HARDBARNED! The Blog

A post-Punk READiscovery of Led Zeppelin

I was born in 1976, when Led Zeppelin remained at the zenith of their world-dominating, continent-stomping, colossal stadium- and too-tight-jeans-filling powers. When I still listened to commercial radio, I’d nod to their hits on the local classic rock station on my Walkman while delivering local newspapers from my BMX bike, but I didn’t own any Zeppelin recordings until 1992, when at age 15, more than a decade after the band’s abrupt demise, I acquired the newly released three-disc Remasters CD collection of 26 songs and some interviews.

I plugged my blocky Sony single-disc CD player, a recent acquisition and newfangled technical wonder, into the back of the little Magnavox bookshelf stereo system on my dresser, which consisted of dual tape decks, a tuner and a record player in one compact unit with two separate little speakers. Between epic high-school spins of Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Metallica, Tool, Queensryche, Joe Satriani, Iron Maiden and many others, I wore out Remasters, but I didn’t own another Led Zeppelin recording for the next 25 years.

Remasters was essentially an abbreviated, greatest hits-style collection that sought to distill the mighty Zep’s official studio output—seven LPs, one double album and one posthumous collection of odds and ends—into two CDs mostly comprised of familiar hits or at least tunes with some established radio presence. Though Remasters arrived on the cusp of my adolescence, I somehow forever associated the band with the music of my childhood (John McCutcheon, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, John Denver & The Muppets’ A Christmas Together LP, the Top Gun soundtrack, etc.).

Instead of seeing Remasters as a roadmap for discovery, as I now know I should have, for me it was somehow finite, a summary of the band, complete and already on my shelf. This was no Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings of The Police, which I’d acquire the next year. Would that it were. My Zep box was more of a side note, leaving out plenty of music—more than 60 songs, in fact—not to mention B-sides, alternate takes and extras that other sets, like the Police's, included.

In 1992, I saw Alice in Chains and Sepultura open for Ozzy. I saw Van Hagar expound on their Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I somehow sat through an entire theatrical performance of an infernal musical about singing Cats, and yet, the newfound vigor I had for juggling wide-ranging, zigzagging, overlapping teenage interests in metal and grunge, alternative and indie-rock didn’t extend to what I perhaps considered old-folks’ music. I didn’t care for the Beatles and barely noticed the Stones, and even though I liked Remasters a lot, I think maybe I grouped Led Zeppelin in with these bands of seemingly irrelevant old guys without consciously realizing it or thinking about it much.

Thus I failed to fully explore the extensive landmarks laid down by these American-blues-devouring-and-reconstituting arbiters of English rock, the massively influential, ridiculously popular forefathers of so many other bands I was avidly absorbing, blissfully unaware of the templates Zeppelin had established between 1969 and 1980 and the palpable impact they had and continued to have, in some cases drawing a direct line into the consciousness of so many of the bands that were captivating me at the time...and then there was punk.

Raging against everything that the mighty Zep had unabashedly celebrated, it wasn’t long before the “post-punk” second wave of this nihilistic subgenre held me in its thrall, and I was completely absorbed by Fugazi, Jawbreaker, Quicksand, Archers of Loaf, Face to Face, Rancid and Green Day, among many others. I loved the angry, whiny pop-punk band Screeching Weasel and even planned on painting its mascot—a Ramones-style leather jacket-wearing cartoon weasel—onto the hood of my ’71 Chevy Impala, before selling it in a rush to acquire my first beloved Volvo wagon and run away to the beach with a girl I met at a restaurant. Ben Weasel hated Led Zeppelin and said so, so maybe he got to me. Was it possible to love Led Zeppelin AND Screeching Weasel? To be moved by Jawbreaker AND Rage Against The Machine? To get down with Archers of Loaf AND Young MC? To dig Megadeth AND Fugazi? To rock Slayer AND Enya AND Smashing Pumpkins AND John Denver? Not so much, usually, but I did. Select (and divide accordingly) were the rules of the cool.

My 15-year-old brain wrestled with these scene-centric absolutes, often instructed militantly by culture police disguised as underground authorities like Mr. Weasel and Tim Yohannon of the punk zine Maximum RocknRoll, which I had begun to devour regularly. Steve Albini, an artist I admired who played in underground punk bands, recorded them extensively and wrote about them for Yohannon (before he recorded The Pixies and Nirvana) would often rant with powerful missives on all that was wrong or right with certain bands or records or labels or venues or scenes or clothes or haircuts or anything else he was angry enough to vent about. His essay The Problem with Music, a 1991 MRR piece on all that was wrong with the mainstream music business and how it was killing the independent underground scene that I was growing to love and aspiring to join, made a strong impression on me.

All these dudes—and yes they were nearly all opinionated white men, unfortunately—insisted vehemently on uncompromising rules for punk and not-punk. Founded on a liberal, artistic, authority-rejecting open-mindedness and rage at injustice that descended into posturing, pale imitation and exclusivity a few years later, punk scenes everywhere would devour themselves. Though some still manage to thrive, the extensive network of these cooperative, enabling underground communities has diminished considerably since the late 90s. Reflecting artfully on this tendency, but from a more personal angle, in 2010 Against Me! recorded a great song called “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” about the idealism of the young punk being eclipsed by the constrictive rules the anti-authoritarian system would impose on itself, summarizing its insular, masochistic, isolationist tendencies pretty effectively.

Flash back to 1992: I was 15, courting a new aesthetic that saw popular and cool as polar opposites, if not arch-enemies. There were a lot of rules to keep up with, and who didn’t want to be cool? For whatever reason, Led Zeppelin didn't seem cool enough to spend too much time uncovering. Music had taken on a new urgency for me and crossed over into the shaping of new values, awareness of social issues and broadening worldviews. I was learning that rock music could be much more than diversionary showmanship and navel-gazing performance, and it was leading me away from the indulgent, seemingly vacuous, heady glamour of which Led Zeppelin, despite their undeniable musical artistry, seemed emblematic.

It would take a few years for me to discard the detritus of this narrow, inexperienced and childish worldview, rejecting the entire concept of guilty pleasures and scenes and rules and simply enjoying whatever music I liked, no matter how wide-ranging, uncool or scene-traversing, without worrying whatsoever about what someone else might think about the cool, or the lack thereof, as applied to my choices of musical enjoyment. Different tunes for different moods, all of it valid. This is not to say I don't still love pretty much all the records I loved when I was 15 years old.

To true believers, Led Zeppelin was in a category entirely of its own creation, a genre-bending mashup of rock, blues, folk, jam, metal (a not-yet realized genre they would often be credited with launching) and more. Of course this originalism is ripe for debate. Never critical darlings, Zep was often accused of shamelessly ripping off American and English artists alike, co-opting melodies, lyrics or entire songs from their forebears and at some times even from their contemporaries. Genius or con-men? Perhaps a bit of each. Both viewpoints have considerable merit, but as I amassed a growing music collection, I skipped Led Zeppelin. I still felt transported by them, even when my powers of judgmental, self-censoring musical rejection remained formidable and Zep was considered by many of my influencers to be hopelessly uncool, if not the enemy of rock itself.

So, a quarter-century went by. Fast forward from 1992 to 2017. A dear friend I’ve known since the time I bought Remasters gave me an unexpected gift—a thick doorstop of a book on Led Zeppelin, by a guy named Mick Wall who has also written about Prince, Lemmy, Pink Floyd, Jim Morrison and others. Over dinner with my wife and me, my friend spoke enthusiastically about how I simply had to read this thing…and what about Jimmy Page and his obsession with legendary eccentric Aleister Crowley, black magic and the occult? He asked. Yes, what about that, I wondered. So I read it.

In his 500-page-plus 2008 opus on the band, When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, Wall asks us to take his word for it, and quite a lot, interspersing his narrative with stream-of-consciousness rants presented in the assumed voices of his principal characters: the four members of Led Zeppelin and their larger-than-life manager, a technique that at least initially seems presumptuous and uncalled for. And yet, Wall’s bonafides are well-established, his actual facetime with the principal fellows spanning a quarter-century or more, his interviews in concentric circles outside the band both thorough and extensive.

Wall’s utterly massive bibliography for Giants, though it encompasses a wide swath of what had already been written about the band and their legendary adventures, further reinforces his qualifications for the job, but daring to speak in another living (or dead) person’s voice just seems like a bad idea. While I was grateful for the italics and admit that if anyone should feel qualified to speak for these guys, it’s Wall, but man, it’s weird. He breaks up the narrative with abrupt intrusions that imagine the principals’ most private thoughts, dreams, regrets and perceived slights. It’s an effective, if creepy and disruptive strategy, helping us get to know the players in the 12-year-plus drama that was Led Zeppelin albeit while interrupting the narrative constantly.

So much of the sensational stuff that many seem to find the most fascinating topics to read (or write) about the band, including the madness and the misogyny; the epic appetites; the violence and the vehemence; Jimmy Page’s innocent or diabolically evil (skeptical eyebrow raised comically) dabbling in the dark arts; the Tolkien-steeped Middle-Earth lyrics of Robert Plant; the wildly speculative, often ridiculous and usually unconfirmed tales of reliance on mysticism, magic, supposed Satanism and even purported deals with the capital-D Devil that continue to make up the mythic, counter-cultural backstory of this loved, hated and in any case indisputably seminal band…were all significantly less interesting to me than the story of how they happened into existence as a unit of singular power, and how their uniquely powerful, at times seemingly transcendent music was created and performed.

Aside from these regular, italicized (one might say speculative) asides, Wall’s book is nonfiction told in third-person, complicated by the often disorienting (for the reader) English habit of neither indenting dialog nor using double quotation marks to isolate it. There are plenty of clichéd Behind The Music-style stars-falling-from-grace tropes, detailing the requisite misadventures with copious amounts of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll debauchery throughout the swinging 70s, but there’s more to it than that, and Wall lacks anything but thoroughness.

Bookended by a few pre- and post-Zep years on either end and punctuated by accounts of the repeated, rumored, squashed and occasionally actualized, partial-reunion performances, Wall catalogs plenty of the drama in-between, without lingering on all the sordid details for long. Though plenty had been written about the excesses surrounding the band and its followers, and despite touching on requisite hotel highlights (sex with fish, motorcycles in hallways, televisions tossed out windows, buckets of booze and drugs) and backstage brawls (broken bones, threats, guns, cops, lawsuits), it’s clear that Wall is more interested in the men who made the music—who they were, what they felt and how it all happened. It’s a story he is qualified to tell, and he tells it well.

My friend’s copious enthusiasm and Wall’s book left my interest piqued. I wondered what else about Led Zeppelin I had missed, as more than half my life had gone by in the interim between first listening to Remasters and reading Giants. It seemed I had unfinished business here. It felt strange to be as familiar with the band as any average, lifelong fan of rock music and yet still realize that I’d barely scratched the surface.

After Wall’s book, I read two more books on the band (Led Zeppelin: Heaven & Hell, by Charles Cross and Erik Flannigan, and Hammer of The Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, by Stephen Davis—a better-known book that often came up in Wall’s account). The three books cover a lot of similar territory. Cross and Flannigan’s was a re-read of an impulse buy for book-report material from decades past that relies more heavily on a collection of photos than a memorable or cohesive narrative. Hammer of the Gods is probably the best-known band biography, and though there is some significant overlap that Wall clearly drew from, the two books work well as companion pieces for those interested in the details of the story of Zep. Plenty of memorable reading exists in these two books, and few of us will require more, and that includes me, but for those who do, I recommend starting with Wall’s bibliography at the end of Giants.

A light that burns particularly bright throughout Davis' and Wall's books is the all-consuming fire created wherever Led Zep’s formidable manager, one Peter Grant, decided to tread. An ex-wrestler of imposing stature, Grant was already well-known prior to Zep for his intimidation of promoters, record company executives, freelance artists, rival bands, hangers-on, other bands, road crews and managers alike.

Instrumental in eliciting an unprecedented $200,000 fee from Atlantic for Led Zeppelin to sign on (with a dominant global distributor that had at that time never signed a single rock band or—unbelievably—even listened to this one), Grant’s powers of persuasion were legendary. They extended to demands Atlantic met for Zeppelin’s complete artistic control over their own music, artwork, touring preferences and even the creation of Swan Song, Zep’s short-lived personal label-within-a-label that Atlantic also distributed before Swan Song unceremoniously caved, three years after Zeppelin’s demise.

Grant’s Yardbirds-era friendship with a young Jimmy Page evolved into a powerful alliance, which developed into unparalleled domination of the band’s every potential adversary coupled with an unyielding and at times even vicious defense of his artists and their mutual interests, the results of which included the occasional drunken beatings of those who got in his (or Led Zep’s) way and the cavalcade of resulting lawsuits.

A force of nature in his own right, Grant was key to implementing Zeppelin’s groundbreaking, album-focused release approach, managing to buck the late-60s standard of releasing single after single and hoping for airplay, insisting that Zep was not about hit singles and was best experienced live or via one full album at a time. This orientation served the band well, as they raked in sales on both fronts, playing to record-breaking crowds and cranking out platinum albums again and again.

The stuff of legend, perhaps more so than that of the truth, are Led Zeppelin’s tours. Particularly if one is to believe significant portions of the Davis book, and specifically considering the three lone American tours, these adventures raked in the debauchery along with the cash, but tours were less frequent than one might assume, which perhaps contributed to their legend.

With their collective legacies fully secured, individual track records and solo careers built before and since the fall of the mighty Zep notwithstanding, Led Zeppelin’s legacy remains firmly secured, but of course there is a dark side. This dark side (due to Satan, Crowley, black magic, karma or perhaps just a little bad luck, a lot of bad behavior and life itself) tried to fell the band many times before it finally succeeded.

No strangers to tragedy, the band suffered at least two significant losses that nearly ended the band in its final half-decade, which nonetheless successfully derailed, delayed, distracted and depressed everyone involved, before Led Zeppelin finally fell apart for good.

Six months after the February 1975 release of the double album Physical Graffiti, Robert Plant’s leg-breaking car crash in Greece nearly killed his wife and doomed him to a long period of recovery, resulting in 1976’s Presence being recorded from a wheelchair. After a lengthy, painful rehabilitation, two years later while on tour in America, Plant’s five-year-old son Karac died suddenly from an infection, devastating his father and stopping virtually all band activity for nearly two years; and yet the mighty Zep rose again, managing one more studio LP (In Through the Out Door, 1979) before John Bonham’s sudden, stunning death (after drinking a staggering amount of alcohol and drowning in his own vomit overnight) slammed the brakes on the Zep train for good in 1980.

There have been sporadic post-breakup shows over the four decades since Led Zep disbanded. A Live Aid benefit here, a studio-head tribute there, among a few others. Page and Plant have reunited even more often, at times without inviting Mr. Jones, sometimes even recording or touring, but never under the storied banner of Led Zeppelin. While neither tours nor official Led Zeppelin music ever followed these “reunions,” the term itself is problematic.

For Led Zeppelin, how can a reunion be a reunion when it requires a replacement? When a member is absent? Even when his own son fills in? Four men made indelible magic together, and without all four present, it could never be rekindled. John Bonham was an essential, defining component of what made Led Zeppelin unique, and even with his capable son Jason behind the kit, Led Zep’s…uh…song could never...uh remain the same. At least these observations are all attributed to Robert Plant, in his oft-quoted positions on all things reunion-related.

Other than reading and listening, there are other, if decidedly inferior, ways to look back. There are concert films, but they never quite turned out as the band or Mr. Grant had planned, and most agree that they don’t come close to capturing the magic of Zep at its best, but I’ve never been a big fan of watching bands on TV, or of listening to live recordings anyway. If you were able to be there in person, then good for you, but if I’m not able to be there, I'll always prefer any band's official studio albums.

With nine readily available studio LPs (one posthumous, one a double), four official live recordings, nine compilations, 15 singles and four films, not to mention an enormous collection of bootlegged live recordings, (350 of which, official or not, are available on eBay at the time of this writing), Led Zep lives on with plenty of evidence, including 10 tunes that charted on Billboard’s enduring hit lists, a 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Kennedy Center honors from President Obama.

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For my money, if you want to experience Led Zeppelin, and you don’t have a time machine, it’s tough to beat an afternoon spent listening to their complete collection of studio recordings on the best audio system you can find, hearing the songs as they were intended to be released, as the band wanted them to sound, in full-length, long-play album order as they were meant to be heard. After 25 years, that’s what I finally did. I don't know what took me so long.

Turn Off the Switch (or, Saving Nintendo in Two Easy Steps)

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While I have some thoughts to share about Nintendo, I must open with a disclaimer. I can only assume that as a 40-year-old American male, I am no longer a part of this company’s target demographic. While this may or may not be true, I think Nintendo could easily reclaim a vast swath of occasional gamers like me, if only they’d reconsider a potentially disastrous mistake with another complex new console and instead take a couple direct steps toward simplicity and accessibility. First, a little background.

The paradigm-shifting powerhouse that was the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (1985) is the only Nintendo I’ve ever loved for any significant amount of time. The NES was a quantum leap in terms of colors, graphics, sound, game design and play control, leagues beyond existing home systems available at the time, which consisted mostly of comparatively primitive consoles by Atari, Coleco, Magnavox and a few other also-rans lost to the ages. Still, games released for the NES were all over the map, offering a plethora of choices between a great many stinkers amid plenty of excellent titles and more than a few classics.

