Monday, August 31, 2009

Penn and Teller on The Vatican

Wow, this was awful. Line up a bunch of anti-Catholics to talk about the evils of the Vatican? Sorry, guys, but that's bullshit. I say that as a never-been-Catholic, who has had more than a few historical beefs with The Church.

This was an awful, hacky one-sided hit-piece.

It started, as all these things do, with a long-winded list of the horrors committed over 2,000 years—well, it should be 1,600 years—which sure seem horrible. But then you realize it's over 2,000 years. Name an organization that's been around for that long that hasn't committed far worse.

Tough to think of many who've been around even a fraction as long. And, golly, the ones that have been around for any length of time? Most of them have done something awful, within the limits of their power.

Then, of course, there's child molestation. There are few crimes that are as devastating, and The Church has handled it badly, but part of their objection was that the current Pope (back in '60s) was part of the policy of covering up the crimes.

Well, duh. Was the Church supposed to adopt a policy of shouting this from the rooftops? The real sin, of course, was not taking the crimes seriously enough to remove the real risks. School systems across the country do the same thing, of course, but nobody seems to notice this.

Now, one could argue that the Church should be held to a higher standard, but this comes very close to Alinsky's Rule #4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." To blame the Chruch, I think, you should make a case that it was policy to approve of abuse.

Most of the rest is about hatin' on the Church for believing what it believes. For example, the idea that being gay is not a sin, while acting gay is, and using the defense "You're saying they can't act in their nature." Well, yeah.

See, that's what religions do. (Western religions, anyway.) They say, "Yes, it's in your nature to kill those who stand in your way, covet like mad, and put your reproductive apparatus wherever you think it might feel good, and we're telling you not to, because you're better than that, it pisses God off, and all that short-term stuff pales next to an eternity of bliss."

I never get this argument of "It's our nature." Is it not a serial killer's "nature" to kill? Does anyone accept the pedophile's argument that it's in his "nature" to molest? Obviously, what two consenting adults do isn't in the same league as rape and murder but, let's not forget that coveting women is also on the no-no list, and few would argue that that isn't part of male nature.

It's not difficult, people: The Church says non-reproductive sex is a forbidden. There's no way gay sex is going to be okay under this dogma. If you are gay, your particular cross to bear is not having the sex you want to have. And, actually, that's probably your cross to bear even if you're not gay, if fantasy is part of your sex life, or you might want to have sex with anyone other than your spouse, ever.

Then they get around to blaming the Church for AIDS in Africa. See, the Church forbids condoms. Therefore people are having unsafe sex and passing on AIDS to each other. Well, guys, the Church forbids having the sorts of sex that make sex unsafe in the first place. You'll have to explain to me why you think that a bunch of promiscuous dry-sex fans are going to ignore the Church on sex but follow religiously (heh) on condoms.

No sale, guys.

The constant refrain of "Times have changed! Get with the program!" is really just a cover for "You try to make me feel bad about something I want to do." Or "You make others I want to do something with feel bad about it." As judgmental as P&T are, you'd think they'd get less fired up about others who are quite possibly less judgmental than they are.

They even screw up what should have been a pretty good point when they bring on the blaspheming comic. An Italian satirist suggested the Pope was going to go to hell and be sodomized by vigorous gay devils. According to P&T, the Vatican threatened the woman with a liable lawsuit which carries a potential penalty of five years in jail. Bill Donahue says this is an outright lie. (He also froths over the language, which is kind of dopey.)

First, they laud this women like she's really doing something brave. I don't buy that: Italy is rife with anti-Catholic, anti-Vatican types, not all of whom are Communists. But I think when porn star Cicciolina got involved in government 30 years ago, it was safe to say that The Vatican had lost a lot of its supposed clout.

Next, they applaud her for saying that the Church is wrong for meddling with peoples' lives. For merely having opinions on things and getting them into the media, they are just like Islam. (I bullshit you not: This comparison is made.)

Libertarian much? I guess not: P&T champion free speech, but seem to object to it when it comes from religion.

Sadly, while they're usually pretty pro-human, they look at all these Catholic people in the world and say, "Except for you guys. You guys are stupid." Er, no, the Church is "pulling the wool over their eyes."

Penn and Teller always approach their subject with a bias—the kind of glib smugness that comes from knowing the dogma and apocrypha of the era—but this is typically tempered with an allowance for the bias and humor. Even the tax show, which was supposedly rather personal to them, had plenty of humor in it.

This one? Nary a laugh. It was scold from the first minute to the last. Having decided up front that the Church is responsible for the sins of the world (that they could prevent if only they changed everything they believed in), they close by saying maybe you shouldn't believe in a God whose representative on Earth would do all these horrible things (i.e., disagreeing with P&T).

A sad, hacky ending to an otherwise decent season.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Old Movie Review: Revenge of the Zombies

Zombies have been a scourge for untold eons, but as an untamed force—or a force only tamed in small quantities for the ends of the occasional witch doctor or mad scientists—they weren't a serious threat. Not until George Romero popularized zombie-ism-as-a-contagious-disease in Night of the Living Dead did they become a global threat, and even then it was a non-directed threat. Zombies on that scale "just happen".

After all, what possible force could be—what force would be—to try to harness the walking dead for their evil ends? Well, if you need to think about it, you might be on the wrong side. The answer, of course, is Nazis.

Nazis and zombies go together like peanut butter and sauerkraut. Maybe they're not a good idea, but once you mix them, you'll have the Devil's own time separating them again. (This year we have the Norwegian movie Død snø, for example.)

Recently I had an opportunity to view the earliest example I know of the Nazi/Zombie blend, the 1943 film Revenge of the Zombies. This genre—mad scientist raising the dead—was already getting stale in '43, being the subject of Abbot and Costello and ultimately Bowery Boys films. And this is not a noteworthy representative, generally speaking.

John Carradine plays the mad scientist in question. (He also has a role in the '70s Nazi/Zombie flick Shock Waves, surprisingly not as one of the zombies. And those are just the two N/Z John Carradine flicks I can think of off the top of my head.)

Gale Storm plays the secretary he's got his eyes on before his wife isn't even cold and walking above ground.

And that's about it for big names.

What sets this movie apart from others of the genre is that it takes place in the bayou. Back then, of course, zombies and voodoo were still married. (If not for the presence of the German voice over the wireless, the Nazis would hardly be players in this show. But they're needed for the extra menace factor.) But this movie is chock full of black people acting in ways black people aren't supposed to act.

Which is pretty much the highlight of the movie. The white people walk around all serious and stodgy, while the blacks get to be interesting, ominous—wacky, sure, but really the only part of the movie that grabs you. Mantan Moreland, probably best known as Birmingham Brown in the '40s Charlie Chan movies—also not a particularly PC series—is genuinely funny, no matter how minstrel-ly he may seem in modern times.

Anyway, this movie probably didn't get aired much in recent decades as a result. I'm not sure why it suddenly became okay, but I'm sure it didn't get play when I was a kid. (I would've seen it, guaranteed.) The director was a Hungarian who had made some good movies back home, but never quite got his mojo back in English, though he did ultimately direct the sci-fi icon Day of the Triffids.

This isn't a movie you really recommend. You know from this description whether or not you want to see it, I'm sure. Semi-comically, I pulled this off the MGM "high definition" channel. The HD channels are kind of a joke. They charge you "merely" $5 for them, and then they're full of non-HD programming, commercials (Universal HD, grumble) and the like. But MGMHD also has a lot of good movies, darnit. And interesting ones like this and It! The Terror From Beyond Space!

That movie, by the way, being the inspiration for Alien according to movie guru Ed Naha. I'll report back once I've seen it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Geraldo On Hispanics

Raker of Muck Geraldo (nee Gerald Michael Rivera) has a book talking about how cool Hispanics are, in a brave attempt to fight against Latino stereotypes. And while Gutfeld was interviewing him about it on "Red Eye" (politely not locking horns over the assumption that GOP resistance to Hispanic immigration was due to anti-Hispanic sentiment versus simple legality) and he was waxing poetic on how Latinos were going to save the country—I guess through providing support to the bankrupt Social Security system—and talking about the stereotypes of them as "wall jumpers" and other ideas you'd get about them from watching the news media (of which he is a well-established part), and also how they'd ultimately come to be accepted like any other immigrants (European Jews, Irish, etc.), I just kept thinking one thing:

Burrito. Taco taco. Burrito. Taco. Taco taco.

No, actually, what I thought was: Huh? I guess it comes from living in L.A., where Hispanics represent a plurality of the population. But do people really walk around with all these Hispanic stereotypes that need to be disabused? Was "The George Lopez Show" a real breakthrough in race-relations? If so, what does that make "Chico and the Man"?

