Friday, April 29, 2005

Writing my own Jeopitaph

There's nothing quite so humbling as being thoroughly and inarguably smacked around in front of 15 million of your closest personal friends in the U.S. and Canada.

Trust me on this.

Have you ever seen the movie Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead? There's a scene in which Treat Williams launches a surprise attack on an assassin, played by Steve Buscemi, who has arrived to kill him. With Buscemi sprawled on the floor at gunpoint, Williams screams, "I am Godzilla! You are Japan!"

I have met Godzilla, ladies and gentlemen, and his feet are named Grace Veach and Brian Weikle.

In the wake of his outstanding regular season run on Jeopardy! Brian Weikle proved himself such a devastating opponent that the experience of having played against him became known among J! fanatics as "getting Weikled." Allow me to introduce you to the only person in J! history who got Weikled by Weikle while simultaneously getting Veached by Veach.

Talk about getting caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Just call me Odysseus.

Fortunately for me, this wasn't the first time in my Jeopardy! career that I've had such an experience, so there was at least a sense of "been here, done this" flitting through my brain as the game flashed before my eyes.
  • In my semifinal game in the 1988 Tournament of Champions, my score was in negative figures at both the first and second commercial breaks. In that game, I rallied in the second half to lead the match going into Final Jeopardy! (I missed the final answer and lost the game to Mark Lowenthal, who went on to win the Tournament — and its $100,000 top prize — in stellar fashion.)
  • In 1990's Super Jeopardy! tournament, the first of the show's periodic invitational blockbusters, I led at halftime in my quarterfinal match over the legendary Bob Blake. Then I believe I answered all of one clue correctly in the second half, while Bob ran away with the game.
This was, however, the first time I've had a game in which I played so miserably in both halves of the match. Not exactly the most auspicious way to end my Jeopardy! career.

I felt absolutely helpless against the signaling device throughout the game. (Could you tell?) The activation timing was completely different from the first round of the UTOC, when there was what seemed like an interminable pause between the end of Alex Trebek's reading of the clue and the manual initiation of the buzzers. In this game, no such pause existed, and I -- who had spent two months practicing a different strategy in anticipation of conditions mirroring the first round -- simply could not adjust. That's not an excuse for my lousy performance -- Grace had to face the same challenge, and Brian, one of the seeded players who had been granted a bye in Round One, was equally disadvantaged, since he last played a couple of years ago. Both of them made the necessary adjustment effortlessly, while I wrestled with my buzzer as though it were encased in amber. Despite receiving a lecture on proper signaling technique from contestant coordinator Glenn Kagan — actually more humiliating than getting torched in the game — I never could master the timing. I tried ringing in faster, slower...nothing worked. The longer the game went, the more frustrated I became. KJ says she could see steam rising from my cranium by the end of the match.

At this point, I would like to be able to tell you that, were it not for my woes on the buzzer, I would have come on like gangbusters and mopped the floor with Grace and Brian. I would like to — but it wouldn't be remotely close to the truth. This game's category boards, particularly the Double Jeopardy! board, were the toughest I've ever faced, and were completely outside my realm of...well...not expertise, because I'm not really an expert in anything. Proficiency, maybe.

When I won my first five games in 1988, the winner of the game immediately following my involuntary retirement was a fellow named Stephen Lebowitz. Stephen won $50,000 during his run of four consecutive victories — sadly, he lost his fifth game, or he'd have qualified for the UTOC — and was a fine player in his own right. When we met again in the '88 Tournament of Champions, Stephen told me he had a recurring nightmare that every category in the game he was about to play was entitled, "Things Stephen Doesn't Know." (It may well have happened — he lost his quarterfinal match in the TOC.)

My second UTOC match will forever be known as my Stephen Lebowitz game. For all the good I was able to accomplish, every category from the start of the match through Final Jeopardy! might as well have been titled, "Things Michael Doesn't Know." For a reasonably intelligent guy, I stood there feeling awfully stupid for 22 minutes, while Grace and Brian ran riot on either side of me. I could have been spotted a half-second ring-in advantage on every clue, and it wouldn't have been sufficient. I simply didn't know enough of the material in this game to win, even if I'd been first to ring in on every answer I did in fact know — which I rarely was. And there just weren't enough of those this time, as the incredible number of triple stumper questions proved.

Or, to put it another way, this was Grace and Brian's universe. I was merely a rogue asteroid floating aimlessly about in it.

Truth to tell, the agony started during rehearsal. Not only was I struggling with the signaling device even then, but I figured out rather quickly that I would be facing Brian Weikle in my game. During pre-taping rehearsals, the contestant coordinators had been careful not to position players against one another who would actually be competing in the scheduled matchups (which aren't revealed in advance of play). Because I was the last of the 15 contestants to enter the second rehearsal game, it was easy to review whom I'd stood next to on stage and whom I hadn't, and thereby narrow the field of potential opponents. The final tip-off, though, came while I was waiting for my second and last rehearsal opportunity. The contestant coordinator who was cueing us when to go on stage made the mistake of telling me, "Wait until Brian is sent back down before you go up there." The only possible reason for such an instruction at that point would be to prevent Brian and me from rehearsing together, which meant he was slated to be one of my opponents.

I'd only seen one or two of Brian's previous games, but I'd definitely heard about people getting Weikled. I also knew that he had been the five-day money leader before a certain Mr. Jennings came along. Given that my Round One game, even though I'd won, had made me all too aware of how much my always-suspect buzzer skills had eroded, I knew that a match against Brian — especially with a third great player in the mix — would be very tough. I sighed, and resolved to just do the best I could.

And, as lackluster as it was, that's exactly what I did. On that day, with those categories, and against two spectacular players of the caliber of Brian and the amazing Grace (you knew I would work that in eventually, didn't you?), that was the best I had. I wasn't going to beat either of those folks that day. I'd be a little surprised if I could beat either of them on any day, but anything's possible.

I was excited for Grace, a very nice person and a gritty competitor whom I suspect some in our taping group underestimated. (I was not among them.) And I was disappointed for Brian, whom I truly expected to go deep in this tournament — I think that was his own expectation, too — but who showed commendable character in defeat. Both of them are truly lovely people, and I was honored to share their stage for a few moments.

(A little inside scoop: The blue necktie Brian wore during the game was one of my spares. The pattern on his own tie wreaked havoc with the television cameras, so I loaned him this one. Had he won the game, I fully intended to let him keep it for good luck. Alas, it was not to be, and I don't suppose it would have looked as well on Grace.)

Did I mention that this just happened to be the 13th game of the second round, and it aired on a Friday?

So ends my fabulous Jeopardy! career, in all probability. But what a long, strange, and wonderful ride it's been, over these past 17 years. I have been so blessed, and I am so grateful, that I've not only been granted the opportunity to do something millions of people only dream of doing, but also have been asked to do it again and again. I've met some incredible people, won a fair sum of money, and had a number of irreplaceable adventures, the memories of which I'll treasure the rest of my life.

In the end, I'll walk away with the knowledge that, on a good day, with the right material, I'm still among the (right now, anyway) 54 best players in the history of Jeopardy! How many people will ever get to say that?

As I close the book on this riveting chapter, I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to the following worthy folks:
  • Sony Pictures and the Jeopardy! production team, for inviting me to participate in this amazing event, and for the $41,601 of their stockholders’ cash they allowed me to cart away. I thank you, the IRS thanks you, the California Franchise Tax Board thanks you, and Brad, my CPA, thanks you.
  • The Jeopardy! contestant staff — Maggie Speak, Glenn Kagan, Tony Pandolfo, Ayesha Black, Bob Ettinger, and the nonpareil Susanne Thurber (who sails off into long-overdue and richly deserved retirement after the UTOC ends), along with stage manager John Lauderdale — for always treating me with the utmost kindness and respect. A nicer group of people you will not find anywhere else in show business, search though you may.
  • Five marvelous people whose paths I was privileged to cross yet again in this lifetime, each of whom reminded me again why I was so honored to meet them previously: Dave Traini, Leslie Frates, Bruce Naegeli, Jeff Richmond, and the Legend himself, Chuck Forrest. That this event afforded me the chance to see each of you again made it all worthwhile.
  • My fellow champions in both of my taping groups. I was humbled and honored to bask in your reflected brilliance. I enjoyed many memorable moments chatting with each of you, but my special gratitude to those of you who didn’t allow me to plaster my socially-inept self in a corner, but actually engaged me in conversation, despite my instinct to run and hide: Arthur Phillips (hope you’re feeling better, Arthur!), Michael Galvin, Eric Terzuolo, Tom Cubbage, Frank Epstein, Melissa Seal, Janet Wong, Mark Dawson, Tad Carithers, John Cuthbertson, and the delightful Bob Verini, whose words of genuine empathy after my Round Two match will remain one of my most cherished Jeopardy! memories.
  • My Round One opponents, Rachael Schwartz and John Genova, for their graciousness when the luck went my way, and my Round Two opponents, Grace Veach and Brian Weikle, for their graciousness when it didn’t. When you see Ken, Grace, give him a sound Veaching. And Brian, what I said to you on the way to the commissary still holds true.
  • The families and friends of my fellow champs, who were all so kind to my wife and made her feel part of the group.
  • All of the good people who called or e-mailed to wish me well. I hope you weren’t too disappointed.
  • My loving and resourceful wife, who dutifully trekked back and forth to L.A. with me, and my darling daughter, who tolerated my heightened level of insanity during this hectic period, and also made sure all the UTOC games were videotaped. Without the two of you, this tournament — and indeed, life itself — would have been a pointless exercise.
  • Alex Trebek, just for being Alex.
  • And you, gentle readers, who have tolerated my yakking about this darn thing for the past few months.
My final tale of the Jeopardy! tape:
  • Total games: 11.
  • Win-loss record: 8-3 (.727).
  • Games led going into Final Jeopardy!: 8 (72.7%).
  • Final Jeopardy! correct questions: 6 (54%).
  • Total career winnings: $103,699, plus a prize package worth $7,700 won in the Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains.
  • Lucky guesses: Countless.
  • Unsolicited adulation: Infinitely more than I deserve.
  • Memories: Priceless.

Can history repeat? Find out tonight on the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament!

Ready to watch your favorite blog-spewing Swan compete in tonight's Ultimate Tournament match?

Call out for a pizza, crack open a cream soda, park yourself in front of the set at the time listed in your television guide of choice, and root, root, root for the home squad.

Before we get to the actual game, though, a few quick notes about the 14 Jeopardy! champions with whom I was privileged to share this incredible experience.

NOTE: If you've been following the UTOC to this point, you've already seen the first two games played on my taping day, so what I say here about the contestants in those games should not be considered spoilers. If you've been out of town and haven't seen Wednesday's or Thursday's episodes, and you don't want to know what occurred in them because you're planning to check them out later on VCR or TiVo, read no further. For the rest of you, I will be extremely careful not to reveal the outcome of tonight's game, or of those that will air Monday and Tuesday of next week.

On the morning of the taping, I headed down to the lobby of the Radisson Culver City to catch the shuttle to Sony Pictures Studios. On the elevator ride from the ninth floor, I was joined by...

