Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Blind Side

When you see as many movies as I do, you learn to avoid entire categories, either because you don't like them or because you're just flat out tired of 'em. For example, I skipped last year's "The Class" and "The History Boys", just because I'm tired of the whole Blackboard Jungle thing.

Even when I like a movie, if I'm acutely aware of the formula, it can be hard to really get into it. (I liked "The Last Samurai" but I couldn't keep from thinking "Oh, look, a white guy's gonna show the Japanese how to be better Japanese.")

Rarely, however, you end up missing something that approaches a well-worn storyline in a refreshing way, as I almost did with the new Great Expectations-ish The Blind Side.

In this movie, Michael Oher, a ginormous black orphan who has lucked into a place in a fancy Christian private school, ends up being adopted by Leigh Ann Tuohy (a MILFed-up Sandra Bullock). Over the next two hours, they change each others' lives.

You can understand my dread. "Based on a true story!" even.

In what constitutes a Thanksgiving miracle—yeah, it's been out for a while—this actually works. Why?

Well, first of all, the characters are well-defined and interesting, the story is lively with lots of barriers impeding the characters' desires, the dialogue is funny and touching, and the resolution is satisfying. It all sounds so easy when you put it that way. But really, there are a ton of pitfalls t this kind of movie, and the movie avoids almost all of them neatly.

For example, there's a tendency (to put it mildly) in a movie like this to wallow in racism. There is racism in this film, but it goes both ways and mostly comes across as one of many forms of xenophobia. There's no temptation to make it the central point of the film.

This can lead to the related pitfall of viewing the world as a unrelentingly cruel place where selfishness is the sole motivator, and the righteous protagonists are the only beacon of hope, sacrificing all in the process. Now, the Tuohys are definitely good folk, but there's no real hardship for them. It's not about them "sacrificing"; the movie shows a convincing case that (as said in the movie's most wince-worthy moment) Michael is changing their lives.

Their "sacrifices" are shown in contrast to what their charge has endured, but rather through their understanding of those things, instead of through graphic flashbacks. Really, the only serious discussion about whether they should be doing what they're doing revolves around their kids. And even then, it's not like there's a question that they should help.

It's kind of refreshing. And it feels true, too, in the characters' reactions to what is, essentially, Leigh Ann's rather powerful sense of responsibility.

The tertiary characters are a rich assortment. There's a lot of naked self-interest. There's some altruism. There's a veneer of altruism masking healthy doses of self-interest. At the same time, the movie doesn't try to portray self-interest as evil. It comes across as natural: There is an "I"; there is also an "us" (as in our team or family). In other words, it seems very realistic.

This movie avoids The biggest pitfall of all—mawkishness. This is charmingly reflected in Leigh Ann's tendency to leave the room rather than have anyone see her get emotional. But the whole film does that: It shows us the projects, the poverty, the bureaucracy, the politics, the opulence, the desperation, the kindness, the bravery—all without the high melodrama or glib politics these sorts of movies are prey to. It allows you to feel what you'll feel from the circumstances, not from having characters overact.

I can't say I viewed it entirely apolitically. The Tuohys are Republican. So Republican, apparently, they don't know any Democrats. But this is more of a cute point, only significant because I can't recall any film ever where the main characters are both kind, generous and explicitly Republican. The real (political) thought that occurred to me, as I was watching this poor kid wander around The Projects was, "Gosh, everyone wants to go to public school and live in public housing! Why wouldn't they be crazy about public health care?"

So, yeah, I brought my own snark. The movie doesn't address the issue at all. (Which is fitting, I think.)

Anyway, the Boy (my 14-year-old movie companion) enjoyed it quite a bit. I attribute that to the lack of gross sentimentality and the general liveliness of the whole movie.

Anyway, if you're like me and you've been waffling on seeing it, give it a shot: There's a reason it's still playing. And stay for the closing credits to see pictures of the real Tuohys with Michael Oher.

(Previously posted at Ace of Spades HQ.)

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 26: Why I Hate "Go Diego Go"

Me: "Old McDonald had a farm."
Me & The Barb: "Ee-Eye-Ee-Eye-Oh!"
Me: "And on this farm he had a ..."
The Barb: "..."
Me: "..."
The Barb: "Leatherback Sea Turtle."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cargo Cult Christmas

The great visionary Alan Kay once compared the dot-Com goldrush (while it was still going on) to a cargo cult. This was one of those big "a-ha" moments in this moron's life. I'd heard of cargo cults but had just thought of it as an amusing story. If you follow that Wikipedia link, you can see a sort of apologetic tone about how "an isolated society's first contact with the outside world...can be a shock".

But what the dot-Com mania showed was that there's nothing about the mentality that's exclusive to primitive societies. People figured if they bought a clever domain name, wealth would follow. Some had worked out an extra step, of course:

1. Buy Domain Name
2. Attract Investor Dollars
3. ???
4. Profit!

And, of course, some of them never thought past step 2. After all, once investors give you lots of money, you're done, right?

In short, the fundamental issue is a lack of understanding of relationship between cause and effect. Hell, forget about airplanes, a small island culture would probably have a harder time imagining the logistics—the massive industrial and social machinery—behind a military supply drop. You'd first have to get them to grasp the concept of millions of people.

While the dot-Com bubble was doubtless motivated by the same burning desire for unearned material wealth as the island chief's, the dot-Com guys had no comparable excuse. Regardless of the medium, the basics of trade don't change: You have to offer people something they want before they give you money; and if it's something they can already get, you have to offer more, like a lower price, higher quality, greater convenience or better service.

These are not mysterious things, yet if you were watching the madness ten years ago, you saw a 10-year-old company whose increasingly commoditized product was losing market share hand-over-fist buy out a media powerhouse that made its 75-year fortune on essentially unique product—and you also saw this hailed as a great move for the media powerhouse.

Once my eyes were opened to this parallel, I began seeing cargo cults everywhere. Because they are everywhere. And we're probably all guilty of cause-effect confusion to some degree, in some areas of our lives.

As a rather bizarre example, in our culture you can see cargo cult religions (of all denominations), where people mimic the practices of religion while eschewing anything not immediately gratifying, anything that requires sacrifice, or anything that would actually bind people together, as religion is supposed to do. (Then they're surprised when there's nothing there in their time of need.)

But sometimes it's harmless and even kind of cute, when done with awareness. Sports fans, for example, will be very superstitious when rooting for their teams, wearing same clothes or eating the same food or performing some ritual because that's what happened the last time the team made a big score. This is more a knowing game of pretending to have a power (in a situation where you really can't) than a genuine cargo cult mentality. Or so one hopes. (Athletes themselves will have such superstitions, but they don't forgo training for them.)

Oftentimes it's pernicious and destructive, and completely backwards. The idea, for example, of focusing on building self-esteem by giving a child the rewards associated with self-esteem. This creates a sense of entitlement combined with a very fragile ego—a less functional combination hard to imagine.

You can probably see where I'm headed with this.

We have before us this Christmas the most astounding example of a cargo cult I can recall in my lifetime: We have a government that doesn't even understand their own flawed philosophy, mimicking the destructive actions (which had observably bad ends) without even grasping the logic behind them.

For example, the current administration has reduced Keynesian theory (which Keynes himself didn't fully accept) to "throw money all over the place, especially to our friends and good things will happen."

Same with health care: "Pass some laws—any laws—and health care will be 'solved'." The very passage of the laws themselves seems to have been backwards "Let's talk about how we've won and celebrate the passing of these laws, then we'll work on getting them passed. " (Consider the number of times Harry Reid proclaimed he had reached a consensus.)

Even the compromises emerged not from the idea of giving-and-taking on substance so that ultimately everyone could vote for something that was good enough, but by cajoling the "yeas" through any means necessary, no matter how bad a bill was created.

There's no grasp of cause-and-effect.

The frosting on this Christmas cookie being the philosophies that are being aped were never very successful either. FDR's "stimulus" may have been neutral, but the regulatory atmosphere—the atmosphere of wild experimentation, was demonstrably harmful. And even as real job creators today say they're reluctant to hire in such an unpredictable environment, it's not enough to spread money around, the administration has to show that it's willing to stick its fingers everywhere.

You don't need a litany of what the tax, regulate, redistribute process has done to the American economy. The War on Poverty created a permanent underclass, and the War on Drugs created a massive criminal class. The current War on Health (as I suggest we christen it) will have similarly dubious effects. (Even if the current mess doesn't pass, would you, as a young person, be eager to go into medicine in this environment?)

At some point, one has to wonder if the actual cause-and-effect of freedom and stability leading to prosperity isn't very well understood by a lot of those working to undermine it.

At least that's what I'm wondering as I sit under my Christmas tree, singing carols, waiting for presents to appear.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Ah, that great holiday tradition, the dysfunctional family film. I don't know when it started, but the modern form seems to stem from Ordinary People, that Oscar-winning depress-fest that made us miss Mary Tyler Moore's spunk.

