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Monday, April 27, 2009

Porcine Influenza

I don't mean to make light of a disease which is at present infecting thousands of people around the world, but I want to say one thing about the panic surrounding Swine Flu, which I'm guessing few people under the age of 40 never knew about before last week:

CALM DOWN! Seriously, people, we're in the richest country on Earth, with the finest medical personnel and the most resources. You are not going to die from the Swine Flu. Of all the people who have come down with the illness in this country, precisely none have died. Only one person has had to spend the night at the hospital. Everyone is getting better, and largely on their own. Common and mass-produced drugs are known to be an effective treatment.

In 1976 there was a scare over Swine Flu, and exactly one American died from the effects of the illness. Over 30 died by taking a vaccination shot intended to combat that strain.

So, calm down, wash your hands often and cover your mouth when you cough, if you're really worried. But unless you're a student at St. Francis Prep in Queens, I really wouldn't start wearing a mask around town.

It annoys me that the news media just has to hear the word "Flu" and all of a sudden we've got a pandemic on our hands to rival the 1918 Influenza crisis which killed more people than World War I. It's just not true, people.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Wrestler

The Wrestler is not a great movie, but it features a searing performance by Mickey Rourke which eradicates the line between the movies and real life. Rourke's performance is a puzzle, it alone makes the movie relevant and yet at times the closeness of the story to Rourke's personal narrative is jarring and distracting. The film's other performances are fine, although I have to question whether Marisa Tomei really did enough to earn an Oscar nomination. Evan Rachel Wood is very good in a small role as the daughter to Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

One of the principal problems with The Wrestler is that the film blatantly asks you to feel sorry for The Ram without really providing any justification for it. Arronofsky and the screenwriter trivialize Robinson's decades of mistreatment to his daughter, and never even bring up the woman with whom Robinson had her. In scenes where Wood's character rejects The Ram, the film assumes we will feel sorry for the wrestler, but why should this be the case?

Should we feel sorry for people who do what they want, damn the consequences, and then aren't able to suffer those consequences? This is a question which can be applied to the film's star as well. Last fall there was an entirely inflated sense of rejoicing at the return of Mickey Rourke to stardom, as though we as a society should be in a rush to embrace him. Why? Am I being hard-hearted when I say that I don't really care about all the years we supposedly missed Rourke?

Anyway, the film does do a number of things right. I was never into wrestling at all, I always thought it was stupid and hated the idea that the outcomes were pre-arranged. That being said the film does evoke the era of big-time wrestling with appropriate nostalgia. The fake wrestling names are all pretty good, including Ram's rival the Ayatollah. The scenes where The Ram works at a deli counter are humorous, and the only occasion where Rourke's character shows anything close to a winning and sympathetic personality, save for an overtly self-righteous speech at the end.

Rourke's performance is impossible to ignore, but this movie feels smaller than it has a right to feel. There was a good story in here somewhere, but it feels more like a string of vignettes than a coherent story. Some of those vignettes are very good, and that earns the movie 5.4 out of 10.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Laughing Policeman

The weather sucks, he and his wife barely talk, and his stomach pain is so bad he can barely eat at all. Superintendent Martin Beck is already in a bad mood when news reaches him that nine people have been shot and killed on a double-decker bus in downtown Stockholm. Among the dead is one of Beck's fellow officers, an ambitious young detective with no discernible reason for being on that particular bus at that particular time. The question is left to Beck and the rest of Stockholm's police department, with reinforcements on their way from all over Sweden, was Det. Stenstrom working on a case at the time of his death, and is that the reason he and eight others were shot?

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's police procedural (the fourth in a series of ten, though the first that I have read) is a fast-paced and entertaining look at the way a police investigation operates. It is not a conventional mystery novel in that it does not invite the reader to guess at the solution from the beginning but rather allows the solution to evolve more authentically. There is also a stark difference between the genius-detective based works of Agatha Christie and other Golden Age writers. Here the entire department works on the case, and each man has his specialties and each makes important discoveries. There is Melander with a perfect memory, Larsson with physical courage, Kollberg with his fanatical work ethic, and several others. With no leads to start with, the men are forced to interview the victims families in the hope that something will turn up.

