Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Hard to believe . . . but it’s a TUESDAY TOP FIVE (and a bonus)

If I’m going to keep to my word, and I’m going to age another year, then it would seem unfair if I’d bail on my promise for another Tuesday installment, now wouldn’t it?

So here it is. A return to the TUESDAY TOP FIVE, as promised. And a Wednesday Bottom One is just around the corner.

But on with the show . . .

5) The Inn at Summerhill . . . oh wait, and the Sage and Onion, and . . . aw, hell, Santa Barbara, California.

This weekend, Our Woman in LA and I took a 24-hour trip away from the big city, just to get some time to ourselves and celebrate the big upcoming birthday for yours truly. When we don’t have a lot of time, and we need some peace and quiet, Santa Barbara’s the place to go. Just a couple hours up the coast (but about 20 degrees cooler), it’s got a beautiful bay, and a great feel to the town. It’s just gorgeous and serene – a perfect getaway. One of my colleagues at my last job described it as “like LA in the 50s,” and I imagine he was right. It’s a great town, the vistas are inspiring, and it seems like it would be an author’s paradise. Kenneth Millar, aka Ross MacDonald thought it was, and I can see why. It’s the kind of place that cries out to be explored.

So a great night. The Inn at Summerhill, just south of town, is an amazing B&B with a ocean view. Sage and Onion delivered an amazing feast for the wife and I. And then there were wineries . . . but more on that later.

4) College Football Previews. In case you didn’t know, they’re out today – both on CNN/SI.com and FoxSports. Thank the Gods.

Don’t get me wrong. I like baseball. I’m happy that my beloved Cincinnati Reds are doing well again, despite having struggled the last few years as a small market team in a big market league. But this part of the summer always seems to drag for me. Basketball’s over, the World Cup’s over, and I don’t want to see PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2.

But then I’m reminded that my favorite of all sports is almost back.

Last year’s football season left me on such a high that I was sad to see it end. I can’t wait for the sequel. The Mighty Mighty Longhorns won it all, and punished local pretty boy school USC in the process. Ohio State trounced Notre Dame. The Cincinnati Bengals returned to the playoffs after a long, painful drought.

How could I ask for anything more? I just can. I’m greedy.

Now, let’s get on to item 3. There are 119 Division 1A football teams previewed today, and I’m not going to hit them all if I stay here blogging.

3) FROM BEIRUT TO JERUSALEM by Thomas Friedman. A few weeks back, on one of my trips to Chicago, good friends Greg Rolnick and Mary-Jo Lipman lent me their copy (for more on them, and their very cute son, check out rolnick.net).

Well, it’s great. Because of the new day job, I’ve been following pretty closely the situation in the Middle East, but like a lot of Americans, I’ve never really had a full grasp on the history and the context of the struggles in Israel, Lebanon and beyond. I’ve read the books, I could pass a test, but I’ve never fully understood – on a human level – all the intangibles.

I think Friedman gets you there. Telling anecdotes and covering verbal jousts and outright warfare, he explains the Middle East with amazing clarity and without talking down to his audience. It’s no wonder this won the National Book Award a few years back. It’s fantastic.

2) Super-hero movies. It wouldn’t be a proper Our Man in LA post if I didn’t talk about super-heroes somewhere, now would it?

A couple of weekends back, I had the opportunity to check out both X-Men 3: The Last Stand and Superman Returns. Two super-hero movies in one weekend (including one at the historic Vista movie palace, right around the corner from my house), well, that equals a great weekend. So good that I was barely angry about getting two parking tickets in one day.

Now look, I could do long reviews of both of them, but I’m not sure that I’d add much to the discussion already online a few weeks back. So I’ll put it this way:

Neither film will make my Top Five Super Hero Movies of all time. Right now, that list is made up of: Superman 1 and 2, Spider-man 2, Batman Begins, and Spider-man. They also won’t make my Bottom Five. That’s a murderer’s row (Batman and Robin, Superman 4, Captain America, Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, and that Punisher movie with Dolph Lundgren).

