Thursday, January 28, 2016

Maybe They Thought It Was 'GTA: San Andreas'?

I watch the movie 'San Andreas' last night alongside my wife, who is always up for a Big Dumb Disaster Movie. (The irony is that she also loves to read about geology and vulcanology--half her enjoyment is derived from picking apart the terrible science.) This one has a lot of Big and a lot of Dumb, but I think what bothered me most about it was that it also had a lot of Lazy and a big chunk of Uninteresting, served with a side of Creepy.

The plot, for those of you who missed it, is that the Rock is a frankly terrible human being who steals a rescue chopper in the middle of a natural disaster, abandons his responsibilities to thousands of people in desperate need, and goes after his perfectly capable daughter who has already told him at the halfway point of the film that she's safe and looking for a way out of the city. Along the way, he loots a truck, illegally barters it to some perfectly nice elderly couple (leaving them holding the bag for the inevitable grand theft auto charges) for a light plane which he ditches in mid-air to crash God knows where, then jacks someone's boat. This is the hero. This is the sympathetic guy.

The unsympathetic guy is his ex-wife's new husband, who alerts rescue authorities to the daughter's danger instead of freeing her himself, then wanders around the movie for a while looking for something to do before getting squashed like a bug.

Oh, and Paul Giamatti is in the movie, although he's really not so much "in the movie" as he is "generally movie adjacent". He plays a seismologist who warns people about the earthquake, and we're told saves lives because some of the people listened. He does not interact with the protagonists or antagonists at all, and the movie would be absolutely no different if every scene he was in was excised completely. Which I'm sure he lobbied for hard.

The thing that's hard to get away from is the bizarrely solipsistic tone of the film. The massive 9.1 earthquake that devastates Los Angeles and San Francisco is only ever shown in long shots and convenient set pieces involving the main characters. Everyone else, the entire population of both cities, is treated either as a convenient prop for the Rock to rescue, an obstacle to make their lives less convenient, or a faceless and panicky crowd to fill out the background while the Rock poses or Alexandra Daddario flirts with Hugo Johnstone-Burt. (Honestly, that may be the point of the otherwise entirely superfluous Giamatti scenes, to make people feel better about watching all the mass devastation with bland platitudes about people evacuating the city.)

I do think there's an interesting idea behind all this, believe it or not. I think you could make a movie that would be legitimately compelling about a rescue worker whose family is in the city he's helping save, one where he struggles with the moral dilemma of helping his loved ones or saving dozens of lives. But it would have to be a movie where the main character was actually aware such a moral dilemma existed, and the Rock's character is principally there to be steely determined and to Save the Girl.

(Who, again, would have been fine if he'd just told her at the halfway point, "You're doing great, keep right at it and let me know when you get to a refugee checkpoint!" instead of telling her to head directly into the middle of the burning collapsing city so that he could rescue her with the helicopter he stole.)

Watch it for the collapsing buildings, gleefully imagine the Rock being arrested afterward, and you'll feel okay about it all.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Review: I Know I Am, But What Are You?

I've been a huge fan of Samantha Bee's work on the Daily Show for years. She's always had such amazing delivery--she slips the joke in like a dagger, working it into innocuous-seeming conversations in a way that almost leaves you wondering whether she meant to say that, or it just slipped out. She's a brilliant comedian, and so when my wife saw her book in a used bookstore, she grabbed it for me because she knew how much I liked her.

The book was...a little different. It was funny, don't get me wrong, but it straddled that same line between "funny" and "deeply uncomfortable" that made some episodes of 'Fawlty Towers' pretty much impossible to watch. Bee has a chapter about her teenage years, where she was so deeply socially awkward she couldn't even get raped. She has a chapter about her hideous taste in clothes and her ugly hands. She has a chapter about how awful she looks naked. She has a lot of chapters that go well past "self-deprecating" and into "self-loathing". In short, the things she says in this book are generally the sort of thing you only expect people to say about themselves with hordes of angry teenage Communists standing behind them with guns.

