Saturday, October 4, 2014

Greatest Thing of Anything: Elbow, Live in Concert

Some time ago, I mentioned how the band Elbow has never really caught on in the United States despite the quality of their music, their popularity in their native England, and the use of one of their most popular singles ("Grounds for Divorce") in a variety of American commercials, movie trailers, and video games.

So imagine my surprise when I finally heard Guy Garvey on my beloved WEQX. Elbow had just released a new album, "The Takeoff and Landing of Everything," with a single entitled "New York Morning." And with the new album, they were doing a new tour through the United States. What better time to catch them in concert? So I took a mini-vacation with my fiance to Philadelphia in May to take advantage of the opportunity. 

They were probably the best live performers I've ever seen.

OK, maybe they didn't play as much from "Leaders of the Free World" as I hoped for. But it was still an awesome experience, thanks in part to the Philadelphia atmosphere itself. From the Penn's View Hotel to the delicious meal at the Cuba Libre restaurant to the historic significance of strolling past Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin's grave, there was never an unpleasant moment.

The concert took place in The Electric Factory, a warehouse turned concert venue a few blocks away from Market Street. I was worried at first that the small cluster of fans that showed up in time for the opening act by John Grant would be the only people who attended, but the venue slowly but surely filled up. Whether they were die-hard fans or people who were curious to check out a show, whether they came from around the corner or hundreds of miles away, the concertgoers made it a full house.

When Elbow took the stage, they did so in a swelling hurricane of instrumental music. When you see a group live for the first time, it's always hard to tell if the band you paid to see is going to prove why they got a record contract in the first place or if they're going to disappoint you by revealing that the real talent behind the band is whoever digitally removes the suck in post. The opening left no doubt that Elbow knows their way around their instruments, and when the stage lights revealed a pair of violinists to complement the tune you could practically feel the awe in the entire assembled body.

Credit has to be given to The Electric Factory, which either has an Elbow fan among its event coordinators or does plenty of research ahead of time in order to add a little extra flavor to the show. The simple but powerful notes of "The Bones of You" were enhanced by perfectly timed strobe flashes from the stage lights. Later, with a bit of a wink, the lights were toned down to little more than a sparkling disco ball for a performance of "Mirrorball."

No concert by Elbow would be complete without a performance of "Grounds for Divorce," and Garvey took delight in teasing the crowd by saying how well the prior cities in the tour had done in participating in the song, goading Philadelphia to try to do better. The Philly crowd performed exceptionally, I have to say. The first line of the song was followed by an absolutely pitch perfect "WHOA-OH-OH-OH-OH-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-OH" response. Later in the song, the band even kept the audience going for a few extra choruses before Pete Turner dropped the appropriately lung-piercing bass line.

I was surprised to learn that Elbow has been together since 1997; since 1990 if you go back to how Garvey and Turner met when they were teenagers and the band grew from there. It was even more amazing to find out that no band members have departed since the full group assembled. Though Garvey might be considered the face of the band, he doesn't let it go to his head. At the Philly show, he recognized each member as well as the guest violinists. This article in the New York Times delves a bit more into how the band has stayed together as a unit for so long.

The crowd wasn't going to let Elbow go without an encore. A sustained applause brought them out again to play "Lippy Kids" and "One Day Like This." After hearing some of the band's more melancholy songs, like "The Night Will Always Win" and "My Sad Captains," it was nice of them to send us out on a more upbeat note. The finale of "One Day Like This" was especially moving, as the band again made use of numerous pairs of willing lungs to assist with the chorus and make everyone feel all right.

I hope to see you again someday, Elbow, so I might raise a glass to you. Especially if I wind up in England, because I can raise you a glass of your own honest to God beer.

Don't miss a few other great reviews of this show at The Electric Factory: this one from That Music Mag and this other one from The Swollen Fox.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Defining Moments of Breaking Bad (Final Episodes)

My girlfriend fiance started watching Breaking Bad last year, so I was watching the earlier episodes again with her while also getting ahead on the final episodes of the series. I held off on doing a last "Defining Moments" entry to avoid ruining a plot point or two (not that she didn't accidentally get spoiled by going on the Internet at the time the series was ending) but now that we've wrapped it up I figure I can wrap this up. So here we go (check out the first two segments here and here):

White House Down

Breaking Bad does the occasional call-forwards, and these occurred quite frequently in the second season as a teaser for that season's finale. So it was pretty obvious that the first scene in the premiere of the last season was a sneak peek at how everything would end, but that glimpse was all we got until the show came back from its mid-season break for the last run of episodes.

