Wednesday, January 11, 2006


A Day Late and a Dollar Short . . . But still a Tuesday Top Five

I know it's late, and I'm sorry. I really had every intention of getting the Tuesday Top Five back on track yesterday, but you know how it goes - plans, mice, men, the whole thing.

Whatever. Our Man is back in LA, he's back from his travels, and he's ready to reflect on possibly the greatest Tuesday set of Top Fives (and Bottom Ones) ever to be released on a Wednesday.

So here goes. And I'll do my best to keep everything relatively brief. I know you're busy, and Our Man in LA appreciates whatever time you're stealing from your employer to read this blog. So here goes . . .

5) Shakespeare & Co Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York City. The second half of Our Woman in LA's and my travels took us to the New York area to visit Steph's brother Mike and his wife Mayu. A few days before the New Year, we headed down into the city, and I got a chance to spend an hour or so wandering my old haunts in the Village.

Our Man in LA loves New York, and the Village in particular. Spent a great summer in my youth taking classes at NYU, wandering Bleeker Street and Washington Square, going to flicks at the Angelika. Every time I come back, I have to hit Shakespeare & Co.

What makes it different from other bookstores, Our Woman in LA wondered. Not a ton, really, other than where you are. It's got a lot of the same books as your average Border's or B&N. A lot of folks would say they prefer the Strand bookstore, with its acres of dusty used books. The Strand's super cool, too, but Shakespeare & Co just feels like New York to me. There's a vibe to the place. There's something about browsing around for books, looking out on Broadway and NYU's Tisch school across the street. And there's a plain old terrific mystery section. Great drama section, too.

Just feels like New York. If Our Woman in LA and I lived on the other coast, you might well find me here any day when I had some free time.

4) L & B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn. More from the New York trip. On my brother-in-law's birthday, we headed over to Brooklyn to chow at this place in Bay Ridge, some of the best pizza I've ever had. Took in both a regular cheese pie and a piece of Sicilian which was drop dead fantastic.

I'm a big fan of the New York pizza to begin with. The thick crust and over-cheesy nature of the pizza in my former hometown of Chicago hasn't done much for me since my metabolism slowed down at age 19. I like the thinner, wider pieces. And this was a, ahem, slice above your average Famous Ray's, Original Famous Ray's, Ray's Famous Original, or what have you.

After the pizza feast, we all went over to the other half of the restaurant and feasted on three different flavors of spumoni - sort of halfway between ice cream and sherbert. Which is to say, pretty freaking amazing.

It's a good thing that the wife and I don't eat pizza much out here in SoCal anyway. Very few places could do anything but suffer in comparison.

I do have a runner-up in the food department this week. Also in New York, Mike and Mayu took us to a Japanese place in midtown (just down the street from Midtown Comics). Amazing food, great service. What an awesome place. Alas, I can't remember the name of it.

You wouldn't either. After about six beers and three sakes each (the women drank sochu instead), we stumbled to another bar, where we drank until time for the train back to Jersey. Then we got on and almost slept through our stop in New Brunswick. After that night, I'm lucky to remember my own name.

3) Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner. Took this with me for my travels to New York and North Carolina. As you all know, I'm a huge Will Eisner fan. But it's difficult to be one if you're simply middle class like Our Man in LA. DC Comics is releasing Eisner's entire run of The Spirit in its Archive editions right now, but there are 15 or so of them, and they all run about 50 bones apiece.

So this is a good solution. In this less expensive volume, you get 25 or so of the best stories the man ever wrote and drew, most of them in the period after Eisner returned from active duty in World War II. Additionally, as the owner of my local comics joint pointed out, the stories are back on regular newsprint, which is the way they were intended. The glossy paper of the Archive editions tends to absorb the colors differently, and so in this book you see Eisner's stories as they were meant to be told.

Here's the thing for Joe Average Comix fan to remember about Eisner. You'll read some of these stories and think, "Whatever. Alan Moore's done something like this, too. Same with Neil Gaiman. But it's even more refined and literary."

