Monday, December 24, 2007

This Christmas, Feel Like a Kid Feeling Like a Spy Again

So, this Christmas thing. Is it getting a little… boring? Seriously, I bet some of you are just grousing about how big the credit card bill is after trying to keep the kiddies in all the coolest toys this season. And you might even still be trying to figure out how to fit Christmas vacation into your packed work schedule. Yes, for some Christmas is becoming nothing more than an over-commercialized festival of stress.

Look at all the children. Running, laughing, enjoying the days free of school. They get to be so happy this time of year! You’re probably wishing you could be so ridiculously giddy, too—the way you were way-back-when. So what’s the little tykes’ secret? Greed.
It’s as simple as that. The little Christmas-lovers get to enjoy their loot consequence-free. You, on the other hand, feel it at the hip pocket for every riding mower, leather jacket, or stereo system you get for yourself. Aside from stumbling into a million dollars, what can you do to regain that lost joy of Christmas? Well, kids full of holiday cheer do have one more secret. A secret much more secret than avarice. They are snoops.

While your tot is probably bringing home dismal grades from school, he is really a very smart kid underneath. All kids are when given the proper inspirational outlet. That outlet is the thrill of discovering what lurks beneath the colorful paper wrappings. Is it a radio-controlled car? The latest video game? *Gasp!* It’s really a…

See? You got exited just reading that. Brings back memories, eh? So why not relive that jubilation, and the torturous happiness of trying to conceal that underneath it all you know what that mysterious gift is?!

This mission, should you choose to accept it, requires you to be just as cunning as your offspring. And they are cunning. Deceptively creative and ingenious. As a kid, I would form dry-ice crystals within the wrapping paper itself, rendering it transparent just long enough to read the box underneath. Another little Machiavelli replaced every tape dispenser in the house with adequately-greased rolls of not-so-sticky tape before the family started wrapping.

That last trick I heard about when I attend my area’s Symposium on Gift Reconnaissance (SoGR) as a fourth-grader. That super-secret conference is one that most parents still never dream could exist. I should have felt honored to be a guest (a speaker, in fact) at such a prestigious meeting, but I didn’t. While creative, most of the techniques discussed seemed like cheating. These kids were just unwrapping their presents early to see what was in them. What’s the fun in that?? No, the truly dignified Christmas snoop should live by a code of honor. Early unwrapping? That’s just plain unfair, and way too easy. The real thrill is in using deduction.
If, when lightly tapped, it feels solid but sounds hollow, it must be a hardback book. CDs and software packages are readily recognized by their dimensions. You can narrow-down a DVD’s studio-of-origin by the ridges around the case’s clasp. And if the gift-wrap is the cheap kind, you can see through by stretching it tightly against the contents with both thumbs.

Remember, you are doing this for the giver. If your kids got you a really lame present and you find out about it early enough, you might think of a positive before you have to unwrap it Christmas morn. Then you can act genuinely happy, and the dumb giver will be happier, too.
The tips above can help get you started. Through careful observation you can discover just about anything without ever breaking a seal, and soon you’ll be a worthy expert.

May the true spirit of Christmas meddling come to you!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Foam Storm Rising

Fifteen years ago, the height of the Nerf arsenal was called the Missilestorm. It held four foam arrows on flimsy launching rods and cost parents a whopping 20 USD. The arrows were too large to be aerodynamic, and the firing mechanism—a rear handle that was drawn out of the weapon to be rammed back in and thus force air out behind the arrow—destroyed accuracy. Smaller kids couldn’t even get good distance out of the thing.

By 2001 there existed a wider-ranging and more-developed Nerf arsenal relying on more practical foam darts. But the cheaper guns, such as the “BlastFire” five-shot, still had clumsy mechanics that led to poor firing and quick breakage, while the more expensive guns—including the prized, fully-automatic “PowerClip”—were, well, expensive.

Today the introduction of a cheap, cool-looking, and virtually-foolproof design spells the stronger-than-ever return of Nerf combat. It is the “Maverick Rev-6,” a large six-shot revolver. Though each shot is powered by an easy-to-compress internal spring, the weapon has very decent range and accuracy. And at 8 USD in Wal-Marts across the land, it is inspiring both young newcomers and poor college kids who wish such a good piece had been on the market when they were smaller.

ABOVE: "The Samaritan," the author's personal Nerf® Maverick, serial no. 71341

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Saving Freshman Ryan

Capture the Flag. It's an enticing idea. Unfortunately, it is often played over such a small field as to be impractical and essentially random. Tactics become severely limited.

Recently, however, I was given the opportunity to play the game with a couple hundred people over an entire university campus as part of the school's orientation program. It was very nice.

