Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tell us what you really think

From Josh Levin's review of Meet the Spartans:

This was the worst movie I've ever seen, so bad that I hesitate to label it a "movie" and thus reflect shame upon the entire medium of film. Friedberg and Seltzer [the directors] do not practice the same craft as P.T. Anderson, David Cronenberg, Michael Bay, Kevin Costner, the Zucker Brothers, the Wayans Brothers, Uwe Boll, any dad who takes shaky home movies on a camping trip, or a bear who turns on a video camera by accident while trying to eat it. They are not filmmakers. They are evildoers, charlatans, symbols of Western civilization's decline under the weight of too many pop culture references.

Make with the cash... then we'll talk

So here's another one of the innumerable things that piss me off about the remaining candidates for President: if you go to the official candidate website for a number of the remaining candidates, the section of the site requesting donations is more prominently featured than the sections showing, you know, where they actually stand on the issues. Here's a rundown:

  • John McCain: going to lands you on a page featuing a large black and white photo of McCain with a prominent red button that says "Donate Today." Below this graphic (which takes up about 2/3 of the page) is a small hyperlink that says "Click here to continue to," where you can actually see what he thinks about stuff.
  • Mitt Romney: This is the one that pisses me off the most. takes you to a splash page. The left side of the page features a video on Romney's economic stimulus package. The right side of the page features a photo of Romney and his wife with another big red "Contribute" button. Down in the bottom right corner is a a gray button (about 1/3 the size of the "Contribute" one) that says "Skip to Site" -- as if the donation page was the main attraction and you're out of line for skipping over it.
  • Mike Huckabee: Mercifully, navigating to Mullah Huckabee's site takes you directly to the main content page, where a prominent link to "Issues" appears in the top navigation banner. There's a link to contribute in this same banner, as well as one in a little "Help Mike Today" panel. This strikes me as a reasonable way to handle this issue. Too bad he's a theocratic, squirrel eating nutcase.
  • Hillary Clinton: This one is very borderline for me. On the plus side, there's no splash page and an "Issues" link is featured in the navigation banner. At the same time, there's that tacky red "Contribute" button again in the main header section, right below the featured headline (today's headline: "Hillary Wins Florida!", which, in my opinion, is disingenuous given that there were no delegates at stake and the state was essentially boycotted by the Democratic party and the other candidates, but I digress..). Generally speaking, I find the design of Hillary's site to be the most attractive of all the candidates. It's very clean and Web 2.0.
  • Barrack Obama: This is the strangest of all. You go to a splash page, which asks you to register your email address so as to "join the movement." There's a link to go to the main site without joining, and that's where you get the standard "Issues" link and "Donate" button in the top banner.
What's interesting about the sites that give you a splash page is that they use a cookie to disable it on future visits, which strikes me as the exact opposite of what the rational thing to do would be. If it's the first time I'm visiting your site, presumably I'm not going to give you any money (or join your movement) until I've seen what you think about the issues... so send me right to where I can get at that information. Conversely, if I'm a return visitor, it's more likely that I'm already familiar with what you think and (since I'm coming back) it's also more likely that I'm sympathetic to your candidacy, which makes me more likely to join up or donate -- so give me the splash screen on my return visit.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Less is more

As a sometimes digital filmmaker, I try to learn a little something from every film, TV show, Internet feature or commercial I watch. One such lesson is that less is almost always more. Here are two very different examples.

Example #1:

I finally got a chance to see No Country for Old Men this week. Putting aside my usual issues with the Coen Brothers' dramatic films (aggressive naturalism was once again out in force) and my praise for the performances (Javier Bardem in the scariest SOB alive), this has to be one of the most effective horror films I've ever seen. Of course, it's not primarily intended to be a horror film, but it builds suspense and tension so perfectly that I don't know if I've ever been more disconcerted while watching a movie.

It's all about threatening violence. To be sure, it's a violent movie -- it's tough to watch -- but, particularly early on, all of the scenes that depict actual violence are pretty quick and straightforward. It's the scenes where Bardem never actually does anything -- the scenes where he just talks, watches or listens -- that create the sense of dread. Roger Ebert's review has a good discussion of the coin flip scene, which is probably the best example of this. This scene should be taught in film school: the dialog and editing is so perfect. You're on the edge of your seat the whole time, expecting the other shoe to drop... and then, it never does.

The use of silence is also brilliant. There are numerous long shots of deserts, highways and urban settings where nothing is said and no music plays. Similarly, many of the dialog scenes include long pauses as the characters (and the audience) contemplate what's going to happen next.

In many ways, it's the anti-Hollywood blockbuster: nothing whiz bang, no quick edits, no special effects. Things are just allowed to unfold, very deliberately, and the audience is left to fill in the blanks as they do.

Example #2:

Thanks to John Swansburg at Slate for extolling the virtues of my current favorite series of TV adds: the Bud Light "Dude" spots. I love these commercials! The concept is so simple and the execution is perfect. Every choice in these commercials is right: the piano music, the documentary-style cinematography, the performance of the "dude" Dude. And the best part is there's only one line of dialog: but it's used to convey so many different meanings (Swansburg counts 6 distinct connotations of "dude" in the first spot).

My improv inspiration Brandon Beilis talks a lot about "finding the game" of a particular improv exercise. By this, he doesn't mean "game" in the sense of the premise of the exercise (e.g. "this is the one where we speak only in questions"). He's talking about the unique hook or catch to the particular exercise you're now performing that makes it interesting or compelling: it could be the relationship between the characters, it could be a particular line or catchphrase, it could be the central conflict of the scene. In improv, Brandon stresses the importance of identifying the game early on in the scene and then ruthlessly focusing later choices in the scene around playing to it and strengthening it.

