5.27.2019

17 Stations at an Elementary School "Field Day"

As one might imagine, the current "Field Day" experience for Generation Z is a far cry from the one of our youth that typically involved little more than foot races and maybe using the playground equipment (all blistering hot steel and cracked dirt, of course, no plastic surfaces or wood chips to be found) as a makeshift obstacle course.  

The format in 2019 - at least for the two Li'l Frys at their elementary school past week - is this: each classroom of 20 or so kids rotates through all 17(!) stations, getting about fifteen minutes per station.  There's a morning group (8:10am-11:00am) and then an afternoon group (11:30am-2:30pm).  The logistics behind this sort of progression involves hundreds of teachers, volunteers, and hyperactive kids is military-like in its complexity and implementation.  Special commendation to the staff member who had to blast the air horn "rotate!" signal every 15 minutes all day.

1. Nine Square (indoors) - Requiring a do-it-yourself PVC pipe cage, nine players each have a square space from which to pass a ball back and forth ("no double taps!") over the top rails of the PVC cage bars.  A kind of three-dimensional variation of the old Four Square game.  If the ball hits the floor inside your square or if you pass the ball outside the cage's boundaries, you're out.  Then everyone shuffles forward to take your spot in the nine spaces a new player enters in the first space.
2. Basketball Knockout (indoors) - This one confused us.  Something about two players shooting but the first shooter has to make it before the second one makes it.  That shooter is safe, so the other is out, but then sometimes the other one can keep shooting.  Huh?  Whatever happened to "Horse" or "Around the World"?
3. Agility Course (indoors) - What you get when you make kids run across taped down circles, hop over small hurdles, and weave through plastic cones. Low tech, but the kids seem to kind of like it.
4. Snack and Class Photo (indoors) - Every kid got a fruit punch popsicle. Hardly seems to us like a proper station.
5. Toss - Throwing tennis balls into holes in a canvas target like a midway carnival game.
6. Bounce House - Why not turn a birthday party gimmick into a "Field Day" station?  Jumping and tackling your friends in mid-air can be exercise.
7. Inflatable Obstacle Course - Self explanatory.
8. Wrecking Ball - Yet another inflatable.  Climb inside and stand on one of four platforms, then swing a giant vinyl ball at each other.  Last one standing wins.  Reminds us of the late, great ABC show "Wipeout!"
9. Playground - This seems kind of lazy, turning the playground these kids use every day into a "station."  And what's up with schools now putting those giant canvas tents over playgrounds to make shade?  Why didn't someone come up with that 40 years ago to better protect us from future skin cancers?  Thanks for nothing, Baby Boomers.
10. Sack Race and Three-Legged Race - Now we're talking.  This is old school "Field Day."  We can't remember for sure that these kind of races were featured at our F.P. Caillet "Field Days" of the late 70s/early 80s, but we're guessing they were.
11. Hamster Balls - Easily the most impressive station.  Kids climb inside huge clear inflatable spheres, then run on the inside surface like a hamster wheel (get it?) to move forward and backward along a "track."  We managed this station for 90 minutes in the blazing afternoon sun.  Big mistake.  They look like harmless, puffy-looking toys but they are formidable beasts of hot vinyl that are hard to maneuver and unwieldy to wrangle, especially for the younger kids who either don't know how or aren't strong enough to run on the inside surface of the ball and create momentum.  Which means we're stuck pushing them while they flop around inside like a tube sock in the dryer.  Then there's the issue of trying to rotate the ball to get the one doorway level with the ground.  If a kid comes back with the ball and the door's facing straight up in the air, get ready for screaming muscle pain and muttered curses.  It's a miracle we didn't get heat stroke out there.  Next year we're going to pick an indoor station.
12. Gaga Pit - A Thunderdome sort of thing where you step inside a plywood octagon and play a game with a ball.  We've heard about it but never seen it in action.
13. Tug of War - Pretty exciting for the first couple of minutes.  But then you have another 12 minutes to kill before the stations rotate.  How many times can you do this without the kids losing interest?  Maybe three.
14. Soccer Kick - Two players are the goalie, two players attack and try to score a goal.  Rotate and repeat.
15. Water Ball - Fill garbage cans with water from a hose, add soakable hacky sack balls, then wage war.  It's really just a delivery system for getting the kids wet.  (No overhead throwing allowed, wink wink.)
16. Water Race - Relay race where two teams take turns transporting water into an empty bucket by filling up cups and holding them over their head as they run.  First team to fill the empty bucket wins.  The "get extremely wet" requirement comes from the holes poked in the bottom of the cups.  As expected, the handoff relay element quickly vanishes and the kids just start running one after the other.
17. Inflatable Slide - The sort of thing we would have loved as a kid.  The slide is 20 feet tall easy.

