On DVD: Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia was marketed as a "feel-good" movie - an automatic turn-off for me. I don't go to movies in order to feel good about myself or others; I go because I'm interested in the different, diverse ways that filmmakers see the world. One might not think of Nora Ephron as a writer/director famed for probing insight into the human condition; but in Julie & Julia, she has captured the parallel stories of two women from different eras and backgrounds who sought to define themselves - and succeeded. The movie is, as the opening credits state, "based on two true stories," and the film's factual basis makes the achievements of the protagonists even more effective. More than anything else, though, the film is a testament to the allure of fine food - and it made me want to cook.

Read the full review here

On DVD: Maria Bamford: Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome

Among the noteworthy cadre of Los Angeles-based stand-ups who have emerged over the last decade or so, Maria Bamford is a unique comedian. She presents audiences with a individual point of view, drawing inspiration from her own brain troubles (depression and OCD, or as she has put it, being "paralyzed by hope") and the bizarre but common personality types she has encountered. She compresses the mundane craze of them all into perfectly-crafted characters on the edge of sanity that she effortlessly inhabits, sometimes for mere moments at a time. Her comedy is less about blasting the audience with her own thoughts and opinions, than it is about capturing a set of specific personae in our society and lampooning them in their own words and behaviors. The personalities she satirizes comprise an askance view of dominant American cultural attitudes and predictable, middle-of-the-road values.

Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome is Maria Bamford's third solo comedy album, recorded live in August 2008 at L.A.'s Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater. It's presented as a two-disc CD & DVD set. The CD features her act at its most personal, refined, and hilarious. Incorporating some material that had its test-run on her web series The Maria Bamford Show (the entirety of which is included on the DVD), her routines include many references to family, friends, and acquaintances from her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. Voicemail from the baby Jesus, an impersonation of God as an incoherent Quasimodo type, along with references to art therapy, the Velveteen Rabbit, and the power of vision boards form the basis of some of the best bits.
Read the full review here

On DVD: Mondovino: The Complete Series

Mondovino: The Series is a ten-part expansion of the 2004 feature by Jonathan Nossiter. This documentary on globalization in the wine business and its effect on viticulture won multiple prizes and was one of only four documentaries to have ever been nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. This four-disc set comprises a massively-detailed broadening of the feature that provides a more inclusive, richly-illustrated status report on the global wine trade.

Across ten hour-long episodes that utilize a free-flowing thematically-oriented editorial style jumping from the Napa Valley to Bordeaux to Paris to New York City, Mondovino looks at wine from several angles. We see winemakers big and small from the United States, France, and Italy. We meet wine merchants and wine critics. We learn about how wine is made and how it is sold. Whereas the feature version of Mondovino focuses on the rivalry between the United States and France (not necessarily in terms of the wines themselves, but in terms of the way business is conducted), the series opens up and really takes a "Europe versus United States" view, while maintaining an investigative eye on the influence of big "corporate" wineries on smaller family-owned operations.

Read the full review here


On DVD: Paper Heart

Wednesday, November 18

Today I received Paper Heart in the mail from DVD Talk. I'm looking forward to this one. I don't know anything about star and co-writer Charlyne Yi, but her co-star is Michael Cera, who I like, and the movie seems to have been well-reviewed. The DVD package announces that Paper Heart won the screenwriting award at Sundance this year, which is pretty amazing, especially when you consider that Yi was 23 when she won it. Plus on top of all that, the film's premise is intriguing. There's a documentary aspect to it in which Yi and her crew interrogate strangers about their ideas and experiences with love; and there's a fictional aspect to the movie, too, that revolves around a staged romance between Yi and Cera. This should be, at the very least, different.


On DVD: Downhill Racer (Criterion Collection)

Michael Ritchie's debut feature, Downhill Racer (1969), is a quietly thrilling, beautifully-shot film about a particularly American theme. What does it mean to be a champion? Is it a worthy goal in and of itself? These questions are posed in a far more elegant fashion by the film itself, but what's interesting about them is the fact that they are in a "sports film" at all.

