I Am Compelled to Ask...

...did they find a series of tubes?

Perhaps a big truck?

Or that internet his staff sent him that he never got?


Nerd-blogger John Rogers says what I said:

The Con's current scale hammers home the hackiness of the standard American media narrative. I noticed multiple news camera crews, and each time it was the same. 124,000 people at the Con, give or take. But if you turn on your news coverage you won't see the giggling, happy five year-olds with their parents, having the "together family time" we're always whinging on about. You won't see the young woman who wrote and drew a comic about her time as a soldier in Israel. You won't see the scrum of young Marines I spotted as they compared Magic the Gathering cards. You won't meet the junior high teachers who are using my comic in their predominantly Hispanic classrooms to spark discussion about racial representation in the media. You won't see the indie film-makers, the kid who shot this 25 minutes in a week and left every industry pro who stumbled across him slack-jawed.

A thousand stories, tens of thousands of familes ... yet the newshacks couldn't wait to hustle up the dozen or so real freaks in costumes, the literally .001% that gave them what they wanted. Not even the kids in the Harry Potter outfits, or the Japanese anime kids, or even the clever unfolding Transformer rigs -- no, they found every empty-eyed overweight forty-five year old Flash or flab-rolled part-time stripper Catwoman and latched on tight for the creepy interview.

No Time For Love, Dr. Jones

Among yesterday's big pieces of news from Comic-Con was the announcement that Karen Allen is coming back as Marion Ravenwood in Indy IV. This is sweet news, and something I've been hoping to hear since they announced that they were actually finally making this movie. That's Shia LaBeouf, Stevie Spielberg, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen and...um...Harry something-or-other there. Not pictured are other big-name cast members Jim Broadbent and Cate Blanchett. No Sean Connery this time around - which is probably for the best - and no John Rhys-Davies either. I'm hoping there'll be a surprise cameo from Jonathan Ke Quan as Short Round...but it's only a faint hope.

I have nothing particular to say here. This photo just made me squeal with nerdish glee and I wanted to share.

Top Five: How 'Bout Those Rainbow Suspenders?

As I've mentioned, I can't work up a lot of interest in seeing The Simpsons Movie. Yeah, I'm one of those snarky internet people who do nothing but bitch about how much "The Simpsons" has gone downhill over the last several years. To quote the Kids in the Hall's 30 Helens, "Things were better before." The movie doesn't look like it's going to reverse this trend, sadly. But why remain mired in the gloom of the present when you can reminisce about the glory days, back when "The Simpsons" handily earned its title as the Funniest TV Show Ever? Sounds like another opportunity for a Great Big Nerd Top Five! Here, in my humble opinion, are the Top Five Simpsons Episodes.

Composing a list like this is difficult and fairly arbitrary - seasons 3 through 8 are an embarrassment of riches, nearly every episode absolutely top-notch. Seasons 9 and 10 are uneven but decent, and the hit-to-miss ratio just keeps dropping from there.

Honorable mentions - "Bart the Daredevil", from Season 2, is an early indicator of how good things would be; the disastrous consequences of Capt. Lance Murdock's attempt to jump a tank filled with sharks, piranhas, electric eels and "the king of beasts, one ferocious lion!" never fail to crack me up. ""In Marge We Trust" is worthy of inclusion if nothing else for the Mr. Sparkle B-plot. "Treehouse of Horror VI"," from the 7th season, is the best of the Halloween specials, thanks largely to the presence of the great "Homer³."

5. "Homerpalooza" (7th Season): Celebrity guest appearances on "The Simpsons" were once funny. Celebrities would appear as characters who worked within the context of a normal plot. One of the hallmarks of the Decline has been celebrities "appearing" as themselves and the lazy writing that goes with it. "Hey, look everybody, it's [insert name of celebrity guest who happens to fit in with this week's set of loosely-connected gags]!" Though "Homerpalooza" might be considered a starting point of that disheartening trend, it works even so. Like many a great "Simpsons" episode, this one is actually about something real and meaningful - the harsh realities of aging and no longer being "with it." The spot-on parody of disaffected youth culture is great - "Oh, it's the cannonball guy. He's cool." "Dude, are you being sarcastic?" "I don't even know anymore." The celebrity cameos are actually funny, too: Sonic Youth rummaging through Peter Frampton's cooler, Cypress Hill holding a rushed, whispered conversation about whether they had "ordered" the London Symphony Orchestra while high, Peter Frampton shopping at Pink Floyd's garage sale. There are great throw-away lines referring to some of the show's running gags, like Homer's unerringly awful taste in music ("Jefferson Airplane gave way to Jefferson Starship. The stage was now set for the Electric Light Orchestra!") and what a miserable place Springfield is ("We've got a little rule back home: if it's brown, drink it down. If it's black, send it back."). And remember, for totally rockin' class rings, it's Jostens!

Best Line: The one that gave this post its title, Homer's impossibly lame conversation starter as he drives the carpool: "So...how 'bout those rainbow suspenders? Pretty cool way to keep your pants up!"