OK, fine. But Eisner invented the form. The distance between the early comics writers and Will Eisner is a lot further than the distance between Eisner and today's great comics creators. You might prefer Springsteen to Elvis or Bob Dylan, or U2 to the Beatles, but what those later acts did was build from something groundbreaking and amazing that had already been done.

Eisner is one of comics' original innovators. Read this volume, realize when it was made (largely between 1946 and 1950), and you'll marvel.

I'd also like to bring up the extremely modern runner-up on the comics front. My good buddy Hans Noel gave me the first story arc of Warren Ellis' very good Transmetropolitan book. A lot of fun, hilarious in parts, this is a good read. Imagine a guy (sort of a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Alan Moore) working as a gonzo journalist in a post-cyberpunk world. There you go. I'm hooked.

2) BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I finally went to see it, under threats from Our Woman in LA that "I had better not hear anything about gay cowboys eating pudding".

It's brilliant. Seriously. I loved it. Only thought about Cartman from South Park, and whether the characters would be eating pudding one time during the whole flick. It's that good.

Heath Ledger turns in just a drop dead astounding performance. The guy does so much with so few words. I'm just stunned. Michelle Williams is likewise great - you'll certainly forget that she was ever the bad girl on Dawson's Creek. The two of them bring such pathos and emotion, in their voices, in their physicality, and in their silence. Wow.

The rest of the cast is good, too. Strike that. They're probably great, actually. It's just so hard to speak in superlatives given the way that Ledger and Williams hit the ball out of the park. I'm no huge Gyllenhal fan, but he more than holds his own. Ang Lee more or less makes me forget about HULK.

Steph thinks it's the best movie of the year, and I can't disagree. GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK comes close. I haven't seen CAPOTE, HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, or MUNICH. But this will be hard to beat.

(Special Nugget Review): While out and about on the East Coast, the wife and I took in KING KONG with Steph's mother. Here's the basic review from Our Man in LA. It's good. Really good. Also really long. It's a four-star movie that becomes a three-star one simply because they could have lost an hour and not missed a beat. But there's really great work from Naomi Watts, Jack Black, and Peter Jackson.

1) Texas Hold Em. Let me set the scene. Our Man in LA isn't a big gambler, and neither is the wife. But we were looking for a chill New Year's Eve out there in the NY metro area, so we stayed in at Mike and Mayu's place in New Jersey, drank and ate, and eventually decided to play some cards. Hans Noel joined the crowd.

At first, Mayu and Stephanie weren't going to play. The game was Texas Hold Em. They didn't know how to play (I really didn't either, but that's neither here nor there). But then there was a lot of insistance that the girls join in . . . probably because it was assumed that they'd be easy marks.

Mike printed out a cheat sheet for the ladies, telling them the values of the various hands. We all put in our ten dollars.

And then Steph proceeded to win virtually every hand. Seriously. Our Woman in LA was on fire. She could beat virtually anything. And she did it. Over and over again. What's more, every time she won, she celebrated, with hugs, with laughter and screams. It was something to see.

I didn't even mind losing my ten bucks. After all, we have joint checking.

Unbelievable. Mayu had to buy back into the game twice. Mike had to buy back in once. And Steph just kept on winning and celebrating. Then more winning. Then more celebrating.

A serious game? No. But it was a fun one. Probably the best time I've ever had at a card game. Steph might not have known whether a straight beats a flush or not - but she got a lot of them. Won her hands over and over again.

Toward the end of the game, Hans and I both crapped out. He turned to me and asked if I was buying back in.

"Are you kidding?" I said. "She's already got all my money. Let's just watch her win."

Which we did. And win she did. All night long, channeling Kenny Rogers in THE GAMBLER.

It wasn't a lot of money at the end. Forty or fifty bucks. But it seemed like a particularly happy New Year to me.

Thus ends our Top Five. There's not much time left on the day, but how about one little . . .

BOTTOM ONE: It's a little movie called THE FAMILY STONE.