5.17.2019

The Pop Culture Birthday Comparison

The Cheese Fry turns 47 today, which is pretty old no matter how you slice it.  We wanted to rub salt in the wound and look at some performances from our youth and calculate the age of the actor when he appeared in that role.  These characters all feel very grown-up and adult and manly, but in truth most of them were far younger then than we are now. Ouch.

33 - Bruce Willis' age in Die Hard (1988)
33 - Mel Gibson's age in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
34 - Sean Connery's age in Goldfinger (1964)
34 - Bill Murray's age in Ghostbusters (1984)
37 - George Clooney's age in Out of Sight (1998)
37 - Robert Redford's age in The Sting (1973)
37 - Arnold Schwarzenegger's age in The Terminator (1987)
38 - Harrison Ford's age in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
38 - Michael Keaton's age in Batman (1989)
38 - Craig T. Nelson's age in Poltergeist (1982)
40 - Chevy Chase's age in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
40 - John Travolta's age in Pulp Fiction (1994)
41 - Clint Eastwood's age in Dirty Harry (1971)
42 - Tom Hanks' age in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
43 - Roy Scheider's age in Jaws (1975)
45 - Dustin Hoffman's age in Tootsie (1982)
46 - Jimmy Stewart's age in Rear Window (1954)
46 - Paul Gleason's age in The Breakfast Club (1984)
46 - Sam Neill's age in Jurassic Park (1993)
46 - Tom Skeritt's age in Alien (1979)

For this bit, a tip of the hat to the great Lex G.

5.16.2019

Knee-jerk review: "Avengers: Endgame"

1. It's just amazing the way Marvel has created this 22-film, 11-year tapestry of intersecting plots and timelines with characters mostly unknown to the general public prior to the movies.  You may not like the Marvel movies, but you certainly have to respect them.  Selling billions of dollars of tickets only works when you're clicking with audiences.
2. Contrast that to the mostly disastrous way Warner Bros. has handled the recent string of movies featuring the far more recognizable DC stable of characters.  How did Wonder Woman turn out so well?  Justice League was horrible, people.  Horrible.
3. There was definitely something stuck in our eye on more than one occasion during the movie.
4. The filmmakers go the extra mile to give the villain Thanos some real pathos.  He's not a purely evil, mustache-twirling bad guy.  You can kind of see his point of view in all of this.
5. "Avengers... assemble."
6. The most superfluous and extraneous Avenger: Don Cheadle's War Machine.
7. With two main characters dying (real deaths, not we'll-bring-them-next-movie-with-a-plot-device deaths), we guess it's called Endgame for a reason.  Both deaths pack a big punch.
8. If we had a band, we'd call it the Quantum Realm.
9. The most underrated and needlessly mocked Avenger: Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye.
10. No matter how clever, time travel movies always fall apart when you start to really examine the logic and the many ways the characters should be ruining the established timeline.  So it may be better to just grin and enjoy the ride.
11. We suspect it's probably weird that we have a thing for Nebula.
12. We can see that the filmmakers have to be very careful explaining why Captain Marvel is never around.  Like Superman, she's just so powerful that she completely undermines all of the tension.  We're calling it now: Captain Marvel 2 will follow Superman II's lead and create conflict and stakes by featuring either a temporary loss of her powers or a villain with her same exact powers.
13. It was a good idea, but the execution of that trying-too-hard iconic battlefield gathering all of the female Avenger heroes was too cheesy.
14. "I love you three thousand."  See?  Something stuck in our eye.
15. Thor running with the Guardians of the Galaxy? Yes, please.
16. Very satisfying.
17. But we'd like to call a moratorium on climaxes that feature energy beam combat.  Enough already.
18. Bonus points for the big, sweeping, curtain-call style credits for the original Avengers actors.

The Six Marvel Cinematic Universe Films We Still Haven't Seen (In the Order We'd Like to See Them)

1. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
2. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
3. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)
4. Doctor Strange (2016)
5. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
6. Thor (2011)

4.27.2019

The Hollywood To-Do List (circa 2015)

Two years after moving to Texas, the Cheese Fry was feeling "homesick" for Southern California. By chance, our office hired a new temp worker with dreams of moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting.  And so we got to play the role of wise industry mentor and seasoned Hollywood sage (whether the temp worker liked it or not), which culminated in us preparing for him a list of things he had to do as soon as he made the move west in late 2015.

We present the list below with the understanding while its validity may have faded in the last four years, it would serve as an essential document for any new Angelino resident in 2015.

