Thursday, May 31, 2012

Movie Review: Super 8

My local grocery store offers a two fer one deal on used videos and I was really excited when I discovered Super 8 in the bin, so snagged that along with Hugo.  I really wanted to catch Super 8 when it was in the theater, but events conspired against me, so I had to wait until I could either catch it on cable or pick up a copy. 

I sat down to watch it as I recovered from Enfilade.  It's a Spielberg movie with lots of special effects, but there's a respectable story there too.  A group of nerdy high school film makers witness a terrifying train accident.  They uncover some sort of government operation in effect when their badly injured science teacher warns them not to tell anything about what they've seen. As property is destroyed and people begin to disappear, the Air Force becomes more involved in the small Ohio mill town where the story is set in 1979, and the kids get swept into the cover-up.  What ensues is a great story well-told by screenwriter J.J. Abrams  

Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb

The young actors led by Joel Courtney and Elle Manning form a nerdy ensemble of zombie film makers including Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso and Riley Griffiths.  Together they are swept up in this mystery, trying to learn what is happening to their friends and family as the town is dismantled by a mysterious force and invaded and occupied by the U.S. Air Force.

As bits and pieces of the mystery is uncovered, the movie takes on a resemblance to another movie about nerdy kids seeking a solution to a problem.  The story is not unlike the 1985 movie The Goonies. Super 8 has a stronger story, better performances and the effects are sooo much better, but there is one thing the newer movie lacks, and that is a sense of light-heartedness and fun.  Goonies had Sloth and Chunk, Data's weird inventions and Mama Fratelli and her boys to keep things interesting while the story unfolded.  Though Super 8 also touches on young love, the most fun moments are at the end when the credits are rolling. The rest is deadly earnest and I think the movie suffers a bit from it.  There's ample ground here to lighten up with all the grade z zombie film antics, but it just doesn't quite get there.

Even so, if you haven't seen Super 8 it's worth a look.  I unquestionably would have enjoyed it more on the big screen, but still decent on the tube.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

After watching Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam Twenty, I began acquiring many of the PJ albums I don't own.  The more I listened the more I liked it, and wandered over to the Pearl Jam website.  They're unique in that they bootleg a lot of their own tours and then make the concerts available to fans.  Not cheap.  Most of the digital downloads are $14.95 or more, and they can also be had on cd for an additional charge.

Money, money, money.  Though Pearl Jam is definitely fan friendly in terms of making music available to their listeners, they've also really figured out how to market themselves and scrape the dollars out of the system.  Enter  This site was started by a couple of New Yorkers called Goof and Gremmie who were also Pearl Jam fans.  They've scavenged the net for legal recordings of Pearl Jam and other artists (more about that later) they can share with fans. They make them available as a compressed digital download.  All you need is the software to extract the songs.

The site is user friendly.  I'm an old guy, and while I feel pretty comfortable using my computer for lots of different things, the things I don't know how to do--yikes. is great at walking you through the downloading and extracting process. 

But that's not really the point of the site.  It's really about the music.  There is a certain amount of starstruck fandom here, but the websites (there are two) is about keeping you abreast of the news for "their" bands and connecting you with the tunes.  Currently the site is linked to several performers.  I've already mentioned Pearl Jam, but they also have material for songwriter/performer Ben Harper, Seattle based rocker Star Anna, defunct New York alternative band, Soul Coughing, and folk duo Swell Season.  But that's not all; they are opening a vault for a Soundgarden archive and have launched a Facebook campaign to generate fan support.

You won't find links to any authorized Pearl Jam or Ben Harper albums here.  Rather you'll find links to mostly live recordings, demos and b-sides.  Hard to find stuff. For example, I downloaded the Pearl Jam appearance on MTV's "Unplugged."  They also have many of band's appearances at the Bridge School in Mountain View, California hosted annually by Neil Young.  I downloaded Star Anna's appearance at the Tractor Tavern in Ballard in 2007.  The quality of the recordings is generally quite good, and they are all free.

 I most appreciate that Pearl Jam live performances never sound the same.  The playlists are different from night to night and they simply don't play to a formula.  It's great to hear the slowed down version of Lukin, or an accoustic version of Better Man.  So whether they're playing Madison Square Garden in 2010, or Honolulu in 2006, or the MSG show in 2008, you can depend on three different entertaining shows.

