Friday, August 22, 2008

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life!

Ugh. Not really. I’ve interviewed 4 (four) different DJs in the last 3 (three) days for a feature I’m working on. And last Friday, Scooterdad and I went out to Lipgloss to hear Happy Mondays founding member Paul Ryder (brother of lead singer Shawn ("It’s Dare!”) Ryder) spin a set. (Not that he actually spun – he just sat on the floor of the booth and told Tyler and Michael what to play).

So perhaps a more appropriate song for me right now would be –

No, no, they’re all great, and I think the feature will be pretty cool. I like that I get to have some exposure to new music this far out of my 20s. When Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” is used to promote a shoe store’s “Buy One Get One” sale, I know that I’ve been out of the loop.

I’m just running on fumes at the moment. I finally coughed out a feature on cupcakes that I’ve been trying to get throught for the last month. Then, I helped our commercial producer out w/ a spot on Wednesday (eating away 10 more seconds of my 15 minutes of fame)

...and yesterday morning, I snuck out of work for half an hour to interview with an advertising agency. That last I probably shouldn’t even be bringing up, seeing as I’m wicked superstitious when it comes to letting people know that I'm applying for new jobs. But I just can’t help myself… in so far as I’ve had any “plan” at all in my life, my plan has been to translate my "traffic coordinator" experience into an agency setting; then to see where I can go from there.

That, and to make a cool million from the comic book (what with all the tee-shirt sales and everything...)

Wish Me Luck!

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Some people absolutely loath Starbucks; they consider it an abomination, everything that’s wrong in America, condensed into a tall green cup, and served at several thousand-convenient locations across these United States . Other people take Starbucks at face value; an okay product that’s easy to find, even in places in the country where 15 years ago you’d be lucky to find a fresh-brewed pot at a 7-11.

But nobody, not no one, “loves” (“luvs”… “looooooves”) Starbucks these days. It just doesn’t inspire that sort of passion anymore; in a few years, I doubt it’ll still even be trendy to hate it.

I still go there sometimes - if I’m in a hurry, or if I get a craving for a Frapuccino (yes, yes… commence with the taunts, all you coffee coinsures, with your $400 grinders, and oh-so-delicate palates. Yeesh.) On a particularly busy morning last week, I was sitting in line at the drive thru, waiting to order my “Grande Coffee with an Extra Shot” (I let them repeat the whole“Shot in the Dark” thing, if they’re so inclined. As cutesy cafĂ©-lingo goes that one is pretty painless, but still). The talking head manning the register, cinched into their two-way headset, launched into this big, ungainly-and-unbecoming sales pitch: “Would you like to try one of our YUMMY breakfast sandwiches today?!”

Hoo boy. Now, set aside for a moment all the arguments about whether a company that built their reputation on serving great coffee should be selling Egg 'Buckmuffins at all. Consider instead that this was an up-at-the-crack-my-ass early morning. Yes, that's the time-frame that maybe you would consider eating such a product. But c'mon - nobody wants a carnival barker pitch crammed down their gullet before their first cup of the day.

And it’s not just some well meaning, goody-goody college girl, working there to save up money for her semester abroad. Every single employee says the exact same thing. “Yummy!”, like they’re talking to a schnauzer about “Snausages”.

What that means, obviously, is that this ridiculous push has been mandated from on-high. The words cackled over the speaker are printed on a checklist (written by the some member of Starbucks brass, no doubt) to be recited by the hapless employees verbatem, or suffer the dire consequences.

Now, if you follow at all, you know that these sandwiches were actually removed from the menu not so long ago (“Bad! Bad sandwich!”), around the same time that every location in the country closed so they could teach their employees how to make, y’know, coffee. Now, they’re back – GLORY, GLORY! (“MMMMM!~ Yummy Sandwich !”) When I pulled up to the window on that fateful day, I was handed an invitation for some sort of welcome back / coming out party for the damn things.

From noon to 2 pm (!)

