Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Cartel, Don Winslow

The CartelThe Cartel by Don Winslow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to wonder if watching Oliver Stone's manipulation of Savages wasn't a game-changer for author Don Winslow. In Stone's hands, it became quickly obvious to viewers that any concern for the fates of the American protagonists at the centre of this drug-deal-gone-bad caper was almost comically misplaced. The Yanks were typical kids -- in their mid-20s, maybe, but acting out like early adolescents in a gated community while the parents are on vacation. Brooding, petulant, narcissistic, self-indulgent on any front that occurred to them -- um, were we supposed to care?

The Mexican heavies, on the other hand -- what was going on with them? Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro played their respective roles with a ruthless cool that hinted rather chillingly at the desperation roiling beneath the veneer. The more we saw of them, the more we wanted to know. They seemed to hold the actual moral centre to the story, and yet they were the villains.

Then again, I haven't read the novel -- it could be Winslow was well on his way to blowing into flame the moral heat that takes hold of anyone with a little familiarity of how the so-called "Drug Wars" are conducted outside the borders of the United States. 

The Cartel is all about "the Mexican heavies." There is a single American protagonist -- Art Keller -- whom the reader cares about only to the degree that Keller learns to care about particular victims of the Drug Wars. And wow, are there ever victims -- scores of them. Their particular stories, within the larger story (morally-compromised Good Guy chases morally-haunted Bad Guy), are filled in with a deft and sympathetic touch. As the novel progresses, so does the body-count -- into the hundreds of thousands.

The litany of the dead does, at certain points, over-burden the narrative velocity. But how could it not, unless the author was finally indifferent to the scene he strives to describe? Winslow is clearly anything but indifferent, and that seething, personally invested indignation is what sets this work head and shoulders above his earlier fare.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Van Gogh's Death

When I visited Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum last fall, I wondered if this account of Vincent's death mightn't have gained some traction.

"Do I not look 'upbeat'?"

Answer: nope, not one iota.

This is the Vanity Fair piece. If VF's "Hardy Boys" narrative bugs you, consult Naifeh/Smith's recent biography for a more authoritative accumulation of detail and arcana, presented in measured tones. You'll find this (as presented) plausible and even likely "alternative" account in an appendix, buried beneath 900+ pages of the rest of Vincent's troubled life.

I can't recall if the Museum's gift shop was selling Naifeh/Smith's bio (I can't imagine they weren't -- it has the authority of heft, if nothing else). But I would have thought the museum's curators would have been keen to add their own footnote to their public narrative (note how, at the conclusion of the VF piece, one curator concedes the scenario's plausibility).

When it comes to capturing the public imagination, it seems nothing succeeds like suicide.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Blessed(?) Distraction

Let's focus for a moment on geek franchises -- shall we?

Star Trek Beyond: I am not at all primed to see this, though if it affords me a chance to hang with my elder daughter I will happily stand in line and pay for the experience. She remains excited as the date of release draws closer -- she even expresses fondness for the previous movie, a bold but lonely position to take in our family. Chris Pine's cute-factor has exemplary cachet with her, I suspect.

But let's be honest: it's not looking promising. The actors are in full dog-and-pony-show mode, and the reveals they're letting slip are decidedly underwhelming. Example 1: Sulu is gay! The Onion AV, in a rare critical lapse, dubs this "a sweet tribute to George Takei." George, meanwhile, is having none of it -- citing this as the thoughtless sort of gratuity that characterizes franchise low-points.

Takei suggests Nimoy would have balked at this as well, and I believe he's right. Gay Sulu is an egregious retcon of the original timeline, in which Sulu is straight as an arrow. Whether Sulu's sexuality serves any purpose in the forthcoming narrative remains to be seen, of course. But as it stands this flourish has more than a whiff of the sort of "why not?" thinking that went into the franchise's most lamentable creative decisions, like Kirk's death(s).

"Perhaps it plays better on the big screen."

