Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wounded Mosquito Jazz Update #2: The Fish and Whine Festival


I was getting a little worried there for a second. After two lopsided losses and a quarter and a half of Wednesday night’s game against San Antonio, I thought the Jazz might be headed for one of those “rough stretches”. Losing to Golden State was just a pressure release from high expectations. Losing to Orlando was eyebrow-raising, but easier to take because they had Dwight Howard. (The “best record in the East” thing is a mirage…that’s like saying “Ernest Goes to Camp” is the best “Ernest” movie).

But when the Jazz got down ten to San Antonio in the second quarter of Wednesday’s game, and only had about thirty-odd points of their own at the time, I was worried that we might be in for a rude awakening.

Not so.

Thirty-two game time minutes later, we had beaten the one team in the league that we’d truly be judged by, the team that always seemed to have our number even when we were playing well. Thirty-two game time minutes later, I thought this thing might actually be real.

Of course, if you ask the right people, our 13-3 record is nothing more than evidence that league refs are conspiring to let the Jazz beat up on everyone else in the league. You know, because seeing Utah do well is such a boon to NBA marketing. I’m sure Boss Stern has been awake nights trying to figure out how he can keep the Jazz competitive.

Last week Zen Master Phil complained that the refs were too hard on Laker rookie Andrew Bynum, and that they let the game get too “roughhouse”. Funny coming from a guy who kicked back on the sidelines while Shaquille O’Neal’s butt and elbows brought him three titles. You’d think nine titles would put a guy beyond whining.

Then after Wednesday’s game, Tim Duncan complained about getting manhandled down low. I guess there had to be a reason he went from ten points in the first quarter to zip in the fourth. It couldn’t be that Carlos Boozer is playing with a chip on his shoulder this year. Of course, if you look at Duncan’s foul tally, you’d think he was standing still in the paint and just letting people float by him. The disappointing thing is that he whined at all. I expect it from the Zen Master. Not from Duncan.

According to Thursday morning stories in both the D-News and the Tribune, Derek Fisher flashed a little championship bling-bling at his teammates to motivate them before the game, and gave them a nice speech about how they need to beat teams like the Spurs if they want to be taken seriously. It just confirms what I’ve been suspecting for the last month or two: Fisher is the biggest pickup the Jazz have made in a long time. For the first time since Stockton-to-Malone, the Jazz have an honest-to-goodness leader that can stand on more than energy and enthusiasm. Fisher has no reason to be intimidated by anyone in the league, because he’s beaten them all…multiple times.

Now that the Jazz have beaten the Spurs, Lakers, Pistons, Clippers, and Rockets—plus the Suns twice—all within the first month of the season, it looks like his attitude is rubbing off.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"Are those W-2's all around, or are they in my head?"

“Stranger than Fiction”
2 ½ stars out of 4.

In this topsy-turvy world of ours, can a button-down IRS agent find love with a hippie baker? According to “Stranger than Fiction” they can. At least if you’ve got Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal filling the roles. In a movie that toys liberally with the line between reality and fiction, their relationship might be the strangest feature of all.

“Stranger than Fiction” narrows its focus to a basic idea: somehow the lives of a struggling writer (Emma Thompson) and a boring audit agent become crossed, and the agent winds up a character in the writer’s new novel. To put it in more concrete terms, Will Ferrell starts hearing Emma Thompson’s voice narrating his life.

It wouldn’t be such a bad thing—Ferrell’s character clearly needs the company—but Thompson’s narration helps him realize just how mundane and boring his life really is. And how much nicer it would be if he could get involved with the hippie baker he’s auditing.

Over in her own end of the space-time continuum, Emma is fighting a ten-year bout with writer’s block. Seems she can’t quite figure out how to kill off her newest protagonist, and is completely unaware that he exists in reality as well as in her manuscript. To fight the block, her publishing company brings in Queen Latifah as her “special assistant”, because obviously the best way to deal with unproductive clients is to bring in ex-rappers. I personally am waiting for my visit from the Diabolical Biz Markie.

Admittedly, it’s hard for me to give an objective review to a film that is centered around a guy who’s dissatisfied with a redundant life and a neurotic writer. To make things worse, Ferrell seeks out help from, of all things, a literature professor, played by Dustin “I go shoeless because it makes me look laid-back” Hoffman. There’s a point where you relate to a good story, and then there’s a point where a movie hits so close to home that you feel like someone in Hollywood is channeling you…which is kind of the point of this whole movie.