Grace Veach. When Grace and her husband Steve entered the elevator, I recognized her immediately and introduced myself. Grace was a very warm and friendly person, who seemed ever so slightly nervous. (But then, weren't we all?) She's a librarian at a religious college in the Tampa area, where I know some folks associated with another religious school, so we immediately had common subjects to talk about. I remembered, though, her impressive performance in her first round game, and knew that beneath that unassuming exterior beat the heart of a lion. From the moment we met, I had the sense that we would be facing each other on stage. And I was right.

When our elevator reached the lobby, Grace and I joined a group that already included...

Mark Dawson. Seeing Mark in the lobby of the Radisson Culver City on the morning of the taping was the first shock to my system. I considered Mark one of the toughest players in the Round Two field of 54, for two reasons: (1) he'd already won a Tournament of Champions by beating one of the favorites in this event, Brian Weikle, and (2) he was one of the players I judged as being closest to my playing style and skill level, which I thought would make him particularly tough against me. We'd won almost identical sums in our original five-game runs, and had remarkably similar career statistics overall. Mark had won from behind in Final Jeopardy! in two of his first five games, yet always did what he had to do to win. I was pleased to find him a personable and funny guy, but I didn't look forward to playing against him.

Lan Djang. Lan appeared in the Radisson lobby wearing his infamous black "Intimidator" suit and an almost impassive demeanor. Seeing him was something of a surprise, since his Round One game had not yet aired, so I didn't know he had advanced to the next level. Nice young guy, quiet and self-effacing yet noticeably confident, and with a wicked sense of dry humor. Little did we know the nuclear power hiding behind that inplacable façade, as J! viewers witnessed on Wednesday night. My wife KJ spent most of the day sitting with Lan's family in the audience, and found them quite charming.

Arthur Phillips. The soft-spoken best-selling author from my Round One taping group was back, although one look at his drawn, pale countenance signaled that he wasn't feeling well. It turned out that Arthur had become ill after arriving in L.A. the day before, and for a while was concerned that he might have to withdraw from the taping. But he soldiered on through the day, and probably got sick (no pun intended) of the J! staff and his fellow contestants asking him how he was doing. Arthur rode back to the Radisson at the end of the taping day with KJ and me, giving me more of an opportunity to get to know him than I'd had at our first meeting. Fascinating fellow. Some day soon, I'm going to take a stab at reading one of his books.

Pam Mueller. The belle of our contestants' ball, Pam showed all the sparkle of youth -- namely, being far more energetic and enthusiastic at an early hour of the morning than her elders (pretty much all the rest of us), who were casting furtive glances about for coffee. Pam was easily the conversationalist in our little band, engaging each of us in turn, but especially Lan, whom she knew from their common TOC.

When we boarded the shuttle, we all commented on how small our group was. On my Round One taping day, almost the entire contestant group was staying at the Radisson, and we packed the shuttle to the gills -- this trip, there was plenty of room. Several people speculated that our flight must include quite a few local residents, and indeed, this proved true.

Upon our arrival at the studio, we were joined by...

Bruce Naegeli. Seeing Bruce awaiting us at our debarkation point was a treat, because (a) he and I had been together in both the 1988 TOC and in Super Jeopardy! in 1990, so he was one of the people in the J! universe whose path had crossed mine most often, and (b) his Round One game hadn't yet aired, so I didn't know he had advanced. Bruce is as delightful as they come, and I was very glad to see him again. He didn't appear to have changed much in 15 years -- he was still carrying his lucky can of sardines in his coat pocket.

Jeff Richmond. Jeff was another veteran of Bruce's and my Super J! group. I remembered him as a quiet, serious young law student from the 1990 event — though he can't be more than a handful of years my junior — today, he's a successful attorney. Like Bruce, he appeared glad to see a couple of familiar faces in the crowd. We chatted mostly about how surprised we both were to be back in this position after all these years.

Eric Terzuolo. Like Arthur, Eric was a member of my Round One group. We had spent a fair amount of time that day talking, so I was pleased to see him again. Eric lives in the Netherlands, which meant he'd made another transglobal trip for this second round. He's a very droll, professorial sort, and a scintillating conversationalist. I discovered in the course of the day that he reads SSTOL, so I was relieved that I had said nothing but complimentary things about him in reporting my first round experience here. (See, Eric? Nothing's changed!)

John Beck. Most people seem smaller in person than they appear on television. John seemed infinitely larger — a tall, solidly build man with an imposing physical presence despite his easygoing manner. Likeable and engaging, John would be the guy I'd send into a smoke-filled room to make peace if my enemies were lurking in there.

Tad Carithers. If there was anyone who had appeared thus far who made me more nervous than Mark Dawson, it was Tad, who had slain the dragon named Leszek Pawlowicz — one of only two players in the UTOC who had never lost a game previously — in the first round. (He had a number of interesting things to say in the green room about his battle with Leszek, none of which I'll repeat here. Some things should stay in the clubhouse, as they say in baseball.) Tad, a darkly serious and laconic guy, reminds me very much of someone I know, though (typical me) it took me the better part of the day to remember who that person is.

Brian Weikle. You already know, if you've ventured over to the official J! site, that Brian would turn out to be my second opponent, along with Grace, in my game. As one of the "Nifty Nine," the seeded players whose past accomplishments earned them a free pass to Round Two, Brian's arrival turned a lot of heads. The tension in the atmosphere escalated palpably when he appeared. I had only seen him play once or twice — as with many of the newer champions, I missed many of his performances because I haven't watched the show as rigorously in recent years — but I knew from the J! discussion boards that he had a reputation as an unstoppable opponent. People spoke of being "Weikled," a verb meaning "crushed without mercy on the field of Jeopardy! battle." But he seemed pleasant enough.

Bob Verini. If I can be said to have Jeopardy! heroes, Bob Verini would be foremost among them. Bob had won the TOC the season prior to mine, combining with Eugene Finerman and Dave Traini to form the most memorable troika of TOC finalists the game has yet produced. A stage actor, director, and playwright, Bob not only knows everything about everything, but has a rollicking sense of humor. His impression of the late Julia Child is the stuff of legend. Upon seeing him, I felt I should begin bowing at the waist and crying aloud, "We're not worthy!" But I settled for introducing myself and shaking his hand. He actually knew who I was, and even complimented my past play. If I gain nothing else today, I thought to myself, I've met Bob Verini. Life is good.

Chuck Forrest. For you kids who only know Ken Jennings as the pinnacle of Jeopardy! stardom, you should have seen Chuck Forrest. Winner of the '86 TOC, Chuck was the first true J! superstar; the first player to make opponents' blood run cold at the very mention of his name. I first met Chuck in 1990 during Super J! and was amazed to discover that he was not eight feet tall with laser eyes and flame breath. He's a soft-spoken, very slight fellow who's shorter even than I am, and unfailingly polite. At the time of Super J! he was working for the State Department, stationed in the United Arab Emirates — today he's a private consultant living in Bosnia. Chuck speaks about a zillion languages, including Klingon, I think. I was amazed that he remembered me from 15 years before, and that he made it a point to come over and say hello to me. To my boundless joy, Chuck told me he was only the alternate for our group — the person on stand-by who can step in and play if one of the scheduled contestants keels over, as poor Arthur looked as though he might — and would actually be taping his game on the following day. On this day, he would be a spectator, as Bob Verini had been for the previous taping session.

John Cuthbertson. One of the biggest money winners in J! history before the increase in dollar values a couple of seasons ago, John had been heavily favored to win the 1994 TOC, but had lost in a stunning upset in the semifinals — that tournament eventually went to Rachael Schwartz, my opponent in Round One. Knowing that lightning never strikes twice in the same place — mostly because the same place isn't there the second time — I hoped against hope that I wouldn't have to play against John. (Then again, as I glanced about me, there wasn't a single champion present at whom I looked and thought, "No problem; easy mark." As eager as I was to play again, I wasn't eager to face any two of these folks while doing it.) John turned out to be an extremely pleasant gentleman, and was one of the people with whom I spent the most time conversing early in the day.

At this point, there were 15 of us, but with Chuck as the alternate, someone was missing. When we were settled into the green room, along came our last compatriot...

Brad Rutter. Like Brian Weikle, Brad is one of the players whose name has become a verb in the annals of Jeopardy! fandom. If you watched last night's match, you understand what it means to be "Ruttered." (So too, unfortunately for them, do John Beck and Bruce Naegeli.) Brad, who hosts his own TV quiz show and is, like Ken Jennings, a veteran composer of material for college trivia competitions, possesses encyclopedic knowledge and tachyonic reflexes on the signaling device. Three years ago, he stormed through the Million Dollar Masters tournament, leaving bodies scattered in his wake. If you took a secret poll of UTOC competitors and got honest predictions about the finals of this event, I would not be surprised to find Brad's name on a preponderance of the ballots. And yet, he fit into the group like just another member of the fraternity. I didn't have much chance to get to know Brad, but he seemed like a regular guy, and one of the more outgoing personalities in our group.

There we were. Unlike my first round group in the UTOC, where everyone was simply glad to be asked back and took the events of the coming day in relative ease and good humor, this group of players settled into an intense hum of rising anxiety almost immediately upon entering the green room. By the time rehearsals were over, you could have powered Las Vegas for a night with all the electricity in the air.

And what happened in my game, you ask? You’ll just have to tune in this evening and see. I'll have some follow-up thoughts to share with you afterward. See you back here then!

Luck, be a lady tonight

This week's Comic Art Friday is being brought to you by — for reasons that should be screamingly obvious by now — the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions.

Most people who have never played the game suppose that Jeopardy! success is all about being smarter, or at least more knowledgeable, than one's opponents. While it's impossible to underplay the importance of knowledge (of the kinds of material from which Jeopardy! categories are built), skill with the signaling device (or "buzzer," as it's often called, even though it doesn't make a sound) is equally important. (Just ask anyone who's played thus far in the UTOC.)

But the most critical factor? The one no contestant controls: Luck.

It's sheer luck that determines whether the categories favor a player, or cripple him or her. It's luck that makes the difference between hitting a Daily Double at a critical moment in the game so that you can build your score, or having your opponent hit it with the opportunity to run away with the game (or at least rob you of the chance to catch up). It's luck that smiles on you when the Final Jeopardy! answer is a factoid you read just that morning over breakfast, and that laughs in your face when Final Jeopardy! calls for a response you've never before heard.

And so, in honor of my Round Two game in the UTOC — airing this evening on a station near you — we present this stylish pinup of the Golden Age superheroine Lady Luck, penciled with flair by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles artist Michael Dooney.

Created by the legendary Will Eisner, best known for The Spirit (in whose newspaper supplement Lady Luck originally appeared), Lady Luck was one of the first costumed heroines in comics. She made her debut in June 1940, a year and a half before the advent of Wonder Woman. Like many early comics heroines, Lady Luck had no superpowers; she was mostly a freelance detective who just happened to favor doing her crimebusting in a bright green cocktail dress with matching hat, cape, opera gloves, and high-heeled pumps, with a sheer veil shrouding her face.

Today the character is mostly remembered for the work of Klaus Nordling, a Finnish-born artist who worked with Eisner for many years. A tremendous talent, Nordling both wrote and drew the adventures of Lady Luck from 1942 to 1946.

You might want to remember some of this. After all, you never know when a comics category might pop up on Jeopardy!