Moving on to Example 2: Simon Pegg had a hand in the screenplay! On the face of it this is good news. Pegg's understanding of geek and nerd psychology is impressively deep, as evidenced in his memoirs and previous screenplays. And he speaks highly of director Justin Lin -- but then Pegg speaks highly of everyone, in his unique, simultaneously jocular and pained manner, and this is where doubts set in. The takeaway for me, alas, is that Pegg tried to quit three times, and swears he'll never write for the franchise again.

"Rewrites, Mr. Pegg! We need those rewrites!"

Still and all: my daughter is excited. And maybe she's right to be -- after all, I've been wrong on this matter before.

On the other hand, if Pegg's script includes an abundance of penis jokes, her ardour for the film might cool dramatically. This is the daughter who sat through Deadpool with me, and although I was a giggling fool throughout the duration, the best she managed was a pained smile. Daughters don't laugh at dick jokes when their father is in the room, I guess.

"Dick jokes? Naw, man: I'm all about ..."
I enjoyed the movie, and could even stand a second viewing to catch some of the stuff that flew past my notice the first go-round. But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter how blue or "meta" the exercise gets -- it's still a Marvel movie.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Spinning My Wheels

Tuesday morning. I checked the clock and figured I had enough time to squeeze in a quick bike ride.

Seven kilometres out of town I dropped my water bottle. I slowed to a stop, then dropped myself (damn cleated pedals!).

Realizing I posed the greatest threat to my own personal safety, I turned around and went home.
It's only a flesh-wound.
I cleaned myself up, put on the suit, got in the car and drove down to my younger daughter's high school commencement. The emotional churn would have to be expressed some other day, some other way.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Medusa's Web by Tim Powers

Medusa's WebMedusa's Web by Tim Powers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Tim Powers novel, which I bought after reading Cory Doctorow's recommendation on Boing-Boing. Actually, "recommendation" is an understatement. Doctorow's recommendations are stoked with the heat of religious fervor (his byline "Medusa's Web: Tim Powers is the Philip K Dick of our age" may not contain any exclamation marks, but by now most readers unconsciously insert three) and I've learned to be cautious to the point of skittishness when he shills for an author. Still and all, if even a street preacher hits enough of the right notes -- and Doctorow does, beginning with Dick and moving on to Old Hollywood, House of Usher, occult histories and parallel realities fighting for domain -- I will stop in my tracks and give due consideration to The Product on offer.

Comparing Powers to Dick is, occasionally, apt. Like Dick, Powers' concern with character takes a second place to the preeminent concern with environment. Powers' Hollywood is a locale where addiction is the norm -- in this case, the desired "high" occurs when occult dabblers enter a two-dimensional spectral plane, resulting in temporal disruptions of increasing violence in the Here And Now. There are hapless virtuous types and their opposing villains, and mysterious agents roaming the back alleys, but I found the emotional drama surprisingly thin. I didn't particularly care how things turned out for the protagonists, but it seemed clear from the outset that Powers did -- he was straining for resolution. And this is where he departs from the phildickian template.

I read to conclusion because I was curious how -- indeed, if -- Powers was going to manage this feat. As the book wound up the environment became increasingly harrowing, and though I remained apathetic to the characters' fates I easily imagined the shock of discovering myself in a similar environment, flailing wildly to find purchase in some larger, grounding reality. So: we return again to Dick.

Powers achieves a resolution of sorts. Readers who care about the characters will care about the finale. I didn't, on both scores. But Powers' evocation of environment was persuasive enough that I'm curious to read (a little) further. I found Hide Me Among The Graves and Three Days To Never on the sale table. I'm not sure which I'll reach for next -- if you have recommendations, I'm all ears. In the meantime, stay tuned for more.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Tommy Womack, Namaste

Neither age nor affliction have dimmed Tommy Womack's formidable talents as singer-songwriter -- quite the opposite, in fact. Mr. Womack's acuity of perception and inexhaustible good humour are in full effect in Namaste, his latest album. Fans of "Alpha Male & The Canine Mystery Blood" (that'd be all of us, I believe) should head over to the Digital Content Overlord of their choosing, to pick it up and give it a spin.