I loved Jack Albertson.

I guess what I'm not getting is, is this the way race relations repairing happens? Each new ethnicity, or sub-niche of an ethnicity, or sub-niche of a sub-niche must tackle the stereotypes imposed upon their kind? Otherwise enlightened people, who have learned to treat blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans equally see an Australian Aboriginal and say, "But I'll bet those guys can't hold their liquor!"

I'm an open-borders guy in principle—in practice, I don't think you can mix that with unfettered government giveaways—but I hated the way the last so-called immigration debate was conducted. Even Penn & Teller just decided the anti-illegal-immigration side was all racism: That there was no valid objection based on rule of law, revolving door handling of criminals, drug trade or anything else.

Sort of like any objection to stimulus, bailouts, universal health care, or any other policy unpopular with the left.

I was glad to see "my" side lose that debate.

Not once in my readings did I come across any anti-Hispanic sentiment. Not. Once.

Is it out there? And is it behind some portion of the resistance to open borders? Yes and yes. But it's not the driving concern.

Why do I feel like all these people are constantly trying to cram modern situations into the terms of last century's debates?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Movie Review: Inglorius Basterds

The first thing to realize about any review I do of a Quentin Tarantino is that I'm not a Tarantino guy. The first QT movie I saw was Death Proof—and I was already in the theater for Planet Terror ("Grindhouse"). Then I saw Kill Bill. Wait, actually, I saw Sin City, and one of the segments in that he directed.

I avoided him for so long 'cause of the hype. It gets hard to really take a film for what it is when the hype machine precedes it. (I've never seen a Spike Lee film, either.) But I've yet to be particularly impressed by him.

Still, Jason (the commenter) remarked on it as "beautiful" and gave it four out of five stars. And I love the comic-book premise: A group of largely Jewish soldiers strike terror in the heart of the Nazis by committing atrocities upon them.

Yeah, the movie isn't really about that. Strike one against it there.

Is it beautiful? Yeah, actually: Something I've not noticed of his other films, but Basterds is blocked masterfully. A scene's "blocking" is the positioning of the actors in the scene, and some of the shots looked like QT and cinematographer graduated from the James Wong Howe school with honors. You don't get good blocking these days because directors do everything by jumping the camera. Anyway, visually, quite striking, though not quite up there with Coppola's Tetro.

But I had time to think about what it is I find lacking in the QT movies I've seen. Yeah. Lots of time to think. Lots of things to think about. Like, why is it that I'm completely uninvolved in a scene where the brilliant Christoph Waltz is playing one of the most heinous villains to ever grace a movie and is about to commit an atrocity?

I had more time to think about that in a later scene in a bar, where the same situation arises. Something horrible is going to happen. Yet I just didn't care.

I figured it out, sitting there: You know—or at least I know—almost exactly what's going to happen when the scene is set up.

I guess, in the first scene, it wasn't necessarily obvious. I can't tell you exactly why I knew how the scene was going to play out. I'm really not good at seeing twists and turns in movies—but this wasn't a twist. Everything had to play out more-or-less the way it played out.

But the bar scene? Well, look, Chekov said that if you showed the audience a gun in act one, that gun had better go off by act three. This scene was sort of like saying "Here's the gun I'm going to use to shoot the bad guy in the head with in act three." I mean, really, the character just come out and detail what's going to happen. When it happens, it's not just unsurprising, it's mostly just a relief that the story can finally move on. (Sort of like the 20 minute discussion of Vanishing Point in Death Proof, only this at least has something to do with something.)

Now, one of the issues may be a rather spare use of music. In fact, these scenes didn't have any, I don't think. The music that is used so incredibly self-conscious—the movie opens with a kind of comical '60s-'70s style war/caper movie theme, that is recapitulated at the end to a weirdly comic feel—that it can pull you out of the experience.

And the use of the Cat People song—I'm not making this up—has to be the worst and most awkward MTV-style music-video-in-a-film since Watchmen's Hallelujah sex scene. It's an otherwise beautiful scene, and it reminds me that a lot of modern film makers don't really have a good grasp on the use of traditional music scores.

At least I think a traditional score would've worked better there, and throughout the movie. This was...jarring.

The word "jarring" applies to a lot of this movie, or even "self-conscious". The second and third chapters, are interrupted by expository narration—just a sort of out-of-the-blue introduction to one of the Basterds, and a "hey, film is highly exploisve" bit. Also in the third chapter, there's a cutaway to a short shot of Goebbels having sex with his assistant, which is the first (but not last) time we get a cut-away. Later chapters actually include scrawled arrows with the names of high-ranking Nazis, just so you know that, well, that guy over there is Martin Bormann.

I guess that was supposed to be part of the fun? The whimsy? I found these, and other conspicuous techniques, repeatedly drew my attention out of the film and to the film-making process. (Hey, look at me! I'm making a movie!)

I've pointed out already that this movie isn't really about the titular Inglorius Basterds. It's not really The Great Escape or Kelly's Heroes or Stalag 17—or, hell, even "Hogan's Heroes"—where you get to know a bunch of macho characters as they do manly things. You meet these guys in the second chapter, and they come back half-way through the fourth chapter or so.

They're really supporting players. And so, while the (relatively) few scenes they're in are sort of brutally whimsical, that's not really what the movie is about. That might have been more fun as a movie.

Instead, the real story is about a young Jewish woman who escapes her family's horrible fate and then attracts the attention of a young Nazi war hero. This leads her to concoct a plot to kill a bunch of Nazis.

This story isn't as whimsical as it sounds, and not even hinted at in the trailer. Worse, it leads to another long scene with lots of dialog that should be suspenseful but manages to be completely free of any sort of involvement.

The ending is pretty satisfying. And I really wasn't too bored. So, as far as QT movies go, this one seemed less boring than the others.

Hey, I said I wasn't a Tarantino guy. At least one guy was so involved in the movie he answered his phone at the climactic scenes, and instead of leaving the theater actually proceeded to have a discussion standing at the door five feet from us. I mean, that's compelling: A phone call so important you have to take it, but a movie so compelling you'll risk your life by refusing to leave the theater, and standing right next to the guy brandishing the bowie knife, getting ready to carve a cell phone into your forehead.

Ha! Sorry, just engaging in some IB-style whimsy.

Anyway, the Boy thought it was over-hyped. He was bored and said, "It made me want to play Company of Heroes on the German side." He's not a QT guy either, apparently.

Movie Review: District 9

I was sort of dreading going to see District 9 due to the summer factor mentioned previously with Orphan. But sci-fi isn't the modern teen male proving ground that horror is, and it's also generally more consistently loud, so I figured we'd brave it.

Not a stretch to say that it's one of the best of the year. Interesting without that sort of self-important/self-conscious thought-provoking weightiness. It manages to walk the fine line between cynicism and nihilism, horror and dark comedy, and action-film with social commentary.

The premise (a la Alien Nation) is that a giant spaceship is hovering over Johannesburg. The ship is cracked open to discover a chaotic situation of aliens running around. The Prawns, as they're nicknamed, end up being set up in a Joburg ghetto, where much degeneracy ensues.

Into this mess goes a South African by the name of Wikus, whose boss, the MultiNational United corporation, is under tremendous pressure to relocate the aliens to a happy fun-time camp 200 miles away. (Although I'd say this was neither a "left" nor "right" movie, there really is no reason for the MNU. It could just as well have been a government agency. And, let's be honest: In any real situation, it would have been a government agency.)

Anyway, Wikus (pronounced like the plant, "Ficus") gets into some trouble while trying to evict people, and ends up slowly mutating into a Prawn.

I know people are saying this is really original, but it's almost hackery, isn't it? Haven't there been a dozen Star Trek episodes over various series that have done this? Isn't it essentially Logan's Run? Dances with Wolves? The premise of being forced to walk in your enemy's mocassins, as it were. The one original story in The Twilight Zone Movie, and the one that seemed the tritest, perhaps not coincidentally.

No matter: This works because it is done expertly. The acting is excellent, and the transformation that Wikus goes through is really nuanced and interesting. He's not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's cheerful and people seem to like him. So it's jarring to see him do some of the things he does early on in the Prawn camp. We alternate between liking him and not liking him, throughout the movie.

Said movie being almost non-stop suspense. You never know who, if anyone, is going to survive. You don't know when they're gonna get it. The movie does come down to two central characters, but death is imminent for both throughout most of the movie—and they manage to get you to care, which is the chief bugaboo of action films.

