Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, March 07, 2004
      ( 3/07/2004 09:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"REGRETS, I HAVE A FEW!" – Down in Texas, at a shabby nursing home called Mud Creek Shady Rest, a fat wreck of a man is living out his final days. The staff knows him as Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell), but Haff lets us in on the truth. He's really Elvis Aaron Presley. The King of Rock 'N' Roll had traded places with a professional Elvis impersonator back in the day to escape the trappings of Kinghood. Now he spends his time, watching staff speed through their daily routines, worrying about an undiagnosed growth on his penis ("Truth was," he notes in voiceover, "I hadn't had a hard-on in years,") and wondering, "Is there anything to life other than food, shit and sex?"

Down the perpetually underlit halls a second patient (Ossie Davis) also claims to be a famous personage, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, victim of an unseen conspiracy that has taken out part of his brain and replaced it with sand, then dyed his body black "all over." When a stolen Egyptian mummy shows up at the nursing home, sucking the souls of residents out through whatever orifice is convenient, it's up to these two old, barely ambulatory geezers to stop the monster that Elvis/Sebastian calls Bubba Ho-Tep.

It's to writer/director Don Coscarelli's credit (working from a tall tale by Joe R. Lansdale) that
a.) he never once lets us know for certain if our heroes are totally delusional (though at one point, E/S spies an unexplained scar on the back of his friend’s head) and

b.) he keeps a straight face through the entire preposterous proceedings.
As a result, he creates something pretty unique in the annals of low-budget moviedom: a blend of campiness and melancholy regret that does both these boomer icons proud. He also – rather amazingly for me at least since I'd written the guy off years ago – has created his first great film since Phantasm (sorry, Beastmaster fans!)

The movie proceeds at its own geezerly pace and at times shows the restraints of its budget (the climactic showdown between our heroes and mummy is flatter than you’d expect it to – which only seems half intentional), while the occasional old-aged digressions into scatological obsessions will definitely try the patience of some audience members. But there are plenty of moments of B-pic poetry in this baby: a scene where our hero attempts to fend off a flying scarab (happily reminiscent of the deadly flying orb from Phantasm) using nothing but his walker and some dinner utensils, for instance, or the moment when a victim-to-be surprisingly shuffles up to a second nursing home resident in an iron lung to steal her eyeglasses. Plus, he captures the ravages of age and convalescent isolation with noir-like toughness.

The mummy, happily, is pretty cool looking, too. Created by the FX crew at KNB EFX Group, he strides down the halls in an unexplained cowboy outfit: just the kind of creature you'd expect to see in one of Lansdale's outlandish horror westerns. When he opens up his maw to attack one of our heroes, it's a moment horror fans'll treasure.

Coscarelli couldn't have pulled it all off without Campbell, of course, who inhabits his role with hard-bitten believability. It's too bad more folks won't be seeing this quirky little flick, if only to get a glimpse of what a damn fine actor Bruce Campbell can be when he's not attaching chainsaws to his arm and fending off the walking dead. At one point in Bubba Ho-Tep, our hero comes upon a 24 Hour Elvis Marathon on television and sadly considers the King's film legacy: "Shitty pictures – every one of 'em," he pronounces. You get the sense in that moment Coscarelli would've loved to write and direct a movie for the real Elvis Presley. If only he could've.

When you're old, Elvis/Sebastian states early in the proceedings, "Everything you do is either worthless or sadly amusing." On the whole, Bubba Ho-Tep is the latter – and all the better for it.

BLOGGISH POSTSCRIPT: I like it when a director remains loyal to the actors who were present when s/he started out (as with Joe Dante's ongoing use of Roger Corman regular Dick Miller), so I was pleased to note the presence of Reggie Bannister, the balding hippie-ish brother from the Phantasm movies, in this pic as an officious nursing home administrator. Way to go, Don!

BIG GULP DEPT.: While prepping this review to go up on Blogcritics, I happened to notice that I'd gotten Lansdale's name wrong twice - and I've got a slew of his books on the shelves upstairs! This dumb-ass error has since been corrected.
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      ( 3/07/2004 09:40:00 AM ) Bill S.  

