Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My new favorite comic strip

It's "Garfield." OK, not exactly "Garfield," but a better version -- addition by subtraction:

"Garfield" minus Garfield

It's like a Greek tragedy designed by Andy Warhol. And a million jillion times better than the real "Garfield."

This gives me an opening for my comics rant (which our features editor has already heard about 100 times already).

I read the comics every single day -- it's a low-grade addiction, like chewing on pencils. I got hooked when I was growing up and now I can't shake them (the comics, not the pencils). But by the end of my life I'll have spent months of my precious time on comic strips that maybe, if I'm lucky, make me laugh once or twice a year.

The problem is that the people who love bad comic strips love them with the passion of a thousand burning suns. You can't touch those strips without getting furious letters from readers whose lives are ruined because we quit running "Beetle Bailey," never mind that "Beetle Bailey" hasn't been funny since, I'm guessing here, 1962.

"Family Circus" is untouchable -- untouchable! -- even though it has spent the last half a century rotating five Sunday ideas:

1. Follow the dotted line as the kids ramble around the neighborhood.
2. The kids ask a bunch of questions to an exasperated Mom and Dad.
3. Little Billy draws the strip!
4. Family ghosts comment from heaven.
5. Wisdom from Grandma.

(I would never recommend or link to any sort of vulgar satire regarding "Family Circus," but if you happened to Google the phrase "dysfunctional family circus," I would be powerless to stop you.)

I've told folks here at the paper that we need to have a Monday Morning Massacre -- one Monday, without warning, all the comics deadwood is gone. "Hagar"? Dead. "Cathy"? Dead. Neidermayer? Dead. (Sorry, lapsed into "Animal House" mode there...)

I'd keep "Zits," "Dilbert," "Doonesbury," "F Minus," "Frazz," "Baby Blues" and "Pickles." I'd put "Get Fuzzy," "Pearls Before Swine" and "Lio" on probation -- they have some promise but are mostly too clever for their own good.

My one nod to tradition would be keeping "Dennis the Menace," because he's drawn by Marcus Hamilton, who lives in Mint Hill and is a really nice guy.

Everything else goes in the recycle bin. Even "Peanuts," which is a great strip but violates my First Rule of Comic Strips: It's time to stop running a comic strip when the creator is dead.

OK, end of rant. Feel free to defend "The Lockhorns" or your other favorites in the comments. And if you have strips you like that we don't run, pass 'em on. I'm wondering how cool "Blondie" might be if you took Dagwood out...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Oscar picks (please, no wagering)

Every year I'm slightly handicapped in my Oscar picks by the fact that I rarely see any of the movies. This leads me to pick in sort of the same way that certain women pick football games by choosing the team with the best helmets.

Last year, however, was proof that even a blind hog gets an acorn now and then. I came in second in my friend Leigh Dyer's Oscar pool and won an "Animal House" DVD, which led to a few days of unsolicited movie quoting. (Dean Wormer: "The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me.")

My wife and I got Netflix for Christmas, which in theory should have caught us up on the best of 2007, but instead we've been watching stuff like "The Wizard of Oz." I am fully prepared to make Oscar predictions for 1939. Not so much for this year. But let's give it a shot anyway.

By the way, I'm only including categories where I can make a reasonable guess. I have NO idea who's going to win for best live-action short film, and if you do, why are you reading this?

Best Song: "Falling Slowly" from "Once"; "Raise It Up" from "August Rush"; "Happy Working Song," "So Close" and "That's How You Know" from "Enchanted."

"Once" was the only one of these movies I saw AND it was my favorite movie of the year. Plus the trailer for "August Rush" featured Robin Williams as a scruffy street musician. That's the moment I knew we wouldn't be seeing that one.

Adapted Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"; Ethan and Joel Coen, "No Country for Old Men"; Christopher Hampton, "Atonement"; Ronald Harwood, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Sarah Polley, "Away from Her."

