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August 1, 2009 07:37 PM

The circus is gone. The kids that remain are crawling the ground under the apple trees for green fruit, which they toss up onto the shading, stretched fabric. It's at an angle, so the fruit always bounces back down. Every so often, a cry of "APPLE!" goes up. I haven't figured out the rules of the game.

Samantha Crain is playing in the other barn, but I'm back on the barn porch where I was earlier. I can hear her just fine from here, and this is where the wi-fi is. It's quiet, relatively, and there are few people around — a situation that can be hard to come by at a festival. I just ate a hot dog that billed itself as the world's best, and while I'm not sure that's a provable statement, it was damn good, topped with horseradish cream and homemade relish and some sort of saeurkraut-like topping. The food here beats the pants off most music festival food. I just keep eating. A cucumber-lime-jalapeno Sol Pop. Pesto pasta with the hot dog (totally chance, and delicious). A couple of pints of Deschutes' Twilight — but really, it's too hot to drink.

It's really hot. It was touch and go there for a bit, too hot, smotheringly hot, the kind of hot that makes you want to take a nap in the itchy grass were it not so itchy. It was the moment that reminded me why going to festivals alone is a crapshoot — you hit that hot and tired phase, you might just give in to it. But a friend texted and told me to meet her in the shade, where water was abundant and easily accessible. I poured it over my feet and found myself back on earth. So we sat and watched people — tiny shorts! high-waisted skirts! — and talked and sat some more, watching Justin Townes Earle and his impossibly long legs, and then the Lost Bayou Ramblers, with their multilingual singalongs and upright bass tricks (the bassist balanced on his instrument and played at once. I can hardly explain).

Festivals are better with company, with someone to make your observations to when you're not, y'know, near the wifi. Friends travel in packs and save blanket space for each other; kids crawl around blankets and squirt you with water bottles when you ask them if they want to. In the backstage tent, along with the beer and pretzels, there's a huge tub of Red Vines and rugs for sprawling. Did I mention this place is kid friendly? I think I did. But also, it's just friendly. It feels clubby and small, in a good way; you find yourself passing the same people over and over again, winding up in line next to the person who was a blanket away earlier. My also-press friend tells me there are about 2,000 people here. Right now, I think they're all congregating in front of the two main stages, all on the grass that was empty earlier. As the sun goes down, shadow spreads comfortingly across the main lawn. It arrives just in time.

I can hear Hillstomp from the main stage. Weren't they just at Papa's? Is Pickathon the intersection of 3rd and Blair, writ large and forested? Everyone here does look a little bit familiar.

If I don't go watch Samantha Crain, I'll regret it.

August 1, 2009 03:03 PM

It's a strange thing, driving to Pickathon. You're in the middle of Portland, tied up in its highway knots; you're driving south on 205, trying not to feel like you're heading home from the airport; you're turning off an an exit that quickly begins to feel frighteningly like Agrestic, all matching complexes with intimidating names.

And then you're in the middle of nowhere.

I've been here about three hours. I'm pretty sure my face is sunburnt, despite the late addition of sunscreen to my wardrobe. (I had to ask someone if I had dirt smeared all over my face.) I made a beer garden mistake and wound up trapped in a pool of heat, just feet from the bar in which a young man with a banjo sounded too old for his years. A bicycle hung from the rafters and a fan pointed at the electronic whatsit on the walls.

But don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining.

I got here about noon and walked in to the quietist, loveliest festival atmosphere I can ever remember experiencing. There is plenty of space. There are chairs scattered around the grass near the two main stages. There are signs that point off into the woods, trails that may or may not take you where you want to go. The first thing you see when you come in the day entrance is the kids' circus area, which I'm overlooking right now. One man with a violin plays while kids juggle, hula hoop, try their best at stilts and balance peacock feathers on their fingertips.

There are kids everywhere. A toddler who sat near me with his parents as Horse Feathers played on the shaded, idyllic Woods Stage said, "Nom nom nom nom nom," — no, seriously — as he gulped water. Bigger kids did their best to balance on the bent tree branch behind my head, and I wondered if I'd be able to catch them if they fell. Strangers offered to share their blanket with me, and every so often, a misting cart drove past. It didn't stop the dust waves from coming through, though; the Woods Stage is down a small incline, and if you're below the level of the path, you'll find clouds of dust, sparkling like the dust in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books, floating past your nose every few minutes. It's an outdoor festival. You simply don't worry about being clean.

White fabric stretches above the grounds in shapes that remind me of the Enterprise. The first thing I did when I got here — after watching the well-dressed Sadies play a song or two — was buy a small tub of Fifty Licks' Stumptown coffee ice cream and go for a walk in the woods, wrestling with a tiny wooden spoon as my feet grew a layer of trail dust and I remembered all the other woodsy trails I've walked on in the past. I took the long route to the Woods Stage, missing Laura Gibson and slipping past the two guys holding "Dance Toll" signs (written on the back of PBR cases) without having to shake my ass.

It took forever for Horse Feathers to set up, so I watched people. Women in charming sundresses. Pale men with their shirts off for the first time this summer. The lucky bastards in the tree-nooks, wedged in among thin saplings and braced against the thicker trunks. The women in front of me had a Nalgene bottle full of red wine and the man they were befriending said he wasn't quite ready for that yet. I forgot it was so hot out in the rest of the world. A man shimmied farther up the trees, and took sky-high pictures when the band finally went on.

Quiet, cello-supported, moody folk-pop in the middle of the woods? Yes, please. I texted my boyfriend and told him everyone was right: This is a different kind of festival. I haven't quite pinned down why. It doesn't have a straight-up hippie vibe; it has an urban hippie vibe. What that means, exactly, I guess I'll spend the rest of the day figuring out.

Yes, I should've camped. But there's always next year. This is the warm-up.