GREAT MOMENTS IN MOVIE NUDITY – My previous posting spurred me into briefly wondering: if monsters plus nudity equals an unbeatable movie combo, what is the ultimate nudie monster movie? After a few minutes, I came up with my personal candidate: Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, which features a shapely alien vampires waling about London in the altogether for the length of the movie. Scary? Not a whit. Entertaining? You betcha!
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Saturday, March 06, 2004
      ( 3/06/2004 10:36:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"I FIRST THOUGHT IT WAS SOMEONE IN A MONKEY SUIT!" – I was admittedly sucked in by Something Weird's drive-in DVD set, The Beast that Killed Women and Monster of Camp Sunshine by its "monster nudist" theme. Both of these mid-sixties psychotronic pics are set in nudist camps – monsters and nudity: two great tastes that go great together!

If you're like me, the only extensive movie experience you've had with nudist colonies was in the Inspector Clouseau classic, A Shot in the Dark. So viewing these two low-budget gems (along with the selected archival short subjects from the 20's-50's that Something Weird has included in this bargain package) would be, perforce, an educational experience. With that in mind, I sat and viewed the first of this DVD double bill, Barry Mahon's The Beast that Killed Women (1965).

Mahon was a prolific auteur of "adults only" movies in the sixties. In '65 alone, according to Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Film Guide, he put out ten other features. Of course, if they all were as short as Beast (which barely clocks in at over an hour), that stat's a little less impressive, particularly when you consider that this flick has maybe fifteen minutes of poorly miked, barely discernible dialog.

Beast stars Delores Carlos and Byron Mabe (the director of She Freak!) as a couple visiting a Miami nudist camp to work on their tans. Unfortunately for the duo, the weekend they pick is the same one that an escaped gorilla chooses to show up on grounds and start slaughtering campers (well, one camper actually, but perhaps the plural in the movie's title refers to earlier slaughters that we haven't been privileged to see). How the beast escaped or why it's attacking nudists in their grass huts at night is never explained (perhaps the ape is a hard-core social conservative?), though we're given a soundless scene near the end of the pic where the cops arrest an unnamed woman with a large cage in her home.

The big draw, however, is the nudist camp stuff – of which writer/director Mahon gives us plenty: shots of nekkid babes strollin' past the camera, a slew of pointless scenes featuring two half-clothed gals in bunk beds nattering on (as best as I could tell through the garbled soundtrack) about how frightened they are plus the obligatory pool & volleyball scenes. (In the latter, the unclothed athletes seem to spend more time tossing the ball back and forth over the net instead of actually playing v-ball.) Most of these sequences are dialog-free with nature sounds – birds tweeting, frogs croaking – overlaid for that vital au naturel feel. Only about half feature real half-frontal nudity, however, since nearly all the men (including our leading man) and a good portion of the women appear in shorts or swimsuits. At one point, for instance, we're treated to an ineptly choreographed square dance sequence that you just know would've been ten times more entertaining if the dancers weren't wearing summer clothes.

The film opens with a credit indicating that it features members of a real Miami-based nudist colony, but apparently some of 'em were a wee bit shy. When the gorilla goes after his one successful victim – a blonde wearing red capris pants and a top – I was half expecting the director to do a Monty Python-esque chase scene, the lady conveniently losing clothing on tree branches as she ran through the woods. No such luck, however, though the moment where the man-in-a-monkey-suit does a fireman's carry with his victim was pretty risible.

Mahon also pads his pic with several scenes featuring leading man Mabe in the hospital. He and his wife get attacked by the gorilla midway into the movie, so while the lady remains at the camp, we get to watch the guy banter with cops and a sassy nurse, then spend time watching the Jello on his tray jiggle. (I'm guessing Mabe took a lotta notes on Mahon's directorial techniques.) We also see the local cops set their trap for the creature – using an unfortunately clothed policewoman as bait, then barely responding in time to her screams when the big monkey goes after her.

