Monday, June 29, 2009

Let the Right One In; A McBone Mini-Review

For someone who watches billions of movies each year, it gets increasingly tough to be really floored by anything in any genre. Let the Right One In is one of those rare few to rise above the fold and impress itself indelibly into my gray matter. The greatest vampire movie ever made? I wouldn't presume to say that, but this masterpiece by Tomas Alfredson certainly belongs in the discussion.

Many vampire movies come with a certain built-in campiness and set of cliches. This fangless, stakeless, crucifixless, brutal, gentle, heartbreaking poem of a film takes great pains to avoid them. For example: rarely do we associate the word vampire with Sweden, but from the first time you hear the endless unmelting frozen snow crunching beneath boots, you realize what a perfect locale it is. Because vampires have it pretty bad (except Dracula, of course, who can seduce any babe at any time). They can't die, can't be in the sun, and they can't really reveal themselves to the world, which makes the sucking of human blood all the more complicated. All told, Sweden provides a pretty desolate setting to match a pretty desolate condition.

Now imagine a twelve-year-old in this situation. As if being twelve isn't confusing enough, our undead female lead, Eli, has to deal with the trauma of perpetual prepubescence. Wanna talk about horror? Imagine being a seventh-grader for all eternity. "I've been twelve for a long time," she tells Oskar, the bullied, white-faced waif of a male lead. We never do get told exactly how long that is, but Oskar doesn't seem to care. He's found a fellow outcast, one who teaches him to embrace his vengeful longings. They fall in love, and in the nick of time because Eli's aging mortal companion, sent out to fetch fresh blood in the night, is past his prime. His blunders make him expendable to Eli, whose vulnerability requires competence, vigilance and the utmost devotion. People go to great lengths in the name of love. Few are willing to kill for it.

Does this make Oskar a victim of Eli's manipulation? Who knows how many of these caretakers she has seduced, loved and tossed aside along the way. The temptation is to see Oskar as simply the next in line; when he grows old, he too will be discarded. That's a grim outlook, and it would probably be the correct one if the scenes between these kids weren't so filled with tenderness, empathy and compassion (and, man, do these actors pull it off). It's not so much how badly Eli and Oskar need each other, it's how badly they want each other. Watch the incredible, incredible climax and ask yourself whether Eli really loves Oskar. Imagine their temporary future together and ask whether it will be worth it. These questions are the crux of the film. Should we sympathize with monsters? I have my opinion (hell yes!), you'll have yours, but what a feat that Alfredson can make us question what amounts to pretty fundamental morality. We all know it's not ok to kill, and yet, and yet...

Official McBone Rating: 5.0 McBones.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

This Is How I Know the End of the World Is upon Us.

Food. I love it, but I know its dark side, a vast and terrible place that surrounds us like a bottomless, black sea. Many times I've taken it upon myself to test the waters for the greater good. God knows I've whittled years off my lifespan by ingesting Twinkies, Slim Jims, even--heaven help me--candy corn. Heroic? Sure, but even I have my limits. Call me a coward*; I just don't think I can bring myself to eat one of these:

Is this what we've been reduced to? An 25 cent, 7-Up flavored** 'pound cake?' Are the makers of dessert snacks so cynical and our love of soft drinks and individually wrapped confections so profound? Has all the work I've done been for naught? What's next? Bacon-flavored mayonnaise?

With dismay I prophesy a 250-pound, pre-diabetic fourth grader washing a couple of these these down with a can of 7-Up. Little Billy cracks open the can, and the blood-dimmed tide is loosed.


*Like my wife did.
**Also available in Orange and Grape Crush flavors.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Shaquille Freaking O'Neal?

Though the agonizing loss to the Orlando Magic is still coursing through my veins like a slow poison, the latest news on the Cavaliers front forces me to end my silence.

The trade for Shaquille O'Neal for Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic is unquestionably the biggest in Cavs history, bigger than Terrell Brandon for Shawn Kemp, and--dare I say it--even bigger than the blockbuster megadeal that brought Jiri Welsch to Cleveland for a measley first round draft pick. Danny Ferry has shown he has balls in his time as Cavs GM, and owner Dan Gilbert continues to be willing to shell out for a title, which only weeks ago he promised would be delivered to Cleveland fans.

