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Washtenaw Flaneurade
25 May 2010
Tears of Pomona
Now Playing: Deerhunter--"VHS Dream"

The garden is planted, "garden" maybe a rather pompous term for a planter box with one sorrel plant and four peppers (two Anaheim, two habanero). Nevertheless, garden it is. The planter box I'm using is called an "Earthbox" and works on the water table system; a plastic box gets filled with potting mix, but with a screen at the bottom to create a water reservoir, fed through a pipe in the corner. The top gets covered with a plastic cover that operates as mulch, with holes cut for the plants. I started almost a week ago, and it seems to be doing pretty well. I had a brief scare towards the end of the first day, when the sorrel had deflated like a popped balloon, but it seems that it was only getting used to the new conditions, for the next day it perked back up admirably. The mulch is getting a little frayed and torn; I'm not sure if that's due to the natural effect of the elements (it rained a lot early last weekend) or the nocturnal visits of raccoons. The plants show a bit of insect damage and blight on a couple of leaves, but overall appear to be right on course. The box is on casters, so I can roll it back and forth, and I'd planned to move it all around the house as the most consistent sunlight is in the northeast (the driveway) and the southwest (where it's broken up by pretty thick tree cover). Fortunately, I found a sweet spot just east of the driveway where there's pretty decent light for most of the day; I expect any movement will just be for the sake of the grass underneath.

I finally caved and bought a camera, too, which still feels a little weird, as I haven't owned one since I was about fifteen. Once people stopped making film for the Kodak Instamatic, there didn't seem much point. Even during the past decade or so, when everyone's public personae depended more and more on the constant snapping of photos, there didn't seem much urgency (I didn't have a car, the internet or--by and large--TV either, so one more nonconformity, however partially voluntary, didn't make much difference, I thought). I did get a really cheap one at an office supply store which turned out to be a damp squib; I took a few crappy pictures with it and then the sheer uselessness of the thing hit me. It correspondingly took a while for me to get used to the notion again. The idea for this one occurred when I realized I was going to be spending a lot more purposeful time outside this spring and summer--riding the bike outside the city, gardening at home or at work, and other possible projects I'm considering. It'd be nice to have a pictorial record of that and be able to share it with others, especially friends of mine elsewhere in the States or abroad, as, infuriating as Ann Arbor can frequently become, it's a pretty good-looking town (downtown, anyway) and the natural areas can be quite breathtaking. I ended up getting a Canon PowerShot SX120, and it's worked magnificently so far. My standard ride down Bandemer and Argo Parks before work has now been exhaustively documented, and I was able to break it out, too, for my friend Sara's birthday, where we again congregated at a local area to pull invasive weeds, mainly dame's rocket and garlic mustard.* It takes really good shots, and I'm starting to be able to handle the "manual" setting--where you can specifically control things like exposure and focus and such--rather well. The pictures have so far been too big to comfortably fit on the blog (too many pixels and such), but I may be able to fix that soon. In the meantime, no event or occurrence, however small, will go unphotographed (said the man who spent a good five minutes trying to line up a shot of turtles mating at Gallup Park**).

The Rules of the Game (1939): Jean Renoir was probably the most famous and prestigious French film director of the early sound era, and for me he came highly recommended through the classic Grand Illusion (1937), the renowned World War I prisoner-of-war drama, and his superb La Marseillaise (1938), a rousing Popular Front-era celebration of the ideals and events of the French Revolution (and a snarky corrective to more negative portrayals of the period by Hollywood films of the decade such as 1935's The Scarlet Pimpernel). The Rules of the Game (or Le Regle de Jeu) is somewhat in the same vein, and is one of those movies that critics often praise as one of the greatest of all time. I quite enjoyed it myself. It's essentially an extended bedroom farce set in contemporary France with a light examination of the class differences between workers, the bourgeoisie, and the still surviving aristocracy (intriguingly depicted in this specific instance as being Jewish--a telling nod to the relative diversity of French society even in that era and in hindsight a grim foreshadowing of the next six years). Transatlantic aviator Jurieu (Roland Toutain) flies into Paris to find his lover Christine (Nora Gregor) absent, and bitches her out on national radio. Christine's husband, the aristocratic La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), encourages her to invite the pilot out to their country house for the weekend. A riotous series of events quickly ensues, as the pilot and lover make up and fall out and La Chesnaye's own lover starts to undergo what looks like a nervous breakdown. As if that weren't enough, the local poacher (Julien Carette) has been hired on La Chesnaye's whim, much to the chagrin of his arch-enemy, La Chesnaye's gamekeeper (Gaston Modot, whose wife, played by Paulette Dubost, the poacher instantly tries to seduce). Indulgently enjoying the whole mess is Octave, friend to all, whose portrayal by Renoir himself places the director squarely in the center of things and probably gave the architects of the auteur theory plenty of meat twenty years later. It all ends in a somewhat understated tragedy, as life carries on as it did before (the last shot is of the haute monde going back inside the house), but with the prospect of future trouble ominously present (the servants make catty remarks about La Chesnaye's Jewish ancestry, and his wife is herself a refugee from Nazi Austria). I can see why it's such a cinematic icon--Renoir somehow manages to ably satirize all classes and people without losing sight of a common vision of humanity and cooperation. The film was banned in France for being "defeatist," and wasn't released again until the late 1950s, by which time Renoir had become widely respected as one of the great titans of French cinema. The Criterion DVD comes with a feisty intro from Renoir himself done about the time of the film's rerelease--well worth watching.

Avanti! (1972): One of Billy Wilder's last great comedies is an entertaining yet tonally weird romp through southern Italy (murder is involved at one point) in the company of a free-spirited young British woman and a middle-aged American businessman who have come to bury their respective parents, the latter having perished, to the businessman's surprise, in a car crash and in each other's arms. Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon), has only a few days before his father's funeral is scheduled to take place in Baltimore and is shocked not only at the thicket of red tape that suddenly obstruct his path but also at the fresh revelations concerning his father's life, particularly a decade-long liaison with "Kate." Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), Kate's daughter, finds it all rather less surprising, and positively blossoms under the cumulative effect of Italy (much unlike Wendell). The two soon lock horns regarding the ultimate destinations of their parents' remains and things get tricky when, not only do the bodies mysteriously vanish, but Wendell and Pamela start to fall in love. The wily hotel manger Sr. Carlucci (Clive Revill) is thankfully on hand to speed things up--or slow them down, as need be. Avanti! is a fun film, but it doesn't cruise along quite as nimbly as Wilder's inimitable classics. The script, from a stage play by Samuel A. Taylor (and helped along by the legendary Richard Rodgers), is often extremely funny but frequently laden with one too many "rimshot" moments and the many topical references, though cutting-edge and current for the time, help to date the film a little more obviously than many others of its ilk. There's a fair amount of nudity, which is, of course, rarely a bad thing (even Lemmon bares all, though no full-frontal), but seems, in the context of a classic Golden Age director like Wilder making a film in the more ostensibly permissive early 1970s, like college-age playwrights filling their script with variations on "fuck" because they aren't in high school anymore (the University of Michigan's Basement Arts is a prime example, or at least it was when I had the misfortune to see one of their shows a few years back; Arthur Miller went to Michigan, you know). It may be an unjust criticism on my part, but I couldn't help feeling that the man who gave us Double Indemnity could have been a little more artful.*** The film's attitude to relationships seems a little off; Wendell would obviously benefit tremendously from a relationship with Pamela, but it seems a little hard on his wife Emily, only experienced as an unheard voice on the telephone. The sexual politics on offer appear to be those of the Rotary Club weekend (I'd say something about Mad Men, but I've never seen it). Considering the people involved, it's almost as if C.C. Baxter married Fran Kubelik after the end of The Apartment, won big on the company ladder, and then decided to start cheating on her. It may just be my relative hindsight, but I think Wilder's a little too accommodating of our hero in the matter. Fortunately, the whole thing is brilliantly sold by the cast, especially the leads. Lemmon does his usual sterling job, falling ever so slightly under Pamela's and Italy's spell yet retaining his smartass sense of self. As for Mills, I don't remember her having any other major film lead roles (she'd just come off the cult American TV show Nanny and the Professor and would later win notoriety as witch Tabitha, in the gloriously batshit NBC soap of the aughties, Passions), and she's divine in Avanti! The script saddles her with a weird hangup on her being "fat" (she apparently put on twenty-five pounds to play the role), another unwelcome indication (as in other films like I Am Curious: Yellow) of the long pedigree of the current obsession with thinness. Mills not only manages to transcend the potential degradation of such a fixation but also deftly sidesteps sliding into the dreaded "manic pixie dream-girl" mode thirty years before Natalie Portman failed to do so (if she even tried) in Garden State. Revill (who would deliver a memorable turn the following year as a snarly parapsych debunker in the Brit horror classic The Legend of Hell House) is great as the film's comic enabler and a host of little-seen (by me, anyway) Italian actors round out the local cast. While a little off in places, Avanti! is well worth a look, as a generally fun film and an interesting juncture between the cinematic worlds of Golden Age Hollywood and some of the romantic comedies--better romantic comedies, anyway--of the next four decades. Nice, too, to see a film about people discovering themselves in Italy that doesn't involve Tuscany at all.

Eliana, Eliana (2002): "Now on DVD, the film that revolutionized the Indonesian film industry!" Says the back cover, at any rate. I wish I'd known there was one readily available when this rather compelling little flick came out, the same year I was teaching classes on the history and culture of Southeast Asia at the University of Akron. The best remotely indigenous title I could rustle up to show students was John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990), a turgid piece of work involving Hong Kong Chinese caught up in the Vietnam War. We ended up watching The Killing Fields, which is a fantastic film (even if Julian Sands shows up for a bit), but I would have liked something that actually came from Southeast Asia.**** If only I had access to Eliana, Eliana then... Written (with Prima Rusdi) and directed by Riri Riza, Eliana, Eliana tells a rather universal story within the framework of the Jakarta slums, where Eliana (Rachel Maryam Sayidina) lives with her roommate Heni (Hemidar Amru), after having fled to Java from her Padang home when confronted with the possibility of an arranged marriage by her mother (referred to as "Bunda," which I understand is a common maternal term, and played by Jajang C. Noer). Eliana ekes out a life of crappy jobs and returns one day to find her roommate nowhere to be found on rent day and her mother basically waiting on her doorstep. Eliana spends the rest of the film in the supremely unenviable position of wandering around Jakarta--the biggest city in Southeast Asia--looking for Heni and some rent money while being nagged by Bunda all along. There's some respite in aid and moral support from friendly taxi driver Jamu (Arswendi Nasution), and it becomes clear as mother and daughter navigate the treacherous, sexual harassment-clogged streets of Jakarta that they may have more in common than they realize. Eliana, Eliana is maybe most striking, at least to me, for being filmed on live-action video, and it seems to make a difference as far as the somewhat overheated performances are concerned. Where if they were on film I might take them a little less seriously, the acting, and its air of slightly heightened reality, seems much more appropriate and powerful in this filming medium, and maintained my interest throughout (as did the relatively--visually, anyway--unfamiliar locations). It's almost like a soap opera with important things genuinely at stake. The highlight of the movie is probably Jajang Noer, whose west Sumatran matron, confronted with the uncertainties of the big city, responds with a pluck that might seem cloyingly and smotheringly manipulative of the audience were it not for her obvious and unjust dismissal of her daughter's abilities. The comments on IMDB are usually only slightly more useful than those on YouTube (that is to say, not at all), but the notes on Eliana, Eliana point towards an Indonesian film industry (heavily Javanese, I'd suspect) whose surface may have yet to be really scratched by American film distributors. This is an area I'll definitely have to revisit, if only to find more unlikely gems like Eliana, Eliana.