The movie ends happily with a scene of camp regulars returning to the scene of the crime once the monster has been shot and destroyed. Where slasher flicks of the 70's and 80's regularly inferred that the violent deaths of their horny teen victims were the consequence of their "immoral behavior," in Beast the presence of a rampaging gorilla is just, at most, a temporary inconvenience. A testimony to the endurance of the human spirit. . .
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Friday, March 05, 2004
      ( 3/05/2004 09:36:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"I (USETA) DO THE ROCK" – So Dale the Whale has morphed from Adam Arkin into Tim Curry. Watching the latter chew the scenery as the bedridden mega-sized grotesque on Monk's season finish tonight, I didn't mind the shift in actors at all: Curry brings an enjoyable villainous glee to a character that Arkin in his first season appearance had played as gross and unpleasant. Since Dale gives Monk his first good clue all season about the murder of Adrian's wife, I'm guessing we'll see more of him when the U.S.A. series returns in June. Which is okay by me, even if I don't quite accept the ultra fat suit that they've used to flesh the character. At some point, you just know that someone decided decided too much avoirdupois jiggle on a body that huge would be too visually distracting. . .
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      ( 3/05/2004 02:51:00 PM ) Bill S.  

NO MORE SUPERMAN PHOTOS, I PROMISE – Many thanx to all those in the blogosphere who wished me a happy 2nd anniversary this week. Among them:
Neil Alien, Johnny Bacardi, Sean Collins, David Fiore and at least one other blogger who I know I’m stupidly forgetting (but you know who are – so why not remind me?) Each and every one of you turns the world on with yer smile. . .
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      ( 3/05/2004 07:54:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"EVERYTHING IS OBLIVIATED" – I should've known better. But C.S.I. was a rerun and my wife Becky and I'd started a game of Scrabble – so I switched to the premiere of Mad Mad House for background. A bad choice, but then I wasn't doing any better picking tiles that night either.

SciFi Channel's newest faux reality show is no less gimmicky than anything Fox has spewn our way, though I fume over the fact that the network which cancelled Mystery Science Theater 3000 (yes, it still hurts) devotes so much air time to pseudo-documentary teevee. House's premise is simple: ten "normal" folks are invited to spend their days in a mansion with five meant-to-be-shocking "Alts": a witch named Fiona, a naturist (a.k.a. nudist) named Avocado, a gothy looking vampire named Don, a voodoo priestess named Tashia and a "modern primitive" (a.k.a. sideshow geek) who goes by the name of Art. (Didn't I see that last 'un on an episode of X-Files?) The Five Alts give their houseguests a series of tasks designed to test their tolerance and affability: by the end of the show, one of the ten is voted by the Alts out of the house.

Most of the guests have been selected for maximum straightitude. No less than three of the initial ten turn out to be self-described conservative Christians, for instance, so you know they're gonna be uncomfortable once Miz Voudun starts a dancin' and chantin'. Each of the Five Alts has an in-camera moment to demonstrate how reasonable they really are, but the meat of this show is Let's Freak Out the Straights. (Also included in the group: an amiable middle-aged woman and a self-identified Good Old Boy.) For their first trial, our Normals are required to wade into a fountain of faux blood to retrieve a bunch of anti-vampire geegaws (cloves of garlic, rubber bats, and so on) than place the items in a basket bearing the name of the houseguest they most wish would leave. The one who receives the least amount of dripping crap by the end of the round is declared the winner and given the responsibility of being a tiebreaker if the Five Alts can't come to a decision when it comes time to throw somebody off of the island. When the winner is one of the self-identified Christians, a college Republican type named Brent, you know the Alts'll rig a tie just so we can watch him squirm.

The tie turns out to be between an exotic looking Christian babe named Loana and a too-full-of-himself black guy named Hamin. The show breaks to a commercial before Brent makes his final decision, but, c'mon, do they expect us to believe the outcome was ever in doubt? Fake competition, mild shocks – epater le bourgeoisie never seemed so boring.