There was a time I hated Shaquille O'Neal. In high school, when basketball players were known as "cagers," he used to dominate my grandfather in the low post. When he was drafted out of LSU by the Orlando Magic, I hated him because I knew (though I never said as much out loud) he was already better than a young Cavs center who had just entered his prime, one Brad Daugherty.

Then Shaq spent a lot of years on the Lakers racking up titles, and I hated him then, too. When he joined the Miami Heat and handed Dwayne Wade a ring before LeBron James won one, oh, how I hated him.

Now, at the ripe old age of 37, he's all ours, and I can honestly say I love the big fella. Exciting? You better f-ing believe it. But of course we need to pause for a second and step away. Let the dust settle and look at this thing for what it is.

Shaquille O'Neal can still play. Oh, yes, he can. He just put up 18 and 8 on a bad Pheonix team that had lost its identity and was going nowhere. Now he joins a team that was exposed in the playoffs for its undersized interior. Even if the Cavs had prevailed against the Magic, the towering Lakers were waiting, and realistically I don't think the Cavs could have won. Had the Cavs pulled this trade off in midseason like they wanted, the victory celebration may very well have been in Cleveland.

So, the Cavs add one of the great centers in NBA history, a guy who still dominates around the rim, rebounds, blocks shots and even makes nice passes out of the post. He will shoot 60 percent from the floor; that is a given. We all know of his shortcomings at the line, but really, Shaq looks like Mark Price next to Ben Wallace. This move means that Zydrunas Ilguaskas is now our backup center, which is scary, as the Cavs now have two legitimate starting NBA centers. But you know what the best thing is about this 7-1, 325 pound freak of nature? He has shown time and again that, by meshing with fellow superstars, that winning a title is paramount.

Concerns? Of course there are. Shaq played 75 games last year. That's encouraging, but hear this: Shaq NEVER plays 75 games, so it stands to reason that he will miss a significant chunk of the coming season. The key is being healthy in the playoffs (which he always does, by the way), and let's face it: 37 in basketball years is beyond ancient. Very few are the serviceable players who can produce on a nightly basis at that age. So, even with a proven backup, and even if they do manage to re-sign Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers still need to add some size.

But listen to me killing the buzz. The fact is, this is a great, great trade from almost any angle. If Shaq stays healthy, the Cavs will very much be the favorite to win the East. Orlando just replaced talented young Courtney Lee with perennial loser, Vince Carter. Boston is counting on not one, not two, but three aging veterans to get them to the finals. Obviously the stars are still aligning on next season, but the Cavs, a 66 win team, just got a lot better. Just imagine the easy feeds that O'Neal is going to get near the hoop from LeBron, who is better than anyone in the league at finding his teammate's strengths. And if the deal doesn't work out? Well, Shaq's bulky 20 million dollar deal comes off the books after next season, leaving the Cavs in a very good position to go after Chris Bosh. In sum, this is a no-risk maneuver for the Cavs, one that could very well deliver a first NBA title and pay off for years to come. Give Danny Ferry an A+ for this one. Toss in 5.0 McBones while we're at it.

Now, a quick word about the dearly departed. McBone, always a Pavlovic supporter, weeps to see Sasha go. The untapped potential will forever frustrate me, and I really hope can manage to stay in the league. Cleveland fans owe Sasha their gratitude for helping the Cavs reach the finals in '08, when he was our starting 2. As for Ben Wallace, he battled valiantly through age and injuries, and for that we thank him, but Big Ben is done and out.

And about the draft...With the 30th pick, the Cleveland Cavaliers select: Christian Eyenga. Can somebody please tell me: who the hell is Christian Eyenga???


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

No Djoke; I Will Win Wimbledon.

Wimbledon, the holy grail of tennis championships. Admittedly, the luster of my Austrialian Open victory has faded somewhat since 2008. A string of frustrations in major tournaments hasn't been much fun for me or my fans, and perhaps my skills have eroded somewhat. Particularly humiliating was being forced to retire from this year's Aussie Open due to heat cramps and exhaustion. I guess I wasn't quite in tip-top condition to defend my title. Hey, you try writing two books, a blog, working full time as a bookstore accountant, stumping for Malia Obama and staying on top of your tennis game. That's a lot to juggle, and it ain't easy, bub, let me tell you. My wife has been an absolute saint through all this, bless her, and has even volunteered a few hours a week to answer my fan mail.