Probably not the time you’d be a-hankering for one, but you could stomach the pitch better, anyway

Now, as you can imagine, I don’t have much money. I have no idea what it would be like to create a big, successful business, loved by millions – then have it all start to fade; fall out of favor in the public's eyes. I’m sure it probably sucks.

But man, this crap is just re-freaking-diculous. Starbucks is in full-on freefall. “Sandwiches? We got sandwiches! Hows about a burger? Can we rotate your tires for you, ma’am?” Been up for so long, they have no idea how to act when they're down; like the Hillary Clinton of the retail world. Did it REALLY never occur to the shareholders, the folks who had their trailer hitched to Starbucks’ wagon that it couldn’t go on forever? And, hey, it’s not like they’re stuck w/ a share of “Crocs” or anything (anybody who made a plumb nickle from those things - who wasn't smart enough to pay off their mortgage, buy their golden retreiver a new bandana, then stuff whatever was left safely away, anticipating the day that people would stop buying shoes made from Play Doh - gets zip from me, in the sympathy department.)

But that's the way it always goes, isn't it? I've worked for coffeeshops that said "If we can't be bigger than Starbucks, we don't want to be in business at all." And they couldn't be... so they're not. Nobody's as big as Starbucks anymore. Not even Starbucks.
It's like it's not enough to have a successful business; everybody wants to rule the world. So Starbucks dilutes their brand, appealing to the lowest-common denominator in order to achieve global domination, so they start selling 14 different flavors of milkshake. Then, when the economy tanks, the customers who still their product is some "high-end luxury" (i.e., the people who, 5 years ago, were sucking down "Taster's Choice" at home) start buying their iced coffee at McDonalds or Duncan Donuts.

And now I've got new options for when I'm slumming for "comfort coffee". Anybody wanna go get a Java Chiller from Sonic?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Frugal Cineaste Returns!

When I was a young’un - somewhere between the innocuous appearances of Superman and Batman promoting the “letter of the day” on Sesame Street, and the astounding, mass-geek awakening that was the explosion of the first Death Star - I was introduced to the Marvel-brand superheroes. Right away, I recognized the subversive nature of these characters; from The Falcon - an African-American hero without the word “Black” in his moniker (a la “Black Panther”, “Black Lightening”, “Black Vulcan”, etc.) to Thor - with his hippy-fied golden locks and no shirt-sleeves. As a kid, I wasn’t a strict Marvel Universe fundamentalist: I collected both Marvel and DC titles in the cardboard longbox in my bedroom (filed separately, of course), but as an adult, I find myself much more interested in the former.

That, however, doesn’t mean I’m a fan of their entire roster of heroes. How could it? Sure, it’s a shared universe, with exciting, even iconic characters, but for every Spider Man and Professor Xavier, there’s a title that ties into some barely-remembered pop cultural phenomenon. Micronauts, or Rom, anyone?

And then there’s The Hulk. I never could get into The Hulk. After a few weeks of waiting 45 minutes for Bill Bixby to get angry enought to turn into Lou Ferrigno, I pretty much never tuned into the show again. Even in the comics, where he interacts with some of my favorite characters, he’s always sort of gotten on my nerves. Like, how can you make a guy who goes raging berserker when he stubs his toe part of an elite team like The Avengers? Isn’t that the kind of thing that shows up pretty clearly in the pre-employment screening? Plus, a handy little rule of thumb: Superheroes wear boots and snazzy costumes. Raging, Unstable Monsters – barefoot and stretchy purple fat-pants, like the lady down the street who works in her garden with an ever-present beer in hand.

That said, The Avengers = The Awesome, so when I heard that Tony Stark turned up at the end of The Incredible Hulk to extend the offer made to him by Nick Windu in "Iron Man" - I was there, baby!

Eventually, anyway. Mere weeks after it’s first run release, "The Incredible Hulk" is showing for a buck 'n' a quarter at the Tiffany Plaza Six - the Original Hamburger Stand of movie houses. The convoluted movie review system I laid out a few entries ago would be put to the test; the discount price I paid would be weighed against not just mediocre reviews, but my ambivalence toward the jolly green behemoth himself.

