Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ninja Vanish

I got in my ninja costume last week for a them party this weekend. It was purchased via Amazon, and while I'm on the subject: attention retailers--"Standard" is not a size!!

I went with the "full cut", which seems to be polite costume-store-speak for "tall and/or portly". And I'm glad I did, because if that's what a "full cut" is, I would no-way-in-hell fit into a "standard". Seriously. I'm not a small man, I'm 6'2" and 1/8th of a ton (or nearly), but I'm not "portly".

Anyway, check out the picture below of me in my ninja costume.



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Friday, August 28, 2009

Especially the Wet Floor Sign

Now this is a man after my own heart (click to enlarge):

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Do You Clean Sunshine?

We watched Sunshine Cleaning the other night, and I must say that it is a truly, truly interesting story that crumbles under poor writing and direction.

Amy Adams stars as Rose, a thirty-ish single mother of an 8-year-old, Oscar, with peculiar disciplinary problems. Her younger sister, Norah, is chronically unemployed, and her father is a widower who strings together get-rich-quick scheme after get-rich-quick scheme, none of which ever seem to pan out. Rose is scraping by as a maid and the high point of her week seems to be her "classes", that is, encounters with her married ex-boyfriend Mac. When Oscar gets kicked out of public school... again... this time for licking a teacher, Rose decides to go into the more lucrative business cleaning up bio-hazardous materials (read as: blood and such) from crime scenes, and drags her sister Norah along for the ride.

If this isn't a treatment for a black comedy, I don't know what is. Unfortunately, Sunshine Cleaning has decided to take itself seriously and it falls very flat in spite of some spirited performances and premise with real promise. This is not a review. I hated it. There. There's your review. Instead, I think Sunshine Cleaning is an excellent tutorial in how to not tell a story. In your storytelling, avoid the following pitfalls:

Also, spoilers ahead.

Unclear Progression of Plot

Let me introduce you to a little friend I call The 3-Act Formula. Act I - set up initial conflict. Act II - conflict gets worse, often with a dramatic twist. Act III - Conflict is resolved. It's formulaic, yes, but it works, and unless you have something better to replace it with, you need to use it (the only movie I can think of that really abandons this formula is Garden State, which is imminently enjoyable, but not because of its plot).

SC has no over-arching story. Conflicts arise and are dealt with, and then we wait for the next conflict to arise without any idea what it may be. Subplots are introduced and abandoned, or drag on without the characters showing any real change. Rose isn't shown getting better at her job, her quality of life doesn't improve. At one point she cuts off the affair with her ex, but that's it. The only difference between end-of-the-film Rose and start-of-the-film Rose is that she has successfully started a new business.

They needed to develop some of the minor subplots into actual story-advancing subplots. Rose and Norah are amateurs and they get called out for it. That conflict is resolved in the beginning (or so) of Act II. They lose their business because of a fire and a lack of insurance--but there's no mention of the lack of insurance. Norah collects things from a few of the houses they clean--things she was supposed to have thrown away. This is used to introduce a potential romantic interest, but as soon as the ugly truth comes out, the romantic relationship is over, end of story. Any of these things could have been turned into real subplots.

Unclear Progression of Time

Audiences need to know what's going on. How long have Rose and Norah been doing this? Have they had time to believably cultivate their business and relationships? What felt like a very long time of career development all seemed to occur between the time Rose meets a very pregnant woman and when that woman has a baby shower. It's confusing, and therefore it is also distracting.

Why not use the baby shower as a deadline. When Rose meets her pregnant friend, she gives the impression that her life is all put-together. One line of dialog would have done wonders. Ready for it? Here it is: "That baby shower is in two months, and if my life is still in shambles, I just won't be able to show my face there and embarrass myself in front of all of my old high school friends." Or some such. Couple that with a shot of a calendar during a montage and you've got it fixed.

Awkward Silences

Silence can be powerful, but more silence doesn't mean more powerful. Use dialog. Also, use music.

