Monthly Archives: May 2009

For a journey built upon a balloon-carried house, “Up” takes few risks

The problem with success is that it builds upon itself like sentient Lego bricks, continuing skyward until eventually, one pillar looks a bit ugly, or a awkward arrangement of pieces is necessary to continue. When this happens, although progress is made, the surveying crowd can’t help but raise an eyebrow and wonder what’s the matter, despite the continued ascension.

“Up” is a film that, while perfectly enjoyable and well worth the time spent in the theater in front of a cluster of children asking, “What’s going on?” with hissed parental replies, lacks the sort of continuous brilliance that marks Pixar’s best films. Every time a Pixar movie is about to land in theaters, the media goes ga-ga over their track record, ranking the films  on their credentials, lambasting “Cars” for its startling mediocrity and now hailing “Wall-E” as the studio’s tour-de-force. “Up” is best compared to a previous Pixar film, “Monsters Inc.,” which although nice, didn’t stun anyone.

They all do look pretty endearing though...

They all do look pretty endearing though...

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We promise, this time, that your kids are actually in danger

Thanks for the image New York Times...

Thanks for the image, New York Times...

Look at this girl. She seems perfectly happy and content, what with her working phone, face free of terribly unsightly pores and braces, and if the New York Times’ caption is to be believed, she’s an honors student as well. Who would have thought that her life is in grave and gruesome danger from a double-sided blade of debauchery?

When I was in school, teachers were worried about alcohol and marijuana. Before that, it was gangs and radicalization, and before that it was spitballs or whatever Eddie got the Beaver to do that week. Now, our youth are faced with menaces that would send even the most hardened of deviants reeling back in shock.

Hugs and texts.

While that sinks in, let me thank the New York Times for the sort of reporting that our nation needs, the sort of careful exaggeration of youthful trends and a keen eye for trying to create interest-boosting controversy. Do people hug more often? Sure, they definitely do. But it’s this new hugging, this wanton, newfangled way of greeting that’s probably to blame for all of that music downloading and sex stuff.

“It was needless hugging — they are in the hallways before they go to class. It wasn’t a greeting. It was happening all day.”

These are the words of Noreen Hajinlian, a principal of a junior high school in New Jersey who had the foresight to ban hugs two years ago. Now, I know the article in the Times goes on to quote some folks as to why this hugging phenomenon is a natural result of children being more close-knit to particular groups, and suggests that perhaps it stems from a primal need for human contact after sitting in front of screens for the majority of their waking hours, but c’mon. You know where this is going to lead to.

Some parents are going to get concerned that their kids are hugging other kids, that their boys might be hugging other boys and thereby being transformed into homosexuals who eat American flags and their girls will sit beneath red lights during the wee hours of the night. And they’ll whine to school boards, who will follow in Hajinlian’s stupid footsteps and kick hugging on the curbside. While the story is very popular (it’s the most emailed article out of everything on the Times’ website) it’s interesting only with an asterik.

There’s a point at which something becomes so common that it doesn’t neccesarily need reporting, because once something like “teengage hugging” or “tegging” as some local news anchor may call it is brought into light by the mainstream media, people freak out about it and immediately see it as a terrible problem. But if you’re paying attention to your kids, shouldn’t you know they’re hugging more frequently? I picked up on it once I came to Elon, and I’ve noticed it from the schools back at my house. It just seems as though this is just another case of the media trying to make an issue of something that wasn’t a problem beforehand (unless you’re fond of affection in Hajinlian’s building.)

And remember, if you are going to hug, wear protection.

And remember, if you are going to hug, wear protection.

As for that cellphone in the picture at the very beginning of this post (which interestingly, is the same death-dealing device that I use), it’s also a piece of terrible…well…terror. Nevermind how parents used to feel that their kids never communicated with them, that there seemed to be an inconquerable monolith seperating the thought processes of progenitor and progeney. Now, they’re yaking too much, all thanks to text messages. Kids texting their parents is apparently going to stunt their social growth, leaving them to be a bunch of basement-dwelling, neck-bearded mouthbreathers. Well, the article doesn’t go into the basement-dwelling, but the insinuation is there.

