The Girl Who Played With Fire

I have always had the problem of preconceived notions when seeing a film shortly after reading the book from which it was adapted.  This doesn’t historically apply to expectations about the look of the characters as many fans typically do.  If the character is blond but played by a brunette, or white and then played by a black man, as long as it doesn't change the character or plot of the film, I'm fine with creative casting.
A couple of examples of this jump to mind.  The first is the most recent -- Daniel Craig's casting as James Bond.  Bond, you see, it traditionally dark-haired, and Daniel Craig is not.  There was an incredible uproar the likes have seldom ever been seen – notably from danielcraigisnotbond.com – about a literary character when Craig was announced as the sixth (discounting Woody Allen) James Bond.  As much as I grew up loving James Bond, I was not in the group that thought hair color was central to the character.  (I admit, if someone had cast a red-head, that would be a little tough to digest, but not unthinkable.)  I thought Craig was much more in line with the literary description of Bond, who was attractive but not incredibly handsome, than Pierce Brosnan, who was too pretty for the role, although he did have a great shock of black hair.  Craig’s performance and tone of Casino Royale (did I like it?  So much I reviewed it twice – here and here) hit the nail on the character’s head, something that hadn’t been done properly since Timothy Dalton (gasp!).
A second example is Wesley Snipes’ casting in Rising Sun, which I talked about at length here.  The short of it is, Snipes (for those of you who aren’t familiar – is black) had the challenge of playing a character that was written as a white man and changed to a black man to water-down the film.  The ultimate effect was only disconcerting in one subplot that didn’t ring true, but otherwise it wasn’t distracting – only if Snipes had also colored his hair blonde.

So anyway, that’s not that type of preconceived notions I have problems with.  My problem is with overall familiarity.  If I'm very familiar with the book and plot, I find myself bored if the film is faithfully adapted.  It is akin to marking off a checklist of events that you expect to see.  The effect is to remove all anticipation, wonder, excitement, and suspense.  You know what is going to happen to the characters, and are actually disappointed when it happens exactly as scripted.

High Fidelity was the first time I remember the effect crippling to my enjoyment of the movie.  I had finished Nick Horby's excellent novel about two weeks before I went to see the film adaptation starring John Cusack.  Critics and audiences lauded the movie for its brilliance, and my expectations were high going in.  Unfortunately, I found myself unable to get out of checklist-mode; the screenplay was so loyal to the book (and why wouldn't it be -- it was a great read and easily adaptable to film) that it felt like reading the book again, this time visually.  I do enjoy rereading books from time to time, but I don't ever reread them back-to-back.

Direct "loyal" adaptations from books are usually much worse than "loosely adapted" or "based on" or even reboot concept for my interest level.  It doesn't matter how much I enjoyed the book, the film just plays out as somewhat tired.

I have found that time heals all wounds.  The cure for this problem has demonstrated to be either (1) don’t read the book before seeing the film – although the desire to read the book after seeing a film is not equal to the reverse instinct, or (2) read the book well in advance of seeing the film.  And by well, I mean at least six months, the longer the better.  This actually worked wonderfully for me for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where it had been so long since the book that I had totally forgotten that Harry was his own “father’s” patronus.  Because I had forgotten many of the important details of the book, I was able to have suspense again, and I was able in that case to successfully enjoy both book and film on the levels they were intended.
All this preface is to explain my one sentence review of The Girl Who Played With Fire, where both the character problems as well as familiarity issues were in full force: I'm not sure if the movie was good or not.

(Slight follow: Lisbeth Salander is already an iconic character, so if you are casting someone who is not a small, slight girl, you are making a mistake.)


The Man With the Golden Gun

The Man With the Golden Gun was Ian Fleming's last James Bond novel before his untimely death in 1964. Although Bond was known for grand scales and grander drama, his last two books (the previous being You Only Live Twice, which I reviewed here, were by comparison, intimate. Fleming also knew that you didn't need an exploding volcano fortress or a Solex Agitator to create an damn good, if flawed, spy novel.

Executive Summary
TMWTGG starts of with a bang, but ends with a long whimper due to an uninspiring villain, a dimwitted Bond, a naive and oddly prudish heroine, a reckless and murderous Felix Leiter, and incomprehensible decision-making on all parts.  Read Chapters 1-2 and call it a day.

Overanalytic Spoiler-Rich Synopsis
When we last left our hero at the end of Twice, he was an amnesiac who had unknowingly fathered a child with Kissy Suzuki and was headed into Russia to find out who he was. Bond's fabled luck didn't hold up between books, and as a result we have two of the most riveting chapters in the entire series opening TMWTGG.
    He had expected some delay before he could establish his identity. He had been warned to expect it by the charming "Colonel Boris" who had been in charge of him for the past few months after he had finished his treatment in the luxurious Institute of hte Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad. A man's voice came on the line. "Captain Walker speaking. Can I help you?"
    James Bond spoke slowly and clearly. "This is Commander James Bond speaking. Number 007. Would you put me though to M., or his secretary, Miss Moneypenny. I want to make any appointment."
The K.G.B. it appears have taken advantage of his condition and brainwashed him into their assassin. He's shaky, on nerves, and just a little off. MI6 isn't fooled a bit, but play along to try to find out what is going on. What is going on is Bond is being played as a psychopathic puppet, who's just barely holding it together.
    "...And the Chief of Staff says he hopes you'll be free for lunch afterwards," Major Townsend said cheerfully. James Bond smiled for the first time. It was a thin smile which didn't light up his eyes. He said, "That's very kind of him. Would you tell him I'm afraid I shan't be free."
Bond's chilling allusion to his upcoming assassination attempt of his boss sets the stage for the confrontation with M., which the old man gamely allows. Like Bond, he plays it on the edge to try to get some information and relies on his own Q branch devices to avail him if needed. After a brief exchange of tense political words:
    James Bond's hand moved nonchalantly to his right-hand coat pocket. M., with equal casualness, shifted his chair back from his desk. His left hand felt for the button under the arm of the chair. "For instance?" said M. quietly, knowing that death had walked into the room and was standing beside him, and that this was an invitation for death to take his place in the chair.
    James Bond had become tense. There was a whiteness round his lips. The blue-grey eyes still stared blankly, almost unseeingly at M. The words rang out harshly, as if forced out of him by some inner compulsion, "It would be a start if the warmongers could be eliminated, sir. This is for Number One on the list." The hand, snub-nosed with black metal, flashed out of the pocket, but, even as the poison hissed down the barrel of the bulb-butted pistol, the great sheet of armor-plate glass hurtled down from the baffled slit in the ceiling and, with a last sigh of hydraulics, braked to the floor. The jet of viscous brown liquid splashed harmlessly into its centre and trickled slowly down, distorting the reflection of M.'s face and the arm he had automatically thrown up for additional protection.
Surviving the cyanide attack, and having Bond cured in their own rehab facility (electric shocks), M. is presented a dilemma. He knows Bond was brainwashed, but he can't just pretend things are back to normal given his follow-through with the attempt. His solution: set Bond on a suicide-mission to find and take out a well-known and prolific K.G.B. gunman, Scaramanga. If he is successful, he's earned his way back in. If not, the problem is solved.

M. retires to his club to read the dossier on Scaramanga, which includes an opinion piece by a former professor of history on the assassin's gun play symbolism:
    "I have doubts about his alleged sexual prowess, for the lack of which his gun fetish would be either a substitute or a compensation. I have also noted, from a profile of this man in Time magazine, one fact which supports my thesis that Scaramanga may be sexually abnormal. In listing his accomplishments, Time notes, but does not comment upon, the fact that this man cannot whistle..."
Fleming's homophobia is only pretty ridiculous display here, which only serves to provide a few eye-rolls in an otherwise interesting history of the man.

