Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Led Zeppelin Warms to the Media, Becomes Legends

Journalists were often downright hostile to Led Zeppelin when the legendary rockers were starting out. And the band reciprocated, rarely ever letting reporters close to them.

This changed a bit in 1975. Zeppelin carefully selected a handful of writers, editors, and photographers from the mainstream media and even courted the hated Rolling Stone Magazine.

They had plenty to cover on this tour too. When the box office failed to open in Boston, fans caused $50,000 in vandalism. And a Bruins hockey game had to be canceled because the rink was damaged.

These tales are told in the new book LZ-'75: The Lost Chronicles of Led Zeppelin's 1975 American Tour by Stephen Davis. It's a good read, but for anyone who wants the definitive account of Zeppelin, Davis' Hammer of the Gods is the really essential launching point, and perhaps the best rock biography of all time.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Keith Richards' Life in a Flash

The Rolling Stones' lawyer Bill Carter had warned them not to drive through Arkansas. They should have flown to the next gig. After all, he reasoned, the state had recently tried to "outlaw rock and roll."

And although the band was nearly thrown in the slammer for an outrageous trail of behavior across the state on their 1973 tour, the fact that Carter traveled with them and had friends in very high places all the way up to Capitol Hill was the only reason no charges were ever filed.

In fact, you may recall that when Mike Huckabee was Arkansas governor 30 years later, he pardoned guitarist Keith Richards. What was less reported at the time was that Richards had never been charged with anything. But Huckabee pardoned him anyway. I guess it seemed like a pretty good PR move for Huckabee's presidential campaign.

In his wonderful new autobiography called Life, Richards says: "For many years I slept, on average, twice a week. This means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes."

The book starts with an hilarious photo of his mother walking him through town on a leash. It then goes on to describe his hometown, a miserable place called Dartford, England which was dotted with smallpox hospitals, leper colonies, gunpowder factories, and lunatic asylums.

There was also the Wells fireworks factory, which produced "jumping jacks" and exploded in a flash one day. Not exactly what I had envisioned for what surely must have been the origination of the masterful Stones' tune "Jumping Jack Flash."

Friday, December 24, 2010

The History of the Pittsburgh Steelers and "Mob Football"

My favorite NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, were purchased during the Depression for $2,500, money earned by Art Rooney's betting on horses and promotion of local prize fighters. They got their name because the "Steelers" was chosen by fans in a contest.

This was the beginning of many years of a hard-working but pathetic football team. One of many low-lights was when Johnny Unitas, who went on to become perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, was cut. But when "The Chief," long-time beloved owner Art Rooney (who sometimes treated the Steelers as an amusing hobby), stepped aside to let his son Dan take over in 1969, the team would slowly take a path to becoming the greatest football franchise.

Although Dan Rooney wanted to hire Joe Paterno of Penn State, Paterno wanted to stay in college. So the next choice was Chuck Noll, a former assistant at San Diego under West Coast Offense creator Sid Gillman and defensive assistant under Don Shula in Baltimore. Noll was a master of precision, detail, and studying the game.

This is one of the stories in a book I'm reading called The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, the Cowboys, the '70s, and the Fight for America's Soul, by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne. Another story is about how football is "as old as community." Villages in medieval times had bloody battles in which a pig's bladder served as the ball and with no rules beyond "no murder and no manslaughter." The game was called "Mob Football" and it evolved across Europe, with working men typically playing it on one of the few days off they had each year, on the day before Ash Wednesday.

In the mid-nineteenth century, "American football rose from this primal tradition and took hold at eastern college campuses." Then the first professional player took the field in November 1892, in Pittsburgh, of course.

Friday, December 17, 2010

An Insider's Account of the Final Night of Global Climate Negotiations

This was originally published at Planet Change.

I’ve now experienced four of these annual UN climate talks and it’s a great feeling to finally wake up at the end of one of them with a “win” instead of a disappointment.

The Washington Post had a wonderful “color” piece the other day on how the whole fascinating process works. It’s well worth reading. But outside of the 20,000 climate geeks (I mean that lovingly, being a bit of one myself) who wait at the “document stand” with bated breath for every new version of the prized “text” of the deal, all you really need to know is:

There are delegations from each country that are assigned by their governments to attend and refine a deal over two weeks. There are ministers of environment and forests and finance who also join at some point. And then presidents and other heads of state sometimes join at the very end.

Then there are also lots of public groups who want to influence the process. The Nature Conservancy has its own delegation (of which I was a part) and is one of the important non-profit organizations (NGOs) in the climate talks because we work on so many of the issues chiefly discussed by the negotiators: forests, adapting to climate change, finance, and others.

Because the talks were headed into the wee hours last night, much of our delegation headed back to the hotel quite a ways from the main conference venue. Those who stayed were camped out on the most comfortable chairs they could find. They couldn’t get up because they would lose those chairs. Some were watching on big screens outside of the massive main negotiating room.

We also had a meeting room in our hotel. So those of us who came back to our home-away-from-home for the past two weeks watched the webcast on our big screen there. I had mentioned to a colleague Friday morning that I had a strangely positive feeling, even though at that point many of the journalists were reporting that Cancun would fail. My optimism received a boost when the lead negotiator from the historically bristly U.S. more or less said he was ready to commit to a Cancun Agreement. It was the longest applause I’ve ever heard for the U.S. in this setting.

I finally went to bed. Then I was pinged with a text message from one of our media-relations experts and alerted that we had a deal. At 3:30 a.m.! So I got up and helped make sure everything was in place as far as telling the world what The Nature Conservancy thought about the done deal.

After working much of the morning, I’m exhausted. But I’m also excited. Not only does the global community have a way forward towards solving climate change, but I’m going to swim in the turquoise ocean for the first time since I got here two weeks ago.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Daryl Hannah Talks Climate at Nature Conservancy Event

It's been a while since I've done a major movie-star interview. I did meet George Clooney and play an extra in an episode of his TV show K Street. But that performance was left on the cutting-room floor. And when I interviewed Dom DeLuise, that was just for a newspaper.

So here's Daryl Hannah, talking oceans and climate, in video. It was fun to meet her. She's nice, and that's saying something, because we could have both been a little tense after not getting served much food at the otherwise excellent event we attended at the UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.