Wow. This flick will play forever at the multiplex in HELL. Rare is the time that I go to a theatre and have nothing positive to say at the end. Nothing. Not a damn thing. Not even, "Sure was a great Diet Pepsi".

Congrats, Family Stone. You made it. This is one of the most maddeningly awful abuses of celluloid that I've ever seen. Moreover, I'm going to give this movie an award:


Because it's not fair to compare this movie against the purely incompetent filmmaking that occasionally makes it onto the big screen. You can talk about Ed Wood's work all you want. How angry can it really make you?

This movie made me furious, though. How completely awful, ugly and smug can one picture be? I thought this would just be a cute little waste of time. But nooooo.

Here's the story. Imagine the most annoyingly smug (but calculatedly liberal) New England family in the world. Awful and boring and irritatingly witty. Dad smokes pot with son. Mom and daughter are rude and shallow to everyone, but it's lovable, I guess. To someone.

And then the oldest son brings home his uptight, conservative girlfriend. And smug family doesn't like her. Why? Well, we're not sure. I mean, she is uptight and boring. But they hate her before they've met her. And they're so actively, ruthlessly rude that you almost begin to side with her. After all, she's played by Sarah Jessica Parker, and you get the feeling that she means well . . .

And then it turns out that she's a racist, homophobic bigot. So all bets are off. Of course, by the end, the Family Stone is able to put that aside and let her marry one of their children . . . just so long as it's not the one she came in with.

To quote Roger Ebert reviewing a different movie (Rob Reiner's NORTH, which, if you ask me, is leagues better than this pile of bat crap): "I hated this movie. Hated it. Hated hated hated hated hated hated it. Hated it."

Amen, brother. I give you the Family Stone. This is the most calculatedly awful Hallmark Hall of Crap, Gump-tastic movie I've seen in a long, long while. The characters come down on the right side of every social issue, so we know we should root for them. One of them's dying of a disease, so we had better feel sad.

Ugh. After a movie like this, I have to take action. There are only a handful of movies in history that have ever made me this angry.

How bad was it? Halfway through the movie, when all the characters are at dinner together, my wife saw me counting something. She looked over, whispered: "What are you doing?"

"Counting," I said.

"Counting what?" she said, her eyes rolling a little.

"Counting all the people onscreen that I hate."

What action can I take? Well, one of the cast - at least - is going to have to lose a year of my moviegoing dollars. There's precedent for this. After seeing Moulin Rouge (don't even get me started), I took a year off all movies featuring Nicole Kidman and the entire rest of the cast.

To this day, my pledge to avoid those actors still has resonance. Ewan McGregor? I can get through the Star Wars movies by suggesting to myself that his Ben Kenobi might be CGI. And anyway, it's not like he acts in those movies, anyway.

Nicole Kidman? Decided to give her another shot, and went to see THE HOURS. Don't get me started on that one, either. At least now she's only doing movies like BEWITCHED and STEPFORD WIVES, so I won't have to go see her.

John Leguizamo? Look, if I'm ever forced to watch one of his films at gunpoint, I'll eat the bullet.

So who should lose a year of my movie money? It's not much, but it's a few hundred bucks, and I'll feel better.

Should it be Sarah Jessica Parker? I mean, even though she was a racist homophobe and I hated her, I actually thought she did the best job in the movie.

Or Craig T. Nelson? It might be another year till he's in another movie.

Or Diane Keaton? I did actively root for her character to die.

Or Rachel McAdams? If Diane Keaton's character didn't die, I certainly hoped Rachel McAdams' would. Still, I liked her in Mean Girls.

Or Luke Wilson? I generally like him, so it might bum me out to drop him, but then again, he shouldn't be blameless.

And I can't do Dermot Mulroney or Claire Danes, since I probably wouldn't go to another one of their movies anyway.

So help me, folks. Who should lose a year?

See you tomorrow.

Brrrrr. Now, I've got Family Stone in my brain.

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