I promise to make it up to her someday, but for now, the competitive fires burn. Just today I dispatched Simon Greul in straight sets to breeze through the opening round. Up next is Mardy Fish, the 28th seed, and I promise you that this is one Fish that I won't let off the hook. Figuratively speaking, of course.

The march to victory at Wimbledon won't be easy. Even if I do advance deep into the tournament, that insufferable Federer and his five titles are ever looming. Not that I'm afraid, mind you. Anything but. How I'd love to wipe the smirk off his stupid Swiss face.

Wish me luck, McBoners, and see you at the finals!


Monday, June 22, 2009

The Wheel's Still in Spin

Back in 'the day,' my friend Darin and I went to about a hundred Bob Dylan concerts together. Ok, maybe it was more like four, but during the years we were fellow Bobcats at Ohio University, we made it a point to see Bob every time he was in the general vicinity. These were the late 90s, when the likes of Matchbox 20 ruled the airways and I was vomiting at nearly every turn. Luckily, I had a trusty pal who could put up with my snobbery. Together we had the good fortune to see the single greatest concert of all time, when Bob visited Columbus, Ohio in 1997.

Eventually, Darin went his way and I went mine. While his fate was ever a mystery to me, rumors and twists abounded. Whispers spread that he was, among other things, a lonesome hobo, a renegade priest, a cat-loving diplomat. He even worked as a cook for a spell. Somewhere along the line Darin picked up a sidekick named Tweeter, although things didn't turn out so well for him. Or was it her? I can't remember.

Anyway, I'm happy to report that Darin has resurfaced, and he has an amazing webpage called The Wheel's Still in Spin. If you like music that doesn't suck, explore this site; tap Darin's expertise by clicking on the handy link. Good stuff is out there. Darin is kind enough to do the work for us, so check it out.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Rating Bob Dylan's 35 Studio Albums

Bobology. I find it a truly tiresome science. I've always wondered why so many people put so much effort into understanding a person whose most essential quality is his refusal to be defined. Isn't it much more fun to just sit back, listen and enjoy the music without needing to write a dissertation about how a certain line pertains to his second marriage and how this event influenced that song and blah, blah, blah?

That said, I've spent 8 billion hours of my life listening to Dylan, and have naturally formed some strong opinions about his work. Since I know fate of the free world hinges on the following material, I'll waste no more time on introductory blather. My only self-imposed limit is a 15-word-or-fewer description. Ratings are, as always, out of 5 McBones.

Bob Dylan
- 3 McBones. Early signs and greenhorn exuberance. Favorite Track: Song to Woody.

The Freewheeling Bob Dylan - 5 McBones. First foray into undiluted genius. FT: A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall.

The Times They Are A-Changin' - 5 McBones. Perfecting his craft with another ten flawless songs. FT: Boots of Spanish Leather.

Another Side of Bob Dylan - 5 McBones. Apt title. First signs of sloughing the folk mantle. FT: My Back Pages.

Bringing it All Back Home - 5 McBones. Starts to piss off his base. FT: Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

Highway 61 Revisited - 5 McBones. Completely alienates his base. Changes music forever. FT: Desolation Row.

Blonde on Blonde - 5 McBones. Sixth straight perfect album. Bitter folkies burn his image in effigy. FT: Memphis Blues Again.

John Wesley Harding - 5 McBones. Spooky and spare. Side A is arguably his finest work. FT: All Along the Watchtower.

Nashville Skyline - 4.5 McBones. Inserts himself into the country discussion. Teams with Johnny Cash. Earth's foundations shake. FT: Girl from the North Country.

Self Portrait - 2 McBones. After 33 years, I'm still not sure what's going on here. Oddly entertaining though. FT: The Mighty Quinn.

