Monday, April 30, 2007

All the wrong lessons learned

As a follow up to my last post, here are three links on the subject:

Student Arrested for Essay's Imaginary Violence

"Students were told to "write whatever comes to your mind. Do not judge or censor what you are writing," according to a copy of the assignment." However, when the student wrote "don't be surprised on inspiring the first [Cary-Grove High School] shooting" his teacher called the police.

This is exactly what I am afraid of, the obvious lesson of the VT shooting is that it is far too easy to get a gun, but the only lesson that will be learned is that it is better to be safe than sorry, so round up all the weird kids who doodle guns on the margins of their notebooks.

Student Arrested for remarks about Virginia Tech Shooting

"During a class discussion of Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech, the student "made comments about understanding how someone could kill 32 people," university police Cmdr. Brad Wiesley said.

Several witnesses told investigators the student said he was "angry about all kinds of things from the fluorescent light bulbs to the unpainted walls, and it made him angry enough to kill people," according to a police report. Witnesses "said they were afraid of him and afraid to come to class with him," Wiesley said."[2]

No one wants to hear something like this, especially right after a tragedy. However, in an academic setting it is important to be able to discuss controversial subjects. The student in question was speaking of a need not to dehumanize the shooter at VT. Maybe he could use a lesson in tact, but "I am going to shoot up the school" is a threat, "I can understand how someone gets that angry" is not. Further, the fact that the student in question runs a campus paper that is extremely critical of the school, points out that this was just a contrarian making controversial speech, which is exactly the sort of thing that colleges used to encourage.

"If a major university means anything, it means the free exchange of ideas," said Karson's father, Michael Karson. "Max was arrested for making intellectual comments to an academic discussion. I don't think you should be able to arrest a kid for expressing his views."

Exactly. This is another black eye to free thought and liberal education from the knee jerks and fear mongers in this small minded hegemony.

As a bonus there is this charming anacdote: "At Oregon's Lewis & Clark College, another student was detained by campus police Wednesday shortly before a vigil for the Virginia Tech victims when he was spotted wearing an ammunition belt. Portland police later determined that it was "a fashion accessory" made of spent ammunition, and said the man did not have a weapon. The belt was confiscated."

Great work. If it was Virginia then the student could legally be carrying a concealed weapon and the police wouldn't (couldn't) blink, but make sure to get all the trendy ammo belts off the streets before someone gets hurt!

And finally to lighten the mood: A Lost In Negative Space cartoon (hat tip to one of my favorite blogs: The House Next Door)

So much more succinct and biting that I could ever muster.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

300: The New Litmus Test

I previously wrote about how excited I was for 300, and well, when I am wrong and I really, really wrong. I waited a few weeks before seeing it, and so I got to see the most peculiar phenomenons: everyone I knew loved it, raved about it and even went so far as to say they thought that the Watchmen movie was now possible in Zach Snyder's hands (OK, not everyone said that, but someone did); meanwhile, every review I read said that it was a terrible movie and stopped just short of saying it was a crime against art and humanity. So, I thought: it is probably a crowd pleaser full of empty violence and rock music, but a little light on artistry or subtlety. Sure there is an uncomfortable parallel with the war in Iraq, but that's probably unintentional. Again, when I am wrong, I am really, really wrong.

300 is Triumph of the Will by way of a Marine recruitment video and a M-rated video game. Explicitly so if fact, the damn thing opens on a field of infant skulls as two flawless looking Aryan men decide whether or not to kill a baby if it fails to meet certainly eugenic standards. Even if they keep the baby, it will be beaten and starved to toughen it up. Don't worry though, the Spartans don't get off on this sort of thing, there are plenty of crying mothers around to show that they are just doing their duty creating the master race.

From that initial scene till the last overwrought second- where the whole movie is revealed to be the long version of Mel Gibson's "but they'll never take... our FREEEEdom" speech in Braveheart- 300 pits our heroes, perfect looking, straight, white guys, against the forces of evil: black people, Asian people, ugly people, gay people, diplomatic people, people who have sex outside of marriage and basically all things other. Much has been made about how gay the Spartans look oiled up in big red capes, but they make it clear that they aren't like those "boy lovers." The Spartans aren't gay, they are just phalluses that rip and tear through their effeminate others (I was tempted to reinterpret the movie as a "tops" versus "bottoms"). The slow motion shots of bloody penis spears thrusting through men only cement that image in my mind. Xeres, meanwhile, looks like a drag queen without a wig (husky voice, big cheekbones, lipstick, jewelry and glitter) and travels with a harem that includes all manner of sexuality (I saw men and women of all races plus at least a dab of transgender). These evil Persians seem to like to fuck, unlike King Leonidas who looks like he is doing it for his country even when he puts it to the missus. The lesson as always in American movies is that the glorification of violence is fine, but sex is very, very wrong and should be punished.

All of this would be fine, I mean, I liked Natural Born Killers and and A Clockwork Orange, I can appreciate a compelling psycho. However, Snyder goes out of his way to paint the Spartans as fighting for the survival of Western civilization against the hordes of barbarism. Maybe it is just my personal politics, but the Persians seem a lot more like Western Civilization to me. They don't discriminate on the basis of race, they use diplomacy to attempt to prevent war, they even hang out with monsters from Doom while Spartans are busy killing the ugly babies. Thankfully, Western Society was based on the ideals of those "boy lovers" in Athens, though this sort of single-minded militarism seems to be making a comeback.

That said, the movie isn't an allegory for the war in Iraq, at least not as a jingoistic appeal to hold the line against the onslaught of "mysticism" from Persia (aka Iran). Despite its incessant buzz about freedom and glory, the story of a small but determined group of men fighting on their home terrain against a much larger invading army sounds more like al-Queda than the United States. The Spartan "beautiful death" so closely mirrors the mindset of a suicide bomber, that the metaphor is terrifyingly apt. Although, the stilted subplot involving corrupt politicians back in Sparta makes me think that maybe Sparta is supposed to represent America after all.

But in the end, any movie that would rape its only female character as a plot device is too empty-headed to have thought through the particulars and so what is point of analysis? It is art so post-modern in that it reduces to pure ugliness if you consider it for even a moment. It is all things to all people, as long as you don't think about it at all. 300's eye candy and CGI blood feed the unwashed masses, but I feel like I just donated to the "Society for the Preservation of the Third Reich"- and all the copycats haven't even come out yet. At least I know what Michael Koresky is talking about now.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

It wasn't the best or worst of times, Film in 2006

I think I saw more new releases in 2006 than in any other year in my life, and yet I still think I missed more interesting stuff than I got to (even with two plus months to catch up). I guess that is the nature of culture consumption at this point, even people who are in the enviable position of doing this for a living can't keep up with the volume of the content put out every year. Specialization allows one the see most of any one medium, but if you have disparate interests then all you can hope to do is rely on referrals to ensure you get to the very, very best stuff. My interests being (in descending order of time invested, if not actual esteem) film, television, music and literature, I feel I have done a mediocre job with movies, a fair job with television (it is the easiest, since all I have to do is go to the living room and turn off my brain), a bad job with music and no job with literature. I don't think I have read any book released in 2006. Books have the longest shelf life, and require the most investment, since they take so long to get through, so I tend to be the most risk adverse in my literature picks. I watch plenty of bad tv and movies, but only pick up books that I am fairly certain to enjoy.

Still, this is supposed to be a movie post, and I did get to see 32 movies released in 2006 (numbers unofficial and subject to change). Those movies are: Lucky Number Slevin, United 93, Mission: Impossible III, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Break-Up, Cars, Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Clerks II, Miami Vice, Little Miss Sunshine, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, The Queen, The Departed, Flags of Our Fathers, The Prestige, Babel, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Volver, Casino Royale, Letters from Iwo Jima, Dreamgirls, Children of Men, Notes on a Scandal, Pan's Labyrinth, Idiocracy, A Prairie Home Companion, The Last King of Scotland, The Proposition, A Scanner Darkly, Confederate States of America and I Am A Sex Addict.

