Tuesday, August 29, 2006

BOOKS: Shameless self-promotion, or, I, author

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting…So yeah, what with the 6,000-mile move overseas, quitting job, planning mega-road trip vacation, lunatic toddler, etc., I really should have enough to fill my time these days. But obviously not, so I wrote a book. Ta-dah!

"Spatula Forum: Greatest Hits 1994-2004" isn't actually an entirely NEW book, really – it's a collection of 130+ of the newspaper columns I've written in the last decade for papers in Mississippi, Nevada, California and Oregon. I've been wanting to do this for a while, gather my pre-blog rantings and ramblings in a more permanent form, but it wasn't until I discovered Lulu.com that it became feasible to do a print-on-demand version of my book. Basically, I slapped this together for myself and my family so we'd have something a bit more permanent than yellowing newspaper clippings, rather than with the intent of making a million bucks with it. (And thanks to Dave for helping walk me through using Lulu, which is a pretty nifty place for anyone who wants to publish their own book without spending a zillion bucks, and to Michelle for shooting a cover photo after I spent weeks agonizing on what to do for one.)

Anyway, I'm pretty happy with it. Got my proof copy in the mail Saturday and it looks nifty enough, 206 pages of shiny Nik-sculpted words and punctuation. As a souvenir of my so-called career, it'll do. I've written a couple hundred newspaper columns since I first got the itch as a college senior back in '94, and culled what I thought were the "best" of 'em into this tome. Everything from thoughts on Elvis, Hunter S. Thompson and my cat to travels to New Zealand, Alaska and Washington to drunken rambles to memories of friends, foes and more. Sometimes I was funny, sometimes serious, sometimes funny when attempting to be serious. Heck, some of you folks I've known for many moons might even pop up in the book (Note: I cannot be sued for libel).

So if you want a piece of the Spatula Forum, pop on over to my Lulu page and order a copy (I kept it fairly reasonable for a 200-page large-format paperback) or a download if you aren't into paper. Heck, if you're on the fence you can even read a 10-page preview of it online. I hope you dig it! (Edit: If the shipping costs seem extreme, for some reason they default to the most costly option - you can choose cheaper shipping by selecting other options.)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

MOVIES: 'Little Miss Sunshine'

Everybody’s family is screwed up. How much is just a matter of perspective.
The warm and witty comedy-drama “Little Miss Sunshine” tosses a family of impossibly dysfunctional behavior together in a battered VW van and hits the road. Often hilarious and heartbreakingly honest in the same scene, it’s one of the best movies of the year so far.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIt’s like a cross between “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
You’ve got dad Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a relentlessly optimistic would-be self-help author, frazzled mom Sheryl (Toni Collette), debauched, drug-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin) — and the kids, perky young Olive (Abigail Breslin) and sullen, silent Dwayne (Paul Dano). When Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell) tries to kill himself and fails, he ends up part of this slapdash family.

What brings all these damaged folks together is 7-year-old Olive, a hopeful beauty queen who ends up nominated for the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant in California. The entire cash-strapped family decides to drive out from their New Mexico home for Olive’s contest – but life has a habit of interfering when anybody has plans.
It’s yet another in that time-honored cinematic tradition, the road trip movie. Yet “Little Miss Sunshine” rarely travels in the expected direction.

It’s often satirical and features some outlandish comedy, but the emotional tangles of family ties ring true. Despite their awful squabbles, in every scene you still feel the family’s buried love for one another, and it’s shown in a way that never feels like you’re being force-fed sentiment.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWhat’s particularly impressive about “Little Miss Sunshine” is that it’s a debut film for screenwriter Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. “Sunshine” sure doesn’t feel like a first movie – it brims over with a quiet confidence, combining elements of the movies of Wes Anderson, Cameron Crowe and a little whiff of Frank Capra’s hopefulness.

A story filled with such shrill, burdened characters could be unbearable in the wrong hands. But one of the better ensemble casts to come along in a long while make each of them sympathetic.