* See a movie in the Arclight Hollywood Cinerama Dome.
* Look for celebrities at the Grove outdoor mall on Fairfax (especially inside the Barnes and Noble bookstore).
* Take the Warner Bros. VIP studio tour (it's pricey, though - wait for family to come visit - but you see everything on the lot).
* Eat at Fatburger (make sure you find one that can charbroil - some just have the griddle), Zankou Chicken (the garlic paste is amazing - comes with the chicken but ask for extra), El Coyote and El Cholo (great Mexian at both places), Astroburger on Santa Monica in West Hollywood, Islands (get the mushroom burger), and Jerry's Famous Deli (the biggest menu we've ever seen).  For seafood, there's the high-end Gladstones (great view where the PCH meets Sunset) and the low-end Reel Inn (on PCH north of Gladstones).
* Use TVTickets.com to go see a talk show or sitcom taping (tickets are free so they go fast).
* Walk on the Santa Monica Pier at dusk.
* Drive the Sunset Strip at night.
* Visit the Samuel French bookstore on Sunset Blvd. - packed full of acting/directing books and plays.
* See a game at old-school Dodger Stadium (just don't wear any team gear but Dodgers team gear), not the new-money Angels Stadium.
* Watch a Dodger game on TV called by Vin Scully before he dies.
* Take in the view of L.A. basin (on a clear day - if you can find one) from the Griffith Observatory.
* Watch an old movie at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.
* Spend a day or weekend in Big Bear up in the mountains east of L.A.
* Experience the hippie weirdness of the Venice Boardwalk.
* Get a drink at the Cat and Fiddle Pub on Sunset, the Pig n Whistle on Hollywood, or the retro (dark wood, red leather booths, no windows) Musso and Frank on Hollywood.
* Prepare to pay to park no matter where you are - valet, meters, garages, none of it's cheap.  Give yourself extra time to decipher the parking signs.
* See a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
* Use the word "the" when referring to the freeways (Texans say "635," but in L.A. it's "the 10" and "the 405").
* Avoid the freeways whenever possible (you can always break the ice with someone by asking how traffic was or how they got somewhere - people are proud of their shortcuts).  Use side streets and get creative.
* See the handprints and footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
* Read Deadline.com and either Variety.com or THR.com as often as you can to know what's happening in town.
* Make sure your apartment has working air conditioning that blows cold and hard.
* Stay off the city buses, but the Metro subway can be a fun way to do special-occasion trips (there's a station right next to the Chinese Theater on Hollywood).
* Remember that Hollywood is a very small factory town - everyone may not know everyone, but everyone knows someone who knows someone.
* Work the room and be extroverted.
* Get a part in a major motion picture.




3.30.2019

Thirteen Things We Learned on a Trip to Manhattan

The Cheese Fry spent 17 years in Los Angeles (we lived in Pasadena for a few years, then hit for the Hollywood cycle - West Hollywood 1999-2004, Hollywood 2004-2009, North Hollywood 2009-2012), but only last month did we find ourselves visiting the Other Coast when a work conference landed us in the Marriott Marquis right in the heart of Times Square in New York City.

Below are a few things we learned.

1. The Empire State Building seems impossibly tall.  We were doing the tourist thing at Rockefeller Center and noticed the Empire State Building towering just south of us.  It seemed so close, we figured we'd just do a quick walk down there for a few pictures.  Turns out it looked close because it's a hundred stories tall.  After 20 minutes of walking, we finally got to the front of it.  Craning our neck up, we couldn't even see the spire on top.  Somehow, maybe because it's stone and brick, it seems more intimidating and impressive than the taller glass and steel of One World Trade Center.

2. New York pizza is pretty good, but we probably would still give the nod to Chicago deep dish.  When you take your first bite into a pizza in Chicago, it's unlike any pizza you've ever had before.  It's akin to a religious experience.  The New York pizza we tried in a little pizzeria on Seventh Avenue was good but hardly transcendent.  The toppings were top notch, agreed, but the crust was rather ordinary.  Bonus points, though, for what we can only assume is a genuine New York customer service treatment: grumpy and surly counter workers who seemed barely interested in our business  The three employees maybe said four words to us combined.

3. Times Square is like Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles, magnified by a factor of ten.  The intersection of Hollywood and Highland is a garish, neon-lit tourist trap of high-end stores and restaurants packed side-by-side with cheap junk stores and street food vendors, all of it goosed by the presence of the historic Chinese Theater (the one with the sidewalk footprints), the famous Dolby Theater (where the Oscars are handed out), and the Masonic Temple where ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" tapes every afternoon. It always packed with tourists of all ages, sizes, and nationalities and the streets are filled with tour buses (both the charter sort and the double-decker guided tour sort).  That's the vibe of Times Square, only bigger, louder, and with brighter lights.  When we walked out onto Times Square at 11pm on a Saturday night, it was elbow-to-elbow with people and lit up like high noon.  The giant, three-story video boards running advertising loops (our favorites were for Coca-Cola and McDonald's) were right out of the flying car scenes in Blade Runner.