This season's dysfunction starts off with Kirk Jones' (Nanny McPhee, Waking Ned) Everybody's Fine and Robert De Niro, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore. And, as might be expected from a director with such a gentle pedigree, this isn't your hard-core "you ruined my life and now I'm a drug-addicted suicidal crack whore!" type family dysfunctional movie.

Actually, the dysfunction's pretty mild. De Niro's character is a decent guy, a blue collar wire-insulation man who worked hard to make sure his kids have plenty of opportunities. And his kids, for the most part, aren't screwed up—they're just worried about disappointing him.

On top of that, the one kid who is really screwed up, well, that's not laid at his father's feet.

Kind of refreshing, really. It's less about soul-crushing guilt and despair, and more about communicating to improve relationships. (Sort of an anti-About Schmidt, if you will.)

De Niro is pleasing as the recently widowed father whose kids all cancel a long-planned weekend home, and so decides to embark on a medically ill-advised cross-country journey to see them instead. (The opening scene where he prepares for their arrival is rather touching, with nice touches, such as when he pulls out, inflates and fills the old wading pool.)

The movie flirts with a lot of clichés, reminding me quite a bit of Waking Ned Devine, as it toys a bit with your expectations, but eschews melodrama for something a little less over-the-top and an ultimately less predictable and more satisfying ending.

I rather enjoyed it. We were actually standing there debating whether or not to go see this or The Road, but I've made my opinion on the book rather clear, and the movie is apparently quite faithful to it. So, even without having seen it, I'm pretty sure I picked the more pleasant of experiences available.

It didn't knock The Boy's socks off, of course, but it reminded me, many years ago of having seen Peggy Sue Got Married with my dad. For him, a very emotional movie. (His grandparents were long dead, and so he was deeply touched by Kathleen Turner's trip to the past to see them.) For me, not so much.

One device used here is to show the kids as kids, through De Niro's eyes, and that got to me in a way I wouldn't expect to get to him. Overall, though, I was pleased by the relatively low-level of dysfunction; I think it's a little more realistic than the high dramatics we usually get.

I'm sure the actors love the scene chewing stuff, but there was a lot of nice, low-key drama here. Each of the children lies to their father, trying to protect him from bad news (and also trying to avoid confrontation), but they're not all comfortable with it—or good at it.

So, while the cool, professional Beckinsale puts De Niro off rather mechanically, expressing regrets but not exhibiting a lot of warmth in her attempt to keep news away from him, the bubbly Barrymore is much more facile in her lying, and still very affectionate to him. The more morose Rockwell is an abysmal liar and knows it.

I'm not particularly a De Niro fan (more a matter of the sorts of movies he's in) but he was excellent here as a guy who's trying his best to understand his kids, while his kids are busy hiding from him.

As the man says, you could do worse, and probably will.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Education

"She was a young maiden in the full bloom of youth," or so could have started An Education, the movie based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. The story concerns 16-year-old Jenny, whose middle-class father controls her life tightly, forcing her to concentrate on education and building the appropriate resume to get into Oxford.

But Jenny finds herself the object of David's attention. David is a roguish 30-something of the sort of mysterious (but copious) means that seem to signal "gentleman" to the English. He's cultured, smooth and charming, and proceeds to seduce the family with his wiles.

What? Well, obviously he has to seduce the mother and father or they're not going to be letting their 16-year-old daughter go out with him. I mean, it's 1961 England, after all.

You know, as uptight as things were in England in 1961, I have a hard time imagining a stolid middle-class family today being cool with—well, let's be honest, the guy isn't even a young 30, the actor is 37!—sending their 16-year-old daughter out with an unknown man old enough to be her father.

And then sending her away for the weekend, even if it is to Oxford, and even if he has convinced them he's connected.

Forget about Paris.

But, like I said, this is a memoir, and if I'm going to believe that Cameron Crowe lost his virginity in foursome with three groupies while on the road with a rock band (Almost Live), I suppose I can believe this.

Actually, it's a testament to the movie's execution that this comes off far less creepy than it should. Indeed, the movie only works at all because the audience is also seduced by David. He keeps a respectful distance from Jenny, and she's ultimately in control of how their physical relationship progresses.

And as the cracks in David's veneer begin to show, the movie does a good job of rationalizing. In particular, the defenders of the traditional path—work hard, do lots of boring, irrelevant stuff so that you can go to a good school, so that you can then become a teacher and teach boring, irrelevant stuff—are particularly weak at defending it.

Her teacher, her principal, her father really can't explain why she should dedicate herself to study rather than run around with the roguish David and hang out in nightclubs, eat fine food, and explore Europe.

Beside the excellent handling by director Lone Scherfig, and nuanced performances by Peter Saarsgard (as David), and Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour (as mom and dad), the movie is largely powered by the charming Carey Mulligan. (She's 23, but like Ellen Page, she can play much younger convincingly.)

The actresses in this movie are especially strong, as they all seem to reflect the various choices available to the young Jenny. Mom is tired with an unextraordinary life, and we see both hints of danger and jealousy in Cara Seymour's performance. Rosamund Pike (of Doom and Pride and Prejudice) plays Helen, who is the paramour of David's partner in crime Danny, and in her we see—besides a shocking level of ignorance—wistfulness toward Jenny's naiveté, jealousy of her sparkling youth, and the kinship of one who knows the man she loves is not as noble a character as she might like.

Olivia Williams (late of "Dollhouse") plays Miss Stubbs, the teacher Jenny most highly respects (and ultimately gravely insults) as a buttoned-up disciplinarian, and Emma Thompson is the imperious and vengeful headmistress who sternly reminds Jenny that non-virgins are not allowed in her school. Heh.

Oh, and there's also Matthew Beard, who plays Jenny's age-appropriate suitor, Graham. He's awkward and unsophisticated and also sweet and sincere, but wholly unable to compete against the urbane David. In his few short scenes, he has to deal with going from a likely successful suitor to being snubbed mysteriously to realizing what he's up against.

Solid acting, solid writing, solid direction. Ultimately, though, I did find the whole exercise oddly Victorian and almost melodramatic. Will Jenny lose her virtue to the handsome rogue? Will her life be ruined? Will anyone care in five years, when the world so radically changes?

The Boy thought it could've been worse, but as remote as the whole thing felt to me—I could, at least, relate to the larger parental issues of making sure your kids know why they have to do things that aren't fun—it's ancient history to him.

Just as an addendum, Roger Ebert has put this on his top 10 list of mainstream movies of the year. I probably wouldn't put it in the top ten or on the mainstream list. Heh. (But Ebert's a contemporary so that might be part of the appeal for him.)

Blog Wars

Hello, everyone!

Sorry for the long absence. I've been hard at work looking for work to be hard at work at. I'm going to be part-time at the current job (which didn't stop them from giving me two new, huge projects to do) which is a mixed bag. On the one hand, if I get another PT job or consulting gig, that's a kind of security and potentially more money. On the other hand, if I get a FT gig, that can mean things like going into an office and wearing clothes and stuff. (Shudder.)

I've got two other projects with potential going, so I'm working on those as well. It's just busy.

Which is my whiny excuse for not posting reviews on An Education and Everybody's Fine yet. I will, though, soon. Promise.

Meanwhile, I've been watching the Goldstein/Patterico wars, which I hate. I actually unfollowed Patterico on Twitter because his attacks strike me as both petty and strident.

To summarize, Patterico said that Stacy McCain had made a racist statement (over ten years ago!) but may or may not be actually racist himself. Goldstein, on a pretty straightforward point of logic says, no, there cannot be racism without intent. You can't say someone made a racist comment but may or may not be racist. Patterico then talks about "unconscious" racism, etc. etc. etc.

I feel for Patterico because he's parroting what we've all learned, isn't he? We've all learned over the years that white people, in particular, are racist (even if only unconsciously so) and their willingness to use words that others deem racist is proof of that. I mean, we've all lived through the kabuki of constantly changing names/titles/designations to prove the purity of our intentions. And we've all lived through (and accepted) the gradual loss of our freedoms to do the same.

Volokh himself talks about this in the terms of the First Amendment here. Like Volokh, I want people to be free to express their prejudices. I don't want them cloaked in PC talk. I don't want a ritual that is used to demonstrate the right thinking; I want what people think to be right out there in their speech and associations. Then I can choose whom I want to associate with. (And you know what? A lot of racism and other faulty -isms actually do yield to logic, but you never learn that when people just know it's taboo to discuss certain things.)

But despite the simple truth of Goldstein's argument—I mean, really, to argue that racism doesn't need to be intended by the racist is to argue that it's an actual substance with physical properties that can be identified by climate scientistsproperly annointed clergyright thinking people—Patterico has instead doubled-down, defending the most heinous corruption of our ability to communicate.