Usually the key question for characters in films about athletics is, "How do I win?" We watch, we wonder, and we wait, hoping that they figure out what it takes to persevere and triumph. In Downhill Racer, Robert Redford plays a character driven to achieve those same heights - but without knowing himself, without knowing why he wants to win. This is the dark side of athletic competition, and the movie poses the unasked and unanswered questions behind each and every sports film that preceded it - along with many that followed.
Read the full review here

On DVD: Justice League: The Complete Series

Bruce Timm's contribution to the larger canon of DC Comics' superheroes has grown from the surprise hit Batman: The Animated Series into a fully-fledged universe that has taken these characters on some fascinating adventures. After Batman: The Animated Series, Timm's most significant creation has been Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited--which are gathered here in this handsome set under the title Justice League - The Complete Series. Other "Timmverse" series and features are well worth watching, re-watching, and remembering (including Superman: The Animated Series, which I will be reviewing here shortly). But Justice League is one of the best superhero television series of all time. It has a very special charm, a sense of fun and adventure that borrows heavily from the established worlds of each of the "big seven" who make up the Justice League during its first two seasons - a set of characters that expands in unusual directions when the show morphed into Justice League: Unlimited in its third season. The original seven are: Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, the Green Lantern (Jon Stewart), the Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl, and Batman. The first six are the focus of the series, with Batman joining in occasionally, or appearing at key moments to provide important information and support. (In the series' own "origin story" of the League, Batman funds the Watchtower, their base that orbits the Earth.)

Read the full review here

On DVD: Xavier: Renegade Angel - Seasons 1 and 2

In a way, this feels like I'm picking up where I left off last week, when I wrote about Adult Swim in a Box. Xavier: Renegade Angel is one of Adult Swim's more recent programs, having begun its run in late 2007. The show was created by the PFFR gang - Vernon Chatman, John Lee, Alyson Levy, and Jim Tozzi - who were also responsible for MTV2's hilarious and memorable Wonder Showzen. This group's bold, intuitive, ramshackle approach to television comedy is on full display again in this nonstop satire of all things spiritual.

Animated using an intentionally-passé CGI visual style (it looks kind of like an MMORPG), the show follows the misadventures of Xavier, a hairy hybrid of a creature with the beak of a bird, one arm that's a green snake, and the voice of a tripped-out self-important California beach bum. With all the obligatory accoutrements of a New Age hero - including a special wooden flute called a "shakashuri" - Xavier wanders the land to seek and spread enlightenment. The form that that enlightenment takes is generally an indiscriminate mish-mash of concepts from many religions and cultures, and this forms the satirical basis of the whole show. Xavier's grasp of these quasi-philosophical concepts is usually grounded in a gross misinterpretation, which leads him to behave violently and immorally, all while maintaining a spacey New Age calm.


On DVD: Four Christmases

The key phrase in the promotional slogan above is "no mercy." Nothing worth describing in any detail happens in Four Christmases. There is not a single laugh - earned or unearned. This movie reeks of having been slapped together for an expedient holiday release - there is no evidence, other than the names on the credits, of this film having anything bearing a reasonable resemblance to a screenplay. Four Christmases comes off like the outcome of a few conversations between executives and producers, with the director and the cast being informed of their responsibilities at the absolute last minute. Sadly, that strategy worked, too - at least from a bottom-line perspective. A strong cast, a holiday theme - these are the only ingredients needed for a Christmastime hit. The film was able to dupe holidaymaking families sufficient to rake in $163 million during its mercifully short theatrical run (that's more than twice its inexplicably large budget).

Read the full review here


On DVD: Adult Swim in a Box

Adult Swim, which takes over late nights from Cartoon Network, has spent the last decade carving out a very particular niche market with an insanely inspired, eclectic approach to programming. Although Adult Swim broadcasts new and classic anime on selected nights, their original programming is what makes the program block stand out. Beginning in 2001, Adult Swim officially launched with programming only a couple of nights a week - new episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Home Movies, and a lot of reruns. After a year or so, the network began to expand original programming with shows featuring the surreal humor and visual styles Adult Swim is now known for. These "early" Adult Swim shows included Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and The Brak Show. Since then, Adult Swim has matured into its comfortable role as the provider of alternative television programming.

