Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

After the Christmas feast and the weekly Playing Of The Boggle, after a slice of pie slathered with a daringly large dollop of real whipped cream, we began to stir in the general direction of the living room and talk about watching a movie, a nicely inert activity especially suited to days when our bellies are stuffed with hundreds of pounds of juicy pork product. Nobody was really sure what to watch, though; would it be Elf, or would it be It’s A Wonderful Life? Or would anybody like to discuss a third possibility? While they dithered, I slipped away, slipped The Wizard Of Oz into the DVD player, and stretched out on the sofa. Soon, the others joined me and settled in, too. Well, one of the others settled in. The third stood by, nervously trying to decide how to sneak out the front door without upsetting the decorum.

“I never really appreciated this movie,” Tim said diplomatically as he watched the sepia-toned introduction out of respect, I suppose, for my choice. He stayed all the way through Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead, his favorite song from the movie, but when it was over and the representatives of the Lullabye League emerged from the crowd en pointe, he fetched his jacket from the closet and took his leave, returning to the munchkin-free peace and quiet of his bachelor pad.

Odd. I honestly never realized he didn’t like The Wizard Of Oz. I thought everybody liked The Wizard Of Oz, literally everybody. I mean, do you know anybody who doesn’t? I’ll bet you don’t. And I almost feel as though I’m to blame; as if, for instance, I should have done more to expose him to the movie more regularly. That’s how I got hooked.

I grew up watching The Wizard Of Oz every year on television. We never missed it. We weren’t allowed to. It was on TV the same time every year — not sure if it was Easter or Thanksgiving, but I’m pretty sure it was a holiday. I don’t think it was Christmas. That’s when It’s A Wonderful Life was on, if memory serves, which it doesn’t, not really, because I also seem to remember that there was always a parade being shown before the movie. It could’ve been the Rose Bowl parade, or Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, I’m not sure now. They seemed to be televising a lot of parades back then.

I must have seen it at least a dozen times that way and maybe half a dozen times more as a video rental. Last year, My Darling B got me a DVD as a stocking stuffer along with several of my other Christmas favorites: The aforementioned It’s A Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and at least one more that I’m forgetting right now. I told you my memory was for shit.

Tim was out the door before Dorothy was following the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, so he missed just about the whole movie. Well, at least now I know what I’m getting him for Christmas next year.

bad parenting | 6:50 pm CST
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Monday, December 24th, 2012

Somehow, I had never seen Billy Wilder’s movie The Apartment until yesterday afternoon. I can’t believe that’s even possible. Way back in prehistoric times, when there were just three television networks and maybe one UHF station that you might be able to tune into if the weather wasn’t too bad, they showed sitcoms and dramas from seven until ten, then there was a half-hour of news, and after ten-thirty almost anything could happen but usually it was Johnny and Dave and a few other chat shows.

At a certain magical hour, though, you could watch old movies on The Late Show or Midnight Matinee. Why would you stay up until midnight to watch old movies? Because this was before you could rent them from Netflix, or from a store, or at all. When I was just a pup, the only way you could watch old movies was to be lucky enough to live near a movie theater that showed them, and back then I lived in a cow town so remote that I had only heard rumors and stories about movie theaters like that. When I discovered that I could watch old movies on late-night television, I used to stay up whenever I could get away with it to watch shows like The Front Page (and His Girl Friday), The Great Race, and The Odd Couple.

So I was pretty sure that, a few minutes into the first scene, I’d recognize the movie, the plot would slowly rise to the surface of my memory and I’d settle into the sofa wrapped up in a familiar wave of nostalgia that was like having a friend come to visit. Only I didn’t recognize the first scene at all, or the next scene, or the next. My Darling B, who is hard-pressed to recall the details of almost every movie she’s ever sat through, sometimes as soon as fifteen minutes after the credits roll, remembered what The Apartment was about, but by the end of the first act I had to admit to myself I’d never seen this one before. It was like unwrapping a Christmas present.

Unfortunately, the movie opened with Lemmon doing an introductory voice-over. I hate voice-overs. The only movie I’ve ever watched that benefited from a voice-over was Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! If it weren’t for that and certain cheesy B-grade murder mysteries, I would fervently campaign for a constitutional amendment banning the use of voice-overs in any movie that wasn’t a documentary, and only then if it were Morgan Freeman, Peter Coyote or James Earl Jones doing the narration.

The voice-over didn’t last more than a couple of minutes, though, thank dog. After that, Lemmon’s face did all the heavy lifting. That man can say more with his face than Shakespeare could with all the words in the English language, including the ones he made up on the fly. There was a scene where Shirley MacLaine broke his heart, only she didn’t know it, and he didn’t say boo about it, but his face went from happy to puzzled, then to shocked and amazed, and I think I saw disappointment and anguish but I’m sure I missed at least a half-dozen other emotions before he finished with heartbroken, put on his hat and coat and left the office to get drunk.

There are very few actors who can play drunk as convincingly as Jack Lemmon, by the way. I’m not sure how he does it, but when his character gets good and smashed, the way he did in this movie, it was so convincing that I felt drunk.

Shirley MacLaine looked like a kid in this movie. I thought at first it must have been her debut, but it wasn’t even close. I should’ve known better. It was obvious from her performance that this wasn’t her first time on the stage. She and Lemmon had some great chemistry going between them, and they lobbed volleys of Billy Wilder banter back and forth with perfect timing. Now I’ll have to find out if they were in any other movies together and, if they were, watch every single one of them.

Then there’s Fred MacMurray. How’d Fred MacMurray get to be a movie star? He’s a handsome devil and he’s got a smooth delivery, but he’s about as emotive as a Ken doll. That worked for him in Double Indemnity (but then, so did his voice-over), but when he’s on screen with a guy like Lemmon he might as well be a block of wood. I got the impression he was in this movie because he was supposed to be handsome enough that Shirley MacLaine might fall for him. Also, he was the bad guy, a role that’s easy to play if you don’t show a lot of emotion.

I have to add that we watched The Apartment by renting it from, streaming it over the internet and playing it on a laptop. Watching old movies has come a long way from the days of The Late Late Show.

The Apartment | 7:23 am CST
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Sunday, November 4th, 2012

We watched The Road last night. I’m still not sure why we did that. We’d all read the book and knew that it was going to be bleak and depressing and yet, when given a choice between that and Star Trek, we all opted for The Road. I guess we just wanted to emotionally beat ourselves up for two hours.

There’s nothing to tell, really. Like the book, it’s about a man and his son walking through an apocalyptic world in which everything is dead, there is no food and almost everyone they meet is either a cannibal or dying. There is no apparent ending in sight that anyone would consider uplifting or happy or good. It’s the kind of movie you can enjoy best if you’re drunk out of your mind or contemplating suicide and need a little push to get you there.

I’m not trying to put you off the movie. It was well-made and pretty faithful to the book, if that’s important to you. The part of the boy was really exceptionally well-played by someone I’ve never heard of, but he’s a sixteen year old Australian so it’s not really so odd that I’ve never seen him. I’m saying only that it’s not a movie you should watch to escape the cares and woes of the world. I’m saying that this movie condenses all the cares and woes that have ever occurred or will occur and injects them into your brain in just two hours. So buckle up.

The Road | 8:05 pm CST
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Sunday, October 14th, 2012

“I think we’ve stuck with this long enough,” My Darling B said after we had watched about forty-five minutes of Once Upon A Time In America. “Any time you want to put an end to this is okay with me.”

This is supposed to be Sergio Leone’s best movie ever. For my money, Leone’s best movie would have to be For A Few Dollars More. The scene where Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood shoot the hell out of each other’s hats to prove who’s the baddest honcho was way better than anything I saw in forty-five minutes of watching Once Upon A Time In America.

In case you decide to watch this movie, don’t get too worried about the apparent lack of dialog. If you just stick with it for at least twenty minutes, the characters will start talking instead of just blowing each other’s brains out. Oops, spoilers.

Once Upon A Time In America | 7:37 am CST
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Monday, October 8th, 2012

It’s one of those things you’ve got to see when you go to New York City: The Ghostbusters firehouse.

image of Ghostbusters firehouse

Who You Gonna Call? | 9:43 pm CST
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Thursday, August 30th, 2012

My Darling B and I have watched more television in the past two weeks than we have all summer. Here’s just a sample of what’s been flashing across our retinas:


Well, this is fun. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade in modern-day London. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes with a hyperkinetic glee that makes Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes look as staid and old-fashioned as Basil Rathbone’s.

We started by watching the first episode of the second season, because that’s what was available at the video store, but in this case that wasn’t a bad thing. We liked it so much that B put the first season on reserve at the library and the first two disks came in this week. Turn out to be as good, if not better, than the second season.

From The Earth To The Moon

We were trolling the aisles of the only video store left in Madison for rainy-day movies when My Darling B appeared from around a corner with the boxed set of the HBO series From The Earth To The Moon and said, “Look what I found! It’s got ‘Moon’ in the title, which sounds like it’s about the space race, so I thought you might be interested…”

I might be interested. What a wonderful, perfect girl she is for me.

Run Silent, Run Deep

A doubleyou-doubleyou-two movie starring Clark Gable as the submarine captain haunted by his past, and Burt Lancaster as the second in command who’s miffed at Gable for swooping in to take command when it should’ve been mine, dammit, mine! Not enough? You need more? Okay, we’ve also god Jack Warden as Clark Gable’s trusty sidekick, and Don Rickles as the plucky comic relief. Still not enough? How about this: Ken Lynch as the Star Trek connection, playing “Frank (uncredited)” who appears in one or two scenes, usually with a cig dangling from the corner of his mouth. He didn’t smoke in Star Trek, but a lot of the miners who worked for him turned into smoking puddles of oil when The Devil In The Dark got hold of them.

watching | 8:59 pm CST
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Sunday, July 15th, 2012

How much did Ash know about the alien, and when did he know it? That, boys and girls, is the topic of this morning’s drivel.

I just watched the movie Alien a couple nights ago, any maybe you haven’t, so to quickly summarize: The crew of a ship in deep space is directed to investigate the source of a distress signal. They find an alien ship run aground on a ringed planet. A long-dead crew member has a hole in his chest that looks like it exploded out, and the only living thing they find leaps up from its hiding place and grabs someone’s face. How often have you heard that story, eh? It’s got to be as old as the human race, but Alien told it oh so well.

And yet, I have some questions.

The ship sent to investigate the signal is a tugboat that pulls a huge refinery full of ore across the vast distances of space between planets. The crew seem to be there only to fly the ship. They aren’t explorers. One of them points out they aren’t even a search and rescue crew. The only reason they look into the source of the radio signal is because a clause in their contract ensures they won’t get paid if they don’t.

Most of the crew seem to know each other pretty well, but one of the people on the ship, Ash, is new to to the crew. As it turns out, Ash knows a lot about the distress signal and the aliens before anybody else does. Ash is the science officer on the ship, and he’s been given a special order which only he knows about: “Investigate life form. Gather specimen … Ensure return of organism for analysis. Crew expendable.”

The last part of the special order doesn’t really make sense. If the crew is truly expendable, then why are they on the ship? Can the ship fly itself? Doesn’t seem likely. But let’s assume it can, and let’s assume Ash collects his specimen and the whole crew is killed. Why didn’t they send Ash alone? He could have gone straight to the site of the wreck, gathered his specimen, and brought it back a lot faster than a crew that went somewhere else first, then was diverted to the site of the wreck and wasn’t aware of the objective of the mission.

Maybe the crew and its cargo were a smokescreen to get hold of the alien specimen. If so: Pretty expensive smokescreen. The space ship could only have been enormously expensive. It’s essentially no more than an engine powerful enough to drag a refinery loaded with umpty-billion tons of ore at high speed across interplanetary space. And that load of ore becomes mind-bogglingly expensive just by virtue of the fact that they’re hauling it across the galaxy. Putting all that at risk to obtain a specimen seems unusually risky.