Oh, and I also blogged about the event over at Planet Change.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hola, From Sunny Cancun and the Climate Change Conference

You may have suspected I fell off the planet. Well, I sort of did. I'm in Cancun, Mexico for 18 days for the UN climate change conference. I've done nothing but work for many, many hours each day.

But that doesn't mean I haven't been blogging. (I have consumed zero pop culture. Hence, no Pop Culture Lunch Box posts in a week.) I have instead been blogging and filming short videos like a mad man for work.

Check it out. I'm really proud of The Nature Conservancy's Planet Change blog. New York Times? Hah. Come to Planet Change for your news of record on global warming!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Strolling the Fine Pleasures of New Orleans

In the the eleven-and-a-half years since I moved from the St. Louis area to D.C., I haven't seen my core crew of high-school buddies in many places outside of the Lake of the Ozarks for our annual summer Fantasy Football Draft.

That's why it was so nice to see ET, Dewey, Scoots, and their wives for three days this month in New Orleans. We rented a cute row house in the bohemian area of town just east of the French Quarter called Marigny (that's ET's wife, Carie Riess-Terry and I in front of the house in the photo to the right). It is one of Michael Stipe of R.E.M.'s favorite areas and he even referenced it in the Murmur classic "West of the Fields," as in, Elysian Fields, a main road though the neighborhood. Frenchman Street, in particular, has lots of great restaurants and bars that give visitors the feel of a truly different city without all the drunken nonsense of Bourbon Street.

We, of course, hit Bourbon as well. But I definitely couldn't take it as much as when I visited at younger ages. Pat O'Brien's served as some good crawfish etoufee and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was a weekend highlight. We also got debris po' boys at Mother's, drank Pimm's at Napoleon House, drank chocory coffee and ate beignets at Cafe du Mond, ate delicious muffalettas, devoured a pricey and succulent Peppered Lamb Loin with Goat Cheese and Zinfandel Reduction Sauce at Bayona, enjoyed lots of Abita, and strolled the artist-lined Jackson Square (see the photo below).

New Orleans is a great place to meet up with friends. There is plenty more we could have done, but leisurely walking around town, down back streets, and along the Mississippi River walk is a highly recommended way to spend a late fall weekend in The Big Easy. Oh, and having an easy-going, late-night boxing showdown in the courtyard behind our rowhouse with Scoots isn't too bad either.

Facebook as Classic on Big Screen as on Your Computer Screen

Considering that Mark Zuckerberg is no more than an unlikable kid who has no talents other than computer-programming skills, it's amazing The Social Network is so captivating and classic.

Then again, the film is directed by one of my favorites, David Fincher (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Seven). And Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland), playing the Facebook founder, is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.

While we all know the story of Facebook's success, the movie nicely digs into the inner workings of Zuckerberg's world of business associates (including a surprisingly fine performance from Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker) and the various lawsuits brought against Zuckerberg and his questionable ethics.

The Social Network has one of the highest critical scores ever on Metacritic. It will be interesting to see how well screenwriter Aaaron Sorkin, Eisenberg, Fincher, and the movie itslef do come Oscar time. Best movie I've seen all year.

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

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Get Him to the Greek a Non-stop Sex, Drug, Rock Comedy Ride

The follow-up to the uproarious Forgetting Sarah Marshall is also, while not quite as funny, pretty darn enjoyable.

Russell Brand is contagious in Get Him to the Greek. When his roving tongue should gross out, it's endearing. Same for his womanizing, heroin intake, and rock animalism cheese.

Jonah Hill really takes a big step in this film. He has been very good in several recent classic comedies, but his human side and likability are on display here more than ever, as he tries to get the unmanageable rocker Aldous Snow (Brand) to revive his career by getting off his rump in England to play a quickly-approaching concert in L.A. It probably helps that Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men plays his sweet and friendly girlfriend.

Brand does not think linearly, and the side trips this movie takes are the highlights, especially the hilarious reunion fight scene in Vegas with his nightclub-bum father. Sean "Puffy" Combs also shows off his comedic chops pretty nicely.

I love stories of unlikely dudes or kids being befriended by rock stars, and this one works in that "Almost Famous" genre. The formula still has yet to be perfected, which is what I'm hoping to do with my novel, in progress here at the blog.

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

Photo courtesy of

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Eric Stoltz's 13 Best Performances

So you doubted why I think Eric Stoltz is one of the finer actors of my generation? Just take a look at this powerhouse list of films he's starred in.

This isn't a list that ranks these films. It simply ranks his best performances.

13. Singles (1992)
12. Lionheart (1987)
11. Say Anything (1989)
10. Jerry Maguire (1996)
09. Little Women (1994)
08. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
07. Caprica (2010)
06. Pulp Fiction (1994)
05. Mask (1985)
04. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1978)
03. Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
02. Killing Zoe (1994)
01. Mr. Jealousy (1997)

Some Kind of Wonderful One of John Hughes' Best

Widely considered the least-known of legendary director John Hughes' 1980s high-school movies, Some Kind of Wonderful is anchored by the three-way of strong characters played by Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Lea Thompson.

It is essentially the same story as Hughes' more-often-praised Pretty in Pink. But I like this one better, perhaps mostly because of Stoltz (one of my very favorite actors) and Masterson, who plays a tomboy hoping to win Stoltz over from popular-girl Thompson.

Although Thompson is the weakest link in this love triangle, it's probably a good thing Molly Ringwald didn't get the part. She was supposed to get it, but Hughes went with Thompson. It would have been too indistinguishable from Pretty in Pink with Ringwald, although it probably would have been more popular.

Hughes actually wrote the plot with Stoltz in mind for lead character Keith. And Hughes is not subtle with his rock 'n roll ways: the three lead characters have Rolling Stones' references in their names. Keith for Stoltz, Watts (the Stones' drummer) for Masterson, and Amanda Jones (the name of one of their songs) for Thompson.

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

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Spoiler Alert! I Finished Watching Lost

Only seven months after the finale ran on ABC (and about six months after I accidentally erased several shows from my DVR), Lost is in the books.

The first season, way back in 2004, was easily one of the top 5 single seasons for a TV drama in history. And there was plenty of fun in subsequent seasons. But I can't help but feel let down by the way it ended tonight.

Jack's dad, named Christian Shepard (no subtlety there), brings the original plane-crash survivors together in a church, serving as the proverbial heaven, to facilitate their look back at the time they spent on the lost island, a time that was clearly the "best time of their lives."