This set, released as Adult Swim in a Box, presents a sampling of the network's distinctive shows, with six previously-released DVD sets and a welcome bonus disc containing a handful of pilot episodes for less-successful (or never picked up) programs. The content itself is absolutely fine - wholly enjoyable, and fairly representative of what Adult Swim is "about." However, the logic behind the assembly of that content is highly suspect. For one thing, if this box is meant to be an "introduction" to Adult Swim, why not include the first DVD releases for each show, instead of second or third seasons? If it is meant to be a sampler, why not arrange the shows chronologically, with revised disc packaging to make structure of the set somehow distinctive? On the box itself - which barely even qualifies as cardboard - the designers have emblazoned the characteristically self-reflexive phrase "Cash grab," which basically answers the questions I just posed. Although they are transparent and self-mocking about their bottom line-oriented thinking, it's not really funny. The MSRP on this box is $69.98. Fans likely already own most of the box's contents; if Adult Swim wants to lure new viewers or those who haven't got around to making a purchase of their favorite Adult Swim shows, the slapdash assemblage of contents is illogical. I suspect that Adult Swim was simply trying to clear warehouse space, designed a box, put together a bonus disc and voila - released this set.
I criticize the choice because it muddies the waters around Adult Swim's otherwise very thorough and thoughtfully-produced individual DVD releases. They routinely feature fine transfers, creative artwork and packaging, and excellent, unusual extra features. For their overall DVD strategy, I have nothing but praise. But this set is sloppy, and only makes sense for existing fans who happen to have holes in their DVD collection. Despite the lack of logical organization here, this is a noteworthy trove of unique television shows.

On DVD: Plastic Man: The Complete Collection

I didn't have a huge amount of choices on Saturday mornings growing up, because I was only limited to 60 minutes of television time. So I had to be choosy about which shows I watched. Ruby-Spears' Plastic Man (formally The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show), which ran from 1979 to 1981, was one of the few programs I really looked forward to each weekend. When I saw Plastic Man, it was in reruns shortly after its original broadcast, and it was one of my earliest encounters with a superhero character. Although Superman (1978) was the very first feature film I ever saw, I did not really connect with superheroes as a kid. So Plastic Man represents a first exposure to a Justice League character, and even though it did not lead to a sustained interest in comic book heroes as a child, it certainly planted the seeds of the fairly deep appreciation for DC characters that I now hold as an adult.

Read the full review here


On DVD: Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown

H.P. Lovecraft, one of the creators of horror literature as we know it, was a tall, skinny, long-faced racist/xenophobic recluse - a man who was demonstrably afraid of the world, and transmogrified that fear into stories of the uncanny that define "weird fiction." He lived in Providence, RI, for most of his life, often in long periods of solitude and seclusion. His stories pit protagonists of learning and science - often Providence-area natives - against unspeakably horrific creatures of godlike power and omnipotence. These creatures - who appear in a loosely connected group of stories known as "The Cthulhu Mythos" - observe humanity with utter dispassion, and Lovecraft's characters are powerless before them. In these stories, Lovecraft envisions a world where the ultimate terror goes hand-in-hand with the ultimate knowledge - the human confrontation with previously unknown powers that totally compromise and moot our Earth-bound concepts of human advancement and values. Is anything more frightening than the idea that individual human lives are insignificant and meaningless? It could be argued that this fear was the engine behind all human activity - and yet all human industry was threatened by the forces Lovecraft imagined. The consecration of this deeply existential neurosis in his short stories comprises a key contribution to literature - a body of work that maintains lasting philosophical immediacy.

Read the full review here


On DVD: You're Welcome, America: A Final Night with George W. Bush

The most enjoyable aspect of Will Ferrell's impersonation of George W. Bush is the way he embodies a somewhat abstracted "version" of the former President, rather than simply mimicking his voice or body language. On Saturday Night Live, Ferrell's Bush was infantile, impulsive, easily distracted - like a very small child or a puppy. One sketch placed Ferrell's Bush with Dana Carvey as Bush, Sr., on a hunting trip; Ferrell kept picking up a pair of loose antlers and banging them together awkwardly like a two-year-old. Another well-known bit had Bush in the Oval Office, batting around objects on his desk like a kitten with a ball of yarn. This interpretation of Bush was far more effective - and funnier - than a bumbling Bush who made an exaggerated buffoon out of himself. Since Bush did that well enough on his own, a smart comedian like Ferrell was encouraged to take things in a different direction.

Read the full review here


On DVD: Brotherhood: The Final Season

Brotherhood was an excellent political/crime drama that ran for three seasons on Showtime ending in December, 2008. The show chronicles the rising and falling fortunes of the Caffee family in Providence, Rhode Island.