Yet, at the end of the year I find that there are another 30 or 40 movies (officially, there are probably another 50 I don't even know about) that I really wanted to see. including The Black Dahlia, Jackass Number 2, Stranger Than Fiction, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (which Netflix just sent me), Three Times and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, to name a few. Some of them I will catch up on netflix (though the bottom of my queue is death row since I usually add two movies for every movie I watch), some I will see eventually in the theaters and some I will never see. That's just the way the cookie crumbles. It wasn't a great year for movies, nothing immediately jumped into my all-time top 10, but I haven't seen some of my favorites twice (which is where all-time favorites are developed).

So, without further ado, here are my favorite movies of 2006.

Children of Men: Hands down, number one with a bullet for me. I was absolutely thrilled from start to finish. It would be the most thrilling action movie of the year if it didn't have so many interesting and terrifying ideas. Clive Owen is the best actor working right now, and he is definitely the only actor working who demands that I see everything he is in (Leo and Christian Bale are close). The direction and cinematography are so amazing that despite no overall Oscar buzz everywhere I looked predicted an award for Cinematography (which went to Pan's Labyrinth). I am tired of reading reviews that pass off the incredible long takes as gimmicks and dismiss the movie as a setpiece. If any experimentation is seen as the tail wagging the dog, then film is already a staid and sad set of rules. I predict that this movie will have a second life on DVD and be a college classic for years to come.

The Departed - The most fun I had in a movie theater this year. I have seen the movie twice, but I was surprised that it was two and a half hours long, as the time flew by both times I saw it. My only complaint is about Jack Nicholson's awful, drooling, crazy eyed performance that doesn't convey the sort of horror-show terror that it should. Instead he makes the central character a cartoon character, like the Joker without the makeup. The fantastic dialogue delivered by the otherwise spectacular cast make up for Jack's scenery flavored gum, and I was estactatic when The Departed won Best Picture.

Borat: Some critics have retroactively saying Borat was a failure because its political message doesn't really hold water. First, who the fuck cares? It's a comedy. Would anyone criticize Old School for not making a coherent political point? Second, Borat's gift is that it gives us a wonderful cross-section of American insanity, but doesn't attempt to pass some grand judgement. That's us, racist, homophobic, xenophobic and patronizing, but then we are also endlessly patient and tolerant to those we think are handicapped for whatever reason. The attitude of everyone in the movie is summarized by the person on the elevator who steadfastly ignores the Borat and his manager even though they are both completely naked and Borat is carrying a rubber fist. All Americans are taught not to mention the embarrassing characteristic everyone is trying not to stare at, at least until they leave the room. By exploiting the American belief that everyone wants to be just like us, only they just haven't learned how yet, Borat manages to be the funniest movie of the new century.

Confederate States of America - I have reviewed it before, but suffice to say I think everyone in America would be well served to see and discuss this movie with a complete stranger.

Letters from Iowa Jima - While watching The Thin Red Line the other day, I though to myself: "War movies rank up there with musicals and biopics as my least favorite genres." The genre is so stifling that very few interesting things can be said anymore. Either the picture is jingoistic (The Green Berets) or it is a remake or All is Quiet on the Western Front, either way I am hardly thrilled by the explosions and gore. The ubiquitous color draining technique that Speilburg used in Saving Private Ryan only makes it worse, as the pictures all look the same now too. After I watched Flags of Our Fathers, which I didn't like at all (the ending was akin to the end of Pyscho in its explicitness), I was so bored that nearly didn't bother with Letters. Boy would that have been a mistake. It shows us a group of men dying and justifying it through a variety of reasons (honor, tradition or just to keep their families safe for a few more days). It doesn't spell out its themes and it demands that you think about the images and metaphors of the movie.

Superman Returns - Comic book movies are about as anti-arthouse as you can get. They are all summer blockbusters, loaded with special effects and they usually need to have mass appeal so there is pressure not to make anything too hard to figure out. Thus, I was blown away to see Superman, a comic book movie that is full of subtle details and subtext, without sacrificing the thrills. It is wrestles with uncomfortable personal responsibility as Superman's powers become a burden. Jesus's path to the cross is the obvious metaphor, but several others (Atlas, the Morningstar) are visually alluded to. It strongly bring Its a Wonderful Life to mind (one of my all time favorites), but it has more of an edge than that. It is heartbreaking movie, where the hero doesn't necessarily get the girl and even his mother can't comfort him, but it is beautiful and brilliant throughout.

Idiocracy - This is a deeply flawed movie, though I wonder how much Fox's meddling had to do with that. However, Idiocracy and CSA both demonstrate how devastating comedy is as weapon of subversion. I already posted on Mike Judge's hopefully not forgotten newest work, but I would like to strengthen my earlier comments to say that Maya Rudolph is fantastic both here and in A Prairie Home Companion, and I am officially converted to the church of Maya.

The Proposition - Nick Cave is bad, bad man. Between his screenplay for this movie, which is as raw and bloody as anything in Sam Peckinpah's oeuvre, and his album Abattoir Blues (an album entirely about death and murder), he has demonstrated that he is willing to tap into the ugliest and darkest parts of humanity with impunity. Violence in this movie is so wet and hard, and yet strangely compelling. The people are either hard boiled killers or doomed to have their innocence brutally despoiled. The town people are cowed into submission and two equally evil factions are compelled towards Guignol ending where no one is unscathed. This movie demonstrates again just how versatile and wonderful the mostly defunct Western genre is.

The Queen - It plumbed the depths of something I didn't care about at all, and yet I found myself enraptured by a performance that defines the method. I hate biopics, don't care at all about Princess Diana (I remember being upset that everyone focused on her and ignored Mother Theresa who died the same week), but this was an extraordinary look at post-WWII Europe. All of the cultures in Europe have unique characteristics and Englishmen are not like Dutchmen who aren't like Greeks who aren't like the Spanish, on and on, except now Europe is so unified that those cultural identities are melting into something more uniform. In The Queen, the most traditionally British person is suddenly made to confront how much the world has changed. Her ultimate decision to capitulate to the somewhat unreasonable demands of the populus is a remarkable portrait of the power of public opinion in the information age. Even the Queen has to bow her knee to an incensed public (and her warning to Blaire that he will suffer a similar fate is a nice dig in the present day).

A Prairie Home Companion - Leave it to Robert Altman to make a sweet comedy about dying right before he dies. It's a movie of moments, it doesn't have much conflict or plot, instead shows us a bunch of friends and associates spending one last night together. It would have been easy to make it a melancholy night, but Garrison Keillor doesn't believe in big goodbyes (that's what makes radio so great) and so everyone reminisces and tells funny stories. Any attempts at ceremony or decorum to commemorate the end of an era is subverted (the show stopper is Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly telling "bad jokes" while the producer is reduced to drinking). Death is treated with similar irreverence as a discussion of the demise of Chuck Akers devolves into fart jokes and Keillor discusses an unfunny joke with the Angel of Death while eating an apple. The cast is great (Would you expect anything else in an Altman movie?), though Kevin Kline and Maya Rudolph stand out. I bet I'll watch this movie more than anything else on this list (I've already seen it twice). I am going to miss Altman, but as Virginia Madsen says: "There is no tragedy in the death of an old man. Forgive him his shortcomings, and thank him for all his love and care." Thanks again, Mr. Altman.

The worst movies of 2006:

The Last King of Scotland: Can someone make a movie about Africa that doesn't star a white guy? This movie mentions in passing that hundreds of thousands of Africans were murdered, but bleeds with our idiotic Scotsman who not only aided and abetted the murderous Amin, but actually deserved some comeuppance for fucking Mrs. Amin. You don't fuck with crazy people! Why anyone would use mass murder to tell the story of how Nicholas Garrigan became a doctor in Scotland is beyond me. Whitaker is good, there are some pretty pictures, but nothing can save a movie this flawed.

