Friday, July 30, 2004

Here's looking at ... uh ... never mind.

So, they've devised a way to photograph your eye and determine exactly what you're looking at. They better not take this sucker to the beach, that's all I gotta say.

Anyway, they think they can extend this process so that they can analyze old photos of historical figures, say JFK, and determine exactly where they were looking and what precisely they were looking at. Do we really need all this technology to determine that Jack was looking at Marilyn Monroe's chest?

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Starsky & Hutch

Y'know, even though he's a bit overexposed, Ben Stiller is a national treasure. As a kid I was a faithful watcher of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and so I saw Stiller's parents, Ann Meara and Jerry Stiller (I even knew how to spell "Meara" without looking it up!), a lot. I loved their back and forth humor; no one had an act quite like that. And they could spin off effortlessly into a skit, complete with accents and everything, and then back to their act. I was always happy when they were announced as the guests.

So when Ben Stiller got a TV show all those years ago, I rolled my eyes inwardly thinking it was yet another Hollywood brat getting a break due entirely to his parent's name(s). Like the Steely Dan song goes: "show business kids making movies of themselves, you know they don't give a fuck about anybody else, you know you go to ... Lost Wages [Las Vegas]." Every time I see another Hollywood brat get a career, that lyric blasts through my brain like an enema. Out of sheer laziness, I watched part of one of his shows and wasn't that impressed. It was a just-above-average parody and skit show, the mold for which was cast by SNL and just recently broken by Mad TV. Only the odd TV freak and presumably Stiller's parents mourned the show when it was cancelled.

He was OK in Reality Bites, but when he finally showed up in braces and that 70s hair in Something About Mary, his talent finally clicked. Even though he's made some average movies, I don't believe he's made a truly bad one, yet, which in itself is an accomplishment. Even more to the point, though, he's become one of those stars whose name on the bill will guarantee an audience and at least a few memorable scenes.

Starsky & Hutch doesn't really get the tone of the old TV show right, like both The Brady Bunch and even the Scooby Doo movies have. The only thing it does get right, outside of the car, of course, is the first scene where Starsky (Stiller) is chasing a crook across rooftops, and he stops and yells, "Halt! Or I'll shoot!" and immediately squeezes off about three rounds. I remember back in the day of the original show, we LOVED that, because of course no one could hear the command and stop before the bullets came flying. It was a "tuff guy" joke because Starsky & Hutch said those words only as a formality, kinda like reading the Miranda rights to someone unconscious, when they really just wanted to give them fatal lead poisoning.

Aside from that, the movie diverges wildly from the show. But in this case it works. For one reason, they play with the homoeroticism between Starsky & Hutch, and get it just perfect. This is about the only movie in memory where they get the balance precisely right (outside of the previously mentioned Brady Bunch where a girl is helplessly in love with Marsha, and Marsha - stuck in her 70s time warp - just doesn't see it, and thus inadvertently tortures the poor girl by being sweet in a way that just could possibly a reciprocation, but clearly isn't, like promises of sleepovers and stuff - It's hilarious to watch). It's clear that both the guys like the gals, but do stuff that is so gay, the jaw just drops. I predict the line, "Hey, I have hobbies. I work out." in response to Hutch's questioning of Starsky's masculinity after he cries just a little too long will become one of those catch phrases guys toss at one another as a clue to cowboy up.

There's one dancing scene that utterly does not work. It's actually painful to watch, and it yanks you out of the movie so completely, you wonder how pros like Stiller and Owen Wilson (Hutch) could've missed it. But, other than that, there's plenty of laugh out loud scenes, including a scene with mimes. Now, the mimes are less gratuitous than you'd think, because remember this was in the day where those famous 70s mimes Shields and Yarnell had a variety show (yes kids, an entire variety show where the stars didn't talk - the mind boggles, eh?), perhaps even on the same network as Starsky & Hutch. I think it was a clever nod to that fact.

At the end you see the original Starsky & Hutch - Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul - and the first thing you think is "Holy $h!t! David Soul looks terrible!" But then, when you get a closer look, you see he's simply aged. Paul Glaser still looks a lot like he did, though, which just makes the contrast all the more severe. It helps to remember that they are up there in age, since they were in their 30s on the show 30-some years ago.

Sadly, the luminous and quirky Juliette Lewis is relegated to a blink and you'll miss it gratuitous girlfriend role, which is like casting say Will Smith in a 5-line, walk-on boyfriend role where he's dropped by the leading lady in the first scene.

Oh, and yes, the new Hutch does sing "Don't Give Up on Us." It's a hoot. Check it out.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Just Wondering

Is the model shown on Yahoo Mail's login screen Roxann Dawson, a.k.a. B'Elanna Torres from Star Trek Voyager?

What do you think?

The Human Stain

I'll start out with an honest opinion: Meh.

I've never been able to get through much of Philip Roth's oeuvre. He's one of those few east coast, upper literary establishment types that I've never been able to decode with much success. He just doesn't move me. Even a soft-core porn novel like Portnoy's Complaint with vivid scenes of copulating with the liver destined for dinner the next day (and putting it back in the fridge after it's been used) and ejaculate shattering a lightbulb in the bathroom managed to be dry and inaccessible for me. The Ghost Writer is one of the very few novels I've abandoned midway, which was something I almost never did back in the day where I felt obligated to finish any book I started (age and wisdom have drained that silliness from me). The way some people string words together just does not work for you, no matter how good a writer everyone else says they are.

Still, though, when someone has been praised as much as Roth has, I feel I should continue to give him the odd re-try, because perhaps I've aged enough to appreciate him or have come upon new insights that might have drawn our worlds closer together. So I picked up The Human Stain at the library once. I will give Roth this much credit: he invariably invokes within me my inner octogenarian who falls asleep in the Easyboy in mid-sentence. A spot-read of random paragraphs throughout left me dazed and somnambulant. I put it back on the shelf before I hurt myself or others.

