Thursday, December 29, 2011

Frugal Beautiful Reviews Secrets Of A Stingy Scoundrel

Frugal Beautiful gives the 2-year-old book its first review in ages.

An excerpt:

The writing in this book is hilarious, a little raunchy and totally snarky- you will totally love it.  This is the kind of book you want to have in your arsenal and openly displayed on your bookshelf as a “screw the system” book that totally helps you save a few bucks.   It’s worth the purchase price,  both for applicable tips and entertainment’ll laugh and get a few “OH SNAPS” out of it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: The Adventures of Tintin

I can't decide whether I wanted to slap or hug Tintin. He's a babyfaced, relentlessly upbeat British reporter with apparently lax supervisors who don't mind if he takes a few weeks to trot across the globe and hunt for lost pirate treasure. He's got a loyal dog, Snowy, who follows him everywhere, helps him fight bad guys and catch the odd bird of prey that flies off with an important roll of parchment.

Tintin is not one to give up, even when stranded in the Sahara or stuck in an out-of-fuel propeller plane careening into the ocean. Does it make me a bad person to yearn for his swift, grotesque death? Probably. Nevertheless, The Adventures of Tintin is thrilling to watch, even though you've got a strong suspicion Steven Spielberg won't murder his Uncanny Valley-spawned protagonist halfway through the movie.

Filled with improbably races, chases, rescues and fights, the film is a whimsical family adventure that glistens with spectacular animation that's well beyond the likes of Polar Express. More impressive as a technical achievement than a story, the film couldn't possibly be more visually mesmerizing. Characters move with believable weight and nuance, the set pieces explode with believable physics and lighting, and the stylized, plastic-like sheen of the entire package looks gorgeous in 3D.

The tale is boilerplate, globe-trotting wild goose chase, but what's so wrong with that? Tintin is consequenceless, pretty entertainment that doesn't wear out its welcome. It's no doubt leaving that feat to its sequel.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: The Ides of March

Although some of its key plot twists are a bit simplistic and exaggerated, the Ides of March is an incisive political thriller with yet another fantastic performance from Ryan Gosling, in what has turned out to be his breakout year that elevates him to the top rank of actors.

Playing an ambitious but virtuous political consultant to the next wannabe JFK (George Clooney), Gosling gets involved with a wide-eyed intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and flirts with defecting to the enemy camp, led by Paul Giamatti. Gosling's own boss, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has an agenda of his own, and the affairs and backroom dealings lead to a cutthroat political endgame that's engrossing to watch unfold.

Although the script has ambitions of hard edges, it seems to be alarmingly naive. There's more nuance in political thrillers as antiquated as the original All the King's Men. The Ides of March could have easily been made in the 30s, but its dated pretenses pack some altruistic charm.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Top 10 Movies Of 2011

1. The Artist -- Like all film lovers, I've held my nose and plowed through the silent classics in order to develop an appreciation for the caveman days of the art form. I found all of them, even the "greats" from the likes of Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin, to be as about enjoyable as salt mining. Frankly, I'm worried about anyone who says they actively watch silent movies for their own enjoyment rather than the need to be educated. The Artist, however, defines the term of addition by subtraction and refines the bare essentials of cinema to tell a run-of-the-mill, A Star is Born-style story with heartbreaking precision while also commenting on the art form and the style it possesses.

2. Moneyball -- This book really shouldn't have been turned into a movie. Somehow, Bennett Miller rescued this thing from development hell and turned it into the best baseball movie I've seen not called Field of Dreams. Every time I think of the film, I think The Social Network, because it's so similarly paced and deliriously brainy.

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- I can take or leave the Swedish versions of Stieg Larsson's potboilers, but David Fincher works his magic and turns them into brilliant and important films. The transformation he elicited from Rooney Mara will establish her as an acting dynamo who will get whatever role she wants for the rest of her life. The movie is outrageously long but feels almost too short. That's a Tarantino-style sign of sheer brilliance.

4. Midnight in Paris -- If Woody Allen's elegaic tribute to the golden age of intellectual radicals -- which doubles as a sly comedy mocking the very essence of nostalgia -- wins best picture, somehow topping the three movies I loved more -- I would be thrilled. My fear is that it will be damned with the faint praise of a best original screenplay Oscar, but the awards won't be this movie's legacy. Allen bends Owen Wilson like a pretzel to become his avatar, who replicates Allen's heart, wisdom and cluelessness rather than his mannerisms.

5. Super -- Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page make the most disturbed, dysfunctional and alarmingly repressed heroic couplet since Batman and Robin. Everyone gushed over the similarly-themed Kick-Ass, and justifiably so, but I fear that film sucked up all the love and left none for the superior, devilishly written Super.

6. Your Highness -- When my fellow critics rained hell upon David Gordon Green and company for what was supposedly an awful, misfired waste of time, I was disappointed. Surely, they couldn't all be a bunch of morons who just didn't get what Green was trying to do, right? Turns out they were. A sly, Blazing Saddles-style mockery of all things dungeon and dragon, this should have killed in the year that the fantastic Game of Thrones gave HBO a one-up when it appeared to be about out of lives. James Franco and Danny McBride make beautifully awful music together.

7. Straw Dogs -- Taking on the neoclassical tactic of taking an imperfect but potential-filled original and reshaping it into a masterwork, Rod Lurie improves upon Sam Pekinpah's 1971 fever dream meditation on masculinity and lifts it to higher ground. Juxtaposed with the Battle of Stalingrad, the drama commands career-defining performances from James Marsden and Kate Bosworth, who plumb brutal depths to find their darkest places. The movie is defined by the writing and storytelling rather than the performances, but the whole thing would have derailed had the stars not been at their absolute best.

8. Red State -- You know that scene in Walk the Line where the record label exec gives Johnny Cash one last chance to sing, telling him to dispense with the gospel nonsense and sing the song that screams from his inner depths like a primal roar? This is that primal roar from Kevin Smith. The socio-political commentary dressed up as an exploitation thriller marks a hard right turn from anything he's done previously. He's famously said he's about done making movies, and few believe him. Well, I do. I believe he's done making Cop Outs and done bowing to anyone who would dare stand in front of his sadistically witty visions. Smith has shed the cocoon and evolved into a higher being as an artist and commentator.

9. The Future -- Miranda July seems like the universal soulmate -- the off-kilter, zany artist whom anyone would think they've known all their lives. The only time I've spent with July has been in her movies, but I feel as though I know her. She stares into the fatalistic angst of life in your 30s and pulls out the saddest comedy you'll ever want to bathe yourself in over and over again.

10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- The acting in this movie is superb, with James Franco and Andy Serkis forming the most unlikely, heart-incinerating father-son bond you're ever likely to see. Very much a Batman Begins for the oft-rebooted and forgotten franchise, I adored the way it focused on relationships rather than resorting to sci-fi silliness in its lowest form. This is very much the film, to borrow from the filmmaker who made the No. 8 movie on the list, in which the monkeys spank us.

Honorable mentions: Young Adult, Source Code, The Adjustment Bureau, We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Worst movie of the year:

Cars 2 -- I've disliked some other Pixar work, including Cars 2, WALL-E and Ratatouille, but this one is so putrid and revolting that it becomes the first film from the studio that I outright despise and refuse to allow into my house. There is no life or entertainment to the film whatsoever. It's a numb cash-in on characters popularized by a mediocre movie. Any film that relies on Larry the Cable Guy for half its entertainment quotient is pretty much dead on arrival.

Dishonorable mentions: No Strings Attached, Zookeeper, Monte Carlo, Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Review: Albert Nobbs

I've got to hand it to Glenn Close for working so hard to get her dream project made. I'm happy for her for any awards she receives, and wish the movie all the success in can muster.

That said, I couldn't stand to watch it.

All the accolades for makeup the film has received crack me up. Close and Janet McTeer, who play women masquerading as men in order to scrape by in the male-dominated service industry in 19th century Ireland, look nothing at all like men. It's impossible to believe that anyone would be duped by their disguises. Perhaps the poor makeup jobs represent a pinpoint criticism of the upper class's indifference toward the help -- which maybe stretched so far that wealthy wretches refused to even look at their employees' faces. That's too much of a stretch to make, though.

Believability problems aside, the story is as dry and slow as the overrated Gosford Park. I appreciate the themes of survival in the face of repression, but I ached for this thing to end from the halfway point on. The film was adapted from a short story, and perhaps a short story it should have stayed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol

Pop quiz. Ghost Protocol is:

A.) The subtitle of the new Mission: Impossible.

B.) Something that sounds too much like the names of 100,000 video games.

C.) What your acting career goes into when you marry Tom Cruise.

D.) The name of the Ghost Busters' ray gun that zaps spirits.

I will never reveal the answer, because to do so would be a violation of Ghost Protocol. But what I can tell you is that the movie is way better than you think it will be, and that this message will self-destruct and peel off its latex mask to reveal that it wasn't who you thought it was all along and is secretly a guy named... Ghost Protocol.

The characters in the movie enjoy saying the phrase "Ghost Protocol," and so do I. You may find yourself walking out of the theater saying "Ghost Protocol" in situations appropriate and not. It's best delivered with a stern look on your face, preceded by an eye-shift, a lean and spoken as a half-whisper. Try it.

What you shouldn't try is the wickety wickety wack stunts in the movie, which include using Spider-Man gloves to scale the Burj Khalifa, crashing a spy car into the ground to use its airbag as padding and staring directly into Tom Cruise's blindingly white teeth without sunglasses.

The film opens in a Soviet prison. I use the term "Soviet" because it sounds more Ghost Protocol than boring "Russia." As Ethan Hunt, Cruise breaks out of a prison cell, thanks to the computer program Norton Prison Break 2012, operated by the agent who will come to be Ethan's wisecracking sidekick (Simon Pegg). Pegg, of Shaun of the Dead fame, is usually funny, but in this movie is about as annoying as someone who won't stop saying Ghost Protocol.