A diagonal line split the campus in two and served as the front. Female territory was on one side, male on the other. I volunteered to guard the captured enemy on the bridge set aside for POWs, but it soon proved evident that the other guards were intent only on chatting up the prettier fresh(wo)men. While I was busy judging the terrain and possible approaches, they were lounging lackadaisically in conversation, unaware of all that surrounded them. Disgusted, I picked a covered niche in the ground with a view to all sides and single-handedly repelled two enemy insertions by running fast and low when they attempted to break the jail. After about half an hour, I gave the other guards a judgmental look before heading off to rescue our own brothers-in-tag. If our prison was this easy to break, the girls couldn't be that much better.

Well, the girls were that much better. A preliminary recon revealed that the girls had actually encapsulated their prison--a clock tower--with vigilant guards. Additionally, they had runners along the length of the front to repel enemy forces. Never underestimate the power of feminine organizational skills. Do we need women in combat? If they get to be officers, I think so.

I watched a few of my comrades attempt to puncture the front line, unsuccessfully. Most of the girls' line runners were relatively short, but soccer-quick on those legs. To begin my attack, I chose a balanced stretch of ground. It was flat and at the central campus area, which allowed an easy view for most of the female forces. This, in turn, meant they weren't particularly worried about it, especially since it was quite a sprint to anything important, including the lock-up. Only one guard was assigned full-time to this hundred and fifty foot stretch of battle line, but she could easily close in behind anyone dumb enough to run this gamut, not mentioning the dozen guards still between this stretch and the POW area.

With the ground for my stand chosen, I walked nonchalantly past the female guard and an enthusiastic male would-be liberator who toyed with each other across the demarcation line. As I passed them I tossed them a bemused grin, slightly condescending, and said "Hi, guys." The guard regarded me for two or three moments before deciding I was obviously not even in the game. I was just too unconcerned, not to mention walking in entirely the wrong direction to be any threat.

With one sentry out of the way, I ambled into the Education building and down a long hall. Behind me, the entrance opened again and closed. One of the sentries must have gotten suspicious. All it would take would be one touch on the arm for insurance and I'd have to march off to imprisonment myself. So I calmly walked into the head. I sat in the stall for about fifty or sixty seconds, flushed, and washed and dried my hands. I walked nonchalantly back out, expecting to be tagged but acting as though I didn't even give notice to another individual's presence.

It worked. She turned and left. Two guards down and a near-battalion to go, I headed to the back way into the library area. Here I found another comrade. He was lying behind a couch, waiting for the right moment to rush out the library doors at the clock tower on a suicidal rescue mission. Suicidal, and doomed to failure. Perhaps one prisoner might make it across the lines before being recaptured, but with the ladies' level of preparedness there would be no chance for a mass escape. I advised my sacrificially-minded colleague that I would make the first attempt and, when and if I failed, it would be up to his brashness to free me and the others. He agreed.

Stoically I exited the library complex, a mere thirty feet from the clock tower. I stuck to the sidewalk that led past the prison. Twenty female eyes followed me distrustfully. "Enjoying the game, guys?" I asked, throwing another playfully condescending smile over. You guys waste time playing? Oh well, have fun! it seemed to be saying to them. I glanced at the prisoners, whose hopeful eyes were also glued to me. My expression was one of mockery at their failure to defeat the opposite sex. The hope disappeared immediately from most of their still-attentive eyes.

Had I turned to my left and crossed the grass, it would have been only ten feet to the victims of this game. But I would never have made it. The guards would have closed immediately in and I would join the ranks of the captured. So I kept to the sidewalk. At the corner, where my stretch joined a slightly offset stretch that doubled back to the tower, I started to continue forward, then--as though reconsidering--reversed down it. I ambled back toward the guards, mouth opening in a smile for friendly conversation. I still wasn't actually moving for my comrades, but I was nearing them. One of the girls, close to me but not the closest, said to another, "Tag him!" I was sure this was the end, but I didn't change course, expression or speed. The girl assigned to tag me had already taken one quick step toward me but, seeing that I wasn't hurried by impending capture, decided she didn't have to be either. Her arm was less than two feet from me already, after all.

The field blurred quickly. Her fingertips were now about an inch from my shoulder. When they touched, I would be resigned to prison. At that moment, a mere inch of freedom left, I dodged to my right and hit the clock tower already running. I circled it, slapping the hands of my prepared fellows and the shoulders of the unprepared to free them. They ran as quickly as they could. Some of the guards took chase unsuccessfully, but the vast majority of the sentries were now entirely focused on getting me. I'd hacked them off. There were only two POWs left, but the guards were too close and I had to break off without freeing them. They'd never have made it, anyway. I ran for friendly lines as quickly as possible, at least ten girls in hot pursuit. Two of the line runners converged on the closest stretch of freedom, causing me to zag left. Another one, blonde, was coming up quickly from a post offset to the others. She was clearly a very sporty little chick, able to outrun most of either sex. She was also in front of me already, giving her a huge advantage. I threw her a curve by jumping over a row of low hedges and crossing an unmanned building's yard. She came in as quickly as possible. The front lines were only about forty feet away now.

