Saturday, April 05, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier raises the bar


We have tickets to go see this tomorrow with friends, but I couldn’t wait.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the movie I wanted to see the first time. The first Cap movie, as well the first Thor film (and to some extent the second Thor film, too), both felt inert to me. They were like amusement park rides with poorly concealed mechanisms—knowing how the trick works sucked some of the joy out of the user experience. They were fun and perfunctory at the same time.

I did not have to work hard, however, to be wow-ed by Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Like The Dark Knight—its most apropos cinematic antecedent—the new Captain America film is a grown-up movie disguised as a superhero flick. Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) was on Letterman this week and when the host quizzed him about what made this movie’s plot different, Jackson guffawed and said, “This movie’s got one!”

Also like The Dark Knight, it nails the zeitgeist in a way you don’t see coming from a franchise popcorn genre flick. The fact that it is an airy fun ride at the same time is probably a reflection of the popular culture of 2014 as compared to that of 2008 when Dark Knight was released.

Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker was the embodiment of our worst external fears at the time—the lone suicidal terrorist with delusions of grandeur—The Winter Soldier explores the worst internal, or at least domestic, fears we are dealing with today; an over-intrusive government that plays with human lives like they are pieces on a chess board, in the service of a purported greater purpose.

Lately I’ve seen a bunch of movies with this theme, but CA/TWS works it much less hamfistedly than other recent efforts. It is anti-government agitprop with a touch so light as to be almost imperceptible. Or maybe it’s just all the cool shit blowing up everywhere that makes the zeitgeisty elements seem almost subliminal. (This graf has four words spellcheck hates. Must. Fix. Spellcheck.)

Whatever the case, the filmmakers’—co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo, working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely—political agenda doesn’t interfere with the storytelling, or the sheer thrill of the execution. The hand-to-hand type fisticuffs are convincing throughout, there’s some early martial arts mayhem featuring a little-used Marvel villain that only old farts like me will recognize from their comic book source material, and as previously mentioned, lots of shit gets blowed up real good.

More than ever, Chris Evans as Captain America looks like a life-size Ken doll, but brings real acting chops and charisma to what could easily have been a thankless, stolid Good Guy role like Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent in last year’s Man of Steel. The filmmakers probably did themselves a large favor by opening the movie with Evans as Steve Rogers, cracking wise.  It’s a cute scene, and it sets up the flavor of the film to follow.

Scarlett Johansson is back as the Black Widow, with a lot more to do than in previous appearances as the character. Sam Jackson shines as the beleaguered head of S.H.I.E.L.D., the super-secret spy agency he heads that originated in the wake of WWII, which provenance turns out to be a mixed bag. Cap’s sidekick The Falcon, as well as his titular adversary are played by newcomers—well, I didn’t recognize them—both of whom acquit themselves ably and with gravity appropriate to their roles.

Upon re-reading this notice, I realize I forgot to mention the plot, other than that Sam Jackson approves of it. I always forget to mention the plot in my first draft.

I didn’t care much for the Winter Soldier storyline in the comic books. Liked the idea, but at the time, the book was into this gritty, neo-noir style of storytelling that I’ve never been a big fan of. Which turns out to be cool, because for a change, there were whole chunks of the movie where I didn’t know what was going on until it was revealed, that I would have had spoiled for me if I had read the comics.

Additionally, in the interlocking ‘Marvel Universe’ movies, throwaway lines referencing random characters like Stephen Strange don’t just feel like name-checks for the fan-boy contingent, they carry the weight of at least the possibility of more Captain America/Avengers-caliber franchises yet to come.

At 2 hours-plus, Captain America: The Winter Soldier flies by like a short 90 minutes. This movie has been cut to a fare-thee-well and not a moment seems forced or unnecessary.

CA/TWS looks to give The Avengers a run for its money; I don’t know if it will do the same box office—you have to respect the contributions of Robert Downey Jr. and Joss Whedon to that previous Marvel megafilm, and its grosses—but like that film and The Dark Knight, it raises the bar for superhero movies to come.