There were half-a-dozen places the movie might've ended before it did. And things did get a little dodgy in the end, just from a practicality standpoint. However—and this is a credit to the story—I found myself engaging in apologetics to a degree. I could see how certain things that seemed far-fetched could happen, given other things that had been set up. (I don't want to be specific, lest I spoil things.)

The camerawork is largely shakycam, though not as bad as, say, Rachel Getting Married or Cloverfield. Since it's actually part documentary (in the film), I think it would've been more effective to go to a steadycam during the non-documentary scenes, but I didn't really notice that much.

I've pointed out that the acting is good, and the effects are just right. The only time I felt like yelling out "CGI!" was with a young Prawn—and of course that would be difficult to do well. The ending is just right, too. You're on the edge of the seat and you actually feel like you won't mind the (inevitable) sequel.

The Boy gives his thumbs up.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I Build A DVR

I get into things. I don't mean I get into things, but I get into things. Like, I hate the Department of Water and Power. They provide plenty of service, but I always feel like I'm being overcharged, and it bugs the crap out of me that I can't go anywhere else. (If I could go somewhere else, I'd switch and then start hating my new provider.)

My things usually involve feeling coerced into something, like having to buy something from one source when there's no good technological reason for it.

Like DVRs.

We all made it through the '80s and '90s with VCRs. It wasn't such a big deal: You selected your device—made by any one of dozens of manufacturers, with the features you wanted, from your desired price range—and you hooked it up to your TV. Voila! You could record whatever you wanted.

Of course, the content creators hated that, and challenged the entire concept. The Supreme Court decided otherwise in the Betamax case. As result of losing that case, entertainment moguls made billions of dollars by selling videos in the new market.

They've never forgiven the world that injustice.

In the case of the DVR, whose function is identical to the VCR, they've colluded with the distribution companies (cable, satellite, etc.) to make sure that that doesn't happen again. The battle was never really quit, of course. As soon as the TV makers sought to spare the consumer the presence of that big, ugly cable box by adding upper channels capacity to their TV, the cable companies moved the channels further up out of their range.

Then they just started scrambling everything, paid or free.

That wasn't enough, though. You had to have the box, pretty much, but on top of that, they wanted to make sure that you couldn't do anything with it. Congress even passed a law saying that cable companies had to provide a functional firewire port on their boxes for control and capture; but cable companies put the port on there—but in defiance of the law, they don't bother to make it work.

I don't want to pay the cable company an extra $15 a month. Or $10. Or even $5.

You can tell this is a thing with me, right?

Instead I bought some hardware and built myself a MythTV machine. The first thing that should be apparent from that is that money was not the issue. Even at 20 bucks a month, it takes a long time to make up the cost of a machine that has the oomph you want.

That's not counting the trouble. Although some installations are very smooth, especially with things like KnoppMyth and MythBuntu, there are a lot of issues.

Most of the issues, not surprisingly, revolve the aforementioned content guys—creators (like movie studios) and providers (like cable companies)—working overtime to make sure that you can't do any of the cool stuff you want. For example, it can be difficult to play—just play!—a DVD.

I've noticed kids' DVDs have the most vicious security, and you can see the hard work these guys put into making sure you can't play the DVD you just paid for by things like Vista downgrading your Blu-Ray discs. Remember that? And the Sony rootkit fiasco? I may be crazy, but I think when an industry's priority is stopping copyright infringement over providing paying customers with the experience they paid for, I think there's trouble.

The dumb thing being that, if you're inclined to cheat, you could just download all this stuff from the Internet. I find it to be bothersome to get an identical copy of what I've purchased off the 'net, but I'd hardly feel guilty for downloading something I already own. It's a lot of work that messes up paying customers.

They're not smart enough to look at the music industry and realize music's not going away because everything is digital. All it will take is an MP3 format for video—i.e., something that's easily exchanged and sufficient quality—and the party's over.

Anyway, I make perfectly legal personal-use copies to protect my original discs (most of which are actually badly damaged, but that's another story). And my DVR lets me store those and play those, which is something I can't do with a store bought machine. And given how fragile DVDs are (Nearly indestructible! the hype claimed), having all the kids' movies ripped and on a hard-drive is the only sensible thing to do.

There are a lot of cool things MythTV can do that your cable company's DVR can't. I won't bore you with the details now (I like to spread my boring stuff out), but one of the coolest things is that, if you run out of space, you can just add a cheap USB drive. I have 2.25TB on my drive.

The most interesting thing—and if you've had a DVR for years, you may have encountered this—is that everyone watches less TV. We record everything, but we watch very selectively. Also, there's none of that "Oh, we're waiting to watch..."

Also, with the forty of us living here and sharing one TV, it's much easier to apportion out the time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 23: Bad Taste Theater Presents....

[watching "Red Eye"'s story on Michael Vick shirts]
"I don't want a Michael Vick jersey."
"Oh, wait, they have them for kids!"
"They have them for dogs!!!!"
"We should totally get Michael Vick shirts for the dogs."
"We should totally get Michael Vick shirts for the cats."

Friday, August 21, 2009

More On The Theory: Obama Is Stupid And Lazy

You know, I actually have a hard time writing that the President is stupid and lazy. I really do. Which isn't, I suppose, very American. Washington used to get all kinds of crap and if Washington did—well, that sets the tone, doesn't it? Americans are not worshipful toward the Commander-In-Chief.

I thought it was overdone during W's reign: Even now, W's trips to Crawford are regarded as signs of his laziness, even though he worked while there. (Republican time away from office is always an issue to partisans, which to me makes no sense: If you don't like the guy, the more time he takes from office the better, right?)

And stupid? Fuhgeddaboudit. That's axiomatic, right?

I think that all politicians tend toward stupidity. Groupthink is pretty much the enemy of intelligence. And the way politicians seem to get elected these days is to be the head groupthinker, and to march along to some fixed idea.

Laziness, though, I think is a rarer quality. Campaigning is hard. Most politicians—the current President excluded—have to campaign hard for decades to get anywhere. And usually they have to bust their asses to make a mark that gets them noticed. Again, current President excluded. He's gone right to the lazy part that most politicians put off until they've secured their perpetual re-elections.

My question for you, blog readers, is this: Right now I'm tops for the phrase "Obama is stupid and lazy" in Google, if you quote it, and third if you don't quote it (and the sites above me don't actually talk about Obama). And I think it's an interesting and fitting topic that could really take off, but after hearing it for eight years, it might also be tiring.

So, I leave it to you. Should I run with this?

Should I, for example, point out that in the wake of extreme unpopularity over health care, Obama's handling for this was apparently to encourage people to fink on their neighbors—and then spam them? How stupid is that? "Everyone loves spam! Let's send out unsolicited e-mails to people who hate us!"

Or that Obama has put his brand on this bill, HR 3200? "My plan" he calls it. The lazy part being he had nothing to do with writing it, hasn't read it, doesn't seem to know what's in it, and has never bothered to formulate a principled theory on which nationalized health care might work in the USA, despite failing everywhere else in the world. (Maybe the French health care system isn't a failure, but it seems to have dragged the entire rest of their country down.) The stupid part being that when this mofo goes down, it's going to have his brand on it?

This constant self-contradictory pose? At first I thought this wasn't either stupid or lazy, just desperate politicking from a guy whose previous stupidity and laziness has boxed him into a corner, but it goes back to not doing the leg work to handle people's objections because in the past, you've been able to smile your way out of situations. It's the laziness of a guy who knows how to do one thing, and will keep doing it no matter how stupid.

But again, I wouldn't want to bore everyone. I don't think I'd ever post more than one of these month—no matter how much ammo the guy throws at my feet. And I'll try to be more creative than the Bush bashers were. (Although that would've been an interesting study: Examining the ways in which W really was stupid versus the hacky policy disagreements that make all Republican politicians stupid in the eyes of their enemies.)

And we can have an interesting discussion on whether something is stupid or not. Like, is it stupid to not prosecute the Black Panthers who were intimidating voters at the polls? I would say it is: I think it comes from a belief that America—I mean, the good part of America—agrees with the notion that only right-minded people should be allowed to vote.

My theory is that the votes gained—which he didn't need anyway, hello Watergate-level-stupidity—are going to be substantially fewer than those lost. There are plenty of liberals who still hold non-statist, civil libertarian values who would vote against a candidate who ignores this on principle.

Well, you see what I mean? There's just so much material. My goal would be to be as apolitical as possible: That is, BHO and his pals want socialized medicine (yeah, I know they're denying that in various ways, but that's because they can't get it as long as it's called socialized medicine) and while I disagree, this isn't about political disagreements.