Confusing "Off-Beat" for "Humorous"

I get the distinct impression that Rose's father and his failed get-rich-quick schemes were supposed to serve as comic relief, but they were too weird to be funny, and in an otherwise dramatic movie, they stuck out awkwardly (dark humor is great, but it needs some light humor for balance, ya?). Some genuine comedy from time to time might have lightened the tone of the overall film, making the dramatic bits seem genuinely dramatic, and making the characters seem more endearing.

Not Knowing What The Scene Is About

At Rose and Norah's first job, they are unprepared for the situation but muscle through anyway on sheer chutzpah. We see them struggle, but we don't get to see the chutzpah. Rose never stands up for herself and says "we're professionals, we can do this", despite showing up without biohazard protection or adequate cleaners. She wreaks of amateurism but never stands up for herself.

The worst offender, though, was the "trestling" scene. Norah takes her romantic interest down to a railroad bridge, has a conversation about her mother's death, and then climbs up the bridge to "trestle", that is, to sit under the tracks as the train passes overhead, bathing in the sparks and hanging on despite the violent shaking. This action is intercut with flashback scenes--she's remembering her mother's death--remembering, not confronting. Then they go to a coffee shop, Norah makes a confession to this romantic interest that dissolves their relationship. No no no.

First off, the scene should not be about Norah's mother. It's an info-dump disguised as plot. The scene is about Norah sharing an intimate moment with an acquaintance and then, when she opens up, losing that acquaintance. But Norah and her friend converse in wide steady-cam one-shots that convey awkwardness and conflict and tension. Why not, instead, do a tight two-shot of the conversation with interspersed close-up coverage, something that implies that for this moment they are sharing the same space. Then, when Norah climbs up alone, this foreshadows the pending end of the relationship, and when she "trestles", lose the intercutting. We don't need to know exactly how her mother died. Let the conflict remain implicit.

Plot Devices That Don't Make Sense

When Rose arrives at the baby shower, she parks behind a Porsche. This is all well and good, but wealthy mothers and mothers-to-be don't drive sports coupes. Oscar's father is never mentioned. Why isn't she receiving child-support payments? Why isn't he involved in schooling decisions? Also, public schools don't kick kids out for licking the teacher--they send them to a school for troubled children. Also, a man can't sell his house and buy a custom-painted van without his daughter noticing, especially if she lives in the same city and counts on him to babysit. Do some research. Test plot devices to make sure they work. RTFM!

Conclusion

What's really funny about all this is something Abby pointed out--a lot of these problems could have been solved with some voice-over. Amy Adams describes what's going on in a scene. She points out that the wealthy wives of New Mexico drive sports cars, and then it becomes a joke, not a poorly chosen plot device that can be seen, in some lights, as humorous, if you're willing to disregard its incongruous nature. This also might have dealt with some of the awkward silences and overall heavy tone.

I could go on and on, but I think I've made enough of a point. Don't watch Sunshine Cleaning if you expect to be entertained. Watch it because it should serve as an example to others.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How Would YOU Explain It?

Paul Krugman (quoting someone, I forget who... whom... yes, whom... anyway) said that economic bubbles are naturally occurring Ponzi schemes, which I'd say is a pretty fair assessment.

Anyway, between my new niece on Abby's side, the new niece coming on my side, et al, we've been up to our ears in parenting news and magazines and baby toys and baby gates, etc, etc, etc. So I've been thinking a lot about child-rearing and the nature of the relationship between parents and children and I came to a startling conclusion. I realized that childhood is a naturally occurring case of Stockholm Syndrome.

I think there might be a white paper in this.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

At Least The Dentist Is Kinda Cute

Don't ever get peridontitus. The disease isn't awful, per se, but one tends to get bloody gums and there's a possibility that your teeth with fall out. The treatment is absolutely effective and pretty damned unnerving. And I went through part 1 today.

