Thursday, July 19, 2018

Waterworld was not Raiders of the Lost Ark because ...

There's a thin line between success and failure in movies.

Take, for example, Kevin Costner's "epic" Waterworld, which I've somehow managed to miss until now. In fact, people have always told me I'm right to have missed it.

But really, there's very little difference between Waterworld and other classic action adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Costner is almost as cool as Harrison Ford, with the gills behind his ears, his webbed feet, and his ability to swim all the way to the bottom of the ocean to see lost cities, kind of like the Statue of Liberty's famous appearance in the original Planet of the Apes.

Where things get dicey is the moment his co-star, Jeanne Tripplehorn, says, "We're going to die here, aren't we?" after Dennis Hopper's gang of Smokers leaves them for dead on Costner's beloved burnt-to-a-crisp ship.

Of course they're not going to die there. Just moments before, Costner had shown Tripplehorn how he can breathe under water for inordinate amounts of time. And still before that he had shown her how he could take her all the way to the bottom of the deep sea with absolutely no problem at all.

Writing and plot-point slips like that keep Waterworld from becoming a classic. Or at the very least a cult classic. It's a damn compelling movie otherwise. The premise is hard to beat when it comes to sci fi: the Earth has been swallowed by the sea and this is what happens many years later for the surviving barbarians.

Even the second-to-last scene, when Costner hilariously (I literally burst out laughing) jumps out of a balloon to pluck the little girl out of the water before she is potentially killed by a bunch of evil knuckleheads on ATVs, couldn't have kept the wack-job film from becoming a classic.

It's no surprise that the two female leads, who suffer from the hands of an earlier time when it was normal for the likes of Costner and Hopper to bat them around like rag dolls again and again, never saw their careers take off like rockets after Waterworld.

Tripplehorn somehow managed to salvage a bit of a career with roles in TV's Big Love and as Jackie Kennedy in Grey Gardens (she does look like Jacqueline O). Tina Majorino as the little girl could have perhaps become a massive star if not for her involvement in Waterworld, with great dabbles of success in Napoleon Dynamite and also a bunch of TV shows, also including Big Love.

I frankly couldn't take my eyes off Waterworld. Like a ship going down. But it did take me three installments of watching over three consecutive nights. I would have hated to be in the movie theater watching it all in one stretch.

2.5 out of 5 stars (mediocre, which is pretty much panning it since it was supposed to be a slam dunk)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Drive-By Truckers bring Southern charm to Yankee territory

Hard to believe it had been nine years since I last saw the Drive-By Truckers, and even longer since I've seen co-leader Patterson Hood, who was out with walking pneumonia for that show.

Also hard to believe, as long as I've been coming to the Adirondacks, that I'd never seen a show at the Saratoga (N.Y.) Performing Arts Center, an outdoor amphitheater. Stanton, Jason, and I scored sweet seats about 15 rows back in the center, thanks to Rachel's grandmother's "patron" status at SPAC.

The sound was a little too muffled for my taste during the Truckers' set (it oddly sounded clearer when I wandered on the lawn out back). Of course, there is never any comparing to D.C.'s 9:30 Club, where I last saw the band and which always has immaculate sound.

The setlist leaned heavy on the American Band LP, which I ranked as the 36th best of 2016. They played "Ramon Casino," "Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn," "Surrender Under Protest," and "Kinky Hypocrite" from that release. All strong mid-tempo chuggers.

Some of the definite highlights were off the Truckers' classic albums, including the Skynyrd-y "Sink Hole" from 2003's Decoration Day, "Let There Be Rock" from 2002's Southern Rock Opera, and Hood's epic slow burners "A Ghost to Most" from 2008's Brighter Than Creations Dark and "Babies in Cages," which obviously couldn't have been more timely, as America currently licks its chops at taking great pride in ripping families apart from each other.

My favorite was "Marry Me," off Decoration Day, which may be their best best, most signature track. Bassist Matt Patton's (formerly of the excellent Dexateens) showcase Ramones' cover "The KKK Took My Baby Away" was my second favorite moment of the night.

Also, I liked openers The Marcus King Band, and headliners Tedeschi Trucks Band was entertaining too, as the place really became electric once the sun went down after the Truckers' set.

Drive-By Truckers: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Stephen King's latest novel captures the zeitgeist of our immigration times

Stephen King's novels often take place in Maine, and could often happen in just about any timeframe.