It's about how BHO's stupidity and laziness—characteristics which we all share from time-to-time—thwart his attempts to reach his political goals. Think of it as an extended "Fat Albert" episode, where we all learn a little lesson at the end.

But as I said, I'll leave it to you guys.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

If You Let Me Play Sports

Back in the heady days of the '90s, Nike used to run an ad with a bunch of girls saying "If you let me play sports...." Followed by all these marvelous things that would happen. You know, "If you let me play sports, I'm 40% less likely to be depressed." Or "If you let me play sports, I won't leave you unconscious in a hotel bathtub full of ice missing your kidneys."

Of course, I sat there weeping saying, "OK! I'll let you play sports!!"

On the other hand, I thought Tatum O'Neal had resolved all that.

Anyway, in the murky mists of genetic pasts, insofar as they're known, The Flower's great-grandparents were athletic. Semi-pro ball players, a great-great grandparent who bicycled across the country and wrestled into his 60s, that sort of thing. But somehow, none of the grandparents were athletic. To say nothing of the parents.

The Flower is not particularly athletic. As much as I puff up about her skills, I realize that she isn't one of these kids that is just a natural. They pick a ball and can dribble, kick it soccer-style, run with it, throw it—whatever. And that's not The Flower.

Kind of interesting, since she started out fairly athletic. We did the IAHP program for her and she excelled, but more pressing matters took precedent and a lot of physical excellence diminished.

But—and I guess this isn't surprising from an IAHP point-of-view—since she started playing sports, she's gotten more physically excellent. Until now, she's managed to do well by listening to her coaches and following their advice. But she's gotten more confident, surer of foot, and I can generally see this change into "a naturally athletic person". That is, I can see someone ten years from now thinking she is "naturally gifted," with its implication that something was given rather than earned.

In her current season of basketball, she can't do the Wall of Flowers, because they're playing on a smaller court and the rules prohibit her from playing defense mid-court. I thought this might be a setback for her, but no: She's come up with an equally effective defensive strategy.

To wit: She's noticed that most teams have one really strong player/scorer that the rest of the team relies on. The strategy at this level is Pass to Johnny (well, Juan) and he shoots. She figures out who that player is and shuts them down. While she's on, the other team has a hard time scoring. If she's not (she actually missed one game so she could visit her cousins), her team takes a beating.

What's particularly nice, though is that she's seeing her hard work pay off, and it's paying off fast enough that I'm less worried she might be boxed out of sports as they get more competitive.

She continues to pursue her other interests opportunistically. The other day she put together a Banker's box and the hard part was getting Grandpa to not direct her...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Poker Night

"What if you have powers of 2?"
"You know: 2, 4, 8..."
"Oh, you totally win if you finish that with a 16 and 32."
"Can I borrow a Sharpie?"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Phrases That Should Never Begin Movie Synopses, Part V

A British professor, a playboy and a rich woman in pink pants...

(1960, The Lost World: The rich woman in pink pants—assuming they're not all in pink pants—is Jill St. John.)

In The Loop

I'm seriously inclined to begin this review with a political screed. This movie carefully avoids any direct connection to actual events, however, so I suppose I should, too.

The story concerns a young new aide to the British Minister of State. The minister has just put his foot in it by saying that "war is unforeseeable". And then, trying to fix things, follows up with something like "to walk the road of peace you must sometimes climb the mountain of conflict."

This is a dry, wry and cutting movie, with quite a few laughs as the government of two nations (the UK and the USA) are shown to run by cowardly, self-involved incompetents who play petty games with each other and who generally put their goals ahead of what those goals might result in.

There's a great cast, including Torchwood's Peter Capaldi as a vicious agent of—well, I'm never actually sure who he worked for, Tom Hollander (who antagonized Keira Knightly in both Pride and Prejudice and The Pirates of the Caribbean) as the self-involved but ultimately well-meaning minister, MirrorMask's Gina McKee as his assistant, and writer/actor Chris Addison as the young, new assistant. (He's 37, but he doesn't look it.) The great Steve Coogan (recently in the Night at the Museum sequel) has a part, too.

The first 20 minutes of this movie may be hard for you to understand. If, like me, it takes you about that long to be able to adapt to a mishmash of English and Scottish accents—the latter being both thick, and fast with some of the cutest swearing you'll ever hear. It's nasty, don't get me wrong, but I can't help but smile when I hear "fook" and "shite" and "koont". I would've gotten a lot more out of it they'd chosen a clearer sound: It's all very organic, having people talking over each other; talking over each other with thick accents and a kind of muddiness makes things hard to parse.

The Americans are easier to understand. (For me, that is. You native English and Scots may have a hard time with them. But fook you.) They include Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini as the ultra-violent anti-war general and Mimi Kennedy, who's probably best known as Dharma's mom. (I kept thinking it was Alison LaPlaca and that she looked really old, but for Mimi Kennedy she was looking pretty young.) David Rasche, whose breakthrough was the short-lived "Sledge Hammer!" TV series, has happily managed to break that "type", playing a hard-nosed (right-wing?) clean-mouthed politico.

The jokes, the sarcasm, the verbal irony and scathing wit fly fast and furious. And when you can catch it, it's pretty dang funny. The cinéma vérité isn't overdone, and it's not boring.

And yet, it falls short of being great satire. It starts as appropriately harsh condemnation of political figures, but by the third act, dramatic irony is sacrificed on the altar of an earnest condemnation of that classic demon, rushing to war with bad intelligence. The bad guys—as they are clearly defined by this time—are just all-fired hot to have themselves a war, and completely willing to subvert an intelligence report to get one.

Why? Who knows? Who cares? Just run with it. Just fill in Evil W and Dick Cheney and their lapdog Blair and an entertaining satire gets bogged down in its own attempt to be significant. This pissed me off because it's one of the stupider shibboleths of the left about Iraq: Yet that had to be the longest rush to war in modern times, with the topic under debate for over a decade.

That might bug you a lot less than it does me, but there's really nothing else to hang on to. You could say they weren't being specific so as to not make a political point, and then you're left with a bad drama where the bad guys are so bad they'll blatantly commit serious crimes—right out in the open!—for the sole purpose of starting a war. We don't even get a nod to Stupid-Evil Economic Theory (see Gary Oldman's "broken windows" speech in The Fifth Element).

Just random evil for the sake of random evil. Aided by a whole lot of feckless sorta-good. Satire becomes cynicism. Just to put this in perspective, imagine Network if the network killed Howard Beale for no reason. Or Very Bad Things if the "heroes" had just gone on a killing spree. Harold and Maude if Harold killed Maude, or The Ladykillers without the heist.

Epic black comedy fail. Assuming that was the intention of course. A really good black comedy—and one with the ring of truth—would have had the two sides switching by the end of the movie on the basis of some sort of election or polling result.

The Boy liked it, though he had an even harder time making out the dialogue than I did. Plus, there were references to "old stuff" I know he missed.

Recommend it? Depends on how much you agree with or are annoyed by implicit reinforcements of anti-war dogma—I mean, it's not like we'll ever see a movie about The Rush To Healthcare or The Rush To Cap-and-Trade—and whether you're good at parsing out thick accents all talking at once.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 22: OK, Now Mime Being Dead

[When I come out, The Flower is miming. Nobody knows why she does this or how she learned all the mime tropes, but some days she just wakes up and has to mime everything, as well as do the "trapped in a box", "walking in the wind", and so on.

The Barbarian, naturally, finds this irritating and is ordering her to stop. The Flower also intuitively knows that the first rule of miming which is: If you're irritating, you know you're doing it right.]
The Barb: "Stop! Stop doing that! Stop!"
[I wiggle the Barb's toes.]
The Barb: "Hey, let go of my toe!"
Me: "Feeling bossy today?"
The Barb: [looking surprised] "ME, TOO!"

I Bought A Used Car Off Of Craig's List

The above phrase strikes me as emblematic of the Internet age. Buying a used car is bad enough. Buying one off the Internet? Buying one off of Craig's List?

What am I? Stupid?

I did, in fact, get ripped off. Or, more accurately, the guy who sold me the car intended to rip me off. Did he succeed? Interesting question. The car in question is a '91 Geo Metro convertible, which had 92,000 miles on it. I paid $940. It ran well enough, but it needs some cosmetic repairs. (Both "needs" and "some" should be regarded as a casual use of English.)

I was careful. The guy did a vigorous test drive. He put the top up and down. I had him take it to my mechanic. The guy fed me a lot of lines, including about how good the gas mileage was. I didn't take those too seriously. (I ended up being a bit disappointed anyway, as it only gets 27mpg. It should get mid-'30s at least.)