Sjowall and Wahloo adeptly create a mood of pessimism throughout their story. The weather is uniformly dreary, whether it is raining or snowing or not. The public and the newspapers are outraged as the investigation drags on without quick result, and in their disdain for the police the authors subtly put forth their own negativity towards Swedish society. The book is not a way to learn much about Swedish history but the zeitgeist of the era seems to be well-captured.

After reading three of John Updike's Rabbit novels back-to-back-back I needed a break, and this crime thriller was a perfect choice. I'll be looking into more of Sjowall and Wahloo. The Laughing Policeman gets 9.0 out of 10.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Romantic Comedies Are Evil

One of the great benefits of being single is that it gives me complete control over the movies I watch, which means there is zero chance I will have to sit through the 90-minute torture session about to open in theaters across the country. I am speaking of the latest Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy, entitled "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past".

In case you've missed the ubiquitous commercials, McConaughey (I don't care if I'm spelling it wrong or not) plays a Lothario who is visited by a ghost played by Michael Douglas (showing that the recession is taking a toll on Hollywood I guess, I mean, this man has an Oscar and he's taking a bit part in this crap?) who tells him that he has missed out on his dream girl and to show him how will take him through his past girlfriends. The movie will then presumably show it's star bedding an array of bombshell blondes (with one Asian chick thrown in so they don't wind up with a race problem at the studio) until he realizes that he should really be with The One That Got Away (Because He Mistreated Her And Only Cares About Mindless Sex.) TOTGABHMHAOCAMS is played in this movie by Jennifer Garner, who, the commercial shows us, is about to marry someone else, possibly someone who hasn't even slept with 100 different women, but who will be portrayed as a jerk because he doesn't find McConaughey charming as he interrupts his wedding.

My principal objection to this movie is that it is part of a disturbing trend wherein supposedly romantic movies extol and promote bad ideas for relationships. I'm not saying grown women are stupid enough to believe that the on-screen activities of the on-screen couples in this cinematic travesty are at all realistic, but what are we teaching young girls about relationships when we portray romance in this way? What do girls learn from a movie in which a man who behaves awfully can all of a sudden change overnight and become Mr. Right? Hey, you stick with that guy who treats you like dirt and sleeps with your friends, because one day, he's going to figure it all out and totally love you the way you deserve.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Job Hunting

No picture because there's no possible piece of ClipArt that can possibly encapsulate the epic fail of what can only be laughingly called my job search. As things stand I have now been a college graduate for 11 months and I don't have a job. In those months, I doubt I have even been on 11 job interviews, which is really sad. I have been rejected from multiple M.Ed programs, including the same one, based at my alma mater, twice. I have been rejected by retail stores, including several bookstores (where you think a degree in English might be considered a plus) and also a Subway sandwich shop. Seriously, Subway looked at my resume and passed.

I don't have a job because I don't have experience, because I don't know anybody in a position to get me a job, and because I can't stand the phony process of ass-kissing that business majors and other troglodytes refer to as "networking".

I'm sorry if I don't want to "build my network", put out "feelers" to "contacts" and engage in "mutually beneficial mouth-to-ass reconnaissance". I want to send in my information, get called in for an interview and get a job that I can do and then do it as well as I can. Why the heck does this have to be so protracted and painful? I have a college degree and good grades, I've done some things and every job I've ever had I been a diligent and reliable worker. Someone just give me a damn job to do and get out of my way.

Ugh, I'm sorry, but job hunting is the absolute worst. Everybody has their little suggestions and their implications that you must be doing something horribly wrong, and I'm getting sick and tired of it. If I hear yet another way in which I can improve my cover letters I think I'll go insane. How did we find ourselves living in a world where cover letters, which are basically pointless drivel and b.s., matter so much?

Sunday, April 19, 2009


After watching Doubt I felt compelled to go online and see what other people had to say about it, even though that meant a trip to that noted wasteland of intelligent thought, the imdb comment boards. Doubt is a film that simply requires a conversation, and it's been a long time since I saw a movie that inspired as many questions and as much, well, 'doubt' about the outcome.

