Sunday, August 24, 2008

That movie was boring, daddy

Star Wars: Clone Wars (2008) The kids were up for a movie, and this animated feature seemed like it would fit the bill nicely. I was pretty sure I'd like it, too, since I grew up watching the first few installments of the hallowed trilogy.
I could not have been more wrong. If you can imagine tons of passionless and drama-free action, with a plot that wasn't worth keeping up with even if you caught any of it, you pretty much have this one pegged. I am tempted to call it the comic book version of a Star Wars movie, but I can't because comic books are way better. On top of that, comic books have better animation, and besides, I am pretty sure the real Star Wars comics are worth some money. One star, shining dull.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Space and Rocket Center

The latest outing with my lily-white children was one for them to discover a few new things, and for me to see what I could see about a place I'd not been in at least a quarter-century.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is still quite well worth the trip for kids of all ages.

A good bit of new facilities have been added over the years, but the new focus seems to be more geared toward educational exposition rather than the straight tourism approach I remember.

Don't get me wrong, the squat cement and stucco main building still stands ready, with only visible exterior difference being grime and too-mature landscape plants. (the 70s architectural aesthetics have not aged well, but that's subjective.) Inside, the need for a thorough remodel is apparent in places, but everything is there that I remember.

Minor gripe: I distinctly remember the first thing greeting visitors as they entered the lobby was a bust of modern rocketry pioneer Werner Von Braun, and a piece of moon rock encased in Lucite. Both are exhibited elsewhere, and the once-modest gift shop seemed to have grown in size.

Big-time gripe: the old space capsules that were once open for visitors to crawl around inside and flip switches, pretend to run the controls, and lie in the cramped quarters, are now off limits! In place is a "rock-climbing wall" for kids, and mine were too little to get to play on it. I'm sure there's a story why little ones can't play spaceman like my brothers and I did, but dammit, I was hoping it would be a highlight for them the same as it was me!

The once-proud main building is now known as "the museum", with the collection of nearby newer additions being proclaimed as the Center now. It's fitting, because the museum is now flanked by the educational center operated in cooperation with schools on one side, and the new center featuring an IMAX theater and cavernous exhibition spaces with glass walls on the other. The museum is also half-gutted by "Space Camp," a guided-only attraction for groups. The camp and school center were closed when we visited (it being Saturday) but looked to have been set up for large numbers of people the way the museum never was.

I remembered exactly one living exhibit from my last visit. Miss Baker, a monkey used in our space program in 1959 and retired to Huntsville, was long gone, having died in 1984. She's buried on the grounds. However, near where her enclosure once stood,

was a real German WWII V-2 rocket, along with a full display and the story of the whole story about how we spirited away Nazis at the end of the war, and hid them out in places like Huntsville to get our space program going. I guess enough time has passed since WWII to just finally tell the whole story...I was just proud to see that the museum managed to get a real V2, as I'd never seen one in person.

Outdoors, the collection of antique examples of rocketry and missiles were still all there, and are beginning to show their age. Even the couple of self-propelled Persian Gulf war era missile arrays on site were starting to look like, well, look like they are 20-plus years old. The old Nazi "buzz-bomb" was still there, off to the side but still standing for those who sought it out.

The kids were tired and ready to split by then, so we didn't ask about a side trip that used to be part of the space center show: a ride around the historic parts of Redstone Arsenal. I remember bring shown and told about the massive water tanks used to simulate weightlessness for astronauts-in-training, tests and working prototype solar arrays, and the like. Being ages six and three, Griffin and Carlie probably would not have gotten much out of that, anyway.
p.s. the two rides outside, space shot and the centrifugal G-force thingy, were both running but the kids were too short for either. The G-force exit gate did have at least one pool of vomitus nearby....just another thing I remembered that hadn't seemed to change.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dead by the side of the road

My so-called job slinging pizzas always allows me time to think; quiet time behind the wheel when it's easy to string together what I see and what is on my mind. Once in a while what I see and what I think coincide for something memorable.