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Just call him "Bo Vice"

American Idol contestant Harold "Bo" Bice (because, as you know, some of the true legends of rock and roll were named "Harold") skated on a couple of drug-related beefs prior to his Idolatry, according to the newshounds over at The Smoking Gun.

Busted in 2001 on a cocaine possession charge, Old Weird Harold — I mean, Bo — completed a diversion program to avoid serving a siesta in the juzgado on the Class C felony. He was nailed again in 2003 with a stash of locoweed and associated paraphernalia, pleading guilty to two misdemeanors (the more drugs Bo misses, de meaner he gets, I suppose) and riding out the pot charge thanks to his diversionary assignment.

If Bo wins the Idol trophy, I think I know how he's going to celebrate.

From the beginning of the Idol season, KM and I have referred to this guy as "Bob Ice," a relocation of the space in his name making him a much more compelling figure in the tradition of Vanilla Ice, another overhyped pop star wannabe from the Deep South.

At least Bo isn't "blowing kisses in the wind" with Idol judge Paula Abdul, unlike — according to recent allegations — some of his predecessors on the show. far as we know he isn't, anyway. Although, given her erratic behavior of late, one wonders whether Bo and Paula share a common affinity for certain (ahem) pharmaceutical products.

Tom and Katie sittin' in a tree...

Well, this is icky...

Tom Cruise is dating Katie Holmes.

Not that either Katie — whom I think is very cute — or Tom — whom I would think was very cute if I swung that way — is icky. But what's with the whole dating-someone-who-could-be-your-parent/child business? (Just barely in this instance — Tom's 42, Katie's 26. But still within the realm of biological possibility.)

What would you talk about? What would you find in common culturally? And wouldn't you just live in abject terror of the day the other decided s/he needed someone younger/more mature?

Not that I'm in the market, mind you, but it seems to me that if I were, I'd seek out someone with a similar frame of reference — who grew up listening to the same songs, seeing the same movies, watching the same TV shows, experiencing the same events playing out on the world stage.

You know, someone who wouldn't look at me cross-eyed when I mentioned something that happened before the Clinton administration.

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Wynn Las Vegas, lose your shorts

Five years to the day after he purchased the legendary Desert Inn in Las Vegas, casino mogul Steve Wynn — who previously brought you the Mirage, Treasure Island, and the fabulous Bellagio — opens Wynn Las Vegas, a hotel-casino he loves so much he signed the top of the building.

According to Anthony Curtis of the Las Vegas Advisor (an online publication which, if you're a Vegas regular or even just an occasional visitor, should be on your frequent reading list), the new Wynn is "big and beautiful, though segmented into lots of 'areas.' Many components are reminiscent of Bellagio. Lots of detail and high-end materials (marble, wood, artwork, fresh flowers, mosaics). Definitely an interesting walk-around."

I'll look forward to checking the place out on our next trip to Bright Light City. In the meantime, if you stop by Mr. Wynn's new showplace, just remember:

The odds always favor the house.


First Barry Bonds, now this:

The Giants' new bullpen stopper, Armando Benitez, is probably out for the rest of the season after tearing his right hamstring in the last play of Tuesday's game. He'll undergo surgery next week.

Losing Benitez will hurt the G-Men in the long run even more than the ongoing absence of their injured superstar slugger. The Giants' starting rotation is composed of the type of pitchers who need a lot of strong relief help in order to be successful, especially Kirk Rueter, who's pretty much useless after five innings. Without a big-time door-slammer in the eighth and ninth innings, San Francisco will lose a lot of ball games late. And that's a shame.

Hopefully Benitez won't turn into the second coming of Robb Nen, the Giants' last top-ranked closer, who pocketed $18 million over the past two seasons without ever being physically able to throw a pitch.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Clear your calendar: Jeopardy! Ultimate this Friday, April 29

Buckle your seatbelts, trivia fans.

Your Uncle Swan makes his Round Two foray into the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions this Friday evening.

For those of you coming late to the party, I was a five-time undefeated champion on the world's favorite quiz show back in 1988. With career winnings of $62,098 and a gaggle of lovely parting gifts, I qualified for an invitation to the Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions: 144 of the game's greatest champs vying for a shot at 74-game winner Ken Jennings and a $2 million top prize.

In the first game of the UTOC, I squeaked by with a victory over a former Tournament of Champions winner and the show's first-ever undefeated champ, bagging a total of $31,601. (You can read all of the details here.) A few weeks ago, I returned to Sony Pictures Studios to tape my Round Two match, the results of which you can witness in just two days' time (check your local listings for Bat-time and Bat-channel).

And no, I'm not going to tell you what happened. Watch for yourselves on Friday, then stop by here over the weekend and give me your perspectives.

In the words of the immortal Don Cornelius, you can bet your last money it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

What's Up With That? #18: Intolerance in the most unexpected places

Two unrelated stories that struck me as similarly ironic:

Irony Number One: A gay bar in San Francisco has been charged with racial discrimination by the City's Human Rights Commission. The owner of the Badlands bar, apparently unaware that Jim Crow died a while back, referred to African Americans as "non-Badlands customers" and instituted admission policies designed to deny blacks entrance to the popular nightspot.

Discrimination? In a gay bar? Who'da thunk?

I guess at the Badlands, the rainbow connection only comes in shades of white.

Irony Number Two: Apple Computer yanked all books published by John Wiley and Sons from the shelves of its company-owned stores, because Wiley showed the temerity to publish an unauthorized biography of Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

This, from the company whose billboards trumpet its maverick independence, and whose motto is "Think Different"? Not if "different" means "different from Apple corporate propaganda," it seems.

I hear the next iteration of the Macintosh OS is being codenamed "Fahrenheit 451."

All of which goes to show you:

It's one thing to talk the talk, and entirely another to walk the walk.


Monday, April 25, 2005

NHL: the Not Happening League

Former National Hockey League superstar Bobby Orr just doesn't get it.

In a column appearing yesterday in a Canadian newspaper, Orr writes, "Our sport is in danger of becoming irrelevant unless both sides immediately put an end to this nonsense." danger of becoming irrelevant?

Bobby, they canceled the entire season, and nobody except Bob and Doug McKenzie cared. Your sport is already irrelevant. Wake up and smell the back bacon burning, buddy.

Why? Because it's soccer on ice with sticks. And fighting. And you know how much we all love soccer around these parts. Want proof? Name two active male professional soccer players. I'll wait.


That's what I thought.

Hockey's like that, only with ugly sweaters and missing front teeth. No one's interested. That's why no one's protesting in the streets because the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup isn't underway right this very minute. We're busy watching the first month of baseball and the first thousand weeks of the NBA playoffs.

Teemu Selänne to you too.

A star for Uncle Roger

Hooray for Hollywood: Roger Ebert is being honored with a star on Tinsel Town's Walk of Fame this coming June.

I'm delighted for the dean of American film critics, the only writer ever to win a Pulitzer Prize exclusively for film criticism. Uncle Roger was the man who inspired me to want to write about film, and more than any other factor was responsible for my career as a staff writer, and now associate editor, for the 'Net's best-written DVD review site, DVD Verdict. (You are getting your daily dose of film and TV analysis at the Verdict, aren't you? If not, shame on you.)

I have to wonder, though, how great an honor a Walk of Fame star is when Ryan Seacrest got one before you.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Beware all enterprises that require new clothes

Merci beaucoup to my friends at Jeopardy! Today they stuffed my mailbox with a stylish new official Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions sweatshirt, which I am wearing even as I sit here tickling the keyboard.

Speaking of the UTOC, look here on Wednesday for the announcement you've been eagerly awaiting: the date of my rapidly approaching Round Two appearance in this blockbuster event. I trust you have been watching and enjoying the second round matches, pitting the greatest players in Jeopardy! history against one another. Trust me on this — if you think the games have been exciting (and the outcomes surprising) so far, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Stay tuned!

A clear solution to every problem

The wizards at the 3M Corporation have saved the universe yet again. They have invented transparent duct tape.

And there was much rejoicing.

Is there a reason we haven't turned 3M loose on cancer, AIDS, and affordable health care? After Post-it® Notes, Command™ adhesives (the stuff that allows you to stick objects to your wall, then remove them again without leaving a mark), and transparent duct tape, I'm convinced they can invent pretty much anything.

The concept of clear duct tape takes me back to those thrilling days of yesteryear — the early 1990s, to be precise — when corporate America went on this insane jag of introducing clear products into the marketplace. Remember Zima malt beverage? Miller Clear Beer? Crystal Pepsi and Tab Clear? My favorite was Crystal Clear motor oil — like you ever actually look at motor oil.

Saturday Night Live pounded the last nail in the clear-products coffin with a hilarious mock commercial for "Crystal Gravy" (it looked suspiciously like Karo corn syrup — which, if it isn't already a major food group, ought to be).

But clear duct tape? That's da bomb, yo.

Microsoft: Descriptive term for the brains running the company

Here's the biggest laugh I've had this week:

Microsoft developers' design goal for Longhorn, the next generation of the MS operating system, is, "It just works."

That'll be a refreshing change, won't it? Because that certainly isn't a three-word phrase we've been able to use about any other Microsoft product, ever.

Latest example of my Microsoft frustration? Ever since I started working from my new PC about a month ago, I've had nothing but pain in my hindquarters trying to get the preinstalled Outlook 2003 to play nicely with my e-mail. Among its tricks: adding code to the titles of my attachments so they can't be opened by the recipient. After a couple of weeks of having to resend attachments repeatedly — and having my correspondents think me certifiable — I gave up. Today, I downloaded Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail manager, and I suspect I will be immeasurably happier henceforth.

It's not as though everything Microsoft totally sucks:
  • I've been running the Windows XP platform for the past three years, and (notorious security flaws aside) I mostly love it. It's a quantum leap above any of the previous versions of Windows.
  • After years of suffering with the clunky and error-ridden Word 97, I'm delighted to find that the new PC's preinstalled Word 2003 runs like a champ.
  • I'm a dedicated user and enthusiastic promoter of MS Publisher, which I use for everything from church bulletins and flyers to my company's invoices. (There are tasks Publisher doesn't do well, such as Web site design, but for what I need it to do, it's a remarkable value.) The new version of Publisher seems to have remedied some of the glitches lurking in earlier iterations.
  • I don't have much occasion for PowerPoint very much these days, but when I was using it frequently in my corporate days, I found it a useful and flexible tool.
So I'm not just ripping Microsoft out of hand.

On the other hand, dumping Internet Explorer (or, if you prefer, Infernal Exploder) in favor of Mozilla's Firefox Web browser has made my online life supremely easy. And Outlook has never been my favorite program — I was much happier running Outlook Express on my most recent PC. So I'm looking forward to my relationship with Thunderbird. From what I can tell thus far, it just works.

Oops. Did I say that?

Friday, April 22, 2005

Earth Day, Ladies' Day...whatever

Today's special Earth Day edition of Comic Art Friday is brought to you in memory of the late, great Iron Eyes Cody.

The first time I saw the work of up-and-coming comics artist Robert Q. Atkins of Tsunami Studios — and no, I have no idea what the Q stands for — I was immediately struck by his unique presentation of the human face and figure. Robert's characters reflect the angularity of many modern comics artists, but his line is disciplined and controlled, he doesn't overrender, and he employs naturalistic proportions in his female figures. All of which I admire.