4. The Statue of Liberty is way far away from Manhattan island.  Watching movies, you get this sense that Liberty Island is a quick hop from New York City, all alone in the harbor, bravely facing the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and all those huddles masses yearning to be free.  The truth is not quite so romantic.  The Status of Liberty is essentially landlocked on all sides by dreary, industrial skylines.  Who knows where the actual entrance to the ocean is?  More disappointing, we walked all the way to the southern tip of Manhattan to see the statue.  It was so far away and so tiny we could barely even tell what it was.

5. You know that saying about "there's never a cop when you need one"?  That doesn't really apply with the NYPD.  Admittedly, we mostly visited the popular tourist attractions.  But everywhere we turned, there were groups of police officers gathered together talking, walking on patrol, or sitting in their parked cars.  Some even had assault rifles slung across their shoulders.  When Wikipedia reports there are 38,000 officers, we believe it.

6. The New York subway is just as old and quirky and crowded and you might imagine.  Here are some specifics:
* At one point, we walked down at least three stories to get to our platform.  These subway tunnels run deep.
* We saw a guy in a tuxedo playing the cello for money.
* A local confirmed that you can indeed see rats if you look down off the platform and onto the tracks.
* We witnessed one surprisingly clean-cut, well-dressed guy making a dramatic speech to the entire car about how he needed money to buy food.  He was ignored.
* We noticed a guy sitting across the aisle that seemed unable to stop staring at us in a most unnerving manner.
* On our trip down to the World Trade Center, the subway was mostly empty and quiet.  The trip back was another story.  Our car seemed already pretty full when we got to Penn Station.  But the word "full" takes on a whole other meaning when another 20 or so people shoved their way through the doors and filled every possible nook and cranny.  Lesser tourists than us surely would have experienced a claustrophobic panic attack.  Luckily, our stop was the next stop and we were close enough to the doors to surf the wave of shuffle-step disembarkation out to the platform.
* We saw no graffiti.
* Do your homework in advance so you know which subway going in which direction you want to get so you at least look like you know what you're doing.
* We giddily got to perform the stereotypical New York City subway move whereby you dart through the doors at the last possible instant, just moments before they blast closed.
* We saw people with grocery bags, clearly using the subway for doing to their personal shopping and errand running the way normal people use cars.

7. You step off the curb against the light at your own risk.  We didn't want to look like a rube tourist.  We saw everyone else walking when the light shined a red "Don't Walk."  Those people all looked local, bundled up with briefcases and earbuds, headed to work or home.  We wanted to follow their lead and fit in.  That's all well and good... just be sure to look both ways.  New York taxi cabs will not stop if they have the right of way.  And in our case, they don't even honk.  We walked against the light one afternoon and happened to glance to the left in time to see the front grill of a cab charging right us.  We stepped out of the way of the driver's side fender without a moment to spare like some kind of Manhattan toreador.  We like to think that he knew he'd miss us and that he would have hit the brakes if needed.  Right?

8. Broadway theaters aren't the kind of venues we expected.  We saw Wicked in Los Angeles at a huge, sprawling theater.  That's the usual Broadway regional touring venue.  But the New York City theaters are older and much, much smaller.   We saw Chicago at the Ambassador Theater, built in the 1920s and holding just 1000 people.  It's old and it looks old.  Cramped seating, worn walls, out-dated decor.  And concessionaires were right there in aisles selling soda, water, and candy out of big boxes on shoulder straps like they do at a baseball game.  The guy in front of us actually bought a giant Kit-Kat bar.  Whatever happened to the dignity of live theater, people?  (The New York City definition of a "Broadway theater," by the way, has nothing to do with location; it must seat more than 500.  The more you know.)

9. Careful framing by countless cameras over the years has given the wrong impression about the size of the Rockefeller Center ice rink.  It's tiny.  Standing there we realized how easy it is for camera operators to just, like, not show the front end of the rink when you're facing that gold statue, those flags, and the brick facade of Rockefeller Center.  If you don't show the front of the rink, then TV and movie audiences are likely to assume the rink just goes on forever.  The public rink at your local mall is probably way bigger.  Weird.

10. Good luck hailing a cab when you're lost.  We thought we knew where to find a subway station to catch a ride back from looking at the Statue of Liberty.  But we could not find it anywhere.  It should be right... here.  But nothing.  Our feet were tired, it was getting dark, our iPhone battery was down to 8%, and the lonely deserted side streets we were walking didn't have that same hubbub of tourist traffic.  If only we could hail and cab and just pay our way back to the hotel.  No cabs in sight.  Long story short, we made it back.

11. It's hard to understand the size and scale of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.  Then you're in the plaza looking at the reflecting pools that fill the giant square footprints of the absent Towers.  Those building things were massive.

12. NBC's "The Today Show" covers their anchor desks with quilts between broadcasts.  We know because we peered in through those famous Studio 1-A windows at around 11am on a weekday.  The giant cameras are all there, slumped over asleep, but the desks are covered up.

