Thursday, April 30, 2009

The End of Batman's Long, Strange Trip

There's probably no way Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert could have topped the first installment of "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader," which was one of the best single-issue comics I've read this year. But while part two isn't as original as the first, it's still quite good.

We all know Batman's departure from the DC Universe is temporary; yet, Gaiman has managed to craft a story full of melancholy and meaning. In fact, his contribution is the only part of the "Batman's Dead" storyline that hasn't come off like a cheap stunt. Most of part two is a conversation between Bruce Wayne — who isn't sure that he's dead — and his late mother. (I'd be perfectly happy if I never saw another panel of young Bruce kneeling beside his murdered parents' bodies, but I'll let this one slide.) The tenderness of the dialogue between Bruce and his mother really affected me, though I wish he hadn't been in costume the entire time. Then again, Batman is no longer Bruce Wayne's alter ego. It's who he is. Maybe I've gone soft, but the ending, combined with some "Goodnight, Moon" moments, gave me the sniffles.

I think this a comic that readers will either love or loathe. The storytelling devices are well-worn, and there are no big surprises. Batman never gave up his lonely fight, and then, eventually, he died. That's it. It's just a quiet, heartfelt ending that isn't really the end.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Train-Wreck TV: "Toddlers and Tiaras"

Were she alive today, child pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey would be 18 years old. When she was murdered in 1996, the public was inundated with child pageant footage, which elicited a mass "What the !$#@?" JonBenet was a lovely kid, but the sight of her in heavy makeup and sequins always made my skin crawl, particularly after learning the particulars of her death. Inevitably, people in the "pageant community" felt that the press had given them a raw deal, as if it were perfectly normal to spackle a 6-year-old's face with foundation and blush and trot her out for judging.

More than a decade later, the world of child beauty pageants continues to fascinate/appall outsiders. And as TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras" series proves, it makes for compelling, train-wreck TV viewing. We just got On Demand service, and against my better judgment, I watched two episodes of "TnT" over the weekend.

The show is pretty straightforward, with each episode focusing on a handful of pageant hopefuls with various levels of experience. What struck me immediately was that, in many cases, you can tell the parents don't have much money — yet, they're spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for their kids' highlights, spray-on tans, fake nails, hair extensions and God knows what else. And despite the shameless, relentless focus on their daughters' appearance and poise, many of the moms have let themselves go to hell. Whenever the dads are on camera, they seem vaguely mystified and resigned. They're proud of their little girls, but their wives are running the show. (I admit that there was one sweet moment when a girl's grandfather, a retired coal miner, helped her practice her "prissy" walk across the living room floor.)

As for the girls themselves, it's hard to tell what they think about being on the pageant circuit. Sure, it's fun to play dress up, win ribbons and have strangers tell you how pretty you are, but it seems like they'd be just as happy playing jump rope. I'm convinced that they'd be so much better off playing a sport than skipping across a stage in "casual wear." Maybe they're taking soccer lessons, too, but I'm skeptical.

At one point, my son took a break from saving the universe to see what I was looking at. When a girl who looked to be about four (his sister's age) began shimmying in a yellow, ruffled bikini, he put on his Serious Face and said, "Whoa, that is SO inappropriate!"

I don't have a problem with TLC for airing the show. Frankly, the child beauty pageant is an interesting, if bizarre, part of American culture, and the show is ripe for water-cooler analysis: Are pageants a harmless, fun way for girls to build their self confidence or an early, creepy introduction to sexual objectification? I know which one I'm going with.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Kids Make Music — And My Day

This video really delighted me, and not just because of the song these kids are singing. I love to see children making music, which was such a huge part of my upbringing. I think I'd be a very different person if I hadn't been surrounded by music as a child and encouraged to play an instrument. When my own children connect the musical dots — like the time my son, then 5 or 6, picked up on the similarity between the sound of the early Kinks and the Beatles — it makes my day. Thanks to my friend C. for sending this!

Art I Can Believe In

I just discovered artist Brandon Bird's Web site, which is filled to the brim with win. Rod Stewart in a Stormtrooper costume! An abstract portrait of the "Family Ties" cast! Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson having a pillow fight! John Tesh! Where has Bird been all my life?

Now if only I can convince my husband that a painting of Jabba the Hutt in the desert would look great in the foyer.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Couple Of The Month: Ice-T and Coco

Every once in a while, Americans fall in love with a couple that reflects our most deeply held beliefs about love, partnership and family.

Of course, I'm referring to Ice-T and Coco!