Our children are talking to each other too much! They’re communicating! They’re interested in the lives of their friends! How dare they, I say. How dare they indeed. While there are extreme cases of kids doing nothing but texting (one 13-year-old cited in the article got up to 20,000 texts a month, leaving me to wonder how she had time to bathe and eat) there are always going to be extremes.

But to suggest that texting is terrible for kids because it lets them talk to their parents and friends more frequently, and that fostering positive relationships with your parents is a bad thing, as being a complete teenage years is something to be encouraged, is simply dumb. How about the dumbing down of the English language as a result of texting and its incessant use of abbreviations that someone become words of their own? Nah, there’s little indignation in that. That’s a matter of intellectualism, and who cares about that? Certainly not in such troubling times as these, when just the other day, I saw two children hugging with one arm outstretched, its fingers furiously thumbing the number pad.

Terrell Owens reacts to a text-induced finger injury.

Terrell Owens reacts to a text-induced finger injury.

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So long, lazy brick road

I’ll give myself, and the blog, a nice warm welcome back from the busily distracted realm of finals and travels back home (as much as one can consider New Jersey to be a home…) I can’t say that I’ve been overly compelled during this hiatus to put anything online, mainly because the main events that have been swirling around the news sphere have been largely inconsiquential “he said, she said” moments.

Did Rep. Nacy Pelosi know about waterboarding way back when? And to what degree? And who actually still thought of her as a competent and honest leader of our beloved, wonderfully brilliant Congress. The uproar is legitimate, but I can’t say I care too much about any of it.

The same can be said for President Obama’s newfound need to control the car industry. I’ve written before about my distaste for the auto bailouts, and I feel like the same opinions held in that article hold true today. If you want my two cents on the issue, just click the link and saunter off to the Pendulum (I will say that Mitt Romney wrote pretty much the same piece, which of course was in the New York Times a day before the Pendulum went to print.)

I was thinking about putting together something regarding my crankiness over the season finale for Lost, but c’mon, there’s enough fanboyism on here to begin with. There’s a review of Star Trek for crying out loud!

So the blog is back, and expect some new writers to hop in during the summer as well. If not real people, then I’ll put together some macros to blather about the typical Internet-leftist agenda.

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Wilco, the band, present Wilco (The Album)!

Wilco has put their new album up on their site for the world to listen and I, for one, am listening. Expect a review sometime in the next day or so, but in the meantime, listen to it! It’s free, and legal! Plus, you can just stare at the cover art for weeks … Just watch out for the audio quality, it leaves a bit to be desired.

If you don't understand the cover art, you're obviously smoking whatever Jeff Tweedy is.

If you don't understand the cover art, you're obviously smoking whatever Jeff Tweedy is.

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You woeful idiots, join me!

Dr. Carlo Strenger is a pretty darn smart guy. A professor at the psychology department of Tel Aviv University, he frequently contributes to The Guardian (a paper that, if you have not noticed, I worship), mostly on the topic of religion and how it pertains to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I know, it’s a topic that it seems as though everyone in the world has already tossed their two cents into.

But there’s a certain calmness to Strenger’s writing that’s uniquely appealing, and a recent article of his, “Dawkins is wrong about believers” struck me as particularly appealing. In it, his atheist stance is made quite clear (a stance that can be the only logical result of enduring the Middle East’s religious warfare for so long), but he’s not afraid to quickly discredit the man who is considered by many as the king of the modern atheist movement.

A press photo of Richard Dawkins, the prophet...I mean...big cheese of atheism.

A press photo of Richard Dawkins, the prophet...I mean...big cheese of atheism.

That man, Richard Dawkins, though also an intelligent fellow, is also a feverishly pretentious jerk whose eagerness to belittle accomplishes little good other than to cement the beliefs of those he intends to persuade through condemnation. If you agree with Strenger and me, that is.