Maybe the ship and its crew were the only possible ship the company could have sent to the planet to collect the specimen, and maybe the mucky-mucks at the company truly believed that the crew was expendable and the loss of the ship was worth obtaining a specimen. Okay, let’s go with that:

The crew lands their ship on the planet, and then three of them – Dallas, the captain; Lambert, the navigator; and Kane, who wasn’t wearing a red shirt but should have been – suit up and go on a hike in the direction of the signal’s origin. Why the hell doesn’t Ash, the science officer, go along on the hike? Why doesn’t Ripley, who seems to have more than a little knowledge about communications? Why do two of the most important people on the ship, the guy who flies it and the gal who steers it, walk to the source of a distress signal, where nothing good could possibly be happening, or have happened? Talk about expendable.

When the plucky little trio returns to the ship, Kane has a life form attached to his face. (I hate to say “I told you so,” but…) By pure luck, the team has satisfied the the first two parts of the special order: They have investigated the life form and gathered a specimen. To satisfy the third part of the special order, all Ash has to do at this point is ensure the safe return of the organism for analysis. Wow, does he ever screw that up.

First, he opens the air lock to let Dallas and Lambert carry Kane to the infirmary. If he knew anything at all about the alien, he shouldn’t have done this. He should have played along with Ripley’s decision to quarantine the away team in the air lock for 24 hours. Why wouldn’t he? It would have satisfied all the requirements of the special order. Instead, he opens the air lock and puts every one of the crew in danger, instead of limiting exposure to just three members of the crew. They were expendable, but unnecessarily endangering them doesn’t make any sense.

Even if Ash didn’t know much about the aliens to begin with, at this point he knows that the alien is parasitic. An alien life form that can successfully parasitize humans is dangerous in ways that are unimaginable but, setting that aside for the moment, bringing it aboard the ship immediately jeopardizes the third part of Ash’s special order, “ensure return of organism for analysis.” If he hadn’t exposed the entire crew to a parasitic organism, the crew may not have tried to kill it. Letting it in almost certainly guarantees that they will.

Quarantining Dallas, Lambert and Kane for 24 hours would probably have worked in Ash’s favor. They were locked up in a room where no one else could see them. Ash had 24 hours to figure out how to control access to any contact with them. His decision to open the air lock and let the away team into the ship couldn’t really be explained by an eagerness to examine the alien, either. He’s a robot. He couldn’t be eager if he tried. If his robotic reasoning interpreted the order “investigate life form” as a need for a hands-on examination of the alien, what difference would a delay of 24 hours make? Zero. Zip. Nada. He’s got at least ten months, the time it will take to get back to Earth, to study this thing.

But he lets it in. The crew is endangered. They decide to kill it with cattle prods and flame throwers. Nice work, Ash. Way to ensure the safe return of the organism. So what does he do to fix his mistake? Well, he doesn’t try to kill off the crew, which would have made sense. He does a little something here and there to throw off the efforts of the crew to kill the alien, but his efforts are really rather feeble. He could have killed off the crew in so many ways: shut off the air, or laced the air with carbon monoxide, or he could have simply snuck up on them one by one with a hammer and bludgeoned them to death, then blamed it on the alien. Wow, would that have made for an interesting movie. And it would have fit the requirements of his special order perfectly.

But no, the only person he tries to kill is Ripley, and after throwing her around the room he hits on the idea of stuffing a rolled-up girlie magazine down her throat as the only way to kill her that makes sense. Brilliant. Ash has got to be one of the dumbest androids ever conceived of for a movie.

Well, I don’t know what else to say and I’ve already spent way too much time on this. If you’ve got any ideas on this, I’d be pleased to hear them.

*Tip O’ The Hat to T-Dawg for enthusiastically hashing out a lot of these questions.

Alien QandA | 11:48 am CST
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Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

img of Laurence Fishburne in Apocalypse NowThe oldies station was playing Satisfaction while we ate our lunch today. I can’t hear that song without recalling the scene in Apocalypse Now when Clean dances across the deck of the boat while Satisfaction is playing on Armed Forces Radio.

Actually, whenever I hear Fishburne’s name I picture him in that scene. It’s really weird to me that a whole generation remembers him as Morpheus and might not have even seen him do the dance in Apocalypse Now.

clean | 1:44 pm CST
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I hope we’ll all take a moment today to remember the brave men who banded together at a time of crisis to repel the invasion of aliens from another planet and make this our Independence Day!

It’s really weird having a day off from work in the middle of the week.

mittwoch | 6:40 am CST
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Sunday, June 10th, 2012

I saw the movie Prometheus with My Darling B and Tim last night. We were so confused when we came out that we talked about it all the way home, trying to sort out the plot holes, but they were so many that we stood around in the living room of Our Humble O’Bode for about an hour afterward hashing them out some more. We never did answer our questions. I was still thinking about them when I woke up this morning.

So here there are, or at least the ones I can remember. If you figured any of these out, I’d really appreciate it if you’d pass the information along to us, because we’re still pretty bewildered here, I can tell you. The critics raved about this movie, but as one commenter to Richard Roper’s glowing review put it, “There must be two movies. One they show to the big hitter critics and the crappy one they show to the real audience.”

Beware, me lads! There be plot spoilers ahead!

The movie opens on a gorgeously-shot scene of a volcanic waste land laced with rushing cataracts and wreathed in steam. The best feature of this movie is that almost every scene in this movies is gorgeously shot. I have to say “almost every scene” because it would be just about impossible for me to describe a scene of murderous aliens slaughtering a ship load of humans as “gorgeously shot.” Maybe a movie director or a photographer could, but it doesn’t work for me.

Into this scene of a forming world steps a diapered and cloaked human-looking bald guy. He looks up at a flying saucer that parts the clouds as it soars upwards, presumably leaving him behind. Then he looks downward at a little bowl full of black goo. He drinks the goo, dissolves into inky black goo himself, and falls into a cataract, to be swept away by the rushing water. A montage very prettily describes DNA being broken down and recombined. Cells form, divide and grow. The scene suggests that the bald guy gave his life to seed the volcanic planet with his own DNA. Very messianic.

The next scene takes place several million years later in a cave on the Isle of Skye, where a couple of archaeologists are getting very excited about a cave painting they’ve found. It depicts a tribe of people dancing around a much taller person who is gesturing upward toward a cluster of five or six black spots. The painting is thirty-five thousand years old, one of the archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw, tells Charlie Holloway, the other archaeologist, and the spots are “in the same configuration as before. I think they want us to find them.”

We come to learn from Holloway that the configuration she’s referring to are the black spots, which coincidentally appear in carvings, paintings and pictograms made by Mayans, Egyptians, Sumerians and all the other civilizations that arose all over the planet. They all drew the same picture of a little crowd of people dancing around one big person pointing at spots in the heavens. The configuration of the spots is so unlike any other spots in any other cave painting that the archaeologists can search all the heavens and find five or six stars out there that are in exactly the same configuration.

Yeah. That seems likely.

We also learn from Holloway that the stars are so far away that no one on earth could have seen them back then. Only a spacefaring race, he says, would have known about those five or six stars.

Okay, so let me see if I’ve got this so far: The big, bald guy is just one of a race of big, bald guys from a place very, very far away. And the bald guys came to earth to seed the planet with their own DNA. And then they hung around for a while, or so the cave paintings would seem to indicate, because there’s a big, bald guy in every cave painting, and he’s pointing at the stars in the heavens that only he could have known the location and configuration of, and presumably told his monkey children about in detail so exacting that they could leave behind cave paintings that Shaw and Holloway would use thirty-five thousand years later find those same spots in deep, deep space.

I’m sorry, I have to call bullshit on that.

But let’s say they might possibly have been able to do that. Let’s say they had the technology and the time and the money and the staffing to scour all the billions of trillions of stars in the galaxy and found just one cluster of stars that looked like the spots in the cave paintings that the monkeys dabbed on the walls with charcoal using roots or whatever. Off they go to the planet where the big, bald guys come from! Why are they doing this? Because they’re searching for the meaning of life, says Shaw. They want to find out why the big, bald guy went to the trouble of starting life on earth.

Wait a minute. How do they know about the big, bald guy? Okay, they don’t. They’ve got the paintings and the carvings and so on that show all the little monkeys dancing around a big guy, and from that they inferred there’s a race of big guys out there, and from that, I guess, they figured out that the big, bald guy drank the gooey stuff and started life. Oookay.

I should point out that, of all the people on the ship crossing the galaxy on this quest, only Shaw and Holloway believe this plot line, and even Holloway’s convictions are a little iffy. When it turns out that things on the planet they find are not what they had hoped for, he does what any scientist would do: He gets drunk, and then he gets drunker, and he broods a lot and gets drunker. “Sore loser” does not begin to describe his dejection at finding out that he’s in the wrong place after crossing the galaxy.

And the other so-called scientists are even bigger losers than he is. “I came here because I’m a geologist. I love rocks,” the geologists tells Shaw, yet earlier in the film when another member of the expedition tried to strike up a friendly conversation with him, he said, “I’m here to make money. Lots of money. I’m not here to be your friend.”

And the biologist does not know a thing about animal behavior. I’ll leave it at that.

Shaw, however, is a true believer, right to the very end. She’s sure the big, bald guys made us, and she’s going to keep trying to find the definitive proof. But here’s a very unsatisfying element of the movie: The movie doesn’t go there with her. It supposes the idea. It supposes that she believes the idea. It supposes that she’s motivated to believe it because she wears a crucifix around her neck, and because her mummy died and her daddy told her mummy went to heaven. And when she finds out that the big, bald guys are just another bunch of boys with chemistry sets trying to build a better weapon, the movie supposes that she loses her faith, which the movie symbolizes by having the soulless robot (there’s always a robot) take her crucifix away from her. Wow. There’s subtlety for you.

Speaking of the soulless robot, he seems to be the movie’s biggest plot hole. (Tip o’ the hat to T-Dawg for pointing out this one.) Everybody else in this movie is superfluous. There’s a word that doesn’t get used often enough, and it’s perfect for describing this situation. He’s the only character that’s necessary to the plot of the movie. He seems to know everything. He’s utterly ruthless in carrying out the mission’s objectives – sound like another robot to you, hmmm? For good measure they even named him David. It’s impossible to listen to his silky robot voice and not hear the line, “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.” Finally, he’s ageless and indestructible, roaming the ship for years and years as it blasts through hyperspace or whatever space ships are using to cross the galaxy these days.

He’s also, unfortunately for the rest of the cast, the only character with any depth at all, showing them up in nearly every scene. As the intrigue begins to unfold, his smiling politesse is by turns comforting, banal, helpful, and menacing. And although his owner declares that David has no soul, in between performing regular maintenance on the ship and learning to speak Big Bald Guy language, he watches vintage Technicolor movies that he very obviously enjoys. He is not your typical evil killer robot. This is a character that could have been used to much better effect in a much more satisfying movie.

And now, for the ultimate spoiler: The so-called scientific expedition has crossed the galaxy at the whim of a gruff old trillionaire, Peter Weyland. But wait: describing him as “gruff” has the implication of being old but resilient, being crotchety but, in the end, intelligent, even wise. Weyland is none of that. He has one motive, as old as time: to live forever. Or wait, two motives: to learn the meaning of life, and to live forever. And to meet the big, bald guys. Okay, his three motives are … never mind. His ramblings are just that: wandering, loose ideas that never congeal into a focused desire. He is the movie cliche of the too-rich corporate boss using his money to style himself as an adventurer. He’s that boring.

And he’s utterly dispensable to the plot. (Another tip o’ the hat to Tim.) This movie would have functioned at least as well as it did without him. Shaw is already asking questions like, Who are the big, bald guys? Why did they seed earth with their DNA? And, What’s the meaning of life, then? So what’s this boring old coot doing here? Not much.

Those questions really got old after two hours of hearing them over and over without the slightest hint of an answer dawning on the horizon. The closest we ever came to hearing an answer was in a conversation between Holloway and David, when the robot asked him, “Why did you create me?” “Because we could,” Holloway answers glibly, and David’s reposte, delivered without irony and yet somehow freighted with it, was, “Can you imagine your disappointment if your creator were to say that to you?”

