Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Gospel According To Stan Lee

For three weeks in a row, Captain America has not just saved the world, but ruled the box office. It's not the first time in recent memory that super heroes have been pushed to the top of the charts, pop culture-wise. Coinciding with this past weekend's ticket sale triumph was the end of Holy Week: Good Friday, Easter, Passover. It started me thinking.
It made me wonder if the folks who started telling those stories way back when were the comic book writers of their time. Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus. Those are some pretty amazing heroes with some extraordinary powers. Lots of water manipulation, for sure. And the foes they were up against: Pharaoh, Herod, Pontius Pilate. These were bad guys who would have had no trouble standing up to The Joker and Doctor Doom. They were willing to exterminate an entire generation to get what they wanted. Bank robbers? Let the local constabulary deal with them. To stand up to these kind of maniacs, you really needed some Super Heroes. The robes may not have been as sharp as the tights they seem to favor these days, but if I were looking for someone to save the day, I would like some otherworldly help when it came to battling hate and oppression like these guys did.
Fast forward a couple thousand years, and we find ourselves transfixed by the adventures of a group of extraordinarily gifted individuals who are on a mission to preserve truth and justice. Captain America and his pals on the Avengers have gathered together on more than one occasion to save the planet, with promises of at least another five or six movies worth of galactic calamity, all of which will be dealt with by these heroes who tend to hide out most of the time by blending in with us, but always ready to leap into action when the threats become real.
In another two thousand years, will our ancestors be reading our comic books and watching our movies as a third testament? Will this newer word be taken as some sort of literal account of this age, or will it be viewed as an allegory for the times in which we looked to guys in capes and masks to save us, often from our own hubris. Or maybe they will take their clues from the revealed word: American Idol.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things, Unless They Happen To Be Corporations

I imagine that if Charles Schulz would have stuck around a little bit longer, he might have found a way to make fun of the current state of affairs, something along the lines of Lucy complaining that since corporations are people that we should all worry about hurting their feelings. If happiness is a warm puppy, then how many puppies do you suppose it would take to make Shell Oil happy? My guess is a whole lot. 
Royal Dutch Shell is committed to expansion in Russia, in spite of sanctions imposed on that country after its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region, according to Chief Executive Ben van Berurden. This comes amid reports of President Vladimir Putin wringing his hands and laughing maniacally. 
"We are very keen to grow our position in the Russian Federation," van Beurden said. "We look forward with anticipation and confidence on a very long-term future here in Russia." Leaders of the European Union and the United States were left scratching their collective heads as they consider wider sanctions if Russian troops were to enter the Ukraine. Best guesses would suggest that Shell would look forward to partnering with Russia on their "growing position." It is, as Michael Corleone would say, strictly business. It's nothing personal. 
It's nothing personal when there's all that liquefied natural gas in them there hills to pull out of the ground. They want to expand from the ten million tons they are currently extracting along with their pals at Gazprom. Or is it their pal Gazprom? It is Vladimir Putin's wish that Russia  boosts production of LNG and double their global market share to around ten percent by 2020. Nothing personal. Meanwhile, Russia's Energy Minister Alexander Novak said there was no sign of international oil and gas majors cutting investment. What, after all, are a few sanctions between friends? With friends like ExxonMobil, Eni, Statoil and BP, who needs warm puppies? 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Coming Attractions