July 31, 2009 03:57 PM

For years Eugene cyclists have been trying to get the city of Eugene to end the dangerous practice of storing leaves in bike paths. The spreading leaf piles create a slipping hazard, hide dangerous debris and force cyclists into rushing traffic. But the advocacy has apparently had little impact. Above is an image from the city's own website apparently urging people to store their leaf piles in bike lanes rather than safely up on the curb.

July 30, 2009 05:42 PM

It's time to just suck it up and accept that it does not matter if I feel like the entire internet has had its say about the last two days of Torchwood: Children of Earth. I am not the entire internet! And I still have thoughts! They're just delayed, is all.

And of course there are plenty of spoilers. Click here and read further at your own risk!

A short sum-up: Jack explains what he did in 1965. Clem freaks out and shoots him. Jack, of course, gets up again a few minutes later, causing poor Clem no end of further freakout.

A dude in a hazmat suit ventures into the 456's pretty glass box with a camera and discovers there is a small child hooked up to the weird, still mostly unseen alien. Why?

Jack and Ianto kind of have a tiff (much more on this later). They storm off to Thames House to confront the 456. Just before this happens, the incredibly awesome Lois Habiba stands up in a room full of generals and prime ministers and the like, and explains that Torchwood are coming and if everyone would kindly get the fuck out of their way, the alien experts will do their job.

At some point, possibly just before that happens but possibly after things go horribly awry (more on that later), the seemingly harmless but apparently quite evil dark-haired woman in the group suggests that if they really have to give the 456 ten percent of the world's children, they start with those in the poorest schools, thereby painting with a really nasty broad brush and damning all poor kids to a terrible life just for where they were born. (Can you tell I really dislike this woman?)

On the good news front, Agent Johnson and company burst in on Gwen, who greets them calmly and suggests Johnson sit down and watch this little program called "Your Government and How They Are a Bunch of Classist Fools." Also, the 456 kills Clem using a nasty frequency of some sort. It mutters something about "the remnant" being offline. This is never satisfactorily explained.

But if you want to talk unsatisfying, let's talk about the death of Ianto Jones.

For me, the highlight of Day Four is one conversation between Jack and Ianto. Jack's explains the whole 1965 thing; Ianto, tentatively, suggests that that knowledge, that action, must've been eating him up inside.

But I don't think it was. I think everything that follows — Jack storming out; Ianto wanting to know where he's going; Jack suddenly bursting out with the news about his family and the fact that Frobisher has them — is Jack covering and compensating for the fact that he doesn't feel guilty about what he did to save the world all those years ago. Jack is immortal. Jack is practical. I suspect that Jack knows some dirty, ugly truth about the brevity and relative importance of human lives, and it's the kind of thing he a) doesn't want humanity to know, and b) doesn't want to dwell on too much. And poor Ianto still wants Jack to be more human, more mortal, than he is; he wants him to feel things the way Ianto, or Gwen, or Rhys, would.

Ianto still dies for a stupid reason, and a realistic reason — which is to say, for no real reason at all. (The lack of reason doesn't actually bother me; it seems appropriate, in a story like this, that not every death is for a greater cause, in service of a tangible goal, or for any other reason than the fact that there will be casualties when your enemy is so much stronger.) He and Jack confront the 456, Jack tries to bully it into leaving, and it simply locks down Thames House and kills everyone inside. Ianto didn't deserve that, and he didn't deserve Jack's inability to tell him he loved him, either. "Don't go; don't leave me" was heartwrenching, but it's not the same. Still, it suggested, at least to me, that there was more to Jack's attachment for Ianto that he let on, or at least that I've seen (caveat: not seen season two). Jack plays it casual and light, except when he confirmed for Ianto that yes, he'll keep going long after Ianto's gone. For Ianto, that was a moment of choice: to stay with Jack even knowing that.

For Jack, wasn't it something different?

I've seen it (beautifully) pointed out that Ianto goes with Jack because they're making up by going to war together, which seems very Jack and not all that Ianto to me. It's still a frustrating scene, because when you watch two men walk into a room to set their puny selves against a strangely powerful alien being and you know one of those men can't die, well, the odds just don't seem good for the other guy, do they?

I could — and likely will — get back to poor Ianto later, but a few other things about Day Four before I run out of time:

• I think it's to the show's credit that they took the selection of the 10 percent of the nation's children down such a bleak, nasty and believable path: By taking these kids from the poor, underachieving schools, the people in power ensure that their own kids will be safe, and then tell themselves they're planning for the future. Their children will Do Things. Those other kids, well, they haven't got a chance, have they? Of course they do — and as this situation makes terribly clear, it's a chance that involves constantly fighting against the assumptions of people like this prime minister and his even nastier lackeys. Not to mention the American and UNIT general who go along with it. (Er, let me not leave out the unpleasantness of the ploy they try before realizing they can't bargain with the 456: Offering a much smaller number of refugees instead. This is one hell of a cynical take on those in power.)

• The reversal of Agent Johnson is another highlight in Day Four, which despite its highlights suffers from being criminally over-scored, with by-the-book, button-pushing weeping/soaring strings. The utter badass, the classic orders-follower, is given more information that she'd ever be privy to — by Gwen, who takes a pretty big gamble here. It's exactly the information the people giving Johnson orders would never want her to see. Johnson believes in the rightness of her world, but when her blinders are stripped away, she doesn't dither or fret. She simply changes course. There's no ego; there's just the certainty that she was on the wrong side, fighting the wrong fight. By the end, her future might be the one I'm most curious about.

• There's a certain amount of assumption out there in the intertubes that Ianto dies because it will send Jack down a dark enough path that he'll be able to make the decision he makes at the end of Day Five. I'm not convinced about that. Either way, there are countless arguments (and causes, and petitions, and hopes and crushed dreams) about Ianto's death. Brent Hartinger's piece on AfterElton.com is definitely an interesting take, should you want more.