It’s a pretty simple point that Strenger argues. Dawkins is voracious in his attacks on religion and religious beliefs, and he encourages atheists not to be calm observers of religion’s follies, content in their rationality, but instead to passionately convert them from one belief system to another in a way that is in no manner remotely similar to religious conversion.

This ultimately offends religious folks and makes them further disenchanted with atheists, and more likely to sink further into fundamentalism. It’s like if somebody in a Yankees hat came over, kicked me in the nuts, spat on my Brooks Robinson jersey and then demanded that I purchase some tickets to a Yankees game (for only $240 at that!)

Everybody’s going to be inclined to stick with their preexisting beliefs if berated with new ones that run directly counter to them. The better, and more productive path to take is one of reasonable persuasion, by putting efforts not on dismantling the Catholic church from the bottom up, but in changing their stance on AIDs prevention, for example.

But of course, reasoned, middle-ground ruminations on the possible benefits of a calm and measured relationship between atheists and the religious don’t sell speeches or books…

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Settling for popcorn

Typically, I’m the sort of cultural consumer who runs at everything skeptically, is rarely very pleased and finds it almost sinful to consider compromising the complexity of a lengthy, brilliant source material for the sake of introducing it to a wider audience. The simple reason is because most of these attempts trip right over themselves, because stretching any idea to fit to every taste leaves it bland. No one will necessarily complain if they’re fed bland chicken, but there’s no heart and soul to be found in it. My opinion of the film adaptation “Watchmen” his already on the blog, an opinions birthed entirely from what I think was a blatant misunderstanding of the comic and the transformation of it into a big, dumb, sex-laden adventure.

So to continue with the nerdy theme, let’s run over the new “Star Trek” film, which I absolutely adored. Although it could have been released with the subtitle, “Attack of the Lens Flare,” it accomplishes what few remakes do. It understands what made the original work, and successfully executes on that comprehension.

Plus, you can enjoy it even if you've never argued about the canonical reasons for the changing of the Klingon's appearance and culture from TOS to NG.

Plus, you can enjoy it even if you've never argued about the canonical reasons for the changing of the Klingon's appearance and culture from TOS to NG.

The key to any written work is the characters (a line that makes me feel like a high school English teacher.) It’s ultimately that simple, if the audience can’t be convinced to be at least mildly interested in the folks on the screen or on the page, they’ll jump off the ship. Biting social commentary? A grand plot that runs through the ages? Beautiful cinematography? Explosions? They’re all secondary. Commentary must be delivered by believable sources folks can relate to, otherwise it’s merely heavy-handed and ham-fisted. Stories are just a composition of sentences without characters to flesh them out. An old man goes out to sea and catches a big fish. A poor southern family sets off to bury its mother. This king has some lame daughters and so they kick him off of the throne. None of that sounds particularly interesting, because there’s no reason we should care about anything that was previously listed.

The new “Star Trek” doesn’t have the best plot in the world, it, like anything that involves time travel, has some holes in it. And it lacks the same high-minded intellectualism that marked the Star Trek series at its best. But throughout the two-plus hours, I was persistently interested in what was going on, and at no point did I shift my weight in the seat, clear my throat, and think, “Geez…I think I’ve been here forever.”

The beauty of “Star Trek” is that it understands why people circled around the original series in the first place. I doubt there’s a single Trekkie who got into the series solely because they wanted to understand the intricacies of warp drive technology, or the intricacies or intergalactic diplomacy. Star Trek has endured for decades because Captain Kirk will always be headstrong jerk who is always loyal to his friends and Spock constantly battles between logos and ethos. Even the supporting cast, who in clumsy hands fall into mere stereotypes, are dynamic and at times compelling.