So, Bond sets off on a cross-continental chase for his man, knowing that Scaramanga's skills are likely better than his own.
    It was all very fine to be told to "eliminate" the man, but James Bond had never liked killing in cold blood and to provoke a draw against a man who was possibly the fastest gun in the world was suicide.
His detective work still leads him face-to-face with his man in a bordello, where Scaramanga gets the drop on him, not knowing if Bond is a innocent stranger or on a mission.  Instead of shooting the suspicious Englishman, he kills a pair of the innkeeper's pet blackbirds in a casual display of marksmanship.  Bond doesn't even bat an eye, and when Scaramanga tries to be even more menacing with his pistol, Bond dismisses him.
    Bond said, "People don't tell me what to do. I tell them." He walked on into the middle of the room and sat down at a table. He said, "Come and sit down and stop trying to lean on me. I'm unleanable-on."
Scaramanga's surprising response is to shrug and do just that, as if to acknowledge that this stranger can't be bothered by such things as a nearly psychotic man waving and shooting things around him. Scaramanga then proposes to hire Bond as a bodyguard for $1000 for a hotel-stock scheme he has going on. Though knowing it's probably not a good idea, Bond trusts his instincts and accepts.

In this little encounter, we have several examples of assassins behaving stupidly. First, Scaramanga may not know that he's been targeted for assassination himself, but a stranger showing up in his secret hideaway should be all he needs to follow through with his instinct. Instead of Bond's steely reserve confirming he is indeed an assassin (who else wouldn't be intimidated by gun-play?), Scaramanga's financial situation with his hotel leads him to jump ahead to a scenario where he doesn't see a threat but an asset to get him out of trouble. He doesn't appear to be thinking very straight, not that he's portrayed so far as anything other than an American thug who gets off with his gun.

And then you have James Bond, perhaps too cool under fire, taunting Scaramanga with innocent references to his past ("circus act") and behaving just a little too snarky for someone who decides to put himself in an even more dangerous situation. As he is being chauffeured to the real estate cite, he reflects on his choices thus far:
    James Bond was uncomfortably aware that for the past hour he had been driving into limbo, and that his nearest contact was a girl in a brothel thirty miles away. The situation was not reassuring."
Perhaps this can be shrugged off to Bond's only-recent recovery from his brainwashing to make such an impulsive error, but Bond's instincts always come through for him (except when he is amnesiatic and wants to go check out Russia).

After a few bourbons in his hotel suite, Bond gets up early to take an ocean swim. Not to be outdone, he encounters Scaramanga already working out on a trampoline:
    Scaramanga's body gleamed with sweat in the sunshine as he hurled himself high in the air from the stretched canvas and bounded back, sometimes from his knees or his buttocks and sometimes even from his head. It was an impressive exercise in gymnastics.
I'm not so familiar with the 'head bounce' on a trampoline, but that seems to be a wee bit dangerous. After both me have preened and strutted, they reconvene in the lobby, where Scaramanga reveals his plan: He is hosting a weekend for some high-roller gangsters, hoping to entice them into buying stock in the hotel and relieving him of his poor investment.

Of course, it turns out the be a little more than that.  As Bond eavesdrops on the conversation, the group of investors are more of a group of collaborative investors, featuring a thinly-veiled representative from Moscow, who are looking to influence global pricing of such things as sugar.  (E.g., Sugar in the novel is used to purchase arms from Russia by Cuba.  By keeping the prices low, Russia gets more product for the sale.)

Before attending to business, however, the Russian agent lets Scaramanga know who he is dealing with.
"There is a man that is called James Bond that is looking for him in this territory.  This is a man who is from the British Secret Service.  I have no informations or descriptions of this man, but it seems he is highly rated by my superiors.  Mr. Scaramanga, have you heard of this man?"
Scaramanga, having just hired a British stranger, uses his keen insight:
Scaramanga snorted.  "Hell, no!  And should I care?  I eat one of their famous secret agents for breakfast from time to time..."
I can't help but be reminded of Happy Gilmore's exchange between Shooter and Happy:'
Shooter: I eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast!
Happy: You eat pieces of shit for breakfast?
Shooter: [Awkward pause]... No!
Later, Scaramanga reveals just what he thinks about Mark Hazard (aka James Bond's cover):
"Just don't you worry your tiny head about the limey, Hal.  He'll be looked after when the weekend's over.  Picked him up in a bordello in a village nearby... For all I know he may be this James Bond man Mr. Hendricks has told us about.  I should worry..."
In betwixt all this, Scaramanga shoots one of the group for not wanting to buy into his mortgage buyout scheme (and blow it for the others).  This is standard Fleming fare.  Note to prospectus collaborators in an underhanded international scheme: do NOT boldly announce your dissent at the meeting.

I also forgot to mention that Bond isn't alone at the estate; Felix Leiter is also on the case, and has already bugged the entire place.

So, to recap, Scaramanga is a physical specimen, a fantastic shot and peerlessly quick on the draw, but also a braggart, clueless, careless, and has unknowingly revealed his plan to Bond and the CIA.  We are at the midway point in the novel, and everything seems to be coming up Milhouse, at which point Bond gets stunningly careless.

The group has a party in the hotel ballroom, but the party isn't very entertaining.  Scaramanga dares Bond to shake things up.
Stupidly, he wanted to assert his personality over this bunch of tough guys who rated him insignificant.  He didn't stop to think that is was bad tactics, that we would be better off being the ineffectual limey.
Bond, flying under the radar as the "limey" from the bordello, proceeds to put on a shooting exhibition to exert his own cock above all the others.  I'm hard-pressed to think of something more foolish to do when you are trying to make sure people don't think you are a British assassin.  No one appears to think anything of it.

This incident becomes more glaring later on, as Mary Goodnight (Bond's "assistant") follows orders from HQ a little too directly and sneaks into his hotel room via the window to tell him Mr. Hendriks is a KGB assassin himself sent to hunt Bond down.  Given this information, it is incredulous that Bond's gun play in the ballroom wouldn't have sent at least someone's radar into overdrive.  Hmm, he's British, check.  Really good with guns, check...

Goodnight, by the way, has an incredible naivety about sex and James Bond.
Her voice was desperate.  "I had to come.  I had to find you somehow.  I got on to you through the girl at that, er, dreadful place [Editor's note: she means the bordello].  I left the car in the trees down the drive and just sniffed about.  There were lights on in some of the rooms and I listened and, er" -- she blushed crimson -- "I gathered you couldn't be in any of them and then I saw the open window..."
It is hilarious to think that she located Bond by finding the one room where sex wasn't happening and deducing he was there.  Naturally!

Mary's clumsy, loud entrance alerts Scaramanga, though, who enters Bond's room through a secret passage to see what is going on.  He owns him dead-to-rights with his Golden Gun in his hand, but Bond and Goodnight throw him off by blustering and showing outrage, since they are engaged to be married.  Further, to allay his suspicions about him being James Bond, he asks how could he have tracked him down to a brothel in the first place.  Scaramanga demures, given the evidence that no one could have tracked him to a brothel, and that Mark Hazard must have been there by coincidence.

Incidentally, James Bond found him at the brothel by hanging out in an airport and stealing a note addressed to Scaramanga that happened to be in an unattended pile of letters on a concourse.  Seriously.

Anyway, Bond again enjoys the fortune of having the dimmest adversary, yet deadliest with a pistol, on file.  One imagines Bond could insert his theme song into a tape player, press play and do a little jig in a tuxedo and Scaramanga would still be unconvinced.  So, wisely, Bond decides not to take advantage of his ridiculous amount of good luck anymore; he sneaks into Scaramanga's room (!) and removes the bullet from the next chamber, so he'll have the drop on Scaramanga.

He further gets the drop on yet another conversation (using the same champagne glass to the ear method) between Hendricks and Scaramanga.  Hendricks confirms without a doubt that Hazard is James Bond, and they conspire a way to kill him so as not to cause suspicion amongst the staff or other guests.  (After all, this is a respectably hotel!)  Bond can't overhear the plans, but he decides to go along with the plans, confident his one-less bullet in the pistol and the I know that they know but they don't know that I know strategy will give him an edge.

