Monday, May 28, 2012

Kinder garden scientist

Besides superheroes, art and bugs, it turns out The Boy also has a thing for the scientific process.

He and The Missus started up a bunch of little dirt divots last week, and in no time at all most of them had sprung sprouts, skinny little green things reaching for the sun.

The other day, The Boy got up early and I found him at the craft/botanical garden table, scribbling on 3x5 note cards. I assumed he was hard at work on his next intricate artistic aberration, but a closer inspection revealed two cards, filled with careful notes and observations on his plants. He was just finishing one, and the other one he did the day before.

All I had to do was remind him to date them on the back so he’ll know what order they came in later. I asked him if The Missus put him up to it, and he mentioned casually that it had been his idea.

He is a pretty interesting little dude.

This week also marks his ‘graduation’ from Kindergarten.

When I was a kid and Kindergarten year was over, we didn’t call it graduation, we called it summer.

But it was simpler times back then... [wistful sigh] When beating your children in public was fine, but being gay anywhere except lesbian stag films was definitely not.

You know: The Good Old Days!

I was telling my pal The Last Boy Scout recently how glad I was that, for all the uncertainty of the times, I’m glad our kids are growing up in the cultural landscape of today instead of the one from my childhood, ca 1962—on. He was bitching about celebrities using their soapbox to espouse liberal causes, and I was clearing my throat with names like Ted Nugent and Charlton Heston (out of respect for his debating prowess, I kept Ronald Reagan in my back pocket).

But one of the things that is not an improvement—well, I don’t think it is yet, but I am talking out of my ass at the moment—is this ridiculous imperative to hand kids mortar boards and sheepskin every time they successfully navigate the next logical step of their developmental progress.

I mean, I earned one diploma in my life, and I worked hard for that motherfucker. I did two years as bully-bait at the local Catholic high school—then a blissful year-and-a-half as Head of my class at the local P.S. when the parochial school dollars ran out. But I was owed that diploma for those first two years of social and academic hell.

And it was a big deal when I got it. I was three sheets to the wind, with a flask taped to my torso and a tube we stole from the chem lab running from it up to my collar, and I still remember the evening.

I’m not sure I would have, though, if that had been my thirteenth ‘graduation.’

We cheapen the value of real accomplishment when we label every workaday grade transition a graduation.

Uh, don’t we?

I have a feeling I may be eating my words later in the week, but I want to go on record now as saying “Sentiment! It’s all sentiment! I was right earlier in the week when my mind wasn’t clouded with all this silly sentiment!”

Monday, May 21, 2012

Come down off the cross…

…we could use the Wood.

Called home to where the good doggies go, four years ago yesterday. And I still miss someone.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

“Battleship” squared away, transcends expectations

Battleship is probably the most agreeable steaming pile of crap I’ll enjoy all summer.

A by-the-numbers Us Versus Aliens shoot-’em-up, with more than a passing debt to Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, Battleship (looooosely based on the vintage board game of the same name) surpasses its pedigree in the grace notes.

The movie’s relationship to its ‘source material’ is tenuous at best—laughable on its face—even though the filmmakers do manage to slip in a neat vertical grid search at one point. I’d wager there’s a version of this game out there now with batteries and aliens and spinny metal dervishes that eat warships and the whole deal, but they might as well have called this movie Life because all the characters start out alive, or Clue because that’s what our hero doesn’t have one of at the beginning, etc.

After a little too much blablabla, evil, would-be conqueror aliens interrupt a joint war games practice between the American and Japanese fleets off of Hawaii and summer movie wackiness ensues.

The tall, blonde vampire fellow from True Blood shows up, as does the actor who played John Carter in Disney’s ill-fated tentpole effort of the same name. Liam Neeson phones in a couple of scenes at the beginning and the end. For this he passed on Speilberg’s Lincoln?

I understand another one of the roles is filled by pop harlot Rihanna, but as none of the actresses were required to do any nude scenes, I did not recognize her. She was probably the improbably short, sassy Navy grunt with the to-die-for non-military coif.

The movie’s real casting coup though, is real-life double-amputee Gregory D. Gadson in a major supporting role, as well as what looked to me like actual surviving World War Two veterans, of both the American and Japanese fleets (ostensibly gathered for the war games staged for the film).

Many other actual wounded American vets show up early in the film as background players for the scenes with the hero’s impossibly hot physical therapist girlfriend, and the matter-of-fact manner in which they carry on in the face of their often unspeakable injuries says more about their courage than the most overwrought subplot could have.