It's not the first time he's done this, and it's a shame, because he does really good work calling out the L.A. Times on their biases, errors and general buffoonery. But as Goldstein points out (again and again): if you accede the ability to decide what you meant to another agency, you lose if ever you decide to go against that agency. (Said agencies, not remarkably, are always statists, and these days, they're on the left. It wasn't so long ago they were establishment Christians and other social conservatives who wanted the state to interfere on behalf of their causes—the whole problem with the old order, when you think of it.)

Anyway, Goldstein absolutely skewers him with a two part demonstration on exactly how Frey's logic can be used against him. But Patterico seems to have a hard time with being wrong. Either that, or far worse, he doesn't want to let intention get in the way of his own ability to exercise power over others by misconstruing their speech.

Nah, he's probably just being pigheaded.

Meanwhile, I'm going to get back to reviewing stuff.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Which I Suspect The Free Market Of Not Being Entirely Free

Interesting anecdote from Reason on how Canadian health care treated one woman, or rather failed to treat her, along with a doctor who puts up a price list on his website about what things cost. I tracked the website down and noted an interesting thing.

Some of you know that my dad was in the hospital a month ago. As it turns out, they gave him angioplasty (through the femoral artery, yeow!). If you go to that site, you'll see angioplasty costs $12,500.

That's expensive, but not unmanageable. Presumably, one wouldn't need a lot of angioplasty. And catastrophic coverage well, wouldn't need to be all that huge to cover it.

Now, my dad's two days in the hospital cost $140,000.

Frankly, that seems unpossible to me. Who could possibly afford that? How can something exist in a market that nobody could afford?

I suspect there may be market distortions at work.

If one wanted to fix the health care market, one might start by locating the distortions and removing them.

Just a thought.

Today Is Not That Day, Part 7: Sex, Lies and Videotape

Yeah. No. I don't think so. This will not be the day I mourn for the children who are not in schools.

Miz Malkin, the first. You know, I heard so much about how great Catcher In The Rye was in my teens. I remember Rossi from "The Lou Grant Show" talking about how it got him through high school. I also remember being singularly unimpressed by it when I read it. I still don't know why it's an assigned book.

Miz Malkin, the second. Yeah! Let's get our Zinns on, people! You always know you're in for a treat when reading a book supposedly about facts, where the author openly disdains objectivity. Remember, people, you're too stupid to take in the facts of history and weigh them appropriately. You need someone like Zinn to tell you what's important, and leave out all the flashy, superficial stuff like technological progress, philosophies that promote the welfare of all men, and so on.

I sometimes think you could lock a kid in a closet for eight hours and have them be better off than they'd be in school.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Games and Life

"Nice civilization you're building for someone else there."

Freeman Hunt forwarded me this (somewhat hard to read) set of notes from the G4C conference. (There's an interesting story about Zynga and real-life donations on that G4C link. I've been studying Zynga for a while and have a post brewing about it.)

As I was reading it, I thought of the above quote, which I read on the Apolyton forums years ago, regarding the game Civilization. Some poor sap had developed this gorgeous civilization powered by art and culture (Civ 3 introduced the ability to conquer cities via culture) and was fretting because the cretins around him—with their pathetic attempts at art—had instead built up massive armies of guys with pointed sticks.

He was dismayed that all his culture and education was threatened by some barely literate clods still in the Stupid Ages.

And what I wondered at that point is whether or not the popularity of the computer strategy game might not have a profound impact on people's philosophies regarding the nature of war.

As noted in the pseudo-transcript above, games are models, and they have some limited value in their real-life application. Civ 3 was very good at emulating historical trends (at least as we perceive them from here, which is very skewed, but that's another story) such that industrialism, nationalism and treaties would almost always lead to massive world wars.

This, by the way, feeds into my prejudice about computer climate models. Civilization does a better job "predicting" the past than climate models do (but an awful job predicting the future).

But whatever the limitations, there is one thing that is true in every strategy game: The surest way to invite war is to not develop militarily.

The motivations are (one would hope) not exactly the same: Strategy games tend to be zero sum. If you conquer the world in Civ with a bunch of rock-wielding cavemen, well, you've still conquered the world. The game ends at that point, with you victoriously ruling the stone ages.

Nonetheless, it only takes one guy—one Attila or Genghis or Napoleon—to convince his people that, yeah, they pretty much should be running the show, to turn a bunch of weakly defended countries into fuel for a war machine.

Peace (for you) is only assured by being substantially stronger than the other guys.

Another interesting evolution in the Civ games is that while you may be hated if you're very powerful, people will act nice to your face. If you're weak, you'll be openly loathed, extorted and eventually conquered.

It's not just Civilization, though: Every 4x game I can think of (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) has the same basic rule. If you want peace, you have to make war an unpleasant prospect for others.

The modern 4X game is only about 15 years old, and Civilization not quite 20, but it's not hard to imagine that the lessons they teach might have an impact in coming years.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rape vs. Cuckoldry

In what seems to me to be a shining example of "us vs. them" syndrome, a debate is going on about which is worse being raped, or being cuckolded (in the biological sense of raising another man's child). Via Instapundit. Arguments are being made based on financial costs, emotional damage, etc.

But the only point in having this debate is to try to score a point against the opposite sex. Just as men and women are different, they have different ways of hurting each other. Even if one is "worse" than the other by some standard, it doesn't really say anything by itself about the conflicts between men and women.

Just as I think collectivism makes for bad government, I think it also makes for a bad way to try to resolve interpersonal issues. One should worry materially less about what "men" do and what "women" do than what the particular men and women in one's life do.

The kids have been on a real "King of the Hill" kick lately. That show, if you've never seen it, features a character, Dale, whose son Joseph is clearly not his. Dale is a comical character, cowardly and stupid, and his cuckolding by his wife played for laughs in both his and others' inability to see the obvious. (Joseph is around 14 through most of the series, and Dale's wife's affair is still going on when the series starts.)

But from the start, Dale's devotion to his son (such as it is) is the bedrock of the family. And as the series progresses and his wife rededicates herself to him, it turns out to be Joseph's real father who ends up lonely and isolated, watching his son grow up to admire and emulate another man.

It's a very funny show, but I don't think I've seen the topic handled more thoroughly and sensitively anywhere else. And I think it's more interesting than trying to figure out who hurts who more, men or women. Because I think we all do a pretty good job of that—and keeping score is probably just going to make us all look bad.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Idiot With A Pencil 2: Faeries

When The Boy was young, he invented a game called "Paper Wars", whereby we would draw an assortment of monsters on paper and then engage them in battle. The Boy's mind was such that he was always making games. However, his explanation of the (always lengthy, convoluted) rules was enough to render people (literally!) unconscious.

The Flower dabbled in such complex rules for a bit, but lacked the somnolent powers of her elder brother. In any case, when we draw, I quite naturally draw things I think will interest her.

So, a session or two ago, I drew a faerie. This is sort of uncharacteristic of me. I usually go for the goofy, or the weird or the comical. I don't have the discipline, most of the time, to really clearly envision something and hold that image in my mind long enough to draw it.

I scanned this one in—and this is another area where I'm weak, trying to figure out how to transfer something to digital form—and it came out overly light:

Then I sharpend it, which made the colors a little truer, but which also exaggerated all the minor shadings:

Anyway, The Flower liked it, which is all that matters.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Fearless Tooth Fairy Vampire Killer

I was at my mom's not too long ago listening to a debate between The Flower and her cousin, wherein The Flower vigorously defended the existence of such non-corporeal creatures as Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and so on.

The Cousin, who is quite opinionated on, well, everything, was raised for most of her life in some sort of Mennonite sect. 19th century clothing, little exposure to any sort of electronic media, and The Man In The Red Suit.

Let me step back a bit: I have been, in my life, quite strident on the matter of honesty between parents and children. At least, I'm pretty sure I have. I've been strident on a lot of things, so this was probably one of them. At the same time, I've always been a big fan of letting kids work things out for themselves.

So, when The Boy started talking Santa, I dealt with it the same way I dealt with other things, "People say..." or "That's what they tell me." Also, "I don't know" and "How could that be?" have been useful.

But, but, but—factually speaking, Blake, factually, you do know.

And yet, I never even gave some things a thought. The Boy used to be concerned about vampires, so I told him I had killed them all. It wasn't like he was going to believe there weren't vampires, so I told him what he could believe: That I had removed the threats he was worried about. (Which I had, when you think about it.)

In fact, I used to see monsters. The Boy loved monsters, so I'd suddenly look to one side and put on a big show of having seen on running across the yard. When I crawled under the house to network it, I called up in the voices of different monsters.

The Boy, who has had problems with his health and energy his whole life, would light up like a million watt light bulb when I did this.

The Flower, on the other hand, boxed us into an even more interesting corner: She wrote to the Tooth Fairy. Well, really, what could I do? The Tooth Fairy had to write back! The two have exchanged forty letters over the course of a couple of years.