Would I have made it? I don't know. It's very hard to say. That was one of those situations where I become certain of a loss (pessimist that I am) but manage to just squeak out of. It didn't matter this time, however, as I blundered badly. In my haste I over extended my legs, placing them too far out to give any good support. I drifted into the ground over about three yards of turf. On the ground, I refused to halt. Using my momentum, I swung my feet up and over my head, getting six feet closer to safety. I still didn't have enough time to stand up, but I now rolled as quickly as possible, end over end. I got about ten feet closer before my pursuer was able to take me prisoner.

I marched back slowly back to prison. The girl who had come within an inch of tagging me out now gave me a redundant slap, just to make absolutely sure and perhaps take some aggression out.

As it turned out, my sacrificial act didn't prove so terrible. Two of those to whom I had granted freedom refused to let me sit out the game in captivity, and double-teamed the guards, sending me across to my own kind. It was a touching gesture.

I continue to gain compliments at my performance. Later that same day, in fact, the runner who tagged me out approached me at a water fountain to say, "You made me so mad, but that was AWESOME!!!"

Saturday, August 04, 2007

"...then it fell apart, it fell apart."

Jason Bourne is today's action hero. And, unlike most of his ilk, his story arc is actually worthwhile, his films more than strobe lights and punch lines to which popcorn is eaten. Which is why I am so disappointed.

Backtracking, let me say that I am one of those individual's who is always looking for the "original." The movie is never better than the book. An ever-so-rare exception to that rule is Jason Bourne. Robert Ludlum's novel The Bourne Identity is a string of clichés unworthy of publication. Like a lot of books, actually. There are many other problems with the book, as well, including an inflated opinion of Bourne's intellect. A puzzle that took him dragging chapters to solve was obvious to this reader from the moment it was slyly laid out on the restaurant table. In summation, Identity is one of those novels so horrid I refused to finish it.

The film The Bourne Identity, in contrast, is superb. Perhaps because it kept only the base premise from the novel and discarded the pulp. But it still wasn't enough to make me a rabid fan. A fan, yes, but not rabid.

That distinction had to wait for The Bourne Supremacy (again, film not book--you think I'd subject myself to another Ludlum?). In many ways an inferior movie to the first, it was still very praiseworthy in its own right. I suppose it convinced me that Bourne was a full enough creation to exist outside the bounds of the initial one-sentence premise (man with amnesia turns out to assassin). And he is.

But you wouldn't know it from the third filmic installment. The Bourne Ultimatum, in theaters now, retains all the flaws from Supremacy but adds nothing in story. Well, there is the hint that Julia Styles and Matt Damon had a prior relationship and still have potential, but that was just for the benefit of forum junkies. Does that count as an addition? I don't see the point. While "Bourne III" boasts a marvelous cast (including David Strathairn and Goodbye Lenin's Daniel Brühl), it is essentially the same old song with little of the tune intact. Viewers thrilled at the Mini chase in Identity and to both chases in Supremacy. But Ultimatum is nothing but a chase scene in several acts, with only a few lines of copied-and-pasted dialogue to hold it together. Which, of course, cannot hold it together.

And yes, they really did reuse shots to lengthen the chase scenes.

In summation, if a Bourne IV is ever released I will definitely see it. But only out of deference for the first two.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Only East German on the Streets of Berlin

Alex Kerner is dating a Russian. They met while protesting the wall and the repression of East German press. It is now 1990, the wall has fallen, and Alex is acting... strange.

He refuses to wear modern clothing in place of the shoddy combine-made garb available under the old regime, the apartment he shares with his mother and sister is constantly overrun with those who refuse to adjust to capitalism, and he is conducting a city-wide search for the generic label of pickles that alone was available under communism.

Meanwhile, a friend from West of the wall is busy recording a video detailing the theft of Coca-Cola by capitalist states from a socialist one.

No, Alex is not a communist revolutionary. His revolt is one not against any state, leader, or idea. It is broader than that. His revolt is against the truth itself.
A dangerous man, you say?

You see his mother, a steadfast party worker, has slept through two thirds of a year and does not know of socialism’s fall. Now that she’s awake, Alex has been informed that any surprise will kill her and, judging from her past reactions to stress, he believes it. To keep her alive, the DDR must also be kept alive—if only from her bedroom out as far as her windows show.