However, I mentally earmarked a viewing of the eventual movie, knowing I could perhaps persist through two hours of passive intake of the premise, which sounded interesting. A prof. is accused of racism because he uses a word where one of its many alternate meanings is a derogatory term for someone black, that being "spook." (Echoing the real-life fiasco that made rounds in the media where someone used the word "niggardly" to describe something, and since it's so close to the verboten word, idjits in more than a few places pointed and screamed like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers even though a casual glance at a dictionary would show that "niggardly" has no etymological connection to the other dreaded term, and even predates it.) So said prof. gets fired and his life goes to shambles when he takes refuge in the vagina of a woman with so much baggage that a herd of Sherpas would refuse to carry it from one end of a completely level parking lot to the other. The bitter irony is that said prof. is really black himself and has been posing as a white person since college. The end.

Anthony Hopkins was cast as the prof. and Nicole Kidman as the vagina. (Please forgive the indelicacy of this characterization if you can, but I feel it's true to Roth's general portrayal of women. He can't seem to get past their pink parts (e.g. The Breast), which is another reason his fiction bores me.) Hopkins is always interesting and serves the role well, and thus makes the movie watchable. I personally have a problem with Kidman; I've never liked her and she's on the short list with Liza Minnelli and Mickey Rooney of actors who completely ruin a movie for me. I just can't get past my dislike of them. I also don't think she can act, but since my bias is so strong, I will disqualify myself from useful judgment thereof. So her being cast as a skank worked for me.

I found the movie somewhat tedious aside from the bright points offered by Hopkins. And Ed Harris once again proves how versatile he is. I bet most casual movie viewers won't even recognize him as the same guy who played John Glenn in The Right Stuff and Christof (the "creator") in The Truman Show. Oh, and full-frontal nudity always helps hoist a dismal movie for about ten minutes, and this movie has one of the more gratuitous examples I've ever seen, but I still doubt it would get Joe Bob Briggs to watch the flick.

So, if the topic intrigues you, and you can rent it from the $1 racks (or see it free by getting it from the library - and you know since it's Roth the libraries will carry it), by all means, it's worth two hours of your time. Otherwise, Hellboy is finally out!

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

I, Robby

The first teaser trailer for I, Robot was spectacular. It was modulated and honed as are most commercials for the launch of new technology products. It was perfect. I couldn't wait. Asimov's robot stories were one of the singular joys of my childhood, and I return to them to this day as kind of a literary comfort food. It appeared somebody had read them and understood the unique tone that Asimov had created. Then came the preview trailer, with robots swarming all over to overamped music, clearly on the attack. Because Asimov felt that such an event was a cheap shot, and because humans would naturally have a lot of instinctual fear of a mechanical human, not once did anything remotely like that happen in any of his stories. Anyone who'd read them and loved them knew that. I was no longer excited about the movie. Clearly some hack had been handed the rights and a stack of cash, and pointed in ILM's general direction.

Still, I have a geekly obligation to see most sci-fi films, especially one that's based on something I love, so there I was. The first five to ten minutes of the film are dedicated to showing how hot Will Smith, Converse sneakers, and JVC stereos are. Typically, I couldn't care less about product placements, because they often seem natural; we all drink soda and eat at fast food places, so their presence just makes it more realistic. But these product placements were so lovingly shot that it's likely a second unit hired by an advertising company had composed the little vignettes. My hopes for the movie dropped even further. My wife had enjoyed the beefcake butt shot, though. (And Yamaha makes the best stereos, by the way.)

We waft through a scene reminiscent of Men in Black where Will runs down a robot, and then finally get to the plot which revolves around the death of the guy who more or less invented the robot "positronic" (a word invented by Asimov which means nothing, it just sounds cool) brain. Seems he committed suicide, but the fact that the movie is only minutes old and that Will is suspicious point to other conclusions. The robot is revealed in a scene reminiscent of The Matrix, where the robot leaps into the air, does some swat-fu maneuvers in slo-mo, then escapes out of the window where the supposed jumper met his fate. But only, of course, after Will pumps some shots into him, and he bleeds silver.

Then, an amazing thing happens: the movie starts to get kinda good. It actually does adhere to Asimov's world for the most part (massive robot attacks aside). It gets the character, though not the age and appearance, of Susan Calvin right. The robots are close to what Asimov envisioned, except they were often very still in the stories and only moved when absolutely necessary, which was one of the things that made them so otherworldly. In the movie, they're like people and are always in motion. And I bet that had to do with the fact they are computer animated. You pay an animator to move something and by God s/he's gonna move it. Anyway, a serviceable plot buoys the movie, but Will Smith is its saving grace. His performance is a case study on how a charismatic, skillful actor can make a movie.

He makes so many choices that are dead-on right, he practically holds this movie together with sheer will (oy!) and talent. The main robot itself sounds like Hal after a lobotomy, or Robbie the Robot's (Forbidden Planet) gay, stylish brother. But oddly he has no personality to help the flick along, which is odd because Asimov managed to infuse nearly all of his robots with some kind of uniqueness in spite of their mass produced origin. Susan Calvin is relegated to the chick in trouble stereotype, so she's no help. Will has to do all the heavy lifting, but he's the man for the task, it seems. The scene where he reveals why he hates robots so much is itself a showstopper. That man will have an Oscar someday.

The only huge gaffe in the movie, besides the aforementioned robot attack, is the setting of the finale. Without giving too much away, Galaxy Quest has a great joke about contrived obstacles at the endings of action shows, which I, Robot pulls out in spades. It's still a fun ending, but you might find yourself running Sigourney Weaver's dialogue in your head when the set piece is revealed.

James Cromwell plays the famous robot scientist, Dr. Lanning, who supposedly jumped to his death at the start of the film, and who is revealed through flashback and hologram. It's interesting where Cromwell has ended up as an actor. He's played the benevolent but flawed creators of Star Trek's warp drive, the positronic brain of Asimov's robots, and of course the farmer who trained a pig to herd sheep. Kids growing up today will probably imprint on his face as the one to trust, the one who knows all there is worth knowing, and anyone who resembles him will get automatic pass as a good and smart man.

