Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Vol. 2

Tinted Windows-Tinted Windows (2009)
Sugar pop blast.
****1/2 out of ***** stars
Touchstone: The Archies meets Zebra

Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band-Outer South (2009)
Collaborative Bright Eyes.
**** out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Wilco meets Allman Brothers

Deer Tick-War Elephant (2007)
Country twirl whines.
*** out of ***** stars
Touchstone: M. Ward meets The Del Fuegos

U2-New Line on the Horizon (2009)
Mediocre U2 album.
*** out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Joshua Tree (first half of New Line) meets Coldplay (second half of New Line)

White Lies-To Lose My Life (2009)
Presumptuous dark wave.
** out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Depeche Mode meets The Killers

Top 4 Performances by Ralph Fiennes

Even though I've never been very good at pronouncing his name (Rayff?), I've always been a big fan of Ralph Fiennes. He's starred in some of my favorite dramas. These are his best performances:

04.) The Constant Gardener (2005): One of many roles in which Fiennes suffers great pain, this time because of his wife's death in Kenya.

03.) Quiz Show (1994): Perfect casting as the dry Charles Van Doren.

02.) The English Patient (1996): This seems to be a love-it or hate-it epic. I love it.

01.) Schindler's List (1993): The scene with him randomly shooting concentration-camp prisoners out his window is heart-wrenching.

Honorable mentions: Wuthering Heights, Sunshine, The End of the Affair.

The Mysterious Ways of The Reader

Is it even possible to say that a movie featuring the all-important duo of Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet is a stinker? Probably not socially acceptable. But anyways, no such summation is necessary for The Reader, a powerful - if a bit plodding at times - tale of how painful and mysterious the ways of love can be.

David Kross is a native German who I had never seen in film before. He is excellent as the 15-year-old Michael, who stumbles into an affair with 36-year-old Hanna, also played excellently by Winslet, who won best actress for the role. Their affair lasts a few months. The couple spends nearly all their time together with the boy reading to the older woman before they make love. Then the relationship abruptly ends.

Michael goes on to law school and, 10 years after the affair, sees Hanna is being charged with war crimes for her role as a guard at Auschwitz. He knew nothing about Hanna's secret. He withholds evidence that could reduce her life sentence, since she is accused of being the leader of the guards and writing prisoner logs. But Michael knows what nobody else knows (and that she is not willing to admit): that she was incapable of reading or writing.

Fiennes is also good and a bit of his creepy usual self as the grown-up Michael. Well worth watching.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Guest Blogger: How Rachel Lettre Educated Barack Obama, Part III

Rachel Lettre, my wife, worked with President Barack Obama on an Earth Day tree-planting service project (C-SPAN 32-minute video) following the signing of a national service bill. She works for Student Conservation Association and this is part three of her series on "friends in high places." Also see parts one and two.

April 21st, The big day!

I got to sleep in for a change and didn’t have to be at the park till 9:30 a.m.! Amtchat and I headed to Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens and had a little time to get ourselves organized before the big day began. We arrived to find the National Park Service resurfacing the dirt maintenance road into the park that the motorcade would drive in on. It's amazing how things on the backlogged maintenance list jump to the top and get done when the president is in the mix.

Secret service had infiltrated the park at this point and it made me realize that the prep work done here for a 40-minute event happens wherever the president goes in the world.

Then our prep work began, it started with the arrival of all of the staff from SCA's D.C. office at 10:30 and then the arrival of the 12 volunteers; Dale, SCA’s CEO; Kevin, SCA's communications VP; and Jane, the chair of the board. Mark and David were there representing the White House and there were lots of people from the park service. It was a sunny beautiful day and the SCA staff were thrilled to be out of the office. Everyone pitched in moving tools, mulch, trees, cleaning the greenhouses, running errends, labeling t-shirts, and helping in anyway possible.

During this time I was busy mapping out what would happen during “the event." I drew up a map of the area, labeled which tree would go where, made lists of who was planting which tree, and prepped the students on what they’d be doing. Time flew by. We planted a demo tree with all of the students and volunteers so they’d be ready to plant with the big shots.