Another point is to help Will Ferrell continue down the trail blazed by fellow eccentric-comedian-turned-understated-heartwarming-everyman Jim Carrey. Ferrell’s IRS agent, astounding as it may seem, is a lot of fun to watch, and like Carrey, becomes very likable once he turns off the over-the-top stuff. He actually makes you believe that he and Gyllenhaal are made for each other.

Aside from a great soundtrack and Ferrell’s inspired performance, the thing I enjoyed most about “Stranger than Fiction” was that it was innovative, quirky, and experimental without feeling compelled to inject all of the usual R-rated material such “edgy” directors usually use. Now that CleanFlicks has gone the way of the Dodo, “Fiction” is all the more refreshing.

At the same time, “Stranger than Fiction” still earns its PG-13 rating for old dude butt shots, some Ferrell/Gyllenhaal make-outs, the obligatory solo F-bomb, and the mental stress of having to observe the life of an IRS agent up close.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Unauthorized History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the Jan Brady of holidays. Unfairly jammed between Halloween and the annual Christmas Juggernaut, poor Thanksgiving barely draws enough interest to get the family together for a turkey-fueled afternoon of football. And when the Detroit Lions are playing the football for you, how big can the celebration really be?

The marginalization of the Thanksgiving holiday is the culmination of a long conspiracy of misdirection, misinformation, and outright deception. These days, the accepted Thanksgiving myth is nothing more than a twisted aberration of half-truths and irresponsible, fill-in-the-blanks journalism. Here then, is a complete deconstruction of our forgotten national holiday…

It is wrongly supposed that the first Thanksgiving dinner was a mutual celebration of two neighboring cultures, but nothing could be farther from the truth. For one thing, the identities of both cultures are deeply flawed. Years after Columbus became the first man in recorded history to achieve immortality by refusing to follow directions, a group of religious exiles and cultural misfits arrived on the shores of what is now New England in search of precious freedoms like the right to worship, the right to assemble, and the right to return any item within thirty days if you are not fully satisfied with our product. These settlers were called Capitalists.

The Capitalists went through tremendous trial on their way to the New World, not the least of which was having to wear samples from a line of clothing designed by Frenchman Pierre Mullet, whose obsession with shiny buckles took his outrageous design sensibilities from common belts to hats to men’s footwear. Unable to nullify a contract signed by Capitalist Minister of Fashion Hans Jacobensenson, and fearing the legal repercussions of a breach of contract, the Capitalist settlers were obligated to wear their buckle-heavy clothing for years after arriving at the New World.

The first meeting between the Capitalists and Native Americans, who then went by the name “Chowds”, so named for their love of clam chowder, was hardly amicable. In fact, Capitalist ships came ashore during a celebrated annual Chowd tradition called Spring Break, and rudely interrupted the wildly popular loincloth competition. A full account of the conflict can be gleaned from several first-hand accounts recorded in Capitalist and Chowd journals. Here are some examples:

First, from Capitalist cook Christian Christiansen:

“It wath clear that we had wreaketh havoc on a thacred tradithun, and tho we dethided to thet up camp theveral yardth down the thore. As the company had bethum thired of my thandard mealth, which were largely conthructed on theeweed and theewater, I approathed the nativeth and athed them if they knew of any local takeout resthauranths that might provide thusthenance for 4-600 people on thort notith. I wath directhed thoo a man with beuthiful black hair and deep brown eyth, who generouthly provided me with enough corn to feed the entire company.”

From Capitalist quartermaster Christian Christianhansenson:

“The corn was a most fascinating variety, quite unlike any I had ever before seen whilst backpacking through mid-sixteenth century Europe. The natives called it ‘Maize’, which must be some special strain indigenous only to this land of plenty. It was multi-colored, with yellow, brown, and white kernels, and when we tried to cook it over our open flames it exploded into a wonderful little snack the natives called ‘popcorn’. At least, we think they called it ‘popcorn’. You see, we didn’t share the language with these natives, and had to communicate mostly through sign language and massage therapy. When they saw us cooking the corn, several of them laughed and chatted back and forth in their native dialect, repeating the term “popcorn” over and over again.”