*Unfortunately, we hit the garlic mustard this year after it had gone to seed, and it tastes quite bitter as a result. I found out, though, that it works rather well if you pair it with a strong dressing or other accompaniment in a salad, in order to cancel or alleviate some of the bitterness. It also seems to do okay used in lieu of parsley in meatballs, which I made for the subsequent picnic.

**That's what I was told, anyway, by the couple next to me when I was trying to take the picture. They had been to the Galapagos and seen sea turtles getting jiggy in that fashion (I didn't know if they meant regular turtles or the specifically awe-inspiring variety for which the Islas Encantadas are world-renowned). There were so many, though, and the one definite shot I caught showed a flash of what looked like pink flesh, that it may simply have been a mass of overactive fish--which bodes well for one of the other projects I'm considering.

***Wilder fled to the States after the Nazis took over Austria in 1938; I'm not terribly familiar with his early career in Austria and Hungary, but he may well have been involved with more risque material than was acceptable in Golden Age Hollywood. 

****There was a longstanding and mystifying attachment (on the literary as opposed to cinematic front) to the novel The Ugly American, by Lederer and Burdick, on the part of the World Civilizations Program's Southeast Asia subsection, which was basically a clunky fictional blueprint for the Kennedy Administration's policy towards Vietnam, as well as an endorsement for some of the more perniciously imperialistic tendencies of the Peace Corps. I thought of offering Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind, but went instead for his shorter but less accessible The Fugitive, about a returning anti-Japanese partisan after the Second World War. I sometimes wonder what they're doing now, or if the World Civilizations program is even still around.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 8:25 AM EDT
Updated: 25 May 2010 11:04 PM EDT
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15 May 2010
Porter Shorts
Now Playing: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention--"Hungry Freaks, Daddy"

The 12th of May, 2010, was one of the strangest days I've had for a while. The weirdness mainly came down to the way in which it started. I woke up around five in the morning to the sound of people screaming at each other outside. I thought it might have just been the standard din of "America's future leaders" rolling down the sidewalk on the way home from whatever afterhours beer pong bacchanalia was going on over on Walnut or Linden. Sadly, the screaming continued, and I managed to shoehorn myself out of bed and stagger down to the front door. Looking between the slats of the front door blinds, I saw a guy and a girl yelling and gesticulating, the girl threatening to call the cops, and the guy sarcastically encouraging her to do so. In between all this, I reckoned that much of their disagreement must have been down to someone named "Kelly." There wasn't much else I could glean, save that the girl thought she was being kicked out of the guy's house and that the guy's yelling back (if she had started it at all) wasn't helping. As their behavior obviously indicated that they wanted the entire neighborhood to know their business, I tried my damnedest to eavesdrop on the whole story. It was the least I could do, really, especially after being woken up. The whole nature of my morning changed, though, when he started moving towards her rather aggressively (the best spin I could put on that was that he may have been trying to take her cell phone off her). I then threw the door open and said, "If you hit her, I'll call the cops." This sounds sillier or more melodramatic than it actually was, believe me; it must have looked a lot more like a "you damn kids better get off my lawn" reaction than anything else. The guy protested that they were just having a "spat," and the girl ran off. It suddenly hit me that these two had been through a similar deal a few months back, as she had headed down Geddes in the exact same way--presumably she lived over that way. We live in a very student-"rich" area, so it's a little hard to keep track of these things. The guy snarks at me the same way he did at the girl, and nearly made a move to gain the porch. He stopped and apparently thought better of it (which, though a relief, was a little odd, as I'm not the most threatening physical specimen), going back inside his house (which is hideously ugly, by the way--not that ours is relatively unsightly, but his makes our place look like the Alhambra). I went back inside, thinking (a) I'd gotten them apart for a possible cooling-off period, (b) I'd also gotten them off our driveway, which the guy mistakenly identified as "his property," and (c) I'd be able to go back to sleep. It was only as I later failed at (c) that I realized how odd I felt. I am not a confrontational person. It almost certainly derives, like most things, from childhood issues, but it's also been rather beneficial for me in many ways--being able to see two sides to every issue, etc. It certainly doesn't sound like much, but I felt like I'd stepped over a threshold of sorts (I suppose literally). I was a trifle off-kilter for the rest of the morning. I went in to work to help with gardening, though the miserable weather has once again postponed planting my own garden (see below). I had a decent chat with our garden coordinator over the possibility of gardening on a more formal basis (essentially taking over her position after she moves to North Carolina this summer), and, after cruising the farmer's market, had a delicious lunch of grilled mackerel and rice on the new noodle bar at Liberty and Thompson. After getting home and starting some chicken stock (I've been meaning to make a new batch for a while), I noticed a police car outside and saw the girl talking with a cop in our yard (I suppose she didn't want to be in the guy's "property"). No idea what happened, although that she went ahead and called the cops suggests something a little more serious. I don't know whether to feel pleased that I was able to stop things before they might have gotten really ugly (however relatively inadvertently) or just creeped out at being in such proximity to such a sketchy situation.

This week in general has been unusually productive. I finally decided to take the leap and plant a garden, though the strange repelling effect my house seems to have on the sun has forced me to get creative. On a work supply visit to Downtown Home and Garden, an estimable Ann Arbor institution, I noticed the existence of "Earthboxes," mobile mini-gardens that work on the water-table system. They seemed like just the thing, and I picked one up and later got potting soil for it. Hopefully today I'll be getting leeks, peppers, and fennel from the farmer's market, and probably plant tomorrow morning. The weather over the past few weeks has been strangely cool; every time I got ready to bite the bullet and grab some seedlings, it's either dropped to fifty or started raining (I suppose it's better than getting a last blast of snow). Now it finally looks like I'm in with a chance. I think I might still get a pot for a tomato plant and some basil, to be a little more traditional; there's a place on our front walk that would be perfect for it. I don't think there'll be a yield big enough for more than one or two dishes, but if I can prove to myself that I can do it, I might actually splurge for a plot at one of the community gardens next season.

I also sent off a story. One of my colleagues on the BHF drew my attention to Pill Hill Press, which puts out themed anthologies every few months, and is publishing one on werewolves entitled Silver Moon, Bloody Bullets, due out this summer. I've been discussing with work chums the growing stylistic bankruptcy of vampires and zombies, and the idea of exploring lycanthropy appealed to me, as did the short notice on the anthology, the deadline for which was Saturday. I knocked out a piece that I maybe think could use a little more flesh on its bones, but which stands alone pretty well, formatted it to the guidelines, and sent it off. It'll be only over the next few days, I think, that it truly sinks in what a big step this has been for me. I've been published before in the BHF anthologies, but that was originally by invitation for the first, and so submitting two more for the third didn't seem as forbidding as it might have. Ever since I started writing, I've only submitted "blind" twice, both in situations where the stories were quite unsuited to their destinations. I doubt this one will make it, but the threshold I've crossed (this has been the week for them, apparently) will make it easier for me to do this in the future, I think, and there are a few more themed anthologies coming out that might be more up my alley if this one doesn't work out. This year, while not as eventful, maybe, as last year's, is really shaping up to be a formative one.

The Witches and the Grinnygog (1983): The personally influential Nickelodeon series The Third Eye, which I've mentioned earlier on this screen in connection with Children of the Stones, delivered one more intriguing entry of children's supernatural fare before going off the air, apparently as a result of Nickelodeon's decision to retool around 1984, a decision that would lead to shows like the deeply loathsome Double Dare. Having already introduced malleable American viewers to a number of British series involving kids mixed up with the supernatural (and one New Zealander program, 1981's Under the Mountain), The Third Eye gave us this offbeat 1983 tale of cuddly tea-cozy witchcraft and then lamentably skeddadled. I vividly remember as a kid Nickelodeon starting to go down the tubes around this time, and it was probably for that reason. I didn't get to see all of The Witches and the Grinnygog back then. I was hooked for something like the first and second episodes, and then the combination of the titular unnerving stone idol and what I thought was a creepy scene with a disembodied voice coming from an attic scared me shitless and actually gave me nightmares. I'd like to report a surfeit of embarrassment on finally righting an almost thirty-year-old wrong (i.e. finally seeing the whole thing, fittingly enough given the story's subject matter) at the very idea of The Witches and the Grinnygog being scary. The Witches and the Grinnygog was based on the Whitbread-shortlisted children's book by Dorothy Edwards, and put out by TV South, an upstart independent station in southeast England that had a brief run of success in the 1980s, co-producing Fraggle Rock, among other things. A small village in southern England (interesting to compare this contemporary portrayal of the Thatcherite era with more northerly examples like Billy Elliot and Shane Meadows' compelling This Is England) suddenly finds itself beset with all manner of strange doings as the local vicar (Robert Swann, most famous in my house for the elegantly cruel Rowntree of Lindsay Anderson's if...) tries to stop the redevelopment of his church and everyone prepares for the village fete. It all revolves around the appearance of a mysterious gargoyle-like statue and three strange old women, one of whom apparently has a mannequin for a daughter. A band of kids--the vicar's and their more working-class friends--try to figure out what's going on, with the occasional help of the mysterious Dr. Alabaster (Olu Jacobs), an African academic who knows more than he's telling. The whole thing's supremely weird, and that I ever had trouble getting to sleep on its account will henceforth rank as one of my chief childhood shames. That's not to say it's bad at all. Its weirdness and relative lack of tension make for a refreshingly offbeat feel, as does the portrayal of village life. This isn't a Miss Marple story with the dates changed; the kids and the vicar are all seen listening to what clearly sounds like New Order and the Human League on the radio (interestingly, the YouTube upload for the finale of Part One features, on the side, the video for Real Life's "Send Me An Angel") and Mrs. Firkettle, the working-class kids' mother, has very realistic worries about losing her job in a department store. The appearance of Mr. Alabaster (and a bus driver of Asian descent) gives a refreshingly diverse twist for the time. The story revolves around an ancient injustice needing to be put right, but the tension never really quite results in the payoff one might expect. The title idol has its moments of creepiness, but none that really justify, even in retrospect, robbing me of sleep. Even so, it's a pleasantly offbeat trip down memory lane, and a laid-back, pressure-free way to scratch off some long-neglected unfinished business.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:31 AM EDT
Updated: 15 May 2010 10:40 AM EDT
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18 April 2010
Hot Mess Makeover: The Final Chapter
Now Playing: The Skygreen Leopards--"Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass"

The past few days have been an interesting barrage of inconveniences which have left me strangely and happily unperturbed. The most jarring came Thursday morning, a gorgeous day of near eighty which brought everyone out onto the streets and had me anxious to get some riding in before work. Right as I was about to leave, my housemate Ari intercepted me to say that our other housemate Patrick was moving out, and taking our internet with him. I was less irritated by that than by Ari's annoying insistence that I do something about it. I planned to, just not at that moment, and Ari's apparent disappointment that I was headed for work was a little irritating. I had Saturday night plans that heavily involved the internet (not what you're thinking) and I wasn't getting bent out of shape. In any event, the guy on the phone said they'd get it Monday, and so I'm typing this from Amer's. I have a laptop, so I fit in--up to a point. Sadly, everyone else appears to have Netbooks or MacBooks, but there's the slightest chance that I can get into an overcompensation tussle as mine's bigger. 