If you like sci-fi, big action flicks, Will Smith, or Asimov's robot stories, you'll like this flick. It's not necessarily a big-screen movie, though, so if you want to wait for the DVD release, which will no doubt contains all those fun extra goodies, including the brilliant original teaser trailer, by all means do. Oh, and outside of some language and a brief glimpse of the jumper scientist in a pool of blood, this movie is OK for kids under 13, if you are OK with your kids being exposed to a little language and a quasi-realistic looking dead body, that is. Put it this way, this is Bugs Bunny compared to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, which I know a lot of parents let their kids see. Which reminds me, if anyone is looking for a Sr. thesis in psychology, in about 10-15 years, there will be a cottage industry of recently grown people who were exposed to the scary and violent (but great) LOTR flicks unwittingly, and have all sorts of demons with which to wrestle.

Monday, July 26, 2004


Ain't this the most malevolent-looking cat you've ever seen?


This is the first Boondocks strip I've liked. Typically its whitey-hating, Malcom-didn't-go-far-enough skank just offends me. I honestly laughed at this one, tho.

I'm sure today it's back to its "kill the cracker" vibe.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Ted Turner says we need to bust up the media conglomerates.

I agree.

Click here to read the article.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

I Predict

"So where do you see the music industry going?" The Motley Fool asks.

Glad you asked. Grab a cold one, this ain't gonna be short.

To see where the music industry is going, we need to look in the rearview and see where it's been.

Oddly enough, when we start in on the blame game of what the hell happened, we have to start at "classic rock" stations. Until the mid 80s, one of the more popular radio formats was a mix of all the current hits, regardless of genre. So, you would hear Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, the Doors, the Cars, Olivia Newton John, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Commodores, Bob Marley, Air Supply (shudder), Willie Nelson, and Duran Duran all in the same hour on the same station. It was more varied in the late 70s, but variety was still limping along until the mid 80s. Then, because of a rift between Punk and New Wave, where neither audience could stand listening to the other's music, radio began to fragment worse than it had at any time in the past since rock and roll pushed big bands off the stage. And, while never the most popular genre, even country had gone through a drastic change, splintering into the "outlaws" and overly slick "new country," which occurred about the same time that Urban Cowboy changed the pop landscape for a while. Thus, within the major genres, there were deep divisions in preferences and tastes so profound that a format that would attempt to keep everyone happy would in fact be an equal opportunity offender. Finally, into the mix came rap and hip-hip - and hip-hop's bastard stepchild, the milquetoast harmonizing groups like Boyz II Men (later carried to its nauseating extreme by prefab boy and girl groups) - further fracturing the audience. Into this mess strolled the "classic rock" radio format, which endlessly recycles the best of the hits of yesterdecade, hitting all the right endorphin points, causing a mass abandonment of the more eclectic mix formats, eliminating exposure to new music. The audience has left the building.

Next came the deregulation of radio and the consolidation of many diverse labels into 4 to 5 monolithic corporations, whose intent was not producing and marketing music, but owning and creating the content for their hardware and media outlets. The idea being if they owned the production of media as well as the delivery mechanism, they could cut costs and maximize profit. So, in short, the bean counters took over everything. And if this cynical, brain-dead approach to the creation of music didn't hurt enough, the homogenization of the radio market made an already vanilla market now sugar-free and fat-free, making even the most pabulum-receptive, Lawrence Welk listener underwhelmed and thus unable to slough through the interminable commercial breaks just to hear another lame song. It's discovered en masse that radios come with an off switch.

The most notorious trend in the midst of this making water from wine was the creation of boy bands and eye-candy chanteuse wannabes, formed by businessmen rather than the artists themselves, purposely created with the sole intent of playing to the lowest common denominator. Or, to put it more bluntly, music created just the same way music for commercials is created; it's pure marketing. Another attractive feature of this approach is the artist is easily controlled since they don't have any real ability themselves, and thus they're cheaper and less work than a messy band full of disparate creative personalities with actual talent who all expect to get paid reasonably. Britney, Christina, Madonna (the Godmother of all that is fake and marketing-driven), TLC, Brandy, Destiny's Child, NSync, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and their predecessor Boyz II Men all had a distinctive (ironic word, that, to describe something so bland) implosive aural quality, something I've often described as "the attack of the background singers." The primary sound is a synthetic beat provided by a drum machine or a stolen James Brown drum riff, an excessively blended and overproduced music track, which was usually a slush of synthesized keyboards ("muzak" by another name), topped off by weak voicals harmonizing with the occasional showoff solo exploiting and abusing the musical conceit of melisma to new, profound depths. Even dogs in proximity to this kind of music display extreme discomfort, it's so horrid. However, since it is so frothy and sweet, unsophisticated pre-teens whose musical palettes have been formed primarily by cartoon themesongs soak this stuff up like maxipads with wings.

Two other contributing factors were price gouging and the quality of albums in general. Nearly all the labels and the music clubs were either sued or threatened with legal action when news of their decade-long practice of CD price gouging filled the entertainment news outlets. The companies had once promised that the initial high price for CDs would go down once the format was more widespread and mastering costs dropped. Well, both of those things happened, but prices continued to rise. All the labels admitted their price-fixing sins, too - a rare thing in this post-Nixon age. Then there was the quality issue. If you popped for a $20 CD, you'd often find that only the single you heard on the radio was any good. You'd immediately spot said single on one of these types of albums because it would have an asterisk next to the title, and the explanatory fine print would reveal that that one song had been produced and mixed by a team or individual that hadn't been even slightly involved in the creation of the rest of the album, which sounded like it. To make matters worse, there was a brief span of years where the "hotter" mix of the single played on the radio wasn't the version that was on the album. It became so controversial that Loreena McKennitt's label was forced to provide a free copy of the single "The Mummer's Dance" by request to anyone who had purchased the album. Jewel and Sarah McLachlan had similar fiascos to deal with. Jewel's first three radio hits aren't available in their familiar radio mix anywhere.