Kinnear is tremendous, coming off at first as an egocentric bully and gradually showing his insecure, kinder side. Carell (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) continues to amaze with his acting chops. His quiet, restrained performance here as a suicidal, gay and recently fired scholar takes a quirk-filled notion and turns it into a living, breathing role.

Arkin, as the foul-mouthed, porn-obsessed grandpa, is indispensable, and Breslin, a mere 9 years old, is one of the more honest and appealing child actors I’ve seen in recent years.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe sadness and humor in “Little Miss Sunshine” are sometimes interchangable, and yet that’s what makes it linger in the mind longer than most comedies.

The firm direction and quotable script is backed by sweeping, light-soaked cinematography that evokes the lonesome beauty of the open road, and a sterling soundtrack of gently askew folk rock.

You’ll think about the Hoover family long after they’ve left the screen. “Little Miss Sunshine” is a winner. It understands life isn’t always simple, but it can be beautiful anyway.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

ETC.: I am in your extended network

Everything must go! We're giving away and selling possessions at a record pace – the few things we held on to post-yard sale are being lined up and sold to the highest bidder. We're holding on to the bed, TV, etc. till closer to our departure Labor Day weekend, but trying to arrange willing buyers for them now. So far so good, except for the bed we paid $700 for a few years back that we're trying to get a somewhat decent price for. And good friend Christian and his kind wife Mary agreed to take our poor old Kudzu cat a while back, hurray. Everything is starting to fall into place. If we can just avoid more crises then we will survive it. (The MacBook is flying out to Apple to be repaired Monday, it looks like. At least the battery hasn't exploded.) (Edit: And the bed sold this morning. Hoo-ha!)

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingITEM! In between it all, I find MySpace is a funny place. I've been dabbling over there for a month or so now, having finally been sucked into it by some friends online. I've rediscovered some old friends I haven't heard from in years, which is nice, and I particularly like all the bands you can link up to and hear tracks from on there. I do feel vaguely like an old fogey meddling in a land of teenagers, but I'm not really taking it all that seriously.

One thing that's funny on there is all the fakers – people who claim to be famous people but really aren't. It's kind of hard to tell who's "real" on there anyway – I got suckered by an apparent Bruce Campbell faker who got booted from the site. Damn you, Fake Bruce! Also amusing is the way some people think the "real" Bob Dylan actually added them to his page, rather than say, one of his PR flaks or a record company rep. I don't think Bob Dylan's actually reading your MySpace page and deeming you worthy of being his bestest "Friend," jimsparklehorse312. But I guess that illusion of bonding is part of what makes MySpace so damned successful, ain't it?

(Besides, there's the voyeuristic fun of watching people make idiots of themselves in stuff like the MySpace Stupid Haircut awards. Puts my thinning hair woes in perspective.)

ITEM! Hey, hats off to Lacey, who in my unstoppable wisdom I decided won my Worst Band Name contest. There's something about I Got Mono that just speaks to me as a wretched band name. She wins that shiny new Burn To Shine 3 DVD and it's not at all because she works with me. Well, for a few more days, anyway.

Friday, August 25, 2006

MUSIC: The Cure, revisited

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI admit, I've long taken The Cure for granted. Their dark, swooning tunes were a soundtrack through my high school years in the late 1980s, along with Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Erasure and the like. The synthesizer was king and androgyny was in vogue. Yet the band's oh-so-'80s outer trappings – front man Robert Smith's pale, lipstick-adorned face, hair vaguely resembling a spider in a web – later obscured for me what were some gorgeous, heartfelt pop songs. It wasn't until recently that I started really looking back at The Cure – and unlike most childhood crushes, they're even better than I remember.