Or, if you're the cautious, streaming sort, listen to "The End of the Line"; "It's Been All Over Before"; "God, Pt. 3"; and "When Country Singers Were Ugly" and let the music carry you into a better Friday.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sitting In The Barber's Chair, Gazing Wistfully Across The Cultural/Ethnic Divide

"Oh, yeah," says the gal cutting my hair, "my parents are the original Wops."

Me: (Reminding myself that it's okay for them to say this stuff): Is that right?

"Believe it. You know what a Wop is, don't you?"

. . . erm, ah . . . uh-heh-heh . . . 

"W.O.P. -- 'With Out Papers.' Both of 'em. Came over in the early '70s. Trudeau didn't give 'em a second glance. Trudeau senior, of course. Couldn't do that, today, I'll tell you. Left the old country so they could work here 'til they died."

They've passed on, then?

"No! That's what I'm saying! I'm always, like, 'Mom, Dad -- take a vacation already. Go see the family. When you're dead it's too late.' And they're like, 'Well somebody's gotta pay for the house.' Please. They've covered it three times already."

Sure, but what parent wants to take advice from their kid?

"I know, right? Like this paste I'm putting in your hair -- I'm forever telling the Guidos, 'Enough with the pomade, use this already!' You think they listen? Gotta stick with the pomade. 'My father's father used this stuff.' Honestly."

Now I'm wondering a) how did this girl, born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, pick up a Jersey accent? and b) how I can parlay this delightful style of repartee to fit the Mennonite scene?

"Na, oh ba yo! The Mennos I come from -- but don't call them that to their faces, seriously, don't -- it's always, 'Pegs or buttons? Which is more prideful?' And never mind the zippers! Gr├╝lijch sagt, but what a bunch of schlengls and bengls! Erm, but just be careful you don't say that in front of them, of course."

Doesn't translate so well, alas.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Metal Appeal

The Wall Street Journal puzzles over the global ubiquity of Metal -- while the Observer wonders, can the death of Metal be far behind?

Babymetal and the Fox God would beg to differ.
I've been puzzling a bit over the personal appeal. After the last concert, I mentioned to my wife what an improbable love-fest the Metal scene had become -- all these people togged out in black, festooned with visceral ephemera and declarations of allegiance to Baphomet & Co., pierced-beyond-the-nines . . .

. . . and giving each other long, affirmational hugs in the circle-pit.

Wacken, where this sort of thing doesn't happen spontaneously, apparently.

Recollections of the Satanic Panic in the '80s almost have a nostalgic tang to them. Almost.

"So what do you get out of the scene?" she asked.

Not hugs, that's for damn sure. Approaching the stage in my finest Rockports, Dockers and Polo shirt, I boldly announced to one and all that I was the scariest person circling the circle-pit.

If not hugs, then what? I had trouble answering the question. Truth be told, I hadn't really come for the one certifiably metal act (Lamb of God, though I like them well enough). But I do listen to metal, usually via headphones while doing the more onerous housework (bathrooms -- if you want to get those toilets scrubbed properly better cue up Meshuggah).

A great part of the appeal lies in being the only male in the household. All those years of child-rearing, to a seemingly endless soundtrack of Wiggles, Andrew Lloyd Webber, High School Musical, Mama Mia! Glee -- I had to stake out a musical genre before my nuts withered and fell off entirely.

Midlife sillies play a role, as well. In my early-40s I couldn't listen to more than a few minutes of Cookie Monster vocals. But the older I got, the harder my taste in music became.

Still, there's limits to the noise I'll subject myself to. Sunn O)))'s drone metal, or Wolves In The Throne Room -- if that's your thing, you're welcome to it.

And Metal's appeal to women has advanced enormously. In the 80s and early 90s, metal was all dudes. The latest audience I was in was pretty close to a 50-50 gender split.

I think a powerful show with undeniable technical virtuosity is a draw. More than that, I suspect the pop scene's conflation of sexual behavior with political agency and personal identity has more or less driven audiences to a scene where none of that applies.