On top of all this, all the supposed music channels - MTV and VH1 in America - simply stopped playing videos and put on wrestling, softcore porn, reality shows, game shows, and nostalgia programming. Thus, they closed off the one other avenue anyone had to new music.

So, with the combination of histrionic muzak filling the allotted 15 minutes per hour between overly loud commercial blocks on radio, acerbated by no other new music source and the fractured listening public, most people began tuning out entirely. This in combination with consumers having been burned by not getting the actual song they'd heard on the radio anywhere on their pricy new CD caused sales to plummet, and the music scene flopped over with a resounding crash, broad cartoon X's where its big, bright eyes used to be.

Then, a convenient scapegoat quietly shuffled onto the pasture: file-trading technology, also known as peer-to-peer networking software that didn't require a central server, which allowed the easy trading of small MP3 song files. If you actually managed to hear a song you liked, you could hop onto the web, search it up, and have it playing in less time then it took to find your keys and wallet, back out of the driveway, and make it to the first traffic light. The music industry had also done a very spotty job of releasing their back catalogues onto CD, so often Napster or Audiogalaxy were the only places you could find that favorite old guilty pleasure. Music was suddenly free in every sense of the word. I even used these things for a while, though primarily to snag songs not available on CD, or those that I wouldn't buy a whole CD just to get the single.

Apparently unable to see their own culpability in the mess, the zombie music conglomerates blamed the music trading websites solely for their financial losses. Draconian legislation and lawsuits were invoked, and guilt-fests were regularly excreted through media megalith print and broadcast outlets, proffering tales of woe of poor starving artists who were robbed of their royalties from thieves downloading songs for free. (In a classic misstep, the primary poster child for this effort was the full-goose bozo insane multi-gazillionaire Garth Brooks, with his creepy glassy staring eyes, who also wanted to you stop buying used CDs so he could finally meet his goal of outselling the Beatles. He eventually relented and starting doing soda commercials, assuming his appropriate place in the music world strata.) Music lovers and fringe journalists would meekly state that the CDs were too expense, too full of filler, and that most of what passed for hits sucked the high hard one anyway, but only the bean counters' version of events consistently made the big press.

So, here we are, on the brink of what's to come. Radio stations are worse than ever. The only place you can find decent music on TV is in the background of car commercials and the like. The conglomerates proudly broadcast stories of terrorizing families with multimillion-dollar lawsuits, and we're treated to teary-eyed fifteen-year-old girls promising during the evening news that they'll never download a song again! Gangsta rap is about the only thing that flies up the charts because teenagers have an insatiable appetite to hear "motherfucking bitches" (giggle giggle!) conjugated in infinite fractal-like progressions, the "music" itself being secondary to the appeal. Celtic CDs and recordings of wolves howling to each other across mountain valleys fly off the shelf at Target, because the rest of us need something new to listen to, even if it is an asthmatic, amorous canine. And country, of all things, is charting regularly because that's where the rock and rollers have found refuge. A good third of "modern country" is really straight-ahead rock; the drag being you have to sit through Faith waxing nauseous about "This Kiss" and her hubby Tim saying you should "Live Like You Were Dying" (apparently in unintentional reaction to the current wingnut Republican administration doing their best to outlaw the American dream), before you get to the good stuff like Phil Vassar (the new Billy Joel), Jo Dee Messina, Trick Pony, Gretchen Wilson, and Lyle Lovett.

But the eventual future is beginning to dawn. Apple (of all companies) is finally proving that if you offer downloads of singles at decent prices rather than suing customers into bankruptcy, people will happily throw down their plastic. The proliferation of cheap high-speed internet access allows folks to listen to that one radio station in Oregon, or perhaps London, or even Uruguay, that plays tunes they want to hear. Indie labels and bands are offering scads of free songs for legal download. The ability to "rip" your favorite old songs off your CDs and either make awesome mix CDs or set up a virtual radio station via your home computer and stereo, with 40 gigabytes of MP3s of your library at your fingertips, is attainable by even the most technophobic penny-pincher. (Really. You can get a computer and the software to do this for around $300. All it takes is the time to convert your CDs to MP3s, and space next to your stereo for the box.)

So, the bottom is going to blow out of the market; some of the mega-corporations are either going to go out of business or just close the doors on their "music content generation" divisions. The web is going to become the primary outlet for exposure to new music, and the engine through which to acquire it. Most people will take the option to purchase the music rather than steal it, as long as ridiculous pricing, retrograde purchasing schemes (forcing the purchase of an entire album), or virulent copy protection doesn't make it unreasonable. Sales of CDs will rebound once they become quality packages again, and they will regain that quality due to the pressure from the web market. Indie labels and DIY bands are gonna thrive. Oddly, this will cause a quasi-dissolution of the genres, because exposure to variety will make everyone crave it, and genre-blending (like the Beatles did) will become more common. You'll have soccer moms and dads driving around listening to a jumble of Ska, Punk, Soul, Pop, Rock, Jazz, Lounge, Chillout, Thrash, and Country on their MP3 players. Teens will mix their favorites in odd sonic collages, like Dangermouse's infamous "Grey Album." (Rap will forever remain just the darling of bored teens and misguided critics, if it survives at all; no one else listens to rap. I've researched this for about 5 years, now.) Fans will have greater access to the artists, because it's easier to cultivate and communicate with rabid fans through message boards, blogs, emails, and perks like free songs on a personal website, than it is to have to deal with them backstage after a show or at a CD signing. Also, artists will get a larger and more direct cut of their due profits - a very worthy trend, indeed. AM radio will reemerge as a place for DJs and personalities to create the kind of mood or show they feel like, or they will specialize in a trend or complimentary genres. For instance, we have an "Americana" AM station here in Denver, which is awesome; the DJs are calm and actually talk about the music - who the performer is and even some background on the tunes. In other words, AM will become what FM was when it first came out. Britney and Christina will end up posing for Playboy - sooner rather than later - probably in the same issue, and they'll be touching each other. What a wonderful world it will be.

