Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Whatever the Case May Be

Some of the movies I've been seeing lately, some of you out there may not even have heard of. Many have been lower-profile "art house" fare thrust into the spotlight by Golden Globe nominations and potential Oscar buzz. But you've probably heard of the film I'm talking about today, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Oh, it has the award talk circling it too, but is a far more high-profile effort.

This is an adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, a love story about a man born with all the physical impairments of extreme old age, who goes through his life "backwards," growing younger with each passing year. Starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and directed by the whip-cracking perfectionist of our day, David Fincher, this is a very good movie. But it's not a "great" one.

I found, oddly enough, that the technical wizardry involved in telling this story actually got in the way. I certainly would have expected that the more sophisticated and seamless that visual effects become, the more they could support grander and grander tales without dominating the proceedings. This movie now leads me to think the opposite may be true -- at least, to someone like me who really enjoys the behind-the-scenes aspect of making movies.

Put simply, the first hour of this movie is one long "how the hell did they do that?" Well... I believe "how they did that" is to film scenes with shorter actors wearing a blue- or green-screen hood, then use effects to blend in footage of Brad Pitt's head (in old age makeup) shot separately. But it's really brilliant work, absolutely flawless. It's a triumph of both visual effects and makeup effects. And if you're one of those people who sees a magician perform and isn't wowed by the illusion, but instead struggles to decipher how it is done, this part of the movie will drive you absolutely nuts. I simply wasn't able to give myself over to the story for long, striving to see where the "mirrors" and "trap doors" were. (I should note that perhaps even more impressive are the techniques used to make Cate Blanchett appear younger as she first appears in the film, techniques used to an even greater extent near the end to create a younger Brad Pitt. Again, incredible stuff.)

Eventually, though, the film does reach a point where the computer-assisted wizardry ends. Brad Pitt simply wears the more traditional kind of makeup we've seen in countless other films, and I found myself finally able to let my brain go enough to enjoy the film without interrupting itself every few minutes.

At that point, the tale takes on an almost Forrest Gump kind of vibe, though mercifully without all the disingenuous falsehoods that I find in that famous Tom Hanks movie. Benjamin Button has a few adventures out in the world that are entertaining and clever, but ultimately things work back around to meat of the tale -- the love story between his character and Cate Blanchett's.

The greatest "special effect" of all in this film is the acting of Cate Blanchett. It is she who has all the "heavy lifting" in this film, so to speak. She plays every extremity of age that Brad Pitt plays in the film, but it is her character who is more forced to cope with the reality of what Benjamin's unusual life is. All this, and her character has a moving arc of her own, in which she discovers what she wants to do with her life, but has it prematurely taken away from her. She must also frame the tale as an old woman dying in the hospital, unspooling the entire story to her daughter. And there's never a single beat that feels false. It is another incredible performance from an incredible actor, and deserving of any award nominations it gets.

But ultimately, the script lets everyone down just a bit. Maybe I'm overly critical, having just seen a movie like Doubt, that gets everything right. This script isn't nearly so polished. One problem is the incredible length. Yes, we are being told the entire life story, from birth to death, of a person, but the fact remains that there are moments that drag in the 2 hour, 45 minute proceedings. Some bits should have been cleared away. The best emotional content of the film (and there is good stuff there) doesn't really come into play until the film is half over.

And yet, at the same time, the movie also misses a few grand opportunities. I'll give a specific example here, and ask those who want to see this movie without being spoiled to skip on to the next paragraph. There is a running metaphor in the piece about a clock that runs backwards. The final scene of the movie shows the clock now taken down, still running backward as flood waters pour into the storage area where it rests. It seems to me that the correct ending for this film is to have the waters rush the clock and cause it to stop. And yet, the ending is "fade to black" on the still ticking clock. I can't believe a director that so strives for perfection could have missed a moment like that.

Overall, this is certainly a movie worth seeing. But you will have to clear out a rather lengthy portion of your day to do so, and you may wonder at moments during the film just why it had to be so long. I give The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a B+.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fail to the Chief

I'm going to break up my recent string of movie reviews with a book review. It's a notable one for me in that it's a non-fiction book, and I hardly ever read such works.

Failures of the Presidents is a selected chronicle of exactly what the title implies. It's not an exhaustive list of various presidential blunders. It's not even as complete as covering every president. But it does, over its twenty chapters, include a good variety of history.

There are events you may be passingly familiar with from long ago history classes, such as the so-called "Whiskey Rebellion" during George Washington's presidency. In an effort to raise funds for the federal government, Washington was convinced to tax anyone selling self-distilled whiskey. Guess how that turned out?

There are events you really, really ought to know about if you don't, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, an all-too recent shame that had best not ever be repeated.

There are events that I for one had never heard about, and am glad I now know a little of, such as Herbert Hoover's disgraceful treatment of the "Bonus Army," or the flying-in-the-face-of-the-recently-ratified-First-Amendment Alien and Sedition Acts passed by John Adams.

Along the way, the book gives background on events that brought about the War of 1812, recounts the infamous "Trail of Tears," and eventually works its way up to material such as the Bay of Pigs and Tonkin Gulf Resolution, for those of us who weren't yet around when those events were actually occuring.

The book gets a bit suspect as it tackles very recent issues in the presidencies of George W. Bush (the Iraq War) and Ronald Reagan (the Iran-Contra Affair). Even though the authors acknowledge a lack of historical distance from which to be evaluating relatively recent occurences, they go ahead and place such accounts in the same volume as criticisms of Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act and Franklin Pierce's repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Don't get me wrong, I certainly have my opinions on how I think history will judge the decisions made by our current and recent presidents, but I'm not sure a book of history is the place for it.

Nevertheless, the book is overall a very interesting one. It's packed full of good "brain food," and is quite well written. It's a very smooth and easy read, placing even 200-year-old events in a clear context where they can be understood and appreciated.

History may not be your thing. But if you have even a passing interest in past U.S. presidents, I think you'll find this book a good read. I give it a B+.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Better Movie This Year? Doubt It.

Yesterday's movie in my continuing procession of movies was Doubt. This is another movie adapted from a play, again by the playwright himself. What's more, in this case the playwright also was the director of the film version.

Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, Doubt is set in a Catholic middle school in the 1960s. A priest (Hoffman) may have had an inappropriate relationship with one of the students, and the principal and head nun of the school (Streep) is trying to get to the bottom of the situation and see the priest expelled.

This is, quite simply, about as close to perfectly made as a movie can be. The script is absolutely magnificent, worthy of study by anyone who wants to write for the stage or screen. Absolutely every single moment, every detail, is carefully considered in how it will serve the whole. Any extraneous bits were cleared away in earlier drafts.

There's scathing dialogue between characters with crystal clear motivations. There's briliant use of juxtaposition (such as a moment when we smash cut from a rowdy dinner party hosted by the priest to the utter silence of the nuns gathered at their dinner table). There's still more brilliant use of metaphor (such as the placement of candy store temptingly across the street from the school, or the timely flaring out of a light bulb during tense moments of the film).

The directing and photography of the film is equally meticulous. Camera angles are constantly chosen in ways that underscore the power relationships in a scene. Light and shadow play powerful roles in key moments.

The acting in the film is stellar across the board. Hoffman portrays the priest as so very likable. You don't want to believe he could be capable of what he's accused of, but he displays just enough savvy to allow some possibility that it could be true. Streep is wonderful as the severe principal, inspiring fear as a way to respect, making the moments when she lets down her guard even more powerful. Amy Adams is also superb as one of the school teachers who we see lose her innocence scene by scene as the movie progresses.

Perhaps strongest of all is the performance of Viola Davis, who plays just two scenes in the film as the mother of the boy the priest may have molested. In the past, Oscar nominations (even wins) have been on occasion given to performers with very little screen time. Often, these just seem like nods in praise of an actor's long and esteemed career that has somehow gone Oscar-less, for work that ultimately is nowhere as good as the past performances for which they were overlooked. Not so here. In her 10 minutes of screen time, Davis dominates the movie. Her character breaks your heart and makes you look at the entire affair from an altogether different and unexpected perspective. She's already been nominated by both the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes for this role, and I have yet to see a more deserving performance.

I save the greatest aspect of the movie -- among so many great ones -- for last. This surrounds the final reel of the film, and you may want to skip on to the next paragraph if you haven't seen it. The real triumph of the film is that it ends in a perfect statement of its title -- doubt. It is unclear by the conclusion of the film whether the priest actually did anything wrong. He may be guilty, or he may simply have given up the fight after seeing that his adversary clearly never would. And the final line by Streep's character, "I have doubts," puts another layer on the proceedings. In my interpretation, she's not at all doubting herself or what she did. She's not doubting her God. She's doubting her church. She's given her life to serve the institution, and yet it allows the sort of thing that has just happened -- and in her mind, it even rewards it.

