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Archive for February, 2009

The Last Action Hero.

“Rorschach’s Journal, October 13, 1985, 8:30pm. Meeting with Dreiberg left bad taste in mouth. The flabby failure sits whimpering in his basement. Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders? The first Nite-Owl runs an auto-repair shop. The first Silk Spectre is dying in a California rest resort. Dollar Bill got his cape stuck in a revolving door where he got gunned down. Silhouette murdered, a victim of her own indecent lifestyle. Moth Man’s in an asylum in Maine. Only two names remain on my list. Both share private quarters at Rockefeller Military Research Center. I shall go to them. I shall go tell the indestructible man that someone plans to murder him.”

With Midnight only two weeks away, there’re a quite a few more Watchmen clips popping up online (including a semi-entertaining riff on Martha Quinn-era MTV and one cringe-worthy clip of the prison melee that’s basically a show reel of Zack Snyder’s bad habits.) Still, this extended look at Rorschach’s sleuthing gives me hope that Jackie Earle Haley, at least, knocked it out of the park. (“All those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers, and all of sudden nobody can think of anything to say.“)The clock’s still ticking…

Stimpak Applied.

“We have begun the essential work of keeping the American Dream alive in our time. Now, I don’t want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems. Nor does it constitute all of what we’re going to have to do to turn our economy around. But today does mark the beginning of the end…The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that I will sign today — a plan that meets the principles I laid out in January — is the most sweeping economic recovery package in our history.Back in Denver for the day, President Obama signs the ARRA economic stimulus bill into law. [Remarks.] “‘We have done more in 30 days to advance the cause of health-care reform than this country has done in an entire decade,’ Obama said, prompting a standing ovation.

As with the initial versions, the final bill passed without a single GOP vote in the House and only three Republicans — Snowe, Collins, Specter — in the Senate. Y’know, it’s bad enough that these situationally-ethical jokers stand in the way of what obviously needs to be done to get our economy moving again. (I don’t remember any calls for spending restraint, or any worries about pork, in the flush times when Boss DeLay was running the show, or when both Reagan and Dubya were ratcheting up the deficit to all hell.) But, it offends the senses to have to listen to the aggressively stupid talking points Republicans tend to trot out these days. For example, the party’s new leader, Michael Steele: “Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job.” (The armed services notwithstanding, who does he think the runs the government? Elves? Hey, Mr. Steele, look down — we call those roads.) Or consider South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint: “This is not a stimulus bill. It’s just a spending bill.” Econ 101: A stimulus bill is a spending bill. (They do in fact teach this in SC — I can attest to it.)

Worse still, the national newsmedia has been failing miserably in their coverage of the stimulus battle, by continually enabling these Republicans to spout their inanities without comment. It reminds me of Paul Begala’s “Neil Armstrong Principle,” which I heard him break down on Charlie Rose a few months back: “If John McCain and Sarah Palin were to say the moon was made of green cheese, we can be certain that Barack Obama and Joe Biden would pounce on it, and point out it’s actually made of rock. And you just know the headline in the paper the next day would read: ‘CANDIDATES CLASH ON LUNAR LANDSCAPE.’” Too true.

Well, at least the durned thing passed. I’m sure the bill has its problems, not the least that it was transformed and watered down in an attempt to placate a bunch of Republicans who were never in a million years going to vote for it anyway. Perhaps, when we move forward now, we can focus on writing good policy that will get this economy and our country moving again, rather than catering to the whims of the naysayers, political opportunists, and/or flat-earth morons that comprise today’s GOP.

Watch Fragments.

It is twenty-two years ago, and I am reading the final issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. It is three weeks from now, and I am watching the midnight show of Zack Snyder’s film of the graphic novel. It is ten minutes ago, and I am watching these five exclusive clips from the movie and thinking, “Hrm. These don’t actually seem very good…” (True, clips taken out of context can always seem strange. Still, Veidt muttering his lines and all that Snyderian sloooo-moooo — Silk Spectre at the fire, the Comedian off of Archie — gives me pause.)

Pixels go Boom!

Can’t say I cared much for the first one. Nevertheless, the teaser for Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is now online, and it looks like it’s shaping up to be the Mother of All Michael Bay movies, and might possibly be fun with the appropriate lubrication.

Love Songs ’09.