In short, music will be back and better than ever. But it's gonna take about three to five years, sad to say. But be patient. It is coming. And, remember, you heard it here first.
Don't Let the Screen Door Hit Ya Where the Good Lord Split Ya!
You kind of wonder how civics teachers are handling the teaching of our nation's vaunted "freedom of expression" when stuff like this keeps happening:

Poor Linda Ronstadt: The singer was escorted out of the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas by security guards after a concert -- before an audience of almost 5,000 -- in which she dedicated a song, "Desperado," to Michael Moore, calling the filmmaker "someone who cares about this country deeply and is trying to help." Ronstadt, who has been told she is no longer welcome on Aladdin property, was not even allowed to return to her room to get her things, which were instead gathered and brought to her after she was led away. "Our first and only priority is the enjoyment of our customers," Aladdin President Bill Timmins said. "I made the decision to ask Miss Ronstadt to leave the hotel. A situation like that can easily turn ugly and I didn't want anything more to come out of it. There were a lot of angry people there after she started talking." (Las Vegas Sun via Drudge)
- From Salon's "The Fix" of July 20, 2004.
Yes, yes, yes, this is not the government per se doing the suppression of free speech, but this still qualifies as oppression of varied viewpoints, even if it is corporate hacks doing so.  Bastards. 

 Obviously performers will have to add riders to their contracts that they can't get tossed out the door for expressing their opinion, right next to the stuff about imported beer and removing the brown M&Ms.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Caption Contest 2
Not due to the underwhelming success of the last caption contest, but due to the fact that sometime pictures seem to defy their humble origins and move into that rare space where even a 1,000 words would have to be spent before even a portion of the useful things that could be said were thought or uttered.  Also, calling it a contest when there was nothing to win other than the adulation of blog surfers might have been presumptuous.  Still, I found another one I just have to fling atcha.
Hit me with your best shot:

Thursday, July 15, 2004

A Peak

One of the most beautiful songs ever written and performed is Gerry Rafferty's "Whatever's Written in Your Heart." His voice has a plaintive beauty, singing about love and loss while acknowledging to his paramour past that she has to follow her heart, regardless. He's held aloft by a gorgeous chorus during the refrains. An understated solo instrument echoes in the background - which could be a lute, a guitar, a keyboard, I've never been able to identify it - during the instrumental bridge, which matches perfectly the loneliness of the song.

It can be found on the classic album "City to City" which also contains another best of all time song, "Baker Street."

Have a listen to "Whatever's Written in Your Heart."

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Butterfly Effect

I really want to 'splain why I feel the way I do about this movie, so after the short and sweet sour review, we will go into spoiler mode. You can probably see the alert from here.

Anyway, Roger Ebert - who's about the only movie critic I read for the actual review of the movie - says a critic's job is to review the film itself (was it effective, well-done, artistic, skillful, good plot, etc.) and not necessarily the topic of the film. Yes, if the topic of a film is repugnant, you should say so, but you have to be careful in judging a film thus, because what may be repugnant to you many not be to others. Now, if you are a constant reader, you know I break this rule all the time. But I typically break that rule when nothing, such as a good quality production, can save a film, or conversely when sloppiness can't diminish its grandeur.

This film walks right down the razor's edge in that context. For a film presenting its story, this movie is very well done. The acting is outstanding. Since this is a movie about shifting timelines that have different outcomes for the characters, each actor has to portray their character in vastly different states, sometimes through just scant seconds of screen time via body language and costume, and boy do they bat it out of the park in that regard. In a technical and mechanical sense, the film is top-notch. The direction's sharp and the story is riveting.

But, the actual events depicted are an entirely different matter. Wow. Gotta tell ya. This baby is just mind garbage. The writers (at least the originators of the story) are either very young and don't know any better (extreme youth doesn't offer the perspective or wisdom to consider how some topics may play to the more experienced (or more innocent), hence the shabbiness of many first-time novels by people in their early 20s), or the writers are morally bankrupt in their ability to discern what comprises appropriate topic matter for a film of this nature, or at least lack the skills to frame such matter so that it doesn't sink the narrative. So, away we go...


(Scroll down to continue)

Ashton Kutcher plays Evan, who has the ability to go back into the past by re-experiencing that moment through any recording of the events, such as a journal he's kept his entire life. Evan's childhood buddies, Kay the quasi-girlfriend, Tommy her brother, and Lenny the fat kid, go through a series of over the freakin' top and leaving-the-stratosphere traumas. They go through them ALL conceivable childhood traumas actually. Here's a quick, partial list:

- Kay and Tommy's father forces Evan and Kay to have sex when they're about 8 or 9 year old, and tapes it, while Tommy looks on.
- All four kids decide to play a prank after Tommy finds a stick of dynamite. They light it and have Lenny deposit it in someone's extravagant mailbox (that looks just like the main house). Just afterwards the woman who lives there returns home and decides to check for mail with her toddler. Just as the toddler lifts the top of the mailbox, the dynamite goes off. We don't see the aftermath, but we do see the effect it has on the four kids. Lenny essentially has to be sent to the funny farm for a while.
- After the above events, Tommy, who's messed up himself from his abusive, pedophile father, sees Kay and Evan kissing, which pops a fuse in his young head. He decides to teach Evan a lesson by burning his beloved dog to death. Lenny has just come back from the Thorazine ward, when Evan and Kay lure him from his room to go for a walk. They come upon Tommy putting the doggie in a sack, dousing it with lighting fluid, and then fetching a torch from a fire he has set. Though the three try to prevent the horror, Fido fries.
- Tommy, though only a shrimpy 8 or 9 years old, beats a teenager who mocks him in a movie theater with one of those metal poles used to create velvet-rope people corrals, to show Evan and Kay how tough he is and that Evan is next if he doesn't leave his sister alone.