(Yes! A little Cultural Revolution humor just to liven things up! It's that bleak of a book.)

Again, I don't want to suggest it wasn't funny, because it really was at times. There's a very amusing explanation of the book's back cover, which features her re-enacting sex acts with her Barbie dolls (her mother had absolutely no fucks to give about propriety and figured the sooner her kid was educated about sex, the easier her life would be) and an extremely funny explanation of how she met her husband (they performed together in a touring Sailor Moon show for kids). It's not without its charms. But this is a bit on the bleak side for me, and I laughed at 'Super'.

In short, read at your own risk and don't be surprised if you simultaneously want to give Samantha Bee a hug afterwards and are too icked out by her to do so. I actually think that was what she was going for.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Leave Britney Alone" Is Actually Kind of Good Advice

I've decided I'm officially over people wishing pain and suffering on celebrities, even as a joke. I made this decision after reading an article on the Gawker network about an extremely sketchy "wildlife sanctuary" that's actually pitching itself more as an exotic animal petting zoo for the super-rich. My feelings on the zoo are pretty strong (short version: It is terrible and exploitative and endangers the animals and humans) but my feelings on the commenters saying, "Oh, I really wish the Kardashians would get mauled by a lion!" are even stronger.

Because no. The Kardashians do not deserve to get mauled by a lion. They do not deserve to die in a fire, they do not deserve to get disfigured by acid, they do not deserve to be locked in jail. They are guilty of nothing more than being famous for their looks and for making you aware of their existence. Wishing harm on someone for making you aware of your existence is really kind of a terrible thing to do to yourself--that's a lot of anger to carry around, even if you're "joking" when you do it. (I put that in quotes because many of the commenters actually said, "I'm not even joking.")

The same goes for Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Adam Sandler, and anyone else who is probably more famous and less talented than they deserve to be. I can appreciate being irritated by the fact that success does not always accrue to the deserving, but letting it rise to the level of actually desiring physical harm to come to people simply for not deserving everything they've got doesn't make anything happen to them and it forces you into a slow, grinding, unpleasant ordeal of rage that I can't imagine is healthy.

So yes, do leave Britney alone, at least in that sense. Let's all just try to keep some perspective, and remember that these people aren't actually bad. In a world where Donald Trump is causing measurable harm to people in the form of inciting crowds to attack protesters, getting angry at Justin Bieber for making teeny-bopper music seems like an overreaction. Leave the hyperbole behind, ignore the Kardashians (which is actually quite easy to do with only minimal effort) and enjoy the life you have. You'll be happier.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Guest Blog Post (by Inconspicuous J. Normalhuman)

Since I don't really feel up to writing another eulogy at the moment, and I don't know what else to talk about with Alan Rickman's death kind of weighing pretty heavy on my head right now, I've decided to turn the blog over to a guest blogger, Inconspicuous J. Normalhuman. Inconspicuous comes to me from "a perfectly normal hoo-man city, which contains many friendly and edible hoo-mans," and lists among his hobbies "certainly not eating you!" Take it away, Inconspicuous!

Thank you, Inconspicuous. A real message of hope for the next generation.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Planet Earth Is Blue (And There's Nothing We Can Do)

I got to work this morning to find out David Bowie passed away. It was a strange feeling to learn that, like something of immense and indefinable value had been stolen in the night. I don't think that we'll ever be able to appreciate the magnitude of this loss, even those who were tremendous fans or those who were close to him personally, because one of the monumental achievements of Bowie's life and career was that he saw things that were invisible to the universe until he revealed them.

As such, I'm not really sure you can quantify the impact of his life and work. He created strange and wonderful things, ideas that inspired the people who inspire the rest of us. He found different ways of thinking about art, about life, about fame and the artifacts of culture that rise up around the people who dream for a living. I can imagine a few of the mysterious connections between the world we live in and the man who just passed out of our life--could Steven Colbert have existed without Ziggy Stardust? How many fantasy writers were touched by strangeness for the first time by the Goblin King? But I can't say that I see them all. He's too big for that.

