Sunday, June 29, 2008

Entirely random rainy Sunday-morning thoughts

...Well, what a lousy week THAT was for our wallet. In addition to it turning out we needed a new hot water cylinder as part of the whole Bathroom Disaster 2008 epic, this was the week our stumpy little 1996 Subaru decided to get most of its engine rebuilt (new timing belt, et cetera) to the tune of four digits of funds. Egad. When it rains it pours. At least we have our health. If not our savings account.

Photobucket"Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they changed it."
I didn't get a chance to write a post in honour of the late, great George Carlin, but most of the rest of the Internet did anyway far better than I could have. I always loved Carlin's grouchy, no-bullshit presence, even if I realize I never did see quite as much of his stand-up material as I've always meant to. Sadly, now is the time to catch up. Also: 101 great George Carlin lines. You just have to imagine his wonderfully surly voice saying them now.
"I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately."

PhotobucketOne thing that cheered me up mightily this week was finally getting my massive copy of Fred Hembeck's monumental Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus, 900-freaking-pages of vintage Hembeck cartoons from the '70s, '80s and beyond. Ever since this was announced last year I've been dying to read it, as I've been a fan of Fred's genial comic-essay toons since I read the old Fantaco books. Fred's like the nicest comic-store owner fanboy you ever met, full of honest love and appreciation for the medium, and it's fantastic to see this big ol' book, even if some of the lettering is a wee bit microscopic. His animated histories, pans and praises now look like some kind of witty ancestor of the comics blogosphere. I'm still amazed that I'm actually kinda-sorta an acquaintance-pal of Fred these days through the Internets, and he very kindly sent me a whole ton of Beatles covers CDs a couple years back. Whatta guy, that Hembeck. Bring on Volume 2!

...It's raining AGAIN. July in New Zealand is the winter of our discontent.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Classic Comics ABCs: Batman From The 30s To The 70s

We move on to letter #2 in my alphabetical survey of the comics that have meant the most to me in my 26 years reading 'em. B is for "Batman," and specifically, the gigantic classic hardcover collection "Batman From The 30s To The 70s," a heaping slab of comic reprints that shaped many a dreamers' life back in the day.

Batman From The 30s to The 70s

PhotobucketWhen I was a boy, I got this as a gift, and it's fair to say I was never quite the same since. Batman graphic novels could fill a library but this is perhaps the essential Batman overview, even though it only covers the character's first 30 years.

What a cornucopia of Bat-adventure this thing was. The very first Batman story from Detective Comics #27 looks crude and silly. Yet by the time the first Joker appearance comes around, the grinning clown is horrifying – and when we get to Batman battling the devilish Dr. Death in a burning basement, I was hooked.

The stories, moving through the years into the 1950s, took a turn for the lighter, which highlighted the swashbuckling fun side of Batman -- a trip back in time for "Batman - Indian Chief!", the introduction of the increasingly wacky Batwoman, Batgirl, and, um, Ace The Bathound (who actually seemed rather plausible for an 8-year-old). In "Dimension of Doom" Batgirl and Robin are riding around an alien jungle on polka-dot horse-beasts and Batman and Batwoman have become electrical creatures trapped on another world. The most terrifying notion in the story is that Batman might actually have to kiss Batwoman! Even then, it started to seem a little far-fetched.

But the final section of the book, "The 1970s," suddenly slapped you upside the head with a dunk in realism – "One Bullet Too Many," the classic 'grass roots' Batman tale where Robin moves out, off to college, and Batman abandons the Batcave and toys for a "streamlined" approach to fighting gritty '70s crime. The stories in the final section were darker, the art suddenly a lot more polished, and scary -- stories like "The Secret of The Waiting Graves" and "The Demon Of Gothos Mansion" were so stark and ominous that I remember not actually reading them for a long time, merely scanning the art with one eye, afraid of what these complex-looking tales might contain. The interesting thing about Batman From The 30s To The 70s is the stories start dark, then get lighter and more fanciful, before plummeting back to earth with the grimmest stories yet.

I read my first copy of this so many times it eventually fell apart completely, scattering Bat-pages everywhere. Picked up another copy relatively cheap on eBay (without the dust jacket, but heck, that's the way my copy always was too). A Batman who fights a maniacal Dr. Death in the shadows, then dances on giant typewriter keys while punching green aliens, and lastly chases ghosts around misty moors, all at the same time – that's my Batman!

