Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Worst Movie of All Time? You Decide on Movie 43

Many critics have called Movie 43 the worst film of all time.

That’s a bit of a stretch. Since you’re reading Pop Culture Lunch Box, you probably don’t have an allergy to wacky tastelessness, and I would recommend you waste 94 minutes of your time on this start-studded hot mess.

Actually, let me amend that. The five best sketches (there are 16 in all) are front-loaded at the start. Once Justin Long, Jason Sudeikis, and John Hodgeman’s “Superhero Speed Dating” kicks in, it is all severely downhill and this laughfest quickly becomes a seriously amateur stinker:
  1. The Catch – Kate Winslet plays a businesswoman who is convinced to go out with Hugh Jackman after her friend shows her a magazine with him on the cover. But once they arrive at a restaurant on their date, Jackman removes his scarf to expose an unfortunate problem with his neck. Nobody else seems to be bothered by it, which increasingly flummoxes Winslet.
  2. Homeschooled – Real-life couple Live Schreiber and Naomi Watts tell their new neighbors about all the wonders of their homeschooling program for their little Kevin. They try to replicate the high-school environment of hazing, dating, and parties to a thoroughly ridiculous degree.
  3. iBabe – Richard Gere is the Steve Jobs-like boss at his company, which is figuring out how to market its music player shaped like a life-size woman. Gere and his workers are also trying to deal with the fallout from an internal fan in the machine that is chopping off the penises of the men and boys trying to have sex with the iBabe.
  4. The Proposition – Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation proposes to Anna Faris, who then opens up to him that she wants to be defecated upon. J.B. Smoove is perfect as the friend who convinces Pratt to get with Faris’ program by taking lots of laxatives and eating tons of Mexican food. Needless to say, there hasn’t been such an explosive ending in a movie since the “thin wafer mint” scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
  5. Veronica – The least funny of these five, but still amusing. Kieran Culkin and his ex-girlfriend Emma Stone still clearly have a thing for each other that they discuss at the grocery store where Culkin is working in the check-out line, with the store microphone on. The customers become engaged with the lewd conversation.

Although these five segments would get a higher rating, the movie as a whole (which, I should mention, is loosely held together by the fact that these are all skits proposed as part of a movie pitch from a washed-up Dennis Quaid holding movie executive Greg Kinnear at gunpoint) only gets:

** out of ***** stars

Friday, February 21, 2014

Electric Bicycles Getting a Fresh Look in D.C.

This article was originally published at Mobility Lab.

If you watched the Super Bowl, you may have noticed an inordinate amount of car commercials. They showed you pristine rides along sunny coastal highways, open roads dripping with freedom, and Bob Dylan claiming that cars are America.

This may still be true in parts of the country, but the reality in Washington D.C. and other American cities is that large numbers of commuters want to shift out of their often-dreary car trips and into … well … anything better. In fact, 63 percent of D.C. area commuters are looking for a better way to travel each day.

While those numbers have meant more crowded public transit, a focus on building streetcars, and a heightened discussion around teleworking, one area in particular in undergoing an exciting transformation: bicycling, and the many more riders we’re all seeing on area streets these days.

Still, jumping on a bicycle – and not just taking a leisurely weekend ride but actually using a bike to get to work, meetings, the store, Nationals’ games – can seem like an intimidating stretch for someone who pretty much travels only by car.

In making such a behavioral change, electric bicycles are an interesting proposition. They are somewhere between a car – or at least a moped – and a bike. Anecdotally, there seem to be quite a few more ebikes around town lately. Ebike sellers are reporting tons of curiosity around people taking test rides. And while they are still relatively expensive, they may be reaching a more critical-mass price point in the near future.

“We’re in this business because we think it will take off,” said Amber Wason, co-founder with Jeff Stefanis of Riide, what is thought to currently be the only D.C.-based ebike manufacturer. “There is the perfect storm. Technology is progressing, people are living in more dense areas, and there is a huge trend of Millennials not getting driver’s licenses.

Jason Walder, vice president of Freshbikes, which has stores in Arlington, Bethesda, and Fairfax, added, “If there’s a place to make ebikes happen, it’s D.C. You can get anywhere on the network of roads and paths.”

He said the most recent addition of ebikes that his store now carries is the $5,900 Specialized Turbo (great review by Mashable here). I am one of thousands who have now test ridden it at his Ballston store and – like the other testers – couldn’t believe how fun and fast it is. It requires the rider to always pedal, but if pedaling, for instance, at a 14-miles-per-hour pace, the ebike will actually be going at the pedal-assist maximum speed of 28 mph. If pedaling 10 mph, it will go 20 mph. I was literally passing cars on Wilson Boulevard.

Walder added, “We’ve sold more than I thought we would. We haven’t sold any to any racer types. Some have been to elderly people, and some have sold to commuters and a couple to people who just wanted a toy. It’s a large initial investment, but it’s a massive return-on-investment.”