This is the plot of Good Bye, Lenin!, a German film of epic tragi-comedic proportions from 2003. Director and co-writer Wolfgang Becker has taken such care in recreating the transitions of time and place that it was almost alarming to my East-German friend. But he has taken just as much care in his characters and in his story.

A dangerous man, this Alexander Kerner? Perhaps, but only to himself as, for all the sweat and tears invested, the only one he manages to delude is himself.

Two thumbs up? What’s that mean? I raise nine full fingers.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Rodentia Redemption

Last year I was greatly disappointed by the release of Cars. The cautionary nature of its hideous advertising campaign notwithstanding, I entered the theater prepared for a film in true Pixar tradition only to find... a superbly animated lack of decent story.

But this year things would be different! Right? I tried to cling to that belief. The advertising was more than enough to raise hopes. But the stigma of the asinine automobiles was still present, as proved when the nine-minute clip on Yahoo! Movies failed to excite me despite lacking complaints.

The only true test would be the film itself. "Lifted," the short preceding this feature, did just that to my expectations. And then Ratatouille finally began its roll.

Superb story, characters, design, direction, acting, etc. And while some may well wonder at a cartoon's ability to rush the parental discussion of childbirth outside wedlock, I admit I actively dislike only one element in the entire film. (What that one is, I refuse to discuss.)

To make it brief: the hopping lamp is back on top.


In related news, Monsieur Randolph publicly moves for an addition to la loi commune barring minors, particularly the male variety, from consuming cheese nachos in public theater houses. If this legislation passes, espescially harsh penalties will be levied on repeated belchings of such appetizers.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Another True Mother's Day Post

A few facts have been vaguely altered and a few others simply left vague in order to protect the innocent and the guilty (and just generally keep names out of the paper), but the below story is most definitely true. I've just lived it. If you don't believe me... tough!

On the eleventh, Friday, I received an email from my friend Marie announcing a "Greatest Mom" contest from a local promotional entity in honor of Mother's Day. The winner was to get a free spa-day valued at 450USD. Marie, who happens to be a mother, really wanted this prize. Hence the email requesting my vote. Yes, vote. You see, thirty contestants had submitted photographs of themselves as mothers, and the teeming world-wide web populace was now expected to rate each picture on a 1-10 scale so that the area's "Greatest Mom" might be properly recognized and rewarded. Being a loyal friend to those worthy of my friendship, I clicked the link and cast my vote.

One problem, though: A cursory glance showed that each contestant's family and friends had already flooded the polls, each voter rating their horse at 10 and everyone else's at 1. Meaning every picture ranked remarkable low, save one. That one, nothing truly special, held a seven-point-five. All right, who cares? Apparently, I did. A slightly deeper investigation revealed, however, that with everyone voting multiple times (as is the lowly tradition of internet polls) many thousands of votes had already been cast on the merit of each competitor. There seemed very little that one man could do.

Interestingly, however, this man knew just the other man for the job. I placed a call to TheLoneOperative, whose Scandinavian contacts would make quick work of this contest. Imagine the results, if you will, when two-percent of Norway's population votes together in an online poll. This was the plan, but with time zones it would not actually go into effect until the next day, Saturday. But, come the twelfth, Marie's rating shot from a three-point-six to an eight-point-seven. Quite dramatic.

Now, you might ask why I cared so much. So might I ask. But some of it probably had to do with the fact that this contest, before my arrival, was going to a wholesale volume of votes. And I've always felt that the quality of friends is far more important than the quantity. Maybe I was sending the message (if only to myself) that to have me on your side is to have an army on your side. Another factor would probably be the content of the photographs. As I said, the leader was nothing particularly special, but Marie's was of her frequent motherly task of tending to her youngest child's diabetes. A low rating here was insult, as was the scorn given to another photograph, one of a mother reading aloud to her offspring. I made sure a number of Norwegian votes went to the reader, as well. Those votes proved enough to give her a solid third when all was said and done. I also informed Marie of my support for this particular rival, and jokingly begged her not to do me in if the bookworm should pass her in the polls. Not that there was actually anything to fear there.

The next day was Sunday, Mother's Day proper, and nothing really happened. I found out on Monday that I was sick as a dog throughout Mother's Day, but unfortunately I was I actually too sick to know it. It didn't matter, as Marie maintained her lead of 8.7 over the second-highest of 7.5 throughout the entire day. With the tens-of-thousands of ten point votes sent her way, it was little wonder.