You know how you sometimes have an irrational fondness for random celebrities? I don't know what it is about these two, but the sight of the old-school rapper with his bombshell wife always makes me smile. Unlike the significant others of many rappers, Coco does not go quietly. In fact, she's the main attraction when the cameras start flashing. And Ice-T, secure in his status as a rap pioneer, seems OK with that. He's like, "Look, I've had my moment. I understand that it's all about my lady and her epic assets. Don't hate, fellas. Appreciate."

I was so jealous when my friend V. told me that she once had the pleasure of meeting Lady Coco, who is reportedly "bad as f*ck." She's like a (somewhat enhanced) Barbie doll come to life. If Mattel put a Coco doll on the market tomorrow, I would totally buy it and dress it up in crazy outfits. Coco in pink boots! Coco in leopard-print leather! Coco in a thong bikini! She would crush the Bratz under the heel of her mighty stiletto.

Who needs the A list when you've got that kind of swagger? Don't hate! Appreciate.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Random '80s Video Of The Week: "Kiss And Tell"

As I've mentioned before, one of my favorite things to do is to screen random '80s music videos for my children, ages 9 and 4. The vast majority of the time, the reaction is somewhere between baffled and wildly amused. They're used to slickly-produced musical entertainment, so the sheer goofiness of the videos I grew up on stumps them: "Why is a horse walking on stage? Wait ... what's up with him throwing paint on that girl? And is he wearing lip gloss?"

In many cases, the song is 100 times better than the video. Example A is Bryan Ferry's "Kiss and Tell," a terrific dance tune. What strikes me about this video is how Ferry looks like an accountant who wandered into a strip club on karaoke night. He's a little weary after a long day with his Excel spreadsheets, but still game for some twitchy dance action.

Pop Culture Geek Moment: I thought of this song after reading an Entertainment Weekly blurb about a possible remake of "Bright Lights, Big City." Of course, "Kiss and Tell" was on the soundtrack of the original film adaptation of Jay McInerney's novel of the same name.

Friday, April 17, 2009

(Really) Big Love: "Shattered Dreams"

Our book club is preparing to discuss former polygamist wife Irene Spencer's "Shattered Dreams," and for the first time in forever, everyone has read the whole thing. I gotta give it up to my fellow club member, B., for suggesting the book. It's addictive — equal parts legitimately thought-provoking and tawdry.

I love learning about fringe cultures, and the world of polygamy certainly qualifies. Spencer, who was raised a fundamentalist Mormon, was the second of her husband's 10 wives, and she gave birth to 13 of his children before she was 35 years old. That would be wacky enough, but Spencer and her fellow sister-wives lived miserable, destitute existences in Central America, struggling to feed all their children and maintain their sanity. As a reader, I was torn between feeling great sympathy for Spencer and wondering when she was finally going to wise the &@#* up and leave her clueless husband, Verlan.

Verlan doesn't come across as a bad guy so much as dim and insensitive. It's clear that his wives' happiness is not his first priority, and though he appears to care about his kids, he can't possibly be present for all of them, let alone provide an acceptable quality of life. He's often away working in the states while his brood lives without running water, electricity, enough food or basic health care. The book is full of WTF moments, like Verlan praying before sex because he believes getting it on for reasons other than procreation — with your own spouse — is sinful. One night during a move, Irene and a dozen of her children have to crowd into the cab of a broken-down truck during a thunderstorm. When she begs for permission to have (finally) her tubes tied, Verlan spins some nonsense about how doing so would prevent or "trap" unborn souls from entering the kingdom.

The book's title really ought to be "Why Fundamentalism is Ridiculous." Whenever Irene questions the rules, she is simply chastised for putting her soul in jeopardy or not having enough faith to adhere to God's teachings. Never mind that polygamy is a bum rap for women or that having multiple children you can't afford to support is irresponsible at best. This sect is told constantly that if people fail at polygamy, they are the problem.

I'm really looking forward to the discussion next week, and reading "Shattered Dreams" makes me want to learn more about the history of polygamy in America and where it stands today. Oh, and I've gotta rent "Big Love" now.

Sedaris Rocks

At the risk of gushing, I have to say that David Sedaris really is one of the funniest men on the planet. He's also incredibly charming, pocket-sized and quirky, and he seems to genuinely enjoy interacting with his readers. While signing my copy of "Always Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," we chatted about Valdosta (my hometown) and the sad quality of outlet malls. He gave the young lady in front of my one of his travel-sized bottles of hand lotion.

I can't believe I missed this, but a friend who was with him in the elevator said that after some heavily primped, busty sorority girls exited, Sedaris quipped: "Are they prostitutes?"