• I still love this series, but Day Four was when it started to slip a little. I don't think it's just because I was expecting it that I felt less moved by Ianto's death than I thought I'd be; I think a lot of things, as the series moves to wind up, felt crammed in and rushed through (and did I mention criminally underserved by the score?). And then Day Five feels a bit padded, to borrow a perfect word I saw someone else use, for reasons I'll have to figure out when I get to it.

Which had damn well better be tomorrow. 'Cause when I get back from Portland on Sunday? I really kind of want to watch this all again.

Further reading: Eve Myles (Gwen) and Children of Earth director Euros Lyn (whom, I must mention, I haven't praised enough: WELL DONE, LYN) interviewed at Television Without Pity.

July 29, 2009 01:23 PM

In the worst blow to downtown since the hospital left, the Eugene City Council voted 6-2 today to move the police department out of the heart of the city.

Critics charge that the $16-million plan to buy an office building on Country Club Road for the police department will cripple downtown, defy three votes, waste money, increase polluting sprawl and congestion, increase earthquake and flooding risk and reduce police accountability while damaging civic pride.

But Mayor Kitty Piercy and Councilors Mike Clark, Jennifer Solomon, Chris Pryor, George Poling, Andrea Ortiz and Alan Zelenka supported the move. Councilors Betty Taylor and George Brown voted against it.

"This is a terrible deal for the city," said Councilor Brown. The only one benefiting will be speculator Ward Beck, Brown said. "He will be able to unload an under-performing property."

Mayor Piercy said she supports moving police out of downtown and cut off Taylor and Brown's comments opposing the move after allowing staff to repeat a twenty minute sales pitch on the proposal that the council had already heard.

"We are rushing through this because someone wants to sell a building," said Councilor Taylor. "We haven't considered any other possibilities." Taylor noted the $16 million exclusive deal with Beck wasn't subject to the normal competitive bidding process governments use to prevent corruption.

Brown said the $16 million could be better used to hire more police officers. "This project does nothing for public safety, all it does is buy a huge building for 30 employees to wander around in," said Brown, noting the police chief's statement that only a few officers will spend much time in the 66,000 square-foot building.

Brown moved that the council refer the big expenditure to voters. Piercy refused to allow debate on the motion and the referral vote failed 6-2.

Voters have rejected spending money on a new police station three times in the past. Taylor pleaded with the council to not waste the taxpayer money. "People say 'our money,'" she said noting comments by staff and council supporters. "It isn't ours, it belongs to the public."

(For details on the police move, please read a story in Thursday's EW to be posted here.

July 27, 2009 03:22 PM

I watched, I didn't weep, I got a little choked up, I have a lot to say — but I had all kinds of Things that needed doing the last few days, so I'm a bit behind. And I watched Day Four and Day Five pretty much one after the other, so they're a touch blurry. But I'm working on it.

Your Torchwood posts, they shall return. In the meantime, if anybody wants to talk about it, I'm here for you, man. We could probably all use a good heart-to-heart after that.

July 23, 2009 01:07 PM

Well, that was kind of intense. Shall we talk about it? Let's.

"As a gift."

Day Three is a pivot point. The 456 arrives. A pillar of flame sinks into the glass tank at the top of Thames House (without burning anything in its path, I'd like to note). Something prone to splattering green goo against the walls is inside. We never see all of it, just sense a large, lumbering presence, strange and eerie.

Both Torchwood and the government are forced to open their doors a little bit. The Americans show up, surly about being left out of the loop (but why didn't the aliens want to talk to us, Mom?); the Prime Minister pretends to give the reins to Frobisher. It's decided that he'll be the point person for the 456, which is handy as he's already made a deal with it that it not mention the 1965 visit. At Torchwood's new/old base, Rhys is now in on things, and eventually Gwen brings in Clem, too.

But Day Three, to my mind, is mostly about secrets. It's got some action, and some humor — Jack stalking up in the new vintage military coat Ianto's found for him, saying, "I'm back" with incredible certainty, as if he couldn't be himself without that damn coat — and a moment between Jack and Ianto that's both horribly honest and amusingly frustrated. The two of them going from Jack's admission that he always feels it when he dies to trying to get some alone time (stymied by a pot of beans!) is perfect Torchwood.

Those secrets, though. A bit more comes out about Alice, Jack's daughter, whose attempt to escape from Johnson was admirably competent, if ultimately doomed to fail. There's Frobisher's deal with the 456; there's Rhys, furious that Jack knew Gwen was pregnant before he did. The matter of what the 456 wants with the children is still unclear, but now we know how many they want: Ten percent (did anyone else yell at Frobisher when he asked the 456 to promise to not to use the children for communication anymore? Or did we all just assume he was too specific on purpose?).

But above all there's Jack's secret: his involvement with the last 456 visit. The first time Clem says, "That man," it's pretty clear who he's talking about, but that doesn't make Jack's unconcerned reveal — he gave a dozen children to the 456 as a gift — any less horrible. The knife is twisted just that little bit more by his phone call to Frobisher, in which Frobisher tells Jack he's the better man; he won't go back to Frobisher's house and kidnap his children, like Frobisher had done to Jack's family.

He's a better person now. But who was he in 1965?

A few scattered thoughts:

• Lois continues to be awesome. Her quick thinking about how to get into Thames House, her use of shorthand (Ianto knows shorthand? ANYONE knows shorthand?), her inability to stay behind, to stay quiet, when the right thing needs doing — she's going to make a great member of Torchwood when all this is over.