Although the theme of science versus faith is certainly interesting, it's also the oldest story in the book and feels a little lazy and uncreative. These wandering lost souls, or disciples, end up dead but in a great place. Meanwhile, the Dharma Initiative and the scientific experiments that were being performed on the island have been rendered obsolete.

That's a frightening parable for our time, when so many people have their heads in the sands of faith rather than, in addition to faith (which isn't such a bad thing), trusting human scientific ability to predict the ways our crazy world works.

All that said, the mythology the writers were able to build up over six seasons, even if it didn't end up leading to much of anywhere other than smoke monsters and tropical polar bears, was an impressive feat. Although much of Lost meant absolutely nothing, the brilliance in such a ploy is that it makes us all think, at least for a short while, that it actually does mean something. The frustrating thing is that we'll never know what that "something" is.

The ending: **1/2 out of ***** stars
The entire six seasons: ****1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chinese Fundamentals Could Provide Global Warming’s Savior

I originally wrote this on Thursday, October 21 for The Nature Conservancy's Planet Change blog.

Reading the China Daily newspaper in the cab on the way to the airport after 10 days working in the country, I was struck with the idea that China has a real opportunity to lead the world on climate change.

One article noted that “China’s clean energy market is open to all foreign players, and many foreign companies have built a presence in the market.” That seems like a fairly straight-forward news item. But think about it, could such a sentence be written about the U.S., where we increasingly seem to be weaving an isolationist cocoon from the glories that could accompany this moment in time of endless globalization opportunities?

General Electric’s turbines in China, for example, are generating major amounts of wind power there. Meanwhile, the article noted, “China has only exported three wind turbines to the U.S.”

While China certainly has the problems that accompany major industrialization and a massive reliance on dirty coal burning, I gained a sense of real hope while visiting China that there is still time for the world’s powers to get a grip on global warming.

In the many conversations I had with Chinese citizens and environment experts while working in Beijing and Inner Mongolia (where one of our tree-focused climate projects is kick-starting), there was confidence that China is learning from the lesson of previous industrializing countries. Also, China seems to still comprehend the importance of fundamentals.

A few other headlines from that edition of China Daily: “Rationality urged for students.” “Reform leading to good governance.” There was also an editorial urging Beijing leaders to improve public transportation in a city that welcomes more than 500,000 vehicles from outside the city limits every day.

These articles, I fear, would not make it to the top of U.S. newspapers, where news needs to be about something original, post-post-modern, or Lindsey Lohan.

This Chinese fundamentalism offers to be the saving grace for us all. Or at least for the Chinese, if the U.S. and our politicians don’t begin to think a little more globally.

Adam Sandler and Gang Still Hilarious as Grown Ups

I wrote this in the air above the North Pole on Monday, October 19.

Adam Sandler’s movies may have been hit-or-miss in recent years, but there’s never been any denying his likability. Grown Ups ramps up that quotient considerably. And I thoroughly expect this group of comedians to make the exact same film in 25 years, only they’ll call it Old Dudes.

Grown Ups is daddy humor at its finest. And the message that kids need to get off their X-Boxes and iPhones and go play outside is both touching and apt.

Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, David Spade, Rob Schneider, and Salma Hayek nail the chemistry. The jokes never stop being funny and light-hearted, as rich Hollywood agent Sandler leads his old basketball buddies on an outing to their former coach’s funeral and then to a lake property where they all grew up. The hit a waterpark, canoe, drink, watch a hot girl fix a car, and play a fierce and pathetic hoops rematch with their childhood foes.

Obviously, nothing much happens, but this is a really fun flick. The soundtrack is the topper, with choice deep album tracks from bands like The Kinks (one of my favorites of the Davies’ brothers, “Better Things”) and Sandler’s own excellent Dylanesque composition “Stan the Man.”

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

Seeds of Forest Project Planted in Inner Mongolia, China

I originally wrote this on Sunday, October 18.

My group of work friends (somehow all guys) returned last night from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Henninge’ er, Inner Mongolia, the province that straddles China’s northern border with Mongolia.

We stayed for two nights in a largely marble joint somewhere between Ghengis Khan-style palace, mafia getaway, and The Shining hotel. Billed as The Shengle Club, it is located inside a planned community of stone and slightly-falling-apart McMansions and has its own indoor clay tennis courts, massive indoor pool, table tennis, billiards, a movie theater, full soccer pitch with NFL-caliber turf, and four really nice bamboo-floor bowling lanes.

We were entertained by the owner of the entire complex, Mr. Niu, over a wonderfully excessive lunch at a round twirling table of meats, dumplings, vegetables, huge glasses of yogurt, local vodka-like liquor, and wine. Our Nature Conservancy colleague and China climate manager Ma Jian read an email on Mr. Niu’s phone from none other than Bill Gates and Warren Buffett saying they are looking forward to visiting him in Inner Mongolia next year.

We also played tennis with Mr. Niu, who owns the local milk factory that we toured. His company, Mengniu, is the largest milk producer in China and (surprisingly only) the sixteenth largest in the world.

Mr. Niu is also replanting trees all over the land adjacent to his milk factory to help repair the drought-stricken and eroded, dusty land. With his hands seemingly everywhere in this almost Mars-like landscape east of Inner Mongolia’s biggest city, Hohhot (at a mere 3 million population), Mr. Niu is a co-sponsor of The Nature Conservancy’s reforestation project a little further out of Henninge’ er.

Our project is in its beginning phases and is relatively small, covering only about 20 square miles of a mountain that equates to about a third the size of Washington DC. The important thing to note about the Inner Mongolia project is that it will feature high-quality, sustainable, and well-researched tree planting, an element that is often overlooked in a country that plants an amazing amount of trees and admirably fights global warming successfully as a “carbon sink,” but also plants many of the wrong trees in the wrong places.

We have also opened a branch office of our China climate program in Inner Mongolia, so look for much more news in the near future about this work over at the Conservancy's newly relaunched website called Planet Change.

Even Through the Smog, The Great Wall is Still Great

I wrote this in China on Sunday, October 10.

Today was my one vacation day of the trip and I couldn’t have been more excited to visit the Great Wall of China. I booked a van through the hotel and set off with a group of about 12 travelers from Canada, England, Malaysia, and Russia to the “Mutianyu” portion, which is considered the most well-preserved section and is located about 80 minutes north of downtown Beijing.