During the train ride, Bond's slim advantage is ruined when Scaramanga decides to have a 'yee-haw' moment:
Scaramanga was in ebullient form.  "Hear the train blow, folks!  All aboard!"  There was an anticlimax.  To Bond's dismay he took out his golden pistol, pointed it at the sky, and pressed the trigger.  He hesitated only momentarily and fired again... Scaramanga checked his gun.  He looked thoughtfully at Bond and said, "All right, my friend.  Now then, you get up front with the driver."
Bond smiled happily, "Thanks.  I've always wanted to do that since I was a child.  What fun!"
It's just weird to see Bond playing the clueless dolt for show, but then again, the master criminals don't exactly deserve much more.  It's not long before the climax (?) of the book is upon us, where Scaramanga's master plan is revealed:
The Rasta quickly pushed up the lever and the speed of the train gathered back to twenty miles an hour.  He shrugged.  He glanced at Bond.  He licked his lips wetly.  "Dere's white trash across de line.  Guess mebbe its' some frie' of de boss."

Bond strained his eyes.  Yes!  It was a naked pink body with golden blonde hair!  A girl's body!

Scaramanga's voice boomed against the wind.  "Folks.  Just a little surprise for you all.  Something from the good old Western movies.  There's a girl on the line ahead.  Tied across it.  Take a look.  And you know what?  It's the girl friend of a certain man we've been hearing of called James Bond.  Would you believe it?  And her name's Goodnight, Mary Goodnight.  It sure is a good night for her.  If only that fellow Bond was aboard now, I guess we'd be hearing him holler for mercy."
Of course, Bond doesn't 'holler for mercy', he leaps into action, and a gunfight ensues in the cabin whilst Bond desperately tries to stop the train.

Moment aside, the master plan of Scaramanga appears to have been to kidnap Goodnight and place her on the tracks.  The reason this is done is to, apparently, get Bond to reveal he is Bond, which they have known all along, so they can then have a gunfight.

Scaramanga's plans go as well as you would expect based on their level of incomprehensible stupidity.
Hendriks has his gun out.  Before it could swivel, Bond put a bullet between the man's cold eyes.
Well that didn't go so well for the master KGB assassin.  Scaramanga fares little better, but before there's any sense of direct conflict, Leiter's team takes over.
"Okay, you four guys.  Toss your guns over the side.  Now!  Quick!"  There came the crack of a shot.  "I said quick.  There's Mister Gingerella gone to meet his maker..."
Leiter apparently doesn't have any issue in killing in cold blood, or pretending to not be dirty.
"... Get ready to jump.  The longer you wait, the farther you've got to walk home.  I'm going to stay with these guys for a while and hand them over to the law in Green Island."  He shook his head to show this was a lie.
So, Bond jumps so Leiter can rig the train to explode, killing all the hoods instead of bringing them to justice.  "Wink wink, nudge nudge, I'm going to do some murdery."  How very cheeky.  Fortunately, and playing into the forced situation Fleming wrote himself into to have a final showdown, Scaramanga sees through Leiter's a-hole tactics and jumps before Leiter ditches the train.  Leiter suffers a compound fracture in his leg, but Scaramanga staggers off into the swamp.  Now it's him and Bond, mano-a-mano.

Bond finds the mortally wounded Scaramanga leaning up against a tree, and watches him stab a passing (harmless) snake and begin to skin and eat it raw.  Okayyy.  Bond gets the drop on him and proceeds to have a final grating chat:
"Any messages for anyone, Scaramanga?  Any instructions?  Anyone you want looking after?"
He's already told Scaramanga that he probably shouldn't have tried to arrange the murder of Goodnight with the CIA unknowingly -- the body was just a dummy on the tracks.
Scaramanga laughed his harsh laugh, but carefully.  This time the laugh didn't turn into the red cough.  "Quite the little English gentleman!  Just like I spelled it out.  S'pose you wouldn't like to hand me your gun and leave me to myself for five minutes like in the books?  Well, you're right, boyo!  I'd crawl after you and blast the back of your head off."  The eyes still bored into Bond's with the arrogant superiority, the cold superman quality that had made him the greatest pro gunman in the world--no drinks, no drugs--the impersonal trigger man who killed for money and, by the way he sometimes did it, for the kicks.
Herein Fleming demonstrates one of the fundamental errors of writing that he has fallen into.  He repeatedly says that Scaramanga is the greatest gunman ever, yet, he just lost a close-quarters gunfight with Bond and the CIA.  What Fleming has definitively shown instead of being 'the greatest gunman' is that Scaramanga is abrasive, naive, careless, a poor judge of character, and not a little stupid.  In short, the titular man of the book is a common thug, and unremarkable except for the occasional trick shot of a bird.  In a microcosm of the book, this is why The Man With the Golden Gun fails. 

Bond's reverie for Scaramanga feels entirely unwarranted and tiresome.  Luckily, Scaramanga has no intention of torturing us any longer.  So, he had one more trick up his sleeve -- the old "let me pray and then I'll draw my hidden gun on you" trick which Bond, as this book portrays him as nearly equal in dimwittery, of course falls for:
"Thanks, pal."  Scaramanga's hands went up to his face and covered his eyes.  There came a drone of Latin which went on and on.  Bond stood there in the sunshine, his gun lowered, watching Scaramanga, but at the same time not watching him...
And then the hand leaped behind the head and the tiny golden Derringer roared, and James Bond spun round as if he had taken a right to the jaw and crashed to the ground.
At once Scaramanga was on his feet and moving forward like a swift cat.   He snatched up the discarded knife and held it forward like a tonight of silver flame.
But James Bond twisted like a dying animal on the ground and the iron in his hand crack viciously again and again--five times--and then fell out of his hand onto the black earth as his gun hand went to the right side of his belly and stayed there, clutching at the terrible pain.
Suffice to say, he got 'em.  The final scenes of the story show British officials and M. (in absentia) gushing over Bond's (and Leiter's) "heroics" while they convalesce in Jamaica, recovering from their wounds.  Later, in private, when Bond starts to wax on about Scaramanga as "quite a guy", Leiter keeps it real:
Leiter was unsympathetic.  "That's the way you limeys talk about Rommel and Donitz and Guderian.  Let alone Napoleon.  Once you've beaten them, you make heroes out of them.  Don't make sense to me.  In my book, an enemy's an enemy... Don't be a jerk, James.  You did a good job.  Pest control.  It's got to be done by someone.  Going back to it when you're off the orange juice?"
Felix Leiter jeered at him, "Of course you are, lame-brain.  It's what you were put into the world for.  Pest control, like I said.  All you got to figure out is how to control it better.  The pests'll always be there.  God made dogs.  He also made their fleas.  Don't let it worry your tiny mind.  Right?"  Leiter had seen the sweat on James Bond's forehead.  He limped towards the door and opened it.  He raised a hand briefly.  The two men had never shaken hands in their lives.
He said, "Okay Miss Goodnight.  Tell matron to take him off the danger list.  And tell him to keep away from me for a week or two.  Every time I see him a piece of me gets broken off.  I don't fancy myself as The Vanishing Man."  Again he raised his only hand in Bond's direction and limped out.
That passage there was classic Fleming, perhaps the only redeeming and insightful part of the last three-quarters of the book.  Two "friends", who had never shook hands, acknowledging their place in the world.

Finally, M.'s telegram arrives to propose that Bond be knighted for his work (again, that reports must have been changed from the account we got), but Bond decides against it, not wanting to be a public figure.  Mary Goodnight proposes he stay in her villa for the next three weeks without a chaperone.  Bond's final thoughts end the novel:
At the same time, he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him.  It would be like taking "a room with a view."  For James Bond, the same view would always pall.
It's the James Bond that knows he is not meant for nor satisfied with the stable monogamous life forever.  Bond is Fleming's unchecked fantasy id, which could be an entire other dissertation in itself.  But this adventure is over.