This opener, like many in the series, relies on imagery more than dialogue. It offers a few more tantalizing hints of the show's endgame, as Walter White arrives at his house to find it abandoned, overgrown, and fenced off. He sneaks in to retrieve a vial of ricin, bringing back a plot element that had been hidden away for a season. The shock of his neighbor upon seeing him back in Albuquerque is the final confirmation that the secret is out on Walt's drug empire.

"Tread lightly"

It's a line that went as viral as "I am the one who knocks" almost immediately after it aired. Rather than following Hank's development of suspicions against Walt, in a manner similar to what he did to investigate Gus, Hank accuses Walt of being Heisenberg before the first episode is over. Walt tries to appeal for mercy, refusing to admit guilt and saying that his cancer would doom him before the DEA could convict him. Hank doesn't seem too willing to consider it, which leads to this scene:

Even though Walt's threatening advice for Hank to "tread lightly" is more bluster than anything (subsequent episodes confirm that Walt still thinks of Hank as family, and will never consider killing him to save his own skin) there's enough uncertainty over what Walt will do to make it an unnerving scene.

Walt's confession

With Hank and Marie against him and the lung cancer back in the picture, Walt almost seems ready to throw in the towel. Though his meth-making business has become a power trip over the series, the return of the disease seemingly brings his focus back to safeguarding his family's future. He knows this won't be possible if the DEA arrests him and confiscates his money.

Walt's tape puts together a not altogether unbelievable narrative, implicating Hank as the person behind his entire empire and suggesting that his brother-in-law forced him to cook meth for him. Marie is confident that it's ridiculous enough that no one will buy it, at least until Hank realizes that she unwittingly accepted drug money to pay for his recovery after he was nearly killed in the third season. It's a non-lethal way for Walt to buy enough time to escape any consequences for his actions. It's also incredibly repugnant, showing just how little Walt will regard his moral compass anymore.

Jesse's realization

The entire last run of episodes is a pretty bad time for Jesse Pinkman. He's gotten millions of dollars from his partnership with Walt, whose retirement has given him the chance he'd recently been looking for to get out of the whole business. His conscience soon gets the better of him, though, and Jesse starts trying to give away his ill-gotten gains to the people most affected by his actions, then to less meth-rich people in general. When Walt tries to convince him to leave town and start a new life instead, Jesse knows that he's trying to save his own skin more than he's looking out for his former partner. But he sees that it's still a decent way to escape his troubled past.

Another dialogue-free scene invites viewers to track Jesse's train of thought as he waits for the person who will give him a new identity. Through a few simple clues, namely his realization about the pickpocketing skills of Saul's security guard, Jesse understands that Walt was responsible for Brock's poisoning. It's the final break in Walt and Jesse's often tumultuous relationship, and Jesse is bent on revenge from this point on.

A simple misunderstanding

When Jesse finally decides to start working with Hank to give evidence against Walt, he's rightfully concerned about his safety. He's seen Walt concoct assassination schemes based around "poison from beans" and explosive-rigged wheelchairs, after all. He's not even sure if he can really trust Hank (again rightfully, given the relatively recent time that Hank beat the shit out of him and Hank's complete disdain for his witness).

So when Walt offers to meet with Jesse face to face in the middle of the day in a very public plaza, Hank and Gomez see it as a perfect opportunity to get something on Walt. Jesse simply thinks that Walt will probably try to get him out of the picture, somehow, despite how visible such a hit would be. When he sees a beefy guy hanging out near Walt, it seems like his fears are confirmed. It even looks like Walt is walking over to meet the guy after Jesse calls off the meeting...until it's revealed that this was just a random person visiting the plaza with his daughter. A simple snafu, just enough to convince Walt that Jesse really does need to die and kick off all the chaos in the remaining episodes.

Walt's arrest

Throughout the series, Jesse has grown from a gangster wannabe thug to a fairly intelligent and highly sympathetic character. He's got street smarts in the early seasons, which evolve into a thorough understanding of Walt's meth recipe in later seasons. By the final season, he's even been able to come up with inventive solutions to destroy evidence in a police locker and steal methylamine from a freight train, essentially putting his intellect on par with Walt's.

By managing to convince Walt that he's found his hidden stash of $80 million, Jesse is able to taunt Walt into making a few incriminating statements over the phone and lead Hank and Gomez to the burial site. Walt's arrest almost seems surreal, so long have we been following his exploits. Walt is so shocked to realize that he's been outwitted that he gives up without a fight, even calling off Todd's uncle Jack and his neo-Nazi gang to make sure Hank isn't caught up in the hit he's ordered on Jesse. A quiet end for a kingpin, if it had only ended so easily.