Our English translator answered questions for much of the drive. The Wall is about 5,500 miles long. Also, China’s one-child policy was initiated way back in 1978. Farmers are the exception. They can have a second child if their firstborn is a girl. This is because farmers need boys to help them. If they have a girl the second time, they are done and can’t try again. Parents are fined based on their salaries if they have a second child. The millions of trees lining the roads have white paint on their bottom four feet to keep pests away. When asked about the thick smoke, she called it “fog” and interestingly didn’t mention the rapid expansion of coal-based industrialization in the country. What was also surprising to me was that we saw no factory smokestacks on the way to the Wall.

I had figured the smoky haze would improve or even disappear once we got further from the city. But it never did, and visibility at the Wall suffered for it. It still seemed fitting, from a climate-change perspective, to be hiking along the number-one polluting country’s most beautiful and amazing treasure in a wall of exhaust.

We were allowed a little more than two hours to explore the Wall on our own. If not for the short window, I would have climbed the 1,000 steps to reach the Wall, but instead I took a terrifying cable car and got my hiking in along the top of the rolling structure, which was lined in this particular stretch by a series of watchtowers.

The afternoon rain held off until the return bus ride. We then stopped at a local “natural Eastern medicine” facility, where students gave us foot massages and a doctor told us about how Western doctors use machines to check the health of their patients while Eastern doctors use their hands and simply check the pulse and tongue. I was suckered into buying a prescription for slightly high blood pressure. But my regular doctor has told me before that I have high blood pressure, so I was willing to accept the two-month regimen that these doctors said would repair me for good.

I finished the day by going for a swim in my hotel's fancy indoor pool and then wandering the streets until I found a “hot and spicy hot pot” joint that had no foreigners in it. There was just enough English on the menu to convince me to give it a try. The hot and spicy pot was a huge bowl with tons of terrifying-looking red peppers and the rice, pork, broccoli, and kelp that I requested. It was delicious and nothing like the awful “Chinese food” Americans eat.

Just Another Smoggy Monday (in Beijing)

This was originally published at Planet Change on Monday, October 11.

Walking off the plane the other day and into the Beijing airport, on my first-ever visit to China, I was immediately struck by how smoggy it was outside. Even stranger: the inside of the airport had a layer of smoke in it that I couldn’t decipher. Either it was cigarette smoke or factory smoke, most likely quite a bit of both.

After grabbing my luggage and some yuan (cash), a man approached me and said he would take me to a taxi. I asked him about the smoke and he said it was all from cigarettes.

After getting in the taxi, we drove for about 45 minutes and I was shocked when I realized we had already been driving downtown for several minutes. I hadn’t even noticed the tall buildings through the haze that was so thick that visibility beyond the roads was pretty non-existent.

What surprised me even more, on my one day off for this work trip, was that the smog never relented all the way to the “Mutianyu” portion of The Great Wall. Considered one of the most well-preserved sections, Mutianyu is located, by car, about 80 minutes north of downtown Beijing.

But the surprises seem endless in Beijing. On my third morning, I woke up to amazingly clear, blue skies. It stayed that way all day, and my colleagues suggested it was a mixture of the previous evening’s rains and wind directions that had cleared the pollution.

The many, many programs implemented, mostly since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, are encouraging and inspiring. There are about 400,000 “yellow label” vehicles in the region with high-emission levels that are not allowed in the city, “cloud seeding” to increase the likelihood of rainfall is performed when the air needs to be cleared before large events, hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted, and about 4,000 natural-gas buses are now in operation.

While Beijing still has a way to go to clear its air, there are promising steps being made. My first three days here (two days of smog, one day of clear skies) seem to be illustrative of the problem.

Photo of Olympic Stadium in Beijing by Flickr user rtc

Upon Arrival in Beijing

I wrote this up on Saturday, October 9, but then realized I had no access to my own blog in the land of the Great Firewall. So now I'm finally getting around to posting some missives from my recent 10-day work trip to China.

Walking off the plane and into the Beijing airport, I was immediately struck by how smoggy it was outside. Even stranger: the inside of the airport has a layer of smoke in it that I couldn’t decipher. Either it was cigarette smoke or factory smoke, most likely quite a bit of both.

After grabbing my luggage and some yuan (cash), a man approached me for a taxi. I accepted even though I wasn’t totally sure he was legit. I grew a little suspicious when we waited for an elevator and he stuck one of his long fingernails up his nose only to bring it back out with a whopper. Hopefully that’s not stuck to me suitcase somewhere.

Any way, he was a nice enough fellow and shuffled me into a cab. I gave my booger buddy the money (he said he was the boss), he told the driver which hotel to go to, and then he was gone in a flash.

We drove for about 45 minutes and I was shocked when I realized we already appeared to be downtown. I hadn’t even noticed the tall buildings through the haze that was so thick that visibility beyond the roads was pretty non-existent.

Around 3 p.m. Saturday (3 a.m. back home). I arrived at Jianguo Hotel, an upscale place with a lagoon surrounding it and all the comforts of a fancy home-away-from-home. I sluggishly worked for a couple of hours in my room on a press statement from The Nature Conservancy’s international climate policy director about the Tianjin, China climate talks, which were wrapping up as my plane landed and seemed to be progressing as slowly as ever. At one point, I literally dozed off for about 30 minutes and woke up just in time to approve the statement before a colleague sent it off to an interested reporter on deadline at the South Chin Post.

Then I hauled myself into the shower and out the door to take a stroll down the block, slightly trimming back my initial plans to hop on the subway about five stops down to the famed Forbidden City. I was approached by several ladies selling messages, socks, and other products that I didn’t want, but they were all pretty civil and not too annoying. Although I was interested in getting some Chinese food, I figured it would be a good night to settle my stomach into the scene, so I went with a Thai place that offered me a tasty red curry chicken.

I’m booked for a tour in the morning to the Great Wall.

Why You Can Feel Less Guilt About Eating That Nestlé Chocolate Bar

This post was originally published on Thursday, October 7 at Planet Change.

The massive Swiss-based company Nestlé appears committed to removing bad tree-cutting from the production process of all its products. This would be an amazing accomplishment simply because of the sheer range of its products, which includes everything from coffee to Lean Cuisine dinners to Butterfingers.