Now, I knew the film was a re-boot from the last cinematic incarnation. And I get that: make with the “Hulk Smash!” and you'll appeal to a wider audience. But I didn’t realize they were abandoning the first film’s continuity altogether. For me, that was a mistake: of all the recent superhero films, I don’t think "The Hulk" was one that merited a full-reboot, like they did with "Batman Begins", or they SHOULD have done with "Superman, the Roofie-Kissing Stalker, Returns" If all they were going to do was feature a FLASHBACK of his origin, they could have simply alluded to Ang Lee’s interesting failure / seriously flawed masterpiece. By appropriating the TV series origin instead (which had something to do with getting super powers from a dentist’s chair) the audience is left out of the loop on a major part of the story.

Anyway, once the film gets to the actual here-and-now plot, it fares a little better. Bruce Banner is chillin’ out in Rio de Janeiro, searching for something with a little more “oomph” than valium, to cure his hulkyness. He works a sweet job bottling Mexican soft-drinks, and in his spare time he meditates, just trying to get his head together. I once read that fairy tales - all the way up through Star Wars and Harry Potter - tap into a shadowy adolescent fantasy, in focusing on orphan protaganists, whose guardians have suffered some terrible fate. BB’s work-live situation is an aging male Gen-X variation on that theme: every 30-something guy in America wants a couple months “off the grid” in another part of the world, so they could read some Nietzsche and work on their abs.

Of course, the government (William Hurt as General Ross; Tim Roth as his "you-know-he’s-gonna-get-monstrified" lackey) comes after him, chasing him down in a not-too-bad action sequence (how they could have looked at the labyrinth of rooftops in Rio, and NOT choreographed a grade-A, boot-to-the-ass, parkour laden chase scene is way beyond my ability to comprehend) Bruce has been chatting online to some doctor who thinks he can "cure" him. The mysterious internet-stalker requires some of Bruce’s research, or his health insurance card or something, which means he’s comin’ back to ‘merica.

In a scene that’s only slightly more convincing than Christopher Reeve marching, sans powers, from Metropolis to Antarctica, Bruce hitch-hikes his way to the States. And of course, hitchhiking and the Hulk means only one thing – the schmaltzy, plinkity-plunkity love theme from the 70’s series! Is anybody really getting a geek-gasm from this stuff? It’s not like it’s the Indiana Jones theme or anything. You’d think Dr. Banner was a veterinarian on his way to put down Benji or something.

Of course, returning from an extended leave and visiting old haunts always means you’ll run into an old ex. Where Supercreepy Returns had Lois Lane married to a stable, gainfully-employed nice guy who always puts the toilet seat down, Betty Ross (the general’s daughter, played by Liv Tyler, who, as an actress, is pretty hot for a skinny woman) dates a boring milktoast who vanished from the movie while I was in the john.

SO – Bruce gets his mcguffin, the girl, and – at long last - turns into a raging monster a couple times, beating off the military. Y’know, it’s funny, because the best Marvel movies are on their A game when the characters are in their civilian identities (The X-Men musing over prejudice in the world, Iron Man dealing with the consequences of his actions, Spider Man facing the trials of adolescence) – which is ironic, in that we finally have the special effects to fully realize these characters, whereas, in the 70’s, you’d have to wait nearly a whole hour for a fleeting glimpse of Spider Man, with those silly little spaghetti colanders on his mask. The not so good Marvel movies (Daredevil, Fantastic Four) are the ones where you’re waiting for the overblown action sequences. At one point, Bruce hid a microchip (or something) in his mouth, and my son leaned over and asked me “is that going to make him turn into the Hulk?”

That right there was the ultimate fault of the movie – they didn’t really deliver on the “Hulk Smash!” that was the whole reason they did a remake (as opposed to a sequel) in the first place. If I’m out with my son on a Saturday afternoon, sitting in a theater w/ the same molded beige plastic design aesthetic as the AMC theaters of my youth, paying sub-matinee prices, I want professional-wrestling worthy monstro-e-monstro action. I want to see drop-down, drag out fight, with all the ridiculous trappings of Jet Jaguar beating on Megalon – but with a multimillion dollar budget. The showdown between Hulk and “The Abomination” was okay, I guess; but at the very least, they could have had it take up the last half of the movie. Maybe have ‘em knock over the Great Wall of China, and then Hulk could rebuild it with his brick and mortar vision.