Oh yeah, and Becky kicked my ass at Scrabble, too.
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Thursday, March 04, 2004
      ( 3/04/2004 10:05:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"GREAT FOR NEW READERS!" – The Marvel Age debuted this week – aptly enough with the first issue of an adjective-free Spider-Man. For those who've missed the advance word, Marvel Age is an attempt at retelling "classic" Silver Age Marvel comics for a fresh kid audience: issue #1 contains two modernized reworkings of stories that originally appeared in Amazing Spider-Man ("Duel to the Death with the Vulture" and "The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer.") Both plots are credited to the original Stan Lee & Steve Ditko team with scripts by the unknown-to-me Daniel Quantz and big-eyed art by Mark Brooks and Jonboy Meyers.

Amazingly enough, the premiere issue doesn't open with a retelling of Spider-Man's origin: instead, it jumps into a robbery by the high-flying Vulture, then cuts to a scene of young post-spider-bite Peter Parker being tormented by jocks on the way home from school. "Great play, Flash!" two of the footballers note, after nemesis Flash Thompson has stuffed Peter's backpack into a newspaper vending machine. "Let's hope it works tonight against the Tigers!" (What? The team's gonna steal their rivals' football and hide it in a vending machine?) Our hero returns home to find his beloved Aunt May speaking to their landlord: the rent's due and she doesn't have the money.

Unlike the Lee & Ditko model, Marvel Age Parker doesn't spent much time bemoaning his family's dire financial straits. Almost as quickly as he's received the news, he's already thinking of pulling out the old family camera, to start his career as action photog for The Daily Bugle. Two fast battles with the Vulture later, and the rent is paid! It's clear writer Quantz wants to move things along expeditiously – none of that there "decompressed storytelling" for the young Marvel Agers – but in doing so, he also manages to dilute the hard-luck aspect of Peter Parker's life. (You know: the one thing that initially differentiated him from other superheroes in the first place.) This carries through into the second recap, a six-page reworking of a slight alien invasion story that ends with a panel of Peter Parker winking at the reader! All you need know about the difference between early Marvel and the New Age is captured in that image. Where 60's Ditko would end a tale with our beleaguered protagonist slumped over and burdened by the shadows of Spider-Man, Quantz & Company make like they're dealing with Superman guesting in a Lois Lane comic.

I know this is supposed to be an "All Ages" title, but, lest we forget, so was the early Amazing Spider-Man. For quick contrast, let's consider a manga title I recently picked up at Wal-Mart: volume one of Hiro Mashima's Rave Master. Rated by publisher Tokyopop as suitable for ages 7 and up, the graphic novel tells a fast-paced action story and neither downplays the peril that its hero faces nor the edgier aspects of its set-up. (Like Peter, the hero of Rave Master is missing his biological parents, but unlike the Marvel Age version, you actually feel that loss.) Is watering down the original Lee & Ditko material to the point where it's tamer than a child's manga Marvel's idea of reaching out to a new audience?
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      ( 3/04/2004 04:58:00 AM ) Bill S.  

FIVE BY FIVE – Alan David Doane has scored a coup with his newest Five Questions blog feature: an extended conversation with the always-interesting Alan Moore. Some cogent thoughts from Moore on the legacy of Watchmen and on Neil Gaiman's recent court victory in the Miracleman case, among other things – you really get the sense that Moore is digging being in an interview situation with someone who reads his work with a positive critical eye. Recommended reading.
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Wednesday, March 03, 2004
      ( 3/03/2004 06:59:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ME AGAIN – Showed my blogday photo posting from Monday to my wife, and she noted, not unreasonably, that I only seem comfortable posting pics that show me from a distance. So in response to her loving criticism:

And for those who are wondering, both pictures were taken during a trip to Metropolis, Illinois, a couple of years ago. As for the black armband on the Superman statue, this shot was taken the spring after 9-11, so its presence needs no explanation. Though you can't see it in the photo, the base of the statue has the familiar "Truth, Justice And the American Way" carved into it.
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Tuesday, March 02, 2004
      ( 3/02/2004 01:03:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"DON'T MISS THIS OFF-BEAT COLLECTOR'S ITEM ISSUE!" – Rereading the second volume in the Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four collection got me considering the goofy side of superhero comics.

