Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Month That Was - December 2007: And we kiss yet another year goodbye. I had hoped to have my Death Valley write-up done, but I didn't get there. Alas. Next month for sure. I'm down to the last couple of football columns and I won't have months of reworking my novels this year -- although I am trying to get them on the Kindle, and I have reworked the preview sites to make them more readable -- so maybe I can make some fiction progress. I have also reworked the free preview pages linked to left, to enhance readability. If you have ever wondered whether you should buy my novels, go there for a taste.

The Wire begins to end
Movie Round-up
Dash to D.C.
Juvenile Thiller, Unintentional
Juvenile Thiller, Intentional
Credit Card Follies
Michigan Death Watch?
Frosting on the New Year
The Wire Begins to End: I have seen episode one of the fifth and final season of The Wire. The episodes are coming out week ahead of time on HBO On-Demand. It starts out with a standard boilerplate police interrogation, which is weak and obviously there to give voice to David Simon's social commentary, but it picks up a bit from there. The bigger problem -- which may be isolated to the first episode -- is that everyone is talking to position themselves vis-a-vis upcoming developments. There's none of the naturalistic dialogue we are used to from this bunch.

Also worrisome is that the high-powered media types who have had advanced viewings, and the bloggers who have pirated copies, of most of the series are not responding all that well. After four seasons, and with the end in sight, The Wire was finally getting something similar to hype. Maybe it was better off obscure. Next month I should have a better take, with four or five episodes out.

It's good to see Homicide alum Clark Johnson back as the City Desk editor at the Baltimore Sun. Fine actor.
Movie Round-up: Lot's of quality comedy on view thanks to the 9 million movie channels I get.

  • Mr. Warmth, Don Rickles -- He is now in his 80s and I assumed he had retired or at least let up a bit in the face of decades of increasingly virulent political correctness, but man was I wrong. He still marches out on stage and absolutely savages every religion, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation he encounters.

    He still does his Sambo voice for every "colored guy" in the audience. He makes fun of Martin Scorcese's asthma. To a Japanese audience member: "I spent 4 years chasing your grandfather through the jungle!" To David Letterman: "Who picks out your clothes, Stevie Wonder?" To Frank Sinatra: "Make yourself at home. Hit somebody." To Ronald Regan: "Mr. President, try to listen...he keeps looking around saying, is George Bush the president, or am I still in charge?" To no one in particular: "I have a Jewish wife who just lies in bed and says 'Help me with the jewelry.'" To a fat guy: "Is that your wife? Oh, look at her face. She's in agony." Queers. Wops. Spics. Eye-talians and ay-rabs. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have nothing on the Merchant of Venom.

    It's the delivery that makes it work. Michael Richards (Kramer) is a pariah, but people pay to get insulted by Don Rickles. Rickles has developed a chink or two in his act -- he does a sincere James Cagney impersonation that is bizarrely out of place -- but apart from the occasional slip, he hasn't let up throughout the course of my lifetime, and he hasn't quit getting away with murder. The child in me that stayed up late to watch him on Johnny Carson is grateful for that.

  • That's the Way I Like It -- Singapore teens in the late '70s are entranced by Saturday Night Fever and find their lives mirroring the movie including a climatic dance competition. I can easily see Singaporean kids exiting the theatre laughing at and energized by the enthusiasm and silliness. The production values are second rate at best but you get the sense that everyone involved was having a good time. Even the hopeless looking John Travolta knockoff seemed to be enjoying himself. Delightfully well acted. Pure fun. More heart than any ten Hollywood films.

  • One-Two-Three -- The funniest Cold War movie ever made. A frenzied, screwball, Billy Wilder-directed guffaw factory, set in 1960-ish Berlin when you could still get through the Brandenburg gate between East and West, and featuring a manic (and tongue-in-cheek) performance from James Cagney. Cagney is a high-power Coca-Cola exec charged with overseeing his boss' seventeen year old daughter. The daughter (Pamela Kiffin is a sublime antebellum airhead) sneaks away to the East and marries a full-on commie pinko. Hijinks ensue. Cagney goes all out, first to get the marriage annulled, then when he finds the girl is pregnant, to transform the commie into a perfect son-in-law, and along the way, save his own marriage.

    The entire film is a flawless example Billy Wilder's unerring sense of comic timing. Other directors should take notes. Not a wasted scene, word, or moment. Yes, it's farce and it can seem supercilious, but it's vastly superior to the overrated, adolescent snarkfest that is Dr. Strangelove, the Cold War comedy everybody seems to think is a work of genius. (I am of the opinion that it's OK to worship Kubrick when you're in college, but then you have to get over it.) One-Two-Three is old school comedy at its best.