Rhino Records' ongoing reissue series of the Cure's albums demands we take the Cure seriously. They place the band's epic music in context, dishing up lovingly remastered CDs complete with an entire CD of bonus tracks and a lengthy booklet of essays and photos. Unlike some of their synth-rock contemporaries, The Cure's music in its gloomy grandeur has barely aged at all. The latest two reissues by Rhino, 1985's The Head On The Door and 1987's Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, sound magnificent in their remastered form, and still have the power to spook and awe.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingComing on the heels of band shake-ups and personal traumas for Smith, Head On The Door marked the expansion of The Cure into the lusher, layered and more listener-friendly sound they'd become famous for. The bleak sound of early albums like Pornography and Faith becomes more kaleidoscopic and hook-filled. Even while the subject matter remains rain-soaked and remorseful, there's a peppy bite to songs like "Close To Me" and "Inbetween Days." A comment by Smith in the liner notes to Head On The Door really sums up what they were going for: "I was trying to create a sort of attractive tension by marrying slightly bitter words to really sweet tunes," he said. That "attractive tension" pulses throughout these two albums, which remain a creative high point in the Cure's 25-year career.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingHead On The Door was a solid critical and commercial hit. But even bigger things were to come. The band's seventh album, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me was the Cure's popular breakthrough in 1987, with hits such as "Why Can't I Be You?" and "Just Like Heaven" – perhaps the band's most iconic, timeless song of all. The simmering beats of Head On The Door erupt in this jittery, lovelorn double album. It's a sprawling, diverse and kind of frantic masterpiece that rarely feels retro, nearly 20 years on. Smith's as giddy here as he's ever been, in the funky bounce of "Hot! Hot! Hot!" or the lusty abandon of "All I Want," with Smith snarling that he wants to "just hold you like a dog." Dark and dreary? The band even cavorts around in silly Halloween costumes in the enclosed CD booklet photos, poking fun at their image. It's one of the few double albums that never sounds bloated.

The bonus CDs for both sets are solid, if not quite revelatory material. You won't find radically different versions of existing songs or buckets full of totally unheard songs, such as in Rhino's Elvis Costello reissue series. Instead, The Cure seem to work in a more organic fashion – we hear a couple dozen demo tracks of songs, mostly instrumental. What's interesting is how strong and evocative the melodies are even without Smith's vocals. The tunes seem to spring fully formed from Smith's head, and the demos are kind of like viewing the skeletons under the skin.

A selection of bootlegged live tracks round out each disc. Head on the Door is richer with the archival material – there are four unreleased songs or song sketches here, but Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me is still sprawling over with the album's 18 tracks and 18 more on the bonus disc. The new version includes the song "Hey You!" which was intended for the original CD release but didn't fit at the time.

If all you think of when you think of the Cure is Robert Smith's makeup, it's time for a reevaluation. These terrific Rhino reissues shine a light on some of the '80s finest alternative rock songs.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

LIFE: Assume the fetal position, hyperventilate

The Lord is testing us, we figure. Pile it on! So we're frantically trying to pack up the house and what's left of it in our final 2 1/2 weeks in Oregon. What to store, what to try and cram in the suitcases, what to try to ship to New Zealand? Trying to clean up the house. Discovering half the spare bedroom in our house is suffering severe water damage because of the crap insulation and is about to rot away (fortunately, our landlord's problem, not ours). Being told the car needs a 90,000-mile checkup and having the auto shop try to gouge an unneeded $500 repairs out of me as well.

But heck, we need a little more disruption in our lives. So yesterday Peter fell off a chair in our Backyard of Death and hit his head on the concrete, resulting in his first official Bleeding Head Wound. It wasn't pretty and mighty scary for a couple minutes, but my parents have warned me about not freaking out at the first head wound (for my brother and I, these were almost daily occurrences). We called everyone we knew with kids for advice and applied pressure to the head. Peter was back to normal in five minutes' time except for complaining, "I hurt my head." He spent the rest of the day on ice cream and watching his beloved "Dora the Explorer" and "Bob the Builder" videos and appears on the way to recovery. The wound was just shy of needing stitches, thank the Lord. If it were any longer than a half-inch or so it would've been Peter's first trip to the Urgent Care Clinic – a trek that, with our bouncing lad's hyperactivity, I'm sure lurks in the not-so distant future.