Speaking of: The new trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is terrific. It took me straight from the “looks like fun” of the previous trailers to “I can’t wait!” If the feature plays as well as the preview, it should make a bazillion dollars.

Oh, and in one of the pair of teaser clips at the end of CA/TWS, two long-time comicbook siblings are introduced; characters I would have thought belonged to another studio, with their own Marvel franchise movie out this summer…

Have I mentioned I can’t wait??

Saturday, March 08, 2014

When The Man Goes To Ground


So my good friend Heather tells me she finished the copy of the new Johnny Cash biography by Robert Hilbun I sent her for Christmas and was somewhat taken aback. She was thinking of writing about it, with a working title so clever I’m going to riff on it for my own title. I believe plagiarism is still considered to be the sincerest form of flattery, isn’t it?

I had also sent a copy of the book to my mom, who had the same reaction as Heather did, basically, “Wow, this guy’s an asshole.” They were both shocked at the amount of drugs Cash did post-his alleged recovery. His stints at Betty Ford were fobbed off as exceptions to the rule in previous Cash biographies, but this one suggests they were just especially rough patches of a road Cash was constantly on and off of throughout his life.

I admit to being surprised myself. I had bought the official story too. But I always fall for the official story. I believed Bill Clinton until the infamous blue dress surfaced. Like most people, I want to believe, and be able to believe in, the celebrities I admire. It’s always a little blow to the ego to learn I’ve been bamboozled again.

I realized I was angry at myself for not seeing the signs—we junkies are supposed to have each others’ backs!—and getting suckered again.

And then I realized that Heather and my mom were both disappointed in Cash for his failure to live up to the public image he cultivated. We were all disappointed, but for a change, only I was disappointed in myself.

Cash was supposed to have gotten his shit together there in Nickajack Cave and emerged clean, sober and re-energized, the end.

And he might have, too, if that had been the end. That was the ending of the movie biography everybody references when Cash’s life story comes up these days. The official bill of goods gave us the Hollywood ending we wanted; we were happy to forgive Cash a lapse or two between afterwards and the bitter end.

The truth is much more logically consistent with junkie behavior: Cash battled his demons every inch of the way to the bitter end.

Yes, he was in constant pain the last couple decades of his life due to a jaw injury that never healed right. Every day, he had to choose how much pain to suffer and weigh it against the risk of falling back down the substance-abuse bunny hole.

But you know, Cash was a junkie. Even when he wasn’t popping pills, he remained a junkie, he was just a junkie successfully working his program. The same way Hank Williams stayed a drunk even when he wasn’t drinking, or Ted Nugent stays an asshole even when there isn’t a microphone around.

If a junkie falls over in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, we still make an awful racket. That’s just the way we’re built.

It occurred to me that the disparity between my reaction to the Cash tome and Heather and my Mom’s mutual response was because, being a junkie myself, I expect us to fail. As soon as I read the new revelations, I said to myself, “Oh yeah. Well of course he did. What a gullible fool I’ve been…”

But people without the addictive-personality disorder thing read it and think, “What, was he crazy? He had it all!”

Asshole.

And they’re right, too. Only assholes are narcissistic enough to believe they can not only grab the golden ring, but that they have it coming to them, too. If you really want to succeed in this world, it helps to either be an asshole or marry one.

For me, it comes down to your definition of “asshole.” Mine has always been as follows: An asshole is a jerk with redeeming qualities, whereas a jerk is an asshole without redeeming qualities. It’s like how rich people are eccentric and poor people are just crazy. And how Ted Nugent narrowly clears the jerk threshold by having given us “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Stranglehold” and “Great White Buffalo,” to name but a few of his classic compositions.

If you have brought added-value to this world by having been here, I will accept a lower standard of personal behavior from you as the baseline. And give you a lot more wiggle-room on the margins, too. As long as I don’t have to live with you and you are content to have me worship you from afar.