Then came the fourteenth, Monday. At 0600 I logged on and checked the ratings. No change. All was safe. At work six hours later, just before heading to lunch, I checked the website again. The main page proclaimed the winner, the "Greatest Mom!" I clicked the link. Our company's network connection is quite fast in itself, but I on the spur of the moment I had borrowed a computer terminal in a different department, and this particular machine was old enough that the page took several seconds to load. The text widened to make room for a smallish version of the winning photograph. The suspense grew. But how could there be any suspense? I knew who had won. And there it was. Only it wasn't. Here, proclaimed the winner before the entire online world, was a different picture. The leader a few days before, prior to the great Norwegian intervention, was being proclaimed winner despite its fall to second place. I was shocked. And somewhat enraged.

Unable to reconcile the differing information points, I logged in after lunch on a more modern computer in my own department and checked the ratings. Marie still led, eight-point-seven versus seven-point-five. Unbelievable. And the polls hadn't actually been shut down. Suspicious.

At day's end I prepared an email to those holding the contest.

I am writing in regard to your "Greatest Mom!" contest.
You have listed a winner, but a different photo has held the higher average since Saturday. I'm a little confused as to the system used; any clarification would be
To put it more simply, I demand a recount!

I again checked the ratings. The polls still had not been closed. Marie, still in the lead, had dropped to an 8.5 rating, which was very strange considering my personal and absolute knowledge that even a few thousand votes could not have dropped her average to an eight-point-six.

Later last night, at home, I found a reply to the above email. Someone calling himself Chino Griffith, Content Coordinator, had willingly written somewhat after normal office hours.

The contest ending on Friday & was removed from the website. Our winner had a higher rating when the voting ending but we are working on a solution.

Hmm. So, if it ended on Friday, why is there anything left to be worked out? And if it was removed from the website, how were 90,000 Norwegians able to access it after that time?!? I checked the main page of their website, and noted that the declaration of a winner had been removed. Maybe they really were going to reach some agreement with both my Marie and their "winner"? Right.

I developed a suspicion, soon confirmed when TheLoneOperative contacted me with his intelligence on Mr. Griffith's activities.

You see, as the individual upon whom responsibility for this online poll fell, Mr. Griffith was obligated to announce a winner Monday morning right after Mother's Day. But he took a shortcut. And a very reasonable one, it seemed. He checked the polls Friday afternoon before heading home, and on the basis of that information designed a proclamitory webpage for the site that could be easily uploaded when he got back into the office on Monday. The pack was so far behind this one entrant that it would take at least, say, seventy thousand votes of 10 to even make it a contest anymore. Considering the fact that fewer than four thousand votes had been cast in all the time the contest had been up, this seemed incredibly unlikely. Blame it on Norway. Or, better yet, me.

So, here was the dilemma. The company conducting this contest had neglected to announce any deadline, meaning that in the eyes of a court of law, votes would have to be counted right up to moment of announcement. Complicating this was the fact that this announcement came without anyone at the company checking the current status of the polls. The announcement of this other individual as the winner of the prize was also legally binding. Someone would have to be out 450 dollars, and maybe a job. Very sad. Unless, unless...

Yes, that is what they intended to do. They gathered hundreds of people to, as many times as necessary throughout the night, vote a "1" on my dear friend Marie's photograph. Twenty-two hours and approximately 25,000 votes later, they had succeeded in bumping Marie's rating back down to a seven-point-one. They placed the announcement of their candidate's "win" on their homepage once more.

TheLoneOperative's warning had reached me hours in advance, certainly enough time to intervene. But, while LoneOp categorically refuses me the right to quote him directly, his message stated essentially "I won't do anything about it unless you tell me to do so." I didn't. There didn't seem to be a point in conducting an ongoing ballot war over something like this, or one where the outcome would be so impossible to predict. But honestly, I think I just felt sorry for Chino Griffith.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

With Special Thanks to NOAA Biologist Mary Hollinger

"Mortimer, could I ask you a question?"

Standard stuff, except that she looked so genuinely frightened. And a frightened teenage girl is never a good sign in this town.

"O.K," I replied.

"Could you help me with something?"

"Tell me about it."

She did.

"I'll see what I can do," is all I said.

At first I was a bit annoyed that she'd given me such a scare. Later that day, however, I could see it in a much more humorous light. This was great! She really is such a sweet little girl. Sweet, I tell you!

For all she wanted was a Mother's Day present for her (you guessed it) mother. Simple as that. The woman, you see, is crazed about turtles. Yes, turtles. Driving along a market road, if a tortoise is seen by the wayside the car must be stopped and the reptile adopted on the spot. Cool, huh? So, for Mother's Day, it was thought appropriate by my creative young friend that her mom should receive an original piece of art depicting a baby turtle hatching from its shell. But alas, she could not draw! But she was delusional enough to believe that I had some talent in the area. So she offered to pay me for the commissioning of a piece. I, of course, snubbed the idea of money. I also refused to promise any results, saying only that I'd see what I could do. That seemed to at least satisfy her and as she walked away she was no longer shaking bodily.