And THEN, then, as if bleeding toddlers and cross-Pacific migration anxiety weren't enough, our brand spanking new MacBook computer began acting up this weekend, spontaneously shutting down for no apparent reasons several times a day. Apparently, I discover through Mr. Google, this is a kinda widespread problem. Sonofabitch. We're covered under warranty and all, so we should be able to get Apple to fix it or replace it, but really, really, we didn't need to deal with this as well.

If anybody needs me, I'll be curled up in a ball somewhere, whimpering quietly.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

LIFE: Peter is two (and a HALF)

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Someone had his half-birthday yesterday! Peter is now precisely 2 1/2, and pretty much not a baby anymore as he keeps telling us. We just happened to have a half-cake in the freezer (because who doesn't?) and it was highly appropriate for a half-birthday. He gets so excited over birthdays and cakes (the other week he nearly burst just at the idea of helping open his uncle's birthday presents), so we figure, why not have two a year?

The giddy cute-boy smile on his face is almost enough to make me forget that in a two-hour span of time Thursday, Peter managed to throw a toy train at my head, grind very-bright orange curry into a clean blue carpet, break into the bathroom and rub skin cream into his hair, and throw half a roll of toilet paper into the half-full bathtub. Ah, toddlers...

Hey, don't forget to throw me a Worst Band Name ever if you're interested in my Burn To Shine 3 DVD contest giveaway in the last entry!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

MUSIC: 'Burn To Shine 3, Portland OR 06.15.05'
- and a contest!

OK, first the review, but then read below for the DVD giveaway contest…

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingHave a bunch of bands come on over and hang out. Film them blasting out a handful of songs in your living room. And at the end of the day, burn the house down. It's a recipe for music and a bit of mayhem, and it's the foundation of the invigorating Burn To Shine DVD series headed up by Fugazi drummer and producer Brendan Canty and director Christoph Green. After two previous installments set in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, the third in the series, "Portland, OR 06.15.05," is just about to be released and takes the action to the great Northwest. It's a beautifully filmed, tuneful snapshot of a vibrant city's musical scene.

The Burn to Shine ground rules: The producers pick a house that's about to be torn down. A variety of bands are chosen and over the course of one day, they're all filmed playing one song each in the house. At the end of the day, we see the house destroyed. For the Portland edition filmed last June, a home in the fancy suburbs of Tualatin was picked. The elderly resident had died and the nice little home is about to be demolished to make room for a sprawling Italian villa. Musicians play in the house overlooking a golf course and green hills. It's a cunning juxtaposition, and the intimate setting in the house makes for some great performances.

The "marquee names" here include Portland star musicians like The Shins, Sleater-Kinney, and The Decemberists. The Decemberists' Chris Fink was chosen as the "curator" of this installment and helped pick the 11 bands. It's a nice mix of Portland music: the thrash-punk of The Thermals sits side-by-side with the old-world accordion and violin-laced folk of Mirah and the very modern hip-hop of Lifesavas. Not every performance is stunning — some feel muffled by the small space -– but some are fantastic, particularly The Decembrists' epic antiquarian storytelling in "The Mariners' Revenge Song," the sunny pop of The Shins in "Saint Simon," and the sweet ode of Quasi's "Peace and Love." You've even got the exceedingly cute yet surprisingly tuneful sounds of a pre-teenage act, The Ready.

One could always quibble with the band selection, but it's a pretty diverse group of musicians. I wouldn't have minded seeing Everclear, Pink Martini, or Modest Mouse, all also great bands with Portland ties. Still, there's a nice handpicked feeling to the lineup here, and it's all framed by the outstanding cinematography of Nikos Kourkoulakos, who's got a poet's eye for showing the mechanics of music. He avoids rock video clichés and uses his tight, small stage in fascinating, elegant ways. "What we're trying to get away from is the idea that music always has to be presented on giant stages…" Canty told The Chicago Reader. It's a pretty cool project, one that runs the risk of being art-school pretentious, but instead is subtle and gives you a new perspective on the musicians.