4. "Lisa's Rival" (6th Season): A brilliant examination of Lisa's over-achieving ways. "The Simpsons" got a lot of attention when they used Poe's "The Raven" in their first Halloween special. But here they use Poe to even better effect - Allison's "Telltale Heart" entry in the school diorama contest is a nice allusion underlining Lisa's increasingly crazy obsession with besting her rival. Lisa's trip to Allison's house is a classic moment ("Hmm...I have a ball here. Perhaps you'd like to bounce it."), as it the resolution of the diorama contest ("Star Wars action figures! In their original packaging!"). Again, this episode works largely because it plays on fears and insecurities that are easy to identify with. Lisa's character as the resident know-it-all has been well established, and the results when she meets her mirror image are highly entertaining. The B-plot, Homer's attempt to go into business selling "Farmer Homer's Sweet Sweet Sugar" is hilarious as well.

Best Line: This is also one of the classic Ralph Wiggum episodes, and his response when Lisa and Allison invite him to play anagrams with them is great: "My cat's breath smells like cat food."

3. "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show" (8th Season): This episode parodies a trait of long-running series to which "The Simpsons" itself has fallen victim, in its own way, in recent years. No, they haven't added a Rockin' Dog to their cast, nor has Roy come back to live with the Simpsons again. But in their desperation as they've completely run out of material, the writers have started focusing more and more on the odd fringe characters - the ones who are and ought to be nothing more than catch-phrases and throw-away gags. They've done entire episodes centering around Comic Book Guy, for fuck's sake. Not exactly a new character added to improve slumping ratings, but still...On the other hand, I don't want to come off like the people who are the other side of this episode's coin, the (speaking of Comic Book Guy) "Worst. Episode. Ever." types.

And this is far from the worst, of course - it's just kind of sadly prophetic. One of the things that's great about it is that it manages to skewer both sides equally - the interfering executives and lazy creators get both barrels, but so do the obsessive fans. Flanders telling Homer, "I can honestly say that's the best Impy and Chimpy episode I've ever seen" cracks me up, and is close to being the episode's best line, save for...

Best Line:
...the runner of the focus group trying to clarify just what it is he's learned: "So, you want a realistic, down-to-earth show...that's totally off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?"

2. "Homer at the Bat" (3rd Season): Another of the rare instances of celebrities-playing-themselves that works. The story of Homer's home-made bat sets things up nicely, and the classic trope of the hero saving the big game is hilariously subverted twice. First, when a Roger Clemens fastball torches Homer's "Wonder Bat," and then at the episode's end when Homer is plunked by a pitch, accidentally driving in the winning run. Top-to-bottom it's a great parody of the conventions of sports movies - it wasn't the first time "The Simpsons" have done it (that would be "Dancin' Homer" from season 2), nor would it be the last (e.g. "Lisa on Ice," "Bart Star"), but it's almost certainly the best of the bunch. The comical fates of Mr. Burns's ringers are terrific, not to mention the fact that Burns originally wants to bring in Honus Wagner and Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown to play on the team. Early on, the umpire goes over the rules of softball with Homer and Chief Wiggum. It's funny enough that every rule involves the consumption of beer, but the capper is Wiggum's response: "Hey, we know how to play softball!"

Best Line: When the always over-eager Springfield police pull over second baseman Steve Sax (who was then playing for the Yankees) and begin harassing him about a non-descript unsolved murder in New York City, Sax replies that there are probably hundreds of unsolved murders in New York. After a beat, in perfect cop-show style, Eddie responds: "You just don't know when to quit, do you, Saxie?"

1. "You Only Move Twice" (8th Season): Homer goes to work for a James Bond villain. The James Bond villain (Hank Scorpio) is friendly and easygoing and offers his employees great benefits and insists that they call him Hank. Homer confesses his lifelong dream (one of many) to own the Dallas Cowboys. In an effort to motivate the people working under him, Homer discusses with Scorpio the best place to acquire "business hammocks" ("In fact, they're all in the same complex, down on 3rd." "Oh, the hammock district."). Homer gets a bonus when he tackles James Bond after he's escaped from Scorpio's death-trap. Bart gets put into a remedial class at his new school, along with a boy who explains that "I moved here from Canada, and they think I'm slow, eh?" A bored Marge begins drinking a half-glass of fortified wine every afternoon, accompanied by melodramatic music. The family convinces Homer to quit his job. As he leaves, Scorpio says, "If you could kill someone on the way out, it would really help me a lot." As the credits roll after the single funniest closing of a "Simpsons" episode ever (see below), we get a Shirley Bassey-style theme song, proclaiming that Scorpio's "twisted twin obsessions are his plot to rule the world and his employees' health." There's not much in the way of depth or significance here, but it's just wall-to-wall laughs. Brilliant.

Best Line: Best Dialogue, actually...After returning to Springfield, Homer gets a telegram from Scorpio and a thank-you gift for helping out with Project Arcturus - "it may get you a little closer to that dream of yours." Homer looks up from the telegram and...

