Sunday, October 19, 2014

Best Magazine Reads: Freddie Mercury Was the Messenger of the Gods

Although I've never been a massive Queen fan, catchy songs like "Killer Queen," "You're My Best Friend," and "Under Pressure" are undeniably high in the rock cannon.

And when writer Mikal Gilmore has an article in Rolling Stone, I know it's going to be loaded with nuggets about the debauchery of whichever classic-rock act he's researched. Here's what I learned recently about Queen:

1. I knew Freddie Mercury grew up in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa because I visited the Freddie Mercury gift shop there while on honeymoon in 2005. But I didn't recall his real name growing up there was Farrokh Bulsara, or that he went by the nickname of "Bucky" because of his teeth, a topic he was sensitive about his whole life. Teachers, instead, began affectionately calling him Freddie and he embraced it.

2. With British Colonial rule ending in 1964, riots broke out in Zanzibar and Mercury's family moved to England right at the time it began swinging with the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

3. The name Mercury was a reference to the Roman messenger of the gods.

4. It took Mercury a long time to realize he was gay. He always thought he liked women. Even till the end of his life, he referred to Mary Austin, his personal secretary and advisor, as his common-law wife.

5. Queen stopped touring the U.S. after 1982 because its audiences were the least accepting of Mercury's flamboyant stage persona. As guitarist Brian May said, there was always some other place that loved them a lot more than America and could let them be themselves.

6. Mercury's feelings were hurt when nobody from the band was invited to participate in Bob Geldolf's "Do They It's Christmastime?" But Geldolf invited them to play Live Aid London in 1985 and the band stole the show.

7. One day after Mercury finally announced to the world that he had AIDS, he died at age 45. Aretha Franklin sang at his funeral and he was cremated. Mary Austin placed his ashes in a location that has never been announced.

American Milkshake Looks at High-School Life in D.C. During the O.J. Years

American Milkshake is a fairly unknown Sundance high-school drama about a street- and book-smart white kid in Washington D.C. who attends a magnet school to avoid the "dorks" at what would have been his regular school.

All he wants to be is black, like the majority of students at the school and on the varsity basketball team that he makes as a token white person.

He dates a black girl. He later dates an Hispanic girl. He thinks dating these two girls at once is "dope" and will give him the street cred he so desires.

The filmmakers seem to have a good grasp on the silliness of Jolie Jolson - yes, he's a direct descendant of Al Jolson, made famous long ago for his song-and-dance routines in blackface - and the film makes a nice arc to display his coming of age and a certain level of maturity by film's end.

The last line of American Milkshake is hilarious and makes the movie both believable and inconsequential at the same time. That said, there is something very lovable about Jolie, played with a  knowing smirk by Tyler Ross, who doesn't even have an entry on Wikipedia!

With the O.J. Simpson trial happening throughout the background of the story, set in Jolie's senior year, this is a nice trip down memory lane of the mid-1990s, when Netscape was just beginning to rear its head and face-to-face relationships were the only relationships.

**** out of ***** stars

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dramatic Range, With a Touch of Children's Hospital, Sparks In a World ...

If I weren't already a fan of Children's Hospital, sort of a beyond-bizarre version of Scrubs, I'm not sure what I would think of this In a World ...

Lake Bell stars, writes, directs, and produces this indie comic-drama. Children's Hospital's Rob Corddry and Ken Marino also have significant parts.

But the comparisons end there. This is not a wacko goofy film. If anything, it is almost a documentary on the competitive world of actors vying for voiceover parts in films and trailers.

Bell's character is the daughter of a legendary voiceover artist who is not ready to cede his roles to her. She wins a part that he wants. Family dysfunction ensues.

Even as a fan of many of these actors (and there are many many guest appearances from comedy and film stars), it took me nearly half the picture to warm up to them and feel like I cared about the niche industry of voiceover.

By the end, the characters and the story are absorbing. The filmmakers even achieve giving Corddry dramatic range.

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Classic Reads: Beowulf Teaches Us That Striving Doesn't Have to Be All About Success

It didn't take reality TV for people to want to be famous.

In college, as I studied English literature, I focused more on the significance of the mnemonic devices used by Northern Europeans to translate Beowulf over generations.

Taking a look back now, the morals of the story from a vicious time in the Sixth Century are perhaps equally as interesting. We learn that it is striving rather than success itself that "reveals and ennobles the true hero."

Beowulf is a warrior and principal advisor to the king of the land of Geats, located in what is today south Sweden and Denmark. He learns of a monster called Grendel that is devouring groups of humans. Beowulf travels to battle the monster. He fails to kill him but rips off his arm before the monster escapes.

Grendel's mother is furious and goes to find Beowulf. She almost succeeds in killing him, but he reaches for a sword nearby and plunges it through the monster's heart. He then beheads Grendel.

The story picks up many years later when Beowulf is an old man and king of the Geats. One day, he kills a dragon, but in the process, the dragon bites Beowulf in the neck, which kills him as well. 