And these are just some of the horrors we witness directly. Many other terrible things occur off-screen that we are only told about. Tommy ends up in prison after killing someone, frinstance.

This is just the setup of the movie, folks. It really kicks into gear when the adult Evan accidentally discovers his gift for returning to the past and being able to influence events. Kay has ended up a twitching mess who works as a waitress in a greasy spoon, as Evan discovers when he goes looking for her to get some answers about the past. See, when the events above occurred, Evan would pass out and "lose time" and not remember the climax (sorry) of each of the events. We find out that this is when his adult self came back from the future and took over. Before he knows this, he goes back to ask Kay what happened as a result of dynamiting the mailbox. This sets Kay off, and later psycho Tommy calls Evan to say Kay killed herself after Evan's questions, so Tommy is going to kill him for it. This provokes Evan to start returning to the past to try to fix things, in a sort of Bedazzled meets Se7en horror show. Every time he tries to fix it, something else in their lives has one wrong, often making things worse.

I'll not delve into all the horrors that happen in those alternate timelines. However, if pedophilia, baby killing, and puppy torching weren't enough to contend with, in one of the timelines, the one that starts out the most optimistic, Evan ends up in prison, getting an "ass pounding," as it is so vividly put in the now-classic Office Space. This particular episode ends when Evan goes into the skinheads' cell to offer them conciliatory blowjobs in order to join their gang, the most powerful one in the prison. He is really there to retrieve his journal so he can hop back into the past and hopefully avoid prison in another timeline. As Evan is performing his initiatory task, his cellmate, who has been duped into believing Evan has powers from God (the cellmate is very religious), closes the cell door. Evan then stabs the skinheads in the little skinhead, grabs his journal, and flees into the past just as the most of the other prisoners break into the cell to kill him.

Well, Evan eventually tries everything. Literally. He returns to every horrific episode to fix things and none of them does (thus we get to revisit some of the nastier events again and again). He comes to the conclusion that everything happened because Kay didn't go live with her mother, and thus stays with her evil father, because she wanted to stay where Evan was because she's always loved him. (K, let's pause right here. What mother lets BOTH of her children stay with an alcoholic, abusive dad simply because the very young daughter wants to for unnamed reasons.) Evan decides that he has to be removed from Kay's life so that she'll stay with her mom and everything will be OK.

Here we branch into the two endings available on the DVD, one the "theatrical cut" and the other the "director's cut." Common to both versions is the information that Evan's dad and granddad had this ability, too, and both ended up in the cuckoo's nest. Also, a gypsy palm reader discovers that Evan has no lifeline, which causes her to declare that Evan "doesn't have a soul" and that he "wasn't meant to be here." (Which, if you're counting, is unintentionally funny. Evan thus far has been a victim of pedophilia, baby snuffing, pet torching, sodomy, (oh, and his own dad trying to kill him when he visits him in the psyche ward - I've left that one out so far) and now he's told he doesn't even have a soul. The guy just can't get a break, huh?)

In the director's cut, we find out that Evan's mom had had two miscarriages before she had him, and is her "miracle baby." Evan somehow gets his hands on a film of his mother giving birth to him, and through his gift, he hops into himself in the womb. We see him open his eyes as a fetus and then proceed to strangle himself with the umbilical chord. We cut to the mother screaming, "No! Not again!" Seemingly pre-birth infant suicide has plagued her attempts to be a mother in the past. We then see her sitting forlorn in her hospital room afterward, but, through the narrative of a collage, we see everyone else has been saved from their terrible, previous fates. Credits roll. At which point my wife looked at me and telegraphed with her eyes that my input into video selection has been suspended for at least a couple weeks.

In the theatrical version, Evan goes back to the day he met Kay, at a kid's party of some sort. He makes a point of leaning over and ferociously whispering to her, "I hate you and I don't want you near me ever again." She walks away, crying and hurt. Again, everyone is saved (same collage as the other version). Granted, this is only a little less silly than strangling oneself in the womb, but at least it's not as grotesque. In my opinion it's a better ending not only for that, but because it accomplishes the same thing as the womb-snuffing version, and it doesn't leave mom a hollow shell - everyone is truly saved in this version.

Still, the events you have to witness for what is essentially a light entertainment completely ruin the film; they're just too heavy for the larger topic. It's like trying to carry rocks with a wet Kleenex. It would be like ending It's a Wonderful Life like it was The Sixth Sense. "Well, George, yes the world is a better place for your having been in it, and yes you still have Zuzu's petals, but you succeeded in killing yourself when you jumped off that bridge. The bell's ringing because of your ghostly presence brushing against it, not because I got my wings. Merry Christmas!"


Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Joe Bob Briggs, where are you?

Hey, the Bush administration is floating the idea that they would want to postpone the presidential election if America is hit with a terrorist attack around that time. I have always thought that this administration was going to try something like this (shame apparently isn't in their makeup), so I'm not surprised by the concept, but I am surprised they have attempted to float it this early.

Since bringing it up early will allow those opposed to the idea to organize and more effectively fight it, which evil Karl Rove would have considered, there is probably another reason they have brought it up now. Is the administration trying to tape a "kick me" sign on America's back? In other words, are they sending a message to terrorists that if they were going to attack, this administration would prefer it happen at election time?

In related news, since it's out of print in hardcopy, you can get Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here here.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Caption Contest!

Use the comments area to write a caption for this picture. (How could you not? This picture just begs for it!)