After the Sega Genesis arrived in 1989, doubling the NES’s processing and graphical power, I jumped ship. After a few years on team Sega, I took a long break from video games, not owning another console until the first Xbox debuted in 2001. I wrote a more in-depth post about the history of my console-hopping adventures in gaming, culminating in a rant about Microsoft’s many disappointing Xbox One launch decisions before many of them were walked back, here. I then weighed in on the Xbox One versus PlayStation 4 debate before finally hopping aboard team Xbone, which I explained here…but, as we find ourselves on the eve of the March 2017 launch of a new console/handheld system dubbed the Switch, this post is all about Nintendo.

Why, one might ask, did I (with a few exceptions for momentary dabbling) skip every Nintendo console to follow the NES, including the SNES, the N-64, four handheld Gameboy models, the Gamecube, four handheld DS models, the Wii and the Wii U? Let me count the ways. After the Genesis not only doubled the speed and power of the NES, demonstrating Sega’s capacity for creating more intense and immersive, less cartoony, more graphically enhanced, less casual/child-oriented gaming experiences aimed at older audiences, Nintendo never caught up. From that point on, despite the average gamer’s age hovering in the mid-to-late 30s, Nintendo catered to kids and watched from the sidelines in Cartoonland as games on other more powerful consoles became something else entirely. Consistently in second place in the console wars (behind either Sega or Sony) from that point until 2001, when they slipped into third (behind Microsoft and Sony, as Sega gave up the hardware game), Nintendo has made periodic, failing efforts to catch up, but reclaiming its historic dominance has proved elusive.

The Wii U (2012), Nintendo’s last gasp at re-attracting “core” gamers—those more interested in FPS, RPG, and now MMO and even FPSMMORPG games—like Destiny—perfectly illustrated why Nintendo won’t catch up. It doesn’t seem to really want to. Nintendo’s most recent console effort, the Wii U started as an underdog and finished as one too, outsold by its predecessor, the Wii (2006), by more than a factor of eight. Even the original NES sold more than four times as many consoles as the Wii U, nearly three decades before. The Wii U’s killer-app was…wait for it…oh yeah, there wasn’t one.

Far too late to the HD party, the Wii U was the first high-definition-capable Nintendo, with neither the requisite must-have launch titles nor the third-party support to bring AAA-titles along later in the pipeline. Its awkward handheld/console crossover status and resulting gimmicks, like a secondary mini-screen mounted into the face of another awkwardly designed, oversized controller, sacrificed user experience for a misguided perception of versatility. The Wii U also suffered from long droughts without new games, gaps that were elongated indefinitely as overall sales slumped.

The Wii U released the fewest games of any Nintendo system to date, and by any top-shelf console metric, it failed. It’s not as though Nintendo didn’t know about its own distinct market challenges with attracting a larger audience, but how could it ignore them? Nintendo will always have a niche, but was the Wii U simply a victim of Nintendo’s “can’t fail” hubris—the presumption, perhaps legitimate—that there will always be a significant, competitive market for Nintendo, no matter what it releases? This assertion becomes more dubious with every console iteration. It’s clear that a change is in order, Nintendo. So now what? A Switch, anyone? A side of Déjà vu, anyone else?

Is the Switch a handheld? Is it a console? Does it have a Wiimote? Yes, Yes and Yes…I guess. Perhaps one of the ugliest consoles I’ve ever seen, Nintendo’s new Switch is trying to be everything for everyone—and all at once. Like one of those family dining restaurants that serves unlimited quantities of everything you can think of, from sushi to spaghetti, thus failing to satisfy anyone who loves great sushi or even above-average pasta while making a significant audience in the middle pretty damn happy with unlimited mediocrity.

Really? No thanks. More of everything rarely equals better anything. Here’s to the fringe. I celebrate tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that make a couple things and knock them out of the park rather than serving 200 serviceable options. It sure looks like Nintendo’s Switch is heading down the same pre-launch path that doomed the Wii U to lackluster sales and a fading footnote in the once-great company’s spotty console history, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

So, what’s actually going on with this Switch machine? Let’s see. There’s a big gray box that looks like a lap drawer removed from an old accounting desk, albeit child-sized. There’s yet another oversized, clunky, chunky, square controller. This one is shaped like a card table with handles that come apart into three incongruent pieces—ergonomics be damned. The central section can be replaced with a screen approximately the size of one long side of a shoebox, creating what looks like a gigantic, bulky smartphone, accommodating the two narrow slivers from the square controller on either side of the mobile screen. One can also use one of these slivers to control action on the screen (or another screen) remotely and separately…I think. Is it a console or a mobile device? Yes! Is it a transformer? Apparently! But WHY? I think it’s that be-everything-for-everybody-all-at-once thing again.

I’m just looking at all the happy families in the photos on the launch site who have brought their new Nintendo Switch (and its many separate pieces)…outside…to the park…to play video games…together. Because that’s what families do, right? Right? The tagline is “Freedom to have fun. Wherever. Whenever.” Whatever. Most of us already have this freedom in our pockets. It’s called a smart phone. It plays games. And more! We only have so many pockets, Nintendo. More on this in a few paragraphs.

Ah yes, games. Aside from Super Mario Odyssey, which looks great but isn’t available until the end of the year, and Zelda: Breath of the Wild (pretty much the only launch title that looks promising, in a retro Shadow of the Colossus sort of way), what else is there to look forward to? Another Street Fighter (with no release date)? Minecraft? Rayman? More simplistic platformer, puzzler or sports games, revamps, reboots and head-scratchers like Just Dance, Snipperclips and Farming Simulator? Maybe you’re looking forward to a collection of mini games called 1-2-Switch, a “face-to-face party like no other,” wherein you and a local partner can pretend to face off like old-west sharpshooters, pretend to play table tennis, or better yet, pretend to milk cows, competitively! Mmm-hmm. You can do better than this, Nintendo. Are you listening? 

OK, so Nintendo’s current situation is not limited to the Switch. What’s the deal with this 2016-holiday-released NES Classic Edition console, the company’s nod to nostalgia? Aside from the uproar over limited availability and the resulting price-gouging, reviewers are largely taken with this throwback console that looks just like the one we grew up with but fits in the palm of your hand and plays 30 games that Nintendo picked out for us, without letting us use our old cartridges and without mentioning whether (or how) more games will ever be available for it. I’ve read several reviews that glossed over or didn’t even mention these indisputable buzzkills. It all feels really half-assed to me. Millions of us spent many an allowance on old NES cartridges back in the day, and I think we deserve a little better.

I mean, why release a retro console that doesn’t play retro cartridges? Why give us no game choice whatsoever? Why play coy about whether or not you’ll ever expand the game selection, as you overlook so many great games from the best era for original games that the company ever had? No Contra? No Mega-Man? No Rygar? No Tetris? Are you kidding me? At a time when it’s so easy to download free emulators and ROM versions of NES games to play your favorites (on whatever operating system you choose with the USB controller of your choice), why not make the whole thing easier for us, rather than limiting our options severely by giving us a single option with no alternatives, and selling us a miniature, faux console that accepts no cartridges and only plays 30 games that you selected for us, when we can easily go the emulator route, or even buy an original NES and find a ton of games at our local used media store, on eBay, or in a box in many of our closets, all while spending around the same amount of cash or even much less?

Getting back to the Switch, though: Without superior games, demonstrably forthcoming—both prior to and available at launch—as well as plenty of good stuff in the pipeline, what is the point here? Why replicate the failures of the Wii U? There’s a lot riding on a console brand’s ability to do the legwork ahead of time to make sure great games get made. I think Nintendo needs to overhaul whatever division is tasked with this foundation-building for new console releases because it didn’t work with the Wii U, and there’s little evidence that anything has changed.

Nintendo will not (and should not) divest itself from Mario and Link and the iconic characters that put it on the map, but it is clearly continuing to struggle with many of the same issues that have plagued it for decades. Like that hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in a very few things, why not just do one or two of them and do them very, very well? Nintendo is never going to be everything to everyone, so why keep trying over and over to make it so? Hardcore or intense or adult or extreme or whatever you want to call gamers who are simply uninterested in playing kiddie cartoon stuff—as often as your core audience or at all—are not going to flock to Nintendo in droves because Nintendo has never given them what they’re after. It doesn’t have to, because it offers unique software, but Nintendo should play to its strengths when it comes to hardware, too.

Why not trim the fat? What will it take for Nintendo to stop this all-in-one madness? Another failed console? Nintendo, please cancel the doomed Switch project while you still can. I know there are only a few days left before launch, but be bold and reverse course! It’ll cost you to backpedal, but if you come back with the right product, you could really knock this one out of the park and avoid another failed console effort.

At long last, here are two steps to help return you to your former glory. The keys to success are mobile and console, and each must be achieved effectively…but why not try them separately? Nobody wants to carry around another separate game system that dwarfs her smartphone. You can do this. Turn of the Switch, and start over. Here’s how:

First, go mobile like you mean it. I really have no idea why you still haven’t done this. Re-open your vast back catalog of original NES titles. Make them available for play on mobile platforms for iOS and Android devices. Sure, you might have to renegotiate licensing with Konami and Capcom and countless other top-tier and lesser-known developers, but unlocking the keys to your back-catalog for mobile would be a paradigm shifter.

You’re sitting on a gold mine here. Charge what you like, but try to keep things cheap, and other than enabling online play and touch-screen control, don’t change the games. You could even engineer a cool, retro controller case that mimics the original NES controller, one that snaps onto existing smartphones, more effectively recreating the experience of playing retro classics than interacting with a touch screen ever could. If you can engineer the Switch, you can build this.

We’d geek out over the chance to play R.C. Pro-Am competitively on our smartphones with multiple friends via mobile networks. Imagine how fun Contra could be with a buddy on the other side of the planet, while chatting with earbuds? Who wouldn’t play Mike Tyson’s PUNCH OUT! or Metroid or Zelda on a bus or a train during a daily commute—without having to buy a heavy, bulky, expensive and separate device from the one we all carry daily, already? If the success of the pockets-full-of-gadgets-killing-iPhone confirmed anything definitively a decade ago, it’s that people don’t want to carry around a bunch of extra crap. Heed this lesson. Kids will still like it.

If you make this stuff reliable, legal and affordable, people will buy it, despite the availability of free emulator software and game ROMs. It worked for iTunes. It can work for you, too. Look, millions of us would love to purchase and play Super Mario Brothers on our iPhones, but not an inferior, oversimplified version of a once-great mega-hit rife with paywalls like Super Mario Run.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Ask around. Try a few focus groups. I bet you’ll find that carrying around another device is not on people’s wish lists, and some gamers couldn’t care less about mobile games. No problem. Those who do will buy your old games on mobile. It’s just fine to have two separate audiences with separate revenue streams. You should try it.

Second, make a great console, but keep it simple. Design a new console, but focus on what makes Nintendo unique and iconic and little else, other than providing top-quality, ultra-high-definition audio and video, a user-friendly dashboard and a controller that is ergonomic and comfortable in two hands, for once. Your new console—let’s call it the Newtendo—doesn’t need to morph into a handheld or portable system, feature a built-in, miniature screen, require anyone to dance, employ magic-wand-like devices or anything else gimmicky. This means no zapper guns. No wiimotes. No big-brother camera-monitoring system. It doesn’t need a built-in sound system, removable parts, a jump-rope storage compartment, vacuum attachment or ice-cream maker. What it does need is online access to your back catalog of classic games for download and play on the all-new, simple-yet-powerful, streamlined-but-intuitive, superior Newtendo.

Be selective about third-party licensure. Several great games make an impact. Too many mediocre ones induce yawns, and for Nintendo, there's nothing wrong with an emphasis on the retro games. But here’s that catch, one last time: You must prioritize the tough legal and flesh-pressing work of enabling great new games before they exisit, meaning do the relationship and licensing legwork with key developers well ahead of time, so you have spectacular reveals before launch and so that we are supremely confident that more great titles are yet to come. After opening your back-catalog to mobile and releasing a simplified console, continue to make the best Mario and Zelda games ever made, as everyone knows that only Nintendo can, and millions of all ages will respond, including quite a few geezers like those of us in my outdated demographic.

CORIOLANUS (2011)

Let me have war, say I. It exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.

There is war, and there is peace, and eternally trapped between them is Rome’s Caius Martius, AKA Coriolanus, a man of action uniquely equipped for soldiering and the leadership required thereof, if perhaps little else. He is a man apart, as distant from his family as he feels removed from his colleagues or even from the men who serve under him. Dedicated to a singular purpose of warfare, with no shortage of pride in his steadfast efficiency and the surgical precision of its execution, he has patience for little more.

As a general marshaling his forces against an upstart rebellion, a fanatically dedicated Coriolanus leads his troops from the front line at the tip of the spear, his face dripping with his own blood and that of his enemies, his dedication to his cause and country absolute. Outgunned and outflanked and yet unyielding in the face of superior firing positions, dwindling numbers of still-ambulatory allies and exploding eardrums, Coriolanus inspires the remnants of his platoon with his own courage, if not threats of death by his own hand, lest they choose not to follow him into what appears to be certain death.

Returning from a successful rout of the rebels with plenty of injuries to show for it, Coriolanus has no patience for the bickering politicians and REMFs who delight in ceremonial titles and the politicization of his actions upon his seemingly miraculous victory. War is hell, and he sees the celebrating of even key victories for politics and related grandstanding as the height of depravity. He is unable to mask his distaste for this requirement of his role; being paraded in front of parliament and asked to recount his deeds as entertainment is more than he can bear.

Despite both the efforts of his experienced allies in military and government leadership roles to elicit oratory performance and his own considerable elocutionary gifts, which he even denies adroitly, Coriolanus delights neither in ceremony nor speechmaking. Indeed, he resents being forced into the role, spewing vitriol in his extreme distaste for the politicization of his heroic deeds.

The demands on our recovering hero do not end in the halls of elected officials, however. In Coriolanus’s eyes, everyone wants a piece of him, and there is no peace. He is spat on in the streets by protesting citizens who see him—from a perilously, irresponsibly uninformed position, as he sees it—as a warmonger intent on oppressive violence and perpetual discord, and yet his contempt for them, despite their apparent suffering for lack of food he is in part responsible for withholding, is undisguised. Still, Shakespeare is explicit in his indictment of mob justice and the fickle nature of its shifting allegiances, and Coriolanus appears resigned to his own virtuous obstinacy, despite the pain it causes him and everyone around him.

Coriolanus sees value in the domestic and familial realms, and yet he seems unable to fully embrace the role of husband or father or address any such concerns, as everything in his life ranks far beneath the unblemished, even fanatical execution of his professional duty.

He is rendered unable to drop his guard, invite intimacy or even begin to transition into such peacetime relationships, even with those who love him most. His mother doesn’t help, as she meddles in his every decision and attempts to anticipate and manage his thinking as well as his actions, subverting even the affections of his wife and son by demanding his attention and an oppressive, almost Oedipean intimacy at his every free moment. By her singular force of will alone, she propels him into an unlikely political candidacy that will set him on a precarious run along a precipice between twin roles of politicking and soldiering, while being used by and for the people and the politicians as a literal and figurative cudgel for both, all the while.

Shooting in Belgrade, a stand-in for a modern Rome, creates an effective backdrop that appears more generically European than authentically Roman, but it’s all about the words, the performances and the action. With handheld, verite-style cinematography, our gaze is never allowed to linger very long on the urban settings; location is rendered inconsequential, and this story could take place in Brooklyn or Nashville or anywhere with city streets, apartment buildings, a public meeting hall, a subterranean basement and a run-down industrial district.

Machine guns and other modern machines of war have replaced ancient Roman swords and shields throughout the contemporary battle scenes, but knives…oh, fear not, all ye fans of knife fights. Here be knives, the most intimate of weapons for dispatching the closest of enemies!

Producing, directing and starring as Coriolanus, a role he played on stage a decade before, Ralph Fiennes, easily one of the best actors working today, provides the emotional core of the film with a moving performance as that telegraphs emotions in rapid fire glances, twitches and gestures but not without all the words…ah, the glorious words. An excellent screenplay by the talented John Logan (Gladiator, Penny Dreadful) has done as masterful job of trimming the fat and getting out of the way of Shakespeare. Excellent supporting cast include Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox and James Nesbitt.

At the risk of infecting brains with more of my incessant conversation I will give thee my leave, as there is a world elsewhere, but if you are a fan of The Bard and appreciate modern adaptations, this one should be on your list.

MACBETH (2015)

So fair and foul a day I have not seen.

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2015) fully embodies both descriptors, recreating the foulest of deeds with the fairest of performers and photography. Period costuming and armaments appear accurate, era-specific and practical. Minimalist set design and art direction is perfect for nomadic, tribal characters who spend much of the film out of doors or in tents. Few exceptions including a literally haunting, ornate banquet scene and a couple epic battles, but here less is definitely more, as powerful performances are the focal point, though the details fail to disappoint.

The Scotch highlands are painted from a bleak palette, unforgiving yet beautiful, steeped in soft grays and muted blacks under a constant mist of rain, a wash of vivid blue here, a swath of darkening smoke there. As his rage and fear multiply unbounded, apocalyptic events spiral out of Macbeth’s control, and all-encompassing flames, layered as in a graphic novel comprised of collage come to life, as undulating waves of orange, yellow and red engulf the viewer.

This Macbeth has reason to feel fatigued. He’s lost an infant to sickness or reasons unknown. Constant warfare, far from home and in the service of his affectionate King Duncan (an underutilized David Thewlis), has taken its toll, and Macbeth’s world-weariness is apparent. Our story opens with Macbeth and his loyal brother-at-arms, Paddy Considine’s steadfast Banquo—all knowing glances throughout—on the verge of yet another battle. Sean Harris, having carved himself a niche for otherworldly creepiness (Harry Brown, Prometheus) is convincing as noble family man MacDuff. Save these seasoned warriors, we are struck by the pervasive youth of this hardscrabble army of mostly boys, and Macbeth suffers yet another affecting loss.