Mission Impossible: III: I hated this movie more than anything I saw this year. So much so, that now I cringe when I hear anything positive about J.J. Abrams (writer and director) - and I like "Lost." Here is the fancy new "thriller" formula: Start the story in the middle, show something crazy happen (say: the hero gets shot in the face) and then flash forward to some other action sequence which would have opened the movie though now it has no drama since you know nothing interesting can happen, since you have already seen the middle of the movie. After 45 minutes of by the numbers plot and some action sequences that don't really make sense featuring a diverse cast of a hot girl (double points if she is Asian or Latino), a wise cracking black guy (I think LL Cool J or Ice Cube is available) and a "nerdy guy" (picture a prestardom Orlando Bloom with glasses) you get back to the opening of the movie. Of course there is a twist so you don't actually have to deal with what you showed happen at the beginning (for some reason the badguy shot one of his henchmen dressed up like the hero, just to prove to the hero that he would shoot him) and after a predictable mind-fuck twist towards the end (hint: the good guy with the most screen time besides the hero is always the traitor), everyone unimportant dies, happily ever after. The only, only, thing worth seeing in Mission Impossible is Truman Capote beat the crap out of Tom Cruise.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Oscar fever

I haven't posted in quite awhile, but hopefully starting tomorrow I will be able to post everyday, more or less. I have been on a movie watching binge lately, and I have seen 19 of the movies nominated for Oscar's this year: (Babel, Letters From Iowa Jima, The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen, Borat, Children of Men, Little Children, Notes on a Scandal, Pan's Labyrinth, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Superman Returns, United 93, Cars, Dreamgirls, The Prestige, Volver, Flags of Our Fathers and The Last King of Scotland). This is about four times as many as I usually have seen at this point (I only watched 4-5 nominees in time for last year's show, though I have seen at least that many since then). My favorite movie of the year is definitely Children of Men, and though I didn't hate any of the nominated movies, Pirates is definitely the worst movie and Babel (which I saw last night) and Flags of Our Fathers, were the least likable.

My personal top ten includes Superman Returns, The Departed, Borat, The Queen, Pan's Labryrinth, Children of Men, Letters From Iowa Jima and The Prestige, so on the whole I think the Academy did an decent job. It remains to be seen if they will follow through though. Babel didn't do it for me, but it had its moments. I would be far more disappointed if it won "Best Original Screenplay" than "Best Picture" as the direction and acting were solid, while the screenplay was ugly, tired and exploitive. I can not fathom how it is a "Best Picture" favorite, since it isn't favored to win any other award (I bet it will pick up a consolation "Best Editing" prize over the suburb Children of Men). With all the acting awards sewn up, "Best Picture" is poised for an upset, even if two of the three best movies in the category (The Queen and Letters From Iowa Jima) are deemed to have no chance to win.

I am just going to sit back and root for Marty, The Departed and Children of Men and try not to get upset if the unthinkable happens... well, that channell surf the channel rather than sit through the "Best Orginal Songs".

Monday, February 12, 2007

A few Masterpieces

The New World was far and away the best thing I saw this weekend. An earth shattering masterpiece full of beautiful, quiet moments and wonderful visual clues. I haven't seen anything else by Malick, but obviously I should go back and take a second look. It immediately invokes Hiroshima Mon Amour, with its use of poetic naration, though The Proposition uses a similar device, but not to this extent. The New World is the sort of movie that might exist if sound hadn't been introduced to the movies until decades later. There is a complete lack of exposition, and a general sparsity of dialogue, instead the movie is a series of images and sounds, juxtaposed with poetry. It is an sensuous experience, rather than a cause and effect story. I absolutely loved the movie from top to bottom, but I would suggest reading Matt Zoller Seitz or Walter Chaw for a more in depth analysis. Interesting side note, the actress playing Pocahontas, Q'Orianka Kilcher, was 14 when the movie was filmed. I thought that the love scenes between her and Colin Ferrall was beautifully suggestive, rather than explicit, little did I know that was probably due to a legal concern.

I beg you to watch this movie. It is the best thing I have seen in a very long time.
I also read six of the ten story lines in The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman (I read: Season of Mists, Fables and Reflections ,Brief Lives ,Worlds' End, The Kindly Ones- twice, and The Wake . It was beyond fantastic. It was so good that I had to go back and reread the last story arc again, which is no mean feat because it checked in at 13 chapters and approximately 400 pages. It is already my favorite graphic novel series and I just wish that someone could do a movie version justice (let's see how The Watchmen turns out before we greenlight some fresh blasphemy). The Sandman is dense with mythic, religious (is that redundant?) and literary allusions and the coolest details you can ever imagine (like the dream library of all the books never written, a sample: Bestselling Romantic Spy Novel So I Wouldn't Have to Go to Work Anymore, by you while you were commuting on the train). In Walter Chaw's review of Pan's Labrynth he says: "I can't dream like he can dream." That is the long and the short of it. The Sandman is the story of the King of Dreams and his 6 siblings, and it whirs through Hell, the Dreaming, Earth, Greek legend, Hades (distinct from Hell), Norse legend, legends that never were created, witchcraft, the future, the past, and ultimately becomes about people and choice. It is a cosmic series that boils down to its central character's growth, without ever sacrificing the magic on the page. The end of the series is so perfect that it demonstrates again that it is possible to set impossible expectations and beat them (another example, my favorite book: One Hundred Years of Solitude). Endings don't have to be cheats, and I am holding my breath that "The Sopranos" manages to do as well in that regard.

Go rent The New World and hit your local library for The Sandman, you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Write West Young Man

One of my favorite genres of movies is the Western. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Howard Hawks... need I go on? Unfortunately for all of us, the Western is essentially dead. For whatever reason- probably the obvious, not many people like them- they are made all that much anymore. However, I have been thinking about writing one anyway, and recently a friend of mine talked about basing a Western on Bob Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." "Lily" appears on my favorite Dylan album, indeed my favorite album of all time, Blood on the Tracks, and it is a gripping tale of betrayal, murder and robbery all told to rhyme. I'll post the lyrics below and please leave a comment about the story.

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin' for a fall,
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin' in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin' wheel shut down,
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standin' in the doorway lookin' like the Jack of Hearts.

He moved across the mirrored room,
"Set it up for everyone," he said,
Then everyone commenced to do what they were doin' before he turned their heads.
Then he walked up to a stranger and he asked him with a grin,
"Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?
"Then he moved into the corner, face down like the Jack of Hearts.

Backstage the girls were playin' five-card stud by the stairs,
Lily had two queens, she was hopin' for a third to match her pair.
Outside the streets were fillin' up, the window was open wide,
A gentle breeze was blowin', you could feel it from inside.
Lily called another bet and drew up the Jack of Hearts.

Big Jim was no one's fool, he owned the town's only diamond mine,
He made his usual entrance lookin' so dandy and so fine.
With his bodyguards and silver cane and every hair in place,
He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste.
But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts.

Rosemary combed her hair and took a carriage into town,
She slipped in through the side door lookin' like a queen without a crown.
She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear,
"Sorry, darlin', that I'm late," but he didn't seem to hear.
He was starin' into space over at the Jack of Hearts.

"I know I've seen that face before," Big Jim was thinkin' to himself,
"Maybe down in Mexico or a picture up on somebody's shelf."
But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim
And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him,
Starin' at the butterfly who just drew the Jack of Hearts.

Lily was a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child,
She did whatever she had to do, she had that certain flash every time she smiled.
She'd come away from a broken home, had lots of strange affairs
With men in every walk of life which took her everywhere.
But she'd never met anyone quite like the Jack of Hearts.

The hangin' judge came in unnoticed and was being wined and dined,
The drillin' in the wall kept up but no one seemed to pay it any mind.
It was known all around that Lily had Jim's ring
And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king.
No, nothin' ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts.

Rosemary started drinkin' hard and seein' her reflection in the knife,
She was tired of the attention, tired of playin' the role of Big Jim's wife.
She had done a lot of bad things, even once tried suicide,
Was lookin' to do just one good deed before she died.
She was gazin' to the future, riding on the Jack of Hearts.

Lily washed her face, took her dress off and buried it away.
"Has your luck run out?" she laughed at him,
"Well, I guess you musthave known it would someday.
Be careful not to touch the wall, there's a brand-new coat of paint,
I'm glad to see you're still alive, you're lookin' like a saint."
Down the hallway footsteps were comin' for the Jack of Hearts.

