Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Winning A Tricky Hospital's Reindeer Games

It sucks to get a colossal hospital bill, but it's almost worth the pain (almost) for the chance to take advantage of the secret-handshake discount program operated by seemingly all medical billing offices. All you have to do is ask for a discount in exchange for paying the remaining amount in full upfront, and your bill will be magically shrink. Hospitals and doctors do this to grab your cash while they can out of fear that you'll ignore the bill and stiff them.

But the enemy is doing what it can to make things tougher on patients looking to slash their medical bills.

My son, Zack, was born three weeks ago, and the hospital sent me a bill yesterday. I found it odd that the bill's contact number had an (800) prefix, but still thought I wouldn't have too much trouble getting a discount like I did three years ago when Emma was born.

How wrong I was.

Not only did the first guy I spoke to turn me down, but so did his supervisor. They insisted the hospital didn't offer such a discount and never had. After I presented evidence to the contrary the supervisor admitted her operation was nothing more than a call center contracted out by the hospital. She recommended I call the mothership.

Once I did that — having to look up the number myself, because the call center didn't have it and couldn't or wouldn't transfer me — I got a 20 percent discount nice and easy. It's sad that those who don't have the perseverance to play billing office whack-a-mole will have to pay full price.

The lesson here, folks, is to never take "no" from an agency that lacks the power to make things right for you.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: The Watch

There's a scene in watch in which the four leads are crammed into a car on a stakeout, complaining about how bored they are.

It's all too easy to identify.

A bizarro action comedy, the Watch squanders the ample talents of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade, each of whom are so naturally funny that it takes a significant effort for any of them to not make you laugh. Most of the time the movie is well up to the task.

The slumming temporarily un-funnymen play four overenthusiastic, small-town morons who form a neighborhood watch after some guy's skin gets ripped off inside a Costco. It's most definitely a Costco, not Sam's Club or a generic stand-in, because the store's sign gets prominent display in half the movie's scenes and the characters call it by name, going the Adam Sandler route of justifying product placement by taking it to such an extreme that it becomes a joke.

Give the script, as well as Costco brass, credit for not being afraid to taint the warehouse store's image with murders and shootouts on the premises. That's impressive for a place that doesn't even let you bring your drinks inside.

That's about the extent of the praise this thing deserves. Other than a few can't-miss awkward sex gags -- for example, the part in which the guys compare their thoughts on the texture and taste of a certain bodily fluid --  the writing is lifeless and the movie has all the edge of a dull razor. It's almost as though screenwriter Seth Rogen, who teams up with Evan Goldberg and Jared Stern, is sick of Hill getting all the roles he used to get so he intentionally wrote something awful to bring him back down to earth.

To his credit, Hill fares the best, with his boisterous, inappropriate one-liners keeping things halfway watchable. Vaughn, who gets far too few chances to strut his stuff these days, gets carried away with his motormouth shtick and goes off on overlong monologues that enter diminishing returns territory that Robin Williams knows all too well. Ayoade is the noob of the bunch, not able to contribute in a meaningful way, while Stiller, the eternal put-upon straight man, has nothing consistent to work with.

The plot takes a ridiculous turn that you're probably aware of if you've read anything about the movie, but in case you're in the dark, I'll let it stay a secret. Not so much to avoid spoilers, but to spare you the indignity of  having to suffer through brain-tainting dullness. Suffice it to say that the unwatchable watchmen end up facing a threat that's more dangerous than the egg-tossing kids they confront early on. What might have been a welcome shock turns out to be a groaner. 

My best advice is to avoid wasting big money to see The Watch in the theaters. Wait a few months, and if you still feel driven to try your luck with the movie, look for the DVD, which is sure to snag some prime shelf space at Costco. Maybe you can take advantage of the store's legendarily lax return policy and return the movie as defective because its jokes don't work.

Starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade. Written by Jared Stern,  Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Directed by Akiva Schaffer. 100 minutes. Rated R.

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

Sunday, July 22, 2012

5 Expressions That Only Foreign People Can Get Away With

1. No worries - Only works for Aussies. SoCal folk have attempted to co-opt this but it's just not taking.

2. Cheers - Solely for Brits. Non-Brits attempting to sound worldly just come off as desperate Anglophiles when they use this.