I especially enjoy the faces of Robert's characters. Their features carry a remarkable sense of reality. Rather than idealized, iconic images, Robert draws people who look like folks you might actually know — very usual in comic art these days. Take, for example, this stylishly striking portrait of one of the handful of heroes whose images I specifically collect — Wanda, the Scarlet Witch:

So charmed was I by the job Robert did with Wanda that I knew I just had to have him add a page to my “Common Elements” series of custom artworks. The trouble was, I had a tough time envisioning a duet of characters I thought would be well represented by Robert’s distinctive style. Nothing on my list of concepts seemed quite suitable.

Then, like a thunderstrike from Thor’s hammer, I had it: Dawnstar from the Legion of Super-Heroes, and Danielle Moonstar from the New Mutants. Two Native American women from major superteams, whose names both end in “star.” Common Elements all over the place! And Robert did a smashing job delineating these two wonderfully designed heroines:

Native American characters are underrepresented in superhero comics, as is true of ethnic characters in general. And, as is too often the case with other non-Anglo-Saxon characters, American Indians have historically been portrayed in comics in stereotypical ways. Both Dawnstar and Dani Moonstar, though, have been handled with dignity by their representive comics companies.

Maybe someday we'll advance to the point where every superhero or superheroine of Native American origin won't have to wear either buckskin or fringe in his or her costume, just as we've slowly advanced to the point where not every African American hero or heroine has to speak in a pastiche of inner-city street argot.

The wheels of progress grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

New Line discovers why action star's last name is Snipes

Wesley Snipes is suing New Line Pictures because his last film, Blade: Trinity, sucked swamp water.

The Wes-Man apparently didn't like the script, didn't like the director, and didn't like sharing the screen with pretty young faces like Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds. I also understand that he was disappointed that, despite the film's title, neither Carrie-Anne Moss nor Terence Hill appeared in it.

No one is a bigger backer of Big Wes's film career than your Uncle Swan, but...

Dude, get a grip.

Nobody shoved bamboo slivers under your fingernails and made you sign on for another Blade movie. (I haven't seen Trinity, but the first two films in the series were solid.) Nobody held a Glock to your skull until you agreed to collect $13 million (though Snipes is claiming he never received all of his pay from New Line). Nobody made you appear in direct-to-video dreck like Futuresport and Unstoppable.

But I digress.

This isn't even the first film Snipes made with writer-director David S. Goyer, the ex-comic book scribe who plotted all three Blade flicks, as well as one of my favorite films of the past decade, Dark City. Two years earlier, Snipes starred in ZigZag, also directed by Goyer. If he thought the guy was imcompetent, why agree to do another movie with him at the helm?

Personally, I'd like to see the Wes-Man make a sequel to my favorite of his films, Passenger 57. (Or, as it's sometimes known, Die Hard on an Airplane.)

Always bet on black.

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

What are you, Peanuts?

As a comic art collector who lives in the home county of the late Charles Schulz, this story made me cry twice:

A woman tore up — and flushed down the toilet — an original Peanuts storyboard drawn by Schulz, valued at $90,000.

My entire comic art collection isn't worth a tenth of that.

Now I'm crying a third time.

My favorite Peanuts strip, incidentally, is a Sunday page in which Charlie Brown and Lucy are walking along together. As they walk, Charlie Brown is winding string onto a spool, and explaining to Lucy — in excruciating detail — the physics of kite flying.

When C.B.'s lecture ends, Lucy says to him, "You know a lot about flying kites, don't you, Charlie Brown?"

"Yes, I think that I can say that I do," replies the ever-modest Chuck.

We now see that the string Charlie Brown has been winding ends in an opening in the curb.

"So why is your kite down the sewer?" Lucy asks.

The story of my life, in a single comic strip.

One of these days, remind me to tell you about my legendary run on the local stage as Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. If you're nice, I might even do my "Suppertime" dance for you.

Paris in springtime

This morning, I was drinking my coffee from my mug from the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino, a souvenir of our anniversary trip to the City of Wayne Newton.

Which led me to wondering...

If there's a Paris hotel in Las Vegas, is there a Las Vegas hotel in Paris?

And if so, does the Las Vegas Paris include a replica of the Paris Las Vegas?

And could you stay at the Paris Las Vegas with Paris Hilton, even though the Paris in Las Vegas isn't a Hilton?

I'll need another cup of coffee while I ponder this.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Twelve pyramids, no Donny Osmond

In America's ongoing quest to find someone else to blame for everything, we now have so-called diet experts blaming the U.S. Department of Agriculture for kids being fat.

Because, of course, as you know, kids all over the country carefully examine that "Food Pyramid" chart every time they enter the school cafeteria, and plan their meals accordingly.

Snicker. (No relation to the candy bar.)

So now the USDA has been pressured to create (at heaven only knows how much expense to us taxpayers) a new graphically-based system of 12 — count 'em, twelve — new pyramids for telling kids how to eat.

Which they will assiduously ignore.

Just like they ignored the old Food Pyramid.

Does anyone really believe that people will eat a certain way because some diagram or Web site published by the government tells them they should? If there are people who so believe, please point them out to me, because I have right here in my chubby little fist the deed to a certain International Orange marvel of engineering these folks are no doubt hankering to purchase.

But at least there's someone at whom to point the finger if your kids are overweight. And you won't need a mirror to find them.

Who's your daddy?

Inasmuch as I'm not Roman Catholic, I don't have a dog in this fight. But I'll guess that there are more than a few folks of the Catholic persuasion who are at least a little disappointed that their honchos chose a stolid old German guy as the new pope instead of someone younger, hipper, and maybe even with a little soul (pun intended).

Personally, I thought Pope Snoop Dogg the First would have been pretty interesting.

This came to me the other evening as KM and I were watching her new DVD of Sister Act (one of her favorite movies). Suppose the new pope had taken a cue from Whoopi Goldberg? Imagine the man in the pointy hat coming out onto the balcony for his first official blessing, and instead of intoning the same old Latinate spiel, rocking the mic with a bit of flava (with apologies to the Sugar Hill Gang):
Well I'm the P to the O to the P-O-P
And we'll add on another E
I said I go by the unforgettable name
Of Pope M.C. One -- that's me
You see, my name is known all over the world
To all the Catholic people, all the boys and girls
And I'm goin' down in his-to-ry
As the baddest pope there ever could be
I'm gonna bless you here
I'm gonna bless you there
I'm gonna bless you right outta this atmosphere
'Cause I'm the first of my kind
I'm gonna shock your mind
I'm gonna slap a rosary on your behind
Because I rock and I roll with so much soul
I might be pope till I'm a hundred and one years old
I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast
But I like def jams with my wine and host
I'm a pope of the people, I truly feel
I'll tour the world in my popemobile
You may find me very sexy or even cute
When I step to your 'hood in my white and gold suit
Because you need a pope who's got finesse
And a big bling crucifix on his chest
A pope who can pray all through the night
But still can rock and party till the early light
And I'm here
And I'm there
I'm the hip-hop pope, and I'm everywhere!
Okay, worked for me.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Merger madness

Adobe Systems — the people who bring you Adobe Reader, the software that enables your PC to open PDF files — and Macromedia — the people who bring you Flash, the software responsible for a lot of the cool stuff (and a ton of the most annoying trash) you stumble across while surfing the 'Net — announced their impending merger today. Adobe will be the new parent company. Price tag: $3.4 billion worth of Adobe stock.

Whatever. If it means that maybe Adobe Acrobat and Photoshop (two marvelous but insanely expensive chunks o' software) get cheaper, and as long as they don't turn Macromedia Dreamweaver (rocks) into Adobe GoLive (reeks), I couldn't care less.

Wish I owned me some Macromedia stock, though.

Arf! Sandy's back!

No, not Little Orphan Annie's dog. (Speaking of L.O.A., what was up with her eyes, anyway? Was she precognitively channeling Storm from the X-Men?)

I mean Sandy Alderson, who just signed a five-year deal to run the San Diego Padres. Before his latest seven-year stint as one of Major League Baseball's topkicks, Alderson was the general manager and president of the Oakland of the best in the game. While Sandy was running the A's, they won four division titles, three pennants, and a World Championship. Not too shabby. And from all accounts, he's a straight-shooting good guy, too.

I'm just sorry that he's coming to the National League West.

Can I get Danish with that?

I don't care what title he won. I don't want Troels Overdal Poulsen anywhere near my vanilla latte.

Poulsen, a coffeeslinger from Copenhagen, today hauled in the World Barista Championship in (where else?) Seattle. Poulsen's winning potion, dubbed "ESB (Enhanced Sensory Balance)," contained espresso, lavender, and (get this) pepper.

Now, I love pepper as much as anyone — in restaurants, I routinely remove the top of the pepper shaker and pour straight from the cylinder because the shaker holes never allow enough to pass through — and my affinity for a good cup o' joe is the stuff of legend. But don't be mixing the two, bub. My precaffeine self doesn't need that kind of shock first thing in the morning.

It's bad enough when I try to mix the dregs of a can of Don Francisco Vanilla Nut with the start of a can of old Don's Butterscotch Toffee in the same filter...feh! (Even if that sounds to you as though it might turn out well, it doesn't. Trust me on this. The resulting brew tastes like toxic sludge.)

By the we really need a World Barista Championship? Next thing you know, we'll be having a Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of...oh, never mind.

Debralee Scott (1953-2004)

A sad time in nostalgia land: Debralee Scott passed away recently at the age of 52, of the always baffling "natural causes."

To you younger folk, the name may not mean anything, but those of us of a certain age (ahem) recall Ms. Scott as female "Sweathog" Rosalie Totzi (better known as "Hotzi" Totzi) on the '70s classroom sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, and in a similar role as the title character's trampy little sister Cathy on the soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman from that same era. She later co-starred on Angie alongside Donna Pescow, and appeared in a couple of the endless string of Police Academy sequels. Game show aficionados — myself among them — also remember Debralee's frequent appearances as a celebrity panelist on the Gene Rayburn-hosted Match Game.

I've always been drawn to women of, shall I say, unconventional attractiveness. Thus, as an adolescent, I found Debralee Scott rather cute, with her prominent overbite, freckles, and reddish hair feathered in that uniquely '70s style pioneered by Farrah Fawcett (whom, oddly enough, I never much liked — when it came to Charlie's Angels, I was always a Kate Jackson man). She wasn't a great actress, but she was the funniest character on Mary Hartman, and she was delightful on Match Game, where she played the more-or-less-innocent ingenue role opposite veteran tart-tongued panelists Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly.

According to reports, Ms. Scott lost her fiance, a police officer with the New York Port Authority, in the World Trade Center tragedy four years ago. Now she too is gone too soon.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Jetpack jockeys

This week's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by Ovaltine.

Since only yesterday I was watching and commenting on the DVD release of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, it seems serendipitous that in today's mail would arrive this spectacular artwork, the retro style of which recalls those thrilling days of yesteryear. Courtesy of the phenomenally talented artist Michael L. Peters, meet the Rocketeer and Adam Strange.