At the end of "Burn To Shine 3," the humble home that's been our stage is burned down by the Tualatin Fire Department in a practice exercise. The bands go home, the music's over. But they leave behind a clever and fun time capsule of the diversity of Portland music circa 2005.

And about that contest? Well for some reason I got sent two copies of this DVD to review, so I will give one shiny new copy of the swell "Burn To Shine 3" away – that is, to the Spatula Forumer (Forumite? Forumulator?) who can come up with the Worst Band Name Ever. You can't come up with any that are on this list – they ought to be entirely your own invention or at least one I haven't heard of.

Slap me silly with a Worst Band Name either below in the comments or shoot me an e-mail at nikdirga at hotmail dot com by, let's say, Tuesday. My crack team of judges will look 'em over and pick the best one sometime next week!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

COMICS: Mark Millar's "Civil War"

Civil War #1-3
Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWriter Mark Millar is a master at bombast, action and cool one-liners. It's the subtle heart that sometimes seems to be missing from his work. "Civil War" is one of his best efforts yet, but this mega-Marvel crossover series, nearly halfway through, still lacks a certain something. It's a political hot topic incarnate – after a disaster kills hundreds, the government cracks down on superheroes, forcing them to register and work for the government. The heroes split into two sides – pro and anti-registration. The pro side is led by Iron Man and his new buddy Spider-Man, while the anti-government side, strangely enough, is led by Captain America, the nation's symbol. Everyone is forced to choose sides.

It's a cool hook, and so far, the series has been fast-paced, epic fun, with some gorgeous, fluid art by Steve McNiven. There's a kick, too, in seeing longtime comrades like Captain America and Iron Man battling it out. And I've already written about how I'm rather fond of the idea of Spider-Man publicly unmasking and the story possibilities it offers. The parallels to the U.S.'s post-9/11 policies are also strong – and therein lies some of the problems for me. Millar won't use a feather when a sledgehammer will do, and while it's undeniably entertaining, "Civil War" is utterly lacking in subtlety. He paints with a broad, broad brush – Iron Man's pro-government side is basically shown as the bad guys, and it's hard to swallow this is the same heroic Iron Man who's been flying around in comics for 40+ years.

Miller's authorial voice is overpowering. Overnight, in "Civil War" the Marvel Universe becomes this Orwellian police state, and I'm just not quite buying it. Millar hasn't made the change feel organic – the plot feels forced, and doesn't flow out of natural character actions no matter how you squeeze it. I'm halfway expecting the old "Iron Man controlled by aliens" or some deus ex machina at the end of the seven-issue series – which is a disappointment. "Civil War" is fun to read, and a hell of a lot better than recent crossovers like "House of M" and "Infinite Crisis," but kind of empty in the head no matter how profound it tries to be. It remains to be seen if it'll pick up in the second half. Grade: B

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

LIFE: Ode to a county fair

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Man, I do love a county fair. I got my fill last week, with two county fairs in four days' time – went to the Douglas County Fair up here Wednesday for the big Alice Cooper hoo-ha, and then Saturday down in California the whole family went to the Nevada County Fair in my old hometown.

There's something about a fair that oozes Americana for me. I could go to one once a month easily. The food, the animals, the exhibits, the kitschy booths and rides, the scent of corn dogs and sawdust and cattle in the hot sun – ahh, that's small-town life!

The Nevada County Fair will always be my favorite, since it's the one I grew up with and have gone to on and off for 30 years or so now. It's also got less ugly tattoos and mullets than the one up here (although we have better music). Two days of fair food in a week was enough to break all dietary restrictions and ensure I spend this week eating nothing but bread and water. Ohhhhh, but it was so worth it.