Hank and Gomez

In a decision that left every fan wishing for a time machine to fast forward a week, the episode where Walt is arrested ends in the midst of an intense shootout between Hank, Gomez, and the neo-Nazi gang. It offers the viewer a last, fleeting hope that Hank will somehow manage to get out of the situation alive. He's even still breathing when the episode "Ozymandias" starts, although Gomez has been killed.

The hope that Hank will be able to survive continues as Walt tries desperately to bargain for Hank's life, offering his entire fortune to the neo-Nazis if they'll let his brother-in-law go. It's enough to earn him a modicum of respect from Hank, but not enough to save him. It's a sudden but dignified end to one of the series' toughest, most respected characters. And as the neo-Nazis steal Walt's massive cash cache and leave him scrambling from the law, it sets into motion the final events of the series.

Knife fight

In what is easily one of Breaking Bad's most intense scenes, the White family disintegrates in minutes as a panicked Walt tries to get his family to agree to go on the run following Hank's death. A simple shot of Skyler approaching the kitchen counter, where a phone and knife rack are sitting side by side, lets us know that she is going to confront Walt by either calling the police or threatening him. She chooses the latter, not hesitating to slash Walt when he doesn't take her seriously.

The ensuing fight between Skyler and Walt is enough to leave any viewer on edge. With Walter Jr. trying to stop the confrontation and baby Holly screaming in the background, you're expecting any one of them to suffer a fatal wound at any moment.

Walt's phone call

Yes, three from the same episode. It's a really good one.

Having lost his family, his empire, and his money, Walt just flat out kidnaps Holly as the only part of his old life he's able to salvage. Once he realizes that taking an infant on the run is hardly the most responsible thing to do, Walt leaves Holly at a fire station...but not before dialing up Skyler and chewing her out in a brutal rant.

It's really quite shocking to hear Walt talk to Skyler the way he does in this scene. For all their ups and downs throughout the series, Walt has never before gone so far as call her a bitch or threaten her. It seems pretty out of character to have him attacking her with language that could practically be coming from the Skyler haters on countless Breaking Bad boards, and to some extent it's clear that he really is venting some built-up anger toward his wife. It's only when he stresses that the meth empire was his work alone that you realize his much stronger underlying motive: he knows the call is being recorded, and he knows the least he can do for Skyler is try to keep the pressure off of her.

Andrea's death

When Jesse is taken into captivity by the neo-Nazi gang after Hank and Gomez's deaths and forced to cook meth, a single picture serves as a warning to him not to try anything. It's a snapshot of Andrea and Brock, and the clear implication is that one or both of them will be harmed if Jesse steps out of line.

It's not like this is something that slips our attention. Jesse even uses a paper clip from the photo in order to MacGyver his way out of his handcuffs. But we can't help but root for him as he makes a break for it, and even cheer him on when he tells off the neo-Nazis and refuses to do any more cooking. Their subsequent execution of Andrea is nothing more than what they promised to do, but it still comes as a shocking moment. In a single sharp scene, all of Jesse's efforts to help Andrea out and protect her from harm come to grief.

"Why are you still alive?"

The character of Walter Jr. has gotten plenty of mockery over the course of the series, not so much for his disability as for his abiding love for breakfast and the general sense that he has little purpose in the narrative when compared to any other character. There were still plenty of scenes where he played an important role, though his last speaking scene is clearly the most impressive.

Throughout the series, Walt Jr. has clearly favored his father over his mother. He mostly treats his mother with scorn and looks up to Walt and Hank as his heroes, little realizing how much it annoys Walt to have to compete with his brother-in-law for his son's affection. So it's quite fitting that it takes something as extreme as Hank's death, which Walt Jr. blames on Walt, before he turns against his father. Walt Jr. is willing to talk with his father when calls from exile in New Hampshire, but as soon as Walt tries to solve yet another problem with money his son is ready to cut ties.

Baby Blue

What better way to wrap up this series' defining series than the final scene of the final episode?

To some, this was the guns a-blazing ending that Walt deserved. For others, it was a bit too much a case of Walt going out on his own terms and getting (almost) exactly what he wanted. He threatens his former colleagues Gretchen and Elliot into getting his money to his family, getting revenge for their perceived profiteering off his work, by threatening that they might be gunned down by hit men at any time if they disobey his instructions. He poisons Lydia, mows down the neo-Nazis who killed Hank, rescues Jesse, and dies on his own terms rather than in a prison cell or sickbed. Jesse just gets his freedom...and the opportunity to kill that psychopath Todd, thankfully.

In truth, it's far from a happy ending. The final episode before the mid-season break, in the scene before Hank's discovery of Walt's alter ego, comes close to offering one of these; Walt is happy and healthy and retired, never having to worry about his family or money again. Even Jesse is doing all right, free of Walt's influence and the owner of a hefty share of meth proceeds.