And that was it. The only instance of an answer to the questions they kept asking was an ironical question from the robot, who seemed to know all the answers but wouldn’t divulge them. And what the hell was with all the questions, anyway? Is this a horror movie, or is it a movie that was made to ponder the meaning of our existence? Because I have to say, if it was meant to ponder, then the pondering was really rather shallow, and that’s all it really could be, given that it’s hard to do a lot of deep thinking while also trying to revisit the horrific elements that started the franchise in the first place. There was rarely any of the tension that made the first movie such a thriller. It kept getting interrupted and dissipated by the pondering.

The final turn of the plot, which I suppose is the twist that critics are referring to, was as unsatisfying as the cliche of aliens visiting prehistoric earth: After the big, bald guys went to the trouble crossing the galaxy to seed a planet with their own DNA, they went back home rather abruptly, leaving the monkeys on their own. And then they apparently decided to wipe out all life on earth by genetically engineering biological weapons like the face-hugging alien in the first movie of the franchise. Why?

Not, Why did they want to kill us off? The answers to that question are legion. Maybe we didn’t turn out to be what they expected. Maybe they thought we were becoming too dangerous. Maybe they just got tired of us. Whatever the reason, why would they go to the time and expense of crossing the galaxy, engineering biological weapons, then building a fleet of ships to bring the weapons all the way back? While they were here, why wouldn’t they just hit earth with a big rock? When you’ve got the horsepower to move a ship across the galaxy at high velocity, I would think it would be fairly easy to alter the speed of an asteroid a few feet per second so its orbit intersects earth’s, and that’s the end of the monkeys. Crossing galactic space to engineer a malevolent life form that’s only reason for existence is murder and chaos makes you look like you’ve got way too much time on your hands.

Too much time. This movie took too much time to ask one question after another without delivering any of the answers it seemed to promise.

prometheus | 9:07 am CST
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Friday, April 27th, 2012

I’ve been wandering through Saint Vinnie’s for weeks without finding a single thing I considered for a moment worth purchasing. Then, today, I wandered in, not expecting to find anything, yet within five short minutes of walking in the front door, I was cradling a copy of the Jules Verne Omnibus, a big, thick, old-looking book that included From The Earth To The Moon, a book I haven’t read to this day, although I promise to rectify that oversight this weekend.

Not far from that I found a memoir of Franklin Roosevelt by Rexford Tugwell. Who names their kid Rexford Tugwell? Well, the Tugwell part of the naming is already done for you, but really, Rexford? If you’re going to name your kid Rexford, you’ve got to be pretty damned confident he’s going to grow up to attend Columbia and become a close personal friend and confidant of the President of the United States.

But the catch of the day, I have to say, was the two-disk special edition DVD release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail! Zow. The second disk includes, among other things, the complete movie dubbed into Japanese, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in Lego!

Happy Friday.

score | 10:01 pm CST
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Monday, March 19th, 2012

Watch this one-minute movie trailer and you’ve literally seen all the best parts of Clash of the Titans, possibly the silliest movie I’ve ever sat all the way through. We saw this trailer about a week ago and thought, “Well, that could be fun.” It isn’t.

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Sunday, March 4th, 2012

After The Thin Man After the Thin Man is a movie so unlike The Thin Man that it hardly counts as a sequel.

In the first movie, Nick and Nora drink more gin than any two people have ever drunk at any time in human history. And, incidentally, there’s a murder mystery that gets solved more or less accidentally when Nick invites all of the suspects to his house for a dinner party. After gabbing about the few facts in the case he’s overheard from a friendly police inspector, one of the suspects tries to shoot him. Whether it’s because the suspect is afraid of being caught, or because he’s tired of listening to Nick, is something of a loose end.

In the second movie, Nick and Nora drink one cocktail each in two or maybe three scenes, and Nick does some actual detective work this time, sneaking into apartments and finding secret compartments, although at the end of the movie he solves the crime by falling back on the tactic of corralling all the suspects in one room and rehashing the facts of the case until one of the suspects pulls a gun. It turned out to be the one guy My Darling B suspected the minute he appeared on-screen because it was the one guy she really, really did not want to be the bad guy. But he was. Spoiler alert.

Maybe Nick and Nora will get back to having some fun in Another Thin Man, and Asta will ditch that tramp that keeps running around on him.

after | 3:01 pm CST
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Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

Was going to put together the book shelves in the guest room and fix them to the walls, but My Darling B talked me into watching a movie instead. Too late after the movie to bang holes in walls. Too sleepy to use power tools. Off to bed.

Good movie, though. Doubt with Meryl Streep. I love watching Meryl Streep do her job.

late | 10:02 pm CST
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Monday, January 9th, 2012

Zombie on a plane! How come nobody’s made that movie yet? A guy gets mugged on his way to the airport and, unbeknownst to him and everyone on the place, the zombie apocalypse has just begun. Even though the mugger manages to drag the guy to the ground and bite him the guy manages to fight the mugger off and escape, but it’s too dark for him to see that it’s a zombie. He’s in a hurry to catch the plane to see his dying mother or something like that, so he just patches himself up with overpriced Band-Aids from the airport concession, jumps on the plane and doesn’t think any more of it until he starts to feel sick, which inevitably leads to the scene where he bursts from the airplane lavatory and starts eating passengers and crew. Honestly, I can’t believe nobody’s thought of this yet. Then again, I only thought of it because that was my dream last night. That was my nightmare. Gah. Agh.

airborne | 5:55 am CST
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Thursday, January 5th, 2012

The most surprising thing about the movie The Artist is that it’s not just a movie about a silent film actor who’s too vain to make the leap to talkies, it’s a silent film itself – entirely silent, just like they were in the old days, with music playing throughout and the occasional title card to let you in on the dialog, when there is any. No voice is heard until the last minute of the film and the lead actor, Jean Dujardin, speaks just two words.

The second most surprising thing is that I enjoyed it a lot. When it comes to silent films, I’m really more of a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd kind of guy, maybe because I have such a short attention span. My mind tends to wander when I watch most feature-length silent films, although there are some exceptions: Metropolis, The General, or 2001: A Space Odyssey are the first examples that come to mind. And I have to admit that my mind did keep wandering to the question, Are they ever going to say anything? while I was watching The Artist, but I still enjoyed just about every minute of it.

I’m trying to think of a scene that I didn’t enjoy. Hmmm. Nope, I guess I enjoyed all of it, sorry.

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Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Did you watch The Taking of Pelham One Two Three yet? The Walter Matthau version, not that other piece of crap. The whole thing is on YouTube, though probably not for long, so you should watch it RIGHT NOW! The first time I saw it was back in about 1970 on a nine-inch black-and-white television set, so you’ll be seeing it about the same way except IN COLOR and with all the swearing.

There’s a lot of swearing, in the spirit of making the characters talk like New Yorkers, I guess, one of my favorite things about this movie. I didn’t know they cussed like that until I rented the movie twenty years later because, before video rentals, the only way for me to see it was on the late show, when all the cussing was dubbed over with “hecks” and “gosh-darneds.” Did you know “the late show” used to be a generic way of referring to movies they showed on television after ten o’clock? Then it became the name of Letterman’s comedy gig, as well as a way for old farts to get off the subject.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is still one of my favorite heist movies, not least because of the musical score, which must have come to composer David Shire in a nightmare. I’m thinking alcohol might have been involved. It has been whenever I’ve had nightmares that sounded like that.

Then there’s the cast. Martin Balsam. Robert Shaw. Walter Matthau. Jerry Stiller. This guy. You know him, you’ve seen him in dozens of movies, you just don’t know his name. I sure didn’t.

And the movie doesn’t waste any time getting started. It’s about four guys who hijack a New York subway train. Ten minutes into the movie, they’ve already done it. The rest is Walter Matthau trying to figure out how Robert Shaw and his gang are going to escape a subway tunnel in possession of a million dollars worth of tens and twenties without being caught.

As it turns out, Garber, the transit cop investigating the heist and Matthau’s character in the movie, never does catch on. His boss, a chief inspector named Daniels, comes up with it in a phone call to Garber, who tells Daniels why that won’t work, then not long afterward Garber suggests exactly the same thing. Not unreasonably, Daniels calls bullshit on Garber, but listens to him anyway, and why wouldn’t he? Daniels thought of it first. But no plausible explanation is ever given for Garber dumping on Daniel’s idea, then backing up and claiming it must be the solution to the mystery. It’s one of the most poorly-written scenes in the film.

The only other scene that didn’t work for me involved Matthau again: Garber and this guy do a Frick and Frack routine all through the movie. Matthau was obviously cast for this part so he could fire off one quip after another in his Matthau-like way, and this guy was his counterweight. Then, for no reason that I have ever been able to make out, Matthau goes all Clint Eastwood on this guy, giving him a thorough ass-chewing before throwing him into his chair. It’s completely out of character and totally unnecessary. In fact, it pretty much shot the dynamic between the two characters all to pieces.

(I’ve read that the end of that scene was a goof: Matthau was supposed to drop this guy into his chair, but shoved him as he let go of this guy‘s shirt front. The chair tumbled over, this guy fell on his ass and the glare he gave Matthau at the end of the take was out of character. He was genuinely surprised and not a little pissed at being thrown on the floor.)

Those are minor nits, though. I must have watched this movie half a dozen times on the late show, and at least a half-dozen times more when I found a copy of it on VHS tape at Saint Vincent de Paul’s thrift store. I’m this close to ordering a DVD so I can watch it again.

Little bit of trivia for you: The first sound uttered in the movie comes from Martin Balsam, sneezing. The last line spoken is, “Gesundheit!” Nuff said.

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Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Right in the middle of the movie The Adjustment Bureau when the men in the sinister gray hats lost control of Matt Damon, they called in “The Hammer” to fix things. If you were a movie director and you had to cast a guy who would look menacing just by walking into the scene, who would you have called? Remember, it would have to be somebody who would look menacing in a fedora. Myself, I would have called Christopher Walken. I’m pretty sure he could look menacing wearing a beanie. In fact, I think he would look even more menacing wearing a beanie than not.

But they didn’t call Christopher Walken, and too bad. They called Terence Stamp. It puzzles me that people find Terrance Stamp menacing. Maybe I don’t have enough history with Terence. Maybe he use to play nothing but total badasses back in his heyday and that’s why they cast him to be Superman’s archenemy Zod in Superman 2. Too bad that was the most cringingly bad Superman movie ever made (the one with Richard Pryor was merely laughably bad) and the memory I took away from it was Terence Stamp uttering, in what I can only imagine was meant to be an imperious manner, the line “Kneel before Zod!” Since he was supposed to be a villain so badass that he kicked Superman around the block, I’m sure he was meant to be menacing, but when he barked this command at a cowering E.G. Marshall, it only made him look like a dork. The space suit that looked like it was made out of heavy-duty Hefty bags didn’t help, either.

Should’ve gone with Walken.

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Here’s what I got out of The Adjustment Bureau, one of Matt Damon’s latest flicks. I know it came out last summer but I mostly see films after they’re released to DVD and I can rent them from a local store. After the last local video store is killed off by Netflix and Amazon direct streaming, I’ll have to either cave in and start watching what Netflix, Blockbuster and Amazon will offer, or stop watching movies. Or move to another country where they still have neighborhood video stores. So I still have a choice, eh? Not the end of the world.

Anyway, that Matt Damon can run like a bat out of hell, can’t he? It could be simple trick photography, or maybe they enhance the scene in production with a computer, but I like to think he really can run like a steam engine going flat-out down the track, arms and legs wheeling tirelessly. When he gets going, the man looks like he could outrun a charging grizzly bear.

The other take-away from this movie was, I sure like to watch Matt Damon being a good guy. He’s not bad at a lot of other acting. I like his action movies, and he has pretty good comic timing, but mostly I like him when he’s buddying up to somebody. He’s got a couple scenes in The Adjustment Bureau with Emily Blunt where they have such chemistry together, he looks like he could charm the stockings right off her or any girl he sidled up to in a night club, even if she didn’t know he was a famous film star.