When I was a child, I'm told that I was very upset on discovering the factual nature of Santa Claus, but my dad claims to have this discussion with me about it. I was beating on him and yelling "You lied to me!" And he said, "Well, okay, but you had fun, didn't you?"

Yeah. I had fun.

And I'm still having fun. The Boy gets what we do and why, and the Flower will, too. (That time is nearing, and I'm already missing it.) When The Barb's preferences become clear, be they the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin, I'll be there quietly encouraging her to enjoy it.

I'm much less interested in a semantic debate over whether this can and should be called "lying" versus the impact it can have on children.

I adore my niece but she's a joyless child. Her emotions are muted and flat, and she often strikes me as being an old person in a tiny body. I've never seen her get excited over anything. She's a know-it-all who does poorly in school, despite the service paid to "truth". And I don't attribute this to Santa, one way or the other, but creation is joy, and frankly, few things are more traditional than for parents to try to crush out that joy by burdening a child with "reality", when "reality" is all too often the same tired notions about the world that have been crushing joy from the beginning of time.

"Put away those foolish notions," says the parent, and so shuts the door on a better and more interesting future.

And (as I say with my niece) it's not just Santa: Parents who are so convinced they have the one and only grasp on reality aren't just taking that from their kids; they're taking the kid's right to create his own reality, mistakes and all. You could foster a love for all things fantastic (or not yet real) without Santa; people have and do.

But your reasons shouldn't be "because it's a lie". When you tell a kid a story, he's going to internalize it, whether you tell him it's true or not. Nobody told me superheroes were real, but that didn't stop me from wanting to be one. Nobody tells kids that their toys are "real", yet kids imbue them with life and personality and character conflicts, with more conviction than the average adult believes that the person standing in front of him has a real life and personality.

I mean, do you feel the need to go around and remind the kid that her Barbie Dream House isn't real, and anyway, Barbie couldn't possibly afford it unless Ken's her sugar daddy? I mean, realistically.

Kids have their own realities. As a parent, you can hardly help but squash them, but it's nothing to be proud of. And in service to what? A reality you're so convinced is true and worthwhile, it merits cutting off an entire avenue of joy for your child?

Shame on you.

And I just add this last part to prove that I can be strident in the service of something I was previously very strident against.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Uncredited Remakes

Icons Of Fright has a fun post up called "Ted's" top ten uncredited remakes. "Uncredited remake" is a bit of a canard, because it implies that the "remake" knows about the original. For about 30 years, I'd heard that Alien was an uncredited remake of It! The Terror From Beyond Space!

Well, it was on recently so I finally had a chance to see it and, yeah, there are some similarities. But it's really a thematic similarity with some superficial resemblances that might reasonably be expected to occur in any random "alien monsters kills crew of spaceship" story—which itself is basically a variant of the "Old, Dark House".

If it's debatable whether or not Dan O'Bannon (Alien's screenwriter) saw It! it's even more dubious that Predator screenwriters Jim and John Thomas derived much, if anything, from the low-budget flick Without Warning.

Now, I noted immediately that Predator had the same story as Warning, but of course nobody knew what the hell I was talking about because nobody had seen the older movie. (According to the linked article, it was never released on DVD or VHS, which boggles the mind but seems to be true.) And my observation was tongue in cheek, because it's just a casual story similarity: Alien comes to earth to hunt humans, is stopped by a particularly feisty human. Despite the capsule at the article, there isn't a group of hired mercenaries in the older, cheaper flick, just...Jack Palance!

Without Warning itself seems to have been inspired, visually, by "Star Trek". The alien looks like the big-brained guys in "The Menagerie" and it throws little Frisbee-esque parasitic creatures that look like they're from "Operation: Annihilate".

And when I say "look like," I mean it looks like the crew busted into the prop warehouses at Paramount and stole the FX from the mothballed "Star Trek" show.

Both movies are sort of cornucopias of cheese, though. (Cornucopias of cheese?) Without Warning features Larry Storch as a scoutmaster and may be the feature debut of none other than David Caruso.

The triple-threat of WW, though is: Cameron Mitchell, Martin Landau and Jack Palance, all of whom probably figured they were on the downward sides of their careers. Cameron Mitchell would have been right but both Landau and Palance would go on to win Oscars well after this movie. Landau for his role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, and Palance for his role as Curly in City Slickers.

And Ted thought he didn't have a life.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Financial Crisis Explained?

"In short, on April 2, 2009, the President signed a communiqué that essentially turns over financial control of the country, and the planet, to a handful of central bankers, who, besides dictating policy covering everything from your retirement income to shareholder rights, will additionally have access to your health and education records."

--Bruce Wiseman, "Hitler's Bank Goes Global"

My dad sent me a link to this guy (of whom I've never heard) who lays out the banking crisis as a plan to unseat the U.S. dollar as the basic unit of international money. It's not a long read, and interesting as it maps how what might be considered typical banking and political shenanigans were exploited.

The quote above comes from the second article in the series and is of particular interest to me (and I'd think to anyone who values our Constitutional Republic). The President basically gave the keys to the country to a foreign bank. (And this is not a political issue; Bush would doubtless have done the same thing.)

Much like socialism, it's come to pass that having a group of ultra-powerful private bankers run a country's economy is just the norm for the world today. Politicians, of course, just want to spend money, not think about it, so they just let someone else do the thinking for them.

The question of whether or not the President's actions are legal and binding is a separate one, and the crucial one for all of us: Wiseman issues a call to action for everyone to make sure their representatives know that what the President signs is essentially a treaty and needs to be ratified by Congress.

Anyone have Glenn Beck's number?

Fantastic Mr. Fox: The Movie

The Flower demanded to be taken to a movie, having decided last week that this week was going to be the very best of her life. (To date, people. Don't get morbid on me.) She wanted to see Planet 51, which her girlfriend had seen and liked, while I was trying to steer her to the Uncanny Valley that is the new A Christmas Carol retelling. I didn't really want to see either, but I had somewhat higher hopes for the latter.

But then The Fantastic Mr. Fox came out.

Roald Dahl is extremely popular around here, owing to my love of him as a child. Danny, The Champion of the World was and remains one of my favorite stories of all time. I've read all of Dahl's children's works out loud to the kids (in succession) and so far all have been hits.

I'm fairly confident Dahl would have absolutely hated this movie. Which isn't to say it's a bad movie or that one won't or shouldn't enjoy it. (He hated the original Wonka movie, too, and while I totally understand, I still like that movie. I'm pretty sure he would've hated the remake even more.)

But this isn't a Roald Dahl movie, it's a Wes Anderson movie. Now, I'm not sure where this trend of quirky, arty directors making children's movies started, nor why, but the one thing that is for certain is that you can't really get a good read on how good or bad such a movie is going to be from the reviews. Auteurs have rabid fans and adoring critics.

So, just as I'm unlikely to consider Where The Wild Things Are an 8/10, as IMDB would have it because of my general uneasiness about Spike Jonze, you should be aware that this is, first and foremost a Wes Anderson movie. If you don't like Anderson, you won't like this movie.

Because this is exactly like his other movies, only filmed in stop-motion animation. Same cast. Same blocking. Same shots. Same character conflicts. Same characters. Same music. Same pacing.

I kind of like Wes Anderson. I like the quirkiness of Rushmore, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. At the same time, I'm having a hard time imagining someone saying, "Yeah, this guy would be perfect for making a children's movie."

Let me dissect the experience for you a bit. The movie is stop-motion animation, as mentioned. But it reminds less of slick productions like Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, and a little more of Aardman productions like Night of the Were-Rabbit and Chicken Run. But the animation doesn't rise to that level of warmth, even of the fake-stop-motion of Flushed Away.

We're not talking Rankin-Bass holiday special cheap, or anything like that. But it's a little jarring at first. I got used to it fairly quickly, but even at the end found Mr. Fox's full body shots ugly and lacking in mass. (Bad CGI makes everything look weightless. But almost all stop-motion has the same issue of looking like very light dolls being moved around. Which of course is what's going on.)

But, okay. Low budget's never been a problem here.

So, right off the bat you have George Clooney as Mr. Fox, which is how I would've cast it. Except I would have liked to see him do a little voice instead of just using the same voice he always uses. Something more Cary Grant, as Mr. Fox is a dashing rogue.

I liked Mrs. Fox's voice but never picked it out as Meryl Streep. Of course I recognized Bill Murray, too. But when I realized the son was Jason Schwarzman, I knew that all I had to do was figure out who Owen Wilson, Roman Coppola and Adrien Brody were playing.

Still, the voice acting is fine.

The music reminded me greatly of Darjeeling and it works very well here.

Anderson's blocking and camera style are hit-and-miss for a children's movie. The shot where he has one character far in front, and another behind you can't see until the one behind leans out to say something—that's a cute shot that works well. And his habit of running the camera over a large set with many rooms that show what various characters are doing at the same time is as effective here as it ever is.