13. The bronze bull statue on Wall Street is actually a tourist destination.  To us, that statue would be considered a rather obscure Manhattan landmark, likely not even cracking the top 30 on a list of New York City icons.  But there the people were, lined up probably 40 deep in front of the bull, patiently waiting a turn to pose for photos in front of the statue.


3.22.2019

Knee-jerk review: "Captain Marvel"

1. Yeah, we know the TV spots showed Captain Marvel blasting into space with all a-glowing eyes.  But we still feel like the Disney marketing campaign completely underplayed the fact that this is, like, a very sci-fi movie.  A good third of it takes places on spaceships and other planets.  Not a criticism necessarily.  Just a surprise for us sitting there with our popcorn.
2. We are a jaded, hard-to-impress moviegoer.  We've seen it all.  So a tip of the cap to an unexpected twist midway through the movie that flipped some of the good guy/bad guy allegiances.  We know, we know - we should have seen it coming.
3. Hard to believe this is the 21st Marvel movie.  For a while there we were doing pretty good seeing them as they were coming out, but we got sidetracked with, you know, kids.  Still haven't seen Civil War, much less Infinity War.  Our favorites remain Iron Man 3, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
5. Annette Bening continues to age very, very well.  How does she do that?
6. The technology that de-ages actors has made huge strides since 2010 and the creepy, wax-figure effect they used on Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy.  To our eye, this 1990s version of Sam Jackson in Captain Marvel looks just like the 1993 Jurassic Park edition.
7. Is your house cat secretly a Flerken?
8. The first 20 minutes or so are something of a mess, what with the space planet setting and all the alien races and the flashbacks and fractured memories.  Things finally settle into a groove once Captain Marvel crashes through the ceiling of a 1990s era Blockbuster store.  
9. Our brains can't comprehend the motivation of the trolls that tried to undermine the movie before it opened by doing things like flooding Rotten Tomatoes' website with negative comments.  Are there really men out there that deeply offended and enraged by the idea of a female superhero movie (or by clumsy if well-intentioned comments about women and minority film critics by star Brie Larson)?
10. At this point we just have to accept that comic book superhero movies must end with blinding explosions and noisy energy beams.  Typically, these climaxes - to which surely 25% of the film's entire CGI visual effects budget must go - are not only way over the top, but usually go on twice as long as they should.  That we feel this way makes us feel very old and out of touch.  Now shut up and get off my lawn.
11. The reptilian Skrulls scared our seven-year-old, for what it's worth.  Though Ben Mendelsohn's Talos may be the movie's funniest character.
12. When these Marvel movies come out, we get a fleeting sense via internet comment boards that there's an immense amount work that the filmmakers must do to boil down years and years of comic book storylines (and hero iterations - with Marvel, there always seems to be more than one version of every superhero) into a single two-hour movie.
13. The obligatory credits tag scene may be the best part of the movie when Captain Marvel shows up to meet our Avengers.  More, please.
14. Cheesy as it may be, there is something thrilling about the moment when Captain Marvel, so full of uncertainty and doubt about her talents and ability, always getting told she's not yet ready and needs to follow the rules, cuts loose and embraces her full, insane power.  (She's more powerful than Superman, right?)  How is that sort of "you can do it if you believe it" message not fantastic for all of the girls in the audience?
15. We liked it.  Are we getting soft?  We think we are.

12.05.2018

Knee-jerk review: "A Star Is Born"

1. Let the record reflect that we saw this film almost a month ago, so we are stretching far the definition of "knee jerk." But it's our blog and we make the rules.
2. What still sticks with us all these many weeks later? The handheld, documentary-style vibe of the cinematography and all of its "sloppy" lens flares and grain.  The languid, unrushed pace of the writing - the dialogue scenes feature long silences and meaningful looks.  The idealized, romanticized world of musicians - whether it's downtown whisky bars, big loud stage shows, or plush mansion hideaways, this is a movie that loves to show you how cool it is to be a successful singer-songwriter.
3. There's a reason this story has been told in four different movies - there's something very compelling about the simplicity of the plot: newbie singer rises to the top of the industry just as her mentor boyfriend musician slides into irrelevance.
4. No, we never saw the other three versions.
5. Plus, there's Sam Elliott at his most Sam Elliott-ness.  He also delivers one of film's more raw and emotional moments when his little brother blurts out an unexpected confession.
6. It's not always subtle, but give the filmmakers credit for trying to add metaphor - repeated water imagery is a big one - and subtext to the story.  It has bigger artistic aspirations than many movies.  
7. We've long been a big fan of Lady Gaga.  She likes to project an aura of aloof weirdness, but underneath the makeup and meat dresses she's a 100% legitimate musical powerhouse. This movie does nothing to shake that assessment.
8. Weird to see Andrew Dice Clay in such a quiet, likable role.
9. Spoiler alert: we did feel a little queasy with the way the movie kinda, sorta glamorizes suicide as some kind of noble, selfless act.
10. That said, the movie pulls no punches showing the horrors of alcoholism, especially in the Grammys scene.  You'll know it when you see it.
11. "I just wanted to take another look at you."