Incredibly powerful stuff. In many ways, this movie covers similar territory as another film (and play) that I've held in some esteem for a while: David Mamet's Oleanna. But I feel that Doubt is a far more skillful presentation of a "he said/she said" dilemma, one that can far more legitimately be seen either way. Other movies may elicit more emotion in the viewer. A few may even make the viewer think more. But only a handful are such skillful displays of craftsmanship -- from all involved -- as this one.

I give Doubt an enthusiastic A.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bollywood Love Story

Since Christmas, I've been on a bit of a run, going to the movies almost every day. The multiplexes were figuratively flooded with new films for the holidays, which have piled up along with some earlier films I hadn't gotten around to, creating a real "to do" list for me. But of course, there's no time like vacation to tackle such a list.

First up was Slumdog Millionaire, the newest film from director Danny Boyle (famous for Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, though I very much enjoyed his movie Sunshine). This new effort from him is generating a fair amount of Oscar buzz and critical praise, and even picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture -- Drama. Some friends and I decided it was probably worth a look.

We ended up deciding the movie was terribly overhyped. But on the chance you've missed that hype, let me first give you a quick summary of the plot. Set in Mumbai, the story revolves a young man competing on the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? As questions are posed to him, the film flashes back to his childhood, growing up an orphan in the streets with his brother, showing where he picks up the random knowledge that will help him answer the trivia.

In truth, the movie is a love story. Boy meets girl, in this case another child living on the streets. Boy loses girl, boy spends his life trying to find girl. The particulars of this I won't get into, as doing so would spoil the movie. Even his attempt to go on the quiz show is related to the girl.

The acting in the movie is strong, from a cast of unknowns. The various children used in the movie's flashbacks are particularly impressive. The directing from Danny Boyle is also very strong, conveying the crowdedness and squalor of life on the streets in Mumbai.

But for me, it's the script that's weak. Very weak. This is a rags to riches fairy tale, and aside from the setting, it doesn't feel original in any way. The culture clash of an American audience watching a movie set in India certainly does make it novel, but it isn't really new. In moments where the wonder of the setting fades (for example, during the quiz show scenes -- as the Indian Millionaire set is a clone of the one from the States), you realize you've seen countless movies like this. You know exactly where it's going, and this particular one isn't going about it in any interesting way other than the setting.

Slumdog Millionaire is a grand spectacle at times. It does entertain. It does have a few good moments brimming with genuine emotion. But I feel if it weren't set in India, it would have vanished off everyone's radar, critics included. Not only would it not be getting award consideration, but it would probably already be available in the discount DVD bin.

I rate it a B-, which might be higher than you'd expect, given some of what I just said. But the cultural elements of the film, the exposure to something truly foreign, really is enough to rescue an ordinary movie and make it more. Not "extraordinary," but at least interesting.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Rated M for Mature

This week, I tackled another "read me in one day" book, author Chuck Palahniuk's latest effort, Snuff. This is a shorter book than (I think) any of his others. It's definitely more succinct. Most of his novels seem to be a strange melange of a half a dozen different ideas all thrown in a blender. This novel remains almost entirely focused around a single topic, though one certainly as outrageous as any you'll find in his past books.

Snuff is the story of an aging, no longer popular porn star who wants to do something big to get "back on the map," and in the process earn money she'll leave behind after her death for her illegitimate child. And that "something big?" To set the record for consecutive sexual acts caught on film, by arranging a film shoot with 600 men. The book is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of "Mr. 72," "Mr. 137," "Mr. 600," and the "wrangler" who is keeping all the men in line in the waiting room as they await their few moments before the camera.

This actually is not the most graphic or even incendiary material to come from the mind of Chuck Palahniuk. (I'd give both those honors to his book Haunted.) Nevertheless, it's pretty dicey stuff.

But unlike some of his other books, there's not too much beneath that layer of edginess. Other books he's written really get the mind working, making you think. (I'd recommend Lullaby.) In fact, this book is possibly his most shallow, when you really get down to it.

But, in its favor, it is damn funny. Outside of Stephen Colbert's I Am America and So Can You, and the last George Carlin book I read (you know, books by actual comedians), this is the funniest thing I've read in the last year or two. It actually made me laugh out loud, alone on my couch, on multiple occasions.

I hope that doesn't say too many awful things about my sense of humor.

So I would ultimately say that the book does definitely entertain, even though it doesn't really satisfy in the way that some of Chuck Palahniuk's other books have. I'd rate it a B-. It's certainly worth checking out if you've read any of his other books and liked them. And at a slim 197 pages (with fairly large print), it's not like it will have taken too much of your time if it turns out you don't like it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Wiinsanity

I don't think I've ever been this excited over anything in my entire life:



Of course, if the kid is anything like me, he'll find out in a few weeks that there really aren't all that many good games for Wii, and he hardly ever uses it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Holidays

I hope those of you who observe Christmas had a good one today. (If not, then at least "a good day.")

I had a nice day at my parents' house, with my grandma in town visiting. Lots of fun thrown in from little nieces running around. I got a couple new board games I'll be eager to try out soon. A couple DVDs and a new book to read, all of which I hope don't languish too long in the "to do" stack I've built up. (But they're all going to the "front of the line.")

A return to normal for Colorado -- no snow on Christmas itself. Not too much left on the ground from previous snows, either. In fact, it was bright and sunny, and rather warm compared to what it's been.

An altogether pleasant day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Bard's Tales

If you've got around 30-60 minutes to kill, you might find The Tales of Beedle the Bard a good way to do it. It's a new book by J.K. Rowling, a series of wizard fairy tales from the word of Harry Potter.

For those whose memories go back a year, this is the same book that, in hand-written "limited edition" form, sold for over $60,000. I expect if you're the guy who bought it, you're pissed right now. Except that all the money you paid went to charity, as are all the proceeds now coming from the mass market editions, so you can't actually express to anyone that you are pissed without appearing a world class schmuck. Poor guy.

Anyway, the book. It contains five short tales, each followed with commentary "written by Dumbledore" (and, in a few cases, annotated by Rowling writing in her own voice and not a character's). And as I mentioned, you can read the whole thing cover to cover in under an hour. This should not in any way be looked on as "more Harry Potter." This is J.K. Rowling trying her hand at the tales of Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, or Aesop.

Though none of the stories are outstanding, they are entertaining enough when taken in their proper context. Rowling continues her stance that children's stories need not be dumbed down for children (and even uses Dumbledore's commentary to drive the point home directly). There are some advanced morals being taught in one or two cases, very grisly acts depicted in one of the tales, and a sprinkling here and there of words even I had to look up in the dictionary.

The book is capped by the full telling of "The Tale of the Three Brothers," as referenced in Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows. Here, the book crosses slightly into "prequel" territory, which you may take as a good or a bad thing. Dumbledore's commentary on the story informs on the events of the final two books -- not in any kind of revelatory way that makes you reevaluate them, but more in a winking, fun sort of way that makes you fondly remember the series.

This is by no means "must read" material, but for the small investment of time it takes, and given that the money goes to a children's charity, it's hard to go wrong here. I rate it a B.

But then, if you're a Harry Potter fan, you've probably picked it up already.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Another Look at History

It must be "1970s historical period film" week for me, because today I followed up my recent viewing of Milk by going to see Frost/Nixon, the new Ron Howard film about the famed interview of Richard Nixon conducted by British talk show host David Frost.

There are a lot of really great things to recommend about the film. Foremost are the performances of the actors. Frank Langella is outstanding in his role as the former president. He avoids the pitfall of doing an imitation of Nixon, instead channeling more of the essence of the man. (Indeed, one scene in the movie has Oliver Platt's character doing a stereotypical impression of the president, which in a way serves to make Langella's portrayal even stronger.) Langella comes off as a very commanding and intimidating figure, as one knows the real Nixon must have been.

Though the other performances don't dominate the screen, they're all very strong in their own ways. Michael Sheen skillfully portrays Frost as an amiable but ambitious man who finds himself in over his head. Kevin Bacon is great as an aide to Nixon who would do anything for the man. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell shine as members of Frost's interview prep team.

But perhaps the most commendable work is that of the screenwriter, Peter Morgan. The film is based on his own stage play, and I must say the film leaves virtually no signs of its theatrical origins. It's extraordinary to me that the same man who wrote such a critically lauded piece of theater could turn around and convert his material in such a way that I'm hard-pressed to even imagine how the work would have been presented on the stage.

Yet the writing does have a weak spot, in my view. The film operates brilliantly on an intellectual level, but far less effectively on an emotional level. We do see the emotional stakes both Nixon and Frost have in the events, and they are believable, but nonetheless a bit hard to relate to. This may be simply due to how foreign both the men's positions are to the rest of us. Will any one of us seeing the film ever have to worry about how to redeem our tarnished reputation as a former President? Or whether we'll be able to seize a new measure of journalistic credibility after the cancellation of some of our multiple TV shows?

