “Sin City” as psychopathic killer Marv was one of the year’s best acting performances, and worth noting.

Best Supporting Actress
Ahh, Rachel Weisz. Come on down. This fine actress has been the bright spot in formulaic blockbusters like “The Mummy” and “Constantine.” Her passionate role in “The Constant Gardener” as Ralph Fiennes’ murdered activist wife finally gave her the chance to show what she can do.
Overlooked: Scarlett Johansson may be a blonde bombshell, but the woman can act. Passed over for 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” she got snubbed again for her praised work in Woody Allen’s “Match Point.”

Best Director
Ang Lee lost out in 2001 for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but “Brokeback Mountain” offers him another chance. The Asian director turned in a uniquely all-American tale in his adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story. In another hand, a gay cowboy romance could have been pandering or over-the-top offensive; instead, Lee applies a quiet, restrained eye to a tale of romance that’s as universal as “Romeo and Juliet.” He’s pretty much a sure thing to win this year’s honor.
Overlooked: David Cronenberg has been pigeonholed as a horror director, but his movies are also deft, twinge-inducing examinations of the human condition. “A History of Violence” is one of his best, and Cronenberg deserved a nod for this gripping tale over the well-Oscared “Munich” director Steven Spielberg.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

COMICS: Being Buddy Bradley

Image hosting by PhotobucketI've been on a kick lately re-reading Peter Bagge's classic 1990s comic "Hate," the tale of surly slacker Buddy Bradley and his travails. This alt-comic is one of those totems that defined my college and post-college years, and it's been fun revisiting it.

Although Bagge never meant to hop on a trend, he unwittingly did when his comic happened to be set in Seattle with a cast of twenty-something losers and geeks, right around the time grunge broke through. Over 30 issues from roughly 1990-1997, Bagge told the tale of Buddy Bradley grudgingly moving from slacker to man and business-owner. (He still publishes "Hate" Annuals roughly once a year that have caught us up with Buddy - now a father! - but the shorter stories and infrequent publication have kept these tales from being quite as memorable as the heyday of "Hate.")

Image hosting by PhotobucketI still get a kick out of Bagge's rubbery, expressive art (nobody quite draws twisted cartoon sex like Peter Bagge). And it's all funny as hell -- Buddy tries to manage a grunge band, Buddy hooks up with a psycho girlfriend, Buddy works in a used bookstore -- but what was interesting to me on a second look is how underneath all the cartoon contortions and sight gags, Bagge is one hell of an author. Buddy Bradley is a cartoon, but he's also a very recognizable, flawed human being, awash in self-loathing, misguided passions and sudden anger. Bagge gets the nutty insanity of relationships between men and women, and captures the ugliness that can erupt in an honest way few writers have. Bagge's art is so exaggerated it's easy to overlook how realistic he is in his characterizations.

The tender heart of "Hate" is Buddy's very screwed-up, very co-dependent relationship with Lisa, who's so messed up she makes Buddy look like Mr. Rogers. As "Hate" wore on, Bagge focused more and more on Buddy and Lisa and less on the cast of madcap sidekicks. Eventually, the series moved from black-and-white to full color and moved from Seattle back to Buddy's hometown in New Jersey to finish out the run. "Hate" purists, myself included, thought at the time these later color issues weren't quite as "hip" as what came before, that the edge was gone, but on re-reading, they hold up really well. Buddy's dysfunctional family comes to the fore and Buddy and Lisa's love life gets even more bizarre. In "Hate," everybody's screwed up somehow, but they still somehow make it to another day.

Fantagraphics recently put out "Buddy Does Seattle," a very cheap, very huge, 300+ page book that collects the entire first 15 issues of "Hate!," the whole black-and-white run from the series' time in Seattle. If you've never read this classic comic, you need to own this. The later color issues are reprinted as well in other volumes, plus Bagge's very first stories about a teenage Buddy and his family are all printed in "The Bradleys" collection. Go read 'em and glorify in the losers!