5 tbsp peanut oil, 1 whole mackerel cut into fillets, 2 tbsp water, 1/2 tsp double-black soy sauce, 1 tsp soy sauce, 1/2 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp pepper, 6 cloves garlic (sliced lengthwise), 1 piece fresh ginger (peeled and cut into matchsticks), 1-2 fresh red chiles (cut into matchsticks), 1 medium red onion (halfed and thinly sliced), 1 tsp palm, rice or cider vinegar.

Heat oil in 12-in. skillet over medium heat. Add fish and saute until golden brown, approx. 5-6 min. on each side. When finished, set aside and pour off half of oil from skillet. In bowl, combine water, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and pepper. Stir well, set aside. Return skillet to medium heat and heat oil. When hot, add garlic, ginger, onion, and chiles, then saute 5-7 mins. Add soy mix to skillet and bring back to bubble. Once it bubbles, add vinegar and warm through. Remove pan, spoon sauce mix over fish and serve.

My friend in Iowa has recently encouraged me to try some Southeast Asian cooking. My own home cooking has been heavily European, and I'd never really tried anything outside the western subcontinent. Chuan-chuan (as described in James Oselan's excellent Cradle of Flavor) intrigued me especially as it involved mackerel, of which I've grown extremely fond. It's such a rich, flavorful fish that it really needs strong accents to counteract the taste, and chuan-chuan, a long-established Portuguese Malay recipe, delivered admirably, with ginger and soy ably balancing the powerful fishiness of the main ingredient. This time, I decided to get the whole fish and butcher it myselef. It was something I'd never done before, although I had some experience in butchering salmon fillets during my high-end prep job a couple of years back. Mackerel just looks marvelous--dark, shiny, compact, and substantial. It's a relatively easy fish to work with, as it has no scales, any my knife proved very effective in halving it and cutting away the skin, although I hope to get more proficient in reducing the waste (they say the parts are too strong for fish stock, but I may try something with them anyway). I came away with about four decent fillets, and prepared them accordingly. There were some expected problems with ingredients. Many of the recipes I found needed hard-to-find stuff like lemongrass stalks and galangal. With chuan-chuan, my major hurdle was the lack of double-black soy sauce, which I (probably ineffectively) surmounted by using two different kinds of regular soy. If I make this again, I might try fish sauce; I expect it'd lead to a richer taste, and I love the fishy taste of fish so long as it doesn't indicate spoliage. I couldn't find the right kind of chile either, but just substituted Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning--probably not as hot, but probably more delicious. Along with the actual dish, I cooked down a couple of cups of paella rice my Spanish housemate had left behind when she returned to Murcia. The recipe's ancestry raised a couple of questions; I wondered how the Portuguese familiarity with mackerel (a fine, upstanding Atlantic fish of long distinction) had been responsible for the idea in the first place as the first colonists arrived in conquered Melaka during the early sixteenth century. Along with the rice, I sliced up a nice, plump tomato and mixed the rice with a little more soy. I thought it was terrific, a nice, filling meal with plenty of good stuff for both nutrition and taste. Apparently mackerel's disdained in certain quarters, not only for the strong taste but also for the fattiness. The latter is pretty much a textbook case for "good" fat--very low in cholesterol and rich in omega-3. It's definitely a dish that could stand an encore, with any number of creative additions and substitutions.

Dance of the Dead (2008): The fifteen or so previews I sat through before I got to reach the menu for this DVD (my DVD player's down, too, so I'm watching movies on the laptop and all until I get around to grabbing a new one) really underlined the a quietly impressive achievement Dance of the Dead presented--glimpse after glimpse of grimy, faux-industrial horror and hokey supernatural chills with overbaked gore (in fairness, one of them was Saw V) and interchangeable characters. Somehow Dance of the Dead--written and directed as a labor of love by, respectively, Joe Ballarini and Gregg Bishop--manages to get away with being a refreshingly original horror film at the terminus of two pretty overplayed subgenres--the teen and zombie flicks. Prom night's just around the corner, and the students at Cosa High School are at fever pitch. Jimmy (Jared Kudnitz) and Lindsey (Greyson Chadwick--who, on top of being a lovely, talented actress, ought to get roles on that name alone) have just broken up as she's tired of his treating life as a joke. Steve (Chandler Darby), a sci-fi geek, is anxious to ask out cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Campobianco), but finds her too infatuated with rocker Nash (Blair Redford) to notice. Add to that assorted preppies, geeks, psychos, and gun-crazed gym teachers, and then throw in a power plant that might have been lifted straight from the opening title scenes of The Simpsons. On prom night, the dead rise, and its up to the misfits, outcasts, and their fellow travelers to fight off the zombie menace and save the town. Dance of the Dead, to a certain extent, is much ado about nothing--the reasons for the undead assault are treated almost as an aside--but in terms of character development and dialogue, it's probably one of the best and most realistic films about high school since at least the 90s, and perhaps before. Part of this authenticity is down to the startling realization that these kids actually look like high schoolers. It's been a running joke at least since Reefer Madness (or even Sternberg's Die Blaue Angel) that films portraying high school routinely cast actors generally a decade in advance of their onscreen age. I don't know how old the actors in Dance of the Dead are, but they're very convincing in their late teens, and their naturalistic performances and the light, witty dialogue really help put Dance of the Dead over the edge, as does the location filming in Rome, Georgia--which does an admirable job of standing in for the U.S. east of Pasadena and west of Newark. Every time it looks like the comedy might overbalance the horror, the film subtly shifts course until all's right again. Dance of the Dead attracted around-the-block lines at its premiere at SXSW a couple of years ago, and little wonder, as it breathes new (if probably brief) life into a couple of (deservedly?) burnt-out genres.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 2:38 PM EDT
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30 March 2010
Medium Brutal
Now Playing: Stereolab--"The Emergency Kisses"

It's time to start cooking regularly again, and I really can't figure out where to start. There's just so much information out there, and so many different cuisines, that I suffer serious overload just trying to think about it. One thing I definitely want to do is become more familiar with my own "native cuisine," which, as it's that of southern Louisiana, fortunately happens to be one of the most famous and celebrated in America, if not the world. My own personal culinary history, certainly as reported on this blog over the years, has ranged from Italian fish dishes (merluzzo livornese) to standard French classics (vichysoisse), offbeat Basque fish stews (marmitako), Hungarian work castoffs (paprikasz), intriguing Caribbean variations (habanero and lime black bean chili), disappointing Caucasian misfires (Circassian chicken), versatile Mexican dressings (green mole sauce) and West African-influenced comfort food (sweet potato and peanut stew). From reading that back, I haven't really ventured "east of Suez" and it's a pity, though a friend's encouragement has recently inspired me to investigate the culinary traditions of maritime Southeast Asia and combine my love of cooking with some of my bygone academic interests. I also need to get a serrated knife and a grill, and then I'll be ready for summer. Watch this space!

Armide (1777): Christoph Willibald Gluck was one of the most successful and well-known composers of the mid-eighteenth century, laying the foundations for the transformation of orchestral music--opera in particular--that contemporaries and successors like Haydn and especially Mozart and Beethoven would carry to the next level (Mozart took Gluck as something of a mentor during his years in Paris). An immigrant to France from the Austrian Empire, he became the toast of the ancien regime and the focus of a famously bitter struggle between his supporters and those of the more conservative Italian opera composer Niccolo Piccinni during the 1780s (there's a great writeup on the tussle in Claude Manceron's hugely entertaining micro-history of pre-Revolutionary France--I think it's in Twilight of the Old Order). His most famous operas were probably Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Iphigenia en Aulide (1774), but he considered Armide one of his best, and it today remains a relatively little-known work, all the more remarkable as it took some stones to produce. An earlier version of Armide (based on events and characters in the sixteenth century Italian poet Torquato Tasso's epic Gerusalemme Liberata) had been produced in the reign of Louis XIV by Jean-Baptiste Lully, one of the great exemplars, along with playwrights like Racine, of the Sun King's rigidly classical approach to the arts. As such, it was considered a national treasure by the French intelligentsia. I don't know what a modern equivalent might be--filming Catcher In The Rye, maybe? At any rate, Armide is rarely produced, from what I know. This made it an all the more intriguing destination for a Friday evening, as the University of Michigan Opera Theatre was producing it as their winter opera (they did Il Nozze di Figaro in the fall). I was pretty stoked, as they usually do the old chestnuts (understandably enough, as you're likely to get a bigger audience)--the year before they did La Traviata (which I got to see) and La Boheme (which is hardly one of my favorites anyway). Armide was as likely a choice as John Adams' Nixon in China. I was fairly unfamiliar with this period of opera--Mozart's stuff isn't quite in the same category--and it would definitely be interesting to check it out. As it happened, it was pretty fabulous, with something for everyone. Armide (Kristin Eder), a warrior-sorceress, is constantly frustrated by the bravery of Christian paladin Renaud (Willis Berne D. Bote) and decides to ensorcel him once and for all so that his defenses will be lowered and she can close in for the kill. Unfortunately, she falls in love with him and can't follow through. Renaud's posse shows up and frees him from Armide's porntastic witchery (the near-balletic moments as Renaud's beset by the welcome eye-candy of "the pleasures" fairly typical of opera during this period, from what I remember), as Armide meditates on the tragic nature of her exposure to love. There's more to the plot than that, but that's the basic structure, with generous dollops of comedy and drama. The occasionally sinister plot gets a wonderful counterpoint in the sprightly, high-Classical music (Gluck was pretty much at the mid-point between Baroque and Romantic). Some fantastically simplistic set design was enhanced by brilliant lighting, conveying mood along with the music and acting. The moments when Armide gets ready to cast a spell were superb, especially in Act 3 when she summons demons to get rid of Renaud--the whole thing's a perfect riot of music, color, and atmosphere, and the tension between Armide and "Hate" is gorgeously erotic. The cast is great, but Eder's especially good in the lead role, and some of this two-and-a-half-centuries-old extravaganza can seem amusingly modern--some of the translated libretto (when Armide and company cajole the powers of Hell) sounds like it would have fit on my co-worker's metal CDs. It was a great night out, and hopefully its success will encourage the Opera Theatre to program some more lesser-known works!