In the finale, everything has already collapsed into chaos. Walt knows that reconciliation with his son is impossible, that he can take more of the heat off Skyler but that she'll probably still be punished in some way, that most of his money is lost and gone forever. In one pivotal scene in the middle of the episode, a weary and disheveled Walt admits that at some point his drug business stopped being about supporting the family and started being about his own desire for money and power. Jesse drives off to live another day, but it's not like he's doing that great after several months in forced slavery and the murder of his girlfriend; plus the neo-Nazi compound might still have those videos where he admits to being part of a massive meth enterprise and murdering a few people. Who knows what his future holds?

If nothing else, the final scene of the police discovering Walt's body in a meth lab as Badfinger's "Baby Blue" plays in the background was one that left most viewers deeply satisfied. Consider that Breaking Bad was airing some of its best episodes at the same time that Dexter was careening down its precipitous slide to a dismal final scene featuring the main character as a friggin' lumberjack. There are plenty of shows with finales so disappointing that people kick themselves for even starting them; it's no small accomplishment that Breaking Bad left you wanting to start watching the entire series all over again.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Whatever Happened To: The Cast of Clarissa Explains It All

Running for five seasons between 1991 and 1994, Clarissa Explains It All is one of those shows that anyone who watched Nickelodeon back in the day will be familiar with. Following the lives of the Darling family, who managed to be completely bizarre and yet somehow lead a relatively traditional life, the neon clothing and DOS-style computer games practically make it a time capsule of the early 90s. It included some guest stars who went on to be fairly well-known actors, including James Van Der Beek, Wayne Brady, and Michelle Trachtenberg. You might recognize Suzanne Collins, writer of two episodes, as the woman who went on to write the Hunger Games trilogy.

So what happened to the main cast of this show?

Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Darling)

Clarissa deals with the typical issues facing a teenage girl as well as a number of atypical problems, often breaking the fourth wall to confide in the audience. She tends to blow her problems out of proportion, creating computer games and other unique methods to try to help her through them. Clarissa is also a big fan of a number of alternative rock bands.

Melissa Joan Hart's work on Clarissa Explains It All was enough to net her a starring role in another children's/young adult show, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Starting in 1996, two years after the end of Clarissa, the series went on until 2003 and included a TV movie and spin-off animated series. Hart, now 38, apparently limited herself to smaller roles after Sabrina, since she married Course of Nature musician Mark Wilkerson after the series ended and had three children; she also opened up a short-lived candy store in California called SweetHarts. Hart has since returned to ABC on the show Melissa & Joey, which premiered in 2010.

Jason Zimbler (Ferguson Darling)

Ferguson, Clarissa's nerdy younger brother, is usually bent on annoying his sister. He's also a Young Republican and wannabe entrepreneur, trying out a few unsuccessful schemes to bring in money. Clarissa and Ferguson occasionally work together, and Clarissa also defends him from bullies at times.

Zimbler never had another broadcast role after graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1998, though he got a degree in theater directing as well as business administration. He's stayed active in theater performances, directing a few performances in New York City and co-founding The Re-Theatre Instrument in Portland, Oregon. Zimbler, now 36, also works as a software designer for HBO.

Joe O'Connor (Marshall Darling)

A quirky architect who tends to model his buildings after everyday objects, Clarissa's father seems to have as much of a zany streak as his daughter. Marshall usually calls Clarissa by the nickname "sport" and is happy to give her advice, though he sometimes struggles to provide practical help.

O'Connor, whose age is unavailable, has continued to appear in a number of small television and movie roles since the end of Clarissa Explains It All. These include Tom Vogel in Mad Men as well as roles on popular shows like How I Met Your MotherNCISThe West Wing, and ER.

Elizabeth Hess (Janet Darling)

Marshall and Clarissa's mother are both former hippies, though Janet has retained more of these characteristics in the type of advice she gives to her daughter. She works at a museum and is a prominent environmentalist. She is also an enthusiast for organic and healthy meals, a taste not shared by the rest of the Darling family.

Hess, now 60, has generally stayed away from other television or movie roles; she had a few bit parts on Law and Order and was last credited in the 2009 movie Handsome Harry. However, Hess has been very active in theater productions. She also teaches acting through an organization known as the Hess Collective and holds instructing positions at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and New York Theater Intensives.

Sean O'Neal (Sam Anders)

Sam is Clarissa's best friend and usually visits her by climbing a ladder to her bedroom. He is more of a voice of reason to Clarissa's stress, enjoys skateboarding, and lives with his father (who is a bit of an odd fellow, sleeping while standing up in a closet).

