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Friday, February 27, 2009


Perhaps the highest acclaim you can give Chinatown is this: Raymond Chandler would be proud to say he wrote it.

He didn't of course, but the film captures the tone and style of Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) and is set in the same Los Angeles of the 1930s. Like Chandler, Chinatown features corrupt bureaucrats, crooked cops on the take, devastating family secrets, and pitch-perfect wiseguy dialogue.

Jack Nicholson is J.J. "Jake" Gittes, an ex-cop private eye haunted by his days working the beat in Chinatown. He's hired to find out if the water commissioner (who's holding up a much-desired water bill) is cheating on his wife, not by the man's wife but by a proxy hired to play her. Jake gets the pictures, and almost gets a lawsuit from the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to boot, until the man who wouldn't build a dam is found drowned in a reservoir. Mrs. Mulwray hires Jake to find out what happened to her husband, and the trail leads to land-buying schemes, poisoned orange groves, and a powerful tycoon who knows how to get what he wants. Along the way Jake gets his nose cut, gets shot at, knocked unconscious and starts to fall for the dead man's wife (hey, it is film noir, after all.)

Nicholson is excellent in an Oscar-nominated role (1974 was a remarkable year for actors, the Best Actor nominees: Pacino in Godfather II, Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman in Lenny, Albert Finney as Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, and the winner, Art Carney for Harry and Tonto.) Nicholson is less outrageous than the Col. Jessup era Jack we're all used to now, the guy who shows up at Laker games and defiantly dates woman half his age. Chinatown shows why he was able to become such a big star in the first place.

The film handles it's twists and revelations very well, better even than the film version of The Big Sleep, which famously never tied off a major storyline because even Chandler himself forgot whodunit. The action builds up over the film's slow first half, leading to a dramatic whirl in the last half hour where everything is turned upside down more than once. The closing scene is emotionally powerful, leading to one of cinema's most famous lines, "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

Chinatown gets 8.4 out of 10.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Visitor

There's something a little disingenuous about the hosannas from critics that have accompanied Richard Jenkins's performance in The Visitor. Within the deserved acclaim for the veteran actor there is a note of self-congratulation on the part of the critic. Every review says something about Jenkins "finally" getting the chance he deserves, or some similar thought. As though all these years the critics where shouting from the rafters that Jenkins was one of the greatest actors of his generation, and that the studios were stupid for not casting him as the lead in their films.

Richard Jenkins isn't a star, but this film wouldn't work if he was one. No star could play a role like Walter Vale, a college professor who befriends illegal immigrants he finds squatting in his apartment. The film only works if you're curious about who Vale is, if you have to study his every movement and listen to everything he says in order to figure out why you're watching a movie about him.

You're watching because Jenkins and the director manage to draw you into the film right from the beginning. Walter Vale is our sole focus and Jenkins has the tough job of creating him from scratch. This effort is possible because the viewer brings no presumptions into the movie because of it's star.

The script isn't great, most of the events flow quite naturally from each other and the movie's political message (while striking a note of humanitarianism) is a little too strong in support of illegal immigrants. The movie does handle the ending very well, creating a wonderful final image which lingers after the movie is over.

The actors portraying the immigrants are all fine in their performances, but the strength of this film is the Oscar-nominated performance of it's non-star star. Every tentative movement Jenkins makes, every awkward toe-tap to the African drums, every modulated expression of emotion is Vale's.

This movie tells a small story, and even though it is an unlikely one, the film does a lot toward making us believe that the film's premise could actually happen. Jenkins performance merits this film an 8.2 out of 10.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Irving In India?

Everyone likes watching those videos where thousands if not millions of dominoes fall, one knocking down the next, creating images and making a spectacular display. You know what no one likes watching? The dominoes being set up beforehand, and being picked up afterward. Unfortunately, nearly half of John Irving's eight novel, A Son of the Circus consists of the author tediously setting up his dominoes and then picking up the pieces afterward.

The novel's protagonist is an Indian orthopedist named Farrokh Daruwalla, born in Bombay, educated in Vienna (it's an Irving novel, just be glad he's not a wrestler too), residing in Toronto, and home nowhere. Part of the problem with the novel is that Farrokh is not as well-drawn as Irving's other protagonists, like Garp or John Berry. The doctor is meant to be instantly relatable, an Everyman, but he really doesn't bring much to the story.

The novel takes place during one of Dr. Daruwalla's apparently infrequent visits back to India, where his adopted nephew is the star of the most successful and most loathed movie serial in all Maharashtra. In Bombay, the actor is known only by his character's name, Inspector Dhar. Dhar and Daruwalla are members of The Duckworth Club, despite their only occasional residence. The Club's history is gone into at some length, and quite needlessly, just one of many sidetracks Irving gets lost on.

Daruwalla apparently moonlights as the screenwriter for his nephew's films, and the latest one has caused quite a stir, as it has apparently inspired a prostitute serial-killer. Which is odd, since the movie's killings are based on a few 20-year-old murders the doctor was present for.

Have I mentioned yet that Dhar is the son of a low-rent Hollywood couple, and that he has an unknown identical twin who just happens to be heading into Bombay to become a Jesuit missionary? Or that Dhar and the doctor are driven around by a ex-clown dwarf who runs an orphan-rescue operation and attacks would be thieves with squash handles? Or that the novel includes extensive accounts of Indian eunuch-transvestite prostitutes, otherwise none as hijras?

And despite the zaniness, the first two hundred pages are boring and tedious. The problem is a lack of charm. Irving is on foreign ground here, away from his beloved New Hampshire or even Vienna, and that might explain why he constantly feels the need to over-explain Indian practices to his readers, often breaking the narrative flow to do so.

Irving's chief talents are in the Dickensian vein, he is great at creating a whole host of characters and giving them all unique though admittedly absurd and unlikely background stories. His plotting typically brings everyone and everything together for a resolution, and every question raised throughout the novel is answered, with long-running family mysteries being resolved and tied off neatly. Here though there is simply too much stuff, and enough is either forgotten or implausibly resolved to make you wonder whether or not Irving even had an editor for this novel.

For instance, the early parts of the novel make much of Daruwalla's fascination with dwarves. The doctor is apparently an amateur geneticist trying to find a genetic marker for dwarfism, in doing so he has apparently collected many samples of dwarf blood. This comes up exactly zero times within the course of the plot. There is also the matter of the murder of the doctor's father, which is introduced when the doctor receives phone calls from a woman bragging that she bombed his father's car. At the end of the novel this remains unresolved, and the phone calls continue.

The novel's main narrative concerns the hunt for the serial killer, who branches out from prostitutes to kill a member of the Duckworth Club. Dr. Daruwalla and Inspector Dhar become involved in the investigation, while Farrokh is trying to keep Dhar's missionary twin, a self-flagellating zealot named Martin Mills, from meeting his twin and from causing chaos in the streets as he tries to save every beggar and child prostitute he encounters by bringing them to the circus. These 300 pages or so are wildly implausible, but entertaining enough to speed through. The novel's best part is the sting operation in which Daruwalla writes a script to allow Dhar to ensnare the transsexual serial killer during a dance on New Year's Eve.

That sting is the last domino to fall, and the last 100 pages of the novel consist of irritatingly unrelated anecdotes concerning Farrokh's departure from Bombay and his attempt to finally assimilate to a Toronto which seems to wish he weren't there. AIDS makes an intrusive and haphazard entry into the narrative, and the novel closes on a surprisingly low note, considering Irving's history. The novel's epilogue is not much of one, and depressing due to its extensive accounts of premature deaths.

I spent the first 200 pages of A Son of the Circus fighting the urge to stop reading, pressing on only out of trust in Irving (I have read and enjoyed six other Irving novels.) Then for a long stretch, when the dominoes were mid-fall I thought that Irving had done it again, but the end left me wondering what I'd just read, and why. The novel gets a 4.7 out of 10.

In Bruges

In Bruges is a solid premise backed by a script which shines in places and three impeccable performances.

Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) are hitmen trying to lay low after a botched hit. Their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, unseen until the films's second half) sends them to the Belgian town of Bruges. Ken tries to keep the anxious Ray in line, but even in the sleepy medieval town Ray's inclinations toward excitement find an outlet. A movie is filming in the quiet streets and Ray befriends a dwarf actor and his female drug-dealer, which leads to him punching a Canadian and his wife (to be fair, he thought they were Americans) and to blinding the drug-dealer's petty thief ex-boyfriend with a blank from the thief's own gun.

The dialogue between Ken and Ray is strong as Ken tries to get Ray to take an interest in the sights, all in the name of helping Ray to get over the deadly mistake he made in their last hit (Ray's first). Even though what the two do for a living is reprehensible, their friendship comes fairly close to touching.

This is all to set up the film's second half, which moves swiftly and violently, never stopping until the film's ambiguous conclusion (which I won't spoil here, don't worry). Harry finally calls, but it's not the desired permission to return to London, instead Ken is ordered to kill Ray. From that moment on, the film is very tense and leaves you guessing what will happen next, up to and including the final shot.

The strongest feature of the script is the meticulous plotting. Everything that happens in the movie happens for a reason. There is no extraneous filler, and even the comic relief (such as a scene where Farrell and Gleason warn overweight Americans not to climb a bell tower) has significance. The first half does move rather slow, but it has its moments, and the contrast between it and the second half is crucial.

In Bruges is almost one of those regrettable films which tries to turn professional murderers into mere quirky gentlemen with colorful vocabularies and indiscernible (but apparently very strong) codes of conduct and honor. However, the script deftly avoids such well-worn territory (even parodying it in parts) and ably moves the movie into a higher plane, where senseless violence and the over-reliance on automatic weapons to solve problems have real and deadly consequences. To be sure, the dialogue is very funny in parts, and the characters are a tad eccentric, but McDonough never ignores what they do for a living, and very rarely tries to justify their existences. Overall, a very enjoyable flick, which gets it 7.8 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

House- "The Softer Side"

I considered passing on writing a review of last night's House, because I genuinely dislike writing the same thing every week. But it doesn't seem to bother the writing staff of House, so I pressed on.

Let me start of by saying that, even though they've done episodes with sexually ambiguous patients before, I liked the patient of the week story. The way that everyone made unfounded assumptions based on his condition, from his parents to the meddlesome 13, and that there were consequences to these assumptions, was nice to see.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see House doing clinic duty this week, because that aspect of the show had been largely ignored this season, which is unfortunate.

I audibly groaned when the first shot post-cold open was of Foreteen admiring themselves and their cleverness in the mirror. That being said, their relationship was in second or third position this week, which is still a few positions too high, but a marked improvement.

House's "good mood" was an interesting development. Usually, this kind of thing indicates that House has some large scam going on (like when he convinced a husband his cheating wife was actually having a virgin pregnancy) but here the revelation was that House is pain-free due to methadone. I enjoyed the reactions to House's change in temperament, all verging on the hysterical rush to judgment. The scene between House and Wilson at the restaurant, where House figures out that he is being tested for heroin use, only to be caught throwing up the forbidden alcohol outside, was very well done, and reminded me why I keep wishing they'd include more Wilson.

Thirteen's meddling with the patient of the week and his parents was handled well, although it seems amazing that she can keep screwing up with impunity. I did think the writers made some missteps in the scenes between Thirteen and the patient. For instance, shouldn't she have mentioned, when the young boy was worried that wanting to dance might mean he's supposed to be a girl, that some boys like to dance, just like some girls like to play basketball?

The main problem with this episode is (broken record warning) the hasty resolution of a juicy plot line. To be fair, House's decision to cease the methadone treatment was justifiable within the confines of the plot. (House's temperament had contributed to the boy's complications) However, having a nice, or at least pain-free, House around for a few episodes, before ultimately realizing that he couldn't continue with the medication, would build tension and allow for some dramatic future episodes.

This is the problem with Season 5 in general. I don't know where the show is going, and I don't have full confidence that the writers and producers do either. In past seasons there have always been continuing storylines to help build characters and explore them. House's relationship with Stacy, the confrontation with Vogler, the run in with Detective Tritter, and the season-long search for a new team in Season 4. I feel like the private eye House hired at the beginning of the season was supposed to be a major player, but for whatever reason he was dropped abruptly and the show has languished since. (I wasn't a big fan of this character, but it's clear that they didn't have a backup plan)

Overall, I liked this episode well enough, but I'd like to see them do something with these great characters they have. Instead we get bland Foreteen nonsense and single-episode storylines, like Thirteen's tumor and this methadone thing.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Blog Enhancement

Since I don't treat this blog as a livejournal where I pour out my fears and frustrations, and also since I have no specific area of expertise or even very many original ideas, this site has become fairly dependent on me reading novels and watching TV shows and movies. I can't do anything more about the novels (right now I'm stuck in the vast middle of John Irving's A Son of the Circus) but today I took a step toward ensuring that there will be more for me to talk about on this site.

I signed up for Netflix, so there should be plenty of movie reviews coming up. I must say that I had more fun making my queue than I probably will actually watching these movies. Deciding what I wanted to watch from thousands of options and putting them in order appealed to me in an unfathomable way. Do I want to see a bunch of Hitchcock movies in a row, or interspersed with other films?

I decided to break my queue up into recent movies I missed while in theaters and classics that I haven't seen. To that end my first two movies coming in are In Bruges and Chinatown.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

U-S-A! U-S-A!

I admire the USA network's commitment to character-based scripted dramas. It's nice to see a network employ talented writers and actors instead of farming out their programming to unemployable 26-year-olds whose career goals consist wholly of "appear on television."

That being said, the only two USA shows I ever watch are Monk and Psych. Burn Notice seems like it might be cool but I never catch it, and I'm a big fan of Mary McCormack from her days as Kate Harper on the West Wing, but I've never caught that show and actually can't remember the name of it at the moment. (Google is my friend: In Plain Sight.) Even Monk and Psych are more in the "if I happen to catch a rerun on Saturday afternoon" category, especially since they air in the Friday night death slots (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_slot). Don't laugh, even someone as lame as I am at least occasionally has something better to do on a Friday night.

However, promos earlier in the week intrigued me, and so when no social plans materialized I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to catch these two programs.

Monk is going the way of all mystery shows, they are running out of ways to have Monk solve a mystery, and so most of the solutions now are fairly simplistic and overly reliant on love affairs gone wrong. The things Monk notices, supposedly because he is freakishly talented, are so commonplace that it makes you seriously question the efficacy of the San Francisco police.

The show tries to make up for this by putting Monk in more and more awkward situations (not too hard considering his character) and also, like tonight's episode, leaning on the crutch of his sympathetic story. I actually like when they focus on Trudy, his murdered wife, because I keep hoping that Monk will eventually solve the case. Unfortunately, there were no revelations about the murder, it just served as a haphazard backdrop for this episode's crime.

The parking garage where Trudy was killed is about to be demolished, and a sympathetic city councilman who wants to help Monk turns up dead. However, this turns out to be a coincidence. More disturbingly, the show seems to be laying the groundwork for Monk accepting that he will never solve his wife's case, which would be an unsatisfying end to the series. (The next season will be the last.) If they are considering this tack, I hope they reconsider. Monk isn't the same show it once was, and it's fans deserve some closure for sticking around.

Psych, on the other hand, seems to be hitting a creative stride. After missing most of this season I saw the last two episodes and both were very good, with tonight's finale being a legitimately great hour of television.

A legendary serial killer who enjoys a challenge has decided that Shawn is a worthy adversary. Using the identity of Yin Yang the killer kidnaps a waitress and challenges Shawn and the gang to find her before time runs out, providing them with clues and cryptic directions.

The episode was full of twists and turns and provided a nice look at Shawn's character. He remains his usual goofball self at first, because he says he needs to be that way to do what he does, but his shell is cracked as the killer's game becomes more personal. The episode is lighter on the humor than usual (although Gus trying to pick up the comedic slack and failing was hilarious) but the writing was terrific. I'm upset that I only caught on to this season of Psych as it was coming to a close, but I'll be sure to pick it back up in the summer. I recommend you do so as well.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge after he wakes up on Christmas morning.

WALL-E is outstanding, there's simply no other way to put it. The animation is superb, the action is thrilling, and, incredibly, I found myself captivated by the love story between two robots with three-word vocabularies.