But on that intellectual level -- wow, the movie is good. The scenes between Frost and Nixon are charged with gamesmanship and fascinating to watch. Other scenes addressing each man separately are interesting in how they inform the characters' agendas.

I do suspect there's a generational component in my emotional distance from the material, though. The Watergate scandal is simply not of my time, and I must confess that it actually seems rather "quaint" to me. In the three decades since Watergate, we've seen so many examples of political corruption and abuse of power, too many of them that are far more wicked in nature than Watergate. Enlisting operatives to bug the offices of a political rival, paying them for their silence, and then lying about responsibility in the matter? That's what Nixon did that was so horrible? Sure, it was criminal, and should not be excused.

But take Blagojevich basically trying to auction off a seat in the Senate. What about the dozens -- maybe even hundreds! -- of sex scandals we've seen? Or if it was the fact it happened at the presidential level that made it so objectionable, what about the about the Iran-Contra Affair, the Iraq War, or even Nixon's own bombing of Cambodia? To me, Watergate seems like such a small fish in a big pond. I simply don't have the ability to put it into any kind of context that makes it seem important to me.

Which is why the big emotional moment at the end of Frost/Nixon, when Nixon finally does let his guard down and show vulnerability, doesn't do it for me. Oh, it's well written, and Frank Langella portrays it perfectly and genuinely. But what the character Nixon is confessing to feels like pretty small potatoes to my sensibilities.

Intellectually, the movie took me on a thrilling ride. But emotionally, it left me feeling a sense of "so what?"

Nevertheless, it is a movie worth seeing for the fine work of many involved. I should also note director Ron Howard's contribution before closing. Acting for the stage and acting for film are two very different things. As both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen were reprising roles they originated in the original stage play, I believe Ron Howard did a great job in guiding their performances in this different medium.

I rate the movie a B+. And I'd be particularly interested in hearing from anyone who sees the movie that that actually lived through the Watergate scandal and has the connection to those events that I lack. I wonder if that indeed improves one's opinion of the film.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Sunshine State

Tonight brought us the last new Prison Break until we-don't-know-when. (Well, until whenever FOX cancels something and brings back Prison Break off the bench to fill the space. Please don't let that something be Dollhouse.) It wasn't exactly a great note to end on, but it was a decent episode with some good moments.

We'll start with what we all saw coming, the revelation that Linc and Michael's Mom is alive and well and the mastermind behind the taking of Scylla from The Company. No surprise there, except perhaps in the casting of a recognizable working actor, Kathleen Quinlan, in the role. I hope she get to do something interesting in the episodes ahead.

Michael's plot was pretty boring this week. It did sort of retroactively beg the question that if he knew about this particular chemical reaction so well (that he used to cause the explosion to make his escape), why did he ever have to have it tattooed on his body in the first place during the original Fox River escape? But whatever. The only really good moment in the Michael plot this week was actually some unintentional humor. I laughed out loud at the bad guys jumping into a dune buggy/golf cart kind of contraption to chase Michael down. I couldn't understand why the villains would use such a laughable mode of transportation for a chase, until it became clear this was simply setup so that Sara could come to the rescue by slamming her car into it.

The story of "Lincoln's Five" was more compelling, though. It did give all the characters involved moments to do what they're best at. Linc pounded some faces, Gretchen oozed, T-Bag double-crossed and simpered, Mahone used some of the same wits that made him so formidable in his first season, and Self was... well, weaselly.

We'll just have to sit and wait now, and see what happens next. And when it will happen, of course.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It Does the Mind Good

It's "prestige movie" season, that time of year when studios roll out their films most likely to garner Oscar consideration. But sometimes these movies really are worthy of the "for your consideration" treatment, and today I saw one such movie -- Milk.

This is a biopic of the first openly gay man to be elected to public office, covering a six-year span of his life from his repeated attempts to get elected, to his campaign against an anti-gay ballot initiative in California, to his assassination. (If it happens you didn't know that was how his life came to an end, you can't really blame me for spoiling anything. The movie reveals this within the first couple minutes.)

The acting is top notch across the board. Sean Penn is funny and charismatic as the title character, and you easily identify with him. James Franco is wonderful in a role that could easily be unsympathetic, a lover who doesn't stick with Milk when the games of politics gets to be too much. And Josh Brolin makes a full-fledged character of a role that was certainly not designed to be sympathetic, that of a rival city supervisor. Everyone in the movie comes across very genuine.

The work of the set designers and costumers on this film is also excellent. You'd hardly take any notice of it, and that's part of what makes it so great. The 70s are presented with complete credibility. What's more, when the film closes with a montage of the actors' performances transitioning into actual footage of the real life people, nearly all of them are dead ringers for the people they're portraying.

The script is also very strong, though I do think it has just a couple flaws that are ultimately the only weakness of the entire movie. It's as though the writer wasn't quite willing to trust that the real events were quite enough to elicit the right emotional responses. The true story itself is full of moments of joy and tragedy, and the film presents all of them very well; each lands with real emotional power.

But sprinkled in the mix in just a few places are one or two moments that are manufactured. Biographical movies almost always take liberties with the truth, and they're often forgivable because of how they serve the whole. But somehow it felt like more of an intrusion here. The writing and performance of the completely true moments was strong enough that the undoubtedly fictional moments designed to "raise the stakes" simply didn't seem necessary.

If you don't want to be spoiled at all about the movie, skip on to the next paragraph here.... but I'm thinking most significantly of the phone call at the end of the movie between Harvey and his former lover Scott. The notion that the two might be on the verge of a reconciliation simply didn't seem like it could be true to real life. It seemed like a manufactured bit to add weight to the coming tragedy, yet it hardly seemed necessary with the more legitimate momentum the film had already built.

But overall, this is a fairly minor quibble with what was an excellent movie. I rate it an A-. You should all get out to see it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Science Fiction-tific Study

Some idiot professor at a university in England has put forth his theory that all drivers fit into two categories: Mr. Spock or Homer Simpson. Or maybe he's a genius professor; anybody who can convince people to give him funding for a study in which people will be categorized as TV characters must have quite the silver tongue.

Of all the people in all of TV, he's going with Spock and Homer? When did Spock ever drive a car? And what about Homer's car seems so luxurious as to make him the icon of "making a car trip more enjoyable."

Stupid.

And because I know somebody's going to ask in the comments if I don't just come out with it, I suppose if these are the only two choices, I'm a Spock driver.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Got Nothin'

This fake book cover someone sent me would be funnier if the Photoshop work was a little better.


Still, it did make me laugh. And my holiday vacation started tonight, so I don't feel like doing any actual work here on the blog tonight.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Scarlett Fever

With the rise of eBay, we've seen that people will sell just about anything. More disturbing is the fact that people will buy just about anything.

But a tissue that Scarlett Johansson used to blow her nose? EWWWWW!!

And what's worse is, this is not a random eBay auction by someone who went through her trash or something. This is NBC, actually taking the Kleenex she used on The Tonight Show and selling it. Who the hell at the network thought this was a good idea?

At least the proceeds (scary to think there will be any) will be benefiting a charity.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Raise the Stakes

Those of you who don't live in Colorado probably don't know what the laws here have been on legalized gambling for the last nearly two decades. There were very few games allowed, what was allowed was restricted to a few mountain towns, and the maximum bet was $5.

For poker fans, this was more than a little annoying. The game of choice in Colorado casinos was "$5/$5 Texas Hold'Em." The betting increments remained the same on the turn and the river as they were on the flop, because it was illegal to raise them. The larger problem was that people who would gladly have played a larger limit game (or even a no-limit game) had nowhere else to go. The same player who would have jumped into, say, a $20/$40 Hold'Em game would just play the $5 game, with the expected 1/8th respect for the amount of money he was actually risking relative to what he would be willing to risk.

In other words, most every hand of every poker game in a Colorado casino played with the maximum number of pre-flop raises, and with almost everyone at the table taking every flop. Strategy was out the window.

But a path to change was embarked upon this last November. One of Colorado's staggering number of ballot initiatives this year was to expand limits to $100, allow casinos to remain open 24 hours a day (as they are currently unable to do), and bring in the new games of craps and roulette. Well... actually, the statewide ballot initiative was to allow three specific mountain towns -- with actual populations of around 200 -- to vote on whether to allow it for themselves.

That passed, and now in turn, the three cities are scheduling their own votes. Two are happening in January, but one just took place this week. And the result? A resounding yes!

The change won't go into effect until July, but it is officially on the way. With more money structures now possible, players will be better able to find a game that suits them. And I won't have to travel all the way to Vegas to try a repeat of that insane run of craps. (Alright, I'll be realistic -- that was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing. If that, even.)

In any case, I'm officially excited.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Working on "The List"

This past weekend, I got a chance to see a movie that's been "on my list" for a while -- that long, long list of films I do want to get around to seeing someday. That was Courage Under Fire, a military "mystery" of sorts, surrounding whether or not a deceased soldier played by Meg Ryan should be awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for bravery in combat.

