Friday, November 27, 2009

Black as your Soul Friday

"Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.... Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts." -- Henry David Thoreau

Our local paper has a Black Friday blog page where they post all the best deals in the Valley.  They posted this one this morning: Botox special - "Get your first 25 units of Botox for $5.99 per unit (regularly $7.99) 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday (Nov. 27) at Derma Health Institute in Ahwatukee ..."

I shit you not. If that doesn't just about sum up this pointless day, nothing does. What perfect symbolism: Botox/Black Friday - vacuous, materialistic, and more about looks than substance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book Review - The Lovely Bones

I thought I'd seek out Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones as a lead-up to the release of the movie of the same name by Peter Jackson early next year. While most people know Jackson for the bigger budget and admittedly bigger scale Lord of the Ring movies and King Kong, he is actually very deft at the smaller stories also, as in Heavenly Creatures with Kate Winslet. So, without knowing a lot about the story, I thought it'd be worth a read.

The Lovely Bones is a ghost story of sorts. The main character of the story, Susie Salmons, is, in fact, dead and the story is told first-person by her. She is a high-school girl in a suburb of Philadelphia. She was brutally murdered and the story follows the lives of her classmates, her family, her neighbors, the police and the killer. Each passes through stages of grief and acceptance. How each copes varies and ultimately affects everyone else. Her death breaks up her parents marriage and changes her sister in many ways. Susie appears to have some interactions with those people even after her death.

While I don't think it is absolutely necessary to believe in God to appreciate the story, I think it undoubtedly helps. The exploration of heaven goes beyond what would be necessary if you were only talking about it in a metaphorical sense. By that I mean that perhaps heaven may have just represented a manifestation of the grief process that each person was going through. But I don't think that is the case for the author. Heaven is representing something for Susie herself, not just for her family. At that point, it's not just a metaphor. Sebold is literally talking about "heaven".

But I also think that Christians might not fully accept the book either. The heaven of Susie is godless. She has interaction with other victims of her murderer and other people that she knew had died but at no point is there an indication of a God.

I get that The Lovely Bones is largely an exploration of how people handle grief and how it can make them stronger. I'm just not sure how effective it is. I've also read that the story is also a study in suburban life and women's gender roles (specifically the mother's). But, again, if you have to be told by someone that these themes are there, you have to wonder how effective the writer was in conveying them.

The prose is pleasing enough and the characters are well-developed, but I just didn't accept the premise enough to fully buy into what the author was trying to say. I still want to see the movie because, duh, it's Peter Jackson, but I don't have as high of expectations as I did prior to reading the book.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movie Reviews

Where the Wild Things Are - I think the best appraisal I've read of Where the Wild Things Are was by Jonathan Durbin in Interview Magazine. About the movie, he said the "warped but tenable sense of reality allows Where the Wild Things Are to play less like a movie for kids and more like a film about what it's like to be a kid". That subtle distinction is where the film has ran into problems with some parents.

Art is about truth, not pandering, though. It's the job of parents, not the filmmaker to decide what is and is not appropriate for children of different ages. Personally, I choose to trust the intelligence of our children. I'd much rather they explored the complex feelings of a movie like this than crap like G.I. Joe.

I think this movie does a great job of making tangible and visual those difficult emotions that kids have. We see kids and how cute and precious they are, but what they feel is not always "cute and precious". Spike Jonze, the director, understands that.

The kid, played by Max Records, and his mom, played by the fantastic Catherine Keener, are pitch perfect. All the voice talent for the monsters are great too. This is one of the best movies I've seen this year and I would be surprised if it is not in my year-end top 10. Grade: A

Amelia - Directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake), starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, and Ewan McGregor, one would expect Amelia to be fantastic. Unfortunately, it wasn't. It looks great. I think all the actors do fine jobs. But the writing is cliched and has just too much of the hopeful Hollywood sheen to it.

There are classic movies that are hopeful yet not maudlin. Say, for example, The Shawshank Redemption. But Shawshank takes the time to earn its hopefulness. In Amelia, the lack of depth in the characterization never allows you to invest in the characters. By the time Amelia and her navigator take a header into the ocean at the end of the movie, I was like, "meh". I wasn't really actively hostile towards the movie, so much as completely apathetic.

If you want to see truly sublime Hilary Swank, check out Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, but skip Amelia. Grade: C-

The Men Who Stare at Goats - Just saw this one tonight. It has not had the best reviews, so I went in with lowered expectations. But with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, I was inclined to give it a shot. From IMDb:

A reporter, trying to lose himself in the romance of war after his marriage fails, gets more than he bargains for when he meets a special forces agent who reveals the existence of a secret, psychic military unit whose goal is to end war as we know it. The founder of the unit has gone missing and the trail leads to another psychic soldier who has distorted the mission to serve his own ends.

McGregor plays the reporter, Clooney the special forces agent. They are the main focus of the movie. The past of the military unit is told through flashbacks with narration by McGregor's character.  The movie is based on a true story told in the book of the same name by author Jon Ronson.

The banter between McGregor and Clooney is funny. The dubious claims of the various soldiers are initially met with skepticism by McGregor but he is slowly drawn in. That's the basic narrative. Not a complex plot but more a vehicle to allow the great actors to interact.