If you've never seen the Disney film The Rocketeer, do yourself a tremendous favor -- get up out of your swivel chair this very second, and go buy (or at least rent) the DVD. Largely overlooked by audiences during its 1991 release (due in part to the fact that Disney had no clue how to promote the film), The Rocketeer is an old-fashioned, thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride of a film that looks lovingly back at the comic books of the Golden Age and at the Saturday afternoon serials that once drew legions of kids into theaters during the Great Depression and the years of World War II. The film features a fine lead performance by Billy Campbell (most familiar today as Sela Ward's heartthrob beau on the TV drama Once and Again) as Cliff Secord, barnstorming pilot turned reluctant superhero, with the luminous Jennifer Connelly — who, if not the most beautiful woman in films today, has to be in the top three — as Cliff's girlfriend Jenny. It's the kind of all-ages adventure that can entertain every member of the family without anyone being condescended to or made to feel stupid. Goodness knows, we can use a few more movies like that these days.

The Rocketeer springs from an amazingly conceived, lovingly illustrated graphic novel (what artists and writers call comic books when they're trying to convince the world that comics are literature) series by an artist named Dave Stevens. With a lush, photorealistic technique that draws heavily on vintage magazine illustration, Stevens invokes all of the richness and charm of 1930s cinema in a style that is both reverently retroactive and vibrantly contemporary. He also singlehandedly revived public interest in 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page, whose wavy brunette locks and curvaceous figure form the visual reference for the character of Betty (rechristened Jenny in the movie, doubtless to remove association with the nudie model) in the Rocketeer comics.

It seemed only natural to me to pair the Rocketeer with comics' other jetpack-wearing hero, Adam Strange. Although I read far more Marvel than DC comics back in the day, Adam Strange — who headlined DC's Mystery in Space — was always a favorite character. Borrowing a theme from Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter, Warlord of Mars stories, Adam Strange was an Earth-bound scientist who encountered a mysterious radiation source (the Zeta beam, though I don't believe Catherine Zeta-Jones had anything to do with its development) that zapped him hundreds of light-years across the galaxy to the conveniently Earth-like planet Rann. There, Adam became something of a superhero, while simultaneously falling in love with a fair local girl named Alanna. (Funny how in these stories the protagonist never gets transported to a world where the atmosphere is laden with chlorine gas, or where the local girls look like giant armadillos.) Every now and again, the Zeta beam zaps him back to his home planet, where he can only hang out leading a boring civilian life until the next express to Rann strikes him.

As loopy as the concept sounds, the Adam Strange comics of the 1950s and '60s were cracking good, much more classic sci-fi adventure than superhero schtick. As noted above, the basic premise of the series was just different enough from the John Carter tales that DC could avoid a messy trademark infringement lawsuit from the notoriously litigious ERB empire. But like those old stories, the action in Adam Strange was fast-paced, fantastical, and fun. Although I've not read any of the new books, I understand the character is currently undergoing something of a revival at DC.

Doing justice to these two retro-sci-fi heroes would require an artist with a very special touch. When I first saw the beautiful, distinctive rendering of Michael L. Peters, I knew I'd found the perfect talent for the task. Michael's style recalls medieval woodcut printing by way of classical illustration, a visual approach not seen in comics — or anywhere else, for that matter — much, if at all, these days. Michael's published work appears regularly in the adult fantasy magazine Heavy Metal (which spawned one of my all-time favorite films, as SSTOL veterans are doubtless aware). I highly recommend that you pop over to his Web site and simply stand agog at the wonders that pour forth from his pen. I couldn't imagine how he could have done a more accomplished job depicting the two characters I suggested.

Now get out of here, before the next Zeta beam hits you.

The pot/kettle feud continues

Former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss has turned to the tabloids to reveal that her erstwhile boyfriend, actor Tom Sizemore — recently sentenced to a 17-month stint in the hoosegow on a drug-related parole violation — "struggling with his sexuality." Heidi goes on to report that Sizemore is "dangerous" and a "pathetic loser."

And when it comes to recognizing a pathetic loser, who would know better, really, than Heidi Fleiss?

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Fresh spins from the DVD rack

I'm wrestling with the early stages of a cold today. Thus, with my always scattershot powers of concentration at a low ebb, I spent my morning watching a couple of new movies on DVD over coffee and bagels. Capsule reviews follow.

Ocean's Twelve. Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven being one of my favorite films of the new millennium, I've been looking forward to seeing the sequel. (KJ and KM saw it together in the theater on a mother-daughter night out, and loved it.) Given the level of anticipation, and a recent spate of sequels that outstripped their predecessors in excellence (Spider-Man 2 comes most immediately to mind), I was somewhat disappointed in this second outing. Not terribly disappointed, mind you. It's another fun romp of a caper movie featuring a gaggle of actors obviously having a high time working together, and fine entertainment in its own right. But it falls short of the prior film (I can't say "original," because Ocean's Eleven was a remake) in a number of critical ways.

Focus. The first film centered around the building of a team for a single mammoth heist, and the entirety of the picture rocketed along toward that resolution. Ocean's Twelve muddies the water with a couple of smaller crimes in and around the big one. Consequently, the momentum of the film jerks along in fits and starts.

Conflict. The opening scenes of Ocean's Twelve show the villain of the last film, bigshot casino mogul Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), hunting down each of the members of Danny Ocean's crew. Then, for most of the movie, Benedict disappears, and a new bad guy enters the story, a rival thief who calls himself the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel). Not only is the Night Fox a weak villain, with none of the icy, palpable menace Benedict exuded in Ocean's Eleven, but we more or less lose the threat of Benedict because of the switch. A film like this without the dramatic tension of a strong antagonist feels loose and pointless.

Character development. Obviously, with twelve key characters to utilize (Danny Ocean's wife Tess, with Julia Roberts reprising her role), some will get short shrift in a two-hour film. To Ocean's Twelve's benefit, the characters that get the extra face time are reasonably interesting and identifiable -- notably Brad Pitt's Rusty Ryan (Pitt gets so much play that for a while I thought the movie had become Ryan's Twelve) and Matt Damon's Linus Caldwell (the most callow member of the team is more effectively used here than in Eleven, gaining the majority of the best comic moments). But the characters whose roles are minimized were the ones I most wanted to see again. Bernie Mac's Frank Catton vanishes from the movie almost entirely (despite Mac's higher-profile, above-the-title credit here), as does Carl Reiner's Saul Bloom. As two of the best characters in the first film, their relative loss is palpable here.

Still, Twelve offered plenty of good stuff despite its flaws. The addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones to the cast, which would seem to be one chick too many in this boys'-club adventure, adds a depth and dimension to the story that the first film lacked. Zeta-Jones is an underrated actress with exactly the right touch for this sort of material, and her ambitious and conflicted Interpol agent gives the plot an intriguing sidelight without distracting overmuch from the main storyline. And speaking of chicks, this may well be the first movie in which I've actually enjoyed Julia Roberts, whose appearance in a film usually means the kiss of death for me. She's actually fine here, and even gets to play a funny twist (her character Tess Ocean pretends at a key moment to be the real-life Julia Roberts), which she carries off with spritely aplomb.

I'll give Ocean's Twelve a solid B+ on the SwanScale™.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I've spent months kicking myself for not getting my hindquarters out to the theater to see this on the big screen, and now that I've seen it on DVD, I'm even more sorry. Sky Captain is a gorgeous, beautifully concepted and amazingly realized work of art. It's not a bad movie, either.

I didn't care much for the two leads. Jude Law seemed to me an awkward choice for the part of the heroic daredevil pilot, too easygoing and boyish. I never believed he was the guy who had experienced all of the adventures mentioned in the backstory, or had been to all the places he was supposed to have been. (Like I never would believe Leonardo DiCaprio was a devil-may-care captain of industry like Howard Hughes.) I would have chosen an actor with more grit -- more of a Viggo Mortensen type. Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I don't think I've ever liked in anything, didn't impress me any more here, though I could envision her as the sort of blonde waif that Hitchcock might have cast if he'd made this movie. But as a tough investigative reporter? I didn't buy it.

The rest of the movie was such a delight, though, that I barely cared how pallid the stars seemed, or how thin and derivative the script was. I loved director Kerry Conran's wicked cool retro-futuristic approach -- it was as though he'd watched The Rocketeer and Fritz Lang's Metropolis in the same evening and asked himself, "Now how can I turn those two movies into Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Sky Captain lacks the pell-mell energy of Raiders, and it has a wholly different creative agenda, but the two films are cut from opposite ends of the same bolt of cloth.

The CGI environment Conran created for this, his first feature film, is magical. I can understand how it would have limited appeal to the younger audience today, who wouldn't understand the muted sepia-tone color palette, or appreciate the action in the relative absence of overt violence, but to a kid who grew up watching Saturday serials on Armed Forces Television and reading the classic comics of the Silver Age, I found Conran's vision fascinating. It possesses a brilliance and vitality that is sorely lacking in George Lucas's latter-day Star Wars flicks, which are constructed in much the same way. Lucas probably spent three or four times as much on The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones as Conran had to work with on Sky Captain, but I can tell you which films flunked the wristwatch test and which one didn't.

And Angelina Jolie, in a small but essential role, is da bomb. Instead of simply retreading her Lara Croft persona from the Tomb Raider pictures, she creates a complex and compelling character (much more compelling than Paltrow's Polly Perkins, who gets her man in the end) in precious few moments on camera. I could have done without the high-tech resurrection of the late Sir Laurence Olivier -- in the main, these retoolings of dead actors give me the willies -- but it was brief enough that it didn't bother me. Most of the audience probably didn't know who that guy was, anyway.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow rates a B on the SwanScale™. I hope Kerry Conran gets the opportunity to make another big-studio movie. I'll be watching.

Today's nominee for the Frank Abagnale Award

The Queens County District Attorney's office in New York nailed a guy who for years has been covering professional sporting events on team-issued press credentials.

Only problem: He's not really a reporter.

Apparently, Mark Sabia invented a fictional media outlet — Westchester Cable Services — applied to the various New York sports teams for a press pass, and got one. Since at least 1998, he's been prowling the locker rooms at Yankee and Shea Stadiums, Madison Square Gardens and the Meadowlands with the reporters who follow the New York teams, holding a microphone and interviewing the players right alongside the legitimate journalists (not to mention watching all the games gratis), even though he doesn't actually work for a media company.

I'm not sure whether to be appalled by Sabia's hubris, grudgingly admiring of his moxie, or sympathetic for all of the really lousy Mets, Knicks, and football Giants games he's endured over the past several years.

Happy birthday, DL!

DL, the mother of my "adoptive niece" and one of my longest-standing (I neatly sidestepped the word "oldest," didn't I?) friends in all the world — my only friend remaining from those long-distant high school days — celebrates her (muffled) birthday today.

She lives in Maine and I in California, so a hug is out of the question. But I think DL knows how precious her friendship is to me, and how very much I appreciate her stalwart goodness after all these years. And if she didn't before, she does now.

SSTOL readers owe DL a minimal debt also. As the editor of our high school newspaper, she was one of the people most instrumental in encouraging me to find my voice as a writer. The satirical column I wrote under her direction was some of my first publicly revealed work, and she had courage enough to stick by and defend me even when I stepped on toes occasionally. Some things, one doesn't forget.

So, happy B-day, kid. Your almost-prom-date wishes you a joyous day and many blessings in the coming year.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Yes, but he's no Jerry Lewis

France has conferred upon Bruce Willis its highest award for cultural achievement, the Order of Arts and Letters.