It’s time we took the onus off of ‘asshole,’ but like most asshole-related activity, the best place to do that is from a safe distance.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A farewell to Windy


My uncle Wayne died today.

When I was a kid, I was a pretty fucked-up, broken, nasty little piece of work, and grown-ups had a tendency to treat me that way, too.

Besides my Dad, Uncle Wayne was the only grown-up I remember going out of his way to be nice to me. He not only didn’t treat me like he expected my head to start spinning around any second, but he treated me like an equal. Not at all the usual grown-up/kid dynamic. He wanted to be my pal, and until we up and moved away across the country, I reckon he was.

I think the way I relate to kids, even today, has the flavor of the courtesy and friendly camaraderie with which he treated me. He always seemed interested in what I had to say, and in the late ’60s, early ’70s, that was mighty rare. It was still okay to wallop the hell out of your kids in public at the time. A popular maxim was, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Uncle Wayne, apparently, was unfamiliar with it.

When I got married, a whole lot of years later, Wayne showed up and so did a bunch of his kids—and they all had to travel a long way to get there, too. Another time we both happened to be visiting my mom in Tucson at the same time and ended up going to Saturday evening Mass with my nephew, which delighted Uncle Wayne to no end. The last time I spoke with him on the phone, he reminisced about it.

He visited my Mom more than any other of her siblings, maybe more than all of them put together. Not that her sibs were to blame; after all, my Mom was the one who decided to put a couple thousand miles of America between them. No, Wayne saw her a lot because he liked to travel. Even in retirement, he was always going somewhere, doing something, having fun and bringing it with him wherever he went. Usually with a cocktail or two nearby.

It was not a bad way to live.

He was also my Mom’s most dedicated phone correspondent among her siblings. Mom really lit up when she spoke about their phone calls; so what if the cocktail or two usually nearby occasionally made it hard to follow exactly what “Windy,” his longtime nickname, was saying. His tone was full of good will and easy humor. He didn’t judge, he didn’t preach, and he always left her with a bounce in her voice.

His ticker gave out today while he was off on holiday in Mexico. One assumes he went quickly—no horrid extended battles with pernicious disease, nor torturous gradual loss of faculty. One minute he was no doubt enjoying a refreshing beverage on the beach of one of his favorite vacation getaways, the next he’s knocking on St. Peter’s gate.

As these things go, it was not a bad way to go.

I’m going to miss knowing we are sharing the same world. His example gave me hope as a kid, and made me a better person toward kids as an adult; I salute you, Wayne Barker. Requiescat in pace.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

To be continued…

Well, I don’t know what I’m supposed to write, but I feel like I ought to write something.

It’s my last real day on the job at a job I’ve held for the past 12 years. I have one more deadline tomorrow, but that paper is already completed, just waiting for legals to be dropped in. Today is the last time I’ll work with the guy from the home office I’ve known quite well for years now but have never met, assembling a newspaper together.

I should be feeling something, but I’ve found that if I keep busy enough, I can keep introspection away. So far, anyhow. None of this will seem fully real until that first payday without a paycheck. Right now it feels like the slow-motion slide to the wreck, not the actual collision itself yet. Dreamtime state.

To add to the weirdness, I have one more website update to execute and next week I’m still on the company teat in an advice and counseling capacity. So the slow-motion slide continues.

I’m super busy networking and picking up this web job and finally billing for that one, but there’s no way piecemeal work is going to match the income that is going bye-bye.

Or for that matter, the relationship with the guy in LA I’ve worked with on the 'flagship' publication. The only regular, reliable human professional contact for the last few years up until now. Without giving anything away, he’s like this wealthy rocket scientist dude, toiling away in a thankless job in a doomed industry while living in the enticing shadow of the glamour of Hollywood. If he were an Ayn Rand character, he would be a sympathetic one. (I hope that came out as the compliment it was meant to be.)