My mechanic checked out the engine the next day and said the only thing that looked potentially bad was an excess of transmission fluid. I figured that was a calculated risk and told the guy's friend—who had been sent to close the deal—that I would still take the car, but for less money (to $940 from $1,000).

Later, I remembered that the guy had told me that he had overfilled the transmission, and e-mailed him to tell him I wanted to give him the $60 (and also some pants left in the back seat) but never heard back from him.

I soon found out why. I had noted the tags on the back of the car were up-to-date and didn't think anything else about the registration. When I took it to the DMV to get the registration in my name, it turned out the car had not been registered for four years. Far from a standard-issue used-car lie, my Craig's List pal actually lifted the tags off a properly registered car. (Even my mechanic was surprised by that one.)

Now, it's not my intention here to draw a parallel with the socialization of medicine, which I understand is causing something of a ruckus these days, but I've always been impressed by the degree to which governments show their lack of concern for anything other than collecting their money.

Like, I got hit hardest with taxes when I was self-employed and starving. There was no recourse, no concern, no need to justify the government's desire to see me work for someone else. You can see it in public schools, from the lowliest Head Start program to the biggest University: The System Just Doesn't Care. Even if you find individuals who do care, the rules are the rules (except when you're "important" or some bureaucrat wants to make your life hell).

Even now I'm wrestling with a government-based health payment issue, where the sliding scale is free-$50-$800 for a 30 minute consult. I can't get a single breakdown for the $800; that's simply the arbitrary price It Has Been Decided I Should Pay.

Anyhoo. Needless to say, the DMV—which, by the way, is quite efficient if you call ahead and make an appointment—does not care that I was swindled. They do not care to find the malefactors who operated this vehicle for four years. No, they simply insist that I pay all the past due registration fees, along with any late penalties or whatnot they decide to levy.

Back fees? $441.14, bringing my total cost to $1,381.14. That kind of hurt, considering it was Christmas.

That wasn't all. The guy had tweaked the engine in such a way that it had a lot more oomph than you might expect out of a 3-cylinder engine, and the upshot was that when it was cold—which, of course, I never saw before buying—it would stall.

This one drove me—and my mechanic—nuts. It wasn't just "it's cold, it won't start". It would start perfectly and then as you drove, it would get slower and slower, no matter how much you punched the accelerator. Though you could sometimes get it not to stall if you could start it, floor it, and then keep it floored. This was a challenge leaving the driveway.

My mechanic tried a few things and then stopped, figuring he didn't know what was causing the problem, and figuring there was no point throwing a bunch of money at trying to figure it out. He told me to wait for it to get worse, and so I lived with it for a while.

And then, a few months later, the problem went away, never to return.

Weird, eh? Maybe evil spirits. Exorcised by my sunshine-y nature.

Anyway, all-in-all, the car cost me about $2,200. Maintenance has been cheap, just piddling things, maybe costing me another $300 over about two years.

Now, the reason I bought it in the first place is that, even though I don't go into work much, when I do, I have to park in this really cramped underground lot. And when I took The Airplane—our massive mini-van—it was like trying to navigate the Queen Mary through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Only with the other SUVs, kind of like trying to navigate Pirates simultaneously with the Lusitania, the Titanic and the QE2.

I hated it. I figured I had enough cash to buy a hunk-a-junk that: a) would be tiny, and b) wouldn't matter what happened to it. I'm way more comfortable with small cars than I am with big ones. The Bumblebee (as my mechanic christened it) more than fits the bill. I can practically do doughnuts in the underground parking lot.

But the funny thing is that everyone loves this car. The convertible is probably the key thing. Hunk-o-junk though it be, the convertible-ness gives it a certain cachet. The kids, as you might imagine, love it.

And though it needs a bunch of body work, it constantly draws favorable comments. Well, the first one I got was, "HEY!!!" from some guy at a stoplight who had just followed me off the freeway. When I turned, he said, "I have to take your picture! You're so funny-looking!" I'm probably on some jerk's blog or Facebook page right now.

I can't really argue with him. With the hat and sunglasses and—well, you'd have to see a picture to understand, and that ain't happening—but let's say I wouldn't disagree.

Over the past two years, I've gotten a dozen comments on this car. Some people telling me they have one just like it, others saying they used to, some inquiring as to gas mileage, even offering to buy it.

I've put about 10,000 miles on the car. And will probably have about 12,000 on it by the two year mark, which means that each mile will have cost me less than 20 cents a mile, factoring in the base price and extraordinary costs. (The insurance is ridiculously small and lowers the insurance on my other car, for reasons I don't understand.)

When you think about it in those terms, The Airplane will need to have over 60,000 miles on it to catch up. And it was cheap, too. A modest $30,000 car—hardly an extravagance these days—would need to be run for 150,000 miles to catch up with that.

And that's assuming The Bumblebee falls apart at the 12,000 mark, which I suspect it won't. I think I'll be able to get 50,000 miles out of it without taking any heroic measures.

The only downside, really, is that we've become sort of attached to it. I'm inclined to fix it up a bit. I actually think, despite the guy's attempt to rip us off, we got a great deal.

But the kids hate it when I say, "Buddha says, 'All life is suffering. The origin of suffering is attachment.'" They have some choice words to say about the Buddha.

But it's still spectacular driving down the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset in a convertible.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I Hate Windows

I got The Boy some games for his birthday. I used to be a fairly heavy game player myself but haven't really had the time in years. He's playing on a machine that's about six-years-old, which used to be old for my house. Except I started getting laptops instead of desktop machines (for various reasons) so the desktops are starting to creak a bit.

The three games were Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3 and Left 4 Dead. (I'll leave you to figure out whether it's mandatory for games to have a numeral in the title these days.) Left 4 Dead worked pretty well and he enjoyed it, though with games it's often not as simple as "I liked it". (Online play versus campaigns versus scenarios versus free-style versus whatever. A game can excel in one area and suck in the rest, but still be worth playing.)

Since I haven't been able to use my work machine—I'm not allowed on the treadmill and it shows up on my tests when I cheat—I let The Boy replace his old one with mine. Fallout 3 looks great, but it locked up. GTA IV wouldn't even start, though.

I'll skip to the ending and say that I got it working, but here's what had to be done:

1. Game installation. This takes about 18 whopping gigs of space. (18 gigs!)

2. Entering a massive serial code. Have you seen these? Here's a sample: 8MEH-RB32G-UPE9U-TRLQR-BLQ9O-CEMBR-ACED. Is that a letter "O" or a zero? You may not know. That, by the way, is assuming you can find the code. It's usually on the back of the manual, or printed on a disk sleeve, or a disk, or maybe a slip of paper included in the box—or maybe it's nowhere at all and you bought yourself a $60 coaster.

3. But wait, there's more! In order to play the game, you have to "activate" it. Sometimes this requires a different code like the one you ended in step 2. The software connects to the developer's studio (Rockstar Games) and that has to work or you're hosed. And a variety of issues can make this even more complicated.

4. You still can't play your game, though, unless the damn DVD is in the drive. The software used to ensure the DVD is actually in the drive can cause all kinds of horrible problems with your system.

5. Almost always, you then have to download a patch and fix the game.

6. Now, when we started the game, it failed. We got a non-helpful error message that led to a bunch of elaborate suggestions on what might need to be done.

7. OK, well, I hadn't upgraded my Windows from SP2 to SP3. SP3 has "Windows Genuine Advantage" in it. "Windows Genuine Advantage" of course provides no advantage to you, the user. It basically allows Microsoft to kill your computer from a distance if its authorization system which—and I know this may shock you—isn't always correct about who it authorizes. I bite the bullet and do it anyway.

8. Windows Update required me to upgrade the Windows Updater. You can't make this kind of thing up.

9. After that, the upgrade failed. The helpful advice from Microsoft? "Try again." I did. I'm not sure where I'm more appalled that this is their advice, or that it worked.

10. Did I mention upgrading the video card driver? Yeah, did that, too. It's always a good idea. (Mine was three years old, even though the machine is only two years old.)

11. OK, so now it's time to try GTA again, right? Brand new error message: "The program failed to start. Check out our support web page." No error number or details, just "It didn't start: F**k you." The only hint was that it was the RGSC.EXE program that failed. That doesn't seem like GTA. That seems more like Rockstar Games Social Club. Which I don't want. I just want to play the freakin' game!

12. The web support page? Not surprisingly, no help for this completely worthless error message.

13. OK, I figure if it's the freakin' Social Club causing the problem, I'll register with the freakin' Social Club. I use my "ilovespam" e-mail and sign up. The form wants my phone number. Address. Unbelievable. I put in fakes or leave blank. There's no way this should actually affect whether or not the game runs.