Beowulf's ability to step up when needed and provide heroic acts is what endeared him to his people, and their love of him has powerfully been translated through all these years. At his funeral, his people said, "Of worldly kings, he was the mildest of men and the gentlest, most kind to his people, most eager for fame."

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Placing the Microscope on Our High-School Years with Curtis Sittenfield

There are those moments during your high-school years when things seem so lucid, so crystal clear, so in-the-moment.

Your friends are five minutes late to pick you up to go to a party and each second seems to drip by in agony and longing. Your eyes constantly search for the girl you would move mountains for, even though she barely knows you exist or, at the very least, is too preoccupied with much older boys.

Curtis Sittenfield, in her debut novel Prep, is a master at articulating, with such precision (and how difficult it must have been to remember so many details about adolescence?), the way we were growing up. Towards the end, a couple of lines sum up what the book is about:
"I've never paid as close attention to my life or anyone else's as I did then. I remember myself as often unhappy at Ault, and yet my unhappiness was so alert and expectant; really, it was, in its energy, not that different from happiness."
Those words are uttered by Prep's protagonist, Lee Fiora, who leaves home in South Bend, Indiana for the prestigious boarding school, Ault, near Boston, which is no doubt helped shaped by the author's years of teaching at Washington D.C.'s St. Alban's preparatory academy.

Lee mostly stands in the background during her four years at the school, observing others and mostly bouncing idea after idea and thought after thought around in her own very unsure, unformed mind. In that sense, it's a true coming-of-age story, reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye or Ethan Canin's novels, but with an even sharper microscope.

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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pop-Culture Catch Up: Rum Diary, Enough Said, and Frozen

I'm not going to lie. Having two kids is often more difficult than having one. By the end of so many days, I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to read one magazine article, let alone devour something of pop-culture value and then report its worth back to you, my fine and faithful readers.

That said, it's time to catch up with a few artifacts I've explored over the past weeks. And, I'll try to start blogging more regularly again after a pretty unimpressive summer collection of quantity and quality.

The Rum Diary is the first Hunter S. Thompson I've read since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas back in college. The "long lost novel" was apparently written in the 1960s and not published until 1998. It is basically the tale of Hunter himself (under the name Paul) going from New York to live and work at a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

He carouses with the lowlifes who work at the paper and risks life daily drinking and fighting and romancing in a foreign land. It's the epitome of gonzo journalistic writing and serves as an underrated highlight of Thompson's prodigious career. Johnny Depp found the manuscript and had it published, then starred in the movie, which I should now go see for the first time.

**** out of ***** stars

Enough Said is a small rom-com that gains weight by the very fact that it was about the last thing James Gandolfini filmed before his death. Julia Louis-Dreyfus seems a little less great than usual in the film, despite very positive reviews.

The couple wins me over by the end as they suffer a series of setbacks while firing up an unlikely romance, but I still was a little disappointed and not that impressed with the overall story, general awkwardness, and pacing of this film.

*** out of ***** stars

Frozen is of course all the rage with the youngsters, but I was bored silly, wishing I could rematch The Lego Movie, The Jungle Book, Snow White, or any other kid movie.

Tip of the hat to Disney for making it about the importance of family instead of the usual fare of the importance of the prince. But if I have to hear someone else humming or singing "Let It Go" again, who knows what I'll do. Bad music in a hack of a story. It doesn't help that I don't particularly like any of the actors behind the voices.

Way overrated and hopefully will lose some of its runaway-hit momentum as soon as some better Disney films are released.

** out of ***** stars

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Yes, We Could Get More Stupid, and Idiocracy Shows Us How

It's believed that Mike Judge's 2006 sci-fi comedy Idiocracy was released in far fewer theaters because of the way companies like Starbucks and Carl's Jr. were portrayed in it.

Fox, the distributor, allegedly didn't like that its advertisers were being treated unkindly. This is probably just one of many reasons to, even now, eight years later, watch the movie, which runs from time to time on cable TV.

I caught it on Comedy Central last night and thought it was hilarious. Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph play an average soldier and a prostitute respectively who get shipped 500 years into the future in a military experiment gone awry.

Once there, they encounter an America that has seen its gene pool deteriorate to the point where nobody is literate and people sit on their toilet loungers watching TV shows that make today's reality television look like Lawrence of Arabia.

Someone could easily say Idiocracy is, like what the Washington Post called the musical comedy I wrote with Dan Sullivan called Wiener Sausage: The Musical!, "tasteless and popular." But you can't even really say that. Sure, it's tasteless, but not many people saw it. Over the years, it has built a cult following and is becoming relatively more popular.

But if you're a fan of other Judge offerings, like Beavis and Butt-Head, Office Space, and Extract, go quickly to your DVR to schedule Idiocracy.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Wiggle, Protected Lanes, and Bikeshare Bring Hope to San Francisco Bicycle Commuting

This article was originally published at Mobility Lab.

photo 2[1]

I got to explore San Francisco by bicycle over a couple of days during this month’s crucially educational Association for Commuter Transportation conference.

