Believe and Belong: American Politics, Religion, and Sports

Posted on May 9th, 2005 in Commentary,Politics by EngineerBoy

I consider myself an impartial observer of politics, religion, and sports. I don’t stake my belief system on any particular political party, deity, or team. I also don’t believe that my beliefs are right and other beliefs are wrong, but I do believe that my beliefs are right for me. There are certain philosophies which I categorically reject (e.g. terrorism, straight-ticket voting, designated hitters), but for the most part I am tolerant of other’s beliefs and do not think they are idiots for not seeing things my way (even though many are).

And from my lofty perch of impartiality it appears that American’s views on politics, religion, and sports are morphing into one giant pep rally. People label themselves and then adopt the trappings of their self-imposed pigeonholing. One says, “I’m a Conservative, Catholic, Red Sox fan” and you can just visualize almost all aspects of that person. How they dress. What they say. Where they live. What they eat. Whom they vote for. Which news network they watch. Etc.

Another says, “I’m a Liberal, Unitarian, soccer fan” and you can, once again, grok the gestalt of this individual.

On the one hand, I applaud people for being able to so narrowly define their views. I see good and bad most places, and can usually see the merits of both sides of an argument, and so find myself in a perpetual state of re-evaluating my personal philosophies. It’s very confusing, often tiring, but ultimately invigorating. So on the other hand, I find it difficult to understand how people can adopt a canned set of views and then go through life without constantly questioning themselves.

The World Is Grey

I’ll give you an example of a hot-button topic: capital punishment. Now, from a philosophical perspective I am both for and against capital punishment. How, you say, can you be both? Well, first of all because I reject the polarized views espoused over this issue in America. I am for capital punishment because there are times when a crime is so heinous and the proof is so incontrovertible that nothing short of execution is a fitting punishment. However, I’m also against capital punishment because the fallible nature of humans means that sometimes innocent people are executed, which is unconscionable.

I’ll use two hypothetical examples to explain. In the first, picture a man who is so angry with the boss that recently fired him that he pockets a gun and drives to his bosses house to confront him. The boss ends up shot dead, but there are no witnesses. The fired man says that they exchanged angry words and he pulled the gun, but then changed his mind and tried to leave. He then goes on to say that at that point his former boss attacked him and tried to take the gun away, and in the ensuing struggle the gun went off accidentally, killing his former boss. In this instance I wholeheartedly disagree with the death penalty, as

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (*½)

Posted on May 4th, 2005 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Oh, what might have been. Great source material, big budget…pretty good casting…fair acting…somewhat lazy directing…un-involving characterizations…completely unfunny script…no sign of the wit and humor of the source…all this equals a complete waste of time and money.

Where to begin? Poor Sam Rockwell, perfectly coiffed and costumed as Zaphod Beeblebrox, chewing up the scenery as befits the character. But with no script he’s like a toothless abominable snowman, all sound and fury signifying nothing. Martin Freeman, very everyman-y as Arthur Dent, but his blandness should be contrasted against a backdrop of adventure and excitement, but it isn’t, so he’s just boring. Zooey Deschanel as Trillian is…transparent. Mos Def as Ford Prefect is…struggling with and without his accent. Alan Rickman as Marvin the depressed robot is just whiney. John Malkovich (Humma Kavula) and Helen Mirren (voice of the computer Deep Thought) are just wasted in their semi-cameos.

The effects are clean and crisp, but unimaginative and unoriginal. It looks like they took Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Fifth Element, put them in a blender and then poured the whole thing over Galaxy Quest. It may be that we’ve reached the saturation point where original and creative space films are no longer possible, but I doubt it. It just feels like a lazy, slapdash amalgamation where everyone assumed that since it was based on great underlying books that it would somehow all work. It doesn’t. The producer has no clothes.

The story just lays there. It’s unexciting and un-involving. I think a mistake was made in that the creators of the film looked at the books and thought that their success was based on the actions of the characters, when in fact the books are so wonderful because of the subtle absurdity and wit of the characters and situations. The books are about the adventures of Arthur Dent in space in the same way that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is about the adventures of King Arthur and his quest for the grail. The quest is a backdrop for all the silliness. In the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide, the adventure *is* the story, rather than being the backdrop.