To varying degrees, as audience-members generally aware of this classic story from the canon of world literature, we’re accustomed to thinking of the titular character and his Lady Macbeth (a luminous Marion Cotillard) as the purest embodiment of murderous ambition itself. Though their love and devotion may be admirable and unique throughout Shakespeare, as Sir Kenneth Branagh, perhaps as well versed on the topic as anyone has argued, we have been conditioned to see these characters as foundational, cautionary figures who stop at nothing to advance their ambitions, surrendering to the seductive lure of power at all costs, signing on for the full ride because after the first horrible act of treason, what’s done is done.

And yet, Kurzel’s take on this classic Shakespearean tragedy approaches the titular character’s motivations slightly off-axis from traditional adaptations, seeing Macbeth as a victim of…wait for it…post-traumatic stress disorder Yes, it may sound like a stretch, but it works. Years of war have left him in a fragile, shell-shocked mental state, exhausted, susceptible to suggestion and persuasion, reeling, overcome by grief and hallucinating. Macbeth earns our sympathy, as much as a fictional murderer is able. In this era of the pervasive antihero, there is plenty of real humanity oozing from a committed Michael Fassbender. His love for his wife is palpable. His heartfelt protectiveness for one young soldier on the battlefield is tender, and his dedication to war in the service of his king is indisputable. His loyalty is real. His friendship is steadfast. Until neither is the case any longer.

Which is not to say that this soon-to-be-hollowed-out Macbeth is beyond reproach early on—that he lacks ambition, that he is not intrigued by the witches (four, this time) and their unprompted prophecy, that he does not feel jealous or wronged as he is usurped by a timid Malcolm (Jack Reynor) and disappointed as he receives what seems to him minor recognition and inferior title. Nor is he unwilling to dive over the precipice and commit the darkest of deeds required of him, this time with what feels like minimal prodding from Lady Macbeth, herself partially responsible and yet far from the unyielding criminal mastermind she has often been portrayed as. Still, she stifles his early attempts to reconsider this foul business with little protest. Their partnership in all things is absolute, their attraction animalistic.

Provoked by apparent supernatural foresight and vulnerable due to a mental state rendered fragile by relentless war and plagued by scorpions, he perceives King Duncan’s slight as greater than it probably is, and a heinous opportunity presents itself in his mind. Augmented and encouraged by his one true love (herself poisoned by loss), the messy business overtakes him swiftly. No spoiler for anyone who knows anything about this story: Macbeth becomes a murderer many times over, achieving his aspirations, but at what cost?

Loaded with sweeping clifftop vistas and intimate candle-lit collusions, Kurzel’s production benefits from striking cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, True Detective) and a mostly understated score by Jed Kurzel (The Babadook).

Anything but a tale told by an idiot, Kurzel’s Macbeth is a memorable adaptation, full of sound and fury, signifying plenty.

Revisiting American Graffiti

I picked this re-release poster because of its nifty class photos.

I picked this re-release poster because of its nifty class photos.

Weekend before last, I fell into a Charlie Rose-induced internet chasm. After watching him interview Kenneth Branagh on his 2014 MacBeth stage production and Maureen Dowd on her recent book on politics, I found myself revisiting Charlie’s 2015 interview with George Lucas.

I hate it when experienced and professional interviewers I admire fail to ask what seem to be the most obvious of tough questions. It drove me nuts a few months ago when Terry Gross interviewed Gloria Steinem again but failed to even mention her comment earlier in the year, made to Bill Maher, about how young women who had chosen to support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton were only doing so to meet boys. Say what, Gloria? Terry didn’t even ask.

Charlie is great too, but while reviewing his wide-ranging interview with Lucas, I was still struck by his failure to even mention Lucas’s misadventures in Star Wars prequel-land or the director’s stubborn refusal to release unaltered, optimized versions of his original theatrical trilogy, for which so many millions of us who grew up with these films have been clamoring for decades.

What really stood out to me in the interview this time was the pivotal nature of American Graffiti (1973), a film I barely remembered having seen, an unexpected hit that gave the unknown director of the quietly subversive sci-fi student film THX-1138 (1971) the keys to Hollywood. Of course, Star Wars happened next. Without Graffiti, it might not have.

Set in 1962, American Graffiti is a loosely plotted slice-of-life wherein Lucas fondly remembers his suburban California adolescence, paying homage to his love of classic American cars and 60s teenage cruising culture through the lens of a single night in the life of several teenagers, one or two of whom are leaving town for college the next day. The film begins at (and repeatedly returns to) the neighborhood drive-in—the local hangout that attracts all the kids with its bright-light beacons, roller-skating waitresses, 10-cent Cokes, burgers, fries and the omnipresent allure of chance encounters with other teenagers.

The locus of the film’s activity, the surrounding streets at night and the drive-around-in-circles-to-see-and-be-seen culture of cruising provide the backdrop. Hot rods abound, while the underage pursuits of illicit alcohol, sex, smoking and creepy teachers lurks around the edges of one last sock hop on the high school gym floor. Rock and roll permeates nearly every frame, accompanied by the croaky voice of Wolfman Jack, an actual period DJ.

An 18-year-old, pre-Happy Days Ron Howard stars as a class president/prom king on his way to college, with a pre-Lavergne & Shirley Cindy Williams as his girlfriend and prom queen, and then-unknowns like Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford as a reluctant recipient of an out-of-state college scholarship and an interloping challenger for the local drag-racing crown, respectively.

Graffiti also features a well-meaning greaser with the fastest hot-rod in town who is trying to ditch an underage girl with whom he is unexpectedly stuck, a geek in a borrowed car on a mission to meet any young lady who will give him a chance and a few hoods in a local gang of menacing ne’er-do-wells who try to recruit Dreyfuss in one of the film’s most entertaining sequences.

Of course, Lucas's next film, Star Wars (1977), devoured his life, setting him up for a lifetime of great wealth but devouring anything else that ever made a plea for his attention, contributing to the failure of his first marriage and robbing him of his desire to direct another film for decades, though in the interview he says he consciously chose fatherhood over filmmaking. I’d love to see a Lucas-helmed documentary take on these years of his life, a personal, behind-the-scenes look at making the first trilogy with his own insights on these seminal years, but I doubt he will make one, so for now we’ll have to settle for Elstree 1976. So much has been written about his intentions for so many years and from so many perspectives; I really hope one day Lucas decides to write a memoir and clear the air, presenting his side of the whole story of his career.

With Graffiti, a decade removed from the film’s setting, Lucas is clearly wallowing in nostalgia, reminiscing from personal experience, but he’s also mourning his perception of a generational loss of innocence at the tail end of an era that transitioned with President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. By the time he was making Graffiti in the early 70s, the civil rights era had ended with the violent deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Robert Kennedy, the Kent State students and so many others.

Vietnam commanded the attention of Americans, particularly young socially engaged filmmakers like Coppola and his producing pal Lucas, who once aspired to make an impact with a progressive social message, as did so many directors in the golden era of 1970s Hollywood filmmaking. Both were committed at different times to making Apocalypse Now, perhaps the most visceral and effective critique of American involvement in Southeast Asia ever made, inspired in part by Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1899 novel, itself a lost of innocence/end-of-an-era treatise, The Heart of Darkness.

Though Lucas transitioned to mythmaking space operas for kids, Richard Linklater continued this slice-of-life style of cinema with his “this is what the kids were up to before everything changed” films like Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), where nothing is explicitly linear and everything is about temporarily capturing a sense of time and place that no longer exists. As Linklater has said, “the most unique property of cinema is how it lets you mold time, whether it’s over a long or a very brief period.” Linklater continued to explore variations on temporal themes in Boyhood (2014) and in his Before trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013), saying that “if cinema was a painting, time would be the paint itself.”

Lucas’s picture indeed seems painted in time, fixed through a bumper-mounted viewfinder and revealing a reality that almost seems otherworldly today. Building a film around little other than a fond nostalgia for a bygone era can be fun for a while, but it’s always in danger of lingering too long and losing the attention of its audience.

In American Graffiti, this isn’t a problem. If there is an overarching narrative, it’s a sufficient collection of sub-plots that collectively serve an overall impression of the shifting of an age. This is the last chance for our group of suburban Californian white kids to live in the safe and relatively predictable world they’ve grown accustomed to, and things will never really be the same for any of them by the time the night is though.

Things were never the same for Lucas after American Graffiti, either, and it's interesting to imagine what kind of filmmaker he would have become without having to shepherd Star Wars along its epic, multi-generational, multi-billion-dollar journey to become a global juggernaut. We can never go back, but American Graffiti is a nice reminder of what life was once like for many Baby Boomers of my parents’ generation, and in Lucas’s capable hands, it feels authentic.

Publishing This Damn Thing!

[Photographic evidence--this book actually exists in the physical world and not just in my mind!]

[Photographic evidence--this book actually exists in the physical world and not just in my mind!]

"The Weight of The Barn" by Tarri Driver

"The Weight of The Barn" by Tarri Driver

Howdy folks,

With great satisfaction and considerable relief, I'd like to announce the publication of my first book, HARDBARNED! One Man's Quest for Meaningful Work in the American South.

HARDBARNED! is finally available for order, at Amazon, or IndieBound, and just about anywhere else books are sold online. HARDBARNED! is also available as a digital e-book in various formats, but I still like reading books made out of paper, and I'm hoping a few of you do too. The book features 24 badass illustrations by my badass wife, the fabulous artist Tarri Driver, as well as a few old photographs.

I'd love it if you could do me a real solid and buy it, read it, and leave a review on Amazon, and if you're interested in spreading the word to anyone who might be interested, in person and via your social networks of choice (if you do that sort of thing) I'd be incredibly grateful.

Thanks so much for tuning in and spreading the word about HARDBARNED!, and for your continued interest and support! I'm posting the official press release followed by the book's back-cover copy below.

Cheers and many thanks again,

Chris

Press Release:

Unique New Memoir is Totally Relatable, Irresistibly Funny

Eastern Tennessee (August 23, 2016)—Anyone feeling abandoned on the career-go-round; anyone disillusioned with a job, knowing they have much more to offer; and anyone struggling to make use of a liberal arts education in the post-recession era will undoubtedly relate to debut author Christopher J. Driver in:

HARDBARNED! One Man’s Quest for Meaningful Work in the American South.

This humorous memoir provides an honest account of the job-related challenges Driver encountered while trying to embark on a writing career and make use of his investment in higher learning. Readers familiar with the puzzle of building a career on a humanities-based education will undoubtedly laugh with a knowing nod.

Christopher J. Driver wants to earn his living as a writer but finds that even with two undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree in English, he cannot get his foot in anyone’s door. During this period of perpetual job-application rejection, Driver unwittingly accepts a job as a truck driver, delivering and repossessing portable storage barns throughout the Deep South, which brings him down a road of unimaginable adventures, full of unforgettable characters and encounters that range from dangerous to outright hilarious. Satirical illustrations by artist Tarri Driver enhance the experience.

HARDBARNED! offers a fresh and darkly funny glimpse into what one man will do to make a living in the wake of constant failure to capitalize on his education, and how he finally finds a way to do what he loves—by writing about the job he often felt he hated. Though they’ll find no tidy resolution, readers will discover humor in Driver’s struggle, while empathizing and sharing his steadfast motivation to become the determiners of their own destinies, amid their own quests for meaningful, satisfying work.

About the Author

Someone once told Christopher J. Driver that he had "gentle eyes." Chris loves sci-fi movies, wrote his master's thesis on Blade Runner and finds Soderbergh's version of Solaris underrated. The Star Wars prequels are dead to him, but he really liked THX-1138. Chris loves the work of Terry Gilliam, thinks Michael Keaton was the best Batman and that Grosse Pointe Blank and Planes, Trains and Automobiles are masterpieces.

Spoiler alert: Chris finally found a writing job. Today, he writes a variety of content for a digital advertising agency. He has written marketing materials for software developers and worked as a technical writer in the healthcare field. He has published freelance, academic and popular culture works, edited a variety of books and essays and continues to author a wide range of content. Above all, he considers his writing skills versatile and hopes to one day actually earn a living writing for (or on) books, film, music, games and comics. HARDBARNED! is his first book. Chris blogs at www.hardbarned.com.

Back-cover copy:

Overeducated and underemployed? In love with learning but stumped on how to translate it into a paycheck? Desperately striving to make your seemingly useless liberal arts education work for you in any sort of satisfying or meaningful way? Trying to simultaneously engage your interests, skillset and values and still pay the bills while pleading for another student loan deferment? I feel your pain and have stories to share, but if you’re looking for inspirational uplift, self-help or a life coach, please look elsewhere.

HARDBARNED! One Man’s Quest for Meaningful Work in the American South is a darkly comic, brutally honest and introspective memoir about working for a living—without being able to shake the feeling that there has got to be more to it than that.

Christopher J. Driver, unable to land a writing job after completing two undergraduate degrees, for three years worked a series of crappy jobs in construction, landscaping, retail, warehouses, hotels and restaurants between tours in a van with his DIY punk band. He then decided to go back to school, but a master’s degree in English didn’t open any doors either. Again failing completely in his attempts to find full-time employment as a professional writer, after a brief stint in computer sales, he drove a truck for the next three years—delivering and repossessing portable storage barns throughout several states in the rural, southern USA.

Constantly pleading with employers across a plethora of industries for a mere entry-level opportunity to prove himself as a writer, he plunged into the daily unknown—a multi-state, rural trucking adventure built on unpredictable encounters with a revolving cast of indelible characters, including drunken rednecks, scumbag salesmen, menacing highway patrol officers and at least seven lovely individuals—amid a perpetual tsunami of malfunctioning equipment, fire, mud, blood, shit, dogs, danger and existential ennui—the likes of which he had never imagined.

Inspired and anchored by his three-year, post-graduate tour-de-barns, and featuring powerful illustrations by his lovely wife, the multi-talented artist Tarri Driver, HARDBARNED! reflects on a quarter-century of one man's desperate search for meaningful work in the American South. With an irresistibly self-deprecating narrative, HARDBARNED! offers a revealing look into the insane (and often entertaining) lengths that one person will go to earn an honest living while making use of his education.

The Force Finally Awakens. Millions of Voices Suddenly Cry Out In Joy. George Lucas Senses Great Disturbance, Says "Harrumph."

Wake up, it's The Force! Here be minor spoilers...

Wake up, it's The Force! Here be minor spoilers...

Happy 2016. I can barely believe it, but I have now seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Twice. After more than 32 years of anticipation, the sequel to Return of The Jedi finally exists in this galaxy, unlike the prequels, initiated in 1999, which, well, if you ask me...don't.

The prequels don't exist because I refuse to acknowledge their existence, much less debate whether a certain computer-graphic-generated character featured prominently in them is or is not an evil undercover Sith Lord. Who cares? It's better if he doesn't exist at all, so I have decided that he doesn't. I will decide who and what fictional characters "exist" in my own fictional universe, as should you. You must do what you feel is right, of course.

This review will tell my story of finally seeing the new film and processing the experience, but it won't ooze with fanboy worship or lavish gushing praise on those responsible for realigning the tracks of a long-beloved but wayward series, thus restoring equilibrium to the universe. Well, maybe a little. Nor will it be a picky geek's perfectionistic rant at everything that didn't meet his exacting expectations. Well, it might contain at least a wee bit of both. This is Star Wars, people, and I grew up with it. I had the bedsheets. Is objectivity even possible?

What is film criticism anyway, other than informed (or ignorant), substantiated (or fabricated), entirely subjective reactions based on opinion and perspective? I think it's safe to say you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

My lovely wife was away for a visit with her family, and so my dear Dad arrived for a Man Weekend, wherein we crammed four movies--the original trilogy (despecialized, of course) and the new film--into less than 24 hours of concentrated, Force (coffee)-enabled viewing, but the Force wasn't strong with Dad. Though he seemed to like them, he's never been a fan of sci-fi or fantasy and didn't quite make it through all the old films without nodding off here and there. We can try again if you like, Dad!

At the local theater on opening day, Dad and I made it through half an hour of commercials for everything under the sun, much of it licensed by Lucasfilm, and another 30 minutes of trailers for animated kiddie stuff. I was impressed by the theater's repetitive emphasis on the prohibition of cell phone use during the movie. Some people really do need to be hammered with repeated blasts of obviousness, so I welcomed it.

Let's cut to the chase. I had a great time. I felt giddy like a child. I'm 39 years old and remember seeing ROTJ in the theater at age seven, so it was pretty hard to contain my enthusiasm. But I was also pretty stoked in 1999 when the first prequel debuted, and that night remains the greatest cinematic disappointment in my life, but attempting to hold myself in check wasn't working this time around. I had a good feeling about this.

Suddenly that iconic score erupted into the room, and an old yellow font appeared, scrolling upward and away, at a familiar angle into the depths of outer space. Even at a second viewing, seated between a dear old friend and the love of my life, I literally bounced with excitement and smacked them each on the knee. Luke had disappeared? Leia was a General? Something called the First Order was rebuilding the Empire?

The new cast was great. A strong batch of fresh faces, some more familiar than others, all skilled actors with charisma, panache and chemistry to spare. I loved the decision to cast a young black man and white woman as central characters and potential love interests. I loved the ideas of a stormtrooper with second thoughts. Of a lone girl living in the foot of a long-toppled AT-AT Walker, scavenging her way though the bowels of an abandoned Star Destroyer, somehow picking up some pretty sweet piloting skills along the way.