The students were great as usual. They laughed, played games, did the boot dance (don't ask, just watch the C-SPAN 32-minute video, where it was again performed), and helped get stuff ready all morning. Lunch arrived and, after we finished eating, the rush began. We had 30 minutes to get everything ready and get out of the park so the secret service could let the dogs run and do the final sweep. We all went out to our vehicles, which had been moved out of the park and onto the streets. I even spent a few minutes putting on mascara on a curb (this never happens before a service project!).

Time for security clearance. We all circled up and Tim, the Secret Service guy read our names off of a list and, one by one, we had our bags checked and had the wand run over us. All clear, except for Justin, whose name wasn’t on the list. Mark from the White House pulled me aside and asked me to vouch for him. He asked Leah to do the same and Justin was in. Phew! While we were waiting to go back in, Leah pulled me aside and gave me the greatest pep talk I’ve ever gotten. I wasn’t nervous at all, just excited.

Back in the park and no time to spare. We went down to the planting site to find the ground totally torn up by the trucks they had driven through, everyone moved in to patch up the mud and make it look a little nicer, but it was really muddy! While we waited, the students were nervous. We went over the greeting again, and everyone had a few minutes to prepare for this opportunity of a lifetime. I double-checked the trees, Amtchat got a pick mattock and dug a hole, the students played big booty, we had a big group hug, a high five, and we waited for the signal.

The motorcade arrived (we couldn’t see it at all from where we were. I really wish I had seen it pull through the neighborhood). And suddenly a rush of men in suits, woman in skirts and heels came running down the muddy road. There must have been 30+ people there, a lot of them press and a lot of them staffers, Secret Service, and all looking out of place in the park! One of the students said she was nervous and I reminded her to look around, that she was totally in her element and everyone else was way out of place. We all got a good laugh.

The final installment, part four, is coming soon ...

Monday, May 25, 2009

George Harrison's Nightmare? The Beatles

This is the sixth installment in a series about a book I'm reading called Stories Done, which is a great collection of tales of excess from counter-culture leaders.

The price of being a Beatle was great for George Harrison. While he clearly gave the world a bounty of love through the band's songs, the lead guitarist said the experience was "a nightmare, a horror story. All that big hassle to make it, only to end up as performing fleas."

Life as one of the four most popular people in the world (some would dare say even more popular than Jesus) was filled with terror, like the time there were death threats on tour in Japan to the physical attacks on George's first wife, Pattie Boyd, for taking the moptop away from all the single girls of the world.

"The split-up of The Beatles satisfied me more than anything else in my career," George said. He moved on to things he cared more about, like his triple album of tunes stockpiled during the Lennon/McCartney reign and a concert to benefit the poor of Bangladesh, credited as the first of the shows like Live Aid, Farm Aid, and the September 11 concerts.

But despite finally achieving mass success on his own merits, Harrison faced a 10-year battle to get the funds distributed to Bangladesh. He also lost Boyd to Eric Clapton, supposedly because he adopted a religious belief that sex should only be used for procreation

Harrison was lonely, adrift, and depressed through much of his post-Beatles life. When he proclaimed that he was in love with Ringo Starr's wife and allegedly later consummated the relationship, John Lennon "accused him of virtual incest." (George and Ringo stayed friends and George even wrote and played on a huge Ringo hit called "Photograph.") Critics finally bashed George for the first time with his 1974 album called Dark Horse.

There were more death threats against George over the years, the most serious being when a knife-wielding psycho broke into his mansion and stabbed him badly during a wrestling match for the weapon. He had throat cancer. He had a piece of his lung removed. He died of a brain tumor in Los Angeles on November 29, 2001 as a Hare Krishna group chanted a mantra to help with his "migration to death."

Harrison was cremated and his remains were "reportedly flown to India and scattered along the Ganges River and various other holy places in the vicinity."

Friday, May 22, 2009

My Friend: The Next Laurence Olivier

The Washington Post's photo (right) and a glowing article accompany the opening of Pulitzer-nominated The Pavilion at Northern Virginia's new Hub Theatre.

One of my best friends and fellow bandmate in The Sprogs, Tim Getman, has been churning out powerful performances for a long time on the DC (and some on the Chicago) scene. So it was nice to see his photo looming large on the top of Page C5 yesterday. The photo caption says he "gives a superb performance as a man attending his 20th high school reunion."