Riide is an interesting new player in the market because its ebikes – which are still in the Kickstarter phase but will begin shipping its 50 or so sales thus far in late spring – offer a much lower price tag than the fancy Specialized at Freshbikes. Riide ebikes, priced at $1,799, have a throttle on the handlebars that allows a rider to zip along at up to 20 mph without the need to pedal at all. I test rode this one too and, while not as mind-blowing as the Specialized, it’s definitely an eye-opening thrill.

“Lots of our marketing is around giving test rides. All the riders have ear-to-ear smiles when they get off the bike,” Wason said. “Ebikes haven’t taken off in the U.S. because there has not been a high-quality, affordable product on the market, and we want to change that.

“Just seeing the increased infrastructure in D.C., with bike lanes and Capital Bikeshare, there’s an increase in the macrotrend of people looking for other ways to get around the city. With my regular bicycle, I would consistently leave it at work because I would want to wear heels or go out after work and not sweat getting there.”

Unlike most ebike marketing efforts of targeting Baby Boomers with disposable income, Riide’s philosophy thus far has been to aim at young city dwellers with a desire for independence and commuter freedom.

But whether any of the marketing can work is yet to be decided. Navigant Research found that “nine out of every 10 e-bicycle sales still occur in China” with worldwide growth to expand from 31 million sold in 2013 to 38 million in 2020. The research also noted that new, young ebike riders in North America are using them for transportation rather than entertainment, with about 60,000 sold in the U.S. in 2013.

Still, Walder of Freshbikes admitted that “the U.S. is not ready for ebikes yet. We’re too spread out, cars are too popular, and gas is too cheap,” adding that the high cost of gas in places like Europe and Africa make ebikes a real alternative.

Wason thinks that’s about to change. “Ebikes have gotten a really bad reputation in the U.S. Early on, the ones on the market were cheap Chinese models that broke a lot and early adopters had bad things to say about them.”

Other than the Internet, there aren’t a lot of places to buy ebikes yet. However, Hybrid Pedals opened last year in Arlington and offers ebikes for sale and rental, with about 80 models on its showroom floor.

“Secretly I’ve always wanted a motorcycle but always been afraid to get one. This is sort of the middle ground,” said part-owner Jay Jacob Wind, who rides his folding electric bike to do errands. “I’m a champion long-distance runner and having an electric bike hasn’t changed that. I’m not running any less, I’m just not driving as much.”

Wind – who added that his bike has “made a huge difference in how I look at transportation” – often uses it to get to work meetings in New York City from his home in Arlington. “I ride to Union Station in D.C., passing traffic, fold it up and take it on Amtrak to New York Penn Station. It’s so much easier than finding parking, renting a vehicle overnight, and the train is far more pleasant than taking an airplane with delays and security lines.”

The customers Wind and chief owner Alan Levine have seen at Hybrid Pedals have typically been Baby Boomers who are no longer as strong on hills. Elderly people are also buying them – one was even sold to a man with a walker. They have also sold to former soldiers wounded in war, beginning cyclists, and people simply looking for more freedom in their transportation.

The benefits of ebikes are clear: safe, easy, fast, still offering a degree of exercise, and a pricetag that appears to be making them more affordable. Repairs are no longer a problem either, at least in the D.C. region, since there are now shops like Freshbikes and Hybrid Pedals.

Like with any bicycle or automobile purchase, the trickiest part may simply be deciding which model is for you – the Lamborghini-like Specialized Turbo, the Tesla Model S-like Riide, or any of the other 80 models at Hybrid Pedals.

Photos by Paul Mackie and Jason Walder

Monday, February 17, 2014

My Top Novels of All-Time

Keeping my recent string of long lists going (also check out my top 90 albums of 2013, my 63 favorite TV shows of all time, and my 90 favorite movies of all time).

60. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
59. The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
58. Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow
57. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
56. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
55. Ulysses, James Joyce
54. The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
53. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
52. Zeitoun, Dave Eggers
51. Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
50. Pet Cemetary, Stephen King
49. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
48. The Castle, Franz Kafka
47. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
46. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
45. Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
43. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
42. Native Son, Richard Wright
41. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
40. Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
39. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
38. And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
37. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
36. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
35. Great Apes, Will Self
34. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
33. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
32. Animal Farm, George Orwell
31. Night Shift, Stephen King
30. Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut
29. The House of the Spirits, Isabelle Allende
28. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
27. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
26. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
25. 1984, George Orwell
24. Fehrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
23. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
22. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
21. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
20. The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Tom Wolfe
19. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
18. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
17. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
16. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
15. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
14. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
13. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
12. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
11. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
10. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
09. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
08. Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut
07. Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
06. The Collected Stories and Poems of, Edgar Allan Poe
05. For Kings and Planets, Ethan Canin
04. The Stand, Stephen King
03. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
02. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
01. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Best Magazine Reads: 10 Groovy Tidbits About “How the Beatles Took America”