And from native Chowd Nutana-Cho-Watanasee, which being interpreted, means “The Great Spirit has given me a runt son with no future”:

“Spring Break Year of the Winged Eagle 2245 had been the best ever, then in the middle of the loincloth contest, these massive canoes come rolling up and all these weirdoes in buckles come pouring out. Most of them looked terribly ill, and so we waved them away from our beach because we had just been through a bugger of a bout with the flu and didn’t want to have to cancel school for another week. So all these people wander down the beach and try to build some fires, then one of them comes up to us and starts jabbering and making all these strange motions. Eventually Dave figured that the guy was hungry, cause he kept chomping his teeth and rubbing his stomach, so we asked around and finally Mike says, ‘Hey, let’s just give them some of that irregular corn that Andy grew last summer, that funky-looking stuff that tasted like rotted wood.’ So we rounded it all up and took it over, and they started cooking it for waaay too long, and when it started exploding on them they were thrilled, and actually started eating it, and on the way back we couldn’t stop laughing. We just kept exclaiming, ‘they’re eating that crap!’ over and over, cause it looked so funny. Then five months later they helped us build a casino.”

This first Thanksgiving dinner led to an awkward relationship between the two cultures, who never successfully broke their communication barrier in any satisfying way. For years the Chowds assumed the Capitalists were only passing through the area, much like the Viking clans who had passed through in times of yore (not to be confused with the Del-Vikings, whose mid 1950’s Doo-Wop hit, “Come Go With Me” has become a staple of Time-Life Oldies collections everywhere). Initially the Chowds preferred the Capitalists, whose tendency to rape and pillage was considerably less frequent than the Norsemen, but by the time the Capitalists began to install the first street lights in Boston, the Chowds began to suspect that their neighbors might be putting down more permanent roots. During this time the now-annual dinner conferences between the two cultures became less and less attended, until finally the only official communication came via bulk holiday e-mails.

In the time since, various special interest groups, industrial powerhouses, and the National Football League have conspired to alter our understanding of the holiday to accommodate their own specific needs. The addition of the Turkey to the Thanksgiving myth didn’t come about until 1947, when unionized turkey farmers demanded accommodation for the surplus they had generated to support the European war effort. Up until then, traditional Thanksgiving dinners had been built around a staple of corn, seaweed, and clam chowder. The holiday itself wasn’t even made official until 1982, when NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle demanded an official holiday so he could justify adding additional games to the standard Sunday/Monday night schedule. In fact, Thanksgiving wasn’t even an American holiday. The first Thanksgiving feasts were held in ancient Egypt after a tremendous dust storm fended off foreign armies seeking to desecrate the pyramids by building coffee shops for tourists, and those feasts featured corn, seaweed, sweet potatoes, and virgin sacrifices. All we are really left with today is a mutt of a holiday that will be consumed by a pair of pagan celebrations inside of a decade.

And now you may ask, “Josh, what is to be done? Now that you have shown us the light, what can I do in this oppressive world of digital domination and faceless anonymity?” My answer, dear friends, is to embrace history, to fend off the tide of the incoming Christmas season, and set aside your devilish pagan witch brooms long enough to celebrate true Americana by preparing a feast appropriate to our first settlers, a feast of bad corn and seaweed, and wrap the whole thing up with a traditional loincloth competition. Fear not the rebuke of the mindless sheep that want to gorge themselves on the mistaken symbols of a perverted holiday, watching their silly football games and pretending to know what it means to be an American. Don’t give in to the revisionist peer pressure that comes with slavish obedience to a flawed culture. Stand up for the Capitalists and Chowds that built this nation on their awkward, well-intentioned but disillusioned backs!

“If this be treason, then let us make the most of it!”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Met the new bosses...same as the old bosses

Right before ripping into Monday night’s “Pinball Wizard” encore, Who guitarist and longtime leader Pete Townshend paused on stage and swayed back and forth, his red Fender Stratocaster hanging at his waist, aimed at the audience like a rifle. With a weary smile on his face, he seemed to be saying, “are you sure you want to drag this old man back on stage again?”

Pete seems a lot happier these days. For one thing, he only dropped a pair of F-bombs in between songs. Down in Houston six years ago, “Mr. Windmill” went on a number of tears, only some of which were musical. But on Monday night, I caught more than a few genuine smiles from one of Rock’s legendary “angry young men”.

Seeing Townshend and Daltrey in action again was a bittersweet experience. They sounded great, but even though the backup musicians were fantastic—especially drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo’s kid)—there was a feeling of emptiness on the stage. The new bass player managed to hold Entwhistle’s stoic posture, and his bass licks were fine, but having him stand in the back with the other “backups” made it all the more obvious that these days The Who is one Ox short. Starkey does a better job of filling the void left by original Master of Mayhem Keith Moon, partially because Zak is a great drummer, mostly because the fact that his dad was Moon’s best buddy gives his presence an almost nostalgic appropriateness.