I loved how the film was surging with its own new chapter of heroes and villains and reasons to invest in interesting new characters with mysterious unknown histories and yet brimming with delightful asides to the old days, paying homage to what has gone before but hurling forcefully (it's the right word) into its own new path of legend. As an often cynical viewer of movies, I loved the sheer joy, comradery, optimism, humor and hope that the film projected, mostly without resorting to syrupy inspirational cheese. Star Wars has always been all about hope.

Of course it borrowed a lot from the original trilogy. Daring rescues. Expert pilots, scrappy bands of resistance fighters, laser-blasting battles, scowling baddies and fascinating, creatively-designed creatures. The Millenium Falcon, chased by tenacious Tie Fighters inevitably shot down by inexperienced gunners in swiveling turret-pods, and yet another Death-Star-type thingy blowing up even more planets full of innocent people only to get attacked (again, by X-Wings) and blown up (again) for a third rebel victory over a big ball of evil that blows shit up. There's that.

And the questions. Of course there are questions.

If you realize that one of the main reasons so many of us hated the prequels involved the overuse of obvious CG, why not eliminate it? Why obscure Simon Pegg, Lupita Nyong'o or Andy Serkis's plenty-expressive faces and powerful performances with unrecognizable masks of computer graphics? Why create a "Supreme Leader" character out of an obvious mountain of computer graphics and name him something as silly-sounding as "Snoke?" Why attack Han, Chewie, Rey and Finn with a cartoon squid-monster that looks like it escaped from the recut, animated special edition dance-number from Jabba's palace in ROTJ?

I was so excited to finally see Han and Leia interact in character on screen again that I was able to forgive the sort of sentimental plot-summarizing dialog they were saddled with. If they had separated, why were they telling each other about what had happened between them? Didn't they know this already? Wasn't there a more organic way to reveal these plot point to viewers?

Why did Ben see Han as such a bad father if he hadn't even left until Leia sent them both away? Who was Max von Sydow's character, and how did he know all about this? Is he The Other Granddad? Meaning he's Han's dad? And why did he have a Jedi robe? Does that mean Han had Jedi in him without knowing it and will appear in Hologram Land with the old crew in Episode VIII? He's on the cast list. If Luke had been gone for so long, couldn't he hang out with Han one last time? Couldn't Luke Skywalker actually be in the movie and have lines, as the teaser teased?

Who is this new lead stormtrooper lady? She looks super cool, indeed, but she does and says little and goes out like a chump, just like Boba Fett. Couldn't we have at least seen her fight someone? At least she's not dead. Surely she'll be back to prove that she poses more of a threat to the Resistance than the risk of being blinded by her extreme shininess.

If Chewie continues to kick as much ass as he did in every episode (including and especially in Episode VII), when will Leia finally realize she must retroactively award him with that medal he earned but failed to receive in Episode IV? I mean what does a Wookiee have to do to get some respect in this canon? Hasn't he earned the Falcon's pilot seat?

And what's with his newer, less scruffy-looking, more slicked-back look, with no gray hair, somehow less-expressive eyes and suspiciously CG-looking mouth? How did they manage to make Chewie look younger? Less cool. And...more fake? Wookiees don't get facelifts, do they? He should look about the same but with more gray hair. And Han had never fired Chewie's crossbow in four decades (or more) of their intergalactic adventures and close calls together? Really?

You can criticize the film all day long for issues like this, but the bottom line is that they are minor, and this movie was the anti-prequel. I think The Force Awakens and those who made it understood why the prequels failed to capture the imagination of multiple generations seduced by the power of the originals and successfully created the antidote.

Despite minor failings, I think it nailed the feelings that we all longed to feel again. The awe of experiencing beloved characters (real actors in actual on-location shoots) with a lived-in, worn-down, actually-used aesthetic. A world with plenty of action, excitement, familial drama and reasons for grumpy old sci-fi fans to once again yell WOO-HOO!

George Lucas said that J.J. Abrams (director), Kathleen Kennedy (head of Lucasfilm at Disney) and Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter on V, VI and VII) "wanted to do a retro movie. I don't like that." Continuing his tradition of bashing his own fans for loving the movies that he gifted us with so many decades ago, which he's been slowly taking back ever since, like the kid who gets mad and takes home the ball so nobody else can play, Lucas sounds dissatisfied. I'm not even going to touch the "white slavers"-taking-his-children metaphor Lucas attempted but wisely aborted.

Lucas went on to say that The Force Awakens is "the kind of movie [fans have] been waiting for," but he wants to emphasize that the saga he created was supposed to be something other than what it has now become in others' hands; he thinks it should be "a soap opera...not about space ships." It seems to me that it's always been both a soap opera and about space ships. After all, he's the one who demanded increasing concentrations of them in just about every shot in each one of the films.

Lucas didn't sound excited at all, but can you really blame him? Even for a fortune he will mostly give away, he gave up his baby. He's no longer in charge. Nobody wanted to use his ideas. Most of us hated the prequels, and dammit...the "white slavers" are doing it wrong. It's got to hurt his ego and make him long for glories of yesteryear, but based on his track record with the series, none of this should have surprised him much. 

He sounds decidedly un-stoked about the entire thing and, comparing what happened to a divorce, he's just "going to have to take a very deep breath and be a good person and sit through it and just enjoy the moment because it is what it is and it's a conscious decision that I made." Yikes. I hate to say he deserves it for forcing the prequels on us and refusing to let us purchase pristine theatrical versions of the unchanged originals for all these years, but he probably does.

We can all move on now. Rian Johnson is shooting Episode VIII, and I'm inclined to think that bodes well, having seen his excellent film Looper. I look forward to being able to purchase VII in a few months, in all its unaltered, high definition, theatrical-release glory, and without any stupid cartoon crap added, thank you very much.

Thank you JJ, Kathleen and Larry. Thank you Harrison, Carrie and Mark. Thank you John, Daisy, Oscar, Max, Lupita and Adam. Thank you everyone else, the army of behind-the-scenes creatives who helped make it happen. Crass commercialization and global stormtroopers of marketing aside, it's obvious that millions...billions?....of us longed for a triumphant return to this beloved universe. Oh, and thank you too, George. We all love playing in your sandbox.

But I'm still wondering, still pondering a lingering disappointment that trumps all my other beefs. I'm really bothered, even angered by the absence of someone who, when The Force awakened, truly belonged there with us among the crowds.

So I ask you Disney, once again...WHERE THE HELL IS LANDO?

Nanobots, Xbones, The Singularity and iPhones

Following in the fallible footsteps of those fickle flakes at Microsoft, I have reversed course on two previous decisions related to my choice interactions with two preeminent technologies of the day and have taken tenuous steps into a larger world of high-tech gadgetry. A guy can change his mind, can't he? We're all just people. We, the people, and the corporations, who are people too, I guess.

In an epic 1978 Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Cott released last year in hardback, Susan Sontag said that writing allowed her to "get rid of ideas" so that she could "move on to some other view of things." Maybe it's obvious, but Sontag meant that as a writer, she believed in what she wrote at the time it was written.

She also meant that she was always allowing herself room to grow and space to evolve as a reader and as a thinker, constantly consuming and processing information, absorbing new knowledge, asking relevant questions and adjusting her views accordingly. Writing was her chance to get the ideas out when they were ready, but it could only represent a fixed moment in time, while her thinking remained in perpetual motion. This is evident in anyone with a healthy intellectual curiosity, but the idea that a writer may well soon disagree with her own writing is somewhat...unsettling. Or is it?

With few exceptions, I'm a late upgrader. Even my mom has had a smartphone, a Kindle and even a Fitbit for a while. I resisted cell-phone ownership until 2002 and didn't send my first text message until 2007. More than four years ago, I wrote here about my simple, "dumb" phone and why I was sticking with it instead of following just about everyone I knew into smartphoneland.

Then, 15 months ago, I wrote at length here about, among other video game-related subjects, why I would not be switching anytime soon from my trusty old Xbox 360 to the forthcoming fancypants, next-generation Xbox One (Xbone) game console/media sponge/living room overlord. And finally, nearly a year ago, I wrote here about my stalwart resistance to social media and continued general aversion to smartphones.

Today, though I remain an outlier from social media, I have reversed course on the console and the smartphone, and September has become a sort of Banish the Luddite/Consolidate the Devices month for me, as I reluctantly dragged myself into a higher level of technology on two key fronts: my pocket and the living room.

Was my relationship with technology evolving? Was I surrendering to its regimented, unsentimental march? Had I been seduced by the power of the dark side and its shiny devices? Or was there a significant element of practicality involved? Yes.

It took me almost a year to power through the thing, as I kept setting it aside to read fiction, something a bit more fun...like Joe Haldeman's excellent The Forever War, a 1970s space marine tale about a tough time-traveling soldier...but I finally finished computer scientist/inventor/futurist/top Google engineer Ray Kurzweil's 2005 doorstop/book on the evolution of technology, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

I may be almost a decade late to his party, but Kurzweil argues that The Singularity (the point at which technological advancement will be beyond humanity's ability to comprehend it) won't happen until 2045, so I think I got the jump on him. That means those of you who suck at math (like me) but haven't read it yet have 31 years left to read this book before the entirety of its content will already be totally obvious because you'll already have the sum of all human knowledge (and more) turkey-basted into your machine-encrusted, post-biological, computer-enhanced, technology-infused brain. That doesn't sound so bad. Maybe I should have just waited and read comic books instead.

And yet, I've already been transcended, as far as my ability to understand certain considerable chunks of this dense book is concerned.

Reading it was often fascinating and revelatory while at other times utterly impenetrable. Major mathy, graphy parts, where Kurzweil details the exponential equations for his predictions on grand temporal scales, were tough to power through, but I made it. What do I remember most? The nanobots. The microscopic robots that Kurzweil is convinced will enter our bloodstreams (by the billions) to do everything from scrub our arteries to augment our brains, merging with our organic parts and gradually replacing them.

Though he does address skeptics and dangerous tech-related threats, I wish Kurzweil would have written in more depth about possible Terminator-style apocalyptic scenarios of Skynet proportions, which, for this sci-fi fan at least, loomed large over his joyous proclamations of the wonders of tech yet to come. I asked the always responsive and amiable Adrian McKinty what he thought of the book, because he's read everything already, and he said that he thought Kurzweil was right but perhaps 200 years off with his timeline. Maybe you all have a LOT more time to read Kurzweil's books than I thought. While you're at it, read Adrian's. They're awesome. 

So early September arrived, I finally conquered The Singularity, and I guess Ray Kurzweil left me in a technological mood because I soon noticed that Microsoft, having already backtracked on nearly all of its boneheaded Xbox One launch decisions of a year ago, had not only reversed most of them (no 24-hour internet "check-in" required, no game licensing crap--you can buy/own/rent/sell your own games, etc.), they had finally made the obvious and key decision to sell a version of the new console without the Kinect spycam and all of its uber-creepy HAL 9000isms...and...they dropped the price by a hundred bucks.

They also threw in a new Madden football game (that I could sell because I don't play football video games) and offered yet other free game of MY choice...all during the week that Bungie's stellar new FPS/MMORPG, Destiny, debuted.

I couldn't argue with all of these favorable new developments, so I sold ye olde 360 and my Blu-ray player while they still held some value, which took a sizable chunk out of the cost of the Xbone, and enacted a singular device setup for the living room, which I must admit (even without using the Xbone's television or music features) saves space and is awfully convenient. One living room device to rule them all.

Consolidation of devices was also the main instigator for my concurrent decision to finally surrender to smartphoneland as well, seven years after the first iPhone made its debut. I've used a Mac since 1998, but it took me nine years to get an iPod, so perhaps my Luddite tendencies are deteriorating at an ever-so slightly faster rate. After many consecutive dumb and dumber phones, I was tired of filling my pockets with stuff. A typical weekend trip involved hefting a wallet, a cell phone, a computer, a camera, a GPS device, an iPod and a snarl of various cords and adapters.

Keeping the dumb phone was no longer keeping my life simple and streamlined. The new iPhone, for the first time, had enough space to accommodate my entire music collection. And it happened to debut the day before my dumb phone would charge me for another month of dumb service, so the decision was made.

I sold my iPod and GPS, ditched the dumb phone and even got a case from a friend that holds cards with the smartyphone, so no more wallet, either. And maybe when the whole near-field communication Apple Pay thing takes hold, I can even ditch the cards, too. This Swiss Army knife of phones even has a built-in flashlight and pedometer, to help me feel worse about my too-sedentary lifestyle.

The irony of an exponentially more complex device simplifying my life is not lost on me. I'm not swooning. It's still just a thing I use to do stuff. Like a stapler. I just want it to work well and do the things I need done, both reliably and simply. One pocketed device to rule them all.

As far as I know, I don't have any nanobots messing about in my bloodstream, but I've invited the Internet into my pocket and consolidated my living room devices. Am I being assimilated into the Borg? Everyone seems to think I will be devoured by my new devices, particularly by the phone, but things feel about the same so far.

The Xbone plays our HD and SD movie discs like a charm, will stream whenever we get around to adding that feature to our Netflix plan and runs the occasional video game when I'm up for it. But I'll have access to the best new games when they come along, and the Xbone is quieter, sleeker, and more versatile. 

Eleven days into smart phone ownership, I don't feel much different there either. I still make eye contact in person and don't feel the impulse to let a device dominate social interactions. I don't reach for it unless I actually need it for something and am not otherwise engaged in real-world conversation, which thus far has been for a phone call or a text message, primarily. How antiquated of me.

Perhaps I'll soon be consumed and assimilated, a slave to the gadget. We'll see how things look a year or two from now, but maybe by then the Innerwebs will be installed subcutaneously in our wrists, as a recent TIME magazine cover suggests. I know that I will likely utilize tiny fractions of what these advanced machines in my pocket and living room are capable of, but it's nice have options when you need them and even nicer to have them take up a lot less space. Yes, I love technology. Always and forever.

Reading With Your Ears: Adrian McKinty Novels

Behold, the DEAD trilogy: so good that I read it with my ears first and then again with my eyes.

When I was still HARDBARNED, as in stuck in a truck-driving, barn-hauling, barn-delivering, barn-repossessing, thumb-hammering, toe-stubbing, shin-smashing, forehead-bashing-against-the-side-of-the-barn-type of post-graduate job, roaming the desolate backwoods and backyards of several states in the rural American South, desperately seeking a foot in the door to some sort (any sort) of writing and editing career, I spent a lot of time in that truck and became an avid devourer of audiobooks. 

Today I have the option of convenient, free audiobook downloads via the innerwebs and my local city library, but during these years, all of the audiobooks I checked out from the tiny local branch in my small town were on compact disc or sometimes even on cassette, if they were ancient enough. I spend much less time on the road now, and sometimes I miss reading with my ears instead of my eyes.

I still grab an audiobook online if I'm planning a road trip, but they're now relegated to rare-treat status. Audiobooks are a completely different way to lose yourself in the rich and rewarding experience of a good book. When a great text is paired with an excellent voice actor, an otherwise moving story can be elevated into something else entirely, an emotional, even transcendent experience for the listener.

During those barn-hauling years, I'd go to the small local library once every couple of weeks and stock up on several audiobooks that looked good. I got through some fantastic books this way and attempted and discarded a few stinkers too.

There were biographies, memoirs and even college courses to be had, and I checked out some of those, but my favorites from that period of audio immersion included David McCullough's John Adams and 1776; Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and The Pleasure of My Company; Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men and The Road; and Stephen King's On Writing. The ones I gave up on are less memorable, but at the insistence of a friend, I at least attempted to endure the first Harry Potter audiobook. It didn't take. 

Behold: a more recent McKinty trilogy, well worth your time.

What did stick with me was my chance discovery of one Adrian McKinty, an Irish author new to me at that time. I first noticed the curious title on the spine: Dead I Well May Be. I looked closer. The audiobook had a compelling photo of an anonymous young man lounging with a cigarette, his handgun within reach.

I had never been much interested in detective fiction or "crime fiction," but the plot sounded intriguing: clever, enterprising young criminal mind with a love for literature and international culture leaves Ireland for America, falls for the wrong guy's girl, gets in over his head with local heavies, endures trans-continental trials: physical, emotional, existential; embarks on a single-minded mission of revenge.

I was sold on Dead I Well May Be before I even noticed the wholehearted endorsement by Frank McCourt, author of three memoirs I had previously enjoyed: Angela's Ashes, 'Tis and Teacher Man. Teacher Man was my favorite of McCourt's, though it hadn't convinced me to teach. I was still using that English MA to haul barns around, determined to one day earn my living by writing about something (anything) for someone (anyone). 

According to McCourt's cover blurb, McKinty was the Real Deal, but I was already sure I'd have to see what his Michael Forsythe protagonist/anti-hero was all about. I'm so glad I did. Dead I Well May Be is Die Hard for Shakespeare fans. Rilke for action heroes. It's the perfect unputdownable mashup of classic detective fiction, noir-whodunnit, poetry, philosophy, existentialism and blockbuster action-adventure films in lyrical, literate prose for period-specific pop culture fiends and creative liberal artists who get off on lovely language combined with some nail-biting scrapes and kick-ass fights.

In Michael Forsythe, McKinty created a nuanced hero worthy of his readers' time, a guy who was always smarter than the situation he found himself stuck in but human enough to actually care about. I can't compare McKinty to other writers who sell many more crime fiction books because I haven't read most of them, but I do feel as though, inexperienced in the genre as I may be, I am one of a lucky few who have discovered a hidden gem. It's inexplicable to me that this guy isn't more popular or better known, but we all know that popularity and quality are often polarized, and justice is rarely served.

Behold: two lessor-known one-shot favorites of mine by McKinty.