Here's the problem with this category: To cast a legitimate vote, you'd have to see the movie AND read the book it was adapted from. Do people in Hollywood read books? They take meetings, they have lots of long lunches, but I don't think they actually read books. So I always pick the book that I figure most of them have at least heard of. Most of them have probably heard of Cormac McCarthy. So "No Country For Old Men" is the pick.

Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"; Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, "No Country For Old Men"; Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"; Jason Reitman, "Juno"; Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly."

To me this is a degree-of-difficulty category: Which movie was the hardest to put on the screen?

"Michael Clayton" -- George Clooney in a suit. Easy.

"Juno" -- Teen comedy with great supporting parts (Jennifer Garner, C.J. from "The West Wing," the guy who was the psychiatrist on "Law and Order"). Easy.

"There Will Be Blood" -- Just point Daniel Day-Lewis at the camera. Easy.

"No Country For Old Men" -- On the plus side, Tommy Lee Jones; on the minus side, nobody understands what it all means. Pretty hard.

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- Told from the point of view of a main character who can communicate only by blinking his left eye. Ladies and gentlemen, your winner.

Supporting Actress:
Cate Blanchett, "I’m Not There"; Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"; Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"; Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"; Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton."

Obviously, if you've read this far, you can see that I have no business giving anyone in Hollywood career advice. But here's Amy Ryan, nominated for an Oscar, and there's also Amy Smart and Amy Adams playing the same type of supporting roles. I have no idea which is which (although I liked whichever one was in "Junebug").

Amy is a nice name. But I might go with Amy-Lou or A.J. or something just to break out of the pack.

Anyway, Amy is not going to win. Every year the Oscar grants one unofficial lifetime achievement award, and this year it goes to Ruby Dee.

Supporting Actor:
Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"; Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"; Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson’s War"; Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton."

Here's the rule for supporting parts: If people who didn't see the movie know about the role, that's your winner. I didn't see "No Country For Old Men" but I know that Javier Bardem is the crazy killer with the cattle gun. He's a lock.

Not to mention that there is NO way you get an Oscar when you can fairly be described as "the less successful Affleck."

Best Actress:
Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"; Julie Christie, "Away from Her"; Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"; Laura Linney, "The Savages"; Ellen Page, "Juno."

Oscar voters don't always pick the most popular movie... but I'm guessing "Juno" has made more money than the other four movies combined, plus critics like it enough that voters can justify voting for Ellen Page while never revealing that they skipped the others for reruns of "Project Runway."

Best Actor:
George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"; Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"; Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"; Tommy Lee Jones, "In the Valley of Elah"; Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises."

Look. I know Daniel Day-Lewis is a great actor. He's going to win the Oscar, no question. But here's the poster from "There Will Be Blood":

And here's a photo from his last big movie, "Gangs of New York":

Looks like the hat and the mustache are doing an awful lot of the work there. I'm just saying.

Best Picture: "Atonement," "Juno," "Michael Clayton," "No Country For Old Men," "There Will Be Blood."

Let me stop here for a second (as if this post isn't long enough already) to remind you of one of the great underdog moments in history -- "Rocky" winning Best Picture in 1976.

Now... "Rocky" is a GREAT movie. I could watch it a million times (and probably have, if you piece together all the times I've caught 30 minutes on late-night cable). I forgive Sylvester Stallone "Rocky V," "Rocky Balboa," all the "Rambo"s and even "Rhinestone" because he came up with the original "Rocky."

But there were four other nominees for Best Picture in 1976. One was "Bound For Glory," a Woody Guthrie bio that you probably didn't see. Here are the other three:

"All the President's Men."
"Taxi Driver."

Those three movies make a lot of lists of the 20 greatest movies of all time. Yet somehow "Rocky" beat ALL THREE in the same year. This is a much bigger upset than Rocky going the distance with Apollo Creed. In fact, you can make a case that it's the biggest upset of all time:

3. Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 (2007).

2. David b. Goliath, first-round TKO (approx. 600 BC).

1. "Rocky" over "All the President's Men," "Network" and "Taxi Driver" (1976).

I will say right off that "Juno" is the only Best Picture nominee I've seen (and just last weekend at that). It's great. But this has nothing to do with my highly detailed analysis.