O'Neal, now 38, did not act again after Clarissa Explains It All until lending his voice to the English versions of the anime series Noir and RahXephon. He also appeared as a protester in the series Development Hell and has a role in a forthcoming film called Penumbra. According to his partially completed website, O'Neal turned down the chance to be the lead singer in a boy band; his "present day" bio is still under construction.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Connecticut

All right, back on track after that alphabetical snafu.

A long, long time from now, whenever I get up to the N states in the alphabet, I'm going to have to make fun of New Hampshire for choosing a state symbol that unexpectedly disappeared three years after the state's quarter was issued. For now, I'll have to content myself with making fun of Connecticut for selecting a symbol that vanished 143 years before the state quarter came into being.

Behold, a tree! It's about as exciting as Connecticut gets.

All right, full disclosure: I live in Connecticut, and I have for three-and-a-half years. Its politics are ridiculous, its mountains are hills, and of all the New England states it's the one with the most obvious identity crisis. Half the state roots for the New York Yankees, for God's sake. But I've still met some wonderful people here, there actually are quite a few lovely attractions, and I can't help but marvel at how devoted people are to local history.

So it's no surprise that Connecticut opted for the historic angle in choosing the Charter Oak for its state symbol. Though there's no denying that the fellow who designed the Connecticut quarter, one T. James Ferrell, did a bit of airbrushing when he etched out this portrayal of the Hartford tree. Take a look at the sexy flowing branches of the final design, then compare them to this alternate proposal:

Yeesh. Looks like the Charter Oak was grown from a scion of the Ugly Tree and replicated every branch on the way up.

Most portrayals of the oak show it as a scraggly runt, so apparently the above design is closer to the truth. But it's nothing that will win any beauty contests. They would run off more than a billion of these coins, so clearly they couldn't make it some gnarled old maid. They needed to make it the Summer Glau of trees.

Welcome back to my blog references, Ms. Glau! (Source)

So what's the story with the Charter Oak, anyway? Well, according to the lore, the 1662 charter granted to Connecticut by Charles II allowed it a great deal of autonomy within the British empire. When James II took over the throne, he looked to put an end to such tomfoolery and sent an emissary to demand the surrender of Connecticut's charter. Everyone sat together at the table when lo, the candles were snuffed! Captain James Wadsworth spirited the charter away to hide in a nook in the one tree on a nearby Hartford hill. Somehow, the British failed to find it.

So there you have it. Connecticut's greatest accomplishment wasn't Mark Twain, it was a magic vanishing act. Granted, the Charter Oak is a more interesting story than the one that led to the "Constitution State" nickname, namely that the Fundamental Orders of 1638-39 might be considered the first constitution in the American continent. There's also the "Nutmeg State" nickname, but Connecticut can't really be too proud of the idea that its citizens of yore were clever enough to sell counterfeit wooden nutmegs to gullible bumpkins.

I've learned a fair amount about New London history in my time here, namely that the city was burned down by both Benedict Arnold and a hurricane and that a harebrained scheme to steal a submarine included the possibility of obliterating the place with a nuclear weapon. If I'd arrived here way back before the quarter design was finalized, I might have argued for it to portray the story of how an early Revolutionary War mission raided a British armory in the Bahamas to obtain gunpowder and munitions for the colonials before taking the booty to New London. It's pretty awesome that part of the city's history is pretty much the same as one portion of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.

Exactly like this, but in Nassau. (Source)

It would be nice if the Charter Oak was still standing but alas, it was blown over in an 1856 storm and survives only in a few pieces of furniture in the state legislature. But both the storm and the power outage of the original Charter Oak heist are still commemorated to this day. Whenever a storm is powerful enough to knock out electricity, Connecticut Light and Power takes a symbolic two weeks to restore it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Greatest Thing of Anything: Cafe Nomad

I credit - or blame - my love of coffee entirely on a corner shop in rural Maine.

Somehow, I made it through my late teens and early 20s without developing much of a taste for the stuff. I never needed it to get through a college all-nighter or hangover, or as a morning pick-me-up. It wasn't until Cafe Nomad opened its doors that I really got to appreciate a good brew and, perhaps more importantly, the coffeehouse atmosphere.

Part of the reason the cafe appealed to me so much was, quite simply, the lack of businesses in Norway, Maine, that really had any appeal. It's not to denigrate Books N Things, the excellent bookstore across the street from where I lived for three-and-a-half years, or the Maine Bookhouse, which was packed with used and rare volumes. But they were about it for local attractions at the time. The rest of the main drag seemed to be an odd mix of rooming houses, lawyers, accountants, and "baubles 'n crap" type thrift stores.

When I first moved to Maine, I lived a short walk away from a brightly colored corner building where Cafe Nomad would soon be located. Signs in the large picture windows fronting Main Street announced the imminent arrival of the business, though the predecessor in my job warned that the promise had been up for months. She warned me not to get my hopes up.