So, Robert Downey Jr.’s walk-on at the end, looking all dapper, in a manner befitting Tony Stark? Yeah, that was cool (“You always wear the nicest suits.” Heh heh) But then, he tells the General “We’re forming a team”. I know it wouldn’t match comic-book continuity and all, but, couldn’t he have just gotten Spider Man’s email address instead?

Using my $1 movie algorithm (percentage of savings vs. first run price (68%) divided by two (34%) plus the average percent rating among top critics on (58%, in this case) means the movie gets a… 92%. Gotta knock it down a letter grade for running over an hour and a half, but still... wow.
I guess I liked it more than I thought I did...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Frugal Cineaste

So here we are, poised at the boiling-hot, ass hole end of summer (the “Ring of Fire” – to quote the late, great Johnny Cash entirely out-of-context) and not only have I had no vacation to speak of, but I’ve barely even seen any of this summer’s ubiquitous crop of blockbuster movies.

Oh, sure, I caught “Mutt Williams and the Over Long Moniker of Awkwardness”, which was, on the whole, pretty lame (except of course for the cameo appearance by Harrison Ford as none other than – SPOILER ALERT! – Mutt William’s DAD! Shhhh!) and a couple of weeks ago, while my folks had the kids, the wife and I got to see “Iron Man”. Which – undeniably, unequivocally - rocked cock. Iron Man packed in enough gee-whiz factor to not only pay for it’s OWN its own ticket price – but made up for the 8 bucks that I shelled out for each episode of the prequel trilogy. (And the teaser at the end of the credits, with Sam Jackson as one-eyed superspy Nick Fury, made up for what I paid to see Super-Dead-Beat-Dad Returns)

“The way they make shows is, they make one show. That show's called a pilot. Then they show that show to the people who make shows, and on the strength of that one show they decide if they're going to make more shows. Some pilots get picked and become television programs. Some don't, and become nothing.

I starred in one of the ones that became nothing.”

There’s a lot of poppy, whiz-bag genre entertainment out there nowadays; the sort that I would have salivated-over, inhaled, then regurgitated and continually obsessed about when I was younger. On TV, shows like Lost, and Heroes, and Battlestar Galactica are not only hits, but they’re garnering reviews that were unheard of back when “Star Trek” was on the air. Entire religions have grown up around dudes like Joss Whedon (whose acolytes will no doubt turn up on my doorstep any minute now - dressed like Jon Bon Jovi in the “Blaze of Glory” video, “Serenity” DVD in hand - when they read that I’ve never seen a single episode of either “Buffy” or “Firefly”)

It’s not like I don’t have ANY free time on my hands. I’m not out there teaching indigenous cultures to grow wheat or anything. But I do have a limited amount of time to invest in following the labyrinthine mythology of these shows, and “Phantom Menace” all those years ago taught me a cruel, cruel lesson about investing too much anticipation into such things. On top of that, my first-run movie going budget is often earmarked for those bastards at Pixar, who insist on coming out with a new movie EVERY DAMN YEAR. Yes, yes, “sincerity”. Yes, yes, “built from the ground up”, “genius”, “heart-felt”, “heart-warning”, yada yada. But really, with those computer-animated movies I feel kinda like my mom, circa 1982, after watching “Tron”. It hurts my eyes. I’m all about the big, flashy, garish entertainment, I just like it when it has, you know, real flesh and blood actors, and real world locations and stunts. (Yes, George Lucas, I’m looking at you. Again.)

Beyond that, do I really want to spend the remainder of my entertainment dollars on something that isn’t tried and true? I can just stay home and watch the “Eliminators” VHS I picked up last year for a buck. Because it’s hard to beat a movie that features time-travelling, ninjas, “man-droids”, and the always sexually ambiguous Tasha Yar of “Next Generation” fame.