Now, I enjoy the Die Hard films as much as anyone, and I was a major Moonlighting aficionado back in the day. (Was there ever better chemistry between two TV costars than between Willis and Cybill Shepherd during the early days of that show?) But seriously, Pierre — of all the actors you could honor for "cultural achievement," Bruce Willis was the best you could do?

Could have been worse, I suppose. They could have given the award to Lindsay Lohan.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Hit me, baby, one more time

Sign of the apocalypse: Britney Spears is pregnant.

Oh yeah — that'll be a good, well-balanced life for a kid. Let's see...Dad knocked up another woman out of wedlock twice, then ducked out on her — gravid belly and all — to shack up with Mom, the entirety of whose career involves her gyrating half-naked on stage while pretending to sing.

Better book Dr. Phil now, before his schedule fills up.

There she is,, wait — that's the other one

I know you were waiting with bated breath for this news: Miss North Carolina is your new Miss USA.

Glad that's over. The suspense was murder.

Does anyone still watch beauty pageants, or care who wins them? I'd have thought that a decade of weekly Baywatch would pretty much have obviated the need for these events. Apparently, I was mistaken.

But seriously — do you have any idea who the outgoing Miss USA was? (As it happens, it was Shandi Finnessey, of the Missouri Finnesseys. Now we all know.) In fact, I'd be hard pressed to come up more than a couple of names of people who've been Miss USA.
  • I vaguely recall Miss USA 1975, Summer Bartholomew, perhaps only because one doesn't often encounter a person named after both a season and an apostle.
  • Shawn Weatherly, Miss USA 1980, dated former San Francisco 49ers star receiver Dwight Clark, and pulled a hitch on the aforementioned Baywatch.
  • And of course, Miss USA 1985, Laura Martinez-Herring, became minimally famous as the B-list actress Laura Harring — fondly remembered for her starring turn in the runaway blockbuster (or maybe it was just a film that caused patrons to run away from Blockbuster) The Forbidden Dance, based on that lambada craze that lasted about three weeks in the summer of 1990.
After those three, I've got nothing.

Miss USA has always suffered, I think, from public perception that it's sort of a trailer-park version of the Miss America pageant. No talent necessary — we'll cut right to the skin. Evening gowns with cleavage down to the navel, and honest-to-Phoebe Cates bikinis — none of those boring one-piece jobs favored by that other outfit.

The mental acuity of the Miss USA contestant pool can be assessed in light of the following quote from tonight's winner, Chelsea Cooley. Asked to which celebrity she considers herself most similar in personality, future Nobel laureate Chelsea replied:
“I guess it would be Oprah. She has a passion for life. She loves what she does, and she works so hard to try to achieve everything in her life...I try to emulate myself after that.”
I believe what Miss USA means to say is that she tries to emulate Oprah, not herself. Emulating oneself is...well...redundant.

As winner of the Miss USA crown (which one hopes will not overtax a head unaccustomed to anything heavier than hydrogen), Cooley will go on to compete for the oddly-named Miss Universe title (odd, in that contestants from other celestial bodies rarely if ever enter the pageant) next month in Thailand. We wish her well.

Even though by the time of that event, we will already have forgotten her name.

Monday, April 11, 2005

This just in: George W. craves "the touch of the younger kind"

I'm not sure which of the following facts is the coolest:

That the leader of the free world has "My Sharona" by the Knack on his iPod, breaking through with some sleazy '70s vintage power pop amid all of the mind-numbing country tunes that make up most of the rest of the President's listening enjoyment...


That Sharona Alperin, who was just 17 years old when Doug Fieger and company recorded their leering paean to her desirability, is now a hotshot real estate agent in Beverly Hills, who on her Web site milks her decades-old chart-topping connection for every marketing cent it's worth.

(FYI: As the father of a daughter who will be 17 in a year, any man who wrote song lyrics of that nature about my little girl would likely turn up on the side of a milk carton, or in an episode of Without a Trace. Be warned.)

Burning bright

The Tiger is back.

High time, too. It's been getting tiresome listening to people asking, "So does Tiger stink now, or what?"

(I'm always the person who gets asked that question, because when you want the latest skinny about Tiger Woods, you turn immediately to the nearest biracial person for the 411. Because clearly, I know everything there is to know about Tiger Woods, inasmuch as all us mixed-race folk are likethis. In fact, I was chatting Tiger up just last month at the annual League of Biracial Gentlemen convention, gleaning some tips on my short game.)

Of course, it's not like Tiger ever went away...just his driving accuracy in major tournaments over the past three years. He had caddy problems, and coach problems, and club problems, and paternal health problems, and Elin Nordgren wedding planning problems (which, if you have to have problems, aren't bad problems to have). But with a miracle chip on the 16th hole at Augusta, and a nail-biting playoff against a determined Chris DiMarco, Tiger has his ninth major title and his fourth hideous green jacket to collect lint in his closet.

It's a good thing. Tiger is good for golf. Not just because he's a person of color (as opposed, I guess, to a person of transparency) who expands interest in golf beyond its traditionally narrow country-club limits, but because he's a huge personality, and huge personalities are essential to the success of any sport. Great players who aren't interesting don't sell tickets. Great players whose larger-than-life personas people find compelling, either for positive reasons (see Jordan, Michael) or negative (see Bonds, Barry), put fannies in the seats, jerseys on backs, and fans' hard-earned money in the pockets of sponsors. Tiger is that kind of player, in a game that suffers from personality deficit disorder. (Seriously — who cares if Phil Mickelson or Retief Goosen wins the Masters? If either of those guys were standing next to you right now, would you think he was your insurance agent?) I mean, Tiger gets me to pay attention to golf, and the only golf I've played in the last fifteen years involved windmills and volcanoes.

So you go, Mr. Woods. Glad to have you back on top. Green may even be your color.

Especially when it's on the faces of Hootie Johnson and the rest of his old white boys' club every time you win.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Go for the singing, stay for the comics

On Saturday, I was with the quartet in the San Jose area for the last big contest of the spring cycle. (We did pretty well by our meager standards. Without a doubt, our best performance on a contest stage. Thanks for asking.)

During a lull in the activities between the early afternoon quartet contest and the chorus competition in the evening, I went for a walking tour around the vicinity of the theater. Imagine my delight to find a comic book shop called Heroes right across the street! I poked around in their old comics bins for a while, then browsed the new releases racks until I found a few items that intrigued me enough to want to buy and read them:
  • The second issue of the new Black Panther series by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr.
  • Issue #2 of the delightfully retro Captain Gravity miniseries, featuring the sumptuous art of Sal Velluto and Bob Almond.
  • The most-recent four-issue story in Captain America and the Falcon by one of my favorite comics writers, Christopher J. Priest.
  • A recent four-issue Spider-Man story, to see how they're messing up my childhood hero anew this year.
  • The first two issues in the newest seriocomic spinoff of Justice League.
  • An issue of Frank Cho's Shanna the She-Devil, just to see what all the excitement is about.
If any of the above turns out to be worthy of comment, I'll post here.

Saturday evening's chorus competition marked the first time in my seven years of history with Bay Area Metro that I was in the audience while the chorus performed. Afterward, I was amazed (and frankly, more than a little touched) by the dozen or so people — most of whom I didn't know personally — who buttonholed me to find out why I wasn't onstage with the chorus, and to say how much they'd missed seeing my beaming mug in the front row. For my part, my hiatus was validated, as the chorus won the contest easily without my help.

I keep telling myself I'll go back to the chorus when I miss it. Saturday, seated in the audience, I discovered (to my mild surprise) that I don't miss it yet.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Increase stamp prices? You're asking the wrong guy.

The Postal Service wants another two cents for delivering a letter.

Today would not be a good day for them to hit me up for a raise.

Today I received a package via first class mail that took 24 days to get to California from New York City. Twenty-four days. William Henry Harrison was President only a little longer than that.

Not only that, but at some point along the way, the minions at USPS folded my package — clearly marked in bold print "HANDLE WITH CARE" right across the front underneath the delivery address — in half. Fortunately the contents — a piece of commissioned comic art I've been sweating over for the past three weeks — emerged without permanent damage.

So I'm not feeling terribly sanguine about the Post Office today.

That said, our postal system is still the best communications bargain in the free world. Our mailing rates are cheaper than almost every other industrialized nation, and our service for the money is, by and large, better than anyone's. The postal carrier who regularly works our route routinely goes the extra mile to take care of my art packages, and delivers them by hand to my doorstep when they arrive.

Just don't ask to hoist the tariff on the day I find out you folded my Trevor Von Eeden.

The English secret: Revealed!

At last, someone — the someone in question being MSNBC columnist Michael Ventre — has the fortitude to say in print what I have long thought, but was too genteel to mention aloud:

Many Englishwomen — not all, by any stretch of the imagination, but a sizable majority thereof — resemble the Pepperpots from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Camilla Parker-Bowles is living proof.

Oh, I can hear you already. How dare you? you cry. And in truth, this is exactly the sort of grotesque generalization I customarily abhor. But you know what? It's my blog, and I'll generalize if I want to.

Because when you're right, you're right.

Envision with your mind's eye the British royal family, theoretically the bluest of the English bloodline. Queen Elizabeth? Not exactly a babe, even in her salad days. Princess Margaret? Ditto. Princess Anne? Egad.

See what I mean?

Someone will surely point to the dearly departed Princess Diana as an exception to the rule. Not to speak ill of the deceased, but sorry, I'm not seeing it. Diana was a tall, gawky, ungainly-looking person whom I'm convinced was thought of as a beautiful woman largely by comparison within an aesthetically impoverished vicinity; surrounded by the rest of British royalty, she was practically Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Welsh. Doesn't count.) But viewed in isolation? Eh, not so much. Besides, Diana married into the clan, though she was distantly related by blood as well. She still suffered from that wan, vaguely sickly look that eventually transmogrifies into Pepperpot. Or Camilla. Not that there's a difference.

I always preferred the Duchess of York to Diana anyway. Diana always seemed a little stiff to me, no morbid pun intended. Fergie always seemed like she'd be a lot more fun.

Don't think for a moment that I'm letting the male of the English species off the hook by any means. It's just that...well...I'm singularly unqualified to judge male attractiveness, not being of a persuasion that I can make that call. Those of you so inclined may correct me on this, and I'm certain you will. But let's put it this way: If I wandered into the stable when Prince Charles was outfitting his mount for a polo match, I'd have a tough go telling you which was which.

(An aside: I think pretty much all men look dorky, to speak the honest truth. Myself included. The good Lord built us for utility, not cosmetic appeal. Frankly, I can't understand what my female or gay male friends see in us. We're bulky, we don't smell nice, and we tend to grow hair in inconvenient locations. But I digress.)

For the sad state of English pulchritude, I blame the cuisine. The English eat the absolute worst garbage on the planet — and I've tried lutefisk, so I can make that statement. When I was in fourth grade, two of my best friends were brothers whose mother was English (and who, now that I think back, strongly resembled Camilla Parker-Bowles), and I dreaded being asked to stay over for dinner at their house. Let's face facts: Any people that subsist on boiled beef, kidney pie, and mashed peas are setting themselves up for long-range chromosomal damage. I remain firmly convinced that the sole reason the British empire once spanned the globe is that they were in desperate search of some folks who could actually cook, and wherever they found such folks, they subjugated them and stole all their good recipes.