From what I've heard, "Atonement" and "Michael Clayton" and "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" are fine movies. They are also all dark and depressing dramas. Then there is "Juno," a smart and bouncy comedy.

One of these things is not like the others.

"Juno" it is.

Add your picks (and your rationale) in the comments and save me from myself.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sum up Charlotte in six words

The story goes that Ernest Hemingway once claimed his finest work consisted of six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

The people at Smith magazine took that idea and ran with it, asking readers to send in six-word memoirs. They're now collected in a book, "Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs From Writers Famous and Obscure."

Some samples from the book:

Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends.

I still make coffee for two.

I like big butts, can't lie.

(Threw that last one in there to let you know they're not all bittersweet.)

So here's your challenge: How would you sum up Charlotte in six words?

Here's a few to get you started:

We tore that down years ago.

Don't go to church? Really? Hmmm....

Where Buffalo comes to get warm.

OK, this is harder than it looks. You can do better. Six words, no more, no less. Show us what you've got.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ric Flair mash-up

I swear, this is not intended to be the Ric Flair tribute blog, but this is too good not to share. Introducing the Nature Boy as West Coast rapper:

(Created by the amazing Poodleface, found via the brilliant college-football blog Every Day Should Be Saturday)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The end of the affair

If you're under 30, or not a sports fan, I won't be able to get across to you just how big a deal it used to be when Sports Illustrated showed up in the mailbox.

My freshman year at the University of Georgia, Herschel Walker -- the greatest college football player of all time, and I will brook no argument about this -- announced that he was leaving school a year early to join the new United States Football League. On campus we talked about it for days, in shock, but it wasn't real until that Thursday afternoon when SI arrived and there he was on the cover in that freaking New Jersey Generals uniform.

No big sports event was over until you read SI. It was like talking about the concert on the drive home -- that's how you digested the event, savored it, figured out what it meant. I have never loved a publication (except for the ones I worked for) as much as I loved Sports Illustrated.

Which is why I've waited so long to admit that it's over.

I've found reasons to keep stringing it along. The photography is still fabulous. Gary Smith is still one of the top sportswriters in America. My wife still wears the SI sweatshirt we got for subscribing a few years ago and it's holding up pretty well.

But the Super Bowl clinched it for me.

My issue came Thursday and the coverage is just fine -- a solid game story, great photos, a meaty sidebar on the Giants' final drive from legendary NFL writer Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman.

But that was Thursday. The game was Sunday. And between then and now I've seen hours of ESPN's postgame shows, our paper's coverage, Bill Simmons' melancholy take on the loss of a perfect season, many startled takes on the sudden heroism of Eli Manning, a hundred replays of the miraculous play that turned the game around, and one story of how a Giants fan sneaked onto the team bus and into the locker room on the day of the victory parade.

In the 24/7 ESPN and Internet age, I'm not sure Sports Illustrated could've done anything to make the Super Bowl experience more interesting or rewarding four days after the fact. It's a keepsake for diehard Giants fans and that's about it.

This is an example of the problem most print publications are going through these days, especially the ones that make a living by making sense of last week's news. Time and Newsweek are in the same boat. Every issue starts out behind, and even when they're great, the collective wisdom of all the talk shows and newspaper pieces and blog posts is almost always better.

I realize, of course, that you can say the same thing about the newspaper I work for. We do have some advantages (journalistic if not business-wise). Our print product is daily, so it's fresher. We have a higher percentage of material you can't get anywhere else. And of course we're out here on the Web, like SI and everybody else, trying to figure out how to do good work and turn the kind of profits that magazines and newspapers are used to.

Sometimes we can make the whole thing work and sometimes we can't. But I can't imagine how hard it is to come out once a week, writing about sports, and still try to be relevant.

The little address sticker on my copy of SI -- it's not a sticker anymore, but you know what I mean -- shows that my subscription expires in December. I've subscribed for most of the last 30 years. But I'm not sure what's left to salvage at this point. Honey, I'll always love you, but we've grown apart.