  • Extras: Series Finale -- I liked the series Extras, but it got a little tedious after a while. Every episode seemed to be about finding new ways to humiliate Ricky Gervais. I stopped watching early in the second season. The recently aired series finale was top notch, however.

    Andy Millman (Gervais) is now a third rate lead actor with a catch phrase on a cheesy yet extremely popular sitcom, but he yearns to be taken seriously; he would sacrifice his fame for dignity. Except it turns out he really likes fame. He likes getting the choice tables at the hot restaurants. He likes being interviewed by the fawning press and having his picture taken. He just doesn't want to pay the price of indignity. As Andy morphs into everybody's clich‚ of an arrogant celebrity and alienates all his friends, he is confronted very bluntly with a fact, paraphrased as follows: "There are a handful of people who can have both artistic integrity and fame and fortune. You're not one of them. Which do you want?" Andy picks fame and fortune.

    The ending where Andy sees the error of his ways while filming a British reality house show called Big Brother leads to a beautifully dramatic (and artistically integral) moment, with a convincingly ironic result and a wonderfully uplifting ending. Expertly done -- there is no doubt of the validity of sentiment, yet no loss of comedy. I'm not sure how it would play for people not familiar with the series, but it was as well conceived and realized as a series finale could be.
Dash to D.C.: I took a weekend in DC for two reasons. One to see the Hopper exhibit at the National Gallery, and two, to accompany Miss Kate and Miss Anna and Anna's current beau to a high-falutin' French restaurant that everyone raves about. Some notes in brief:
  • The Hopper exhibit is fabulous. If it travels to a museum near you, go see it. Hopper's goal (achieved) was to make normalcy interesting, to find a pleasing aesthetic in the mundane. I would love to be able to do with a camera what he did with paints.

  • Also at the National Gallery is an exhibit of J.M.W. Turner, who painted in the very late 18th century and the early 19th. He was a true original and his stunning landscapes were very much ahead of their time. You can consider him the start of impressionism although no one had any idea of such in his day.

  • The National Gallery is free, just in case you were wondering. Well, as free as any tax sponsored institution can be. I always try to have lunch there when I go just to give them a bit of revenue.

  • I made a quick stop in the relatively new Museum of the American Indian. I expected it to be a full-on Wounded-Knee-weep-for-my-people affair, but it wasn't quite that. I gather that they are still fleshing the place out a bit, but my guess is that it stands pretty well as a catalog of what is known about Native Americans of all sorts -- history, habits, present status. I realize it makes me something of a bigot, but I don't see what the big deal is about Native American culture. To my eyes, there isn't much there. I find the simple stories and creation myths rather childish. The primitive survival skills are fine and all, but is that really culture or simply craft? And the dubious and vague claims of being in tune with nature are downright foolish. I tend to think most people get worked up about it because it validates their need to feel culturally aware or empathetic, something which I am too cold-hearted to worry about. Good food in the cafe‚ though -- tasty buffalo chili and flatbread.

  • I stayed at the Hotel Helix, one of the many DC properties of my beloved Kimpton Hotels. It had all the usual trappings -- free wine happy hour, nicely styled (and good-sized) rooms, top-notch staff. The only downside to Helix is its location. It's in the Logan Circle area of DC which is sort of caught in the middle of nowhere, although it's growing. It's healthy hike from the Helix to the Mall or Dupont Circle. In fact it's a half dozen blocks or so just to the nearest Metro station. Because of that I can't really recommend the Helix in winter or if you are not inclined to do a good deal of walking. You're probably better off with one of the other Kimpton properties in the area.

  • The fancy-schmancy restaurant was L'Auberge Chez Francois. Situated in what could easily be mistaken for a private home is the very upscale suburb or Great Falls, VA, you'll need a coat and tie to try this full-on formal six-course Alsatian dinner joint. The food is rich and tasty and excellently prepared. In true Alsatian tradition you can get your game fix here -- four legged mammals of all sorts are available as are a variety of our feathered friends. It was as good as any meal I've ever had. Is any dinner worth in excess of $100 a piece (once you add in drinks and souffles)? Probably not, but that's why you don't do it every day.