Still puzzlin' -- WP

Fifty, And The Aspirational Physique

On a winter night, over wings and beer, a bunch of us got talking about aspirational physiques. When we were kids in Junior High, the aspirational physique was embodied by a glass of 12 raw eggs, followed by a long run and chin-ups. Yep -- Sylvester Stallone.

Various other muscular types soon presented themselves -- Ah-nuld being the most obvious of the bunch. But a bod that was clearly helped by pharmaceuticals was easily dismissed -- non-aspirational. We couldn't get the gear, so why bother trying?

Putzing in the gym for 30-plus years and reaching the half-century mark, a fella intuits pretty quickly just how dependent on primo product today's Hollywood hams are. Sure, they do the work -- and most of the truly heavy lifting is on the end of a fork, enduring a micro-managed diet for the better part of a year. But viewers still get the occasional glimpse behind the curtain. There's "incredible shape for a 32-year-old," Hugh Jackman (playing Wolverine) . . .

. . . and then there's "no 45-year-old gets veins like that from a magazine routine and a month of chicken salads" Hugh Jackman:

Putting the "jack" into "Jackman"

Jackman, being only a year or two younger than my beer-swilling pals and I, ought to be an aspirational figure, but common sense prevails in these matters. No, we mutually concluded -- the age of the aspirational physique had passed.

"Wait, what about J.K. Simmons?"

Aw, ffffffuuuudge...
Now here was someone ten years older, with guns that looked . . . attainable. We were still on the hook.

This week, the 61-year-old Mr. Simmons "damaged the webz," as the kids say, with some workout photos. To wit:

Wings night is back on, fellas -- thank you, sir!

Other links:

This piece -- Building a Bigger Action Hero by Logan Hill -- outlines what is required from today's action stars. Manu Bennett's tragi-comic story near the end is particularly amusing.

And, finally, here's a recent shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno meeting up in the gym, some 40 years after Pumping Iron made them famous (a caution against hair-dye and sensible footware).

If you're lucky, you get old.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Which Star Trek Universe Shall We Explore Next?

Which one are "we," the fans, permitted access to?

Katherine Trendacosta writes, "Would it be that bad if the new Star Trek TV series was set in the reboot universe?"

This question never occurred to me, because the possibility the TV show might be set in a non-reboot universe never occurred to me. We've got a familiar-yet-strange tableaux on which to write alternate histories, a buffed-up aesthetic, and one or two buffed-up stars of the silver screen keen to participate in the home-screen fun, including (I'm sure) Simon Pegg. Why wouldn't the series take place in reboot-land?

Answer: "There are hilariously complicated rights issues between CBS, which controls Trek on TV, and Paramount, which controls the movies."

"Your use of 'hilarious' is ... baffling."
Shutting down production on a crowdfunded fanfic movie; locking down the rights to Klingonese ... by now it's obvious this particular SF franchise is even more fraught to navigate than the one that formerly belonged to Lucas. We shall have to see how this all shakes down.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Reelin' In The Years: Political Accounting

(Forgive me, D&W)

Some numbers:

I've been around the sun 50 times.

For 20 of those trips, the person occupying the Oval Office has had one of two last names: Bush or Clinton.

That accounts for nearly half my life, and the bulk of my adult life.

Four years ago the MSM suggested the 2016 Presidential race would likely be between a Bush and a Clinton -- with a result that would up the total years of B-or-C occupancy to at least 24. A quarter century, in other words.

Neither party seemed to think anything was amiss about this possibility.

It surprises me not at all that Trump, bloviating his way into this scene, felt to many like a breath of fresh air.

It astounds me that Dems think Clinton is their best match against this guy. The wise (or desperate) among us urge voters to consider the "Three Cs" -- competence, character, conviction -- when backing a candidate. Democrats seem to think meagre "competence" will sway voters away from the candidate who possesses none of the above.

Alright, other, better commentary: Matt Taibi explains why young voters distrust Clinton. To that I would only add that if younger voters personally identify with anyone from the Clinton years in office, it's probably Monica Lewinsky.