The article notes that writer Craig "Wright has surrounded his long-estranged couple, Kari (Niki Jacobsen) and Peter (the terrific Tim Getman), with amusingly quirky characters, from a paranoid, pot-smoking small-town mayor to the star employee of a for-profit suicide hotline. When these former Minnesota classmates convene for their 20th reunion at a lakeside dance hall, gossip swirls and blood-alcohol levels climb -- while, on the sidelines, Peter attempts to reconcile with Kari, whom he dumped during senior year in exceptionally brutal fashion."

The Post's reviewer, Celia Wren, ends her article with one last glowing comment about Tim. "Getman's quietly desperate Peter [is] the production's ace card. The actor packs emotion into his deceptively low-key, overeducated-Joe-Six-Pack intonations. And he wrings so much suspense and anguish from silences, you'd think muteness were an actor's key tool."

Overeducated-Joe-Six-Pack? Tim, are you even really acting?

Well, I tried to get Tim to do a guest blog about this show but he sorta blew it off. I can see why. Perhaps a little too big for Monotremeindc ...

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Vol. 1

Welcome to this new regular feature of Monotremeindc. I figure I'm so addicted to listening to and rating music from my very scientific and nerdy perspective, so I might as well share my findings with you all, especially since I often get the question, "What are you listening to these days?" There will be new albums and old albums alike. Rock, soul, jazz, indie, classical, children's music ... Just whatever I've been listening to in the past several days or week. Hope I steer you in the right directions.

The Thermals-Now We Can See (2009)
Rowdy guitar rawk.
****1/2 out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Green Day meets Archers of Loaf

Super Furry Animals-Dark Days / Light Years (2009)
EP-elicious, needs editing.
***1/2 out of ***** stars
Touchstone: early Pink Floyd meets ELO

Taylor Swift-Fearless (2008)
Overproduced, touching catchiness.
**** out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Juliana Hatfield meets Shania Twain

AM FM-Mutilate Us (2001)
Edgy and pretty.
**** out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Portastatic meets The Promise Ring

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Call for More Pop Culture at DC's American History Museum

The photo to the left of me and my brother Tim posing with the famed digital-on-canvas portrait of Stephen Colbert offers a highlight from my visit this weekend to the west wing of the National Museum of American History.

It's a great place and offers plenty of enjoyment (hence, I only made it through half in several hours). The science section with a nuclear fall-out shelter and other features from family life in the days of Leave It To Beaver, TV chef Julie Child's kitchen, a photo exhibit of President Obama's inauguration day, Roberto Clemente's uniform, Dorothy's red slippers, Archie and Edith Bunker's chairs, a Dumbo ride car from Disneyland, and muppets Kermit and Oscar the Grouch are my favorites.

My complaint is that there aren't, despite the great items listed above, enough pop-culture pieces. The public would go wild over more of this stuff, so the Smithsonian needs to get moving on procurement.

How about getting an ape suit from the Planet of the Apes or one of the Beatles amplifiers? What do you want to see housed there?

Haight-Ashbury's Facade of the Summer of Love

This is the fifth installment in a series about a book I'm reading called Stories Done, which is a great collection of tales of excess from counter-culture leaders.

The 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury brings images of flower power, a counter-culture-inspired beginning of Earth Day and a heightened environmentalism, social connectivity, and cherishing the natural world over consumerism. It was the home of Allen Ginsberg's first Be-In, as the "beats" of the 1950s gave way to the '60s and its "hippies," which was the beats' term for "diminutive hipsters."

But the peace and love were short-lived and had an underlying burbling of ominousness. The press and the city supervisors recognized it.
Possession of LSD was made illegal in 1966 and the ritual was taken underground. There were campaigns to get the hippies to leave town and live out in the countryside instead. There were street beatings and confrontations with police.

George Harrison of the Beatles came to town expecting something like London's psychedelic scene but instead "felt appalled by the hideous, spotty little teenagers he'd found in the Haight." He walked through town and even played an acoustic guitar that someone handed him, but was so repulsed that he swore off LSD from that point forward.

By the end of the Summer of Love, statistics show that more than 75,000 had visited Haight-Ashbury and soon thereafter abandoned the place. The neighborhood "may have been the largest laboratory for drug experimentation in America's history."

Author Joan Didion even wrote about a five-year-old girl named Susan whose mother had been giving her LSD and peyote for a year. "The girl was reading a comic book, stoned on LSD. It was an unbearable glimpse at a dream that didn't even know when it had passed into nightmare."