It's weird to come back to the Nevada County Fair every couple years now, as it's always strange to find yourself in places you have vivid memories of being a squirrelly kid and teenager are. I even went to preschool at a building on the fairgrounds. I remember running around the fair as a kid, blowing money on the rides, and I remember the complicated social web involved in going to the fair as a teen (god forbid you're seen with your parents then!). The Nevada County Fair hasn't changed a bit in the past 20 years it feels like to me, and I love that. Huddled among the huge pine trees, meandering through the red dust and winding pathways, it feels like a living time capsule.
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In a fit of utter insanity, my brother even talked me into going on the Fire Ball ride, in which you defy all laws of sanity and physics and are spun upside-down at spleen-rupturing speeds in a big loop. I hadn't been on one of these kinds of rides in years, and let me now say for the record, I'm too old for that stuff. I spent the entire ride in a frozen-muscled rictus of fear as my brother laughed at me. As the ride paused for a second with yours truly hung upside-down 80 feet in the air, and I felt the press of my 190 pounds against the top of the seat restraints, I flashed back on all the headlines I've ever read about gruesome carnival ride failures. And that was all the ride action I needed this year.
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Peter had a swell time too – the last time we took him to the NC Fair he was barely 6 months old, and now he could run around for hours. We tried to put him on a kiddie car ride but it ended with a bit of screaming and him having to be pulled off the ride. He loves cars, but not when they move, apparently. He was then traumatized by an assertive goat at a petting zoo, so the only cure was ice cream – which then considerably brightened the rest of his fair day and he had a lot of fun.

As we enter our final two months in America, I've become weirdly pre-nostalgic for all those red, white and blue clichés – the county fair, the open highways, Fourth of July, cowboy hats and Wal-Marts. There are things I won't miss, but I do hope I can find a nice little county fair in New Zealand every once in a while. And maybe a corn dog or two.

Friday, August 11, 2006

MUSIC: Honest, my last Alice Cooper post

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingSo after interviewing the man for a cover story, I of course had to check out Alice Cooper's show at the county fair last night. Am I glad I did - it was a bombastic, rocking and hilarious blast, with the wacky folks in the audience almost as captivating to watch as the show itself. At nearly 60, Cooper's still a hell of a showman, a decadent ringmaster to a carnival of rock excess. I had never been to a show quite like that one, with all the props and swords and so forth, but it was a ton of fun. Musically it wasn't bad either, a retro blast of classic glam/schlock rock (drum solo!) led by a really tight band and Cooper's tremendous stage presence in front of a crowd of thousands.

Scenes from the Alice Cooper show jotted down in my notebook:

Overheard: “Everybody thinks that he is Satanic but he’s not.”

Estimated time after entering fair before seeing fan in complete Alice Cooper makeup: 3 minutes.

Estimated number of people at show wearing some kind of Alice Cooper makeup: 50

Number of people who kind of missed the point and appeared to be made up like Gene Simmons from KISS: Three

Most expensive merchandise on sale at Alice Cooper booth: Hooded sweatshirt, $55

Cheapest: Beer cozies, stickers or keychains, $5

Number of people wearing T-shirts hand decorated with “Alice for President” slogan: One

Most enigmatic T-shirt spotted repeatedly: “Coop is the Poop.”

Overheard: “I don’t know Alice Cooper, do you know any of her songs?”

Props used onstage: Swords, canes, giant fake guillotine, scantily-clad backup dancers, reanimated “Frankenstein” corpse, “torture” chair, straitjacket, whips, white masks, coffin.

Number of times Alice Cooper “died” onstage: Twice (once by guillotine; once in a mysterious assault by a succubus).

Things Alice threw into the audience: “Dirty diamonds” necklaces; “Billion dollar baby” fake money; several giant confetti-filled balloons.