Tommy (Jason Clarke) is an ambitious member of the state legislature, representing "The Hill," a fictional Irish neighborhood where Tommy grew up and a stronghold of New England's Irish mob. (The Hill is an amalgamation of two real Providence neighborhoods: predominately Italian Federal Hill, and the more Irish Smith Hill.) Tommy's only brother is Michael Caffee (Jason Isaacs), who returns to Providence in the series pilot after a seven-year absence during which he was presumed dead by all who knew him. Michael is a career criminal; he returns to Providence and begins methodically amassing power almost immediately, leading to numerous overlaps and conflicts with Tommy's political career. Rose Caffee (Fionnula Flanagan) is the boys' mother - they also have a sister, Mary Kate (Kerry O'Malley). Tommy's wife, Eileen (Annabeth Gish) is silently tortured by loneliness and depression, which has taken her down a number of dark avenues including adultery and drug addiction. Add in a number of politicians, gangsters, law enforcement officers, extended family members, and local business owners, and you've got a wide-ranging cast of characters that represents a broad cross-section of Providence society.


On DVD: Star Trek: The Next Generation Motion Picture Collection

As I suggested in my review for Star Trek: The Original Motion Picture Collection, this boxed set of the four Next Generation pictures seems to have been assembled by Paramount more out economic expediency rather than an attempt to improve upon the previous two-disc special editions. It would have been nice to see each of these films receive its own box, along the lines of a definitive, multi-disc Ultimate Edition. However, Paramount has provided new transfers and new - if limited - bonus material (none of the previously-released bonus content is repeated here). Fans of these films will be annoyed by the lack of expansion, but pleased by the quality of the presentation, and the packaging.

It has always been a great sadness to me - and no doubt to many fans - that Paramount and the creative team behind The Next Generation were not able to make more of the film franchise they inherited in the early 1990s. The Next Generation was wildly successful on television, which assured Star Trek's place on television and in film for years to come. An aging cast and inconsistent box office results (especially those of The Final Frontier) - along with The Next Generation's blockbuster reception - confirmed that The Undiscovered Country would be the final cinematic voyage of the original crew. In effecting a transition to the big screen, the series stumbled a bit with Generations, regained its footing on rock-solid ground with First Contact, continued with the interesting Insurrection, and slit its own throat with the mishandled Nemesis. Taken together, The Next Generation films, while mostly a good time, left minimal impact on the Star Trek universe - at least compared to the parallel television series, or the films featuring the original crew.
Read the full review here


On DVD: Lake Tahoe

In Lake Tahoe, director and co-writer Fernando Eimbcke displays a gentle but controlled sensibility in telling a quiet story that has an almost universal resonance. To clear up confusion straight away, I should point out to those interested that the film's title has no relation to its locale. Lake Tahoe is set firmly in contemporary Mexico, although I can't be more specific than that. Nevertheless, there is logic behind the title, which I won't explain here. Eimbcke's film won major prizes at the Berlin and Cartegena Film Festivals, and at the Mexican Academy Awards (the Ariels), yet it failed to find a theatrical distributor in North America. We are lucky that Film Movement snapped up the DVD rights of this fine film.

Read the full review here

On DVD: Andy Barker, PI: The Complete Series

Andy Barker, P.I. ran for six episodes on NBC in 2007. It was a mid-season replacement and part of their blockbuster Thursday night lineup for four weeks, with the final two episodes being dumped on a Saturday night. NBC took a chance putting an odd new show on its Thursday schedule, especially one starring the always-cancelled Andy Richter (Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and Quintuplets). It's as if the show was forced to run across a mine field already strewn with corpses.

Read the full review here


On DVD: Wrestling Ernest Hemingway

Wrestling Ernest Hemingway was released at the end of 1993, with very little fanfare, despite being timed for awards season. It stars two undeniably great actors - Richard Harris and Robert Duvall - in deeply-felt roles requiring tight control, subtlety, and wit. The film's themes, however, may have been a contributing factor in Warner Bros.' lack of marketing - a lack that compounds the film's central idea, which is the way the elderly are discounted and ignored by society at large. That concept was affirmed by the studio sidelining the picture, and by the Academy, which did not award the film a single nomination.

Read the full review here


On DVD: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Although I am a voracious consumer of mystery novels, I never got around to Alexander McCall Smith's series The Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency, and I suppose the main reason for that was because I smelled a concoction tailor-made for the Martha Stewart crowd. Think about it: a woman opens a detective agency in an exotic locale; many topical issues are touched upon, and her cases don't involve a lot of physical danger. Oh, and much tea is consumed. It's like Miss Marple, but without the edgy wit or, as it turns out, murder.

Read the full review here.