Doubt's set-up is a perfectly executed dramatization of the concept of uncertainty. The film does nothing in it's 104 minutes to settle the issue of whether or not Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) did anything inappropriate with the only black student in his parish's grammar school.

We all have different ways of interpreting information and coming to our own opinions. Some people rely on instinct and what they feel is their innate ability to understand people. Others rely on symbols and superstition, which the more organized among us get to call religious faith. Some people seek an understandable truth, and will except whatever solution is offered when no real truth can be found.

All of these people are in Doubt, in the guise of Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius and Amy Adams' Sister James. But they are also in the audience. After watching Doubt you will have an opinion on the issue at hand, but that opinion will say more about you than it will over the true guilt or innocence of Father Flynn. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. Writer and Director John Patrick Shanley is showing us that as human beings we have a need to make decisions, even when we can not be certain that our choice is the right one. Even if you can admit that you don't know (which, if you read the imdb comments, seems like a small likelihood) you'll be inclined to one side or the other.

Apparently Shanley did decide whether or not Father Flynn is guilty, but the only people he has ever told are Philip Seymour Hoffman and the guy who played the part on Broadway. This may be infuriating, but it is understandable. If the truth of the matter were revealed it would change the meaning of the film from a brilliant exploration of our attempts to understand the world around us into a 'told you so' game where one group of people could laugh at the foolishness of the other, even though it was just as likely that they themselves would be wrong.

Aside from the philosophy, Doubt does a good job evoking a bygone era of Catholic education, in the days when the Church was grappling with a changing world and wondering whether to adapt to it or insist that the world accept its terms. The acting, much lauded at the Academy Awards, is fantastic, and all four principals deserved their nominations. Viola Davis plays the boy's mother, and manages to give her character's difficult life a full showing in just one unforgettable scene.

Doubt is a smart film that will leave you thinking, and for that it gets 8.8 out of 10. I'd recommend watching it with a group of people you'd like to have a discussion with.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Jose Reyes

In the last two days I've received multiple trade offers in a fantasy baseball league. My friend keeps offering me unbalanced packages in exchange for Jose Reyes. One of his offers was three-players, including the defending AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, for Reyes alone. I rejected this trade and all the others. For one thing I am worried about Lee's 9.90 ERA even though it is early and his curveball seems like it's still as good as ever. But more to the point is that Reyes is a player I want on my team, even if it's just an exercise in geekdom and Sabrmetricity.

Reyes is perhaps the most exciting player in all of baseball, even though he doesn't hit many home runs. His speed and baserunning ability make him fun to watch, as does the sheer fact that he is obviously having fun out there. A lot of tight-sphinctered Philly fans call Reyes immature and unprofessional, but I've never understood this line of thinking. Baseball is a game, no matter how much they're paying you to play it. So what's wrong with smiling and enjoying yourself with your teammates?

Anyway, tonight's game offered a quintessential example of how exciting Reyes can be. The situation: Castillo on 3rd, Reyes on first, Murphy at the plate. Padres P Mujica uncorks a pitch that goes through the catcher Nick Hundley's legs and ricochets up the third-base line. Castillo scores easily, and Reyes, who had been attempting to steal second, breaks for third on Hundley's errant throw home. When the ball gets by Mujica covering the plate, Reyes breaks for home and scores well ahead of 1B Adrian Gonzalez's throw.

Maybe it doesn't seem exciting in print, but Reyes essentially scored a run from first base on a passed ball. It was incredibly exciting to watch. Baseball is prone to long periods of inactivity (so is football, but no one ever seems to complain about that) and when the action comes it is in frustratingly short bursts. Jose Reyes makes more of those short bursts happen than any other player. And that's why I like having him on my team, whether it's at Citi Field or in cyberspace.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Citi Field

When I was younger I noticed that I could always tell when a player's baseball card photo was taken at Shea Stadium. The blue walls and the orange seats in the lower levels made it a relatively easy task.