Happy belated valentine’s day, all. I know this is a few days late now, but just to keep the streak going (’05, ’06, ’07, ’08), here’s the usual yearly song-blog entry. And with that, the obligatory V-day, behind-the-curtain status-update: Well, as per the norm, I’m as single as a one-dollar-bill. (The last time I had an actual, honest-to-goodness valentine on this day, l’il Berk notwithstanding, was in 2004. Before that, 2000.) At any rate, it’s now been years since the last gal, figuring she could do better, left with a shrug and disappeared forever…just like the one before and the one before that. And, since then and right up to now, there’s been no one in sight.

This obviously can get to be a little depressing, and, now that I’ve reached my mid-thirties by myself, I sometimes struggle with bitterness over it. Didn’t virtually every movie, tv show, song, and book I’ve ever consumed consistently promise I’d have someone in my corner? It’s not like I’ve been a bad guy. (Then again, all the evidence tends to suggest that that might well have been part of the problem. Like the old Stephen Wright joke, women have often told me I’m “wonderful” …usually right as they kick my sorry ass to the curb.)

But, oh well. I’ve got my health, my faculties, and a First World quality-of-life, so I’m already way ahead in the game compared to a lot of folks out there. And to be honest, I’ve got enough problems on my plate right now without getting pulverized yet again by someone else’s caprice anyway. Besides, given my current steady-jobless, apartment-less, penniless, PhD-less existence, which, frankly, seems less and less “transitional” as the months go by, I probably wouldn’t date me either. (As a colleague noted, nostalgically studying the depression era is turning out to be quite a bit more preferable than actually living it.)

So, no worries. Some politically-minded freelance writing gigs should get me through the next couple of months even if no steady employ is forthcoming, and one day soon, I’m sure, I’ll rise like a phoenix from the ashes of my current lowly existence. And, lo, it’ll be a New Day…just like on The Wire. At any rate, to the music:


When the sun shines, we’ll shine together,
Told you I’ll be here forever
Said I’ll always be your friend
Took an oath, I’mma stick it out ’till the end

Now that it’s raining more than ever
Know that we still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella…

As with ABBA last year and Kraftwerk in ’06, I like to kick this post off with a happy, guilty pleasure. This year, it’s Rihanna’s “Umbrella”. Yes, it got played into the ground during its single run, even getting its own Clinton v. Obama version on Mad TV last year. But, just as with Titanic, sometimes things are popular for a reason. With its Jay-Z opening, infectious hook, not-very-oblique double entendre, and inescapable chorus, “Umbrella” is pure, unadulterated pop, and a perfect lyrical counterpart to another quality hip-hop ballad, Method Man’s “All I Need”. (“Even when the skies were gray, you’d rub me on my back and say ‘baby, it’ll be ok.’ Now that’s real to a brotha like me baby…”) And now, with a lot of things “comin’ down with the Dow Jones” in this current economy, “Umbrella” is starting to sound more and more like one of the quintessential 21st-century Depression-era ballads, the kind you might find on “Sister, Can You Spare a Dime?”-type mixes fifty years hence.

[Note: I thought about writing up “Umbrella” this year before the unfortunate Chris Brown situation last week, which can’t help but inflect the song negatively. At first, I figured it might be in poor taste now and that I should choose some other pop song. But, in the end, I just decided to go with it anyway — hopefully, the song stands on its own, and will continue to long after recent events have receded.]


Yes indeed, I’m alone again.

And here comes emptiness crashing in.

It’s either love or hate, I can’t find in between,

’cause I’ve been with witches and I’ve been with the queen.

It wouldn’t have worked out anyway.
So now it’s just another lonely day…”

On the other side of the emotional spectrum from “Umbrella”, Ben Harper’s “Another Lonely Day” is an acoustic, bone-dry lament to the most recent smash-up. (“Yesterday seems like a life ago, ’cause the one I love today, I hardly know.“) To be honest, there are elements of this otherwise-beautiful break-up song that rankle. Unlike, say, Chris Isaak (listen to anything on Forever Blue) or Tom Waits (last year‘s “Make it Rain” for example), this reads like an I-got-dumped song by a guy who’s never, ever been dumped. (“I’d rather walk alone than chase you around.” Oh, it’s your call, then? How nice that you have the hand. “Further along, we just may?” Again, not up to you, pal.) If, as the song says, this final kiss-off is of Harper’s doing, I wish it’d had more of the conflicted brio of U2’s “So Cruel” or most any of Dylan’s impressive stable of “It’s been real, it’s been fun, hasn’t been real fun” farewells. But, not to lose the forest for the trees, “Another Lonely Day” is still close to perfect in its simple, painful delicacy, and it definitely well captures that grim “Solitary Man” sensation of “Ugh. Here we are again.”


