Sunday, April 23, 2017

Before I Forget

Last Friday afternoon I found myself in sight of a movie theater with a couple of hours to pass. The solution was obvious.

Quick review:

Unforgettable (2017) – in theaters

Some movies are intended to be trash. In cinema (and several other arts) that is not the same as garbage. When indie cult film director John Waters says that American culture is trash culture, he takes pains to add that he doesn’t mean it as an insult. Something doesn’t have to be high art still to have its own integrity, just as a good hamburger can be as satisfying in its own way as a fine steak. John didn’t direct Unforgettable. Denise Di Nobi did. Nonetheless, and somewhat surprisingly given her previous work as a producer for films such as Edward Scissorhands and Crazy, Stupid, Love, her feature film directorial debut is trash. I don’t mean that as an insult, for it is satisfying in its own way. The title begs us to comment that the film is entirely forgettable, and so it is, but it nonetheless has the elements for a guilty pleasure.

Julia (Rosario Dawson) is a writer whose former boyfriend was horrifically abusive, but now she has a fabulous fiancé David (Geoff Stults): handsome, kind, and affectionate with his own craft beer business. Well, there is his perfectly groomed ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) with whom he shares custody of their young daughter Lily, but everyone has baggage, right? Julia decides to move in with David in his upscale small town and to work from home. She soon discovers, however, that Tessa is “psycho Barbie.” Tessa wants Julia gone. Julia has no social media pages due to earlier stalking issues, but Tessa opens a Facebook page in Julia’s name and initiates contact with her old obsessive and abusive boyfriend. Troubles multiply. David, as is typical of husbands/beaus in this type of movie, is well-meaning but clueless: utterly unable to see when he is being manipulated.

Dawson works her part well, but Heigl proves to be perfectly cast. Apparently Heigl has been miscast in her good girl roles all these years – a possibility of which we caught a glimpse in Home Sweet Hell (2015). She makes a perfect ruthless villain.

This movie will win no Oscars, but Thumbs mildly Up as entertainment.

Unforgettable trailer


Trackside Once More: Local Derby Recap

Another exciting derby bout took place in Morristown last night as the home Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) met the visiting Hudson Valley Horrors.

The teams appeared closely matched throughout the first half with a very slight advantage to the Horrors. Blocking was energetic and well organized on both sides forcing jammers to work hard for their points. JDB’s #8 Lil Mo Peep in particular received repeated rough handling by Horrors blockers but still managed to work her way through the pack. At 15 minutes into the bout the score stood 37-39 in favor of the Horrors. The Horrors slowly added to their lead with #4 Black Cherry having especial success. At the end of the first half JDB trailed by a substantial 63 – 88.

The second half couldn’t have been more different from the first. JDB skaters took to the track with determination. 30 point jam by JDB skater #3684 Californikate put the JDB in the lead 97 – 90. Despite spirited jams by Horrors skaters and strong blocking by #1134 Surly Trample and #666 Rxy Ramalotte among others, the JDB increasingly dominated the scoreboard. Lil Mo Peep, 00 Mental Block, and #64 Madeleine Alfight jammed with repeated success. In the final jam #4 Black Cherry did what she could for the Horrors in a power jam against stiff blocking, notably by #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes, but the JDB lead by that point was secure.

Final score: 228-135 in favor of JDB.

MVPs: #4 Black Cherry (jammer) & #666 Rxy Ramalotte (blocker) for Hudson Valley Horrors; 00 Mental Block (jammer) & #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes (blocker) for JDB.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Breakfast Pizza

From hard experience I learned that I am single at heart, a phrase borrowed from Bella DePaulo, professor at UCSB, author of several books on singlehood, and author of the column Living Single at Psychology Today. I would have spared myself much grief (and perhaps one or two others some grief) had I learned it sooner, but better late than never. Much as I enjoy company, I also enjoy that, unlike a cohabiter, company leaves. It’s important to my peace of mind to be able to get drunk and crank up the stereo at 3 a.m. (I have no close neighbors either) without having to negotiate it ahead of time or explain it afterward to someone else. I don’t actually do that very often (the day after isn’t worth it) but the freedom to be able to do so without consequences (other than a hangover) matters. That example is, of course, a stand-in for every other aspect of normal daily life: no negotiation or accommodation required. Very relaxing. Once again, I’m not a hermit or misanthrope (well, maybe a little of the latter); company is great, just so long as it is less frequent than solitude.