I was not one of those overly-sentimental folks getting teary-eyed about the closing of a baseball stadium last year. It was clearly time for an upgrade, and I don't think anyone can seriously contend that Citi Field isn't one. That being said, watching the first game from the new park on TV last night was a bit of a disappointment, and not just because Mike Pelfrey decided to christen the place in true Met fashion, by giving up a home run to the first batter.

A lot of this is undoubtedly just unfamiliarity, something that will go away with time, as Citi Field accumulates memories (and hopefully a few wins). But the one concern I have is that the place doesn't really scream "Mets" the way Shea did. The outfield walls are green and the background behind the plate is brick, both drab and both utterly commonplace.

I think that the true test will be my first trip to Citi Field. (Whenever I can scrounge up a spare $100 or so.) The park didn't come across well on TV, except in the broader shots of the outfield and scoreboard. Part of the problem is that I couldn't mentally fill in the gaps in the image on TV, because I don't really know what everything looks like yet.

The one thing I have heard that is a drastic improvement over Shea is that you can watch the game from the concourses. At Shea you felt like you were inside whenever you went to the concessions, but at newer stadiums like the Phillies new park, you can walk around and still feel like you're outside. This is a good sign for the design of the park.

Last thing, I know Jackie Robinson was a heroic figure who did a great thing and deserves unending recognition, but he never played for the Mets. It only annoys me because I know Wilpon grew up a huge Dodger fan and sometimes it feels like he wishes he could own the Brooklyn Dodgers instead of the New York Mets, with this just being the latest example. I understand that the Mets don't exactly have the most glorious history, but you only emphasize that fact when you co-opt history from somewhere else.

Any way, like I said before, win some games, and the stadium will look a lot better to everyone.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Quick Thoughts

I keep humming the last verse of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer":

"In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that's laid him down
or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame
'I am leaving I am leaving' but the fighter still remains."

This is a more hopeful note than another part of the song which has perhaps more relevance to my situation:

"Asking only workman's wages I come looking for a job but I get no offers..."

Luckily I don't pass 7th Avenue all that often.

I've been reading submissions to a literary magazine for about a week now. I've probably only read eight or nine, but I must say I am disappointed in the quality. It may just be the case that the magazine that isn't paying me to do this or the authors for their stories even can't pull in stories with, you know, literary merit. That being said, some of these stories are just irredeemably bad. The worst was about a Mexican girl being abducted by some creep and her family just letting it happen because her honor was compromised and apparently Mexico is stuck in the 16th century. The dialogue was so poorly written and awkward that I thought the whole story may have been translated directly from Spanish by one of those notoriously bad internet sites.

One of the other stories I decided to rate as "unpublishable" because the author used the word "plummeting" instead of "pummeling". Another was clearly just a dissatisfied prison psychiatrist writing about her own boring situation.

On the one hand these stories make me think about writing my own stories for submission, because I know I can do better than these, but they also remind me how difficult it is to tell a really good story. Reading a novel, especially if you're trying just to get to the end as quickly as possible, it can be so easy to gloss over some parts and miss out on the small things that make a novel enjoyable. I don't remember where I heard it, but there is the thought that a good story has at least one idea on every page: one thing that should really cause you to think about what the author is doing. Most of the stories I've been reading possess one half-formed idea at best. The story I got today honestly sounded more like someone telling me about a story they had read than actually trying to write a compelling story themselves.

It's never a good idea to get too preoccupied with how a baseball team is doing after the first week of the season. The whole point of playing 162 games is that that is really how much baseball is required before records and statistics of significance can be compiled. So I am fairly optimistic about the Mets this season. Johan Santana looks like he is going to be fun to watch. He was out-pitched today but he struck out 13 batters I believe in only 7 innings. Too bad going to a game at the new stadium would cost me more than my monthly student-loan payment.

I've seen the following movies recently, but didn't feel like posting full reviews.

The Hustler- 7.8 (Paul Newman is always good, and Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott are fun to watch in this rather deep sports movie.)

Vertigo- 6.0 (I know this is highly rated on the AFI list but I feel like there are a lot of Hitchcock films I like better.)