But other than that, I didn’t get much out of this movie. It was very good-looking, and the writing was good enough that I wanted to keep watching, but I never did figure out what this movie was supposed to be about. Neither did anyone else I watched it with. “What is this movie supposed to be?” My Darling B asked at one point. “Science fiction? Fantasy? A love story? A comedy?” I think the director was trying to get all that in there, and he very nearly did. It almost ended up being an action/comedy, like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (the Walter Matthau version, not that other piece of crap), combining science fiction/fantasy underpinnings with a romance, like maybe The Fisher King or Brazil, but it just didn’t come off. The romance didn’t quite work for me, in spite of the chemistry between Damon and Blunt, and the fantasy didn’t work, either, because even though walking through a door to another world it pretty cool, being able to do it only when you’re wearing a hat is kind of lame.

But Matt Damon, man, he sure can run fast.

adjustment | 1:19 pm CST
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Sunday, December 4th, 2011

I watched Blade Runner a week or two ago with my son, who thinks it’s as awesome as I thought it was when I was twenty-one years old. And I still get a great big techno-boner watching the flying cars weave between the blindingly-lit thousand-story buildings of Los Angeles in the far-flung year of 2019. This is a movie you could watch with the sound off, the better to soak up the geeky details they painstaking added to every single scene.

With the sound on, though, this is a movie that makes me like it a little less each time I watch it. At the time it was released in 1982, Blade Runner got a lot of attention for being a movie that questioned what it means to be human. The story follows four replicants who have escaped from their human handlers, and Deckard, a blade runner, a police officer who specializes in finding replicants.

The world of 2019 is pretty standard for a sci-fi movie: The planet has been so ravaged by humankind that people live crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in hellish cities like the Los Angeles of the movie, and giant floating billboards urge everyone who will listen to emigrate “off-world.” Replicants, robots with bodies so life-like that they appear to be human, and brains clever enough to act human, prepare other worlds for humans to live on. They are not supposed to be on Earth, only on faraway planets, but apparently they get loose often enough that people like Deckard have job security.

And here’s where the story, such as it is, starts to break down: Why would replicants have to look like humans? They really don’t. If their purpose is to prepare other planets for human habitation, they could look like anything. In fact, they really should look like giant earth-movers or bulldozers or whatever. I wouldn’t have any problem pondering the meaning of intelligent machines if they looked like machines, but the reason for them looking exactly like people is never discussed much.

One of the replicants, who looks like a woman, is described with a sly smile as “your basic pleasure model,” so it would almost make sense that her makers would want her to look human, except that it doesn’t make any sense because the question of why anyone would go to the staggering expense of building a robot hooker is so stupid it doesn’t even bear consideration.

Another replicant is described as a combat model. Why would that guy look even remotely human? Why wouldn’t he be a flying gun? Or a gaping mass of swirling blades? It doesn’t make any sense at all for him to look human, even if only for the element of surprise. The moment he tears someone’s arms and legs off, his cover’s blown.

But let’s assume that, for whatever reason, replicants have to look human to work the magic of making other planets habitable for humans to live on. Okay, why wouldn’t we want them on Earth, then? Why wouldn’t we have an army of replicants right here on earth, re-making it so it will be habitable once again? There’s no way it’s even remotely possible that our home planet, the planet on which we live and thrive even when it’s a mess, would be more difficult to clean up than a planet that was not fit for human life before replicants killed off every single bit of the local flora and fauna and replaced it with more friendly animals and plants that we could eat. Replicants only become a danger to humans in this movie when people like Deckard start shooting at them.

And if the question we’re supposed to ponder after watching this movie is, What’s it mean to be human? My answer, based on this movie, would be: It means we will all have to travel light-years across space to live on other planets if we want to survive, and even then it’ll only be due to the benevolence of our robot overlords.

The new ending, by the way, sucks. The old ending kind of sucked, too, but the new one, which strongly hints, but never concretely establishes, that Deckard is a replicant, sucks more. When he was a human hunting robots, the conflict was pretty cut and dried and you could argue all night with the rest of the guys in your dorm about the difference between human and robot intelligence, but now that it’s a story about robots hunting robots, whoopee. Who gives a shit about robots that don’t show an ounce of moral conflict when it comes to killing humans, and have to make no more than a binary choice when it comes to killing other robots: If he tries to stop me, then I’m going to stop him. I don’t see that it requires intelligence to complete a conditional statement that a beginning programmer can write, and I don’t feel any concern over “killing” robots that kill humans. Kind of a no-brainer.

And that’s the way I trash Blade Runner, one of my all-time favorite science fiction movies. If you want, I’ll also tell you how the Christmas classic Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer stinks on ice.

replicants | 11:41 am CST
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Sunday, September 11th, 2011

I took in a matinee showing of Contagion with My Darling B this morning, which was a little weird. Not that the movie itself was weird, watching it at ten o’clock in the morning was. Movies ought to be watched at night, don’t you think? We do, but for reasons we can’t quite put our fingers on. But we went to the ten o’clock show anyway because B wanted to garden this afternoon and Tim was supposed come over for dinner in the evening. Morning was really the only time we had free to go see it. So off we went.

Apparently almost everybody else thinks watching a movie in the morning is pretty weird, too, because there were only five or six other people seated when the movie started. I don’t know if anybody else came in after because I was too freaked out by the movie.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, it’s about an outbreak of a flu-like virus that quickly spreads all over the world after Gwyneth Paltrow visits Hong Kong and comes home with the sniffles. Less than fifteen minutes later (in movie time) she was stretched out on an autopsy table having the top of her skull sawed off. Right there I knew I would like this movie, if only because I couldn’t remember the last Hollywood film I saw that killed off a major star so quickly.

And then, there’s Elliott Gould. I suppose you could cast Elliott Gould in a movie and it would still be a stinker – look at Ocean’s Twelve, for instance – but for the most part he’s like a good-luck rub, one of those talismans you touch on your way to do something really important to bring yourself luck. Elliott Gould appeared in three scenes for no more than five minutes and still he made this movie better for being there. I love that man, even if it means I’ll be up all night tonight re-watching M*A*S*H.

But mostly, this was a very tightly-written, well-directed movie with lots of very watchable people in it. I’ve missed watching Kate Winslet work her magic. I’ve loved watching Lawrence Fishburne Jr. since the first time I saw him dancing to “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” in Apocalypse Now. And I don’t know where Jennifer Ehle came from, but I hope she gets lots more parts like the one she got in this movie so she can show off what she can do in front of a camera.

When I told my mother I went to see this movie she said she saw the previews for it but hadn’t gone to see it because it looked like it was “kind of a bummer, wasn’t it?” Well, yes, I guess any movie that killed off a large chunk of the world population would have to be considered “kind of a bummer.” I guess my advice to Mom and anybody else who felt as she did after seeing the trailer would be: Try not to think of it as a movie about the decimation of the planet and more as a taut cinematic thriller, and maybe it won’t be quite the bummer you’re worried it might be.

Contagion | 8:25 pm CST
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Monday, August 1st, 2011

*SPOILER ALERT!* If you’re looking forward to seeing Cowboys & Aliens, you probably shouldn’t read any further because I’m going to give away everything I can think of.

We played a game of Clichés as we drove home after seeing Cowboys & Aliens and came up with:

Man with No Name walks into troubled town in the wild west, can beat up anybody without even trying.

Grizzled cattle rancher owns the town, treats everyone in it like shit. Has son who’s even more of a douchebag than he is.

Aliens abduct people “to learn our weaknesses.” Aliens are hulking huge armor-plated gorillas that can run faster than horses, mouths are gaping maws of slavering fangs, have daggers for fingernails. Our “weakness” is that we are gummy bears compared to them. Aliens get pwned anyway.

Aliens have invented a laser gun with targeting software that can’t hit anything you point it at. Unless you’re the Man with No Name.

Dork who can’t hit the side of a barn with a rifle manages to shoot brains out of alien at critical moment.

giveaway | 9:03 pm CST
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Monday, June 13th, 2011

We watched Wisconsin Death Trip last Friday night. I’m not allowed to pick out the Friday night movie any more.

Based on the book that you’ve probably never heard of, this movie that you’ve probably never heard of is an hour and a half of people acting out the news squibs found in the newspaper of a northern Wisconsin town, Black River Falls. A friend at work recommended it highly and I remembered that it had been featured at the Wisconsin Film Fest, which My Darling B and I love to go to, so I picked it up Friday afternoon on the way home from running an errand and we plopped ourselves on the couch after dinner to watch it.

Twenty minutes or so into the movie, after maybe half a dozen murders and suicides – I want to say it was right after a farmer killed himself by burying a stick of dynamite in the ground, then laying down with the back of his head against it before lighting the fuse – B finally spoke up: “Geeze, you couldn’t have picked a nice comedy?”

This movie is billed as “an intimate, shocking and sometimes hilarious account of the disasters that befell one small town in Wisconsin during the final decade of the 19th century.” We must have rented the version that had all the hilarious parts edited out. The one we saw was: Death, murder, mayhem, insanity, murder again, suicide, serial murder, some more insanity and suicide … you get the idea.

Right smack dab in the middle of all this was a short vignette, no more than a minute long, about a young couple, just teenagers, “obviously runaways” as the narrator puts it, who, in a fit of high spirits, asked the city clerk to marry them. “Their wish was granted,” the narrator said, without a trace of sinister foreboding in his voice. Even so, B was on the edge of her seat while the actors portraying the couple frolicked and danced across the screen. “This’ll all end in tears somehow,” she said, but it never did. This part of the movie disturbed B more than almost anything else in the movie. “What the hell was that, anyway?” she kept repeating, while furiously googling the interwebs, looking for some kind of an explanation.

I honestly liked the movie, although I would hesitate to recommend it to anybody who was not in the mood for it. This is strictly for a night when you’re wanting something that’s out of the ordinary, kind of dark, and after the kids are in bed. Other than that, I really liked it. I wish I could say B did, too, but I’m still not sure.

Wisconsin Death Trip | 8:08 pm CST
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Sunday, June 5th, 2011

I just finished folding about three weeks’ worth of washed clothes. We wash clothes almost every day, but we never seem to get around to folding them and putting them away. Some of them, the trousers and the good shirts, get half-folded so they lay flat and we can wear them straight off the top of the pile that builds up on top of the laundry baskets. Underwear get wadded up in the bottom of the baskets and sometimes stay there for weeks. And the socks never get put away. We have a basket just for socks that we pick through every morning, looking for two that match. I’m probably going to get into big trouble for telling you this.

It took almost two full hours to fold all the clothes in the pyramid of laundry baskets on top of the washer and dryer, so naturally I popped a movie into the DVD player to help pass the time. Today’s selection was Sleepless In Seattle, one of my favorite weepy movies. I really do have movies I collect and watch just for their boo-hoo value. Sometimes it’s just a favorite scene, like the one at the end of Henry V where Kenneth Brannagh woos Emma Thompson, but for Sleepless I turn on the waterworks for the whole movie.

Walter really gets the shaft in that movie, doesn’t he? He’s a pretty good guy, in spite of the way Rosie O’Donnell rolls her eyes whenever his name is mentioned, but really he’s the kind of guy I’d like to buy a drink for, especially after the way he handled the breakup with Annie. I almost feel bad about liking the happy ending because it come just minutes after she dumps Walter and goes running up the street to the Empire State Building for her meeting with Sam, but wow, I just love that ending.

sleepless | 8:06 pm CST
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Friday, April 22nd, 2011

We just got back from watching The Last Frontier, probably the goofiest western I’ve ever seen, almost on a par with the television series F Troop. Oddly, I don’t think director Anthony Mann was shooting for goofball, but that’s what he got.

Robert Preston, who will forever be The Music Man in my memory, shows up here as the army colonel forever haunted by his past, “the Butcher of Shiloh.” Naturally, he wants to make up for it by marching every last one of his men into glorious battle, the sooner the better. Luckily for him there’s a huge number of Indians gathering nearby who want to slaughter every last army soldier they can get their hands on, almost as if it was scripted for him. Oh, wait, it was.