A few words about my "talent": I have none. Of course, I actually have many talents, but I do not possess what most people seem to view as an artistic talent. The stereotype of an individual sitting down with a pencil and paper, making a few sweeping strokes, and rising with a work of artistry simply does not and will never fit me. Then again, it didn't fit many of the "great masters," either. Some would reduce their subjects to grids so as to isolate individual angles and relationships; some would even project entire scenes onto canvass by means of a camera obscura. I use neither technique, but I will admit that virtually all of my sketches began with my finger on a cameras shutter, and that the end results are a product of careful labor's trickle and not artistic inspiration's flow. It has been said that my drawings are more forgeries of my photographs than they are actual art.

None the less, Alice (as I shall call my young acquaintance) had some sort of faith in my ability. And she may have been justified, for a week later she had the finished work in her hands. After plans to take my camera to every nearby herpetological establishment in search of baby turtles (I figured I could draw the egg perfectly well without a real one frame), I finally settled down in front my TV screen and, to the dialog of Bringing Up Baby [1938], produced a Red-Eared Slider leveraging its way from its shell. (I'd neglected to ak Alice her mother's favorite turtle breed, and so chose my own--I always wanted a red-ear as a boy.)

Alice gave the gift the day she received it, and some hours later I received a letter by courier explaining that

Even when I try hard, I can't give a gift on time. I wish I had cash to pay you, but sadly I'm broke.

None the less, a dollar bill jumped out of the letter as I unfolded it, making this my first monetarily commissioned work of art. I'm a pro!

And, according to the letter and the family (I'm better friends with Alice's dad than I am with herself), the gift went over quite well.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Pardon the Brains Dribbling Out My Ear

I'd been told about it. I'm not sure I believed it. But today, today I am no longer the ignorant child I was. For today I have seen. Seen, I tell you!

Yes, I have now witnessed the Star Wars Holiday Special!! I may wear an "I survived the SWHS" t-shirt for Life Day this year.

O.K, so maybe seeing Itchy and Lumpy filled with cheer at the sight of Chewbacca and Han isn't quite the same as seeing Bigfoot anymore (however uncanny the resemblance), now that folk can apparently watch the whole show over the Internet. (I did it the old-fashioned way myself; the only film I ever watched online was His Girl Friday [1940]) But, for those of you wondering if it's really as bad as you've heard I'll just say that yes, it truly is almost as bad as Episode III.

I mean, come on! Hamill, Ford, Fisher, Daniels, Mayhew, and Jones can be bothered for this, but only two show up for NPR's (superb) series? The great Jones took thirty seconds out of a busy schedule for this schlock?

Oh, well, wish me luck. I'm about to try getting back out of Mr. Lucas' vault, and I anticipate much more trouble than TheLoneOperative had smuggling me in.

Monday, April 16, 2007


"...for as long as there have been cars there has been [dramatic pause] The Race." Meaning the illegal cross-country roadtrip run every year by those whose families have been kidnapped and sponsored by powerful, evil persons unknown. Presumably the narrator is alluding to The Race's beginnings in 1903 when Horatio Nelson Jackson was blackmailed* into driving across the continent.

Yes, I watched the series premiere of "Drive." Like everyone else, I really just tuned in to see how Nathan Fillion was doing without the brown coat. And (probably, again, like everyone else) I will not be watching another episode as it measured precisely up to the mark assigned to it: subsistence as an excuse for farcical automotive action.

Fillion's character, unaware of what's going on, arrives in an aged pickup. (Points for style on missing the orientation, by the way.) What is truly hilarious, though, is the Dodge [New] Charger driven by Fillion's nemesis, the race watchdog. Dodge has been recklessly slathering television with placement of the new Charger since before its release, and I wonder if it's a coincidence that the only other new vehicle in the race is the Caravan driven by the youngish-mom character. Yes, the Charger's distinctive face is flashed on the screen many times, but what makes it all a tremendous joke is that when Fillion decides to swap his old landscaping co. workhorse for the Dodge, in what is at first a "now our hero's gonna kick some" moment, the car immediately breaks down. So, how does Chrysler Corp feel about this? No word as yet.

*not really

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I haven't seen it in years, but remember it.

A Hollywood producer has stumbled across the hamlet of Mayberry and wants it to star in his moving picture, "Picnic Meets Our Town." He leaves to show the camera crews the way, and the whole town goes crazy. Floyd will only cut hair to look like a silver screen heartthrob's, Mayor Pike wants to cut down the "eyesore" tree in the square, and Deputy Fife adopts a flashy new uniform. That was The Andy Griffith Show's 13th episode, early 1961.