Kudos to the summer blockbuster filmmakers for exercising restraint!

Including these actual veterans in the storyline—as well as tailoring the non-CGI elements of the plot to emphasize themes of forgiveness and healing without coming off condescending or glad-handing—elevates the film above its board game provenance.

What no doubt started off as a series of crass, calculated decisions designed to sell the film in as many foreign/specialty markets as possible, ends up playing onscreen as corny as a Norman Rockwell painting of rosy-cheeked carollers on a snowy Christmas day.

My God, even the obligatory dirty hippie gets a moment of redemption.

And for the geezer demographic, along with their History Channel-loving boomer offspring, a revered World War II-era relic is dusted off and taken out for one final moment of earth-saving glory to cap off a long and illustrious maritime career.

Oh yeah, and as soon as the good guys figure out the aliens’ Achilles Heel—ya knew they had to have one—them danged ugly ETs blow up real good, too. (I don’t think that really qualifies as a spoiler in a movie whose first ‘brought to you by’ onscreen credit is toymaker Hasbro.)

But the heart of the movie isn’t in its bombs bursting or cities blowing up, or spaceships burping out malevolent metal progeny, it’s in the margins. It’s in the unselfconscious nod to old-fashioned patriotism, without ignoring its real-world ramifications, both past and present. It’s including actors who due to age or physical disability probably don’t get a lot of work, and not throwing a self-congratulatory klieg-light on the fact.

Battleship is that rare instance of all the little moments between the big ones adding to the richness of the total experience, not just the film’s run time.

For an enterprise conceived and built specifically to fill movie theater seats and lighten wallets, Battleship does a surprisingly good job of lifting the spirit, too.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Obama’s war of choice

Today, President Obama shocked the world by admitting that he doesn’t recoil in horror at the thought of boys marrying boys and girls marrying girls. He officially is no longer squeamish about it, completing an ‘evolution’ whose beginning just happened to coincide with his first run for public office. (A show on Fox—road-testing a ‘flip-flopper’ storyline, above—unearthed an old newspaper clipping tonight where Obama states his support for same-sex marriage, dated immediately prior to the launch of his political career. Makes me think his ‘evolution’ was less a natural process than a well-planned excursion.)

Still, actually hearing him say it was like living something out of a piece of feverish fan-fiction.

Most people agree that either Joe Biden’s loose lips on Meet The Press last weekend sunk The President’s ship, or that Obama stage-managed the MTP incident in order to force this politically radioactive issue into the spotlight (you gotta love your Fox News conspiracy theorists).

He didn’t shock me by coming out in favor of a progressive cause that even a casual political profile would suggest ought to be near and dear to his heart, but he took everyone by surprise by dropping the bomb in the middle of a slow news week, without the advantage of the bully pulpit one would think a politico would use to make an announcement of this import.

It turns out, according to since-published reports, that Obama had already made the decision and was planning a grand roll-out, closer to the convention this summer, but Joe Biden’s full-throated endorsement last weekend forced him to move his schedule up.

Now legally, his personal approval has no impact at all. He’s just voicing his opinion as a citizen, while adding explicitly that as President, he will make no move to impose his viewpoint upon the country’s legal process.

But when the President comes out in favor, or opposition to such a hot-button issue, it’s seismic. It matters. The issue becomes mainstream political thought immediately. It moves the issue directly to the political center of the politician’s party, the way W’s invasion of Iraq dragged the old-school GOP along into the gutter with him, and weakened it so badly that it fell the next election cycle to an insurgent Tea Party.

Honestly, I can’t figure out the political calculation—and neither can anyone else—but I don’t care. Pundits from msnbc to Fox Noise are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what Obama thought he had to gain politically from doing this, now.

The thing everybody agrees on is that it was risky/crazy, with no clear big upside. Especially coming one day after critical swing-state North Carolina voted overwhelmingly to codify gender discrimination. Or maybe it was because of that?

Only the tell-all tomes of the future know for sure.

From here and now, the only political math that makes any sense at all is that Obama is trying to woo uncommitted voters looking for a candidate to support who has the courage of his convictions, even if said convictions do not lead the candidate merrily down the Yellow Brick Road to electoral-college victory.

You know, the people who might have crossed party lines and voted for John McCain on character alone, before he betrayed everything he ever believed in during the 2008 primaries.

And I’m not even sure those voters exist anymore.

Or perhaps Obama did it strictly out of some grandmaster political calculation that we won’t see coming for another twenty moves.