On the way back from a too-long delivery, I noticed two different instances of roadkill. An armadillo first (possum on the half-shell if you like) and then a skunk...I think. Then, my route back to the store took me by one of the area big cemeteries, and then, by heartbreakingly sad collection of memorial flowers put up in the highway right-of-way by the kin and friends of someone who died in a traffic accident near that spot. I usually like to have photos in these blog posts, but you've seen what I am talking about: sometimes the arrangements have stands, other times the words 'mom' or 'dad' are decorated with flowers and mementos; still other times they even have photos and posters.

For some reason tonight, all at once I was disgusted and a bit angered by the roadside memorial. I know it came from the hearts of people mourning who meant well. In fact, I know that better than most people ever will, having lost my best friend Mark in a car wreck with me driving So I not only sympathize with those who put flowers by the side of the road, I empathize. In times of tragedy, people want to do something, anything, whatever they can to honor the memory of the person they lost.

But if they stopped and thought about it, is it really that honorable to be remembered dead by the side of the road? I guess passing the cemetery after seeing roadkill animals made that click for me tonight. We have places to put flowers, places to remember those we have lost, where there is not a constant stream of traffic roaring by, uncut weeds and trash thrown out by people who didn't know and don't care about who died there. Those places are often cemeteries--Mark's widow picked a marker that stands out enough to be seen from the highway, and I always make a point to look at it when I pass where he was laid to rest.

Of course I know the exact spot where The Wreck happened, but I don't consider it special enough to decorate it. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it's not where he'd want anyone to remember him, or the cemetery, either, for that matter.

I remember Mark with the good times we had. I can close my eyes and be in his studio, smell the oil paint he used in his art, hear us laughing, and talking serious once in a while, too. I can see the gadgets we showed off to one another when we got new toys, and feel the sense of satisfaction when we discovered how to clean up an old gun, reassemble something we fixed, or plot out an easy way to finish a project he had planned out. Those are the things we liked, those are bits and pieces of this world that made him who he was, and that's the way I like it.

I am not going to do it, but I am tempted to go put the weedeater and trash bags in my trunk, and drive from one roadside memorial to the next. I'd collect the flowers and mementos, cut the weeds where they had stood, and leave the spot clear with no trace of the memorial. Then, I'd take the stuff to where the person was buried, and leave it there. I am not going to do it, but soon enough a road department worker is going to, and they won't bother taking the stuff to the burial place. It'll go in the garbage.

Which may be just as well, and let that be food for thought: Would you want to be remembered dead by the side of the road, or with quiet dignity and respect?

Griffin in the paper

I was pleasantly surprised Thursday morning as I scoped out the front page of The Daily Home. There was the usual smattering of local news, then below the fold sat my son Griffin!

It seems a safety-oriented presentation by the name of Buster the School Bus had visited his school, and either the presenter or school principal had notified the local press of the photo opportunity. It just so happened that Griffin's class was getting see Buster at the same time the newspaper man was there.

The paper is the same one I used to work for (has it really been five years???) and I know the photographer Bob Crisp well, having worked with him many times in multiple capacities. But even knowing the pic was just another routine feature shot, I still felt the wave of pride seeing my kid in the paper! And now I have a new desktop image for my PC (thanks Bob!)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Picks on flicks

As my entertainment deficit continues to mount, and there's no end in sight to the surplus of time for me to kill, I give you some more reviews of my choices of cinematic intake.

Michael Moore Hates America (2004) It was one of those Tuesdays at the video store when none of the week's releases did anything for me, so I just walked around until I found this title, still in the 'new' section for some reason.
It's gotten awful cool and hip to talk shit about filmmaker Michael Moore, which he has coming due to his seriously flawed work and his demeanor. This title obviously plays into that sentiment, but it's a misnomer, because it's not really about hate or America, as much as it is about Moore's misuse of the documentary format. This one does it right, and getting to hear Penn Jillette and Albert Maysles go off on Moore almost stole this show. Three stars.