It happens anew in 2007. Here, in this small town, a filmcrew has arrived. It is not the first time this has happened. That doesn't mean people aren't acting ridiculous. A population that usually uses its cars to travel two blocks to the post office is now walking everywhere in hopes of stumbling in front of a lens. The city has made all members of the high school choir "ambassadors" and sends them everyday to serenade the cast. No, I am not jesting.

As part of the package, a personal friend briefly met Julia Roberts today. He was walking down one side of the street and she appeared on the other, ready to retire from a day of shooting.

"Hi!" he waved.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"Just a humble citizen whose name you will never know," he replied, ending the conversation.

Ms. Roberts, if you, your publicist, or your security chief ever reads this, you have my personal assurance that, no, the young man is not actually deranged. My word.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The All-Hearing Ear

Just in from that mysterious correspondent known only as TheLoneOperative:

"What, is it a stomach virus?"

{speaker at other end of connection}

"He threw up?"


"In the doctor's office?"



Monday, March 19, 2007

John Ford Cavalry Trilogy, Take II

Most borderline film buffs are familiar with John Ford's accidental cavalry trilogy--Fort Apache [1948], She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949], and Rio Grande [1950], all based on short stories by James Warner Bellah--as well they should be. But far fewer are aware of Ford's three later cavalry epics.

The Horse Soldiers [1959] starring John Wayne, William Holden, and Constance Towers, might be the best of the three as a film. It is drawn from the true story of Benjamin Grierson's full-speed strike at and push through the Confederate States of America. (Sadly, Grierson himself makes an onscreen appearance in neither name nor spirit.) Wayne is the gruff blue-collar commanding officer, Holden is the idealist medical man at war with his own comrade, and Ms. Towers is the fiery Southern belle stuck in their accompaniment. It's really not a bad Civil War movie. Sometimes contrived, sometimes beautiful, always entertaining. I'll be watching it again soon.

Sergeant Rutledge [1960] wants to be a very admirable film. In a way it is--just not a very good one. Woody Strode is the title character; Jeffrey Hunter is his commanding officer and defense counsel. Constance Towers again functions as love interest. The film is a courtroom drama that plays much the way these things would years later in a little TV show called "JAG." The plot--the evidence that the sergeant has sexually murdered a white girl, his fearful flight, his heroism against renegade indians, and Hunter's quest to bring him back to be cleared at trial--plays out in flashbacks while Hunter makes daring courtroom theatrics. Did I mention that his character isn't an actual lawyer? Did I mention that he objects to the most idiotic things? That the court sides with him on these things? More importantly, did I mention that (even though the screenplay was co-written by my beloved Bellah) this film has nothing to do with history, or even how racial matters were treated in the era in which it is set? I wanted to love this movie before I had even seen it: It has a great writer and a great director, and is ostensibly about the Buffalo Soldiers so ridiculously ignored by Hollywood. Sadly, I cannot like this film: I do not find it honest, or even particularly interesting. And believe me, we've all seen the ending on "JAG" a dozen times, only "JAG" does it better.

Cheyenne Autumn [1964] is definitely the most epic of these three movies. Far better researched than the previous film (though James Stewart's cameo as Wyatt Earp has nothing to do with reality and should be considered poor comic relief at best), it should hold your interest despite its hefty runtime. Several hundred of the Cheyenne nation, holed by treaty in an arid land unlike their own, are slowly dying. The ragged cavalrymen assigned to guard and care for them are all but comatose. The Quakers there to teach them are ignored or patronized by both groups. And now the Cheyenne are on the move north to their home. The cavalry, the press, and indeed the United States government itself are all put a bit off-balance by the events that unfold at once all too quickly and all too slowly. While it would help if the Cheyenne were actually portrayed by Cheyenne, I give this film high marks. And I can't think of a more historically-founded John Ford film off-hand.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

If you’re lost you can look and you will find me...

Nicholas Meyer has a strong imagination. He, quite frankly, is everything that is right about the Star Trek films. (Yes, I said it.) More importantly, let’s not forget the humor of his Company Business [1991] and the comprehensiveness with which he penned perhaps the only Sherlock Holmes pastiche to bob above a sea of impersonations.

One of my goals, if one to which I have failed to devote too much energy, is to view every film written or directed by Mr. Meyer, at least once. To that end, I was very pleased when a coworker lent me his VHS copy of Time After Time [1979].

Time After Time happened to be atop my list of unseen Meyers. I mean (forgive me, but), it’s H. G. Wells chasing Jack the ripper through the folds of time!

I must admit, however, to being disappointed. The time machine is revealed and explained with only cursory attention, basically nothing more a standardized suspension-of-disbelief plot mechanism. I have come to expect more. However, this is certainly a very excusable complaint—it is a film, after all. Sadly, however, the vehicle was made with apparently very little effort to place it in the late 19th century.

Far worse, however, was Mr. Wells himself, played so sympathetically by Malcolm McDowell. Mr. McDowell does a creditable job, but the job he has been given is not that of practically reproducing Herbert George Wells. The dialogue and indeed the story itself preclude any real resemblance to Wells’ (rather less personally sympathetic) essence. (Don’t get me wrong, the geek in me loves and respects Wells as an imagination and a writer, but the soul in me vaguely resents him as a person at this point.) Oh, they got the broader strokes right: Humanist, socialist, hazily naïve wit. But the very nature of his naivety is essentially a reverse image of what it should be. And where is the chauvinism? And, wait, he comes out of this experience cleansed of his utopian forecasts? So why was he still propounding them decades later?

I am almost certainly being too harsh; this is not a particularly bad film (certainly not when contrasted to the average thriller of our era). But neither is it a film of the pseudo-historical brilliance I had hoped and expected. My too-high hope in such fictionalizations is that their aberrations from known fact will actually explain and not contradict historicities, to the point that no historian could systematically rule out the fiction.

But, as anyone who has seen Time After Time can tell, the filmic Wells’ largest sin is his failure to realize in practice what he has himself stated in theory (not to mentioned observed with his own eyes): that the machine can go backward through the course of time and not just forward. Lunkhead.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hope Awakened; or, “You’re cheating on a vegetable!”

I’ll admit it: I had given up on chick flicks. Let’s be honest, now, just how many good romantic comedies have been made? I said honest!

As an over generalization, no one is honest about these films. Chicks tend to give all such flicks a free pass (thus dubbing the films), and guys tend to have made up their collective mind even as the title is told to them. Shameless. Let’s have none of that, shall we?

I am a male, but I have no qualms about this list: Pride and Prejudice [1995], Sense and Sensibility [1995], and You’ve Got Mail [1997] are fantastic examples of what cinema should be. Some have argued that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004] is a chick flick, and if they are correct it is also a darn good one, if one that more guys are likely to finish watching than girls. As long as we are blurring the lines, Fiddler on the Roof [1971] seems to have a significantly larger fanbase among the female of the species, and is probably the best film ever made.

So, you see? I was a believer. I honestly enjoyed these films. But all good things must some to end, as they did to some extent when my female friends learned of my strangely inclusive tastes and began recommending other “great” movies. Julia Roberts, I know you (having appeared in some fine movies of other genre) must have made some good chick flicks in your time, I just can’t think of any. With the exception of say, Sabrina [1954 & 1995], I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen a good romantic comedy upon an actual recommendation from an actual chick. But even this was not enough to snuff the spark of hope completely. No, that was reserved for a little ditty entitled...

Sleepless in Seattle [1993]. Ugh. What can I say? It is utter tripe, entirely lacking in the depth, imagination, genuineness and ingenuity, humor and heartfeltness of what many consider it’s heir, You’ve Got Mail. If even the name of Ephron, so conspicuously attached to second film, does not ensure quality in a romantic flicker, nothing can.

But hope can be restored and faith regained. As I have seen. While You Were Sleeping [1995] is that reformation.

The TV ads from way back when it was released stuck in my head. I’ll admit to not having been particularly impressed, but the images were memorable and the periodic references I crossed over the years put this film somewhere on my to-watch list. Albeit not very high up.

Well, with a string of “guy movies” in my recent viewing (and the failed attempt to pass Cinderella Man [2005] off as a chick flick), I knew I had to add something feminine to the roster as an appeasement to she-who-so-often-watches-films-with-MortI. So, with low expectations, I rented While you Were Sleeping to balance out an action piece.

What I found was very surprising. O.K, it does not have the richness of character that a loyal adaptation of Jane Austen boasts, nor the profundity of Nora’s Ode to AOL. But it may well qualify as supreme comedy-of-errors, not to mention one of the best screwball comedies.

Sandra Bullock’s character (supposedly, I shudder to think, intended for Demi Moore at one point) is a lonely (yes, that is hard to believe) CTA worker, a young spinster-in-the-making complete with cat. But when she saves her would-be fiancé’s life (she’s never actually spoken to the man) her shy nature and his family’s (the late great “Frank Barone” is daddy Ox) flamboyant one plunge her into a soap-opera storyline of which she could have only dreamt. My no-spoiler ethics prevent my saying anything more (though advertisers had no such qualms at the time), but I promise the film is far more hilarious than the above can possibly convey.

To recap, if you’re a chick you’ve probably already seen it. Good for you. If you’re guy, don’t hesitate. And don’t let that lip stray from straight with anything but joyous laughter: there is hope for a night of popcorn and movies with the better half, and this is it.