And so I wish he had more time. Because I cannot imagine what five more years, one more year, even six more months of Bowie would have given us. I cannot imagine how he could have transformed the world all over again in that span, because he was rarer than a genius. He was, in his own way, a magician in the truest sense of the world, someone who changed reality with his thoughts and his words and his music, and even the geniuses he inspired cannot perform his magic.

David Bowie is gone, and that is a sad thing even if the world he helped make is wonderful.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Can You Have Headcanon About Actors?

Today's crazy notion, and the logical steps leading to it:

1) Peter Capaldi, as just about everyone knows, was a huge Doctor Who fan long before he was cast in the part. He was, in fact, a Who fan from childhood who followed the series obsessively.

2) Andy Lane, in the Virgin New Adventures novel Original Sin, suggested that Time Lords could have more than thirteen incarnations--the real danger, according to this novel, is that after regenerating so many times, a Time Lord would have problems keeping his current personality separated from the memories of his previous personas, and would eventually degenerate into madness as he found himself shifting mentally from one incarnation to another. This would be even more dangerous for a Time Lord like the Doctor, who had such vivid personalities in each of his different lives.

3) Peter Capaldi has a killer Tom Baker incarnation, which he's actually cracked out on screen more than once (including "Mummy on the Orient Express", where he appears to be arguing with himself using his own voice and his Baker voice.

Postulate: Peter Capaldi, lifetime Doctor Who fan, read Lane's novel and the idea stuck with him. He's taken the idea on board in a slightly modified form and is playing a version of the Doctor who has a slightly looser grip on the various different versions of himself that are rattling around inside his brain--occasionally they get argumentative in a way that his predecessors didn't have to deal with, which is contributing to his somewhat crotchety nature. It's not quite as bad as Lane made it out to be, but the Capaldi Doctor is definitely having a little trouble with the voices in his head. And occasionally, out of his mouth.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Review: Fed, White and Blue

As you may already know if you read this blog regularly, I adore 'Cutthroat Kitchen'. One of the regular judges on the show is Simon Majumdar (the vaguely grumpy sounding Brit who's actually not grumpy, just very precise in his notes on food that has been prepared under less than ideal circumstances), and he spent a good portion of the last two seasons generously allowing Alton Brown to plug his new book, 'Fed, White and Blue'.

Guess what I got for Christmas from my wonderful wife?

Actually, it feels very appropriate to get this as a Christmas present from the woman I love, because the book is mostly about a) celebrating things with food, and b) Simon's sudden life changes as a result of marriage. After years of dabbling in Americanism, Simon has gone the whole hog and naturalized himself, and this book is about him flinging himself into all the aspects of American cuisine to try to figure out just what our food says about us.

Which, look. This is not a tremendously complicated read. It's a series of relatively short vignettes in which Simon goes someplace he hasn't been before, meets some tremendously nice people, does something silly and quintessentially American, and eats lots of delicious food. You should not come to this one for a read that really makes you think. (Except for a well-written chapter on food banks and another on factory cattle farming, both of which make some salient points on ways that the American food system sometimes doesn't work like it should.)

But if you're looking for a book that makes you laugh and salivate alternately, instead, then you've come to the right place. The author does an amazing job of describing food in prose, which is an intolerably difficult skill (the only thing I can think of that's equivalently hard is describing music in prose). He also does a wonderful job of evoking the spirit of his experiences, making you feel like you've actually accompanied him on his entertaining and strange trips to Alaskan bear country and Philadelphian eating competitions. And there's plenty of dry wit--I particularly liked his description of the beer he helped brew in one chapter as "dark and a little you know I had a hand in the process."

Basically, this is exactly what I expected from a food travelogue, and exactly what I wanted--a light, summery, breezy little read that I could get through in less than a day and find myself mentally refreshed by the experience. As books go, it's something of an appetizer, or perhaps a bit of a palate cleanser between heavy meals, but it's a tasty one for all that.