  • Lastly, a travel tip. If you do a lot of two-three day trips it might behoove you to pick up a SkyRoll. It conveniently carries a suit and a change or two of shirts and slacks without much wrinkling. There are compartments inside the core of the roll for a pair of shoes, travel kit, socks and underwear and so forth. It was all I needed for two nights in DC, including dress-up dinnerwear. Nifty.
Juvenile Thriller, Unintentional: Shibumi, by Trevanian, is one of the silliest books I have ever read. After completing the entire Aubrey/Maturin series and shocking myself with its polar opposite in Kerouac's On the Road, I was looking for a little escapism. In the past I have turned to Ian Fleming's James Bond for a well-crafted, masculine, but undemanding read, but I have finished those and his successors hold little interest for me (with the exception of the one by Kingsley Amis). At some point in my surfings I came across a recommendation for Shibumi as a thoughtful spy thriller. I looked it up on Amazon and the reader reviews were fives, so I made the plunge. And it was truly silly.

It starts out fairly well. We are introduced to a sinister oil cabal called the Mother Company that essentially controls the world -- standard 1970s spy stuff. During one of the Mother Company's operations, a woman who should have been killed escapes. She flees and seeks the assistance of one Nicholai Hel, a retired professional assassin of superhuman abilities who owed a mortal debt to her uncle. However, it turns out, deep in the past, Hel had killed the brother of the Mother Company operative who was in charge of the failed operation. Revenge and honor are set to collide. A pretty well-wrung plotline.

Trevanian is a good stylist, and he has a talent for character sketches, which helps to suck you in a bit. But he does go on. The book is approximately 60% bloat, whether it be superfluous characters or inconsequential events or excruciatingly detail. Dude, omit needless words. Hell, omit needless chapters.

Nicholai Hel, the lead character, starts out with a good back story told as a flashback. Born to a displaced Russian aristocrat in pre-war Shanghai, he is taken under the wing of one of the Japanese occupiers and eventually gets an excellent upbringing in Japan. This all falls apart when the Japanese empire is defeated. We are treated to excellent non-standard descriptions and judgments of occupied Japan and good set-up of conflict between traditional Japanese cultural and the inevitable Westernization; a very promising start.

Then it spirals down the toilet in short order. Behavior stemming from this cultural conflict leads Nicholai to spend 3 days getting tortured followed by 3 years in solitary confinement. He gets out by performing a government sanctioned assassination, and thus finds his life long career. When we then rejoin Nicholai in the present he has developed a super-human proximity sense (he knows when you're nearby) that gives him tremendous advantages over any individual opponent, and he is a master of a martial art called "naked-death" which emphasizes the use of everyday objects as deadly weapons. There is even a line to the effect of it being estimated that in an average room he has 22 means assassination at his disposal, or something like that. Really? But can he turn back time by flying backwards around the Earth? Worse yet, we are treated to multiple expositions on his unmatched sexual prowess. Apparently he can bring a woman to unknown heights of ecstasy just by thinking about it.

OK, that may be slight hyperbole. But he has been known to punish women by pleasuring them, but only once, forcing them to live the rest of their lives in longing. I am not making that one up. I felt like Jim Kelly confronting Dr. Hahn in Enter the Dragon: "Man, you are right out of a comic book."

But even worse than that is the speechmaking. Everyone in this book is constantly pontificating about the failings of others (from character flaws, to immorality, to outright perversions) and all of it is bracketed with agonizing, cringe-inducing cultural/national/sociological context. No nationality or ethnicity is given a break. Characters seem to be assigned a cultural heritage based on whatever convenient prejudice was close at hand to the author. The condescension is thick as a brick, and it's all delivered lecture style. Virtually every character in this book is a shallow, arrogant prick.

I have learned my lesson: I need to seriously discount Amazon reader ratings from now on. Actually, I should stop trying to find readable spy stories. Authors seem to use the genre as a way to act out their unfulfilled teenaged fantasies rather than actually write a novel (apart from Fleming, and then only the best of him). In an interview, Trevanian once said that Shibumi should be the last word in the "super spy" genre. God, let's hope so.
Juvenile Thriller, Intentional: I happened across a copy of The Three Investigators' The Secret of Terror Castle, by Robert Arthur, which I read and loved back when my age was a single digit. If you have boys up to, oh, 7-9 years old, this is about the perfect book to read them. Older than that they can probably read it to themselves. The plot is well worn: young investigators get mixed up in a supposedly haunted castle which, over time, proves only to be haunted by misguided adults who just need a helping hand. But knowing the clich‚ is not necessarily a negative for kids. They don't have so much confidence in their conclusions that they are bored, and they are happy when proven right.