Most popular number: “School’s Out,” performed immediately after Alice was "resurrected" in a blast of light and smoke and featuring a giant audience sing-along of the chorus.

OK, and now I'm off to California! See you next week.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

MUSIC: A trio of CD reviews

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...Blogging likely to be pretty sparse for a while, maybe the rest of the month as we get closer and closer to leaving Oregon. Packing? What's that? Anyway, here's a few recent reviews I did over at BlogCritics about what I've been listening to:

Brit pop-punk rampage with Art Brut's "Bang Bang Rock & Roll"!

The sexy, fun debut CD from Eugene's The Ovulators

Reconsidering 'Journey's Greatest Hits.' No, seriously. Stop mocking me.

We're off to California for a few days later this week to move lots of boxes into storage at my parents'. Enjoy the rest of your week!

Sunday, August 6, 2006

COMICS: At long last, I'm immortal

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting…Finally, I get to fulfill a long-held dream and become two-dimensional. Yep, my Portland comic-writing friend Jeff Parker has seen fit to give yours truly his moment in the spotlight. I wrote many a comic back in my 1990s small press comic series "Amoeba Adventures," but I've never been a character in a tale - until now. Yep, if you pick up a copy of "Marvel Adventures Avengers" #2 (the new all-ages Avengers title from Marvel Comics), turn the pages and you will discover a startling cameo appearance that – dare I say – might well shake the comics universe to its core!

Behold! The dazzling four-color debut of "Dirga," also known as Henchman #2 to the infamous Hulk villain The Leader:
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…OK, so it ain't exactly a starring role (I do think artist Manuel Garcia nicely captured my essence, however). They've obviously capitalized on the inherent evil of my last name. Also a fun comic too, with some great humor, action and the Hulk beating up fish. (I might add that Jeff's also the writer behind the cool-sounding brand-new Marvel miniseries Agents of Atlas [unfortunately I haven't had a chance to pick up a copy yet, but I bet you it's swell!]) He's also with the nifty group of comics folks up in Portland who make up Mercury Studios.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBut anyway, you ask, what is Dirga the henchman's ultimate fate? I can't tell you for sure without asking Mr. Parker, but it appears like all good henchmen, I end up getting punched in the face by Captain America. So much for my brief moment of comic bookery. Dare I hope there's a spin-off solo comic in the future for my humble Henchman #2? There's more to be told here! Vote with your wallets - write Marvel Comics today!

Saturday, August 5, 2006

MOVIES: 'The Man Who Fell To Earth'

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAs regular readers know, I'm cuckoo for David Bowie. Yet perhaps his best-known movie, 1976's "The Man Who Fell To Earth," was always a kind of enigma to me. It took me until maybe the third or fourth time watching this strange, hypnotic curio to really start appreciating it. I picked up the fantastic new Criterion Collection 2-DVD set of it recently and watched it with the commentary featuring Bowie, director Nick Roeg and co-star Buck Henry. As with the best commentaries, I was left with a whole new appreciation for what they were trying to do here.