Of course, no one is aware of the absence of his old friends more than Townshend, who has always struck me as the 60’s icon most aware of his peer’s mortality rate. I’ll never forget his point that while Hendrix and Moon were our icons, they were his (expletive deleted) friends. I doubt there’s a time he takes the stage that he doesn’t (expletive deleted) think about them.

What has remained is the music, and on Monday the crew pulled out all the stops. From the opening licks of “I Can’t Explain” through the epic encore medley from “Tommy”, Pete and the boys nailed all the high points, and convinced me that “Baba O’Reilly” is indeed my all-time favorite Who track, even if I still don’t know what the title means. “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “My Generation”, and “Who Are You” are as anthemic as ever, and even the stuff off the new album sounded very Who-ish.

Thanks to the generous help of my inside man Micah, I was able to score tickets right across from the stage about ten rows up. We were close enough to believe that Pete could actually see us when he waved goodbye at the end of the show. I shared the event with my old friend Josh Christensen, fellow Who enthusiast, and in fact, the same guy I saw the Houston concert with.

This time around, The Who brought The Pretenders as the opening act. The Pretenders also managed to make the most of the Delta Center sound system, grooving through favorites like “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, and I couldn’t help but smile when I realized that the woman singing on stage once had a child with Kinks frontman Ray Davies.

What a weird life.

That’s what’s so strange about going to concerts like these. Something tells me that I’d probably never be real tight friends with most of these guys, aside from sharing common artistic drives. As I look around the arena at the aging hippies, the beer-toting Salt Lake socialites, and the guy in full leather and pompadour wearing the “BEFORE ELVIS, THERE WAS NOTHING” T-shirt, I realize I’m not your typical Who fan.

Yet, the music they make still hits—sorry—a power chord with me every time. “Who Are You” might have been written after a drunk Townshend ran into the Sex Pistols at a New York bar in ’78, but it means something else to me. “Teenage Wasteland” might remind some people of lighting doobies in their parent’s basement, but it applies equally to 1993 Davis County behind my blue-green eyes. Most music is vague enough to serve those multiple functions.

It served them Monday night, even if the band was only at half-staff.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Is it real? Or is it Bowie-Time?

“The Prestige”
Three stars out of four.

Best thing about “The Prestige”: casting David Bowie as inventor Nikola Tesla.

Worst thing about “The Prestige”: not casting members of the band Tesla as his assistants.

“The Prestige” is centered on the rivalry between two late-nineteenth century magicians, played by Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman and Christian “Batman 2005” Bale. Anything beyond that summary has to be considered a spoiler, so read on at your own risk.

Director Christopher “Batman Begins” Nolan has taken a page from “21 Grams” and even “Slaughterhouse-Five” in constructing his first major film since returning the Batman franchise to the big screen. “The Prestige” unfolds out of sequence; there are so many flashbacks it’s hard to say there is any kind of chronological storyline. It’s a movie to be felt and examined rather than observed.

The plot follows the back-and-forth rivalry and vindictive/vengeful actions of the two magicians as they vie for performer supremacy.The film “opens” during a tragic “accident” at Wolverine’s big performance, where he “dies” and Batman gets fingered for the job. For the next two hours, you learn about the circumstances surrounding the murder/accident itself, the history behind it, and the similarly enigmatic circumstances that emerge after it.

That’s why it’s so hard to write about this movie: it’s so built on the idea of illusion and plot twists that it’s hard to put down a concrete explanation of what is actually happening.

Introducing the supporting characters is equally problematic. You’ve got Scarlett Johanssen playing the mistress/sidekick/co-conspirator/lover/double-agent/whatever, then you’ve got Michael Caine, who plays a mentor/co-conspirator/magician/insert random role here while working either for or against Batman and Wolverine simultaneously. Then you’ve got some wives and kids and side characters, and of course Mr. Space Oddity himself as the exiled inventor living in Colorado. (Why Colorado? Was Tesla a closet Broncos fan?)

It sounds confusing, but it’s actually a lot of fun. It’s also satisfying in a distorted kind of way, because in spite of the secretive nature of magicians and their tricks, Nolan manages to explain most of the tricks you see over the course of the film. In that way, the audience is both an observer and a privileged insider.

Regrettably, the only questionable element of the film is the one trick that is never explained, because supposedly it is real. I won’t go so far as to spell it out explicitly, but I will say it involves that guy that used to dress up as an orange-haired space alien androgynous rock hero back in the 70’s. Plus I think Michael Keaton already made a movie about the subject back in the 90’s.