Homer: Aw, the Denver Broncos!
Marge: I think owning the Denver Broncos is pretty good.
Homer: Yeah, yeah.
Marge: Well explain to me why it isn't!
Homer: You just don't understand football, Marge...

I know, I know...some of the episodes I've included suck, right? And I'm totally blind, as I skipped right over what is clearly the best episode ever, right? So what's your favorite?

A Public Service Reminder

It's NerdProm weekend, folks. This weekend is the Somethingth Annual San Diego Comic-Con. This means that the weekend and the early part of next week, you're going to see the stories on teevee and in the paper about the NerdProm.

Yes, Comic-Con is an increasingly huge event, and increasingly important to Hollywood's marketing strategies in the era of super-hero blockbuster films and TV shows like Lost and Heroes. Yes, the word-of-mouth that helped turn Star Wars into a global phenomenon started at Comic-Con way back in the day. And yes, there will be costumes, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous (I'll let you determine for yourself into which category the Blue Beetle here falls, but I will note that there's a reason the people behind the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman films have avoided spandex like the plague).

But here's the annual reminder for my not-as-geeky readers: Don't believe the hype. Yeah, the newspaper editors and the segment producers at CNN love to fill the space with freaks-on-parade photos. But it's just not representative of your average nerd, or your average comics fan. Look at all those people behind the Blue Beetle in the photo - a sea of jeans, t-shirts and ballcaps.

Don't get me wrong - Comic-Con never fails to bring out the best in nerds who are into costumey kind of stuff. There's always some really amazing, fun, cool and impressive stuff interspersed amongst the old fat guys in cardboard Optimus Prime costumes. I love the spirit of it all, that there's a place where, for one weekend a year, a nerd can feel perfectly secure walking around in public all day long in a fucking Blue Beetle costume. I love that there are people out there so full to the brim with fan-love that they want to dress up as Blue Beetle or Hello Kitty Darth Vader or the crew of the Enterprise-D (I, uh, don't think the cargo shorts are Starfleet regulation there, Albino Worf) or Burger King Jedi vs. Jack in the Box Sith. Hell, I even feel a certain affection for the old fat guys in cardboard Optimus Prime costumes.

The point isn't that the costumes aren't cool or funny or interesting. The point is that the media can't find much else to talk about, so they make it look like everybody at Comic-Con has spent the last year and every dime they had on elaborate costumes, that every single person at Comic-Con who isn't dressed as their favorite Avenger or X-Man or Justice Leaguer is wearing a Stormtrooper uniform. And it just ain't so.

So there's your reminder. Remember: costumes = good, most nerds ≠ costume-wearers, most nerds are actually fairly well-rounded and intelligent people with diverse interests and many of us have even kissed a real, live girl in our lives. Comic-Con is a wonderful opportunity for nerds to let the proverbial freak flag fly...but it's only a fairly small set that has such a large freak flag.

In short, enjoy the photos, y'all, but remember to see both the forest and the trees.

Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?

I think that The Simpsons Movie looks no better or funnier than the average "Simpsons" episode of the last five or six years. Couldn't be less interested in seeing it.

Still, I think the "turning 7-11 into Kwik-e-Mart" promotion is pretty clever. One of the converted SebbinLebbins is here in the Mile High City. Check it out...

The Eagle Has Landed

38 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. If you don't think that this is the coolest thing anyone has ever done and the most monumental achievement in the history of mankind, you're probably reading the wrong blog.

My Favorite Comic Book Ever

It was the summer of 1988. We had been living in Greeley for several months - long enough for me to complete the fifth grade and to discover that I was no cooler in Greeley than I had been in Englewood. I had accompanied my Mom to the grocery store one afternoon, as usual. And, as usual, I made a beeline for the comics rack. In those days, there wasn't a convenient comic book store in town, but in those days, grocery, convenience and drug stores still carried comics alongside the magazines. Fortunately, my tastes weren't terribly esoteric, so I could get what I wanted by combing the racks at Safeway, 7-11 and Long's Drugs.

I don't know why, for sure, but this cover caught my eye in the Safeway that afternoon. It was a #1, which was always intriguing, to be sure. I liked the sound of the title: Speedball - The Masked Marvel. I flipped through it and I liked the art - though I had no idea that it was by Steve Ditko, or even why that was interesting or important. I probably picked out another book or two, though I couldn't tell you what they might have been, and went to find my Mom.

When we got home, I devoured Speedball #1 like a junkie getting a fix. I read it again and again over the next few weeks, and haunted the newsstands in search of Speedball #2. I liked Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, and I was beginning to be intrigued by the X-Men...but Speedball, of all characters, just sang to me.

It was the right book at the right time, I suppose. Robbie Baldwin was a high school student, not all that much older than me. He felt lonely and isolated because of his uncontrollable powers. It was a perfect little slice of melodramatic adolescent angst. Back in the '60s, Marvel invented super-heroic melodramatic adolescent angst with Spider-Man, but by the time I was reading comics, Spidey was already an adult and married to a super-model. Spidey was fun, the Thing and the Human Torch were cool, but Speedball was the first super-hero I could really identify with. This wasn't on any conscious level, of course - but somewhere in the back of my head, I could see a bit of myself in Speedball. There was angst, yes, but it was still a ton of fun, too.