Monday, June 23, 2008

I remember thinking, I can't wait to own a home

...So the great Bathroom Disaster of 2008 continues. I'm really hoping we can get things back to "normal" before I go to California in August, as we've been living with tarps holding up the shower wall and a rotten floor for weeks now. We've basically been waiting on an insurance claim to go through, and -- the good news -- it has and we're getting some cash to help fix the damage. The bad news, it's not enough to cover hiring builders who all seem to want precisely one gazillion dollars to repair our rotten bathroom floor. But it helps ease the pain I suppose.

PhotobucketAnyway, so Granddad and I are going to do the work ourselves (well, mostly Granddad who knows more about building than Bob the Builder himself) and began prospecting today as to what kind of wood we need to replace the joists, shore up a supporting beam, et cetera. Wonderfully, we found ANOTHER entirely different leak developing under the house today that seems to have sprung from the hot water cylinder, possibly created after the plumbing repairs in the bathroom because it sure wasn't there a few weeks ago. So yet another tradesman to call and get to come in and fix something dripping under the house. It's not as bad as the original leak as it hasn't been going so long, but needs to be dealt with really quick.

All in all, it's all being chalked up to "learning experience" (as in I done learned to inspect every single inch under any future house I survive to purchase). The main difference between owning a home and renting as we did for so many years is degrees of security – you feel more secure knowing you own your house and can do anything to it. But you also feel LESS secure knowing that if something breaks it's all up to you to deal with it. Hopefully in a week or so we can actually get down to the business of yanking up this rotten floor and making it all better, and then the easier job of retiling around the bath and making this whole cursed bathroom watertight for the duration. Yee-ha. Ain't home ownership fun?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk

...Well, that was a lot more fun that I'd imagined at the beginning of the summer when I gave old Hulk 2 a mere "4" on my Summer Movie Excite-O-Meter. "Incredible Hulk," the not-really-a-sequel to Ang Lee's 2003 version, is mostly jolly green superhero smashing fun, even if it's a bit rough around the edges. It's no "Iron Man," but that's hardly an insult.

Ang Lee's widely maligned "Hulk" flick was probably the most disappointing movie of the decade so far for me. Lee's created some genius movies, but him and "Hulk" were a confused non-starter that had moments of beauty but a heck of a lot of incoherence and ponderous psychobabble. So "Incredible Hulk" automatically starts out with some bad will, and to top it off reports of a troubled production. Given all the debits, it's a qualified success.

Director Louis Letterier kind of assembles a grab-bag of "Hulk" lore – he scoops up a fair bit of the "Hulk" '70s TV show, a smattering of classic and modern comics bits, and a hint of "Godzilla" towards the end. The movie feels a little choppy, not sure if it's a character-based drama or a summer-action flick (it fails to combine the two near-seamlessly like the best "Spider-Man" or "Iron Man" have done). But it rarely stumbles completely.

PhotobucketTHE PROS: Edward Norton is a solid actor and takes on the role of Bruce Banner well, with a jittery paranoia combined with a steel spine underneath (I never liked the Banner-as-helpless-geek portrayal). You really get the sense of a man wrestling with a kind of addiction, and it's a measure of Norton's talent that I actually enjoyed the scenes with him more than the Hulk ones.

Speaking of Hulk, the computer effects have definitely improved a lot in five years, but how much you "buy" the Hulk's realism depends on exactly how "real" a 7-foot-tall green giant can be. There's a gritty texture to the new Hulk that makes him feel more real than Lee's Gumby. Although, in the final bash-and-crash showdown with his evil doppleganger the Abomination, it all turned into a rubbery CGI overload. The best scene with the Hulk is actually the quietest one, a rainy post-battle interlude in a cave with Betty Ross that achieves a kind of "Frankenstein"-esque poetry.

I always love Tim Roth (the best thing about the awful "Planet Of The Apes" remake a while back), and he's a sneering, cocky delight as Emil Blonsky, the aging soldier who lusts for Hulk-style power. Again, though, when he gets all computer-enhanced he actually becomes a lot less interesting as a character. So it goes, I guess.

Even though he's a minor role, Tim Blake Nelson ("O Brother Where Art Thou?") is a scene-stealer as the addled genius scientist Samuel Stearns, who "Hulk"-o-philes know ends up a major Hulk villain himself, the uber-intelligent The Leader. That future is set up nicely here.

This one's definitely higher on Hulk-smashing action than Lee's slow burning film, and some of it is great – a big showdown on a college campus is the highlight, but I also really enjoyed the Hulk's spooky, shadow-enshrouded debut in a Brazilian bottle factory (and I have to say, the whole Brazilian slums setting at the start of the movie is beautifully realized chaos).