More favorite tidbits from the movie:

*According to the film (which must be accurate if it came from Hollywood, right?), Thomas Edison employed a stable of spies that not only scoured the countryside in search of rival inventors and their work, but also burned the rival facilities to the ground in order to quell the competition. Who knows if that’s right, but I can’t get over the idea of the inventor of the light bulb sitting behind a mahogany desk stroking a cat while he tells his goons to “make Nikola Tesla an offer he can’t refuse.”

*My childhood was either blessed or scarred by Bowie’s performance in “Labyrinth” as the bad guy after Jennifer Connelly’s baby brother. It’s good to see him on screen again for the first time since his brilliant cameo in “Zoolander”, especially because he isn’t Bowie. Other than the off-colored eyes, Ziggy Stardust does a great job of looking like a regular guy. Well, as regular as an eccentric exiled Serbian inventor can look, I guess. Nolan should have called this movie “Ziggy Tesla and the Magicians from Colorado” and left it at that.

“The Prestige” is rated PG-13 for violence to little birdies, Scarlett Johanssen’s lips and that spooky feeling you get every time you see the kid from “Empire of the Sun” all grown up. Side effects may include dizziness, confusion, headache, and comments like, “hey, how come Tesla’s eyes are different colors?”

Monday, November 06, 2006

Wounded Mosquito Jazz Update #1: On the quest for an unbeaten season...

Well, we're three games into the regular season, and the Jazz are on pace to finish with a solid 82-0 record and at least a second seed in the playoffs this April. Pretty nice way to break the streak of three straight lottery-years, I'd say.

Seriously, if the first three games are any kind of legitimate indicator, it could be a fun season. I've attended both of the home games, and each one was encouraging for different reasons.

1. The Jazz are deep and athletic: In the season-opener against the Rockets, Kirilenko barely even showed up, and Okur hit about .250 on the night, yet the Jazz stayed ahead throughout. They did it because guys contributed all over the place. CJ Miles opened the game with twelve points, Boozer took down ninteen rebounds, and even the rookie threw down a couple of nice dunks.

2. Fisher and Williams took charge: After leading for the whole game, the Jazz let their lead slip down to two against Dominique and the Rockets as the fourth quarter wound down to crunch time. But instead of roll over, Williams quarterbacked with confidence and Fisher stepped up to hit a couple of clutch jumpers. It's exactly what we need: Williams maturing and Fisher stabilizing.

3. No one died: Sure, there are 79 more games to go, but it's at least a little encouraging that three games in we haven't lost anyone to a hamstring pull, broken foot, broken wrist, bad back, or harpooning.

4. We clobbered the chump team: I've been watching the Jazz for twenty years now, and one of their major shortcomings all through that time was a tendency to play the tough teams hard and let up on the dogs. Not Saturday. We should have squashed Golden State--with or without Don Nelson--and we did.

5. Deron Williams put his hand over his heart for the National Anthem: Call me a purist, but it's good to know that Williams is following Stockton's example in multiple ways. Unless that wasn't Williams--my seats are pretty far up. It could have been Frank Layden.

6. We have lots of foreign guys: The US team got trashed last summer, so the way I see it, having guys from Croatia, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, and North Hollywood can only work in our favor.

There was also that thing about beating the Suns in Phoenix, but I didn't see that game, though I hear it was a swell time.

To be fair, there were some concerns as well:

1. Attendance is still low: This one is on us. Larry dropped all the prices, and we honestly look like a good team, but if we want to have that home court dominance we had back in the 90's, people are actually going to have to show up for the game. And that doesn't just mean in the upper-bowl; that means all the lower-bowl season-ticket holding bigwigs, too.

2. We have male cheerleaders: I don't care if they can bench-press Buicks or if they're only there because of the proximity to the female cheerleaders, guy cheerleaders should be legally confined to remote college alcoves, only periodically released to show up and get mocked at home football games.

3. Delta Center acoustics still suck: I say this mostly because I'm going to see The Who next week, but I also say it because I'm concerned that the players on the court can't hear me when I yell at them from row 15 in section 127. And if they can't hear me, then we're going to have to rely on Kirilenko's Tazmanian Devil-style defense almost exclusively.

4. Billy Ray Cyrus sang the season-opening National Anthem: I'm happy to report that Billy Ray has foresaken his trademark mullet for a more surfer-grunge shag with highlights, but this is still the man who punished us with "Achy Breaky Heart". You think I'm just going to forget about that? (Some Osmond guy sang the anthem for the Golden State game).

Three games down...79 to go. So far, so good. I think I'll send Sloan a case of champagne...just for fun.