In Bruges (2008) Two Irish hit men cool it in a Belgian backwater town and turn out to make pretty awful tourists. Their fate is what you might expect for their type, with no shortage of graphic touches one would anticipate. But the story is about a whole lot more than just that...along the way we are shocked find out their human touches. Plus, it all gets told with plenty of what I didn't see coming: laughs. The authentic Irish accents (and whatever you call the way Belgians speak English) make the dialogue tough to follow at times, but it's very worth the effort of backing up the DVD and relistening. Four stars.

In the Valley of Elah (2007) A young soldier makes it home from Iraq only to come up missing on his home base soon after getting back in the U.S.A. His retired M.P. dad (Tommy Lee Jones) wants to know what happened, and finds out with the help of a young police detective (Charlize Theron). One of the best Iraq war movies I have seen, even though it doesn't really dwell on the combat angle. Just the slightest bit overdramatic here and there, and perhaps too much time is spent in plot dead-ends, but the story and ending have enough twists and surprises to more than make up for it. Hint: Don't miss the details early on. Three stars.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

So nice, I bought it twice

Quite by chance I discovered online last week that one of my favorite sort-of new albums (from 1993!) was re-released back in June after having been out of print for some time. I still have my copy of Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair from 1993, and it still plays just fine. But the reissue comes with a companion DVD shot this year by Liz herself, and three so-called 'B-sides', so I decided that was enough to justify buying.

I guess I was of the mind that I should have some justification for buying, because I really have never gotten the point of reissued classic albums. They were done right the first time, obviously, since they are now known as classic. Bonus tracks historically have never been much of a bonus, sort of like the deleted scenes you sometimes get when a movie goes to DVD. And there is the fact that I still have the original one!

What really got me to buy and watch was the way I felt reading the promo bit for the 15th Anniversary reissue. I thought, wow, it's actually been long enough since I was young and cool for an alternative, 'indie' album to have gone out of print? Wait a minute, as I remember, Liz is very same close to being the same age as me...does that make us old enough to be out of print?

The DVD tells what she was like in 1993 as an artist and person, doing what she did, just because. And not thinking too much about it, until it became apparent things had changed as more people caught on. Besides being the same age as Liz, I can remember those musical times quite well because I was introduced to that 'scene' by good friends of mine, and we felt like it was just for us and a few other cool people across the country to know about.

At the time, circa 1990, 1991, 1992, "alternative music" and "indie" actually meant something other than just the marketing label it is now. To me and my friends, "alternative" meant music that got made and heard without conforming to existing standards of sound, production, publicity and play. About all that could be agreed upon about alternative was, that it was rock that you would probably not hear on the radio, made by people who did not care if you heard it on the radio, or care if you understood it or if you bought it.

Such was my first exposure to bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Primus, Mother Love Bone, Smashing Pumpkins, The Screaming Trees, The Fluid, Faith No More, well, the list goes on and on. The people who turned me on to all those bands (God bless them) of course loved the music just because, and that was how I first heard it, but what really attracted me to it was the fact that they had had to seek out cool music. They did not hear it on the radio, they heard it from friends' collections and by word of mouth from those who had seen live shows. Then they got a record store to order copies for them, or order their own through the mail, and when the new stuff arrived, it was like Christmas morning. My roommates and I had our own house with a kickass stereo we always let them use, and many were the times they came running over with a new parcel in hand, knocking and the door and grinning.

'Indie', as it turned out, meant music produced and distributed with borrowed money (or money saved up by the hardworking band themselves) rather than the deep pockets of a corporation pushing a product. Indie music existed so the fans could take a few songs home with them, and if the band wound up making some beer and bong money, well, that was cool too.

I was not always an instant fan of the music to which they introduced me, but I usually liked the new stuff after a few listens. It took some getting used to, for someone who had only recently strayed from FM radio! I was most excited about the feeling of hearing something not that many people were hearing, and it felt good, the sense of having it to ourselves in that way.