Some of that could be said for his latest, The Outsider. But it still ends up feeling very much of this time and place. "The outsider" feels like code language for the country's ongoing struggle with what we think immigration means. We as Americans seem to have a very hard time trusting people who aren't quite like us. And King displays how that lack of trust often extends even to the people we think we know intimately well.

Also, the setting is in Oklahoma and Texas (with a little good-old Midwestern Ohio thrown in), places where the immigration debate rages especially strong. Like the epic tale's early protagonist, Terry Maitland, I too studied English and coach baseball. Perhaps that helps me relate especially well.

Maitland is one of Cap City's most loved personalities. But several eyewitnesses catch him kidnapping a young boy who is later found partially eaten and sexually attacked. The townsfolk turn violently against Maitland and his family.

Meanwhile, a second story unfolds through the book's second half, when investigator Holly Gibney comes to town to assist in finding whether Maitland or an imposter who can shape shift into others' faces and bodies is the perpetrator. A group of investigators go on the search to a scary mine shaft in Marysville, Texas, and it's not too much of a spoiler to say some of them won't return.

The Outsider may be the shortest 560-page book I've ever read. That's because it's such a page-turner. Like with many of King's books, this one has so many levels of suspense going on all the time that it becomes painful to have to put down. This is one of several of his books that left me sad that it had to end.

On my list of favorite King books, I put this at #7, right behind Pet Cemetery and in front of Under the Dome.

4.8 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Stephen Malkmus helps Pavement's legacy continue to grow


No matter how many years go by since the demise of my third-favorite band of all time, Pavement's legend just keeps growing because leader Stephen Malkmus just keeps adding so much music to the catalog. (Much like how the combo of Velvet Undergound/Lou Reed maintains its place as my fifth-favorite ever.)

And that huge catalog translates to great shows every time I see Malkmus (like the last time in 2014 and, needless to say, the Pavement reunion show in 2010).

The latest, June 18 at Black Cat in D.C., was no different.

The show began with a great one-two punch of two of my favorite songs from the new album Sparkle Hard. "Cast Off" was the warm up for both the album and the show, followed by the hipster bike-lover showcase of "Bike Lane."

In fact, some of the strongest moments came courtesy of Sparkle Hard: "Solid Silk" is mesmerizingly beautiful. "Refute" is fun, corn-pone goodness (and includes Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, on the record).

Two songs off 2005's Face the Truth were definite highlights. "Malediction" is an under-rated happy ditty and "Freeze the Saints" (with just singing and no guitar from Malk), would make any greatest hits collection should there ever be one for his post-Pavement material.

2011's Mirror Traffic also made an appearance with the mellow "No One Is (As I Are Be)" and the soaring "Stick Figures in Love." (Strangely, there were no songs from 2014's Wigout at Jagbags.)

"Dark Wave," although far from the best song on 2003's Pig Lib, was the weirdo tune needed for the middle of the set. The new "Future Suite" kept the loopiness going. Then "Shiggy," also off Sparkle Hard, brought the screamo Pavement-like rock.

The weakest moments of the show were "Brethren" off the new album (the representative of what now seems to be a requirement for every Malkmus album, the one song that sounds like a Grateful Dead outtake) and the new, droning and ProTools-y "Rattler." And I've never been all that crazy about "Baltimore," from 2008's Real Emotional Trash, but it definitely fit well as the guitar-jam for the end of the main set.

The encore couldn't have been more perfect. The best song on the latest release, "Middle America," led into Pavement classics "Shady Lane" and "In the Mouth a Desert" ("when you treat it like an oil well"), at which point Pablo and I got so excited in the 12th row or so that we spilled beer everywhere.

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

How Uber and Lyft are scooting their way to global domination of transport

I got the last word in this solid roundup from the San Francisco Chronicle of the latest news on Uber and Lyft's plans heading into the future of transportation.
“Not many people in our country take bikes and scooters for utilitarian trips, for going to work, the grocery store, out at night even though it’s a low-cost healthy way to get around,” said Paul Mackie, director of research and communications at the Mobility Labs think tank. “It’s great that Uber and Lyft are putting money and publicity and building interest in these other great ways to travel. It lends credence to them as mobility companies, not just tech companies.”