I was soon hooked and followed Michael Forsythe through McKinty's two DEAD sequels: The Dead Yard and The Bloomsday Dead, became a huge fan, read everything else McKinty wrote (excepting his young-adult Lighthouse trilogy, which I really should) and remain ready for more. I'm looking forward to his latest novel, The Sun is God, which looks like a fascinating work of historical fiction.

I've included photos of my favorite McKinty novels here, but it's impossible to overlook the contribution of narrator Gerard Doyle to the experience of listening to one of Adrian's books. Bringing life to the characters with an uncanny mastery of multiple regional dialects and inflections that add a satisfying layer of realism and emotional depth to a story that is already riveting, Doyle makes great content even better.

I've mentioned his blog before, but despite being a young man in his early 40s, Adrian McKinty is impossibly well-read and knows more than you do about movies, books, television, poetry, music, world history, politics, language, philosophy, science fiction, soccer, rugby, beer and coffee, and he is eager to entertain you with anecdotes about each of them.

Though he occasionally berates me for praising movies that are less than masterpieces (guilty--this guy's a tough critic), he's also quick to respond to questions on his blog and happy to engage on just about any subject. Do yourself a favor: buy his books and tell your friends, and if we're all lucky, he'll keep writing them.

A Lackluster Lack of Lando

WHERE THE HELL IS LANDO? No matter where I look, I can't find anything official that even mentions his having the slightest involvement in the new Star Wars movies. This was never part of the deal! Lando Calrissian--rogue, gambler, switcheroo artist and sketchy best pal of Han Solo--is absolutely essential for Episode VII. He truly belongs here with us among the sequels.

WHERE'S LANDO? Who will play the comic-romantic foil to thwart Han's elderly advances toward Leia on senior night at the intergalactic grocery? Without this old smoothie, what's to stop old Leia and really old Han from public PDA whenever the droids aren't looking? Who will sport a sweet 'stache like Lando? Who will wield an awesome cape like Lando? The answer is nobody.

WHERE'S LANDO? J.J. Abrams and Larry Kasdan, how could you delete Lando? I mean, how could you? Billy Dee must be crushed. All his buddies from 1983 are reuniting for what will likely be the biggest film of all time, and he is excluded, stuck doing voiceovers for a cartoon show by day and dipping into his lifetime supply of Colt 45 by night.

Voiceovers of which character, you're wondering? Who else? Lando. Mister Abrams must be doing something right if he's making Kevin Smith cry tears of joy. Or maybe Kevin was crying because he knows Lando's not in Episode VII.

Somehow I don't think Kevin would fake it. But really, J.J., I hope this is all an intentional farce--that you're a slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler--and that Lando's absence is just a trick you're playing on all of us. One quick search for "Lando Petition" reveals several already exist, begging Abrams, Lucasfilm, Disney and whoever might listen to reverse course and include our beloved General Calrissian in the next film. The one at Change.org has all of 17 signatures. I am now officially depressed.

OK Harrison, so R2 is trapped in this box...and that's all we've got so far. What do you think? Any ideas?

Okay, so I'm a little slow to react here, but I'm still as excited as the next 30-something Star Wars nerd to see the long anticipated official confirmation of the cast of Episode VII. What looks like every geek's dream--a proper sequel to Return of The Jedi--is starring MOST of the principal actors from ye olde trilogy, along with several talented newbies--and one especially oldie but goodie who is new to the saga--Max Von Sydow!

However, the first thought I had after inspecting this David James press-release photo (above) and the meager text that accompanied it was not lamenting the lack of leading ladies, a legitimate beef, subsequently addressed with the good news of the acquisition of significant additional lady talent. My first reaction was...

WHAT ABOUT LANDO? Where's Billy Dee? Not only is he absent from the photo, he's not even mentioned! Not cool. Maybe it was his bad back. I can't believe I just linked to US Weekly, but it happened. Lucasfilm-I-Mean-Disney, I demand an explanation for your lackluster lack of Lando!

Yeah, so he was only in two of the three original movies, but he became an integral part and a fan favorite. If you're bringing everybody back, including the guys in the droid and Wookie suits, Lando absolutely deserves to be there. So maybe he's the only member of the original cast to do malt liquor ads, but hey, an actor's gotta pay the bills.

I just read J.W. Rinzler's relatively recent, comprehensive making-of books about all three films in the original Star Wars trilogy, and I can't recommend them enough. As an executive editor at Lucasfilm, Rinzler had access to the archives, and these three oversize, hardback monsters are treasure troves of never-before-seen material--pre-production and production sketches, diagrams, artwork, rejected ideas, photographs, interviews (old and new)--and the inside track on what went down for the decade of collaborative creativity that birthed the epic originals.

Rinzler also worked on a similar volume about the Indiana Jones series, which is cool too but sadly includes much too much material on the fourth film.

It's pretty awesome to think that Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, 3PO and R2 are actually going to share the screen once again after more than three decades, with screenwriter Larry Kasdan back on the script, as he was for Empire and Jedi. Surely Kasdan and Abrams, having been introduced to George Lucas's outline for where the series might lead our heroes for a third and final trilogy, have collaborated on a story and dialog much better than what George subjected us to with his prequels.

I think it's clear that when Lucas allowed himself to collaborate with other talented writers and filmmakers like Kasdan, Empire director Irvin Kershner and Jedi director Richard Marquand, not to mention a platoon of amazingly talented and hungry visual artists, puppeteers, sculptors and special effects technicians, his movies got much better.

When he withdrew into his own CG world of green screens years later and decided to write, produce and direct the prequels on his own with few critical collaborators with whom to disagree and thus engage in the necessary debates among artists that inevitably improve movies, rock bands, and any and all collaborative works of art, well, we know what happened.

But I digress. WHERE THE HELL IS LANDO?

Please, J.J., Don't leave him stranded forever, dancing his smooth-dance to the Ewok victory song by the stormtrooper helmet xylophone for all of intergalactic eternity. Give us the further adventures (and witty banter) of General Smoothie himself, Lando Calrissian. If you can make Kevin Smith cry, you have my attention, and my high hopes go with you, but if you choose to delete Lando, then perhaps...just perhaps...we think we're being treated unfairly.

Connors vs McEnroe vs Cash vs Lendl

A much younger Jimmy with a much younger me. Nice hat, eh?

A much younger Jimmy with a much younger me. Nice hat, eh?

A few months ago, I had the privilege of seeing Jimmy Connors (who is now 61 years old) play tennis in person again, for the first time in probably a quarter of a century. When I was a kid, I saw him play at a pro tournament in Ohio and got his autograph at the urging of my dad, who had collected athlete and movie-star autographs as a kid.

Connors is my all-time favorite player, so it was fun to see him play a set with John McEnroe for the first time in 15 years, along with Ivan Lendl, who played a set with Pat Cash. I then was treated to a quick "final" set between winners of the first bracket: Cash and McEnroe. This was all part of a plan to surprise my dad with a father/son weekend of classic tennis.

As I wrote about here, dad introduced me to tennis at an early age, and we enjoyed plenty of championship matches together when I was growing up, usually on television but also in person in Ohio at the ATP tournament. Unfortunately, dad was ill and couldn't make it to the exhibition, but my lovely wife went along and seemed to have a great time despite the $9 beers and the saltiest jumbo pretzels either of us had ever eaten.

This event was a one of two-night, two-city "champions challenge" for tennis legends "over the age of 30." At least that's what the fine print said, but it could have been 50, as our heroes were mostly pushing 60 at this point, with Mac now 55 and Lendl 54. Cash was the lone spring chicken at 48. When I had purchased the tickets, Mats Wilander was on the bill, but he had to drop out for some reason and was replaced by Cash, giving the promoters an opportunity to hype the match-up as a throwback sort-of repeat of the 1984 "Super Saturday" final rounds of the U.S. Open, wherein events from a three-decade-old "greatest day in tennis history" could be, at least in part, re-enacted.

Of course, this time around there were no epic five-set slug-fests, and in fact, each "match" consisted of only a single set, but Johnny Mac emerged victorious once again, easily the lightest, fittest and fastest of the four aging champions. 

Connors, the eldest, took some flack from the stands due to his conservative outfit, which consisted of a sweater-vest and khaki slacks. One fan yelled "I DON'T NEED NO DAMN SHORTS," and Jimmy walked over and gave him a mouthful, though it was tough to hear every word from the other side of the court. In fact, I emailed the tour manager later to suggest lapel/lavalier mics for the players, as more than half of the fun at a show like this is hearing the witty banter between old rivals and fans, but I got no response. Maybe they'll consider them for next time. 

Jimmy was a little more stiff and a little slower than when I saw him last, but I guess three hip surgeries will do that to you. Despite a lessening of speed, Jimmy showed that he still knew his way around a court and could hit with the best of them.

During one lengthy rally with McEnroe, he shouted "ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL AN OLD MAN?" before huffing and puffing his way to the net to finish the point. He also gave a ball-girl a chance to serve to McEnroe, while he comically enacted her role, becoming a ball-boy on the sideline for a few points. It was fun to go back in time for a few hours. I hope next year they bring Borg and Agassi.

Being A Fan Of Mr. Mann (Despite The Vice)

I wasn't allowed to see Michael Mann's television series Miami Vice (1984-1990) as a kid, but I remember a few occasions when I managed to crawl out of the bedroom and hide behind the couch to catch a glimpse of his uber-stylized 1980s Miami, its fancy crooks and fancier cops, the pastel buildings, suits and skyline, the exotic cars, the big hair, the ubiquitous shoulder pads and cell phones the size of your head.

The violence seems pretty tame now but at the time was enough to make my folks ban the show. I can't say I ever saw enough of Miami Vice to become a fan or felt compelled to watch it years later, but there was something intriguing happening in there, between the Uzi sub-machine guns, the ballooning pleated trousers, the sockless loafers and the frosty feathered man-bangs.

A friend had an 80s-themed party last year, and I dressed like a Miami Vice villain. If a guy from ZZ Top happened to be a Miami Vice villain. Something along those lines.

I'm not sure if it was merely the temporary allure of a show I wasn't allowed to watch or the neato Ferraris that appealed most to me as a kid, but I preferred Magnum P.I.'s model 308 to Crockett's Testarossa. I took this photo of one when I was on a trip with my dad maybe 30 years ago.

For whatever reason, Miami Vice never got its hooks into me. Once I was old enough to watch it, it just seemed like another one of many mediocre cop shows that could easily slip into the wasteland of forgettable 80s TV, along with CHiPs and Hunter. A buddy of mine thought Miami Vice was the epitome of cool at the time, and maybe he still does, but then and even now, if we're resurrecting 80s TV, I'd rather revisit MacGyver or Magnum, but I'm reluctant to try either for fear that they actually suck.

Is it possible that I was missing something back then? Should put on a neon T-shirt, grab a sportcoat and some mirrored cop shades and give Crockett and Tubbs a chance to show me how cool they were?

Then again, why go back to the 80s for TV? There's so much more interesting television happening these days, but I'm not ready to embark on another series from A to Z just yet. I'm still recovering from The Wire, which was nothing less than the best television I've ever seen but continues to haunt me. Investing in a whole series like that is something I have to work up to, and I usually stick with a couple movies a week instead.

I haven't even started Breaking Bad yet, though I realize I must. I doubt I'll be adding the Miami Vice series to my out-of-control Netflix queue anytime soon. I'm still adding movies faster than I can watch them.

I didn't know who Michael Mann was until I saw his film The Last of The Mohicans in the theatre in 1992, when I was 16. I was surprised to see that it didn't even crack the top ten list of the most financially successful movies of the year, but I guess nothing could stop Disney's The Mighty Ducks that year. Really? The Mighty Ducks?

I thought Mohicans was a very good movie, though not without its share of manufactured romantic glossiness, and looking back, I guess Roger Ebert agreed. This movie was stunningly beautiful but seemed to unfold predictably. Like Ebert, I didn't care. I was swept into its exciting, cinematic ride.

I became an official fan of Mr. Mann when I saw his next movie, Heat (1995), in the theatre with my mom. Al Pacino was the main draw for mom, I think. I was impressed by the trailer and looked forward to Pacino's first ever screen pairing with Robert DeNiro, along with a great supporting cast. Though Mann, like Ridley Scott, has received his share of criticism for "style over substance," his characters in Heat are given room to breathe and time to develop.

You can criticize Mann for making a three-hour movie because a lot of people (including studio executives) don't like long movies--they are shown fewer times in a day and often sell fewer tickets as a result--but it is in these longer dramatic scenes, between several intense, well-executed action sequences, that we learn who the players really are and what makes them tick.

The script isn't steeped in cliched cop dialog; it feels real. Too many cop/robber/heist movies focus entirely on the action, but Heat is unique. Not only are its action scenes better than most, its drama is built on a foundation of characters whose motivations we understand and with whom we have more invested because we know them better.

Some years after Heat came along, a buddy of mine (who inexplicably does not share my appreciation for the film) gave me a DVD copy of an older Mann film I had never seen. Manhunter (1986) is the original Hannibal Lecter film, with Brian Cox in the role that Anthony Hopkins gleefully chewed on for three subsequent movies.

I found this film to be thoughtful, confident in its slow pacing, but inherently creepy and enveloping, an overlooked gem. After Heat, Mann directed several solid movies that I enjoyed quite a bit but wasn't as adamantly crazy about, including The Insider, Ali and Collateral. He even directed an updated film version of Miami Vice (2006) that I liked more than I expected to.

Recently Criterion had a rare half-off, free-shipping sale on their collection of extras-stocked, superior versions of noteworthy films, and I picked up a copy of Mann's first theatrical release, Thief (1981), another great little genre movie that I had somehow missed along the way. It's highly unusual for me to purchase a movie I haven't seen, but I had a feeling about this one, and I'm glad I grabbed it when I did.

Thief stars James Caan as an expert safe cracker who works alone and stumbles into a relationship with a mysterious fixer who offers to set him up with jobs, no strings attached, until Caan discovers the strings, and, well, you can probably figure out where things are headed.

Thief stands out though, for some of the same reasons that other Mann movies resonate. It's because the characters are credible, and even the bit players are memorable. Let's give credit where it is due: much of this depends on the talent of the actors involved, but Mann writes most of his movies too, and his characters don't spout tired one-liners.

They speak like thoughtful, real people, sometimes waxing philosophically, even poetically summing up their ways of life and the often limiting circumstances that constrict them. The viewer is drawn into their worlds instead of chuckling at them from outside the realm of plausibility. 

And yes, Mann's films are shot with style. Few directors other than Scorsese know how to make a city come alive like Mann can. Helicopter shots of downtown lights at night, and creatively lit and filtered set pieces turn the architecture itself into imposing characters.

If you haven't seen much Michael Mann, I'd encourage you to have a look at what he's been up to for the last few decades. Just before heading to Miami to birth Vice, he followed Thief with a crazy, supernatural sci-fi-fantasty-WWII thriller about Nazis and demons called The Keep (1983), a little-seen flick that boasts an amazing cast but remains nearly impossible to find. It was almost completely panned but has since become an illusive cult classic that's worth seeing at least once if you can find it.

I still haven't gotten around to his Johnny Depp-led gangster picture, Public Enemies (2009), but I suppose I will soon, now that I've got Mr. Mann on the brain. I'm also curious about his 1989 TV movie, L.A. Takedown, which sounds like a sort of B or C-movie rough draft version of what became Heat.

I'll probably need to check it out too, along with The Jericho Mile (1979), his first feature-length film, also made for television, if I can ever find a copy of that one. Mann's newest project, currently in post-production, Cyber (2015) stars Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis (one of my favorite actors) and is about an international heist and computer hacking, but that's about all I know. I'll keep an eye out. 

One parting thought on Miami Vice: the show featured Eddie Olmos, who is always awesome (Blade Runner, Battlestar Gallactica, or Portlandia, anyone)? And how about that Jan Hammer? Hell, maybe I should just watch it. It's only 111 episodes.

Hey, Microsoft and Lucasfilm! Just give us what we want.

Thank you, Molly Wood of the New York Times, for inspiring me with your recent article/review, The Xbox One Versus the PlayStation 4: Two Consoles Battle For A Dubious Prize.

After writing at length last year about the new console generations, prior to their release, having gone into considerable detail on the pros and cons of each system, I decided to pen a brief sort of follow-up. The new consoles have been out for a few months and Wood's article got me thinking along those lines again. If you're interested in this subject, I'd suggest reading my first post and Wood's article before reading this one.

I wouldn't call the war between the two new consoles "philosophical," as she does, but maybe existential. They're definitely at odds in their approaches to what a game console's function should be and over how far that functionality should integrate with the rest of the purchaser's living space. I absolutely agree with Wood that often in life, "simpler tends to be better."

My favorite restaurants aren't fancy places, and they don't have a lot of things to choose from. They do one thing--like pizza, cashew chicken, steak in a sack, soup, or tacos--incredibly well. There are few extras because you're there for a reason. Not for the service or selection, but to eat something that you know is going to be specific and transcendent, taking you to a pleasure palace you can only reach via this particular place's talent-filled gastronomic boulevard.

I like applying this approach to a game console, but neither company seems to agree. Sony's machine does a lot more than it really needs to do to be a great gaming console, but Microsoft's unaffectionately-nicknamed Xbone apparently aspires to be the Swiss-Army amusement box of sloth-inducing multitainment, throwing in every conceivable feature aside from an espresso maker. You'll barely notice the invisible glue it squirts onto your couch right before you sit down.

I don't really care about the aesthetics of the box itself, or how much "larger, heavier, and uglier" a console it is. I won't be seeing it much. It will sit in a cabinet in the dark, and I'll mostly notice its power light and put a disc in or take it out once and a while. Other than hooking the thing up, that's about the extent of my interaction with the box.

