Friday, September 25, 2009

Whiteout: A Cooked Carrot Fart of a Movie

Allow me to get scatological for a moment to make a point.

When my brother and I were in junior high school, we thought farts were the funniest thing in the world. They fascinated us so boundlessly that we even developed a Fart Taxonomy, as it were. We'd hypothesised that every form of gastointestinal expulsion known to man arose from one of three distinctive categories: The Rotten Egg Fart, The Potato Salad Fart, and the Cooked Carrot Fart.

The Rotten Egg Fart wore its self-explanatory name on its shoulder. It packed a sharp, attention-getting, nostril-stinging, sulphuric stench that usually erupted wetly, killed small birds at ten paces, and never failed to elicit maximum snickers. Rotten Egg's slightly less-potent cousin, the Potato Salad Fart, shared a bit of the nostril sting, only leavened by a foody, potatoey undertone.

But the most unspectacular, dreary fart--the one that extracted naught but resigned groans and dull disdain--was the Cooked Carrot Fart. Cooked Carrot usually trumpeted its arrival with low, growling notes, like a tuba being played underwater slowly or a naugahyde chair being punched. It was a thick, heavy, ugly--and worst of all, crushingly unhumorous--smell. It was the smell of the most uninteresting substances consumed by man, converting to an uninteresting gaseous state. It was the Boring and Unremarkable Wallflower Fart.

I'd readily concede to flaws in our classification at the time (we were a few years away from eating Taco Bell, which surely created its own sub-strata of stench), but I thought of John's and my Flatulence Classification System frequently as I watched Whiteout.

Bad movies, it could be argued, skew pretty close to the Tony and John FCS. The most entertainingly outlandish ones sting at the senses and elicit laughter or other extremes of attention-getting emotion, Rotten Egg-style. Others flirt with Potato-Salad-esque moments of potency, leavened by mitigating factors like budgetary limitations or a trickle of originality; less bold but still worth a chuckle or two.

Whiteout, put straight-up, is a Cooked Carrot Fart of a Movie.

Based on an acclaimed Oni Press graphic novel, Whiteout serves up a pretty standard-issue whodunnit. A scientist gets gruesomely murdered on the frozen tundra of Antarctica, and it's up to spunky US Marshall Kate Beckinsale to solve the mystery before too many more bodies pile up amidst the subzero temperatures. Through circumstances far too convoluted to mention Beckinsale, mysterious FBI guy Gabriel Macht, crusty-but-loveable on-site doctor Tom Skerritt, and nice-guy pilot Columbus Short wind up isolated at their arctic base to face a shadowy killer who may or may not be one of them.

The actors are appealing enough, I suppose, and Beckinsale does emote during one scene in her underwear (not a liability by any measure from this corner). But the piss-lousy script trots out cliches by the bucket. The Big Twist Ending gets telegraphed within the first ten minutes; numbingly literal flashbacks to Beckinsale's past as a Florida cop pepper the proceedings; and you can bet that when a character stumbles across a dead body with a bullet in its skull, he or she will state, "It's a dead body. And it's got a bullet in its skull."  Such hackery would be forgiveable--hell, welcome, even--if director Dominic Sena actually shoved things along with something resembling verve and brio. But don't let Whiteout's abyssmally low Rotten Tomatoes approval score (6%, ladies and gents!) fool you into thinking it'll be any damn fun: the movie unspools as slowly as molasses flowing up an arctic hill. It makes you appreciate the enthusiastic Rotten-Egg energy that you get from, say, an Uwe Boll film. Seriously.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Here Comes de Judge: The First Annual Great Ballard Chili Cook-Off

Cooking chili is a lot like playing the bass guitar: It's easy to get by on, but deceptively difficult to really do well. I've cultivated a profound love for this beany Mexican-born dish over the years, and it got me through a lot of lean years in high school and college. A good chili possesses a protein-and-fiber-rich heartiness that sticks to the ribs, and sports enough spiciness to give the taste buds at least a little bit of a spank. It also initiated my abiding lifelong fondness for spicy foods in general.

So it was a massive honor--and an undeniable pleasure--to be chosen as a celebrity judge for the first annual Ballard Great Chili Cook-Off. The Cook-Off drew a large, enthusiastic crowd of at least four-dozen happy eaters, and Re-Bar raconteur/Get Loweded mastermind Chas Roberts hosted.
Four phenomenal cooks created four vastly different variations on the venerable staple food, and The Clash of the Con Carnes took place at the Sunset Hill Community Center; a great time, and full bellies, were had by all.

Chili 1 waltzed the furthest 'outside the box' in its construction. The only veggie offering of the day, it sported butternut squash, corn, and a nice peppery/sweet undertone. Good stuff, almost more of a soup than a chili.

Chili 2 skewed closer to the traditional chili model with pork, red beans, and jalapeno and poblano peppers rearing their zesty heads. The peppers added a piquant heat that did, indeed, spank my tastebuds just enough to titillate.