There is a problem with being one of those creative-types: sometimes you want to mess with other people's creations. My wife and I frequently walk out of movie theaters with an agenda. One of us will ask the other, "What would you do to fix it?" Then we spend the next couple of hours dissecting and eliminating the roadblocks that kept us from enjoying ourselves in the previous two hours. Sometimes it's very cathartic. Sometimes it just makes us tired.
Please understand that there have been plenty of films that we have enjoyed without this exercise. Sometimes we simply sit in our seats after the rating slide has faded and the curtains close that we wait in stunned silence for the other to find some hanging thread or unnecessary scene. Those are the truly satisfying moments. Those are the ones that are worthy of applause.
That still leaves us with a great many opportunities to pick nits. What about that truck-sized plot hole there? What was that character doing when he or she should have been calling the police on their forgotten cell phone?  How did the car get to the top story of the apartment building in the first place? I believe that one must offer sturdy enough cable to suspend our disbelief in order for the paying customer to do just that. We see a lot of movies, and maybe that's the problem. We've seen all those movies from 1939, and a great many years before and since. The notion that they don't make them like they used to is not exactly true. When a movie works, it works, whether it stars Cary Grant or George Clooney. Howard Hawks may have taught David O. Russell a few things, but it's worth noting that this new generation of filmmakers are learning.
Some of them faster than others.
You might guess that with all the chances directors and screenwriters have to get their films made compared to seventy-five years ago that they would become more practiced, and the result would be a flood of expertly made cinema to choose from down at the bijou. All this product has had essentially the opposite effect. More sequels. More direct to video. More remakes. Can somebody please explain the necessity for "Miss Doubtfire 2?" I'm just glad that nobody feels the need to make a followup to "The Philadelphia Story." Maybe that's what my wife and I should consider the next time we're grumbling our way through the credits of whatever underachiever we got ourselves into.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Thanks For The Ride

We professionals know instinctively when to throw in the towel. Some stick around just a little too long. Muhammad Ali might be a good example of this. Why tarnish a legend? Go out on top, I say. If only I would heed my own advice.
The real end of the road for me came after a day of driving up the coast with my family. We weren't so tired that we didn't want to walk just a few hundred yards more to Bones Roadhouse for dinner. I had picked it out before our trip to Gualala began. Partly for the name and partly for the menu: Barbeque.
It should be noted here that I was looking at the combination plate with ribs and brisket. It was my wife who pointed out the Bone Daddy Burger. It was their challenge meal. It was my Waterloo.
At first glance, it seemed easy enough: eat a two pound burger and win a T-shirt. What I hadn't counted on was the time element. I am a committed and confident carnivore, but once I saw all four patties, eight slices of cheese, garnished with two green peppers sitting next to a bowl of cole slaw and a fistful of homemade chips, the confidence shrank. Not enough to call it off, mind you, especially with a growing audience of patrons and staff urging me on. After some wrangling, I was informed that the time to beat was six minutes and forty-eight seconds.
I will spare you all the goriest of details, but I can tell you that all that food went inside and stayed there. I did not, in spite of what I was told was solid technique and a great start, manage to beat the clock. I came in somewhere around ten minutes. This meant I had to pay for the meal as well as the T-shirt. The T-shirt I felt I needed to own as a reminder of this experience.
Walking out, I stopped to talk to the Bone Daddy himself. Not one to gloss over gory details, he didn't ask if I enjoyed it, he asked, "Didja puke?"
I assured him that I did not, shook his hand and told him that I had met my match. This is a young man's game, and I should have gotten out years ago. Thanks for the ride.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Would You Like To Play A Game?

Computer viruses scare me. Not like the end of the world scares me, but they still scare me. This is probably because I can imagine how a computer virus could bring about the end of the world. Like that Matthew Broderick kid who thought he was just going into his school's computer to change a grade or two for his girlfriend Ally Sheedy and he almost ended up bringing down a fiery rain of nuclear Armageddon, or was that just a movie?
As a subscriber to the well-established theory of entropy, I don't actually believe that our demise will be quite as abrupt or drastic as the one suggested by Professor Falken's evil machine. It's not a game, but rather a series of games. Candy Crush. Angry Birds. Tetris. All of those little time sinks that we keep in the corner of our home computers, smartphones and tablets, the ones that take us away from the important business of the day, like answering that email from the Nigerian prince who will gladly pay you half his fortune for your First World ability to generate a money order. It's not the Trojans and worms and hacks at this and that which will bring about our cyber doom. It's our continually diminishing sense of priorities.
Oh, sure, I'm frightened by Heartbleed, but not because I'm worried about hackers stealing all my money and turning my computer into a slave workstation for the eventual overthrow of our system of governance by robot overlords. I am concerned that all the time it will take me to change all my passwords will come directly out of that chunk of time that I have set aside for playing Fruit Ninja. Besides, I'm pretty sure that the NSA already has my profile pretty much in hand and will probably be selling it to the highest bidder in order to ensure my continued enslavement to the machine dominated society in which we all live.
It's probably best that we all maintain a certain amount of paranoia. A healthy amount. It is what distinguishes us from the androids. Except Marvin, that is.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Breaking Up Down Under