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007): The Oxford History of the United States, originally planned out by the late, great C. Vann Woodward and carried on by David M. Kennedy, has now swelled to several volumes, at present covering 1763-1865 and 1929-2000. My first exposure to it was James M. McPherson's magnificent Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), certainly the best single-volume history of the Civil War and, for my money, one of the best non-fiction books ever written (as history, Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 comes close in its unusual chronological sweep). Since then, I've read the other volumes in the series, none of which really come close to the first, though they're all excellent in their own way. Howe's entry was the last on my list, and it's probably the most engaging since McPherson's, thanks to some sprightly writing and interesting idiosyncrasies. It also helps, surprisingly, that this period of U.S. history has, westward expansion aside, always bored me. I never knew that anyone could make stuff like the "transportation revolution" and the Second Great Awakening interesting, but Howe manages and then some (his background as a cultural historian helps especially with the latter). What Hath God Wrought treats one of the most important eras in our history in a near binary opposite manner to the chronologically similar The Rise of American Democracy, by Sean Wilentz, which covers the Election of 1800 to the Civil War. Whereas Wilentz is a mostly unabashed partisan of Andrew Jackson (with understandable scolding for policies like the barbaric "Indian Removal"--also known as the "Trail of Tears"--during the 1830s), Howe focuses his admiration on Jackson's frequent foe, the presidentially hapless John Quincy Adams, who bracketed his rather lackluster presidency (1825-29) on both sides with immense achievements, first as James Monroe's Secretary of State (1817-25) and then as a Massachusetts Congressman and national conscience (1831-48), promoting civil liberties, moderate abolitionism, and minority rights, famously assisting the legal case of the Amistad mutineers in 1841. Howe sees Adams--and the "National Republicans" and Whigs he represented--as the prophet of an American future devoted to reasoned political participation, commerce, and self-improvement, rather than the mass Jeffersonian Republicanism largely espoused by Jackson. As for the latter, our seventh president (whose presence on the $20 bill, as Howe wryly observes, is rather ironic as he abhorred paper money) built much of his career on being a rough diamond, and Howe takes that image and runs with it in terms of negative criticism (in opposition, it must be stressed, to much of the American historical consensus, which saw--and sees--"Jacksonian democracy" as an unalloyed good), especially in terms of white supremacy being a fundamental pillar of his political beliefs. Howe juggles all the explosive trends and developments of the period admirably, devoting equal time to politics, economics, and culture (with interesting emphases--he makes an explicitly and personally religious statement late in the book that doesn't seem inappropriate in the context of religion's importance in that period of American history*). Many of the reviews I've read focus on the similarities between the 1830s and 2000s, with Jackson offering more than a few parallels with Bush in terms of executive lawlessness and character flaws (acknowledged by Howe, who gets one bit of snark in about nineteenth-century "weapons of mass destruction"). At the end of the aughties, though, I found myself much more interested in the contrast between Jacksonian economic lassitude and the "internal improvements" (mostly in terms of transportation and infrastructure--canals, roads, and later railways) generally espoused by the Whigs. That's instantly relevant; what else is a bill like the Affordable Care Act than an updated internal improvement? An ambitious, government-assisted policy to better the lives of all citizens through an improvement in infrastructure? Sounds pretty familiar. It's interesting to note--implicitly in Howe, and I unsurprisingly agree--that the Democratic Party in the early twenty-first century have essentially assumed the mantle of the Whigs, and the Republicans (initially made up--in their inspiring and now wholly forsaken infancy--of politically homeless Whigs, renegade antislavery Democrats, and abolitionists) have inherited all the worst aspects of Jacksonian "Democracy." The debates in print and in Congress demonstrate further similarities. On the one hand, it's comforting to know that little really changes; but on the other, it's also a little depressing (my own previous historical parallel to the present situation, especially in the media, was the 1790s, but I'm starting to think the war between Jackson and the Whigs fits it better). For my money, Howe does an exemplary job at one of history's most important duties--fulfilling and enriching our knowledge  while sparking critical thought about the present and future.

Predator (1987): The popularity of Austrian Death Machine at work has generated a whole new level of glory--that will presumably seem delusional to California residents--for the former Terminator, one that finally inspired me to see his work alongside that of another future governor in John McTiernan's storied action-horror-scifi flick. Dutch (Ahnuld) leads a team of U.S. Green Berets or Special Forces (it was unclear, at least to me) into a dangerous rescue mission in an unnamed Latin American country (given the time of the movie's release, "Shmicaragua" sounds pretty apt), including the monstrous, MTV-T-shirted Blain (Jesse Ventura)--it struck me later that Blain could be the "cool uncle" of Andrew McCarthy's character in Pretty In Pink. Dutch's old pal Dillon (Carl Weathers) tags along, and it quickly becomes clear that things aren't as they seem, especially when the team is targeted by a mysterious assailant who proves more than a match for the Free World's frontline. I wasn't expecting it to be bad, exactly, but it was quite a gripping little film, actually more akin to Aliens than Rambo, although a number of similarities with the latter kept surfacing (especially the "dying extras filmed lovingly flying through the air in slow motion" and "in the big battle, show every single hut in the village exploding in closeup" motifs). John McTiernan, at the start of a career that would include Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October--arguably ushering in the next big era in blockbuster movies that Star Wars started a decade earlier--has a much surer grasp of things than Rambo's George P. Cosmatos, and parts of the film are almost contemplative at times (he also makes excellent use of the gorgeous Mexican locations). Some of the lines are pretty cringeworthy--Ventura actually says "it's payback time"--but, as an Amazon reviewer also pointed out, Predator--like Rambo--was one of those films that basically enshrined many of the action film cliches later movies (like, I'm told, McTiernan's own The Last Action Hero) would so mercilessly parody. Schwarzenegger probably had one of his best roles here--there are lots of action shots and face-acting closeups, and limited dialogue, although in the latter he does pretty much hold his own with Weathers. The final third of the film essentially consists of his private war with the Predator, the latter superbly realized both in the story and with Stan Winston's creature design. The parallel between the Predator's lifestyle and that of Dutch's men is made somewhat clumsily but effectively, and it's refreshing to see R.G. Armstrong still going strong by the late 1980s as the American military advisor to the "Shmicaraguans." Best of all, the closing credits start out with a sidesplittingly jokey series of comedy "bows" from the supporting cast, agreeable proof that Predator is an action flick that doesn't take itself too seriously; I have a surprising amount of defensive goodwill for this movie, and make no apologies.

*That is, it's not ethically inappropriate; the specific argument, on the other hand, struck me as pretty bizarre. He essentially makes the point that "God works in mysterious ways," and that California's falling prey to American expansionism in the Mexican War, though the result of greed and near-piracy, resulted in a greater good by enabling the United States to defeat Japanese aggression in the Pacific during the Second World War. The conquest of California certainly ensured a greater American presence in the Pacific, but then it's arguable that said greater American presence helped to drive the development of imperial Japan into an expansionist power in the first place. Still, in context, it's a fairly microscopic quibble in an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking work.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:36 PM EDT
Updated: 30 March 2010 11:48 PM EDT
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21 March 2010
Mayonnaise Surfing
Now Playing: The Four Tops--"Still Water (Love)"

It somehow escaped my notice in the last entry that my blog turned five years old on the eleventh of March.

I started blogging after happening on Ann Arbor Is Overrated during the "dark days" of my Washtenaw County existence and noticing how many people had blogs. I followed suit, and it's interesting to ponder how many things have changed and how many have stayed the same in the half-decade since. At the start, I still worked at Chateau Fluffy, and most of the friends I'd made on my initial move to Ann Arbor (the vast majority of which were work colleagues) had moved away themselves. I enjoyed my work, if not my job, and had just started making a habit of actually finishing stories I began. Within a couple of months, I started going to shows at the Madison House, made an avalanche of friends and acquaintances, and much of the blog became devoted to the local music scene. After a couple of years, the scene began to fragment (at least from my perspective), and the overwhelming dominance of folk and alt-country was getting a trifle wearisome, however much I enjoyed many of the individual acts. I stopped seeing the crowd as much, but am profoundly thankful and grateful to keep the comradeship of some greatly cherished friends, who I'd like to thank once again for being there (and for reading!).

I noticed a few trends reading back over the posts--the entries became a lot more focused (he laughed mirthlessly), dwelling less on the vicissitudes of my personal life and the goings-on at shows and more on recipes, films, and books. I'm pretty comfortable with that, as I hardly ever go to shows anymore and I figure people will find recipes and film reviews more interesting anyway. It parallels my life in a weird way--I used to live a lot more aimlessly, which wasn't surprising in that my idea for a career in academia had run into some nasty realities and I found myself needing to retool. I'm still retooling to some extent, but I've got a much better idea of what I need to do both in my professional and personal lives; I'm taking actual steps on one and making firm resolutions on the other, which is better than nothing. Life isn't so generally carefree as it was five years ago, but that's the nature of age and my "denial closet" (as it's been defined for humanity by a couple of colleagues) isn't nearly so stuffed as it used to be.

Remembering the proliferation of friends' blogs back in the day, I'm even proud in a little way that this one's still going relatively strong (even after three name changes--it's been "The Decline," "Clown's Death Rattle," and "Beat Them Gherkins" along the way). It's been a lot less coherent and specific than other blogs, but it's a reflection of my personality, and so I guess that's fitting. I'll be interested to see if it runs another five, or if I'll even be in Ann Arbor at that point (which certainly isn't the official plan). In any event, I feel pretty good, it's turning out to be a surprisingly nice day (hopefully not too nice, as I want a pleasant day at work), and the blog still provides me with an outlet that's occasionally interesting to others. It's done its job, and I'm grateful for it.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:34 PM EDT
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17 March 2010
The Final Latke
Now Playing: Django Django--"Storm"

"Every time Tony Blair says 'we,' I feel like Gary Glitter has suggested me as a character witness. Leave me out of it!"

--Graham Linehan, Twitter, 29 January 2010

After being sick on-and-off (which I'm convinced is a direct result of my getting used to riding a bike in the winter, as I don't remember it happening to such a degree last year) for much of early March, I was actually able to cook something at home on Monday. I always thought it an old wives' tale that professional (or at least working) cooks rarely cooked at home because they were so tired of handling food all the time. There's some truth to that, I now believe, but in my case I think there's also the time issue. When I worked at Cafe du Jour, I never worked evenings or weekends, and those times were a lot more convenient for me to really kick it in the kitchen. Now, I work five evenings a week, two of them almost always on weekends, and so the equation has changed. Hopefully I'll be able to keep this recent momentum going.

Mackerel made its debut in my kitchen on Monday, something I've been anticipating for a while. Apparently mackerel seems to have a mixed reputation (at least according to Mark Bittman) as its strong, fishy flavor and quick spoliage rate puts people off. I loved it. It looks good, the backflap cuts easy (as long as you don't mind chunks instead of slabs), even with my excuse for a serrated knife (I really need to get a decent one) and the finished flavor remains rich, robust, and above all fishy. Often cookbooks will warn against a fishy taste or smell, as that generally means that the fish has gone off to some extent, but I like the idea of your meal underlining the origin of your main dish, and mackerel preserves that authenticity even after you've cooked it. I had a Portuguese Malay recipe planned that I may still try eventually, but I'd never had mackerel before, and I figured I should get the taste down and figure out whether I'd like it again. So I made a kind of sauteed mackerel hash salad.

As mentioned before, cutting back flaps off the mackerel fillets (about a pound and a half) with my substandard knife yielded fish chunks instead of neat fish steaks, but all was good as I planned to saute it all anyway; I could get a comparison of the different tastes of a large and small piece. I heated up the skillet, dumped the fish in there, then added a little olive oil and a couple of cloves of crushed garlic (I'd probably try oil first next time, but I got carried away with the improvisatory nature of the "recipe"). I started cooking it, stirring all the while, and adding a little lemon juice and apple cider vinegar for good measure (most of the recipes I've read for mackerel recommend adding the latter, at least, to counter the intense flavor of the actual fish; as I figured--rightly--that I'd like the flavor anyway, that wasn't much of an issue). Saute's probably my favorite cooking method, simply because you have such a close connection to the actual cooking, and can see it happen all the while. The fish, already a pale pink, whitened and then browned in various places, and one of my favorite parts of the process was carving away the razor-thin strips of fried fish and juices that collected on the outside of the skillet, then pulling them back and mixing them with the fish. After about ten or fifteen minutes (I wasn't keeping track as you could tell from the skillet) I tried some of the fish and it was definitely done. It tasted fantastic--like real fish, but with none of the stigma that fishiness usually carries. It almost had a hint of rubber, but in a good way, if that makes any sense; it was definitely great change from the other kinds of fish I've done in the kitchen over the years (salmon, cod, tuna, and smelt). I dumped the fish onto a plate, and then mixed it with raw spinach (which, on reflection, I should have wilted or something as it would have been a more interesting taste), a diced roma tomato, and a little Parmigiano, adding more apple cider vinegar and some whole grain mustard for dressing. The result was a rich combination of flavors I enjoy, although the clash was occasionally a little more interesting than savory. I had it with a couple of bottles of Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, and it made for a wonderful day off. I can easily see this becoming a personal household favorite of mine, but I'm much more enthusiastic about learning how to do more mackerel recipes.

Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1985): It's awful, but pleasantly so, therefore I don't hold its wretchedness against it. I really don't know where to start; fortunately, it's all on YouTube. The warier can get a load of the trailer, I suppose. There's no other way to review this than to repeat my stream-of-consciousness comments from the BHF Forum... Wow. James Horner's score is frankly ripping off his stuff for the Star Trek movies. I love the half-assed fertility dance the maidens seem to be doing at the beginning. Not sure whether the enchanted gargoyle is creepy or hilarious. Schuyler Colfax was Ulysses S. Grant's first vice-president. I never knew he was a gigantic, grunting plush toy (or "creepy whatchamacallit" as onetime 70s character actor--e.g. The Great Waldo Pepper--Bo Svenson calls him). The gnomes fall in the same category as the gargoyle. The nymph/siren thing made me think I was watching some long-lost giallo. Now it's like a mix of The Devil's Men with The NeverEnding Story. "Princess Aura"--wonder where that came from? Some of this dialogue could go up against Hellraiser II. "I bid you, Clyde, raise up these warrior spirits." Eh??? Colfax is doing his job--I'm laughing my ass off every time he "says" something. No. No no no no no. Not more gnomes. I'm tired of this PC bullshit. They want our jobs and our women. Period. I could swear the blacksmith played one of the poachers ("Huzza!") in the MST3K classic Pod People. The Suicide Cavern? What is this, the novel of You Only Live Twice? I hate to say it, but Bo Svenson's way too good for this movie. "Whadur ya doin? You need training to use that sword"--that was actually pretty funny. I think we just had partial nudity. The music appears to be quoting Benjamin Britten. Svenson's literally Swedish-American accent serves the film surprisingly well. Mermaids and rainbows. This movie's got it all. Blatant Prokofiev ripoff from Alexander Nevsky. The ripoffs go both ways: Quest of the Delta Knights owes this thing so much. I love Svenson's OTT wink and the fact that everybody starts chasing him. To quote Joel Hodgson on Manos: The Hands of Fate: "Man, I wonder what this cast party was like." "Rule well, Simon. You'll be a good king. Now follow my instructions like a puppy." According to the YouTube info, the sequel "stars a (very drunk) David Carradine" along with Sid Haig and what appear to be lower-rent versions of Corey Feldman and Billy Zane. I am personally richer for my experience.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2004): This celebrated homage to 50s B-movies made quite a splash on its release several years back, and I'd been meaning to see it ever since. Scientist Paul (Larry Blamire) plans to spend an idyllic weekend out at the Taylors' cabin with his lovely wife Betty (Fay Masterson), but is interrupted by the arrival of an errant meteorite loaded with "atmospherium," the most powerful element known to "man." Paul's delighted by the opportunities the atmopsherium offers him to "do science," but a number of interlopers threaten Paul and Betty's happiness. Power-hungry scientist Dr. Roger Fleming (Brian Howe) needs the atmospherium to awaken the "Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" and gain power over the Earth, while stranded aliens Kro-Bar (Andrew Parks) and Lattis (Susan McConnell) need it to power their spaceship and recover their missing mutant. Spicing things up is Fleming's servant Animala (Jennifer Blaire), a half-human, half-animal temptress created from four different forest animals who takes quite a shine to Paul. For someone who still runs classic Mystery Science Theater moments through his head near-daily, Cadavra's appeal would seem like a no-brainer, but it takes a while to really get going. Some of the gags, like the awkward silences or the too-long laughter, if they were ever funny, have since been befouled by the atrocious Family Guy. Fortunately, once all the pieces come together, the film's affectionately shabby charm becomes apparent, even if the film's a little long (there was a sketch on the 90s comedy show Exit 57, featuring Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris, that did pretty much the same thing in about five minutes*). Bonus points for filming in scenic Bronson Canyon, where so many of these pictures (e.g. Robot Monster, Teenage Caveman, and Eegah!) got their distinctive look.

The Guild (2007-09): Not only do I not play World of Warcraft, I used to generate a certain amount of self-amusement poking gentle fun at those who did: "I'm sorry, but your HMO has been destroyed in a goblin attack." My limited access to the Internet for most of its existence would have prevented any addiction, as would my surprisingly lukewarm attachment to roleplaying games as a kid (I was more in love with the mechanics of character generation and world creation than the actual game, per se, and finding others to play was problematic--I think I only played two or three actual games with other people in my entire life).  It was probably just as well, as I noticed a certain amount of standoffishness when I told my Warcraft-playing co-worker about it; I thought he assumed that they would be making fun of his lifestyle, although this may be an automatic reaction. As a result, The Guild's setup wasn't entirely wasted on me, and in any event the deservedly popular web series becomes about so much (all right, slightly) more than the game itself. The Guild was the brainchild of Felicia Day, who played Penny in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and was one of the apprentice Slayers in the last season of Buffy. Ms. Day is an understandable hit among the online community, and there were moments when it would have been so much simpler for me to just veg out in front of the screen and drool the word "pretty" out as if I had just been put back together from the parts of corpses. Thankfully, this didn't happen (for the most part), and she's put together an extremely entertaining little phenomenon that's won several awards (YouTube, SXSW, the "Streamies") and has become (from what I can tell) something of a symbol of the kind of new media rightfully changing some of the rules of the American cultural landscape (strictly true, even if it sounds a little pompous). Inspired by Day's own video game addiction, The Guild follows a "guild" of online players (the specifics of Warcraft were discarded to avoid copyright complications, and the game comes across as a somewhat more generic Dungeons and Dragons-inspired variety) and the misadventures and obstacles they face in the game and (more often) in real life. Day plays a cleric named Codex, member of the "Knights of Good," led by Vork (Jeff Lewis) a fighter and in real life a taciturn, dronish chap who leads the Knights of Good, trying (and failing) to keep real-life resentments and complications from bubbling over and affecting the guild. Warlock Zaboo (Sandeep Parikh), thief Bladezz (Vincent Caso), mage Clara (Robin Thorsen) and ranger Tinkerballa (Amy Okuda) round out the gang--respectively a hapless mama's boy, a sleazy high schooler, a ditzy mother of three, and a savagely ruthless pre-med student. They all have real names that are mentioned occasionally throughout the show, but are usually referred to by their screen names when they're not online. All find themselves faced with an avalanche of batshittery that ensues when Zaboo starts stalking Codex and Bladezz is banned from the game for twenty-four hours for making an ass of himself. The plot gets deliciously convoluted over the three seasons (usually 10-12 episodes of around 5-8 minutes each), ending in the guild's conflict with the "Axis of Anarchy" (led by a hilarious Wil Wheaton as an Ayn Rand-quoting douchebag in a kilt) and Codex's determination to gain self-confidence in the game and in life. I first learned about The Guild on the extras to Dr. Horrible, and it works brilliantly as a web series. It doesn't last too long, you can watch whenever you want, and the length of the episodes makes it easy to dip in and out (not that I did--it's pretty easy to just watch each season in one sitting). This may seem old hat to many, but it's still something of a new thing for me, and the medium is perfect for what Day and company have done. The characters are a little broadly drawn, to be sure, and there's not a whole lot of room for development. As a result, the dialogue and situations become a little unrealistic even for the apparent parameters of the show, but the writing is almost always fresh and funny, sometimes in quite unexpected ways, and the actors' comic timing is outstanding (it didn't surprise me to learn that Parikh and Lewis are veterans of the L.A. improv scene). Codex is the de facto main character, and each episode starts with her making an entry on her vlog, but we learn enough about the others to appreciate the struggles they have to go through to live even vaguely normal lives. My favorite character, arguably, isn't even one of the guild but Bladezz' smartass younger sister Dena, who frequently violates the sanctity of the "Bladezz Pad" (his mom's basement). Describing the plot already looks weird enough on Wikipedia, so I'm not going to try and repeat the labor. Season 1 is up on YouTube, as is Season 2, and Season 3's at the official site. Day also put together this hilarious video which pretty much has the show down pat.

*"She's as brilliant as she is beautiful!!!"--one of Colbert's lines.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 17 March 2010 10:26 AM EDT
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2 March 2010
Claws of the Macrobiotic Werewolf
Now Playing: Black 47--"Banks of the Hudson"

The "dinner and several movies" plan hit yet another snag this week as I sickened once more. Thankfully, the illness comes in the middle of what looks to be a slim couple of months at work. The Midwestern weather has officially begun its perennially cruel (if you're sick) "spring fakeout" (which lasts from late February to around mid-May). My leaving early Monday didn't really inconvenience anyone, and I figured the following two days off could be used for recuperation. Sadly, all I'd be eating would be Sudafed and the occasional basic foodstuff, as I'd have little energy or desire to cook. I'm already slavering for the future, and the inevitable craving for sushi I'll probably have tomorrow or... all right, now. At present, it's a bittersweet affair, as the sun's been shining outside and I can hear the "chirping of birds" (once cited by my former spacey co-worker in a hilariously abortive attempt to cheer up my notoriously and relentlessly negative other co-worker). Within, my place has taken on the free-wheeling vibe of a medieval charnel house, as I can hear two of my housemates coughing and sneezing as well. I'm spending much of the first day in bed--catching up on some internet and listening to John Barry soundtracks--and plan to spend some of the second seasoning the Dutch oven my mom gave me for Christmas. Thankfully, I can still watch movies, and there are probably few more fitting for my present state of mind than those concerning the travails of American women on the fringes, portrayed by some fine actresses.

Wendy and Lucy (2008): Michelle Williams was my favorite part of the three or four episodes of Dawson's Creek I've seen in my lifetime, and it's been great to see her forge a respectable career out of what could easily have been teen-flick hell. I thought she was the best thing about the overrated Brokeback Mountain (Anne Hathaway being the most surprising), and she managed to shine through the majestic ruin that was Synecdoche, New York. In Wendy and Lucy, she's broke with a dog, Lucy, and a car in the Pacific Northwest en route to Alaska to work in the canneries (something I have to admit crossed my mind once or twice during college). The car breaks down and the viewer is treated to the kind of existence that far too many people face in this country every day. Wendy shoplifts out of desperation and gets caught, Lucy left waiting outside in the parking lot. When the police release her, Lucy has vanished and Wendy nearly loses her mind trying to find her over the course of the film, which ends on a somewhat bittersweet note (though I still look decidedly askance at all those "traveling" kids on the streets of Ann Arbor with dogs). Sometimes the setup seems a little too simple and clear-cut, with Wendy's good set against everyone else's lack of concern, but it all balances pretty well in the end, especially with a winning performance by actor and former Barney Miller writer Walter Dalton as a friendly security guard, and despite the appearance of Will Oldham as... one of those "traveling" kids, who's as annoying as you can probably imagine. Williams, to be sure, is superb, a number of scenes making me wonder why she wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this as well as for her turn in Brokeback Mountain. Forced to sleep on the streets for a night after she takes her car in to get fixed, she faces a unnerving encounter with a homeless man in which the top half of her face gives a performance in itself (you'd have to see it). Director Kelly Reichardt (working from a short story--"Night Choir"--and screenplay by Jonathan Raymond) really works to deliver these quiet scenes in a way that gives Wendy and Lucy a silent but overwhelming force throughout.