According to Nestlé’s partners at non-profit The Forest Trust, the company has begun its quest toward zero-percent deforestation on the ground at oil-palm plantations. From headquarters all the way to the ground, land-management practices throughout Nestlé’s supply chain are changing through the implementation of their “non-negotiable, minimum-standard” Responsible Sourcing Guidelines for all suppliers, employees, agents, and subcontractors.

Photo by Bloomberg News

Obama Sets Example, Thanks to Climate Effort

OK. I'm just now catching up with posting my Planet Change blogs here at Pop Culture Lunch Box. I wrote several earlier this month. This one appeared on Wednesday, October 6.

After author Bill McKibben and his climate activist group visited President Obama at the White House a few weeks ago, the administration was apparently convinced with the idea to re-install solar panels, which last adorned the building’s roof for a temporary time during the Carter administration. The sun-powered panels will heat water for the residential wing and provide some electricity, and is estimated to reduce the White House’s (and taxpayers’) energy bill by about $3,000 annually.

And it seems the president’s example is already having a domino effect. New solar projects are popping up throughout the U.S. and many more are expected to begin construction. Just this week, the first major solar plants to be built on federal land, both in the California desert, were approved by Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Further, solar panels seem to be a solution to global warming that most reasonable people can agree upon. In a little-known footnote to the George W. Bush years, the former president, who uses solar panels at his Texas ranch, had them installed on a maintenance building and two other small structures on the White House grounds.

Photo by Charles Dharapak, AP

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Planet Change, Our New Nature Conservancy Blog, Launches!!!

Along with my new colleagues on the Strategic Communications team, I've got a new site up and running for The Nature Conservancy. It's called Planet Change and it examines the positive improvements being made on the ground throughout the world in regards to the very negative impacts already being caused by global warming.

The site will look at how various people, places, and professions are being affected by strange happenings going on all around the planet. While U.S. leaders seem like deer in the headlights, many encouraging actions are happening at local and regional levels, and all around the world.

As editor-in-chief, I want to say that my colleagues and I at the Conservancy hope this site will help empower people to more clearly see the connections between climate change and their everyday lives. The Nature Conservancy, the world's largest environmental non-profit, is certainly a great platform from which to make a difference for our generation and the ones of the future.

A Reunited Guided By Voices Blowfishes Through the 9:30 Club

It's an honor to again have burgeoning rock journalist/photog featured on the site.
Francis Chung (or "Fran," depending on who you ask) attending the boisterous Guided by Voices show with me last week. I give the show ****1/2 out of ***** stars. By most standards, it was an impeccable show. By GBV standards, it could have been longer than 2 hours and could have featured a slightly better setlist. But why write my own full review when Fran covered the bases so well in DCist. A check out the great photos at the Washington City Paper:

From the early 1980s until their breakup in 2004, Guided By Voices built a reputation as one of the great live acts in rock-and-roll. Armed with some of the best material in all of indie rock -- thanks to frontman Robert Pollard’s inspired, ultra-prolific songwriting -- GBV’s various incarnations consistently enthralled its loyal fans with dynamically shambolic, three-to-four-hour marathon performances fueled by massive amounts of alcohol. Expectations were high as GBV played a sold-out 9:30 Club on Thursday night with its recently-reunited “classic” (1993-96) lineup featuring Tobin Spout and Mitch Mitchell on guitar, Greg Demos on bass and Kevin Fennell on drums. The Ohio-based quintet delivered a solid, if surprisingly brief, two-hour performance that featured a sterling set list, but -- if only because it rarely achieved the exhilarating heights of past GBV extravaganzas -- ultimately felt like a slight disappointment.
With a neon sign behind him declaring “THE CLUB IS OPEN,” Pollard led his band on stage promptly at 9:15, swigging from a bottle of Jose Cuervo before launching the set with “Break Even,” “Pimple Zoo,” and “Shocker in Gloomtown.” Though neither the band nor the audience seemed fully warmed up, “Tractor Rape Chain” provided an early highlight, as fans fist-pumped and sang along to the song’s infectious chorus in an effort to get themselves properly fired up. The middle-aged musicians seemed to put forth their best effort, nodding to their trademark stage antics of the past while showing the inevitable effects of age. Pollard demonstrated some toned-down versions of his signature leg-kicks and mic-twirls while smoking liberally on stage, and Demos and Mitchell struck oft-awkward rock-god poses, frequently with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Notably, and to the possible detriment of their performance, the band drank with a relative moderation that would have been uncharacteristic fifteen years ago, with Pollard sticking mostly to beer and only occasionally reaching for the tequila.

The set list delved into all four of GBV’s albums from 1993-96 (Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars), and also featured deeper cuts off of singles and EPs from that period. Sprout showcased his own songwriting contributions, taking the lead on understated renditions of “Awful Bliss” and “14 Cheerleader Coldfront,” while his nostalgic “A Good Flying Bird” could serve as an apt manifesto for his band’s reunion tour, and a theme song for many of the aging rockers in attendance. Frankly, the middle of the set lagged a bit, with songs like “Queens of Cans and Jars” and “Gold Star for Robot Boy” lacking some of the energy and swagger one might expect from a GBV performance.

It really didn’t feel like a “classic” Guided By Voices show until late in the main set, when the snarling guitar chords of “Watch Me Jumpstart” seemed to kick the proceedings into a higher gear. With the alcohol taking full effect both on stage and in the crowd, a rousing club-wide shout-along ensued during the anthemic climax of “Echos Myron.” It was arguably the high water mark of the show, and GBV followed it up with perennial favorite “I Am a Scientist” before sending the crowd into its fullest frenzy during a spirited rendition of “Game of Pricks,” a 90-second gem which remains one of the greatest songs in the genre of indie rock.

GBV returned for three encores, pushing the song total for the evening to 40. “Postal Blowfish” and “Don’t Stop Now” bookended the first encore, while the second was highlighted by the ever-irresistible “Motor Away.” Finally, the mini-epic “Weed King” from Propeller brought the festivities to a satisfying conclusion. Few would argue that it was the best GBV show they’ve ever seen, but Thursday’s performance nonetheless offered a nostalgic opportunity to celebrate one of the best American bands of the past several decades, and to see them play together in D.C. for perhaps the last time.