The rest of the spy team includes Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who lugs around dark secrets from the past as well as extra consonants at the end of his name, and Jane (Paula Patton), who is part of the Barbie DreamSpy collector set. In what must be a budget-saving maneuver because the spies will not be paid or acknowledged, the government tells the spy crew to go off the grid and complete a rogue mission to stop a Soviet nuclear missile from Ghost Protocoling the hell out of America.

The race is on, and this time it's impersonal.

The movie is as fun as it is dumb, and trust me, it's as dumb as it is Ghost Protocol. The stunts are ceaseless thrill rides, the story moves at the pace and rhythm of Cruise's Cocktail-pouring exploits in the movie Cocktail, and Pegg even stops making idiotic jokes occasionally. What I adored most about the movie was its gadgets, as well as its characters' uncanny ability to use them ineffectively. These secret, unpaid spies show that you get what you pay for, and watching them continually screw up and risk their Protocols becoming Ghosts is much more entertaining than watching a Bourne or Bond type skate through without a scratch.

The movie makes me feel so good that I've decided to break Ghost Protocol and give you that quiz answer anyway. It's C.

Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg. Written by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec, based on the TV series by Bruce Geller. Directed by Brad Bird. Rated PG-13. 132 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Review: Straw Dogs

James Marsden plays a Hollywood screenwriter who goes with new wife (Kate Bosworth) to her backwoods hometown in the Deep South to sell the home in which she grew up. They hire some of her old friends to do some contracting worth, and they terrorize the couple in increasingly bold and disturbing ways. A remake of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 thriller, which starred Dustin Hoffman, Rod Lurie's film equals the original and surpasses it in many ways.

Subtle character shading and more convincing motivation for the sordid characters makes up for the performances, which can't match those of the original.

Lurie is a severely underrated filmmaker, whose The Contender (2000) is one of the finest political dramas ever put to film and Nothing but the Truth (2008) was unfairly left out of that year's awards chase due to distribution problems. His Straw Dogs remake is riveting, challenging and thought-provoking, and I hope he continues to show his unique brand of skill.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Like Crazy

There are few things more annoying than two people who are meant for each other. Like Crazy pairs Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones as too-young lovers who are inconvenienced with the fact that they feel an overwhelmingly biological need to spend the rest of their lives together, despite not having enough independent experience to recognize their love for what it is.

The film takes the path of a formulaic romantic comedy, sans laughs and star power, acting as though the story is compelling enough to pull us through. But it amounts to a slog, with several scenes in which both characters stare off into space during intimate moments, wondering if there is more than this. The leads lack personality and much of the dialogue is juvenile to the point of inanity.

The roadblock subplot of visa troubles separating the couple is an insignificant hurdle, and only draws things out. I like the way the film ends, bypassing the easy way out to stay contemplative and indecisive. The filmmaker and writers show flashes of brilliance but in this film stay mired in mediocrity.

Our 2011 Christmas Letter

Dear friends, family and Guy Who Empties Recycle Bins,

It was a fantastic year of knowledge and development in our household. Four-year-old Luke has started to read and serve the galactic good by helping Star Fox defeat the evil Andross on 3DS, two-year-old Emma has nailed her letter sounds, as well mastered Jessica's technique for getting what she wants via incessant nagging and a refusal to negotiate. Murphy, our dog, has also taken an interest in literature. Whenever we leave him alone with a book, he sinks his teeth into it. Meaning, as a dog toy. He remains an illiterate derelict with the propensity for inhaling board books, but his advances in potty training do far outpace Emma's at this point, so we'll keep him for now.

The year was a good one in terms of business ventures. I've taken on a lot more freelance work. Freelancing is great because it keeps you from unnecessary wastes of time such as "sleep" and "free time" and allows you to make a bunch of extra money, some of which the IRS is kind enough to let you hang on to for a few days before taking it away.

Jessica was the house's financial MVP for figuring out a brilliant way to earn extra income -- shatter her knee. Thanks to her wise decision to turn her ACL into confetti while on school grounds, disability insurance covered all the costs and also made us $1,500 richer.

Things were tougher on the economic front for the younger members of our household. Luke and Emma continue to fester among the rates of the bitter unemployed. Emma took her inability to score gainful employment particularly hard, and has become a fervent political activist. A crazed right-wing extremist, she blames Obama for her failures and has started her own daily tea parties to bring attention to a government that refuses to roll back its child labor laws. She's also started a side protest called Occupy Mommy and Daddy's Bed, in which she rises at 5 a.m. to shove aside her family's version of the 1 percent when they're at their most vulnerable and most willing to negotiate.

We look forward to more knee injuries in 2012, and hope you're able to enjoy more of the same. Except for you, Recycle Bin Guy. We don't know you and are frankly disturbed that you're reading this.

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Top 10 Games Of 2011

1. Mario Kart 7 -- I guarantee you this will destroy my thumbs from overuse. Absolute perfection.

2. Uncharted 3 -- If I ever have another son I am going to try to name him Drake. Probably won't succeed, but will sure try.

3. Portal 2 -- I am so proud of myself for beating this without using a walkthrough, which is the opposite of how I beat the first one.

4. L.A. Noire -- It's a shame the studio that did this game closed down. Fantastic detective yarn.

5. Batman: Arkham City -- I think this game was made by Batman himself, based on actual footage of his daily life.

6. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -- If you don't think you're an evil person, play this to prove to yourself that you really do enjoy slaughtering innocent villagers with magic spells.

7. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword -- Looks ugly, but proves that the Wii is still worthwhile. Probably the most innovatively designed Zelda in a decade.

8. Super Mario 3D Land -- Along with Mario Kart 7, makes the 3DS a must-own.

9. NBA Jam: On Fire Edition -- Way better than last year's release, which was frikkin' fantastic itself.

10.Marvel vs. Capcom 3 -- The fighter so nice it came out twice in 2011. Buy the second version, which lets you play as Galactus.

Honorable mentions: You Don't Know Jack, Gears of War 3, Dark Souls, LittleBigPlanet 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mortal Kombat, Professor Layton and the Last Specter

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

With mass shootings that mirror the Columbine catastrophe becoming more frequent, it's fascinating -- if frightening -- to examine the way these crazed shooters were raised. It's all but impossible to find a satisfying answer about whether delusional assassins are created by nature or nurture.

The question weighs heavily on the mind of a mother played by Tilda Swinton, who recounts key moments in raising her son (Ezra Miller) -- who has just been arrested after slaughtering students at his school -- along with her husband (John C. Reilly).

There is always something off about the child. Even as a toddler, he refuses to conform to social norms. It's easy to second-guess the way Swinton handles the child, especially when she reacts with blind anger, and we're  left, like her, to imagine the implications of her child-rearing methods.

It's a credit to the fascinating film, told with economy and speed, that it promotes such analysis and discussion. This is a fine drama that is sadly a sign of the times.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Just as Junebug was Amy Adams's introduction to big-time filmmaking, MMMM -- could the movie's title be any more difficult to remember? -- will serve as the coming-out party for Elizabeth Olsen, who appears to have inherited double the acting ability of a standard-issue Olsen sister.

The remarkably expressive and penetrating Olsen plays Martha, a former member of an abusive cult who's gone AWOL for two years before crashing with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Lacking a purpose or sense of self, Martha struggles to conform to social boundaries, as well as to discover her sexual identity.

Given to spontaneous, bizarre actions such as stripping bare to go for a swim or leaping atop a counter, Martha annoys the hell out of her hosts, but earns sympathy because she's never quite worthy of the scorn she receives from either. Director T. Sean Durkin juggles Martha's hellish flashbacks and visions, working in tandem with Olsen to create a tantalizing psychological smorgasbord that dares the audience to piece together its mysteries. A bold and daring film, MMMM -- I will never remember that damned name -- is one of the indie gems of 2011.                             

Review: The Iron Lady

My only significant gripe against The Iron Lady is that it's not a sequel to Iron Giant, nor Iron Man. Can you imagine how cool either of those would be? A massive robot played by Meryl Streep, stomping the Soviet Union with her feet and snuffing out the troubles in the Falkland Islands with her little finger? Or an ironclad, jetpack-equipped Streep, blowing away government spending with a laser blast from her hand while blasting away gender barriers with a smart bomb deployed from her hip?

As it stands, The Iron Lady is no slouch. If the British are good at anything, it’s navel gazing. The incestuous tabloid culture and brainy BBC documentaries spawns self-analysis at a staggering level, approaching that of Terrell Owens. Thus the film industry produces fantastic introspections of its great historical figures, with recent examples being The Queen and The King’s Speech.

The biopic on Margaret Thatcher belongs in those regal ranks. I’d have settled for a straightforward tale of a feminist and humanitarian icon who led England through geopolitical and economic challenges, providing skilled leadership and symbolizing strength and solidarity. But this movie is far more than that, bookmarking Thatcher’s political exploits with shattering scenes of Thatcher in old age, coming to terms with the fragments left of her life. To succeed as a politician, she had to fail on some level as a mother and a wife. The great woman wrestles with her perceived inadequacies and lingering ghosts that haunt her fading mind. It’s here that Meryl Streep truly shines in the role.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the film is a handsome, robust and multifaceted portrait of the political figure, bolstered by a superb performance by Streep, who immediately shakes off any second-guessing about the casting. Unlike her lauded yet single-note performance of Julia Child in Julie and Julia, Streep shows formidable range and depth. She captures Thatcher's political dynamism, as well as her late-life physical and mental troubles. The result is not only a vivid portrait of a political force who fought for her vision with might and enthusiasm, but a tender reflection of a woman coming to terms with her mortality.
The film could have been plodding, handsome and stately and still worthy of a measure of praise. But The Iron Lady echoes its protagonist by shattering expectations, leading you through a breathless escapade and leaving you staring into the sad, desperate void of mortality. Neither Iron Men nor Iron Giants nor Iron Lions in Zion have anything on this stunning movie.
Starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent. Written by Abi Morgan. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Review: My Week With Marilyn

Portraying a slightly less good-looking Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Williams overcomes her miscasting to melt into the persona of the ill-fated screen goddess. As My Week With Marilyn argues, all she ever wanted was to be treated and loved as a regular person.