There are nonstandard practices that tend to creep into a single person’s life, and some of them involve food. Meals tend to be haphazard and at any time of the day or night. The first meal of the day (whenever that might be) could be a Stromboli and the last pancakes. You never know. It depends on what is in the fridge, which is not stocked to accommodate anyone else. Once or twice a week, though, I actually go out to breakfast: typically with a friend (again, not a hermit) and most often at The Minuteman, a reasonably priced local spot with good food including a variety of baked-in-house pies. (Someone there must be a fan of the 2007 movie Waitress.) Because of my nonstandard breakfasts on the other 5 or 6 days of the week, the menu always raises the question of why these particular foods are regarded as breakfast foods. Yes, many diners offer “all day breakfasts” but “breakfast” is still right there in the description with the implication that ordering one off-hours is somehow bending the rules. The question arose this morning when I ordered the “Breakfast Brigade” which has several of the usual items: pancake, French toast, hash browns, eggs, and bacon.

The answer to the question, of course, is habit. We grow up with certain foods for breakfast and it just seems natural to have them in the morning. Yet, their initial arrival on the menu is not so very far rooted in the past. Many have written of the bizarre origins of corn flakes as a health food in Kellogg’s sanatorium. Sylvester Graham (as in Graham cracker) was also a fan of cereals and strict vegetarianism, which he thought would prevent masturbation. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Waffles and pancakes, previously as likely a dessert as breakfast food, fit into the whole grain prescription for breakfast. A counterattack on grains didn’t take long. Eggs and bacon along with other meats long had been common on the farm, but they became an urban breakfast staple as part a deliberate campaign in the 1920s.

Faced with a surplus of bacon, the Beech-Nut Packing Company hired Edward Bernays. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Bernays is regarded as the founder of modern public relations and advertising techniques. His 1928 book Propaganda is still worth a read; he was in favor of propaganda because he thought common folk were unable to think for themselves and needed to persuaded by those who knew better. He managed to find 5000 doctors to say the high protein farmer’s diet was right all along and included this “study” in advertisements. Bacon and sausage sales took off. (He also helped tobacco companies sell to women by associating cigarettes with suffragists, but that is another story.) Fruit companies similarly promoted the health benefits of vitamin C in orange juice. By the end of the 1920s breakfast menus were what they still are today.


However they got on the menu, I like standard breakfast fare in the morning. So, I’m sure I’ll continue to order it once or twice per week. If the mood should strike for a pepperoni and onion breakfast pizza though, I can order one the night before and heat it up in the morning. There is no one to whom to explain it.


Supertramp - Breakfast In America

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What’s Opera, Buck

(Yes, I’m consciously stealing from a classic WB cartoon title.) 

The whole universe?
Space opera is back. On the screen it never entirely left. When I was a youngster the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials from the 1930s still played on Saturday morning TV. My friends and I knew they were ridiculous and we laughed at the special effects including the model rockets with sparklers. (Side note: My mom later in the decade commented that 1960s women’s fashions – notably miniskirts and boots – were exactly what appeared in 1930s/40s scifi comics and serials; she was sure one had inspired the other.) We didn’t mind the cheese though. Hey, the serials still were high adventure in outer space with alien civilizations, evil emperors, daring princesses, dogfighting rocket ships, and hand-to-hand derring-do. They satisfied my 10-year-old soul, but the times they were a-changing. With Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey scifi became consciously higher concept. While this was a very good thing overall, Star Wars showed there was still a place for rousing old-fashioned space opera, too, this time with stunning fx.

The printed word was another matter. By the 1960s the big name authors had more than just adventure on their minds. Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein and others had messages. Their protagonists still zipped around the galaxy on occasion, but they tended to leave space battles and evil emperors on alien planets to lesser lights. Scifi definitely benefited from this and the authors’ messages often were thoughtful, e.g as a random example Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment, which painlessly encapsulates much of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. In recent years, however, a number of topflight scifi authors have returned to space opera with an entirely good conscience. It’s not all they do, but they don’t outright avoid it. It is hard to argue that the results are often deep, but they are generally entertaining and the quality of the writing certainly helps. Two examples worth a scifi fan’s time are Revenger and The Collapsing Empire.