PhotobucketTHE CONS: Liv Tyler doesn't embarrass herself, exactly, but she's merely OK as Betty Ross and you never for one millisecond buy her as a cellular biologist. I would've liked to see Jennifer Connelly return in the role from "Hulk," actually -- her and Norton would've been good together. William Hurt is decent as General Thunderbolt Ross, although I felt him straining to recreate the comic character's blustering bravado.

I've never seen any of director Letterier's other action-kung fu type movies -- but I have to admit I found the editing kind of choppy, "Bourne Identity"-homaging fast cuts that often distracted from the action unfolding. The final battle scenes were a lot less engaging than I'd hoped they'd be. Indeed, in the last half-hour you can really feel the editing scissors were at work here (a rumored 40-50 minutes of footage were cut from the original movie, it seems, in a move to "action it up" a notch). Also, while the Hulk clashes are quite violent, it's all rather bloodless – you have to imagine dozens die during the course of this movie, but you never really feel it. I don't think a hard "R"-rated "Hulk" would work either for the character, but the lack of consequences for most of the rampaging kind of takes away some of the picture's punch.

I'd say this inches up into the "quite good" range of Marvel comics flicks (in other words, up there with the first "X-Men" movie but not quite "Spider-Man 2" or "Iron Man" range). Worth seeing on the big screen if you're a "Hulk" fan to get all the impact. Grade: B

Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday Shuffle: 'I was a landscape in your dream and all my mountains were on fire.'

...The iPod was in a melancholy mood today but after wallowing in navel-gazing electronica soon roused itself with some Lennon rabble-rousing. It smelled like cut grass and gray storm clouds.

Photobucket1. My Seventh Rib (Live) 2:29 The Shins
Circus apology
2. I Was A Landscape In Your Dream 3:05 Of Montreal
Lost reverie
3. Obstacle 2 3:47 Interpol
Stern angst
4. Hurt 6:14 Nine Inch Nails
Hushed explosions
5. Rainbow 8:11 Battles
Calculators dancing
6. Power To The People 3:20 John Lennon
Crowd control
7. Boulevard Of Broken Dreams 4:21 Green Day
Sidewalk anthem

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My Classic Comics ABCs: Amazing Spider-Man #230

I've been reading comic books religiously for 26 (!!!) years now, and I'm having great fun introducing my 4-year-old boy to 'em. (Nothing quite perks up the dormant geek in me like having him say, "Read me a superhero story!"). Thousands of comics by everyone from Kirby to Crumb, tales of characters from superheroes to gods to spacemen to unemployed bookstore clerks, have passed my eyeballs by.

So let's begin an irregular blog series taking a trip down memory lane with My Classic Comics ABCs (a tip of the hat to Comics Should be Good who I shamelessly stole the format from) – head through the alphabet with me picking out comics from my collection that have meant a heck of a lot to me in the past 26 years. Starting, of course, with A and in my humble opinion the greatest comic-book hero of 'em all...

Amazing Spider-Man #230, July 1982

PhotobucketNothing quite like coming in on part two of a two-part story, but what a part – this story is universally regarded as one of the finest Spider-Man stories in the character's 45+ year history, and with good reason. Spider-Man's swell against foes on his playing field, but what happens if you put him against someone with Hulk-like strength? "Nothing Can Stop The Juggernaut" takes one of the X-Men's classic villains and pits him against the wall-crawler, and Roger Stern's fantastic script takes a rote notion and turns it into near Greek-myth level pathos as poor Peter Parker just keeps on fighting against a seemingly unbeatable foe.

Picking this up at the Lucky's drugstore spinning comic book rack in spring 1982, I was thrown right into the action – part two, like I said, and basically the entire issue is one big chase-fight scene as the hulking Juggernaut walks out of Manhattan, with a hopelessly outmatched Spider-Man trying to stop him. Spidey uses fists, webs, construction equipment, even, in a dazzling sequence illustrated by the young John Romita Jr., a loaded gas tanker. Nothing works, until the most humble of solutions presents itself. As far as underdog stories go, this is one of the greats.