The movie has a deep "bench" of actors, led by Denzel Washington, and including Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon, Scott Glenn, and others. Everyone does well with their roles. I was actually struck by the physicality of a lot of the performances. Meg Ryan is completely credible as a soldier, despite being more often seen in softer roles. Matt Damon, as a drug addicted medic, actually appears gaunt and pale in the film (a credit to the makeup department?). So on down the line.

As Denzel Washington's investigator character interviews the various players in the story, he gets conflicting stories of events, building a mystery about what actually happened. But I must say I didn't find the mystery particularly compelling. Partly, I think this was that the answer to it all felt rather predictable to me.

But more, I wonder if it's that this method of storytelling is not as novel now as it was a decade ago when the movie was made. Not that it was all that new then; it was ultimately a version of the famous Rashomon storytelling style. But so many subsequent movies and television shows (from Lost to... hell, How I Met Your Mother) have used twisted, out-of-order, and conflicting narratives that it all feels pretty familiar. I wonder if, in its time, the movie built a greater reputation for being a "war movie with an interesting storytelling style," but now exists in a time where the power of that distinguishing characteristic has been diminished.

Fortunately, though, the movie was more than just the mystery. It had some good emotional content as well, much revolving around the guilt of actions taken during war time, and the troubles of reassimilation. These are, fortunately, not areas I have any personal experience with, but the portrayal and writing of the material was of a high enough grade to generate empathy.

Speaking of grades, I give this movie a B. It won't be going on any favorites list of mine, but it was well worth the time. If all the movies on my "I Want to Get Around to That" list could be at least as good as this one, going through that list would be a pleasant experience indeed.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Going Under

Tonight's episode of Prison Break struck me as neither great nor poor. It really just seemed to be about pushing pieces further toward some mid-season finale cliffhanger in store for us next week. But it was loaded with lots of "moments," both good and not-so-good.

I didn't think much of the "surgery daydream" conceit for bringing back Charles Westmoreland "from the dead" for one more episode. When halluceno-zombie Haywire appeared to drug-hazed Mahone last season, it at least seemed to make some sense for the character. Mahone had led Haywire to his death, and it made sense that in a dark hour, that act would haunt him. Michael hasn't had reason to think of Westmoreland in ages, and I can't really think of a reason why he would now. It just seemed like that was the actor who was available to the writers, so that's who they used.

I'm not sure I'm on board with the constant shifting of who's working for/with whom anymore. First we had Gretchen working with Our Heroes against the Company. Then we had Self betray Our Heroes and force Gretchen to work with him. Now Linc's with the Company. And next, it seems Linc will be working with Self and Gretchen again. It seems a like musical chairs, and I'm almost wondering if we'll actually see that "dog in a birthday hat" the General mentioned before the season is over.

But it was nice to finally see a predicament from which T-Bag could not escape. Not that I'm always thrilled to watch torture on television, but it's hard to not think T-Bag deserves some misery. And who better than Linc to dish it out (save maybe Michael)?

And it was also good seeing someone get the drop on smug, overconfident Self, even if it was a new player we have yet to have any real connection to. (But more on that in just a moment.)

As for the Mahone storyline, I found it mixed. On the one hand, this episode was all turf covered last season, in the brief storyline where Mahone's pardon from Sona didn't come through. Seeing his former partner help him, then betray him, then help him again -- this is a story we've seen before. And yet, as always, William Fichtner hits whatever material he's given out of the park, and so I found the story enjoyable despite its lack of originality.

So... about that new player. I have to think it's significant that we found out the Brothers' mother worked for the Company just minutes after hearing the new thug in town have a phone conversation with an unidentified female voice. So much of this season's early setup seemed patterned in the style of Alias, so why not also lift the "Mom you thought was dead is actually alive and well and a killer spy" thread too? At least, that's what I'm guessing.

We'll probably find out next week as part of the cliffhanger we can all look forward to.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Frak is Back (Somewhat)

Galactica fans! It's been (yet another) long wait for new Battlestar Galactica to come our way, but the beginning of the end is finally almost here. Actually, it is here, provided you don't mind your new material coming in very bite-sized chunks.

That's because a new series of "webisodes" (like the ones that preceded season three) have just begun rolling out on SciFi.com. They're showing up twice a week over the next five weeks (at which time, the final batch of full episodes will actually start airing on TV).

The last batch of webisodes was actually pretty darn good, so I'm looking forward to enjoying this series.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Losing Hand

This week, a co-worker loaned me the movie The Grand, a low-profile poker-themed movie that slipped by unnoticed earlier this year. He did warn me up front that it wasn't that good, but he figured I might find more to like in the movie than he did, since I'm a fan of poker.

Certainly, the movie looked like it could be good on paper. It's a largely improvisational comedy about the six crazy contestants at the final table of a major poker tournament. The cast includes Woody Harrelson, David Cross, Dennis Farina, Cheryl Hines, and others -- people who can be very funny.

But it never quite gets rolling here.

First of all, the poker is terrible. I don't expect stellar poker from a movie. It's a movie's job, foremost, to tell a story, and I can forgive a few factual inaccuracies when it serves something greater. But the bad poker here is pervasive.

Real poker player (and sometimes commentator) Phil Gordon plays himself as a poker commentator in this film, and the filmmakers have got him saying blatant crap most of the time. On one occasion, he states that "only one possible hand" could beat one revealed by a major character, when in fact there are nearly a dozen possible in that situation. On another occasion, he calls different suits for the cards we're shown in a player's hand. And these are simply the most conspicuous examples. On screen percentages for "chance to win" on hands are calculated incorrectly. Bad strategy from supposed pros (and real life poker pros playing themselves) occurs all over the place. This movie is frankly more painful to watch if you know anything about poker.

So, is there a funny movie here, beyond the mistakes? Unfortunately, not really. There are a handful of decent laughs here and there, but they're spread mighty thinly across a movie that runs nearly an hour and forty-five minutes. Sure, David Cross made me laugh out loud once or twice here, but he does that much more frequently in any given 22 minutes episode of Arrested Development.

There's not really any point to the plot when all is said and done. It's more just a character study; here's six people, aren't they weird? From that, some story must follow, right?

I rate the movie a D+. No doubt you missed this in its brief theatrical run earlier this year. It's nothing to go back for.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Santa's Like a Big, Scary Clown

Parents of young ones, listen up. Yes, a childless person is going to tell you something about how to raise your kid. But I have photographic evidence to back me up.

You'll get lots of varying opinions on when a child is "too old for Santa Claus." I'm here to tell you there is also such a thing as too young for Santa Claus. Sadly, many parents don't seem to realize this. They shove their traumatized child into the lap of the shopping mall Santa because they think it's way cool.

And then, they have photos to show for their bad parenting decision!

Photos like these.

My personal favorites are:

4 ("Holy crap!")
5 (Wow, three at once, and ALL miserable!)
6 (That Santa scares the shit out of me and I'm an adult!)
16 ("Screw you, Santa!")
20 ("Don't let him take me!")

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cool But Cruel

If you aren't caught up through at least the first half of the most recent (fourth) season of Lost, turn back right now. Seriously.

The fourth season came out on DVD this week, and I naturally snatched it up immediately to add to my collection. I've been working my way through the special features discs. (There's two this time, so lots to watch!) Tonight, when I dropped the fold-out pack from the slip case, I noticed something. Take a look at this picture (click to enlarge) and see if you can spot it. (My apologies for the photo quality if you can't.


On the outside case, all the castaways are featured. But on the inside case, only the "Oceanic Six" are lit up. All the other characters are blacked out. Baby Aaron has moved from Claire's arms to Kate's, and the number "6" appears in the water (instead of the "4" on the outer cover).

Now, on one level, this is pretty cool. It's a clever tie-in to the show, and it's kind of neat that someone thought of this and implemented it so well. Kudos, art department.

On the larger level, though, what kind of dick move is this?! One of the major points of mystery in the first half of the season surrounds the question of "who are the Oceanic Six?" And this packaging just gives that away before you can even get the first disc into your DVD player! That completely sucks.

I do believe there is some sort of window of time after which you shouldn't have to worry about keeping spoilers secret from people. I mean, if someone picked up season one of Lost just recently, liked it, and went to the store to buy the other three seasons and wondered, "huh, why isn't Boone on the cover of the rest of these?", then I think that person has no standing in a court of spoiler courtesy.

But it's very likely that a significant portion of people will watch these episodes on DVD for the first time. So your little packaging gimmick here, while cool, is ultimately just cruel. Shame on you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Guitarnished

Over on the Spike web site, someone has written an article on The Top 7 Worst Guitar Solos of All Time.

Oh, where to begin?

First of all, 7? Huh? Seems to me like a list of 10, only the writer got too lazy to come up with three more.