• The montage of the Torchwood team (and Rhys!) learning the thieving tricks Gwen picked up in her time on the police force? Priceless. (Jack is no waiter.) But it's also very telling, and it ties in to something I can't believe I've forgotten to talk about until now: The way Torchwood's tools are being used against them. In the first season, they make the most of CCTV cameras, public and police and government databases, all kinds of information, especially the kind some of us feel shouldn't be out there. It shocks and horrifies Gwen, at first, and then she gets used to it; after all, it's being used to hunt alien threats, not against the citizens of the U.K. But now, it's Torchwood being hunted by those same cameras; those same databases are being used against their families. And thus they learn new tricks — the same things they would disapprove of under different circumstances. There's a morally grey side to this that it's sometimes easy to forget about, at least in less-serious season one Torchwood, and I think it's interestingly handled.

• One of Day Three's most interesting moments is deeply uncomfortable: The scene in which Clem, using his weird smelling ability, looks at Ianto and asks, "Who's the queer?" It's shocking and unexpected, and Ianto's immediate "Oi!" of indignation is, I think, the reason this scene exists. In the first two days of Children of Earth, Ianto is still outlining his feelings about himself and his relationship with Jack, at least as far as other people are concerned. He knows he's in love, but he's sort of working through what that means, at least where other people (the doctor, his sister) are concerned. (Caveat: Having not seen season two, I don't know how this plays out in the past, or if it does at all.) But the conversation he has with Jack about time — how much of it Jack has, and how little Ianto has in comparison — cements things for him. He knows, absolutely, what he's gotten into, and what it means in the long run, and when he responds to Clem it is with the force of a man who will not have have his relationship insulted, dismissed, belittled. When Ianto follows that, quietly, with "It's not 1965 anymore," it's part explanation — he's tempering his response out of sympathy for what the last 456 visit did to Clem — and part segue, for here comes Jack, for whom it is most definitely not 1965 anymore. We hope.

• I love that the show doesn't forget about Ianto's family, that it goes back to show us that his brother-in-law has taken in all the neighborhood children (school's closed) both out of the goodness of his heart and because it can turn him a profit ("Ten quid a kid!"). He and Rhi are there to represent the rest of the world, the more ordinary folks whose lives are being turned upside down too, even if it's in a less immediate way.

• As is pointed out in the comments to yesterday's post, Gwen has come a long way. She's forceful and smart and beyond competent, and while she can teach the team how to become petty thieves, she's also still the woman who goes to fetch sad, scared Clem from jail. She does all she can for him, not simply because he's key to what's happening, but because it's the right thing to do for Clem. That's been Gwen's job since the beginning: bring Torchwood back to the human side of things. Don't just think about the aliens.

It's never only about the aliens.

July 22, 2009 07:54 PM

It's a little funny that I was just discussing Torchwood's "adult" content levels, given that Day Two gives us entirely naked Jack. (And to think I just read a quote from John Barrowman about eventually getting his kit off.) It's not quite as hot as it might sound, though. Mostly, it's rather unpleasant. But let me tuck this all behind a spoiler cut. (For an introduction to Torchwood and my thoughts on Day One, look here.)

"I'm a PA. It's what I do."

Day Two begins not with a bang, but with the fallout from one; Gwen's stumbling around, half deafened by the explosion that destroyed the Hub and could've killed Ianto, for all she knows. Eve Myles tears the opening scenes to bits; her horror and shock is palpable, only ebbing when she questions an ambulance driver whose behavior doesn't make any sense to her. He works for the government, he says. "We're on the same side?" Gwen asks, boggled.

If Day One set Torchwood against the government, Day Two mostly works to reinforce the total shift in loyalties that has occurred with the appearance of the alien 456 signal. The episode is packed full of information, but little of it has to do with why the Torchwood team is such a threat to a government that's communicating with aliens. At least, not on the surface. Those who've been watching Torchwood since the beginning know that Jack Harkness is absolutely unflinching when it comes to destroying alien threats; he's killed more than one creature his teammates might've gotten attached to. This government is compromised, and it knows Jack won't stand for that.

But Jack isn't presently standing. Jack is barely existing. He's just "a bag of bits" being carted off by Johnson (Liz May Brice), the woman leading the team charged with hunting down Torchwood. It's harrowing watching government agents pick through the destroyed Hub; it's more harrowing watching as Jack comes back to life, growing from a few bits to a skeleton, and then to a human without skin. It's gross and scary and horrifying, and convincingly painful; it's no less awful and scary when Johnson, having realized she really, really can't kill Jack, decides to confine him. In concrete. In which I imagine he would suffocate, wake up, and suffocate again, repeatedly.

Jack spends most of Day Two regrowing or imprisoned, leaving us to follow Gwen, Ianto and the curious, smart new government employee Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo), who's certainly picked an interesting time to start working for John Frobisher (the quietly effective Peter Capaldi).

Day Two's real strength is in the way it works flashes of everyday life, the love and frustration of family and partners, into a tense, violent story about two people on the run. Ianto, cleverly, slips a note into his sister's paper; it reads, "Where Dad broke my leg, at noon." Rhiannon (Katy Wix) addresses this only briefly, when she arrives; "He didn't mean to," she says. Ianto says their father always pushed too hard; Rhi says Ianto should have held on tighter. It's not played for drama, just for closeness, and it speaks volumes about the way Ianto, guarded and wary, carries himself, and the way he fits into the Torchwood family.

Gwen quickly realizes that the sketchy government agents will be after Rhys (Kai Owen), and the scene in which she hustles him out of the house, narrowly escaping the ferocious Johnson, is a beautiful moment of domesticity under unnatural stress; the things she nags at him for are ordinary complaints, ratcheted up to incredible levels of importance. Plus, this escape gives us a bit of PC Andy (Tom Price), an old colleague of Gwen's who sweetly refuses to believe she might be a terrorist; the moment when Gwen stands down the police van, precisely shooting out all its tires; and Rhys as Gwen's shaken but competent partner, a man who offers to carry her bag so she can keep her trigger free and whose knowledge of trucking schedules gives them a getaway atop a bed of potatoes. Not the most romantic place for Gwen to tell him she's pregnant, but when the moment arises, she never even has to say the words; these two communicate in easily read smiles.