Monday, June 18, 2018

The best way to do microtransit? Have transit agencies operate it

This article originally appeared at MobilityLab.org.

We’ve written skeptically about how genuine microtransit services and ride-hailing companies, like Uber and Lyft, are about truly enhancing transit ridership and accessibility.
When I asked four such entrepreneurs what percentage of rides their services provide are “first mile” or to transit, 150 people [in attendance at a recent mobility conference] could hear a pin drop in the silence.
When no good answers or data can be offered in response to such a question, it’s not a long shot to assume the worst. And the worst is? That those entities are actually trying to steal customers from core transit services, like buses and subways, that offer the top societal benefits.
Since microtransit companies talk so much about their services connecting people to transit, it’s puzzling that they so rarely mention specific “first mile, last mile” projects and their results. But with some digging, one can find examples of some good things companies and cities in the microtransit space are attempting.
The Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) just received $12 million from the Sacramento Transportation Authority to begin shuttling people this summer between residential and commercial places that are lacking transit options.
Rides on the shuttles only cost between $1.35 and $2.75 – price points considerably more affordable than taking an Uber or Lyft. And it’s already been working. Since February, ridership has been steadily increasing. (It doesn’t hurt that a commercial hub for riders is the Historic Folsom area, a bustling district billed as “the place where the West came and stayed.”)
The Folsom station is in the right hand side of the service area. Map by SacRT.
Sacramento is hoping people will not only use microtransit to reach the Fulsom business district, but also the nearby train station, which can serve as a major transit artery for the rest of the region.
The city is running their pilot with TransLoc, a North Carolina-based company that builds software to help transit agencies operate their own microtransit services. The company was acquired early this year by Ford Smart Mobility.
Aaron Berdanier, a data scientist who works on microtransit projects for TransLoc, said the project’s target audiences are “people who were not taking the train before because they didn’t have access, and other riders already going to the train station but didn’t have a way to get there.”
TransLoc’s CEO Doug Kaufman added, “SacRT’s success in deploying innovative, on-demand microtransit is a proof-point for the huge potential impact of microtransit across the nation, particularly for riders. We are incredibly excited [that] the success of their pilot resulted in a grant to fund its expansion.”
Berdanier said, “Goals for this pilot were to increase ridership, which they’ve done dramatically, and to plug into this area they didn’t have access for – Citrus Heights. The agency has been very innovative and forward thinking,” he said, noting that this was a great opportunity to enhance Sacramento’s Dial-A-Ride system.
TransLoc also focuses on connecting microtransit to transit hubs in the region between Raleigh and Durham, N.C. In an area with lots of big office parks – including the likes of IBM and Cisco – TransLoc helps GOTriangle make it easy for their riders to use their smartphones to jump on microtransit.
The regional transit center is the green dot in the central right portion of the map, and the agency-selected Microtransit stops are grey dots. Map by GOTriangele. 
Berdanier said 75 percent of those microtransit riders connect into the regional transit hub there (see the map) and then get on a microtransit vehicle to take that last mile to work.
This is another reason why it is so important for transit agencies to become key microtransit players. When transit agencies are the ones in charge of the routes (rather than willy-nilly routes that people could organically take or that even Waze or Google Maps could algorithmically take them), it’s more likely there will be better outcomes (such as fewer traffic jams, healthier travelers, and less air pollution).
It’s encouraging that Uber and Lyft are also beginning to understand the need for transit to be at the center of multimodality. Detroit and cities along the Brightline passenger railway in South Florida have partnered with Lyft to get people to transit stations. And Uber paid Metro in the D.C. region $100,000 to keep trains running later after a recent National Hockey League playoff game.
Photo of people boarding a DC Circulator bus by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Best magazine reads: Quincy Jones offers a true insider’s look at fame, gossip, and rock royalty

After hearing a lot about the GQ feature on Quincy Jones for a few months, I finally got around to reading it, and it’s worth it! Here are my favorite pop-culture insights offered by the no-holds-barred, 84-year-old record producer.

1. He wears a ring that old buddy Frank Sinatra wore on his finger for 40 years.

2. About Sinatra, many of whose records he helped arrange, he says, “He was bipolar, you know. He had no gray. He either loved you with all of his heart or else he'd roll over your ass in a Mack truck in reverse. He was tough, man. I saw all of it. You know, I'd see him try to fight—he couldn't fight worth a shit. He'd get drunk, and Jilly, his right-hand guy, stone gangster, would get behind him and break the guy's ribs.“


3. “Frank was always trying to hook me up with Marilyn Monroe, but Marilyn Monroe had a chest that looked like pears, man."