But one of his most characteristic shots is just a tight close-up on a face. Often with a character looking forlorn. The animation isn't quite up to it and it's such an odd, static shot for a kids' movie anyway.

All of this is sort of movie-geek stuff. As is noting all the influences of other movies (besides Anderson's own). Most people aren't going to notice or care much.

Less geeky, however, is noting that the Wes Anderson-ification of the story basically turns it around 180 degrees from the original. Anderson loves difficult parental figures who are more obsessed with their own grandeur than their progeny. But with the exception of Matilda, where parents are found in Dahl's stories, they are doting, and generally do what they can to help their children build their self-esteem (through actual actions, of course).

So this story concerns the son's inability to live up to his father's ideals, while his father dotes on a visiting cousin.

No, really. That's the emotional center of the movie. The movie's Mr. Fox is far more neurotic and far less charming than the book's Mr. Fox. Fox's son takes out his frustration on the visiting cousin, also something Dahl would not have approved of. His good characters were good, and I'm sure the scene in the '70s Wonka movie where Charlie and Grandpa Joe cheat is what pissed him off.

As much as it felt inappropriate to me, I'm sure this kind of nuance is responsible for some people gushing over the movie.

The other thing Dahl would've hated by the way, was the adult humor. I don't mean sexual humor, but humor that was aimed squarely at the adults and designed to leave the kids scratching their heads. I don't think this is Anderson trying to market his movie or anything, it's just the way he works.

But Dahl insisted the secret to a good kid's book was to enlist the children in a conspiracy against adults. That's what he did. And the better adults in his books were the ones who could join in.

This might sound like I hated the movie myself, but I really didn't. I thought it was okay. There's nothing inherently wrong with a director imposing himself on a story; that's what they do. (Although I would have preferred Burton not bring his daddy issues to Wonka.)

The kids? The Flower liked it okay, as did The Boy. The laughs were light but not infrequent. They weren't enamored of the animation but they weren't turned off by it either. If they were bugged at all by the mature-themed plot points, they didn't mention it.

But they weren't blown away by a long shot. For some reason, I'm thinking of the ultimate reviewer's line "People who like this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing they'll like."

The thing about a movie like this, if you do go see it and you don't know where you stand vis-a-vis wes Anderson, is to remember to ignore the gushing. Reviews have been ridiculously positive for this movie. Families are going to love it! It's better than Pixar!

In reality, it's a modest, quirky film made on a modest quirky budget. I suspect it won't do very well at all, frankly. But it can be enjoyable—if you like this sort of thing.


Lord, every year we gather here
To eat around this table
Give us the strength to stomach as much
As fast as we are able

Bless this food to our use though
Communication's useless
Don't let me drink too much wine
Lord, you know how I get ruthless

Let us somehow get through this meal
Without that bad old feeling
With history and memory
And home cooking revealing

Remind us that we're all grown up
Adults, no longer children
Now it's our kids who spill the milk
And our turn to wanna kill them

I look around and recognize
A sister and a brother
We rarely see our parents now
We hardly see each other

On this auspicious occasion
This special family dinner
If I argue with a loved one
Lord, please make me the winner

All this food looks and smells so good
But I can hardly taste it
The sense of something has been lost
There's no way to replace it

After the meal, switch on the game
There's just a few more seconds
But I'm so tired, I need a nap
The guest bedroom bed beckons

I fall asleep, I have a dream
And it is the family
Nothing bad has happened yet
And everyone is happy

Mother and father both still young
And naturally they love us
We're all lying on a lawn at night
Watching the stars above us

Lord, every year we gather here
To eat around this table
Give us the strength to stomach as much
As fast as we are able

--Loudon Wainwright III (video)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Are The Chinese The New Japanese?

Actually, my first question is: Have I become ultraconservative or prude or something?

Let me back up. If you haven't seen this ad for an inflatable bra from China, you should. I first thought it was Japanese because, hey, you know: Japan. Also, the women there seem to have trouble interesting the men in coming out of their parents' basements while China is suffering a shortage of women, thanks to population control policies.

But, of course, Japanese sounds nothing like Chinese.

It does make me wonder if China is the new Japan. Remember when everyone was panicked about the Japanese taking over? Not so much any more, eh? Also, the Chinese—despite the crushing hand of whatever form of government they have—seem to be getting weirder and weirder.

The other thing that jarred me, though, was the use of the phrase "God's hands". That's right: This bra company is making the "She's Mine" bra which uses "God's hands" to lift up and mash a woman's breasts together. (Nice touch: adjustable to various cup sizes. After all, a girl wants to be appreciated for her other features as well. Just not always.)

But...God's hands? Really? Isn't that the very definition of "profane"? I mean, I'm more amused than anything. After all, the Chinese know what's profane to the Chinese, right? And the Chinese have never seemed to have the same sort of relationship with God as Western civilization has.

Still. Odd.

Inappropriate Advertising

Far from being intrusive, I've actually found that I enjoy Google Mail's targeted ads. (And yeah, I know they're evil. A company who's first motto is "don't be evil" virtually had to turn out that way, didn't it?)

I've written about the spam, for example, and it's sort of interesting trying to figure out what the targets in this so-called targeted advertising is. But now Gmail has presented this ad for the Baader-Meinhoff movie with the tag, "The revolution is reborn!" Er, maybe it was "reignited". (I don't know what caused Gmail to put that ad up, but it changed and I can't get it back now.)

Wait, what? Nooooo. I hope the point of that movie was that revolutionaries were dumb thugs using political ideology as an excuse for bad behavior.

I mean, even if you're an ideological fellow traveler, I would hope this movie served more as an embarrassment than a rallying cry.

"The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." -V.I. Lenin

I tend to agree of late that the very term "Capitalism" is Marx's socialist framing of what is, in essence, freedom, and that we're poorer for using the term to describe free markets.

By the way, it was Marx who infected economics—by all rights a hard science with immutable laws—with politics and turned it into the morass it is today.

Jerky jerk-face.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving From The 'Strom

Another movie review shortly: Fantastic Mr. Fox! What if Wes Anderson made a kids movie?

Also, some more home DVR stories.

And I made the ultimate sacrifice* and bought the next three Friday The 13th movies off of Ebay so I can continue my series. (*Sacrifice totaling $8.)

Also I've been notified I'm going not be an employee much longer. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

Happy Thanksgiving To All!

Ahoy, Mate! Pirate Radio!

I avoided the '60s love-fest Pirate Radio for its first few weeks because, well, it's a '60s love-fest. It's not that love-notes to bygone eras are bad. Hollywood's love affair with the Gilded Age lasted into the '60s and produced some of my favorite movies. (That's 30 years of nostalgia!)

Rather than compare and contrast turn-of-the-century nostalgia in the '40s to '60s nostalgia today, though, I'll just stay focused on this particular movie, the Richard Curtis (writer/director of Love Actually) pic The Boat That Rocked. Or, as it's known here in the States, Pirate Radio, with distributors perhaps hoping for a Disney tie-in. (Pirate Radio of the Carribean, anyone?)

Pirate Radio is sort of an Almost Famous on the high seas. (If even has Philip Seymour Hoffman!) Basically, a teenage boy is sent by his mom to live on a ship that's anchored off of England in order to supply Britain with desperately needed rock music. (Government-controlled radio won't play any of it. To paraphrase one character, "That's the point of being the government. If you don't like something, you can pass a law to make it illegal.")

So, there's your story: coming age plus the renegade cool cats versus the squares in government. Neither of these stories is done very well. No, strike that. It's not that they're done poorly at all, it's that they're barely done.

But you know, I've never seen Almost Live—a generally highly regarded movie—a second time, and yet I might watch this again.

The very thing that kept me away from this movie was a fear that it might be self-important. A rock-saves-the-world motif. And of course, not really the rock 'n' roll that my dad's generation dug, but that high '60s stuff which some people earnestly maintain was the Best Music In The History Of The World. And all, like, socially relevant 'n' stuff. And that this would be contrasted with social repression, brought down by titans of social change who set themselves against...well, you get the idea.

To hearken back briefly to Hollywood's love of the Gilded Age, as if the great things of that era were the result of Ragtime.

This movie does none of that. It's really just a series of vignettes and character interactions punctuated with brief montages of people listening to the radio.

What a relief.

The guys on the boat are half-defiant, half-loser, whose defining characteristic is their love of music. This seems reasonable. Musicians aren't really revolutionaries—and these guys wouldn't have been crossing swords with the government had the government not created (let's be honest) a black market for rock.

It's kind of interesting to watch the twisting of the movie's villain as he comes up with various ways to make pirate radio illegal. It reminds one that governments claim all sort of "reasonable" power which they then used to stamp out things they just plain don't like.