Photo by Erica Bruce/Washington City Paper

Monday, October 18, 2010

Oh No! Pop Culture Lunch Box Doesn’t Exist in China!

All our faithful followers may be giving up hope on the Lunch Box. But don’t worry, we on the content-creation end have been here all along.

The new and excellent job at The Nature Conservancy has kept me from blogging much in recent months. But a work trip to China was going to be ripe fodder for the blogosphere, right?

Well, that was until I landed in Beijing and quickly realized I would have no access to my own Communist-government-blocked site throughout the duration of my travels. My Facebook app completely disappeared from my iPhone when I tried to update it from behind the Great Firewall. Gasp! Of course, no one cares that they don’t have Facebook access in China. It saves them from wasting time and they have their own pretty nifty social-media sites anyway.

But the whole point of this particular post is: I’ve been writing the whole time I’ve been in China and will be posting way much more material than you should really be required to read about my trip here in the coming days. But please try anyway.

China is wonderful, but it’s still good to be back home.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Steve Carell Just a Little Too Schmucky

One of the good things about a long, 14-hour flight around the North Pole from DC to Beijing, China is that I got the chance to catch-up on some movies that are pretty high in my Netflix queue. Cyrus first, then Dinner With Schmucks (and looking very forward to Grown Ups on my return home in 10 days).

Surprisingly, Steve Carell is the weakness of Dinner With Schmucks. His Rain Man-like character grows tiresome (the movie drags a little painfully), his backstory is close to non-existent (how in the world does someone become such a clueless, unlovable idiot?), and Carell is amazingly unfunny, sleepwalking through the role. Maybe that’s what becoming a big star and performing in a barrage of movies lately does to comedic geniuses, like with Chevy Chase for example.

Anyway, despite Carell, this movie has a good heart and some fine and funny performances. The movie starts off wonderfully as Paul Rudd is his usual easygoing and captivating self as a “stock broker” who wants to marry his girlfriend. When Carell enters the picture (Rudd’s car plows into him while he’s picking up a dead rat in the road to use in one of his historical recreations of human history with dead taxidermied rats), the movie goes a little south.

Jemaine Clement from The Flight of the Concords undeniably turns in the movie’s highlight performance as a self-obsessed artist who also happens to be obsessed with goats, in a very existential way. David Walliams, who plays the silly Swiss billionaire being wooed to save the company where Rudd works, is also very funny.

I could think of worse ways to spend a flight to Beijing. Like constantly being woken up and bumped by the crazy lady next to me who claimed her foot was hurt and tried to cajole me into switching seats with her. I held strong and kept the aisle instead of the middle.

*** out of ***** stars

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cyrus Drips Creepy Sweet

Cyrus is a sweet little indie drama with strong acting. However, it moves at an uneven pace, especially through its second half, when a good new romance between John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei is complicated. The troubles come from Tomei's son, played in an aptly creepy manner by Jonah Hill.

The film seems to be some sort of statement against single-parent childrearing. While early-20s Cyrus has serious growth issues, Tomei's character clearly has had a role in shaping him the way he is, such as singing in the bathroom while she showers. Awkward.

There is also distracting camerawork throughout, with the quick zoom and pans used frequently these days in TV shows like Arrested Development and The Office. this seems to work better in those short formats, but it is tiring and neurotic over 90 minutes.

The acting ultimately saves Cyrus, but I was not nearly as enamored as many of the critics.

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

Monday, October 4, 2010

Teenage Fanclub Returns: No Longer Young, But Still Beautiful

Seeing as I attended this show with DCist photographer and writer Francis Chung and discussed many of these elements with him at the bar afterward, there's not much sense in writing my own review. Fran has done it exceptionally well, so the following is his version of a show by a band I haven't seen live since their show with the Afghan Whigs in St. Louis that was so long ago I can't find any reference to it at all on the Internet.

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

Hot on the heels of Pavement's retrospective set at the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, local concert-goers were treated to another dose of indie-rock nostalgia on Saturday night, as the 9:30 Club hosted an all-Scottish twin bill featuring Teenage Fanclub (pictured left) and The Vaselines (pictured below).

The Vaselines' Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee released two relatively obscure EPs and one LP in the 1980s, and broke up (as a couple and as a band) before Nirvana gave them a measure of fame by covering three of their songs, including a remarkable unplugged rendition of "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." On Saturday night, the Glaswegians dutifully delivered all three of the Cobain-interpreted songs for which they still best known. "Son of a Gun" sounded as charmingly catchy as ever, with Kelly and McKee trading boy-girl vocals over a steady backbeat and jangly guitars, and Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake joined them onstage for a slightly slowed-down version of "Molly's Lips," tooting a bike horn during McKee's falsetto chorus.

Aided by a laudably crystal-clear sound mix, the band sounded exceptionally tight both on older classics, like the audience-requested "Dying for It," and newer songs like "I Hate the 80s" and "Sex with an X," the title track from their recently-released second LP. As befits a band whose songs are replete with sexual innuendos and naughty double-entendres ("Monsterpussy," "Rory Rides Me Raw"), The Vaselines sprinkled their set with plenty of hilariously lewd banter. McKee was in a particularly bawdy mood, inviting fans who came for Teenage Fanclub to retire to the loo "to have a wank" during her band's set, and later giving an excursus on the dermatological benefits of semen and...well, things reached arguably unpublishable levels from there, so perhaps it's best to leave the rest to the imagination.

Kelly and McKee's antics were a tough act to follow, but Teenage Fanclub was more than up to the task. Indeed, the Glaswegian quintet -- which features not one, but three talented songwriters -- is one of those bands that's so accessibly good that it's genuinely surprising that the've never achieved more than moderate commercial success, though both the band and its fans seem comfortable with their underdog status. Their superb 19-song set showcased the outstanding musicianship and pop songcraft that has earned them extensive critical acclaim and a devoted cult following. Opening with "Sometimes I Don't Need to Believe in Anything" and "The Past" from its latest album, Shadows, the band kicked the energy level up a notch when bassist Gerard Love led them through "Star Sign" from Bandwagonesque, famously ranked by Spin Magazine as the best album of 1991 (ahead of Nirvana's Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless).