They numb your for it, but it basically amounts to getting your teeth scraped below the gumline for an hour or so. This is my penance for going 13 years without a dentist's visit, so it's my own damned fault, I know. And I must say, for having gone so long between visits, I was surprised at the lack of condescending lecturing coming from the anyone in the office. So surprised, in fact, that I've recommended this dentist to my wife and best friend, both of whom have gone without seeing a dentist for several years.

Guilt trips, they don't make us floss, but they do make us skip cleanings.

Anyway, I took my ipod in hopes of starting an audiobook, but no such luck--I actually had to participate somewhat. And now I feel vaguely like I've been punched in the left side of my face. And, what's more, I get to look forward to getting punched in the right side next week. Yay.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I Fail At Blog

Today's post dropped yesterday because I forget how numbers work from time to time. Sorry for the inconvenience. Play me off, keyboard cat.

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Miyazaki's Mom

So on Sunday Abby and I went to see Ponyo, the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki, the creative force behind such anime filme classics at Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighber Totoro. True to form, it's a fanciful and heart-warming tale in which a child finds something magical and some degree of environmentally-friendly adventure ensues.

Ponyo's worth seeing, by the way, although it's very much a children's movie, I think it has more of an American audience in mind. There are fewer strange Japanese cultural quirks in the background than some of his previous films. But something that really struck me about Ponyo was the tangibility of the human interactions. Sōsuke, our 5-year-old hero, has a very realistic relationship with his mother, Lisa, and behaves like a believable, normal 5-year-old placed in a strange circumstance. Lisa has a very realistic relationship with her husband. And then Liam Neeson comes out of the ocean to chase down his daughter who used to be a fish until she grew feet and began running across giant fish during a typhoon.

So, yeah...

It got me wondering why these movies are so accessible, though. They all feature magical creatures and fantastical worlds; why do we buy it? Well, we buy it because so much effort is put into the normalcy of the characters. The same day I watched Ponyo, I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast about subplots, and one point that they brought up was that subplots reinforce the credibility of the storyteller. If you make the extra effort to get the unimportant bits right, then you can gloss over the important bits and people just assume that you got those right as well--and this is extremely important in a fantastical setting.

For example, an early scene in Ponyo basically amounts to a fight between Lisa and her husband, a chip's captain. He was supposed to be home, but he's going right back out to sea and she's extremely upset. Now, the captain's being at sea is important to the plot, but the fight about him going right back out to sea is extraneous as far as the main story is concerned. It also causes the first act to drag a bit (3-Act structure is not as embedded in Japanese storytelling, so we can't really count that against them), but what is succeeds at is showing us an insight into Lisa's character. The fight is carried out in Morse Code using signal lights between a house on a cliff and a ship at sea, so words have to be chosen carefully and delivered relatively slowly. The result is a woman who still retains a lot of un-vented anger and depression who has to re-summon her strength so she can go back to taking care of her son.

Sōsuke's role in the scene is more about setting up his actions in the third act--we see how he reveres his father and how he has some basic knowledge of nautical concepts, like communicating via signal light in Morse code. Later (mild spoiler), Sōsuke pilots a small boat to go and find his mother, and it only works because of the fight scene. Not only do we believe that this 5-year-old boy could be capable of steering a small boat, but are invested in his search for his mother because we care about her as well.

It's not universal, but there's a definite trend in Miyazaki films towards setting up a believable relationship between protagonists and their parents. So when we watch My Neighbor Totoro, we see two sisters who behave and interact believably, so when they get lost and cat bus has to come and save them, we're okay with that.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I Net-Flicked It

So today is the release date of Season 3 of Dexter on DVD, and Netflix would be sending me a disc except that they now work on Saturdays. Let me back up.

Netflix. Traditionally their warehouse was open Monday through Friday (the St. Louis warehouse, anyway). That means anything they send out typically gets to you the next day, but it gets a little tricky with the weekends. Send something back on Friday, they're not there on Saturday so they get it on Monday and send you your next disc, which you get on Tuesday. This works out well enough because Tuesday is new release day, and if you want to catch a new release on the day it comes out, you have to time it pretty carefully. Make sure you send something back on Friday or Saturday, they'll send you out the new release on Monday and you'll get it on Tuesday.