Millenium Falcon Blueprints

Via Wired, I have a new computer desktop image:
The comments note it is from a "23 year old illustration from West End Games Star Wars Sourcebook".  Who cares, I am geeking out.  It's a good day.


The Stars My Destination

The first ten pages of Alfred Bester’s science-fiction classic, “The Stars My Destination” contain more background, history, and consequential menace to the notion of human teleportation than the entirety of the film “Jumper”. Of course, that’s an unfair comparison, as I’ve not read the source material, so the film could be a little thin. But the movie never really addressed WHY there was a secret society of Paladins dedicated to the eradication of Jumpers. In about ten pages, Bester’s novel makes that cause quite clear.

Bester’s novel doesn’t start with teleporting (called Jaunting) as being new, but recounts its history and unforeseen societal ramifications to a brave new world. Transportation industry is nonexistent. Females are kept out of society, imprisoned for their own sake for fear of rape jaunters. The world is a scarier place because of humankind’s new ability, and Bester captures the logical terrifying truth of superhuman abilities to be anywhere with a thought.

As with the best science-fiction, jaunting is only one of the technologies explored and serves as stimulating background to a revenge story. Ingeniously drawn and rich with science-fiction inspiration and a well-paced tale of revenge, escape, and exploration, Bester’s book is unnerving and richly rewarding.


Erring on the side of ruining the game

I'm breaking radio silence because I am still fuming over a couple of things from Sunday's Eagles victory over the Colts.

One is the "illegal" hit on "defenseless" receiver Austin Colllie late in the first half.  The officials negated a probable fumble because of an unfortunate series of inescapable non-malicious events that resulted in them throwing a ridiculous penalty flag on Eagles safety Kurt Coleman.  Matt Mosley exposes just how bad the officials got it:
    It's wonderful news that Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie looks like he'll make a full recovery from a concussion after he was strapped to a backboard and carted from the field in the second quarter of Sunday's Eagles-Colts game. The Eagles were flagged for unnecessary roughness on a defenseless receiver on the play, and the officials provided a confusing explanation following the game. Eagles safety Quintin Mikell unloaded on Collie after he appeared to make a catch with 2:23 left in the first half. Mikell led with his shoulder and it appeared to be a clean hit as he made contact with Collie, who then pin-balled into Eagles rookie safety Kurt Coleman. After watching several replays, I'm not sure how Coleman could have avoided the helmet-to-helmet contact, which appeared to cause Collie's injury. A pool reporter asked referee Carl Cheffers and back judge Todd Prukop for a clarification following the game, and that's when things really got interesting. They both agreed that the penalty was actually on Coleman, who sounded stunned about the ruling when reporters showed up at his locker. Since Collie appeared to have possession of the ball before the hit caused it to pop out, Cheffers was asked to define "defenseless receiver." "Well, if he is completing the catch, his second foot is not down yet or it's just down, we still give the defenseless receiver protection. So if it is a bang-bang type play, with his second foot coming down, he still gets protection on that play. The fact of the matter is, is that ball was incomplete. So, he has protection throughout that entire process on that play because we don't even have a completion -- at no time did he have possession and become a runner to where he would have transitioned out of being a defenseless receiver." Well, that really clears things up. Asked what Coleman did to deserve a penalty, Prukop chimed in, "So, he makes contact with the shoulder to the back of the helmet of the receiver." If you've watched a replay, you know that's flat-out wrong. Coleman never used his shoulder to hit Collie in the back of the helmet. Eagles coach Andy Reid was very careful with his words following the game because he wanted to avoid a fine for criticizing the officials. "The way the game is today, close things are going to be called in the safe direction," said Reid. "When you're in the heat of it, do you like it? No. but maybe the longevity of the player down the road and for life after football." Reid went on to say that it was a "bang-bang" play, but some of his players were a little bit more visceral in their responses. Cornerback Asante Samuel, who had two interceptions in the Eagles' 26-24 win, joked that the league would soon ask defensive backs to wear flags. Coleman, a seventh-round choice out of Ohio State, was still trying to figure out what happened. "I never lead with my head," he said. "That protects myself and the other players." He vowed not to change his style and said he wouldn't become "conservative" in how he makes tackles. But it's not like seventh-round draft choices can afford to pay many $50,000 fines, a figure the league has been enamored with in recent weeks. Perhaps the league will review the play and determine that Coleman couldn't have avoided the contact. But then, it's not like defenders have been getting the benefit of the doubt lately. It was a bad call, but with so much pressure coming from the league office, you can certainly understand how it occurred. It seems like this officiating crew could use some extra film work this week.
That's an understatement, but I'm gratified that someone is calling bullsh*t on the field.  Unfortunately, that was only the first game-fixing call made by the referees.  With the clock running down on in the 4th quarter, on a 4th and 18, Ernie Sims stripped Peyton Manning for a fumble to apparently seal the game.  But no, wait, that's a quarterback up there my friend, and you cannot breath on him.  During the replay, you can see the Sims' hand, while going over Manning's head to get the football, slaps the helmet right before crashing down on the football.  The resultant 15-yard penalty kept the game alive for the Colts, who then marched down the rest of the field against a stunned Eagles defense (who was similarly stunned in the crap call against Coleman earlier) to pull within two.

We knew the league would have games like this, where its new stringent policies (same as the old policies, only more fining and just the same amount of vagueness) nearly cost a team a game.  If this game was played last year, it's not even this close.  Those two "penalies" led directly to 14 Colts points.

We survived the game, and played great.  But if Coleman somehow gets a fine for his "illegal" hit, it'll be a black eye for Goodell.


Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Epic in an epically-fun way, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World features a foot-tapping peerless mix of original tunes and classic alternative tracks, an energy, wisdom and fun that made me long for the days of youth and thankful I'm where I'm at now, and an arresting and never boring visual style and pace.  In other words, it's worth your ten bucks.

Per the credits which I stayed after to watch, the actors themselves played the original songs written by Beck, and they are the most resonant part of a film about resonance.  If there were ever songs that made you want to be a bass player, these would be the ones.  From the opening track of "We Are Sex Bob-Omb" through the final set piece, I was just blown away by the compositions.  I ordered the soundtrack when I got home, which is fortunately very originals-heavy.  An obvious choice in retrospect, Frank Black's "I Heard Ramona Sing" would have not been so much a sad omission as a crime if it hadn't been used for Ramona Flowers' introduction.  I mean, if not in a film centrally about a boy's obsessive love for a girl named Ramona,  when?

Speaking of the multi-color-choiced Ramona (Her line "I change my hair color every week.  Get used to it," is at once dismissive and inviting.  It's not so much an instruction to deal with the changes as a command to ignore the little shit.), Mary Elizabeith Winstead pull soff the apathetic, but engaging allure of Ramona well.  I have the self-respect enough to know that I am not in love with her, but i could watch her change her hair color all day.  It helps that I am a sucker for green, blue, purple hair on a girl.

And while I'm definitely not a sucker for dudes with faux-blonde highlights, Brandon Routh's turn as Todd, the powerful Vegan ex, is perfectly understated and hilarious.  Vegans, you see, gain their powers from an inflated sense of self-importance and moral superiority (kind of like a lot of religious folks), and his fight with Scott proves that power is tough to beat.  Unfortunately for us in the real-world, the Vegan- (or god-) police aren't around when you need them.