New Morning - 3 McBones. Obscure, at times charming, slightly erratic letdown. FT: Three Angels.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid - 4.5 McBones. First-rate soundtrack for a first-rate film. FT: Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

Dylan - 0.5 McBones. Though few know it, the expression WTF!? was invented for this album. FT: The Ballad of Ira Hayes.

Planet Waves - 3 McBones. Decent album with The Band. FT: Not sure I have one. Wedding Song maybe?

Blood on the Tracks - 5 McBones. The greatest album ever recorded. End of discussion. FT: If You See Her, Say Hello.

The Basement Tapes - 4 McBones. A boatload of awesome, rambunctious, sometimes incomprehensible songs. FT: Million Dollar Bash.

Desire - 4.5 McBones. Possibly his most underrated work. Sings in Spanish! FT: Oh Sister.

Street-Legal - 4 McBones. Actually his most underrated work. Song Señor not sung in Spanish. FT: Changing of the Guards.

Slow Train Coming - 3 McBones. Burgeoning Jesus freakdom. Answers mystery of how animals were named. FT: Slow Train.

Saved - N/A. Yikes! I'm not saved and not trying get saved, so I don't listen to this much. FT: Hmm. I'll get back to you on that one someday.

Shot of Love - 3.5 McBones. Also Jesus-y, but way underrated. Actually good. Totally forgotten. FT: Every Grain of Sand.

Infidels - 4 McBones. End of the born-again phase, thank God. FT: Jokerman.

Empire Burlesque - 3 McBones. Slightly overrated and synth-y, but his last good album before the plunge into darkness. FT: Dark Eyes.

Knocked out Loaded - 1.5 McBones. Whoa. This is not good. Completely salvaged by the epic and unforgettable...FT: Brownsville Girl.

Down in the Groove - 1.0 McBones. Blech! Sorry, Darin. Double blech! FT: Silvio, by a mile.

Oh Mercy - 4 McBones. Bright ray of light in a truly murky decade. FT: Most of the Time.

Under the Red Sky - 1.0 McBones. Cool title, bad record. Beginning and, happily, end of the Don Was Era. FT: Born in Time, I guess.

Good as I Been to You - 3.5 McBones. Shedding demons with awesome takes on traditional ballads. FT: Arthur McBride.

World Gone Wrong - 4 McBones. Virtuosic folk and blues interpretations. He could make 50 records like this. FT: Delia.

Time out of Mind - 5 McBones. Almost dies. Retaps his genius. Broods on death. FT: Not Dark Yet.

Love and Theft - 5 McBones. The Ulysses of records. Draws from every source imaginable. FT: Mississippi (OK, I know this is a leftover from TOoM, but I regard this as his finest vocal recording, so lay off).

Modern Times - 5 McBones. Possibly his modern masterpiece. FT: Workingman Blues.

Together Through Life - 4.5 McBones. One wonders how long he can keep this up. FT: If You Ever Go to Houston.

Tempest - 5 McBones. Blood-soaked brilliance. Even the ballads are steeped in death.  FT: Tempest.


Together Through Life, Just Another Classic Dylan Album

What does Bob Dylan mean to me? Glad you asked! As a baby I was fed a steady diet of breast milk and Bob Dylan. While my milk supply was cut off some time ago, I still help myself to almost daily helpings of Bob. I love all Bob Dylan, and I'll be the first to admit the love hasn't always come easy. There have been some pretty shaky albums through the years, and some that are just downright confusing. Still, even on the very worst there is something worth listening to, a hidden gem you may not notice the first time around. Or the second. The reality is that, if Bob Dylan put out a $300, ten-disk instrumental concept album featuring him playing the kazoo, I'd rush to the nearest store. If I didn't have the money, I'd sell a kidney.

As a registered lifetime Bob Dylan Superfan (you get a little laminated card and a secret decoder pin), I feel qualified to set something straight: Bob Dylan is NOT a poet. That is not to say he doesn't write poetry; check out his book of verse, Tarantula, if you want to read a little Dylan. I guess you can call his songs poems, but I lose patience with people who say, well, he's a great poet, as if his prodigious gift for writing lyrics somehow covers up for his other flaws, as if he has achieved his estimable position in music history in spite of himself.