Rolling Stone’s January 16 cover story by the always-fabulous rock storyteller Mikal Gilmore amazingly offered plenty of perspective to the vents f late 1963/early 1964 that one would think we already long-ago knew about The Beatles.  
  1. Manager Brian Epstein, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney made a bet on the plane over the ocean that “the Beatles would take America by storm," while Ringo Starr and George Harrison – who had visited his sister in Benton, Illinois in 1963 – said “they don’t know us, it’s going to be hard.”
  2. The group stepped in at a time when rock n’ roll seemed to be dead. Buddy Holly had died, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were blacklisted, Elvis had joined the Army, and rock DJ Alan Freed had been kicked off the radio.
  3. By the end of 1963, The Beatles had five singles in the UK, three hit number one, and debut LP Please Please Me had been number one for 30 weeks, only to be replaced by With the Beatles.
  4. Capitol Records in America had representatives who were not impressed. Newsweek, Time, and CBS Morning News all blasted the band without really knowing much of anything about them and before America had heard them. But a scathing commentary by CBS happened to air the same day that John F. Kennedy later got shot, and it was quickly forgotten. In England, With the Beatles was also being released on that busy November 22.
  5. Gilmore makes a compelling argument that The Beatles stepped into the dark void left by Kennedy’s assassination to offer America another hope of youth and happiness.
  6. Capitol soon had to give in and planned to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a single in mid-January 1964 and would retitle With the Beatles as Meet the Beatles! When a 15-year-old girl from Silver Spring, Maryland saw a rebroadcast of the earlier CBS show, she requested that a local radio station play the song. The station got ahold of a British copy and aired it, and soon other U.S. station’s were getting mass requests. Capitol had to bump up the single’s release to December 26. By February 1, it was number one in America.
  7. Bob Dylan heard it while driving in California and said he knew this was no teeny-bopper phase and that The Beatles were for real.
  8. Two nights after landing in New York, Lennon’s microphone barely worked on The Ed Sullivan Show, so he and Harrison played to the audience while McCartney winked and smiled at the camera, perhaps making America initially think he was the sole lead singer of the band.
  9. Their next show in America was in a boxing-arena-like setup at the Washington Coliseum in D.C. (which I pass not far from Union Station when riding the Metro’s Red Line to work). The band played with much more punk abandon than they had on the Sullivan show, with Starr in particular playing in a way (heavy on the cymbals) that helped the others keep beat through the torrents of crowd noise.
  10. The exhaustion was starting to set in by the summer of 1964, when both the movie and LP of A Hard Day’s Night were released. Starr missed the first 10 dates of the tour due to tonsillitis, and his fill-in, Jimmy Nicol, said McCartney secretly disliked the crowds and focused on blonde women, Lennon drank so much his head swelled and he sweated profusely, and Harrison joined them all in having sex and partying every night.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"The Apes of Wrath" Sets a High Monkey Bar

Planet of the Apes. Great Apes, by author Will Self. King Kong. Grape Ape. Curious George. Heck ... Donkey Kong.

Let's face it. I'm a monkey boy. I love apes. So the new short fiction anthology by Richard Klaw and Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt called The Apes of Wrath is for me.

It starts slow with "The Ape-Box Affair" and "Evil Robot Monkey," but takes off in a big way from there.

"Tarzan's First Love" comes from the sixth book of Tarzan tales by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It tells the tale of Tarzan, a boy of German royalty who has been raised in the jungle by apes. He falls in love with ape Teeka. He ends up letting Teeka go to the ape Taug because it seems more natural, but Tarzan's struggles identifying his own origins are fascinating.

The book ramps up with the highlight of what I've read so far, "Rachel in Love," by Pat Murphy, from 1991. Rachel is a chimp who lives with a human neurologist whose daughter has died. The doctor figures out a way to save his dead daughter's brainwaves and transpose them onto the chimp's brain.

Rachel struggles with wanted to be a blonde-haired little girl again, but she also recognizes that her gnarled, hairy hands will never allow it. Her father's lab is raided one day and she is captured and taken to a place where experiments are performed on monkeys. She is expected to mate with an ape named Johnson but instead falls in love with the drunken janitor at the facility. When that goes wrong, she and Johnson escape and have to make their way back across a barren dessert to get to her father's abandoned house.

"Her Furry Face" by Leigh Kennedy entails Orangutan Annie learning sign language for her keeper Douglas. The two develop a deep relationship that seems to wear on Douglas' girlfriend Therese. He is no longer in love with Therese, at least in part because he fantasizes about having a love affair with Annie, even going so far as to try to have sex with Annie. It is a disturbing read, and Annie goes from being an incredibly learned monkey who writes a published children's story to no longer caring about her bizarre craft.