Say it ain't so, Malcolm! Rumors are swirling, counterclockwise,  that AC/DC is calling it a day. Packing it in. Retiring. Shuffling off to Buffalo or someplace equally as desolate down under. It was reported that founding guitarist and songwriter Malcolm Young had returned to Australia with his family. “He is believed to be unable to continue playing, although there has not been any explanation why,” the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
It might have to do with all that incessant head-bobbing, or maybe an interest in getting out of that schoolboy's uniform that he's been wearing for the past forty-one years. No wait. That's his brother, Angus. He's the one you probably think of when you start to think of AC/DC. If you're thinking about the Australian rock and roll band, that is. If you're a fan, you probably know that Malcolm and his younger brother are the founding members of the band, and the only two who have stuck with this southern hemisphere Spinal Tap from its inception. Singers, bassists and drummers have cycled in and out, but the brothers Young have held down the ship, or whatever appropriate rock metaphor fits here.
Some or all of these guys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2003, a full decade ahead of Rush, essentially their polar opposites from the other side of the globe. The AC/DC catalog has been available on iTunes for a couple years now. Angus even had a part in "Lord of the Rings." There are no more mountains to climb. \
Especially if you have to climb them in orthopedic shoes. I'm certainly not going to insist that rock and roll is strictly a young man's game. Bruce Springsteen continues to tour as he twists the night away, seemingly blissfully unaware that he has passed the age of retirement. The Stones seem intent on using geologic time frames to describe their career, and The Who will continue to show up for any and all disaster benefit performances until there are none of them left. 
It's interesting to me, since the trend used to be that rockers died or disappeared before they were asked to fade away. If they were lucky, like Elvis and Jim Morrison, people would insist that they had never really died at all. Maybe that's what happened to Malcolm Young. Coming back from the dead would be a great way to sell a few more albums. It worked for Jesus, after all.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Oops - Sorry! Wrong House!

I don't need a Pulitzer Prize to tell you that the United States went to war in the wrong place after September 11, 2001. Everybody but Donald Rumsfeld will get behind the idea that Iraq was a bad choice to sell Freedom Fries, but until recently, Afghanistan seemed like the "just war" we were prosecuting in the Middle East. New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall, who spent more than a decade covering Afghanistan, will tell you we've been fighting the wrong enemy for the past thirteen years. She'll stake her Pulitzer on it.
“Instead of fighting a very grim and tough war which was very high in casualties on Afghans, as well as NATO and American soldiers, the problem wasn't in the Afghan villages,” Ms. Gall said. “The source of the problem, the radicalization, the sponsoring of the insurgency, was all happening in Pakistan.”
You remember Pakistan? The country southeast of Afghanistan where we routinely have to barter and beg to fly over, around and through on our way to blowing things up in its neighbors? Gall continues: “I think the politicians, not all of them, but the diplomats … it took ages for them to understand that actually the persuasion wasn't working; the engagement wasn't bringing them on board; they were actually double dealing, and now diplomats will tell you very plainly, ‘Yes, Musharraf was double dealing.’” Sorry about that, chief.
Why were we in Afghanistan in the first place? To find Osama bin Laden, of course. But it turns out that bin Laden found shelter in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for six years before he was killed in a Navy SEAL raid in 2011. According to Gall, Pakistan’s government was orchestrating his protection. Ouch. I'm wondering if Jon Stewart wants his Gatorade back.
Of course, Mister Stewart never won a Pulitzer Prize. But he did once host the Oscars. See? We all make mistakes. Who knows how many lives could have been saved if they had just stuck with Ellen?