The backstage manager was pacing all around by his chair.
"There's something funny going on," he said, "I can just feel it in the air."
He went to get the hangin' judge, but the hangin' judge was drunk,
As the leading actor hurried by in the costume of a monk.
There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts.

(Note: The next verse is not on the album, but is listed in the lyrics, I think it was removed because it is obviously inferior, but here it is for the sake of completeness)
Lily's arms were locked around the man that she dearly loved to touch,
She forgot all about the man she couldn't stand who hounded her so much.
"I've missed you so," she said to him, and he felt she was sincere,
But just beyond the door he felt jealousy and fear.
Just another night in the life of the Jack of Hearts.

No one knew the circumstance but they say that it happened pretty quick,
The door to the dressing room burst open and a cold revolver clicked.
And Big Jim was standin' there, ya couldn't say surprised,
Rosemary right beside him, steady in her eyes.
She was with Big Jim but she was leanin' to the Jack of Hearts.

Two doors down the boys finally made it through the wall
And cleaned out the bank safe, it's said that they got off with quite a haul.
In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town.
But they couldn't go no further without the Jack of Hearts.

The next day was hangin' day, the sky was overcast and black,
Big Jim lay covered up, killed by a penknife in the back.
And Rosemary on the gallows, she didn't even blink,
The hangin' judge was sober, he hadn't had a drink.
The only person on the scene missin' was the Jack of Hearts.

The cabaret was empty now, a sign said, "Closed for repair,"
Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair.
She was thinkin' 'bout her father, who she very rarely saw,
Thinkin' 'bout Rosemary and thinkin' about the law.
But, most of all she was thinkin' 'bout the Jack of Hearts.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Links in the chain

I have been really busy at work so I haven't had much time to post. Yeah right. I just haven't had anything to say. However, other people have been doing great work, so instead of contributing I thought I would just point out their fine work (the mix-tape artist theory)

1. Walter Chaw absolutely destroys Diane Keaton and Because I Said So. The money quote:
"The best that can be said about this early contender for the worst film of 2007 is that it's properly keystone'd by Diane Keaton, who, between this and The Family Stone, cements her position as the most smug, insufferable, unwatchable persona in a long and tumescent line of such personae. She embodies the absolute worst of every single stereotype of the domineering mother: dotty, ditzy, Luddite, sexless/oversexed, cruel, racist, otherwise intolerant, and above all hysterical. Throw her psychotic mommy dearest from The Other Sister into the stew and it's hard to find a more stalwart movie monster in the last ten years than Keaton, who's gone from a charming neurotic to a cobwebbed, cell-phone-wielding vagina dentata."

No one writes a flamethrowing review like Chaw (observe his reviews of Failure to Launch, "Grey's Anatomy" and Lady in the Water), but this was a new high, or low, or whatever. 2. Fresh off the staggering break-even success of the over hyped Snakes on a Plane, Samuel L. Jackson's decided to be in one of the wildest movies I have ever heard of, Black Snake Moan. I beg you to watch that trailer. I have seen it five times and I still can't believe it.

The plot (as seen from the trailer) in one sentence: Samuel L. in a dirty wife beater and balding afro with a mutton chops beard, chains a half-naked, beaten up and emaciated Christina Ricci to his house in order to "cure her of her wickedness." Wow, I will be there the first weekend it opens, before it gets pulled because of mass protests from the NAACP, NOW, 700 Club and the KKK. (hat tip: The House Next Door)

3. ESPN vs. Deadspin. ESPN is a shell of its former self. Once it was hip and irreverent, now it Disney approved faux-cool with big budgets. Once it was the go to site for sports commentary and information, but now, most of the of the columns on have moved behind the pay curtain and what remains is Bill Simmons (who I like as a pop-culture writer, but he has a severe limitation as a sports talking head, namely, he doesn't know anything about sports) and worthless stuff like Scoop Jackson (who is a terrible writer and somewhat racist to boot). To make matters worse, the Internet at large and the blogsphere in particular has exploded with great sports content. Specialty sites, like, offer a lot more bang for the buck and team centric sites, like my beloved, are free and offer 100 times more content about the teams you actually care about. meanwhile is like, except it focuses on sports, not celebrities. It posts all relevant, and not so relevant, news, with funny commentary and user comments. The people who comment there are both hilarious and very, very inappropriate (see the comments on the day Barbaro died or when T.O. supposedly attempted suicide) .

So the worldwide leader decided to start allow comments under its articles and immediately has to start deleting the comments from all the people at Deadspin- which included things about the Sports gal (Mrs. Simmons), Barbaro, parodies of the Sports Guy, criticisms of Bill's squeaky voice, and lots of discussion about ESPN firing black journalists like Jason Whitlock and Harold Reynolds, but not Sean Salisbury. It was obviously a bad idea to let the unwashed masses have a voice, and since deleting the comments looks bad, I am guessing this innovation will go the way of the ESPN cellphone (which lost hundreds of millions of dollars). The Sports Guy is probably getting picked on for being unbelievably successful, as much as for actually sucking. Deadspin follows the story here and here.
UPDATE: Bill's new column is getting the same treatment. I love that they are using references from last night's "Office." See, that is good topical humor ESPN! Why don't you use quotes like that on home run calls?
4. Postsecret. When I saw this, but I was blown away. People send postcards with their secrets written on them to this guy in Georgia and he posts them on his webpage. People then write emails to him and he posts the interesting responses under the postcards. The stuff is so personal and moving that you get a charge out of reading it. It is just a few words, but you really feel like you are inside their skin for a moment. My only complaint is that he doesn't have an archive, so you can only see the most recent secrets. However, he posts new secrets every Sunday, so this is good Monday reading.

5. The House Next Door's tribute to Molly Ivins. One of the best liberal voices in print passed away this week and Matt Zoller Seitz posts several of his favorite articles and quotes. My favorite: "The poor man who is currently our president has reached such a point of befuddlement that he thinks stem cell research is the same as taking human lives, but that 40,000 dead Iraqi civilians are progress toward democracy."
A very nice tribute, that thread also discusses Black Snake Moan, so it is a regular daily double.

Have a great weekend, Go Colts, even though I am kind of rooting for the Bears so I can participate in my first riot!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Hidden Advertisements

I recently bought a new cellphone and I was surprised to find out that all of the games on it were demos that included links to buy the full versions of the game. Further, if you play the games for a short period of time, they stop working and just direct you to the purchase screen. However, the games can not be deleted either. This has very little effect on my life, but I find it annoying that I can't play the games and I can't delete them. I purchased the phone, but I have to endure inconvenient advertisements. As a frequent text messager, my phone's memory often fills up and getting rid of five java-based games would make room for a lot of texts.

The phone companies no doubt replaced the old standard games with these because the money is in the services and not the phone itself (which sells for a loss). But as a consumer, I feel this is the equivalent of buying a car and having a mannequin wearing clothes I would like to wear in the backseat. I can't wear the clothes and I can't use that part of the seat. Ironically, if I bought the full versions of these games, I would be able to delete them.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Oscar Cheat Sheet

The grand-daddy of all award shows is almost upon us and putting aside for the moment the question of validity, I want to look at who will win. This is a first order look at the Oscars, what is, not what should be. Hopefully this will help you win your office pool (unless you are in my office, in which case, shoo).

Actors are the largest group in the academy and since they have their own awards (which are mind-numbly-ing boring and self-serving to watch), I wanted to see how well the SAG awards predict the four acting categories and best picture.

Here is a list going back three years.
Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote. - also won Oscar
Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line. - also won Oscar
Supporting actor: Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man. - didn't win Oscar
Supporting actress: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener. - also won Oscar
Ensemble cast: Crash. - also won Oscar

Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray - also won Oscar
Actress: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby - also won Oscar
Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby - also won Oscar
Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator - also won Oscar
Ensemble cast: Sideways - didn't win Oscar

Actor: Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - didn't win Oscar
Actress: Charlize Theron, Monster - also won Oscar
Supporting Actor: Tim Robbins, Mystic River - also won Oscar
Supporting Actress: Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain - also won Oscar
Ensemble cast: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - also won Oscar

Over the past 3 years the SAG awards have been 80% right (over the three years before that they were 33% right though). The three mistakes, George Clooney won Best Supporting Actor in 2005 (for Syriana), Million Dollar Baby won Best Picture in 2004, and Sean Penn won Best Actor in 2003 (for Mystic River), all have explanations. Clooney was nominated for Best Director in 2005 and this was his consolation prize. Sideways didn't win any other acting awards at the SAG, while Million Dollar Baby won two and like Johnny Depp- and Sasha Baron Cohen- found out, never bet on comedies to win Oscar Gold (Johnny lost again the next year for the dull Finding Neverland, which showed that it is okay to get serious, but not boring).