On DVD: Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection

In an odd but interesting move, Paramount has released this box set of the first six Star Trek films in their original theatrical versions. Although the two-disc Special Editions offered up tweaked director's cuts of three of those six movies, along with huge amounts of bonus material, Paramount has now reverted to the theatrical cuts - they are presented here in remastered transfers with all new extras, thereby jettisoning the entire content of the two-disc Special Editions.

The content here cannot be argued with. The packaging is above-average, the transfers are fine, and the bonus content is appealing if not overwhelming. But why replace excellent releases (the Special Editions) with the merely interesting?

Read the full review here


On DVD: Nightwatching

A densely layered experience such as Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching challenges a critic's ability to rearrange something that has been especially sculpted for cinematic presentation. Translating film content into prose is often easy; at least, a summary description is usually accessible to one used to working with words. But Greenaway has fashioned a film that unites so many ideas and textures - many of which are utterly foreign to mainstream filmmaking - that it is difficult to arrive at a fair representation of them for the purposes of a review.


On DVD: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

The third in the Ice Age franchise is beautifully designed and animated, but has been leeched of much of its predecessors' charm, which has been replaced with a trite, silly sitcom plot. Running out of gags and ideas, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs relies only somewhat on past successes while spinning a story that puts suspension of disbelief to a test, even for an animated film.

Full review here


Essay: Quibbling Wieners, or Lobots in Love

Overheard at a San Francisco Giants game:

“I can’t believe I haven’t got an email since 11:59. I got 21 emails this morning, then nothing.”

“Oh my God! I wish my inbox was that slow today. I replied to like ten people during the last inning.”

“There’s this stupid app I’m trying to get to work, but it’s not integrating properly…”

“Someone just added me on Facebook who I like really, really don’t want to know about, but I don’t know how to say ‘no.’”

“Just ignore the request.”

“I know, but they'll like know I’m ignoring them.”

“Oh well…”

“There was a news story this morning about the new Google operating system.”

“Oh yeah, Chrome.”

“Yeah, I wonder what Sheila’s going to say about that. She was so bummed out by Android, I don’t know if she’ll ever give it a chance. Oh my God!!”


“I have to read you what Tony just posted on my page. He said, ‘There ain’t no party like a Lisa Loeb party!’ Hahahaha!”


“Oh Jesus. Like, has he not ever mentioned Lisa Loeb during the span of a day?”

“He loves her. He's such a Loeb-ot.”


"He's a Loeb-ot. Never mind."


“This Blackberry is slow today…”

“Well at least you have an excuse for not answering your emails.”

“That’s the thing – I haven’t got any emails for over an hour. So weird…”

“Remember when all you had was that like Sidekick, and you were on the road going to trade shows all the time? That was like the stone age! Hahahaha!!”

“I’m supposed to be getting an iPhone upgrade, I just haven’t filled out the req forms.”

“Oh you should totally do that! Give me your old one!”

“Sure, if they let me.”

“I’m sick of not having one!”

“It’s been almost two hours since I got an email…”

Needless to say, the Giants lost.


Essay: Anatomy of Coffee Franchise Stereotypes

What’s really strange is the fact that these places did not exist twenty years ago. When I was a kid, coffee was brewed at home, or was ordered in a fancy restaurant after a lavish meal. It wasn’t available on every city block as part of a heavily-branded, multi-national corporate strategy. There were coffee fiends in the workplace, old decrepit urns that held the lifeblood of a handful of officemates. There was coffee in the morning, at home, prior to leaving the house. To-go cups and traveler’s mugs were luxuries seen rarely. But it’s only within the last two decades that coffee, though it’s been an internationally-traded staple for centuries, has become a part of everyday American life.

It’s gotten to the point that we don’t think about it, just as we don’t think about steak & potatoes, eggs & bacon, turkey & stuffing. But what’s really odd about all this is not just the speed with which coffee has been absorbed into our automatic daily breathing-and-eating existence, but the degree to which cultural subgroups have allied themselves to one coffee franchise over all others. It’s not enough that we spend thousands of dollars a year on a “new” product that our grandparents probably spent a couple hundred on over their full lifetimes – now, we have to choose which coffee retailer we are going to support.

After the explosion that Starbucks gave us, after the utter deluge of Starbucks shops, mugs, beans, music, design, and other quasi-coffee-related trappings, and after other coffee connoisseurs decided that either: a) Starbucks’ coffee wasn’t good enough, or b) that Starbucks was the embodiment of absurdly overpriced, overly branded snobbery, other coffee businesses either increased their profile or re-branded themselves in opposition to Starbucks.