All that, and there's so much more. The children announce that the aliens are coming tomorrow. Lois meets Rhys and Gwen in a chip shop and proves herself beyond measure; not only has she quickly pieced together that the government agencies she work for are working against what appear to be their own interests, but she's also a thoughtful woman who's quick to pass the salt. (The scene in which Lois attempts to nudge her bosses into thinking about what they're doing and is shut down with a reminder to speak when she's spoken to is a wonder of compact character development; Frobisher and his secretary have chosen their parts, and they expect competent, smart Lois to do the same. They've no curiosity and no sense of rightness. Government ass-kissers do not do well in this series.)

And Jack still needs rescuing.

Enter Ianto the hero. There's such satisfaction in seeing the former coffee-fetcher burst in to rescue his boyfriend — and his teammate and her husband. I've never seen such a touching, silly getaway. The Torchwood-plus-Rhys reunion is brief and unsentimental, more showcase for John Barrowman's bare ass than anything. Conveniently, being dropped from hundreds of feet into a quarry breaks the concrete around him, but not his shackles. How will the poor fellow put on the coat Gwen hands him? He won't. This is still Torchwood.

But enough heroic rescues. Day Two ends on a creepy, ominous note; the government stooges have built the structure the aliens require, and it's filled with a gaseous mixture that's poison to humans. What is it to the aliens? Not even creepy Dekker, who translated the 456 signal, can say.

July 22, 2009 12:37 PM

Shaun the intern just noticed a drastic change to the Jo Federigo's website: As of this morning, it says that the venue has closed.

Owners are looking for a buyer or investor. Some of the venue's scheduled events have moved to Davis' Restaurant, including Ala Nar (8 pm July 24; $5) and Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad (8 pm July 29; $12). Casey Mitchell, who was booking Jo Fed's, says that "as many acts as possible" among the already-booked shows will be moving to Davis'.

July 21, 2009 04:27 PM

I admit it: I'm rapidly falling for Torchwood.

I haven't watched the new Doctor Who — not the Christopher Eccleston series, and not the David Tennant series (save three or four episodes, which varied drastically in quality). Torchwood is a Who spinoff — the names are anagrams of each other — but you don't really have to know one to watch the other. You don't even really have to know the first two seasons of Torchwood to watch Torchwood: Children of Earth, the five-part miniseries that began last night on BBC America.

It probably helps, though. I'm six or seven episodes into Torchwood's first season, despite a coworker's insistence that I ought to just skip it and go straight into season two (I'm a completist. Even if I'd known how much I'd hate "Black Market," the absolute nadir of Battlestar Galactica, I still would've had to watch it, just to know why I'd hate it so much). Torchwood is a rather X-Files-like show about the titular organization, a secret institute founded by Queen Victoria that protects the human race from alien threats. For various reasons too elaborate to go into here, the Torchwood of the show is Torchwood Three, and it's in Cardiff. In Wales. Can you think of the last thing you watched that was set in Wales?

Torchwood's first series started strong, with an episode that brings a new member to the team: former cop Gwen Cooper (the sweet-faced Eve Myles), an ordinary woman who initially serves as the conscience for the other team members, who've maybe been down in the Hub, Torchwood's home base, too long. It's immediately apparent why the show is so popular in certain circles: We're encouraged to identify with Gwen, who's in over her normal-lass head but shines unexpectedly in the team's strange environment (I think this overlaps with certain kinds of popular fanfic, but that's a whole 'nother discussion). Plus, there's a lot of making out! Everybody's kind of in love with everybody else! Everybody's both hot and sort of attainable looking! Awesome!

Gwen and the rest of the gang are led by the omnisexual ("Period military is not the dress code of a straight man," one team member theorizes), unkillable, rather charmingly cocky Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). They find alien stuff and destroy or use it. Sometimes the results are really cheesy, and sometimes the episodes are just plain terrible. But cheekiness and sweetness exist side by side in Torchwood, and they both overlap with the sometimes goofy, sometimes fascinating science fiction elements. To the show's credit, even the worst episodes (that I've thus far seen, anyway) tend to have an element, or moment, that works to redeem the plot's failings. In the clunky "Cyberwoman," the unexpected emotional side of Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) comes to the fore; one moment between Gwen and crabby doctor Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) nearly makes up for the rest of the awful, awful cheap horror flick that is "Countrycide."

I've got half of the first season and all of season two to go, but I couldn't resist Children of Earth; the previews were far less campy, but the serious/silly/sweet tone seemed to remain. If you've not watched all of the series up til now, this new miniseries will spoil certain things for you, but I don't think Torchwood is the kind of thing you desperately need to remain unspoiled for. (Also, if you're at all an internet junkie, it's probably impossible. I knew things I didn't want to know about Children of Earth at least a week before it started airing here.)

But enough intro. Let's talk about the new show.

When Children of Earth begins, Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), Jack and Gwen are all on slightly uncertain ground. Gwen's husband knows about her work, but remains outside the Torchwood sphere; Jack and Ianto are in a relationship, but they're still working out what it means and what it is; Ianto notices every time someone refers to the two of them as a couple. The Hub, Torchwood's headquarters, feels a little empty. A doctor Jack and Ianto meet seems a likely candidate for a new team member, though, and they do need a doctor.

And then things get strange. Across the U.K., all the children stop. Torchwood spots it. The Home Office spots it. Nearly two hours later, it happens again. This time, the children all speak in unison, repeating "We are coming." In a mental hospital yard, one adult does the same thing. No one knows why. In the government offices, a man explains that a transmission is coming across the 456 wavelength, which last squawked in 1965. The prime minister wants nothing to do with it, leaving the entire situation in the hands of a lower-level bureaucrat who, interestingly, has a fresh-faced, curious new employee.