The controller, however, is much more important to me. While the first Xbox's monstrously huge, power-corded controller was a misfire, it shrank and improved. Then the Xbox 360 got it just right, cutting the cord and refining the details. It remains the gold standard of game controllers. I have never liked the skeletal, misshapen PlayStation controllers, which always felt (throughout console iterations) like uncomfortable, awkward assemblages of harsh edges and skinny, pointy parts, all knees and elbows.

The 360 controller still feels substantial, responsive and ergonomically contoured, something like the late-60s Jaguar convertible of game controllers. I also like the use of letters and colors to differentiate buttons, rather than shapes. Maybe the PS controllers reminded me too much of Geometry class. Though I've not tried either of the new consoles, both controllers appear to be thoughtfully improved redesigns. 

In her article, Wood points out the laundry list of things that the Xbone does that are not about playing video games, like apps, internet video, DVD playback (it does Blu-ray too, Molly), live television streaming, voice, gesture and motion sensing. She also neglects to mention facial recognition, heartbeat recognition, or pubic hair recognition (okay I made that last one up). There's also video chat.

She mentions the Xbone's endless, bandwidth gobbling software updates, the unreliable interfaces, the fact that you'll likely need more hard drive space but cannot upgrade it (nothing new there), but even the PS4 does more than it needs to do. I still have no interest in sharing screenshots from games I play on social networks. I'm not going to stream my gaming sessions.

Why would anyone want to watch me failing my way through the next Halo? I don't want a creepy HAL 9000 robot evil eye staring at me while I save the universe virtually, and I am not inclined to dance or do exercises in front of a television. Why would I want to pay an extra hundred bucks for that?

Ultimately, Wood picks the "delightful" PlayStation 4 over the "inconsistent...inefficient...slow...bandwidth hungry...harder to use" Xbox One. Apparently the PS4's "speed is everywhere;" everything happens "quickly--much faster" than on its chief rival, and the experience is just "startlingly fast and responsive." Declaring the PS4 quicker, easier to use, more "straightforward and...fun," Wood has made her decision, and I'm inclined to agree. But not so fast, Molly.

One key point you failed to mention at all is the allure of flagship, exclusive titles that only appear on one of the two competing consoles. Though I tend to lean toward older entries in both series of games, my favorites are Xbox-only franchises currently owned by Microsoft: Halo and Gears of War. Neither will appear on any PlayStation console anytime soon, if ever. This is a key component of any gamer's decision between platforms and definitely worth pondering, but you don't sound like you are really into console gaming that much.

You say that the real question is "whether the idea of a console itself is out of date." I agree that all the apps and television and internet streaming stuff is redundant because most people who need to stream something are already streaming it through other devices or newer TVs, and I think your subsequent assertion that "mobile gaming on tablets and phones can be as immersive and fun" as console gaming is wildly incorrect, but I guess it's all in how we define the words "immersive."

Sure, I bet Flappy Bird and Candy Crush are fun, but is there a storyline of any depth? A plausible plot? Do you feel involved in part of a fictional universe of characters that you might even care about, as you would in a good novel? Fun is one thing, but I think the console still commands a massive lead in immersion factor over cell-phone and tablet games, and that lead is exponential.

There are still millions of gamers who aren't about to give up that depth of experience for a quick fix on a portable game. Of course we're still willing to drop $60 on a class-A title that we know is going to guarantee untold hours of fun. I don't see how you can even compare a $60 console game to "a world of low-priced apps."

Apples and oranges, Molly. This price difference may be "hard to stomach" for you, but it's like saying you can't believe that people would pay $200,000 for a Ferrari when they could get a Smart Car for $16,000. Better yet, why pay $16,000 for a Smart Car when you can get a great bicycle for $600? Yes, both are transportation, but they're hardly in the same universe.

I liked how you didn't even mention Nintendo. They're no longer in this fight. Wii-U-Who? Whatever. As Victor Luckerson suggested in TIME magazine recently, Nintendo really should license its characters and put them on iPhones. They excel at simple platforming games but just don't do what Sony and Microsoft do.

It's like fighting over preferences for Chicago or New York-style pizzas. They are not the same thing. Jon Stewart was right--Chicago style is great but it should be called tomato casserole, not pizza. It is something else entirely. I still love my old two-dimensional, quick-fix NES games, but I play them on a computer, not on a Nintendo console. They would lend themselves perfectly to mobile formats.

Speaking of old NES favorites, I too mourn the loss of backward compatibility on both of the new consoles. This is a disappointing trend in new tech. A lot of us old 30-something gamers enjoy a retro fix now and then, and guess what? We're the majority of console gamers. Not little kids. Too bad we have to resort to digging our old consoles out of the basement, if we still have them, or making do with buggy emulator software.

Why not reward our loyalty to your brand with extensive, downloadable back catalogs of your previous games for each previous console? Give a certain number away upon purchase, but reward us with more by incentivizing your "achievements" or "trophies" with something tangible instead of empty bragging rights based on numbers that mean little more than "I've wasted more of my life playing video games than you have." Back-catalog game downloads would be a perfect place to start. 

All this brings me to my conclusion. I just want a simple game console with a great controller that plays the best new games and allows me to play online with my old friends. It's great to connect with buds to play a game together, but I don't care about much else. I want a game console designed to play the best games made by the best developers around, not a data gathering monster designed to spy on me in my own home.

Everything else we do is already monitored by Google and Comcast and the NSA and everybody else from here to Bangkok and back. My plea to Sony and Microsoft (and yes, I've been loyal to the Xbox consoles until now) is to just give us a basic version. One with no camera or voice activation or super sensors. Give us a software dashboard without television or music or movies or Facebook. Allow us to earn achievements or trophies in the form of classic games, playable on our new consoles.

But let's keep the focus on games. Let us get our other content elsewhere. You don't need to rule over our entire entertainment universe, and some of us don't even want you to try. We want you to be there when we want to play a video game, and leave us alone when we don't. Few of us even talk on the phone anymore, and we don't want to talk to you either. You're a game console. They're not supposed to talk.

Great games are worth that simple, narrow focus. The other stuff just gets in the way and complicates things, just as Ms. Wood has shown. We want a simple interface, the best games, and a great controller. Other than an online connection with our friends, that's it. If you must make fancy, socially networked, camera-centric, all-in-one, living-room octopus versions of your newest consoles, give those of us who just want to game another option. Sell a very simple version that only does what we need it to do--to play awesome games with our friends. That's it! Like Molly said! Simple.

Yes, we the fans of simple greatness are also the people who are still hoping that one day George Lucas will realize how wrong he is and release a plain, simple, basic version of his original trilogy on blu-ray without all the extra crap he's added over the years, recognizing his moral duty to Save Star Wars for film archivalists and generations to come, but it seems like there is precious little hope left.

Yes, we think he owes it to us, and yes, we are legion. We have spent a lot of money on his stuff over the years, and he only stands to gain additional billions from selling the theatrical versions of his films on Blu-ray, in addition to all the other crap he sells, but as of now, we're not buying what he's selling, and instead we're watching our crappy old VHS transfers. Han shot first, motherfucker.

We're also deciding not to budge on the parade of new video game consoles and sticking with our old ones instead because what we want is simple and it's the best. It's, uh, simply the best. Ha. Hey Microsoft and Lucasfilm, if you offer us what we want, we'll buy it. It really is that simple.

An Open Letter To Comcast

Dear Comcast,

How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. If the Supreme Court is right and corporations are people, I'd like to volunteer to wait in line to punch you in the face.

Let me make this perfectly clear: my anger is directed at you--the empty, faceless corporate entity--not at your thousands of minions forced to earn a measly hourly wage by doing your bidding, ignoring your customers' real questions, avoiding substantive answers, adhering to your carefully calculated script at all costs, changing prices like a drunk with the price-tag gun at Kmart during a blue light special in 1992, creating indefensibly fluctuating pricing tiers, revealing absolutely nothing when asked to explain the dubious nature of your shape-shifting service plans and wasting significant portions of your customers' lives whenever they have the audacity to disagree with you or to question any one of your multitudinous asinine policies.

After my latest incredibly frustrating interaction with you, I decided to turn my feelings into a post and share, because writing is therapy and sharing is caring. Wouldn't you agree? No, I guess you wouldn't. Because even though you like to spout off about how important it is to you, you wouldn't recognize customer service if it ran over you like a delivery truck full of telephone scripts for the human-bots you employ.

I guess you wouldn't know it because you'd be dead if the truck hit you, so this is not the greatest of illustrations, but the canned responses that you force upon your desperate and abused customers is but the tip of your carefully chiseled anti-consumer iceberg. Anyway, I need you to be alive to get my point across, so please shake it off and listen up. I know you don't care and aren't paying attention, but you need to hear this.

I am so very tired of dealing with you. I have stood by, complicit for approximately two decades as you have sucked money out of my wallet, month after month, like a morbidly obese future-human suckling a bottomless bucket of soda in the movie WALL-E. (I know you've seen it).

Meanwhile, you have managed to distance yourself entirely from any real interaction with your customers. I'm just the bot squirming at your feet to ensure that the tap of green keeps flowing from that wallet and that your mouth stays wide open to receive funds, as you struggle for balance while reaching out in every direction for more funds.

Building an impenetrable wall of babble around yourself with script readers mouthing prescribed, Orwellian corporate-speak, instead of real people offering truly interactive services, you bury the genuine individual you have hired beneath your required talking templates. Mercilessly insisting that your workers assimilate and toe the Borg/Comcast party line, you extract all semblance of humanity from your company's interactions with those whose money created and supports your very existence.

About those pricing tiers: I'm tired of the price of my internet service increasing every six months, and no, I don't want to upgrade, and I still don't want your television programming. I'm tired of spending hours on your worthless chat system every six months, wasting my life trying to get the chat-bot on the other end of the connection to ditch the script and level with me. I'm tired of spending even more hours being passed around a series of customer service representatives on the telephone after getting nowhere with your chat, still trying simply to get the same service at the same price from this day forward ad infinitum.

So maybe it is unrealistic of me to expect the bill to stay the same throughout eternity, but what customer buys into any kind of service contract and agrees to a responsibility of renegotiating the price every few months, forever? I can't think of one.

In November, when my price went up again, I knew better than to waste my time with your chat system. I had already been through several levels of your telephone tree of urgency, threat level defcon four, and having saved that number from the last time I talked to four different people, I called the fourth number directly into the "customer hates us and will most likely cancel" queue, where I still suffered through a 15 or maybe 20-minute hold.

I was subjected to the usual rigmarole about how my price was a "promotional rate" that had expired, and that no other promotional rates were available to allow me to keep my current rate of service at my current price. I told the script reader that I was fine with that because I was finished with promotional rates. I did not want another promotional rate. I think you know where you can shove your promotional rates. I wanted the same service at the same price to continue without having to go through this colossal waste of time and the accompanying headache ever again. 

One renegotiation every six months for a couple decades was just about enough for me. The script reader would not veer from the script despite my most heartfelt entreaties of human interaction and bumped me up to the next level of "stop this person from canceling before they turn off the tap of delicious green" or whatever you call it at your house, Comcast.

This next person sounded a little more human. She listened to me and quickly noted that I would be able to keep the same price, for an entire YEAR this time, if only I would agree to cutting my internet speed in HALF. Well gee, that sounds reasonable, right? No, but I agreed to it because I have no real alternative and could not accept a price increase. Unless I move to another neighborhood that you don't have firmly by the balls, I will still have to do battle with you again in November, but at least this is over for a year this time instead of a mere six lousy months. Or so I thought.

Earlier this month--that's three months since I signed up for your latest crappy offer--I got an email from you regarding my account "with recent changes." What recent changes? The email said that my "order" was confirmed. What order? It also said that the changes I had requested would be made. What requests?

Apparently my "order" included a bunch of cable stations, a digital converter box and another remote control for my collection. So yeah, I didn't order it and I still DON'T WANT IT. I even told the lady when I signed up for this three months ago that I didn't care about the TV option--that I just wanted the internet service.

So I replied to your email asking about why you were sending this to me--three months later--even though I didn't want it, had said so, and had not requested it or ordered anything. Of course, the email bounced back as undeliverable because you make sure that you can communicate with us via email, but we cannot reciprocate. Thanks.

I refused to waste any of my life trying to reach someone at your company and talk about this on the phone or via chat, so I didn't do anything else. When the box arrived with all the gear, I wrote "refused" on it and sent it back to you via the UPS guy, who is an awesome dude, by the way. Thanks Jeff.

Then, a week later, you sent me a letter telling me that you had sent me the box of stuff--as if it had just gone out the door--the same stuff that I had already returned to you a week ago--and that I should be on the lookout for it. Clearly it had already been returned to you.

What the hell is wrong with you, Comcast?

What customers want is a REAL HUMAN INTERACTION with someone who actually listens. We're not stupid. We don't need some corporate psychologist-penned soothe-speak to make us believe we're hearing what we want to hear. We don't need to be coddled and told that you understand how we feel because that claim is empty, shallow and insulting.

If you really understood what it feels like to be on the other end of the line, you'd be revamping your whole approach to the word service. Look it up. Like Inigo says in The Princess Bride, "you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." You cannot attain empathy and achieve real customer service until you allow your employees to actually listen, ditch your infernal script, stop designing your pricing structure like a cell-phone store on crack and solve problems accordingly. Yes, it will take more time. I think you owe it to us.

But wait, doth the human/corporation protest? You're not the only industry that treats its customers like this, you might argue. You're betting on us being lazy and stupid or both--that we will forget or simply choose not to wrestle with you, just like the insurance company that subtly overcharges us, the credit card company that cranks up our interest rates or the hospital that spanks us with its chargemaster.

I don't want to hear that, Comcast. Just because you operate in America doesn't mean you should use and abuse us like other American corporations do. You could easily choose to go your own way, earn your keep by streamlining and simplifying your plans, ditching your scripts, treating your customers like people and doing the right thing. Ha.

I'm cracking myself up here, telling you--a corporation that's legally a person--that it should treat it's customers more like people, but it doesn't have to be this way. You could be winning awards by designing simple plans for your customers and investing in human capital for real interactions with your staff and thereby attract even more customers, but what do I know?

I'm still paying you every month--until I don't, and by then it's too late--so why should you care what I think? Yes, of course I would go to another ISP for innerweb-service if I had the option, but lucky for you, you already have a monopoly where I live. One day, though. One day I will escape your infuriatingly manipulative, inhuman clutches and never return. That's a promise, Comcast. Unless you change.

I had already started writing this letter when the news arrived recently about your attempt to merge with Time Warner and complete your diabolical domination of American internet and digital television distribution. Never content to own less than the whole pie, you have steadily climbed the charts, dominating "worst of" lists among your subscribers steadily as you gorge yourself on ever-expanding chunks of market share, achieving number two status on MSN Money's Customer Service Hall of Shame and number four on Business Insider's 15 Worst Companies for Customer Service, both in 2013.

You can do this! Number one in 2014! Devour Time Warner's customers, treat them with as much disdain as you have always shown for us, and the title is surely yours! Maybe it's just me that thinks this merger is a horrible idea, but I don't think so. You make it hard to cut the cord, no doubt, but I'm far from the only "unbundler" out there who only wants fast, reliable internet service at a reasonable price that does not fluctuate and a real person who actually answers the phone or even chats as if they exist and have a pulse.

You can keep your crappy cable television stations, commercials, set-top boxes, extra remotes, DVRs and equipment rental fees too. We, the unbundlers are many, and we demand to be heard. We represent a trend that isn't going away. You are going to have to find a way to appease us without forcing your TV service down our collective throats. Treat us like humans and give us what we want. Nothing more, nothing less. Otherwise, we will leave you and never look back.

Sincerely,

CD

PS: From now until Xfinity, I will henceforth be referring to you as CRAPSHAFT.

Popcorn: Well Worth The Sticking In The Teeth.

As far back as I can remember, I've loved popcorn as if it were an old, delicious friend, but not everybody does. You might think that my snack of choice, the crispy, crunchy, salty, buttery bliss synonymous with going to the movies, would be universally beloved. Not so, I say.

In my highly scientific investigation into the subject--which consists of offering people popcorn if they happen to be over for a movie, bringing some to a potluck and observing reactions, or publicly quizzing random strangers about their favorite snack foods as conversation allows--at least a few people have declined my offers of fresh, hot popcorn or admitted their general aversion to the snack. Mostly these weirdos cite the universal problem threatening us all: the sticking in the teeth.

Well, nobody likes the sticking in the teeth, but it's a risk one must take in order to experience the best that our world of snacks has to offer, and if you're into oral hygiene, as any healthy person should be, those wee bits will have a very short-lived residency between your gums and chompers. So be bold, snackers. Eat some popcorn. Surely Levi Spear Parmly, or whoever actually invented dental floss, must have loved his popcorn.

Popcorn may be ubiquitous, omnipresent everywhere from the grocery store to the rural county fair, from the urban street parade to the break room at your office, from every movie theatre in the world to your local bank lobby, and at random, inexplicable locales in between, but there's a reason for it. It's cheap, easy to make and smells good, even to those who don't consume it, kind of like coffee. But for those who really love it, even bad popcorn is better than no popcorn, kind of like science-fiction movies.

Lingering sad and stale under a heat lamp, your favorite snack, albeit a lessor version of it, sits behind plastic double doors, in striped paper bags, on the waiting-room end table at the tire shop where they change your oil. Do you go for a bag? You know that popcorn could and should be so much better than this aged, brittle, low-grade chewy stuff. But it's free, and it's better than watching Fox News on the TV bolted to the wall over your head or flipping through that stack of greasy US Weekly magazines.