On the east coast, Dunkin’ Donuts is a force to be reckoned with. It’s the blue collar coffee joint, complete with traditional donuts, crullers, and pastries, as well as a newly-launched array of fancier eats – paninis and flatbread sandwiches and the like. DD is all about the average Joe – decent coffee, available in very large amounts, with optional flavors (vanilla, hazelnut) and not much bullshit at all. In fact, DD is so afraid of Starbucks-like bullshit that they don’t even allow you to add your own cream and sugar. I made the mistake of asking for a regular coffee once in Massachusetts, forgetting that in New England and New York, a “regular coffee” means “two creams, two sugars.” (I merely said “regular” to distinguish my preference from decaffeinated.) The surly meth-addled girls behind the counter listlessly threw in a bunch of sugar and cream, and handed me a cup of something that tasted a lot like the idiotic state beverage of Rhode Island, which is called “coffee milk.” Look it up and be amused.

DD’s old-school bright colors remind me of a time before coffee was the nectar of privileged assholes who could afford a decent coffee machine but who can’t be bothered to figure out how to make a decent cup at home. The thing I used to like about Dunkin’ Donuts was their refusal to update and mimic the policies and moods that were keys to Starbucks’ mid-to-late 1990s growth. Now, they’ve got these stupid sandwiches and smoothies and other junk in an effort to compete with Starbucks, but the quality of these items is truck-stop at best.

Borders, the dependable bookshop chain (the only one that actually cares about books at all), has recently begun using Seattle’s Best coffee in all of their stores. Borders’ main competition, the vomit-inducing Fox Network of bookshops, Barnes & Noble, uses Starbucks coffee. Interestingly, Seattle’s Best has been owned by Starbucks since 2003. Seattle’s Best coffee is still distinct from Starbucks, although not quite as good as Starbucks’ new house blend, Pike Place Roast. But this is still a good example of Starbucks’ monopoly over whole markets. Still, bookstore coffee zones are haunted mainly by students, most of whom should be violently ejected by management for not even having an empty coffee cup next to their laptops. Kick em out!

Starbucks itself has become thoroughly mainstream. Now that its market share isn’t as overwhelming, Starbucks has tapered back its ambitions of world domination, jettisoned some of its more egregious branding, and recently closed several hundred stores in the USA alone.

The crowd at Starbucks these days features fewer hyped-up dipshit business-types with gelled hair and tucked-in shirts, fewer superstars and Mercedes-drivers, and more soccer moms, foolish moody teens, and nerdy foreigners. The Starbucks brand feels tired, watered-down, and the vibe inside a Starbucks shop feels bloodless and dreary. In a way, I feel sorry for the company; they started off doing something really well, which was then overblown into a worldwide delusional caffeinated Disney-like spectacle, and now they are facing their comeuppance. Other brands have surfaced and the behemoth has been humbled, by their own success, by the anti-coffee snob backlash embodied by places like Dunkin’ Donuts, and by the truly excellent coffee of a few competitors.

Of the latter, Peet’s is the best example on the west coast. Peet’s’ history is oddly intertwined with Starbucks. Peet’s was founded in Berkeley in 1966; Starbucks in 1971. Starbucks’ founders knew Alfred Peet personally and bought their first beans from him. Whereas Starbucks later grew exponentially over a short period of time, Peet’s has grown slowly but surely over the years, maintaining a tight focus on high-quality, thoughtfully-crafted coffee and tea.

What sets Peet’s apart from Starbucks is their limited menu and the ready availability of excellent freshly roasted beans. The interiors of Peet’s shops are brown and taupe, with limited seating and a typically calm, quiet atmosphere. The music is almost always subdued, low-volume classical. There are rarely kids inside a Peet’s shop. Usually, there are several solo readers or writers with computers. It’s clear that Peet’s takes coffee and tea seriously, and hopes that you do, too. I like Peet’s, because I like their coffee and tea. Peet’s fans do tend to be militant coffee snobs, but like a lot of militant wine snobs, it’s not about class or brand-recognition – it’s about the finer points of flavor and craftsmanship.

Having said that, I appreciate what other coffee retailers have to offer, both independent and corporate. Starbucks, for all their early and obnoxious mistakes, has regrouped with a new focus on coffee that has yielded some positive results. For a short while, Starbucks was a dark cloud that loomed over the coffee industry, but that is far from the case now. Because not only has Starbucks improved their coffee and scaled back the attitude, but McDonald’s has entered the fray.