If Chili 3 were a human being, it'd be the brawniest, most muscular stud on the beach. The thickness of this pot of goodness damn near bent my spoon, and the ingredients--chicken, genuine smoked pork, stout beans--combined to a near paste, barbecue-sweet, smoky, and flavorful.

Last but certainly not least came Chili 4, another more traditional-leaning bowl of magnificence. Andouille sausage, chicken, red beans, and a zesty tomato base made for yet more yum.

No, the decision was NOT easy.

In addition to myself (the Cultureophile, farthest left), I was joined at the judges' table by (continuing left to right) Moms Sue and Mary, Ketchup and Soup Food Blogger Sarah, and Genuine Texan Sean. All of us agonized over the final choice, and I for one had to go back for, um, seconds. All in the interest of accuracy, you understand.

Musical entertainment was provided by Youth Rescue Mission, a fine trio co-fronted by Friday Mile's Hannah Williams. Their tight harmonies and exuberance made for great dining ambience.

Two prizes--the Judges' Award and the Audience Favorite--were handed out. Santos' excellent Chili #2 (a family recipe) won the Judges' prize.

The Audience Fave (and my personal favorite by a narrow margin) went to the #3 Uber-Chili created by event coordinator Kevin.

I've not had a better--nor more filling--late summer afternoon in quite some time. And I got to keep the spiffy apron.

Thanks all. Looking forward to next year.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Interview with Melvin Van Peebles at

What the Hell? I've plugged it everywhere else; I'll plug it here.

I had a lengthy and extremely stimulating chat with one of the architects of modern independent cinema, Melvin Van Peebles. The director of Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song was easily one of the most inspiring and fascinating people I've ever spoken to, and the interview (all partisan bias aside) turned out pretty all-right.

Check out, a fine new Seattle-centric website. My review of Van Peebles' newest movie lives here, and the interview lives here.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Song of the Day: "Got Nuffin," Spoon

It's 1:40 in the am and I'm driving home alone.

The sky's clear and dark. I ruminate on the night, life, the future. Random images and thoughts begin seeping along my consciousness like silty mud running from a swollen river into an open field--fuzzy, unfocused, intermittently negative.

But then the drums start, a mid-tempo throb of purpose. The silt runs in reverse, receding back into the waterline. Clarity--the first of several hot moments of it--rides the rhythm. The near-black sky etches the highway in front of me into sharp graphic-novel relief. Laser focus. I roll down the windows and crank up the volume.

Spikes of guitar jab into the top of the backbeat; then the bass starts its sturdy surge of rhythm. The pulse of the car against the uneven asphalt punctuates the low thrum. As though by uncontrollable gravitational pull, my foot presses down on the gas...65 mph...70mph...

A scarred and sensual voice rasps out the lyrics with barely-coiled, all-or-nothing urgency. Wounded romance, or maybe a projection of it, runs through some of the words. Some of them don't make literal sense. But I understand them all, I feel them all as the car accelerates.

"When that blood goes rattling through my veins, my ears start to ring; I notice what matters."

Rays of bright light stream through the lyrics--not the hokey positivity of some granola-huffing passive-aggressive hippie, but the hard-won vitality of a thinking badass. And that's what I am right now, thanks to the dark and sweet fix provided by the steady rhythm, the rabbit-punch melody, and the wind circulating relentlessly around me. My foot gravitates closer to the floor...75...80mph...

"I've got nuffin' to lose but darkness and shadows...Got nuffin' to lose but bitterness and patterns..."

All those reams of pages of words about being one-with-the-road make total clarion sense right now. The few night-owl souls sharing the asphalt with me dissolve, their red tail-light eyes staring blankly as I soar past them. I weave along the ribbon of cement like a serpent in high gear. 85mph...90mph...

It's driving with the top down; not giving a damn, yet feeling utterly focused and connected to the world around you. It's the all-or-nothing dizzying lure of the road; the explosion of energy that renders birth and sex and death all impulses springing forth from the same well. It's the terrifying and exhilarating jolt of change from within and without. For the three minutes and fifty-six seconds that the song throbs through the car speakers, all of the above swirls inside me--in crystal-clear six-channel stereo, painted across the dark blue late-night/early morning sky in glorious pin-prick starlight brush strokes. I feel cucumber-cool, dangerous, beautiful, happy, and charged, like the entire promise of the world's in my hot little hand.

I exit the freeway and wind down the car. But the feeling's still there, hopping around inside me.

Then my finger hits Replay.

The object of the game of course, is to spike that vein, to mine that feeling even when the music's not insinuating itself into my ears or my brain. I'm working on it. Meanwhile, Spoon's "Got Nuffin," the best driving-song-that's-not-really-about-driving that I've heard all year, is a damned good jump-start. I have no idea whether or not it'll hit you the way it did me, but for what it's worth here it is, courtesy of Youtube. Have a good weekend, all.