Excellent performances help overcome the limp, movie-of-the-week style screenplay, in which a wananbe filmmaker (Eddie Redmayne) becomes Monroe's shoulder to cry (and sometimes smooch) on as she wilts from unceasing pressure from the public, as well as domineering male forces in her life in the form of Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) andhusband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott). The cypherlike protagonist becomes Monroe's unlikely soothsayer who, if the film is to believed, played a major part in magically turning her into a more stable, reliable performer.

It seems like oversimplified hogwash, but that's how films like this go. The movie is most interesting as a character study of Monroe, and Williams delivers on most fronts, capturing her sense of despair and adoration of the limelight if not her screen radiance.

Review: Young Adult

Diablo Cody seems incapable of writing realistic dialogue or giving characters believable motivations. Or giving them names that don't seem like they came from pro wrestling, for that matter.

And that's exactly what makes her movies so much fun.

Did Shakespeare write the way people talk? Did Woody Allen? Or Kevin Smith? When it comes to film, and especially comedy, realism is overrated.

Go into Young Adult with your logic detectors on high alert and they'll explode your brain, especially in the third act. Although Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who penned loved-by-most Juno and hated-by-most Jennifer's Body, no longer tries to make everything that comes out of every character's mouth seem like it belongs on a bumper sticker, she's still very much her rambunctious, challenging self. And the comedy of manners, under the careful guidance of director Jason Reitmen, is all the better for it.

 Charlize Theron play Mavis Gary, a ghostwriter who cranks out Young Adult yarns about the drama and insecurity of high school life. Although she's 37, she's so good at what she does because her maturity level is stuck back in high school. On a whim, sparked by raging jealousy over a birth announcement from a former flame, Mavis heads back to the one-Chili's town that spawned her for a drunken, half-cocked attempt at stealing her ex away from his wife and baby.

At a bar, she runs into Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), a pudgy geek who lives with his sister and action figure collection. Mavis is the type of girl from high school that everyone remembers and doesn't expect to remember them. She co-opts Matt as a fallback friend for the trip -- the one she calls when plans A through D fall through, and he willingly complies. Disapproving of her plans to run away with Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), he becomes her conscience -- Jiminy Cricket with an unrequited crush.

Mavis is a walking grease fire; the type of narcissist who, if called a hot mess, thinks it's a compliment on her looks rather than a comparison to dog poop. Mavis hurls herself at Buddy with the aggression of a bowling ball, convinced that she'll have him forever -- or at least until she gets sick of him -- if only she can pry him away from that damned baby, whom she refers to as "it," and that agonizingly cheery wife (Collette Wolf).

Being a device and construct rather than a person, Mavis has a knack for saying and doing all the wrong things at precisely the wrong times, making an ass of herself and then blaming everyone but herself for the results. If you saw Bad Teacher, this is the Cameron Diaz character without as much tact or demureness.

Theron rarely gets to sink her teeth into a role like this, and has a disgusting amount of fun making us hate her while becoming as obsessed with her as poor, hapless Matt.

Because this movie is being tossed out to the Oscar-time wolves, people may dismiss it because it's so slight. There are no great truths here. Just a bunch of laughs, quotable lines and a lifetime supply of  awkwardness. It's a vintage example of the better angels emerging from the demented mind of a Diablo. 

Starring Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser and Patton Oswalt. Writted by Diablo Cody. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rated R. 94 minutes.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Review: The Artist

The great secret of film appreciation is that silent movies are generally no fun. They're medicine. Homework. Caveman-style works you have to force yourself to sit through just to be able to tell yourself and others that you've done the time in order to build credibility. There are exceptions to the rule, but in general, even the greatest silent movies -- the comedies by Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd -- are easier to appreciate and analyze than enjoy.

Along comes The Artist to demolish that line of thinking. A masterwork from writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, it presents silent film as a valid modern entertainment medium by using the construct as a device to comment on film history. Although his story is nothing spectacular -- basically a reworking of the A Star is Born mold -- the eloquence and artistry with which he delivers his film steal the show.

His actors take on the exaggerated styles of their cinematic ancestors, exaggerating emotions and gestures in order to spark the audience's imagination, much like well-written descriptive writing. Jean Dujardin is superb as a stand-in for Rudolph Valentino, a silent star who sinks into the figurative quicksand of changing times. Berenice Bejo is his equal, as an up-and-coming flapper who winds her way to success, only to suffer internally as her former idol falls. John Goodman, as a high-powered tycoon, and James Cromwell, as a dignified assistant and driver, effortlessly fall in to supporting roles, lending a solemn regality to the proceedings.

The Artist is a spectacular achievement and a bold new direction in filmmaking. Instead of cheering, I'll keep my mouth shut and give a silent nod of approval.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Review: London Boulevard

Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley make a dynamite pairing in London Boulevard, the uneven but compelling directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter William Monahan.

Farrell plays an ex-con with a soft heart who tries to go straight by working as a fix-it guy. That's how he pairs with Knightley's character, a somewhat fragile starlet. Farrell's past has a way of catching up with them, plunging the pair into more than they bargained for. Both leads stay squarely in their comfort zones, with Farrell offering his brash cool while Knightley doesn't find much in the character to ignite palpable passion. Still, their chemistry blends well together, making scenes that would otherwise be dull start to sizzle.

The hardscrabble writing and gritty direction keep the film moving at a brisk pace. The plot is filled with twists and turns and never bores. The whole enterprise feels like a been-there, done that affair though.

Review: The Muppets

Let me begin with a disclaimer that I've never really gotten the Muppets. I stood by as my parents watched and loved the Muppet Show when I was a child, but I always found it a bit dry and drab. The films ranged from tolerable to unwatchable in my eyes, and re-watching them as an adult did them no favors. As far as these characters go, the Muppet Babies was more my speed. Maybe the puppet show aspect disconnects me from the attempts at absurdity.

So I'm a tough-to-please hater. I heard the raves about the new film and wanted to like it, but suspected my lifelong problem with the live-action characters would stifle me from falling in love with it. It's less than ideal to go into a film with baggage, but I'm just being honest here. As a good luck charm, I took my wife and two kids to a Saturday morning show for which I paid my own way. I hoped that being surrounded by the joy and innocence of my family would melt my defenses.

Those hopes went largely unfulfilled.

That said, The Muppets is by far my favorite Muppets movie, but that's not saying all that much given how I feel about the series. I liked the way the film acknowledged that the time for these characters has passed, and in doing so scrambles for a way to make them relevant again. I cracked up during two or three scenes, including that fantastic musical number in which the chickens clucked their way through Cee-Lo's "Fuck You."

What bothered me was the lack of charm in the Muppets characters. Kermit is supposed to be the everyfrog you identify with, but he's too much of a whiner for my tastes. Fozzie is just pathetic, Gonzo can be interesting as an outsider -- as in Muppets from Space -- but has nothing to do in this movie, Miss Piggy is shrill and agonizing and Animal has always scared the hell out of me. Jason Segel and Amy Adams are game human straight men for the Muppets' antics, and both ham it up marvelously during production numbers, but there's only so much they can do.

Overall I found the movie a bit too cloying and self-aware to distinguish itself from the mass of kiddie flick pap. The plot walks a fine line between straight-up awful and making fun of awfulness, and too often veered toward the former by trying so hard to let me in on the joke. The relentless celebrity cameos jab you in the ribs as if to say, "Hey, laugh just because I'm famous and I'm here," failing to go to the next step by actually giving the stars much of anything entertaining to say or do before they vanish.

I don't think it's gonna work out between us, Muppets. Get back to me when you're animated babies again and maybe we'll talk.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

With their gadgetry, sexploits and one-liners, the bombastic likes of James Bond tend to trivialize the spy "game" of the Cold War era. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy proves decisively that the cloak-and-dagger maneuverings between Soviet and Western spies don't need exaggerated silliness to make them engrossing.

Based on a 1974 John le Carre novel, which was previously best known as the basis for a British TV show from the era starring Alec Guinness, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's effort deftly maneuvers through a complex whodunnit. A game cast of Mark Strong, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik play key roles in an ever-shifting shell game of moles, cheats and divided loyalties bought and sold in backroom deals.

The plot is a mess, and not easy to understand in a single viewing. The pacing and performances help keep you involved even if the circuitous storylines lose you. Superb ensemble acting relays the mounting stakes as the tide ebbs and flows in and out of the offices of MI6, which its operatives appropriately refer to as "The Circus."

Although the dense material would probably be better suited to an HBO series treatment in the vein of "The Wire," the film does an excellent job of racing through mental chess matches between formidable foes. It convinced me that the Cold War provided the hidden playing field for one of the greatest shows on earth.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Review: Happy Feet Two

Animated sequels rarely work, and Happy Feet Two is business as usual. Unable to capitalize off its daring, rule-breaking predecessor, this one is as stupid as it looks, which is saying something.

Although there are token efforts to call back to the freshness of the original -- a couple scenes in which the computer-animated penguins are spliced into real-world footage -- the plot is a rehash of the self-actualizing message of the first film at its best. At its worst, it's an endlessly irritating succession of Alvin and the Chipmunks-style squeaky-voiced cover songs underlined with slapdash choreography.

Sidelines involving undersea creatures only detract from the main plotline, introducing unnecessary characters that are hard to care about.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Movie Review: Shame

Apparently, being dead for 31 years makes you really horny. You want to claw your way out of the grave, grab a shaky handheld camera and start filming people doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well.

Anything goes if you’re Steve McQueen and you’re making your zombie porn film called Shame. You’ll throw in male full-frontal nudity, female halfway-upside down nudity and shots of flesh pressed so close together you can’t tell what’s what.