As far as his reading went, the guy killed. One of the more memorable moments was Sedaris' description of American air travelers who don't seem to give a damn: "It's as if someone had been scrubbing shoe polish off a pig, then said, 'Fuck this. I'm going to Los Angeles.' " He discussed a news story about owls that had been trained to fly across the room at weddings, land on the groom's gloved arm and deliver the rings: "For the first time, I wanted to get married for all the right reasons." I'm still giggling at his rebuke of his partner, Hugh, for referring to some food-poaching pigeons as "assholes."

Unlike Junot Diaz, Sedaris seemed happy to be at FSU and answered a LOT of questions. Afterward, he signed more books and encouraged the audience to stick around and ask some more questions. "I've heard people say, 'I was afraid to ask you a question because I thought you might be mean to me.' Why would I be mean to you? I mean, I could see if Dick Cheney was doing a book reading."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Judging Books By Their Covers

I was as touched as anyone by the footage of 47-year-old Susan Boyle slaying the "Britain's Got Talent" crowd with her performance
of "I Dreamed a Dream." It was a great television moment.

But here's what's been bugging me: Why were the judges so flipping astonished that she could sing? Could it be because she's middle-aged and not gorgeous? I understand that people are judged by their looks, especially in the entertainment industry. There's a reason Steve Buscemi didn't have Tom Cruise's career, even though Buscemi is a much (much) better actor. (This can cut both ways: "Oh look; the beautiful woman isn't an empty suit/moron/bimbo!") But it's not like Boyle was auditioning for "Make Me a Supermodel." She didn't even show up dressed like a circus performer, unlike some of the lost souls who audition for "American Idol." If a person can talk, there's a chance s/he might have a decent singing voice.

Unfortunately, human beings have a way of assigning qualities to others based on how they look. Studies have shown that attractive kids receive better treatment, not only from their peers (duh), but also from their teachers. If Boyle had looked like Jessica Alba, you can't tell me that the audience wouldn't have given her the benefit of the doubt instead of openly tittering and assuming she'd suck.

Don't get me wrong; it's nice to see the underdog win. I just wish people would stop reacting to Boyle's performance as if a donkey with two limbs won the Kentucky Derby.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Encounters With Famous People

I may have mentioned that I'm going to see David Sedaris tomorrow.

A friend and fellow ticket-holder admitted that she tends to lose her cool when in the presence of well-known people she admires. While I've never had a Chris-Farley-interviews-Paul-McCartney moment, I understand how they happen. You tell yourself you're going to play it cool and aloof, and the next thing you know, you're thrusting your copy of "Naked" in Famous Writer's face and babbling: "Reading your books is like having coffee with a friend! I mean, we have so much in common. You grew up gay and weird in the South and I grew up black and weird in the South, and we both write — though you have an audience of millions and an NPR following. I love NPR! Remember that time you talked about being a Christmas elf? That was awesome!"

I actually have a running list of Famous People I Don't Want to Meet Because It Might Be Too Awkward. It's not that I think these people suck. It's either that the wrong kind of encounter with them would ruin my week, or that my ability to make sensible decisions would be at risk. Among them:

1. Paul McCartney: There is no way I would be able to form coherent sentences or carry on an intelligent conversation. Besides, does he really need to hear another person say that the Beatles changed their life/got them through a tough time/saved their marriage? I'm gonna go with no.

2. Sting: Sting gets a lot of flak for his lyrics and Sting-ness, and much of it is justified. I'm not going to defend the lute. But at 50-plus, the guy remains smoking hot. I've seen him in concert several times, and those guns do not come courtesy of Photoshop. Nothing good could come of meeting him. (Also see: Jackman, Hugh.)

3. Chris Martin: I've always heard that Gwyneth's husband is much nicer and more unassuming than you'd expect a big rock star to be. It must be true, because he was sweet to Miley Cyrus. But everyone has bad days, and I like Coldplay's music too much to risk meeting him under those circumstances. (Insert your own Coldplay-bashing joke here.)

4. Angelina Jolie: First, she might try to take one of my children. Second, her mojo is too dangerous and unpredictable. I had a major girl-crush on her before she went public about the man-taking, so I'm in a vulnerable place.

5. Joe Jonas: My 4-year-old daughter loves the cutest Jonas Brother the way I once loved Leif Garrett, and she is convinced that they're getting married someday. So if he turned out to be a tool with no time for his preschool fan base, well, I'd have to beat him.

On a completely different note, I'm still grappling with the fact that Sedaris admitted embellishing some of his stories after The New Republic called him out. I wasn't crushed, because I always suspected that I was reading heightened nonfiction. However, I don't think there is too much legitimate wiggle room in the "true" category, even for humorists. A recap of the dustup is here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When Stomachs Attack

So after finally accepting that I have to exercise to keep expansion at bay, I recently asked one of my fittest friends to help me tweak my diet.