About the time we had gotten used to the 1989 album a buddy brought in by Nirvana, name of Bleach, we heard from one of our more well-read buddies that a new album was coming from them, with a big budget and production touches not common to the genre. Not many people noticed when Nevermind dropped in fall 1991, and well, most everybody knows the way that album changed the popular music scene into what it is now. I included it to lend a time reference to this out-of-hand post (grin)

One by one the bands only a few of us knew about started making money and getting attention of the masses, so to stay cool and hip, it became a race to stay on top of new music and know about it before everybody else did. I'm not sure why so many of us felt that imperative, but we did.

It was the end of 1993? the beginning of 1994? that I read about Liz Phair in a magazine or newspaper music review, and in the spirit of trying out the new, I bought Exile and Urge Overkill's Saturation which was also reviewed. (I guess a Chicago theme was in effect?) Neither of them I had heard of, and their music was VERY different, but I loved it. They did have on common another thing: that I was the only person I knew of who liked them!

As the reissue DVD played, I learned that 'the scene' was changing for those musicians as the very same time I was discovering them. They lamented being branded as 'sellouts' by their peers after their work got played around the country, despite the fact that none of them got rich in the process. What was cried about was, how dare they let so many people in on 'our' music? If too many know about it, it's not cool anymore! And of course, I could relate to that sentiment, even though I never was a musician playing Chicago clubs in the early 1990s.

So the DVD made it worth the purchase, for sure. It took me back to the time and places I was in 1993, to where I was when I first heard the album, and even though those times and places are depressingly LONG gone, I liked it. And yes, it's easy to see why the three B-side tracks weren't included in the original, but I guess it's all right having the extra copy of Exile anyway.

The reissue did inspire me to ponder what might be the next new thing nobody saw coming in music, and how best to stay on top of it.

My only exposure to new music nowadays is live performances by rock bands on TV talk shows such as Conan, Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Carson Daly (ewww) and Jay Leno ( double EWWWWW) Where else can a person can find out about what new music is out there, waiting to be discovered by the likes of me? Any magazines to recommend? There was a time when I bought Rolling Stone for that but it seems to not be the same in that respect. What about the Internet for tracking down new music? I would rather read reviews first, then listen, but I am not opposed to trying stuff cold, either.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A trip to L.A.

A few of you 'got' the title line, but for those who did not, it is a reference to Lower Alabama...Los Angeles is a bit too far away for a weekend with my kids!

A visit to see my friend Jake and his family in Choctaw County is nothing like a cross country trip, but it is quite the ride. The path there crosses a good bit of the state's breadth, from my home in the North Central part, through Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, then south into the Black Belt toward Mobile.

Once there, Jake's place is a whole different state of mind than what I am used to. There's the obvious aspects, such as the isolation and quiet and rural atmosphere, but to me a trip down there is a whole other way of thinking and living, and that's what I have taken home with me since the first time I visited in 1989.

Of course the kids love going places, and this weekend was no different. Griffin ran and played with John Jacob until he was spent, while Carlie carried on with Gaddie in little girl land. Jake and I caught up on how our mutual friends were doing, and on the finer points of gun collecting the military and football. Pia fed us snacks the whole time, and I carried on the tradition I started a couple years ago of making them Domino's Pizza on the lodge kitchen. Just call it a very involved pizza delivery, for people who live a long way from the nearest Domino's!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

First day of school

Thursday was the first day of the first grade for Griffin, and back to kindergarten day for Carlie. Mama and I dropped them off and we were proud!
Griffin is a student at Iola Roberts Elementary School, the very same school where I went to fourth grade when we moved to Pell City in 19 and hasn't changed that much but has been kept up well and modernized over the years, including (thankfully) the addition of air conditioning.
Of course I was very proud to see my kids off into the world, and I'll not forget the moment we had today!