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The new sandwich
Realizing that I need to drop at least 10 pounds before I start my new job, I sold out to the man and started my own version of the Atkins diet on Sunday. As with all fads, I try to keep my affiliation on the down-low. I buy the bars (surprisingly tasty!) at a low-population GNC and buy the vast quantities of meat early in the morning. But the upside of taking part in a fad is that the American capitalist economy is catering to my every need. Hence the unwich.

Jimmy John’s, the badass sandwich franchise, has started making its subs available to people who don’t eat bread. They do this by wrapping the sandwich ingredients – vinegar, tomatoes, mayo, everything – in huge fucking pieces of lettuce. The result looks like a dog-size pod from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Next time I go I’ll take a picture.

Unsurprisingly, the unwich rules. While I missed a little of the inexplicable flavor that comes when you bite into bread and innards at that same time, the lettice made for a new sensation. It felt like eating a mafioso’s salad – 10% lettuce, 90% salami. As I’ve already testifed to the chain’s badassary, you can guess that this works just fine.

Only complaint – the lettuce does not soak up grease as efficiently as French bread. The half-unwich I stuffed in my bookbag ended up soiling my copy of the April Reason. Otherwise, 9/10.

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Two movies
I went up to Langhorne on Wednesday and down to the local Regal Cinema tonight, and saw two of my favorite movies of the year.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The opening of Zack Snyder’s debut feature is shockingly good – Godfather good. We see a perfectly normal, bored hospital and a nurse (Sarah Polley) about to take off for home. She gets in the car, flips to a nice song on the radio. A neighborhood girl shows off her skating. The nurse’s husband makes cute and talks about upcoming weekends. Then they sleep, and are woken up by the neighborhood girl, bleeding from her face and neck, ripping into the husband’s shoulder. The nurse scrambles outside into a literal apocalypse – cars running over dazed men, screaming women banging to get into a car, trucks caterwauling into gas stations. It really looks like the breakdown of society. I was sold.

The movie slows down after that – only a few sequences approached the beauty of the opening, and few are as effective as the original Dawn of the Dead (1978) that is still one of my very favorite movies. I loved the ammo shop owner bunkered across the street, who communicates with our heroes via dry-erase boards and engages in celebrity zombie sniping. I loved the soldering of people movers in an attempt to make them tanks capable of plowing through zombie hordes.

But there was plenty of stuff that worked in a 2004 horror movie, and paled when compared to the original. I won’t spoil everything, but I’ll say that too many characters are introduced, one goes insane without much motivation, and, yes, the running zombies inevitably step all over the metaphor Romero used to make zombies worthwhile in the first place.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
No matter how much I enjoyed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (saw both on dates, too), I could never count them as my favorite movies because their endings were such blustery cop-outs. But Eternal Sunshine … has a great ending. There’s nothing to hold it back from becoming an utterly perfect love story.

Like Lost in Translation (definitely an inferior movie), this one actually drove me to examine the corners of frames and think about what was going through characters’ heads. Despicable characters like Patrick (Elijah Wood) do things which are perfectly understandable in the film’s world – if you’re wiping a woman’s mind, and you have all the trinkets from her past relationship, and you want to date her, why not use that stuff to woo her?

Director Michel Gondry throws in details that are funny and pathetic at the same time, often subtle enough that half the audience will laugh and the rest will sort of look down. I’m thinking of the scene when Joel returns to the Lacuna office, and one woman has a bag full of her dog’s toys, and one man has a bag with a basketball trophy poking out. He’s obviously about to erase the memory of his son, but Gondry leaves us looking at the dog lady, and most of my audience chuckled.

Best movie of the year, at least. See it.

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PoMo Promos
The new issue of Wired (Peter Jackson on the cover) features a rave for Mike Lazzo, creator of Adult Swim. It’s a good blurb, and the best part concerns the Cartoon Network’s unique style of promos:

“Who would’ve thought that a cartoon network would be doing some of the smartest programming on TV today?” says the admittedly biased Matt Groening, creator of Futurama and The Simpsons. “Their promos are smart and funny and don’t insult the intelligence of viewers.” What’s more, Lazzo says Adult Swim’s promos were created on a Macintosh “for $5.”