Every year shortly after Thanksgiving my Grandmother - Mom's Mom - sent letters to both my brother and me, asking us what we wanted for Christmas. In 1988, I knew exactly what I wanted. I tore a subscription form from the back of a Marvel comic, filled it out with my name and address and the box for Speedball checked, and sent it to Grandma, along with a note explaining what to do with it.

Shortly after Christmas, Speedball #7 arrived in the mail. I was delighted - my favorite comic book, delivered right to my door. It was a little thrill around the same time each month, walking home from the school bus stop and wondering if my new comic would be waiting for me in the mailbox. That lasted for three months. Along with Speedball #10 was a letter from Marvel, telling me that my favorite comic book in the world was being cancelled.

In his introduction to DC's The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told, Roy Thomas tells a great story about the end of his personal "Golden Age of Comics." He relates the story of his subscription to All-Star Comics, home of his beloved Justice Society of America. He tells of how he cried when it became All-Star Western with the second issue of his subscription. I felt the same when that letter from Marvel came, telling me I would have to pick another title to fill out the remainder of the subscription period. I don't think I cried, but I was certainly crushed.

I picked another title - The New Mutants, which I liked a lot and which was filled with even more melodramatic adolescent angst. Still, I read those subscription issues somewhat grudgingly, always knowing as I read them that I wasn't getting what I really wanted.

A year or so later, Speedball was brought back in a new melodramatic adolescent angst team book, The New Warriors. I picked up that #1 - by this time, I was getting my comics from a comic book store that had opened up across the strip mall from the Safeway - solely because of Speedball, but I quickly became a fan, and that one was my favorite book for several years running.

And now the real point of all this...

Over the years, Marvel has made its comics steadily less and less fun. Everything that happens in the Marvel Universe (and in the DC Universe, for that matter) these days is taken very very seriously, and it's all tortured and self-important. As part of this drive for...whatever it is they think they're accomplishing, Marvel recently killed off most of the New Warriors and put Speedball through a transformation during the hoopla of their idiotic Civil War event.

He's not Speedball anymore - he's PENANCE (Ooo, scary!)! He feels guilty over the deaths he believes he caused at the beginning of Civil War, and for some reason he needs to be in pain to use his new-and-improved powers, so he wears an idiotic-looking costume with a bunch of interior spikes that poke him all the time so he can use his powers.

This idiocy is just indicative of why I've given up on nearly all super-hero comics. They're not interested in escapism, or in stories that are fun to read. It's gotta be all gloom-and-doom, all the time. Yeah, the original Speedball series was melodramatic adolescent angst - but it was fun ultimately pretty light and breezy. Robbie Baldwin felt isolated and alone, but he also enjoyed being a super-hero.

Writer Paul Jenkins, who is at least partially responsible for this inanity, told Newsarama, "Penance is much more interesting to me as a character than Speedball. As Speedball, and I don’t mean to disparage him as he was, but all stories, as they say, are about sex and violence, which translates to passion and conflict. There’s very little conflict in the happy-go-lucky guys. It’s difficult to show him conflicted, if he lets things ride. So Penance surely, to me, has far more potential. I think we’ve given him a good start, so we’ll see where he goes from here."

Right. 'Cause mopey Gloomcookie Emo boys are so much more interesting characters than those who are positive and funny. If your hero is essentially a happy-go-lucky guy who has some problems to deal with, that's boring and uninteresting. But if he's tortured and tormented and into self-flagellation, it's dramatic and important and, like, good writing and stuff. Dude's so far up his own ass that I think he's coming back out of his mouth. Wanker.

That's the bottom line - I started reading super-hero comics because they were escapist fun. I'm not saying that's what super-heroes have to be all the time, but it is, to me, a pretty big part of their appeal. And I still like the super-hero stuff that has some of that sense of fun - Jeff Smith's Shazam! and Robert Kirkman's Invincible are two that spring to mind.

If the boys at Marvel ever pull their collective head out and bring back a tiny shred of the silliness and whimsy that made Speedball entertaining in the first place, I'll be the first in line to see it. But as long as Emo Speedball (to borrow a phrase) is Marvel's idea of an "interesting" character, count me out.

Could Be

Yesterday, Christopher Butcher made a snarky post about the annual farce of the comics world that is the Wizard Advertiser Fan Awards, which Graeme McMillan at Newsarama then linked.

Ben Morse, Sean T. Collins and Kiel Phegley from Wizard responded to these two posts in typical juvenile Wizard fashion, with a resounding, "Nuh-uh! I know you are but what am I?" They insist that their awards are legitimized because the nominations come from "the fans," which is true in its own way, I suppose. I don't know that we really need awards to know that the average Wizard reader thought Infinte Crisis and Marvel Zombies were great and likes Brian Michael Bendis, Joss Whedon and John Cassaday. If the Eisners are the Oscars and the Harveys are the Golden Globes, then the Wizard Fan Awards are the People's Choice Awards - baffling, absurd and entirely useless.