Can't wait to read the rest of this anthology sometime soon.

Tarzan's First Love ****1/2 out of ***** stars
Rachel in Love ***** out of ***** stars
Her Furry Face **** out of ***** stars

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Best Magazine Reads: William S. Burroughs is the King of "Gentleman-Junkie Cool"

Today is the anniversary of William S. Burroughs’ 100th birthday.

Here are seven interesting things to know about the beatnik rebel, from an excellent essay by Peter Schjeldahl in last week’s issue of The New Yorker

Schjeldahl reviews the new biography Call Me Burroughs, by one of my favorite writers, Barry Miles, who has written books on The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Jam, Jack Kerouac, and Frank Zappa.
  • Burroughs and I both grew up in St. Louis, so that’s an automatic point for awesomeness. He played alongside the “polluted River des Peres.”
  • His most famous book, Naked Lunch, was mostly written in Tangiers with the help of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and was released in 1959 in Paris was banned in the prudish U.S. until 1962 – and not allowed to be sold in Boston until 1965.
  • Ginsberg came up with the title, having misread the phrase “naked lust” in one of Burroughs’ manuscripts.
  • Kerouac’s Old Bull Lee character in On the Road was based on Burroughs.
  • Burroughs’ anxiety about his homosexuality traces back to when he was four years old and “his nanny forced him to perform oral sex on her boyfriend.”
  • Hw was always high on something while writing, and his “hollow voice” greatly influenced J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, and Kathy Acker.
  • Burroughs died in 1997 of a heart attack at the age of 83, living his last 16 years in – oddly – Lawrence, Kansas.

Monday, February 3, 2014

What a List of Philip Seymour Hoffman's 10 Best Movies

This is, unfortunately, worth republishing after Philip Seymour Hoffman's tragic death on Super Bowl Sunday. His output equals that of an actor much older than his too-young 46 years. This is a list I originally published on April 20, 2009.

He's too good of an actor to pick his "best performances," so here are his best movies:

10. Red Dragon, 2002
09. Along Came Polly, 2004
08. Capote, 2005 (A favorite author, a disappointing movie, a great performance by PSH)
07. Magnolia, 1999
06. The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999
05. Boogie Nights, 1997
04. Punch-Drunk Love, 2002
03. Almost Famous, 2000
02. 25th Hour, 2002
01. The Big Lebowski, 1998

Honorable mention of the one PSH movie I haven't seen but want to see: Empire Falls, 2005

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Classic Reads: Cooperstown Presents Setting for a Sad Ending in Native-American History

Most people today – when they think of The Last of the Mohicans – might cite a reference to the 1992 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis or the fact that the Hawkeye character from M*A*S*H was nicknamed that by his father as a tribute to the book.

That book is a real powerhouse and was published way back in 1826 by James Fenimore Cooper, who can safely be called the first major novelist in U.S. history.

Cooper notably came of age on his father’s huge property along the Susquehanna River in Upstate New York. As more people moved in around this land, the village eventually was named Cooperstown – now home of today’s baseball Hall of Fame museum.

Cooper grew up around both Indians and pioneers, so he brings a great first-hand knowledge of what life was like in the area during the war between France and England that had spilled into North America. 

A small group of British settlers is trying to make it from one British fort to another before French troops can attack them.

Hawkeye, a brave and savagely civilized white scout is recruited – along with some of the dwindled Mohican tribe – to lead the group on their dangerous journey. At one point, they are trapped in a cave by the enemy when Hawkeye and the Mohicans are persuaded by two British sisters Cora and Alice to escape by swimming underwater down river.

Cora and Alice are captured, by Hawkeye and the Mohicans survive and track their captors, led by Magua, a displaced Canadian Huron Indian who had once been beaten by the sisters’ father. He swears to capture them and take Cora as his wife and slave. Cora, a tough chick to say the least, wasn’t buying it, and just as Magua is about to massacre his prisoners, Hawkeye and the Mohicans swarm in, killing all the Huron gang except Magua, who escapes.

They make their way to their intended destination and the women are reunited with their father, but it is not long before Magua and the French invade and a bloodbath ensues. Again Magua kidnaps Cora and Alice and takes them into the woods. Again Hawkeye retrieves them and also saves Uncas, who is the “last Mohican” of the title. Believe it or not, there are more back-and-forth kidnappings of Alice, Cora, and Uncas before this epic tale ends.

Magua and his cronies kill Cora and Uncas before Hawkeye is able to use his rifle to shoot and kill Magua as he dangles precariously at the edge of a cliff. A sad ending and, as we knew it would happen, “the last of the Mohicans” expires.

Except for the slightly wordy and outdated language within the book, frontier tales don’t get much more important, adventurous, and rollicking than this.

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