Wait, I just checked it out and confirmed that the movie is not directed by the Steve McQueen who starred in Bullitt (1968) and died in 1980. Instead, it was made by the McQueen who was born the year after Bullitt was made and generally eschews bullitts or bullets in his movies, instead focuses on brainy art fare, including this and Hunger (2008), which starred Michael Fassbender as an Irish Republican Army volunteer who suffered in a hunger strike.

Fassbender is back for this film, and his hunger is for booty.

Playing a well-off New Yorker who houses his brooding lounge singer sister (Carey Mulligan) and entertains a series of high-class hookers into his penthouse, Fassbender did his part to spare the movie’s costume budget by going naked most of the time. His character tries to fill the holes in his life with bitter, self-loathing sex, and his obsession creeps into all facets of his life, suffocating him in sloppy misery.

Fassbender is so convincing in the role – especially in rare clothed moments when he comes to frantic realizations of his misery – that you genuinely ache for him. And for his flexible partners.

Mulligan, whose fragile character dances around her brother’s rage in a submissive slow burn, is equally mesmerizing.

The release of Shame is something of a holiday for film buffs, because when an NC-17 rated movie wins a bunch of festival awards and earns Oscar buzz, it gets movie geeks excited because they know they’ve got an ironclad excuse for going out and watching porn.

Although McQueen’s camerawork is pervy and lurid, it’s anything but sexy. His sex is miserable and sad, with the nudity used to expose the raw, unfulfilled vulnerability of his characters rather than excite.

There’s also probably a purpose for the scene in which Fassbender relieves himself in the toilet as the camera standing at attention to make sure he shakes out every last drop. Or not.

Starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen. Directed by McQueen. Rated NC-17. 99 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tap Dancing Class

I imagine that training for tap dancing goes like this: The teacher stands up in front of the room, sizes up his students, then declares "Spread your arms out and keep clicking your feet on the ground."

That's it, class over. From then on, tap dancers can continue spreading this fantastic art to others.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Review: J. Edgar

While far from perfect, J. Edgar is a perfectly valid investigation into the secret and public lives that the tyrannical FBI despot led. Director Clint Eastwood's take on the story is that Hoover, played with a soft touch by Leonardo DiCaprio, channeled his repressed homosexuality into obsessions with fame, seizing undue credit and violating the civil liberties of his countrymen under the guess of better protecting them.

DiCaprio again proves to be a chameleon capable of tackling any task set before him. The makeup department did him no favors in crafting him a ghastly deathmask as the older, plumper Hoover, though. No matter what DiCaprio does, the late-life Hoover scenes equate to a puppet show.

The actor excels as the younger Hoover, somehow making a near-unlikable character seem relatable. The humanity he infuses into the character shifts my perception of the figure. Eastwood has made better films, but this biopic stands as a solid, technically sound execution of his talents.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Hugo

A slow starter, Hugo gradually evolves into a grand celebration of the art of filmmaking that rivals anything of its ilk, including Cenema Paradiso and Day for Night.

The casting is uniformly superb. Martin Scorsese makes a spectacular find in Asa Butterfield, who plays the title character, a plucky orphan who is obsessed with resurrecting a mechanical robot, which he believes will bring himself spiritually closer to his departed dad. Chloe Grace Moretz continues her momentum from Let Me In, playing Hugo's partner in adorably lighthearted crime.

Sacha Baron Cohen nails a note of delightful incompetence as a station agent who serves as Hugo's Javert, while Ben Kingsley casts a penetrating figure as a patriarch who looks upon Hugo with scathing, bitter disapproval. The film takes the tone of a Miyazaki movie, in which the villains are usually misunderstood egomaniacs who are overcompensating for their own pain and insecurities.

Going in knowing little about the source material, I was sure we'd be in for a paint-by-numbers journey of magic and whimsy, but I loved the way the story stayed grounded. Instead of dreaming up gobbledygook, Scorsese has Hugo discover his magic internally, as he uses the idea of filmmaking to alter his bleak life. You get the sense that Scorsese found a similar vivaciousness inside himself as he stretches to bold new territory in his own career.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: The Descendants

Evil land developers are the most determined of movie villains. You can’t escape them no matter where you turn, even if you’re watching The Descendants, a prime slice of Oscar bait that’s supposed to be above such tired story devices.

George Clooney stars as Matt, a lawyer, who because his left eyebrow is Hawaiian, has inherited what looks to be the entire island of Kauai. The trustee in charge of selling a massive parcel of pristine land due to a little-known tenet of real estate law that forces families to do so, called The Law of Plot Constructs, Matt needs to decide whether to ruin Hawaii forever or do the right thing. Matt cocks his Hawaiian eyebrow throughout, wondering whether to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

As far as moral dilemmas go, this is something like deciding whether to pet a baby kitty or blast her in the face with a shotgun.

The land thing is tough, but Matt has even greater problems – females. He’s got two daughters, a rebellious teen, Alex (Shailene Woodley) and a rebel-in-training tween, Scottie (Amara Miller). No explanation is given for the first girl in history to have been named Scottie, but it’s a reasonable assumption, given her age, that Matt must have been a huge Scottie Pippen fan.

Even an unconscious woman, his comatose wife, manages to give Matt problems. Her ultimate silent treatment makes him feel guilty for avoiding her for the loving arms of legal briefs. He takes solace in hanging out with his hateful offspring, who treat him the all the respect the Problem Child gives the dad in the movie Problem Child, figuring years of neglect is nothing two acts of movie time won’t change.

Matt attempts to solve his female and island problems by taking his brood, as well as Alex’s friend-zoned sidekick, Comic Relief (Nick Krause) along on a madcap adventure of telling friends, loved ones and a male mistress that they’re about to pull the plug on Mommy.

While the movie has its sharp moments, it’s nowhere near the level of mastery usually demonstrated by Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). Take a Hallmark movie, throw in some swear words and intelligent dialogue and The Descendants is what you get. I kept expecting it to get better, but it just sort of did its thing and called it a day. Clooney is great in the film, but he’s great in pretty much everything, so his performance is a wash.

Being a fan of Rocky movies, I’ve got nothing against predictability, but I was really hoping that since Payne chose to use the evil land developer angle, he’d think of something to do with it.

I won’t spoil things by revealing whether or not Payne was successful. But I will say that I’ve always longed to see the evil land developers get his way in a movie – build his parking lot or shopping mall or garish resort or whatever – just to see how things would shake out.

What I will spoil is that if you’re hoping to see a surefire Oscar sweeper-upper, you’ll need to continue that search after the credits roll. A filmmaker who usually operates in the realm of The Spectaculars has come down with a middling case of The Decents.

Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause and Judy Greer. Written by Alexander Payne, Nate Faxon and Jim Rash, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Directed by Payne. 115 minutes. Rated R.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: The Twilight Saga: New Moon Part 1

This is it, Twihards. Here is the moment you’ve been aching for since sparkly vampire Edward Cullen first laid eyes on Bella Swan, the one person on earth paler than him. Following a 3-movie courtship in which the 106-year-old immortal demonbeast seduced the shy 17-year-old in a totally legal way since Edward looks young for his age, it’s time for them to marry and get it on.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 wastes no time in setting up the rendezvous you’ve read about on the blogs. Well, it does waste a little time – maybe 20 minutes – to show necessary things such as Bella (Kristen Stewart) getting dressed for her wedding, Bella thinking about the wedding, Edward (Robert Pattinson) trying to talk Bella out of the wedding, Bella’s nightmare about the wedding and finally, the wedding. But after that, director Bill Condon gets right down to the good stuff.

There they are, these two fangs-crossed lovers, staring into one another’s lack-of-souls on an exotic beach, when finally the moment arrives.


Yep, they play chess. All night long, like animals. You should see the way Edward uses his rook. Long, strong, and down to get the friction on. Tireless and full of board game lust, Bella and Edward play chess again. And then again. The third time – get ready for an aww, cute alert – Edward lets Bella win!

Oh, yeah, and they also have sex in between. Or at least it looks like they’re about to have sex before it fades out and Bella’s lying there with that same look she’s always got on her face whether she’s being chased by a werewolf or served lunch in the school cafeteria. Pillow feathers are everywhere, the headboard is broken and Bella’s all bruised up in ways she assures a guilty Edward hurt so good. Guess she loves the way he lies. It must have been quite an event, but just as in the pages of Stephenie Meyer’s tome, the play-by-play is left mostly to our imaginations.

That’s right, people. Vampire sex is so intense that it makes the movie camera black out and cut to the next scene. And it also gets girls pregnant with Miracle-Gro babies that pop out within weeks, rendering the mom-to-be bedridden with broken ribs and a longing to slurp down Big Gulps of deli blood to keep the fetus happy.

The only guy who’s less satisfied by the viewer by this presentation is Bella’s doormat, werewolf-man transformatron Jacob (Taylor Lautner), whose pre-wedding pep talk includes an attempt to shake the Edward-obsession out of Bella. The guy thinks it’s not cool that a vampire demon behbeh is tearing up his unrequited love from the inside out, but he still stands guard on the off-chance that she’ll pop out a behbeh that will fall in love with him.

Since this movie has no villains – a post-credits scene shows that the bad guys are being saved for next year’s Part 2 (subtitle: Bella and Edward Play Parcheesi) – Jacob bickers with his wolfpack, who are convinced the behbeh will be a danger to their tribe and want to kill it. Or kill Edward. And/or maybe kill Bella. But really, just kill time.

What sets up to be an entertaining, UFC-style vampire-werewolf battle stops short of just that, ending up being just a bunch of growling and fang-baring for naught.

That’s just the way things go in this film, which is really a half-film, and the boring half at that. Such is the nature of things dubbed “Part 1.” It’s a film about things that will inevitably happen, but don’t until the next, more important part. If it were all the same to the studio, I’d rather it have just given us the full movie rather than stretch it out t h i s  m u c h. But it’s not all the same to the studio, because Meyer is fresh out of Twilight novels, and making a Part 1 adds an extra payday. It’s too bad that fans require the patience of a 106-year-old vampire to sit through it.

Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. Written by Melissa Rosenberg, based on a novel by Stephenie Meyer. Directed by Bill Condon. 119 minutes. Rated PG-13.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My New Literary Venture

Is a rhyming children's book I based on a conversation with my 4-year-old son about why he's not afraid of various monsters. It didn't take long to write and in the worst-case scenario I will provide stick figure Microsoft Paint illustrations and print it up myself.

I have no idea how to get a kid's book published — judging from my track record with traditional publishing, and given the ratio of completed manuscripts and proposals to actual publications, I barely know how to get a regular book published — but am starting to try to learn.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Review: Jack and Jill

Decades and decades ago, all an actor had to do to make audiences fall over with laughter was put on a dress. This is a major reason the in-no-way-funny Tootsie and Some Like it Hot are remembered as classics. Adam Sandler pulls out the old gag for Jack and Jill, in which he plays a jaded commercial director and his identical twin. In this post White Chicks and Sorority Boys era, the device has all the edge and freshness of “Take my wife… Please!”

Jack and Jill is as full of old-timey humor as your grandpa after a few swigs of gin. A screwball comedy with a set of extra balls, it trots out proven standbys in hopes that that some spacetime wormhole in between the screen and audience somehow warps the jokes into something resembling funny. Among the artifacts the yuk-yuk factory cranks out are a Blazing Saddles-like fart symphony, goofy beards and given-up-for-career-death Katie Holmes as a romantic lead.

That said, the movie is a lot better than what Sandler has subjected his fans to in recent years. By no means a Grown Ups or The Longest Yard remake style debacle, Jack and Jill is a half-chuckle funnier than Just Go with It and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. This is mainly due to self-mocking product placement, a dancing Al Pacino and an inspired sequence of Sandler-in-drag accidentally pummeling an old woman.

The presence of Pacino is probably the most important game-changer. Since Sandler’s dual roles cancel each other out, Pacino is pretty much the star of the show. He parodies his performances in The Godfather films, Scarface and Scent of a Woman, making such a fool of himself that it’s almost certain that he lost a bet to Sandler that made him his slave for a month.

The plot calls on regular Sandler – annoyed by a visit from his overbearing, inappropriate-acting twin Sandler – to hook his sister up with Pacino in order to get him to star in a Dunkin Donuts ad that will save his company. Pacino is so convincing as he puts the moves on Sandlerette that he truly deserves that Golden Globe nomination his handlers will probably buy for him.

Anyone who follows the actor absolutely has to see this movie for the inexplicable spectacle, especially for his song and dance number at the end of the movie that will haunt your nightmares for years to come. Pacino’s critics have said he’s turned into a parody of himself over the past decade, and he takes that accusation and runs with it here, going so far that you almost feel bad for him – like an overweight comedian who keeps telling fat jokes at his own expense.

Also making the movie fun to watch is an overflowing amount of cameos. Johnny Depp wearing a Justin Bieber shirt, David Spade’s face attached to someone else’s body and Subway’s Jared holding court at a party are among the strange sights that will be forever scarred into your mind.

The more I think about the movie, the more I like it, but I still don’t like it enough to recommend you expose your recession-drained wallet to its particular brand insanity in a wig and dress.

Starring Adam Sandler, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino and Nick Swardson. Written by Steve Koren, based on a Ben Zook story. Directed by Dennis Dugan. Rated PG. 91 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Learn to Speak Geek is Dead

The final publisher who was looking at it -- the one that very nearly decided to make it happen -- backed off, so I'm burying the project and moving on.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Pixar Movies From First To Worst

1. Toy Story 3 -- Nearly made me cry twice, sitting in the theater with my 3-year-old son, to whom it almost did the same. Lotso, that cruel bastard of a teddy bear, is just that cruel. The movie takes some characters we'd began to take advantage and yanks them out of their comfort zone into a story that questions the meaning and purpose of life, religion and family, touching the void with a fiery-tipped sword.

2. Finding Nemo -- Until last year, this was the vintage Pixar film, allowing the studio's talent to flex its creative muscles to the fullest extent. A great film by any definition, which philosophizes without smacking you over the head with its messages, the movie's beauty matches its brains.

3. Up -- The first 15 to 20 minutes of this movie, which describes how the main character evolved from a spirited young lad to a beaten-down old grump, make up some of the finest wordless storytelling I've ever experienced. Eventually the film stops reaching for the stars and settles into routine to wrap up the story, but the first act leaves you with enough of a high to float on through.

4. Monsters, Inc. -- The world it creates is vibrant and fascinating, and John Goodman and Billy Crystal deliver some of their finest work, in tandem with a lightning-paced script. Thoroughly enjoyable with just the right bittersweet touch at the end.

5. Toy Story -- Takes a brilliant concept and runs with it. While the animation is no longer mind-blowing, the story holds up, and the voice casting is perfect. Somehow, for once, Tim Allen is not annoying.

6. Toy Story 2 -- Also great, but doesn't step out of its comfort zone like 3. A fun movie that you can watch endlessly -- there aren't too many out there like that.

7. The Incredibles -- Rivals Wall-E and Ratatouille as the most overrated Pixar flick. I liked the Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but don't understand the over-the-moon love for what everyone would see as a run-of-the-mill action flick if it had been made by DreamWorks.

8. A Bug's Life -- Pixar was just starting out and didn't know what it was doing. This is the movie equivalent of a first kiss as a teenager. Exciting, but looking back at it, could have been a lot better.

9. Wall-E -- Pixar as shameless Oscar bait, abandoning efforts to entertain in the wake of attempting to be important and thought-provoking. Also, Wall-E is a total creeper and robo-necrophiliac whom the gorgeous Eva never should have given the time of day.

10. Ratatouille -- If you're going to be stuffy, pretentious and dull, just go all-in.. The part where the rat pulls the hair of the kid cook, turning him into a marionette, is something straight out of Tom and Jerry, the epitome of numskull idiocy. You can't have it both ways.

11. Cars -- I originally despised this, but then I had a kid and when he was 1 and 2 he liked it a lot and watched it 15 times a day and made me buy all the toys and bedsheets for him, which made me halfway respect it. Then he turned 3, hated it just like I do so that softness toward the movie went away.

12. Cars 2 -- An irredeemable mess and a blight upon humanity.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Grand Theft Auto V trailer

Surely poised to be a landmark achievement in gamedom, Grand Theft Auto V has popped onto the horizon. Is that an aged Tommy Vercetti I spy in the trailer?

Review: Tower Heist

Tower Heist is the Occupy Wall Street movement’s idea of a porno. A group of ritzy apartment complex clock-punchers who’ve had their pensions plundered by a master of the universe band together to storm the tower and take back what they believe is rightfully theirs. And just like the protests, there’s not much of a point to the whole thing, but it’s fun and exciting and you get to see a bunch of people get arrested.

Another parallel between the movie and movement is that one percent of its cast draws 99 percent of the laughs. The one-percenter in this case is Eddie Murphy, who used to be funny when everyone in the world was a kid before he decided to take a couple decades off being Norbit, Pluto Nash, Dr. Dolittle and Bitter Oscar Loser.

Murphy is back in Axel Foley form as an obscenity-spewing cat burglar who grudgingly joins the cause. Pairing Murphy’s suddenly re-animated corpse with ultimate straight man Ben Stiller is a masterstroke of casting that’s just like putting Penn with Teller or that hungry tiger with Siegfried and Roy.
A filmmaker not usually renowned for his restraint, director Brett Ratner seems to realize he has something potent in Murphy and Stiller, but holds the pairing back for fairly distant intervals, leaving them to explode together at crucial moments when the momentum starts to die down a bit.

Similarly successful in juggling the movies’ many other stars, Ratner and his screenwriters accomplish what Ocean’s 12 through 27 didn’t quite pull off: Introduce a not-so-merry band of fun-loving criminals and make us halfway care about them. Casey Affleck is the constant between those similarly-themed strike-outs and this ground-rule double, working with Matthew Broderick and Michael Pena to set up an intriguing sideshow in between Murphy-Stiller outbursts. Alan Alda is delightfully pompous as the Bernie Madoff-like villain, and Tea Leoni, who like Murphy has been missing in action for far too long, is also sharp as an FBI agent who’s a few hundred steps behind the heisters.

I don’t want to oversell the movie, which has its share of groan-inducing one-liners, and  a propensity for throwing around the word “vagina” seven-or-so times and hoping it’s funny enough on its own to draw laughs each time, unaware that vagina is only funny the first two times. Vagina. See? No longer funny.
But the film is at least a little bit magical, because it proves Murphy is funny again rather than a punchline himself. Hopefully this is the start of his next great act. If this turns out to be a one-time thing and Murphy plays DJ Lance Rock in the Yo Gabba Gabba movie and storms out of the Kids’ Choice Awards after he gets slimed, that will be cause for a protest indeed.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Review: I Am Better Than Your Kids

I've started freelancing at GuySpeed, and here is my first post: A review of Maddox's I Am Better Than Your Kids.

An excerpt:

‘I Am Better Than Your Kids’ could end up as the single most important work for the publishing industry. The author, whose 2006 literary debut, the bestseller ‘The Alphabet of Manliness,’ took it upon himself to handle much of the design and formatting of this book. That is crucial because the book is 90% style and 10% substance. That’s not a knock against it. It speaks to the very nature of what it felt like he was trying to accomplish, which was to critique the self-righteous, often resentful and bitter field of criticism as a whole.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Celebrating The Geekiest Halloween Costumes

Over at Engadget, they're celebrating the geekiest of all Halloween costumes. My personal favorite was the gentleman who dresses himself up as a giant, cardboard Game Boy.

I still say my Green Man is the best of the best, but I guess I may be a little biased.

25 Things You May Not Know About Me

1. My ultimate goal is to travel to another planet and conquer it, rectally probing most of the planet’s residents, enslaving the others and stealing all their water for my personal use.

2. When I was a baby I got drunk hit the bars and things got a little crazy. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was a a father-to-be, and thus was forced to raise the resulting baby about my own age – Tyler, who would one day become one of my best friends – as my own. I gave him away to the circus because he was worthless.