Primary frontman Norman Blake resumed vocal duties on "Alcoholiday," another standout track from Bandwagonesque, while guitarist Raymond McGinley took his turn on "About You" from 1995's Grand Prix. The band played flawlessly throughout its set, displaying gorgeous vocal harmonies and dynamically mellifluous guitar work worthy of their heroes, Big Star -- although the sound engineering was unfortunately not quite as good as it was during The Vaselines' performance. Nonetheless, fans were ecstatic to hear classics like the irresistible "Sparky's Dream," and, at the end of the main set, almost everyone in the club seemed to be singing along to the indelible melodies of "The Concept." Teenage Fanclub returned for a four-song encore, playing "Can't Feel My Soul," "Sweet Days Waiting," and "Did I Say," before concluding the evening on an appropriately nostalgic note with its first single, "Everything Flows."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pavement Brings 1990s Finest Rock Back to Central Park

Thirteen months after buying our concert tickets, the night finally arrived. Late Tuesday afternoon, we arrived in Manhattan on the Amtrak and proceeded to make our way to Central Park's Summer Stage for the indie-rock concert event of the year.

Rachel and I dropped our bags off at a friend of a friend's house. Then we grabbed Mexican food and margaritas with the friend of a friend (Dan) and his buddies Alex and Eric. Two of the three were from St. Louis, so I had lots to discuss with them.

Then we met fellow DCites Fran and Morgan at the show. Oh yeah, who was playing, you ask? Pavement, who routinely land in my top three bands of all-time (along with The Beatles and Guided by Voices).

They were in every bit as good a form as the handful of times I saw them before their breakup in 1999. Leader Steve Malkmus exuded confidence in his unusually quirky vocal stylings and played guitar behind his back and hit chops that were like a cooler and looser version of a college-rock Jimi Hendrix.

Several of the traditionally tight and concise Pavement classics were stretched into jammy territory, clearly influenced by Malkmus' post-Pavement band The Jicks. Where this probably worked best was with set closer "Stop Breathin'," which actually pulsated and sent waves of guitar dueling through the city reminiscent of the Pink Floyd concert I saw in 1987.

Pavement can do no wrong, because even when they ventured into psychedelic jams, you knew it was never long before pop perfection would return. Particular highlights of the first of four nights at the Central park venue included "Gold Soundz," recently deemed by Pitchfork as the best song of the 1990s, "Box Elder," Stereo," Silent Kit," "Shady Lane, "Rattled by the Rush," "We Dance," "Perfume-V," "Debris Slide," "Trigger Cut," "Range Life,"and "Cut Your Hair."

The only thing that could have been better would have been if the band played longer. For instance, the next night, they played several tunes that I would have loved to hear, including "Summer Babe," "Zurich is Stained," "Two States," "Lions (Linden)," Here," and "Father to a Sister of Thought."

Pavement is one of life's grand pleasures. It's good to have them back again.

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

Photo courtesy of Music Snobbery

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Runaways Forget to Leave a Good Story in Their Movie

One of the many interesting tidbits left out of the mildly stinky new rockumentary The Runaways is the fact that lead singer Cherie Currie (the blond at the bottom left) was briefly married in the 1990s to actor Robert Hays, the legendary lead in Airplane!

Lack of detail seems to be a specialty for this slow-paced movie, which tries to give us lots of rock 'n roll debauchery. And that's usually a good thing in a rock movie, but if there is no strong character development or back story, it's not enough.

People can learn as much about The Runaways by reading their Wikipedia entry and listening to their few great tunes here.

It's a shame. I was excited to see this. And I still like rhythm guitarist Joan Jett's later work, so it was good to at least get a little bit of that story at the end of the movie. And I should add that Kristen Stewart does an impressive job of looking and singing like Jett.

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

Climate Science Needs Less Wonk, More Anecdotal Stories

Climate science is filled with great metaphors, anecdotes, and characters. After all, what issue wouldn’t kill to have a day like Earth Day or an icon like the polar bear serving as brand managers?

The problem is that journalists, climate scientists, and others need to tell these stories better, especially in a rapidly shifting media landscape. These were some of the highlights of a panel today hosted by the American Meteorological Society on “Media and Climate Change” at the U.S. House of Representatives’ Rayburn Building in D.C.

Bud Ward (pictured) of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media recommended that scientists adopt some of the best practices of communications and that journalists, in turn, will fare better if they are allowed to specialize in topic areas such as environmental sciences.

He said universities and science academies fail to prepare their students to know how to communicate the important science they undertake, which is extremely pointless if the public and politicians don’t know about the science, can’t understand it, or fail to avoid the pitfalls of a highly politicized topic like global warming.

One of Ward’s great tips falls in line with a blog I’m helping redesign and relaunch this month for The Nature Conservancy (more about that soon). He said when someone starts a conversation with, “I don’t believe in global warming,” ask them what their interests are. If they say, “I love my Hummer,” engage them on military and national security issues. Stop framing these kinds of discussions in terms of global warming. This is so important because climate relates to just about everything we care about.

Most people just don’t make the connections, and why would they? Climate is something way up in the atmosphere (unlike our daily weather) and seemingly generations away (even though it's already very much here). As co-panelist Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism added, “It’s harder to know what to think than what to believe.”

Ward also touched on the poor framing used by environmentalists and journalists. They don’t know whether to call it global warming or climate change. They don’t know whether to call them climate skeptics or deniers. No wonder so many people are left struggling with what to believe or think.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Vampire Weekend Bites Merriweather Crowd with Exuberant Worldbeat Indie Pop

Vampire Weekend put on an exuberant late-summer pop show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday night. For the uninitiated, they are indie rock's answer to Paul Simon's worldbeat Graceland. They also reconfirmed their place as one of my favorite bands of the 2010s, right up there with Wilco and a reunited Pavement.

Baltimore's Beach House opened and was enjoyable, despite their songs being mellow and samey (and their lead-singing chick looking like one of The Really Rottens from Hanna-Barbera's Laff-A-Lympics).

My friend Francis Chung put it best in his review for DCist (and, even better yet, check out his great photos):

"Thousands screamed along to the infectiously rudimentary chorus of 'A-Punk,' and at the end of the main set, [Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra] Koenig’s diction did not drip with disdain during the vibrant 'Oxford Comma.' The three-song encore began somewhat dubiously with 'Horchata,' before Rostam Batmanglij’s keyboards signaled the start of 'Mansard Roof,' an almost absurdly catchy song highlighted by Chris Tomson’s propulsive drumming. The evening concluded with a rousing rendition of 'Walcott,' as the audience collectively thrust its hands skyward in a euphoric response even Bruce Springsteen would probably be proud to get."