Frozen River (2008): Melissa Leo was nominated for an Oscar for Frozen River, and little surprise, as it's thoroughly excellent (best out of these three, and that's certainly a source for pride). Ray (Leo) works part-time in some sort of drug store in upstate New York, raising two children on her own and trying to pay off the new pre-fab home she's ordered so that the family can move out of their trailer. When work prospects don't look so hot, she runs into a Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), who offers to pay her for a ride across the border into Canada (I'm assuming the "frozen river" they're crossing is the St. Lawrence). Ray needs the money, and only starts asking serious questions once she sees a couple of burly-looking Quebecois hustle some people into her trunk. Ray becomes the northern version of a "coyote," ferrying illegal immigrants from Canada into the States ("free trade between nations," claims Lila, as they technically never leave Mohawk territory on either side of the international border), and she and Lila start to make a habit of their new sideline until the cops, led by Trooper Finnerty (Michael O'Keefe--it's a measure of this film's power that not once was I inspired to yell "Noonan!") start to catch on. Leo, who was so excellent on Homicide, is outstanding as Ray, sympathetic yet with a cold core that helps to inure her to the possible consequences of her deeds, one that fits very well with the bleak upstate woods and windswept terrain. Upham is just as good, parrying Ray's taunts and jibes and showing how much of Lila's toughness is dependent on the goodwill of her native community--the tribal police know they have to make an example of one of their own but act by and large as honest brokers. A number of (purposefully?) throwaway points are made about "homeland security," driving home how little these issues genuinely affect many people's daily lives. Writer-director Courtney Hunt gets the most out of her actors and especially the beautifully desolate landscape that surrounds them--yet another piece of America that appears on our screens too seldom.

Turn The River (2008): Famke Janssen was one of those actresses who'd never have the career I imagined; she was certainly the most striking performer in Pierce Brosnan's James Bond debut GoldenEye (1995) as lascivious villainess Xenia Onatopp. Since then she's been in a number of high- and low-profile flicks, of which I can only remember The Faculty (1998) and the thoroughly ridiculous Deep Rising (same)--I haven't seen her turn as Jean Grey in the X-Men films. Chris Eigeman was arguably the emblematic figure of Whit Stillman's supremely dull New York preppie films of the 90s--Metropolitan (1990; haven't seen it--actually, I think I did and have unsurprisingly forgotten it), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998)--as well as the best thing about them. That certainly wasn't hard, but Eigeman's snotty, arch charisma survived for other productions, especially Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming (1995--worth watching for Eric Stoltz's turn as an eternal college student and Eigeman calling someone a "jackanapes") and Malcolm in the Middle, where he played the "adult Krelboin" teacher Mr. Herkabe. Eigeman directs Janssen in a gritty little piece of the kind that makes you feel good about the lower-to-middle-class of the American film industry, the type of film you know has probably played on IFC at some point. Kaley (Janssen) is a poolshark and mother whose middle-class ex-husband David (Matt Ross) keeps a tight leash on their son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), largely due to the terrifying emotional manipulation of his own mother Abby (Lois Smith), an oppressively devout Catholic. Kaley's friend and occasional benefactor, pool hall owner Teddy (Rip Torn, and looking both verbs in full) sets her up for a few games, and she gets the idea for a really big score that will enable her to take Gulley away and raise him with a sense of what it means to be free. Naturally, things don't go according to plan. Turn The River veers dangerously towards a cartoon at times. I once again half-regret not being raised Catholic, as it's sometimes hard to take Abby's incredibly domineering personality seriously, despite personal familiarity with my own equivalents. Fortunately, Smith's performance keeps us just this side of three dimensions, and Ross is haunting and terrifying as a grown man (whose career in the priesthood was derailed by his marriage and fatherhood)wholly under his mother's thumb, matched by Janssen's feral performance as a mother with nothing to lose and everything to gain. It doesn't light any fires, necessarily, but it's a good, solid piece of work with some near-noir New York sensibility (plus a small role for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist's Ari Graynor).

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 3:14 PM EST
Updated: 2 March 2010 4:20 PM EST
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23 February 2010
HiberNation Forever
Now Playing: Maurice Jarre--"Jesus of Nazareth" (soundtrack)

I'd intended to start a semi-regular "dinner and (several) movies" series, but it's been snowing steadily for the past few days and I decided to spend the entirety of my days off inside this week, thereby rejecting the opportunity to forage for berries and hunt for game--I mean, stop by Hiller's. Next week, I'll hopefully be on the case. In the meantime, I've been catching up on at least one web series, writing, cleaning, and watching NBC podcasts of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with some great skiing, snowboarding, and skating action and entirely avoiding Bob Costas' self-important, narrative-clutching blather. As with Torino, I've taken a huge shine to some of the Canadian athletes--back then, it was Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes; now it's Maelle Ricker and Ashleigh McIvor. Sadly, following links willy-nilly leads to lame Internet puff pieces about certain intramural skiing rivalries and the largely witless, misogynistic and illiterate comments, especially on Yahoo. I'm sorry, I have to do this; it's just too awful. From one "fan" on a slightly controversial skiier: "She is a sensual woman. A woman of passion! Watch her climb atop the man and pursue the heights of her inclinations. Look at how excited she is! Under the designer label satin of dawn, the colour of summer when one closes their eyes..." I'm torn between hilarity, disgust, and a certain amount of jealousy that I didn't come up with that as a snippet of dialogue. The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away, I suppose, although I still managed a few movies to make up for my culinary negligence.

 Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008): I'd meant to see this when it came out, and now I can't remember the reason for my initial enthusiasm. Teen movie? Taunting "middle America" for not living in New York? A toothachingly twee indie soundtrack? Speaking of the latter, Michael Cera? It was almost like Nick and Norah's was begging me not to watch it. I wasn't reassured by the opening scenes, featuring a notebook covered with logos for bands who probably got way too much time on WCBN. Fortunately, it's not that bad, with some pleasant performances that lift it slightly above the pack. Nick (Michael Cera) is dumped by his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), and turns to his gay bandmates for support. Norah (Kat Dennings), a fan of Nick's band and his mixes that Tris routinely throws in the garbage (she doesn't know that the musician and mixer are one and the same), tries to keep a level head while looking after her wild chum Caroline (Ari Graynor). In the course of a mad night in search of a secret show put on by the mysterious Fluffy (some doubtlessly god-awful Vampire Weekend clone), Nick and Norah come together despite the obstacles thrown in their path. The big story here is Dennings, whose remarkable performance as Norah manages to completely sidestep the various stereotypes the aughties have thrown up for young women (in particular the egregious "manic pixie dream-girl," most grotesquely essayed by Natalie Portman in Garden State) and who really creates something all her own; there's a scene (and particularly one shot) in a recording studio in which she's absolutely breathtaking. Cera's a happy surprise, eschewing the lovable indie dork persona from Arrested Development, Juno and Superbad to show some genuine, non-"ironic" charm (hopefully the fact that he drives a yellow Yugo is some kind of purposeful, Lady Gaga-like exaggeration of hipster pretension meant as mockery). Graynor is hilarious, perfecting the drunk party girl wandering the streets of Manhattan to such an extent (in some pretty gross sequences), that it's hard to believe it all wasn't really happening (something tells me it's pretty hard to convincingly fake that kind of soused abandon). The bandmates, in making it their mission to bring Nick and Norah together, come dangerously close to whatever gay equivalent exists of the "magic Negro" phenomenon, but there have been many worse jobs. Maybe the most interesting job is done by Dziena, who's given the cartoonish "mean girl" to play but who seems to be straining at the bit to subvert it at every opportunity; it creates some compellingly weird character interactions. There are some great cameos (Andy Samberg, Kevin Corrigan) and some lame ones (Devendra Banhart), and who should show up at one point but Bishop Allen, led by Justin Rice of Mutual Appreciation fame! I've only spent one night as an adult in New York, but based on that admittedly slim experience, Nick and Norah's comes closer to recapturing my personal impressions of the city than any other of the eight bajillion flicks set there (probably doesn't hurt that at least one scene's clearly set in St. Mark's Place in the East Village, where I spent a wonderful few hours with friends at the Grassroots Tavern). Some interesting photography and images help to make a difference, too, creating a Manhattan that's at once both fantasy and all too real, a paradox the two central characters seem to be living in their growing relationship.