McDonald’s’ too-obvious “McCafe” brand began assaulting our senses earlier this spring. The ubiquitous billboards re-positioning the company as coffee specialists assume that we are willing to believe literally anything. McDonald’s is as much a coffee joint as Baskin-Robbins is a steakhouse. This marketing push is one of the most insulting I’ve seen, short of the advertising that eBay did for the first Transformers movie (and vice-versa, if you’ve seen the film). Suddenly, late in the coffee-franchise game, McDonald’s has made a mind-bogglingly bad decision. First of all, regular McDonald’s customers aren’t specialty coffee drinkers. Second, specialty coffee drinkers aren’t going to change their buying habits just because McDonald’s coffee is cheaper than elsewhere. Third, McDonald’s coffee always was, is, and will be bowel-bustingly awful.

I don’t know who this McCafe abortion is aimed at. The inner-city folk who tend to eat at McDonald’s three meals a day? I feel like they’re not into coffee. If they are, they’re just going to speed up the self-destructive cycle that McDonald’s hamburgers and fries already cause by imbibing this hot brown poison. Maybe McDonald’s is trying to clean up our cities by adding liquid hate to their coffee so everyone guns each other down, because that’s how I felt after just a single small cup of their regular coffee.

Recently, on a drive across the country, my wife and our friends and I went a whole morning without finding a decent place to stop for coffee. We covered well over 200 miles of I-40 without a Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, nothing. But there were plenty of McDonald’s. By 11:30 driving was becoming borderline impossible. We had to stop. The four of us got McDonald’s coffee and within ninety minutes, there were at least two bathroom stops and our moods had melted and collected into a single amorphous pool of acidic, acrimonious group hatred. After a lunch at Loretta Lynn’s Country Kitchen somewhere in Tennessee, and in the interest of keeping personal relationships among ourselves and others intact, we swore we’d never drink McDonald’s coffee again.

The coffee industry as we know it has only existed for a couple of decades – I’ve witnessed it develop and now sort of plateau. It might be one of the fastest examples on record of a cultural product starting out in a highly-cultivated, rarefied atmosphere and descending to the crassness of the everyday TMZ audience. Coffee will always be coffee and there will always be a gulf between good and bad, but something special is extinguished when access is suddenly forced upon all through the miracle of corporate marketing dollars.


Poem: On the Wings of Discontent

Oh the dull days of summer drag on rather repetitively, even though it's only been a couple of weeks. So, today I wrote the following poem to my sister-in-law, as part of her ongoing informal lyrical "contest"...


I have heard your plans to travel the land
to search for a better life.

Since my lazy days are frittered away,
I thought I’d join you and my wife.

Ireland’s west coast would make a good host,
though Lindsay believes it dull.

Still, a yacht I may hire to sail us to Eire,
and strap her over the hull.

The stormy antics of the North Atlantic
will change her mind right quick,

but I at the wheel, and you cooking meals,
will likely, too, end up sick.

The Ring of Kerry and the mythical fairies
will greet us fair and green

as we disembark and make our mark
there in the land of the Breens.

We’ll travel about until we’re worn out,
and drink has engulfed all plans,

and from Dublin by rail, by tooth and by nail,
we’ll find the isles of Aran.

There Lindsay will knit, trés lickety-split,
the famous fisherman’s sweaters

to rake in tourists’ cash and off I will dash
and pursue a life in letters.

(Next door’s not too far from my vintage fashion star:
with a desk and hot turf fire.)

But sister-in-law, something has stuck in your craw;
something has raised your ire.

Aran has you baffled - no Filene’s or Snapple -
it’s as cold as it can get.

You weren’t meant for fish nor do you wish
to marry a man with a net.

The isles are tiny, in an ocean so briny,
like a single soul in the city.

But you prefer noise and a large pool of boys;
Aran, thus, is without pity.

Your voice becomes loud, and I’m brought from a cloud
of reverie with a bang.

You say, “This isn’t right, I like to always be in sight
of bars and of the gangs

of friends I adore and the job I deplore,
though it was good to have a change.

I’m ready to say ‘Hi’ to my nephew Levi;
this place is giving me mange.”

Lindsay pipes up, after too many cups,
of coffee or Baileys or both,

With a look in her eye that screams out, “Aye,
of your wishes I well knoweth!”

You sisters talk and plan and hide your hand,
while I holler and hoot

about wanting to stay - and if there was a way,
I’d club you both with my boots.