14. But it does. Now, RGSC doesn't crash and the actual game starts. Yay, right!

15. WRONG! Now you need to update your Windows Live software. Windows Live is yet another freaking "social club"/vehicle for selling crap I don't want. No choice, but at least it's clear what's wrong. I download and install Windows Live.

16. Now Windows Live wants me to join. Just kill me. I skip—but the program starts!! Yay! Now The Boy can boost cars and beat prostitutes!

Back in the DOS and early Windows days, there was all this crap you had to do to get games (like Doom) to run: Memory managers, specific graphics drivers, sound drivers, etc. It was all very technical. You could see why someone might flee to a Nintendo or Jaguar or whatever the kids were playing back then.

I didn't mention it but I ignored 5 different license agreements in order to get this game to play. Crap like this is one reason I don't play any more. It actually can be a lot worse. Like, you can get to the end of the process and discover that the game won't play at all. It might be for a technical limitation—or it might just be that one of the half-dozen security protections failed and decided you were a scum-sucking thief.

The irony being that if you are a scum-sucking thief, you don't have to deal with any of this.

UPDATE: I SPOKE TOO (*#&*(&q# SOON! GTA IV--after letting The Boy play all yesterday and save his games, today it insisted he have a Windows Live Login. Of course, having one, his save games from yesterday are all gone.

I HATE WINDOWS! I also hate freakin' consoles. They think it's cute to put on 5 minutes of copyright/warning/video/uninterruptible crap at the front, and that's freakin' infected PC games. Get over yourselves!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What Day Is Today?

It's not that day, but it is exactly six weeks till the Knott's Halloween Haunt opens!

Yow! That means six weeks from now, at this time, I'll be trying to figure out which mazes to do the second time, or which totally inappropriate stage show to catch.

Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.

Today Is Not That Day, Part 4

Oh, no. It's not.

Not today.

(If the government takes over health care, I expect to see home-medical care. Though that's illegal already, interestingly enough.)

(500) Days of Summer: Damn you, Global Warmening!

I was running hot-and-cold on the idea of seeing the (500) Days of Summer. The previews reek of This Is An Independent Film. And sometimes I get a little twitchy when I hear the acoustic guitar and screechy voice on trailer after trailer after trailer.

And it's not a love story, it's a story about love. That's the actual tagline. I read something like that and I think: Aw, hell, someone's gonna die.

'cause in the world of indie theater, you can't hardly have a happy ending and keep your bona fides. Which tends to make indie love stories as predictable as their big budget parallels, but a lot more depressing. A lukewarm tweet and IMDB listing it as the 116th greatest movie of all time, made me suspicious.

But then I got a positive review from a relative and then Ruth Anne Adams tweeted a positive review--and, well, we'd seen everything else. So, off we went.

(500) Days of Summer concerns Tom and Summer, who meet at a greeting card company in Los Angeles. He falls for her immediately, though he's kind of a tortured soul and takes weeks to—well, actually, he never asks her out. He obsesses over her for weeks and then a friend tells her he likes her after a night of drunken karaoke.

This is after we learn that Summer doesn't believe in destiny, fate, soul mates—or love, even.

The movie uses a device to jump around between the various days in the 500, and this works very well, most of the time, showing us some wonderful counterpoints in the tumultuous relationship. It's not a spoiler to say that the "boy loses girl" part is about 280 days in, and the question the movie is largely concerned with is: Can Tom get Summer back? How did he loser her? And should Tom get Summer back?

Since we only see Summer through Tom's eyes, we actually get a very incomplete view of her. She seems a bit damaged, a bit closed off, maybe even a bit cold, but we're not given a lot to base out views on. Ultimately, then, this is a movie about Tom, which is definitely different for a love story.

The ending is also different.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the star, and at not quite 30, I think it must be pretty cool to be a 20-year-veteran. The object of his obsessive affection is Zooey Deschanel who is particularly plausible as the sort of girl you could obsess over, even if you never really understood her.

Good acting, from the leads and the supporting characters, who generally contribute to the story. The only supporting role that kind of clunked for me was that of Tom's younger sister. The actress (Chloe Moretz) wasn't at fault; I just thought the 12-year-old with all the relationship advice was kind of a hacky device.

The music wasn't irritating either, and not too much like "Wow, we're setting our soundtrack to a movie." I thought "Bookends" was an odd choice but otherwise I thought it fit nicely.

Besides the usual pitfalls of movie-making, indie films have special pitfalls to avoid, and when they're successful artistically, they often have the special pitfall of being ridiculously overhyped (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Napoleon Dynamite).

116th best movie ever? Well,that's a bit much. It's a very good movie. Different without being militantly quirky. Bittersweet without being schmaltzy. The Boy approved.

And this was the third film in a row we saw set in Los Angeles. (This showed a side of L.A. you don't usually see, either, which was nice.)

So, set your sights accordingly, and you'll have a good time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Shrink, Shrank, Shrunk

Some of the synopses of this movie about a psychiatrist who kind of deteriorates into depression and drug abuse make it sound like a sort of wacky, black-ish comedy.

Don't be fooled. Shrink is a movie about surviving the suicide of someone you love, and in a larger sense, surviving life with is failures and even successes. There are some darkly funny moments, but a whole lot of depression.

Kevin Spacey plays a psychiatrist to the stars: A successful man with successful clients who wallow in neuroses and look to him for excuses for their bad behavior. But he's increasingly depressed over the loss of his wife, and unable to use the information in his bestselling novels to help himself out of his funk.

I should put in a ROBIN WILLIAMS ALERT for Trooper York: Williams plays--well, I'm guessing a character maybe based on Jack Nicholson?--and he's actually not very convincing. But he's not in it much, and he's not obnoxious.

The main characters are an agent played by Dallas Roberts, who is as powerful as he is neurotic, a screenwriter/tenuous relative to Spacey played by Mark Webber, a troubled urban school kid played by Keke Palmer, and an overly successful strung-out actor played by Jack Huston (yes, of those Hustons).

That's a lot of main characters. Which gives us the primary failing of this movie.

There's a writer by the name of Robert Newton Peck who wrote a cute little book on how to write, in which gave various rules about what to do and what not to do. One of the things that stuck with me was "Stay in the phone booth with the gorilla." In other words, you don't mention that your main character is in a phone booth (okay, outdated now) with a gorilla, and then go off on 12 tangents while leaving everyone wondering about the character, the gorilla, and the antiquated phone booth.

This doesn't create suspense, typically. It does create annoyance. And so, while have our main-ist of main characters, played by Spacey, we're constantly being yanked away from the interesting stories and pulled into another story which isn't nearly as interesting. Then it gets interesting and we're pulled away from that into another one.

Paul Thomas Anderson has gotten away with this, arguably, with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, except that he lets the scene finish before switching to a new scene. Not completely resolve, but finish as a reasonably self-contained unit. The exception being when the stories overlap in a suspenseful way and are about meet up.

This movie just sprawls, sort of fecklessly unsure of where it's going, but reasonably sure about the quality of the material it has in its characters. Who, when you break them down sound pretty cliché: the psych who can't help himself, the troubled urban kid, the desperate screenwriter, the self-absorbed agent, the star who self-destructs because he's not producing quality "art", the starlet trying to sleep her way to the top, the aging actress who can't get good roles....

Geez, I may have talked myself into thinking this is a worse movie than I thought before I started this review. The characters don't come off horribly hacky, though. The movie is really buoyed by the relationships of the main characters with the supporting characters, like the titular character with his drug dealer Jesus (Jesse Plemmons). Although this is sort of hacky, too, since, fercryinoutloud, his name is Jesus. Not hay-soos--he's a ginger named "Jesus".

Well, at least they don't put any words of wisdom in his mouth, exactly.

Another bright spot is Pell James as Daisy, pregnant assistant to the high-powered agent, who gives us a reason to like both the agent and the screenwriter. Robert Loggia brings some nice gravitas to his short role. And Saffron Burrows as the aging actress (she's 36 or 37!) is delightful.

Ultimately, though, the movie founders: It's too unfocused, even remote from its own characters. We don't get enough time with them to appreciate their changes, and the movie doesn't sell their flawed selves well enough to allows us appreciate their transformations. They're actually not really in conflict with each other most of the time.

The whole thing comes off a little boring, a little listless. Marijuana plays a big part; maybe there's a connection there. Heh.

The Boy was not thrilled. He thought it could've been funnier and overall less drab. I tend to agree.

Second movie in a row we saw that took place in L.A., though. (Previous one: Funny People).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Phrases That Should Never Begin Movie Synopses, Part IV

After her niece is kidnapped, as sassy secret agent/supermodel (RuPaul)....