Doubtless a torrent of contradictory e-mail will flood my inbox. Have at it. I can only report what I see. And yes, I'm prepared for the dozens of exceptions — gorgeous Englishwomen — you'll name. Exceptions only validate the rule. (Just remember to attach scans of those gorgeous Englishwomen, for further review.)

Appearances aside, though, I'll wager krugerrands against Krispy Kremes on this point: I suspect Camilla is more fun than Diana was, too. Problem is, I can't imagine Charles being anyone's idea of a good time. But that's English taste for you. Maybe he's the human equivalent of bubble and squeak.

He's the coolest cat, with a heart of steel

Today's Comic Art Friday is sponsored by Stark Technologies: Leading the American military-industrial complex since 1962.

Submitted first for your approval is this new entry in my "Common Elements" series, a duel between Marvel Comics stalwarts Iron Man and Iron Fist (guess what the "common element" is!), dynamically illustrated by Scott Rosema.

Iron Man has always been one of my favorite superheroes. Everything about the character is cool — his ever-changing, gadget-laden armor (the classic and most familiar version, used by Scott Rosema here, was reportedly designed by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, although Ditko was never the regular Iron Man artist), his physical frailty (Tony Stark, the man inside the steel suit, has a weak heart — the armor's electrified chestplate doubles as a pacemaker, keeping his ticker ticking), his human weakness (Stark has battled an alcohol addiction throughout his career), his pencil-thin mustache (the Boston Blackie kind, as Jimmy Buffett would put it), and the fact that the armor itself creates the character (Iron Man has been temporarily portrayed at various times by several Stark associates, most notably Tony's best friend Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes, who later got his own personal armor and superheroic identity as War Machine).

I also found Iron Man intriguing because he was — in his original incarnation, anyway, before the ravages of the Vietnam conflict took the bloom off the lily for many — Marvel's most distinctively patriotic (at times, even jingoistic) hero, after Captain America. Stark's inner struggle to reconcile his position as a manufacturer of the tools of war, even when the war seemed like a colossally bad idea, gave him a philosophical dimension rarely found in comics of the day. Sadly, a slew of Marvel creative teams (who often appeared to despise the character, in my view) have turned the once-noble Iron Man into a shallow, bitter, angry guy, from most of the glimpses I've taken over the past many years. But that's comics for you.

So enamored was I of the Armored Avenger in my youth that as a Cub Scout (yes, I know, hard to imagine socially phobic me as a Cub Scout, but I pulled a two-year hitch on neckerchief duty from ages eight to ten) I built a Pinewood Derby racer (think gravity-driven slot cars hand-carved from a block of wood) painted metallic gold with crimson effects, and codenamed it "Iron Man." Thirty-plus years later, that little wooden car still adorns a bookshelf in my office.

Iron Man has enjoyed a few moments of Hollywood glory, having been featured both on the Marvel Superheroes cartoons of the mid-'60s (featuring the stentorian tones of John Vernon as Iron Man, under the direction of iconoclastic animator Ralph Bakshi, among others) and a slickly modern animated series in the mid-'90s (featuring Robert Hays of Airplane fame as the voice of Iron Man, and James Avery and Dorian Harewood as Jim "War Machine" Rhodes). A live-action Iron Man film has been rumored for years (director Nick Cassavetes is currently attached to the project), with Tom Cruise at various times reported to be interested in playing Ol' Shellhead. I keep waiting and hoping.

For a contrasting take on the Man in Steel, here's a sharp portrait by Comic Art Friday favorite Geof Isherwood. I like the way both Geof and Scott use lighting effects to connote the fact that the character is wearing metal armor and not just another set of long underwear. Nice job on the repulsor rays, too.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Bye-bye, and buy bonds.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Brenda's Starr dims at last

Dale Messick, creator of the venerable newspaper comic strip Brenda Starr, Reporter, has passed away at age 98.

Ms. Messick, whose real first name was Dalia but signed her work with the ambiguously asexual "Dale" just so uptight and chauvinistic editors would deign to look at her stuff, was a genuine groundbreaker: one of the first successful female cartoonists. Her lead character, a globe-trotting investigative reporter, was also one of the first self-sufficient career women in comics.

More than just a talented artist, Ms. Messick was one of the sharpest scripters in the business. Brenda and company were always an interesting, entertaining read, even for the lunkheaded male members of the audience.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Dale Messick, but she was a neighbor of mine — a resident of Penngrove, the little unincorporated community where our church meetinghouse is located. Given that the late Charles Schulz was also one of our county's leading citizens, we've done all right for ourselves in the comic strip industry.

Incidentally, Brenda Starr is still around. If you haven't seen the strip lately, you can check out the latest edition here. Although Dale Messick retired from the strip in 1980, it has continued under the guidance of remarkable female creative teams. Comic book legend Ramona Fradon (best known for her DC Comics work on Aquaman, Metal Men, and Metamorpho the Element Man) succeeded Messick as artist for five years. (Linda Sutter was the strip's writer during Fradon's tenure.) Brenda's current artist, June Brigman (creator of Marvel Comics' Power Pack), is one of the unheralded greats of the comics world — a tremendously talented visual storyteller. Brigman's scripting partner is veteran journalist Mary Schmich.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

It's a's a's Popeman!

Taking the cult of papal reverence to bizarre new depths, a South American artist has created a comic book in which the recently deceased John Paul II is resurrected as a superhero known as the Incredible Popeman.

Oh, come on...I couldn't make that up.

In his new guise as Popeman, the freshly Frankensteinian super-pontiff wears a yellow "anti-Satan" cape (previously worn, no doubt, by the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live) and green chastity pants (too bad the entire Catholic priesthood didn't get issued those), and packs a potent blend of holy water and sacramental wine.

Creator Rodolfo Leon already has distribution deals in Poland and his native Columbia (and yes, I'm absolutely certain the first Columbian publisher Leon approached with the concept did not say, "What are you...on dope?"), with companies in North America also wanting to horn in on the action.

I dunno...if the Incredible Popeman goes head to head with Brother Voodoo, my money's on the Haitian.

Welcome to Massacre High

I'm not sure what to think about the school board in Flagler County, Florida that decided to name the new local venue for secondary education Matanzas High School.

"Matanzas" means "massacre" or "slaughter" in Spanish.

Some parents apparently thought that in this age of Columbine and Red Lake, naming a school "Massacre High" might send the wrong message. The converse view held that Matanzas is a well-established name in the region's history (a band of French Huguenots were massacred there in 1565, and the local waterway is named the Matanzas River in honor — if that's the word — of this event).

What isn't being widely reported is that the Flagler County school board rejected the following names in favor of Matanzas High: Bloodbath High, Crimson Sands High, and Buncha Dead French Guys High.

In other news, the board of education in Little Big Horn, Montana has unanimously voted to christen their new school Take That, Custer! High.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Coming and going in TV Land

Coming: WWE Raw, back to USA Network where it polluted the airwaves for seven years before moving to the CSI Channel...I mean...Spike TV, formerly TNN (which stood for The Nashville Network, then The National Network, and mostly The Network Nobodywatches, until they started running reruns of Gil Grissom and company ad infinitum).

Does anyone still watch professional wrestling? And do they live anywhere near me?

Going: JAG, the long-running Navy courtroom series (or, as it's known at our house, "You Can't Handle Catherine Bell!"), is finally being given the old anchors aweigh by CBS after ten years.

Did anyone really watch this tepid excuse for television drama for an entire decade? And would civilization be any the worse had the Eyeball Network stuck to its original plan, and canceled the darn thing after its first season on the air?

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Good vibrations

Best wishes to ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who announced this morning that he has been diagnosed with lung cancer. I haven't watched the evening news on any of the major broadcast networks in eons, so I can't honestly say I'm a big Peter Jennings fan, but anyone battling the Big C gets respect and good thoughts from this quarter, whether we're fans or not.

Hope all goes well for the lanky Canadian.

The Baron of good news

Kudos to guard Baron Davis of the Golden State Warriors for being named NBA Player of the Week.

It's no accident that the formerly moribund Warriors suddenly started winning when Davis came over in a trade in late February. The same team that was 16-38 before Davis arrived is 12-7 since he showed up — 8-2 in games when he's been in the starting lineup — and is currently riding a five-game winning streak, their longest of the season. The man can flat-out take control of a game.

Amazing, the difference one player can make.

Time begins on Opening Day

Welcome back, baseball.

Yes, I know that technically yesterday was Opening Day. For me, though, the season doesn't officially start until the San Francisco Giants play their first game, which they will this afternoon.

Here's hoping the awesomely talented but incredibly ancient everyday players hold up to the stress of a 162-game campaign, and that the pitching staff — led by possibly the most imposing starter in the game today, Jason Schmidt — comes through as we know they can.

Take care of the knee and get back in the lineup soon, Barry.

So in honor of the most important day on the annual sports calendar, everyone sing along with me...
Take me out to the ball game (where reserved seat tickets start at $24 on weekends, parking will set you back at least $20, and you'll have blown another $60 by the time you eat, drink, and pick up a program)

Take me out with the crowd (some of whom might be terrorists, so everyone's going to have to undergo a strip search and bag check)

Buy me some peanuts (loaded with fat and carbohydrates — replace with tofu) and Cracker Jack (because "cracker" is a pejorative term for white folks from the Deep South and therefore perpetuates negative ethnic stereotypes, and because "Jack" is a masculine designation and therefore exclusionary of more than half the population, this product will hereafter be referred to as "Diversity Crunch")

I won't care if I never get back (thus avoiding parental responsibility, and adding to the nation's sorry statistics on deadbeat dads)

Let me root, root, root for the Giants (you and your so-called "home team" can take a hike)

If they don't win (or alternatively, if they take steroids or other performance-enhancing substances, demand exorbitant salaries, stage a player walkout, refuse to sign autographs, get hauled in on domestic violence charges, or otherwise fail to live up to their status as the Idols of American Youth), it's a shame

For it's one, two, three strikes you're out (at least in California, thanks to Proposition 184)

At the old (insensitive adjective: let's say "maturity enhanced" instead) ball game!

(And for our readers in Washington D.C., doesn't it feel great to be back in the fraternity again? Go Nationals! Except when they're playing the G-men, that is.)

Monday, April 04, 2005

Buy me a DVD and some Cracker Jack

Baseball is the most cinematic of sports. Its detailed culture and history combine with the natural beauty of the ballpark to make for great motion pictures.

Any hack can dish up a list of superlative baseball movies that includes such classics as The Natural, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Major League, Eight Men Out, and Bang the Drum Slowly, among a dozen or so others. It takes a true aficionado to compile a list of the great but obscure films based on our National Pastime.

Fortunately for you, you have me.

The following are the nine (numerical pun intended) best movies about baseball you probably haven't seen, but should. Presented in alphabetical order:

The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. A terrific comedy about the days when, in many baseball venues, only the ball was white. Featuring stellar performances by Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, and Richard Pryor, and directed by the underrated John Badham, whose next film was the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever.

Bay City Blues. Not a movie, actually, but an all-too-brief early '80s TV series about a minor league ball club. Created and produced by Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue), who apparently loves the color blue as much as Green Lantern hated yellow. With great before-they-were-better-known appearances by series regulars Dennis Franz (in pre-Sipowicz mode as a crusty coach), Sharon Stone (yes, that Sharon Stone), Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump), Michele Greene (L.A. Law), and Peter Jurasik (Babylon 5), and costarring the legendary Bernie Casey, a fine athlete in his own right as well as a solid actor.