Resurrected on the Riverbank with Philip Jose Farmer

Philip Jose Farmer, who recently died, had a successful series of sci-fi stories based on a river that wrapped around the Earth, with sheer cliffs on all sides so nobody could ever leave. The inhabitants were everyone who ever died on Earth. The series was loosely called Riverworld and consisted of five novels and a handful of short stories.

One short story called simply "Riverworld," often cited as an important contribution to the genre, is about Tom Mix. He's a muscle-bound cowboy movie star from the early 1900s (pictured, right) and also one of the characters on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Mix's friend is "Yeshua," who is basically Jesus and refuses to participate in the violent war taking place around him. The story, really a novella, ends predictably. I was exited about reading the full series, which has such a promising premise, but I'm pretty discouraged by Farmer's wooden characters, sometimes seemingly confused plot lines, and occasionally anti-Semitic leanings.

** out of ***** stars

Lawyer Will Farrell Protects Us All on SNL

The season finale of Saturday Night Live was entertaining this weekend, thanks to Tony Award-nominated Will Ferrell as host. This short commercial about Will Blasingame (the lawyer, not the baseball player) was a definite highlight.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Four Best Pizza Joints in the U.S.

04. Gino's East in Chicago. I'm a thin-crust man, but how can you not include this delicious place? You need a serious appetite to be able to eat any more than one of these pieces, but it's thick with flavor, and if you're lucky, you may get into a quality conversation with one of the locals about Ditka or Da Bearz.

03. Pizza Paradiso in Washington D.C. I've always preferred the Dupont Circle location to the Georgetown one. The district may have a couple of contenders in Red Rocks in Columbia Heights and Roscoe's (see my last post).

02. Imo's Pizza in St. Louis and various other Midwestern locations. I may be biased since I worked here as a deliverer for four years in college, but then again, I've never gotten sick of this thin-crust masterpiece. The secret, believe it or not, is the provel cheese, kinda like how the secret to the Philadelphia cheesesteak at Pat's is Velveeta. The sweet creamy Italian house salad dressing is also phenomenal.

01. Grimaldi's Pizzeria under the Brooklyn Bridge. Thin crust. No need to even add details. Just go there immediately!

Which ones am I missing? Post comments with your recommendations ...

Celebrity Sighting Edition: Become Rich By Reading This Post!

Friday night we were waiting on the sidewalk for a table at the new Takoma Park Napolitan pizza joint called Roscoe's when I said hi to a guy walking down the street. He was dressed in a white suit with orange question marks all over it. His wife was matching in orange.

I said, "That's the question mark guy." Other people standing around didn't know what I was talking about until I said, "I can get you free money from the government." Then I showed them the proof from Wikipedia on my iPhone.

Matthew Lesko does infomercials late at night and has written tons of books that he admits to have plagiarized straight from government guides for grants and loans. I said "hi" and he belly-laughingly and nasally returned the "hi." He apparently lives in nearby Kensington, Maryland.

So that was mildly thrilling.

Even better is that downtown Takoma Park (about a mile from my house) has a really good new pizza place. Wood-fired, thin-crust and not greasy. Now they just need their liquor license. Supposed later this summer.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wilco (The Blog Post)

Wilco's next album, called, um, Wilco (The Album), is streaming online at the band's site. It won't be out until June 30, just a few days before I'll see them at Wolf Trap, a cozy outdoor amphitheater in Virginia.

It sounds great. I recall hearing leadoff track "Wilco (The Song)" on the Colbert Report a while back. A sweet ballad with some female backing vocals that appears to be called "You and I" also sounds like a highlight. It looks like this release has plenty of Beatles-inspired pop, which is a good sign.

Wilco is hands-down my favorite band that's still together (meaning I still like The Beatles, Guided by Voices and Pavement more, but not by much).

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Imagination in John Lennon's Artwork

In a 2004 New York Times article, Yoko Ono said, "Every now and then, I discover a drawing in the pages of a book that he was reading, kind of like a quick ad-lib. I have no idea how many drawings there are. I've never done a definite catalog. Sketching was like John's security blanket. The guitar was as well. He was always strumming, but when he wasn't playing the guitar, he was drawing. Guitar and pen."