You grab a bag. The first handful transforms immediately to a dry, styrofoam paste that coats the inside of your mouth, tasting of burned canola oil and regret. There is no soda machine to help you out, but something compels you to keep munching. It must be the inherent, illusive, indefatigable, resolute greatness at the heart of popcorn, quite simply the world's greatest snack.

I have very few books leftover from my childhood, but one favorite remains sealed away in a special box in my dad's basement, along with my original Optimus Prime action figure, intact but for a single missing fist; a couple of threadbare stuffed animals; and a handful of other favorite, well-read books like Frog and Toad are Friends, There is a Monster at the End of This Book and Where The Wild Things Are. Among these few treasured favorites, there is a colorful picture book by Tomie dePaola, and it is called The Popcorn Book.

I don't recall much about the story, other than the popcorn taking taking over a house, flooding the place from floor to ceiling, and the kids riding a wave of it out the front door with glee, but looking back on it via the innerwebs, I see that the book also goes into the history of popcorn and even includes recipes.

My dad can be held responsible for my undying love of the world's greatest snack. As a kid, I would watch as he heated an old pressure-cooker on the stove, simmering two kernels of un-popped corn until they exploded, flying into the air. I would scramble to collect them before dad dumped the rest of the corn into the hot oil, shaking the old pressure cooker furiously to coat the kernels with sizzling oil and putting the lid in place.

The pressure cooker was once green, but by the time my step-mom made him get rid of it, it was more of a deep, dark green, baked in two or three decades of blackened vegetable oil, inside and out, no matter how hard you scrubbed the thing. 

I took dad's training to heart and have never stopped making my popcorn the same way, though i use a plain, flat-bottom pot, not a pressure cooker. The chemical-laden abomination that is microwave popcorn does not cross the threshold of my home, and a hot air popcorn popper, which eliminates oil, and with it, all the flavor, is also unacceptable.

My lovely wife has been converted to my popcorn purist ways, and for a time we purchased our favorite snack in 50-pound bags, which typically lasted us a year. Who's the weirdo now? However, having downsized our living space with each move and currently residing in our third and smallest residence, we find storage space lacking and typically keep only 10 or 20 pounds of popcorn on hand. That's probably still kind of weird, but it's how we do it.

Several years ago, for a good while I was combing the innerwebs' vast reaches for what might be the best varietals in the finest of popping corns, searching for an elusive popcorn nirvana or maybe just exploring what the internet and UPS could offer, as far as popcorn options go. Aware of the tendency of most popcorn to be even more pesticide-infused than the average grocery store fare, I began a search for organic corn.

Some of the best popcorn I have tried is made by the Amish, but surprisingly, that corn--at least the brand that I tried--was not organic. Now I make a special trip to the fancypants grocery for the best stuff, organic yellow or white, and I pop it on the stove with vegetable oil and add fine-ground sea salt, and sometimes real butter. Nothing else compares.

If you think microwave popcorn is pretty good, I am throwing down the popcorn gauntlet with this post. Be bold. Embrace change. Reward yourself. Try the good stuff, without the long list of pesticides, chemicals and flavoring agents. Pop it on your stove. It's worth the effort. You will be so glad that you did, you won't even mind the sticking in the teeth.

Will Someone Please Resurrect THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN?

I love movie mysteries. Mysteries surrounding movies that fail to happen, movies left toiling for years, movies unable to secure funding or overcome any number of obstacles en route to their completion or release. There are plenty of fascinating stories, like Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempts to make a film about Don Quixote with Johnny Depp, which spawned Lost in La Mancha, a documentary about a feature film that for a wide range of reasons was never completed. It should have been, but at least we have an excellent document of Gilliam's attempts.

Stanley Kubrick's massive epic that never was, Napoleon, is perhaps the white whale for cinephiles wondering what might have been. Studio executives decided that historical epics weren't cool enough at the time Kubrick sought funding, thus depriving generations of film students and movie fans what could have been yet another masterpiece from one of cinema's greatest auteurs. Kubrick's unfilmed vision, at the very least, became a beautiful, exhaustive, 1,112-page hardback doorstop of a book, probably the most spectacular volume ever created about a movie that never existed, so there's that.

Obsessing over what might have been is a quick prescription for depression, but cultivating a healthy curiosity over films that almost happened or might happen and unearthing related trivia can be fun. I'm excited that Gilliam has found someone to invest in his unique brand of transcendent cinematic weirdness once again with his latest head trip, this one starring Christoph Waltz and titled The Zero Theorem.

Speaking of masterpieces that should have been, remember the Halo movie? What would surely have been the first good movie based on a video game, ever...the one that never happened? Though I've written here and here about the history of his rocky relationship with a potential Halo movie project, I'm still interested in what may yet occur between Neill Blomkamp and his is-he-or-isn't-he involvement with an as-yet non-existent Halo film.

Following the Xbox One's release and Microsoft's announcement that Steven Spielberg will produce a forthcoming episodic live action series set in the Halo universe, the rumor mill fired up again this week, saying that Blomkamp may direct the first episode. I still believe that Blomkamp is the best director for the job, if a Halo movie ever happens, and if we don't get a movie and instead have only this series, he's the obvious choice.

Just in case, somehow, you're not convinced that Peter Jackson's protege (the digital effects wunderkind turned director who brought us District 9 and Elysium) has the chops to helm a future Halo movie or series, please check out his two aforementioned movies, and revisit this compiled collection of his live-action Halo shorts, LANDFALL, produced in the buildup to the Halo 3 video game's release.

Thinking about what might have been reminds me of a great local film project, a labor of love that never got off the ground, despite a hilarious script and a great trailer, shot locally and featuring a few zombified friends of mine. Inspired by classics of the zombie genre like the Evil Dead trilogy and Sean of the Dead, The South Will Rise Again was to be a comedic love story about "zombies, karate and rednecks." See also: shotguns, heavy metal, dirt bikes, trailer parks, ninja swords, meth labs and headbands. What else do you need to achieve comic cinematic brilliance? Financiers, I guess. I keep hoping this film will rise from the dead, but it's been nearly a decade, and I'm still waiting. The fact that the world continues to be deprived of this film is wrong. Very wrong. Very, very wrong.

Speaking of karate and cinematic brilliance, how about a new 80s-inspired movie featuring a Kung-fu super-cop versus a Nazi Kung-fu Fuhrer, plus Thor, his Uzi-packing Viking lady-friend, a DeLorean, a boombox, dinosaurs, killer arcade machines and a time-travel-enabling Nintendo power glove? Sign me up. So I'm a little late to the party. Big surprise. Somehow I missed the wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the now certain-to-be-completed film known as Kung Fury, but I can rest easy now, knowing that I'll definitely have the pleasure of experiencing it, thanks to 17,713 investors who agree that it must exist, for the betterment of all humanity.

Thank you, kind investors. Please invest your remaining dollars in The South Will Rise Again. The world thanks you. If only I could convince the writers of TSWRA to launch a Kickstarter campaign...

PS. Speaking of kicking the crap out of Nazis, here's more good news. Dead Snow 2 is coming out. Holy crap, I'm stoked. If you like zombie movies and somehow missed the first one, do yourself a favor and watch it tonight. Then watch this trailer for Dead Snow 2: Red Vs. Dead.

Nashville Needs A Barcade

Dear well-connected, cash-flush Businesspeople and Investor Types,

Nashville needs a barcade. Bar + Arcade = Barcade. Brilliant, right? I'm not at all sure that right now many of you are surfing the vast nether regions of the innerwebs, fine-tooth-combing your way through the most obscure nooks and crannies of the farthest reaches of our fiber-optically crisscrossed global network of overheated servers in search of new and innovative ways to squeeze megabucks out of thin air, but my guess is that you probably are.

Maybe you're bored with the advice of mainstream, old, successful investors like Warren Buffett (too long-view-y) and Carl Icahn (too Bain Capital-y).

You want to invest in something new, something designed for a younger audience, but not too young. Something that appeals to your inherent need to invest and your desire to build wealth fast, something more unpredictable with a greater risk/reward index than boring old blue-chips, safe SMP-500s and Apple shares.

Maybe you're tired of scrolling through Kickstarter for inspiration after that debacle with the locksmith guy, and maybe you don't give a crap about the new Veronica Mars movie, so you've decided to take some advice from random, unpopular bloggers on where to throw your piles of extra cash, and you find yourself here, at my humble abode. Welcome! If you were here in person, I'd offer you an IPA.

So your quest for capital-worthy ideas has led you to my eclectic little corner of the web, Gosh, you're an interesting, opinionated, nuanced investor/businessperson of discerning tastes who knows real talent when you see it, I can really tell. Thanks for stopping by. Put your feet up. 

No, I am not one of you, being neither cash-infused nor business savvy, I cannot make this--my imaginary yet destined-for-greatness venture--happen for myself, but I bet your Best Business Idea Detector is tingling like Peter Parker's Spidey Sense when he first met Gwen Stacy!

Well, get those investment dollars ready because boy, do I have an idea for you! Yep, that was rhetorical, so no question mark, and boy is genderless in this sense. I know what you're thinking. Get to it, you wordy motherfucker. Whoah there, Gordon Gekko, keep your suit on. This is fun for me, and what is a blog, other than a public excuse for word wanking, rambling on incessantly about things only you find interesting or important? Yeah, well, Nashville needs a barcade.

Allow me to elaborate on the genesis of this brainstorm. There once was a restaurant in town that I really liked called Mirko. They made their own pasta. They weren't winning any James Beard Awards or Michelin stars, but the food was tasty and reasonably priced. One day, I noticed they had closed. Bummer. Not long after that, I was at a bar and heard a rumor that a "barcade" had opened. I was intrigued.

The magical synergy of a bar and an arcade sounded like a formula for fun. My Galaga trigger-button finger twitched with anticipation. The next day, I got a text from a friend about the new business that had replaced the pasta place. It sounded like it had to be the barcade that I'd heard about, so I looked it up. Second bummer.

It's not that what Two Bits came up with is a bad idea. I'm sure they're doing what they're doing very well, and a lot of things on their menu look absolutely delicious. I wish them well. I haven't been there yet, and I'm not reviewing them with this post.

Clearly the focus is on the food there, not the games, and while nothing is wrong with that, we're just not talking about the same kind of place. If I had a shot at it, I'd go a different route, but again, I'm not businessman, so maybe my approach would be an epic failure. All I know is that what sounds good to me--my idea of a barcade--for my own enjoyment and for that of my friends, looks very different.

My concept for an ideal barcade does not include a renowned, internationally trained executive chef who has worked with with famous cookbook authors and television hosts. Its menu would not include two dozen beers, a cocktail menu or words like "mixologist" or "libations." There would be no octopus, goat cheese, mussels or tabouleh on the menu. There wouldn't be a menu.

There might be a dry erase board behind the bar, though. And maybe an old CD jukebox with punk rock, metal and grunge. My barcade would be for people who like to drink beer and play classic arcade games, period. It wouldn't be a restaurant with upscale bar food, a few arcade games and consoles with giant television sets or board games.

The focus would be on the video games, specifically on acquiring and maintaining a large, carefully curated collection of classic upright arcade machines. And there would be beer. But not too many choices. Just a few good ones. In the back corner of the large room, a small bar would be set up with a simple selection of three or four beers that could be subject to irregular rotation: one IPA, one stout, one lager, one pilsner. Standard (16 oz) pint glasses, if the law allows. Reasonable prices.

There wouldn't be a lot of places to sit in my barcade because people would gather there to play games and drink beers while standing up because, well, most people usually stand up when playing arcade games. There would be a few stools at the bar and a few others for those who like to sit at arcade machines. There would be custom-built beer stands, or small, tall, side tables with holes cut in them to accommodate pint glasses securely, next to every arcade unit.

Players would simply set their beers aside next to their games, within the wooden holes of these custom beer towers, where pints would be free from spillage and ready when needed. Patrons would grab a beer and then wander about from game to game.

Possible variations, should your team of developers choose to expand on my ideas, include the addition of air hockey, billiards, darts, pinball and table tennis. But let's not get too carried away. No need for skeeball, shuffleboard or whack-a-mole. There is, however, a distinct lack of table tennis in bars, if you ask me. What a great game.

Another option would be to add a pizza parlor and some booths in the back. You know, the whole "cook one simple thing and do it really well, with very limited options" approach...but I don't know. You guys are the experts on making money. My gut says keep it simple and do a couple key things perfectly.

I maintain that the further we stray from the original idea--the purity of classic arcade games and a simple beer selection--the more opportunities we have to invite complications and ultimate failure. I remain confident in those two ingredients for success: Beer + Arcade Games = All You Need. If you build it they will come.

As for all the other "how do we make money on this" questions, like tokens or credits, cover charges or change machines, free games and expensive beers, free beers and expensive games, cheap food and cheap beer or cheap games, I don't know. I say it should all be cheap and as simple as possible for customers, but margins are easier to make on alcohol, right? Like I said, I'm not one of you.

I'm just speaking from the perspective of someone who would really like to meet up with friends to visit and enjoy a place like this--one that only exists in my imagination--but I think I'm not the only one who would dig it. So grab your businessperson/investor friends and make it happen, okay? Make your fortune. Greed is good, right Gekko? The idea is yours to run with. All that I ask in return is a free lifetime pass for admission, beer and games. Cheers.

I'm sure you're already off to a running start, certain that Nashville needs this place desperately and that you, you well-connected MBA with rich friends and a passionate appreciation for Galaga, Gauntlet, Joust, Street Fighter, TRON, Operation Wolf, Tetris, Afterburner, Rolling Thunder and Contra are already drawing up a business plan.

But wait a minute. Just so you know, the folks who started Barcade in Brooklyn (of course it's in Brooklyn, right?) have already copywritten the name and expanded with additional locations in New York, Jersey City and Philadelphia, and they're definitely onto something closer to what I have in mind. Their concept is still a little fancier than what I'm pitching, but I say let's beat them to it before they spread into the southeast and do this thing for us. Beercade is also taken.

We'll have to call it Taverncade, unless you like Admiral Arcbar, which kind of sucks. Better yet, how about Pubcade? I like the sound of that that: PUBCADE it is. Your move, businesspeople and investor types. Make it happen for us. Nashville nerds of all ages (21 and up) will thank you. Operation initiated!

Side Effects En Route To The Wonder At The World's End

So it was Depressing Double Feature Night at my place recently, where we have been temporarily inundated with a surplus of movies, first because I took advantage of a promotion for one free month of an extra Netflix disc over the holidays, and again because I had trouble with two copies of The Wolverine, so they sent me even more movies from my queue, which only seems to have grown from its usual 350 or so titles, despite my best efforts to view films and knock it down to a more manageable number.

We've been churning through them as one tends to do in times of record-setting frigid temperatures at the tail end of this random Polar Vortex, Down South.

'Tis the season for hot chocolate, flannel sheets and extra movies, depressing movies like Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects and Terrence Malick's To The Wonder, but fun movies too, like Edgar Wright's The World's End. I've also been rationing my final installments of the audio version of Joe Hill's great horror novel, NOS4A2, which I've been listening to on my ear-buds in the kitchen while cooking dinner of late.

I read and enjoyed his last novel, Horns, but this one is unputdownable, or unnotlistenable, or something along those lines, and it feels like a seasonal thing, too. I mean, it's the right time of year for a story about a monster from an icy world full of murderous child-monsters called Christmasland, isn't it?

I'm also nearing the end of J.W. Rinzler's exhaustive making-of tome, The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind The Original Film, because I'm still a Star Wars dork and cannot resist this coffee-table monster of a book despite its faint, microscopic eight-point font that gives me a neck ache every time I read it. Book tangent over.

Steven Soderbergh has always been a versatile filmmaker, able to shift between big-budget commercial fare and micro-financed art films with an easy confidence. My favorites of his include The Limey, Traffic, Haywire, Che and Solaris, and more recently, Contagion and Behind the Candelabra. His Oceans trilogy is good, popcorn fun, but I was somewhat disappointed by The Good German and The Informant!, and at least one more of his films was bloody awful to the core (Full Frontal).

He's also exec-produced a lot of good stuff that other folks directed, often for George Clooney, like Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, not to mention Insomnia and Far From Heaven. Speaking to the Associated Press, he said that

"American movie audiences now just don't seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative--I'm talking in large numbers, there are always some, but enough to make hits out of movies that have those qualities. I think those qualities are now being seen on television and that people who want to see stories that have those kinds of qualities are watching television." 

I agree that post-Sopranos TV is better than ever, but I hope the rumors of his retirement from the big screen are just passing thoughts between projects.

I'm always interested in what Soderbergh is up to because it's usually a safe bet that it's going to be something smart, interesting and creatively shot, with excellent actors. And I for one enjoy complex characters, narratives and ambiguity, whenever I can find them, and I know I'm not alone. Whether all those things come together in the right way every time or not, Soderbergh has earned his spot on my watch list.

In his recent film Side Effects, Rooney Mara, solid in David Fincher's Hollywood version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and more recently in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, again plays a troubled young woman, this time addicted to various medications for reasons that remain unclear for most of the film. She seeks help from an ambitious psychiatrist played by Jude Law, who may have extended his finances a bit too far and gets in over his head.

Soderbergh's tendency to helm the camera in lieu of a director of photography (he sometimes makes up an alias in the credits for the DOP) serves him well here, as the movie feels claustrophobic, a reflective melange of glass, concrete and steel that constricts its characters, each facing a steadily building pressure within the confines of prisons, mental hospitals, high rise condos or executive offices. Avoiding spoilers, I will say only that Side Effects reminded me, in a good way, of one of Edward Norton's early and memorable roles in Primal Fear (1996).