In short, the SAG awards are pretty excellent predictors and so I pick:
Best Actress: Helen Mirren - The Queen
Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy - Dreamgirls (this is my weakest pick)
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson - Dreamgirls
Best Picture: The Departed

The Departed wins instead of Little Miss Sunshine, because the again, Oscar doesn't go comedic, the SAG Awards are 80% right, so I needed to change one, and this feels like Marty's year.

Now for the directing and writing Awards. The Oscars are a psychological web of intrigue. You try and guess how people vote, but the winners affect each other. Some awards trigger other wins for the same movie, while other awards are indications that there aren't going to be anymore wins for that movie. So, assuming I am right about the first five here are my guesses for the rest.

Best Directing is going to The Departed. The Best Picture needs to pick up a few other major categories and The Departed was largely snubbed in the acting categories (the good performances are being punished for Jack's scenery chewing). Plus, its Marty's turn.
Little Miss Sunshine is going to get the Sideways/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Best Original Screenplay red ribbon, for being the movie that the voters wished they could have voted for.

Best Adapted Screenplay is one the most wide open category of the night. It is probably safe to discount Little Children and Notes on a Scandal, but the other three all make compelling cases. Borat was a box office hit and was generally snubbed elsewhere. The Departed is a Best Picture favorite and its screenplay was a knockout (best dialogue in recent memory). Children of Men (my favorite movie of the year) and was snubbed in above, but still managed three nominations, with this as the biggest one. Hollywood loves success and the movie of the year has to win something so: Borat.

Some other picks, briefly:
Best Cinematography: Children of Man, though it might win in editing instead.
Best Editing: I would give it to Children of Man, but I think it will go to Babel, which has to win something, but not Best Picture.
Best Art Direction: Dream Girls.
Best Costume Design: Marie Antoinette, the period piece always wins best costume.
Best Animated Feature: Happy Feet, but any of these could win.
Best Foreign Language Film: Pan's Labyrinth. Much deserved, hopefully Guillermo del Toro curses during his speech.
Best Documentary: Either Iraq in Fragments or An Inconvenient Truth. I am hoping for an Al Gore speech, so An Inconvenient Truth.

To Recap:
Best Picture: The Departed
Best Actor: Forest Whitaker
Best Actress: Helen Mirren
Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson
Best Direction: The Departed
Best Orginal Screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine
Best Adapted Screenplay: Borat
Best Cinematography: Children of Men
Best Editing: Children of Man
Best Art Direction: Dreamgirls
Best Costume Design: Marie Antoinette
Best Animated Feature: Happy Feet
Best Foreign Language Film: Pan's Labyrinth
Best Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth

*I didn't pick any thing in the Musical categories because I don't have a clue. I didn't see Dream Girls and that seems like a lock to win something or another.

Friday, January 26, 2007

United States of Confederacy

CSA: The Confederate States of America is a great movie, the spiritual progeny of Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee signed on to produce the movie after it had already been released), proof that creativity can overcome budgetary constrictions and the final nail in the coffin of Paul Haggis's tame and obvious Crash. In his Oscar acceptance speech Haggis quoted Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror held up to society, it is a hammer by which to shape it.” In CSA the mirror is the hammer and I dare someone to peer into it honestly without flinching.

The premise is that the Confederacy wins the Civil War and slavery doesn't go away, ever. The movie is a faux-documentary (mockumentary is inappropriate and inaccurate) from the perspective of a BBC film crew in the late 1990's, but it is now being broadcast on "Confederate Television," which includes commercials that are the most shocking and guiltly exciting, parts of the documentary. The bracingly racist commercials are the comic relief that fulfils the promise of the movie's opening quote: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” Most of those laughs are just to fill the uncomfortable silence in the room as you watch the movie.

The movie closes with the revelation that the most racist scenes in the movie where taken from real life. While that ending is informative, it felt redundant after the commercial for "Runaway", "Cops" with a different theme song, a hillbilly blue-grass reworking of the iconic "Bad Boys" song. As I squirmed and listened to "Run boy, run boy, gonna catch you, run boy, run boy, ain't gonna get away," I stared at the U.S.A, not the C.S.A.

Some critics have questioned the historical interpretation of the movie, pointing out that it is light on historical accuracy and most of its presumptions wouldn't have happened. When a movie starts with the assumption that the U.S. still has legal slavery, it is safe to say that they have taken some liberties with history, but that is besides the point. The C.S.A. would be a straw man, a flat metaphor, if it was just an faux-cautionary tale of a history we barely avoided. The scary thing is that as evil as the C.S.A is- and it is evil enough to advise Hitler that it considered the Holocaust an immoral waste of manpower- it is just a rose by another name (how does "the American Holocaust" sound?). The C.S.A. took all of the Indian land and then sent the natives to boarding schools that eradicated their culture, it conscripted Chinese labors to builds the railroads, it practiced segregation (they called it "Separate and Unequal" and noted that it had the had the benefit of "letting the Mexicans know their place, and keeping them there"), and it formally ruled South America. That is a U.S. history course written with bracing honesty, from the victim's perspective, and it begs the question: "Who wrote our history?"

The film history of the C.S.A is a recreation of our own as well. Gone with the Wind becomes A Northern Wind, D.W. Griffith's The Hunt for Dishonest Abe replaces The Birth of a Nation, and WWII propaganda films and anti-Communist films become about literal race wars and abbies (the abolitionist communist equivalents in the C.S.A). Many people point out Abraham Lincoln's speech in Dishonest Abe (Lincoln in black-face says: "I ain't no prez'dent! I'z a darky!") as the most shocking scene in the movie, but for me the fictional speech that stood out was from the 1940 war movie, The Dark Jungle: "This world is made for the God fearing, to use as we see fit. For awhile these savages thought it was theirs, but their just renting it. It's ours, it was always ours, we just ain't claimed it all... yet. Kill em all, and let God sort em out." I would laugh, but then a coworker called me a coward last year because I "wouldn't defend our country in Iraq."

The C.S.A does suffer occasionally from its low budget; some sets are non-existent, some of the acting is uneven (I would like to praise Rupert Pate as the pro-C.S.A. talking head, he is excellent) and some of the green screen work is glaring. Fortunately, the strength of the writing carries the movie and overcomes any small technical glitches. Beyond being incendiary, it is consistently entertaining and features some riotously funny moments (the C.S.A.'s position on reparations springs to mind). This is the best movie of the 2006 (even if says it was made in 2004) and I wish it received some Academy buzz, and the attention that went along with that. The academy likes statement movies that make us feel self-righteously warm and fuzzy, CSA is too busy setting American history on fire to remind that those watching it are exempt from its recriminations.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Amsher is bending to my will

Yesterday I got a call from Amsher, the company that bought my debt from T-Mobile. I informed the caller that I sent a certified letter of dispute to the company. Surprise, surprise, they hadn't received it. I am so glad that sent that letter certified, because otherwise I bet they would just throw it away. Letter or no, they would like to settle with me.

I said I still didn't owe any money, but what is their offer?
"180 dollars."
"That's still a lot more than zero, but thanks for the information. I'll call you when I find out that my letter has reached you."

So in less than a month of wrangling, I now owe less than half what I owe originally. While an infinite series of getting half off would never reach zero, it would reach a number that I find acceptable (say... twenty dollars) in a little more than three months. By that point my credit would probably be in bad shape though.

Monday, January 22, 2007

What to watch if you can't afford Tivo

I love television. It is the most easily accessible way to get from point A (now) to point B (the sweet release of death). I think I have fairly exacting, if idiosyncratic, standards of how I waste my time in front of the Teevee. Here is my night by night guide of what is good on network TV.