I thought I was doing pretty well until I tracked my food for two weeks and crunched the numbers. The truth was that my nutrition was so-so during the week, and occasionally terrible on the weekend. And after seeing my metabolism measurement in black-and-white (Surprise! It's slow!), it was crystal clear that exercise alone was not going to get me where I wanted to be.

Anyway, my friend H. graciously held my hand through the process of figuring out what and how much I should be eating. I don't tell H. anything diet or fitness related unless I plan to follow through, so once I asked for her help, I knew I was committing. My stomach, which called in a huff after my workout today, isn't taking it so well. The exchange went something like this.

Stomach: "Um, what are you doing?"

Me: "What do you mean?"

S: "You know what I'm talking about. Breakfast was some unsweetened oatmeal with cranberries, cinnamon and flax. Lunch was nothing but a big salad! Granted, there were some bells and whistles like feta cheese, strawberries and a little chicken, but that snack was bullshit. An apple and some string cheese?"

M: "Well, I'm trying to do things a little differently around here. We've probably gotten as far as we're going on exercise alone. It's time to shake up the program if we're going to make more progress."

S: "We? I wasn't consulted."

M: "Yeah. About that ..."

S: "Maybe I was happy with things the way they were. It's not like we were exactly getting fried fish and cheese grits down here on a regular basis. You already cut off the supply of sweet iced tea and flavored coffee drinks. Yeah, I noticed. Did you have to take my morning cheese toast away, too?"

M: "I know it sucks right now, but we'll get through this. I need you to understand: We're almost 40, and my metabolism was never that high to begin with. I want to be able to wear sleeveless dresses this summer, like Michelle Obama."

S: "Who?"

M: "OK, now you're just being ridiculous."

S: "Go screw yourself." (dial tone)


Troy's Back!

Two facts: "Saturday Night Live" skits are wildly inconsistent and Zac Efron is so pretty and perfectly groomed that it borders on disturbing. In spite of those things, this gentle swipe at the "High School Musical" franchise made me chuckle.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"Star Trek:" I'm Officially Excited

I hope no one takes away my geek card for saying this, but "Star Trek" never quite captured my imagination. While I appreciated its impact on the sci-fi genre and its progressive view of humanity, I never became a big fan of the TV series, films or books.

However, I am all kinds of stoked about the new "Star Trek" film, which opens May 8. The fast-paced, whiz-bang trailers are pretty much perfect for a blockbuster popcorn movie. And since I'm not wed to the source material, there isn't nearly as much at stake for me as for my Trekker friends. I get to just sit back and watch stuff blow up without fretting about departures from the canon. The buzz has been good-to-great, and the cast members are cute as buttons. I predict there will be sequels and the usual complaints from my 9-year-old about how "all the good movies are PG-13."

Between this and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the month of May is looking fantastic.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Battle for the Cowl" Defeats Me

It's Easter, a day when many are reflecting on resurrection. Which brings me, of course, to Jason Todd.

I know I need to let this go, but I am so annoyed after reading the second installment of "Battle for the Cowl." Why am I still reading it? Because I am naive and like to give things the benefit of the doubt. I want to keep up with my favorite characters, even if they are trapped in an unworthy storyline. I want to believe D.C. has a perfectly good reason for bring Todd back from the grave.

So here we have my favorite Robin, Tim Drake, dressed like old-school Batman and battling my least favorite, Todd, who has declared himself the new, gun-toting Batman. Todd has shot Batman's son, Damian, who for some reason has morphed from the fearless, criminal-murdering badass of "Batman and Son" to a pesky, frightened kid. Drake beats Todd with a crowbar, a scene that attempts to echo those harrowing panels from "A Death in the Family". Sigh. In the end, Todd impales Drake with a batarang, a scene that attempts to echo those harrowing panels from "Identity Crisis." SIGH.

I know when I've been beaten, no pun intended. I have to accept that there will never be a reason good enough to justify Todd's return, and that it will always piss me off. I'm giving myself permission to ignore the final installment of this series and its counterparts. After all, Wikipedia is free, and the new "Batman and Robin" book will begin eventually.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Video of the Week: "White People Problems"

Racial humor can be tricky, but this video approaches the self-deprecating genius of Stuff White People Like. And though I am not, technically, white, there were several zingers here that hit close to home. Organic food for the kids? Check. Love of Apple and Trader Joe's? Check. Frequent consumer of lattes? Check. And, uh, I have tickets to see David Sedaris next week.