4. He says Taylor Swift can’t write songs.


5. He says Truman Capote was a racist, even if he later profusely apologized to Jones about what sounded like some racist preconceptions.


6. About Ray Charles, he says he “went 30 years with heroin, and then the police told him he couldn't get his license to play clubs unless he stops. And he did, and then he started on black coffee and Dutch Bols gin for 25 years. Ray, all of his veins were dried up and black, 
and he's shooting himself in the testicles.”

7. He talks about a night Michael Jackson and Prince both made short cameos at a James Brown concert and Jackson blew The Purple One out of the water.


8. He hung out with Joseph Goebbels’ girlfriend and she told him all about how Hitler and most fo the Nazis were huge cokeheads.


9. He was with Jay Sebring a few hours before he was murdered at Sharon Tate’s house by Charles Manson’s gang, and Jones was even supposed to have been there but forgot to go.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Hamilton is inspiring in many ways, including rereading about the Revolutionary War



After seeing Hamilton on Broadway, the inevitable next step is to dig back into Revolutionary War literature. I figure one place to start and not go wrong is with acclaimed author David McCullough. 

His book 1776 opens with, in 1775, despite much opposition in the press and throughout the country to the troubling war in America, King George III addressing a whopping 60,000 people in London’s St. James Park. Can you imagine that many people gathering back then?

Having seen the crazed wickedness of George on hilarious display in the musical, some of the small personal details at the start of 1776 are well worth lapping up, such as his “whitest hands ever seen” with a large red ring on them and the four-ton exceedingly elaborate carriage he had made to carry him around London. Many found the King a bit dull and, unlike in the play, he refused to wear a huge white wig, the fashion of the time.

George was steadfast throughout his life, even in his later “mad” life, that America must obey England, even though he had never been a soldier or to America, or the Scotland and Ireland which he often praised.

The play, by the way, is every bit as astounding as everyone says. It was also fun sitting in the 10th row center with the likes of Jerry from Parks and Recreation and film and TV star Alfre Woodard of St. Elsewhere and 12 Years a Slave.











Sunday, April 22, 2018

Escape Campervan-ing, an Arizona safari, and ending Spring Break in Phoenix

I never wrapped up the blog series on our recent family Spring Break #vanlife trek out west. Having already recounted our time in Vegas, Zion, Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, and several other places in between, we headed to Rachel’s grandmother’s house in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix.

But first we spent an afternoon north of the city at Out of Africa, a well-done safari in the desert. My favorite animal was the grizzly bear, which we were able to get within an arm’s length and is a majestic and downright pleasant-looking creature. One of several tigers also stretched up into a massive form along a gate next to our walkway. And a baby tiger jumped out from its hiding spot at one point to nearly surprise Zoey and I out of our shoes. But perhaps best of all was when Jackson fed a giraffe right out of his mouth, including a smooch on the lips that incorporated his very long tongue.











I highly recommend a visit to this American/African safari. 

And I should also mention the I-66 shop we visited in Williams, Arizona, if only because of all its pop-culture lunch boxes (and signs).





Finally, anyone who rents an Escape Campervan, which are now available in many cities throughout the country, won’t regret it. The customer service was incredible, the price was maybe even less than renting a typical minivan without a kitchen or pop-up bed, and we were able to pick up lots of groceries and other necessities like a cooler and firestarter wood in our pick-up location where others returning from their trips left the materials in a community-share area. And it was fun to count the other Escapes along the way. Jackson’s final tally was 27, and we talked to many of their occupants about our similar travel experiences.








Sunday, April 15, 2018

It the movie(s) simply can’t compare to the classic book



As readers of this blog know, I’m a huge Stephen King fan. I keep wanting to deny that as I get older and supposedly more mature, but King just keeps being every bit as awesome as ever.

2017’s It has been high on my list of movies to see for many months, but it ends up being a letdown. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it moves slowly in parts, doesn’t develop enough of the kids’ characters, and suffers from perhaps too many shocks and scares.

That said, it is indeed scary, but it would be scarier if it were less scary all the time.