Basically, they’re decent movies with some flaws and big shoes to fill. In Superman, Brandon Routh’s a great Clark Kent/Superman. The action sequences were fantastic. Kevin Spacey grew on me as the film went on. Kate Bosworth’s Lois was very mediocre. And the movie never made me forget how terrific the Superman films of the 70s were.

As for X-men, well, it was fun to see some of the other X-characters around (Kitty Pryde was sure cool), but this crammed too much story into one flick. Ian McKellen and Hugh Jackman had some good moments, but that doesn’t make a great film. And frankly, I never felt like the X-movies completely got it right. They were close, but not quite there. X-Men stories are at their best when they’re at their most character-driven. And the secondary conflict between Cyclops, the by the book Richie Cunningham of the super hero world, and Wolverine, the tough as nails and cool as all get out Fonzie, is key. Cyclops never had a shot in these movies, and so we never got a sense of these characters as a team.

I’m an old fogey in the comics world, anyway. To me, the perfect X-team is the one from the early 80s: by the book leader Cyclops, inspirational woman Storm, tough anti-hero Wolverine, comic relief and heart of the team Nightcrawler, coming of age hero Colossus, good girl novice Shadowcat, and bad girl gone good Rogue. Minus those characteristics, we missed something in those movies.

1) Sunstone Winery

Since the wife and I went up to SB this weekend, we had to take in some wine. We went back to our favorite Central Coast vineyard – The Blackjack Ranch Winery – and bought a case of fermented grape goodness. But we also went to this place, an organic winery with some of the best Syrah and Cabernet I’ve had in a good long time.

If you’re going to be around the Central Coast, you should really check this place out. More than just pouring out excellent glasses of wine to all takers, the folks at Sunstone really take the time to be educational. Steph and I learned a lot about how wine is made, what the benefits of different kinds of grapes are, and even how different scents and bouquets can really add to the appeal of a given wine.

Great place. Check it out here: sunstonewinery.com.

And while you’re at it, be sure to take a look at Blackjack Ranch: blackjackranch.com.

Finally, before we close this posting out . . . Our Man in LA, in all his generosity, is giving you a bonus Top 1A, but it’s on a bit of a sad note.

Mickey Spillaine died yesterday. You probably know him as the goofball mystery writer who appeared in Bud Light commercials in the 80s. Or you’ve heard of his most famous creation, super-tough private eye Mike Hammer.

Hammer first appeared on the scene in the late 40s, and he inspired the creation of a lot of American detective fiction. With his tough guy, staccato delivery and lack of qualms about dispatching the bad guys, he became something of a model for the way ruthless heroes like Dirty Harry Callahan would walk and talk.

Consider this. In the first Hammer novel, I, THE JURY, our hero learns that the killer of his best war buddy is none other than a woman with whom he’s fallen in love. Hammer doesn’t hesitate. He fires his gun, hitting her with a gut shot exactly like the one she gave his pal.

“How could you?” she asks as her life slips away.

“It was easy,” Hammer replies, and we know that it was.

I’m not a huge Spillaine fan, but you can’t understate his importance to the genre. He kept mystery fiction going in the 40s and 50s, and inspired so much of the popular, hard boiled detective fiction. Novelist Max Allan Collins (creator of the Nate Heller series and writer of ROAD TO PERDITION) believes that Spillaine was the third most important mystery novelist of the 20th century, right after Hammett and Chandler, and right ahead of Robert Parker and Agatha Christie.

I’m not sure he’s exactly right – it’s pretty subjective, anyway – but he’s in the right ballpark. Mike Hammer was on TV, on radio, in novels and comic books. One of the early Hammer novels – KISS ME DEADLY – even inspired one of the great film noirs of all time, a movie that was to my mother’s generation what PULP FICTION was to mine.

In fact, if you like PULP FICTION and haven’t seen KISS ME DEADLY, do yourself a favor and check it out. You’ll see where Tarantino got the glowing light in the briefcase and so much of his tough guy patter. It’s a great film.

More to the point, I think Spillaine would have liked you checking it out to honor him. It’s just a cool gesture, if you ask me.

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