Raging Bull- 6.6 (This is probably blasphemous to many people but again, this is lower on my list than other Scorsese pictures.)

Children of a Lesser God- 6.8 (Marlee Matlin won a well-deserved Oscar for playing a deaf woman who doesn't want her boyfriend to teach her how to speak.)

The Front- 7.0 (Woody Allen acting in a movie about a guy who "fronts" for blacklisted screenwriters in the '50s)

Manhattan Murder Mystery- 6.4 (Clever Woody Allen movie that would be better if his character in it wasn't so extremely annoying.)

Patton- 7.6 (George C. Scott really is a phenomenal actor, and the movie is an entertaining look at a very outlandish 20th century figure.)

Network- 9.4 (This is a great movie. Paddy Chayefsky's script features memorable monologues and a intriguing dramatization of his fears regarding television. William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty are all great.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rabbit is Rich

As you could probably guess, I've been thinking rather a lot about the economy. Being jobless for as long as I have been and with no idea what to do about it has taken up the larger part of my consciousness of late. In that light then John Updike's pulitzer-prize winner Rabbit is Rich, the third of the four Rabbit novels, serves as a needed reminder that there have been bad economies before. Rabbit himself is prosperous (hence the title) as the front man at a Toyota dealership and an uninformed speculator in precious metals. But the setting is 1979 and inflation is at double digits while gas prices soar, and even the president admits that the nation is suffering from "malaise". There is a sense in the novel that money is losing its value, and that it's better to spend it now than hold on to it while inflation makes it worthless.

Rabbit may be rich but he is not without problems. His son is coming back home against Rabbit's wishes, and he's bringing a girl who is not his girlfriend, but with whom he does sleep with. Rabbit and his wife Janice have finally settled into a quiet mid-life after rocky affairs and several heartbreaking tragedies, but they are stuck living in her mother's house despite their prosperity.

Unlike the first two novels there is no real tragedy or event which focuses the narrative, giving perspective to the story as a whole. Rabbit's life is really calming down, but the sense of struggle is still within him. This is redirected into increasingly nasty conflicts with his son. Rabbit and Nelson engage in psychological warfare which is occasionally brutal and which threatens to explode, but never really does.

Updike hints at potential disasters throughout the novel. Nelson has four separate automobile accidents, but none of them are major. Nelson is somewhat forced into marriage to a girl he impregnates (a different girl than he has been sleeping with in his grandmother's house, as it turns out) but though Rabbit practically encourages him to run off before the wedding he doesn't.

This is the longest of the novels so far, and not to accommodate any excess of plot. Updike is lingering around far more than he did when both Rabbit and he were young men. Unfortunately not all of that lingering is interesting, too much of it focuses on nature and the like. Updike is better when describing in detail the furnishing of the houses of Rabbit's country-club friends, shedding light on the unreality and pretension of suburban get-togethers and middle-age exclusivity. A dinner party where an outsider couple were regrettably invited is wonderfully written.

Ultimately, though the set-up provides much of interest, nothing much happens to Rabbit in this novel, but that seems to be the point. Rabbit works hard to keep himself safe and spends his time trying to induce a fight worth fighting, but it just doesn't present itself. He tries to conceive of another affair, but the result is far different from what Rabbit desires.

I'll give the novel a 7.5 out of 10. Just one more Rabbit novel to go.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

House Tackles A Serious Subject... (Spoilers)

...and falls on its face. At least so far.

I'm watching a Season 4 episode of House right now and it's practically eerie in light of last night's stunning plot development. It's also more than a little aggravating, because Kutner is really one of the bright spots of the competition to form a new team. His thrill-seeking and his sense of excitement at the cool things being a doctor lets you do made his character stand out from the crowd. In the episode I'm watching now House asks the team to dig up a dead body. Kutner's one-word reaction: "Cool."