There are two kinds of AS promos: The white-on-black type title cards and the new trailers for old shows. The Futurama trailer is cut like a 1950s 3-D movie – “It came from another network!” The Family Guy trailer shows a clip from an episode where the family beat each other up – no dialogue, just brutality, then the word “Family Guy.” They’re brilliant.

Does any of this matter? Yep. Kevin Smith’s cartoon adaptation of “Clerks” lasted 6 episodes, only 3 of which were aired. The dialogue-heavy show was promoed by a clip of Silent Bob lighting a stick of dynamite and throwing it. As Smith himself says in the DVD commentary, it made the show look moronic, and might have killed it. The new DVD commercial for Futurama has clips of butt jokes and Fry saying “now it is time to ingest sandwiches from my compartment.” The major networks simply didn’t know how to sell these shows. They wanted them to appeal to a certain demographic, and didn’t think the hipster 18-30 demo would sit down and watch TV.

I’ve been watching the Futurama DVDs and loving them – there’re maybe 2 blah episodes out of every 10. I know that the Adult Swim and DVD success has resurrected Family Guy, and I hope it does the same for Matt Groening’s redheaded stepchild.

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The Last Man
Chris Chandler invited me to the video game show that was going to be the all-consuming passion of his weekend. Not really knowing the size or shape of the thing, I said yes. So the two of us headed up to the Valley Forge Convention Center at 8 a.m., unloaded a few additions to his 3-table video gam spread, and sat back. There were already four dozen or so nerds dicking around on their game setups, more than an hour before the door would open.

We had two TVs with one Atari 2600 and one 8-bit Nintendo set up beside them. The Nintendo didn’t really work – it took so long to un-gunk the feelers after every game that I walked away and took in sights. Directly in front of us, a small stage was overloaded with speakers and occasionally an elderly man who played accordian. (He gave us a line he’d clearly worked on – “I know, to you guys, there’s nothing special about moving your fingers real fast” – but it didn’t work.) Closer to the entrance was a line of 14 giant TVs hooked up to various systems with first-person shooters – House of the Dead, Duck Hunt, the requisite Japanese game that used a DJ deck as a controller. Rows and rows of used games extended from there, some obvious rip-offs ($40 for fucking Playstation 1 games) and some huge bargains. Toward the back were 25 or so hollowed-out arcade machines with new games inserted – Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Virtua Cop, Pong. And there were more and more rows of independent game companies, paintings based on Tecmo Bowl players, a 3-D version of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I’m not a huge game person, honestly. I didn’t look too close.

I got into the groove back at Chris’s booth. The kind of people who come to a video game show on a sunny Saturday are, as you’d expect, fucking insane. Most of them wore cargo pants tight at the waist, gut spilling over beneath their game-themed T-shirts. You don’t have time to do hundreds of sit-ups AND figure out how to beat Mega Man 2 in 29 minutes. It’s one or the other. Weirdly, the celebrity that events organizers coralled for this group was Cindy Morgan, the chick from Caddyshack and Tron. She came on in the early afternoon, crossing her legs and telling her life story to thirty or so nerds. The rest of us giggled about how we’d seen her naked. Well, I didn’t. But I didn’t object, so I was complicit.

Dean showed up around the same time, carting four cases of old Nintendo Power magazines which he’d bought for $5 at a flea market. He sold them for $50, but the effort kept him behind the counter, so I waited until the old Nintendo was switched out and I played the hell out of Super Punch Out. When I got stuck on the fourth boxer, Mr. Sandman, a kid in an Iron Maiden shirt took the controller and beat him in 50 seconds. I left the game in the console, but when I walked back an hour later, the credits were rolling. The kid beat the whole thing.