Only now the warehouse is operating on Saturdays. On the one hand this is great, because now you can get a movie on Monday, but if you send back a disc on Friday expecting to get a new release (like I did last Friday), you've missed the window.

I'm not complaining, just commenting that now the system is slightly different, so we have to approach it differently if we want to get the most out of it. It's changed before. It'll change again. Who knows, in five years will we even be sending discs through the mail or will it have been completely supplanted by streaming video?

Time will tell, but my lips are sealed.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Every Every Song Ever

Coming up on another string of songs tied together by vocabulary. We're on the "Every's". Here's what's coming up:
  • The Police - Every Breath You Take
  • Nine Inch Nails - Every Day Is Exactly The Same
  • Lauryn Hill - Every Ghetto, Every City
  • The Police - Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
  • Sugar Ray - Every Morning
  • Five Iron Frenzy - Every New Day (plus hidden track The Godzilla Song)
  • Gorillaz - Every Planet We Reach Is Dead
  • Monty Python - Every Sperm Is Sacred
  • L.T.D. - (Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again
And then a stretch of "Everybody's"
  • Chic - Everybody Dance
  • Nikka Costa - Everybody Got Their Something
  • Billy Joel - Everybody Has A Dream
  • Wang Chung - Everybody Have Fun Tonight
  • R.E.M. - Everybody Hurts
  • Queens Of The Stone Age - Everybody Knows That You Are Insane
  • Don McLean - Everybody Loves Me, Baby
  • Evanescence - Everybody's Fool
  • Rozalla - Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)
  • The Kink's - Everybody's Gonna Be Happy
  • The Beatles - Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey
  • Harry Nilsson - Everybody's Talkin'
And finish it off with a hodgepodge "Everyday", "Everyone", "Everything", "Everytime", and "Everywhere".
  • Pspazz - Everyday
  • Sheryl Crow - Everyday Is A Winding Road
  • Moby - Everyday It's 1989
  • Nathan Fillion (as Captain Hammer) - Everyone's A Hero (from Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog)
  • Everyone's A Little Bit Racist (from Avenue Q)
  • Limp Bizkit - Everything (a mostly-instrumental extended jam that is fabulous in spite of being 16:27 long; less Fred = better music)
  • Depeche Mode - Everything Counts (Live)
  • Radiohead - Everything In Its Right Place
  • Lauryn Hill - Everything Is Everything
  • Phoenix - Everything Is Everything
  • Moby - Everything Is Wrong
  • Neil Patrick Harris (as Dr. Horrible) - Everything You Ever (from Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog)
  • Weird Al Yankovic - Everything You Know Is Wrong
  • Bush - Everything Zen
  • Coldplay - Everything's Not Lost
  • Moby - Everytime You Touch Me
  • Fleetwood Mac - Everywhere
  • Five Iron Frenzy - Everywhere I Go
  • The Follow - Everywhere You Fall
]{p

Sunday, August 16, 2009

WTFY? (NSFW)

Has anyone else noticed a plethora of sites called "Fuck Yeah, ____!"?

Abby follows on called Fuck Yeah, Puppies! and I follow Fuck Yeah, T-Shirts!, but I was somewhat shocked today to see a link to a Fuck Yeah, Emma Watson! site. She's not alone either, there's also a Fuck Yeah, Neil Patrick Harris!, Fuck Yeah, Ryan Gosling!, and Fuck Yeah, Anne Hathaway!, or, for those who like celebs but abhor specificity, there's Fuck Yeah, Hollywood!

Is a little WTF, in order?

Check out the Fuck Yeah, Directory! on Tumblr (which seems to host 99% of these) and you can find Fuck Yeah, Desserts!, Fuck Yeah, Facts!, Fuck Yeah, Sharks!, and a whole host of Fuck-Yeah-related oddities.

I don't quite know how to respond to all this. Part of me thinks its childish and churlish, but part of me kind of digs it. Actually, part of me really digs it; it's like LOLs with attitude. Part of me sees all these sites and just wants to shout out...