He is my scarecrow, my Francisco D’Anconia, and I will miss him most of all. Well, most of all after the paycheck. I’m pretty sure I’m really gonna grow to miss the money most of all over time.

Hmmm…

Maybe this isn’t the best time to write after all. I have to keep it together until today’s work is done, and introspection over the end of a 25-year career probably isn’t gonna be conducive to that.

Let me get back to you. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Rush Fan At 8:


Karma doesn’t do nuance


I got un-semiretired yesterday.

I’ve had this great job for 12 years where at about the midpoint of that span, all pay raises stopped but the amount of work I had to do for the same money steadily declined as the newspaper industry atrophied and died around my employer and myself. Lately, it had gotten to the point of being pretty ridiculously lopsided, the amount of money I was making versus the time I was putting in. I never deliberately gamed the system, but I didn’t complain any too loudly when the odds swung—and got stuck in—my favor, either.

It has been fucking big-time with my inner recovering-Catholic.

I’ve been eating guilt for years now over taking money I feel I haven’t fully earned. As my abrupt dis-employment ties one giant millstone around my neck, it lifts another great weight from my shoulders. I may go to the poorhouse, but I’ll go there free!

Not that I didn’t try to earn my keep, he argued reflexively. I’ve been pitching spec Wordpress sites for their umbrella corporation for ages now, to no avail, while they endlessly ‘explore their options.’ I’ve asked about picking up some of their other regional weeklies—nada. Bupkis, baby. And I’m a one-man shop! And, and, and…!

Hey, I could bitch about my soon-to-be former employer—I understand there is precedent—but that would be classless and trite. The fact is, they gave me a pretty good, long ride, even through a few patches that I made rough myself. I appreciate the accommodations they made for me when we moved out-of-state; it took some finagling on their part to keep me on board for as long as they did.

And really, having a newspaper company be your bread and butter account in 2014 was never going to have come to a good end anyhow. It’s been only a question of when for years now.

Now we know.

I’m still in denial, so I don’t have any expansive thoughts on the subject yet. My client was gracious enough to give me two weeks notice and I find myself suddenly with lots of things to do.

With my semi-retirement behind me, I expect karma is going to work me like a pack mule from here on, without any promise of reward on my efforts. There is certain to be some pretty rough sledding between now and whatever comes next, but I’ve been well-compensated in advance for the inconvenience.

I face the impending misadventure with relief and apprehension in equal measure.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pete Seeger 1919—2014


My life flows on in endless song
Above earth's lamentation
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation.

Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

What through the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth
What through the darkness round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I'm clinging
Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging
When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

There’s no place like home for the holidays


I just enjoyed my first happy Christmas in I literally don’t know how long.


(In church for Christmas Eve service, above—another first!)




Ever since The Missus and I first moved to northern Cali in 2001, we’ve been traveling back to Long Beach annually to do the holiday with her family. I didn’t mind at first; I’ve never cared for the holidays myself, and as long as I didn’t have to spend them with my own family, anywhere else was just as good for me.

But when my aging pup, Woody, started to have trouble walking on the in-laws’ polished-to-a-glassy-sheen hardwood floors, it began to become an imposition I resented. I always felt like they should have at least carpeted the slippery hardwood steps leading upstairs, but it never happened, not even when their own dog became too old and infirm to join the family on the second floor.

Then when Woody was too old to travel, I had to start leaving him in a kennel when we traveled south for Christmas. Thinking about that shit still makes me sad to the bone. Woody had seen me faithfully through all kinds of hell before I met Leslie, and leaving him in a cage with strangers over Christmas broke my heart. There were a lot of years Woody was the only one with whom I spent the holidays and kicking him to the curb like that will haunt me the rest of my days.

But Christmas had to occur in SoCal. Leslie and her family are crazy tight and I admired that, even as I had no context to actually understand what that might be like. So I put the wife ahead of the dog, the future ahead of the past (so to speak) and did what I figured had to be the Right Thing because it hurt so fucking bad.