But it's not exactly historical. Even the sampling of music is probably a bit ahistorical. (The opening of "Won't Get Fooled Again" is part of the soundtrack—but not as a record, only to punctuate a dramatic scene. What would we do without Pete Townsend?) This may have been to avoid a lot of the seriously overused tracks. Also, no Beatles. (Beatles songs almost never seem to be in movies that aren't Beatle-centric.)

Again, though, this is really at the level of your average low-budget coming-of-age tale with good music. It's better than most because it's consistently funny. Also, acting. We have Kenneth Branagh as the evil minister of musical correctness, or whatever the hell his position is, with his ex-wife Emma Thompson as the mom of Carl (played by Tom Sturridge). I didn't recognize either of them.

Fans of the BBC show "Spaced" will recognize Nick Frost, in a (once again) completely different character. This time he's a rock 'n' roll Lothario. Really! I marvel over Frost because he doesn't consider himself a real actor. Which tells you something about the English versus Americans. Here, a guy who gets to be famous repeating a catchphrase in a sitcom thinks he's ready for Hamlet next. There, the guy probably has done Hamlet, and still considers himself not quite legit.

Finally, there's Bill Nighy. Ever see the second two Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Nighy played Davy Jones. Those movies would've been ten times better with more Nighy. In the Underworld movies? He was King of the Vampires or somesuch. Those movies aren't very good, but they'd have been a millions times better with more Nighy. Love, Actually features him in the washed-up rock 'n' roll star role, singing his old song naked.

Good movie. Needed more Nighy.

You know that movie Precious, about the black girl with the poor self-esteem and crappy home life? Bill Nighy isn't in that, I don't think. I haven't seen it. But it'd have been better with more Bill Nighy.

The Boy was pleased. The movie kept him laughing, and that was quite welcome.

Go in understanding what it is, and what it isn't, and you can have yourself a good time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Saw VI: This Time It's Political

At this point, we must concede that the Jigsaw Killer, Jonathan Kramer, must certainly have spent more of his life setting up his murderous little games than any other activity. And that the amounts of money involved to play them are staggering.

Which makes one wonder if he might have done something more productive with his time and money.

Anyway, we have here the sixth entry in the notorious movie franchise.

And while I defend these movies as not being torture porn, I have to admit, when this one started I thought, "Well, that's a bit much."


Now, Saw suffers from the the same problem every successful horror movie does: The demand for sequels far exceeds the planning of the people who wrote the original. Sort of queerly in the case of the Saw series—which uniquely (I think) has had one release every year for six years—each entry has to do some retconning. I say "queer" because I think movies 2-5 were a done deal after the first one, and #7 seems to be guaranteed. In other words, you could do some planning.

And, in fairness, the Saws' retconning has been rather mild up till this movie.

In case you're not familiar with the premise, John Kramer is an engineer who entraps people he feels are wasting their lives by constructing elaborate and horrific traps they must escape, in an attempt to give them a new appreciation for life. (Oh, and he's been dead for half the series, and lives only through the elaborate plans he set up in advance.)

Well, that's the original premise. Jigsaw's mission has drifted away from that pure idea to where he's been trying to teach forgiveness, cooperation, anger management, and so on.

The other drift that has occurred is that the original motivation for Jigsaw was anger over his own life. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and so felt it unfair that others didn't appreciate what they had—what had been taken from him.

Now, to me, the thing that sets the series apart from the typical slashers (besides the generally above par suspense and plotting), is empathy. The characterizations in most slashers are weak: They're just fodder. Their personalities are largely irrelevant.

In this series, the victims' personalities are the killer's prime motivation. (And not stupid things like having premarital sex and smoking pot.) Infidelity, violence, depression, selfishness and so on, are the flaws that Jigsaw tries to correct with his unique brand of therapy.

In the third installment, for example, the morose father gets the option of killing or saving the people he holds responsible for the death of his child and the subsequent injustices. To add injury to insult, he can only save them by enduring considerable duress. It's a sort of high drama, compressed into a very determinate, short time period.

This is a huge part (in my mind) as to why the movies work, when they do work.

Saw VI has the unfortunate added burden of a political message. And this message completely struggles against the established precedent of the previous movies.

You see, in Saw VI, John Kramer targets insurance company employees!

Even if you accept the premise (which cheerfully skips around the general success of the insurance industry by noting offhand the millions of people insurance works for) that these guys (and everyone who works for them) are pure evil, the movie undermines itself and the entire series in two big ways.

First of all, there's a scene where John goes to Insurance Guy because he's found an exotic treatment for his cancer. Naturally, he's refused, and on top of that threatened with having his coverage dropped if he goes and does it himself.

Well, on the one hand, how would they know? But more importantly, we know John has tons of money. In fact, they even point that out, by saying the treatment he's getting now could wipe him out financially, to which he says "Money is not the issue."

Y'see, it's a matter of principle. So the guy who's gone around for five movies putting people in horrendous situations to gauge their love of life doesn't bother to take a mild risk to save his own life? Really?

Second of all, there is a "test" in this movie completely different from every other in the series' history: An innocent character is given the chance to kill someone.

In every previous case where someone playing a game has had the opportunity to kill, doing so meant their own death. (Y'see, Jigsaw teaches tolerance and forgiveness with all his hacksaws and barbed wires.) But in this movie, it's fairly clear that killing is just peachy! One presumes that not-killing would be okay, too, but it's not entirely clear.

Worst of all, this otherwise well plotted movie struggles because you're obviously meant to hate the insurance exec, but the formula requires us to empathize with the victims at some level. As a result, the exec comes off very human and really, very decent. (His employees, to a man, are completely one dimensional monsters, which is rather weak, too.) Actor Peter Outerbridge, while capable of seeming like an unctuous sleaze, is a little too deep and human to make us feel like he deserves his torture.

So, the whole thing ends up ass-over-tea cart.

There was much swearing from The Boy who liked the movie except for the weird imposition of politics onto it.

And it's a shame, because it's otherwise the strongest entry since #3. Good pacing, good characterization (with the noted exceptions), clever and interesting "games"—notably bad lighting, however, and maybe a slightly cheaper feel over all.

Costas Mandylor (of the perpetual trout pout) is back in this movie, doing Jigsaw's dirty work, with an especially brutal flair, and providing one of the movie's two big twists (setting up the sequel).

Shawnee Smith (who died several movies back) re-appears in flashbacks, as of course does the Jigsaw himself, Tobin Bell. Weirdly, Athena Karkaris, who took a face full of death a movie or two ago ends up having gotten better, though not for any reason I can figure out. (The series' tendency to kill everyone makes it hard to establish much continuity, so they keep resurrecting minor characters.)

Happily, the wonderful Betsy Russell is back. Though it seems to me her character has drifted over the movies, again I think due to the fact that not many characters survive from one film to the next. She seemed to be pretty appalled by her ex-husband's behavior when we first met her, but gradually seems to have warmed to the whole serial murder thing.

I'm not sure if this soured us to the next one. This one we waited till it was only $3/ticket. I'm guessing the next one won't have any political agenda, however.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Geek Jobs (bumped and updated)

Back when Computer Gaming World magazine was still in print, you'd occasionally get stories about how some flack was talking about how their new graphics engine was enhanced to give Lara Croft an especially realistic butt jiggle.

As a programmer, it always amazes me that some programmers get paid to, you know, program butt jiggle. Or breast jiggle. And, now: pubic hair.

Regarding this pubic hair, the first thing that occurred to me was: Well, now, actors gain and lose weight all the time, they dye and cut their hair or grow it out, was it really so hard to go without "grooming" for a few weeks to get a more "natural" look?

Then I read the part of the article where it mentions "brazilians" and wondered exactly how close up (and on what body parts) this movie was gonna get.

Then it occurred to me that a computer programmer probably wrote a "pubic hair" routine that's going to be used.

And it struck me what an odd world we live in.

I was also reminded of something Ralph Bakshi said about when he was animating his adult features. To paraphrase, he said that it was nearly impossible to get animators who could do nudity. They would either be too timid, prudish or giggling—or they'd be heavy breathing and too worked up to draw.

Fortunately, programmers mainly have to type.

Update: See what I mean?

Real Or Fake Movies?

I got eight out of the ten movies in this cute quiz right.

Tragically, I've only seen one of the movies.

In the boardroom of human expression, several would-be clichés are tested out.

Winner: When you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me".

Runner-up (socialists only): When you consume, you make "cons" out of "u" and "me".

Winner: There is no "I" in "team".

Runner-up: "Team" is made of "meat".

Winner: Whether you think you can, or you think you can't: you're right.

Runner-up: Whether you think you can, or you think you can't: Management will stop you.

Winner: Think outside the box.

Runner-up: Don't you love the wallpaper in here?

Winner: At the end of the day...

Runner-up: At the end of the lunch break...

(I started—and stopped—this a year-and-a-half ago. No idea why I thought it would be good to post now.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Maid

I never feel so quintessentially American as when the topic of "help" comes up. The whole concept of hired live-in help feels wrong to me, at least as a separate class. I'm not even all that comfortable with hiring someone to come in to clean the house.