The movie is so good I don't even have any complaints. I know some people object to the depiction of the humans, claiming it portrays the overweight in an unfair light, but I disagree. I think that within the plot of the movie it made sense and that it wasn't intended to discriminate against anything other than laziness and lethargy. If you notice, the humans are very nice and helpful when their television screens are turned off.

I also don't understand how some people consider the film environmentalist propaganda. The movie doesn't advocate for anything other than taking care of the planet, something we should all agree on. It also didn't really seem like a message picture at all, the plot and animation were too spectacular to get caught up in messages.

I think that the Academy is going to greatly regret thwarting popular expectations this year. WALL-E and The Dark Knight, in my opinion, are both deserving of Best Picture consideration, and their mass-appeal would probably boost the ratings, which are expected to be even lower than last year's all-time low. Now, popularity shouldn't equate to awards (imagine Paul Blart earning nominations) but these two snubs seem like a deliberate rebuke of popular taste in favor of preserving some ridiculous notion of superiority.

I give WALL-E a 9.9 out of 10. I think it's the best movie of 2008.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Consensus vs. Merit: An Awards Season Rant

One of my biggest problems with the Oscars, even more than other similar awards, is that there seems to be more speculation of who will win than discussion of who should. What this leads to is the sort of mass consensus that prevents the awards (especially this years, where everything but Best Actor and possibly Supporting Actress are seemingly in the bag) from possessing any inherent drama and so thoroughly discourages fans of movies and performances that are widely seen as having "no shot" at the award. Pity the family and friends of Melissa Leo, who may never be nominated again and must be finding it awfully hard to envision a scenario in which she prevails over Kate Winslet.

Every columnist and blogger is predicting Slumdog Millionaire will win Best Picture and that it's director Danny Boyle will take home that prize as well. What is lacking in these efforts of prognostication is explanation. Why should Slumdog beat any of the other four films? Columns typically mention Slumdog's wins at the Golden Globes and other pre-Oscar ceremonies, but fail to mention superior acting, writing, or directing. Is it true that Slumdog was the best movie of 2008, or even the best of these five movies? I don't know if I could find one person who really thinks that, and yet here we are just a few days away and Slumdog is the prohibitive favorite.

In a way this reminds me of nothing so much as that scourge on the college football season known as the Heisman Trophy. Ever year sportswriters waste an inordinate amount of column space on predicting the winner of the award, which purports to name the best player in college football. However, the award is almost exclusively handed out to quarterbacks or running backs on top-ranked teams loaded with other extremely talented players.

When indulging their need to predict, Heisman-watchers often note a prospective winners resemblance to this template, while all too often ignoring statistics such as passing or rushing yards. In the same way, Hollywood star-gazers will refer to a movie's level of award-readiness, calling some films "Oscar bait" because they fit in to the Academy's pre-conceived notions of what makes an Oscar winner.

Maybe the problem with the Oscars is that not enough people have really seen enough of these films to pontificate on who really was the Best Actress of the year, but if so they should refrain from helping to create a hegemonic consensus which kills any interest in the debate that should be concomitant with the ceremony and renders it interesting only to those who care what dress Bjork shows up in.

And yes, if you were wondering, I am saying that Slumdog is this year's Troy Smith.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

House- "Unfaithful"

It took way too long to get there (no thanks to the President) but last night we finally got a confrontation between House and "Foreteen". But that's getting too far ahead of myself...

Last night's patient was a down-and-out priest in name only who has a Jesus hallucination. Doesn't sound like a case for House, but the good doctor is in dire need of a case so he can put his plan to break up Foreman and Thirteen into action. With little to no reason for doing so he orders tests on the patient for epilepsy. While designated delegates Taub and Kutner (seriously, these two should ask for raises, they do 90% of the actual work) run the tests, House delivers his ultimatum to the couple no critic cares for (yours truly included): Break up, quit, or I'll fire one of you at the end of the case.

This seems imminent (well, until you remember it's an hour-long drama) but the patient loses a toe, as in, it just plum falls off. (I know, pretty cool, huh?) So it turns out that House really can pick 'em, as the show itself alludes to (I like meta when it's understated.)

Meanwhile, Cuddy invites House to some Jewish thing I've never heard of (of which I've never heard?). Does she really want him to go, or is she inviting him so he won't come? House declines, then accepts when he thinks he's figured out the game, then politely withdraws when Cuddy tells him flat out she doesn't want him.

Oh, and did I mention that Fr. Nine-toes is a suspected pedophile (by rule, Catholic priests can not appear on television unless pederasty is at least mentioned)? This suspicion leads the ever-indignant Taub (sure is judgy for an adulterer, isn't he?) to want him discharged even if he is sick, while Kutner fills the Cameron role of believing the patient, presumably because he has an honest soul.

As if there wasn't enough going on in this episode, Foreman is fired after both doctors refuse to quit. Thirteen gets another job in an effort to get Foreman his job back, but does so apparently without his consent. He gets mad and they have a fight in House's office and are at each other's throats the rest of the episode.

Back to the patient: There's some rigmarole in there about is it AIDS, he says it can't be AIDS, the kid he abused should be tested (Taub goes so far as to track him down), the kid he "abused" shows up to ask forgiveness for lying. Short story shorter the priest has Wiskott-Aldrich, which sounds a lot like AIDS without the sex.

What I liked: I enjoyed the banter between Taub and Kutner, who seem to closely resemble the Chase-Cameron dynamic without the pesky sexual tension (well, so far.) I also liked that we got to see House and Wilson converse for once. Their conversations were a nice bookend to the back-and-forth between House and the patient, whom House actually seemed to enjoy spending time with!

Oh, and it turns out Cuddy really did want House to show up, and he wanted to go but couldn't think of a way to admit it. This was actually handled pretty well, I though, considering that it's the kind of lame contrivance that usually plagues terrible romantic comedies. Here however, it felt more like a naturally arising consequence of House's personality. I was rather moved by the close, as we see House playing the piano alone while those people closest to him are at Cuddy's for the celebration (except Foreteen, who are engaged in their usual mangling of each other's faces.)

What I didn't like (broken record warning): Damn you Foreteen, how dare you play me like that? They got my hopes up by faking a fight so they could both keep their jobs, which angers me for several reasons. One, House should not be outsmarted by these two lightweights. Two, if Cuddy won't recommend Foreman for other jobs, why would she allow him to keep his current job? And third, Olivia Wilde may be very striking, but she just can't act. Watching her try to express warm feelings for Foreman was painful. Hopefully the resolution of this episode means that their relationship will be undercover and mercifully off-camera in future episodes, but I doubt it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Reading List

Bonus points to anyone who knows where that picture comes from.

I thought since I review everything I read I should let you all in for a sneak preview of the days ahead. Today I spent a $25 gift card at Barnes and Noble, and of course there's the usual collection of unread material sitting on the shelves in my bedroom.

Today's purchases:
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
A Son of the Circus by John Irving

My recent run through of some popular Irish novels had me reflecting on the fact that I am very unread in international literature. I decided I should pick countries and try to read a little about them in spurts. My first pick was India, which explains the Rushdie selection. The novel is about a child born at the exact moment India gains independence, and apparently has special powers.

The Irving book is also about India, but even Irving admits he really doesn't know anything about India. It may be interesting to read a book written from a Westerner's perspective. But really, I just found out last night that Irving has a book coming out this year, and it got me wanting to read more of his novels (I've already read six.)

On the shelves:
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Doestoevski
Light in August by William Faulkner (halted in progress)
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
The Watchmen by Alan Moore
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
Oh, Play That Thing by Roddy Doyle
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
...and many more.

I'll be honest, Anna Karenina is a pipe dream, I read the first 10 pages once and it took me forever. The same goes for The Brothers Karamozov. Light in August is one of those books that I got interrupted in the middle of and now I'll just have to wait until I forget what I read and can start over. I have to wait until my Dad finishes the Chabon book. I'm sort of intrigued by The Watchmen, but I don't have much experience with comic books.

I realize this was rather pointless, and for that I am sorry.