I liked it. Not great, but good. Grade: B-

In the case of the following films, I was either highly medicated when I chose to attend or my son made me see them. In either event, I can't be blamed. I'm going to use the Twitterature method to review them as they are not worth wasting over 140 characters on:

Fourth Kind: Aliens? Is it a documentary? Is it fiction? Who cares? Insipid. Close Encounters of the 4th kind ... waste of my time of the 1st kind.

Whiteout: Kate Beckinsale ... gratuitous butt shot. Bad treasure & murder mystery plot set in the cold of Antarctica. Should have stayed there.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: Megan Fox ... gratuitious. Forgiving conceit of talking robots, plot is unnecessarily complex and idiotic. Someone get Michael Bay a decaf.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Patriotic Morons

Sorry if I don't fall all over myself honoring our veterans today. It's not that I don't value their sacrifice. It's that I've already given at the office. You can only draw from the well so many times. Every single major holiday has been co-opted to honor our military. Our ballgames have been co-opted to honor the military. I can't go to the corner convenience store without having to wade through flags and be asked to donate to some vaguely military organization.

Of course, none of it really has anything to do with honoring our military. It has to do with easing our collective guilt. Deep down, we know we have sent them off to fight in unjust wars. Deep down, we know we don't really take care of them when they get back - no jobs, no healthcare for the psychological problems they get from fighting these wars.

One of my Facebook "friends" ... using the term loosely ... actually posted this about the shootings this week at Fort Hood: "WTF is going on in this country? Shootings everywhere." Really? You have no idea? That's the problem. You have no idea why men come back from war and blow their own brains out or kill their families. It's more important for most people to spout patriotic cliches than to really think about what we are doing to our country and to our young men and women.

As I've said before, this is not an abstraction for me. I come from a military family. My brother and dad would certainly qualify as "patriotic morons". My brother was in a "war" that was a glorified police exercise (Desert Storm), yet still hasn't adjusted to the real world over 15 years later. Imagine those that have actually had to kill someone.

You think if you keep gushing about our veterans at every chance that it will actually help the veterans? Honestly people, get a clue. Let's have a Veteran's Day where none of our men were on foreign soil. If we honored our soldiers, we'd bring them back.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Good w/o God

"It is not what they profess but what they practice that makes them good" -- Greek proverb

I'd be curious if my Chicago blog friends (Laura, Scott, Crystal, etc.) had a chance to see that billboard recently. And what do you think of it? Is it appropriate to have this discussion writ large? I say yes. There isn't a city that I've ever been in that does not make a statement about faith publicly. The mere existence of churches with their adornments of crosses and other religious imagery is a public proclamation. So, should agnostic and atheists be afforded the same chance? Of course they should. No one can honestly say that the message on the billboard (or similar ones in other cities) is offensive.

Obviously, not even my Christian friends could intimate that it is exclusively God that makes one good. Right?

What makes one good? If it is God, then does it have to be conscious? Meaning, if an atheist is, by all accounts, a good person, then is it because God made him so and he just won't admit it? Or, does a person have to make a conscious acknowledgement of God? I say no. Admittedly, I don't believe in God, but if there was, I don't think it is in the acceptance of God that makes one better than anyone else.

And when I see one of my friends that is a Christian, I don't have the belief that it is because they believe in God that they are good. If they lost their faith, I wouldn't believe they lost their "goodness". Conversely, deathbed and prison conversions of wicked people do not absolve them of their past or their wickedness.

I believe the origins of being good are familial and by extension societal. The survival of our species has depended on reliance on our immediate families and our clans. Positive behavior by and towards them presented the best opportunity for survival. Groups that demonstrated those tendencies survived and passed on those tendencies. This only speaks to the aggregate. Any individual, depending on physiological and environmental influences, can be good or bad.

I've heard from some Christians that being atheist means that you don't have to play by any rules, that without some strict taskmaster on high, they will not do right. That is a specious and disappointing argument. I would be afraid to be around the type of person that was just one Sunday church visit away from being a criminal. I would hope that a responsibility to self and society would guide their actions ... an innate moral instinct, if you will. But what do I know? I'm just winging it, flying by the seat of my pants. Every day I go out, I will take advantage of anyone, be cruel and sadistic, because God is not in my life. Somebody please save society from me and my "badness". Or not.

"The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle." -- Albert Einstein

Saturday, November 07, 2009


I'm a complete slacker on posting to my blog. Spreading myself a bit thin with writing here, on Facebook and Here are a couple of my latest articles at the latter:

How kids affect the environment - I talk a bit about how perhaps the best thing that a couple can do for the environment is to make the courageous decision NOT to have kids.

"Green" Book recommendations - I'm reading a great book right now called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed that analyzes the failures of societies in the past due to societal and environmental pressures.

I'm working on a whole bunch of movie and book reviews that I will post here. I haven't been slacking on watching and reading ... just on posting about it. I saw both Amelia and The Fourth Kind this weekend. Neither is that special and won't probably be worthy of a whole post. I may be forced to go the Twitterature route and dedicate a whole 140 characters to my appraisal of them. It will lend some brevity and levity that was sorely lacking in the films themselves.