**** ****

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
As an author, Reynolds somehow manages to be imaginative, literate, and prolific all at once. Published in 2016, Revenger is a solid addition to his impressive bibliography.

The setting is unspecified thousands of years hence. The solar system has been abandoned and reoccupied many times. Presumably it is this solar system; this is not definitively stated, but there are references to the original sun, which would seem to indicate the Sun. Civilizations have come and gone. The current one exists mostly on terraformed asteroids (there are answers to the reader’s technical objections to that) but the ruins of the earlier civilizations are scattered everywhere. The central characters are the sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, who despite their father’s objections joined the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, a salvage space ship designed to exploit those ruins.

It’s a tough universe out there, however. The ship is attacked by a raider captained by the legendarily ruthless Bosa Sennen. Bosa orders a massacre of the Monetta’s Mourn crew except for Adrana whose talents she can use. Arafura escapes by hiding in the bulkhead and surviving until rescued by another salvager. The rest of the novel is Arafura’s quest to recover her sister and take revenge on Bosa. In the process she develops from innocence to harshness. Her chances of success depend on tapping into darkness within herself.

It’s not a typical heroine’s journey: though Arafura develops the character and skills she needs to do what she has to do, she clearly loses much in the process. Her pre-revenge self was less impressive but much more likable.

**** ****

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
Scalzi is one of my favorite contemporary scifi writers, and he doesn’t disappoint in The Collapsing Empire, which was released earlier this year. Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series should be on the shelf of any serious scifi fan, but his new novel has an entirely new setting and milieu.

Once again we are in a distant future. This time civilization spans the galaxy in a particularly hodge-podge way. This has to do with the Flow, which is a natural phenomenon that exists outside of normal space and effectively permits faster than light travel. The Flow, a kind of web shaped by the (gravitational?) features of the galaxy, doesn’t extend everywhere, so most of the galaxy remains inaccessible. Ships cannot travel FTL without the Flow. Even the most far flung star systems are reachable, however, if the Flow happens to pass near them.

The youthful Cardenia Wu-Patrick becomes the new Emperox when her brother is killed in an accident that might not have been an accident. It is not an elevation she expected or wanted. She has to deal with a council of oligopolistic Merchant Houses who form a nobility. (Future interstellar empires nearly always have medieval politics.) Cardenia learns a frightening secret: the Flow’s shape is not permanent. The galaxy changes and the Flow changes, too, and soon will strand populated star systems and fracture the empire. Meantime one of the Merchant Houses has caught wind that something is up with the Flow and is betting that a currently unimportant distant mudball of a planet will be the center of a reshaped web. Throw in ruthless traders, space pirates, and ambitious suitors of the new emperox and we have elements for intrigue and action. Scalzi’s prose is both literary and effortless to read, which is a rare combination.

**** ****

We all like to escape now and then, and both books are fine escapist fare: fun without being simplistic. And, hey, they are high adventure in outer space. They satisfy the soul of the 10-year-old boy inside this…um…somewhat older fellow.


t.A.T.u. – Космос (Outer Space)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Four Quarts and Two Cups

I’m sittin’ by the dock of the bay – a garage bay at the local lube center. My Chevy Cruze is inside getting an oil change. The car’s dashboard display started nagging me about it a few days ago. (Fortunately, no home AI yet tells me when to clean the carpets or mow the lawn, but that must be arriving soon.) I don’t carry around laptops or tablets for waiting times such as these – or even a phone with an internet connection – so I’m jotting in a pocket notebook (the paper kind) with a mechanical pencil. Later I’ll type this up on a home computer and add whatever info from online seems appropriate.

One time-passer I do have besides the notebook is coffee in a carry cup. I’ll almost certainly have a second cup in a mug when I get back home. I’ve written about the history of coffee before so I won’t repeat it. Here I merely mention the drink as one of the simple pleasures in life and as one of the few mind-altering drugs that carries little or no social disapprobation.