Secondly, I don't think it's legal to use "top" and "worst" as modifiers for the same thing. "Top 7 Worst?" What does that even mean?

Thirdly, there's one of Shocho's peeves at play here, the use of "of All Time" to make a list sound more important. Yes, that's "peeves," not "pet peeves." You can read more on both issues here.

I'm a big fan of true "top" lists of some number of "best" things. I'm not sure what good a worst list does anybody, though. Sure, you're advising someone to avoid something, but do you really have to codify that into a list of some kind? Isn't it just looking for an excuse to be snarky? Just be snarky; don't use an excuse.

For all these reasons, I hesitated to mention this list at all. But I had to give the writer props for pointing out how overrated a musician Kurt Cobain was.

Thems fightin' words? Why, who do you not like?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Just Business

I don't think I liked tonight's Prison Break episode all that much. But I have to say, it was pretty hard for me to tell.

Here's another fresh reason I hate DirecTV (piled on top of all the other reasons I'm mentioned in the past): it's a satellite service. A pigeon can take a crap on your dish and mess up your signal. Half a foot of snow and it may be all but out for the count. Which is basically what happened tonight... we got about six inches of snow this evening in the south suburbs of Denver, which has apparently pooled up in my rooftop dish in such a way as to mess with some of my channels while leaving others intact. FOX was affected.

I was able to watch tonight's episode, but with extreme and persistent video artifacting that brought to mind memories of trying to watch unpurchased HBO or Showtime back in the 1980s on a day when, for whatever reason, the scrambling wasn't quite so bad. They'll have the episode up on the FOX web site tomorrow, I believe, but for now, this was all I had.

It was clear enough that more of the out of character behavior I disliked from last week dominated the plot this week.

Why did Gretchen not kill Self the moment he had the chance? She can't have thought she wouldn't be able to barge into her sister's house and kill T-Bag before he could harm her family.

What possible job could the General have for Linc that would trump killing him and Michael and being done with everything? The Company was already well on their way to tracking Self and Gretchen on their own -- both by image scans and by the Bible-selling Mole.

But I do suppose I can believe T-Bag wanting to turn over a new leaf. He had a few moments of that while on the run back in season two. Maybe it's just that I don't mind seeing someone get the drop on him for a change, so I forgive any strain of credibility there.

I believe we have two more episodes before a break of unspecified length. Hopefully things will pick up in that time.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Nice Boots

Here's one of those sappy stories to make you go "awww...." about a woman who found a pair of boots at a thrift store stuffed with cash. She's attempting to find the boots' original owner, and says that if she can't find that person, she'll be donating the money to charity.

Whatever.

The part that interests me is how the boots could have been donated without the money being found sooner. I must assume that the former owner would have to have known what was inside. That leads me to think that they were turned in by someone else with access to the boots. Maybe a spouse giving them away without knowing what was inside? Maybe the owner died and relatives just gave away all her clothes without ever checking inside the boots?

And how were the boots not checked by anybody affiliated with the thrift store before they were put out on sale?

Should I be going to thrift stores and checking inside things for hidden treasure?

Will you expect me to give anything I should find to charity if I do?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Friday, December 05, 2008

Weapons of Mispronunciation

Speaking of politics (as I was yesterday), I actually get a little enraged whenever I hear one of our politicians say "nuke-ya-ler," as opposed to the correct "nuclear." I don't direct this at any one politican in particular, though I don't think you need me to point out a few well known ones who do it all the time.

I think some of them might actually do it on purpose because some handler told them it sounds "folksy" or some crap. It doesn't. What it does is make them sound four years old. This is like a toddler referring to his or her pasta as "skabetti" or "pasketti." When you're under the age of about eight, this sort of thing is cute.

When you're a full grown adult, and ostensibly one of the people whose job it is to keep us safe from weapons you can't even pronounce correctly, you sound mentally deficient to me.

This isn't a "COO-pon" vs. "CYU-pon" thing, or a question of whether you call it "pop" or "soda." There is only one pronunciation of the word "nuclear," and anyone who can't get it right shouldn't hold public office.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Oh, Canada!

My friend FKL, who lives in Canada, has recently got me very interested in a political maelstrom that's been whirling up there of late. It's gotten relatively little press coverage here in the U.S. -- at least, until the events of the last day or two. (Now it gets a tiny bit of press coverage.) Anyway, I think this is pretty fascinating stuff, so this is something of a Public Service Announcement to bring everyone up to speed.

Here's the background. There are four political parties in the Canadian parliament. This year, the party with the most seats in the parliament (the Conservatives) actually held only around 40% of the total number of seats. They governed, but did so with an overall minority -- in fact, from what I've read, the smallest minority ever in the Canadian House of Commons.

The Canadian Prime Minister is Stephen Harper, of that Conservative party. One of the powers the PM gets is that to request of the Governor General a dissolutionment of the current parliament. Basically, instead of waiting for the natural time for new elections to occur, you can get the Governor General to let you do it early. Three months ago, Harper sought the GG's approval to do just that, and it was given. (Moving the elections to this year when they would not have been scheduled to occur until next year.) This was perceived as disingenuous maneuvering by the other three parties (all varying degrees of more liberal in outlook), and began a rapid downhill slide in the political climate.

These early elections were held in October, and Stephen Harper and the Conservatives continued to hold power over the government -- but continued to do so with an overall minority in the parliament. But throughout November, they pursued an aggressive agenda that increasingly rubbed against the will of the other three parties.

Now those three parties have banded together to form their own coalition and work against the leading party. They had scheduled for there to be a vote of no confidence this coming Monday against Harper, to have him stripped of leadership. And all the indications were that the vote was going to pass, and this "revolution" of sorts would be carried out.

So preemptively, Harper invoked another bit of parliamentary gamesmanship, and asked to Governor General to agree to suspend Parliament for a month and a half. You can't vote Harper out if the Parliament is no longer convening to vote on anything.

And it gives seven weeks in which this coalition of three parties could possibly turn on itself and crumble. Which, according to some indications, it might.

I find this all interesting because all the particular machinations in this are so different from American government, due to the parliamentary system and the elements of monarchy with the Governor General. And yet, at the same time, it's all the same maneuvering and strategy that is oh-so-familiar in U.S. politics, the way that many politicians put their own continued careers so far ahead of the goal of helping prosperity in the country.

I guess there's a touch of schadenfreude here, watching another country potentially bungle things. In any case, it appears that CBCNews will be a good place to track new developments, should you want to keep up with them.

And by all means, if you're from Canada and want to share a more inside perspective here, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

World Music

Here's a kind of cool and interesting video I stumbled across. It's apparently from a documentary film called "Playing For Change: Peace Through Music." In this clip, a number of musicians perform the song "Stand By Me" by taking turns laying down their part of the track, then passing it around the world to the next musician to add the next piece. The assembled result:

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ho Ho Hosed

Here's a warm holiday tale to fill you up with the Christmas spirit: a man in Florida who is living with his parents attacked his father with a Christmas tree. Well, okay, that's being overly dramatic since the guy just threw the Christmas tree. But the writer who filed this sadly vague story really tried to sell how it could have caused serious injury.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Deal or No Deal

I found tonight's Prison Break episode fairly entertaining overall. Lots of characters were squirming this week, and that was pretty fun to watch on all fronts. But I did have a couple of quibbles with the way the plot unfolded.

One was with T-Bag's role in the story. He's all about self-preservation. And he's not a stupid man; he's only really been duped in situations where he thought he had the upper hand all along. (Pun not intended.) In short, he can't be so stupid as to believe that Self would give him any share of the profit for selling Scylla -- or to give him anything at all for that matter. Just last week, when things got dicey at GATE, he was ready to give up on his money to cut and run and save his own hide.

So the minute Self left him alone at the house of Gretchen's sister, why did he not hightail it for Mexico? What gain could he possibly see in staying there to hold the sister and daughter hostage? I think he'd either kill them or tie them up, and then run as far away as possible. I can't conceive of any character motivation that would keep him there helping Self. It's purely a contrivance to keep the character on the show and in the plot, and isn't doing justice to the character.

My second complaint was with the reveal at the end of the episode, that Michael had broken off a piece of the Scylla component and kept it hidden. Now don't get me wrong -- I do believe he would have done that. He is "Mr. Plan Ahead" and always has been. No matter how much he trusted Self before the betrayal, I believe he would have taken some kind of steps to ensure the deal for his group's exonerations would go through.

But all that said, then why did he act so surprised for the entire episode that something had gone wrong? He clearly didn't trust Self to at least some extent, so why the shock? And why hide from everyone else the fact that he had some kind of plan in place for this contingency? Once again, this seems like completely out of character behavior, and once again, it was done simply to service plot.

The quality of the characters of Prison Break is what has kept me watching through some pretty outrageous plot twists over the years, and so it stinks to see that thrown away in moments like these. I hope these lapses are only momentary and things get back on track soon.