Trump took a crack at making Scotland great again -- with controversial results.

Nuffadat -- happy thoughts, happy thoughts...

Friday, May 20, 2016

Return To The Rock Show

I awoke yesterday with a need for distraction. I checked concert listings, then consulted That On-Line Admissions Gateway Which Shall Not Be Named. There was still room for me, it seemed. I hit "Buy Tickets," and my evening was booked.

"This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!"

Corrosion of Conformity, Clutch and Lamb of God at TD Echo Beach, Toronto - May 19, 2016

I missed all but the final three numbers of the Corrosion of Conformity set. Traffic into town was abysmal  which I had anticipated. But I had not accounted for the overabundance of Lakeshore Avenue construction which chokes traffic flow into a single lane, nor the masses of basketball fans flocking to "Jurassic Park" to collectively experience the gradual extinction of their playoff hopes.

And I'd forgotten what every out-of-town parent of school-age children learns through bitter experience  Ontario Place is the absolute worst Toronto destination to get to. It couldn't be more challenging if they'd built it under water.

After bending over a barrel to pay for my parking spot, I finally arrived at this new-to-me venue  admittedly with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. My first impression? Outdoor stage, fleets of porta-potties, all parked next to the tepid grandeur of industrial Lake Ontario  what's not to love? Bonus points  the foundation of sand is not just a convenience for attenders needing some place to extinguish their various smoking materials, it also aids fogies hampered with plantar fasciitis.

I hobbled close to the stage and picked up the final notes of CoC's set.

Leafs fan, joyously unburdened of playoff dreams.

I wish I'd caught more of these guys. They add a pleasant layer of Sabbath-sludge atop Molly Hatchet-style anthems and riffs. Check 'em out.

Next was the act I'd come to see: Clutch.

No need for a smoke machine out here.
Clutch kicks out goofy, unfussy rock 'n' roll. It's super-infectious tuneage, tarted up with the sort of hooks a midlife newcomer to guitar finds aspirational. I've been giving their last two albums  Earth Rocker and Psychic Warfare  a great deal of play.

Fallon's got a cowbell: must be 'DC Sound Attack!'
Finally we came to the headline act, Lamb of God. Considering the gear their roadies schlepped on-stage, I was mightily impressed they kicked off on time. I readied my phone for the opening number, and . . .
Wups. A little too close to the stage...
I retreated to a safer distance.

...still too close...
Finally . . .

Four numbers in I figured I'd caught the gist of their outrage, and decided to call it a night.

Linking the first two bands  both of whom have been labelled "stoner rock"  with LoG's listener-friendly thrash struck me as odd, though not egregious. Listening to between-set chatter, I got the impression the kids enjoyed the warm-up. The preponderance of T-shirts indicated, however, that they were not going to be sated until they got their fill of double-bass fills  strictly the purview of LoG this night.

They're happy; I'm happy  mostly. Truth be told, I went out hoping this concert might somehow magically repeat itself, just for me. Didn't happen, but I'm not complaining  I've got my garden-watering T-shirt.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

RIP, Darwyn Cooke

What shocking, rotten news.

If the comic was Cooke's, I gave it my attention. His style had its own ribald life force, pleasantly frisky, and imbued with a sense of sass and joy entirely Cooke's own.

Teen Titans, rockin' it.
I can't think of another working comics artist (still very much a boys' club) who loved women the way he did -- the way women love to be loved, I daresay.

Function, capitalizing on Form: Cooke's Catsuit.

Cooke's Wonder Woman was the only Wonder Woman I ever cared for (she towers over the boys, even Soop).

I didn't blog about everything of his I read -- but he certainly got me to the keyboard, with greater frequency than even Frank Miller. Speaking of whom, Cooke's recent tribute to Miller makes me wish they'd colluded.

I am going to miss him something fierce.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Randy Craig Wolfe Trust v. Led Zeppelin

Interesting times, no?