Well, you can guess.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Discourse, Datcourse, Politics, Shmolitics

What has happened to political discourse? We used to discuss issues, right? Nowadays, we have two groups who define themselves as being opposed to the other. If the Democrats put out a law, the Republicans will oppose it on principle, and vice versa, regardless of the quality or tenor of legislation being introduced. They hate each other, and this is all rooted to a cheap shot some campaign strategist made thirty-odd years ago, accusing the opposition of being a "Washington insider" for actually living in DC despite serving a state or district that was somewhere else.

Today, most congressmen live in their home states or districts and commute to DC, where they put in their three or four days a week. Consequently, they don't know each other, don't lunch with each other, don't have barbecues with each other. They are so concerned with not appearing as "Washington insiders" that they are all, in fact, outsiders, answerable only to their constituents and not to their colleagues.

No wonder they hate each other. No wonder it's so difficult to pass anything but the most toothless legislation. There are, of course, a few exceptions, but they are growing rarer and rarer, and I believe that the situation has gotten substantially worse in the last thirty years or so. Think about it, our entire infrastructure is thirty-years-old or more. You could never build a highway today. You couldn't wi-fi or fiber up the country--it would take too long. Power would change hands before it could get finished and the project would get scrapped completely or bastardized into someone else's pet project.

Government has grown ineffective, and if a viewpoint can't be summed up on a bumper sticker, it doesn't count. And then there's the lies...

Look at the discussions on health care. Town hall meetings have devolved into shrill shouting matches. Seniors are convinced that the Medicare that they subscribe to is completely divorced from socialized medicine, and that the Obama administration is going to ask them how they want to die. Really? Someone is telling these lies. Someone is telling frightened, elderly people that their president intends to preside over their deaths.

What kind of person makes up a story like that for nothing but political gain? The same people who called Bill Clinton a murderer, who accused John Kerry of firing on his own troops.

We were the paragon, once. We were a shining city on a hill. We have become despicable. God help us all.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Politics and Family

So my dad has apparently talked about moving to Canada. I don't think he's serious, and I can't say I don't relate (Abby and I had the same conversation and even did a little preliminary research during the Bush administration). And this is all hearsay anyway, so it might not even be explicitly true.

That said, I hope he's not driven to Canada by he aversion to socialized medicine, because he'd be in for a nasty surprise once he got there.

My father is a very smart man who has bought into some not-terribly-smart ideas. He's convinced that any Democratic president is going to try to take his guns away, doubly so of the Obama administration (despite no action that direction from the White House and repeated assertions that it's not on the agenda). He once told me that the reason Canadians have a higher life expectancy is because their socialized health care is so bad that they're healthier by natural selection.

Makes more sense than Bill O'Reilly's explanation, but not much.

This ties into a larger problem: political discourse has broken down. My father is not a party hard-liner (he's much more Libertarian than Republican) and he's not stupid and he at least tries to be informed about issues that are relevant to him, but you can't engage in a real debate about issues because everything degrades into cheap shots and ad hominem attacks. And all he knows are the sound bites because that's all anyone ever hears.

People are consistently complaining that they don't want their hospitals run like the post office without ever pausing to consider that the post office is run pretty well. I mean, would you rather your hospital was run like the cable company?

More on this later.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sanitized Life

Watch closely as logic fails.

People put on different faces in public--sanitizing our lives for the benefit of those around us. I don't talk to my mother about religion. I don't talk to my father about politics. I don't complain about my office in front of my boss. I would not gripe about my wife to my children (if I had children). For each person I interact with, there is a set of information to which they are privy.

It would naturally follow, then, that the more people you are interacting with at once, the smaller that set of information becomes, because it must contain and only contain that which is safe to share with everyone. Following that logic, then, the cyber-self, the one that we put out there on the internets, should be the tiniest subset, the most highly sanitized version of ourselves because it is visible to everyone in the world. One would think.