Lennon's drawings aren't just good because he was John Lennon. We went to a non-profit exhibit today in Georgetown (ending Sunday) called "Here Comes the Sun" that featured more than 100 of the former Beatles guitarist's sketches. Suggested $2 donations went to the Capital Area Food Bank, in the man's spirit of people, love, and minimal capitalism.

Framed lyric sheets from his solo and Beatles years lined one wall. Children's pieces from the "Real Love: Drawings for Sean" added color to the mostly black-and-white displays. "Bag One: 1969" was a series of erotic works given to Yoko by John on their wedding day.

Very cool stuff. Most people think of the simple yet powerful "Imagine" drawing, but, like with his lyrics, Lennon had an amazing way of capturing an era's zeitgeist and his massive personal worldview in many of his artworks, all the way from the doodles to the near-Dali-like larger ones.

File Under: Songs Inspired By Dreams of Youth

It's endlessly great being a dad. For example, tonight, Jackson danced around in the dark playing drums on a variety of surfaces (kinda looking like Max from Where the Wild Things Are) while I played him lullabies on the guitar. A little hook I came up with inspired me to write this song after he went to bed. It's called "Jet Airliner (Yeah)."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wrestling At the Chase With Mickey Rourke

I never went to see those fake professional wrestling matches as a kid, but caught a fair share of Wrestling At the Chase on KPLR-TV Channel 11 out of St. Louis growing up. Nothing about the sport ever captivated me very much, like it did so many others my age.

And nothing about Mickey Rourke's (Body Heat, Diner, Buffalo '66) character as Randy "The Ram" Robinson is redeeming, which is why it's amazing that you can't take your eyes off him in The Wrestler.

Marisa Tomei, as his love-interest stripper girlfriend Cassidy is an only-slightly-more-redeeming character. But she is equally impossible for the eyes to dismiss. She's just about perfect in ever way, in fact.

This movie is a tiny little tale with a classic '80s hair-metal soundtrack, and a Golden Globe-winning best song by working man Bruce Springsteen, that builds into a powerful, larger drama about the thin line between choosing between what you love to do and committing to something (anything) besides yourself.

And the scenes when Randy (don't call him Robin) works at the deli counter are hilarious and help to further humanize The Ram.

Even the brief scenes of fake wrestling matches are gripping and shed light on a world well worth getting acquainted with for an hour and 45 minutes.

**** out of ***** stars

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Eastern NC BBQ Season Is Here!

Although my annual full week at the North Carolina beach is still a few weeks away, I got a special inside look at a new brand (new to me, but the restaurant itself appears to be older than the hills) of Eastern North Carolina BBQ (ENCBBQ). I had never been to Allen & Son outside of Chapel Hill before. ENCBBQ is the best in the world, hands down, and this restaurant held its own very nicely.

Highly recommended. Check out my video review and tell me whether you agree with the assessment.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Body Slammin' on the UNC Chapel Hill Quad

Jackson, Rachel and I had a blast this past weekend in Chapel Hill visiting our friends Paula and Harlan. Check out these short videos of us having fun on the University of North Carolina's beautiful quad in the center of campus.

Franklin Street is the center of the action in Tarheel land, while Paula and Harlan live about a mile away (a nice walk) in Carrboro.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Superman, Please Beat Up Hitler

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were two teens from Cleveland who couldn't get anybody to buy their idea for a comic strip named Superman. No publishers wanted a story about an heroic alien who came to Earth from a dying world and pretended to be a meek newspaperman. Eventually, Siegel and Shuster stooped to selling their character's rights for $130 to National Comics, which quickly started making millions.

The duo never got the credit they deserved ... until the late 1970s, when public outcry after the success of the Christopher Reeve movie led to them finally each getting around $35,000 per month, medical benefits, and a "created by" credit from then on.

These are the kinds of stories that fill up Brian Cronin's new Was Superman a Spy? The book looks at dozens of little-known stories about the comic industry. I read the start and don't plan to go any further. But it seems interesting, and the sample I browsed ended on a tidbit about the Nazi SS's official newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps, decrying Superman for an episode in which the superhero swoops into Germany, gathers up Hitler, and throws him into a League of Nations trial court. The Nazi article also claimed the character undermined the minds of the American youth, and predictably tossed around several unkind words about Superman's Jewish creators.

Cronin concludes: "It's fascinating to see the Nazi propaganda machine so concerned with something so simple as a short superhero story."