The best part is this gem from Ben Morse: "I know there are no shortage of people on this here Internet that are going to call Wizard evil and stick to their guns regardless of if we cure cancer."

I didn't realize Wizard was such a leader in the field of cancer research, first of all. Rest easy, American Cancer Society and Sloan-Kettering, there's a sophomoric comics magazine on the job!

That but of ludicrous hyperbole aside, it's the defensiveness that really amuses me. "There's people out there who are just going to hate us, no matter what, aren't we put upon?" Give me a break. Yeah, there's a pretty vocal segment of comics fans on the internet who despise Wizard. Wonder why.

Could it be because with a straight face they referred to Lost Girls as "Alan Moore's steamy new sex comic," perhaps?

Could it be because the cover image that Christopher Butcher used in his post promises to tell us about "30 of the summer's sexiest superbabes," maybe?

Could it be because the folks at Wizard seem to think it's their job to kiss Joe Quesada's ass and to tell Dan DiDio that his shit doesn't stink?

Could it be because the closest Wizard gets to insightful commentary or criticism is something along the lines of "The only thing that RAWKED more than DC's Infinite Crisis was Marvel's Civil War!"?

Could it be because Wizard drinks the Kool-Aid, buying without hesitation into the idea currently popular at Marvel and DC that comics exist primarily to create licensable material to turn into movies and TV shows and toys rather than a viable and independent medium?

Could it be because every issue of Wizard gives the impression that the magazine's staff probably believes that Aaron Welsh is the true hero of "The Rack," put upon and unfairly belittled by his snobby co-workers at Yavin IV?

Could it be because when a couple of bloggers have something negative to say about Wizard, rather than acting like adults and professionals, ignoring it and going about their business, three staffers react like eight-year-olds?

Could be.

Could be that people hate Wizard not randomly or senselessly, but because it's truly loathsome. What else do you expect from people with a modicum of intelligence and taste when you so gleefully and willingly carry the banner for the Lowest Common Denominator?


Because Blogger kind of (well, okay, TOTALLY AND FUCKING COMPLETELY) sucks when it comes to embedding YouTube video, the video is a separate post. Grr. I really hate Blogger sometimes.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For the Wilhelm Scream

Above we have the best of several compilations available on YouTube of various Wilhelm Screams from a wide variety of movies and TV shows.

I was around ten years old when I first noticed the Wilhelm. On my umpteenth viewing of Return of the Jedi, I noticed that the scream Jabba's henchman makes as he falls into the Sarlaac pit sounded a lot like the scream the stormtrooper makes in Star Wars (A New Hope, if you must) as he falls into the bottomless abyss aboard the Death Star. Curious, I pulled out my tape of Star Wars, fast-forwarded it to the right moment (the days before DVD chapter skips were a real bitch for young obsessives like myself) and switched back and forth between Star Wars and Jedi until I was certain that the two screams were identical. At the time, I didn't really understand how sound in movies worked, and I figured they must have hired the same stuntman with a distinctive scream to play both parts.

Over the years, I watched more movies and kept hearing that scream, and figured it couldn't be the same actor/stuntman in every movie. Eventually, I learned what a Sound Designer does and figured that it must be a sort of inside joke or calling card for people who do movie sound. In my head, I called it "the Star Wars scream," even though I was pretty sure it hadn't been original to Star Wars.

Later still, I heard the term "Wilhelm Scream" without any particular context or description, other than that it was a movie thing. I knew, though, that the Wilhelm and the Star Wars scream must be one and the same. Since then, I've heard it in more and more movies. When Emily came across the term on the internets somewhere recently, she asked me (font of wisdom and useless trivia that I am), "What's a Wilhelm Scream?" I queued up Return of the Jedi to the appropriate point (now with DVD chapter skips!) and as the skiff guard fell to his doom and made his anguished cry, Emily said, "Oh, that scream!" She'd heard it a million times before without quite realizing it...and so have you, probably.

What I didn't know until today was just why it was called a Wilhelm Scream. Searching YouTube for the video compilation mentioned in Roger Ebert's most recent Movie Answer Man column, I came across this invaluable history lesson, and this (inferior) Wilhelm compilation, which answered that question. The scream was originally used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums - but more memorably used two years later in Charge at Feather River. In that film, it was the scream of pain emitted by, who else, Pvt. Wilhelm when hit in the leg with an arrow.

Ben Burtt of Lucasfilm has used it (or a variation) in all six Star Wars films (and yes, that clip of Han Solo pushing a stormtrooper through a railing that you don't recognize from any of the movies is, indeed, from the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special) and all three Indiana Jones films to date. Apparently, he's sworn off using it in the future.

But c'mon, you know there's just no way the Wilhelm won't make an appearance in Indy IV. It's as crucial to the formula as a scene where Dr. Jones risks injury to life and limb to retrieve his hat.