That's a lot of horseshit. Bob Dylan is a musician through and through, a singing, guitar picking, piano playing, harmonica blowing, melody making, all-around musical genius. He is the Beethoven of our time, a master of the total song, not just the lyric. He has influenced folk, rock, country, gospel, R&B, blues and countless other styles. He has been covered by just about everyone. You may want to check it out, because I'm pretty sure your mom has covered a Dylan song.

Together Through Life may not be Dylan's best-written album. As far as songwriting is concerned, I'd rank his previous two albums slightly higher. But like I said, he's not a poet, and there is so much to judge. Like that voice! That band! Those arrangements! Sure he was lost in the wilderness for a while in the 80s, churning out the likes of Down in the Groove and Knocked out Loaded, but for about a decade now he's been making music as good as any. Together Through Life marks his fourth straight masterwork.

Sometime back in the early nineties, after billions of songs sung and cigarettes smoked, Bob Dylan's vocal chords broke down. This was a good thing. Always a great (and I mean great in the sense that Louis Armstrong was a great trumpet player) singer, the newly acquired instrument became something like a cross between a phlegmy cough and a groaning rusty hinge. Leather, rust and grit. The songs sound like they're coming from heaven and hell simultaneously, but mostly from hell (where all the good music comes from anyway). There is simply no other instrument like it on earth, and it is sounding with all its growling and cackling glory on Together Through Life.

I'm not going to go through the songs one by one, but I will say that you won't find a dud on the album. No wasted space, just track after track of genius music. Another gift from a guy who by rights could have called it a day 40 years ago, when his legacy was already secure. He didn't, and the songs keep on coming.

Thanks, Bob!


Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Machete

When Alex recently returned from a two-week trip to the balmy, tropical wilds of Champaign, Illinois, she brought back for me the typical souvenir of the region: an El Salvadorean machete. Forged using methods lost to modern man and baptized in blood, this mythical metal blade possesses powers beyond the reckoning of most mortals. Indeed, it is said this machete can only be wielded by one who is true of heart and pure of spirit.

Armed with my machete, nothing can stop me. The enemies of McBone have been put on notice. Stay the hell out of my way, or I'll lop your goddam head off!


Friday, June 5, 2009

The McBone Beer Journal; Fat Tire Ale

Confession time: I have a weakness for beer in cans. If I'm going to drink a crap beer, like Budweiser, I want it to be can, so that when I'm done drinking I at least have something to smash against my forehead. Now the beer in question is not a crap beer, and when I saw the big blue box of can-conditioned ale and the familiar, unforgettable label with the red bicycle, I knew I'd be forking over $15 for a case of Fat Tire.

Fat Tire in cans! I had tipped many a bottle of this heavenly brew in my Boulder, Colorado days, but here was one of my all-time favorites, stacked five cases high in my favorite liquor store in West Lafayette, Indiana. Truly there must be a god (but probably not).

Knowing that the New Belgium Brewing Company has high standards for excellence, I wasn't surprised to read that, to ensure the fresh quality of their beer, a carefully measured dose of yeast is added to each can. But there was more! and verily my heart swelled within the confines of my ribcage to read that the brewery is wind powered (to assure a low carbon footprint) and employee owned (to assure a certain percentage of dirty rotten red stinking commies).

I cracked open a can and poured to find the perfect amber glow, and just enough foam to leave a lovely lacing on the glass. The nose was a swirl of butterscotch, but I didn't waste much time sniffing.

A sip of Fat Tire does not explode in the mouth, rather it gently proffers a bounty of delights. While dozens of beers claim to be "perfectly balanced" (usually code for "tasteless"), here's one that actually is. Generously malty and toasty, but not so much that you would call this a winter ale. Hoppy and crisp, but not so assertively hoppy that it tastes like a glass of grapefruit juice. Fat Tire is an earthy, caramel, buttered-toast and apple ale with just a twinge of lemon. It's refreshing, yes, but it gives you something to chew on as well. Sweet and bitter. Delicate and complex. Yin and yang. That's balance, offering much, but forcing nothing, and leaving the drinker with a perfect sense of inner tranquility. Shanti, shanti, shanti

Would it be too much to call Fat Tire one of the World's Great Beers? Hell no.

McBone Beer Rating: 5.0 McBones.