The entire film, in case you haven't seen the trailer, is presented in video-game format.  Each ex of Ramona's that Scott must defeat to date her (the league of bitter exes was formed by one of her former flames) are part of the seven levels.  Each has a different power, each stronger as the levels increase, and each worth more.  The visuals are amazing, the comic-balloons more appropriate and informational than annoying, and the cartoonish violence blends well into a mainstream film that actually has a lot to say about youthful relationships.  The poignant part for Scott, represented by a bigger, more powerful sword in his fight, is when the strength of self-respect is shown to be more powerful than love (really, puppy love).  Before that, he has to find out for himself that he too had treated relationships as poorly as Ramona has, that your baggage will indeed attack you later, and you need to be happy with yourself before you can be happy with others.  And breaking up is very very hard to do.  This film scores a lot for treating its youthful characters as the flawed ones we remember from our days in that mix -- everything is more dramatic, harder, simpler, and hormonal.  Or at least it seemed that way.


Rising Sun

Rising Sun, adapted from the excellent Michael Crichton 1989 corporate thriller, is a guilty pleasure.  The book is so strongly characterized in the case of John Connor that I couldn’t wait to see it on film.  I wanted to hear the character say the lines, to perform the actions.  This is in contradiction to my rule (I’d say general rule, but I can’t think of another exception than this film) that I do not like very faithful film adaptations of books I have read.  And the portrayal on screen is satisfying enough to qualify the film as a guilty pleasure because the producers of the film cowardly, arbitrarily, and nonsensically changed the ending.

Sean Connery was cast as Captain John Connor, a semi-retired liaison officer, expert in Japanese culture and affairs, to guide the relatively inexperienced junior officer Lieutenant Peter Smith on a politically hot murder investigation that occurred on the conference table inside the new Los Angeles offices of the Nakamoto Corporation.  Connor is a man who has played and adapted to both sides so well – American and Japanese – that he is not entirely trusted by either side anymore.  His motives are unknown, his methods sometimes seemingly counterproductive or contradictory, but his knowledge and guidance always interesting.  He is the prototypical Crichton mentor lead – representing the wise person who knows more about the situation than any of the characters.  To not follow this archetype’s advice in Crichton’s books usually leads to disastrous consequences.

Connor is engaging, witty, dry, and a man of action, and Connery seemed to inhabit the character effortlessly in the film.  Although I am a fan of Connery, I’ll have to give notice to an important tidbit about the writing process.  Connery probably had an easy time because he had the incredible advantage of having the role virtually written for him – Crichton mentioned in an interview that he had written the character of Connor with Connery as his model.  Indeed, reading the novel after I had heard about the casting, it was hard to not picture Connery’s Scottish accent and mannerisms in every movement.  On screen, the character was exactly as I had envisioned – quelle surprise!

(Aside, this trick works exceedingly well if able to be pulled off with the timing of publishing and film adaptation.  The downside is if the person you envision for the role when writing has grown too old by the time the film gets adapted (Anne Rice famously wrote Lestat patterned on Rutger Hauer), then you’re comparing to what-might-have-been.)

Contrarily, the character of Lieutenant Peter Smith was decidedly not written for Wesley Snipes.  In the book, Smith is a white junior liaison officer who deals with many challenges in trying to figure out the whodunit while navigating the dangerous political and racial waters of the story.  One of the subplots in the book (and film) is how the Japanese Nakamoto corporation strongly intimates that Smith’s (and other white officers) accusations about them are strongly racially driven.  In other words, they “play the race card” for tactical purposes.  Although the central theme of this subplot is consistent in the film version, the accusation of Snipes’ Webster “Webb” (apparently, a black man with the name “Peter” would be just unbelievable) Smith adds the additional element of irony to the situation, having experienced racism towards him first-hand his entire life.  That irony makes the accusation just a bit more implausible, as the Snipes’ Smith expresses.  It doesn’t ruin the subplot, per se, but it does mute and move the effect further from a very concerned Smith this-could-happen-to-you to are-you-kidding-me concept.  There’s still concern there, but a white man suspected of racism feels a lot more plausible – especially from the standpoint of requiring less evidence to be believable – that from a black man.  Can both a white man and black man (and any other man) be racist?  Sure.  But plot constructs are not designed to be interchangeable with characters.  As such, although the script is adapted to the new race of the main character, it’s wisely given lip service in the film but by and large played down.

Another case of this adaptation is played for laughs in the film.  During a scene where Connor and Smith are being stalked by a crew of Japanese enforcers, Smith (Webb, not Peter) decides to drive into the ‘hood’ to let his old buddies from the street (i.e., black hoodlums) deal with the Japanese.  When the gangsters get a hold of the Japanese car-load of bad assess, the foreigners are soon chagrined when intimidated by ‘real’ gangsters.  Obviously, the entire scene was written to take advantage of Snipes’ casting, and it memorably funny, but sticks out as something that was precisely written in as a throw-away gag in an otherwise thriller.

Some of the adaptations from the 1992 book (written much earlier) are welcome.  For instance, in the book, DAT video tapes were used as the platform for cutting-edge technology used to hide, obfuscated, and replace the killer’s identity.  By the time the 1993 film was produced, it was clear that DVD video would be the more accurately cutting-edge.  Neither method is critical to the plot-driving point, but the adaptation cleans up a technologically dated smudge.

What also may be a guilty pleasure, or perhaps just undeniable screen charisma was Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s magnetic portrayal of Eddie Sakamura.  Tagawa played Sakamura as playful, mischievous, sexual, and dangerous, really bringing to life an otherwise regular supporting character.

Unfortunately, the guilt part of the guilty pleasure comes from knowing how the filmmakers decided to change the end.  The scene itself played out like a modern version of some Scooby-Doo resolution.  Connor and Smith are closing in on the culprit (or so we think, those of us who read the book) in the climactic conference room scene, and they list the evidence they have that corporate henchman Ishigura (Digression: His name was changed in the film from Ishiguro for reasons that are either oblivious to the viewer or arbitrary.  Aha! Ishigura sounds innocent, but Ishiguro is way too much of a giveaway to American audiences.  We might as well name him Sinister McEvil!) is behind the coverup.  Ishigura (o?) cops to everything as in the book, except for the actual murder.  For that, he goes, “no… it was him!!”, pointing to [white-bread American] Senator’s aide Bob Richman.  (Second digression; if you’ve read Crichton’s books, and you are named Richman, you are not a nice guy.)

And the chase begins with Richman meeting an untimely end.  Of course, none of the detectives even thought for a second to question the guilt of Richman, nor did Richman even think for a second to say “prove it”.  The pointy finger was the entire DNA evidence needed in this case.  The curious thing is that when I have watched the film with persons who haven’t read the book, they never notice the switcheroo until I point out that in the book, he wasn’t the murderer.  (He was guilty of conspiring to be a douche bag, certainly.)  The disconcerting thing is not that the white guy suddenly did it, but that there was absolutely no change in the evidence and process leading to the pointy finger.  Like, ‘how do you know he did it?’ no longer mattered.  The no-longer meta-cinematical version of “And now, for something completely different…”

Why all these little changes?  I cannot read into the mind of your average Hollywood producer. I won’t pander to the stereotype of them being a brainless lot, and instead say they are likely very cowardly lot.  The book’s main theme was Japanese integration and investment in technology and real estate on our shorelines, and what the consequences may be to selling our technological souls down the line.  It’s very likely that the filmmakers wanted to avoid any controversy with the criticism (Ironically, Crichton’s book was called racist by some Japanese critics, the exact reaction the Japanese corporation used in the book to criticism of its methods) and water-down the book’s subject matter.  It felt like an executive pandering and a desire to avoid any and all controversy, and ultimately, the film suffered for it.  But I still liked it a lot more than I should.  I just accept that I will roll my eyes in the last five minutes.


Mad Men

I get Mad Men.  But, I don't like it.  Sue me.

The critically-acclaimed show has the awards, the smart writing (have you heard, it's the 'smartest show on TV'! ask AMC -- they'll tell you!), the beautiful actors, the drama, and the uncomfortably-loyal following of fans who worship the show.  I watched the show when in season 1, making it through about 10 episodes.  It was well-written, which is something I admire.  But after every episode, I realized I felt, well, down.