To quote Julie Brown from I’m A Blonde, “So What?!” You don’t hear people complaining today that it took the Civil War to force Lincoln to end slavery, do you? Political expediency is just as good a reason to do the right thing as any other.

Welcome back to the family of progressive thinkers, Mr. President. Confidentially, you never made a very convincing rube.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Mitt Romney’s tax dollars at work

...just down the street from our house. Unlike determining tree-height, it is apparently a tricky proposition, figuring out exactly how much ostentatious display of wealth in a recession is just the right amount.

So far, it seems, the Mormon Temple in Boise is somehow still not quite opulent enough.

Forcing tolerance down this stupid state’s throat…

…one super-hero movie at a time.

So The Missus, The Boy and I are out on a playdate over the weekend at a local bowling alley with this beautiful but somewhat withdrawn little girl, Malaika, and her dotty mom... uh, Sue? Sally? Fuck it, we’ll call her what she is; Dottie.

We’re swapping life-story thumbnails (the kids know each other, we don’t) and Dottie reveals that Malaika’s step-dad is a “total gun-nut” (Dottie’s words) with rage issues, no patience, 15 years white-knuckle sobriety under his belt and oh yeah, he doesn’t like kids, including hers. According to Dottie, he literally puts earplugs in at home to blot Dottie and Malaika out.

Dottie seems nice enough, but she’s one of those gals who a) just never stops talking—thus the earplugs, I suppose—and b) is always in the middle of a run of bad luck. This week, she says, her face got infected and swollen (some bruising remains) and her car broke down and she couldn’t afford to fix it but her husband doesn’t want her working and we’re only going bowling because she fell into a couple of free bowling passes. She loves the Lord and “just believes” in the Bible.

I immediately think about her rage-monster, dry-drunk second or third husband and assure her I barely even noticed the residual bruising left by her unfortunate “infection.”

Being me, by this point, my heart is bleeding for these people, by which I mean the little girl. (Sorry, adults, you’ve made your own bed.)

After a while, the conversation moves on to gossiping about some of the kids’ other classmates. Dottie and I both volunteer in the classroom when we can, so we’re well familiar with the cast of characters.

There’s one little girl The Missus and I always notice. Her name is Danica, and besides her huge green eyes and flaming red tresses, she’s drawn our attention because every day, she is dressed in a different outfit that is kind of Annie Hall-meets Goodwill-meets an explosion at a rainbow factory. This kid’s breathtaking fashion sense hits you farther away than one of Ted Nugent’s elephant guns.

Plus she’s this extremely together, centered kid. She approaches (familiar) adults and starts conversations way above her grade-level. She’s never out of control, even when the rest of the room is in chaos. She comes up and gives brisk, sincere hugs out of the blue. She’s just a superstar, waiting to happen. Apparently she has a sister in sixth grade who already is.

Anyhow, The Missus mentions Danica’s unique attention to couture, and Dottie’s eyes darken and her voice goes all hushed, “Well, you know about Danica’s family situation, right?”

We go “no,” preparing for the worst. If it’s spooked Dottie, it must be pretty fucking horrible.

“Danica’s parents are divorced and her Mom...” (I’m thinking cancer) “...her mom moved in with a woman,” she gasped, her voice falling even lower.

And oh my God, apparently they think they’re happy!! What are they going to do without an inarticulate, uncommunicative, emotionally distant male to head their household as the Bible instructs?!

Et cetera,
ad nauseum. Thinking about how this quiet little girl’s mom was putting her daughter in potential jeopardy on a daily basis while listening to her bad-mouth a mutually loving relationship that is producing startlingly well-adjusted children just worked my nerves on so many levels.

Somehow, The Missus and I both kept our umbrage to ourselves—I’m especially proud of The Missus, who lately has been hanging her hat on gender-equity issues—but this is, in a nutshell, what I hate about Idaho.

Dottie would be an outlier in California, out here she’s the official State Archetype.

Which brings me to The Avengers.

And the geek in me cannot resist issuing a quick review… I’ll keep it spoiler-free, assuming that not everyone played the movie’s game and ran right out saw it already.

Had to see it twice, as the idiots at the local IMAX completely destroyed our family’s first attempt to enjoy the film with their epic bungling of the pressing the “on” switch in the projection booth. But I’m digressing from my digression and that is never good…

Man, does The Avengers nail it. This is the movie I’ve been seeing in my head since I was a little kid, reading the source material in the ’60s. The smartest thing the filmmakers did was getting fellow fan-boy and TV auteur Joss Whedon to write and direct it. On paper, it was a big gamble. None of Whedon’s previous projects have made anything more than chump change at the box office.