"Day One" doesn't explain much. Instead, it drops kernels of information in among scenes that (re)establish relationships. Children, it turns out, are more in the lives of the Torchwood team than expected: Ianto goes to visit his sister, who asks him about the gorgeous man he was seen dining with. The moment when Ianto explains, about Jack, "It's not men. It's just him. It's only him," is so simple, so vulnerable, it's a wonder it's not the episode's most affecting scene. (It could have sounded, in the wrong actor's mouth, as if Ianto were denying his sexuality, but it doesn't; it sounds instead like love and devotion that doesn't care about gender. It's only Jack for Ianto, now.) But even before that, when Ianto walks into his sister's house and her two kids immediately take cash from his ready hands, there's a sense of familiarity that it would take a lesser show multiple episodes to establish.

Though it's a nice enough moment, the writers don't do quite as well with Jack's family, which (as I understand it) hasn't been seen before. He drops in on a single mother with a tow-headed son who calls Jack "Uncle," but their relationship is something else entirely. When the woman who is actually Jack's daughter tells him, "You make us feel old," it doesn't mean quite as much as it ought. To be fair, though, I did just watch the episode in which an old love of Jack's is killed by nasty, vicious fairies, so the fact that Jack is constantly having to watch his loved ones die didn't need reiterating for me just yet.

And then there's Gwen, whose husband is house-hunting when he points out to her that the strange moments when the children stopped were clearly set to U.K. time (one on the way to school, one at the first break in the school day), though they happened worldwide. It's Gwen who goes to find the lone adult who spoke when the children did; he's a strange, sad old man named Clem who smells things on people — including truth, and pregnancy. It might be too convenient that Gwen turns out to be pregnant at the beginning of a miniseries involving all the world's children, but in the episode's final, beautiful scene, conflicted emotions play across Myles' face after she scans her midriff and confirms Clem's statement. Jack stumbles in on her discovery, and sees, clearly, that she's still working out what this means to her. "That's good, isn't it?" he asks.

It's a very long pause before Gwen says, "It's brilliant," and a delighted, relieved Jack calls to Ianto, "We're having a baby!" He doesn't mean he and Gwen, or he and Ianto; he means the small group that is all that's left of Torchwood, and in that one line he reaffirms all the affection that's apparent even in the first episodes.

And then he puts his hand on the scanner, which confirms what the audience has already suspected: There's a bomb in Jack's stomach, planted there by agents who temporarily killed him at the behest of the government. Jack, who's been around for decades, knows too much about something. He can't die, but the reluctance of both Gwen and Ianto to run, to leave him to deal with this alone, to accept that they can't fix it or change it, only flee — it's only day one, and it's already heartbreaking.

Torchwood, like so many other shows I love, is on one level a story about making your own family, even if you love the one you were born into. Like Buffy's Scooby Gang or Battlestar's ragtag band of survivors, the employees of Torchwood (who apparently are paid quite well for their services, unlike the folks on those other two shows) are forging bonds under circumstances both ordinary and bizarre. They're just going to work. They're just saving the world. It's what they do.

Want more? io9 argues that Children of Earth: Day One is stronger than the entire first season. Should you want yet more commentary, I suggest you get yourself to LiveJournal, which is full of smart folks very kindly tucking their spoilers behind cut-tags. You'll find a mountain of fanfic and a lot of discussion links here.

July 17, 2009 05:29 PM

Last Thursday, I went to Portland because of Twitter.

Ok, that's not quite true. I went to Portland because of Amanda Palmer, the singer-songwriter-force-of-nature who some folks may know as half of the Dresden Dolls. Palmer's solo album is one of my absolute favorite records of last year, and I've long been complaining that of course I only fell in love with it two days after she played Portland in December. Of course.

Palmer is a savvy Twitterer, engaging blogger and generally the sort of musician you can follow closely (but not creepily) online. She's been playing what she calls ninja ukelele gigs in various places this summer, notably in L.A. — the pictures are fantastic (and not all safe for work). Her travels, last week, landed her in Portland, where she called her Twitter followers to meet her first at Mary's Club, late on a Wednesday, and then in the park blocks on Thursday afternoon. We were to bring flowers, ponies and fruit, among other things. (The fruit, she explained later, was because in L.A. she'd requested cookies and cake, thinking it would be wonderful, and it turned out to be kind of gross. My paraphrasing, not her words, that.)

I couldn't resist. I made a day of it — lunch at Broder, with its rich, delicious Swedish meatballs; a cherry beer at Deschutes while I waited for 6 pm to roll around, a pink bouquet of hastily purchased flowers wilting in my car; dinner at Pok Pok, where I ate what were possibly the best chicken wings I've ever tasted — but let's just talk about the mini concert for now, shall we?

Click here to keep reading.

Palmer rolled in late and unassuming; the park wasn't full, but pockets of fans (easily identified, in some cases, by striped tights or colorful hair) milled about or sprawled on the grass.

We spotted her early, and drifted as casually as possible into her orbit, somehow, delightfully, winding up in the front ring of the quickly forming circle of admirers. Everyone was disconcertingly quiet until Palmer spoke, breaking the silence and dissipating the feeling that everyone was very nearly holding their collective breath.

Fruit appeared. In the course of the evening, a pineapple and a watermelon were butchered and sent around the circle. The feeling of being at a strange and magical family picnic crept up and settled comfortably in. Palmer played five songs, beginning with Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees"; I can't remember the order, but the others were Cat Stevens' "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out"; Radiohead's "Creep," for which we all joined in on the last chorus; her own "Dear Old House That I Grew Up In"; and Neutral Milk Hotel's "Two-Headed Boy." "Dear Old House" was a treat, a bittersweet ode about home and change, but for sheer entertainment value, it's hard to beat the moment when a woman wearing an elaborate antlered headdress walked up just as Palmer sang, "You're so fucking special..."