A Star Called Henry

Reading Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry right after Eureka Street may have been misguided. Doyle's work takes place much earlier in the twentieth century than does Eureka Street (indeed, the titular character is born in 1901) and the difference in historical viewpoints may have been too wide to overcome. McLiam Wilson writes from the standpoint of the modern Irishman, weary of the fighting and no longer able to see the differences that cause others to bomb their fellow man's homes and workplaces, whereas Doyle is trying to take us back to nearly the beginning of the struggle, when these same differences were so stark and obvious that it was necessary and yet dangerous to pick a side.

Curiously, then, Doyle's novel still tries to have it both ways, a fact which confuses the reader and harms the novel, preventing it from having the depth and significance it could have had, or the light-hearted Irish whimsy so prevalent in Doyle's Barrytown trilogy.

Henry Smart is the healthiest baby ever born in the slums of Ireland, which helps explain how he makes it through the disease and poverty which plague his family and all of Dublin. Henry's mother is barely present in the novel, except to give birth to many short-lived children. Henry's father, the first Henry Smart (our protagonist is actually the third, as a dead son was previously named Henry) is a doorman/guard at a whorehouse who has a wooden leg which he uses to beat up unruly customers. The leg is also occasionally used to murder people a mysterious "Alfie Gandon" wants dead. The passages concerning Henry Smart Sr. are the best in the novel. In them, Doyle's ability to create unique and believable backgrounds for his characters shines through. It is unfortunate then that this character disappears so early in the novel, only to return as a topic of conversation much later.

After the loss of his father and the death of Victor, his closest sibling, young Henry Smart takes off on a series of adventures eventually leading to his active participation in the cause of Irish Republicanism. Henry is present at the Easter Rising and is shown to be known by all the major players (the history is obscure to me, but preliminary googling shows that it is accurate.) The book playfully suggests that Smart was always this close to historical notoriety, only to fade into the background of history.

Henry rises through the ranks, militarizing Irish farmboys and enjoying an impressive array of sexual conquests with women devoted to the cause (including an old schoolteacher of his devoted to the cause.) He also becomes something like his father, an assassin. Henry is presented with the name of a "spy" whom he then kills. In the middle part of the novel Doyle writes these scenes without special moral weight, Henry treats the killings as a necessary duty and nothing more. If anything, he seems to have a particular joy for killing cops.

It is only later in the novel, after escaping death both at the hands of the English and the Irish, that Henry decides that violence isn't for him, after all. However, by now, for the reader, it seems far too late. Henry's moral redemption seems cheap and an afterthought. Henry (and by extension Doyle)seems like one of those people who look back with longing on a bad habit, even after they have given it up.

Maybe this is unfair of me. I'm not from Ireland, and maybe in context the acts of violence undertaken by Henry and the actual historical figures of the novel would be more honorable than not. But if that is the case, then why would Doyle undercut the point by demonizing the IRA at all? If Doyle intended to condemn violence, in my opinion he should have done so more thoroughly and with greater conviction.

As to the writing, it was uneven. I feel that the incorporation of so much real history may have hampered Doyle. In the passages where he was free to invent as much as he wanted Doyle's prose shimmered and was lyrical, but in the other scenes it could get bogged down in detail. Also, the writing seemed intentionally obscure at times. It would take much too long to figure out what was actually going on, to no artistic purpose as far as I could tell.

A Star Called Henry is purportedly the first of a trilogy, although only two books have been published. The second, Oh, Play That Thing, sits on my shelf. It got terrible reviews compared to this novel, which is giving me pause, as is the fact that many believe Doyle will not actually ever write a third volume. As for this volume? It gets a 5.3 out of 10.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Lady Eve

Only my commitment to you my readers even got me to write a review of The Lady Eve, a 1941 Preston Sturges comedy, which I watched today. That and something I recently read on Roger Ebert's website. Ebert was talking with director Robert Altman about how he hated to write bad reviews, because he knew how much hard work went in to films. Altman said, "Yes, but without the bad reviews, what do your good reviews mean?"

The Lady Eve features Henry Fonda as Charles Pike, a gullible, good-natured snake scientist on his wat back to America by cruise ship after a year in the Amazon, who happens to be the heir to a brewery fortune. ("Pike's Pale, the Ale that won for Yale" which is mildly funny when repeated.) The female lead is Barbara Stanwyck, looking very lovely as a fellow passenger and con artist intent on bilking Fonda out of his money. Naturally, as this is a movie, she winds up falling for him instead, only her con-artist partner (her father, the phony Colonel Harrington) won't let Fonda off easy.

The boat part of the film is largely unfunny and rather dull, with the only comic moment coming during a poker game where Colonel Harrington tries to cheat Fonda, only to have Stanwyck thwart his every attempt.

Since this is a romantic comedy, there are somewhat arbitrary and unlikely complications that break Fonda and Stanwyck apart, and she overreacts and decides to get revenge. She does this by sneaking into the Pike mansion in the guise of an English noble-woman (The Lady Eve).

The film goes to great lengths to get us to accept that Fonda believes that this Lady Eve isn't the girl he almost married on a cruise ship, but it just makes his character look like a dope in the process. (William Demarest, a staple of Preston Sturges movies, is great as the friend who does realize the two are the same and won't shut up about it.)

The scenes on land are much better than the boat parts of the movie, but even still, the movie is too reliant on cheap physical comedy (Fonda falls several times) and the film's resolution is slapdash and leaves several gaping holes in the flimsy plot. Stanwyck and Fonda both act in extremely unbelievable fashions, and their eventual reunion feels unnatural and false.

The Lady Eve is my third Preston Sturges movie (out of the seven in the collected set my father gave me) and so far I've only liked 1 out of 3 (The Great McGinty, which is about dishonest politicians). This movie gets a 4.9 out of 10.

Friday, February 13, 2009

30 Rock Soars as The Office Stumbles

It's been a light week of television watching for me, with most of my Monday shows being pre-empted by our Commander in Change and the lack of viable programming on Tuesday and Wednesday nights (I've never gotten into Lost and I refuse to watch reality TV.) So I was looking forward with more than the usual relish to my favorite hour of television, The Office and 30 Rock.

Last night's 30 Rock was outstanding, following last week's brilliance I think it's fair to say that all the hand-wringing over this season's weaker than normal start was premature. I had been a critic of Salma Hayek's performance as Elisa, but in the last two weeks she has really shined. I especially liked her chiding Jack, "You're not one of those convenience Catholics who only goes to church on Sundays, are you?" And of course, the scene in the church leading up to the quote which serves as this post's title was very funny.

Liz Lemon's date with Dr. Baird (Mad Men's Jon Hamm) was also very well-done. I like the idea of Liz meeting a man who's even worse of a screw-up than she is, which is really saying something, since last week's episode featured her accidentally drugging Dr. Baird with rohypnol.

The great thing about 30 Rock is that the show can have episodes where the third plotline, which in other shows is often non-existent or just a blase throwaway, is the funniest of them all. Last night's episode featured Kenneth the Page falling in dumb love (literally, as he was so struck he couldn't speak) with a blind intern. Always willing to help out, Tracy decided to act as a Cyrano de Bergerac for Kenneth, complete with nonsense Southern homestyle expressions and a faked romantic dinner, where he forces Jenna to impersonate Michael McDonald. Again, this was the third plot.

I haven't been nearly as critical of The Office as many of my friends who watch it. Many people are starting to hate Dwight (something I covered in my last post about the show) and think the show has completely lost it. Unfortunately, last night's episode provided these people with plenty of ammunition.

The Office is a bit like watching Pedro Martinez pitch for the Mets. While he's out there on the mound (on TV) you can't but remember the spectacular performances (17 K's in a one-hitter, Diversity Day) but you know that those are going to be fewer and farther between. The Super Bowl episode felt, even as I was watching it, like the result of a tremendous amount of effort. It felt special, whereas those kinds of episodes were commonplace in the earlier seasons.

When Pedro pitches now, he can't break 88 on the radar gun, he walks a bunch of hitters and it seems like he always gives up 2 runs in the first inning before he settles down a bit. He never really goes past 6 innings anymore, and if he throws a five-inning shutout you catch yourself getting really excited before you realize how lame that is really. Pedro's been one of my favorite pitchers to watch for a long time (even when he was with the Red Sox) but even I think it would be a mistake for the Mets to sign him for anything resembling big money.