3. I used to think that people who liked 30 Rock better than The Office were morons. I am now also a moron.

4. I am a whore in public but a churchgirl in the bedroom.

5. One of my more depressing shortcomings is that I am 11 wives short of attaining a quorum in the Celestial Kingdom.

6. I didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, but Plymouth Rock landed on me.

7. I would have been able to play in the NBA if I hadn’t been discriminated against back in high school for my lack of size, speed and intelligence.

8. I try to work the phrase “You dun smoke yourself retarded” into one conversation per day.

9. I don’t understand the fashion concept of “matching.”

10. Abraham Lincoln was actually a reincarnation of me. The explanation for how this happened is too long to get into here, but bear in mind it includes a time-traveling DeLorean as well as several voodoo rituals.

11. I was Time Magazine’s 2006 person of the year. Look it up.

12. I believe all country love songs by dudes are sung with farm animals in mind.

13. My greatest fear is being buried alive.

14. I believe golf columnists are the most fetishistic and pathetically stalker-like of all sportswriters.

15. I feel sorry for dolphins that live in the wild because they don’t get the chance to jump through flaming hoops.

16. I still own every baseball, football and basketball card, as well as comic book, I ever purchased and keep them stored in shoeboxes in a closet for no reason.

17. I am too lazy to write 25 things about myself, so I must stop at

18. And yet I persevere anyway, deciding that it’s better to half-ass eight more to conform to the demands of the format rather than cut myself off in the name of artistic integrity.

19. When I was a kid I had an imaginary rival named Jacques Jejajeun. I’d play him in paddle ball, Nerf basketball and Rad Racer.

20. When I was in fifth grade I convinced myself that if me and my friends played recess basketball well enough we’d get a chance to play against UNLV in a nationally broadcast exhibition game.

21. I hate yet am in inspired by people with no talent who have lucked into successful careers. (i.e. Kevin Kolb, Robert Pattinson and the Black Eyed Peas).

22. I have no sense of direction. This affects me the most when I play first-person shooters.

23. I like reading about video games more than playing them.

24. When I was a freshman in college I would recycle my excess cereal milk and use it the next day. Yep, I went green before it was cool.

25. I’m not even trying anymore and haven’t been after the first seven in all honesty. But I still count this as one so now it’s over.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review: Bossypants

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tina Fey is brilliant, and proves it at times in this book, which sometimes feels like a miscalculated rush job. It was pretty lazy to include a script of a sketch, as well as a sequence of jokes from 30 Rock. Her observations on life and growing up, as well as her smack-talking about Lorne Michaels and Sarah Palin, make the book worthwhile.

View all my reviews

Books Geeks Love

Wired, that bastion of celebrating geekdom, put together a post suggesting the essential geek reads.

I love the list, which includes such masterpieces as The Hithchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Watchmen and The Lord of the Rings. Did I enjoy the post simply because it consisted mostly of books I've read -- and if not read, have at least heard of and read enough about to fake like I have -- because it made me feel like a well-read geekology professor? Probably. But that's beside the point.

If you want to be a real geek, or be able to hold a literature-based conversation with one, you need to read these books. Or at least their Wikipedia pages.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: The Rum Diary

If they ever make a time travel tourism film about 1960 Puerto Rico, it will be the opposite of The Rum Diary. Hunter S. Thompson’s vision of the setting is as bleak as the Miami Dolphins’ playoff hopes, with thuggish, resentful locals fuming at mainland interlopers, rathole apartments with water that walks rather than runs and a kangaroo court legal system geared to either run English-speakers off the island or lock them up indefinitely.

Yet these are the places in which legends are made. Thompson drew upon his experiences as a young writer who placed his dreams on hold to toil at a mediocre newspaper job in an exotic location to pen the novel, which he wrote at age 22 but didn’t publish until 1998. In a booze-swilling haze, the writer formed his moral code, honed his participatory journalism technique and found his voice.

Pushing 50, Johnny Depp would seem to be too old for the part, but that would only apply if the actor wasn’t the love child of Dorian Gray and Benjamin Button and either gets younger or ages backward as the years pass. Depp easily passes for a guy in his early 30s. And thanks to nearly a decade toiling as Captain Jack Sparrow, he has ample experience playing a drunken fool who can barely walk.

The movie captures Depp’s character in a never-ending hangover, in which regret-filled nights bleed into bleary-eyed mornings, which themselves are only sleepwalking continuations of the previous wasted day. He buddies up with a burned-out photographer (Michael Rispoli), tries to avoid his Nazi-sympathizing, drug-addled coworker/roomie (Giovanni Ribisi) and cowers under the demands of his creativity-crushing editor (Richard Jenkins). He indulges his wide-eyed corruptible tendencies by allowing himself to be romanced by an evil land developing ring led by Aaron Eckhart and his comely girlfriend (Amber Heard).

The actors are all superb, but Ribisi is disgustingly phenomenal in his transformation into a human snot rag, swiping scenes from the indomitable Depp. You cringe whenever Ribisi slinks on screen to deliver nasally one-liners that draw nervous laughter.

While the movie lacks the absurdist panache of the Terry Gilliam-directed, Depp-starring Thompson adaptation Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s more content to tell a personal, often harrowing tale. The Rum Diary catches a nice buzz early on, spinning Depp and company through an unrelenting house of horrors, but tires toward the end by preaching rather than letting its smaller moments do the fear and loathing for it.

It’s probably impossible to make a perfect movie out of a Thompson book, but The Rum Diaries is a darn good try. Maybe we’ll see perfection a decade from now. Maybe by then, Depp will finally be playing characters his own age. But probably not.

Starring Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Rispoli, Amber Heard, Giovanni Ribisi and Richard Jenkins. Written by Bruce Robinson, based on a novel by Hunter S. Thompson. Directed by Robinson. 120 minutes. Rated R.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Joys Of Reading Books On Cell Phones

Working multiple jobs while raising multiple kids while supporting time-consuming hobbies such as writing for fun, football watching and video game playing has forced me to largely cut the act of reading books out of my life over the past few years. And feel guilty about it. But that's changing, thanks to my new pastime of cell phone book reading.

I used to be irritated at the idea of e-reading, and the idea of plowing through an entire book on a tiny cell phone screen sounded impossibly stupid. But now that I am more than halfway through Tina Fey's Bossypants, which I've read on my phone primarily during bathroom breaks, I consider physical books to be impossibly stupid.

Smartphones equipped with the Kindle app allow you to tote around an infinite number of books in your pocket. Booklights, bookmarks and scotch tape are now obsolete, because this technological revolution allows you to read in the complete dark, always keeps track of your page number and does not allow you to accidentally rip its pages. I could drop my Droid 2 in the toilet and just shrug and pick up where I left off on my laptop or iPod Touch.

The main reason I enjoy reading books on my phone is because of the video game like quality. It feels as though you're playing a text-based adventure game in which it's impossible to screw up and die. Just read what's on the screen and swipe your finger and you win! Then you win again 13 second later! Since each virtual page is so tiny, you get a greater, more frequent sense of reward and progress. And I adore the fact that you can always tap the bottom of the screen to see your completion percentage.

About the only bonus I would add would be a da-dink sound, accomplished by a graphic that says "achievement unlocked" after I "beat" each chapter. I also wish it kept track of the length of time I'd been reading, and switched into audio book mode when I'm driving.

Now that I've discovered the joy of cell phone reading -- not e-reading as a whole mind you, because Kindles, iPads and Nooks can't fit in your pocket and are only truly portable to dorks who wear European man-purses -- I vow to read more than ever before, but may never touch a book again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My NYC Observations

I got back from my first trip to New York a week ago yesterday. The vacation seemed like it lasted 5 hours instead of 5 days. Jessica and I saw Wicked and Addams Family with Brooke Shields. Went to Comedy Cellar and saw Colin Quinn perform. I'm happiest that we didn't get mugged or stabbed once.

Here are some observations about the city:

*The restaurants are stingy with the drinks. Waiters weren't cool about giving free soda refills, or even asking whether you'd like to order another. This was true at an Irish Pub in Times Square -- although I was slyly upsold to a full-price refill -- a hipster health food joint in SoHo, a pizzeria in Little Italy and an Italian place in the Village. There must be some sort of NYC syrup shortage going on, and I guess I was glad to do my part to conserve.

*It's odd yet adorable how all the subway Metro card dispensaries tell you to "dip" your credit card to pay rather than slide it.

*Locals there weren't rude. They seemed to keep to themselves and not be abrasive or resentful of tourists' presence. Maybe because they're outnumbered by tourists.

*Everyone had enough money. I expected to be shaken down constantly by aggressive panhandlers, but the only time I was asked was at a Dunkin' Donuts by a polite kid.

*We had perfect weather, but I bet it sucks to live there if it's either hot or rainy. NYC is a utopia of public transportation, and it was a dream not to have to deal with cars. But all the necessary walking would make it tough to get around in extreme heat or snow.

*An earthquake, even a tiny little 5.8 variety that the city experienced a while before I got there, would be freaking terrifying if you were stuck on top of the Empire State Building or inside a subway stop at the time.

*It would really blow to have kids there. Everyone who had a kid in tow also sported a look of gloom and misery. Guess it's not much fun to lug a stroller up a set of subway stop stairs. By the way, NYC is the least wheelchair accessible city I've ever heard of. If you break a leg or lose the ability to walk, stick with Jersey, I guess.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Broadway Musical Death Match: Why Addams Family Is Better Than Wicked

I saw two shows on Broadway last weekend, and was surprised at which one was better.

I expected to hate Addams Family because of how lame and stupid the idea to base a musical on that seems, but I actually liked that better than Wicked. Wicked was good in the second act but the first was way too slow and had mostly terrible songs and no famous people. We got stuck with the second-string cast that did the national tour. You go to Broadway to see the best of the best, not the roustabouts who play Topeka.