I think we were all surprised at how interesting the second “celebrity guest” turned out to be. He was unannounced, and I don’t remember his name, but the guy was one of the designers of – get this – Atari’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Yes, he laid hands on the worst video game ever made. I actually paused the Contra III for a few minutes and listened to his excuses – they had a few weeks to design the game from scratch, there was no consumer testing, they were busy on other games. It was morbidly fascinating – the geekish equivilent of listening to Ben Affleck explain why he made “Gigli.”

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Cracker Van Beethoven
I’m still staggering in disbelief that Camper Van Beethoven reuinited to play a 3 1/2 hour set just for me. If you have any kind of chance to see this band on tour, do so. I’ll explain why.

Willie and I (and Willie’s friend Lorenzo) got to the Vic at 6, just as doors opened. No merchandise table, no crowds. We moved easily to the front of the stage and waited for the band to set up. And then we waited some more. The Vic techies were almost record-breakingly incompent, and when Dave Lowery et al took the stage as Cracker, they struggled through through four songs before begging them to fix the sound again. Lowery’s vocals were too low – the show improved tenfold when he fixed them. He was set to lead the two bands for another 1/8 of a day.

I felt a little bad for not recognizing the genius of Cracker’s Johnny Hickman before tonight. When he got the opening to play a solo, he took it and churned out 60 seconds of country-fried up-the-neck noodling. He even took the mic on two songs – one I didn’t recognize and a cover of The Kinks’ “Victoria.

Around the 50th minute, Kenny Margolis started going nuts with the accordian. He continued doing so.

But for me, the Cracker set dragged on a little too long. The crowd was on my side – by the 15th song, we started clamoring for Camper to come on. And lo and behold, Jonathan Segel entered and started kicking ass on “All Her Favorite Fruit.”

Greg Lisher contributed some spot-on lead guitar – better than I expected. He was pretty clearly enjoying himself, and sang like a madman on “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”

After Camper concluded with “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” the members of both bands came on to jam over “Intersteller Overdrive.” Total perfection. I’m going to sleep now before something can taint the memory.

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Seen and heard
I finished my college career on Monday and immediately stepped forward to do the lazy things I’d put off for so long. First up: movies.

The Hours
It’s the curse of the awards season. If “The Hours” had sprung out of the ether, a quirky little melodrama with a quiet beauty, I would have been impressed. But as we know, “The Hours” was a Miramax prestige-fest that corralled the finest actors of our day (Streep, Kidman, Harris, Richardson, et al) in a plot to win some Oscars. And it did. But not for the awesome Philip Glass score, which was the only aspect of the movie that really deserved it.

I suppose I was hindered when the filmmakers showed their cards and obviously tried to send a message with the whole thing, and I couldn’t tell what the message was. So I checked with Rod Dreher at National Review, who I knew loathed the film like a cancer. He quoted the requisite raves from feminists. Neither side convinced me. It seemed like Julianne Moore’s selfishness inspired her son to become a suicide case, so the scales were balanced on all sides.

Starsky and Hutch
Wonderfully dumb fun – a lot like “Super Troopers” in that you don’t get the sense filmmakers put much care into the plot, except as a device for cute gags.

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Voting is for old people
I set out at 1 p.m. to vote in my last-ever Cook County primary election. Unfortunately, a spam phone call (you know, the ones that kick in with an automated message telling you the best way to refinance) distracted me on the way outside and I forgot my digital camera. But there wasn’t much to see. A gaggle of maybe 20 signs marked the path outside the polling place, compared to the 50-plus that lined the sidewalk for the 2002 general election.

My punch-card ballot was strangely undemocratic. I had one choice for President – Bush – and one choice for every office except U.S. Senate. Luckily, Illinois is the subject of a heated primary campaign to select the replacement for Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R). I voted for the frontrunner, former investment banker Jack Ryan.