Owls and Rats

Man, when the weather turns and we have to go back to regular theaters, it's going to be quite a shock. We made another trip to the drive-in last night. When you're getting a double feature and smuggling in booze is as easy as putting a bottle of wine in the car, it's tough to want to go to the regular theaters. So, another double feature for us, another double feature movie review for y'all.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: As I've mentioned before, Phoenix was not my favorite of the Potter books. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that I think they've matched Prisoner of Azkaban as the best of the movie adaptations. How did they accomplish this?

Editing, first and foremost. Or perhaps "condensing" is a better word. I generally like the extra detail and curious little side-trips and sub-plots of the books, but Book 5's interminable quidditch scenes, among others, bored the crap out of me. They're gone in the movie, much to its benefit. Some things are missed - the full-scale rebellion against Dolores Umbridge, for example, is shortened to the Weasley Twins' dramatic exit. Still, most of the cuts make a lot of sense, and what was a little bloated becomes a tight, fast-paced story.

Secondly, casting. The producers of the Potter movies have always managed to find the exact right actor for the role, and they continue that here. I think the adult actors want to do it because it's fun and the movies have become a sort of who's who of this era's British actors; if you're a British actor and not appearing in a Potter movie, you're not much of a British actor at all. Imelda Staunton is pitch-perfect as Dolores Umbridge, conveying the perfect thin veneer of sugar-and-spice over pure petty nastiness. Helena Bonham-Carter's appearance is more of a cameo, but it's fun and she's got the right look for the role. The casting is just right for the kids, too. Evanna Lynch embodies Luna Lovegood with eerie perfection, spacey but sweet.

With the films being a Parade of Special Guest Stars, it's easy to overlook the main cast. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have grown into their roles wonderfully. They are perfectly at home with these characters, and more importantly, have developed an easy, unforced chemistry with one another over the course of five movies. Radcliffe, especially, has grown as an actor to the point where he can really carry these movies, easily holding his own with Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon. It would be easy to get lost in the Parade, but Radcliffe really stands out.

The movie is, of course, just the undercard to the summer's Big Potter Event coming in another week - but it's good enough to stand on its own merits, too.


Ratatouille: I still haven't seen Cars...but I feel safe in saying this anyway: Pixar can do no wrong. More importantly, Brad Bird can do no wrong. If this idea was in other hands - the hacks at DreamWorks or Sony, some other writer or director, it couldn't possibly work. If you stop and think about it, this concept - a rat who dreams of being a gourmet chef - shouldn't work at all. But it does, and beautifully.

It's full of appealing and charismatic voice work, not just from Patton Oswalt as Remy, but also Brad Garrett (who sounds here nothing like his deep-voiced monotone from "Everybody Loves Raymond"; in fact, I mistook him for Kelsey Grammer at first), Ian Holm, Peter O'Toole, Janeane Garofalo and the relative unknown Lou Romano voicing Linguini, the human chef through whom Remy works.

Unlike most other movies that revolve around cooking and kitchens, it's not really food porn (e.g. Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate) because, well, the idea of a rat cooking is silly and if you think about it too much, disgusting. But it properly captures the love and passion that cooking and food often inspire, both in cooks and appreciative audiences. Remy's fellow rats' indifference to what they eat is amusing as well, as everyone who cooks and loves food is often frustrated by encountering that unrefined palate that just doesn't care what it eats.

The writing is sly and clever, full of little throw-away jokes. Bird must have worked in restaurants early in his life, because he nails the character of every head chef I've ever encountered by making Skinner a domineering asshole with a Napoleon complex. He also skewers the modern "celebrity chef" trend - Skinner is more concerned with branding and selling frozen burritos than with cooking and good food.

Above all, like all Pixar productions, this movie is simply gorgeous to look at. We were watching Toy Story 2 the other night, and I commented about how primitive the original Toy Story looks in comparison. And in comparison to this, Toy Story 2 might as well be cave paintings. The Pixar animators have advanced immensely in recreating human movement. And the rats are simply brilliant - they manage to be not only convincingly rat-like but cute and appealing as well. It's a fascinating blend of the cartoonish and the realistic. Remy is clearly not a real rat, but is covered in realistic fur. More impressive still is the depiction of wet fur.

And it continues a long, proud cinematic tradition, too. As with every movie set in Paris ever, there is a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower from every single window.

Celebrate the Love

I think this one speaks for itself.

Warning: Contains Language

Jon at Facedown in the Gutters makes a cogent and important point: Saying "Frak" when you mean "Fuck" is just plain stupid.

For those not in the know...well, back in the day, there was "Battlestar Galactica." It starred Ben Cartwright and Faceman from "The A-Team" in velour spacesuits, and was not very good. Now and then, the characters uttered the word "frak" in a sort of general cursing kind of way. A few years ago, somebody decided to remake "Battlestar Galactica." The new one stars Lt. Castillo and the lady from Dances With Wolves and it is thoroughly awesome. The writers of the new one, drawing on fond memories of the old one, naturally brought back the word "frak." In the new one, it's clearly the "Galactica" equivalent of fuck. They say frakking, and mother-frakker, and "Frak you!" and other stuff that makes its nature as a vulgar word completely obvious. Internet nerds have picked up on this and use the word "frak" all the time in, as Jon observes, Ain't-it-Cool talkbacks and other thoroughly lame contexts.