Monday (all times are Eastern Standard, which is to say, standard everywhere but Central, where I live) :
7:00: "Jeopardy," ABC, still the best game show on television. Assume that is what you watch at every night, because I like to feel good about myself before wasting my entire night (which is four or five hours long, since I get home at six and go to bed by eleven). Maybe you don't consider watching "Jeopardy" productive, but I always feel like I learned something.
7:30: There are about 20 good sitcoms in syndication to get you from 7:30 to the beginning of network shows, which usually aren't as good as what is in syndication. "Seinfeld" is on Fox, and that is usually what I watch.

8:00: Go eat dinner and turn off the TV. This is the valley of dry bones as far as entertainment goes. Not even any enjoyable empty calories with junk like "Deal or No Deal", "Wife Swap" and "Prison Break" ("24" with more contrivances, but a prettier, unfortunately male, cast. Plus, Wentworth Miller's brother on the show should button one more button on his shirt, he is running around like he is in a club in South Beach).
9:00: "Heroes," NBC. I am extremely faithful to this show, but I am not as sold on the premise as some people. The voice overs at the beginning and end are painfully overwrought, and every episode seems like a stunt. Plus, the tag lines don't make any sense (how did saving the cheerleader save the world? It saved the hottest girl on the show, but the world?). That is nitpicking though, the characters are cool, the big revelations make sense (unlike "Lost") and even the evil characters seem nuanced. The fact that this is a huge hit shows you that there is a big market out there for quality Sci-Fi.
10:00: "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," NBC. The only show I regularly watch, but don't like. In fact, I hate "Studio 60." Sure, everyone, especially bloggers, hates "Studio 60". But, with good reason. All of the characters are interchangeable, there is never internal conflict, only external pressure, it isn't funny and it is plotted soooooo slowly. I should watch an episode and write down every wasted, empty scene. The show is all filler, with a "cliffhanger" that no ones cares about and everyone expects. So why do I watch it? Well, it is a nice boost of confidence to see the creator and head writer of one of the best series ever, "The West Wing," reduced to this. We are all human, folks, and Sorkin is just proving that episode after episode.
11:00: "Daily Show"
11:30: "The Colbert Report" - Where I get my news, even if it isn't strictly on the networks.
12:00: ZZZZ. Actually I fall asleep during "Studio 60" most of the time, but I blame Aaron Sorkin.

Same, the only difference is that you will be ignoring the most popular show in recent memory on Tuesdays, while most people will be ignoring Mondays.
9:00: "Veronica Mars" The CW. Like "Arrested Development," this show will probably go out well before vastly inferior shows of a similar type (all 15 varieties of "CSI", including the ones named "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace", for "Veronica" and "Two and a Half Men" for "A.D."). It hasn't been as good as the first season, but neither was "A.D." ("The Office", meanwhile, is best in season 2, though still going very strong in season 3). Kristen Bell is so cute that I find myself talking nonsense to the screen when she is on. "Oooh, Veronica, you're funny... and hot. So hot, right now." I was taken with her from the first time I saw her on "Deadwood" and she just rocks on "Veronica Mars", even if she is getting a little too flip at times (I mean seriously, Veronica, I just asked you if you loved me, don't give me some cutting joke or pop culture reference). The supporting cast is terrific too, though the CW is so poor that most of the cast only appears intermittently. It is distracting when Wallace will disappear for a month only to pop up like nothing happened. It is still a good-to-great show, even with all of that, and if it was on CBS it would probably be one of the most viewed show on TV, but then it would probably also be dumbed down for old people, morons and necrophiliacs, like everything else on CBS.
10:00: Nothing is on at this time. This is a good time to watch a movie or go to bed.

Same old, same old.
8:00: "Beauty and the Geek". The Airheads of network TV. No nutritional value, but oh my is it delicious. The girls are so dumb, the guys are so clueless and the message is so heavy handed. This is the only reality show (non-MTV) that I watch, but it's a doozy. Honestly, I might falsify my resume, grew a patchy beard, profess to be a huge "Babylon 5" fan, and constantly reference the quantum mechanics and physics in an effort to fake my way onto the show. Here is a real quote from one of the guys on the show: "That would be like finding out that Brownian motion was inversely proportional to viscosity- unbelievable." One or two zingers like that and I would be in, baby! I think I would have a 90% shot of getting one of the girls, just by comparison to the gamma males I would be competing against.

9:00: Nothing really to watch, though you could try and sit through "The Knights of Prosperity" and "In Case of Emergency" on ABC, but I wouldn't recommend it. Both are proof that single camera shows can be just as formulaic and boring as the four camera shows. They might make you smile, but won't make you laugh.
10:00: Eventually "Lost," ABC will be back here, but for now, you might as well have gone to bed at 9:00. "Lost" is a case study in the law of diminishing returns as all of its "revelations" have become increasingly less interesting. The formula of focusing on one character's past per episode, while loosely mirroring that back story with the events on the island is my least favorite device on the show. It was one of the best parts of the show- such as Locke's back story involving his dad, which is one of the coldest things I have ever seen- but now it feels like avoiding dealing with the messy plot on the island. Still, it is great looking cast and they always plug in new hotties after they kill off minor characters. Plus, most of us are too invested to quit at this point, so we all eat it up the bullshit with a spoon.
11:00-12:00: "Daily Colbert Report Show", as usual.

Thursday: The best night of TV!
7:00-8:00: Same as usual, but get your dinner/blanket and pillow/remote ready because you don't want to miss much from 8:00-10:00 on NBC (of course there will be an 40 minutes of commercials in those two hours, so you will have time to run to the bathroom).
8:00: "My Name is Earl" is generally enjoyable, but not quite as funny as some people think. It makes me smile and I like the cast, but most of the jokes center around how stupid everyone is- which can be tiring after awhile. I think that Ethan Suplee as Randy is likable, but never funny. It will be surprisingly funny some weeks though, (the Cops episode last week was a scream) and it is a nice aperitif for the best show on TV.
8:30: "The Office"! This show is Barry Bonds on the juice- unbelievably good in its own time. It never has a bad episode, somehow manages to be emotionally demanding and yet extremely funny, and when it's really on, it absolutely blows away everything else on TV. I think "Arrested Development" was the cleverest (most clever?) show I have ever seen, but "The Office" trumps it for sheer laugh out loud funny moments and "A.D." never had the emotional core of the gang at Dunder Miflin. It is amazing to me that its ratings are still relatively mediocre, while "Grey's Anatomy" cleans up. I know that "Grey's" rakes in the females, but if all the girls watched the season finale last spring, I bet that Jim would convert some away from the contrived romances in the hospital. In short, if you don't watch "The Office", then go grab the DVDs and give it a shot. Season One is spotty, but if you finish watching that season and you aren't convinced... then go watch season two!
9:00: "Scrubs" isn't my absolute favorite show anymore, and one could make a pretty good case that it is past its prime. However, it stills brings the funny, and at this point they are in "I'm Keith Hernandez"phase, where they know they probably won't get picked up again and so they can do whatever they want. Case in point: last week's "Scrubs: The Musical," which, in conjunction with "The Wizard of Oz episode" and the homoerotic friendship between Turk and J.D., makes a pretty good case for "Scrubs" as the gayest comedy in prime time. I watched Zach Braff on Carson Daly the other night and while he was diplomatic, it seemed like he was leaning towards leaving the show even if it is picked up. He was also surprisingly awkward, much more like J.D. than his character in "Garden State".
9:30: "30 Rock" is a very solid comedy and as everyone points out, Alec Baldwin is amazing. Maybe I am in the minority, but I have always liked Tina Fey and she does good work here. Tracy Morgan plays just the sort of character he excels at (silly), and because the tone of the show is so wacky, it works. There is a minor reoccurring character on the show, played by Katie Bowden, who is Jessica Alba hot, which also helps.
10:00: All good things come to an end, and Thursday night on NBC bleeds into snooze fest "ER". I can't believe that show is still on the air, with much better ratings than "The Office" to boot.
11:00: "Colbert Daily Report Show", if you managed to make it through the boredom of the preceding hour.