It was just Palmer and her ukulele, immediate and simple, charming and sincere, entirely accessible and, to use a godawful but entirely applicable cliché, down to earth. (When one girl's phone went off with the beginning of the Dresden Dolls song "Coin-Operated Boy," Palmer chuckled, explained what happened to those who couldn't hear, and then said, slightly wryly but kindly, "I don't know which one of us feels more embarrassed.")

I felt like I was in on a secret, but it was one you'd never get in trouble for telling. I took a million pictures and then put the camera down so I could just pay attention. The immediacy was almost overwhelming: Here's this woman who writes amazing songs, creates pictures of herself that tell their own stories and inspire yet more stories, makes musicals out of beloved albums and can make a hoodie, T-shirt and jeans look totally stylish, and she's sitting two feet away playing stripped-down covers and making herself astonishingly available to dozens of people whose days are being utterly and completely made. To say it was inspirational is an understatement.

She read to us from Who Killed Amanda Palmer, the book companion to the record of the same name; it's full of pictures of Palmer dead, accompanied by stories by (her now-boyfriend) Neil Gaiman. (Aside: The book was actually my introduction to her existence, thanks to the LiveJournal of the talented photographer Kyle Cassidy, who took some of the pictures.) She answered questions, including mine about when the next book tie-in, a line of scents from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, would be released into the wild (next week, at Nerd Prom Comic-Con, where Palmer and Gaiman both will be). She even discussed Gaiman's lack of rhythm while praising his singing voice and songwriting skills (audience members suggested she get him drunk and into the studio).

And then I had to leave — missing the part of the evening where Jason Webley turned up and the two of them sang from atop the elephant statues a block away (they have a duet about elephants; the location was almost unnaturally appropriate). I gave my pink flowers to a girl in roller skates and gave all my dollar bills to a friend to throw in Palmer's open uke case (her explanation of how she's made more money from Twittering in a month than she's made from her major-label record in a year is worth a read). The puppeteer I'd met before the show, a friend of a friend, asked her to sign his ukulele. He somehow wound up with a bigger container of fresh raspberries than the one he'd brought to the gathering. I floated off to dinner on a cloud.

There's no moral to this story, but I do have a suggestion. If anyone ever tells you Twitter is stupid and useless, remember this: Anything that can bring a group of strangers together to sit in the grass, singing, laughing and smiling, really can't be all bad. It's like any tool; it's all in how you use it. And this was one hell of a use.

July 15, 2009 03:20 PM

* It's not exactly "Once More," since the review isn't up yet, but hey, I like my header, and I wanted to write this all out before I forgot about it. Or fell asleep.

I'm running on five hours' sleep. It was worth it, of course: Quidditch costumes! Gryffindor scarves! Hagrids and Narcissa Malfoys! A nicely done trailer for The Lightning Thief which confused most audience members! (Dude behind me: "Is this a real movie?") Listening to the girl two seats from me explain that the Potter kids are as obsessed with trainers as Dr. Who! "What are trainers?" the man I assume was her father asked. "Chucks," she answered confidently. It was one of many moments in which I had a hard time keeping my mouth shut. (I became instantly fond of this young woman when, as Harry and Dumbledore somehow crossed a restless ocean to the cave near the film's end, she whispered, "How did they get in there?")

Potter movies are impossible to review. Not literally, of course — it's just that it's a longer process than usual to sift out my outraged/charmed/enrapt/horrified Potter-fan reactions from reactions to the actual movie. At this point, I do wonder if it's necessary: Is anyone still going to Potter films who hasn't read the books, or at least seen all the other movies? Do I need to wonder about spoilers when there's a Threadless T-shirt announcing what happens at the end of the book? But even if I wrote the entire review in full-on yes-I'm-wearing-a-Harry-and-the-Potters-T-shirt-so-what? mode (and wasn't falling-on-my-face exhausted), there wouldn't be room for everything.

So: Click here for, er, more than a few more thoughts on the Prince.

• First off: The title and the movie have very little to do with each other. Harry, of course, does find the book, but he spends precious little time wondering who the prince is. Snape's reveal at the end means nothing. He's the half-blood prince. And? So he's really good at potions. We know that. And he ... made up ...? the Sectumsepra curse. What else does it mean? What does it reference? The movie doesn't have time for this.

• The movie also doesn't have time for the line that Snape fans, and lots of Potter fans in general, feel is crucial to the character of Severus Snape. At the end, when Harry is chasing after him after the death of Dumbledore, Harry yells at Snape to turn and fight, and calls him a coward. And in the book, Snape loses his shit. It was a major moment, one picked over not quite as much as Dumbledore's last words, but picked over nonetheless. Why take it out? I have to assume there's not time to explore the history of Severus Snape in the final movies, which worries me. How do we get to Albus Severus Potter without it?

• Also about the ending: it's weak. Draco lets four Death Eaters into the castle and absolutely nothing happens other than Dumbledore's death. There is no fight. There is no Fenrir Grayback (he appears, instead, in a different and frustrating scene). So why were they there? Simply to make sure Draco succeeded? It doesn't make a lot of sense.

• But what really doesn't make sense to me is an added scene involving an attack on the Burrow. If I could change one thing about this film, it'd probably be to take this out, even though it includes a nice Harry and Ginny moment. There are plenty of things that don't make it in — the Ministry's sketchiness, Dobby, oh, too much to list — but the scene in which Bellatrix and Fenrir attack the Burrow fails for one simple reason: They could have just killed Harry and/or Ginny when the two of them went running into the marsh (Harry after Bellatrix, for obvious and Sirius-related reasons; Ginny after Harry, for otherwise obvious reasons). (Also, if the end of the fifth movie had given the kids the fighting experience it should've, wouldn't they have known to at least stand back to back?) Frankly, they probably could have taken out several more members of the Weasley family, or Lupin and Tonks, had they so desired. But as effective as it is to have Harry tear off into the dark at the sight of Bellatrix — it wasn't so long ago that she killed Sirius, after all — it pushes the limits of believability. Someone should have at least been injured. At the end of the movie, Bellatrix is told by Snape to leave Harry for the Dark Lord. What was to stop her, here? And was it really necessary to destroy the Burrow to rub in the nowhere-is-safe message? So much for Bill and Fleur's wedding.