Last night's Office featured only one plotline that really had any comic promise, that of Angela leaving her nanny cam on her cats all day, allowing Kevin and Oscar to see how truly crazy she is. The other stuff all fell flat. Jim and Dwight failing at throwing a Birthday Party for Kelly? That's a big Eh. I couldn't even watch Michael Scott interviewing Holly's new boyfriend or Pam's attempt at giving the lecture. And if I was supposed to find Pam reading the letter for Michael touching, I didn't.

I can't believe NBC is putting a second show by The Office producers on the air. If they don't have any sustainable ideas for a successful franchise, what makes them think they can expand with any success?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Made it Ma, Top of the World!

Turner Classic Movies is in the middle of their annual Month of Oscar nominees (which really makes me wish I had a cable-box on the television in my room) and today I caught White Heat, a James Cagney gangster movie from 1949.

Cagney is great as gang-leader Cody Jarrett, a homicidal maniac with a serious mommy-complex. Ma Jarrett is not your normal loving and caring mother, however. When Cagney falsely takes a small rap to avoid prosecution for the more heinous crime he actually committed, Ma tries to take over the gang.

The first ten minutes of the movie are devoted to showing how crazy and murderous Cagney's Jarrett really is. He's shown needlessly gunning down train engineers in the course of a robbery and refusing to get a doctor for a member of the gang whose face is scalded. He's also shown gripping his skull in agony and needing his mother's affection to get through the spell.

The movie really picks up after Cagney goes into prison for his false rap. Turns out the feds know what Cagney is trying to pull, and they're going to put a man in his cell to try and get the real dirt. The rest of the movie follows Agent Fallon's efforts to cozy up to Cagney and avoid having his real identity discovered. There are some interesting twists, a remarkably well-executed jailbreak and a final shootout, all leading to one of the most famous lines in movie history. (See: the title of this post.)

White Heat is a taut and tense thrill-ride made a classic by the unforgettable performance by Cagney. I'll give it 8.2 out of 10.

Another Facebook Meme

A professor of mine once insisted that my generation was obsessed with the word "random." He claimed that we used the word exponentially more than his generation and he was at a loss to explain why. I shrugged it off at the time but in the years since I've come to notice this habit myself. Now it seems facebook is lending significant credence to his hypothesis. First there was the 25 random things meme, and now everyone's just letting their ITunes pick 20 songs, for which they write the first lines in a note and see if collectively their friends can guess all 20 songs.

Well, I like trivia in all it's varieties and I guess this counts as well, and I'd certainly like to see if any of my friends have eerily similar music collections, so I caved in to this meme rather more easily than the last one. Here's the 20 songs (note: I cheated a little bit, skipping songs that came up on my shuffle either because I didn't particularly like, or because the first line was the same as the song title, or because they were instrumentals.)

1. Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired
2. Mother Mother Ocean, I have heard you call
3. I’m glad to see you I had a funny dream and you were wearing funny shoes
4. I’m your only friend I’m not your only friend
5. Mott the Hoople and the game of life, yeah yeah yeah yeah
6. When the sun beats down and melts the tar up on the roof
7. Won’t you look up at the skyline at the mortar block and glass
8. Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo
9. I have finally found a way to live just like I never could before
10. When I wake up early in the morning, lift my head I’m still yawning
11. I don’t mind other guys dancing with my girl
12. People say I’m the life of the party cause I tell a joke or two
13. She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
14. Clouds so swift the rain’s pouring in, gonna see a movie called Gunga Din
15. Early one morning while making the rounds I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
16. Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever
17. This summer I went swimming, this summer I almost drowned
18. It’s not as if New York City burned down to the ground once you drove away
19. I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me
20. I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

One of the Dumbest Things I've Ever Done

Last night, in something I will never live down, I folded a full house. As in, I had three of a kind plus another pair, but folded when my opponent raised. The reason? Because I forgot that there was a full house possibility.

I had a pair of 3s as my initial two cards, and a pair of Jacks came out on the flop. Then I hit a third 3 on the turn, but after a huge raise I knew my opponent had a set of Jacks. Stupidly, I only thought of myself as having a set of 3s and not the full house, so I folded to what I thought was a better set. The bigger mistake may have been telling everyone what I had folded, because they caught what I had missed and made fun of me pretty mercilessly for it, which I undoubtedly deserved.

As you probably figured out already, I lost my $5 buy-in last night.

The Irish Confederacy

Robert McLiam Wilson's novel "Eureka Street" is a novel set in Belfast during the latter days of The Troubles. It centers around the lives of Jake, a lapsed Catholic, and Chuckie, an unenthusiastic Protestant, who are close friends despite their differing denominations. Jake is going through a rough patch, having just lost a long-time girlfriend and unable to find fulfilling work, while Chuckie begins an unexpected and hilarious ascent to prominence after wasting his first thirty years on Earth.

The novel is a satire on the all-too-serious (and shockingly deadly)in which people from Nothern Ireland live their daily lives. McLiam Wilson spares no one from ridicule, from the committed Republican woman with a ridiculous Irish name (Aoirghe, which Jake says sounds like someone coughing, to the various committees set up to expand ecumenical activities but which only line the pockets of scam artists like Chuckie. Even America is mocked; one of the ways Chuckie makes his fortune is to sell Irish knick-knacks (including twigs he paints gold and markets as "leprechaun walking sticks) to third-generation Irish-Americans who have no idea what Ireland is really like.

Jake Jackson narrates his sections of the novel (the ones devoted to Chuckie are in the third person) and the love he feels for his city shines through his weariness at the violence and the certainty of true believers like Aoirghe, with whom he trades insults quite viciously. Jake's love for the remarkably imperfect Belfast reflects the author's obvious love of his own hometown.

In many ways this novel reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces (hence the title of this post.) Chuckie especially is reminiscent of Ignatius J. Reilly due to his portliness and surprising success with a beautiful woman, and McLiam Wilson treats Belfast much in the same way Toole treated New Orleans. Both novels feature many memorable minor characters, whose stories intertwine in various interesting ways as the novel draws to a close. (The best minor character in this story is Roche, a foul-mouthed 12-year-old street-child who makes it almost impossible for anyone to want to help him.)

I'll give it 8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Emptying Out the Shelf #4

Sorry to do this again, but I need more time than I have right now to write a proper review of the book I finished today. Today I had my interview for ACE in New York so I'm in a bit of a reflective mood. Here's a column I wrote last year for the viewpoint in which I wrote about my attempts to reconcile the fact that I felt so at home at Notre Dame even though I'm not particularly Catholic or religious in general.