Victor Mature plays a trapper with a bizarre kind of innocence that leads him to think it would be a good idea to scoop up Robert Preston’s wife as if he were a cave man, drag her off behind a log cabin and start mashing his lips against hers as a way of saying “hi.” When it becomes clear to him that everyone on the army post thinks Preston is deranged and ought to be locked up, he figures it would be a good idea to kill the commander, and leads him into a bear trap with a jolly smile on his face. He’s still smiling when he returns to the post to tell everyone. Nobody else smiles back. This confuses him, but he goes back to rescue the commander from the bear trap anyway.

When Preston finally gets killed after leading the cavalry troop into an Indian ambush, everybody’s happy again and Mature goes back to Missus Music Man’s arms, presumably to mash on her lips some more.

They just don’t make movies like that any more, do they?

The Last Frontier | 10:50 pm CST
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Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Wow, they just don’t make movies like The Man From Laramie any more. For one thing, nobody likes movies that corny now. For another, there’s no Technicolor. I really miss Technicolor.

The university puts on a show that’s open to the public and free, courtesy of the film studies program. I think we went to a show several years ago but haven’t been back until last night, which is sort of weird for two people who will take a whole week off from work to watch a dozen and a half movies in four and a half days.

While we were at the film festival this year, we picked up a copy of the playbill and found they were just finishing up a retrospective of westerns directed by Anthony Mann. I couldn’t say I knew his name but I must have seen quite a few of his films because Jimmy Stewart was in a lot of them and I’ll watch anything that features Jimmy Stewart.

The Man From Laramie was playing last night at seven, so after work we drove into town, found a place to park that wouldn’t extort ten bucks from me because the Badgers were playing, and got a bite to eat at Ian’s Pizza before the movie.

There are two huge parking ramps on Lake street. The one on the south side of University Ave is closer to the movie theater and right next to Ian’s. I didn’t want My Darling B to get too wet walking back and forth in the rain, so I thought this one would be perfect. Unfortunately, that ramp is also the closest ramp to the Kohl Center and the Badgers must have been doing something sports-related. The streets were crawling with people wearing red and white, which is not all that unusual when you’re that close to the campus but when it’s a bunch of old people, you know something’s up.

There was a long line of cars driven impatiently by people waiting to get into the ramp, even though a sign at the entrance noted they were charging TEN DOLLARS! I blew up just a little bit when I saw that, pulled out of line and drove around the block so I could turn the other way up Lake Street to park in the ramp on the north side of University Ave where they were charging only four dollars to park. One block away, six dollar difference. That’s just weird.

Ian’s Pizza is a Madison institution, meaning everybody eats there, meaning university kids. I’d been to the store on State Street several times but B had never been at all and had wanted to for a long time. This was her big chance, so we stopped in to grab a slice of pie before the movie. It seemed like a good idea, but then so did parking close to the theater before we realized there was a game downtown. We managed to beat the big rush so we didn’t have to wait long to get our food, and B even managed to snag a couple seats at one of the dozen or so tables in the dining room. You’d think for such a popular pizza joint they’d have a little more seating, but on second thought that’s probably all but impossible to come by right next door to the university. Still, they were doing one hell of a lot of business when we were there. They could really use more places to sit.

The movie was at the Cinematheque, a theater across University Ave from the Chazen Museum. It took us maybe five minutes to walk to it, the longest five-minute walk I made all day. It was still raining and we were walking into a headwind, so even with our umbrellas we got wet and cold all the way through. Thank goodness the theater was toasty warm.

It was also just about empty when we got there and I thought it might stay that way. I mean, how many people would you expect to tramp through weather like that to see a fifty-year-old movie? Somewhere between fifty and seventy-five, as it turned out. The seats filled up in the ten minutes right before the show started, mostly by people about my age who stayed up late watching movies like this on television when they should have been doing their school work. As a matter of fact, I realized as soon as the first scene began to play that I’d seen this movie on The Late Show, probably several times. B had the same revelation.

If you’ve seen a typical Western there’s not much to tell you about this movie. A New Guy comes to town. He’s looking for something. He crosses paths with a Bad Guy. There’s a fist fight where the two guys punch each other in the face way more than two people could possibly do and still have all their teeth when they’re done. There’s a shootout where each of them pops up from behind a rock to take a shot at the other just as a bullet goes pwing! on the rock right next to their head. And they chase each other through the desert on horseback really, really fast, cloppity-cloppity-cloppity. Did I forget anything? Oh, there’s a girl with Joan Crawford hair. She looks pretty in spite of the Joan Crawford hair but doesn’t get to do much else.

It’s awfully corny but, as I said, I’ll watch any movie that has Jimmy Stewart in it. More than once.

The Man From Laramie | 7:50 am CST
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Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

And so ends a lovely three-day weekend we filled by reading books and watching videos.

I’m still working on A Crack In The Edge Of The World, Simon Winchester’s history of the San Francisco earthquake, only he’s so into geology it’s more like a history of the entire planet’s geological past. Seriously, he goes all the way back to the formation of the earth as a protoplanet to explain plate tectonics. The earthquake doesn’t happen until he’s two hundred pages into the book. He’s a geology nerd right down to the bone. I didn’t get an inkling of this when I read his book about Krakatoa, so he must have kept his nerdiness in check through that book, but he not only let it out for this one, he did it while drinking pots of coffee or snorting crack or something that made him take off at a gallop. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it takes a lot of determination to keep up with that kind of mania.

My Darling B just started Last Call, a book about Prohibition. When I opened the book to flip through it last night, I found a photo of a crowd of hundreds of people carrying signs that said WE WANT BEER in huge block letters. I may have to read that next.

And for video entertainment we finished the first season of The Wire Saturday Night, a series I was not at all sure I would like when we started, because, you know, another cop show? I’ve seen so many cop shows I’m just not that interested any more, but this one turned out to have a few good characters in it and by the time we got to the last disk I was asking B if she’d put in a request for the next season. She had, so I know what we’ll be watching next weekend.

B also brought home a copy of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room because she apparently can’t go a day without making herself even more pissed off about Our Current Economic Crisis. Say what you want about these Enron assholes, you’ve got to admit that anyone who can convince investors to cough up money to buy futures in weather is a salesman’s salesman, the cream of the crop. B doesn’t admire this kind of economic inventiveness. For the rest of the night, she walked around the house, shaking her head while muttering “Bastards!” under her breath. I keep asking her why she watches this kind of stuff when it upsets her so. She doesn’t know. And she keeps on watching.

Weekend Fun | 6:20 am CST
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Saturday, January 8th, 2011

Our Saturday morning ritual included breakfast at the farmer’s market, the first one this winter after they moved to the senior center on Mifflin Street. Scrambled eggs, breakfast sausages, toast, mixed vegetables and fresh spinach. We took our trays upstairs where the crowds wouldn’t be so bad and it would be a lot warmer. The ground-floor entrance was pretty much open all the time with the steady stream of people traipsing in and out, allowing the Merry Little Breezes to come in and play, and temps outside were in the teens all morning. If we’d taken a table downstairs, my scrambled eggs would have gone from hot to stone-cold in about three minutes, and my feet would turn blue.

We found a table with a few empty chairs upstairs and the people who were sitting there were just finishing up, so in a few minutes we had the whole table to ourselves until the people who had been in line behind us showed up and asked if they could join us. One of them was from Hawaii.

“You came here from Hawaii?” I asked her. “In January? What were you thinking?” She allowed as to how that wasn’t the very best planning, and that if she were ever to come back it would probably be later in the year, like June.

Another woman in the party told us she came to the farmer’s market every week, same as we did. She was from a bit closer than Hawaii: Middleton, just on the other side of town, and said that she used to ride her bicycle into town every Saturday, spend the morning at the market, then ride back. “That’s about a six- or eight-mile trip, isn’t it?” I asked her. “Pretty good ride!”

“Well, I was a lot younger then,” she noted.

We rounded up some fresh veggies and other food stuffs after we finished breakfast, then stopped along Willy Street on the way home so we could complete our Saturday morning ritual: B ducked into the co-op to pick up a few things for tonight’s dinner, and I cleared an armload of books off the shelves at St. Vinnie’s thrift store.

Instead of going straight home after that we put the shop in Shopko, detouring to the South Towne Mall to see if they sold DVD players. Ours went on the fritz last week and we like watching movies enough that we decided to bite the bullet and buy a new one, figuring we could find a cheap-o model for about a hundred bucks as Shopko. Shows how long it’s been since we’ve bought any kind of electronic gadget (about ten years, we figured out later). DVD players started at about forty bucks, and even those were pretty good. And tiny! “Look at how little it is!” B squealed as if she were cuddling a newborn puppy, holding up a model no bigger than the plastic cases that DVDs are sold in.

Home again, home again, jiggidy-jog, I watched Moon, the Sam Rockwell movie about a guy who’s been working alone on the surface of the moon for three years and is either going crazy, or the victim of a corporate plot. It’s never really clear, and I’m not sure whether or not I liked it. But I finally watched it, a week after I rented it from Bongo Video! After all the late fees I knew I’d be stuck with, I was determined to watch every damned minute of it, even if it sucked. I don’t think it sucked, but I’m not sure what happened and I don’t like that kind of uncertainty. I like my movies a little more blunt. Like almost to the point of trauma. I need to be hit over the head with a plot point in order for it to sink in. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and it’ll be a little clearer.

Oh, hell, might as well just spoil the whole thing for you. It’s my blog, and your free will. Stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who is working alone on the far side of the moon. That right there seemed pretty improbable to me, so I had trouble suspending disbelief from the start. How would anybody be expected to work alone for three whole years? Not just alone, but on the far side of the moon, cut off from everyone else in every way, physically and emotionally isolated. Utterly. Cut. Off. It just doesn’t seem likely.

Bell had a robot sidekick named Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey. I have to say it would be just plain awesome to have a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey in my house, but if all I had to talk with for three years was a robot, I’d go completely ga-ga in very short order no matter whose voice was coming out of it. A robot companion is the most sure-fire way I can think of to drive a guy batshit crazy in a movie about working alone on the far side of the moon.

The movie opened showing Bell with Charles Manson hair and a beard, just in case you didn’t get the idea right off the bat that he was a little crazy. His one job is to get in a truck and drive out to one of four automated mining machines whenever they gather enough helium-3 for him to send back to earth. Everything else about the operation is automated. All he does it drive up behind the mining machines through a hail of rocks, like that makes any sense, drive his truck up on to the machine’s tailgate, hop off, pick up a tin can full of helium-3, take it back to base and put it on a sled that’s launched into space on a rail gun. The Kevin Spacey robot even tells him it can do the job but he does it anyway. So why Bell is there, I don’t know.

One day, he sees a woman in the space station. Obviously she shouldn’t be there. A day or two later while he’s driving out to pick up some helium-3 from a mining machine, he sees the woman again standing on the surface of the moon. This is obviously a little distracting and while his mind is wandering the mining machine runs over his truck.

Bell wakes up in the infirmary. He doesn’t remember the crash so he doesn’t ask the robot, which hangs from the ceiling on a steel pipe, how he got there, but it was the first question that popped into my mind. In the next scene he catches the robot talking to his corporate overlords using his video phone, when all along he’s been told that the direct satellite link is down because of a solar flare. Since this is a crucial plot point, I have to ask: Why would a robot talk on the phone with a human? Doesn’t it have a wireless card or whatever they’re using for a direct router connection in the future? Why would it say anything aloud instead of, I don’t know, texting? It doesn’t make any sense … unless Bell is crazy and imagines this part.

Eventually, Bell is well enough to get back to work, but the robot won’t let him go outside. Bell orders it to let him out and the robot tells him he’s not allowed to let Bell out, so Bell plays a trick that is so obvious that nobody, especially not a robot that presumably knows everything that’s going on everywhere in the station, would fall for it. The robot falls for it and lets Bell out.

Bell drives his truck out to the wrecked mining machine and finds another Bell trapped in another pickup truck. Bell One brings Bell Two back to the moon station and puts him in the infirmary. For the middle third of the movie they nervously pace around each other, trying to figure out if this is craziness or what. At this point the movie was still an interesting psychological drama about how a person goes crazy in isolation, especially when Bell Number Two started jabbering about a bizarre corporate plot to run the helium-3 mining project using cloned human slaves.