But as it turned out, the promise was genuine and the cafe would open its doors not long after. The owners had been taking a cautious approach, buying the building and taking their time to renovate the interior. By the time it was complete, it boasted a central kitchen space, a brightly lit sitting area overlooking a small stream, and a library of titles belying owner Scott Berk's adventurous and globetrotting lifestyle. It was well worth the wait.

Cafe Nomad soon became a regular Saturday destination for me, typically in the bitterly cold winters but occasionally in summer as well. I would bring along a good book, or take my laptop to be the typical (or, for rural Maine, atypical) coffeehouse writer. I wasn't the only one who found the cafe to be a welcoming spot. Business took off right away, and in its first year the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce gave them an award for a valuable newcomer business. And indeed, it was a tried and true model in a new market; before Cafe Nomad, the nearest place to get a coffee and relax was 25 miles away.

They have enormous mugs, and if you were sitting in you got one free refill. They get their joe from Carrabassett Coffee, which is based in northern Maine, and most of the blends are pretty strong. I joked that you needed to add cream and sugar to make it black.

And the food is pretty amazing, too. Soft, fluffy pancakes are a weekend treat that comes with real maple syrup. The chef always seemed to be experimenting with new sandwich specials, so there was usually some delicious option to tempt you.

A couple of years ago, I took a vacation to see some old friends in Maine. They're scattered in a few different places, but I spent the longest time in the Oxford Hills. Going back to Cafe Nomad was a sweet reunion. Quite literally. I got a maple oat scone with breakfast one day, and it was one of the best things I've ever tasted.

Cafe Nomad was starting to host a regular wine tasting by the time I left Maine, and it looks like the place has been successful enough to add more hours and a dinner menu. It deserves all the recognition it gets. The business provided a warm, inviting spot for visitors and locals alike. In some way, I think it helped kick off a wider transformation of Main Street in Norway. Other start-ups never caught on (I could never understand why someone would think their particular Baubles 'N Crap would take off when so many others had failed before) but the Cafe Nomad was followed with more innovative places like a bike and ski shop, games store, and fiber studio.

New London has three coffee houses and a few more cafes with delicious food and bottomless cups of coffee. But I'll always remember Cafe Nomad fondly, and they can count on a customer whenever I pay a visit to western Maine.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Double Feature Review: World War Z and Pacific Rim

World War Z

Synopsis: Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) races to find a way to combat growing hordes of zombies as a plague causes the world to descend into chaos.

The bad news first: I think I'm going to make an unprecedented statement here, so prepare yourself. Ready? The biggest similarity between World War Z and the book on which it is based is the title.

All right, so maybe that's been screamed ad nauseum from the raw throats of millions of angry fans of Max Brooks' phenomenal take on an undead pandemic. In truth, I wasn't overly concerned that the movie didn't do a Ken Burns style oral history to bring Brooks' work to the screen. There are plenty of movie adaptations that have been excellent and memorable stories despite straying from the original source material. Jurassic Park is a beloved adaptation of Michael Crichton's work, but it charts a much different path from the novel while keeping the core characters and premise of a dinosaur zoo intact. But World War Z really does abandon far too much of the original material to make it a decent adaptation.

Though it takes some inspiration from the book, the movie fails to incorporate its plethora of fascinating characters, imagery, and humor. Everyone waits around patiently for Brad Pitt to solve everything, offering some token assistance here and there, so the strength of the supporting characters is pretty much nil. The movie also takes itself a little too seriously in its portrayal of a worldwide emergency, depriving it of the satire so often present in the zombie genre. This tone is further undermined by the portrayal of the zombies as literal waves of humanity.

World War Z also suffers from a severe wind-down in its pace. It gets frantic start, spanning giant swaths of the globe, only to give way to a glacial climax where Lane's biggest challenge is getting past a single zombie who might best be described as a lab coat with novelty chattering teeth.

And, as a more minor nitpick, the movie makes the transparent effort to keep things within the realm of a PG-13 rating. Which means that the blood spatter and gore that practically defines this genre is sanitized to the point of distraction.

The good stuff: The initial scenes of the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia are very well-done. There's a slow buildup as the panic sweeping the city slowly reaches Gerry and his family while they're stuck in traffic. There's a good mixture of human kindness and brutality on display, a blending of the desire to help out someone in need (even if an entire city is in peril) and "everyone for themselves" attitudes. Arguably the best scene in the entire movie involves Gerry's encounter with a gun-toting young man in a pharmacy. His motives and actions leave enough unsaid that he's an endearingly mysterious character.