But all his properties have wildly devoted cult followings, and now the world knows why.

With the kind of budget they threw at this thing, it would have
looked good even in Ed Woods’ hands. So the cheesy production values of Whedon’s previous efforts isn’t really an issue, and it becomes all about insight and instincts, and both are spot-on. Avengers is that rare comic-book film that is great because it plays like a comic book. The Dark Knight is a greater film, but it (deliberately) didn’t feel at all like a giddy comic book joyride, whereas The Avengers is an E Ticket to a good time from the first moving image.

I think that’s partly because the usual tortured exposition necessary to the genre has been dispatched with in the heroes’ individual films, and this one can start off like a bullet fired from a gun without leaving the audience behind.

But it’s mostly Whedon’s obvious love for the characters and ease with the conventions of the genre that lifts this ship’s sails. For instance, unlike every other previous screen appearance, the Hulk is a highlight of this film, not a millstone around its neck. And that’s only because Whedon knows exactly how to use him; he gets a couple of the best scenes in the film. The character went from being a Hollywood in-joke to its hottest new property overnight.

The extensive action sequences are full of clever “how come I’ve never seen that on the screen before?” moments. The movie also succeeds by keeping the breezy air of the
Iron Man movies intact throughout. Every scene is just plain fun, even the talky ones, and the throwaway gags (you will know them when you see them; keep your eye on the Hulk) are destined to be movie touchstones for a generation.

And the way Whedon writes Captain America... Cap has a scene about 3/4 of the way through the film that gave me goosebumps and has drawn applause at both of the screenings we’ve been to.

And I haven’t even gotten to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Scarlett Johanssen sewn into a black catsuit yet.

So what the hell does any of this have to with intolerance in Idaho?

The fulcrum around which The Avengers pivots is Nick Fury, world’s top super-spy, played by the world’s top movie bad-ass, Samuel L. Jackson.

In case you’re wondering, Jackson’s casting was not a pander to the PC-crowd, or a marketing ploy to exploit “diversity” in an effort to fill as many seats as possible. A decade ago or so, British graphic artist Bryan Hitch helped relaunch the Avengers comic, and he cast well-known actors as his super-heroes, including Brad Pitt as Thor (!) and Sam Jackson as Nick Fury, who had always been Caucasian in previous incarnations.

But Sam Jackson and Nick Fury were such a perfect fit that it stuck, and the franchise is much improved for it. The last Caucasian thesp to portray Nick Fury onscreen? Sir David of Hasslehoff. Need I say more?

Anyhow, the second time The Boy and I saw the movie, part of the fun for me was watching the family to our left watch the film. A mom and dad in their 20s and a kid about The Boy’s age, and mom and the kid loved the whole thing (couldn’t see dad that well). The kid caught me looking, and after that we shared grins at cool moments in the movie. At the end when they were about to leave, I took a chance and touched his elbow. He looked over at me, and I said, “Hang on, there’s still one more bit to come.” He turned to his mom and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her back into their seats. And we all got to see the “tag” at the end. After it, the kid looked at me questioningly. I leaned forward and told him the name of the tag’s mysterious villain in a confidential voice and watched his eyes light up.

It was only after getting back home that it occurred to me that, after living in Boise for two years now, this is the first time I can recall sharing a screening room with any person of color, let alone three. And I wondered how much of that had to do with Sam Jackson.

Then it occurred to me that, even in Idaho, that kid in the seat next to my son is growing up in a country where the President has always been Black, and so has Nick Fury. There’s no reason in the world he can’t go home and dream of growing up to be the most powerful man in the world. Ordering super-heroes around, or killing real-life terrorists from an office chair in the White House Situation Room.

We’ve come a long way since I was a kid, when the best a young Black kid could reasonably dream of growing up to be was a Harlem Globetrotter, or maybe a doorman at a really swanky condo uptown.

As the Trayvon Martin case illustrates, the issue of race isn’t anywhere near resolved, but like terror, racial bias will never be completely stamped out. Hate lives in the heart of man, and hate always needs a target. It and its effects are here to stay.

But this kind of hate, race-hate, has in my lifetime become the exception rather than the rule. Even in Idaho.

And it gives me hope that by the time my son and the kid next to him at the movie are adults, we’ll have seen a gay President or two as well as some openly-fabulous super-heroes at the cinema, and gender-orientation discrimination will seem as ugly and archaic as racial bias does today.

Even in Idaho.

Bringing Jazz Hands back:

A grateful nation swoons...