But then the story seemed to take a wide left turn and became a story about a bizarre corporate plot to run a mining project using clone slaves! Bell One and Bell Two discover a vast underground room with thousands of cloned Bells! And the robot confirms that he’s a clone with implanted memories. Of course, this could all have been a paranoid fiction made up by the crazy mind of Bell … until Bell Two hatches a plan that involves waking up another Bell clone, which he does all on his own, isolated from Bell One.

Once Bell Two and Bell One are acting independently, it’s not about being crazy any more. Bell One watches Bell Two escape the station by using the rocket sled that delivers helium-3 to Earth. Bell Two is show escaping. Bell Three is still on the station.

So he wasn’t crazy! Oh, maybe a little, but the Manson beard was obviously a case of classic misdirection! The imaginary girl was a red herring! He wasn’t crazy at all … or was he? Well, shit, I don’t know, and by the time the credits rolled I didn’t care much anymore, to tell you the truth. So I guess the movie sucked after all. I would’ve liked the psychological drama, but the crazy clone conspiracy wasn’t all that interesting. Too bad, because I like Sam Rockwell.

Speaking of which, how many movies has Sam Rockwell been bare-assed in his movies? He was absolutely buck naked in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, again in Charlie’s Angels, and once again he shows off his ass in a shower scene in Moon. Were there any more that you remember?

Eggs For Breakfast | 11:38 pm CST
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Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Okay, there’s a scene in the new Star Trek movie that I don’t get because it’s got about forty thousand discontinuities in it that didn’t hit me while I was watching it. It was a lot of fun to watch. I just loved it. But later my brain rewinded it and every time I watched, I got more confused.

The part I’m talking about is right after the Enterprise meets the Romulan mining ship. Great big ship, looks like a mutant beetle with too many mandibles.

If memory serves, and feel free to correct me at any time if it doesn’t, they meet the Romulans in orbit around Vulcan. Or maybe they were in orbit around Earth. Either way, they were in orbit around a planet that the Romulans were going to do something really evil to. They lowered their giant laser drill on a chain that was a couple hundred miles long, cranked up the laser and started blasting away at the planet.

Just before they started drilling holes in the planet, the Enterprise came warping out of deep space to stop them and the Romulans shot the shit out of them with a salvo of unstoppable Romulan missiles. For a ship built to dig for minerals, it was exceptionally well-armed.

The Romulan captain told Christopher Pike, the captain of the Enterprise, to climb aboard a shuttlecraft and fly over for some chips and beer. Just kidding. What he really wanted to treat Pike to was a creepy-crawly bug, and he was going to shove it up Pike’s nose or something. Bad guys are always tying up the good guys and shoving repulsive bugs or slimy slugs up their noses. It used to creep me out but it’s become so predictable it’s almost, I don’t know … would it be too freaky to say “comforting?”

Pike doesn’t know about the bug, so he gets on a shuttlecraft and heads over there. I guess he’s never watched the show before. On his way out he asks for volunteers who have special training in hand-to-hand combat, so naturally Kirk raises his hand even though Kirk’s signature style has always been, and forever will be, Saloon Fighting. He can punch guys in the face all day long, but that’s about all he knows, which is why it seemed kind of odd when he rolled his eyes at Sulu, who told him his special combat skill was fencing. At least the guy knew how to use a sword.

Off they go, and Pike’s plan is this: On the way over to the Romulan ship he’s going to let Kirk, Sulu and a guy in a red shirt jump out over the planet on a super-secret mission to destroy the laser drill. That should work, right? The Romulans would never be able to detect three guys jumping out of the only shuttlecraft headed their way, the very same shuttlecraft they were waiting for, the one coming from the enemy spacecraft piloted by the enemy captain who would never try anything underhanded so why would they be watching it?

The floor of the shuttlecraft drops open like bomb bay doors, letting Kirk, Sulu and the guy in the red shirt plummet straight through it toward the planet as if they were making the ultimate skydive out the bottom of a plane, only they were in orbit. At least, I’m pretty sure they were in orbit. The sky was black and when they jumped there was no sound, so if they weren’t in orbit they were sure pretending to be. And the trouble with that is, if the shuttle was in orbit, they wouldn’t have dropped like bombs when they let go of the monkey bars on the ceiling. They’d have just hung there, looking stupid. What they’d need is a good, solid shove at least strong enough to slow their orbital speed and drop them in a long, gradual arc until they met the atmosphere and burned with the intense heat of an exploding atom bomb. Oh, wait, no, they probably wouldn’t want that. I guess they might have had some kind of mini-impulse engines in those nifty backpacks they were wearing, but you’d think that would make them very noticeable to the Romulans, and I thought the whole point of jumping was to be all super-stealth like. So I guess I don’t know how they did that amazing skydive from orbit. Sure looked cool, though.

Kirk and Sulu land on the laser drill but the guy in the red shirt gets killed because, duh, red shirt. Sulu asks Kirk, “What do we do now? Red shirt guy had the explosives!” Wait, what? Red shirt guy was the only one who had any explosives? What was the point of sending the other two guys?

Then the Romulans show up. FIGHT! Kirk punches them a lot. Sulu whips out his sword — he brought his sword, but he didn’t bring any explosives — and completely fails to cut any of the Romulans in half. Instead, he kills a Romulan by tricking him into stepping onto the flaming laser vent, and Kirk kills a Romulan by suckering him into jumping off the edge of the laser drill. bluh. Romulans sliced in half would have been totally way better.

They blow up the drill by shooting it with the guns the Romulans dropped while they were fighting. It’s a giant laser space drill that can withstand the tremendous tidal forces of hanging from an orbiting spaceship on a chain a hundred miles long, but shoot it with a handgun and it falls apart. Okay.

Blowing up the drill means they fall. Sulu’s parachute doesn’t work, so Kirk grabs him and tries to open his. It’s a hi-tek chute that can pack itself, but it can’t support two guys and shears away. Kirk and Sulu are falling to the ground. Kirk calls to the transporter crew to beam them up. The transporter crew can’t lock on to them because they’re falling too fast.

How fast do you suppose a falling person would have to be going for the transporter to be unable to lock on to them, I have to wonder, because they’re transporting from one moving ship to another all the time. A person falling through the air moves at a little over one hundred miles an hour. That little bit of trivia is stuck in my head from the time I took skydiving lessons. So do starships really slow down to less than one hundred miles an hour when people transport between them? And they’re falling in a straight line. It should be fairly easy for a computer to figure out their trajectory. But no. They can’t get a lock.

But Chekov can! He must have taken “Beaming Up Falling People 101” at the Academy while the rest of his classmates were trying to get the panties off the green Orion slave girls. He jumps up from his station on the bridge yelling, “I know how to do that!” and disappears into the elevator. Bridge officers do this all the time, just jump up and run off. Any Academy grad realizes that’s perfectly all right, even when the acting captain has left the ship and put you in charge.

Chekov not only gets a lock on the falling guys, he does it just a split second before they make a big red splat on Vulcan, of course! And once again, the falling guys do not appear on the transporter pad rolled up in a ball the way they were when they were falling through the air, and they do not fall to the floor at a hundred miles an hour. They materialize standing up, perfectly still, but I believe they were still hugging. The transporter can stop their fall and it can make sure they reappear on their feet, but it can’t un-hug them.

So confused.

Nit Picking | 9:45 pm CST
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Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

After finishing off my morning coffee the other day I went to the men’s room to read a magazine. Not really, but that’s the euphemism I’m going with.

There are four stalls in the men’s room and I try always to use the first one. I read that you should use the first stall because everybody skips it on the assumption that it gets the most traffic. Of course, those statistics are shot now if anybody else read that web article. I use the first stall because it’s first. Making decisions uses up my batteries. If I don’t have to make one, I won’t. Saves time on the recharge.

Opening the door of the first stall I find there’s dookie in the bowl. You can give people indoor plumbing but you can’t make them flush. I reached in there with my leg and toed the handle to flush, then moved to the second stall because, you know, dookie. I’m not uptight about public toilets. I know deep down that other people are nestling their bare butts on the same seat I have to use. I just don’t like to think about it, that’s all, but there’s no better reminder than fresh dookie, right? So I moved on.

The second hopper had dookie in it, too. What the hell? Has everyone contracted a strain of Alzheimer’s that’s corroding just the brain cell that reminds people to flush? I toed the toilet handle on that throne, too. And yes, that is because I’m uptight about public toilets. I don’t like to touch things with my hands any more than I have to. I will if I have to. I’ll use a pit toilet if I have to but, when I have the choice, I won’t. Tell me you don’t do the same. Oh, you liar.

Over at the third throne, the situation was going from lazy to ludicrous. More dookie. How is it possible that three different people coincidentally forget to flush at the same time in the same place? I don’t think it is. As crazy as it sounds, I think that had to be planned.

I looked around to see if maybe there wasn’t a camera recording me for an interwebs video, as if I’d have been able to see it if there had been one. Those things are tiny, and the hidden ones aren’t equipped with little red lights to give them away, no matter what you’ve seen in the movies. That scene where Denzel Washington spotted the camera in his bathroom was what made me give up on The Manchurian Candidate.

After flushing the third toilet I moved on to the fourth and last stall, took a big, deep breath before opening the door, and found … renewed faith in my fellow man. Either that, or the guys who sprung the hat trick on me couldn’t get a fourth to go along with them. I sat down to do a little reading and tried to forget what had just happened but, as you see, I couldn’t. So I had to share. You’re welcome.

Dookie | 11:34 am CST
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Friday, November 26th, 2010

If I took any truths away from the movie Fair Game, based on the book by Valarie Plame, it was these:

I HATE SHAKY CAM! There has got to be a better way to make big-budget movies look like low-budget documentaries that doesn’t make the finished product look like the director forced a double-shot of espresso down the throat of the cameraman before every take, or he snuck up behind the cameraman in the middle of the shot and gave him a Wet Willie.

Sean Penn is old. I feel this is my fault, not his. Every time I’ve seen him in a movie my brain does this trick where it takes the image coming in from the movie screen and photoshops him so he looks to be about Spicoli’s age, but for some reason it didn’t do that this time. He looked like an old guy this time. Not really old, but about middle age. Say, about my age. Which he is. My fault again.

The CIA headquarters building you see in every movie has got to be a movie set. Every movie about the CIA starts with the same aerial shot of the headquarters building, and I’m pretty sure the CIA ninjas would never let any aircraft get that close. It’s got to be a plastic model, maybe ten, twelve inches high, and they take out back of the sound stage, drop it on an anthill and record a few minutes of video whenever they need that aerial shot. The real CIA building is probably a boring-looking office block in Poughkeepsie, New York.

I’m also pretty sure every movie studio has that great big CIA seal printed on a piece of linoleum, or maybe just one of them went to the trouble to make it and they lend it back and forth like a dogeared library book, and they roll it out on the floor of an anonymous bank building somewhere in Hollywood when they need that overhead shot of people in suits walking across it as if they’re entering the lobby of the CIA headquarters. It sure looks like a bank to me.

Other than that, I didn’t get much from the movie except the very creepy feeling that I could see how all that could’ve happened just the way they said it did.

Fair Game | 3:54 pm CST
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Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Tim came over last night and we all watched Iron Man 2, which was plenty of fun even though we had a few criticisms of it. “There wasn’t enough robot-shooting,” for instance, Tim pointed out, while My Darling B thought it was “practically all robot-shooting.” You can’t please everyone.

B also was confused about what Scarlett Johansson was doing in the movie and, simultaneously, she knew exactly what she was there for. “Is she supposed to be some kind of super-villain?”

“She’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent,” both Tim and I pointed out to B.

“She’s an excuse to get Scarlett Johansson in a skin-tight catsuit,” B shot back, dead on target.

I wondered why Mickey Rourke didn’t get shot in the head in the big fight at the end of the movie. He’s got a suit of armor so impregnable that even Tony Stark’s Iron Man blasters can’t harm him, so what does he do when he faces off for the final battle? He flips back his face mask so Tony can get a good look at his ugly mug, and stands there gloating so long that anybody, even a novice who’d never pulled a trigger before, could have blown his face right off with a scattergun loaded with bird shot. But Tony just stands there, waiting for the bad guy to make the first move. New Rule: Good guys who do this should lose. It’s tough love, but movie directors really have to stop doing this.