Perhaps the defining element of Peter Parker's character over the years has been that he's constantly beaten down, but always gets back up again. This story takes that element and pushes it to its limits, with crisp, clean storytelling. Roger Stern wrote a run of Spider-Man in the early 1980s that most consider among the character's best moments. For an 11-year-old kid picking up comics for the first time, it kinda felt like having the Beatles be your first rock band. I still have my battered 1982 Amazing Spider-Man #230 somewhere, and fondly recall it as one of the kindling sparks for a lifelong love of comics and an abiding appreciation for my favorite character, the good ol' Amazing Spider-Man.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Deep into the redwood canopy: Wild Trees

PhotobucketOne of my favorite places in the world has always been California's most remote regions, far away from the crowds and traffic, the foggy Northwesternmost coast of Eureka and Arcata and Crescent City. Redwood country. It's a long ways from anywhere – 5,6 hours at least from San Francisco along some really windy roads. The chilly damp, grey-skied and very green forests aren't for everyone, but every time I've visited friends and vacationed there, I feel like I'm visiting somewhere I belong.

Part of that big appeal is the redwoods, utterly epic giants of trees that are so big they become your environment rather than just part of it. You can walk through a redwood forest and not even see the tops of most of the trees. It's a cool place, full of much mystery, and so Richard Preston's great book "The Wild Trees" is like a travelogue of another planet – the world that exists on top of the redwoods. A few years back Preston wrote a fascinating New Yorker article following those who explored the redwood canopy – 200, 300 feet above the ground, where unknown to science until only a few years ago, entire ecosystems had formed in the crowns of redwoods. There are epiphytes (plants growing on the redwoods), soil formed over decades, species of animals unknown to science, and much more. Preston later expanded that article into this deeply evocative book.

Photobucket"The Wild Trees" is a must for anyone interested in how much we still don't know about the natural world. He digs into the stories of those spellbound by the redwoods, a handful of dreamers, botanists and adventurers who've been scaling the redwoods, searching for their secrets. Gradually folks like Humboldt University professor Stephen Sillett realize just how little anyone knows about the inaccesible peaks of tall trees, and that hidden in the foggy remote canyons of Northwestern Cailfornia are trees that are the tallest in the world.

Preston - who wrote "The Hot Zone" a few years back – balances history, ecological musings and his own growing fascination with redwood country. He puts you right there as his cast scale redwoods with impossible skill – relying on a single rope or two to hold their life dangling 300 feet in the air. I seriously doubt I'll ever climb one of the world's tallest trees, but Preston's tense, spare prose put me right there in the canopy. (And harrowingly brings home what it'd be like to fall in one terrifying scene.) A New York Times review puts it well – "Preston combines the thrill of exploration with the quirkiness of those who choose it as their lives’ work."

He's clearly awed by the redwoods, but avoids too much new-agey tree-hugging sentiment in favor of letting the facts speak for themselves: "Botanists think that the oldest redwoods may be somewhere between two thousand and three thousand years old. They seem to be roughly the age of the Parthenon." And estimates are that since people began buzzing around, about 95 percent of the coast redwoods are gone. "The Wild Trees" is an invitation to a world most of us will never see, a reminder that there's a heck of a lot more going on in this big blue marble than we can imagine.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Buffy-A-Thon: Season 5

And so life -- or rather, death -- goes on. In my ongoing project to watch the entire seven seasons of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," I've wrapped up season 5 and started season 6 – and now I'm getting sad for the inevitable end of the series. But heck, I'm enjoying the ride, and it's a show that's still better than 90% of what's on TV these days.

PhotobucketSeason 5 is the transition point from young cool kids to hard adulthood for the Buffy gang. After dabbling in college last year, there's very little of that shown here – by the time Buffy officially drops out, you figure she'd already stopped going months ago.

For Buffy, it's a season of loss – her mother, her boyfriend, and in the end, even her life. But she also gains a mystical sister, whose addition is an odd but ultimately successful moment for the series (while I still have to question a spell so powerful it can magic up a person and her memories for the entire world, heck, it's a show about a vampire slayer, so I let that go).

The theme of this season is family, and what it means for someone whose job is to deal death to demons. Michelle Trachtenberg as Buffy's "sister" Dawn takes a few episodes to get the right vibe, but by season's end I found her believably annoying-slash-vulnerable as a little sister can be. James Marsters' Spike continues to be the most charismatic of the characters, and livens up every scene he's in. He takes the quite implausible notion of a vampire crushing on the Slayer and makes it work.

PhotobucketThe tone of this season is hard to get used to, though, as there's less light-heartedness (besides a very amusing battle with Dracula himself in the season opener, and the enjoyably bitchy portrayal of goddess-gone-mad Glorificus, the series' main villain). But it's also, I would argue, the best season in terms of sheer skill – the writing, acting and themes are all at top strength. Perhaps the only drawback is that it's just all so darned dire for Buffy throughout, culminating in her self-sacrifice to save her new sister's life at season's end. A little bit of the goofy pulpy joy to be found in the previous few seasons is gone, but admittedly it's replaced by the confident posture of a series trying to combine horror, kung-fu action, drama and humour in a way few television series have ever done.