11.28.2018

Book report: 'Live and Let Die' by Ian Fleming (1954)

Growing up, we loved the James Bond movies and remember well the excitement of watching Moonraker (79), For Your Eyes Only (81), and Octopussy (83) in movie theaters.  At a certain point during our elementary school days, we collected most of the Ian Fleming James Bond paperbacks at a discount bookstore.  We spent a good chunk of seventh grade laboring through the the novel Goldfinger (published in 1959), surely our first realization that movie adaptations can take considerable liberties with the source material.

Recently, while packing for a Thanksgiving trip, we stumbled across that dusty stack of Fleming novels.  Flipping through Live and Let Die, we were surprised to see that it ran only 159 pages.  And so, thirty years after reading Goldfinger, we decided to give Ian Fleming another crack.  

Here's what we discovered… 

* Fleming - and by extension the character of James Bond - certainly has a romantic appreciation for the finer things in a secret agent's vocation.  That is, Bond enjoys the good life.  "Luxurious" is a frequent Fleming adjective.  The novel takes great satisfaction in describing in detail Bond's expansive meals, his fancy cocktails, his sleek wardrobe, and his first-class accommodations.  Bond stays at the plush St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan and enjoys a ride from New York to Florida in a two-room train suite.  Room service is always a must.  Indeed, there is a travelogue element to the book as the author points out the exotic details of Central Park and Harlem and then Florida and Jamaica. (FYI, Fleming had an estate on Jamaica and that portion of the book gets particularly bogged down in Jamaica minutiae.)

* Fleming's Bond has a nasty streak.  This is not a guy who kills only in self-defense.  He's also not a guy that seems to have much of a sense of humor.  This is all serious business, even the giant room service breakfasts.

* We were surprised to see so many similarities between the book and the 1973 film of the same name.  We expected bigger differences.  Both involve an investigation of the goings-on of an African-American crime kingpin named Mr. Big who has a flair for the dramatic in that he uses voodoo to manipulate his minions.  And both book and movie feature an an enigmatic female character named Solitaire (played by a very young Jane Seymour in the movie) who may or may not be psychic.  The movie wisely dumped the goofy Captain Morgan treasure angle (you see, Mr. Big has discovered Morgan's treasure of gold coins and is smuggling those into the US to fund his operation), which is certainly unique but ultimately just too hard to buy.

* Fleming isn't necessarily a bad writer.  But neither is he a wordsmith.  It gets the job done, no more no less.

* The novel's racist stereotyping of African-Americans is shameless and, frankly, unbelievable. Sadly, it's without question the book's most memorable feature.  We can assume the term "Negro" was widely used in 1954, right or wrong, but there's no excusing Bond (and Fleming's) smugly condescending attitude when it comes to the African-Americans he encounters, whether it's patrons in a Harlem bar, porters on a train, a CIA asset in Jamaica, or the generic henchmen of Mr. Big.  Those who aren't viewed as hopelessly simple-minded (note the frequent tsk-tsk discussion of how easily dimwitted African-Americans buy into voodoo) are marveled at for actually being smart and capable in spite of their supposed limitations.  It's all very icky.  We wonder how accurate this all might be in reflecting 1954 racial attitudes.

* It would seem that bombs and dynamite sticks were a big thing for bad guys in 1954.

* Bond likes to take a hot shower, followed immediately by an ice cold shower.  This happens more than once.

* There's definitely a procedural element to the novel's plotting.  Not much really happens.  Aside from a couple of abbreviated gunfights and a nice set piece at the end, most of the scenes wouldn't feel too out of place on an episode of "Law and Order."  The good guys talk to people, gather clues, drive around or take public transportation, get sidetracked by dead ends, crack lame jokes, discuss next steps, then repeat.

* At least one James Bond movie cliche may have come straight from the books: it doesn't take much for Bond to completely charm the female lead.  A couple of moments with Bond and she's swooning.  Solitaire's psychic ability is intriguing, but it barely pays off.  She's there as a plot tool only - the bad guy's girlfriend who betrays him for the good guys, then gets kidnapped in order to allow our hero to rescue her.  Yawn.

* No Walther PPK.  For those who care about such things, Bond uses a small caliber Beretta.

* Shark attacks play a huge role in the story, but it all feels rather quaint because - at least in our opinion - sharks don't eat people in the real world the way they do in the book. Maybe it's easier to see that truth today than it was for a 1954 reader without access to endless shark documentaries on television. It's another variation on the novel's whole "exotic world" travelogue vibe.  Look at this scary Harlem jazz club!  Look at how sharks in Florida eat people!