Last time, I voted for sure-loser gov candidate Patrick O’Malley. So why choose the sure winner this time? Well, Ryan seems to be the only candidate who knows how to run a 21st century campaign. He’s tacked on to the old Jack Kemp tactic of explaining how his plans will help the lowest of the low – I guess you could construe this as a “compassionate conservative” message, but Ryan is a much more earnest candidate than George W. Bush. His TV media is the best I’ve seen from any campaign this year, apart from John Kerry’s excellent bio ad. Ryan’s 30-second biography ad shows him parking a fancy car, stomping into an office, and opening his door just to get a piece of paper thrown at his head. He quit his cash-soaked job in banking to teach in Chicago – the ad hammers this home in a funny, unconventional way. All of this convinced me that Ryan can run the kind of campaign that will distance him from the Illinois Republican mistakes of the last four years.

I knew a ton of people working for Andy McKenna, but my punch-out pin did not hover over his name for a second. McKenna is one of the dullest candidates I’ve ever personally encountered – slightly built, soft-spoken, very few actual policy ideas. He convinced me that he’d be blown away by any Democratic who could tie his shoes.

The other candidates were either too bland (State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, former State Rep. Jonathan Wright) or too obviously crackpot (John Borling, Norm Hill) to ever warrant a vote. Multimillionaire Chirinjeev Kathuria was a study in incompetence – the Sikh businessman had interesting policy ideas and a compelling life story, but spent no money on media and talked to voters as if they were participants in one of those money-making seminars. Jim Oberweis was a candidate that only National Review’s resident moron John Derbyshire could love – his sole policy positions were cheap pharmaceuticals and kicking out immigrants.

There are good reasons for my serious consideration of the GOP field. The Democrats fielded seven candidates this year, and it is expected that one of them will win the seat. At first, everyone expected the nominee to be Blair Hull, a multimillionaire (get used to that word in Illinois politics) with the personality of balsa wood. He spent $29 million to blanket the state with ads touting his “independence from special interests” and his mystery-shrouded health care plans, and it paid off – the Atlantic Monthly even gave him a profile, touting Hull as the man who’d perfected the art of buying Senate seats.

Then he beat his wife. Adios, Blair Hull.

In a normal year, Democrats would have gravitated to Chicago machine muppet Dan Hynes. The 34 year old (!) state Comptroller is moderately handsome, espouses the usual party boilerplate, is backed up by the political casa nostra in the Second City, and has been elected statewide. But he ran into competition for the mainstream Chicago vote. Likeable Cook County treasurer Maria Pappas entered the race late and ran to win Chicago whites and women statewide. Former president of the Chicago Board of Education Gery Chico tried to turn himself into a Latino version of Paul Vallas, the popular schools czar who nearly beat Rod Blagojevich in the 2003 gubernatorial primary. Both are more interesting than Hynes. All will probably go down to defeat.

Get ready for the Democratic nominee, because after tonight Barack Obama will be a national political superstar. He’s the smartest, most mainstream black politican to run for statewide office since Doug Wilder became the governor of Virginia. More importantly, he’s from the first generation of black Americans to grow up in the post-Civil Rights era. Obama was born to Kenyan and white parents in 1961, was raised middle class, and went to Columbia. As his campaign never tires of saying, he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. And, most impressively, Obama returned to Chicago to teach at the University of Chicago Law School and work as a liberal state senator.

Put simply, I think Barack Obama could run for president in 2012 or 2016. He wouldn’t be a Jesse Jackson guts-and-brimstone candidate. He’d be a tested, plain-spoken, mainstream politician elected by a mostly white electorate in the sixth most-populous state. So I voted for the candidate that could beat him. But I didn’t vote optimistically.

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Spanish bombs
I’m pretty broken up about the results of the election in Spain. It seems for all the world like terrorists murdered 200 people with the hopes of swinging an election, and they succeeded. Voters blamed the PM’s support of the Iraq war for the bombings.

Kos, who’s becoming the unofficial president of liberal blogdom, sees this as pretty zero sum.

Spain’s rulling party will be just the latest casualty of Bush’s folly.

I think of it more hypothetically. Say I’m a Wahabist. I want George Bush out of power. Spain has just demonstrated that murdering hundreds of people can make that happen. So, should I set off a bomb on one of the New York to DC Amtrak trains? Why not? It might be a good way to get what I want.