Best episode: Speaking of dark – "The Body," where Buffy's mother's sudden death is handled with a shocking, matter-of-fact realism that hits you like a body blow. No sappy sentimental music, just a sense of shock and harrowing loss that's as hard to view as any gory vampire battle might be. In a series where critters die pretty much every 20 minutes, this episode yanks bank the veil to show how shattering one death can truly be. It's easily one of the top "Buffy" episodes ever.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

He's in the best selling show. Is there Life on Mars?


• This is the coolest thing I've seen all week. Yep, it's a sunset. On Mars, man!! Tell me that isn't awesome.

• Hey, AllMusic Blog is doing what I did a year ago - namely, looking back at the best albums of 1977, one of music's finest 365 days. Check out their groovy critics' lists here.

• Another reason to vote Barack: Bob Dylan has endorsed him. I mean, really, was that a surprise though?

• I've done the MySpace thing, and now I'm hip with the cool kids over at Facebook (which I have to say has much smoother functionality than the clunky MySpace). Because I really need another way to waste my time. Anyway, friend me if you know where to find me, mates!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Dear Hillary, this is reality calling

PhotobucketReally, I am a fan of Bill Clinton, and thought he was a tremendous president even if his Falstaffian appetites constantly undermined him. Like LBJ, he's all id and ego, but that horrific lust for power was generally trained in directions I admire. But honestly, this entire campaign has left me generally disenchanted with the Clintons, and the final straw was Hillary's utterly tacky, egocentric "non-concession" speech.

The primaries are over. She has lost. Wouldn't it have been something, then, if she had recognized the historic triumph of Barack Obama as nominee, of a man who 50 years ago wouldn't have even been allowed to vote in many places? A man who 150 years ago would have been a slave? Couldn't she just for that one moment absorb that her own loss is a bummer, that her winning would've been a pretty huge milestone itself, but good lord, what has been achieved in this primary season is pretty darn cool? Tonight was the moment to reconcile, not tomorrow or Friday or next week.

How graceless. How petty. How disappointing. And that petty politicking is why I voted for Obama instead. She's determined to drag this out past the point of unseemly and to the point of self-parody, and that's a shame. Obama's utopian rhetoric may be hot air and it may not change the world, and I'm sure he'll disappoint and stumble some if elected, but it's a darn sight better than ugly self-interest and denial. Tonight was Hillary Clinton's moment to rise, and she sank.

Edited to add: Surfing the always nifty Newseum front pages website this morning and saw this one -- fantastic.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Stomachache, head wounds and "Crystal Skull"

PhotobucketContrary opinions, vol. 1. I really should never read anything on the Internets, because everybody usually hates everything. In any event, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" after being gripped for disappointment. Escapist pulpy fun, really, and I'd call it up there with the first two sequels. (None of them touch the brash novelty of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," though.) It has flaws -- too many sidekicks, a rather unimpressive return from "Raiders" co-star Karen Allen -- but it also has an awesome Cate Blanchett channeling Natasha from "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle." I think she's easily the most memorable villain in a series that oddly, lacks distinctive villains. I loves me some Soviet vixen. And for all those who claim this one's far-fetched, I felt it fit in just fine with the series so far (and liked the '50s sci-fi paranoia vibe). I mean, in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," we had people's faces being melted off by the wrath of God and freakin' 1000-year-old knights guarding the Holy Grail in "Last Crusade," eh? I don't think "Skull" is as smooth a piece of summer escapism as "Iron Man" was, but heck, it's a fun time at the picture show.

• So, I've been dealing with recurring stomach pains and insomnia the past few months, which kind of sucks when you have to get up for work at 5am. Not sure if it's a gastric thing, stress, food allergy or (urk) an ulcer. It's had quite an unpleasant effect on my once-charming demeanor, I'm afraid. Up until about 1999 I hadn't been to the doctor in YEARS, but in the past decade it's been one thing after another for these brittle bones, it seems. Going to return to doctor this week despite my horror of having tubes stuck down my gullet (an option he mentioned last time I saw him about this back in October or so). Egad. Age stinks.

• We went for a fine beach trail hike yesterday with Peter, who's really getting impressive at his ability to go on long walks. (Good thing, as he's darn heavy to carry now.) However he did manage to fall on his face three times, which is never fun. He did one particularly nasty crash onto jagged lava beach rocks which sent panic skating through our hearts for a moment, but fortunately just had a little cut on his face. It's amazing we ever make it past the age of 4, really.