Jesus is My Co-Conspirator

Why are you here?
At least a few times in my career here at Notre Dame, I’ve been asked this question in manners incredulous and inquisitive, hostile and hospitable.
Now, I can not read minds and so I can not speak as to the beliefs of other people with any degree of certainty, but I think it is a fairly safe bet that if religious belief were somehow quantifiable I’d probably be considered below average, to be cautious. Living in close proximity to other people means that this gets noticed, and occasionally questioned.
I try to brush off the question with something flippant or funny, such as “The weather was too nice to say no” or “I heard the food at North Dining Hall was great” but these are diversions, not just to the questioner but to myself, the questioned. You see, I’ve been trying to explain it to myself darn near every day I’ve been on campus the last four years. I like it here a lot, I really do. I’d stay another year or two if they’d let me (well, if they let me for free), but why? Yes there are friends and fun times and all that, and I don’t mean to dismiss these crucial considerations, but recently, I think I may have come upon an answer.
Ironically enough, I was attending mass at the time. Our dorm’s priest was delivering the homily and talking about the greatest needs human beings had. I found myself nodding along when the three he listed were to love, to be loved, and to be a part of something greater than themselves. The last of these three was referred to as the main reason most people believe in a religion. I believe it is also the main criteria by which I select my favorite movies.
Sitting there listening to the priest I realized that nearly all of the movies I love involve a group of people coming together and utilizing their individual talents towards the pursuit of a common goal. The preference stretches across genre lines. My favorite war movie is “The Great Escape,” in which the inmates of a POW camp undertake an intricate escape plan, hoping to free 200 people. The effort encompasses tailors, strategists, forgers, diggers, and Steve McQueen and, though ultimately less than successful, is inspiring. My favorite western is “The Magnificent Seven,” in which seven disparate gunslingers take very little pay to defend a Mexican village from an evil thief. Though mentioning the comparison in an article ostensibly about religion might strike some as curious, I think the same philosophy might apply to caper films such as “Ocean’s Eleven” and, of course, “The Great Muppet Caper.”
The point of all this is to say, in an embarrassingly inflated fashion, that although I might not agree with very much of the dogma, I still empathize with the need for that feeling of being a part of something greater. I want to feel that there is a reason for us to be here.
The more strident atheists, like Richard Dawkins, author of the provocatively titled The God Delusion, and his kindred spirit Christopher Hitchens fail to see religious belief in the proper light. They think of it as the complete acceptance of an utterly ridiculous story and thus view it unfavorably. I tend to think of religious belief as an attempt to come up with answers to the questions our own existence forces upon us, including the one which leads off this column: Why are you (or any of us) here?
I don’t doubt that Dawkins and Hitchens have considered these questions. My problem is that they have answered them so confidently that they seem to have moved on from them. We are here because of a random disturbance in the universe, leading eventually to the creation of all life. We fall in love because our genes want us to reproduce. People are happier or sadder than other people because of differing levels of certain chemicals in the brain. In short, Dawkins and Hitchens have dismissed the notion of a soul.
The problem with these answers, however true, is that they are too certain. Religion may offer similarly pat answers, i.e. we are here because of the will of God, and we are here to do God’s will, etc., but it does not, or should not, lend itself to the same degree of certainty, as the believer is forced to ask further, “What is God’s will, and how do we best enact it?”
If belief is a continuum, I myself may fall closer to Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s end of it than to St. Francis’s, but I don’t conceive of myself as an easily understood product of natural selection and chemical imbalances. I like to think more of myself, and the rest of us, than that. And that’s the reason I like it here. As Norman Mailer, a man with uncertain religious beliefs himself, once said, “You can say the word soul at Notre Dame and nobody snickers.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Frost/Nixon

If Frost/Nixon had left one scene on the cutting room floor I would be more inclined in it's favor, and more willing to accept that it really was one of the five best movies of the year, as opposed to a very effective and entertaining (if unmemorable) piece of Oscar bait. (Note: The next few paragraphs will contain spoilers.)

The night before his last crack at Nixon, David Frost (played very well by Michael Sheen, although I may just be biased in favor of his accent) is waiting for his girlfriend to call when the phone rings. It's not her, but a drunk Richard Nixon, who on the flimsiest of pretexts starts discoursing on upper-crust snobbery and the inability to ever really rise above one's social station before cursing them all quite forcefully and hanging up the phone.

It's quite emotional stuff, and it so perfectly seems to corroborate the popular dime-store psychoanalysis that has emerged as the Nixon consensus. You know why that is? BECAUSE IT NEVER HAPPENED! And everyone involved in the movie freely admits this. They'd have to, because it's so obviously fake. It's just an excuse to let Langella (whose performance is restrained and much more authentic in the rest of the film) loose. From the very beginning of the scene I was wishing it over, all the while imagining Langella screaming "Look at me, I'm acting!" It was that bad, and even worse, it was unnecessary. They didn't need to put that in there, this idea of Nixon is so ingrained that we don't need it laid out there for us. You can be subtle about Nixon, because we know all this about him.

Okay, SPOILERS OVER: I think the best parts of this movie are the scenes where Frost and his staff (Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, and Matthew MacFayden) prepare for the interviews and later when they argue over the direction they are taking. Several of the other small parts are well-done as well, including Toby Jones as Nixon's agent, Kevin Bacon as the president's loyal Chief of Staff, and Rebecca Hall as Frost's girlfriend.

Frost/Nixon is a very entertaining movie based on a fairly slim premise. The idea that these interviews proved anything, provided closure, or were, in one character's words, "the trial Richard Nixon never got" is overblown. The film's main problem is that it's writer (Peter Morgan, also the author of the play) knows that the premise is slim but decides to over-dramatize the event anyway. That being said, there are some fine performances and the interactions between the members of Frost's staff are particularly well-written. I just don't see it as a five-nominations type of movie. I can buy Langella's nom, (except for that scene I described above) although I think Sheen is really the lead and more deserving. All in all, I'll give it a flat 8.0 out of 10, and that easily could have been 8.5 or higher, if they'd just cut about 40 seconds out of the movie.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Recommendation: Five Guys Famous Burgers

I'm in D.C. for a job interview, so I now I probably shouldn't be blogging, but I had to come on here to tell you all about what I had for dinner. You can probably guess by the picture, I had a cheeseburger and some fries at Five Guys Famous Burgers. This is a chain I've heard about from people in other areas of the country, but I'd never come across one either in Jersey or Chicago, so I made a note when I passed one on the way to my hotel to give it a try.

(D.C. is apparently where this chain got it's start, and a sign on the wall showed that Five Guys had won best area burger every year since 1999.)

Now, I lack two things every food-critic needs, pretension and a thesaurus book-marked to the page for delicious, so I'm calling this a recommendation as opposed to a review. But you should really give these guys a try. The burgers are large, rather greasy, and almost certainly eating one took a month off my life. The fries are crisp, well-seasoned and abundant. (Even though I enjoyed them immensely, I was unable to finish.)

Basically, to sum up my thoughts on Five Guys: You know how fast-food burgers are pretty much all the same, but sometimes when you go to like a roadside diner the burger is pretty good, it's misshapen so you know it's not some form-fitted frozen patty, and it actually seems like someone cared whether or not you liked the burger? Five Guys is that concept perfected and brought to the masses.

I give it 9.8 out of 10 (the price was a little higher than I'm used to.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Emptying Out the Shelf #3

Here's the column on Tecmo Super Bowl. If you're completely unfamiliar, here are some pretty cool YouTube videos you should check out;



Eight Plays is Enough
By John Everett

The latest edition of the popular Madden NFL video game series debuted recently to hot sales, despite mixed reviews and grumbling about the lack of substantial changes to the game. Reasonably enough, people who pay fifty dollars for each yearly edition hope for more changes than just the customary updates to team rosters. Recent versions of the game have included such innovations as Superstar Mode, where you develop your own player and try to turn him into an MVP, Owner Mode, in which you deal with such mundane details as how much to charge for parking and hot dogs, and the unpopular Vision Cone, which was supposed to make quarterback play more realistic, but which aggravated enough Madden loyalists that it was quickly scrapped.
The problem is that too often these flourishes are added at the expense of functionality. During Madden gameplay, the television screen is occupied with full offensive and defensive playbooks, helpful hints from the coach himself, statistical charts and other distractions.
This problem is endemic to society; take the new Notre Dame homepage as an example. Whoever was paid a lot of money to redesign the page has clearly bought into the idea that new necessarily equals better. The site is now a Web 2.0 hodgepodge of unnecessary videos and the background color, which is much harder to read against, has only the value of being new. The old site was highly navigable because of its sparse design and white background for easier reading. Its only flaw was that it was not flashy enough, and so resources and time were wasted simply to junk up the site to appeal to people with shorter attention spans.
“Ooh, videos, and cool graphics and new colors. Ooh!”
Facebook too, is indicative of this mindset. I know it sounds absurd to rhapsodize about the “old days” of a website that is only four or five years old, but it used to be that a person would simply signify that they were a fan of Arrested Development by listing it as one of their favorite TV shows. Information was shared in a concise, readable fashion. And we all liked it that way. Now that same person can add up to four separate applications proclaiming their preference for the show, as well as eight separate Harry Potter applications, about a dozen new types of walls, and a LOLcats picture thrown in for good measure.
Surely the people who add all these applications can not possibly realize the damage they are causing to the retinas to those unfortunate souls who navigate to their page just to leave a simple message. Buffeted ruthlessly by horoscopes and personality test results, the would-be messenger is dismayed, and gives up in shame.
No matter what, our collective consciousness tells us that last year’s product must be inferior to this year’s, and in our search for complacency through consumption, simplicity and functionality are abandoned. Advertisers spend millions to sell us on the fact that we need this year’s bells and whistles, but their work is not hard, because for the most part our brains are wired to be receptive to such messages.
There is only one hope, and that is a return to simplicity. With that in mind, I have eschewed Facebook applications, a decision I heartily recommend, and I have also reverted to a happier era in videogame history. I have forsaken Madden, and embraced Tecmo.
That’s right, Tecmo Super Bowl, the first and best football videogame to use the rosters of all 28 (not 32) NFL teams, except for those greedy few who denied Tecmo immortality by holding out for a few dollars more. I’m looking at you, Bernie Kosar, Randall Cunningham and Jim Kelly.
The beauty of TSB lies in that what seems at first to be a simple game opens up into a world of inherent complexity. Though there are only eight plays to choose from on offense, the true champion player knows he has a variety of options to attack from. Each team’s strengths and weaknesses can be utilized to near perfection. For example, Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan’s tendency to drastically overthrow ordinary receivers leads to throwing perfect jump-balls for Irving Fryar. Timm (that’s right, two Ms) Rosenbach, quarterback of the Phoenix (yes, Phoenix) Cardinals may not be the greatest threat on the deep pass, but using short passes and rollouts the advanced player can create quite a lot of confusion in his opponent.
So come on, ditch the fancy modes, much too complex playbooks, and slightly more realistic graphics and join those few of us who know that sometimes you just can’t stop Christian Okoye when you’re playing with the Colts, that your kick returner’s speed is tied to that of your left tackle, and that there’s nothing more exciting than the rare double-jump cut-scene. You too can come live in a world where Joe Montana, Boomer Esiason, and Vinny Testaverde are still playing quarterback.
Well, scratch that last one. I guess some things will never change.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