All right, all right, I admit it: it’s neither a lack of time, nor the law of diminishing returns in the “Star Wars” franchise; I’m a chronic cheapskate. I own one pair of jeans, one pair of work slacks (Target and Goodwill, respectively) and I seriously can’t enjoy anything that I didn’t get one heck of a deal on. Luckily for me, I’ve recently re-discovered the $1 movie. Or, more succinctly, the 1.25 movies at Tiffany Plaza 6. Last week, Number One Son and I caught a matinee of “Speed Racer”, and I can tell you the bargain basement price tag greatly increased my enjoyment of said film.

I’m working on an algorithm that will compute one’s pleasure-threshold for dollar movies. “Sturgeon’s Law” (attributed to science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon) states that “90 percent of everything is crap”. He was speaking specifically of literature, but it’s intuitively true for precisely everything: music, books, movies, people living on the planet today, etc.

Now, $1.25 is one-eighth (12.5 %) of the average movie ticket price of 10 bones; meaning, for every 10 movies you see first run, in a cozy, stadium-style seat, you’ve spent 90 dollars on crap, versus the 11.25 spent on crap seeing 10 movies a circa 1979 style dollar-plex. That’s a difference of $78.75.

Now, because we’re talking about crap, we are of course starting from a negative – so I use completely arbitrary means to divide that number by two, to get (roughly) $39.35. Now, that number is (again, roughly) 34 % of the $90 spent on first-run crap.

What that means, then, is if you go to the dollar theater to see Speed Racer, which received a “36%” from Rotten Tomatoes critic-meter, the grade is automatically raised 34%, for a total of 80%!! I hereby declare Siskel and Ebert’s “Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down” movie rating system obsolete!

So, the movie itself… what do you want, anyway? The lead character/film’s namesake is played by an innocuous Emile Hirsch, who looks a little like Corey Feldman, but without the gawkward snarl that was later perfected by Christian Slater. Like the Watchowski Brothers, he can think of nothing but Mach-a-go-go-go! Other than that, there’s not too much point in mentioning the cast; if you’re looking for Oscar caliber performances, you’re in the wrong theater. But do you like “chubby-kid and monkey” humor? Spritle and Chim Chim have got you covered! Seriously, any delusions I may ever have had about being a thoughtful, intelligent movie-goer were destroyed when I caught myself laughing – loudly - at Chim Chim’s Paul Frank-style “boy” pajamas.

Even better than the physics-defying car races are the ridiculous fight scenes, which were manic and frenetic, just like the scenes from Speed Racer that were exorcised for delicate American audiences. Like the chop-socky in “The Matrix”, but without all the “iconic” fetish-wear modeling.

The only real problem with the movie (assuming you’re the type of person who can sit back and enjoy mindless entertainment) was the length. The movie’s villain, nowhere NEAR the final act (as the clichĂ© would dictate) describes his plan to Speed, and explains how car racing has been a crooked sport since the beginning of time. I’m guessing maybe there’s some level of historical truth the filmmakers were alluding to, there. And if the average NASCAR fan found that particularly unwieldy pile of exposition to be interesting, good on them; but jeez, did it make the movie sag.

Of course, there’s all the subjective criteria which go in to grading, not just the film itself, but the film-going experience. Hungover, custody-sharing dad asleep next to his daughter? Minus 6%. Not listening to your spouse calling out from the computer-room “you rented what?!” ? Plus 10%. Fossilized catsup stains at the condiment stand, and busted hand driers in the restroom? Minus 7 %. Skinny version of Christina Ricci as Trixie? Minus 5%. The nearly-always brilliant John Goodman as “Pops” Racer? Plus 10 %. The fact that John Goodman starred in “The Flintstones”? Minus 5%.

But sitting in an icy-cold movie theater with your car-crazy 8 year-old, while the weather outside melts the polar ice caps? PRICELESS.

This weekend – THE INCREDIBLE HULK! Roar!