At least, I think that's American. Maybe it's Western. In any event, it's very me.

And this newish Chilean import La Nana (The Maid) brings up all the uncomfortable-ness and throws it into sharp relief.

Catalina Saavedra plays Raquel, who's been in service to a family for over 20 years, cleaning the house and raising the children. Also, she seems to be increasingly recalcitrant, though we're not entirely positive of this since we don't see any past stuff. Maybe she was always way?

When the story opens, we see the family throwing a birthday party for Raquel, which she doesn't want to attend. But the oldest boy (Lucas) drags her in and she shares in the cake. But the awkwardness is palpable. The father (Mundo) excuses himself to go work (build a model ship), and Raquel barely tastes the cake before deciding she should do the dishes. The mother (Pilar) tries to insist that she not do them now but she points out that she'd only have to do them later.

The catalyst that moves the story along is a condition that causes Raquel to have bad headaches, and to occasionally swoon. Pilar has been toying with the idea of getting help for Raquel, because the house is so big anyway—an idea that Raquel hates—and soon there's a new maid helping out.

Along the way, we discover all the strange family dynamics that Raquel is in the middle of. Though interestingly, most of the strangeness seems to emanate from Raquel herself.

I never really knew how this movie was going to play out. It's supposed to be a "black comedy" but I don't get why, really. It's not a comedy at all, from what I experienced, but a quirky drama. It's got funny parts, most of which stem from this awkward intimacy—the covert ways that Raquel makes her displeasure known and gets her way against the wishes of the rest of the family.

I liked it. It's a bit slow, but it's also curiously upbeat, and you do come to have a strange affection for the character. I'm not sure if there's something uniquely Chilean that makes it resonate particularly for them; I'd just call it an interesting little movie.

The Boy liked it as well, but he didn't think it was very funny and a little slow.

Monday, November 9, 2009

So Many Chemicals, So Little Time

One of my favorite quacks—and I use that term affectionately is a lady named Hulda Clark. She has a theory that all diseases are the result of chemicals and parasites (using the term "parasites" to mean any bacteria, virus, fungus or actual worm). More specifically, that what goes wrong is that modern chemicals interact with parasites and cause them to go through their life cycles in "the wrong place".

So, while your body may be able to handle Ascaris going through your intestines, if it gets into your liver and interacts with propyl alcohol, bang, you get cancer. I may have that muddled. But the basic idea is there: wrong organism, wrong place, wrong chemical — disease.

Of course, the only thing more common than propyl alcohol is Ascaris, so it's hard to get clean. However, I met many people whom she had cured of "terminal" cancer when I went to her clinic. (Not just cancer, either. And whatever her motivations are, greed does not seem to be among them.)

I thought of her fondly while reading this Pop Sci article on chemicals. We carry around, literally, thousands of different chemicals, largely unknown both in terms of how they affect us singly and how they interact with each other. That's before we get around to medicating ourselves.

There are a few mentalities that I find interesting, which that tiny webspace illustrates. First, there's the idea that "this it the new normal", according to a scientist in D.C. Keep that in mind: It doesn't really matter if these chemicals are going to kill you, don't expect anyone to acknowledge anything too challenging. (And getting rid of these chemicals would be very challenging indeed.)

Second, there's the idea that "we're living longer so we must be doing something right". Well, not really: What if shortened life spans in previous centuries had to do with cosmic rays? I'm just pulling that out of thin air, but it shared thin-airspace with "we must be doing something right".

Third, there's the comment that, well, whatever the issue is, it's too trivial to waste time on. It's only a few extra sick kids after all—this idea is based on the example of leukemia used by the article's author—and we'd do better to use that money for helping kids presumably not killed by exposure to chemicals. (Interestingly, the name on the comment is "Shannon Love". ChicagoBoyz' Shannon Love spurred a very early post. Dunno if it's the same one.)

There's a certain class of people who absolutely hate "quacks", where "quack" is defined as anyone who doesn't conform to the current conventional medical wisdom. On the other hand, I consider Ignaz Semmelweiss sort of the patron saint of this blog.

Clark is an interesting person. Very nerdy. Into research. I would have liked to question her on certain things about her philosophy (in which I see certain apparent contradictions). But to me the question of "does it work" is junior to the question "why does it work?"

And since I used her "zapper"—a device that cycles a low level current at various frequencies through your body to kill these parasites—to quickly knock out some debilitating allergies that had been plaguing me for years, I'm less inclined to worry about those contradictions. She could be completely wrong, but I still can breathe.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Today Is Not That Day, Part 6: Bonus Deluxe Edition

For those of you who haven't followed this blog for a long time, this post may be your introduction to "Today Is Not That Day". T.I.N.T.D. is a theory I have that one day I will say to myself, "Gee, I wish I sent my kids to school."

Maybe it'll be when Oprah visits the local middle school, or the President issues an executive order for homeschoolers to be round up and shot. Who knows? Until then, there a lot of reasons why Today Is Not That Day.

13% of the girls in this high school are pregnant. I love the reportage, too: "Some would say that movies, TV, videogames, lazy parents and lax discipline may all be to blame." Apparently, the notion that the place they spend eight hours a day might have something to do with it is so absurd, "some" wouldn't even say it! I'm not sure, but I think this is the school that is going to open a nursery across the street.

But it's the dances, and the sweet, romantic gang-rapes that homeschooled kids miss out on the most. (Actually, there are homeschool dances; after dance rapes, not so much.) Sometimes I think kids would be safer in an actual prison.

It's not all lax discipline, though. There's always zero tolerance to the rescue! Saving our beleaguered bureaucrats from having to think. It's so much easier to expel kids, you know: Just to be safe. (And slavish adherence to stupid rules is way more prevalent than rape, and probably more pervasively damaging to an institution that purports to educate.)

Finally, here's a funny and interesting 20 minute lecture by Sir Ken Robinson about schools and the stifling of creativity. I don't agree with everything he says, but the basic principle—that schools were meant to encourage one way of thinking and only on limited topics—I think is undeniable. (Thank God for teachers who are smarter than that, but the institution itself is designed to create workers for tomorrow's industrial economy. If "tomorrow" is ca. 1859.)

So, until the next day that is not that day: Question authority!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Conversations From Somone Else's Living Room: Enforcing Household Dogma

"Mom, we hate the Yankees."
"They buy their World Series wins."
"But I don't hate this Yankees team."
"We hate them all."

(Reprinted with permission. You can guess which regular's living room this took place in.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Serious Man

I never miss a Coen brothers movie. Which isn't to say that my reaction to them all is the same. Besides not provoking the same reactions at the time, often the reactions change over time and repeated viewings.

Befuddled bemusement, for example, followed The Big Lebowski. But over repeated viewings it has become one of my favorite movies of all time. No Country For Old Men also took multiple viewings to fully figure out, though for entirely different reasons. O Brother! Where Art Thou? was enchanting and remains so. Even Blood Simple was sort of amazing, resurrecting these long-out-of-fashion zooms and giving us a plot that the lead character ultimately didn't understand.

I've maintained that the Coen's have different styles of films, which sort of forces my hand with this one: Where does it fit? Comedy? Tragedy? Comedy of the darker sort?

I'll be damned if I know.

I laughed. A lot. At the same time, the entire film is remarkably poignant and—well, it's a sort of modern retelling of the Book of Job—or maybe a preface to Job?—set in the Midwest in the '60s. (1965-1967, given the appearance of "F-Troop".)

Our hero is Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor who's up for tenure. He's got a series of minor nuisances—a disgruntled student, snotty kids, and a loser uncle who makes home life difficult. And as we watch, Larry's life goes slowly to hell.

Larry's a decent sort. He's passionate about the physics he teaches, and about the math behind the physics, although as a wise man once said, there are no answers there. (Something Larry himself must face as he tries to find reasons for his worsening predicament.)

The Coens are always lauded for cleverness, but often also labeled as "cold". I don't agree, necessarily, but I see the point. This movie probably remind me most, at least superficially, of The Man Who Wasn't There. Except that where Billy Bob Thornton's barber character was metaphorically non-existent and challenging to care about, Larry seems to be strongly guided by a desire to do the right thing.

Where Thornton barber's misfortunes might evoke a sort of wry smile that tweaks your sense of injustice, you just really wish Larry could catch a break. And it's quite a roller-coaster ride. You don't get any easy answers. In fact, the final scenes suggest you may have had the wrong questions all along.

In the telling, of course, you have amazing camerawork by the amazing Roger Deakins. The palette for the movie is the gawdawful, drab '60s avocado greens and mustard yellows, and the whole thing strongly evokes the faded, crappy Kodachrome you'd see on all those late-night movies-till-dawn programs ca. 1980.

But wow. Amazing stuff. Every shot communicates. It'd be worth seeing again just to see what the various angles and compositions were saying. And then again to try to figure out how all those ugly colors and styles make such an aesthetically pleasing movie.