Monday, August 10, 2009

MMA Bonus: We are devo.

I follow Steve Simon on Twitter; he's one of the guys I followed early on in my far less discriminating days. But he has interesting stuff, so he survived the big purge I did when I realized there was no way I could keep up with all the tweets.

A few weeks ago he talked about retiring, and then about cutting costs by doing a variety of tasks--lawn care, oil change, etc.--on his own. Nothing wrong with that, especially if these are things he derives some pleasure out of.

But at a social level, it's a symptom of poverty: We specialize because it's more efficient. An expert with the right tools can do something better and more cheaply than you can at home. This is not really a different discussion than the previous one on fast food. Economies of scale, expertise and specialization (why even fast foods are usually separated by variety of slop: chicken, burger, Mexican, sandwiches) both result from and drive wealth.

One thing Americans don't get about European countries is that it's kind of a big deal to go to lunch. Even Canada, with its $9 Subway footlongs--which must suck given they can see the $5 footlong ads from America.

It's sensible--necessary, even--to do more for yourself if it saves money. And there are good non-monetary reasons to do things, too: Just so you know you can fix the pipes, change the oil, etc.

But it's better if that's a luxury you do because you like or want to, not because the economy is such that you can't get paid more at your specialty than it would cost you to do on your own.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: The Charleton Heston Three

Although he became a right-wing icon, it's hard to think of the guy who uttered such cynical and dark anti-human sentiments in three iconic apocalyptic films of that cinematic cesspool known as the late '60s/early '70s as being conservative.

Well, okay, it's hard to imagine Ronald Reagan saying those things. We don't have to imagine Heston saying these things, because he did.

In the first, and by far the best, movie of the pseudo-trilogy is Planet of the Apes. Heston wanders around a sort-of 19th century desert world where non-human primates struggle with Enlightenment ideas and a hugely restrictive religion that's bent on covering up a dark past. It's a grossly cynical movie that works because it's also a great action film, a Twilight-Zone-esque mystery, and for all its cynicism, does not come across as a nihilistic film.

I should read Pierre Boulle's novel. If I understand correctly, his story took place in a world more like the world of the 1960s, and I think was more meant as an indictment of consumerism and social satire. Tim Burton's remake sort of touches on that idea--but that movie is haunted by the greatness of the original and contorts itself into absurdity trying to surprise.

The second film in the trilogy is The Omega Man. This is the second adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller I Am Legend. I've talked about it in the link there, so I won't rehash it much. This movie is the most wildly uneven of the three: The high points--the horror and action setup--are as high as the low points--the whole hippie-as-vampire thing--are low.

I mean, I've been impressed by how good parts are, and also how much other parts make me positively wince.

So, I suppose, it's fair to argue that Soylent Green is a better movie. Meh. It's so steeped in the sort of thing that our current science czar believes that I find it too hard to take seriously. And it was meant to be taken seriously--and people did.

Omega didn't really leave any culturally legacies. Soylent left one really prominent one (and a few lesser known ones). And of course Apes is almost up there with Wizard of Oz as far as iconic screen moments and bits of dialogue go.

Still, it's hard not to look back at those days and think, "Thank God, they're over!" At least for me, from a cinematic standpoint, anyway. The '80s would set its own post-Apocalyptic tone with the highly entertaining Mad Max series. Then the point became not "here's how the world ends" but more "well, now that the world's ended, let's party!"

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Maybe There's A Downside To The Constant Drumbeat of Apocalyptic Defeatism

If you're not watching "The Goode Family", you're missing some very funny stuff. The above line is spoken by Helen Goode in response to her kids' despondency over the doom of the earth. (Said despondency I personally recall from my school days. If global thermonuclear war didn't get us, the ice caps were going to melt and send us spinning off into space. I'm not sure how the ice age was going to bring that on, but there it was.)

It still makes me laugh, a lot. The Goodes themselves are, of course, very good. Well, Gerald is very good. Much like Hang Hill, his straightforwardness in life not only prevents him from getting very far ahead, but actually prevents him from seeing how venal people really are.

Like Hank, he'll act to stop something he perceives as immoral, but he usually has to come the long way around to realize that people operate immorally--no matter how many times he sees it happening. Gerald's at a slight disadvantage (versus Hank), because he's not entirely sure what a man is supposed to do, though this is not too far removed from Hank's politeness and diffidence (which allows others to take advantage of him).

Interestingly enough, the message of both shows is pretty much the same: For every principle, philosophy or ideal (worthy or not, good or bad, right or wrong), there's someone willing to exploit those who believe it for personal advantage.

So far in the series, we've seen an ALF-style group exploit Ubuntu (the son), prisoners and bureaucrats exploit the entire family after they adopt-a-highway, a graffiti-cleaning program in an area with no graffiti, NPR as a front for people not talented enough to make it in the real market, meatless chili (with and without chicken), and acres of hypocrisy.

I enjoy "King of the Hill," but for me, Arlen is as far away as Oz. But whatever small town the Goodes live in is right next door. I've seen the "Good/Bad" tote board at Whole Foods. I've spent some time hashing out--for nutrition reasons, not really moral ones--which of the six different varieties of apple is "best".

But I'm sort of reminded why I didn't follow that road: It's freaking insane. But it's hard not to empathize with them, which is really what makes the show watchable.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Flower Builds Things

I've mentioned the The Flower's knack for putting things together and got some great suggestions on how to encourage that. What's kind of cool is that it seems pretty apparent that I don't need to encourage it; it will emerge whenever and however it can. (And I have a post percolating on her current basketball season, too, so if you hate parents bragging about their kids, you might want to skip the blog for a while.)

Anyway, submitted for your approval: Projects the Flower has spontaneously put together.

A few months ago, she cut up some boxes, got some duct tape and made an A-frame:
The door works, as does the shutter. The duct tape is both ornamental and functional. I think that's transparent tape as the doorknob.

Then for my birthday, she employed Popsicle sticks and glue to make a box.
I'm sure this was a birthday present, so I'm not sure why her jewelry is in there. I haven't tried it, but I'd bet money this would float.

But I'm most impressed by her latest creations. She started making duct tape wallets--The Boy even requested one!--and then decided to get more ambitious. That's a purse made out of gorilla tape. It has a sleeve for a wallet, and another for a cell phone, and she's planning to dress up the handle with some duct tape.

Again, I think this is so cool because she just gets it in her head to do things and then does them.

I got a good feeling about this kid.

Funny People Who Need People Are The Funniest People In The World

When I saw the posters for Funny People, I thought to myself, "Aw, Apatow finally gave his wife a serious role in one of his movies." And then, the quirky-but-cute Leslie Mann doesn't show up for the first half of the movie.

The thing to know about this movie going in is that it's not funny ha-ha. In fact, the movie should be called Funny (not ha-ha) People or maybe Funny (Strange) People. Because that's what it's about.

Really, though, that's what all Apatow movies are about. People love all the gross humor and all that, but what always supports that are characters. Strange characters trying to figure out what "normal" is--late era victims of a cultural revolution that left us knowing how to groom, how to behave, how, in short, to grow-up.

As a strange person, I kind of like that. I kind of identify with the 40-year-old virgin, the guy who knocked up the girl, and now the sensitive self-deprecating comedian who's struggling to, uh, struggle less.

First up, though, I note for Knox's sake that Seth Rogan has lost a fair amount of weight, and is looking pretty good. (I think he's kind of good looking, in a friendly sort of boy-next-door way, but I'm not exactly qualified to judge.) And, his love interest is Aubrey Plaza, who is adorable but convincingly mousey in this role.

Unfortunately, people identify primarily with the gross humor, which means that Apatow is sort of stuck delivering that, if he expects to keep up the same box office receipts. But as the Farrelly brothers can attest, even that wears out. But if you're not expecting that, and at the same time not put off by it, uh, this is your movie.

The story is that young, sensitive comedian Ira, living with two more successful guys (Jonah Hill as a better stand-up and Jason Schwartzman, who also has a composer credit on this film, as the handsome young sitcom actor), gets a sudden break when big-shot George Simmons (Adam Sandler) discovers he's dying and needs a new assistant.

Simmons is a weirdo. He's been very successful, and so lives a self-involved, shallow existence. In short order, Ira becomes his closest--if not only--friend. Ira ultimately helps him remake the human contact he abandoned on his way to success. Including, incidentally, Leslie Mann, who figures heavily in to the third act.