J.J Abrams’ choice of his ensemble of intriguing, instantly-watchable characters can’t be praised enough. There weren’t moments where the audience groans and sighs, “Ugh, not him again,” or wonders why so and so is still even in the plot (I wish I could say the same for another project inaccurately tied to Abrams, “Lost.”) Sure, there were alterations to the characters. Kirk is even more of a jerk, Spock has quite a temper and everyone’s younger and more quip-filled. But it all works for the best, because while the struggle the Enterprise crew finds itself in isn’t the best to grace the series (though Nero is definitely a cut above most Star Trek movie villains) those struggling are still carrying the core of what made Star Trek work in the first place. People. (Well, people and tribbles.)

In short, “Star Trek” is bigger, stupider and more for the common man than the series has been for over a decade. But it’s also far more rewarding and entertaining than the series has been during the same time frame. I’ll stand up for the “Star Trek” re-boot. It proves that, even though beefing up the drama and intellectual content of previously vapid franchises can pay off (a la Batman and James Bond) sometimes the fat needs to be trimmed, baggage has to be checked and the entire theater doesn’t need to know Klingon.

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Why get for free what you can pay for?

UPDATE
Not long after the post below came along, Amazon just announced a new model of the Kindle which will directly take aim at newspapers with a bigger, more cumbersome design. If there’s anything the American consumer wants, it’s large, award hunks of metal. Just look at the success of Transformers!

Alternative titles for the Kindle DX: "Kindle: Easily Stained" and "Kindle: What button do I press for Solitare?"

Alternative titles for the Kindle DX: "Kindle: Easily Stained" and "Kindle: What button do I press for Solitare?"

The Kindle DX (which I can only assume stands for Dudes! Extreme!) holds more information, has a bigger screen, yadda yadda technical stuff. The point is, folks are serious about kicking print to curb, and not just the folks refusing to buy it, but the folks producing it. As of now, only the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post (although with the Post you don’t really need anything else) are available on the Kindle, and if the below rumors are true, it looks like it’ll stay that way.

Just wait. Remember the 8-track vs. cassette duels? Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD? Sega vs. Nintendo? We’re going to have another format war on our hands, which will be lovely. Not only will it change the face of reporting forever (and hopefully it’ll be a profitable change that doesn’t destroy objectivity, but good luck with that) but it’ll give the media something else to talk about.

Published this morning…

Rupert Murdoch emerged from his cave (and stayed outside for a bit, since he didn’t see his shadow) and is now drawing resources from his vast media empire, in particular The Wall Street Journal, The Times and The Sun, to create a new distribution method for news. Now, all of this comes from an annonymous source, so keep some reservations, but give the dire straits that journalism is in, it would make sense for one of the biggest media conglomerates around to try and institute a game-changing model.

Rumor has it that at the forefront of this model will be a new distribution device, a sort of bridge between print and the Internet. Now this will be sure to excite industry insiders, immediate speculation of a informative counterpart to the iPod and the Kindle is sure to arise, and it makes a good deal of sense. The costs of printing are immense, so if the news industry was able to create a piece of hardware that would perhaps use a subscription model to provide instantaneous news updates, there is perhaps quite a bit of money to be made.

As we all know, the Kindle is single-handedly saving the publishing industry from dangerous free-book cabals known as "Libraries."

As we all know, the Kindle is single-handedly saving the publishing industry from dangerous free-book cabals known as "Libraries."

But again, why would people want to do that? News is free on the Internet, and while there are some who would think that a magic electronic dohickey transporting news to them would be handy, the vast majority of people seem to be perfectly content breezing through CNN for a few minutes each day or just briefly scanning through Yahoo’s headlines.

The only way to revert to public to paying for news again is to create scarcity. Essentially, the news industry has to play the ace up its sleeve and perform blackmail. No more news unless you pay for it. Lock up the websites, emphasize subscriptions via the “Newsatron” (real name pending) and hope to the good lord above that customers value information enough to go along with this model and aren’t instead so put off that they abandon mainstream media sources. Which would, disasterously, make the likes of the bloggosphere the main sources of news. But, since 99 percent of news blogs just plunder their stories from mainstream media sources, blogs would be reduced to reporting outlandish heresay and rumor (much like Murdoc’s own FoxNews).

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