And the guys who write movie dialog really have to stop making the characters deliver lines as obvious and cumbersome as, “What ho! The bright white light on the villain’s chest has turned red and begun a frenzied blinking! Methinks the evildoer’s power system has been overloaded and soon may self-destruct! I say old pal, we had better remove ourselves to a distant location before we’re blown to kingdom come, toot sweet!” Yeah, couldn’t figure that out myself.

Why do the bad guys even have anything as obvious as red blinky lights on their booby-traps? Seems like a tactical error to me. If I were the bad guy, or writing about a bad guy, and I needed a last-ditch way to kill the good guy, I’d have all the lights on my suit / ship / killing machine fade and go dark, because playing dead makes sense. Too subtle for the action hero crowd though, apparently. Second of all: Death to any writer who dares to put words so obvious into the mouths of their characters, instead of a simple stage direction along the lines of, “Iron Man sees red blinky light, rockets the hell out of there as fast as he can,” I think most people could figure it out from there.

Otherwise, it was a fun movie, not as good as the first one but what the hell. We had fun poking holes in it, if nothing else.

Iron Man 2 | 11:40 am CST
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Thursday, October 7th, 2010

image of baby

Watching Babies is the most fun I’ve had at the movies since I can remember. Actually, we didn’t see it in a movie theater, we watched it at home, where we probably had a lot more fun than we could’ve had in a theater, because although people will overlook the occasional coo and awww when adorable little thumb suckers are in plain view, there’s just no place you can hide from the wrath of your fellow movie-goers, even in a dark theater, when you noisily volunteer your own dialogue for the mostly silent babies. Which we did. A lot. Rent this movie.

Babies | 8:30 pm CST
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Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

movie poster

I’m still digesting The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the movie we watched yesterday evening. It’s a movie that’s taking a long time for me to digest because the way I do it is I let scenes play in my head over and over while I’m mowing the lawn or folding freshly-laundered clothes, and while I’m replaying them I think about what I liked in the scene, how it was composed, the chemistry between the actors, and how the scene furthered the plot. Usually, this works pretty well for me.

The problem with my approach is that somebody’s getting brutally raped or beaten bloody in just about every scene of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and it’s not the kind that’s hinted at, or implied in extreme close-ups or fade-aways. There’s kicking, there’s punching, there’s getting tied up to the bed with electrical cords. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie with so much rape in it. I’m pretty sure every character who mattered was raped at one point or another.

This has thrown a wrench in my way of chewing over a movie because I can think about the tamest scenes in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for only so long before I want to curl up in a fetal ball in the corner and hum the theme to Gilligan’s Island for the rest of the day. I made the mistake of letting one of the worst scenes in my head this morning and I still can’t get it out no matter how tightly I cling to my favorite blankie and suck my thumb. It’s a pretty intense movie.

All that being said, I can see why it won all kinds of awards and Hollywood wants to crank out an English-language version as soon as they possibly can, although I don’t think I’ll be up to watching it again a year from now. I wish I could come up with a recommendation for you in the meantime, but you’re on your own here. No way I want to be responsible for you going to this movie on my say-so.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo | 11:52 am CST
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Monday, September 6th, 2010

We watched Avatar Saturday night and, not surprisingly, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as everyone said it was going to be, and by “everyone” I mean every single person I’ve spoken to, in conversation or casually, while riding in an elevator or just filling up at the gas station, or even when greeting people while passing in the hallway. Really, it happened.

“Good morning!”

“It certainly is, after I finally got to see Avatar last night at the 3-D Imax theater! Finally, a movie that completely fills all the promises that film held since the medium was conceived a hundred thirty years ago! Now I can stop spending one-third of my disposable income on the ever-increasing cost of going to the movie mega-plex, because surely nothing can top that!”

Maybe it never happened exactly that way, but close enough.

There’s no way this movie could’ve lived up to the hype I heard when it was released in the theaters unless I’d managed to see it on a big screen in 3-D on the day it opened. It’s no small wonder I wasn’t as impressed as practically every other movie-watching person on the face of the earth. But even taking that into consideration – and please don’t go postal on me for this, okay? – What I saw was Dances With Wolves made into a 3-D cartoon action film. Is it too soon to say that? Maybe I should’ve waited.

But seriously, which movie does this summary describe: A soldier, wounded in the legs, no less, gets posted in a remote camp on the frontiers of his civilization, meets some of the locals and decides he likes hanging with them more than doing his military duties. He gets the princess to teach him their ways and, surprise, they fall in love. Everything is just hunky-dory at that point, but then the cavalry shows up in the third reel to remove the tribes and take over the land, and the solider fights back alongside the natives. Is this movie a) Avatar, b) Dances With Wolves, or c) both A and B? No points for guessing either of the first two.

I’m not saying it was a bad movie, just not very original. And as revolutionary as the technology that animated the characters was supposed to be, it still looked like a cartoon to me. I like cartoons, I even liked this one, but I don’t see what made this the greatest cartoon of all time.

Avatar | 9:29 pm CST
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Sunday, September 5th, 2010

movie poster for The American

The American is the kind of movie I would have eaten up with a spoon when I was about eighteen years old. I was so into assassins back then that I cultivated the Hollywood version of the hit man’s personality, detached almost to the point of autism, wandering the streets of town in dark sunglasses looking for my mark. Just bizarre behavior when you think about it, or even if you don’t.

But now movies about assassins make me feel about the way George Clooney looks almost all the way through The American. In just about every scene he wears an expression that says, “When the hell is this going to be over?

The American didn’t hold a lot of surprises, which is unfortunate because I think it was supposed to be a suspense movie. You can work out right away that he’s a little too nervous to come out of the movie alive. (Oh, sorry: Spoiler alert.) I thought it was also pretty obvious that the guy Clooney works for, face as craggy as a dead coral reef and voice ruined by a lifetime of smoking, was A Very Bad Man. The director could have made it more obvious, I suppose, maybe by giving him a fluffy white cat to stroke. He was that kind of character.

Or maybe the movie was supposed to be a thriller, in which case it worked, if you get your thrills watching a professional assassin kill a dozen or so other professional assassins as easily as you’d swat bugs. One by one the assassins tracked Clooney down, and one by one they succumbed to his super assassin powers. One of them tried to get away in a late-model car, only to be run down by Clooney riding an antique Vespa. He was absolutely unbeatable, until the showdown with Mister Craggy Face. Oops. Sorry: Spoiler Alert.

I couldn’t find a way to make this movie work for me at all. There wasn’t much in the way of suspense, and what little drama they might have managed to generate was lost jumping through hackneyed crime-movie cliches. Too bad.

The American | 8:57 pm CST
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Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

image of video tape The Quiet Man

Every Saturday morning for at least a month, maybe two, I’ve been picking over the VHS tapes on the shelves of the Saint Vincent de Paul thrift store looking for a copy of The Quiet Man, John Ford’s mash note to Ireland, and every weekend I’ve been disappointed. The shelves are loaded down with hundreds of tapes every time I visit, but mostly with newer movies, and usually crap like Mission: Impossible 7 or whatever the latest sequel is. It takes a lot of picking to find a golden oldie like The Quiet Man and they’re so rare it’s easy to get discouraged, but I keep looking because just about the time I lose heart and start to believe the thrift store tape aisle has finally become sequel hell, I run across a classic.

The Quiet Man has, however, long eluded me.

Until yesterday, when I was walking up State Street and I noticed a Goodwill store that I hadn’t seen there before. It might be a new store or, more probably, it has always been there and I just haven’t been paying attention. A glance through the window told me there was a big bin of VHS tapes on sale, so I stepped inside and got to work shuffling through them. And what do you know: There was a copy of The Quiet Man at the bottom of the last bin. The search was over. I raised a note of thanks to the muse of thrift, then presented myself with my new prize at the checkout.

“They’re two for one,” the cashier told me. “Go ahead and pick out another one.”

I almost told him I was so happy finding this I didn’t really want another one, but I don’t like to refuse hospitality, even in a thrift store, so I went back to the bin and came away with a copy of Ocean’s Eleven, the George Clooney version, not the Dean Martin version.

“Seven ninety-five,” the cashier announced, after totaling it up. I thought that was a bit much, but I’d been looking for this movie for a while so I didn’t argue. After handing me my change the cashier hesitates a moment, pointed to my hat and asked, with a ring of doubt in his voice, “You bought that here, right?”

Most of my hats look like thrift-store bargains, so I could understand why he might’ve thought that. “No,” I answered, “I came in wearing that.”

“Really?” he said, and started fumbling in his pockets, finally bringing out a set of keys that he used to unlock the cash register.

Then the light went on for me. (I’m kind of slow sometimes.) “Did you charge me for the hat?” I chuckled.

“Yeah,” he said. ”I’m really sorry.” He really was, too, acting as if he’d just done something unforgivably rude and was worried I’d make a huge stink about it.

“No worries,” I told him as he handed my money back to me. After voiding the first transaction and ringing it up again the two movies came to a buck fifty, making my beat-up straw hat worth about five and a half bucks at thrift store prices. And now I know that, the next time I get a hat to wear while I’m working in the yard, I should find one at the thrift store, because buying new cost me five times that.

Hats Off! | 12:14 pm CST
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Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

image of Tulpan poster

My Darling B said she heard good things about the movie Tulpan at the film festival last fall and, indeed, there seem to be nothing but good reviews about it everywhere we look: “Astonishing!” “Magnificent!” “Spectacular!” are typical of the ways it’s described, so we popped the DVD in the player, curled up on the sofa and expected to be blown away by an Astonishing! Magnificent! Spectacular! film.

However …

The film tells the story of Asa, a young Kazakh who’s finished an enlistement in the navy and has returned home to fulfill his dream of becoming a herdsman on the steppes of Kazakhstan. There are just two things standing in his way: Herdsmen are tenant farmers who get their flocks from a guy they call Boss, and Boss won’t give Asa a herd until he has a bride. There is just one available woman on the steppe, Tulpan, but she doesn’t want to marry Asa. She thinks his ears are too big. That’s how picky she can afford to be.

So he can’t get a herd until he’s married, and he can’t get married because the only available woman doesn’t like the size of his ears. (Apparently she’s never heard about the “big ears, big … hands” correlation.) Also, he sort of sucks as a herdsman. Keeping a bunch of sheep in one place seems like an elementary skill, but Asa doesn’t have it, and his brother-in-law doesn’t want to help him learn. More to the point, his brother-in-law doesn’t want Asa breathing the same air he is. There’s a little tension between them.

But Asa keeps at it. He really seems to love living on the steppe. I don’t know much about the steppes of Kazakhstan, but this movie makes this particular steppe look something like the Oklahoma Dustbowl of the 1920’s. Scene after scene is filled with vast, flat expanses of powdery tan dust that blows up in great clouds, or spirals into the sky in whirling columns. The only vegetation as far as the eye can see is dried-out scrub brush that grows in mean fist-sized clumps. Five days living in a place like that and I’d beat my brains out with a rock, but Asa wants to set up his yurt there, start a family and raise sheep the rest of his life.

Okay for him, but it doesn’t go that way. He has no chance of getting married. Zero. None. Tulpan doesn’t want to marry him. Tulpan’s mother doesn’t want him to marry her. There are no other women around, so he’s not going to get married. Therefore, he’s not going to get a flock. His only option is to live with his sister and brother-in-law. His sister loves him, but his brother-in-law treats him like shit. There goes his dream. What a fine, uplifting movie this has become.

And another thing: Everybody gushes about the scenery. One reviewer even describes the landscape as “lyrical.” It’s sand! No, it’s not even sand, it’s frigging dust! It’s the kind of dust you’d get if you cracked open the bag from your vacuum cleaner and dumped it on the floor of your living room. Now imagine that covering a living room floor that stretched to the horizon in every direction, and you’d have a picture of the steppes that we’re talking about as lyrical. I must be missing the poetic bone in my body that would let me see that as lyrical. To me, it looks worse than a cat box.