25 Things About Me

I've talked before about how fascinated I am by the 25 Things About Me craze on Facebook. Well, I caved in to it and decided I might as well share it on my blog as well. (Please excuse the mention of the blog here)

25 Things About Me

1. I really, really miss Notre Dame, at least partially because I haven’t found a job yet to transition to the real world.
2. I wrote a mystery story in the 6th grade set in the 1950s and starring an elderly police detective and a parrot. It’s still probably the best thing I ever wrote.
3. I have never ridden a bike. (This one is for you, Lyons and Becsey)
4. I played the alto saxophone in high school but I gave it up shortly before going to college. I only picked that because it was the one Lisa plays on The Simpsons. Now I think I would have been better suited for tenor sax.
5. I was on the track and field team in high school, mainly as a way to get in shape. I am pretty proud that I once ran an 800 in under three minutes, but I shudder to think what I’d run it in now.
6. I also threw the javelin, which was a lot of fun even though I stunk.
7. My father was the cameraman accosted by Randy Johnson shortly after he signed with the Yankees.
8. Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author. I went a little crazy when he died and checked out maybe six of his books from the library even though finals were coming up (I didn’t read all of them). I’ve now read every novel he wrote and most of the other stuff, and it makes me sad that I’ll never get to read a novel of his for the first time again.
9. The first sporting event I vividly recall is the baseball strike of 1994. I remember thinking that the players would be picketing outside the stadiums.
10. I am a self-doubting hypochondriac. Which means that I’m constantly diagnosing myself with severe conditions only to call myself crazy for doing so.
11. I haven’t vomited since I was a freshman in high school. Part of this is because I go to rather extreme lengths to avoid people who are sick. Last week my brother had a stomach virus and I didn’t get within 20 feet of him until I was assured he was past it.
12. I have an unbelievably nerdy love of word games, i.e. text twist, boggle (Scramble on Facebook), cryptoquotes, and especially crossword puzzles. I miss getting a free NY Times crossword five days a week.
13. I have a blog. The url is outofworkdomer.blogspot.com. Couldn’t pass up the chance to drive up readership.
14. I like to play Texas Hold ‘Em, even though I may be one of the worst poker players ever. I justify playing as often as I do by playing for low stakes and never gambling in any other context.
15. I have almost no knowledge of popular music released in my lifetime. I hated all the music my sisters listened to when we were younger. Whenever I listen to the radio it’s either sports talk or classic rock.
16. Despite being a bookworm, I didn’t really like being an English major. Either I didn’t like the books we were reading, or the other people in the class had the stupidest ideas they just had to discuss.
17. I read a lot of mysteries, including over 50 Agatha Christie novels. I’m kind of a snob about it because I only read the classics (Chandler, Hammett, et al).
18. I like being able to name things in order, U.S. presidents, World Series winners, and Summer Olympic host sites being some examples.
19. I’ll be ashamed of this forever, but I didn’t vote in either of the last two elections, mainly because I forgot to look into absentee balloting until it was too late.
20. I hate parades. I mean, I really hate parades, to the extent that St. Patrick’s Day is one of my least favorite days of the year.
21. I’ve been on one rollercoaster in my life, and that was under duress. I don’t plan on doing it again anytime soon.
22. I love old movies, especially screwball comedies (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby), POW films (The Great Escape, Stalag 17) and classic westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Magnificent Seven).
23. When I was maybe three or four years old I fell down an escalator at the mall. For years afterward I was very wary of escalators and even today I am cautious when getting on or off.
24. I keep growing a beard only to get frustrated with it and then shave it off only to regret shaving it and grow one back. Objectively, I think I look better with a beard and I also dislike shaving, but sometimes having a beard drives me nuts because I keep playing with it. It’s a vicious cycle.
25. When I first saw these notes popping up I thought to myself, “There’s something I’d never do.”

No Country for Old Men

I don't have a lot of experience with reading a book after I've already seen the movie. I hope that doesn't sound too much like bragging, the truth is that I just don't see too many movies (despite a recent surge in my trips to the theater.) I've always wondered whether I generally liked the books more solely because I had seen them first.

I saw the Coen's No Country for Old Men last year and despite initially being reluctant to accept the film's ending, came to consider a good movie and probably deserving of the Best Picture over There Will Be Blood. I didn't have any real interest in reading the book, but after enjoying The Road this summer, I decided to look into Cormac McCarthy some more. (Unfortunately, my first attempt was Suttree, a book which could not be more different in style than The Road, however, my uncle gave me his copy of No Country, so I gave it a shot.)

My first impression of the novel was that it read for like a shooting script for a movie than any other book I'd ever read. The sentences were like stage directions, especially in scenes where Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin's character in the movie) is hiding the money or trying to figure out his escape. McCarthy's narration in these scenes is interesting in that there's very little attention to the thoughts of either Moss or Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The problem with these passages is that they are much more interesting on screen, because it can be annoying to read so many short sentences about someone using a screwdriver to open up the vent in a hotel room. And sometimes you get bored and lose track of what's going on, especially since McCarthy never explains what his characters are thinking.

Interspersed with the chase scenes are internal monologues delivered by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). In the book, Bell is rather a stereotypical southern sheriff character, with a lot of plain-spoken idioms and an annoying habit of using "a" instead of "an". At times I thought McCarthy let Sheriff Bell devolve into a Foghorn Leghorn caricature, but I appreciated the character's digressions on his belief that the world is indeed getting worse. I don't know if I've read many books featuring characters with that viewpoint.

McCarthy's prose is spare and almost entirely devoid of adornment. The moments when he does try to be a "writer" instead of a storyteller are jarring though. There were more of these in The Road than here, and I suspect they are a hallmark of his earlier works, like the aforementioned Suttree. I found his use of punctuation annoying (he only uses apostrophes when it would be too confusing not to, so she'd uses one but didnt does not) but this is a minor concern.

The action moves fast and is very gripping, which is a rather remarkable achievement when you consider that I was pretty confident that I knew how everything turned out. I'll give it an 8 out of 10.