I was feeling lonely, feeling blue,
Feeling like I needed you,
Like I’m walking up surrounded by me,

Ever looked at the words of a song you thought you knew decently well and discovered that it’s not at all about what you thought it was? (I would guess a lot of Republicans had this experience when discovering that “Born in the USA” wasn’t even close to a pro-Reagan anthem of the heartland.) This happened to me just this past week when I decided to write up Goldfrapp’s A&E. Given the upbeat tempo, the video, and the snippets of lyrics I knew, I always thought this song was about someone slowly emerging out of the clouds of a bad break-up and enjoying a day outdoors. (“It’s a blue, bright blue Saturday, and the pain’s starting to slip away.“) But, I was wrong. Reading more closely, it seems the “backless dress” is a hospital gown, A&E is the British term for the ER, and Alison Goldfrapp is basically waking up druggy after a botched “Then he’ll be sorry!” suicide attempt. (“I think I want you still, but it may be pills at work.“) Uh, oops.

Ok, so this is less like Bjork’s All is Full of Love” and more like The Sundays’ “Here’s where the Story Ends” than I originally thought. Still, it’s a great song, and not half as depressing as it reads on the page. Goldfrapp more often go for cinematic Portishead-like atmosphere (Felt Mountain) or sultry, come-hither dance numbers (“Ooh, La La,” “Strict Machine”), and I’m a big fan of both settings. Still, the organic, pastoral feel of Seventh Tree is a grower, as is “A&E.”


All the people I love are here.
All the people that I love can’t hear.
All the people I love are drunk.
All the people that I love aren’t here.”

After getting “A&E” wrong, I’m not even going to try to make heads or tails of the lyrics to Hot Chip’s obscenely catchy “Crap Kraft Dinner”, a current staple of my driving time. At first it just seems to be about a happy, drunken party buzz (i.e. the exact opposite of “This Place is a Prison,” by The Postal Service.) But, eventually amid the haze, there’s clearly somebody missing, and/or sort of break-up happening. (“All you can hear is my refusal, ’cause i haven’t got the time for a jerk-off loser.“) Regardless, both strands intertwine, then fade into that sweet, melancholic outro. Like Brian Eno’s “By this River,” this isn’t really a love song per se, but one I find strangely soothing.


Everybody wants to be hollywood.
The fame, the vanity, the glitz, the stories.
One day I’ll become a great big star.
You know like the big dipper.
And maybe one day you can visit my condo.
On the big hill you know like 9-0-2-1-0…

Speaking of obscenely catchy , Felix the Housecat’s “Madame Hollywood” isn’t a love song either. And, granted, almost every cut featuring Ms. Kittin has almost exactly the same “ritzy, raunchy, and bored” monologue somewhere therein. (Cases in point: “Frank Sinatra,” “1982,” “Nurse.”) So I don’t have much to say about this one, except that I could listen to the crisp, old-school-Modish backbeat that drives this track for just about forever.


And have you ever wanted something so badly that it possessed your body and your soul, through the night and through the day, until you finally get it…and then you realize that it wasn’t what you wanted after all? And then those selfsame, sickly little thoughts now go and attach themselves to something — or somebody — new! And the whole goddamn thing starts all over again…”

Well, I’ve been crushing the symptoms, but I can’t locate the cause. Unfortunately, The The’s “True Happiness This Way Lies”, the stand-up-routine opening track to Dusk, one of my desert-island discs, doesn’t appear to yet be on the Youtubes. (That is, aside from one well-intentioned misfire of a cover.) [Update: It is now. Added below.] But in it is distilled much of what makes Matt Johnson’s better albums (Dusk, Soul Mining) so powerful — the relentless self-questioning (“Slow Emotion Replay“), the soaked-through melancholy (“This is the Day“), the dismal sensation of being endlessly driven astray by one’s passions (“The Dogs of Lust.”) So, for the next day or two, and as per the old-school method around here, you can grab this track here. And remember: The only true freedom is freedom from the heart’s desire…and the only true happiness this way lies.

Happy (belated) Valentine’s, y’all.

A Dark Hour for Lincoln.

“A source close to Spielberg says the director is busy with his next film, Tintin, and is not wringing his hands over Paramount’s decision. But another source associated with the project, asked about the process, said, ‘I think it’s called water-boarding.'” Will Steven Spielberg’s longgestating Lincoln biopic (with Liam Neeson and Sally Field as the president and first lady respectively) become a victim of the downfall of Dreamworks? “This past weekend, he’s been waiting for executives at Paramount–the studio he ditched last year–to decide whether to make the film and hire him to direct it.

Well, the dubious merits of Amistad notwithstanding, I can think of a couple dozen other movie projects I’d like to see the plug pulled on before this one.

“The Audacity of Dope.”

“Marijuana is California’s largest cash crop. It’s valued at $14 billion annually, or nearly twice the value of the state’s grape and vegetable crops combined, according to government statistics…But the state doesn’t receive any revenue from its cash cow. Instead, it spends billions of dollars enforcing laws pegged at shutting down the industry and inhibiting marijuana’s adherents.” Also in Slate: In the wake of California’s money troubles, Daniel Gross makes the economic case for marijuana decriminalization.

“So what are the numbers? A national legalization effort would save nearly $13 billion annually in enforcement costs and bring in $7 billion in yearly tax revenues, according to a study by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron…That doesn’t include any indirect revenues as, for example, rural farming communities grow or marijuana tourism, which has been lucrative for the Netherlands, takes off.

The obvious economic benefits aside, it’s well nigh time to establish a sane drug policy in this country. And weed in particular is an easy call. We haven’t had a drug-free American president since 1992 (at best), and yet we still pretend that a goofball like Michael Phelps ripping bong hits is some sort of egregious sin? Time to grow up, people.

Sweet Coraline.

Sigh…I’m running well behind on reviews again. Nevertheless, if you have the slightest amount of interest in Henry Selick’s exquisitely crafted stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, I highly recommend it. Made with as much care and attention to detail as the best of Pixar (or earlier Selick projects such as Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), Selick’s clever Coraline is a children’s fable that moves with purpose, bristles with dark humor, and snaps together with satisfying, text-adventure logic. Like Dahl, Carroll, del Toro, and Rowling, Selick and Gaiman get that kids have more of an appetite for the unsettling and creepy than they’re often given credit for, and that the best fairy tales are often dark, scary places. Coraline is no exception. And, even if you’re not a stop-motion aficionado, the film is an eye-popping visual treat — I really wish I’d seen it in 3D.

Once upon a time, there lived a little girl named Caroline…uh, Coraline. (Dakota Fanning) Whisked away by her two writerly parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgeman) to a dilapidated apartment house in the farthest reaches of Oregon, Coraline soon finds herself as blue as her hair in her gray new home. And so, she spends her days exploring the new environs and wishing she were somewhere, anywhere else. But, as it turns out, Anywhere Else is only a short crawl away. For, behind a tiny door in the living room, there exists another world, one in which parents are never distracted with boring writing projects, and both they and the bizarre coterie of neighbors — two British spinsters, an acrobatic Russian, a boy in a skeleton mask — are always solicitous of Coraline’s well-being.

Perhaps too solicitous, in fact. While Coraline takes a shine to her “other” family at first — despite their somewhat off-putting button eyes — she starts to find them a bit suffocating after awhile, and particularly after her dear, sweet other-mother suggests she pin her eyes shut. (And just wait until we get to the coat hangers.) And, when our heroine encounters the gloomy ghosts of other (now-button-eyed) children who haphazardly wandered into this erstwhile Shangri-la, she comes to realize that other-Mother is smothering her for a reason: For all its color and beauty, Coraline’s splendiferous secret world is really just a (lonely) spider’s web, meticulously crafted to ensnare her, forever and ever and ever. Be careful what you wish for, Coraline…

I hadn’t read Neil Gaiman’s book before seeing the movie, but I’m willing to bet that the eerie tone established here — and the scuttling stop-motion monstrosities therein — are one with his vision. (In fact, even the Sandman-like dream logic of the story notwithstanding, the button-eye gimmick reminded me quite a bit of Gaiman’s Corinthian, and there’s a wager-with-the-devil made at one point that brought to mind Morpheus’ spoken-word gambit in Hell.) Even so, it’s clear that Henry Selick has brought his own demented gleam to Gaiman’s world — see, for example, the spindly, nightmarish look of Momma Big Bad, or pretty much anything here involving stop-motion terriers. And, even when the story is going through its paces, there’s always something unique and amazing to catch your eye in the frame.

A word of caution: Coraline might be a touch too frightening for really, really young kids. (And besides, that old terrier with cataracts getting force-fitted into his angel costume is about as dark as anything you’ll ever find in a purported children’s movie.) But I could imagine youngsters of a certain age, particularly those with a macabre bent, really getting into this film. And in terms of the sheer wealth of imagination and meticulous craftsmanship on display, it’s hard to imagine that very many other films this year will be in Coraline‘s orbit. You go, girl.

We are Lincoln Men.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Happy 200th, Mr. President.

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