In addition to the page there is also Gremmie's Basement. This houses most of the Pearl Jam archives.  The downloads at both sites are easy to use, and they usually tell you exactly what you're getting.  Once you've downloaded the songs to a folder and extracted them, it's easy to just move them to your iTunes libarary. 

The website is available free of charge, but they do ask for donations.  It's possible to donate directly through PayPal or to by slightly overpriced stuff like t-shirts, coasters and tote bags, but the profit goes for hosting the site, so not worth complaining about cost.  I've got my eye on a baseball shirt. 

If you like music, this is a wonderful resource.  If you like Pearl Jam, this is like heaven (I was going to say nirvana, but maybe they have their own benefactor somewhere.) 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Wandered off to see the Hunger Games last night.  I know, it's been out a while, but I avoided the crowds, had a deadline to deal with, and then Jack happened, so my plans were derailed for an early viewing.  But it was definitely worth seeing in the theater.

The Hunger Games is based on the young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I read all three books over during spring break while waiting for various wives and mothers in law in the hospital waiting room.  I found them an engaging dystopian glimpse at an American future.  The story presumes an apocalyptic thermonuclear civil war in which thirteen regions of America come to be dominated by a region located in the Rocky Mountains.  As condition of the peace, each of the defeated regions participate in an annual "reaping."  They are forced to hold a drawing in which they send as "tribute" a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight in a bloodsport to the death called the Hunger Games.  The first book in the trilogy follows the story of Katniss Everdeen from Region 12 as she struggles to survive the games.

Perhaps the most important thing the movie has going for it is its faith to the book's story.  It doesn't hurt that Suzanne Collins has a screenwriting credit for the film, or that the movie is well over two hours long. From the "reaping" to the presentation of the winning "tributes'" to the public, Hunger Games sticks to the story with considerable attention to detail.  From the crushing poverty of Region 12 to the opulent splendor of the capital city, and the various vistas of the games themselves, the elaborate settings from the book are seen in three dimensions.
Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss Everdeen.
There are also some fine performances.  Jennifer Lawrence is fine as Katniss.  She is strong and self reliant, which somehow manages to balance out her beauty and sexiness.  Lawrence has appeared in X-Men First Class and dominated Winter's Bone, but The Hunger Games is her biggest role.  Caught up in the danger of the contest, she shows us a smart, savvy survivor, quick to grasp the opportunities available to her, content not to do too much, and wily enough to understand how to play the game masters. Josh Hutcherson is good as Peta Mellark, Katniss' male counterpart from Region 12, who has a long-simmering thing for his teammate. Woody Harrelson is a much less soused version of Hunger Games champion and mentor Haymitch Abernathy.  Stanley Tucci is delightful as Hunger Games "color commentator" Caesar Flickerman.  Donald Sutherland is a menacing President Snow.  Each turns in a performance that adds color and texture to the story.

A few blog posters have criticized the decision to add actors of color to play some of the prominent supporting characters.  Rue, a twelve year old who reminds Katniss of her young sister Prim, is played by young Amandla Sternberg, and African American actress.  The story loses nothing in the telling by Sternberg's performance or her portrayal of our heroine's doomed friend. Musician Lenny Kravitz, also African American, does a fine turn as Cinna, Katniss' supportive stylist.  Kravitz portrays Cinna as supportive and surreptitiously rebellious.  Those who criticize diversifying the cast, surely cannot quibble with their contributions to the story, and must have other issues that require some self-examination.
Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna. 
The Hunger Games does an excellent job of setting the stage for its sequel, "Catching Fire."  The death of one of the District 11 tributes (name withheld to prevent spoilers) sets that region to insurrection.  President Snow (Sutherland) quick to grasp dangers to his autocracy, challenges the Hunger Games master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley,) when he uses the two young Region 12 tributes as a love interest to retain fan interest.  "I mean, everybody loves an underdog" said Crane.  " I don't," said Snow.  Knowing the regions could unite behind a sympathetic winner, Snow sees the cracks in the capital's dominance.