Jinnah (1998): Sir Christopher Lee, judging from some of the interviews he's given since the late 1990s, might be very satisfied if you remembered him as Count Dooku from those "Star Wars" "movies" or as Saruman from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, rather than from the record-breaking number of other films in which he's appeared over the years (to my knowledge, he's still listed in the Guinness Book as the actor with the most credits to his name). Of them, he's primarily remembered for his several iconic performances as Dracula for the Hammer films of the 1950s-70s and is just as primarily pissed off because of it (I don't blame him, to be honest, as he was a bit crap in them)*. Fortunately, along with some of the dubious big-budget stuff he landed in his twilight years, he found a role that he apparently prizes as one of his finest, and I'm tempted to agree. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), lawyer, politician, and primary founder of Pakistan, was seen in Attenborough's Gandhi (1982) as a vaguely unsavory figure, allowing his oversensitivity to the minority status faced by Indian Muslims to sabotage the chances of a fully independent India that included the entire territory of the British Raj, essentially both India and Pakistan. Considering the shared, frequently fraught history of the two nations since then (not to mention the latter's problematic present relations with the United States), with three, arguably four wars fought since the tragedy of Partition in 1947, and the frequent discussion of Pakistan as a "failed state" in the Western media, it's hard not to feel a certain amount of wistfulness at the thought that the potential of a fundamentally free and open state, the most populous such in the world, could have been an even greater and more powerful force had it not split into two. It's a view that gains a lot of purchase in Jinnah, which centers around the curious conceit of the recently deceased Jinnah in a heavenly waiting room (heaven just upgraded to computers--there's a great shot of the classic "flying toaster" screensaver that instantly made me as nostalgic for the 1990s as, say, listening to Lush), attended by the celestial Narrator (a jovial Shashi Kapoor), who takes Jinnah through his life's formative experiences and later triumphs and failures to determine just where he fits into history. The whole thing has a slightly didactic feel to it but gets across much of the history quite well--Jinnah's early Westernized upbringing, his youthful romance with a beautiful Parsee (a radiant young Indira Varma), his rise to power in the Indian National Congress and later the Muslim League, and his dealings with and suspicions of Jawaharlal Nehru (Robert Ashby) and Lord Mountbatten (James Fox). His relationship with Gandhi (Sam Dastor) is perhaps the most interesting, as his attachment to Western lifeways as well as political ideals ran athwart Gandhi's often stubborn mysticism. All in all, it's a much more evenhanded portrayal of the situation than in the later portions of Attenborough's Gandhi--though sympathetic, Jinnah isn't let off the hook, with his own stubbornness contributing to the deteriorating political situation up to independence and problems in his personal life, as his daughter Dina ironically falls in love with a Parsee and he opposes the marriage. There are a couple of bravura scenes in the afterlife, once when he tries Lord Mountbatten in a celestial court for primarily contributing to the bloodshed of Partition through slothful action, and when he confronts Nehru and Gandhi in a heavenly television studio as they watch scenes of Hindu mobs attacking Muslims in the late 90s India of the BJP ("you realize these are the same people who killed me," Gandhi reminds him as Jinnah becomes self-righteous on his Hindu colleagues' responsibility for the violence). There were understandable complaints raised on the issue of European actors portraying Asians during the movie's production, but the portrayal on all sides seems to be quite respectful and fair (maybe a little too much). All in all, it's definitely good for learning (or being inspired to learn) more on South Asian history, and a fine late feather for Lee's cap.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008): Joss Whedon's brilliantly creative musical web series was probably the biggest thing to come out of the Hollywood writer's strike a few years back, and it was fun to follow its progress through outlets like Entertainment Weekly (my chief guilty pleasure, despite/because of Owen Glieberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum's godawful film reviews, of which I've complained in the past). Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), a two-bit "supervillain," is anxious to get into the prestigious Evil League of Evil rather than settle for the "Henchman's Union," as his chum Moist (The Big Bang Theory's Simon Helberg) advises. His plans, naturally, are threatened by his archenemy Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), and so he sets to work on the ultimate weapon. Against all odds, though, his latest heist is interrupted by his longtime laundromat crush Penny (Felicia Day). Can he juggle business and pleasure, become a supervillain, and win Penny from the squeaky-clean clutches of Captain Hammer? It's a good, slightly unclean hoot, with winning performances all round. This is hardly a surprise from Harris and Fillion, who could probably do this kind of thing in their sleep (but, to their credit, do not). Whedon, too, honed his musical chops on the now-iconic Buffy all-singing episode "Once More With Feeling"  (2001).** One happy surprise was Day, who I didn't think I'd seen in anything before, but who turned out to have played one of the apprentice Slayers in the final season of Buffy. She not only more than holds her own against her co-stars, but also wrote and starred in the web series The Guild, on which more later. The writing is often laugh-out-loud funny, with some slightly lame gags balanced out with immortal moments (the end of one laundromat exchange between Harris and Fillion in particular). One thing I noticed again is how foreign Whedon's California always looks to me; I can't explain it. The same thing happened with Buffy, especially, I think, with "Once More With Feeling." The most extravagant "Old Hollywood" productions don't manage to make it seem as faraway and dreamlike as Joss Whedon does. Mind you, I was there for a week several years ago, and my memories are mysteriously hazy. That should be a compliment, I think; I greatly admire his work in general, after all. Whatever the case, it adds an extra level to these films and shows that enriches them for me if for nobody else.

*His Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973), though in my opinion not quite up to the late Edward Woodward's brilliant turn as Sergeant Howie, is apparently his favorite role, and I'm very fond of his Rochefort in the Richard Lester Musketeers films (1973-74). As far as Hammer is concerned, he's outstanding in their "pirate films" of the early 1960s: The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), the latter an interesting backdating of the Nazi takeover dreaded during the war (that showed up in classic British sci-fi TV like 1955's Quatermass II and the 1964 Doctor Who classic "The Dalek Invasion of Earth") to post-Spanish Armada England. One of his weirdest roles (and he's very good) is in the 1981 US TV oddity Goliath Awaits, about a sunk 1940s luxury liner in which the crew and passengers have not only survived but created an alternate society. Avoid the Jess Franco Fu Manchu "films" of the 1960s at all costs.

**It's hard to overestimate the effect--on several levels--the duet between Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson had on me. Arguably one of the all-time sexiest moments on TV.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:11 PM EST
Updated: 25 February 2010 10:15 AM EST
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23 January 2010
Neptune, or Mars, or... Neptune
Now Playing: Joy Division--"Incubation"

The year's shaking up to be a jittery one on all sorts of fronts, which I think more than justifies my new personal mantra of "at least it's not boring." I haven't had cause to rue those words yet, I don't think, despite some national political disappointments (the health care thing's messy enough, but Citizens United???? Hard to think of a less-fitting name for an organization) and certain Ann Arbor bars deciding that "fun" = "unprofitable." The writing front's all awash with ideas (a great one took shape today), and I've got another review coming out at some point, but all I can seem to do here is talk about movies.

The Last Starfighter (1984): I remember going apeshit over Nick Castle's trailer-park space opera when I was young. Presumably the idea of a kid saving the universe by being really good at video games was like crack for guys my age. Fortunately, The Last Starfighter is no mere arcade-junkie apologia, mainly due to sympathetic characters and a genuine appreciation for scifi's appeal for the young. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) lives in a California trailer park with his mom and bratty younger brother, and has a troubled relationship with girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart). His only apparent release as he waits for college scholarships is to play the park's "Starfighter" arcade game, at which he gets very good, like Dave Nelson in NewsRadio with "Stargate Defender."* After dwarfing the game's high score, Alex is visited by the mysterious Centauri (Robert Preston), who takes him on a trip revealing that the game's premise, "defending the galaxy against the evil Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada," is real and that he's just completed a training program for fledgling "Starfighters." Can he survive his first mission and save the universe? The premise arrived at exactly the right time, and it was interesting to learn that writer Jonathan Betuel originally set it in a Spielbergian suburban setting before Castle shifted it to a trailer park. In the political and economic climate of the 1980s, when there weren't supposed to be any poor people, this unusual emphasis was striking indeed, and the contrast between Alex's mundane origins and the importance of his interstellar activities serves the story well. The Last Starfighter was historically important in that it was the first movie in which nearly all the special effects were done with the kind of computer effects that would later evolve into CGI. I have tremendous issues with the latter (although people do seem to be getting the hang of it, as with Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who), but the relatively primitive effects of The Last Starfighter work well (and certainly looked fantastic when seen in the theater, from what I can remember). The villain is rather lame, but much of the acting is excellent, from Hill Street Blues' Barbara Bosson as Alex's perpetually worried mother to Stewart's feisty Maggie to Chris Hebert as Alex's porn addict brother. Dan O'Herlihy (as Marshal Ney, one of the few featured actors in Bondarchuk's 1971 Waterloo not to appear asleep, and shortly to become famous for his role as Ronnie Cox's boss in Robocop), offers endearingly gruff support as Alex's lizard-faced navigator Grig, and screen and stage legend (particularly for The Music Man) Robert Preston capped a fifty-year career (one of his early roles was as one of the Geste brothers in Beau Geste with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland) with his performance as con man Centauri, who enables Alex's adventures with his specially designed video game. Best of all is Guest, who didn't do much else after this, and that's a shame. He convincingly portrays a lovelorn teenager who manages to be realistically witty and genuinely heroic. His performance is all the more impressive as he also plays an android (the "Beta Unit") put in his place while he's off being a Starfighter to deflect suspicion. It's almost like he's an aughties hipster trapped in the 80s, sloughing off the macho swagger of funny scifi heroes like Han Solo. The Last Starfighter doesn't qualify as one of the great sci-fi classics, but it perfectly fits into the "sleeper" category, probably the 80s' best.

White Dog (1982): Samuel Fuller spent thirty years outside the studio system making some of the most striking and uncompromising movies in America at the time. Early classics like Pickup On South Street (1953) were followed by his masterworks like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964, with one of the greatest opening scenes ever). He became a popular face of American cinema in European circles, and a great favorite of French and German directors, making memorable cameos in Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Wenders' The American Friend (1977). White Dog was his last major film in the States, and suffered from threatened cuts by the producers due to a potentially inflammatory nature (an excellent summation of the controversy, though with unavoidable spoilers, can be found here). An aspiring actress (Kristy MacNicol) adopts a stray dog after it foils an attempted rape (between Fuller's full-blooded style and the fact that I'd seen this just the other day, the scene got a little hard to take seriously at times) and comes to discover that it's been trained to attack black people. She takes it to an animal trainer (Burl Ives--it was hard not to think of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer), who palms it off on his offbeat assistant (Paul Winfield). The latter makes it his mission to cure the dog of its training or kill it himself. There are scenes in which I can understand the producers' fears of controversy, but taking them in isolation from Fuller's rather unique record on racial matters in American film was frankly ridiculous. Fuller's films from the start were genuinely and consistently anti-racist--not just concerning anti-black racism (Shock Corridor is especially scathing) but also anti-Asian racism (1959's The Crimson Kimono is apparently a terrific example)--in a way that made more famous "pioneers" like Stanley Kramer look weak and vacillating by comparison (not all that hard, to be sure). By the early 1980s, when most directors of his age would have retired, Fuller was still as incisive as ever, and White Dog is in many ways his final take on American society.

*It's worth sitting through the commercial, even if the "minisode" loses some of the best bits, particularly Dave's impassioned correction of Lisa's ignorance of video games and maybe the greatest Phil Hartman line ever: "All this talk of luncheon meat and ghosts has made me rather peckish; I'll be at the sandwich machine if I'm needed."

Edited to add:

Yesterday was "Blog For Choice Day," and, as my feelings on the matter have probably grown stronger over the past few years, especially in the midst of the debate over healthcare, I link to my essential position.

Also, some inspiring footage of the late Dr. George Tiller.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 23 January 2010 11:33 AM EST
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5 January 2010
The Cold, Antiseptic Heat of Disco
Now Playing: Thee Coronados--"Lupe Velez"

Happy Belated New Year! 

2009 was a great year for me, pretty much one of the best on record, and I feel a little weird as a vast number of people I know had quite a shitty one. I suppose nationally it was a year for belt-tightening and soul-searching, and a grim one for those who lost loved ones or jobs. For my part, I grew more into my own job, getting better at my tasks and getting more involved in the gardening and morale committees. I wrote five stories--one less than I managed last year, but I was also working on a number of movie reviews for Darrell Buxton's upcoming The Shrieking Sixties (due in May!), as well as a couple of other projects and book reviews (my review of Gary Paul Nabhan's Where Our Food Comes From, his travelogue-cum-biography of Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov, appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Repast, published by the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor). I fear I put off my long-cherished goal of sending off my stories to venues, but felt it was more important to get all my ducks in a row first, and should be well on the way by the end of the month. The internet finally reached our house and my new laptop was able to make the best of it, though since I returned from Christmas holidays my pothead housemate seems to have left off paying the bill and I've now been driven to places with free wifi (I'm actually typing this from the library, but not from "Homeless Shelter East"). Most entertainingly of all, I put myself forward as far as the ladies were concerned in a way rather unprecedented for me, certainly since grad school and arguably ever. Going out a few times and receiving unsolicited expressions of interest may not seem like a big deal to some, but for me, at my time of life, it's quite enjoyable. Nothing worked out, but I'd much rather keep trying than give up, even if there's no chance of success (the trick, of course, is to avoid hurting people; I'm not worried about myself so much, and that may be part of the problem). After skipping out on New Year's for the last few occasions, I decided to celebrate this year with some good friends and was very glad I did--it hopefully augurs for a wonderful 2010.