SF Market StreetThere’s no doubt the city is a leader at promoting bike riding. However, even in San Francisco, where dozens of riders pour down the protected bike lanes of Market Street every minute all day long, it is amazing that so much work remains to get Americans on board with doing something fun, healthy, efficient, and, yes, safe. (I mean, like, radically safe. So safe, in fact, that there has never been a death of anyone on a U.S. bikeshare bike.)

Start with the numbers: Commuter stats are a way to get a good read of a city’s bikability because if the streets are no good for urban bike commuting, then they’re probably not good for any other bike trips or for sightseeing bicycle tourists.

ACT SFPortland’s bicycle commuters make up 6.3 percent of its population, based on 2011 numbers from the League of American BicyclistsThat’s as good as it gets in the U.S. and, frankly, it’s still pretty pathetic. San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Madison hover somewhere in the 3 to 4 percent range. Anywhere besides those places and seeing a bicycle taking up a lane may be a little like seeing a UFO for drivers.

If you ask me, protected bike lanes are where it’s at for getting children and elderly people bicycling on city streets. Once there, much of the rest of the population might follow. And there are not nearly enough protected bike lanes in San Francisco.

photo 5That said, the protected bike lanes there are the best I’ve seen in the U.S. The medians installed to buffer cars and bike traffic in front of Twitter headquarters are even pretty. They have cactuses in them, and Heath Maddox, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s bikeshare program manager, told me the first time they planted the cacti, they were all stolen. Now they are anchor locked beneath the ground.

The Wiggle is another highlight of bicycling in San Francisco. It’s a mile’s worth of green street markings and signage that allows riders to get from Market Street up to the Panhandle Bikeway leading into Golden Gate Park without having to climb any of the city’s infamous hills. I didn’t see any similar guidance in other parts of the city, although more wiggles would be most welcome elsewhere, as well as in other hilly parts of other cities.

photo 4And perhaps most hopeful of all towards improving bike commute share is the nearly year-old Bay Area Bikeshare, which has 350 bikes and 35 stations in and around downtown San Francisco and 35 stations along the Caltrain corridor in other cities like Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose.

Introducing bikesharing to the city was a goal of former Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the SFMTA gave Maddox, a bicycle and pedestrian planner in the agency’s Livable Streets subdivision, the job of leading the effort. Taking some time out from our conference, several of us from Mobility Lab and partner organizations goDCgo, Arlington Transportation Partners, and Arlington County Commuter Services were lucky enough to get a personal tour of the city on BABS from Maddox.

Like Capital Bikeshare in D.C., the system is managed by Alta Bike Share and it is publicly funded, by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Maddox is currently waiting to tabulate some of the first ridership survey data, but until then, we know that in San Francisco there are already about 3,000 members, and each of the 350 bikes average about three trips per day.

Heath Maddox
Heath Maddox of Bay Area Bikeshare leads us on a tour of the city’s bikeshare system.
Maddox said there have not been that many complaints from riders, probably because there have been no major rebalancing issues. It’s relatively easy to keep the stations stocked since BABS is still confined to the areas north and south of Market Street and no further west than Van Ness Avenue.

Maddox said, “Mainly we just get questions about when we’re going to expand the system. We’ve reassessed that we can do things less densely. We can still do a little infill of adding stations in neighborhoods where stations already exist, but we’re planning to introduce bikeshare to new places earlier than we had originally planned. We hope to go next into the Casto and the Mission districts.”

He added that he hopes BABS can expand to about 3,000 more bikes in the future, although that would depend upon getting a big sponsorship of some kind and about $25 million.

Concerns that he noted to work on include:
  • The overwhelming majority of bikeshare members are white, well-off males.
  • San Francisco’s “very well-developed bike-rental industry is really concerned that bikeshare will hurt their businesses and they’re hyper involved.” But he cited Capital Bikeshare’s data showing that companies located near stations see an increase in business because of traffic from bikeshare riders, so he hopes those concerns can be alleviated. (I rented a bike overnight for $36 from Blazing Saddles on Mason Street near Union Square and there certainly appeared to be no shortage of customers.)
  • Taxi drivers may be unhappy because about 50 percent of bikeshare trips appear to have been trips formerly taken by taxi. (So that leads me to think that the smart taxi drivers will mount bike racks on their vehicles.)

San Francisco is on the right course, promoting bicycling through protected lanes, The Wiggle, and Bay Area Bikeshare. These are all tools that will need to continue to be enhanced if the city has any realistic hopes of reaching its goal of 20 percent bike commuting by 2020, which was set in its 2009 Bicycle Plan and even harkens back somewhat to its 1973 “Transit First” policy, which noted that “travel by public transit, by bicycle, and on foot must be an attractive alternative to travel by private automobile.”