Some scenery and aspects of the story clearly reflect inspiration from the book. The ragtag evacuation fleet in the Atlantic, with the flagship holding civilians and military and a pile of rescued items of particular significance, shows just how quickly a refuge had to be thrown together. The particularly disturbing detail of North Korea removing the teeth of all of its civilians isn't in the book, but it's in a similar to the atmosphere of Brooks' globe-spanning tale. So is a shot of dozens of airliners scrambling to leave a Tel Aviv airport as zombies pour onto the runway.

The movie also deserves some credit for adding a unique spin on the zombie genre. I won't spoil it, but it manages to add a believable defense against zombies that adds another layer to the usual "shoot 'em in the head" strategy.

Verdict: This falls far behind 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead in its more serious handling of a fast zombie/infected outbreak. But if you don't go in expecting a carbon copy update of Max Brooks, you'll probably still enjoy it.

Pacific Rim

Synopsis: After a devastating series of attacks by monstrous aliens (Kaiju), mankind fights back with an army of giant robots (Jaegers).

The bad news first: You go into the movie knowing full well that you're in it for the fun and creativity of watching giant robots fighting big monsters. The movie makes the wise decision to open with a thrilling sequence based around this premise: an explanation of how the first Kaiju attack devastated San Francisco, the badass deployment of a Jaeger to face a Kaiju threat, and a no holds barred beatdown between the two.

But then it runs out of steam for quite some time. You have to scoff at the sudden switch in strategy from "Let's build awesome giant fighting robots" to "Let's build a totally ineffective wall," and the fact that this bit of the story seems like little more than a way to shoehorn in a bit of immigration symbolism makes it even more out of place. The movie churns out a long line of action movie cliches, ranging from the intra-team rivalry to the latent demons one character must overcome. There are a few scenes that stress the fine line between paying homage to Independence Day and ripping it off, like the inspiring speech before the big fight or the devour-all-the-resources-and-move-on comment.

Beyond that, you have Charlie Day pretty much playing Charlie Kelly as an eccentric scientist feuding with a snooty British academic about studying the Kaiju. It gets a little annoying.

The good stuff: It has ROBOTS PUNCHING MONSTERS. The on-board computer is voiced by GLaDOS from Portal! Even if you're not one of the unabashed nerd to whom these features are clearly meant to appeal, it's impossible not to be wowed by the Jaeger vs. Kaiju fights in this movie. Every second is awe-inspiring and creative.

For the most part, the movie never tries to take itself too seriously. It knows this is an incredibly silly premise and that we're not expected to care too much about San Francisco and Hong Kong and the rest getting smashed up as they become impromptu arenas for these battles. Much has been made of few plot holes, but the narrative doesn't get too lost in the fact that people bought a ticket to see a robot beat a giant creature with a freighter. From the first scene, you're wondering why they don't just seal off the evil monster portal; the movie addresses this question in a believable way.

Pacific Rim places itself only a few years into the future, so it's also quite enjoyable to spot existing technology from scene to scene. My favorite is the use of the Crawler, the giant movable platform used to bring Saturn V rockets and the space shuttle to the launch pad, in a new role as a Jaeger deployment device.

Verdict: ROBOT-MONSTER FIGHTS! If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, give it a try.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Top 10 Strangest Pre-Breaking Bad Roles of Breaking Bad Actors

Breaking Bad concluded in September, but some of the buzz around the show has continued. The popularity of the final season inspired plenty of people to watch it, and a spinoff around character Saul Goodman will be starting up this fall.

At this point, I'm probably going to limit my blog posts on Breaking Bad to two more posts: one more "defining moments" post on the last eight episodes and this idea, which grew out of the various jokes about the previous roles of the actors (one of the best suggestions linking Walter White with Bryan Cranston's other famous role has Breaking Bad as a prequel to Malcolm in the Middle).

So with no further ado, here are the top 10 strangest pre-Breaking Bad roles of Breaking Bad actors.

10. RJ Mitte: Jock on Hannah Montana

Mitte's first on-screen role was a background, non-speaking part on the hit Disney Channel show that starred Miley Cyrus back before her tongue went all Venom-y. He's credited only as "School Jock," wearing a letter jacket in one scene. A few years later, Mitte started playing Walter White Jr.

9. Anna Gunn: Jerry's Girlfriend on Seinfeld

This is probably one of the better known examples. In her pre-Skyler White days, Anna Gunn was one of the 57 girlfriends Jerry has in the course of Seinfeld. She plays this role in the episode "The Glasses," in which George thinks he sees Jerry's girlfriend Amy making out with Jerry's cousin.

Anna Gunn has been in the film and TV industry since 1992, when she appeared on an episode of Quantum Leap.