* That said, the book ends with a fairly tense sequence (ultimately included in the For Your Eyes Only movie) involving a ticking bomb on a boat and Bond and Solitaire dragged through the ocean over reefs to attract sharks. 

* Overall, it's a probably all an exercise in critical relativism.  It can be hard to appreciate what's new in the novel when in so many ways it probably blazed a spy thriller trail that countless others followed.  And so what seems musty and rather pedestrian today clearly struck a chord with contemporaneous readers in 1954 who found the novel exciting and thrilling enough to make it a best seller.

7.13.2018

"The More You Know" (da-da-da-daaa)


From Mental Floss, a quick history of NBC's famous "The More You Know" public service announcements.  Genius.

Confessions of a Youth Volleyball Parent

* The more we watch volleyball, the less we understand the rules.  Just when we have it all figured out (you can only score if you're serving, you see), something happens on the court that completely baffles us.  We've now more or less given up and just crinkle our face to make it look like we understand everything and are carefully considering all levels of strategy and execution.  You think they're buying it?
* The worst is when the ball rolls to our feet and we have no choice but to put it back in play.  But who's serve is it now? We weren't paying that close attention. Well, we were paying attention but now with the pressure of everyone looking over to see where the ball went we can't remember who served last.  Does the ball go back to that team... or this team?  Invariably, we choose wrong and toss the ball to the wrong side, only to suffer the humiliation of an 8-year-old girl correcting our mistake and sending the ball where it actually belongs.
* Some of the other volleyball moms aren't drinking water from their fancy big plastic tumbler, if you know what we mean.  This isn't speculation. This has been verified.
* As exhilarating as it can be to watch your kid's team run up the score on a hapless opponent, it's just as disheartening to have your kid be a member of that hapless team getting steamrolled by a superior opponent.  We've experienced both ends of that particular scoreboard spectrum, once during the same two-hour period.
* Here are the six kinds of players you'll find on a youth volleyball team:
1 The kid who's afraid to touch the ball with anything approaching intent, so the player ducks away from an incoming ball, serves with a wet-fish half-ass swing that barely makes it to the net, and otherwise cringes the entire time they're out there.
2. The kid who might as well be on the junior varsity team now, making sophisticated digs and spikes and launching untouchable, rocket serves over the net.  How is that little kid already that good?  Sometimes they're even the shortest kid on the team.
3. The kid that's completely inconsistent, making MVP moves one moment, then flailing around cluelessly the next.  You never know what you're going to get.
4. The coach's kid.  Sometimes they're pretty good, but mostly they're not.
5. The hapless kid that tries so hard every time but just can't make anything happen.  They're returning one ball straight up into the rafters, shanking another into the face of the scorekeeper, or swinging with all of their might and completely missing (the ball never got within five feet of them).  They're trying, but it's a disaster every time.
6. The kid who's out there doing anything but paying attention.  This player is dancing and laughing or craning their neck around to look at the scoreboard or chatting with the player next to them or staring at the floor.  What they're not doing is staying focused and watching the ball.  This is probably your kid, FYI.
* You don't hit the volleyball with your hands.  You hit the volleyball on the flat part of your forearms.  We didn't know this.  That is apparently called by some "the platform."
* This whole youth sports thing isn't a cute little bit of recreation, people.  It's an industry.  The facility we use is packed with as many as ten games going on at once.  It's a cacophony of whistles, tennis shoe squeaks, ball thuds, and parental cheers.  And if everyone's paying as much as we're paying, that place is essentially a suburban Fort Knox.
* It's always fun when your kid's team is down by a point or two with the clocking winding down and there's zero urgency or hustle from anyone to try and get in a few more plays to get the go-ahead score before time expires.  In the final seconds, it's like everyone purposely goes into foot-shuffling underwater slow-motion when it comes time to reset and toss the ball back to the server.
* It can be very hard to maintain a positive, encouraging attitude when the ball drops straight down equidistance between three players on your kid's team and no one moves an arm or a foot even one inch to try and return it.  This happens multiple times during a game.
* We think that snack counter popcorn just came out of the popper.  How can it already taste so stale?
* To say we get tired of yelling "Rotate!" at games would be an understatement.
* As mentioned, we don't know much about volleyball, but even we have determined that at this level, teams live and die on the ability to serve a ball over the net.  There's just not a lot of returning.  But then you have these kids serving the ball by tossing it up and palm smacking it like they're Misty May at the Olympics (rather than underhand hit it out of your left hand).  If we weren't so lazy, we'd keep track of how many palm-hits actually go over the net and stay in bounds.  If it's more than 15% we'd be shocked.  But a majority of the kids do it that way regardless.
* We understand that in the world of youth sports, coaching usually comes down to whichever parent has been sufficiently guilted into volunteering.  It's the luck of the draw as to whether your $115 (and ten weeks of your life) will be spent with a coach that will patiently and competently teach skills or a coach that has no idea what they're doing and doesn't seem inclined to learn.  
* But if you're not going to volunteer, you really have no room to complain.  Ms. Cheese Fry didn't volunteer to coach this summer because she didn't think she'd do a good job.  Only now, seeing the coach we ended up with, does she truly know what it means to "not do a good job."  We're calling it a teachable moment.
* Maybe adults should end their workday by lining up and slapping hands with their coworkers with a mumbled "good game."  Would the world be a better place?
* Move your feet and get in front of the ball!