Cobb. Tommy Lee Jones delivers the goods as baseball's most vile and vicious Hall of Famer. Written and directed by Ron Shelton, the former ballplayer who was also the auteur behind Bull Durham, but a darker and less accessible story about a thoroughly despicable — and fascinating — human being.

For Love of the Game. The least known (and, to be honest, least effective) of Kevin Costner's trilogy of baseball flicks, it's still worth seeing if only to admire the deft and haunting work of director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead and Spider-Man films), here taking a giant step outside his comfort zone in a non-genre picture. Based on a novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Shaara.

The Jackie Robinson Story. Major league baseball's first African American superstar plays himself in this 1950 biopic. Jackie was no actor, but the film is worthy of attention for its relatively faithful account of his barrier-breaking accomplishments. The great Ruby Dee, in one of her first film roles, plays Jackie's wife Rae.

Long Gone. Similar in feel to Bull Durham but with a darker undertone, this made-for-HBO film tells the tale of a minor league club in Florida upon the arrival of its first black — no, wait...he's Cuban! — player. Dynamite lead performances by a pre-CSI William Petersen, the underestimated Virginia Madsen, the ever-delightful Henry Gibson, and the talented Larry Riley, whose career was cut short too soon by AIDS. Maybe the only place you'll ever see Teller, of Penn and Teller, in a feature-length speaking role (he plays team owner Gibson's son).

Mr. 3000. Better than the dreadful ad campaign would have led you to believe. Bernie Mac stars as a way-over-the-hill star returning to the game in his late 40s to collect the three hits he needs for a career 3000. Silly, but fun.

The Pride of the Yankees. It's a legendary film, but given that it was made in 1942 and is in black and white, I'm betting most baseball fans of the modern era haven't seen it. That's a shame, because it's one of the best movies ever made about the game, focusing on the tragic life of the great Bronx Bomber first baseman, "Iron Man" Lou Gehrig. You'll come to know him as more than just a guy who had a terrible disease named after him. Gary Cooper is his usual stalwart self as Gehrig, and Teresa Wright is luminous as the slugger's wife. A number of Yankee stars, including Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Bob Meusel, and Mark Koenig, play themselves.

A Soldier's Story. Not generally thought of as a sports movie, but this murder mystery set within an all-black Army unit during World War II surrounds the players on the camp's baseball team. With another fine performance by the aforementioned Larry Riley as the team's star player, and outstanding efforts by Howard Rollins, Adolph Caesar, David Alan Grier, and a pre-stardom Denzel Washington. Powerful in its own right, and especially poignant in light of the fact that the first three actors mentioned above are no longer with us.

So now you know what to pick up at your local video purveyor for the first rainout of the new season. Play ball!

(This article is cross-posted to my film/television blog at DVD Verdict.)

Heels up!

Congratulations to the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina, for besting a scrappy Illinois squad to take the NCAA basketball championship.

Were I a betting man — and I'm not — I would have had my money on the Fighting Illini. This is why I can't see the sense in wagering on anything over which I don't exercise at least a modicum of control.

Have fun in Chapel Hill. Try not to set the town on fire.

Timing is everything

Leave it to John Paul II to cling to life just long enough so as to trash Charles and Camilla's wedding plans.

His Royal Chuckster will have to wait an extra day before playing stallion to the new royal brood mare, as he jets over to Rome to join POTUS, Mrs. POTUS, and a cast of millions at JPII's funeral.

Let this be a lesson to you kids: If you're going to die anyway, you might as well create havoc for other people in the process.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Speaking of coffee — and at this time of day, I almost always am — this is my first morning with my new Mr. Coffee. My previous Mr. Coffee died in rather spectacular fashion on Easter Sunday, announcing its passing with a series of loud beeps before miraculously transforming itself into a rather large paperweight. Into the trash it went, and after a week of Starbucks I finally got myself over to Target to buy a replacement.

My new Mr. Coffee looks somewhat similar to the last one — black and tall, though slightly more rounded in profile, and with a carafe shaped like an oil can. This one, unlike its predecessor, is not a programmable model. I rarely used the programming function, and I suspect that the little electronic timekeeping gizmo was what went kerflooey in the last one. I can live without a clock on my coffeemaker if it means the darn thing will be around to make coffee for a while.

It says something about our consumerist society, though, that an appliance would fail after a couple of years of use and I wouldn't think twice about replacing it. And for a mere twenty bucks, why would I? But that we now find it easier — and cheaper — to get a new gadget than to repair the old gadget (does anyone repair gadgets anymore?) explains a lot of things about today's America.

The divorce rate being one.

I still miss Joe DiMaggio doing the Mr. Coffee commercials. I always thought it peculiar that a man who had been married to Marilyn Monroe could muster that much enthusiasm for a mere kitchen appliance.

But then, I didn't know Marilyn. I would have liked to, but I was just a kid...her candle burned out long before her legend ever did. (Oh my, I'm channeling Elton John.) Perhaps if I had, I'd have preferred Mr. Coffee too.

What's Up With That? #17: Spring forward, my sweet aunt

I love daylight.

I hate the start of Daylight Saving (no "s" at the end — look it up) Time.

Why do we call it "springing forward" when its functional effect is to make us feel less springy, inasmuch as our circadian rhythms are kicked into a cocked hat and we're robbed of an hour of sleep, to boot? We should call this end of the process "falling back," because that's what I feel like doing the first few mornings of April madness.

Conversely, when we gain back an hour of blessed rest in the autumn, that should be called "springing forward."

It's high time we disposed of this clock-altering foolishness and simply left the "more usable daylight" schedule in place year-round.

Now back to the kitchen for the extra jolt of coffee I'll need to get motivated today. Thanks a lot, Congress.


Saturday, April 02, 2005

The doctor can't see you now

Yet another person making my slacker existence look pathetic: A blind man earning a medical doctorate.

In case that weren't sufficient, he's also a master of jujitsu, an accomplished biochemist, a talented composer, and an expert water-skiier.

Kudos to Dr. Tim Cordes. I'm going to go and shout "Loser!" at myself in the mirror for the next hour or so.

Two octogenarians converged in a wood

Sometimes things just make you wonder...

On Thursday, Frank Perdue, the Chicken King of Baltimore, died. The founder and longtime CEO of Perdue Farms, Perdue was the guy who pitched his poultry products in commercials with the line, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken." He became a pioneer in the "I'm not just the president, I'm also the pitchman" genre of advertising that later gave us such stalwarts as popcorn guru Orville Redenbacher, Dave Thomas of Wendy's, Victor Kiam of Remington ("I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company!"), and Sy Sperling of Hair Club for Men. Frank Perdue was 84 years old.

Now, just two days later, Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, dies. He too was 84 years old.


The Pope was a Pole. Frank Perdue sold poultry.

Frank Perdue lived in a city named for Lord Baltimore. John Paul lived in a city some consider dedicated to an even higher Lord.

The Pope was Catholic. Frank Perdue's chickens did not have lips. Neither man lived in the woods.

Frank Perdue preferred that people eat chicken every day. The Pope preferred that people not eat red meat on Fridays (even though it's no longer a hard and fast rule, as I understand it).

Both men wore funny hats.


You decide.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Johnnie went marching home

It happened while I was out of town, so I'm late to the party (or funeral, if that seems more apropos), but Johnnie Cochran died the other day.

Now if I ever get into some serious legal wrangle one of these days, I won't know who to call. Certainly not Mark Geragos, Scott Peterson's attorney. I'll want someone who actually wins cases.

Love him or leave him, you had to hand it to Johnnie. You'd never see Perry Mason regaling a jury while wearing a thousand-dollar suit and a crumpled black ski cap on his head. You'd never hear Ben Matlock rhyming in open court: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." You'd never find Denny Crane and Alan Shore making their murder suspect client try to don leather gloves soaked with the blood of his dead wife while the world looked on. (Okay, maybe you would. But that's not important right now.) The point is that it worked.

If I'd been O.J. and I had any idea my lawyer would be pulling these stunts, I'd have been shopping for alternate counsel. As it turned out, it's a good thing the Juice stuck with Johnnie. Otherwise, he wouldn't be out there hunting for the real killers at every country club and ski resort in America today.

I hope Johnnie's casket fit. Because if it doesn't...well, you know what that means.

I guess "White Wedding" would have seemed a bit crass

Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles have selected three favorite hymns for their April 8 wedding ceremony. The hymns:
  • "Immortal Invisible" appropriate choice for two people who look as though they might not cast reflections in a mirror.
  • "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" ...even the love Charles once professed for... umm... old what's her name. You know, the one who died in the car crash.
  • "Praise my Soul the King of Heaven" ...that Chuck and Cami are too long in the tooth to even think about reproducing.
As for me, I'm still not entirely convinced that Charles and Camilla are not, in fact, the same person, with their weird relationship being nothing more than an illusion created by computer graphics and rapid costume changes.

In related news from Buckingham Palace, Camilla has decided she does not wish to be known as "Queen" when she and Charles jump the broom. Too bad, really — she does bear a striking resemblance to Freddie Mercury.

The Princess and the Paradox

I had a tough challenge deciding on today's Comic Art Friday offering, because several nifty options arrived this week. So lucky you — bonus art today! I can practically feel you squirming with giddy anticipation.

Up first, this seriocomic duel of wills and biceps between pulp hero Doc Savage on your left, and second-string Marvel good guy Doc Samson on your right. It's a "pair o' Docs"! (I crack me up.)

Your artist du jour is the wily veteran Herb Trimpe, who was the regular artist on The Incredible Hulk for about a bazillion issues back in the day. If you saw a Hulk comic during the '70s, or even an image of the Hulk on some Marvel Comics merchandise from that same period, chances are good that you've seen Mr. Trimpe's work. In addition to his legendary run on Ol' Greenskin, "Humble Herb" rates a mention in comics history as the artist who drew the first appearance of another now-ubiquitous Marvel character: Wolverine. Trimpe didn't create the adamantium-clawed X-Man from the Great White North, but his art in a 1974 issue of Incredible Hulk marked the surly Canadian's public introduction.

Herb did, however, create Dr. Leonard "Doc" Samson, a gamma-ray blasted psychiatrist who spent many years attempting to head-shrink the Hulk. (Samson's exposure to radiation, unlike Bruce Banner's, didn't turn him into a monster — just a buff surfer dude with long green hair and a penchant for T-shirts with lightning bolts on the chest.) When I had the opportunity to commission this drawing from Mr. Trimpe, I knew exactly what I wanted to see.

Speaking of Canada, this gorgeous addition to my Wonder Woman art gallery flew in this afternoon from Montreal, home of one of my favorite artists, the nonpareil Geof Isherwood. Geof had only drawn one other portrait of the Amazing Amazon before I commissioned this piece from him, but he took to the assignment with his customary aplomb.

I'd asked Geof to craft Diana in a costume similar to that she wore in her early 1950s appearances. He responded with this stylish creation that recalls the flavor of those great late-Golden/early-Silver Age science fiction comics from that same period. As always, Geof's graceful touch with expression and his fluid, lifelike grasp of anatomy shines in this drawing — a new winner for my "Temple of Diana."