Thursday, July 08, 2004


Some flicks I've seen recently:

The whole family was underwhelmed by the fat cat whose day in the orbit of fad planet is long gone. Believe it or not, Garfield was subversive and fun when it first hit the comics. In a way, it was a precursor to the later great ones like "Bloom County" (now thankfully resurrected as "Opus"), "Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side" in that it got away with jokes that the established comics were too timid or too vanilla to attempt. Then Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield, handed over the reins to a team of people who produced it for him, and so "Blondie" (another team effort as the original creators are dead) is often more cutting edge. The creators of the other three comics listed don't attempt to hide their disdain at such a move (before one sheds the mortal coil, at least). As for the movie, I had hoped that either it would be so bad or so completely messed up by Hollywood hacks (ala the two Schumacher Batman films) that it would be fun train-wreck-wise. Beyond hope was that they had captured the spirit of the first few years of Garfield and would be kind of daring and iconoclastic. Well, they did neither. This is a safe, down the middle of the road kind of movie. As a matter of fact, it's perfect for really young kids, say 3 to 5, as the plot is simple enough for them to follow, and there's absolutely nothing worse than the application of a shock collar to Odie in one scene (which would have been played for laughs and not meanness in the original comics). Garfield, actually, is a lot like a toddler in that he never wants to leave his cul-de-sac out of fear of the big bad world. He exists to eat, sleep with his teddybear, and hang out with John. Little ones will relate to Garfield immensely.

The only fun moment in the movie for us didn't occur in the movie. At one point the main human characters have a brief, chaste kiss. Some young one spontaneously and whole-heartedly bleated, "Ewwww!" into the quiet of the theatre (it's a quiet movie, too, btw). We all laughed and laughed.

Ok, I think the critical hype is a bit over the top, but this is a darn good movie. Just don't walk in expecting the first Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or The Matrix, though it is better than the X-men flicks, and is even slightly better than the first Spiderman movie. Personally, I thought Daredevil did as good of a job of illuminating the personal angst of the super hero himself, but so many folks are allergic to Ben Affleck that that fact scotched the flick for some, and the very graphic violence harmed it in the kiddie market. (Super hero flicks have just gotta be a soft PG-13, Mr./Ms. movie exec.; that's the primary audience, even if a few of us nominal adults wouldn't miss one.)

I admit this is one of the first super hero flicks since Superman to honestly move me, and consider I saw Superman when I was a teen and more susceptible to such a moment in that kind of a movie. (You've seen this moment in the previews so I don't consider this a spoiler:) When a crowd of people lift Spidey over their heads as though he were crowd-surfing a mosh pit and move him along to safety, it's touching. And there are many other nice humans moments I won't spoil.

Though I have been a big fan of Kirsten Dunst since Interview with a Vampire, she's looking kind of stoned these days. And I mean really wasted. Typically, they can hide an actor's impairment - think of Carrie Fisher in The Empire Strikes Back. The reason Han Solo says, "I know," to Princess Lea's confession of love is that she'd flubbed the line so many times, he had spent the entire day being lowered into the dry ice smoke of the freezing unit and was tired of it. Everyone - except Carrie who was off doing another line - agreed the ad-lib was better, so they kept it. When you watch that movie, can you tell how ripped Carrie is throughout? No. Therefore, I was shocked when it looked like Kirsten was going to space out, giggle, and then ask Toby if he was gonna eat that. (<--- Standard stoner joke, don't worry if ya don't get it.) Watch the tabloids for Kirsten's first rehab trip. Maybe she can hang with Mary-Kate!

Along Came Polly
Caught this one on DVD. It was merely OK. We laughed at a few scenes, but then most of those were in the previews. It is now time for Ben Stiller to do a bad indie movie to get back some cred or he's gonna be more typecast than the cast of Star Trek. And, still, 50 First Dates was way funnier and was more of a well-rounded movie than Polly. See it instead.

Secret Window
Johnny Depp can't manage to save this one, though I am impressed at his ability to play a relatively normal guy. You know that it must be a stretch for him. So, as a fan of both Depp and King (though I loathe the character actor John Turturro), I'm disappointed that this wasn't better. It's not even slightly scary. The most horrific moment is supposed to be when he finds his dog skewered on the front porch (and if you think that's a spoiler after you're introduced early on to his sweet, blind dog, then this must be the first movie you've ever seen, and I apologize). And I know there's a demographic that thinks violence to animals is the worst possible thing anyone can do, but when the deaths of actual people are dealt with almost comically, I just have to wonder about priorities. That said, any given episode of The Twighlight Zone handled this kind of material with much more finesse. Skip this one, unless it's being broadcast on TV for free, you're trapped on your couch out of lethargy, the remote's too far away, and sleeping just isn't an option.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Us and Them

True music lovers are not reducible to a binary "there are two kinds of people in the world" categorization, but there are centers of gravity and faultlines that can define swaths of us. One of those faultlines appears to run through the Velvet Underground and the New York scene that spawned them. Those that like the VU tend to be what I'll label here as "the intellects," who approach music for the lyrics, or what the band is "about," or how they fit as a puzzle piece into the larger scene (how different they are); the music itself is almost secondary. Then there are the people who I'll call "the romantics" who could care less about coolness factor, statements, or other esoteric stuff that has nothing to do with the music, and are attracted to the sonic landscape created by musicians; great lyrics, beautiful expressions of the human condition are all gravy - greatly appreciated gravy for sure - but the song has got to have a sound, a groove, an emotion, an atmosphere, something that rises above and becomes something greater then the sum of its parts. The "romantics" like myself tend to be very eclectic and make tape/CD mixes that might contain Hank Williams, Kiss, Tom Jones, Nirvana, Electric Light Orchestra, Weird Al Yankovic, Mighty Mighty Boss Tones, and Tomita all on one CD, and oddly the mix hangs together in a sonic thematic sense that you can't quite put your finger on.* The "intellects" tend to listen to music the same way most read books: they put it on, sit down at full attention, hands on knees, and listen to it in its entirety, as the artist meant you to hear it. Consequently they don't listen to music much. Standing up and shaking their butts once in a while is right out.

