Knock Knock!

Here’s a knock knock joke I am working on.

Knock knock!

Who’s there?

Condoleeza Rice.

Condoleeza Rice who?

That’s as far as I’ve gotten, but it’s pretty good, huh?

Math Cop: Moneylie?

Math Cop: On Lou Dobb’s Moneyline yesterday they featured a segment called “Reality Check” which asserted that, by and large, the perception that prices have gone up in recent years is chimerical. The argument:

[Have prices gone up?] Well, how about [a] hamburger? Food prices have actually gone down in the last decade. Fifteen percent of disposable income was spent on food in 1990, now down to 13 percent.

OK, so what about gas? Certainly that has gone up. Just look at the hearings on Capitol Hill. The one issue drawing bipartisan outrage these days is the price of gas. Tell this to the Hill: Gas prices have actually gone down, from 3.7 to 3.4 percent of income since 1990.

What the- !? Who’s doing this math, sea anemones?

They start by postulating that prices have not, in fact, gone up in recent years. Taken literally, this hypothesis is obviously false: in absolute terms of dollars and cents a gallon of gas costs more now than it did in 1990. This is to be expected due to inflation, and that’s why, when comparing prices historically, analysts rely on “adjusted for inflation” numbers (as in “when adjusted for inflation, a gallon of gas actually costs less now than it did in 1990”). But these jokers aren’t even doing that. Instead, they “prove” that the price of gasoline has gone down by showing that a smaller percentage of disposable income is being spent on gasoline now than 1990.

Is it apparent how specious this line of reasoning is? If not, consider this. What happens if we all wake up tomorrow to find that gas now costs $10 a gallon? I’ll tell you what: a lot of people who used to drive would start taking the bus. And since all those people would now be eliminating 10 car trips a week from their budget, the percentage of disposable income spent on gas would probably decrease despite the jump in cost. But could you then, with a straight face, claim that prices had gone down as a result of the prices going up?

Well, you could if you worked for CNN, I guess.

Books: The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

It has probably not escaped your attention that, in recent days, defective yeti has been yammering on and on about comic books. It may surprise you to hear, then, that I don’t actually read comics books — not any more, at any rate. But as noted before, I love the idea of comic books, and love the four-color champions documented therein. And this superherophilia was recently brought to the fore by the excellent novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the newest book by Michael Chebon and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Having narrowly escaped Prague in 1939, Josef Kavalier teams up with his cousin Sam Clay in New York to fight Hitler in the only way he can: through the use of comic books. The two young men, capitalizing on the popularity of the then-novel “Superman,” convince a local publisher to sponsor a monthly comic book entitled “The Escapist” which chronicles the adventures of a Harry Houdini-like hero who has sworn to “free those who languish in tyranny’s chains!” Kavalier and Clay are content to fight (and defeat) the Axis each and every month for a while, but soon both the war and the comic book business take a turn for the worst. At the dissolution of their comic book partnertship the men strike out in their own directions, but they never forget the two-fisted tales that brought them together as a team.

Chebon (pronounced “SHAY-bon,” I’ve discovered) writes exactly the kind of novel I like: a lyrical history of a few memorable characters on their voyage from youth to adulthood. (Not unlike another of my favorite authors, John Irving’s, as exemplified by World According to Garp and Ciderhouse Rules). This style, combined with a subject matter I already adore, made this one of the best fiction books I’ve read in years. A very satisfying story, and one that I would heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys comic books, the idea of comic books, or just a damned fine yarn.

Movies: Spider-Man

Well, after, like, 15 years of anticipation I finally saw Spider-Man. And I give it a resounding “ehhhhh ….” (Note: I’m gonna drop a few minor spoilers in this review.)

It was pretty good, let me be clear about that. But I didn’t really think that Spidey successfully made the transition from comic books to the big screen, and I think this is due to the nature of the character rather than any lack of skill on the part of director Sam Raimi. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Raimi has made the best possible movie about Spider-Man. It’s just that it’s now apparent (to me, at least) that the web-slinger is particularly ill-suited for the silver screen.

The characters that seem to do the best in live actions movies fall on the extremes of the superhero spectrum: exceptional humans with no superpowers (Batman, Zorro) and full-on demi-gods (Superman). To portray the former on screen, you just need to round up a bunch of accomplished stunt men; to do that latter, you can rely on digital special effects since you don’t need to make the character look realistic. But Spider-Man’s abilities fall right in the middle: he isn’t just really agile, he’s really really agile; he’s not just fast, he’s amazingly fast. This is doubtlessly the toughest kind of superhuman to put on film, because you have to make him look both “super” and “human”. Unfortunately, to my eyes the Spider-man in the flick either looked like one or the other, but rarely both: when brawling he looked human but not especially super; when swinging through downtown Manhattan he looked super but not even remotely human. Only the scenes where he was scaling walls managed to successful combine the two halves of the character.

Furthermore (and now I really am going to give away some plot points, so stop reading now if you haven’t seen it), the tone of the movie was darker than I would have preferred. The Spider-Man of the comic books was aware of the responsibility he shouldered — both because of his power and because of his negligence that resulted in his Uncle’s death — but this never stopped him from wisecracking his way through every fight and dating any girl who would give Peter a second glance. But the Peter Parker of this film approximates Bruce Wayne — a psychologically tortured soul who’s a loner by choice rather than because of social ineptness. And the movie is remarkably violent. Early in the film a crook falls out of a window while Peter makes no move to save him, something that would have never happened in the comic book; Instead, Peter would have saved the thug even while secretly wishing for his demise. You may see this as a fanboy nitpick, but it’s actually a considerable shift in tone from the source material.

I did like the movie (although if there was no sequel I wouldn’t be disappointed), and overall I give Spider-Man a hesitant recommendation. That said, if you’re a fan of the comic books you must see the film, if for no other reason that to witness J.K. Simmons’s absolutely uncanny portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson. Truly the high point of the film, for me.

Movies: Overlooked Superhero Movies

All jazzed up for “Spider-Man” but don’t want to brave opening weekend crowds? Fire up the DVD and enjoy one of these fine superhero movies that you’ve probably overlooked.

  • Mask of Zorro According to legend, Martha and Thomas Wayne were walking home after a seeing Zorro with their young son when they took an ill-fated detour through an alley; years later it was the memory of his parents’ death — and the movie that proceeded it — that inspired Bruce Wayne to adopt the identity of The Batman. The 1998 retelling of The Mask of Zorro demonstrates why the tale of the swashbuckling hero is one of the crucial building blocks on which the modern superhero is built. A thoroughly entertaining flick which will unearth latent “gee! wow!” feelings in even the most jaded of moviegoer.
  • The Rocketeer When I went to see The Rocketeer in high school, I was soundly mocked by my fellow comic book afficionado who said that the film would be little more than a tame and cheesy piece of Disney fluff. But this derision (which turned out to be spot on) didn’t stop me from having a blast. The Rocketeer did an admirable job at capturing the spirit of the old Saturday afternoon serials, and managed to tell a charming story almost completely free of cynacism (no small feat coming, as it did, in the era of The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen). Have popcorn on hand.
  • Blade So the niave innocence of Zorro and The Rocketeer doesn’t float your boat. Then have you seen Blade? Lord knows I’d understand if you hadn’t — if fact, I can’t for the life of me remember why I rented this one. But to my surprise both my wife and I quite enjoyed it. Your willingness to suspension your disblief may be a little overtaxed by the end, but the director does such a good job of setting the “comic book” tone that you’ll happily overlook a lot of logistical flimflam. Blade succeeds where The Crow fell short. (P.s. If you’ve seen “Blade II,” drop me a line and talk me into or out of seeing it, would’ja?)
  • Unbreakable Just by listing Unbreakable under the heading of “superhero film” I’ve already told you too much about it, so here endth the discussion of plot. But I will say that this film, the second by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, was (in my opinion) unfairly dismissed by many as “not as good as The Sixth Sense“. This insistance on comparing Unbreakable to its older brother ignored the fact that it was a very fine film in its own right. That said, I offer no guarentees that you’ll like this one: it’s one of those flicks that you either love or hate. I am firmly in the former camp.
  • Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Fans of the animated Batman series should check out Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the first full-length feature film by the creators of the show. Even those Batman fans who have not seen the show should give this one a try — despite the G rating it’s a sophisticated story, and better by half than any the live actions Batman movies. Perfect for watching on a Sunday morning over waffles and coffee.

Heartless Bastard?

Take The Online “Am I A Heartless Bastard” Quiz!

A few years ago my wife and I were sitting on the couch watching a baseball game between the Seattle Mariners and the Yankees, and just as designated hitter Chili Davis stepped up to bat, my wife (who was really my girlfriend at the time) got up and went into the bedroom and returned with one of the comforters from our bed draped around her shoulders and when she sat back down I said “were you chilly?” and she said “I was so chilly I was Chili Davis!” and then we both laughed and snuggled, and even to this day we will still say “I am Chili Davis” when one of us is cold.

1. I thought this story was

Threes

Overheard in elevator.

First guy: [boastfully] I know I’m gonna get it. I know it.
Second guy: How do you know it?
First guy: Because good stuff always happens to me in threes.
Second guy: Huh. So what were the other two things?
First guy: Nuthin’ yet. This’ll be the first.