Friday: Don't watch TV on a Friday night! Go out, get a little crazy, or at the very least, go watch a movie in the theaters.
Saturday: The worst night of TV of the week. The networks and cable have given up on this night, so should you. Go get drunk and ask random women if they lost weight (like I apparently did at the office Christmas party. I only found out about my misdeed today, a month later. In my defense, I was dared, and when I'm drunk, I'm like Marty McFly- don't call me chicken).
Sunday:* Supposedly a good night for TV, but I don't like any of these shows. Which is unfortunate, since I am usually nursing a hangover and regretting all the money I spent the past two nights, so I end up watching crap I don't like.

So there is it, what to watch on network TV, but if you have HBO, then you have access to drama that is better than anything on network TV. However, HBO has yet to do a great comedy ("Lucky Louie", "Arli$$"), which is why "The Office" is far and away the best show on network TV. It is the only show that is better than its equivalents on the pay channels, I mean let's face it, "Lost" isn't in the same league as "The Sopranos".''

* I don't watch "24", and though I generally don't say anything bad about in front of the million people a day who tell me how great it is, I think it sucks. Maybe I just can't believe that the growling midget is really the toughest guy on the planet, or maybe I don't like its politics (It is a case study in why torture is appropriate and when Jack Bauer is cutting people eyes out and shooting women to an audience of tens of millions, it is hard to get upset about Guantanamo Bay and water boarding), but my experience with "24" has been uniformly negative. I get bored by the constant "danger" with no real expectation that Jack will die and no investment in any of the other characters. Beyond the fact that "real time" makes the show in less authentic than most crap on TV, the show feels very contrived, even when Jack isn't getting from gun fight to knife fight faster than the speed of light. Even the supremely hot Elisha Cuthbert (The Girl Next Door was a four star sex appeal performance) can't make me watch this show.

Friday, January 19, 2007

More fun ways to ruin your credit

I am a recent college graduate and last summer I decided to go on a two month road trip before getting down to business. My first stop was to visit my aunt in upstate New York and for reasons beyond my control (car trouble) I ended up spending about 10 days sitting around watching TV there. I decided to break up the monotony by getting a new cell phone, since the one I had was purchased through my school and was about to expire. I wanted to get T-Mobile, because my entire family used T-Mobile, and I wanted to keep my number, so I wouldn't have to tell all of my friends a new number. Fortunately, Congress passed a national law that said you could "port" in your number to a new cell provider.

So, I went to the T-Mobile website to look for a T-Mobile Store near my aunt's house and one of the closest stores was at Wal-Mart. I decided to go to Wal-Mart because my aunt knew where it was, and I certainly didn't know my way around. So off to Wal-Mart I went and I picked out a phone I liked and bought it. While it was getting set up, I asked if I could port in my old number. The lady didn't know how to do it, so she called T-Mobile and was informed that it was relatively simple to do and I could do it at home. Satisfied, I bought the phone, went home and called T-Mobile.

This turned out to be something of a nightmare. My old service provider, Alltel, didn't acknowledge that the phone was in my name, because I had purchased it through the University. So I had to call the University and get them to call Alltel who then had to call T-Mobile. I would say conservatively that I spent ten hours on the phone trying to get my number ported in, as even after Alltel released the number, T-Mobile was struggling to assign the number to me. Finally, two days after I got the phone, a lady from T-Mobile informed me that I couldn't port my number because T-Mobile didn't have any towers in that area code. I immediately told the lady I was going to return the phone and cancel service, since I asked when I bought it if I could port in my number and was told then that I could. T-Mobile has a two-week money-back policy and so easy-breezy I returned the phone to Wal-Mart and got my money back.

That same day I got a Cingular phone and recently re-upped with Cingular for two more years.

Flash forward to last weekend, where I was home celebrating a late Christmas with my family. I wake up Friday morning and my mom informs me that I received a call from a creditor that morning and she had gotten a call back number. I call the agency back and lo and behold, I owe $360 to T-Mobile and they have now turned the account over to Amsher Collection Agency, and now they were calling my parents. When I signed up for T-Mobile, I used my parent's home number as my home number, since I couldn't very well use the only other number I had-- the cell number I wanted to port in. I more or less go ballistic on the phone ("I'm not paying anything, don't call my parents, don't fuck with my credit), but to be fair, collection agency's aren't known for their customer service, I had gotten the phone in late May of 2006, more than seven months earlier and this was a spectacularly bad piece of news to get at 8:30 in the morning.

After taking a few days to collect myself, I called T-Mobile and get some information. It turns out that the phone was never disconnected and I owe $200 for breach of contract, plus four months of service at $40 a month (the phone was turned off for lack of payment in October 2006). I told them what happened, but I was told to call the collection agency as T-Mobile no longer controls the account, however, they would extensively note the account so that the agency could refer to my call to T-Mobile.

So I called the agency and I was transferred to a supervisor, and again I relayed my story of misunderstanding. He said he would have to check with T-Mobile and he would get back to me, so I gave him my Cingular number and waited for him to call back.

An hour later he left me a voice mail (I was on the subway, so I didn't get the call) saying that I am libel for the phone, because I "returned it to Wal-Mart, which is the same as returning it to someone on the street. [I] should have returned the phone to the T-Mobile warehouse."

What the hell is the T-Mobile warehouse? Obviously, I was never told this by T-Mobile, in my extensive phone conversations with them, or Wal-mart, when I purchased or returned the phone. I was supposed to simply figure this out, and if I didn't figure this out, it would be a very costly mistake indeed.

I called Amshare back today and was informed that they would settle the account for $280 (the equivalent to seven months phone service) or they would refer my account to an attorney. I asked to speak to the supervisor I spoke with yesterday. I informed him that I couldn't possibly have known to return the phone to the T-Mobile Warehouse and that I only learned of its existence yesterday when he told me about it. He responded: "That's business."

I told him that I can not and will not pay $260 for a phone I only used for a week before returning it to where I bought it from. "Then you will be liable for the charges and we will get an attorney to get the money from you, including legal fees, which will come to more than $360."

I called T-Mobile and asked to speak with a supervisor and I was told that I would get a call from someone. I am currently waiting for that call, but obviously I am not optimistic. T-Mobile says that they have no control over the account once it goes to collections, and the collection agency has no incentive to let me off. In fact, their entire business is based around not letting people off. Collection agencies and car towing service both operate on the principle that no one can afford to do anything other than pay them. When push comes to shove, common sense and fairness never enters the picture because the consumer has no leverage. When a supervisor from T-Mobile calls me back and tells me that he can't do anything for me I will be faced with the choice between ruining my credit and probably being tried in absentia in some court that almost certainly won't be near where I live, or paying more than half what I owed in the original contract despite never receiving any of the services of the contract. I'll let you know what I choose.

UPDATE: I talked to Legal Aid and they advised me to negotiate with Amsher because T-Mobile has already sold the account to them and thus will not help me. Since Amsher tells me that they need a letter from T-Mobile in order to close the account and T-Mobile says they turned over the file to Amsher, I am pretty much screwed. I am filing a formal dispute with Amsher, which should keep me out of court and hopefully will get T-Mobile to do something.