I've noticed that no "romantics" like VU and nearly all "intellects" do. To me, their sound is flat (their worst offense), Lou can't sing (not that not being able to sing is a problem, but his one-note range really doesn't go very far), and the lyrics are full of puss and bile. (Also, nearly any group assembled like the Monkees has to win me over with at least one fantastic song before I can grant them actual band status. VU was assembled by Andy Warhol as one of his "projects." And, still, "Sweet Jane" was done way better by The Cowboy Junkies.) The "intellects" talk about how groundbreaking the VU were; or about how the thin, minimalist sound WAS the point; or that they wrote about junkies and queers, which no one else would touch, and so on. But they almost never mention how a particular song or melody moved them. It tends to be what they represented moreso than what they played for the "intellects."

Also, it may have something do with their being from New York. Many many people, especially those on the coasts, ascribe way too much cachet to art/fashion/products simply because they hail from New York. Most of us in the flyover zones, as we are dubbed by the Coasters, put "and it's from NY!" stuff through a filter first, just to see if really has merit, or is just another big apple empty hype. But, since many folks from all over praise the VU, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt here.

All of this occurred to me as I was reading this mash note to Husker Du's 80's opus Zen Arcade. Granted the album has its merit and charm (if you consider bandsaw guitars played at a land speed record clip in oceans of feedback bracketed by snarled lyrics about hate, death and angst charming), and it is a classic in its genre, but it's not something you'd want to buy blindly. It's also of a very specific mood, and you are not going to want to play this on Sunday morning with the paper and coffee, or at the party, or whilst on an excursion to the beach. No, you put this howler on while loading guns for the apocalypse, or during one of those self-pity benders in the wee black hours of the endless night, or to roust fugitives from the complex. So, I wondered why the author, Patrick Smith, was slobbering on Zen Arcade like it was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Graceland (or even Nevermind) until he eventually gets around to the obligatory genuflecting to the VU. Then it all made sense. Zen Arcade was considered one of the coolest, most sincere, alt/hardcore efforts in its day (or ever), so surely the Great Pumpkin would not pass up their pumpkin patch if he existed. But the vast majority of us who bought the thing listened to it a couple times, maybe remarked on how cool it was that it was printed on virgin vinyl,** and then we put it away only to take it out again maybe once just to freak out the children and/or the dog.

I believe most casual music fans are more of the "romantic" stripe than of the "intellect," which explains why rock critics' taste so rarely match that of the general public. Almost all rock critics anymore are of the "intellect" vein. Only the late Lester Bangs seemed to be one of us "romantics." (If anyone knows of a critic who appears to be a "romantic," please alert me.) Hence, most rock critics these days are puzzled as to why the band The Strokes (from New York!) haven't caught on like they predicted they would. Well, they sound a LOT like the VU. Mystery solved.

Most of the rest of us like Jet ("Are You Gonna Be My Girl?") or, even if we won't admit it when sober or in polite company, The Darkness ("I Believe in a Thing Called Love").

*TLD: For instance, I was slapping some CDs in the player once, and I turned to my wife and asked if it were OK if I played some tunes for a while. She said it depended on what I was going to play. I showed them to her and she asked if I was going to randomize them, and I said yes. I'm not really in the mood for that, she said, and suggested I play some of my mix CDs. I asked her what the difference was between songs randomly picked by the player and ones I put together on a mix. She said that I somehow always put songs together that complemented each other and the transition from one song to the next was always pleasant and made some sort of musical sense compared to a jumble of random songs. I take my compliments where I can get them, so I decided to be flattered. I have been told this a few times in my life, actually, so I've chosen to believe it.

**TLD: Ah, virgin vinyl. I still get an endorphin rush at those words. Most of the vinyl used to make records was recycled from previous printings or from failed shipments that were returned to the companies. It was melted down with the labels on, and thus the paper and any dust or dirt on the surface became part of the next record that was printed on it. Usually, this made no difference in the initial sound of the record, but it contributed greatly to its deterioration. Virgin vinyl was vinyl that had never been used before, and when you hold a record made of it up to the light, you can see light through it - it's translucent. When the needle passes along the groove while a record is playing, the vinyl actually melts at the contact point for a brief moment, which after time causes deterioration in the groove and thus in the sound. Virgin vinyl is more elastic and will snap back to its original shape better and more often than standard vinyl. Hence, it was popular with archivists and collectors, like me. And it's purty to look at, too. Factoid: Most 45s were made with virgin vinyl because they tended to get played over and over a lot, like in jukeboxes, and the only way they would last is if they were made from virgin vinyl. When you hold them up to the light, most of them are a deep, translucent red.

I liked this passage so much, I just had to share it with ya:

     Granny Sugars believed in bargaining with God. She called Him "that old rug merchant."
     Before every poker game, she promised to God to spread His holy word or to share her good fortune with orphans in return for a few unbeatable hands. Throughout her life, winnings from card games remained a significant source of income.
     Being a hard-drinking woman with numerous interests in addition to poker, Granny Sugars didn't always spend as much time spreading God's word as she promised Him that she would. She believed that God expected to be conned more often than not and that He would be a good sport about it.
     You can con God and get away with it, Granny said, if you do so with charm and wit. If you live your life with imagination and verve, God will play along just to see what outrageously entertaining thing you'll do next.
     He'll also cut you some slack if you're astonishingly stupid in an amusing fashion. Granny claimed that this explains why uncountable millions of breathtakingly stupid people get along just fine in life.
     Of course, in the process, you must never do harm to others in any serious way, or you'll cease to amuse Him. Then payment comes due for the promises you didn't keep.
     In spite of drinking lumberjacks under the table, regularly winning at poker with stone-hearted psychopaths who didn't like to lose, diving fast cars with utter contempt for the laws of physics (but never while intoxicated), and eating a diet rich in pork fat, Granny Sugars died peacefully in her sleep at the age of seventy-two. They found her with a nearly empty snifter of brandy on the nightstand, a book by her favorite novelist turned to the last page, and a smile on her face.
     Judging by all available evidence, Granny and God understood each other pretty well.
- From Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz