Saturday, February 04, 2006

My Favorite Painting

The Gulf Stream (1889) by Winslow Homer Posted by Picasa

It's said that this painting--a lone man on a wrecked boat chained to the deck during a storm at sea, as a tornado nears him and sharks circle around him, while in the far, far background a ship passes by completely--was so upsetting to the people who saw it, Homer had to announce that the man aboard the ship was picked up and lived. It's my favorite painting; I've never seen fear and doubt portrayed more accurately or expressively in any other.

My Pet Hippo

I always thought a hippopotamus would make a fantastic pet. Big and hungry, yes, but the bellowing would put the neighborhood dogs to shame. And besides that, its intimidating (they look docile, but did you know that hippos are responsible for more human deaths than any other creature in Africa?) and angry. I would name him Frostilicus, and ride him around.

Ah, the fantasies of childhood. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Spelling Matters

There is apparently quite the controversy going on right now in Naperville (very near to me) over something called creative spelling. Apparently, kindergarten kids in Naperville are now allowed to spell words in any manner they wish, so their creativity won't be stifled until they get to the now ironically-named grammar school. This morning in my linguistics class we spent 30 minutes debating the issue.

The class seemed evenly divided--some thought it was good, some didn't. I spoke up in the debate defending creative spelling, but I'm not sure 100 percent how I feel about this yet. In class, I argued that it is good for a six-year-old to learn how to express him/herself before being pigeonholed into form. I think a lot of children get frustrated when learning to write and spell because they're constantly being told what they are doing is wrong. It creates a sort of distrust of the educational system and ruins self-esteem. I think the major problem in American education right now is the emphasis on self-esteem and tolerance at the expense of facts, forms, and learning to question. Maybe, I argued, if a child felt comfortable before he/she learned that what he/she was doing was incorrect, it might make it easier to learn correct formal spelling. Then we wouldn't have to keep coddling kids in primary school.

One must also take into account that English is one of the hardest (if not the hardest) languages to learn to read. Even harder than French, according to a recent study! Too many letters make to many different sounds. Too many homonyms. English has evolved so that head and bead are now pronounced differently (where once they weren't) and says and days are pronounced differently (where once they weren't). English has 26 letters, but 40 sounds. Or, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, through is pronounced thru, but it looks like thruff.

I didn't really agree with any of the arguments to the contrary.

"The standards are falling! The standards are falling!"

Can they actually fall any lower? Take a look at the literacy scores in America, will you? Something like 1 in 4 kids can read at the level they're supposed to be at. Many Americans look at reading as a chore. Jesus, read an e-mail or (forgive me, mea culpa) a blog. Does this country really care about education standards, or know what they are?

"Spelling errors make children look stupid."

Yeah, that's what does it.

"Spelling is standardized and should remain so in America. It's traditional."

Without even bringing up Old English and Old Norse spelling variations, or the fact that English grammar is a Germanic derivation that stupidly adheres to rules of Latin organization, I should point out that this argument was brought up by a woman who named her daughter Mackensy. Not McKenzie or MacKenzie, but Mackensy. As if giving your kid a surname for a given name wasn't bad enough...

"You can't let children grow up in an alternative world where spelling mistakes don't matter. They do matter."

Well, most parents let their children grow up in an alternative world where Santa Claus exists, sex and violence don't, honesty counts for something, most people are moral and good, and cheaters never win (and winners never cheat). Once they finally get over that reality check, I think the proper spelling of relief is the least of their problems.

I think the real problem here is America's traditionalism and distrust of new ideas. Some people do really seem to believe that once they get out of high school or college, the learning process has ended. But it never really does. Spelling is something that needs to be reinforced, perhaps even something that needs to be eased into. A child should learn to trust his/her own mind and voice before being told their thought processes are wrong. At least, that's how I look at it.

There's a Day for Groundhogs?

Ah, welcome to Groundhog Day, one of the most useless days America has devoted calendar space to. I woke up this morning to check the weather, only to find Punxsatawny Phil being held up uncomfortably by some dork in a top hat to announce the fate of our weather. And the verdict? Six more weeks of winter.

The funniest part of the whole presentation is that the crowd of idiots who go to this announcement each year expecting a different outcome gave a collective "awwwww" of disappointment. Even one of the talking heads on the Weather Channel said "Now we're in for six more weeks of winter." Now we're in for six more weeks of winter? Have you checked the calendar? It's six more weeks until spring whether a giant rodent says so or no. I mean, it's kinda cute when you're four to believe that the entire length of a season depends on a rat's ability to discern his own shadow (which speaks to an amazing cognizance within the rodent kingdom), but when you're old enough to drive, it's a little embarassing. Blaming an animal. Jeez.

Well, at least Groundhog Day did inspire a classic comedy. And to quote that comedy, I'm predicting the first day of spring will be March 21st.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How Boring Are the Oscar Nominees This Year?

The complete list of nominees is available elsewhere, so I'm just going to bitch about them selectively.

Okay, I haven't seen a single one of these movies this year so far, so I can't really judge them, but doesn't it seem like they picked the five most obvious movies this year? They all have some kind of message to them that makes all five choices seem pretentious. Brokeback Mountain: being gay is noble and heroic. Capote: being gay and creative is noble and artistic. Crash: racism is bad, mmkay? Good Night, and Good Luck: fascism is here and it's pervasive. Munich: violence is wrong. Again, I haven't seen any of these films (Crash and Capote I have no interest in, the other three I haven't been able to get to yet), but these are the senses I get from the media. Are they the best films of the year? I don't know; the best movies I saw this year were North Country and King Kong, so what do I know? Either way, last year's candidates (Ray, The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, and the overrated Sideways) seemed more loose and less pretentious.

No surprises there, either. Entertainment Weekly, which has been pushing Hustle & Flow so hard all year that you'd think they invested in the damn thing, likes to pretend that Terrence Howard's nomination is a wonderful surprise. I don't know, it didn't shock me; it's very trendy to like him in that movie, and to like rap movies. The media right now is as precious about rap as they used to be about folk music. It's the real voice of the common people, apparently. I'd be surprised if Joaquin Phoenix didn't win. I still say Andy Serkis deserves a nomination; he gave a real performance that could not have been fully the work of special effects artists.

Keira Knightley needs an Oscar like I need a vagina, alright? It's probably going to be that horrible little goblin Reese Witherspoon, although Felicity Huffman is nude enough to win (think about the nudity content of the last several winners of this award: Gwyneth Paltrow showed her tits, Hilary Swank showed her tits and lezzed it up with a woman, Julia Roberts pushed up her tits, Halle Berry submissively let herself get ass-fucked by a white man and showed her tits, Nicole Kidman at least played a dyke, Charlize Theron showed her tits and lezzed out; how did Hilary Swank win again last year? Did no one show their tits?).

Again, not a single surprise here. Supporting Actor will go to the most actor-y role, and Supporting Actress will go to whichever one had the best lines. Quick side note: it's nice that Michelle Williams got nominated (I do like her), but it bugs me how she and the two men have been getting all of the press for this one. What about Anne Hathaway? And why don't they ever go for genre? I mean, Deep Roy had to create a lot of different characters for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You think that wasn't hard work? Sean Penn couldn't do that.

The Corpse Bride? Lame. Robots was much better; at least it actually had a story.

It seems like most voters think that a director does the job of a cinematographer (setting up shots), when a director is more of an overseer. Therefore, Best Director usually goes to the wrong person (you want to talk about managing an enormous production, and Peter Jackson will win every time). Best Cinematographer is a category that somehow translates to "Prettiest Vistas," so The New World or Brokeback Mountain will win, while something like King Kong, which has the added difficulty of assimilating a lot of special effects into a real setting (and is therefore more artistic) goes unnominated.

Best Costume Design: Again, where are the genre movies? How hard was it to follow 200 year-old templates for Pride & Prejudice or Memoirs of a Geisha?
Best Documentary Feature: I kind of reject March of the Penguins. I still haven't seen it, but most critics seem to agree that it constructed an anthropomorphizing narrative and wasn't really a documentary. Was The Incredible Journey a documentary?
Best Original Score: We don't have to nominate John Williams every single year, do we? I haven't seen Memoirs of a Geisha, but I do have a promo of the soundtrack, and right up there with the Star Wars prequels and the first two Harry Potter movies, it's some of Williams's laziest work. More of his Debussy pastiching doesn't really deserve a nomination.
Best Original Song: Down to three nominations this year; shouldn't we just dump this one?
Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing: How many average people understand the distinction? I say we just retire these to the technical achievement ceremony. Shorten the show down a bit.

And a quick plea: why can't the Academy put out all the films eligible for Best Animated Short out on a DVD every year? We never get to see these movies, and it would be nice if there was an outlet so that, you know, we could see them and care about who wins.

Honestly, at this point, if Jon Stewart weren't hosting I don't know if I could be bothered to watch them.

Razzies: Who Gives a Shit?

Just a quick note on the Golden Raspberry Awards: who gives a shit? Sure, once they were devoted to making fun of the big, fat turkeys like Can't Stop the Music, Xanadu, Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, and so on and so forth. Nowadays, I don't know, they're just so obvious they aren't even funny. Was The Dukes of Hazzard really that bad? I didn't think so, and I thought Jessica Simpson was a natural actress. Obviously Son of the Mask was going to suck; making fun of it seems pointless. And making fun of a Rob Schneider movie for being awful is like making fun of a retarded kid: it's not funny because, you know, he has no control over it.

Why not go for the bigger targets? Go for the A-List, for the prestige movies. Instead of trying to be trendy and picking on Hilary Duff, Tara Reid, and Paris Hilton, why not go after people who sucked in big movies? This year's nomination for Katie Holmes in Batman Begins is a perfect example; a great movie slightly marred by her shitty performance. Making fun of Jenny McCarthy and Alan Cumming for bad acting is just stupid. Jessica Alba is a mediocre actress, but not really a laughably bad one. Jennifer Lopez actually wasn't that bad in Monster-in-Law; not as bad as Nicole Kidman was in Bewitched. It's not clever to just say shit was bad; you really need to point out that badness and the mediocrity that people love to settle for. I don't know, that's just me.

Maybe the Golden Raspberries should stop (or at least stop pretending that they're popular, fun, or important). Joe Eszterhas accepting his Razzie for writing Showgirls was somehow classy and funny at the same time. Halle Berry accepting her Razzie for Catwoman just kind of shows how lame and mainstream they've become. It's like your mom listening to Britney Spears; it's how you know something's no longer relevant.

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

MR. & MRS. SMITH (2005)
Mediocrity, thy name is American cinema. Perhaps it was a funny concept, but the marketing campaign killed it for me. I already knew the premise, and the first 20 minutes or so are a set-up that is only funny if you don't know the premise. I don't know, I'd already seen Prizzi's Honor, and the leads seemed to be phoning it in, and I just didn't care. * star, but only because of Angeline Jolie in the dominatrix outfit.

This movie kind of took me by surprise. Katie Holmes plays the black sheep of a rich family who runs herself ragged trying to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for her dying mother. Simple premise, and the story is told without resorting to (too much gimickry); I loved it. Man, what is it with Katie Holmes? Sometimes, she's able to act as well as she is here (The Gift, Go), but most of the time she just kinda blows. This was an excellent movie about family and acceptance, **** stars.

I don't know why I keep watching these stupid Lifetime movies; I'm sick, bored, and a little delirious if that helps. Zach from Saved by the Bell rapes DJ from Full House, and then there's a battle with the school to prove it, blah blah. Nikki Cox was in it, too, and Jenna Von Oy looked incredibly hot. I'm bored with rape movies, frankly; there's no dramatic tension, because they always begin with the rape. What constitutes rape seems to be so legally vague and tenuous that they should start with the aftermath and try to prove the case; put some doubt in the mind of the audience so that there's some actual drama for once. ** stars.

I just picked this up on DVD and wanted to mention it. I love The Frighteners, as I love all of Peter Jackson's movies, but the director's cut is so much better; almost a different movie. Let me start at the beginning here. When The Frighteners was released here in 1996, the critics savaged Peter Jackson because they assumed that Heavenly Creatures was his first film, not his fourth, and they felt he had sold out. It lost a lot of money, too, because of a bad marketing campaign: produced by Robert Zemeckis and starring Michael J. Fox, the movie was promoted as an action comedy (or Back to the Future, Part IV). It was released in July. When I went to see it, I hated the movie--this was not an action comedy, even though it had the rhythm of one, and I just didn't enjoy it. When the movie hit the dollar show in October, though, I felt I needed to see it again. Had it just gotten away from me, or was it really bad? Closer to Halloween, I was able to enjoy it for the horror movie it was: and it's a damn, damn good horror movie. Ever since, it's been a favorite of mine and led me to see Jackson's previous work and created a lifelong fan. Cut to a decade later, and the director's cut on DVD. What a difference 14 minutes makes... It's not that entire scenes were cut out of the movie; no, it's worse than that. Chunks were cut out of scenes that explain all the things movie executives think aren't important: story, character, motivation, and plot. This version is so much more full, and nearly all the characters benefit. Frank Bannister comes across less selfish and more driven; he wants to finish his house, but experiences moments of doubt that lead him to believe, for a while, that he isn't seeing ghosts but is merely crazy (and a murderer). Special Agent Dammers (one of Jeffrey Combs's best performances) isn't just hilarious, but is seriously experiencing a mental breakdown that makes his character much more dangerous and much more scary. The ghosts especially benefit; they always seemed so arbitrary to me (mere plot devices), but in this version, they take on much more personality and become real characters. Did you know Chi McBride's character was named Cyrus? I didn't realize until I saw the director's cut that they had cut out every scene where someone calls him by name! And John Astin's Judge is a little more touching, too; now, I'm sorry when he dies. Seriously, The Frighteners is one of the most underrated films ever made, and it really needs to be seen in this fuller version. **** stars; a genre masterpiece.

HAVOC (2005)
Yes, it's Anne Hathaway nude. Unfortunately, there's nothing else to recommend this movie (except, of course, for Bijou Phillips nude). Anne's performance is very, very good, but this movie has nothing to say about anyone's life. It tries to be about those stupid rich white kids who go around acting like wiggers, and what happens when Anne's character falls in with a real Latino street gang, but it all leads to a conclusion so arbitrary you have to wonder why they bothered. The only point to be made--that these kids act this way because a) they feel guilty about what they have and are punishing themselves, and/or b) they hate their complacent, ineffectual parents so much that they don't want to identify with them or their culture. That, and the old, sad standby that this world is not a safe place for women. Got it. ** stars, but only because Anne Hathaway is incapable of giving a bad performance and any movie with her in it makes it automatically worth seeing.

Edited soft-core seen late at night on HBO Zone. Neither movie is especially good or clever (though Bikini Cavegirl has moments of near-wit), but they both star Evan Stone, who I love to watch in cable porn. He looks like he should be a pirate on a bad romance novel cover (in fact, I think he actually models for those), but he's not stuck-up about his great body and perfect manliness. In fact, he plays these things to the hilt for laughs. He's hilarious, and since I like my porn to be funny, I enjoy the hell out of him. Fun time-wasters, **1/2 stars apiece. God love Evan Stone.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

How do you know you're the black sheep of the family?

When your sister has a birthday party at your dad's house and no one tells you about it. In fact, I didn't find out about it until my mom asked me if I'd gone. Jeez, thanks a lot, guys.


Thinking about working at Barnes & Noble, there's some people who've just jumped into my head. Since I'm in that kind of mood, I just thought I'd reminisce a little bit.

SAM was one of those goombah types that thought he was a lot better and more popular than he was. I don't know, I just thought the idea of one of those greasy-haired Bensonhurst types with the gold chain saying things like "salud" all the time was kind of funny, especially since Sam was born and raised in the Oakbrook, Illinois, area. He pissed me off once because he made fun of my mix tapes. At the time, I was listening a lot more to my large film score collection instead of rock music, and it used to drive him crazy; still, I claimed the stereo as my own when we were working alone (he had worked there longer, but I was older and worked full-time as opposed to part-time during the summer). Sam's chief interests were trying to get laid by one of the supervisors and trying to start "interesting conversations" about books.

JOHN was a big black dude who looked like Mike Singletary and Mike Tyson had their DNA combined into one person. And then got a job at a bookstore. He was a pretty traditional guy, and he talked a lot more about all the work he did than he actually spent time doing it, but I liked him. He was one of the many supervisors at B&N who wanted to supervise a different section than he had, so he didn't enjoy his work and didn't do it very much. But he had a real positive energy about him. I used to order Milo Manara graphic novels, which are erotic art and such, and I remember someone checking me out at the register one day. John came over and asked: "What's this?" Then he picked up one of the books (wrapped in plastic) and looked at the back. "What the heck?" I just smiled and said, as pleasant as can be, "It's European porn, John." He dropped it back on the counter and walked off. With an embarrassed smile, he uttered his catchphrase: "You're trippin'. You're just trippin'." The higher-ups were looking for a reason to fire him--he wanted to be a manager, and it was just never going to happen--so they kind of railroaded him. Poor guy; he was a shitty worker, but a good fella.

CHERI was the kind of young girl you expect to meet in Oakbrook Terrace: pretentious and stupid. She yelled at me on my first day of work because I tried to order something and didn't put my last name on it. I asked someone else who worked there about her, and she told me: "Don't worry about Cheri, she has no power." Cheri was the kind of girl that the managers kept finding fake jobs for to keep her busy and quiet. What she really wanted was to be a supervisor and then a manager, but they didn't trust her to do a good job (and rightfully so; she was already quite self-important). One time, after being passed over yet again, she went into the manager's office and cried on her lap over the rejection. So they would put her in charge of something that didn't really exist to shut her up--kind of like Gareth on the UK version of The Office. She really thought she was incredibly nice, too, but she was one of those yuppie bitches who needed power over everyone. She was engaged to a med student, and she used all the resources she could find to get his textbooks for a much cheaper price (including her 30% employee discount). Everyone in the store just knew he was going to dump her after he graduated, and he did just that.

HEATHER and TOM were engaged, and ended up getting married (and I don't think they really invited many people from the store, even though she kept throwing the goddamn thing in everyone's face). Heather was icky thin, but kept bragging about how she was voted the Best Legs in Valparaiso or something. She was timid but opinionated, had a teaching degree but couldn't get a job without teaching in Chicago, and very full of how beautiful and smart she was. And Irish! She definitely had America's condescentive love of all things Irish and twee and blarney and all that bullshit (even though her last name, as I loved to point out, was Scottish). Tom worked in the cafe (eventually becoming cafe manager), and smoked a pipe. He was a cool guy. Too cool to marry a shrew like Heather, at any rate.

JOAN was an interesting enigma; I always thought she was a lesbian, but it was never confirmed. She was in her forties or fifties, lived with her mother, and had a "friend" she used to hang around with all the time. She became an assistant manager and went on to manage her own store; she deserved it, too, she really knew what she was doing. I was hot for her and used to flirt with her something awful, which she always found hilarious; she used to talk to Carl and I about things like why men should have chest hair. A real lady, though.

PAT was the kind of woman who always annoys the shit out of me; an older woman with too much time on her hands. She didn't need a job, she just wanted something to do during the day. I know everyone liked Pat, and it's not that there was really anything wrong with her... she just rubbed me totally the wrong way. She was imperious to some degree, and I didn't respond well. We always got along, sure, but I got really fucking tired of hearing about Makinac Island and bird feeders and the kind of lame hobbies older Midwestern women pick up because they're not interesting.

MARIA I don't remember very well. She was fiction supervisor when I started, but she didn't work there too much longer. All the guys thought she was the hottest chick in the store, but I didn't see it. I also thought she was kind of a bitch. My only real memory of her was when Sam asked her what her favorite book was, and she told him that was a stupid question. "There are too many different kinds of books in the world." Precious, yes, but I thought it was funny, if only because Sam felt like an idiot for a rare moment.

DICK was the best manager we had at that store; I would've done anything for him. He tried for a long time to get the Joliet store, but they moved him to Kankakee instead. He told me later that if he had gotten Joliet, he was going to take me with him as receiving manager, which meant a lot to me. He hated the management system of B&N, especially the weekly meetings. "In an office with real communication," he would always say, "all you need is an occasional memo. Weekly meetings are just for second-guessing and not getting any real work done." He was one of those great older guys who still believed in wearing a grey suit to work. Dick hated business-casual and would never be seen in Dockers. He had a real work ethic, and I respected the hell out of him for it; I never worked as hard there as I did when Dick worked there, because he inspired my loyalty and I felt I owed it to him to make him look good.

JULI was a sexy, sexy, sexy girl, but she was also one of the guys and incredibly hilarious. She and I had a real similar sense of humor, and I had a crush on her for a while (awkward, considering Becca worked there--she actually got me the interview with Dick, who hired me on the spot). She wore glasses with these thick, black frames and had gorgeous red hair. Becca described her once as looking like a sexy version of Marcy from Peanuts. Some of the best times there were when she was in charge of magazines and spent most of the day in the receiving room with me and Carl. She went of to college at some point, but then she got married and stopped having any contact with her friends. It was depressing to see such an independent girl tamed by her traditional leanings; her parents were very, very traditional.

More to come later.