If you've never seen it, "The Man Who Fell To Earth" is a trippy quasi-science fiction film. It came out shortly before "Star Wars," but it's almost completely the opposite kind of movie. In a nutshell, Bowie is Thomas Newton, an alien from a dying world who comes to Earth to find a way to save his family. But although he quickly becomes a millionaire selling alien technology patents, Newton soon loses his grip with the temptations of humanity's sins. Drugs, women and violence begin to corrupt this gentle soul. Ultimately, he ends up losing his freedom when his true identity is discovered.
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"The Man Who Fell To Earth" isn't an easy movie to watch – it's a strange impressionistic non-narrative, hallucinatory and yet vividly real. Newton can be seen as an angel losing his innocence, a fool getting his just deserts or an artist corrupted by reality. Roeg makes his story elliptical, hard to follow at points. It's far less about narrative than it is about sensation, the eerie loneliness in the core of life. Certain scenes seem more added for shock value than adding anything to the story. Yet the whole is a haunting vision. Roeg avoids sci-fi clichés – there's a few surreal glimpses at Newton's homeworld and life there, but Roeg more determined to show us how alien Earth really is through Newton's eyes. He makes us feel like Newton, alone and overwhelmed by strangeness.
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Bowie has dabbled in acting on and off over the years, but "The Man Who Fell To Earth" remains his one true masterpiece. Bowie's basically playing a twisted mirror vision of himself – he was whacked out on coke at the time, dazzled by superstardom and nearing the collapse that would lead to the brilliance of his "Berlin" period. Yet he's never been more beautiful than he is here, fragile and utterly charismatic as Newton moves from ingenue to bitter outcast. In supporting roles as Newton's "temptations," Candy Clark is terrific as a woman who moves from hotel maid to Bowie's companion, ending up shattered by him. Rip Torn grounds the movie in reality as an acerbic, cynical professor who ends up sucked into Newton's world – and ultimately betraying him.
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One thing that's off-putting when you first view Roeg's film is his handling of the passage of time. Roeg jumps abruptly back and forth in the narrative, and years can pass in a single transition. Bowie's Newton is ageless, immortal, but as the film passes you start to see other characters age. Roeg views time as a fluid ocean, and his approach colors how we see the film. Like much 1970s film, it's also far more open about sexuality than today's movies – Roeg contrasts how we view sex and how Newton sees it to a truly disorienting effect. The movie and its fashions are quite dated, of course, but I still find it timeless in the same way that say, Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" is – bell-bottoms aside, it remains a true snapshot of the human condition.

This Criterion DVD set is their typically comprehensive work – besides the beautifully remastered version of the film itself (the colors "pop" and the elegant, alienating cinematography sparkles), you've got special features galore - interviews with most of the principals, writers and more. In a nice bonus, there's also a copy of Walter Tevis' original 1963 novel. (Which I haven't had a chance to read yet – oddly, though, the late Tevis also wrote the book that the movie "The Hustler" is based on. Pool and aliens. Cool.)

"The Man Who Fell To Earth" is one of those rare movies I can return to every few years and get something totally different out of it each time. In that way, even though it's 30 years old, it remains ahead of its time.

Friday, August 4, 2006

So in my 4 1/2 years of newspaper covers here, this might just be my favorite design yet:
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I fully expect to get some outrage from the little old lady crowd. The switchblades he's holding just make the picture, IMHO. Anyway, if you wanted to read my finished Alice Cooper interview after seeing the excerpts I posted a little while back, go read it here. (Almost as entertaining as my workman-like prose is the reader comments linked to at the top. Alice do get some people's blood up!)

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

LIFE: Yurt yurt yurt

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...So we zipped away to the Oregon Coast for a little camping getaway to decompress from all the pre-moving stress, and finally fulfilled my lifelong dream of staying in a yurt. What is a yurt, you ask? Basically a round cross between a tent and a cabin, based on the Mongolian nomad dwelling. Several of the coastal campgrounds in Oregon have yurts and I've been vaguely curious about staying in one for years now. They're very popular though, and hard to get a reservation for, but I finally scored one. It was a pleasant change from our usual tent camping to be "yurted." It's not very hardcore camping - they even have electricity! - but there's something fun about staying in a little round fairy-tale house. Unfortunately there were no corners to tell Peter to stand in when he was bad. (Have we mentioned how fun 2 1/2-year-olds are?) But now I can say I have slept in a yurt.
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It was a fine getaway as always - we went to our favorite coastal town of Bandon, which is nicely picturesque and touristy without being overwhelmingly so, and far less crowded than some of the more popular Oregon Coast haunts get. Now that we're just about a month away from leaving Oregon, we realized this might just be our last trip out there. There'll be beaches in New Zealand a-plenty of course, but the Oregon coast is something unique and special. I'll miss the views.
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And Peter will miss the driftwood!
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