Just say "fuck," nerds. "Frak" isn't cool, it isn't funny, it isn't anything but dorky as hell. Fuck is a good word, even though it's a bad word. No, I don't use it in polite company or when writing academic papers or anything like that. But in a casual sense, it's a great word. Deployed with style and panache, it can be cool. Used with timing and flair, it can be funny. For example, two of the funniest moments from two of my favorite movies:

The Stranger: I like your style, Dude. Just one thing, though.
The Dude: What's that?
The Stranger: Do you have to use so many cusswords?
The Dude: What the fuck you talking about?
The Stranger: Okay, Dude, have it your own way...

Otto: You pompous, stuck-up, fuck-face, dick-nose...
Archie: How interesting. You're quite the vulgarian, aren't you?
Otto: You're the vulgarian, you fuck!

(That's The Big Lebowski and A Fish Called Wanda, respectively for the cinematically illiterate out there.)

Maybe I'm the vulgarian, but I find the f-word funny as hell. It adds such lovely weight and emphasis to any sentence. It conveys so much with just four simple letters. It can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, an interjection...creative users can probably even make it into a conjunction or an adverb. Actors as lowly as Sly Stallone and Schwarzenegger have practically built careers on it, and actors as acclaimed as DeNiro and Pacino have used it no less often. Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Eddie Murphy practically raised its utterance to an art form. Minds as great as Carl Sagan's have pondered it - in The Dragons of Eden, he muses on the implied "I" of the phrase, "Fuck you!"

Cole Porter once claimed that "good authors...once knew better words," but I donno. I've read Chaucer, and that dude could make a sailor blush. Filthy mouth, that Chaucer. Or filthy pen, anyway.

The title of this post, by the way is lifted from the title of Neil Gaiman's audio-book story collection. I don't think he uses the f-word all that much. Even so, you should check it out, as it's pretty fuckin' good.

A Day at the Races

On Friday, Erin says, "I thought we'd go to the track this afternoon." When someone in Louisville says "the track," it means only one thing - Churchill Downs. I had hoped that during our stay, we might get the chance to go to a Louisville Bats minor league baseball game, but the schedule didn't work out to make that possible. Fortunately, going to the track works out to about the same thing. You sit in uncomfortable seats alongside a bunch of strangers on a warm summer afternoon, drinking bad beer and watching something relatively exciting happen every twenty minutes or so. Besides, what's a trip to Kentucky without a visit to the Mecca of thoroughbred racing? Going to Louisville and declining to go to the track seems sort of like going to New York and saying, "Empire State Building? Meh. Who wants to see that?" So, with Frank Loesser's "Fugue for Tinhorns" running through my head, off to the track we went.

Each year when they show the Kentucky Derby on TV, the cutaway shots as they go to commercial are of the tree-dotted rolling hills of the Kentucky countryside. The viewer sort of gets the impression that Churchill Downs is nestled away amongst the horse farms and bourbon distilleries. The truth is that Churchill Downs is right in Louisville, practically next door to the airport. Every five or ten minutes, a plane takes off and flies overhead, so low you feel like you could reach out and touch it. The televising of the Derby also focuses on that genteel "Southuhn" feeling - men in suits and ladies in fancy hats sipping mint juleps. An average afternoon at the track is far from this - some patrons are dressed nicely, some are in tank tops and flip-flops. There is the sense of quiet desperation common to all places where there is gambling. To be sure, most people are just out for an afternoon's entertainment, maybe laying down a few dollars just for fun, maybe just enjoying the atmosphere. But there is the definite sense that some of the people there are silently praying that this is the race where that superfecta bet, the one on which they've got their last two bucks riding, finally comes through for them.

I don't want to give the impression that it's no better than a seedy greyhound track, though. It's a fun and exciting atmosphere. The horses wait in the paddock, where experienced gamblers can look them over with a seasoned eye, or where people like me with no real interest in gambling can simply admire them. They are simply stunning to see close-up, sleek coats and rippling muscles. The red-coated bugler plays the call to post, the horses make their way to the gate, and before you know it, they're off and running. They call the Kentucky Derby "the most exciting two minutes in sports," but it's a fair bit longer than an average Spring Meet race. On an ordinary Friday afternoon, you get "a fairly exciting minute or so in sports." The horses thunder around the track, the crowd gets to its feet as they come around the curve and down the straightaway in front of the grandstand, and just like that, it's over. Some people cheer, some shrug, some tear up their tickets in disgust. You sit and chat while the Jumbotron screen shows races from other tracks or "Wacky horseracing sports blooper" videos. You finish your beer, head down to the paddock, and do it all over again.