If you click on the above link, midway through the piece is a chart of the various infringement and potential infringement suits courted by Page and Plant, back in the day. I can certainly understand ageing bluesmen getting peevish and recruiting lawyers to correct the younger band's* cavalier attitude toward attribution and wholesale appropriation. But this is something else. We're talking about a chord progression.

It's curious to consider the ramifications should the Trust win the suit. What's to stop, say, Chuck Berry's people from suing AC/DC for 95% of the songs they've committed to record -- the ones reliant on the "Johnny B. Goode" half-boogie structure? Why not also demand recompense for Angus Young's gimped-up appropriation of Berry's famous duckwalk?

Or some other signature move? California, in action.
Musicians "steal" riffs and progressions from each other all the time. The best ones actually improve what they've "stolen." I've zero familiarity with Randy "California" Wolfe and his catalogue but now I'm giving it a close listen. He seems to have carved out his own ouevre (wiki, obit), which I'm keen to discover. But I'm also wondering -- what's there that he might have "borrowed"?

Or, more likely, their label's lawyers'.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Spring Cleaning Soundtrack, '16

And as you sweep the room
Imagine that the broom
Is someone that you love and soon
You'll find you're dancing to the tune
                  - "Whistle While You Work"
My first exposure to NRBQ was on Stay Awake, Hal Willner's 1988 oddball salute to the musical legacy of Disney Studios. NRBQ covered "Whistle While You Work," retaining and capitalizing on its upbeat architecture, while throwing in a few stalls and dissonant whistles to please the listeners who bought the package for the smirks and sneers.*

I loved it -- love it still. It's bright, catchy, celebratory, delightful. At the time and the age I was at, it took very little enticement to dance around my shabby apartment, happily imagining the broom was the latest gal to turn my head.

And so it is that, nearly 30 years later, as I roll up my sleeves for spring cleaning, I find myself reaching for NRBQ's Brass Tacks (2014).

The qualities from '88 are all there -- the assured musicianship, the cheeriness, the humour, the (at times) lacerating intelligence. Just one example of the latter: even semi-aware listeners of "I'd Like To Know" -- a sweet, low-key Louvin Brothers style of serenade -- can't help but register a growing awareness that the one being serenaded is almost certainly reaching for her-or-his phone by the third verse, and Googling "How to obtain a restraining order."

But the album and the band are finally devoted, not to irony and knowing winks, but sheer delight -- an effect I can appreciate any time, but especially this particular spring.

Unexpected discovery of the Spring:

      Oz Noy, Who Gives A Funk.

Not sure how I stumbled across this, but if (like me) you've never heard of this guy, you've almost certainly heard him play with one of your favourite performers. The disc credits are a who's who -- and if you can't wait for Mr. Noy to click his ball-point and sign and send you a CD then page over to your preferred digital warehouse and commit a few sheckels for primo blues- and funk-based delight.

I finally watched the Coen Bros' Inside Llewyn Davis. I get that there are moviegoers who simply can't enjoy watching the bros play cat-and-mouse with yet another too-clever-by-half schlemiel -- but I am not one of those people. I will admit to much laughter, even as I understood I was watching the unraveling of a kid whose life had been previously untouched by grief.

Which one's the cat?
The Coens do a terrific job of communicating just how infectious a music scene can be -- O Brother (and its subsequent best-selling soundtrack) capitalized on this, and Llewyn does it also. It sure ain't glamorous -- those precious moments of bliss that occur in performance are heavily bracketed by the unnecessarily adolescent psycho-dramas the characters generate. And yet the bliss occurs.

Hey, it's May the Fourth! Here's a clip, starring two recent alumni from Star Wars, singing next to Justin Timberlake. Check out the non-verbal cues -- Llewyn's disbelief at the rubbish he's being paid to perform, followed by the realization he's just stepped in it with said rubbish's creator, the uncertainty that generates in them both -- and then the final surrendering to the song. Sure, it's a farcically bad novelty tune. But it's fun!

Don't forget about delight, y'all.

*Supplied by Ringo Starr and Tom Waits, respectively -- among others.