The Secret of Terror Castle, as with the entire Three Investigators series, mixes straightforward sentence construction and linear timelines with just enough style and idiosyncratic characters to be considered a stimulating read. Here we see the Three Investigators team formed by Jupiter Jones; Sherlock Holmes transformed into a portly adolescent boy. His Watson consists of a pair of compatriots Pete Crenshaw, the smart mouthed athlete who is his right hand man, and Bob Andrews, the bookish library worker who is in charge of records and research. They have a hidden headquarters in a junk yard and, thanks to a clever victory in a jelly bean counting contest, access to a Rolls Royce with a chauffeur.

What you end up with are nicely paced adventures featuring children of generic enough type that kids will identify, but enough personality to seem like actual people -- people of the sort most young boys would like to have as friends. No doubt, most young boys could easily imagine living these adventures themselves. (It's more realistic than Shibumi, anyway.) Each chapter ends with open questions and should have kids begging to continue. If they are anything like I was at that age, they won't rest until they finish the series.
Credit Card Follies: My sole telephone is an old T-mobile pay-as-you-go job. It doesn't have a touch screen. It doesn't browse the web. It doesn't play music. It doesn't have a camera. It allows me to make calls easily and text message people very awkwardly. I buy prepaid cards -- 1000 minutes for $100, which last me about a year. So imagine my surprise when I saw a charge from for $81.82 on my credit card.

After a solid hour in responding to automated questions, listening to hold music, and speaking with reps who can't figure out where the charge came from, they finally left me with, "You are going to have to dispute that through your credit card issuer." Amazing. A dispute from the card company costs them a charge of some sort, but apparently they would rather incur that than do the leg work. What a very strange company.

But that's easy to deal with. At least T-mobile is an actual valid business concern, however illogical their system is. And it took me all of three minutes with a polite, English-speaking rep at U.S. Bank to dispute the charge. Worse is a company that variously goes by the name of Reservation Rewards or WLI*Reservations or something like that. They had dinged my card for $10 for 4 straight months before I caught on. Stated plainly these people are known scammers.

I called their customer service to ask what the hell was going on, and I got a sales pitch. That's right, they are so certain that you are calling about why you are getting billed that they immediately throw you into a sales pitch for a product you supposedly already bought.

They claimed that I signed up for their subscription on-line when I placed an order for tickets from some ticketing site. No, I didn't. In fact I don't even remember ordering any tickets online. I am not so deeply in the throes of Alzheimer's that I would approve a subscription on line without realizing I did. I started asking probing questions about how they got my credit card number. The woman immediately offered to cancel my subscription.

Maybe that's the ploy, the get you for a small charge or two and when you call to complain, they cancel your subscription, but pocket what you've paid so far. I pressured her for a full credit and she gave in. We'll see if I actually get it. If I don't, it's yet another bunch of charges to dispute. Scammers like this deserve to horsewhipped. They pray on the meek who will let small charges slide to avoid confrontation. Scum, pure scum.

By the way, if you happen to be a Reservation Rewards employee, I realize that you probably just answered an ad in the paper and you are just doing your job as your employer wants. My advice to you is to find another job and get out of there as soon as you can. However honest you may be, working for dirtbag scam outfit like that will scorch your soul.

Anyway, just in case you find yourself with charges from "Reservation Rewards" or some variation of that, call their customer service and you will likely get out of it. Make sure you tell them you never heard of them and have no idea what they are talking about when they claim you subscribed. Hint at credit card fraud by saying things like, "I don't understand. Some web site gave you my credit card number without my permission?" Tell them if they don't issue you a credit, you'll dispute the charges through your card company (if they lose the dispute, the credit card company charges them a fee).

If you have more trouble, Google "reservation rewards" and it will turn up a number of consumer oriented sites that can give more info about the scam.

Bastards. They should be skinned.
Michigan Death Watch?: I'm thinking of starting a regular Michigan Death Watch posting. The latest from the Detroit News indicates Michigan population dropped by 30,500 people last year. Unreal. That's an entire good-sized town. For perspective, nationwide the population rose 1%, and the only other state with a drop in population was Rhode Island which was down 3800. Traditional backwaters like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana are gaining. Even West Virginia posted a gain.

If you are long-term bottom fishing in real estate, you could do worse than start picking up land here for a song. I suggest just inland from Lake Michigan, maybe up around Ludington, or on the far outskirts of Traverse City. If you're really adventurous you could try the Alpena area, or the U.P. Just be sure you're looking long term. It'll be a while before anything gets turned around here.
Frosting on the New Year: I am not a big fan of very cold weather, but I have to admit it can get very beautiful just after a snow storm. Here are a half-dozen pics from New Year's Day, just outside my door in Dexter, Michigan. (1,2,3,4,5,6)