Then when we had a kid it got even worse. There was nothing more I wanted than to have my own little family with my own little traditions, and there was nothing more Leslie’s parents wanted than to see their Grandkid every Christmas morning. Not to mention the fact that it was hugely important to Leslie personally. Again I weighed which option would be the hardest on me and having identified it, went with it. A lifetime of experience has taught me that when confronted with a tough decision, the unappealing course of action is almost always the correct path to take, ethically.

As the years dragged inexorably by there was no escaping the fact that I was getting locked intractably yet tangentially into the in-laws’ family tradition. And every year, my spirits grew darker and darker the closer the holiday got. In recent years, the dread began to set in as early as the approach of the end of summer.

Then this year happened.

I really didn’t sit down tonight to beef about the past, I sat down to express gratitude for the present. It’s been a shit, shit, shit year and I don’t have a hell of a lot to hang my hat on. Torpedoing the end of it began to look like a very unsafe proposition to both of us and an accommodation was reached. We agreed we’d spend Christmas Day at home, then head down to SoCal the day after.

And it seems to be working! Leslie’s extended family moved around a couple of the traditional holiday events and all she really missed was Christmas morning with her parents and the sumptuous breakfast feast attendant to same. A not-inconsiderable concession, but one many people of her age, means and circumstances have been having to make for a long time.

On the other hand, I have been a changed man this holiday season. All the pre-Christmas activities I used to resent and phone-in at best—everything from decorating the house to going to get the tree—I joined in enthusiastically. Shit, I would have happily gone to a department Christmas party if I had been asked to.

And it doesn’t seem like The Boy has been hurt by the adjustment. I’ve never seen him more engaged in Christmas. In the past, the in-laws’ house was the pot of gold waiting for him at the end of December. Earlier this year, he helpfully clarified the Long Beach trip as “real Christmas,” as opposed to the bullshit simulacrum we used to stumble through here while we concentrated on packing to head south.

This Christmas morning, though, we spent at least the first 15 minutes of gift-unwrapping opening presents The Boy had prepared for us! Stuff he made for us, stuff he found laying around the house and re-wrapped, more stuff he made for us—he was so excited to be giving. Just can’t imagine that happening if we had been up here killing time waiting for ‘real Christmas.’

And for what it’s worth, he was the center of attention again this year. With his two new, cute younger cousins awaiting us in Long Beach, his central role in the proceedings has been necessarily diminishing in recent years. But he was back in the spotlight this year, and he still gets to head to Grandma and Pops’ in the morning and be lavished with more gifts on that end. And hang out with his other favorite people in the world.

Me? I got Christmas at home. I didn’t have to wake up in someone else’s house on a bed that I can’t sleep on and push through the day sleep-deprived and in shrieking lower back pain. I got to play patriarch after 8 years of sitting on the sidelines, sulking. Shitdamn, I even got in a nap and a grown-up movie at a theater.

It was like I was on holiday or something.

So I want to say thanks to Leslie in a quasi-public forum (you six people constituting said quasi-public forum). For all your sacrifices, for all the hard work and extra hours you put in (she was still grading papers as I shuffled off to bed after the Dr. Who Christmas special ended) and for spending the first Christmas Day away from your folks in the whole time we’ve been together, I am grateful and I salute you. It has meant so much more to me than a 24-hour delay in plane trips south.

And she is further spoiling me by putting us up in a hotel for the couple nights I’ll be in town as an accommodation to my sleeping and privacy issues.

Thank you, Sweetie, for the best Christmas since I seriously can’t even say when. Maybe since I spent the holiday in Maine with the Sullivans 20 years ago, and there is no other good example that predates that one that I can recall. Hopefully we won’t have to keep making this hard choice that much longer, and soon Christmas seasons will find us able to fully satisfy both of our Christmas wish-lists; mine to wake up in my own bed, and yours to spend the day with your entire family, me included.

Until then, though, what can I do for you for Valentine’s Day that is within driving distance?