The show is about an advertising firm in the early 60's, and how people lived back then, seen through an uncompromising lens.  It's shocking to see the things that people used to do and take for granted, given the many changes in our culture.  Weaved into the background behavior is the foreground behavior of the characters -- uninformly naughty, head-shaking, reprehensible, awful.  Interesting, no doubt, part of the genius of the writing, but just nauseating.  Literally.

So, every show that was a testament to writing and acting (or so the media and fan zealots will have you believe by repeating it as often as possible) left me with an icky feeling.  (I don't even consider the writing to be all that great, frankly.)  Ultimately, I just stopped watching because I was over it.  Akin to watching a film that was "great" but super-depressing, I'm just not that interested in entertainment when I react to it with melancholy.

Now it's just putting up with a summer of the annoying advertisements about an annoying advertisement show.  Sigh.

PS.  It is not enough to feature the hottest girl on planet Earth every week, Christina Hendricks.  Close, but not enough.  If she wasn't hot enough, I love her just for this comment: "No man should be on Facebook. It's an invasion of everyone's privacy. I really cannot stand it."  We have so much in common, Christina, but this is just a bold attempt to gain my attention.  Remember, we are both married.  Let's try to keep that in mind.


Getting Married

Let me just say some things about getting married.

Wait, what?

I was married in Hanelei Bay, in Princeville, Kaua’i, on July 6, 2010 at approximately 4:30 PM local time. On the East Coast, that translates to about 10:30 PM in the evening. I waited until the next day to call my parents so as not to ruin their good-night’s sleep.

Wait, what? I called my parents because Danielle (I call her Danny) and I decided to get married in Hawaii while we were in Kaua’i. As dedicated and often-suffering-from-lack-of-content readers will know, we had a great time there in 2008, and we were planning to head back there for vacation this year again. Without downgrading the importance of the event, getting married there was incidental to the trip; we were going anyway.

Aside from enjoying the effect of saying something like that, the reason I point this out is that as you may have guessed, we eloped. We both love Kaua’I and, once we decided that we wanted to get married there, it was easier to rationalize the decision to not tell anybody about it until afterward.

Let me say something about weddings. (As I type this I realize only Blogger and technical difficulties could prevent me from entering this blog, so when I ask “Let me...,” I’ll just imagine you sipping coffee and nodding your silent acquiescence. Wearing a fez. Stroking your pet parrot. And raising one eyebrow whenever a particularly interesting passage is read.) I. Never. Liked. Weddings. I don’t even like the idea of weddings. Even if you remove the religious implications (which you can quite easily!), I’ve just found all the traditions associated with it to be uncomfortable and unnecessary.

For me, marriage is an intimate thing. My relationship with Danny has been very intimate, as she has become my best friend over the last three years. All our favorite moments have been just us together, and I felt that having a public spectacle would downgrade the moment. I wanted to it just be us.

Lucky for me, my wife felt the same way.

Let me say some things about keeping your wedding a secret. It’s not as hard as you think, if of course you are me. First, imagine you are the sort of person who doesn’t enjoy talking about weddings or your relationship with other people. Then imagine you are also the kind of kid (well, adult, too) who likes to know things that other people don’t know. Not to taunt people with, but just to know. Combine the two, and it was pretty easy to not discuss it. In fact it was rather enjoyable.

I made a few exceptions to the don’t-tell-anyone-plan, each in a different manner. The first people to know were actually friends we visited in Atlanta during March Madness. Let’s just say the two Long Island Iced Teas that capped off a day-long masterpiece of basketball watching loosened my tongue a little too much.

The second was my long-time friend Gary, whom I was visiting in Philly about a month before the wedding. With full intent of mischievousness, I entered in “Jones wedding” on the July 6 date on their family wedding calendar. Gary texted me three weeks later to ask what the heck that was about. That was just plain fun.

The third was I asked Danny’s father for permission to marry her. One of the few traditions and gestures I wanted to make.

Everyone else was in the dark, as planned.

So, as I mentioned at the outset, we got married. It was just us two, the officially-licensed marriage performer and his son, the photographer. The beach was beautiful, my wife is beautiful, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

And about getting married: I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t anxious. I was ready to get married and especially to this woman. It just felt right. I guess when you get older those nerves and such just go away. Or when you have the right girl.
Finally, let me say something about Mrs. Jones. Yes, she decided to take my last name. I didn’t have any real particular feeling about this tradition either, except for one bothersome notion. I’m only a mere engineer, but my wife will someday soon get her doctorate in education. Which means that she will be Doctor Jones. Having been called that nickname for many, many years (in reference to Indiana Jones), I’m just a wee bit jealous that’s she’ll be the one with the actual title.

[Mental note: Explore doctorate degrees. Quickly.]


(500) Days of Summer

I’m somewhere in between on (500) Days of Summer, a film which deftly shows the more uncomfortable side of dating. Roger Ebert’s review gave the film a top-rating, citing the style and substance of the portrayal:
    We never remember in chronological order, especially when we’re going back over a failed romance. We start near the end, and then hop around between the times that were good and the times that left pain. People always say “start at the beginning,” but we didn’t know at the time it was the beginning. "500 Days of Summer" is a movie that works that way.
Film Freak Central’s review was little more caustic in its appraisal:
    (500) Days of Summer is another entry in a bizarre trend of films expecting a medal and a cookie for recognizing romcom clichés and concluding that relationships are difficult (see also: He's Just Not That Into You, Whatever Works, the upcoming Paper Heart, and the narrative distractions from the raw emotional power of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), respectively, although there is, admittedly, some instinct that makes you want to play along with this one. You'd like nothing more than some assurance that the smug asshole hitting on the protag's girlfriend will get punched in the mouth--but attendant to that is a peculiar desire to see said asshole defy convention by rising up from the floor and slugging the guy right back. Each of these scenarios plays out in (500) Days of Summer: in an admirable attempt to strike at both the base of the spine and the depths of the brain, hopeless romanticism shares time with intellectual cynicism without ever pretending they can be truly reconciled in matters of romance.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a screen presence, and plays the role of Tom to a tee. Tom, you see, is a romantic who sets his sights on Summer, who is not a romantic. Even though Summer warns him she’s not interested in a serious relationship, he allows himself to fall in love during their ‘casual’ relationship. As predicted, there are serious side effects for Tom, but not for Summer.
The harsh truth is that in most relationships that end, by the time they are over, one partner is much less invested than the other. Think about every time that you’ve broken up with someone; that’s how the person who broke up with you felt about you. Ouch. To complicate things, Tom’s desire to be an architect is stalled, possibly by his own unexpected happiness with Summer. In a scene when Tom honestly examines when “the end” of his relationship started, he realizes it was at a viewing of “The Graduate”. He may not be certain why, but we know that Summer crying means that the ending reminded her that they may be happy now, but the future is very uncertain and not exactly favorable. Ironically, her act of pulling away forces him to abandon his crappy job and start doing what he loves. Maybe she knew that he was complacent with her and was trying to motivate him in the only way possible. Maybe she really didn’t think about him all that much. Either way, the cathartic act of crushing his hopes of love enabled him to grow in his career dreams, and perhaps toward healing love with someone he has more in common with in the end. The journey he takes is at times funny, sad, romantic and brutal.

In retrospect, the more I think about it, the more I think “(500) Days of Summer isn’t just a quirky film, but a brave, smart film about growth, potential, and the importance of having relationships, not just the ones that succeed.


The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

By the time I got to the cliffhanger end of The Girl Who Played With Fire, I was too stoked to let something like an sequel’s release date interfere with my reading schedule. Having the resources (I call it “The Internet”) to acquire an advance copy (it was released in England early) using privileged sellers (Amazon.uk), I didn’t have to wait long before The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest was in my possession.