The truth is that no one actually does this. The "veil of anonymity" that defined the interwebz in the mid-90's has carried over to the Web 2.0 sphere, the world of social networking. Despite that fact that someone may have 113 pictures of his or herself freely available on the web, they will still operate from behind that veil of anonymity, at least until they realize that potential employers do, in fact, know how to use Google.

I bring this up because my mother is now on Facebook.

My facebook persona is, perhaps, a bit more sanitized than my blog is, and my blog is already fairly cleaned, despite what you may think. There are a number of topics about which I simply will not blog, incidents that will only refer to obliquely, etc, because I'm aware that I'm posting all of this for the whole world to see. So this is less a journal than it is a lengthy editorial page, and that's all well and good. It's nice to have a place to pick fights and wax philosophical about world events.

I'm just not sure how comfortable I would be if I knew my mother was reading my obscenity-laced-anti-god-rants. I don't feel compelled to hide or delete any of this, but I have rather enjoyed the luxury of not having to have that particular conversation with her. Thankfully, my mother has no intention of friending me on Facebook or reading my blog--she openly and consciously enjoys not knowing too much about her children or their personal lives (ditto her students, none of whom will be on her friend's list).

And that's a decision I respect, and not just because it extends the life of the aforementioned luxury.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Go Joe!

With G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra openning this weekend, you may be as stunned as I at the buzz around this film. For all the horrible rumors, that it had received the lowest ever test screening score in the history of Paramount, or that the director had been fired (which turned out to not be true), the buzz leading up to it is... well... good. How? How is this possible? I foresee three explanations.

1. Compared to what? Maybe this movie only seemed bad until the mediocre X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the disappointing Terminator Salvation, or the out-and-out painful Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Maybe people couldn't bare the thought of a fourth horseman of the 80's-action-franchise blockbuster apocalypse. Maybe they all thought: "Well, I didn't want to gouge my eyes out with Oedopus' mother's brooches, so I guess that must have been a decent film."

2. Pick your critics carefully. GIJ:TRoC is currently at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, but there've only been 7 reviews tabulated. Maybe the pre-screeners were hand-picked to show the film in a favorable early light.

3. The most brilliant marketing plan ever. Maybe we were supposed to hear about how awful this film was, generate a huge amount of negative buzz so that the slightest bit of positive buzz closer to release would seem gut-wrenchingly newsworthy.

Of course, I suppose there's the outside possibility that it merely started out problem-ridden but was greatly improved in post-production. Or that the early negative buzz was undeserved. We'll find out this weekend, I imagine.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Works In Progress

Writing, coding, exercise, songwriting, learning a new instrument, marriage, maintaining a healthy relationship with my parents.

Some days, everything about life is a work in progress.

Happy Monday,
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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Books On Tap, Now There's A Thought

This last week I went to the dentist for the first time in 13 years. I did this because Abby was insistent and while we're all a bit afraid of the dentist, I'm far more afraid of my wife. You know, in a good way. Love you, honey. Don't kill me.

Anywho.

The experience wasn't all that bad, but I'm going to have to go back twice next month to do something about the moderate peridontitis and six cavities that have accumulated in 13 years of moderate tooth-neglect (although, in my defense, one of those cavities is really just a missing filling), so I'm in for some marathon dentistry during which I will be numbed and sitting in a chair for two or three hours.

So I've been thinking about audiobooks. I'm looking at audible.com, which seems like a pretty decent deal. I assumed Amazon would sell downloads of audiobooks, but they don't seem to. Anybody out there use them? In the days of ipods they make a lot more sense than in the days of cassette decks.

Thoughts?

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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Nah, I'm Just Clownin'

Today is the first week of World Breastfeeding Week, observed the 1st through the 7th of August every year. Coincidentally, the 2nd through the 8th is recognized as International Clown Week. (Last year, the two perfectly coincided.)

So, do your part. Sometime this week, breastfeed a clown.

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Best reaction to this joke so far: "Sounds like a pretty typical weekend for me"