Knee-jerk review: "Solo: A Star Wars Story"

1. It's not bad.  Hardly an enthusiastic endorsement, we know.
2. Probably helped that we went into the theater with pretty low expectations, what with all of the ongoing stories of production problems: fired directors, reshoots, acting lessons for the star.  What a mess.  All of that bad publicity can make it hard to evaluate the movie on its own terms.  Is it really good?  Or do we think it's good mostly because we know it could have (should have?) been much terrible?
3. Donald Glover shines as a younger Lando Calrissian, surprising absolutely no one.
4. We think the problem may be that the filmmakers are telling a story demanded mostly by the needs of Disney's ledger sheet.  No one's particularly eager to see exactly how Han Solo met Chewbacca or made the Kessel Run or won the Millennium Falcon from Lando.  Are they?  Do we need to see every throwaway line from the original trilogy dramatized and adapted into a $200 million feature film of its own?  (A similar problem faced 2016's Rogue One, but that movie at least delivered a story with new faces and a killer hook: just how did the Rebel spies steal the plans to the original Death Star?)  Better perhaps instead to just tell some random Han Solo smuggling adventure rather than exploring his entire origin story as if he were a Marvel superhero.
5. Lando's maybe-more-than-friends relationship with his droid L3-37 is pretty unexpected, if strange.
6. Some say a good movie needs only deliver two or three memorable moments and a strong ending.  By that yardstick, Solo more or less fits the bill.  There's a great ice train hijacking sequence in the middle, some fun double-crosses at the end, and also the satisfying moment when Han outplays Lando at sabacc (which seems to be a real game with rules and everything).
7. To us, Woody Harrelson can do no wrong.  He's just always great.
8. Some Star Wars fans had a problem with the casting of Alden Ehrenreich, whose previous big credit was a somewhat funny bit in the Coen Brothers' otherwise unfunny "comedy" Hail Ceasar.  This argument never made sense to us; actors have long reinterpreted characters and roles.  There's been two Dumbledores, five and counting James Bonds.  Even so...  While Ehrenreich does an pretty good job capturing that Solo swagger and crooked-smile charm, his whiny voice is markedly different from Harrison Ford's surly growl.  Turns out to be a bigger distraction than you might imagine.  In other words, we think the producers could have done better.
9. These Star Wars Story stand-alone sequels - as opposed to the numbered "official" saga movies - were originally envisioned by Lucasfilm to be a sort of sandbox series to allow up-and-coming filmmakers to create Star Wars stories with different looks and sensibilities.  Which is why Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who directed the hilarious The Lego Movie) were hired to do Solo.  The idea seemed to be to give the movie a completely different, quirky vibe.  But along the way, Star Wars executive changed their mind presumably when they realized that Lord and Miller were making a movie along the same line as The Lego Movie.  Shocking, right?  Why hire a blacksmith unless you want him to make you a horseshoe.  And so, the producers stepped in and asserted creative control (just as they had for Rogue One) by firing the directors and hiring Ron Howard(!).  You can sort of see the Lord and Miller screwball tone bubbling underneath Solo.  Howard may be an A-list director, but he's all competent polish and little genuine creativity and art (see also: The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams).  While we understand the worry about letting Solo get too oddball... the easy answer would seem to be to cut the budget.  That is, make those stand-alones cheaper and leaner movies that don't need to gross $700 million worldwide to earn back their budgets. But Hollywood never asked us.
10. What all of this means is that while Solo has to date grossed over $200 million in the U.S., it's been deemed a failure and has reportedly led Lucasfilm to reconsider future stand-alone movies.
11. We can't take credit for this observation, but we completely agree: the appeal of Han Solo in the original 1977 Star Wars was that he's a selfish opportunist who ultimately decides to join the rebellion.  But here in Solo, he's already got a selfless heart of gold, his decisions driven by his determination to get back to his old girlfriend.  It just feels... off somehow. At the very least, Solo should show how a idealistic rookie criminal gets burned so many times he becomes the cold-blooded smuggler we later meet in that Mos Eisley cantina.  But Hollywood never asked us.
12. Fun, but perhaps too forgettable.