The hardbound volume, which collects Lee & Kirby's 1963 run, opens with one of the arguably more flyweight issues of the World's Greatest Comic Magazine's early years: issue number eleven, which features "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" and "The Impossible Man." The first, which purports to show us a Day in the Life of NYC’s premiere superhero family, begins with a full-page scene of New Yorkers standing in line to buy the newest Fantastic Four comic. (Off to the side, we see a cop on the beat happily reading his copy of FF.) It's a conceit few serious comics writers would attempt to pull off today – the idea that these whacked-out superhero adventures are "true stories" being retold in comics form – but that's not the gist of the story. Once our strolling super foursome returns to their home in the Baxter Building (after several amusing encounters with their neighboring New Yorkers, plus a demonstration of ear wiggling by postman Willy Lumpkin), they settle in for some reminiscing and question answering.

"Perhaps our fans would like to hear this," Sue Storm prompts at one point, prodding Reed Richards into recollecting his early friendship with the temporarily humanized Thing, forgetting, of course, that the fans are reading this, not listening in. The reminiscence leads into a retelling of the supergroup's origin, then a stern lecture from Mister Fantastic. Turns out Invisible Girl has been receiving some "disturbing letters" from the fans, stating that she doesn't contribute enough to the group. (At this point in the continuity, the only power Miz Storm possessed was the ability to turn invisible – it'd be several years before she developed the power to cast invisible orce shields and the like.) Perhaps, Sue histrionically notes, the group would be better off without her.

Reed sets us readers straight, of course, and his ire is couched in an amusingly pre-feminist PoV. ("See this bust of Abe Lincoln! Remember his famous remark about his mother? The time he said that all he was – all he ever hoped to be – he owed to her?") But to many readers, the issue wasn't Sue's powerlessness, but her dishrag personality and predilection for poor me posturing: you can even see it in this sequence, as Kirby draws her melodramatically holding her arm up before her face. The whole shebang ends happily, though, after Human Torch Johnny Storm pulls a false alarm to lure the unsuspecting Sue into a surprise party: it's her birthday!

"The preceding story is our way of answering many of the interesting questions that our readers have written," Lee writes at the end of our little visit. "From time to time in future issues, we shall attempt to pictorially comment on other letters from you. . .our valued fans!" To the best of my recollection, Stan & Jack never followed up on that promise.

Even more enjoyable, though, is the issue's second offering: the introduction of the shape-shifting alien called the Impossible Man. From Mr. Mxyzptlk to Bat-Mite to the green-skinned pinhead from the planet Poppup, I've long held a soft spot for imp characters in superhero books. On one level, their ridiculousness is well-suited to the Bart Simpson age reader: the kid who at one level acknowledges the essential implausibility of superhero comics and hasn't erected the adolescent defensiveness of the teenaged fan – but still loves reading 'em. Writer Lee openly acknowledges the silliness of this story from the get-go: "By now you're probably thinking that Stan and Jack have flipped their lids," an editorial caption states, "But wait – things may get even whackier!"

"The Impossible Man" starts out quickly and just keeps a-movin': as the Fantastic Four's newest alien menace simply drops down out of the sky into the middle of a hobo jungle. The creature's sight-seeing on Earth, we learn, and like the other comic book imps, his actions are primarily motivated by a desire to entertain himself. Essentially an obnoxious tourist, with the ability to change into anything he wants to ("On Poppup," he explains at one point, "our evolutionary processes are so swift, that we can change ourselves into anything, in order to survive the menaces which constantly attack us!"), the impossible prankster ventures into the city where, of course, he receives the attention of the FF.