After 4:00 is "Happy Hour," which is called that because that's what such things are called, but it lasts until 7:00. The good news is that Happy Hour means $1.50 beers. The bad news is that your choices for $1.50 beers are limited to Killian's and Coors Light. Still, the weather is hot, the beer is cold, and cheap beer is cheap beer. While I know in the back of my mind that I'm at Churchill Downs and should therefore be drinking a mint julep...well, the mint juleps at the bar upstairs are $7.00, and the beers downstairs are a buck and four bits. As I order a Killian's, the lesser of two evils, Emily adds, "And a Coors Light." I am agog. Whenever I drink a beer, be it ale, pilsner or lager, Emily sniffs it, wrinkles her nose and insists that beer tastes like soap. I raise an eyebrow as we walk away from the beer stand, both clutching "souvenir" cups. Emily shrugs - "I wanted something cold and carbonated, and the beer is cheaper than the soda," she says. True enough.

We while away the afternoon, laughing at the strange names owners give to horses - though, how can you see "Igotitigotitigotit" or "Put Away the Halo" in the program and not want to bet on that horse? - and drinking our cheap beers. Erin wins back a few bucks to end a streak of wretched luck and we call it a day. It's not the thrill of a two-out double to save the day in the bottom of the 9th...but it'll do.

1. Quality Time

2. Shower
3. Bed

I'll leave you to figure out what "Quality Time" means, but if you're an old-school "Bloom County" fan, you may have a good guess.

After a great time had by all in Louisville, we have completed the epic drive and are home safe and sound. This morning we were in Kentucky. Now we are in Denver. Pictures and stuff soon.

But to borrow a line from Harold Ramis, a line I've used frequently during our trip across the heat and humidity of the American Midwest..."I feel like the floor of a taxicab." The shower beckons.

The 'Ville

We are in Louisville after a trip through the Midwest that was fun but sticky, and during which we learned that in Kansas, they are really, really, really concerned about the fate of fetuses, that opting for the convenience of the KOA right by the highway because you're tired and don't want to backtrack to the state park is never a good idea, and that drivers in Missouri and Illinois are just as stupid in the rain as drivers in Denver.

It was, of course, the night of the 4th of July when we arrived. And friends, let me tell you something - when Eek! talks about "the 217" being a little crazy, she is not exaggerating. People were setting off Roman candles and bottle rockets in the middle of the street. As we sat on the patio at the neighborhood tavern with Erin and Todd of Death Wore a Feathered Mullet, some local youths came along and put on a display of skyrockets and other aerial devices in the intersection. It was impressive, but we also worried if perhaps a stray rocket might hit the umbrella on our table and send us all to a fiery doom. It felt kind of like being in Baghdad.

We're shortly heading out to explore the Derby City by day. I don't doubt we'll hear and/or see some people burning off the last remains of their fireworks stock today...but I don't think we'll have to worry about RPGs or IEDs.

Meg White vs. Neil Peart Steel Cage Match

Here's The Onion AV Club's Noel Murray on "Exclusionary Preferences":

I’m not sure which part of this method of arguing bothers me more: the automatic assumption that if one doesn’t like one particular great thing, they must like only awful things, or the insistence that people’s taste should be necessarily narrow. I understand the impulse to rank things, and I understand some people’s need to define themselves as much by what they dislike as what they like. But when people get didactic about it, it’s hard to take them seriously. Do they have no CDs in their collection that they find hard to explain to their friends? No dopey movies or TV shows that they like? No junk food they crave?

Internet people like to pretend that they have perfect, impeccable taste. They rip anyone who makes a mildly positive comment about Steven Spielberg to shreds, as if they only watch the films of Fellini, Goddard and Truffaut, maybe a Scorsese if they're in the mood for something mindless...Yeah, right.

Everybody's tastes are at least a bit all over the map. Everybody has some pretty silly and humiliating things in their media collections. I mean, I've got Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" and "Sketches of Spain" in my CD collection...but I've also got Miles' simply dreadful final album, "Doo Bop" in there right alongside. I've got the Beatles, the Clash, the Police, U2, the Rolling Stones, the Violent Femmes, the White Stripes, REM...lots of generally-agreed-upon good stuff, right? But I've also got a Jars of Clay CD I bought back in the day because they had a catchy tune on the radio and I bought it without really realizing that they were a Jesus band. I've got Chumbawamba. I've got Styx' Greatest Hits, for God's sake. It's not just stuff that stays in the book and never sees light of day, either - I listen to the Dave Matthews Band's "Under the Table and Dreaming" with some regularity. No, it's not as embarrassing as Styx, but it's not exactly brimming with cool-guy cred, either.

The DVD collection is just the same. Yeah, I've got The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Fight Club, Almost Famous, The Royal Tenenbaums and Lawrence of Arabia. But I've also got The Patriot, Mission: Impossible 2, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, For Love of the Game and Titan A.E. Some of these are more defensible than others, but none are exactly all-time classics.

In short, come off it, internet! We're all perfectly capable of enjoying trash just as much as gold-plated classics. We can all go from appreciating the greatness of "Abbey Road" to singing along with "Mr. Roboto," and still be secure in our intellectualism/hipsterism/coolness/whatever. It's really okay.