In my defense, I am a good dancer.

Monday, April 6, 2009


I was in Target last week when I came face-to-face with "Bratz Familiez (sic)" in the toy aisle. Now, you can buy a disturbingly tarted up child doll with her cougar mom in the same package. According to the product description, Yasmin and her mom Portia are "ready for a day of Bratz bonding." Slightly less creepy are Cloe and big sister Sonya, who is described as "a sassy brainiac." You can tell Sonya is smart because she wears glasses and comes with a miniature laptop.

You just can't make this stuff up.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Pinocchio: Scared Straight

I hadn't seen Disney's "Pinocchio" in years, but I've never forgotten how much it freaked me out as a kid. Back then, I believed it was possible for toys to come to life and that they weren't always benevolent.

But I'm a sucker for the classics, so I bought the two-disc, 70th anniversary edition of "Pinocchio" and watched it with the family last night. I'm always astonished by how gorgeously animated those old Disney movies are, considering that they were done entirely by hand. For cinephiles, the new DVD is worth every penny.

However, "Pinocchio" ought to have the subtitle "Scared Straight," because it is one frightening movie. My children, having been raised in the don't-ever-talk-to-strangers era, were extremely frustrated with Pinocchio for letting Honest John chat him up and lure him to Stromboli's puppet theater. At one point, my son yelled at the TV, "Man, what is wrong with you?" I explained to him that Pinocchio wasn't all that bright, but he wasn't placated.

And what about the creepy bastard who rounds up "stupid little boys" and carts them off to "Pleasure Island?" The literal interpretation is horrifying enough ("I'm a donkey!"), but that subplot takes on a whole other meaning when you're watching it as an adult in 2009. I'd also forgotten that, after saving Gepetto from a raging whale, Pinocchio (temporarily) dies and is shown face-down in pool of water. Jesus. By the time the fairy showed up to turn him into a real boy, I was emotionally drained.

My friend M. pointed out that Disney is an expert at haunting people's dreams well into adulthood. There's that whole Bambi's-mom-dies scene, Cinderella getting locked in an attic, the eerily possessed sorcerer's brooms, Mufasa's death-by-trampling, and on and on and on. On the bright side, the temporary trauma might make a kid think twice about blowing off school or talking to cigar-smoking foxes. It's just a thought.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Welcome Back, Barry. I Guess.

I wanted to be more excited about the return of Barry Allen, because a) he's an iconic character and b) it's a big deal when someone comes back from the dead 20 years later. That panel of him emerging from the Speed Force was one of the more thrilling panels in the "Final Crisis" series. It's an event, so to speak.

But I was never much of a Flash follower to begin with, and I have this crazy idea that the vast majority of characters, once killed off, should stay dead. Otherwise, death in comics is meaningless and stripped of its impact. That's why I can't take the deaths of Batman and Martian Manhunter seriously, because I know D.C. already has a plan to bring them back.

Nevertheless, I put my skepticism aside and parted with $3.99(!) for the first installment of Geoff Johns' "The Flash: Rebirth." The storyline is overwhelmingly OK, though Ethan Van Sciver's artwork is quite striking. Barry Allen is the least interesting thing about the comic, which isn't surprising considering his rap as one of the most boring characters in the DCU. The sequence of panels featuring Allen and Hall Jordan, another titan of boring, is unintentionally funny.

I generally enjoy Johns' work, but I haven't decided if I'm going to read the rest of this series. D.C. will be fine without my $3.99, but I feel like I'm only encouraging these cheap back-from-the-grave stunts by buying this stuff.

Over at Once Upon a Geek, my friend Shag revealed that Barry Allen is his Scott and Jean — a topic he can't discuss without going into a sputtering rage. Another is the also-resurrected Jason Todd, the Robin who famously bought the farm in 1988. Look, I read "A Death in the Family" back in the day, and that shit meant something. Tears were shed. The fact that Todd is now very much alive makes me completely crazy and irrational (It's my Scott and Jean!), so I should probably stop talking about it now.

As you were.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Twitter Police

Since all the cool kids are tweeting now, I decided to test the waters. After all, I don't want to be in the same boat with anti-trend curmudgeons who think social networking is just a big identity theft scam.

But after a few weeks, I still don't quite get Twitter. I mean, I can see how it would be useful if you're a known personality or an up-and-comer trying to build an audience. One of my friends tweets regularly about fitness, and another friend with a newspaper column uses Twitter to connect with readers. That makes sense to me. Somehow, I can't imagine anyone wants to know that "I'm emptying the litterbox" or "looking for my daughter's other Hello Kitty sock." The team behind this hilarious Landline TV video clearly agrees.