I didn’t take to coffee readily. Like most kids (I think), I didn’t understand the attraction. My early experimental sips of the stuff made me wonder if it was just warmed up muddy water scooped up from a dirt driveway pothole after a rain. In fairness, the coffee I sampled at home probably did taste like that. During World War 2, instant coffee, originally developed as an easy to carry and prepare beverage for troops, was extraordinarily popular with civilians as well. My parents were WW2 generation and they continued to make instant coffee at home well into the 1990s. Let’s just say gourmet it wasn’t. Nonetheless, whether at home or in diners, by my senior year of high school I was willing to tolerate coffee provided it contained enough cream and sugar – both of which mask the underlying flavor. Irish coffee wasn’t bad either. It wasn’t until my final year of college that I not only found myself liking coffee but started taking it black, which is still the way I prefer it. Tastes evolve – or perhaps I just started buying better coffee. Besides, leaving out the cream and sugar allows more calories for something else, like a donut. (Anyone who calls that “empty calories” has no proper appreciation for donuts.)

By no means am I a coffee connoisseur. I don’t buy expensive blends or grind beans myself, though I understand those who do. I can taste the difference: just not enough to make me willing to pay $6 for a cup of coffee. I usually buy Colombian blend, though I’m not wedded to a brand. The Folgers in the pic was on sale. There have been claims of correlation between personality and coffee preferences, but I wouldn’t take them too seriously. The only thing the list of “black coffee drinker” attributes got right in my case was (sort of) the coffee mug.

Anyway, I see a fellow waving a bill at me, so my car is ready. With luck I can go a few thousand miles before the vehicle scolds me again. I’m ready to head back home for a second cup of coffee.



Maria Muldaur – Black Coffee
  

Friday, March 31, 2017

Surprise

Academics have a reputation for cluelessness about the “real” world. This is not always deserved, but few things better contribute to the stereotype than expressions of surprise by social scientists when their research reveals something utterly self-evident to the rest of us. Case in point: In the abstract of their article A Cleansing Fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity
published in Motivation and Emotion Zachary K. Rothschild Lucas A. Keefer write “we test the counter-intuitive possibility that moral outrage at third-party transgressions is sometimes a means of reducing guilt over one’s own moral failings and restoring a moral identity.” Counter-intuitive? Their research, as anyone outside academia could have told them, demonstrated that expressions of moral outrage commonly are self-serving. So people engage in social posturing? The hell you say!

Let us not overlook research about whether alcohol – still the world’s favorite mood-altering drug – really drowns sorrows. As reported in Livescience, “Harder and her colleagues guessed that people would report less anger or sadness after drinking, and more happiness a day after drinking. But the data showed the opposite.” A day after drinking? A day after? Of course they weren’t happy a day after. It’s called a hangover. Did these research people never drink? “Tomorrow” is the last thing on the minds of drunks. Alcohol is all about the now. Drinkers, sorrowful or otherwise, want to get high now, tomorrow be damned. And yes, drinking does make them feel better – not always, but more often than not. That is why people do it. It works while the buzz lasts, that is. Not the next day.

I’ve experienced both effects. I don’t very often (anymore) because I really don’t handle the day-afters as well as some people. This is something that was evident from my very first hangover, which was in my college dorm. 18 was legal drinking age back then, but by the standards of the day (or this day for that matter) that was a late start. As I unsteadily rushed down the hallway toward the bathroom while trying to hold back my stomach contents for the necessary distance, still playing on the stereo in back of me in my room was (no kidding) Melanie’s Leftover Wine, a song I cannot hear to this day without queasiness. Up until that moment, however, C2H6O had been quite enjoyable. I wish I could say one such lesson was enough. It wasn’t. “Enough” eventually did arrive in my life, but even now I see sense in Raymond Chandler’s opinion, “I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year just on principle, so he won't let himself get snotty about it.”

equinox party
Besides, not everyone’s cost/benefit ledger is the same as mine. Winston Churchill: “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” Even if you’re not trying to win a war but just trying to distract oneself for an evening, the substance can have value. At an equinox party at the house last week, a majority of the 15 guests found value in it, and surely would have left early without it – or not arrived in the first place. (Yes, driving arrangements were appropriate.) Were they happy the next day? Well, that really wasn’t the point.