Speaking of characters, this isn't really a complaint, but an observation. Two minor but recurring characters were killed in the course of the story tonight, in ways that imply to me that the writers really are planning toward this being the last season. The two actors playing them, Michael O'Neill and Jude Ciccolella, certainly aren't household names. They're possibly not even recognizable names to any but the most incredible TV geeks. But they are recognizable faces to anyone who watches even a moderate amount of TV. These guys make the rounds as character actors, appearing on tons of shows, and they're very good at what they do. I can't see the writers just throwing them away if there was even a chance they might be useful later in the story.

Then again, these are the same writers that I think were untrue to the characters this week, so maybe I give them too much credit.

Still, it was a decent episode, despite my dwelling on some of the bad parts. We'll see how the saga continues next week.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pongjitsu

I wanted to hate the following video. I mean, it's a commercial. It's using a dead celebrity to shill for a product. It's all CG and fake.

But it's Bruce Lee playing ping-pong with nunchuks. So I couldn't not love it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Easy Scrabble Words

Here's a quick little game for you all to play... easy, but yet somewhat frustrating. You have two minutes in which to name as many... well, I won't say, because I don't want you to start thinking now without the clock running.

Suffice it to say, I thought it would be pretty darn easy, but then I only ended up getting 6 out of 10 in the two minutes.

Good luck.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Not Such a G'Day

The day after Thanksgiving is usually almost as busy at the movie theaters as it is at the malls, but I nevertheless braved the crowd tonight to see Australia.

It was essentially one factor alone that got me to go: the director, Baz Luhrmann. He hasn't made a movie in seven years, since Moulin Rouge. But that movie remains in my top 10 favorites, and I've also enjoyed his other films (Romeo and Juliet, Strictly Ballroom). This was a case where I didn't really need any more than his name attached to the movie to go.

I wish I'd been a little more discerning. It wasn't an awful movie, but it wasn't remotely the sort of movie I think I was looking for. For one thing, it appears that Baz Luhrmann has spent the last seven years deciding he wants to make an entirely different kind of movie. Oh, there were certainly elements of his style peppered throughout the movie (more on that in a moment), but this time he was out to make an "epic."

Australia felt like a movie that, budget and special effects aside, actually could have been made in the time in which it was set, the 1940s. Romance, adventure, separation, heartbreak, all set against a sprawling frontier landscape and a backdrop of war; stylistically, this was Baz Luhrmann's take on Gone with the Wind. And at two hours, forty-five minutes, it was nearly as long.

It looked fantastic. That brand of heightened theatricality that was the hallmark of Moulin Rouge (and to a lesser extent, his earlier films) was present here. Select moments looked "overly perfect," as though they were paintings brought to life. The movie also had very earnest performances from all the actors.

But it didn't have much else going for it. Those performances were in the service of rather shallow characters, and the plot meandered in a way that might be suitable for a multi-night television mini-series, but seemed endless and unfocused in a crowded movie theater.

If "scope" is your thing, you'd probably love this movie; it has scope in every conceivable sense of the word. But I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else. I rate it a C+.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Some Bird for Thanksgiving

From artist Brandon Bird comes "the evolution of the leading man." (You'll want to click to view it at a larger size.)


This and other art (nearly all of it featuring celebrities, much of it strangely fixated on Christopher Walken) can be seen at his web site.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Angels We Have Heard On High / Tell Us to Go Out and Buy

Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and after that, the infamous "Black Friday" shopping madness at retail stores.

It's been a decade now (and then some) since I worked retail, but I did get a few Black Fridays under my belt. On the one hand, we were a store front in a mall, and people definitely flocked to the mall for the occasion. On the other hand, we were not one of those big free-standing retailers with flyers in the newspaper advertising their insanity, so we were never that crazy-busy.

Taking all that into account, I gotta say I never thought Black Friday was that bad when I worked it. It's not even the busiest shopping day of the year. From my observations, that honor fell on the last Saturday before Christmas. (Yet was not entertaining as Christmas Eve itself, the day when people show up at your store and will buy pretty much anything you tell them to, out of utter desperation.)

Was I going somewhere with all this?

Only sort of. I was going to make the observation that with the economic downturn, this year's Black Friday ads seem especially desperate. I still TiVo (well, FauxVo) through TV commercials, but I've heard some radio ads, and seen some print ads that came in the mail, and everything has this tone of "please, please, please come shop!!!"

It's not surprising, I guess, but it is a reversal in my mind. Usually, it's the customers desperate to get out there and get whatever the year's cool new Must Have Gift is. This year, it's the retailers extra desperate to get you out there to buy something, anything, please.

Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

One Man's Garbage

Today's random thing found online, the art of Tim Noble and Sue Webster. They have a few more conventional works, but I took note of their garbage sculptures that reveal their true nature in the shadows they cast:



Monday, November 24, 2008

Selfless

Tonight was another solid episode of Prison Break. Many elements of it were fairly predictable, but a few were not -- and in that respect it reminded me a bit of the first season and what made me start liking this show in the first place. The show was always at its best during the "what's Michael's plan for this?" days, and tonight gave us a small return to that.

I also thought that tonight, Prison Break showed an edge it has over 24, particularly in 24's recent seasons. I watch Prison Break unfold, and I believe that it was planned in advance. Maybe not every single beat, but I do believe some of the big elements were planned for, as opposed to 24 (which the creators themselves have admitted to "winging it" after about the first 4 or 6 episodes of a season).

Why cast Michael Rapaport to play such a wishy-washy pushover? Answer: they didn't. They cast him in anticipation of this mid-season plot twist.

Speaking of casting, I think they did a credible job of finding a woman who looked like she really could be the general's daughter. I believe they planned that in advance as well.

Yes, Prison Break still has its preposterous moments. Hell, multiple times a week, sometimes. But it does feel like they work out the major beats a season at a time, and give us satisfying moments along the way.

Tonight we got to see the smug General dressed down and defeated by Our Heroes as we've long wanted, we got to see a few brief moments of happiness for Our Heroes, we got some fun action sequences, some nice beats of tension.

That's pretty much all you can ask for from this show, I think.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

24: Redemption

It's been 18 long months since last we spent time with Jack Bauer. But at last!!! Jack is back!!!

Welcome to Sangala, a fictitious African country that should in no way make you think of Senegal.

What's this, an intro? The first non-real time moments ever shown on 24!

Fortunately, the soothing voice of Jack comes on moments later to tell us that everthing else from here on will occur in real time.

Little boy tries to steal Jack's stuff... but Jack is there! "WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?!!"

You can't serve Jack a subpeona if he won't let you put it in his hand.

Jon Voight doesn't want his ex-wives to know about his evil transactions. I guess cause then they'd each be legally entitled to a share of a fictitious African country.

On the way out, he runs into pill poppin' money guy. "Hey, aren't you Jon Voight?"

See, we're cutting back and forth between Africa and Washington DC. But you know you're in Africa because everything's all yellow.

Jack apparently has a history with Robert Carlyle's Carl Benton character. They were apparently friends. And as we know everyone close to Jack winds up dead, what do you think his chances are of surviving the next two hours?

Back to Washington and... lingerie.

Lots of lingerie. It's the two guys on the phone, but we're seeing more of the woman in lingerie instead. (They know their demographic, I guess.)

Peter Macnicol is just in quick on loan from Numb3rs to give us some continuity and exposition.

Powers Boothe's Daniels has less than two hours left in office, but dammit, he's gonna be a weasel down to the last second.

Alright, this "Juma" guy in charge of the Evil Coup. I swear, his name changes every time someone talks about him.

Those animals! They shot the soccer ball!

"Tumor" is raising an army?

This conversation is brought to you by Sprint and Nextel. Bringing you service even in places that don't exist.

Jack against eight guys with machine guns? Poor guys with machine guns.

Even if one has a rocket launcher.

This secret hideaway is brought to you by the letter O, and the letter H.

Benton curses, "dammit." Yup, he definitely worked with Jack.

It wouldn't be 24 without Jack torturing or being tortured by someone.

We're only halfway done, and I think Jack and Benton have said their goodbyes to each other three times already.

It's General "Humor" now. And it's the Candyman!

Does anybody in this fictitious African country not speak English?

As all the kids get off the bus, we get a long, lingering camera shot of the one kid playing with the scarf. Anyone think this isn't going to be important later?

"Thank you, Mr. President." Yeah, weasel to the last second.

"Noah Daniels isn't that vindictive." Huh? I know the last season was a year and a half ago, but do you not remember?

They're evacuating "within an hour." Everyone drink!!!

There are about four times as many commercials in the last half of this show as there were in the first half.

Whatever nefarious stuff they had this Chris guy doing, it obviously does pay very well -- he's got a nice place to live.

"Is this everything?" Oh, there is no right way to answer that question.

This second thug doesn't seem very intimidating to me. The worst he can do is smack the guy on the head with a folded up newspaper?