So I can’t recommend it, not for the story and not for the cinematography, sorry. Asa’s friend, Boni, is kind of funny. He drives from yurt to yurt on a tractor that’s a sort of peddlar’s wagon, bringing water, fresh vegetables and pornography. He wants to move to the city and keeps trying to convince Asa to go with him. Why he doesn’t dump Asa on the steppe and go on his own mystified me.

And I kind of liked watching the scenes of the Kazakh family life, with the little kids running around on their stick horses, or singing songs, or listening to the reports from the big city of Almaty on the radio. It was sort of like watching a National Geographic special. I’ve always liked those quite a bit.

Tulpan didn’t quite make it as a movie for me, though.

Tulpan | 9:31 am CST
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Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Today I was looking to accomplish much more modest goals than yesterday, because I was tired. I was not looking to repair windows or mow every square inch of the lawn today. Today I wanted to accomplish goals mostly while sitting on my ass.


The laundry! Of course! In the past two weeks we’ve washed enough of our clothes to fill four laundry baskets. There was even a bonus load of clean clothes in the dryer. And as if that wasn’t enough, almost all the socks we own were in the “socks basket,” waiting to be matched and folded. Folding all that should take a couple hours to finish!

And what’s my favorite thing to do while folding laundry? Watch movies! I can sit on my ass, fold all the clothes, and watch a movie at the same time! How does accomplishing your goals get any better than this? Well, I can think of one way, but it was pretty early to be drinking beer when I was folding clothes.

I borrowed Band of Brothers from T-dawg several months ago. I don’t know why he’s let me keep it as long as he has. Maybe he’s forgotten I even have it. In any case, I popped the first disk in our DVD player and watched the first two episodes while I folded all the clothes, then I watched the third episode while I matched and folded socks.

This is one of the best screen adaptations of any book I’ve ever seen. I can think of only one other book I’d want to watch if it could be rendered as a twelve-part miniseries as good as this, and that would be the two-volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. What a bad-ass-o-fest that would be! How bad-ass? This bad-ass:

image of Theodore Roosevelt

Would you pick a fight with that kid? I wouldn’t. I don’t know what that swim cap on his head is all about, but seriously, a freshman with muttonchops? That just begs you to say something stupid, doesn’t it? And it deviously draws your attention away from his forearms, which appear to be muscled with something similar to steel cables. If the scowl on his face isn’t fair warning, you deserve the tap on the chin you’d get for poking fun of this guy, and I’m pretty sure that if Teddy were to land one on you, that’d be the last thing you remembered for a while.

I seem to have rambled a bit. Hardly unusual, really.

Once all the clothes were folded and put away, I still had some time to do a little yard work before I cleaned the bathroom, a task I absolutely had to get done today but which I also wanted to put off until the last possible moment because, y’know, yuck.

Out in the yard, I grabbed a bow saw, a pruning shears and a hedge trimmer and went at the shrubs in front of the house first, because they’re easiest to cut and shape. Then, after I’d warmed up on them, I took a long look at the lilac bush on the edge of the yard to try to figure out what to do with it. The simplest thing would be to set fire to it and walk away, but I was sort of hoping to keep it around a while, so I put some work into it instead.

Its problem is that it’s horribly overgrown, and it’s growing wherever it wants to. I don’t think it’s ever been pruned since it was planted, if it was planted. There are quite a few other lilacs in the yard, so it might be a volunteer. What this one really needed was a professional with a lot of time and an endless supply of patience, but all I can afford right now is me and my strange ideas.

After a little thought I decided to lop off the lowest branches, then trim off the wildest-looking stuff on top with the hedge trimmer. It was a modest proposal, but it still took about a half-hour and I had to drag away a surprising amount of brush. I’ll probably have to spend at least an hour feeding all that crap into the wood chipper tomorrow.

There was just one other bit of yard work I wanted to take care of today: A maple tree out back had a couple low branches that were impinging on the back wall of the garage. They’d have to come off some time this summer so I could finish painting the house, and since I happened to have my saw out anyway …

With all that done, I went back into the house and finished the last of Part Three of Band of Brothers before I had to cry uncle and clean the bathroom. Yuck.

Laundry Day | 9:13 pm CST
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Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Synecdoche, New York is easily one of the top ten most baffling movies I’ve ever seen. I would have to watch it at least twice more to claim I knew what was going on in this story about a guy who either directs or produces stage plays, but I would rather jab myself in the eyes with a screwdriver than watch even one scene again. “Jumbled” is the kindest word I can think of to describe this mess.

The movie opens with a scene with the protagonist (very aptly described by any word that sounds like “agony”) Caden Cotard, the director/producer, rolling out of bed with worry on his face. He always has worry on his face. He is perpetually worried about dying from a mysterious medical condition he may or may not have. Although he certainly acts like a hypochondriac, several visits to various doctors imply that he is genuinely sick. He even manifests some weirdly divergent symptoms and eventually walks with a cane but, by the time these emerge, his life has veered wildly off-track from reality into la-la land.

Less than an hour into the movie, it’s not only impossible to tell what’s going on, it’s also impossible to tell what might be real and what’s a figment of Cotard’s imagination. For instance: Cotard’s wife, an artist who paints portraits so impossibly small that visitors to her exhibitions must view them through magnifying glasses, leaves him and takes their daughter, Olive, with her to Berlin. That seems to have actually happened to him. When he flies to Germany to visit Olive, the confrontation he has with her nanny veers into weirdness but might have actually happened. Later, he finds Olive’s diary and begins to read. At first, it’s about her life with Cotard. Then, impossibly, it’s about her life in Germany. Her childhood diary is filled with entries from her adult life, and by reading it Cotard learns that Olive becomes a tattooed stripper and dies because the tattooed flowers on her arm are dying. Or something. Did you follow that? Me, neither.

The whole movie is like that, building layer upon layer of weirdness. After winning a grant to produce his magnum opus, Cotard literally builds a replica of the streets of New York inside an impossibly large warehouse, a set on which he can stage every moment of his life. And because the production of this play is itself a significant part of his life, he builds a replica of the warehouse, inside of which is a replica of New York, inside of which is the warehouse, and so on, shrinking (or expanding … if the distinction matters at this point) into infinity.

I tried to keep track of the various threads, and labored mightily to figure out which layer he was on from scene to scene, but after forty-five or fifty minutes that required way too much effort. Worse than that, I already desperately wanted the movie to be over. I don’t dislike movies that are weird for the sake of being weird, but when they make me want to give up trying to follow the plot, to say nothing of forcing me to threaten to claw out my own eyes rather than watch them again, I start to feel the weirdness has gone way past the point of being useful.

Synecdoche, New York | 8:02 pm CST
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Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

The alarm clock woke me up this morning right in the middle of a dream about being a very old Bruce Willis in the continuing story of The Fifth Element. I don’t know where that came from. I haven’t thought about that movie in years.

(Coincidentally, in a Facebook comment someone reminded Number One Son that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I don’t know who said it first, but whenever I hear it I remember Gary Oldman saying that as Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element. Because that’s how I’m wired. And because Zorg is my hero. “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself!”)

I wish I could remember some of the dream so I could weird you out with it, but all I remember is being Bruce Willis, being in the movie, and being very old. Wrinkly. Gray-haired, what little hair I had. Permeated by a musty smell. Not a bad musty smell. When I’m old, I want to smell like old books. I don’t care if they’re old paperbacks, I just want the smell to remind me of my favorite used book stores. If I end up smelling like wet dogs I want you to come find me and set me on fire. With a blowtorch. Or a flamethrower, if you happen to have one in your garage, and don’t we all wish we did?

We met a guy with a flamethrower last weekend, as a matter of fact. He was having a housewarming and we brought a keg of beer as a big thank-you for getting us tickets to the Great Taste of the Midwest our first and second year. He told us he bought a flamethrower at Farm & Fleet to kill the weeds in his driveway.

I’m serious. It’s not the kind of flamethrower you see island-hopping Marines using in old newsreels that shoots a stream of napalm in a blazing arc; it’s a more sedate flamethrower that hooks up to a bottle of LP gas and burns up weeds with a blue-hot flame that doesn’t shoot very far but is still very cool none the less. I’d get one myself if I could find one for less than ten dollars. I’ve got plenty of weeds that deserve a good scorching.

zorg | 7:49 pm CST
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Sunday, April 11th, 2010

I keep thinking about Up In The Air, the George Clooney movie we watched last night, and I keep coming back to the same conclusion: The Ending Sucked.

It didn’t suck because I didn’t like it, although I didn’t. But I can put up with an ending I don’t like if it makes sense. This one didn’t make sense.

(Here come the spoilers. If you don’t want to know how the movie ends, stop reading. I mean it.)

George plays the part of Ryan Bingham, a guy whose job requires a lot of travel. Working for a company based out of Omaha, Nebraska, he has a small, bare apartment that’s generic as a hotel room. There don’t appear to be any personal touches at all to it, but he doesn’t mind because he spends barely two weeks in total living there, two weeks that he describes as “miserable.” The rest of the year he’s living in actual hotel rooms.

Bingham’s job calls for him to fly to distant cities and fire people. He’s a professional hatchet man, hired by bosses “who don’t have the balls to do the job themselves.” Whether this job has made him detached from humanity, or he has always been that way and this is the job best suited for his personality, is up to you to decide. And it’s not the thing that’s bothering me.

Hanging out in an airport lounge for first-class passengers, Bingham spots Alex across the room and can somehow tell from the vibe coming off her that she puts a lot of travel time, too. He chats her up with a few well-delivered lines about who’s got the best air miles, or something like that. It seems to work; she chats back. Pretty soon they’re swapping stories and comparing platinum charge cards. Almost inevitably, they wind up sleeping together. Well, not sleeping. Hooking up, I think they call it now.

They hook up again later, but it’s purely for recreation. Bingham is not only the type who won’t commit, he gives lectures on how not commit everywhere he goes. Commitment weighs you down, he tells crowds who apparently pay him money to listen to his manifesto of non-commitment. And so you’re led to believe that he and Alex are just friends with benefits.

Then along comes Natalie, who wants to revolutionize the business he works for. The firings will be teleconferenced, she explains, and in her Power Point presentation Bingham sees his way of life disappearing.

Natalie is herself having some trouble with commitment. Not that she has a problem with it, but her boyfriend does. She’s very committed. She followed him to Omaha when she had job prospects elsewhere. She stuck with him, made a go at taking a job she didn’t particularly like, and just when it was beginning to work for her, her boyfriend dumped her.

Right about this time Alex shows up, and they console Natalie by showing her how to crash a party. Natalie hooks up with a guy at the party while Alex and Bingham have what appears to be a really good time with one another. Alex even asks Bingham about his life in a way that would seem to indicate that she wants something more than an occasional quickie when they both happen to have a layover in the same city.

There are more contrasting layers of commitment and non-commitment building up around Bingham, from his older sister breaking up and his younger sister getting married, but I think I’ve given away enough to come to the crux of what’s bothering me: Bingham obviously starts to have feelings for Alex, even though it goes against his life-long philosophy of non-commitment. And Alex seems to be having feelings right back at Bingham. Everything about their relationship points toward a happy ending. So why did the makers of this movie prime me to expect nothing but disappointment, at the moment Bingham is going to take a prize for delivering his manifesto, by having him rush off stage, flying to Chicago and appearing at Alex’s doorstep unexpectedly? Does that ever go well? No, it doesn’t. Like showing a photo of your girlfriend to the guy you’re sharing a foxhole with, it’ll get you shot down every time.

The ending of this movie is: Don’t ever drop everything you’ve ever believed in to go sweep a girl off her feet. If you’ve been an emotionless cipher all your life, stay that way. This ending bugs me because Alex was looking at Bingham with what appeared to be growing warmth. Her conversations with him wandered toward wanting to know more about him, and she seemed to welcome his growing feelings toward her. It doesn’t make sense that she turns out to be an adulterous, cold-hearted wench. Maybe I was too dense to see it, but I don’t think so. I think the whole movie was made to misdirect me toward a happy ending, only to veer suddenly toward a contrived cliché. This is A Bad Ending.

Up In The Air | 8:29 am CST
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