The Gopnik family itself seems both vaguely familiar and not immediately identifiable, actor Michel Stuhlbarg (Larry) has been a few things, but for the actors playing his wife, daughter and son, this their first roles.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is a sort of "Who's Jew": Richard Kind as poor uncle Arthur, George Wyner, Adam Arkin, Michael Lerner, even Fyvush Finkel as a dybbuk (maybe).

Yes, about that dybbuk. The movie opens with a story about a man who's helped during a snowstorm by a beloved rabbi. Which would be a blessing, if the rabbi hadn't died years ago. Because the rabbi did, in fact the man has invited a dybbuk into his home. Which is quite a curse.

But did the rabbi die? Is it really a dybbuk? The ambiguity there may, in fact, be the key to the whole movie. What are blessings and what are curses? Is it always known?

I liked the movie more and more as it went on, I think for its peculiar empathy. Even when Larry does something wrong, you feel for him. There's no judgment there. He's human. And it has stayed with me all week.

I started thinking as I left that this may be the best movie of the year, better than my previous champ The Brothers Bloom. I can't see it getting the attention No Country did: There's a strong spiritual undercurrent, about Man's relationship to God, and as dark as it is, there's something life-affirming about it, where Hollywood seems to prefer nihilism.

The Boy liked it very much, though he missed a lot of the Biblical imagery. He was puzzling out the meaning of the dybbuk though, after I had sort of forgotten it.

I wouldn't call it a dark comedy, though. As a lover of dark comedies, this felt entirely different to me—perhaps way too much reality. I don't know. But I'd recommend it on a lot of different levels.

Crash Blossom's Revenge

"Oh, look, it's a kid's free day at the zoo!"
"What a great idea! Now we can enjoy the zoo without all those little brats running around screaming!"
"Oh, it means kids get in free, doesn't it."
"That's good, too."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tickling Leo

If there's one thing that movies have taught me, one secret mystery that has been revealed to me, over and over through celluloid magic, it's this:

Genocide is bad.

Time-and-again, Hollywood's superior moral compass steers away from life's most treacherous pitfalls. Just the other day, I was thinking of wiping out the Ainu but I remembered some important (if sometimes confusing) lessons recent movies had taught me.

"But Blake!" you cry, "What about Reds and Che and all those movies celebrating revolution that resulted in, or even immediately involved mass murder!"

"Well, that's democide," I reply smugly. "The jury's still out on democide. No consensus there."

"But genocide was also a big part of the Soviet regime, too!"

"Shut up," I explain.

I digress. And exaggerate. Because today's movie, Tickling Leo, is really a low-budget effort without much of Hollywood about it. It's the story of Zak Pikler, who goes with his girlfriend Delphina to visit his estranged father upon hearing that he's not quite right. Upon arriving, he finds out that his father is not well. In fact, he's losing his mind.

Sure, we've seen it before. A lot. But have we seen it with WWII-surviving Jews? (Actually, I sort of think we have.)

Anyway, while Zak is estranged from his father Warren, Warren is, in turn estranged from his father Emil (Eli Wallach at 94, folks). As it turns out, Emil had to make a hard choice during WWII that Warren never understood, and Warren carried this anger through by renouncing his faith and not raising his son in the church—and further excoriating his non-Jewish wife when she tries to expose him to a little of it.

Delphina obviously has a passing interest in resolving this conflict, though there's not a whole lot she can do, other than insisting Zak act like a civil human being.

I asked the boy afterward what he thought and he said:

"It was a very good example of its genre."
"What did you think its genre was?"

But, in fact, it's not a depressing movie, which is quite a feat, given the subject matter. Movies like this—I mean both Alzheimer's movies and Holocaust movies—can tend to wallow. (Helloooo, The Notebook!)

It's traditional film-making for the most part. Not a lot of shaky-cam. A few scenes are too darkly lit for what appears to budgetary reasons rather than artistic ones. But overall, the solid acting and writing makes for something that doesn't feel uncomfortably low budget.

And it manages to weave a thread of optimism in it, which I tend to favor.

Still, it's a niche.

Intriguingly enough, our next movie would also be steeped in Jewish-themed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Burn Dem Bunnies

To show what a terrible person I am, I'm highlighting this story of burning bunnies: here. And confessing, it makes me giggle.

To understand why I think it's funny, you'd have to be in my head. But if I can, I'll draw a picture.

It's also the juxtaposition of something that's presented in such a horrible way (burning bunnies?) but is actually so ridiculous as to be suspect. I mean, really, how much fuel can you get from bunnies? I know Sweden's a low-population country, but it's also a damn cold one. You'd probably have to burn ten bunnies an hour just to stave off hypothermia.

Now, if you read the article, there's a distinct scolding going on there at well. The photo caption, for example, reads "Many of the bunnies used for biofuel were once pets, a pest control worker said."

Ahhh, now we get to the meat of it. As it were.

This is somebody official obliquely scolding people for abandoning pets by threatening them with a horrible death. (You have to kill animals if you care about them, apparently.) Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd seriously challenge whether the investment of energy used in hunting, shooting, skinning/gutting/whatever, rendering the fat, turning the fat to bio-diesel can be recouped significantly by said diesel.

But some of you more science-minded guys can put me some knowledge here if I'm wrong.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Paranormal Activity: Return of the Old, Dark House

The Boy and I snuck in a Saturday Matinee in the hopes of seeing Paranormal Activity while avoiding—well, let's be honest, the public, who can't really be trusted to shut up and actually watch a movie these days. Particularly, since one of our last horror outings (The Orphan) had taken place in a theater full of rowdy teenagers, we'd hoped an early Saturday show would be mostly empty.

It wasn't, unfortunately. But the audience was quiet, leading me to suspect that alcohol plays a factor in teen jerkiness, maybe more than the teen part even.

This movie, the brain child of writer/director/former video game programmer Oren Peli is actually nothing more than a classic Old, Dark House story. Which means, seriously, a bad audience will ruin it for you.

This movie has one of the slowest buildups for a horror movie I've seen in a long time. Well, for a good horror movie. The movie is absent any gore whatsoever—you've seen worse on "Law and Order". The horrors, very literally, are bumps in the night.

Actually, those are some of the more overt horrors. A couple of others are a door that moves about six inches, and one of the characters just standing there.

You get the idea. It's all in the telling. Oh! And sleepwalking! I haven't seen sleepwalking used to be scary since, what, 1943's I Walked With A Zombie?

The story is that Katie and Micah have been living together with a bit of poltergeist phenomenon. It's been getting worse and rattling Katie, so she calls in a psychic. In this interview, we come to understand the Katie's been having this problem most of her life. The psychic decides that it's not your average restless spirit, but a demon, and he doesn't do demons. Call the local demonologist.

Against this backdrop, the glib, cocky Micah goes through a number of changes. Katie, of course, believes and is very respectful of her demon while Micah goes from thinking on the one hand that it's all silly and psychics are worthless, to being excited about the prospect of catching interesting film footage and actually stirring stuff up.

And while this is all hand-held video, for good stretches the camera is mounted, meaning much less of the shakes.

It's actually got a very real feel to it, much more so than Blair Witch, and if Zombieland is a sort of low budget, the budget for this movie is said to be eleven thousand dollars. Most of the chills are ghost-story type things, such as a door opening slightly or a sheet billowing, but there are some interesting footfalls and a bit of special effects at the ending, too. It's all lightly done, though.

Adding to it is that Micah and Kate (the actors' real names) have a very real look to them. Kate is "Hollywood fat" which is to say, not fat at all, but probably fifteen to twenty pounds heavier than they'll let her be if she's in anything else. (Remember how skinny Heather Donahue got after "Witch". Scarier than the movie.)

Anyway, rather realistically and conveniently, her boyfriend tends to leer a bit when he's got the camera on her. A little less realistically is that she wears bras to bed. (I guess not unheard of, but it reminded me a bit of Megan McCain's just lying around the house picture.) A couple of other things like that sort of caught my eye. (Like, why don't they change sides in bed? Well, the camera shots are better that way and it probably wouldn't make any difference story-wise. Still, that's what I would've done.)

But when you're picking nits at this level, you've got yourself a solid picture.

Couldn't figure out why it was rated R when it was over. I guess there was some swearing? (I don't usually notice.) But I'd guess it was more that that's what the filmmakers wanted. PG-13 would've been more than adequate. It had an "R" feel, though.

I like "house" movies; always have. But this is an especially good one.

The Boy was less impressed. You could say we were flipped on this and Zombieland. I liked the slow buildup, he thought it was too slow. Also, Zombieland is more lighthearted, whereas this movie gets more and more serious every passing scene, despite a lot of humor.

Nonetheless, not only were people quiet during this movie, most stayed quiet well after the final scene, not really sure if it was over. Even the people who decided it was over left quietly. Pretty amazing, really.