A number of "best of the decade" lists have been going the rounds, and in some areas (British horror media, for example), there've been highs not seen in quarter-centuries. Having started to partially forsake contemporary literature and cinema for various reasons (to some extent financial), I can plausibly offer a list of personal aughties favorites in music (for various reasons, I'm exempting local, southeast Michigan albums, although standouts included anything by the Dirtbombs or Matt Jones, Saturday Looks Good To Me's 2002 All Your Summer Songs, and Starling Electric's 2006 Clouded Staircase).

Favorite Albums of the 2000s

 Mirah, Advisory Committee (2000): Having a name like Mirah Yomtov Zeitlyn is practically as cool as being called Narciso Ibanez Serrador or Charles Nelson Reilly, so it's a shame that she just goes by "Mirah." Her greatest effort perfectly melds the intimate, lo-fi cool of her earlier work with excellent production, culminating in the magnificent "Apples on the Trees," barely two minutes long yet incorporating all the great things about the album--a minimalistically urgent beginning, a gorgeous, expansive middle, and then a rousing singalong at the end.

Ike Reilly, Salesmen and Racists (2001): Ike Reilly's barroom masterpiece was sadly his last for a while. I fell in love with it during grad school and, despite some of the more ridiculous lyrics (especiallly in "Commie Drives a Nova" and "Hiphop Thighs #17"), its musical depiction of a world of Chicago deadbeats and drunks still retains its honesty and relevance "The Assassination of Sweet Lou Diablo" and "Crave" are probably personal top picks, as is the opening rave-up "Last Night," with its bitterly ironic condemnation of boozy businessmen's racist jokes. Best for playing in crappy bars half an hour before closing.

Sing-Sing, The Joy of Sing-Sing (2002): Lush was one of my favorite bands of the 1990s, and their dispersion following the suicide of drummer Chris Acland in 1996 was greatly lamented, especially as their final album, the same year's Lovelife, was something of a masterpiece. Vocalist Emma Anderson teamed up with Lisa O'Neill to produce this gorgeous example of Euro-pop, the shoegazing dream-pop so beloved of Lush mixed in with a few rockier moments--the magnificent clubland anthem "Tegan," the retro-80s "Panda Eyes," and, as another reviewer described it, the near-James Bond theme song "Feels Like Summer." Yet another reviewer (I wish I had links to these) described O'Neill as "sounding like she wants to tear your pants off with her teeth." How can you turn that down?

Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): Wilco's inspiring success story (entertainingly chronicled in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart) wouldn't have been so compelling had not the finished product been so spellbinding. I wasn't a big fan of their earlier, folky stuff, but the buzz surrounding YHF inspired me to give it a chance. It was the first album in a very long time that completely bowled me away. From the opening seconds of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" through the glorious pop of "Heavy Metal Drummer," Jeff Tweedy and company spun one of the decade's seminal albums, a world in itself and probably my own personal indelible musical memory of 2002--instantly calling to mind walks in Akron's Highland Square area during the spring and summer.

Super Furry Animals, Phantom Power (2003): The best freaking band in the world suffered a slight critical comedown in the early aughties, with albums from 2001's Rings Around The World to 2005's Love Kraft often perceived as wilful throwbacks to an almost strenuous 70s-style mellowness (the consensus seems to be that they've recovered their mojo with 2007's Hey Venus! and 2009's Dark Days/Light Years). There's some justice to this reading (I thought it was more a case of the "shock of the new" wearing off for many critics), but I've really warmed to the first two aughties albums over the years (Love Kraft's still probably my least favorite, but that's hardly saying much as I love them all). Phantom Power in particular packs quite a punch, with the radio-friendly "Hello Sunshine," "Golden Retriever," and "The Undefeated" vying with the more contemplative "Sex, War and Robots," "The Piccolo Snare," and "Cityscape Skybaby". It all builds up to a glorious climax with "Slow Life"--hearkening back to seven-minutes-plus epics like "No Sympathy" or "Run, Christian, Run!" on Rings Around the World--starting out with a weird techno beat, then slowly morphing into lovely orchestral swirls backed by Gruff Rhys' unmistakable vocals. Of the SFA's (relative) fallow period, Phantom Power is the one to hit first.

The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema (2005):  The University of Michigan's radio station, WCBN, is very much a mixed bag, consisting mainly of freeform music shows and the liberal equivalent of those hideous right-wing talkfests found on freeways across the country (I remember "Grey Matters" being particularly embarrassing). Much of the music I found on WCBN in the early days of life in Ann Arbor was fairly twee and forgettable (the Books was to WCBN as the Dave Matthews Band was to WQKL, although I'll never forget hearing the Meat Purveyors' bluegrass cover of Ratt's "Round and Round"), but the New Pornographers, the Vancouver pop powerhouse frequently featuring aughties musical "It" girl Neko Case, really stood out. Their first album, 2000's Mass Romantic, was wonderful, and it was a shock to find their follow-up, 2003's The Electric Version, as limp and uninvolving an affair one could possibly imagine. I was therefore wary of Twin Cinema, which came out in the middle of the decade to ecstatic reviews, many from friends of mine. It understandably took me a while to check it out, and I was delighted to find that the New Pornographers had returned to form. An unimpeachable example of aughties power-pop, it's most distinguished, perhaps, for how unassuming it is; there are few songs I can really single out, apart from the driving, exhilarating coda, "Stacked Crooked."

The Go! Team, Thunder Lightning Strike (2005): CBC 2, on the other hand, was and is constantly surprising, enjoyable and educational, an audio perk of living in southeast Michigan, where we pick up the Windsor station of Canada's national radio (and television, for that matter). Until a few years ago, CBC 2, which generally broadcasts orchestral and jazz music (standout hosts being Tom Allen and Julie Nasrallah) regularly carried the rock- and indie-pop- centric CBC 3 on Saturday nights, with shows hosted by Grant Lawrence and Sloan frontman Jay Ferguson (the latter's 1996 One Chord To Another is another marvelous example of Canadian power-pop). Back in the days when I always had weekends off, free Saturdays were something to look forward to, with opera, frequently from the New York Met, in the afternoons and fresh and unknown indie pop from north of the border in the evenings. It wasn't all Canadian (though I'll always be grateful for Tacoma Hellfarm Tragedy's "True Love Killed My True Love's Love For Me")--I first heard Peter, Bjorn and John's "Young Folks" properly for the first time in unforgettable circumstances via CBC 3--and they gave me the Go! Team, my favorite new band of the decade. Straight out of Brighton, England (also home of the Pipettes), the Go! Team delivered the perfect summer album, brash, bouncy, and loads of fun. "Bottle Rocket" entered my system and stayed there like a benevolent virus until "Ladyflash" came in and still hasn't quite left. The other songs are all great, but those two for me are the linchpins of this glorious party masterpiece. A great expression of optimism in the middle of this troubling and foreboding decade.

Sleater-Kinney, The Woods (2005): My favorite American band of the 1990s broke up right after they released their final album, and it's a shame both for my own sentimental reasons and for the fact that they seemed to be striking out in an interesting new direction, which I think was unfairly lambasted by many critics as a damn-the-torpedoes effort to be "different." As far as I was concerned, S-K only really slipped up on 2002's One Beat, in which their feminist urgency met left-wing anti-Bush sentiment in a musically clumsy way. The Woods carried much of the same baggage, but much more expertly, and S-K left behind the incongruously perky hooks of their former music for something grander and more forbidding, with fuzzed-out guitars and hard-rock-worthy guitar solos (it's almost as if Carrie Brownstein traded her inner Pete Townshend for John Entwistle--I think I just made that up, but it sounds like it might have come from somewhere; if it strikes anyone as familiar, please let me know). "Modern Girl" is a grand anthem to female experience in the aughties, and "Rollercoaster" and "Entertain" revisit some of the themes of One Beat with outstanding success, especially the latter. Though it's a huge shame that Sleater-Kinney had to break up, at least they did it on such an uncontestably high note.

LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver (2006): Something of a personal straggler for me--I first heard "North American Scum" on CBC 3 and thought it was the Evaporators (led by "Nardwar, the Human Serviette"). Later, I found out it was the personal project of New York musician James Murphy, and one of the only two albums to date that everyone in the deli basement kitchen where I work has enjoyed listening to at the same time (the other being Thin Lizzy's Greatest Hits, which doesn't really qualify for this list). Though "North American Scum" is probably the most striking song (and the most political, along with "New York I Love You"--"your billionaire mayor now thinks he's a king"), I prefer the gorgeous, hypnotic "Something Great" and the hooky, dance-pop "Us Vs. Them," with bonus Bowie-style vocals thrown in.

Lily Allen, Alright, Still... (2007): I'm probably a poster-child for the "long tail," burrowing into increasingly obscure books, movies and music at the expense of an increasingly fractured wider general culture. Nevertheless, I couldn't ignore Britain's chipmunk-cheeked Princess of Pop (especially with her father's checkered screen career) after "Smile" would not leave my brain for weeks (although strangely enough I now prefer the alternate version available on the album). To be honest, I'd rather give this spot to something like Tales From Turnpike House (2006), long-time fave Saint Etienne's ode to London life, but something about Alright, Still... just won't leave it alone--"LDN" captures a finely particular kind of urban ennui, and (as far as I can make out), "Everything's Just Wonderful" is a wonderful testament to the fact that "it's anything but."

Neon Neon, Stainless Style (2008): In 2005, Super Furry Animals vocalist Gruff Rhys began releasing solo albums--the first, Yr Atal Genhedlaeth, entirely in his native Welsh--and in 2008 collaborated with Cincinnati-based DJ Boom Bip in a dance- and techno-oriented concept album devoted to the life and legacy of disgraced auto executive John DeLorean. There were times when I found the aughties a tiresome retread of the eighties--awful fashions, right-wing politics, Transformers movies--and it was maybe fitting that such a dead-on musical dissection of the period came out at the time it did. Stainless Style, moreover, proved a colossal hit in the deli basement kitchen, which I found an indispensable clearing-house of musical information and criticism, believe it or not. Just about every song is indispensable (especially the beginning of "Sweat Shop"), but favorites tended to oscillate around "I Told Her On Alderaan," "Raquel" (about DeLorean's apparent relationship with Raquel Welch), and "Steel Your Girl" (the last my own personal favorite). Hopefully they'll collaborate again, but for now Stainless Style is the ghost of nightmares past that I think this decade needed.

As for a possible "song of the decade," I feel somewhat lame about this as my choice was probably specifically tailored to be such. Montreal-based The Arcade Fire was a huge favorite of many music critics and friends of mine, and though I was never as firmly in the box as they were, Funeral (2004) and The Neon Bible (2007) both had frequent moments of transcendent brilliance (the former's final song, "In the Backseat," is appallingly beautiful, thanks to some outstanding orchestral arrangements and Regine Chassane's exquisite vocals). "(Antichrist Television Blues)," with its lyrics about falling towers and "working downtown for the minimum wage", encompasses so much of the world experience and my own personal experience in so few lines, and with such assured, cocky music, that it manages to overcome its own probable pretentiousness (gut reaction, sorry) and claim the title. I much prefer it to Sufjan Stevens' "Vito's Ordination Song," which came close to defining a gloomy 2004 with dangerous thoughts of self-immolation (listening to it was like being lovingly smothered under a thick bedspread). So I'm totally fine with it being "(Antichrist Television Blues)." Hopefully the 2010s will produce something a little more upbeat.

Here's to a great 2010!

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 5 January 2010 1:12 PM EST
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