The Hunger Games is a great movie.  It's one of those sci-fi spectaculars that doesn't require that you read the book, though it wouldn't hurt.  With great storytelling and solid performances, it sets the stage for two more great movies to come.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"Pure air and fire," a final tribute to Jack

Last week my wife and I put our Jack dog to sleep for the last time.  He'd fought colitis for the last three years and I don't think we had quite an appreciation for how dangerous a condition it was.  But that's behind us now.  We were there at the end, when I really didn't want to stay, but I was glad I could be there for him to say a very final goodbye.
Don't know quite how we caught him still enough to get this picture. 

Jack was a very special dog.  All dogs are special and wonderful, at least the ones I've known.  But Jack was the different from all the other wonderful dogs I've come in contact with.  Maybe it's because nothing ever escaped his senses, or that so many of his qualities seemed so human.  Perhaps it was because he was essentially in my care, and he made me love him so much.

Jack was a rescue dog, a quarter full sized Australian shepherd, three quarters miniature.  He'd been sold by his breeder to the Brown family, and his first owner was an itinerant minister on Camano Island, with a semi-invalid wife.  Those who know Australian shepherds at all know they are pretty active and Koba, as he was originally called by his breeder and new parents, was all of pretty active and more.  So active they kept him tranquilized and frequently crated.  It also allowed the little dog to retain a memory of being stuffed in his crate by a male, one that would haunt him almost all his life.
Lucy and Jack were buddies.  Just like peas and carrots.
The Browns lasted a year with Koba, and when we met him in May of 2003 he was living with a nice couple in Olympia.

I was at sixth grade camp in Purdy and made my daily call to Lorri just to check in.  We talked about a potential companion for Lucy, our two year-old black tri-color mini-Aussie.  We also had Rosie, a dog much older than Lucy, and we were interested in someday getting a playmate for her so she wouldn't be alone when Rosie was gone. Purebred Aussies are expensive and we were still absorbing the indulgence of flying little Lucy up from Fresno the year before.  So when Lorri anxiously announced over the phone that she'd learned of another mini-Aussie, a red tri-color, and it was FREE, I became interested. We drove down to Olympia to meet this little guy with Lucy in tow.  No point in taking him, unless his future step-sibling approved.
On the leash out at Owens Beach in 2010
Lucy was non-plussed, but his current care-takers were anxious to part with him. They owned a full sized blue merle and a ten year old Pomeranian that was driven to apoplexy by the little mahogany colored dog.  It seems that he always wanted to play, and was bad at taking no for an answer.  Coupled with the fact they had no backyard, it was clearly not the place for a little year-old pooch with all the energy of a fusion reactor. He was a cute, fuzz-faced little guy, short legged with prick ears.  Lorri, Casey, and I threw leashes on the two dogs and took them for a walk.  No magic, no chemistry, but when we got back to our car, Jack's crate was piled next to the Subaru.  It was clear he couldn't stay, so he came home with us.
Friends taking a walk in the Sound
He was not an immediate success.  Though completely housebroken, he got into things, a hallmark until the day he died.  He was a bully, harassed Rosie mercilessly, took her food, and could be mean to Lucy.  When he wanted Lucy to play, she had to play.  When she shrank away, Jack would simply grab one of her ears and run.  Lucy learned to play.  In later years, she also learned she was bigger than Jack, and would simply beat the crap out of him.

Through the summer of 2003, I was having a hard time liking him.  I didn't like the way he treated the other dogs.  But in September something changed all that. We took the two dogs with us to a pet-friendly B and B in Astoria.  Astoria is one of my favorites towns, a place I could actually see myself retiring.  I can stand the weather, and the town is old, close to Lewis and Clark sights and not so far from family.  One of the days we visited, we drove down to Cannon Beach and let the dogs play on the beach.  Jack showed Lucy how to swim and was genuinely kind and sweet to her.  It was even better the next day when we stopped at Cape Disappointment State Park on the way home and drove out to the ocean beach and let the dogs run.  They chased birds into the ocean, and had a great 'ol time together.  It was forever after Lucy and Jack, just like peas 'n carrots.
With his illness, Jack became a bit more serious.  It's hard to generate a lot of enthusiasm when you don't feel good.
One of my real pleasures was to watch the little red dog in motion.  Relatively short, with short legs, appearing a lot like a tailless fox, he could run like the wind.  Whether racing around the back yard, or on Sunday walks at Pierce college Jack could outrun any dog around.  Labs or golden retrievers three times his size were no match for him.  For a little guy, he could also really jump.  Short legs yes, but he had enormous feet and could hop from the floor to the kitchen counter in an easy leap--much to our chagrin.  It kept him regularly in baked goods and kitty food.