If not, then I will just have to start writing a lot of letters. $280 isn't a huge amount of money, but it is more than I will pay for nothing.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Greatest American

I am a little late to the party, but I thought I would point out a poll by AOL and the Discovery Channel from 2005 that asked: "Who is the greatest American?" I found this poll by looking at the Greatest Briton list, which I found because it was mentioned on his wikipedia page that Thomas Malthus wasn't on the list. Obviously, I have too much time on my hands, which I guess is why I have a blog. Now this list is an unscientific poll, but still (via Wikipedia):
  1. Ronald Reagan - 24% of the First place votes
  2. Abraham Lincoln - 23.5%
  3. Martin Luther King, Jr. - 19.7%
  4. George Washington - 17.7%
  5. Benjamin Franklin - 14.9%
  6. George W. Bush
  7. Bill Clinton
  8. Elvis Presley
  9. Oprah Winfrey
  10. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  11. Billy Graham
  12. Thomas Jefferson
  13. Walt Disney
  14. Albert Einstein
  15. Thomas Alva Edison
  16. John F. Kennedy
  17. Bob Hope
  18. Bill Gates
  19. Eleanor Roosevelt
  20. Lance Armstrong
  21. Muhammad Ali
  22. Rosa Parks
  23. The Wright Brothers
  24. Henry Ford
  25. Neil Armstrong

1. Ronald Reagan as the greatest American of all time? Does anyone, literally, ANYONE, believe that to be true? Greater than George Washington, the first President, the General who more than anyone contributed to America even existing, the man who presided over the Congressional Congress, the man who refused to be king and stepped down after only two terms? Really? Not only that, but Washington comes in behind two others! Reagan meanwhile, is a mediocre actor and a President whose only significant accomplishment, the fall of the Soviet Union, came at the cost of years of nuclear paranoia and a huge national deficit. Plus, there was Iran-Contra, which, according to some, was only the tip of the iceberg of Reagan's crime in South America. I don't think it is even possible to make the case that Reagan was the greatest American ever, even if he did die the year before this poll.

2. Abraham Lincoln. I don't want to get into all of the specifics, but Abraham Lincoln is generally overrated. He failed to prevent the bloodiest war in U.S. history, issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963- three years into his administration and not primarily because he cared about the interest of the enslaved, rather he was trying to block Europe from entering the war- and he excercised near fascist state power during the war, including suspending the writ of habeas corpus and severely limiting both freedom of speech and press. I am not saying he wasn't one of the most important figures in U.S. history, merely that his role is badly misunderstood. History has turned him into "Honest Abe the slavery hating man", but the reality was far more complex. He belongs on the list, and I can understand why so many people like him, but I would put him down a few rungs.

3. MLK was by any standard a great American and I would put him over Lincoln or Reagan (I mean seriously, Reagan over MLK?), though I would still put Washington first.

4. George Washington, the greatest American ever. The only knock on him is he had slaves, which is significant. But slavery was legal then and I don't think you can dock him too many points by rejudging history in the light of present morality. Plus, he wouldn't sell slaves if it broke up slave families and he released slaves upon the death of his wife. Not enough absolve his involvement with the institution, but fairly admirable. He should be number one with a bullet.

5. Ben Franklin belongs on the list somewhere, but probably not this high. He did numerous important things, but never was president and didn't have that much of a prominent role in the revolution. Still a minor error, entirely overshadowed by:

6. George W. Bush in a ranking that is already strikingly anachronistic two years after the poll was taken. Bush would probably top a list of the 25 worst Americans today, but I suspect that some Conservative ballot stuffing got him and Reagan so high on this list.

7. Bill Clinton, God love the big guy, is not one the of the top ten Americans of all time. He is more like the modern Calvin Cooledge than a President of note. Sure, Bush makes him look really, really good, but his Administration was non-descript and the booming economy was not his doing. I imagine all the people who didn't vote for Bush put Slick Willy this high on the list.

8. Elvis Presley, um no. Beyond the questionable nature of putting entertainers on a list of the "greatest" people, I wonder how "great" an entertainer Elvis was. He was a bad actor and spent the last third of his career as the world highest paid night club singer. He didn't write most of his songs and stole his sound from African Americans. How can he be on the list, but Bob Dylan, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway aren't? Answer: the average idiot has heard of Elvis, but the other three earn blank looks and indifferent shrugs from the masses.

9. Oprah... Wow. She is 13 places over Rosa Parks! She is infinity places over Jonas Salk, who only managed to develop the polio vaccine. Sure she does some charity work, but how can someone primarily known for having a day time talk show be among the ten greatest Americans of all time?

10. FDR. Overrated, but definitely one of the most important Americans. His untimely death saved us from the first psuedo monarchy in U.S. history and 22nd Amendment ensured that no one else will serve for longer than George Washington.

11. Billy Graham... Well at least it isn't L Ron Hubbard or the Morman Jesus (he came over here and became an American). More ballot stuffing by Conservatives.

12. Thomas Jefferson, had some characters issues but I think he should be in the top five for sure. It is cultural revisionism to paint him as a racial monster according to our current values. The Declaration of Independence is best piece of writing in U.S. history, and then we have the Louisianna Purchase, the "Revolution of 1800" that demonstrated peaceful political transition, the Lewis and Clark expedition that he authorized and on and on.

13. Walt Disney? Geez, are people just voting for the names they recognize? Henry Ford was a better industrialist and there are many movie people who are more influential. The Disney corporation's continual strengthening of intellectual property law (to protect 1928's "Steamboat Willy" and thus Mickey Mouse) is a major problem for artistic freedom. Nothing would pass into the public domain, ever, if Disney had its way.

14. Albert Einstein - First he should be way higher on this list and second he shouldnt be on it at all. He was only a citizen of this country for 15 of his 76 years and he retained his Swiss citizenship until his death. At least he was a legitamately great man.

15. Thomas Edison - This is about where Ben Franklin belongs. Both were great men, though not inner circle Greatest Americans.

16. John F. Kennedy was one of the worst Presidents of all time. He was hopelessly out of his league in Cuba and almost caused the end of the world with his leadership during the missile crisis (how come no one mentions that we had missiles in Turkey that convinced the USSR to put missiles in Cuba? It should be the Cuban-Turkey Missile Crisis, since the missles were only removed from Cuba when we agreed to remove our missiles from Turkey). If a little Texas redneck (or a vast conspiracy) hadn't ended his Precidency prematurally, then who knows how bad things he would have mucked up foreign policy. He was good looking however, and a lot of baby boomers identify him with the idealism of youth. Never mind that his dad was a bootlegger and he was elected President under false pretenses (read: mob related). Not a great American.

17. Bob Hope, I don't know if he was particularly significant in an artistic, political or social way. He did perform a lot of USO shows, and I guess that makes him the 17th greatest American ever (despite being born in England).

18. Bill Gates went from being a hated, cut throat capitalist to one of the greatest philanthropists in history in only a short few years. I have high hopes for what he is going to do with all of Warren Buffet's money and I can admire an American success story. Bill was smart and went from not much, to more than anyone else.

19. Eleanor Roosevelt did some good things, but how could she possibly be on this list when Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, isn't? Another example of people voting for the names they have heard of.

20. Lance Armstrong is pretty amazing and this list was from before he started partying with Matthew McConaughey all the time. Still, I don't see what makes him better than Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, not to mention Jackie Robinson (!) or...

21. Muhammad Ali is, to my thinking, far and away the most significant American Athlete this side of Jackie Robinson (whose exclusion from this list is criminal). He sat out the draft, joined the nation of Islam, aggressively self-promoted (now the norm), fought in Africa and generally refused to be quiet. The model that every loud mouth super-star tries to live up to, and no one has come close.

22. Rosa Parks wasn't the first person to sit in the white section of the bus and the popular story of the woman who refused to get up after a long day at work is fiction, still, hers was the most significant act of civil disobedence in this country since the Boston Tea Party. Hard to argue with those credentials.

23. Wright Brothers are certainly worthy.

24. Henry Ford personifies the American Industrial ideal (now exported to the country with the worst paid workers). I would put him a lot higher on the list.

25. Neil Armstrong was just the monkey in a space suit prancing around a moon set in Los Angeles. At least that is what I read in Cracked magazine.

To summarize: 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 16, 17, 19 and 20 don't belong on the list at all and 1, 2 and 5 were overrated. I propose we substitute James Madison (who wasn't even nominated, though Tom Cruise was...), Bob Dylan (not nominated, though Arnold Swartzenegger was), Mark Twain, Jonas Salk, Michael Jordan, Ernest Hemmingway, Andrew Jackson (controversial, but undoubtably one of the most important presidents), Susan B Anthony (where are the women on this list?), John Marshall (not nominated, though Donald Trump was), Jackie Robinson and Theodore Roosevelt.

If we can take solace in anything, it is that we are not the only country with no clue who was important. On the list of the 100 Greatest Britons, Princess Di is 3rd, ahead of William Shakespeare. Evidently being the prettiest Royal trumps being the greatest writer of the English language, EVER. Sigh.