Granted, pulling off a re-creation of one of the great horror books is not an easy task. It’s a long and detailed book. But with a slew of it neglected, the movie should have just gone ahead and been considerably shorter.

The 1999 TV miniseries suffered from different elements. It was long enough to capture better characterizations, but it was far less scary and fairly cheesy.

I’ll still look forward to the supposed sequel being planned for when the kids are adults and It comes back to the town of Derry, Maine on its usual schedule. But probably the best use of my time would be to simply read the book again.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Can we make Grand Canyon visits mandatory for all humans?

The experiment, which we had no idea how it would unfold, turned out to be a success.

Nobody tried to kill each other on our week-long Spring Break Escape Campervan trek across Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

Sure, there were some times like this.



But it was mostly like this.



Our kids weren’t just troopers. They were flat-out buddies. And the van was beneficial because they were much further away from the parents than in our regular car rides.

After an already full Wednesday of hiking, we arrived at the Grand Canyon in early afternoon to explore about a 30-mike stretch along the South Rim.







Although our kids are too little to do major hikes down to the bottom, we did get down a switchback trail a good little ways.





And the day was absolutely stunning weather-wise, turning the sunset into our Grand Canyon highlight. We watched it on a point with far fewer tourists than the other spots we had visited throughout the afternoon.







It’s tough to believe it took me this long to get to one of the Earth’s true wonders, right here in our own country. It should definitely be a requirement that anyone from the U.S. visit the Grand Canyon. All the pictures and postcards capture it well, but they still can’t compare to staring out across that vast space.

We decided not camp for the night and stayed in a hotel about an hour away in Williams, Arizona, which is the starting point for the Grand Canyon train. Promotional materials says it helps keep “about 50,000 cars out of the park every year.” Sounds like a good thing, although as a car-trip expert, that seems like an extremely conservative estimate of how many cars the train actually keeps out of the park. I’d like to know how they make that estimate.

Anyway, after Williams, our trip will conclude further south in Phoenix.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Northern Arizona presents stunning camping and hiking

We arrived early at our next destination, the Wahweap Campground overlooking beautiful Lake Powell (https://www.lakepowell.com/rv-camping/wahweap-rv-campground/) with time to play a little baseball before sunset and a campfire under the stars.





This was great because it’s started a string of daily father-son baseball catch and whiffleball, which are some of the very best ways to bond with a 10-year-old.

Wednesday morning we headed out to get a good look at the nearby Glen Canyon Dam, made famous by author Edward Abbey’s classic Monkey Wrench Gang novel that helped form the anarchist environmental movement decades ago.








We stopped just south of the dam and Page, Arizona for a quick 1.5-mike round trip hike off the highway to Horseshoe Bend, which is stunning but packed with tourists, so we didn’t stick around long. It’s also super scary to be standing at the edge of the steep drop off.








Next up, we hightailed it down to the Grand Canyon to spend most of Wednesday taking it all in.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Navajo and other hiking adventures on the path to Lake Powell

We saw mostly deer and squirrels in Zion National Park in Southern Utah. But a little while after leaving, we spotted a big-horn sheep grazing alongside the road. Despite it lurching a little at a girl who got too close, Jackson really wanted to inch near it. We exercised caution. 







That night (Monday) we spent In Kenab, Utah, taking a break from camping with a night in a hotel. In retrospect, we should have camped because the camper van was every bit as comfy as any hotel. But it was fun walking around the town, billed as the “Hollywood of Utah,” and home to several movie stars, including one of my favorites, Eva Marie Saint, famous for On the Waterfront and Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.



The next morning, it was back on the road towards our upcoming adventures in Arizona and our next campsite, at famed Lake Powell.

But first, to break up the drive, we stopped right alongside the highway for a hike through the Star Wars-like dunes and hills of the Toadstools in Grand Staircase-Escalante, which the Trump administration wants to very mistakenly open to oil drilling. If anyone wants to spoil this landscape, the least they could do is think about solar, which seems perfect for the area. Jackson and I had a blast hiding in the hills and scaring Rachel and Zoey along the walk.







Then it was off to our next hike, another true highlight of the vacation, at Antelope Canyon in Navajo territory. This is one place where pictures can actually capture some of its beauty, and it was highlighted several years ago on the cover of National Geographic as proof.











After ascending back up to ground level, we were ready to continue on our way.