Next up that same night, we watched Terrence Malick's To The Wonder, yet another of Malick's beautiful tone poems, virtually bereft of plot or character development but chock full of gorgeous nature-based cinematography, loving gazes shot at the magic hour, sunbeams pulsing through the tops of green trees and plenty of wispy, translucent curtains. What is it with Malick and the drapes? This guy loves window dressing like Scorsese loves a hot, wet New York street.

Spoiler alert: To The Wonder records the downfall of two doomed relationships for no apparent reason. What is up with Ben Affleck's character? Who knows? Does he even have a name? We only get to see the back of his neck and his shoulder most of the time, and he never says anything anyway. Why is he so unhappy? Is it so bad having two beautiful women fall in love with you? He has a nice home, a decent job, and just can't seem to make it work. Poor guy.

Full disclosure: though I enjoyed his first two movies from the 70s, my favorite of his films by far is Malick's 1998 adaptation of James Jones' 1962 novel about his experiences at Guadalcanal during WWII, The Thin Red Line, a triumphant return to filmmaking after a 20-year hiatus. I've been dutifully watching his every film since then, all three of them, but neither The New World nor The Tree of Life nor To The Wonder moved me quite like The Thin Red Line. It's not that they aren't interesting films with Malick's typically transcendent visuals. It's not that they didn't feature excellent actors at the tops of their games.

I suspect that perhaps he has moved steadily away from an interest in character and instead pursues a feeling created by much more broad brush strokes. The script, if there even is one, is discarded as a mere general idea, and images lead the way. An American director is making foreign art films via the Hollywood system, and he is Terrence Malick. There can be only one. Of course I will watch everything he does, plot or no plot.

On a lighter note, for quite some time, I had looked forward to the third installment of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's unofficial comic genre trilogy, which began with Shaun of the Dead (zombies), continued with Hot Fuzz (buddy cops), and concluded with The World's End (pints and killer robot aliens). I knew from the trailer that five old friends and their epic 20-year anniversary pub crawl would be interrupted by an alien robopocalypse.

I knew from the history of this filmmaking team that there would be plenty of great bit players, droll humor and one-liners. What I didn't expect was...well...Rosamund Pike. She was a nice addition, along with all the other familiar faces from The Hobbit, Harry Brown, The Bourne Ultimatum, Sherlock Holmes, etc. Despite a lack of surprises, The World's End was a lot of fun. I'd like the dream team of Pegg, Wright (and of course the great Nick Frost) to continue to make comedic action genre films of every kind. How about a western?

The Place Beyond The Wolverine

Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010) is to divorce what Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000) is to drug abuse: not an easy film to watch, but a painfully moving work of fiction grounded in profound truths, a movie you are happier to have seen than you may be inclined to revisit again.

A genuine depiction of a doomed relationship's arc, Blue Valentine follows the first tentative sparks of attraction to the blissful heights of joy, through the agonizing decline and the ultimate heartbreaking implosion of a partnership. Cianfrance noted in this interview that as a young man of 21 years, he had sought to process his parents' divorce through his work, and the real emotion his screenplay is built on remains evident.

The movie spent nearly 13 years in gestation with something like 56 script revisions, considerable input and improvisational work from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams and a cinema verite, documentary-style camera that allows viewers to achieve fly-on-the-wall status and watch things unravel as if they are present in the room. Cianfrance's spare, unflashy movie hinges almost entirely on the magnetic chemistry and intense performances of its two stars. Though the romance genre rarely tops my must-see list, I was impressed with Blue Valentine.

Thus, I was eagerly anticipating Cianfrance's next film, The Place Beyond The Pines (2012). The trailer revealed an excellent cast in what appeared to be a gritty indie crime drama pairing Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper as two ambitious young men on opposing sides of the law, both with infant sons, money issues and problems with authority.

As an admirer of Michael Mann's cops and robbers classic Heat (1995) and awareness of Cianfrance's knack for well-developed characters, I was excited by what appeared evident by the trailer: a great rivalry played out in epic fashion between two strong leads with an effective balance of dramatic interplay, action set pieces and the compelling passions, similarities and differences that compel the two men into conflict.

But the trailer lied. Gosling is the lead for the first third of the movie, and Cooper takes over for the second, and then a couple kids become the focus of the film in a series of transitional protagonists that is at first jarring yet eventually becomes predictable and a little after-school specialish. Kudos to Cianfrance for shaking up expectations, but my hopes of Gosling and Cooper building a rivalry were squashed, as they share the screen for all of two seconds, maybe less. Not allowing these two talents to interact more leaves this viewer feeling somewhat burgled.

All actors were strong, particularly those in smaller parts, like Ben Mendelsohn as Robin, a kindly mechanic with a crooked idea for making some quick cash; Eva Mendes as a mother reaping the trouble sewn by her child's father, and Dane DeHaan as yet another troubled teen, but perhaps Cianfrance had too many ingredients for something brilliant that just couldn't be squeezed into what seemed like a brief 140 minutes.

Maybe, like World War Z, it was miniseries-worthy material that was pretty good when compressed into feature film length, but if given the time to stretch, could have been great. The Place Beyond The Pines felt shortchanged, condensed and restricted by its running time, but it remains worthy of a look.

So did the latest outing of that angry dude with sideburns and steel claws. Let's see...in the trailer...doesn't he fight a bad guy on a train? Does anyone not fight bad guys on top of speeding trains anymore? You really have to hand it to the charming, multi-talented, singing, dancing, acting man, Hugh Jackman. He called up The Rock (yes, Dwayne Johnson this time) for advice on bulking up to mantacular, Huge JackedMan size and thus commenced eating 6,000 calories a day of chicken, steak and brown rice, achieving his own exacting standard for what the Wolverine should look like.

According to IMDB, Jackman's sixth appearance as the ripped, scowling, usually invulnerable, adamantium-beskeletoned hero (James Mangold's The Wolverine, a 2013 sequel to 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, AKA X3) is the Wolvie outing in which Jackman says he finally had enough time to get into the kind of shape he felt would best showcase everybody's favorite hairy, cigar-chomping mutant. Maybe I have a problem. I liked X3. My buddy Andrew, who loves Wolverine more than anyone, thinks I'm a fool for that. Sorry Drew. I was entertained.

It's not like I don't have high standards for movies, but maybe it's just that I lower them too much for superhero fare. I am not looking for much other than a decent story, some decent acting, some grounding in the comics and some decent action. Is that so wrong? Should I have higher standards for superhero movies?

It's not like there are that many standouts. I have delved into this before, but I it seems appropriate to mention my favorite superhero movies here again. Don't worry. My list is short: Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Chris Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) are my favorites. Of course they aren't perfect, but they're my gold standard for superhero movies.

Aside from those four, most others feel like the usual popcorn entertainment. The first Iron Man (2008) is also a favorite of mine, but as much as I have loved comics over my lifetime (and I love The Wolverine's source material, Frank Miller and Chris Claremont's 1982 series on the character), I just don't expect dizzying heights of greatness from movies about comic book heroes. I look forward to them as much as anyone else, but this way I'm disappointed less.

I almost always give these (superhero) films three of the five possible stars on the Netflix scale, as I'm pretty much guaranteed to "like" them, which doesn't mean I "really like" or "love" them (4 and 5 star criteria). I guess this is a bad time to mention that I also enjoyed the first solo Wolverine flick, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), which so many people got all bent out of shape about.

So what if I don't remember anything except that this movie was about Wolverine; he was a lumberjack; and he didn't get along with his brother Sabretooth, who was played by Liev Schreiber (who is always good)? What else is there to know? It was entertaining enough. A solid three stars. Sorry again, Drew. I know you expect more from your superhero flicks and wanted more from this one too.

So I was bummed when I heard that Darren Aronofsky, one of my favorite directors, had resigned from directing The Wolverine after considerable time in development. I thought he might bring a welcome bit of darker weirdness into Marvel's PG-13 land of MPAA appeasement and perhaps even drag Logan into deep, R-rated territory where he belongs.

And speaking of Aronofsky, Jackman and the rare romance film that sinks its claws into me, I loved The Fountain (2006), an overlooked gem of Aronofsky's, if you ask me. Mr. Jackman and Rachel Weisz, the director's ex-wife, both shine in this sci-fi-tinged modern/historical drama about the tree of life and multiple versions of doomed lovers across time and space. And so Aronofsky's weirdness was not destined to rub off on our latest installment of the slicey, dicey adventures of Adamantium Man.

That's okay. They got the guy who directed Cop Land (1997) to do it, and Mr. Mangold did a fine job. It was better than the origins tale, even though it got a little Looney Tunes toward the end, and I wasn't quite sure if Logan's new girlfriend was quite half his age or even old enough to have a boyfriend yet. Ah well. Jackman has the chops to make us believe in a compelling character, whatever is thrown at him, or whomever he throws off whatever balcony. I look forward to the Wolverine's seventh adventure, wherever his claws should lead him. Here's to ya, bub. Let's see what Aronofsky does with Noah...

Joe Satriani, Gay Marriage and The Rock

When I was but a wee lad, I went flying in a blue dream and never quite made it back. Before my voice changed, I was introduced to the music of Joe Satriani, (AKA Satch), the custom Ibanez-slinging instrumental guitar hero who taught the other custom Ibanez-wielding wankster, Frank Zappa acolyte and David Lee Roth/Whitesnake alumnus, Steve Vai.

Satch also taught Metallica's lead shredder, Kirk Hammett, Primus's guitarist Larry LaLonde and Testament's Alex Scholnick, as well many other prominent and lessor-known fretboard freaks. He has unleashed a steady stream of (mostly) instrumental, solo-artist guitar rock since maxing out his credit cards to record Not of This Earth (1986), an album featuring one of my favorite tracks, Driving at Night."

Over the last few years, Joe has also moonlighted in the "supergroup" known as Chickenfoot, handling guitar duties among friends Chad Smith, Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar. As I kid, of course I wished I could play like Joe, but as Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel put it on a Satch VHS tape I once owned, "you can't be jealous of something you can't fathom."

Nigel was right. Unquestionably a master of his instrument, Joe has always seemed like a gentleman who stayed true to his art while rock music rolled through one trend after another, and although he sued them, I doubt even Coldplay would ever have accused Satch of being a "savage twit."

After Not of This Earth, I collected every Satch album through The Extremist (1992), and I haven't kept up with the majority of the last quarter-century-plus of music he has released, but Joe's late-80s to early 90s back catalog remains a guilt-free pleasure that I have been revisiting more often of late. I don't believe in guilty pleasures anyway. Sure, some of Satch's music is considered by many to be pretty damn cheesy, and I get that. If you've never heard Joe before, give him a chance. Embrace the cheese.

Instrumental solo guitar showmanship, though it has sold its share of records, has never been front and center in the musical mainstream. It's certainly not "cool" for a lot of people who consider themselves "serious" rock fans and frown on solo artists who excel at their instruments and are happy to demonstrate it.

These folks only listen to bands with "messages" that speak to them for one reason or another. While I'm a fan of plenty of "serious bands" and also enjoy dark, thoughtful lyrics paired with spare, minimal musical arrangements too, I still dig me some Satch.

I once had a very restrictive set of rules confining my music listening. As a teenager, certain bands were cool. Other bands were not acceptable. For that brief, excessively judgmental time, I only succeeded in limiting my own potential enjoyment of a wider variety of musical genres.

However, like a lot of teenage phases, including the stupid haircut that involved shaving the sides of my head and letting the rest of my thick, wavy hair grow long and hang over one eye; or wearing necklaces with miniature, bejeweled, pewter sword pendants and plaid pajama pants tucked into combat boots, I grew out of it and learned to embrace variety.

Who cares if you enjoy songs by Minor Threat, Enya, Metallica, Tina Turner, John Denver, Operation Ivy, Slayer, John Coltrane, Kathleen Edwards, Fishbone, Doomriders, Old 97s, Florence and The Machine, Queensryche, Fugazi, Marvin Gaye, Rancid, P-funk, Iron Maiden, John McCutcheon, Joan Jett, Shania Twain, Joe Satriani, Neurosis, Crooked Fingers and Billy Joel? I do too.

Put them all on one playlist if you like. Collect a ton of music and hit shuffle. You might hear something you haven't heard in years, and variety is a good thing. Don't get stuck in a rut of what's cool and what's not. Try something new. Well, old, I guess.

Or you could get crazy and check out something on the radio. I tried that and failed today, riding in someone else's car and hearing only Maroon 5 and Korn, but don't let my failure to hear something awesome deter you! Don't fear what you're not familiar with. You might discover something great and even learn from it. Nobody is keeping track of what is cool or uncool about your personal selection of tunes, and if they are, tell them to get bent. Your music collection is your own. Be bold!

And another thing. Just because you like a song or two doesn't mean you have to worship an artist's whole freaking discography. In the late 90s, when music became downloadable, at the first whispering death knell of the compact disc, purists decried the demise of the album; of course they had done this before at the onset of the cassette and again when CDs had first arrived on the scene.

Rock music, they pleaded, was designed to be experienced as an album, not as a song here, a song there, a radio hit here, a movie soundtrack tune there. The purists argued that The Rock (not Dwayne Johnson) was being ruined by easy access to "singles," or the ease of buying single tracks from albums on iTunes or elsewhere...instead of being forced to buy the whole set of 10 or 12 songs, light candles, put the player on repeat, pour a glass of vino tinto and snuggle under a blanket to memorize the lyrics.

Though the single predated it, the vinyl LP ushered in an era of the album's dominance. The large-format art, the full track listing, the lyrics, the photos, the liner notes. The whole experience. The boomer generation, raised on vinyl LPs, led the charge against the bastardization of the album format and pointed the finger at iTunes and its competitors who had enabled a music consumer to pick and choose individual tracks for purchase.

The purists were offended, I think. "Real fans" would only be interested in an entire album, and people who only listened to the radio, only cared about hits and didn't do the serious music fan homework of digging deep and getting to know an album like an old friend were somehow cheapening everyone else's engagement with music.

But these purists seemed to miss the fact that singles had been around for a long time, since the original prevalence of 45s, and hasn't music been there for us all to enjoy in our own ways from the beginning anyway? We just have a greater variety of means for which to do so today. Who is making the rules for this stuff anyway?

Listen to what you want to listen to in whatever format or frequency our outfit you prefer. I won't feel threatened or as though my preferences have been rendered illegitimate by your insistence on listening to your favorite Korn singles and B-sides on your Granddad's record player, between selected Gordon Lightfoot selections of AM gold. Have fun and more power to you. I prefer Gordon to Korn, but you didn't ask my opinion, did you?

For a time, I was guilty of this narrow, juvenile musical mindset, but aren't we all like this for a while in junior high? Looking back, my cool/not cool music concerns of decades past seems silly and reminds me of arguments I have heard against gay marriage. Maybe this is a stretch, dear reader, but bear with me. It's just a blog post, so I can take this all over the map, right? Just check out this post's title, right?

Consider a straight man arguing that a gay couple's right to marry somehow impacts his own marriage in a negative way, that it somehow makes his own marriage less legitimate. He may describe a gay person's right to marry as a "threat" to his own.

Yes, elected officials in America have actually made this argument in public. I have never understood this position, perhaps because it has no basis in logic whatsoever. How could someone else's marriage threaten yours? What does someone else's lifestyle choice have to do with yours? How could anyone else's choices have anything to do with yours, from marriage to music and from your choice of living room furniture to what kind of Chinese food you prefer?

Sorry, I may be losing some of you here with this tangent, but my point is that who cares if someone wants to buy only hit radio singles via iTunes? How does that choice impede your enjoyment of full-length albums on the couch as you read liner notes and sip that red wine? Why is everyone so worried about how other people live their lives?

Okay, let's circle back around again, fans of the absurd blogging randomness that is HARDBARNED. Thanks for hanging in there, all three of you. So yeah, Joe Satriani. He's been on my mind lately because he actually came to town. I finally got to see him play guitar, live. A buddy and I went to the show and grabbed a couple beers at a snooty bar on the way, barely convincing the server to acknowledge our existence before we got up and left.

We made it to the auditorium and secured a couple more beers, only to face gay jokes in line from married couples significantly older than us because hey, people apparently bring their wives to Joe Satriani shows, not their buddies; people still make lame gay jokes, and let's face it: there was no way in hell that either of us was going to convince our wives to go see Joe Satriani with us.

My buddy is 40 and I'm not far behind, but we were by far the youngest people at the show. Anyway, we had a blast. Steve Morse opened and honestly bored me with his shred. The guy can play, but it just seemed more like wank than rock to me. No offense, Steve. You have mad skills. But Joe owned the show. An entire section of the balcony was empty, and my friend and I were able to leave our cramped seats between older married couples tapping their toes and seize the best seats in the house to pump our fists in the air and bang our heads with adolescent abandon.

The rock was on, and at full blast. We grinned from ear to ear and approached the stage toward the end of the show until we were pushed back by big dudes in STAFF shirts. They actually were polite but firm. Joe's music soared upon a lithe, melodic, emotional wave of sunny tunes, reminding me of teenage summers spent with boomboxes outdoors, John Cusack kicking the shit out of the heavy bag in Say Anything and the reason I still dig me some Satch today.

Sure, nostalgia is a part of it, but I like most of his new record, Unstoppable Momentum, quite a bit. Satch is one of a very few musical artists I enjoy whose music actually sounds happy and really makes me feel happy. For some reason, a lot of music I like is sad, dark, depressing, lonely, angry or generally misanthropic. For me, maybe listening to a little Joe Satriani once in a while is soothing, like letting a warm light into a room that often stays pretty satchurated with darkness. Ha. Lame joke.

Please forgive me, and go embrace a little slice of Satch cheese. It'll do you good.