The funny thing is, once I got it, like capricious child who forgets their desired toy once it is acquired, I put off reading it for a few months. At first, it was (I told myself) out of desire to avoid overkill – I don’t read the same genre or series back-to-back to prevent over saturation and to keep my reading versatile. Then it was a matter of practicality – the book itself is 700 pages in hardcover, and not very conducive for reading on planes or traveling.

Finally, as my (future) wife got impatient with me and started reading it for herself, it was wistfulness. One of the reasons I picked up the series in the first place was the story of the author and how it was written. Stieg Larsson wrote the first three manuscripts, submitted them, began working on a fourth and then died suddenly, before the first book became an international phenomenon. He couldn’t have known his character of Lisbeth Salander would become one of the most beloved modern heroines in many years.

I couldn’t have predicted how reluctant I was to read what was very likely to be the last Salander story. It was a mixture of the eagerness of Christmas morning with the hope that you would have some kind of closure, and incidentally not suck. And I wanted to savor having one more book to read for a while before I read.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest met my expectations, using the trial of Lisbeth Salander as the major plot piece. Larsson used the first three books in his series to set up the background of Salander and bring that story arc to a conclusion. Without spoiling any of the content, the feeling at the ‘conclusion’ was that I had just finished reading the origin story of Salander and Blomkvist, and there would be many adventures to come. It was a tale that stands entirely by itself without need of follow-up, yet presents a strong foundation with a blank slate of possibilities to come.

Perhaps someone will finish the fourth book, or gain the rights to write continuing adventures. But for now I’ll be satisfied with the memories of a great story of a remarkable author. (Until the Fincher movie that is!)


Y: The Last Man

With absolute sincerity, but no expectation of fulfillment by anyone, I endorse reading the entire Y: The Last Man comic series.  The run, scripted by Lost genius Brian K. Vaughn, was just over 60 issues.  It takes over 10 trade paperbacks volumes to cover the story of Yorick, the last man on Earth.

How did Yorick become the last man on Earth?  All the other male mammals just one day fell over and died.  Why did they die is the question that Yorick tries to ask while surviving in a literal woman's world.  Using multiple story arcs that intelligently explore the void and the ways women were free to expand or curtail their own behaviors, the plot of figuring out just what happened is always the simmering background to the fascinating situations and interactions presented by Vaughn.  The ending is a compelling, brave, and fitting conclusion to the saga that is worthy of the accolades it has received.

Throughout the tale, Yorick is helped along by mysterious Agent 355, a strong, intelligent, fierce, sexual woman who is a lot more mature, serious and lethal than our remaining man.  Y has imagination and doesn't shy away from nudity, violence, and even the occasional cuss.  It's an empowered saga that is not exploitative, not whimsical, and not easily ignored once started.

Via Wikipedia, "Y: The Last Man, Volume 10: Whys and Wherefores" was nominated for the first Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. In 2008, Y: The Last Man won the Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series.  You can get all the paperbacks on Amazon used.  I started out by getting only the first couple, but I'll save you the time by telling you you'll want to finish the story, and have to share on your own.  And if you're really nice maybe I'll let you borrow them.

Illium / Olympos

I read the outstanding science-fiction duology of Illium and Olympos sometime last year. In case you haven’t noticed of recent, I’ve been ‘cleaning out my closet’ with a slew of blog posts about things I’ve been meaning to get to, but for mysterious other reasons, I haven’t really had the time. Okay, the reasons are quite pedestrian, but they needn’t concern you now. What you must embrace is that I am back for my usual limited-time engagement; to promise any more would be an insult to my incredibly knowledgeable core of readers. Flattery is a much better approach.

In any event, because the delay has dulled my memory to the point where I can’t recall the demarcation point between the two novels, and because it is actually one story broken into two because Dan Simmons can’t write a grocery list that is not 1400 pages (this is not a bad thing as it is with Stephanie Meyer), and because I don’t want to prolong the delay of my ever-so-precious thoughts, and because I don’t want this sentence to ever, ever end, I decided to combine the two into a single mini-review. After all, who would read the cliffhanger after 700 pages and not finish?

The elements of the story are as follows: Shakespearian play “The Tempest”, Greek Gods, biomechanical organisms, Trojan War, quantum theory, Amazons, a lusty reconstructed history professor, teleportation, genocide, far-future evolution and technology, and very very bad villains. Why, you just shake up the pieces and it writes itself! The story begins on a future Earth, populated by benign humans who have become soft and content with a pleasurable existence and being served by strange automatons. A few new humans begin to ask questions, and their safe society begins to unravel. In another part of the solar system, faux-Greek Gods, self-styled superhumans brought about by technological advances, play god, literally, with Achillies and Hector in their version of the Trojan War, reported on by replications of actual historians who zip around with quantum teleportation. Finally, biomechanical organisms, curious about the disruptions caused by both, send representatives to investigate. Sounds like a remake of On Golden Pond.

This duology is Simmons doing his “literary fiction”, applied to the science-fiction level. Smaller in scope (how could it be larger?) than his celebrated Hyperion series, but the themes and scenes resonate with me many months later. As with Hyperion I will keep these books on my re-reading list; Simmons length of story is carried well by the richness of subject matter and inventive mix of themes, characters, and interwoven plot.


Bathroom Remodeling

It worked so well last time we went to Kaua'i that we tried the same strategy this trip: arrange for a remodeling project to take place while we were out of town.  Last time it was the kitchen, this time, the bathroom.

On the list of much needed upgrades, we wanted a new tub, larger tile, more space, heated tile floors, granite countertop, new mirror, an "greener" toilet.  In other words, we had the place gutted.

One of our contractor's (highly recommended, again, his site is My Handy Guy, LLC) first suggestions was to flip the door so that it swings out.  That turned out to be a vast improvement to the space issue.  Especially considering we don't have a lot to work with.

The old toilet...

 And the new toilet.  We also replaced the little toilet paper spooler with a stand.  You see the tile changed a little, too.  Instead of whites and biege (someone thought this was a good idea once), we went with blues, grays, whites and blacks.  Turns out getting a matching shower curtain was the most challenging thing.
The original tub was, well original with the house -- small and showing years of abuse.  As does the white tile.
The window is nice, but cleaning the grout and replacing every six months was a pain.  The grouting was just terrible.

The new tub, with matching tile to the floor:
 With a flash on the camera, this shows the color better, the cubby-hole and some of the glass design above.
 Here's the glass design and shower head:
 For the sink, our handy photographer shows of the old-school accoutrements:
 And a view from the tub:
 Now we have this:
 Natural-light view:

And of course, actual drawers right next to the heater.  Can't say enough about heated tile in the mornings or especially late at night.

And now shower time is happy time.  Which is not to say shower time isn't always happy time, but when I open my eyes after cleaning my face, I don't have to avert my gaze at the rest of the bathroom.

Up In The Air

It’s not a romantic comedy, it’s much more visceral, more real than that. Up in the Air is a movie about how people deal with loss. I don’t know if the marketing strategy was to make it look like a romantic comedy to draw in that audience innocently (for more money) or to do it for mischievous purposes of giving that audience a sucker punch in the gut. In retrospect, it seemed almost evil to market the film during the Valentine’s Day season – I remember saying to people do not go see it if you think it is going to be fun and light.

This is not to say that I didn’t really love the film, because it’s heartbreaking, funny, and littered with well-rounded characters and situations. Clooney is his usual excellent, engaging self, and Anna Kendrick as his protégé in the business of firing people, both garnered Academy Award nods for their work. The most complex and interesting character belongs to a woman, that of Clooney’s love interest, played by Vera Farminga. Although she was also nominated for an Academy Award, the notice was far less high in the media.

Up In the Air, like Jason Reitman’s debut Juno, is a film about something, about the people in the situations, and not necessarily about resolutions or endings.