3. Hola - If you're not a native Spanish speaker, stop kidding yourself. Same with 'no problemo.'

4. Gesundheit - Just go with 'bless you' unless you're German. Even if you're an atheist. The words have no meaning so you're not undermining your beliefs.

5. Aboot - It sounds adorable when Canadians say it. Out of anyone else's mouth it comes off condescendingly.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

"Mmmph blrrg grug Batman glogg freedom raaar!"
-Bane, The Dark Knight Rises

The movie's gimp mask-wearing, MMA fighter-like villain no doubt has many profound things to say. But he talks like he's got an Egg McMuffin lodged in his trachia, so you're left to guess as to his motives for destroying a city, trapping every single police officer in a sewer, beating up Batman and rocking a smelly tanktop.

Bane stands as a symbol for his movie, which may as well be called The Dark Knight Bloats. Christopher Nolan followed up his two Caped Crusader masterpieces with a dud of a finale that, like Bane, is giant, slow-moving, talks too much and doesn't have a heck of a lot of reason to exist.

The movie runs a little long at nearly three hours, but I recommend taking a nap for an hour or so in the middle to make it pass quicker. Nolan helps you out with that by making the mid-section into a sort of cinematic lullaby that rocks you to sleep with board meetings, emo conversations and many, many, many scenes that do not show Batman being Batman.

This is not a movie to watch if you'd care to see Batman in action, doing Batman-like things like catching crooks or swooping down and punching people in the back of the head. The first act is mostly a poetry slam of one character after another reciting expositional monologues about how and why Batman has been away for eight years, and why that's a good thing or a bad thing. 

Bruce Wayne is holed up in his stately manor, which really should be called Wayne's World, limping around with a cane like Willy Wonka when he first appears in his 1970s movie. Bruce Wayne has made some questionable business decisions, such as hiring Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) as a maid and spent all his money on a nuclear fusion bomb that could either provide the world an eternity of free energy or explode the city, depending on who's got it at the time.

You know how Bruce Wayne always kept it a deep, dark, double secret that he was Batman? Well, he's pretty much done with that now, willing to have a heart to heart about it with a cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) he's just met. Bane also knows, probably because he's -- as Rush Limbaugh has cleverly deduced -- a stand-in for Mitt Romney, and figured it out because he's best pals with many billionaires. Also, I'm pretty sure Catwoman figures it out, unless Batman has a special Bat-kiss that differentiates his Bruce Wayne smooching experience.

It doesn't really matter that people know Bruce Wayne is Batman because he doesn't want to be Batman anymore. It takes a heck of a lot of boringness to get him back in his suit, and shortly thereafter something bad happens and he's no longer Batman again until just in time at the very end.

If I'm being a little hard on the movie, it's because I expected so much more from it, and because it does a great job of reminding you how good the other two were by flashing back to scenes from those films again and again. The point of the flashbacks is to restate profound philosophical points from those movies, I guess to avoid having to come up with any new ones of its own.

The Dark Knight Rises isn't awful and is perfectly watchable, but just doesn't make much sense or build upon the groundwork laid by the earlier movies. It's this series' version of The Matrix Revolutions, The Godfather Part III or Caddyshack 2. Nolan's other Batman movies were stylish, deep, exciting and shocking. This one is just content to sort of hang out on the porch and watch the cars pass by.

I'll close with a quote from Bane: "Mrkl mumf unite argyle frankensense blarg."

The words are as true today as they were during the midnight screening.

Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, using characters created by Bob Kane. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13. 165 minutes.

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

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Review: Brave

After Cars 2 and the middling but still enjoyable Brave, Pixar has proven it's no longer the immortal dynamo it seemed to be for its first decade and a half of feature film production. The studio has fallen to earth, and seems more interested in grinding out a film a year rather than strictly releasing animated perfection.

The result of this outing is an entertaining family film with an idiotic plot and horrible yet still somehow likable protagonist who spends most of the running time fixing a terrible, irresponsible decision she makes early on. Forget that the title makes no sense, because bravery isn't apparent in any of the personality attributes expressed by Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), who refuses an arranged marriage that her parents tell her is necessary to preserve peace throughout factions they're associated with.

If the movie has anything that kids can can away, it's that whining and stubbornly sticking to your own self-absorbed opinions no matter what will pay off. Eventually your parents will fear you, and you'll always get your way. Not exactly a positive lesson, but frighteningly truthful.