I do appreciate (though fortunately it is an issue I have never had to deal with) that suicide is often sudden and unexpected, leaving everyone affected without an answer. That being said, the writers of House did not invest the proper amount of time and effort into making Kutner a round character, and their idea to have him commit suicide (because of Kal Penn's request to depart the show) reeks of trying to give the character a significance in death that he didn't have in life. It's cheap to kill off a lesser character to focus on the major ones. Seeing the frequent cuts to Foreman and Thirteen during the funeral made me angry that would use suicide as a means to spend even more time on this tiresome relationship.

I also thought the treatment of suicide was uneven and in places crass. They did run the obligatory "If you have thoughts of ending your life..." announcement at the end of the episode, but then followed it up with one of the creepiest and most offensive things I've ever seen on network TV. They launched an online memorial to Kutner, with fake notes written to him by the other characters on the show? This had to be an executive decision, if it was the creative talent that did it then I don't know what to think about that.

The only positive to come out of this is that seeing House struggle to explain the inexplicable should provide some real drama to close out what has otherwise been a lackluster season. I hope the persistent theory online that the writers are just going to abandon the new team entirely aren't true. I think Taub has real potential, and is just now coming into his proper prominence.

A Shift in Tone

According to my most loyal, and possibly only, reader, I am alienating my potential audience through the focus on movie reviews, especially since most of the movies I see are from thirty or forty years ago. (Case in point, today I got The Deer Hunter in the mail from Netflix.)

The truth is, I've gotten lazy, and the hypothetical audience I'll refer to as "you" deserve better. Now I'm not going to abandon reviews, because I think they are good practice and a way to keep my writing sharp, but I'll be reviewing a smaller portion of the movies I see. I still plan to review every book I read, but those take longer to read, effectively spacing out those posts more appropriately.

What will be taking up the rest of the site? I'm not sure exactly, but I will try to write more about my opinions on the world in general. I'm not really plugged into the news enough, so this isn't going to turn into some political site or anything like that, and I plan to stick to my promise not to indulge the inner voice that cries out, "You're more interesting than most people. Others want to hear about your feelings and the way you spend your time."

There may be another post on here later, I've got a couple things I am considering writing on but laziness so often wraps its cozy blanket around me. Later, Jose.

Friday, April 3, 2009

In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night, winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1967, features Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia policeman detained in the deep south, where he begins to help Chief of Police Gillespie, played by Rod Steiger, solve a murder. Neither of them are happy with the situation, and an uneasy working relationship and begrudging respect persists between them.

The movie begins with the discovery of a dead body and Gillespie's order to arrest anyone deemed suspicious. Tibbs is arrested at the train station without questioning, and when he calls his own chief to get him out of trouble, is told to stay around and help with the investigation.

The investigation is corrupted by both Tibbs and Gillespie's biased viewpoints, Tibbs desperate to pin the murder on a local plantation owner and Gillespie so desperate he immediately jails anyone who looks suspicious and declares the case over. There is also resentment on the part of the white citizens of Sparta, Mississippi who don't like the idea of a black police officer. Even Gillespie's racism comes through occasionally, despite the fact that he knows he needs Tibbs's help.

I was worried that In the Heat of the Night would be one of those important issue films that forget that they are supposed to be telling an interesting story. Crash, perhaps the worst Best Picture winner I have seen, fits into this category. However, the story in this movie is very strong with sensible and yet surprising plot twists. Many scenes which seem unnecessary are later revealed to be of significance, a sign that the script is well-structured. Tibbs is also not just a Black saint, he is a good man and capable at his job, but he is a real person too; he gets angry and scared like any man would under such pressure.

Rod Steiger won an Oscar for his performance as Gillespie, and it is a wonderful display of acting. (As a sidenote, Poitier went un-nominated, apparently because voters split between his roles in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and To Sir With Love. Poitier was actually the number one box office draw for 1967.) Steiger's southern accent feels right, and the wounded pride he infuses into the character is spot on. I found his constant gum-chewing a tad over the top, but there were times when Steiger was able to use even that to express some of his character's wariness and unease.

In the Heat of the Night deals with an important issue, but does so while never neglecting the story it is telling. It features two great performances, and a pretty cool theme song written by Quincy Jones and sung by Ray Charles. For all that it gets 8.7 out of 10.