Addams Family at least had Brooke Shields, who was entertaining in a Surreal Life sort of way. That show reminded me of the billions of episodes of it I saw as a kid, and convinced me that the characters were always stronger than I gave them credit for. Also, Addams Family played in a tiny little theater, so the actors were basically on top of us. Wicked played in a giant megatron theater and we had terrible seats that still cost $17 trillion. The great Addams Family seats cost only $2.5 billion. So, better value.

One thing that angered me about Wicked was the way it handled the Scarecrow. Everyone who's read the books or seen Return to Oz knows that the Scarecrow becomes king, not some sick bastard who runs off with the Wicked Witch of the West for fornication in another realm, never to be seen again. And if the Scarecrow really was the witch's lover who got transformed into a brainless farm doll in an ill-advised attempt at magical protection by his spell-casting, pointy-hatted hook-up, why would he actively help Dorothy and the others try to hunt down and kill her, while pretending he didn't know that the Wizard of Oz was really the fat balloon man behind a curtain? I guess we're supposed to believe that he was just playing along as a way to hitch a ride back to his green-skinned love's wicked mansion, but that's quite a stretch, especially since she sets him on fire in the movie. Now that's some serious method acting to throw everyone off the trail.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Footloose

Every generation, it comes time for the cinema to teach us an important lesson about life. This lesson is that loud music and dancing are the devil's tools and must be eradicated by rule of law. A wise pastor/town dictator must obliterate that silly division between church and state.

To stoke fear in the hearts of the just, movies about this subject must present the sum of all fears -- that a hedonistic youth will shake the foundation of such just ordinances with a swirl of cartwheels and air-splits.

The new Footloose, like its 1984 progenitor, provides ample entertainment while stirring the pangs of wrath in your heart. The remake copies the original beat for beat, which is necessary because the first film was cinematic perfection that cannot possibly be improved on by man nor beast.

Leave it to director Craig Brewer to emerge from his humble beginnings, making the multiple Oscar-nominated Hustle & Flow, to rise to his true calling -- learning how to use the "copy" and "paste" functions of FinalCutPro to replicate the work of others.

Brewer expertly re-uses the two main songs from the original, "Footloose" and "Let's Hear it for the Boy," because in the past 27 years, no better songs than those have been invented. Even if, for some reason, this is actually no longer the way kids danced, and in fact never was the way anyone danced, but the style was just an odd 1980s movies construct, you must give the choreographers credit for driving home the point that dance is indeed an abomination that must be outlawed.

It's of little doubt that star Kenny Wormald, who plays the vile antagonist, the new kid in town with the loosest of feet, will go on to be the namesake of a parlor game called Six Degrees of Kenny Wormald in the future. Or that Julianne Hough will match the illustrious career of Lori Singer, and in 37 years be so far along that she'll be able to snag a role that's the equivalent of the bit part Dede Aston in season 12, episode 22 of CSI: SVU.

As far as acting goes, these kids certainly can dance, causing myriad problems for the heroic preacher played by Dennis Quaid, who finds deep layers of determination by refraining from splashing holy water on his detestable daughter or her malevolent suitor as they break the town's law repeatedly for 113 minutes.

Also, kudos to the choreography team for nailing the embarrassing arms-waving tap-dance-like style, which they copy from the first Footloose. They clearly did their research, discovering that this is exactly how kids dance today.

Starring Kenny Wormald, Julianne Hough, Dennis Quaid and Andie McDowell. Written by Craig Brewer and Dean Pitchford, based on a story by Pitchford. 113 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

This Email Made Me Happy

Hi, Phil,

My editor-in-chief read and enjoyed your proposal for LEARN TO SPEAK GEEK. Also, I discussed it at our general editorial meeting today and I think it went well. Right now, the proposal is being read by our publisher, our directors of sales, publicity and marketing, as well as our digital marketing/content manager. All of them seemed enthusiastic about this, so I am cautiously hopeful. I will be in touch soon, I hope.


-Book Editor (not his real name)

Monday, October 03, 2011

How To Solve Any Problem

Send Desmond into the center of the island light and have him do whatever until the unstabbable guy who can become a smoke monster whenever he likes yet chooses to be an old man instead becomes stabbable and the parallel church world born of a nuclear time travel explosion pops up and rescues everyone in a big ol hugglefest.

In case you can't tell, I just shotgunned the entire Lost series in the past couple months.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Taking A 58-Year-Old And 4-Year-Old To Football Games

I've spent the past two Saturday nights at Arizona Stadium watching the Wildcats get the snot smacked out of them by far superior teams. In the first outing, I took my dad, who was on the verge of his 59th birthday. The week after, I brought my 4-year-old son, Luke, to his first football game.

There were similarities and differences in the outings.

SIMILARITY -- Everlasting nostalgic moments. When I was growing up, my dad took me to games regularly, always buying me a game program because he knew how much I loved to read through the rosters, coach bios and statistics. I still have all of them, stacked in boxes in my closet. Now they no longer sell programs, and just give them away for free. As we walked into the stadium, I spotted a box of the programs, scooped a pair out and handed one to my dad.

Befitting his name, Luke is a huge Star Wars fan, and he adored the band's questionable practice of playing Darth Vader's theme when the other team has the ball. (Should the band really admit via music that the enemy's possession of the ball is a sign of certain doom). Whenever the band started to play, he asked me, hope bubbling out his little eyes, whether it was going to be the Star Wars song again. He was crushed when it was a different jingle, and elated when his dream came true. When the band was silent, he spent most of the time humming his own, metal-and-beatbox-infused version of the tune. Now I will never be able to hear those notes again without thinking of Luke at this age.

SIMILARITY -- Endurance. Both the old and young man lasted until the final whistle. And both, like me, were disappointed when the drubbing was over and it was finally time to go home.

DIFFERENCE -- Calorie consumption. Neither my dad nor I saw the need to visit the concession stand during the game. But for Luke, the wonders of popcorn, cotton candy, soda and lemonade were 150 percent of the fun the event had to offer. In practice, the $15 I spent on refreshments largely went to waste. Meaning, I had to eat it after Luke got tired of it.

The salted giant pretzel looked good at the outset, but he struggled to devour half of it. He needed popcorn later on because he loves popcorn at the movie theater, but there wasn't as much butter as he remembered, and white cheddar seasoning wasn't an option as it is at Harkins. So he only ate a few bites. As for the cotton candy, he ripped off a glob from the bag and munched on it for half an hour, pausing to proudly display his purple and green beards, then abandoned ship and left the other half of the bag to rot. I excuse his finicky eating because of the double Whopper he wolfed down before the game, proclaiming it "the best sandwich I've ever had."

DIFFERENCE -- Football acumen. My dad and I exchanged a calm, reasoned patter of in-game analysis with the detachment of grizzled sportscasters. We've both had our hearts trampled too much by the game, and this team, to allow ourselves to get too jubilant or depressed.

Luke had a little trouble getting the chants down. When the crowd chanted "U of A," Luke interpreted it as a call to display his patriotism, shouting "USA!" When it was time to yell "Defense," Luke yelled "Depends!" Whenever the public address announcer revealed that a team took a timeout, Luke was sure that meant the players would have to go to their rooms until they calmed down. Also, he had trouble remembering that the team that we were rooting for was the Wildcats, whom he kept calling the Cardinals -- a result of my nearly half-decade long brainwashing campaign. It's lucky that I hadn't taken Luke the week before, when Arizona played the Stanford Cardinal. His brain might have exploded.

As the game ended, Luke was sure the Wildcats -- or Cardinals -- had won. He was angry when the final seconds ticked away and I told him that we had to leave. In his oblivious-to-the-final-score mind, it had been a perfect night, and it was a tragedy that it had to end.

He was right that in the grander scheme, the score didn't matter at all, and the evening had indeed been perfect. Both those Saturday nights were.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Moneyball

Baseball has always been far more interesting in movie form than in real life. Moneyball puts the romance, suspense and nostalgia of the game to the ultimate test, attempting to make front-office number crunching into compelling drama.

Other than the assumption that baseball is movie magic, there’s no reason Moneyball should be remotely watchable, let alone freaking amazing, which it surely is. Some Brad Pitt fans have no doubt declared that he’s such a magnetic personality that he could make a two-hour reading of the phone book interesting. This is the movie in which Pitt tries out the theory, only switching out phone numbers for on-base percentages.

Pitt plays Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who, judging from an early-film montage, was the worst baseball player in the history of mankind before tossing his hands up and trying to make it as a suit. According to the montage, Beane struck out in every at-bat, and never once was able to maneuver himself close to a ball that was hit to him. You know, pretty much like every Kansas City Royal in the last 25 years.

But one thing Beane can do is patch together a team of rag-tag misfits who make less than Taco Bell employees and turn them into a marauding machine that’s nearly as dominant as the Bad News Bears were at the end of their movies. Clearly possessing that which Genesis once referred to as “That invisible touch, yeah,” With a boy wonder, Yale economist sidekick (Jonah Hill) on his hip, Beane picks through the garbage heap of Major League baseball, uses crazy inventions called “math” and “spreadsheets” to identify winning qualities that other teams overlook, then gives them pep talks that make them want to get out onto that field and take as many walks as possible.

In layman’s terms, Beane takes a team and spins it off into a separate entity called Wynsterz, nodding in that cocky, I’m-Brad-Pitt-And-You’re-Not fashion as all the naysayers call him an idiot, then chuckling as the Wynsterz wins the AL West by 100 games while also getting users to pay double the price for cracked DVDs.

While there is some stirring on-field action to spice things up, most of this film is dialogue, meaning the screenwriters are every bit as much the stars of the film as Pitt. The writing sings because it’s so witty and clever, managing to talk about poignant life stuff such as family, loyalty and determination while pretending to reference fielding percentages and signing bonuses.

Director Bennett Miller handles the impossible film with the skill of his protagonist. He’s clearly a filmmaker who relishes a challenge, which is why I expect him to do just as well with his next project, IRS Tax Code: The Animated Musical.

Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Wright. Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on a Stan Chervin story, which in turn was based on a Michael Lewis book. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rated PG-13. 133 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Monday, September 19, 2011


After I switch over to Qwikster, I admit I will be just a little disappointed every time I open a red envelope and find a DVD in there instead of strawberry-flavored powder.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How To Trick Others Into Thinking You're A Good Employee

Hating your job is no excuse to mope. No matter how miserable you are when you're on the clock, you'll only better your prospects by making the best of your situation.

Budgets Are Sexy offers some tips on how to be a better employee, or at least fake your way to appearing to be adequate:

*Smile. People drift toward pleasant folk. Being cheery can give you an extra edge that keeps you around amid layoffs or boosts your chances of a promotion.

*Don't run out the door at the first opportunity. Sticking around 5 or 10 minutes after the workday ends can go far in making you appear to be a dedicated worker.

*Hand out compliments, not criticism. Avoid vague, blanket brown-nosing and pinpoint specific, genuine things you can praise people for. When negative thoughts surface, send them back where they came from. Strategic gossip can build a rapport, but also places you at risk of being perceived as a malcontent back-stabber.

10 Tips to Be a Better Employee [Budgets Are Sexy]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lies That People Repeat And Believe In

"Everything happens for a reason." I guess this is technically true, if the reason is defined as "because people felt like making that happen." The belief that everything that occurs is to contribute to some positive ending is ridiculous. It's easier to believe that everything happens for an eventual negative reason.

"God never gives you more than you can handle." I think people who get run over and killed by trucks get more than they can handle.

"Karma will take care of it." The belief that you don't need to do anything to stop bad things from continuing to happen because a Final Destination-type invisible force will do it for you is just lazy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Questions About Aquatic Medicine

I wonder how far along the field of underwater surgery has come. If a fish gets a spinal tumor, is he screwed or is there a chance to save him? Do they stand still to have their blood pressure checked? Can they get gill asthma? And if so, how do they take their inhalers?

Can dol-fins (my nicknames for dolphins' fins) be placed in cast? Is it considered poor form for octopi to squirt ink on them in playful attempts at signing them?

Sharks lose a lot of teeth, but how many is too many? If they forget to floss can they get cavities? Do they need to use mouthwash or does just swimming around with their mouths open all scary-like do the job?

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Just Wanted To Let You Know

The Cardinals are undefeated, the Cardinals are undefeated, the Cardinals are undefeated and the Cardinals are undefeated. Lastly, lest I forget to mention it, the Cardinals are undefeated. Life is grand. I only wonder if the Cardinals themselves take such pleasure in my successes.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Three Things I Am Enraged About At The Moment

1. Sending important emails that go unreturned.

2. Publishers who take weeks and weeks to evaluate a book proposal.

3. Scamtastic charities that name themselves something similar to other organizations and spend 90 percent of their donations in legal battles with the reputable charity.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A literary analysis of "Stormin' Mormon"

Reader Peter Yates-Hodshon was kind and thoughtful enough to pen this review of my book, which is available as a $1 download on Kindle and Nook:

Although Phil Villarreal has not just penned the Great American Novel, Stormin’ Mormon, his debut, stands on its own as a must read. As film and video game reviewer for the Arizona Daily Star, Villarreal’s insightful, incisive, sometimes gritty critiques commenting upon our currently undulatingly “haunted” electronified culture give us pause; his analyses engage us, enrage us, entertain and entreat us. He is not solely a journalist; he is a keen observer (and commentator), not one to back down after stating his case.

The same can be said of Stormin’ Mormon…to an extent.

With some truly brilliant narratives (that are more the norm in his novel than the exception) and some downright authentic dialogue between his two protagonists, Villarreal paints a very graphic and – at times – comic portrait of our culture’s current incarnation. Through Villarreal’s storytelling, we confront our swirling reflections: we are inexorably chained to our battery-powered existence, umbilically hooked to the larger-than-life media leading us around by the hog ring of illusion, hopping from one bar or restaurant to another looking for “home.” We find ourselves vicariously “button-mashing through FIFA ’08 Soccer on the Xbox 360”; “[m]oving in with random karaoke guys”; ruminating about “Miami Vice,” Jim Rome, Maxim, The Rules of Attraction, 60 Minutes, Matrix, Cary Elwes, “World Series Thunderstix,” and Channel 13; and dining at “’Nico’s’…that makes the best steak, egg and cheese breakfast burrito mankind has ever known.”

Oh by the way, this all takes place right here in Tucson, Arizona…under the watchful eyes of Lute Olson and Wilbur the Wildcat.

Amiably and definitely without malevolence (because he might be describing the bulk of our shared consciousness), Villarreal depicts his two “heroes” as non-malicious, conniving near-losers standing at the brink of life. Saul Cruz, a not quite surly U of A graduate and wisecracking almost cowardly twenty-something Jim Rome wannabe, schleps as a sports shock jock for a local AM radio station. Jerusha Rockwell, the perfect counterpart to Saul, is a nearly 24-year-old, intelligent yet poorly motivated, foulmouthed undergraduate who lives by her wits, luck, looks, and financial dependence upon a clinging and demonized mother. Saul is a confused agnostic; Jerusha is a jack Mormon because “I, uh, have sex.” They almost seem like twins separated at birth.

Here’s the premise: Because his two protagonists, Saul and Jerusha, ravenously desire each other not so much because of an honest attraction but more because they have fallen out of love with their respective “soul mates,” they devise a ruse to chase away their lovers, to become devote Mormons. Comedically, this almost works as the vehicle for Villarreal’s two lusting heroes. The wind-up, the action which takes place before the ruse is put into effect, builds nicely; in fact, his portrayal of each character’s floundering relationship can be considered downright agonizing. This is a good thing: Not only do we strongly wish for Saul and Jerusha to make the carnal connection, we literally root for the ruse to work without a hitch (pun intended).

Ugly scenes of Jerusha and Jared (her current “bemused live-in boyfriend of three months”) locked in mortal combat instead of an embrace greet us at the outset. Similarly, we witness Saul bemoan the fact that spending time with his Baptist girlfriend Shannon has become a burdensome “requirement,” even though it was he who lamented her “dismissive initial response” to any type of cohabitation. The ugliness is excruciatingly palpable. All the characters, supporting and main, swear like sailors, eat like Huns, and have sex like pigeons. A reader’s head virtually swims in a more-than-graphic-Harold-Robbins tale of sexual-realm-of-the-senses angst.

Then the ruse.

Villarreal pulls this off neatly, but not so lightly. We do not find ourselves laughing so much as grimacing and shuddering. Was this not supposed to be a comedy? Is this actually becoming a tragedy…or a morality tale? And if this is a lesson, what are we to glean from Villarreal’s words? This is the drawback to his freshman outing: where is Villarreal’s voice?

As a polished cultural critic, Phil Villarreal guides us through the vagaries of our American miasma with aplomb. His work with the Star, more than bears this out: he tips us off to clunkers, brilliance, misses and hits. He nearly accomplishes the same with Stormin’ Mormon. Narratives that spring to life with little effort (the scene at McKale Center’s “press row,” a sordid and depressing depiction of a college bar, and radio station high jinx) provide Villarreal with amazingly astute vehicles for critique: we can sense a redundant, recurring cultural déjà vu. Have we progressed as a people? Comparably, he creates piercing encounters between characters that almost verge on the dialectic, especially when characters engage in heated arguments about mores and norms. Yes, the dialogue is that good, especially between Saul and Jerusha. The author speaks to us directly and without shame and demands that we listen carefully to what his characters posit. Here, within the meat of the book, deep into the narrative and neck high in dialogue do we find Villarreal’s strength as a writer: his realism is razor-sharp…and this is impressive for a first time author. We chafe and laugh and shudder simultaneously.
Yet, what is he telling us?

Reread Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Boyer’s Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker, and you get a sense of voice, of revelation…direct or nuanced. As readers, we do not have to guess that Jim is already a free man, that Holden senses that post-WWII America is already culturally bankrupt, and that David’s desire to drive a cab smacks back at a society demanding complacency of its members. Also, we know that each author, as social critic and keen cultural observer, demands our commitment as readers to read not just scrupulously but to accomplish something in our own lives, to adjust and readjust our zeitgeist in order to (maybe) just save our own hides and (maybe) a few hides of friends and foes.

Villarreal, however, as sharp an observer as he is, seems content only to grasp at a literary brass ring, offering religion as our salvation. While maintaining a spiritual life is a road to transcendence, most assuredly in many cases, the avenues taken by his characters seem less than intelligently taken, done more out of distress (and societal duress) than out of conscientious free will.

Herein lays the rub.

Does Villarreal give up at the end of this first attempt to make a satisfactory and pointed statement about our fragile and less than robust collective national spiritual inclination; or is he heartily and honestly recommending humdrum organized religion as our one and only hope for realigning our (through his eyes) squeamish, skewed civilization…in a way, disturbingly condemning women to lives of abject servility? Does he use the evolution of his characters, supporting and main, to ostracize us, condemn us for not easily accepting what is readily available in the way of suitable and customary religious pursuits? Or, and this may be the case, does Villarreal purposely use Stormin’ Mormon to describe our feverish grasping at two-dimensional spirituality as a panacea, in order to make plain our tendency towards intellectual incompetence, to make plain our desire for taking the easy way out? If we read and consider and contemplate the quotations (from Jane Austen to Tupac Shakur) introducing each paragraph, we find ourselves sweating out this conundrum. Also importantly, Saul’s ultimate though open-ended development as a character appreciatively marks the crux of this possibly unintentional dilemma in voice. We need to ask: What is Villarreal serving up with Stormin’ Mormon?

Because this novel causes intellectual stress, it is a must read. Because his narratives and dialogue are gifted, this novel requires a pair of keen eyes. Because Villarreal has so much more to offer, pour over this book. It is a peek at what is to come because in time Villarreal’s voice will ring more clearly; his talent strongly suggests this. We need to have patience; the payoff will be his next work.