There are two obvious ways a story like this can end and I was rather pleased that this movie took neither of those two routes. If there's a message here, it's awfully close to that old saw attributed to Ed Wynn: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

Well, what can you say about this movie? It's ridiculously better than the abysmal Punchline, the 1988 Tom Hanks/Sally Field vehicle, both in terms of being funny and in terms of being not incredibly painful to watch. It has a lot of funny parts, too. And it manages to deal with its serious topics in a fairly light-hearted manner.

And, typical of Apatow, he doesn't take the easy way out.

Sort of amusingly, this is probably the least gross of his gross-out comedies. Most of the gross stuff is, well, comedians telling jokes, which is a lot less graphic than having those jokes acted out.

One thing I love about movies like this is that they can line up the comedians (Dave Attell, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Charles Fleischer, Paul Reiser, Ray Romano, etc.) for the group scenes or montages, serious or funny, and it's going to be cool.

One of the big problems with Punchline was that neither Fields nor Hanks were stand-up comedians. Their material wasn't very good, and they demonstrated very well that being affable and even charismatic was no substitute for having stand-up chops.

Sandler, Hill and Rogan actually are (or have been) stand-up comedians, and Rogan does a nice bit of bad stand-up that demonstrates subtly, yet clearly, how his character grows (as a stand-up) over the course of the movie. Sandler also does a good job being the self-involved character who manages to be really, really self-involved.

When Mann shows up as the sort-of frustrated older actress (and mom of the same two adorable Apatow kids who were in Knocked Up), you kind of get an eerie feeling like all these people are acting a little less than remembering. That's--well, either really convenient or just good acting. (As Groucho Marx nearly observed, it's a lot easier to get good acting out of a comedian than good comedy out of an actor.)

Anyway, I liked it. The Boy liked it, even though it topped the 2 hour mark. I thought it was pretty tight despite the length. I had a little trouble with believing Seth Rogan was a stand-up comedian. I liked that he was Mr. Sensitive but I didn't see how Mr. Sensitive could actually survive as a stand-up.

And that raised another issue that was really only lightly touched on. I mean, if all your friends are comedians--hardcore pro or wannabes--then it's gotta be a bitch having a real problem. For one thing, that particular subculture (at least by reputation) considers jokes to be an acceptable response to things most humans don't joke about.

I mean, the highest form of eulogy is to roast the deceased. I kept thinking about Andy Kaufman having a hard time convincing anyone he was dying.

I just wasn't sure how someone like Ira could survive. Ah, what the heck. It worked for me. And I sort of wonder if the sensitive character, the one who turns up in these movies and seems so out of place for adhering to a traditional view of sex and relationships, isn't Apatow himself.

Fun fact, though: Sandler and Apatow were room-mates, and the movie opens with some home movies from that time period.

The Boy Gets A "B"

The Boy was very pleased to discover he'd received a "B" in his first college course. I'm--well, I come from a family where "A"s were expected, and barely noted, but I was pleased because there was a lot of work and pressure associated with this grade. He went from keeping his own schedule and deadlines to keeping someone else's very quickly.

And what's more, he learned stuff. He can talk about movies now in a fairly erudite fashion. I often found more than a bit of disconnect between classes I learned from and classes I got "A"s in.

Anyway, I learned stuff, too, about what he needs work on. And, not surprising, it's just more reading and writing. That's what education used to be, mostly: reading and writing. And, mostly we're talking form and style, with a few grammatical/punctuation issues. The content of what he wrote was pretty damn good. (He wrote a "memoir" of himself from the perspective of his shoes. Funny guy.)

Homeschooling or not, exposing your kid to a college class ahead of time is probably a good idea. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sure, Microsoft!

I trust you!

You wouldn't steer me wrong (again and again and again).

Would you?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Like the rest of you, I was outraged by this movie! I needed to know: Who hurt this locker, and why?


The Hurt Locker is the latest from the beautiful and talented Kathryn Bigelow, the story of a EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) squad in its final days in Iraq 2004.

Bigelow's catalogue is a mixed bag, delivering an unexpected gem in the early vampire movie Near Dark, and an unexpected stink bomb in the Jamie Lee Curtis/Ron Silver starrer Blue Steel. (Really, that film has a killer cast, great atmosphere, a reasonably promising premise, and yet it's astonishingly bad. It's worth seeing just to try to figure out why.) However, those were quite some time ago and Bigelow hasn't directed much since the high profile bomb K-19: The Widowmaker. (I rather liked that one and thought a number of the critiques were sort of superficial.)

If The Hurt Locker shows anything, it's that Bigelow is supremely confident and competent handling scenes of high suspense. This movie is 80% powered by suspenseful set pieces, as the crew defuses bombs and otherwise engages with hostiles in Iraq. A persistent tension holds these scenes together like glue (without being annoying, as tension can be over a 2-hour-plus period).

Bomb defusing is of course inherently suspenseful, but if it seems like low-hanging fruit, consider all the times it's been done badly, even when it's done once or twice in a film. This film has at least five bomb defusings, each one different from the last, and each one putting you on the edge of your seat.

I almost didn't see this film, since I read a review (from a right-winger) saying that the movie got political at the end, ruining an otherwise good film. In trying to find that review again, I came across a slew of leftist reviews that were alternately pissed at the absence of politics, pissed at the notion that it wasn't political and/or just pissed at the whole war.

I'm happy to report that if you don't bring your political baggage to this movie, you probably won't find it to be especially political. Leave your English degree at home, too, lest you start seeing metaphors for...stuff.

So, beyond the excellent suspense scenes, and the atmosphere of tensions, what else do we have? Well, our three leads are either clichés or archetypes, take your pick. And the last 20 or so minutes, which is meant to give us insight into the main character's psyche--well, really doesn't particularly. I suspect there's an element in here of trying to make a political statement, but it's pretty weak tea. (There's really not much of a political statement you can make when you're dealing with the guys on the ground; war looks the same from there, regardless of politics.)

What else? Well, the whole thing struck me as a little far-fetched. OK, not just a little, a lot. I didn't delve into details on how the EOD squads worked, but--well, these guys didn't seem to be with anyone, to answer to anyone, or even particularly be affected by anything else going on. They just went out to answer bomb threats and then--again weirdly--left the defused ordinance lying around. (I presume for others to clean out, but this was part of the isolation the movie shows.)

In writing this, I stumbled across this interview pointing out some the same issues I had.

OK, so, don't take it like it's supposed to be Michael Yon's blog--though they came awfully close to recreating his classic photo--and don't bring your political baggage and you can have a good time. If you do bring your political baggage, you can probably find support for whatever point-of-view you have if you look hard enough.

The Boy also liked it, though he thinks it won't hold up well. That is, he thinks the immediacy of the Iraq War gives the movie an extra cachet it won't have a few years down the line.

Either way, I hope see more films from Bigelow.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Penn and Teller on Organics

We're watching the Penn and Teller on organics. They've woven in a typically slightly blasphemous Jesus sketch (which I'm enjoying) and they're taking organic farming to the woodshed, predictably.

We've never done all organic. Even at our richest, it didn't seem worth it. Sometimes the stuff tastes better--but you can't really know whether that's due to some factor in the farming, or just greater care overall. I mean, if you have the money, it's actually cheaper to go to the tony grocers in the good neighborhood, and it'll definitely taste better. (And if you don't like it for any reason, the tony store will take it back, half eaten.)

They do some good stuff: It should be known that organic farming is brutal, environmentally speaking. It's a luxury. But their taste test is bogus, in the sense that organics might taste better generally, but that doesn't mean that any given piece of organically grown fruit or vegetable is going to taste better than a non-organically grown counterpart. (I mean, I guess some people--the ones who did their taste test, for example--believed that, but that's completely insane.)

The real problem with "organic", of course, is that "organic" means nothing. It is, as they point out, religiously enshrined Luddism. It might be that pesticides are bad. (Or more importantly, that they're worse than the pests they're meant to handle.) It might be that genetically modified foods are bad. Or it might be that they're not, or some of them are and some of them aren't.

Interestingly enough, my two favorite forms of snake oil don't have much to say about organics. The current plan I'm on laments the lack of minerals in our foods--but organics don't have much to say about that. Of course, I'm sure P&T could find people who will assure them that there's no problem with mineral deficiencies.

Anyway, what I've found is that you can't ever take a blanket label and turn off your brain. Whether it's "organic" or "green" or whatever. Some organics are going to taste better--even if it's not because of organic farming methods--and I suspect some are going to be better for you, too. Some "green" things really are going to be better for the ecology.

But some aren't. Just like you can't go into a Wal-Mart or a Costco and be confident you're getting the best deal, either. You have to pay attention.

Also, what do Penn and Teller have against natural breasts? I don't object to gratuitous nudity, but almost every girl they have strip on that show has implants.

Some things are definitely better organic.