Though initially so naïve as to have no concept of currency, the visiting alien proves an exceedingly quick study. When in combat with our heroes, for instance, he transforms himself into an asbestos-covered buzzsaw (in order to protect himself from the flaming Human Torch, natch) as well as a ticking timebomb (kinda sad that the concept of time-delayed explosions is apparently familiar throughout the galaxy). Seemingly unstoppable, the Poppupian is driven off the planet after Reed Richards, hep to behaviorist theories of reinforcement, instructs everyone on the planet to ignore the interstellar nuisance – and, amazingly, they do. (It helps that, unlike Superman's Fifth Dimensional nemesis, the creature never thinks to legitimately menace the people of Earth.) As he rockets off, the Impossible Man states emphatically, "I'm gonna find another planet where a fella can have some fun! Earth is too dull! I'm never gonna come back – and I'll tell all the other Poppupians to stay away, too!" But, of course, the character was much too flighty to keep his word.

Most comic readers, when they recall Lee & Kirby's Fantastic Four typically choose to focus on the grander story arcs yet to come – the years that introduced Galactus, the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans, among others – and while I also hold the team's later run in high esteem, I continue to enjoy these more modestly scoped stories. Perhaps they're not the works to hold up in a spirited defense of the artistic value of superhero comics (though one of my half-assed critical theories holds that strips like "Visit" or the endless Superman/Lois Lane stories centering around the female reporter's attempts to unmask the Man of Steel's secret identity worked as pre-teen rehearsals on the hassles of adult life). But they're fun and frequently more readable than many contemporary "mature" takes on the superhero story.

Cosmic menaces tomorrow – comedy tonight!
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Monday, March 01, 2004
      ( 3/01/2004 05:39:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED A MOONBEAM/AS IT LIT ACROSS YOUR WINDOW PANE?" – Retrospection time: as we pass the second year marker at Pop Culture Gadabout.

This blog rose – at the prodding of old comics fandom buddy Jay Zilber – from a series of online pop pieces I'd started posting on the web in Summer 2001: a collection of music pieces devoted to bands (Kinks, Ramones, Zappa & the Mothers of Invention) and songwriters (Harry Nilsson, Graham Parker), a demi-blog cluster of comics-related pieces entitled (ahem) "Comic Book Gadabout," along with an extended project where I returned to selected mainstream superhero comics that I hadn't read in over a decade – just to see how they were faring. Of these writings, the only stuff not to be thoroughly supplanted by this blog is the music material (though my "Rhino of the Month" tribute to that much-loved reissue company was downgraded to a seasonal schedule). The "Comics Catch-Up" project grew increasingly less viable the longer I took to finish it, so in the end I shut it down.

Two years later, and this blog continues with the same basic template (a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down yer pants): reviews and random observations about many of my favorite entertainments, the occasional naïve squishy leftish political comment, half-baked additions to debates initiated by other bloggers and a small dose of autobiography. Not an unusual bloggish mix, though hopefully I'm able to bring something less than groupthink to the table.

The last year's been a particularly good one for the development of weblogs devoted to comics – as a thousand blogs bloomed, leaving an old-timer like Neilalien to recently ponder the pluses and minuses of this phenomenon. Myself, I've enjoyed getting acquainted with so many comic fans after years of personally being away from that particular scene. Pop Culture Gadabout may not purely be a comics weblog, but I consider it a part of the still developing comics blogosphere.

So here's to another year of scattered thoughts and writing. And to commemorate the occasion, let's post a suitably geeky photo, shall we?

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      ( 3/01/2004 05:33:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ONE RING, MANY OSCARS® – We skipped last night's Academy Awards show, watching a taped copy of Rebus from Saturday instead. Every time we paused to get dessert or otherwise leave the room, I checked in on Mark Evanier's live blogging coverage, though. Mark's writing was more entertaining and informative than the show itself would’ve been, I suspect, and from what I could tell his predictions were pretty close, too. My only post-show prediction: that a multitude of poli-bloggers will take umbrage over Sean Penn before the day is out.

Great to see Rings bring home the gold guy, though. . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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