Next? Probably not Suttree (although I will have to look into more of McCarthy's work.) I'd like to get to a Barnes & Noble to use a gift card but I've got so much here I feel bad buying new books. I still have Bleak House, Howard's End, the second Charlie Chan mystery, Light in August, and quite a few other books on my shelf.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Emptying Out the Shelf #2

Here is one of the sample columns I wrote when I was trying to get an opinion column in The Observer, the campus newspaper at Notre Dame. It was one of my better efforts, I thought. When I submitted this column, the editor sent back an e-mail saying that he liked the column, but wanted to know if I could write about less serious things. I thought that was an odd request and almost out of spite, wrote a column about Tecmo Super Bowl. I got the job. I'll run that one later, for know, it's time for a history lesson. (Try not to groan so loudly.)

An Unpardonable Action

Marc Rich decided to use his billions to flee to Switzerland rather than stand trial for tax evasion. Oscar Collazo attempted to assassinate President Truman, and in doing so shot and killed a White House police officer. Orlando Bosch placed an explosive device in the bathroom of a Cuban airplane, killing all 73 people aboard.

Do you know what these men have in common? United States Presidents, who swear to protect and defend the Constitution, thought fit to give them unconditional pardons for their offenses, circumventing this country’s justice system through the use of a Constitutional relic which must be abolished.

If you think that such unquestioned power as provided in the form of the pardon is more appropriate for a monarch than for a President who is supposed to be accountable to the public, you are quite right. The pardon is a carry-over from the English monarchy, and the story of its inclusion in our system of government is a testament to its egregiousness.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the pardon’s inclusion was one of the pet causes of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, though more famous for his financial wizardry as the first secretary of the treasury, and of course for being shot by Aaron Burr, was well known in his day as a supporter of a powerful federal government. Many of his proposals at the Philadelphia Convention were interpreted by his peers as supporting a sort of elected monarch, a charge which was levied against him in later years, sullying his reputation. The pardon is one of the few of Hamilton’s ideas which was adopted.

Hamilton defended placing the unchecked power of the pardon in the hands of the president in Federalist No. 74. His argument is more like a defense of kingly power in general than a specific reasoning in favor of the pardon. Hamilton states as proven the notion that the pardon is a necessary part of government, to mitigate the occasional severity of the law. Therefore, Hamilton focuses his argument on why it is not so bad that the power should be vested in one person. According to Hamilton, the location of the power in a single person “would naturally inspire scrupulousness and caution” and that “the dread of being accused of…connivance” would also make the President pause.

Of course, American presidents have always been known for their fear of perceived “connivance.” This fear explains perfectly why Bill Clinton steadfastly refused to grant a pardon to his half-brother Roger, and why George W. Bush stood up to pressure from his own vice president to force Scooter Libby to pay off his debt to society. Oops.

President Bush can try to impress Americans by saying he deliberated at length over his choice to grant a reprieve to a man whose guilt is not even really contested, but it doesn’t really matter how long you consider a question if you still get the answer wrong. Libby’s sentence was not commuted in an attempt to show mercy on someone deserving of it, instead it was a political favor done to help the vice president’s friend, and, unlike any other action the president may take, there is nothing anyone can do about it but complain. Congress is unable to review a pardon and the courts can not reverse it. As a second term president, Bush no longer has to worry about the public turning him out of office, either.

Hamilton’s other argument in favor of the pardon power being in the president’s hands instead of the legislature is that in certain circumstances it will be beneficial to act quickly, and the legislature might allow “the golden opportunity” to pass. Like his first argument, this is more of a defense of monarchical power in total than a defense of the pardon, as the same argument could be applied universally, to every issue that can be raised.

The Founders decided that the legislative and judicial branches, as checks to the power of the president and to each other, were important enough to overcome the drawbacks of delay and indecision. Hamilton’s disagreement with this philosophy is evident in his writing, so it remains a mystery why the pardon power snuck through as really the only unchecked power of the president.

Whether presidents have ever been as scrupulous or cautious as Hamilton evidently expected them to be is a matter of debate. What has become abundantly clear over the course of the last several administrations, of both parties, is that they no longer are. There are times when pardons are called for, certainly, but why not let the issue be debated, or at least, held in check by the other branches of government. At the very least, administration officials like Scooter Libby would have to think twice before committing a crime, unable to count on a favor from a friend in a high place.

Quick Thoughts

I really liked The Office Super Bowl episode. The cold open featuring Dwight intentionally creating a fire to reinforce his safety lessons had me hoarse from laughter. I also got quite a kick out of him cutting the face off the CPR dummy. The Jim-Pam stuff (which loomed over much of the episode in the "I hope they don't do what I think they're doing" way) was pretty cute. The only thing I didn't really like was the fake movie/excuse to shoe-horn guest stars into the show. (Although, you have to admire Jack Black's willingness to do anything for a role. I can't even come up with a figure you could pay me to make out with Cloris Leachman.)

Some people don't like Dwight because he is doing more and more outrageous and fire-able things, but I've decided to just look at him as a sort of deus ex machina of awkward situations. He exists solely as a crutch for the writers, but it's a funny crutch, so I don't care.

The song that keeps running through my head the last few days is Loudon Wainwright III's "East Indian Princess." It's a song about an Indian teenager living in London who likes it much better than India, and it's pretty funny without being overly critical of the titular subject. I get a kick out of the line "she's safe as a cow on the Calcutta streets/This English way of life has got the other life beat."

I'm fascinated by the recent surge of 25 Things About Me posts on Facebook. Some people are so candid about themselves it's really amazing. You always learn something about the person. I feel a little guilty reading the notes of people who I've lost touch with or was never really close to, that's how personal some of these are.

I'm grateful to Bravo for putting the West Wing back in syndication, but it's a little tough to get through the 5th season right now.

I'm glad Bob Costas is going to be a part of the MLB Network, including doing some play-by-play announcing. He was really good at it and it's a shame NBC Sports fell apart about 10 years ago. Especially since it meant we were no longer able to listen to John Tesh's Roundball Rock on a weekly basis.

I liked last night's How I Met Your Mother. It was a much more successful effort to humanize Barney while still allowing him to maintain the character we've come to know. I may have to look into making a video resume. (I haven't yet seen last night's Big Bang Theory, but I'll get on it.)

I hope to finish reading Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men tonight or tomorrow and I'll review that here. I haven't seen any movies in the last few days. I keep thinking I should pop in my little brother's copy WALL-E to see if it's as good as people say, but I can't really motivate myself to do so.

The Thirteen Show

I know I promised to reserve judgment and avoid sweeping statements about the television programs I watch, but I have to say this about House: I really miss Cameron and Chase. Neither of them was in last night's episode for even a second of screen time, because we were presented with two patients last night, an utterly unlikeable and pedantic former cancer researcher, and the new star of the show, Thirteen.

Last night also featured Cuddy acting abominably toward House, in retribution for her having to be at work due to his difficult nature. I didn't mind this as much as some people seemed to, although I agree that the trip wire was too far. On a side note, maybe this is because they are trying to make her look like a frazzled new mother, but something is seriously wrong with Cuddy's hair. You know it's bad when I notice.

Last night's medical solution (for the guest patient) was actually quite interesting, although a little fudged according to Polite Dissent. It also led to a great line by House, which was much appreciated because...

This was supposed to be the 100th episode of House, and yet again he got less lines and screen time so we could all be forced to pretend to care about the medical maladies of Thirteen and her utterly contrived and unlikely relationship with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Where was the conversation between dour House and life-affirming patient of the week? Why was this patient allowed to pontificate without retribution? Answer: because they ran out of time.

I'll admit I was excited about the angle they were taking on the Thirteen storyline. Her getting sick due to Foreman's malfeasance intrigued me. But the writers did something they've become alarmingly fond of: they brushed it aside in a matter of minutes. I don't understand what they are thinking when they constantly introduce and then discard plotlines and developments that could take the show in all sorts of interesting new directions. Why not let Cameron and House interact a little more? Is there anyone out there who would object to seeing more Jennifer Morrison? Why does Thirteen's tumor and resulting blindness just go away? And how can they justify Foreman getting to keep his license without at least dragging the tension out on that one?

They tried to do a little bit of development with Wilson moving on a little with help from the all-knowing patient and Taub and his wife discussing children, and I appreciate the effort, if not the execution. Kutner is coming along nicely as the guy who stands up to House. Maybe now that Thirteen is out of the drug trial we can deal with them, although from the preview of next week's episode (oh no, Foreman and Thirteen are fighting!) it doesn't look likely.