The game of these Bud Light spots is so simple and the attention to it is so singlemindedly focused. What an object lesson for aspiring directors.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The most wonderful time of the year

While spending Sunday afternoon exploring the stacks at the local Borders whilst sipping on caramel mochas, I came across the first sure-fire sign of spring. Others had insisted it had not yet arrived, but I slipped over to the periodicals and had a look, perhaps inspired by an unrealistic and naive optimism.

But there it was... The first fantasy baseball guide of the season.

And so begins another year of the obsessive nerdery, frustration, exhilaration and clever team names that is OBFBL. Well, I supposed by some measure my obsessive nerdery began last week when I created an official statistics website for the league.

In fact, it's probably more accurate to say that my obsessive nerdery is without beginning or end, but what the hell: Kurt says I'm the "the coolest guy I know" because of it.

Pitchers and catchers report in 24 days.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mike Huckabee actually said this

WARNING: This is a serious post.

In setting up this blog, I made the choice to keep the content on the lighter side: silly observations, sports, my adventures in the world of improv/film/theater, etc... I've intentionally avoided posting on politics and philosophy, despite having strong opinions in these areas. I now feel compelled to make an exception to this principle in response to the following comments made by Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in a recent speech in Michigan:

I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the Living God. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.

If this seems surprising or unlikely to you, here's the video:

Please understand what this man is saying, especially if you, like many voters, believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and increasingly lacks a moral center or code. Understand it most especially if you are sympathetic to the idea that Christianity is right and this country would be a better place if more people adhered to its teachings.

He isn't just saying that he doesn't like the way things are going. He isn't just saying that Christianity is good. He isn't just saying that Christianity has something to offer our culture. He isn't just saying that Americans would do well to embrace or "return to" traditional Christian values and ethics.

He is saying that your Constitutionally-protected right to freedom of religion should be repealed and that the government should legally require you and every other citizen to adhere to certain principles or practices of the Christian religion.

There is a name for a political system that forces its citizens to adhere to a particular religious doctrine: it's called a theocracy. Just think about that for a minute: you and I and every other American now live in a country where a major political candidate just publicly and explicitly advocated the establishment of a theocracy: not in the Middle East, not in the Third World, but here in America. Ask yourself if that's something you ever thought you would see in your lifetime.

I acknowledge that there are a lot of people in this country who think Huckabee probably has the right idea: they were instrumental in electing our current President (twice!). I'm not interested in talking to those people. If you agree that this country would be a better place under a fundamentalist religious dictatorship, please do the following for me: on Election Day, don't vote. Instead, have the courage to demonstrate the strength of your beliefs by staying at home and praying for your candidate to win. If you're really serious about what you believe, you should be honest enough to acknowledge the outcome of the election is in God's hands anyway and that He is much more qualified to decide who should be President than you are.

If, on the other hand, you believe that individuals should be free to make their own decisions about religion according to the dictates of their own conscience -- even if you have personally made the decision to embrace Christianity or any other particular doctrine -- I urge you to go back and read or watch Huckabee's comments again and again until you fully grasp the implications of what he's saying. Then, decide if you're comfortable with the idea of supporting a candidate (or political party or faction thereof) whose platform includes the concept of forcing every man, woman and child in this country to adhere to the same religious beliefs -- even if they are beliefs you happen to personally agree with.

Thanks to NoodleFood for bringing these comments to my attention.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The last zoo post... I swear

Yes, I know I've been posting a lot on matters related to zoos lately, but some of this stuff is just too good.

So I happened to make reference to Jack Hanna in an email this morning and went to Wikipedia to get the correct spelling of his name. There, I found this nugget of information:

Though unable to secure zoning as a zoo for his father's farm, the two [Hanna and his wife] opened a pet shop and petting zoo. In 1973, a three-year old boy was mauled by a lion at Hanna's farm and lost his arm. Hanna settled the subsequent lawsuit out of court, shut down the petting zoo, and moved his family to Florida.

Despite my total lack of experience in caring for exotic animals, I'm thinking of changing careers and becoming a zoological management consultant. I'm full of such good ideas that apparently haven't occurred to these people. Lions -- probably not the ideal animal for a petting zoo.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Mitchell Report: American Gladiators edition

Every once in a while, Slate gets it right:

When the commissioner of television asked me to investigate the alleged illegal use of anabolic steroids in American Gladiators, I did not take the assignment lightly. If America can be said to have a national sport, it is this: jousting on platforms with oversized Q-tips, dodging tennis balls fired from a cannon, and scuttling like spiders across a Velcro ceiling. The men and women who call themselves gladiators are heroes to every child who dreams of one day wearing a codpiece on television.

Sadly, my investigation concluded that the veined, grotesque physiques of these mystical warriors were built by needles and pills instead of hard work and warm milk. Most of the illegal substances were procured from Laser, a former gladiator who currently lives upstairs from a Rite-Aid. I conducted four interviews with Laser, during which he was warned that failure to tell the truth could result in jail time, fines, and confiscation of his Atlasphere...

Friday, January 4, 2008

Tiger postscript

The truth finally comes out:

Zoo officials say the tiger likely climbed out of an empty moat that separated the public from the animal's enclosure, which had a 12 1/2-foot wall, making it 4 feet shorter than the recommended minimum height for U.S. zoos.

4 feet shorter than the recommended 16 1/2-foot height, huh? That's 25% too short. That's not what I call a little bit too short. That's a fairly significant deficiency. 25%... wow. That's like seeing a 6-foot tall man and estimating that his height is 4' 6".