There are plenty of other surprises in the journals. Many social scientists are taken aback by evidence that in speed dating trials people (in the words of the Telegraph) “behave like stereotypical Neanderthals.” Regardless of what participants claim they want in a mate when filling out questionnaires (most give very PC answers, which is to say they engage in social posturing), in practice typically women still prefer men to be rich and men still prefer women to be pretty. (See http://www.pnas.org/content/104/38/15011.full.) What? Can this truly be? No, of course that’s not all they want in their mates, but as said Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “my goodness, doesn't it help?”

There is entertainment to be found in witnessing all this scholarly bafflement, of course. I’m eager to read reports by astonished researchers that most kids prefer pizza to kale.


The Speakeasy Three - When I Get Low, I Get High


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pictorial

A comic and a flick for a quiet evening:

**** ****

Snotgirl by Bryan Lee O'Malley & Leslie Hung

Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley has created some of the most interesting comics of the 21st century, most notably the Scott Pilgrim series with a theme best summed up as “all the world’s a video game and all the men and women merely avatars.” (Side note: The surreal and charming 2010 movie adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, though a critical success, was seriously under-noticed by audiences.) His 2014 graphic novel Seconds (theme: be careful what you wish for) is also worth a read.

In Snotgirl Volume 1 (2017), O’Malley retains the tone of his earlier works but without the surreal or scifi elements – except to the extent modern life resembles scifi. Lottie Person is a 25-y.o. fashion blogger who has enough followers to make a living at it. Her always-fabulous always-chic online persona is very different from her actual allergy-ridden often-unkempt self. To promote her image Lottie impersonates her online self in public knowing full well that in our world of cell phone cameras any faux pas will end up online, too. She and her circle of friends all adapt styles tailored for social media presentation. Lottie’s real-world behavior in response to normal life stresses is often terrible, yet she retains enough human likability not to lose the reader. The nickname “Snotgirl” is given to her (affectionately? passive aggressively?) by Caroline, a genuinely cool girl. Lottie can’t quite remember if she physically attacked Caroline for that in a bar bathroom. There are O’Malley-like questions of what is real and what is fake – and if what is real counts as real if not captured by cell phone.

A comic book about a fashion blogger has some obvious pictorial creative challenges that illustrator Leslie Hung handles exceptionally well in her first major collaboration.

Thumbs firmly Up for this thoughtful and engaging comic.

**** ****

Coherence (2014)

There is remarkably little correlation between the size of a budget and the quality of a movie, particularly in the case of scifi movies. True, flashy fx can enhance a good script but they are wasted otherwise, as in, for example, the 1998 Godzilla. (Washington Post on another high budget scifi flick: “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth.”) On the other hand a good script is enough to carry a movie even with a minimal budget, e.g. Safety Not Guaranteed. You just never know from the scale of the production. Coherence is a microbudget indie, but it works pretty well. The actors deserve much of the credit for this since a lot of the dialogue was impromptu.

We’ve seen the set-up before: a dinner party of long-time friends and frenemies. Hosted by Mike (Nicolas Brendan) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria) at their suburban home, the guests have histories with each other, not all of them good. Mike is a TV actor whose career has expired. He says he was on Roswell, which is both an in-house joke and a portent: Nicolas Brendan in fact was in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Xander), but there are actors who appeared on both of the contemporaneous shows, e.g. Julie Benz (Darla/Tupolski) and Jason Behr (Ford/Max). A chance casting decision easily could have landed someone on one instead of the other.

Coherence relies on the notion that there are parallel realities and that new ones are created whenever random chance produces two or more outcomes, so Schrödinger's famous cat is alive in one reality but dead in another. This is a seriously proposed idea in some circles, and it is one of which scifi authors are particularly fond.

A large comet is making an extraordinarily close pass of the earth the night of the dinner party. The power goes out at the house. Mike has a home generator, but there are no communications. The guests spot a nearby house with lights. (*Partial Spoiler* but the reader likely has guessed the plot twist already from the last paragraph.) Yes, as you may be suspecting, it is another version of their own house, and there is more than one. The comet somehow has broken down the boundaries among realities when directly overhead during its near approach. Can the party attendees trust all the other versions of themselves? Should they? For that matter, when they reconnoiter another house, do they return to the house they left? A dinner party that without the comet simply would have been strained and unpleasant instead turns nightmarish.

Thumbs up – not way up, but up.


Coherence Trailer