If you're part of an evil conspiracy, you definitely want a limo driver on the payroll.

Jack and Benton try to say goodbye yet again. But then the helicopter comes after them.

Oh, here we go with the scarf.

Kid, I hope you really like that stupid scarf.

Jack and Benton say goodbye yet again. I think this time, it's gonna take.

There's Special Forces training to not move your feet when you get shot.

Between the new President's husband and chief of staff, this next season is shaping up to be a Who's Who of "ooo, I know that guy, but I can't remember from what movie."

"Dammit!" Drink! Here I thought we were going to go the whole time without a single Jack dammit.

"Dammit!" That's two! Huzzah!!!

No perimeters, though.

I should have given the thugs more credit. Apparently, they had quick and easy access to a cement mixer. They're efficient, if not intimidating.

The President speaks of the future. Yes, give me the future now! I don't want to wait until January.

But alas, I have no choice. See you then, Jack Bauer.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How to Make Good Pancakes

I love breakfast. I could eat "breakfast" for any meal of the day. I rarely have time during the week to do much, but on the weekend, I'll usually have pancakes or waffles or some such. And if you know me at all, you'll understand this is a Big Deal, because I don't cook much of anything.

For those who like breakfast as much as I do, tonight's post is something of a public service.

I've been going through a phase where, when I'm driving in the car, I flip between radio stations more than I listen to CDs or what not. (I keep meaning to get a new car stereo that will let me jack in my MP3 player, but I haven't got around to it.) Tonight, the afternoon team on one of the local stations was going on about pancakes.

...for the second time, actually. Last Friday, they spent my entire drive home from work (and presumably more) talking about how pancakes at home never turn out as well as what you can get at an IHOP, Denny's, Village Inn, or such. And they had countless people calling with their wide-ranging tips on how to improve one's homemade pancakes -- things from lemon juice to Cream of Wheat in the batter, to various mixing techniques, and a dozen other things I've forgotten. Basically, a raft of contradictory crap.

Tonight, the DJs took it to the source. They had reps in the studio from all three of the restaurant chains I mentioned, each offering their tips on pancake making. (Though stopping short of divulging any of their companies' actual recipes.) And while the Village Inn rep wasn't terribly helpful (she said they actually make their pancakes from scratch, and actually mixing up ingredients takes the whole thing across that cooking line I hardly ever cross), the other two reps actually agreed on some key secrets to making good pancakes.

Well, I came straight home and tried it for dinner tonight, and I'm telling you: they work! Best damn breakfast-for-dinner I've ever made in my life. So if you're looking to improve your pancake making, but aren't adventurous enough to do more than work with a premade mix, here's what you need to know. This is simple stuff, and it makes a major difference.

1) Stir up the dry mix before you add any water. Whisk it, or use a fork, so it gets sifted out finer than it comes straight out of the box/bag.

2) Use cold water -- as near to freezing as you can get. Don't take it straight from the faucet.

3) Do not overmix it. Stir it by hand, and use the bare minimum number of strokes you can. Like, mixing up some batter just to make pancakes enough for me, it didn't take more than about a dozen good strokes. More than 20, and I'd have officially been "doing it wrong."

That's it. No fancy secret ingredients. If you have pancake mix in your house, you can do this right now. And it's awesome.

So go enjoy your breakfast. No matter what time of day it is.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nicks in Frost

By my measure, winter officially came to Denver today. Today was not the first snowfall; we had that last week (at an unusually late time in the year for Denver). In fact, today it didn't snow down here out of the mountains at all.

But what we did have was that mean overnight frost from the night before. I went out to my car this morning and found one of those impregnable layers of ice on all my windows. If you live in a more northerly locale, you'll know what I'm talking about. This is no mere "scrape the windows quickly and be on your way" ice. I'm talking "put the heater on full blast for several minutes, and still all you can do is make a few nicks and scratch designs in the surface with your scraper" ice. Not fun stuff, that.

We had a good run, but winter is now here, as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The One and Only

This unusual little article I read told me two things -- one I knew, and one I didn't.

First, what I didn't know. There is a condition called "phonagnosia," which prevents a person from being able to distinguish between different people's voices. It ordinarily affects only stroke victims, but this article documents a case of a woman who appears to have been born with the condition. If you stop and think about all the conversations you have in a day where you're not actually seeing the person with whom you're conversing, it seems like a rather unfortunate condition.

Secondly, what I did know. Nobody sounds quite like Sean Connery. (Well, unless the person is doing a Sean Connery impression.) It seems the woman with phonagnosia is able to distinguish one voice -- that of the first James Bond. You've got one voice in all the world you can recognize. Why not Sean Connery?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bike Hero

I have absolutely no words to describe how frakkin' crazy the following video is:


First of all, I don't think even I love Rock Band half as much as this guy clearly loves Guitar Hero, and that's saying something. I'm not sure I'll ever love anything as much as this guy loves Guitar Hero.

Secondly, I can't even imagine where you'd come up with the idea for something like this. The amount of planning involved makes the whole "I'm gonna write the words to that Daft Punk song on my body in Magic Marker" thing seem playschool by comparison.

Thirdly, the sheer number of takes it must have required to get the lights on the bike to stay in synch with the symbols on the ground makes my head hurt.

Finally, note that he roped his friends into participating puts it over the top. (Shooting off streamers when he hits "star power," holding up the "You Rock" banner at the end, and so forth.)

Nuts! And awesome.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Quiet Riot

Tonight's installment of Prison Break was a good one, but a bit hard to evaluate on its own. More even than usual, this episode set things up to flow right into the next one, with the Scylla heist halfway in progress.

As for the very end of the episode, my assumption is this: knowing that only the General looks at the surveillance camera, Michael deliberately tripped the security alarm as part of the plan. The General comes down personally, which will somehow provide the opportunity to get the sixth and final card from him. But we'll find that out next week.

There were a few weak links in the chain tonight, with some characters behaving somewhat more stupidly than normal to further the drama. Agent Self and his mole at GATE stupidly walked into the ambush T-Bag lured them into. Granted, Self hasn't been all that bright a character, but I'd have hoped for more intelligence than that. And while I believe Michael would insist to go along on the job, despite his health risks, it just seems silly that he was actually the person to cut through the glass and get to Scylla. Any reason not to send one of the other guys (say, Mahone) to do that?

But those were perhaps necessary evils for an episode that otherwise clicked quite well. The tension of the heist itself was very satisfying -- some of the best edge-of-the-seat stuff the show has delivered in many seasons. It left me looking forward to next week's Prison Break more than I have in quite some time.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ring-a-Ding-a-Ding-a-(swipe)

You know those Salvation Army bell ringers that stand outside stores in December to get donations in their red kettles?

Well, first of all, I found a very short news story today that informed me some of those bell ringers are already at work, even though we haven't even reached Thanksgiving yet. Yes, they have a good cause worth donating to at any time of the year, but the whole "dress up in a Santa suit and stand outside the grocery" is pure Christmas, and I'm tired of the holiday encroaching ever earlier in the year.

But this was not the focus of the story. It was that a handful of bell ringers are now testing out the ability to run credit cards there at their kettles. Here in Colorado, in fact, though why we're the test bed for this new approach I'm really not sure.

Now this scene is possible:

"I'd like to donate five dollars."

"Oh, I'm sorry, but your card was declined..."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Small Measure of Solace

Today I caught the latest James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. You may recall that I mostly liked the previous installment, Casino Royale, though with a few reservations.

Most of what was good about that film continues to be good here. Daniel Craig continues to play a "weightier" Bond that feels and evokes some genuine emotion, rather than glibly gliding through a fantasy. It's a good tone for the franchise, and meshes well with Judi Dench's incarnation of M (as well as the other returning characters from the previous installment).

This film picks up the story within an hour of where the last film ended, and tells the tale of Bond's search for revenge, and discovery of a powerful and secret criminal organization along the way. It's a pretty good set-up for a fun ride. Given the gravitas Daniel Craig brings to the role, I would have wished for some more examination of revenge and what the quest for it does to a person. Nevertheless, I understand these movies are supposed to be whiz-bang action adventures first and foremost, so I can't hold that too much against the film.

But what I can hold against it is that all said action and adventure was just this side of terrible. The cinematography and editing of this film is some of the worst I can recall ever seeing. It's all shaky, close-up, and visceral in the manner of so many modern movies -- but that alone does not put me off as it would some people. It may make some people motion sick, but I feel this style of filmmaking can be done very well and be very effectively.

That was not the case here. The writers skillfully found logical ways to weave in a car chase, foot race, boat chase, and plane fight, all in under two hours, but not a one of these sequences is comprehensible. There's never 10 consecutive seconds of action in the movie where you can actually follow what's going on. Effects happen with no clear cause. The sense of geography, where everyone and everything is in relation to each other, is repeatedly muddled. Cuts are too quick for the eye to register what's happening, too quick for there to even be a gut response. You lose the very core of what you go to these kinds of movies to see -- I never once thought, "wow, that was cool!" because I was too busy going, "wait, what was that?"