You may have also spotted her in the 1998 thriller Enemy of the State, playing a character named Emily Reynolds.

8. Aaron Paul: Johnny Knoxville Wannabe on The X-Files

A few years ago I watched all episodes of The X-Files and tallied up a body count of all the people, aliens, and creatures to die over the course of the popular show. I also checked the IMDB page on each episode and made a note of any before-they-were-famous types to make an appearance.

One of them happened to be Aaron Paul, giving us a glimpse of what Jesse Pinkman may have been like in high school. He plays David "Sky Commander Winky" Winkle, a student who puts together videos on teenagers doing stupid things for a project he dubs The Dumb Ass Show. He also antagonizes a classmate with a variety of insect powers, earning him a retaliatory back rash.

If you were home sick at the right time in the year 2000, you may have also seen him make it all the way to the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right using his birth name of Aaron Sturtevant.

7. Matt Jones: Deep-Frying a Turkey on Gilmore Girls

According to his IMDB page, Matt Jones didn't really come onto the scene until he began playing Brendan "Badger" Mayhew in Breaking Bad. But he does have a single role from 2002: a fellow named Morgan in an episode of Gilmore Girls. He apparently doesn't have any lines; Morgan doesn't appear in a transcript of the episode, though Jones is part of a family that deep-fries their turkey for Thanksgiving.

6. Steven Michael Quezada: "Mexican" in Beerfest

Before Albuquerque's film industry became especially prominent with Breaking Bad, the city hosted the comedy troupe Broken Lizard (best known for Super Troopers) as they made the 2006 comedy Beerfest. Steven Michael Quezada won a small role, credited only as "Mexican," as one of his earlier roles prior to playing Hank's partner Steven Gomez.

It's also worth noting that Quezada, an Albuquerque native, was elected to a school board seat in the city in February of 2013, during the break between the first and last halves of the show's final season. I couldn't find a screenshot from his appearance in Beerfest, but that picture up top is from the ABQ's schools website.

5. Laura Fraser: "The Future" in Vanilla Sky

I never saw Vanilla Sky, the bizarre sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz. It might be known mostly for a scene where Cruise's character runs through a deserted Times Square (and the movie's decision, unorthodox at the time, to not edit the World Trade Center out while many other films and TV shows in late 2001 were doing so after the buildings' destruction).

Laura Fraser, nearly a decade before playing Madrigal Electromotive's nervy and scheming executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, is the voice of the unseen entity that speaks to Cruise and delivers the last line in the movie. She's credited as "The Future."

4. Bryan Cranston: Villain in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

Bryan Cranston's more recent alter ego of Hal on Malcolm in the Middle might lack the villainy that comes to characterize Walter White, and many of his other roles involve rather kind-hearted people. It's not like he never played the bad guy, though. He voiced a couple of villains who fought a group of teenage superheroes in the campy series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

There was also that time he walked on the Moon. Cranston played Buzz Aldrin in From the Earth to the Moon, the terrific miniseries on the early days of the space program.

And he was that one-armed officer who sends Tom Hanks et al out after Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan.

3. Giancarlo Esposito: Big Bird's Camp Counselor on Sesame Street

Even in his first appearance, it becomes clear that Gustavo Fring's genial kindness is only the crunchy candy shell over a core of cold ruthlessness. So it's a little disconcerting to see him palling around with Big Bird, especially after his role as a meth kingpin working behind a fried chicken franchise front.


Giancarlo Esposito got the part of a camp counselor on the popular children's show after running out of options in the acting world, but admitted in an Onion AV Club interview that it was a pretty great experience. He was also one of the voices in the chorus that sang the theme for The Electric Company.

2. Dean Norris: Martian Mutant on Total Recall 

Dean Norris must have a thing for science fiction. I'm not just saying this because the guy who played Hank Schrader once played a Martian mutant named Tony in the film Total Recall.


He also played an officer in Starship Troopers.

He apparently really likes the Terminator series. He was leading the SWAT team that found a dying Miles Dyson at Skynet HQ in Terminator 2...

...and returned in the short-lived series The Sarah Connor Chronicles to play a nuclear power plant manager in a couple of episodes.

1. Jonathan Banks: Helping Girls Understand Periods

Yes, the actor behind the coldly efficient yet warmhearted fixer Mike Ehrmantraut had his first credited screen acting role as a doofy high school boyfriend  in Linda's Film on Menstruation, a 1974 public service announcement on...well, you know. Skip to 11:05 to see Banks ask if vaginas can control the weather.


I'm going to wager that Jonathan Banks is able to look back on this and laugh. He's been in comedy roles, after all, like that time he played one of the air traffic controllers in the 1980 comedy classic Airplane!