Michael Clayton

George Clooney not so much stars in the film Michael Clayton as anchors the serious talent of supporting roles that move the action of the picture. Michael is a corporate fixer, a former lawyer who found that his niche, what he is best at, has gotten him into a long rut that he doesn’t have a way out of and is getting deeper by the minute. The excellent Tom Wilkinson, his firm’s ace lawyer, has just stripped down naked, literally, in a three-billion-dollar lawsuit deposition. His unsubtle announcement alerts all the players that the architect of the pharmaceutical giant’s defense might just be having a serious change of heart and might switch sides. Michael is brought in to calm the situation before it explodes.

The film Michael Clayton, like its titular character, has a quiet intensity, intrigue, and charm. There are many moments of silence in the film, where characters convey feelings and attitude with a glance or long look, but the movie never feels slow or burdened by “acting”. That quiet intensity burns in the silences, the pauses, making the beating heart of the film palpably felt. Engaging and excellent from start to finish.


The Informant!

Stephen Soderberg's The Informant tells the bizarre story of corporate whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, in a fascinating, sad, sometimes hard-to-believe-it's-true tale. Ostensibly marketed as a comedy, the film doesn't fit the advertising as billed, only incidentally as outrageous behavior. It is funny, but you get involved with the characters who get in deeper and deeper as the whistle-blowing becomes much much more than the FBI expects.

Matt Damon nails it as Whitacre. Packing on a few pounds and a engagingly offensive moustache, Damon narrates the film honestly, albeit unreliably. His strange observances are occasionally brilliant ("Polar Bears put their hands to their nose when they lean over holes in the ice. That way the seals can't see them because they are all white and think it is okay to come up. Now what I want to know is how the Polar Bears came up with this. Do they think, "If only I could hide this black nose -- then I would be invisible!") and, ultimately revealed to be exactly what he is thinking. During a distressing dress-down in front of the FBI, the narration becomes just a precursor for Whitacre's actual words, until his own narration becomes defeated.

Scott Bakula is the counter to Whitacre, the FBI guy who believes it all, and gets caught up in the web of lies and deception. You feel for the guy, an agent trying to do the right thing, only to discover his witness is the worst choice ever.

Subtle, funny, sad, and great in that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction way, The Informant! is a damn good flick.

The Brethren

Not exciting, not terrible, I'd say that The Brethren is kinda mediocre. But the fact is that I've listened to the audio book three times now since I purchased it back in 2004, and I think that I have to relegate it to a guilty fictional pleasure.

The Brethren is a "thriller" about three federally-incarcerated judges who have set up their own letter-writing entrapment scams, operating out of a Florida jail. The book revolves around their involvement with an up-in-coming congressman who is being set up for a White House run, sponsored by some powerful men.

The topic of 'letter-writing' already dates the book to pre-email, pre-Internet, pre-Facebook or any of the other anonymous social sites. The scams have upgraded with technology, but the book doesn't suffer from it; Grisham moves the pace of the colliding factors along such that it never drags or bores. The characters are well drawn, particularly the paternal CIA mastermind and the most scheming judge. And the book is strangely satisfying in the end, even though it is Grisham's trademark non-whopping end. Good, not great. Assuming this is the feel of a typical trade pulp paperback, good enough to entertain but not a helluva lot to dwell on after. Beach book.


Left Behind

I read the first 70 pages of the Left Behind series and then promptly through it across the room satisfied that whatever story there might have been left to tell (all 11 books’ worth), I couldn’t trust the writers to get me there without brain damage. Little did I know that I would read virtually the entire book and much more later on, only this time with running commentary that was insightful, outrageous, and incredibly entertaining. Yes, this was still Left Behind, but narrated by an Evangelist who has proved by wading through every single page that the book (and series) may be the worst book of all time.

That is not hyperbole. The worst book of all time. The same book that Revelationists by the millions have read, that many Christians everywhere down as good Christian fiction. That book.

This kind of detailed, thorough and entertaining pasting of material is just an expansion of my love of well-written movie reviews. I can’t help but gravitate to the hilarious scathings of Walter Chaw against the likes of Sex and the City 2 (if you haven’t read it, the movie is a plausible reason for the Middle East to hate us). Likewise, when a reviewer articulates a film’s excellence using literature reference or historical insight, it’s a pleasure to read.

I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed a more thorough, serious, and hilarious deconstruction of a fiction ever before. Nor can I say I’ve seen the breadth of it before or since, as the Frank’s deconstruction is much, much longer than the Left Behind book itself.

Why dedicate so much time to this seemingly pointless task? As you get absorbed into his writing, it is quick to see that every page of Left Behind teems with one or more of the following:
  • “heroes” that are uniformly insipid, delusional, self-righteous, cowardly, creepy, fake, and loathsome
  • plot points that are outrageously unbelievable
  • dialogue that alternates between tedious and inadvertently hilarious
  • inaction upon inaction
  • at least one phone call
The point is not (entirely) to deride the writers for their lack of skill, but to illustrate the mistakes so that good writers can avoid their errors. And evil judgments.

Fred Clark’s introduction to the series analysis says bluntly:
    These books are evil, anti-Christian crap.
Not one to take it out of context, or why I found the series so compelling, here’s his original first post:
    The apocalyptic heresies rampant in American evangelicalism are more popular than ever. It's easy to dismiss these loopy ideas as a lunatic fringe, but that would be a mistake. The widespread popularity of this End Times mania has very real and very dangerous consequences, for America and for the church. ("Premillennial dispensationalism" -- the technical terms for what these prophecy freaks teach -- teaches that the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to Christians living today. It also undermines the core of Christianity -- Jesus' death and resurrection, and the hope of that resurrection. These are not tangential matters for Christians.)

    The cultural standard bearer for these Very Bad Ideas is the "Left Behind" series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. These books have become so popular that every pastor in America is now confronted with the task of gently, pastorally explaining to their congregation why the theology of these books is misguided and misguiding.

    I'm not a pastor, so I won't be pastoral here. These books are evil, anti-Christian crap. This weekend, I'm beginning a new series of posts in which I'll go through these books, page by page.

    Millions of your fellow citizens are reading these books. Millions. If you're wondering what that means for you, read the following, from Glenn Scherer in E magazine:
    In his book The Carbon Wars, Greenpeace activist Jeremy Leggett tells how he stumbled upon this otherworldly agenda. During the Kyoto climate change negotiations, Leggett candidly asked Ford Motor Company executive John Schiller how opponents of the pact could believe there is no problem with “a world of a billion cars intent on burning all the oil and gas available on the planet?” The executive asserted first that scientists get it wrong when they say fossil fuels have been sequestered underground for eons. The Earth, he said, is just 10,000, not 4.5 billion years old, the age widely accepted by scientists.

    Then Schiller confidently declared, “You know, the more I look, the more it is just as it says in the Bible.” The Book of Daniel, he told Leggett, predicts that increased earthly devastation will mark the “End Time” and return of Christ. Paradoxically, Leggett notes, many fundamentalists see dying coral reefs, melting ice caps and other environmental destruction not as an urgent call to action, but as God’s will. Within the religious right worldview, the wreck of the Earth can be seen as Good News!

    Some true believers, interpreting biblical prophecy, are sure they will be saved from the horrific destruction brought by ecosystem collapse. They’ll be raptured: rescued from Earth by God, who will then rain down seven ghastly years of misery on unbelieving humanity. Jesus’ return will mark the Millennium, when the Lord restores the Earth to its green pristine condition, and the faithful enjoy a thousand years of peace and prosperity.
This is enjoyable, fun research into religion and how people think. It’s scary that someone wrote this and that millions of people thought it was ‘the truth’. Just read a few and you’ll be laughing and shaking your head. And maybe a little scared.

Although this is the main link, the pages are not indexed in a way conducive to easy reading. An indexed version is actually found on the side bar of this fan site. Yes, a fan site of a Biblical fiction book reviewer. It’s that good.