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


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."


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 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


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.


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.