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Young Victoria Needs a Little Maturing

The great thing about period pieces is that you usually get to educate yourself about an interesting part of human history.

The problem with The Young Victoria is that there is hardly any learning curve. Sure, before seeing the movie, we already knew that she took the throne in the 1830s when she was still a young woman. And we knew there was some sort of minor power struggle to work through in the early days of Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert. And we knew that there was an assassination attempt on the queen, but that she was unharmed and ruled until ripe old age.

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend are both likable and steady in the lead roles, but the story seems to breeze along before it's suddenly gone and done. The movie simply leaves you wanting more, but not in a good way. It's more like it leaves you wanting.

The art design, makeup, and costumes were each nominated for 2010 Academy Awards and truly go a long way towards making the movie better than the sum of the script.

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

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Punched in the Face By Brutal Realism

It's great to see my friend Tim Getman getting better and better parts. He is firmly entrenched as a leading light in the formidable DC theater scene.

The production of Cherry Smoke at Silver Spring's Roundhouse Theater, of which he both stars and co-produces with Jessica Burgess (who helped produce my own Wiener Sausage: The Musical!), is a powerful exploration of the small-town psyche that accompanies extreme poverty and hopelessness.

Getman plays Fish, a miscreant boxer who can't get anything right other than beating other people senseless. Tangled amidst the sparse setting of ropes hanging from the ceiling, he does a pretty good job of abusing the minds of those closest to him as well.

Cherry is played with Huck Finn-like goodness by Julia Procter. A country tomboy, she loves Fish with all her heart, waits for months at a time for him to return from his frequent stints in lockup, and seems to turn to smoke without the hot breath and embrace of her soulmate.

Fish's little brother, Duffy (Cliff Williams III), and Duffy's wife Bug (Jjana Valentiner, a veteran of one staged reading of Wiener Sausage), help move Fish's story along. As Duffy narrates, he and his wife's ultimate normalness is an excellent contrast to Fish and Cherry's more passionate, but ultimately less sustainable, relationship.

The performances are top-notch and Burgess has done a lot with a fairly minimalist script. The story is eventually tragic, and by the end, the audience cares greatly about and sympathizes with four characters whom urban theatergoers likely have little in the way of commonalities.

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

Saturday, August 28, 2010

When Mad Men Days Ruled the Advertising World

The smash success of the TV show Mad Men has really opened up the nation's romanticism of the good old days of office life that included daily doses of martinis, cigarettes, and sex.

While it all sounds fun, it also sounds pretty exhausting. But somehow advertising legend Jerry Della Femina survived the 50s, 60s, and every decade since, and is still working and telling us about how the TV show looks like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm compared to those days when he was starting his own firm.

Della Femina begins his memoir, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, remembering how agencies in the 1950s "were broken down among ethnic lines. The Mad Men flourished in large Protestant ad agencies [and] monopolized all the large advertising accounts (cars, food, cigarettes, soft drinks, beer). The other, small accounts (dress manufacturers, shoes, underwear, small retail stores) were regulated to tiny, 'Jewish' ad agencies."

By the late 60s, the ethnic agencies, of which Della Femina had always been a part, had turned the tables and captured most of the primo accounts. The chairman of the Protestant Mad Men, David Ogilvy, even declared at a conference in 1968 that "the lunatics have taken over the asylum."

One example of the debauchery in the advertising golden age: "Thousands of people took part in the Agency Sex Contest. Everyone in the agency voted anonymously on ballots for the three people they most wanted to go to bed with. They were also asked to vote on the person of the same sex they would consider going to bed with. And, of course, there was the menage a trois category, in which they selected the two other people they wanted to go to bed with. Sometimes as many as 300 votes were cast.

"For one week [each year], the walls of the agency were covered with [sometimes nude] posters made by people who were campaigning for themselves." Winners shared hotel room suites for a weekend or a night and also were allowed to have sex on Della Femina's couch during a work afternoon.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Inception Plants a Pretty Good Story in My Head

Inception is a good story that gets bloated with action-adventure on its way to a suspenseful ending.

Leonardo DiCaprio is his usual wonderful self, in a young Jack Nicholson, rich man's Christian Slater kind of way.

He plays a guy who can get into other people's dreams, but when he gets the final assignment of his career (which will supposedly allow him to go back to his children in America), he risks dragging down the "dream" team he assembles.

Ellen Page of Juno fame is the right actor to play the architectural designer of the dreams. She also slowly unfolds the complicated, creepy, and fascinating back story of Leo and his dead (or not?) wife, played by Marilon Cotillard. Leo's wavering commitment between his wife and his team, including good performances from Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, threatens their mission to successfully perform "inception," which means to place an idea in someone's head that could change their entire thinking and life course.

Director Christopher Nolan can't repeat the majesty of 2000's Memento, not that anyone could reasonably ask for such a feat. However, he assembles a formidable team to try. The problem is that he gets a little too big for his britches. I seriously almost fell asleep in the middle as Leo and crew went Bond with shootouts in the rain, high-risk mountain skiing, and a very long fall off a bridge in a van. Luckily there was enough meat in the story to make this worth seeing in the theater.

*** out of ***** stars (This would come in #10 on my list of the 14 best DiCaprio movies.)

White House Tour Follows Steps of First Ladies

Eleven years living in DC and today I finally took my first tour of the East Wing of the White House.

Although I consider myself an eager student of U.S. presidential history, I hate to admit that the tour is just an OK experience. Probably the best things about the short walk are the historical photos in the entryway (including one of John Travolta dancing with Princess Diana and lots of White House pets), the inspiring glimpses of the backyard and the Jackie Kennedy Garden that frequently appear on the news, and the often recognizable furniture sprinkled throughout the half-dozen or so rooms on the tour.

The East Wing is essentially the president's living quarters while the West Wing consists of working offices. The current East Wing was added to the White House in 1942 primarily to cover the construction of an underground bunker, now the Presidential Emergency Operations Center. Around the same time, Theodore Roosevelt's coatroom became the movie theater.

Rosalynn Carter, in 1977, was the first to place her personal office in the East Wing and to formally call it the "Office of the First Lady." The first ladies have continued to similarly use the East Wing ever since.