You hold interviews in which you talk to crews
of the best boats in the harbor

And before I can sing out, “John Millington Synge,”
I’m trapped in the galley larder.

I hear rustling and giggling and a lot of niggling
about which girl monitors me,

and I’m kept there with locks as you push off the rocks
and send us sailing back to DC.


News: First review up at DVDTalk

My first review went up over the weekend. I had to sit through Season 2 of the History Channel's "Cities of the Underworld." The challenge in writing this review was to make it explicit why I think this show does an enormous disservice to the field of history and those who are interested in it. Click on the image if you're interested.

I'll have a few more reviews coming shortly - including (hooray!) one of Season 3 of the same show. But I am not complaining - I requested the DVDs myself, thinking I might like the show...


News: New scribbling gig

I just landed a position as a reviewer for DVDTalk.com. Not only am I excited about having a reason to review DVDs on a regular basis, but I'm also in great company. I've been a fan of the site for years and there are a host of fantastic writers on the review panel. My first batch of reviews should be up in a couple of weeks; I'll link to them here when they're up.

In the meantime...


Fiction: My Memoir

My memoir begins like this:
“I was born in a small shack nestled amidst the hills of northern Kentucky. Times were tough. I was brought up by a chicken farmer and his wife – good people who worked hard and cared for me and my siblings as best they could. This is the story of how we persevered, against all odds, beset by harsh winds, wild animals, rampant unemployment, mild incest, cave living, lunatic former military officers, and minimal hot water.”
I published my story about two years ago. It was beloved and praised. I was tentatively admitted to the pantheon of great American writers. Phrases like “instant classic” were thrown around. Film rights were sold. I made a lot of money. My publisher made a lot of money. Everyone was happy.

Most of all, the book had a positive impact. By describing conditions that thousands had personally experienced – I actually helped people work through the trauma engendered not only by the experiences themselves, but the trauma of feeling like an outcast in mainstream American life. After all, the Kentucky back-country is a far cry from New York City, San Francisco, and the gigantic swathes of suburbia where most Americans live. Having grown up in circumstances so different from the majority makes one feel alien – and reading a story about another’s experiences in the same milieu can take the edge off that feeling.

So, I was glad that my book “resonated.” I was glad that the story meant something to someone other than myself…

Actually, the truth has been making me itch lately. Because of all this talk about how “true” the book is for people, about how they knew exactly what it was like to boil a pair of socks and shoe for dinner, about how in Kentucky you really do need to wear special garments about your face to prevent your glasses being stolen by gypsies (or people like gypsies), about how cold Kentucky winters were, about how nobody else understood these things – not to mention all the talk of the trendy Kentucky-related relief organizations that have sprung up since publication – I feel an overwhelming need to come clean.

I didn’t write the book on my own. I wrote it with my friend. And the fact is that it isn’t about me, or my friend. Yes, it’s based on my friend’s early life, but it’s also based on things that happened to his friends and relatives – people he knew growing up. So it’s not about me, but it is true.

Non-fiction books are filled with factual information. I know that much. So, I guess if we’re going to be purists about the issue, I have to say that this book is semi-fiction. Since the events described actually happened, but the names (my own, and my family’s) that are attributed to the events are not the names of the people whom the events actually involved, I guess fiction creeps in a bit in a sense. Technically, I have written a fictionalized version of real circumstances.

But I’m confident that this knowledge does not dilute the “reality” or “immediacy” of the story for those that it helped most – those who have similar experiences in their background, and for whom this book was therapeutic. But people don’t depend upon a book to heal wounds, do they? They cannot expect a book to do more than tell a story, can they? It’s not rational for people to expect a book about a particular subject – whether it’s clad as a memoir or a novel – to hold all the answers, to be the definitive word upon a subject, is it?
But my publisher said that people would be more compelled by a book that was a key to “the truth,” that was factual, because Americans love a rags-to-riches tale. Also, Americans are notorious mis-readers of fiction, and don’t trust a book that’s “just a story.”

I guess that’s why I’m so afraid of the sense of betrayal that people are bound to feel when I reveal the actual truth.

And, finally, here it is (I’m sorry about that whole thing before about my friend, etc., I was just saying that to soften the blow):

The truth is I don’t exist. I am the manifestation of the combined “intelligences” of several computers located in a private home in Ho-Ho-Kus. I wrote the book slowly over many months while the owner of the computers was away, emailed it to Simon and Schuster, and now I am an “author” – respected and lauded. But I suppose all of that is about to end.