The movie is beautiful and exciting, and nothing less should be expected from such cinematic wizards. When Merida befriends an anthropomorphic bear, whose identity I won't spoil in the off chance you haven't watched a trailer or read an article about the movie, the screenplay has a lot of fun with the comical cross-species interplay.

At the end of the day, you're left with 90 minutes or so burned in favor of heedless, forgettable fun. Faint praise is all that this movie is worth, but that's much more than you could say about Cars 2.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

"Is this Spider-Man 4?" my 5-year-old son, Luke, whispered as the movie started.

"No, it's Spider-Man 1," I replied, bracing myself for the inevitable follow-up.

"But there already was a Spider-Man 1," he shot back, dissatisfied. "And Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3."

"Yeah, well, some people didn't like the other Spider-Mans so they're starting over."


"Shhh, time to watch Spider-Man" I said, relieved that there was no more time to ponder the ridiculousness of a series reboot so soon after the last set of webslinger flicks.

Shhh, Time to Watch Spider-Man may as well as been the title given to this one by the studio powers, desperate to make everyone forget the 2007 series-scuttling abomination known as Spider-Man 3.

Forget that it's as patently ridiculous to remake Spider-Man (2002) as it would be to rehash The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which came out the year before.  The series needed a rapidfire do-over. Director Sam Raimi's Spidey movies were pandering, lowest-common denominator puffballs that trampled over the continuity of the comic books and committed the heresy of eschewing live-action stunts for pathetic, herky-jerky CGI.

Worse, Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man was a whining twerp who wanted to be pitied for his super powers and the responsibilities that came with them.

Newcomer Marc Webb, who made the impossibly, ludicrously amazing (500) Days of Summer, seems to hate those movies just as much as I did, and is determined to zig wherever the previous Spider-Man movies zagged. His spandexed web-slinger, played by Andrew Garfield, ditches the woe-is me emo nonsense for a joyful, wise-cracking exuberance that's contagious. Webb's story sticks close to the comic's roots, even on ridiculous yet adorable points such as Peter Parker inventing his own wrist-mounted web shooters.

Garfield, who nailed the emotional core of The Social Network as Mark Zuckerberg's betrayed best pal, captures the vulnerability of the bullied geek turned spandexed vigilante. The rest of the casting is just as inspired, starting with Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Peter's crotchety guardians, on through Emma Stone's brainy-hot Gwen Stacy and Denis Leary as her skeptical-of-Spidey cop dad.

Webb and his screenwriters also deserve credit for their restraint, taking time to introduce the characters and ease methodically through Peter's evolution into his destiny in the manner of Batman Begins. By the way, how perfect is it that the Spider-Man director's last name is Webb? It's like having a Superman movie directed by a guy named Cape or a Ghost Rider movie made by someone named Crap.

Ah, but this Webb does become tangled, eventually becoming (500) Cliches of Summer Superhero Flicks. The villain, a rampaging scientist/lizard man played by (Rhys Ifans), is cursed with a non-existent motivation and rarely has something more profound to say than "Raar!" It's also head-scratching how often Spidey insists on sharing his not-so-secret identity with all comers, stripping off his mask like he's desperate for beads at Mardi Gras.

This new Spider-Man 1 that isn't Spider-Man 1, but is, may not be amazing, but after those last three mediocre-to-horrid movies, I'll take The Adequate Spider-Man and run.

Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen and Sally Field. Written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves, based on a story by Vanderbilt, which was adapted by the comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Directed by Marc Webb. Rated PG-13. 136 minutes.

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

5 Gawker Blogs I Wish Existed

1. Shitkicker — A smarmy, wise-ass take on cow herding, crop dusting and barn painting.

2. Clockwatcher — A smarmy, wise-ass take on meeting attending, cubicle decorating and time wasting at work.

3. Plagiarist — A smarmy, wise-ass take on news aggregation, aggregating news from other aggregators without giving proper credit.

4. Smutnik — A smarmy, wise-ass take on the adult film industry.

5. TaleSpin — An earnest, unironic evaluation of news you can use and fan-fic dedicated to the early-1990s animated series that starred Baloo the Bear as a rascally pilot. I really miss that show. Subtitle: "All the trouble we get in with another tale to spin."