• Oh, Dumbledore. Michael Gambon's delivery of "Severus, please," is a heartbreaker. It reminds me of a smart choice earlier in the film: having Harry overhear Snape telling Dumbledore he doesn't want to do this anymore, rather than having Hagrid tell Harry about this conversation. This streamlining happens once or twice, putting a character in a position to hear something or see something they would've been told, which is nice, but on the other hand, despite having the Marauder's Map, Harry somehow never figures out that Draco's using the Room of Requirement until Ginny takes him in there to hide the potions book, which is odd — and even odder is that he sees the other side of the Vanishing Cabinet and it doesn't seem to so much as ping his memory. (There's also never any consequence for using Sectumsempra on Malfoy.)

• One of the film's loveliest and tiniest scenes is the one in which Hermione and Harry discuss various ways they did or did not help Ron with his Quidditch game. The quiet triumph on Harry's face as he shows Hermione the untouched vial of Felix Felicis is perfect – as is Daniel Radcliffe when Harry uses the luck potion on himself. Slouching through the grounds like he's a puppet and luck is pulling the strings, Harry stumbles across a skittish Horace Slughorn, then traipses off to Hagrid's cottage, where a giant spider needs burying. Radcliffe never goes too broad, but his goofiness is contagious. Rupert Grint also does good goofy when Ron eats a box of love-potion infused chocolates — but Ron's always been a bit of a goof, so that's not too much of a surprise.

• I didn't even mention him in the review, but bravo, as always, Alan Rickman. Snape gets terser and terser, the spaces between his words longer and longer; one reviewer said he counted five seconds between one word and the next. Rickman has played Snape so consistently that the look on his face as he strikes Dumbledore down could be interpreted as blankness, resignation — or horror. Snape doesn't have the most varied of expressions, except when his eyebrows sink balefully lower and lower when he glares at Harry. But the look on his face at that fateful moment — it gives nothing and everything away.

• From Willamette Week's review: "Bruno Delbonnel, who also served as director of photography for Across the Universe, shoots magical combat and dinner parties alike through whatever obscuring material is available—grass, fog, glassware—lending even innocent conversations an air of quiet foreboding." In the parlance of certain corners of the internet, let me say simply: This. In an Underground cafe, the glass seems streaked with blood. Lavender Brown's fog-breath window-writing blurs a quiet conversation on the Hogwarts Express. In that stupid Burrow scene, the marsh grasses give the chase a horror-movie feel. Many things are just a little bit obscured, which mirrors the romantic aspect of the plot (how long can Ron keep not noticing Hermione?) and the quest that's kicked off, however somberly, with the locket that's in Harry's hand as the movie ends. The meaning of the note is obscure; the relevance of so many things is still hidden.

And now I want to see it again.

I suspect this post may be continued.

July 14, 2009 04:52 PM

... at least for the next seven hours. Actually, no; I only wish I could be utterly lost in Harry Potter land until 12:09, at which point I'll be highly caffeinated and ready to (hopefully) enjoy Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. But reality will intrude. It does that. So annoying.

I don't read reviews before seeing movies I know I'm reviewing, but sometimes tidbits of info slip through the cracks — which is to say, people post little things to Twitter. Like updates on Draco Malfoy's attractiveness. I'm OK with knowing that. I don't think it's going to ruin anything for me. I'm also OK with knowing that The Oregonian likes the movie, and that The AV Club is a little more reserved (I only read the first sentence). Most of the buzz is good, which makes me happy, given that I was frustrated with the last movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Actually, I still am frustrated with that movie, which missed the point of the book's dramatic climax completely by having adults swoop in and whisk the youngsters out of danger. It was supposed to be dangerous. It was supposed to require that they do some of the work of saving themselves. It was supposed to set a darker stage. And it got safed up for a major motion picture audience.

Meh. I'm keeping my Potter spirits up with stories like the one about star Daniel Radcliffe giving a young reporter the interview of her life. I'm not going to wear a wizard costume tonight, but my failure to look the part doesn't mean I'm any less excited. And I don't plan on leaving my handkerchief at home.

The previous films in EW:
1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

July 13, 2009 01:30 PM

When do we get those high-speed trains? 'Cause I need a faster, easier way to get back and forth from PDX these days. Today, I'm missing a press screening of Harry Potter Laughs All the Way to the Bank Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (thanks, Shawn Levy, for inspiring that strikethrough). I'll go see it Wednesday and review it on this here blog the same day. I PROMISE. My fingers aren't even crossed or anything. EDIT: I take it back. I'm going to go at midnight Tuesday and write like a ... fast writer thing so there will be a review in this week's paper. Because big Wednesday movie openings mean I can do absurd things like that.

Next Monday, I'm missing a screening of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, which shows as a benefit for the Portland Women's Film Festival. Bigelow's new film is supposed to be a good'un. Here's hoping it gets here eventually.

And tonight, do-it-all-and-do-it-yourself woman of awesomeness Jessica Hopper reads at Powell's on Hawthorne. On the Portland Mercury's blog, "everyone's best pal*" Joan Hiller-Depper interviews Hopper about her new book, The Girls' Guide to Rocking.

I actually went to Portland on a whim on Thursday, but that's a story for its very own blog post.

* This may sound like a snarky way to refer to someone, but I think Ezra Caraeff is being totally sincere: Joan is possibly the friendliest person I have ever met. No joke. Most of us could take lessons in niceness from Joan and lessons in doing stuff from Jessica. Which is just one more reason it'd be nifty to be in Portland tonight.