Eventually Lorri got Jack into agility training.  They only lasted a year.  In the end it was more time than Lorri could give, but Jack was a prodigy.  Very talented and easy to train, he loved the activity.  Something he wasn't very good at was catching a ball. I'd go out to the back yard with the two Aussies and toss balls until my damaged shoulder gave out. Jack would inevitably misjudge them, while his ungainly step-sister grabbed them on the fly, on the bounce, you name it.  He'd watch Lucy and bark helplessly and insanely.

Jack was, shall we say, barky.  That was a good thing and a bad thing.  He became a fabulous watch dog.  Dogs on the street?  He let us know about it. Random walkers, Jack told us.  He reserved his special ire for the UPS man.  When those brown trucks were on the block, Jack barked incessantly.  And woe betide those who came to the door uninvited--by Jack.  Pizza delivery people, Jehovah's Witnesses, little girl scouts peddling cookies were all given the Jack treatment. Worse, he became a terrible role model for Lucy, adding her much louder bark to the cacophony.  The worst was during the summer, when I would try to nap, fall asleep, only to be suddenly awakened by an eruption of sound as both dogs, led by our little red protagonist rapidly moved the needle on the sound meter into the red zone.
Two weeks before his death, Jack had a successful surgery we hoped would cure him. Unfortunately it didn't work out.
Yesterday my father characterized Jack as "hyper."  He was.  This didn't exactly endear him to people.  Like my dad. He was always at the front door to bark his fool head off at anybody entering the house, including Lorri and myself.  He unquestionably bugged and in some cases scared the crap out of company.  He'd get right in people's space and bark until he was done greeting everyone.  Sometimes it seemed like the greetings in Jack culture went on a little longer than necessary. 

Despite these little flaws, Jack was a dear, affectionate little dog with lots of lovable attributes.  He often seemed so human.  His face lit up with a wonderful smile when he was happy.  He loved to roll on his back and made strange sounds like a little old man.  He was always happy to see me come home, barking his approval and giving me a little shove as if to say, "Good to see you again old boy.  Now how about some dinner."  He was quick to wash my face, and was not immune to a brief cuddle, but wouldn't curl up in laps. He loved Lucy and would go to great lengths to clean her ears, to the point we were afraid he was actually washing out her very small brain. He was very sensitive to unhappiness in the house.  He didn't like listening to disagreements or yelling and if he heard it he'd run for our bedroom and sometimes climb into his crate.

Yes, there were those times.  He was an expert at getting at food almost anywhere.  My least favorite Jack talent was when he'd empty the kitchen garbage all over the house.  We had baby locks on the cupboard doors, but swore he managed to find his way in to them anyway.  Food left on the counter was in Jack's hunting ground, and more likely than not, gone when we got home.  He loved cat food, bread, muffins and doughnuts, and could actually chew through the lid on a jar of peanut butter.  Any pb within the length of his tongue was a goner. Still, he was well behaved around people eating, and while he wasn't opposed to accepting a proffered nibble, he wouldn't demand contributions.

We had Jack for nearly nine years.  Though he was high maintenance, especially after he became ill, he was a wonderful dog.  In many respects he and Lucy encompass the happiest years of our marriage, some of the best years of our lives, and in all the important ways he was a wonderful pet, a loyal and attentive companion. I miss him more than I  can say.  Though I know he is gone, I look for him on walks and on bike rides.  It seems as though he should be there. Jack was drawn in bold relief, "pure air and fire" to borrow from Shakespeare's Henry V. Not likely to generate a lot of apathy, one loved him or disliked him.  He was my dog and I don't expect everybody to understand my affection for him.  It's not important everyone understand, it's only important that I do, and I will remember him the rest of my days.