In short, I feel like there was a pretty good script here (and a great cast), but it failed in bringing what was on the page to the screen. I give it a C+. I hope that Bond will do much better next time around,

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Game's Afoot

Good news for fans of George R.R. Martin. No, he still hasn't finished writing A Dance with Dragons, the next book of his incredibly good, yet frustratingly incomplete epic fantasy series. But HBO, who has long held the option to transform the series into a television show, has decided to go ahead and film a pilot episode.

As the article notes, several other pilots will be contending with this potential series (named A Game of Thrones, for the first book) for an actual slot on the air. But it's still reason to be optimistic.

The best thing, of course, would be for the project to actually make it to a full-fledged series. Oh, not just for the prospect of seeing such wonderful books brought to life in a format that actually allows the story to be told well, but because the series should serve to light a fire under the author.

See, the plan is for each season of the show to adapt one book of the series. If the show is successful enough to keep running, that means on the fifth year after it begins, they'll be needing that fifth book to be completed so it can be adapted. A year after that, and book six will be on deck. And one year after that, the seventh (and at this point, thought to be final) book will be up.

George R.R. Martin is a man that has worked in television before. He respects that the writing has to get done in that medium -- you can't just let there be nothing to film next week. So I would hope this finally gives him the push he needs to pick up his writing pace.

I'll be watching for HBO's reaction to the pilot with great interest.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I'm Batman

Just when I think I've seen the most ridiculous basis for a lawsuit ever, someone finds a way to slide under the bar of my expectations. The mayor of a small city in Turkey is suing Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. Studios for a share of the royalties to the movie The Dark Knight. The basis?

His city is named Batman.

"There is only one Batman in the world," says the nutjob. "The American producers used the name of our city without informing us."

Fortunately, the obvious was pointed out by the writer of the article -- why not make an issue of this some time during the nearly 70 years Batman (the superhero) has already been around? It's not like it wasn't making money before this summer's movie.

I think the citizens of Vulcan, Alberta might be licking their chops for the new Star Trek movie coming next year.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Don't Look At Her, She's Hideous!

Here's a horrifying tale of cosmetic surgery addiction gone wrong. A woman pursued procedure after procedure for 20 years, ultimately finding some quack of a doctor who gave her the instruments she needed to self-inject silicone into her own face.

(First of all, note the insanity of someone willing to inject herself in the face with a syringe. Ew!)

When she ran out of the silicone supply, she decided to substitute cooking oil instead.

(Second, note the insanity of a woman who thinks that a bottle of Crisco is safe to shoot into her face.)

And that's how she came to look like Jabba the Hutt. If you haven't clicked the link already, you might not want to do so now. It's hideous.

(Finally, note the insanity of a woman who looked like the photo on the left in the first place seeking any plastic surgery at all.)

I do not get this.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It Wasn't Me, It Was the No-Armed Man

"It's hard to believe that the sight of an armless man walking along with a giant TV clamped to his body did not get anyone's attention."

Indeed.

(Though for the record, who in this day and age considers a 24-inch TV "giant?")

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Legend

I wanted to like this week's Prison Break episode, but when you get down to it, I just didn't all that much.

What I wanted to like was the fact that the writers chose to deal with the death of Brad Bellick. They acknowledged him as a significant character from the very beginning, and didn't simply wash him away (pun intended) without giving the death some weight. They devoted a good amount of time this week to "wrapping things up" for the character.

But while I liked the impulse, I had a hard time with the execution. In short, I just didn't find the emotions expressed by the other characters to be convincing. To Linc and Michael, he was a nemesis most of the time they knew him. He went on to simply be a nuisance by the time of Michael's Panama imprisonment, and a bit of an oaf in their quest for Scylla. I just don't see where along the way they'd grow to like him all that much.

We're told that Sucre developed a good friendship with Bellick, and man did the writing (and his acting, for that matter) try to sell us on that. But the events that bonded the two characters all took place off screen. In the long gap of the writers' strike, between the abbreviated season three and the start of season four, Sucre and Bellick had a series of adventures we've heard about from time to time. But "telling, not showing" is a cardinal sin of writing. It didn't much matter when it was background, but thrust front and center this week, it just rang false.

And why the hell would T-Bag give a damn? The composer tried his best to score T-Bag's speech in the board room in an epic manner, and again, the acting was highly pitched to sell us on the idea of some relationship here. But I can't believe T-Bag would feel anything but joy at the death of Bellick.

Mahone? He used to call Bellick his "dog" back in season two. They've hardly had any interaction since then. Why does he suddenly care?

Basically, Sara's response I believe, because she and Bellick have a history going back prior to Fox River, at the recovery meetings. But then, her reaction was most muted of all, and less focus was given to it than all the other reactions.

So basically, it felt like a misfire all around, with characters behaving quite unlike themselves in the name of giving Bellick his sendoff.

Meanwhile, the plot treaded water this week without advancement. And my disappointment in the Bellick wrap-up spilled over into every other aspect of the episode, unfortunately. The ridiculous double-speak of the bad guys talking about all the goobledy-gook required to move Scylla seemed unusually onerous. The requisite "threatened by Agent Self / counter-threaten Agent Self" scene dragged. Even little details were getting to me.

Like, have you ever really looked at that white board in the warehouse, with all the photos of Scylla card holders attached to it? Card Holder #1's photo is clearly the real life actor's "head shot," and it looks absolutely silly, this supposed evil baddie smiling with a hand on his chin. Every time I saw it tonight, it jolted me completely out of the moment.

I'm hoping things will get back on track next week.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

You Know the Rules, and So Do I

Guess who just won the title of "Best Act Ever" at the MTV Europe Music Awards?

If you just clicked that link, you may think I just Rickrolled you. But no, that is the answer, Rick Astley. It seems the silly people at MTV (you can click that link; it's real) left people the ability to "write in" a candidate when voting, and so it was that Rick Astley received over 100 million votes -- more than everyone else up for the award combined.

Fear the power of the internets!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Coasting Through Life

A little less than 10 years back, I bought myself a vacuum cleaner. I decided at the time that this was the most "adult" purchase I'd ever made, and it made me feel freakin' old at the time. I felt in that moment like it wasn't the size of the expense that made a purchase feel "adult," but rather the level of responsibility to it.

I mean, I'd bought two cars by that point in my life. But basically everybody I knew had bought a car. Friends I'd had during high school had bought their own cars. There's too high a fun factor in cars for them to feel like any kind of badge of adulthood.

But that damn vacuum. Who the hell buys a vacuum, except for a responsible adult who wants to keep his house clean? What fun can be derived from a vacuum cleaner?

When I bought my condo earlier this year, I sort of expected to have another "damn, this is an adult purchase" moment. And I kind of did, but I have to honestly say it didn't make me feel as "old" as buying that stupid vacuum cleaner. Maybe it's because so many of my friends had already bought houses, it didn't seem like as big a step as it actually was.

Well today, I made another purchase that "aged" me. And I didn't even spend more than $20.

Somewhere along the way in life, in one of the shared living situations I've been in, I inherited these coasters I've been carting around. They're these thick marble jobs that look really classy. You'd think, "damn, nice coasters." I mean, assuming you stopped to think about them at all. Hopefully, you don't. But anyway, they look like nice coasters.

But they're complete crap. What happens is, when any kind of moisture collects around the base of your glass, it forms some kind of hyper-suction with this smooth, flat slab of marble. So you go to pick up your drink, and you take the coaster right with it. Except that each one of these things is solid marble, and weighs like a pound. So you get your drink about five inches off the table, and then the water tension gives way, and SLAM!!!! This one pound slab of marble goes crashing into the table.

I'd long since learned to just flip the damn things over, because the "bottom" is a simple layer of cork. But of course with that side up, it defeats the purpose entirely of them looking nice. In fact, they look horrible, because the stupid UPC labels on the bottom of each one never could be peeled off. They just tore against the cork and left this ugly mess.

Now obviously, I can't be much of a conventional "bachelor" if any of this actually annoyed me. But what can I say? It did. Oh, I lived with it for something like five years, so clearly it didn't bug me that much. But today, I could take no more, and I actually bought this nice set of new coasters that isn't crap.

And somehow, this felt like the most adult purchase I've made since that vacuum cleaner. This one almost felt worse. I mean, that vacuum cleaner was a pure necessity. This was totally not. And I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I actually feel a bit happy about these new coasters. It's completely ridiculous.

I had three people come over to my place tonight, and all three actually noticed the coasters. In fairness, I think they all knew the story of the old crap coasters, and the reason they always sat "shredded cork side" up. But I think I maybe had the tiniest fraction of a second of pride over their compliments.

Then, of course, I began silently berating myself for having so lost touch with my inner child that I could derive any sort of happiness from having bought stupid coasters.