So, yawwwn, another big-budget, soul-less, overblown, saturation-marketed, franchise-ruining movie has been made by Hollywood. I really don’t know why I expected anything different.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (**)

Posted on May 2nd, 2005 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

I don’t know what movie the critics have been seeing that is causing them to give positive reviews, but it’s not playing in Houston. George Lucas has finally completed his hexilogy, and it’s going out with a whimper. Actually, that’s not true, as a whimper would have more emotional depth than exhibited by Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in total in all of their scenes in all of these films. I cannot believe the horrible woodenness of both performances. I cannot believe the horrible flatness of the script. Actually horrible. The scenes with Christensen and Portman are painful to watch…physically painful.

In fact, the only actors who acquit themselves well in this one are Ewan McGregor, Yoda, and the lizard that McGregor rides on one planet. Chewbacca isn’t bad, but he only has a couple of groans. Samuel L. Jackson has never looked comfortable for one second in his role as Mace Windu. The guy playing the Emperor isn’t bad, but his character is just too over the top to be actually scary.

The special effects are practically flawless, but in this film that’s like saying your accountant has figured your taxes precisely correct to the penny. Yes, his figure is very accurate, but it still doesn’t take the sting out of your tax bill. And this film is very taxing. There are a couple of good scenes, and they all are action-based. The scene where Yoda casually shrugs a couple of Imperial Guards (tall dudes in red outfits) away generated belly laughs, and his duel with the Emperor is suitably dramatic.

Also, the final showdown between Obi-Wan and Vader (he takes the name before he takes the mask) is not bad, but Obi-Wan suffers from the same fatal flaw of all good guys in all action movies in that when he has his arch-enemy down and defenseless he doesn’t kill him. He could have used his little toe to push Vader into a lava flow and end all the melodrama, but he doesn’t. Oh well, I guess they’re planning a sequel or something.

Speaking of the entire series, here is my ranking of the Star Wars movies, in order from best to worst:

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (the first one made)
Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (the third one made)
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Spaceballs
Troops
Hardware Wars
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (the subject of this review)
Any random kid waving an empty cardboard wrapping paper tube or laser pointer while making noises like a light-saber and/or Vader breathing
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
A RoboSapien sitting in its box on the shelf at Toys R Us
C-Span
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

So, Episode III is better than I and II, but that’s like saying Kate Jackson was the best actress on the original Charlie’s Angels…it may be true, but so what?

All that being

Unleashed (***)

Posted on May 2nd, 2005 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

So we knew a little bit about this film from the trailers. They showed the Jet Li character being led around, docile and downcast, wearing a neck collar that, once removed, unleashed him as an ass-whupping juggernaut. Jet Li is lead around by Bob Hoskins, an upper-mid-level loan shark whose method of collection is “pay or the collar comes off”. Danny the Dog (Jet Li) lives in a cage beneath the floor of Hoskins’ office, eats cold canned spaghetti, and cherishes his few childhood talismans that remind him of…something…his childhood, maybe, but he can’t really remember. But something good, that much he knows.

Then one day his boss crosses the wrong people and the car carrying Danny and his boss is riddled with bullets by the enemy. Danny survives and ends up at the doorstep of Morgan Freeman’s character. Freeman is a blind piano tuner with a teenage daugher studying in London. Together the father and daughter show Danny the first real kindness in his memory, and Danny starts to regain his human-ness.

But Danny’s old boss didn’t die in the hail of gunfire, and wants his “pet” back. That’s the general premise of this film, which is equal parts testosterone and estrogen. The fighting and action are top-notch, with most/all of the acrobatic moves at least being possible under the laws of physics, if sometimes improbable (meaning no Matrix/Crouching Tiger fantasy fighting…yay!). But the non-action story is also done very well, bordering on being a tear-jerker.

I think that this amalgamation of styles is one reason for the mixed reviews of this film. The action fans don’t want to get all bogged down in plot, pathos, and character development, and the chick-flick fans don’t want all the violence, killing, and cruelty. But the truth is that the film mixes the right amounts of both into a very interesting final product.

Morgan Freeman is at his most Morgan Freeman-y, which is a good thing, and Jet Li actually seems to belong on screen in the same frames as Freeman, which means his acting has improved considerably in this film. My understanding is that the directly sent Li to acting school for a couple of months prior to filming and let me tell you, it helps.

But the real scene-stealer in this film is Bob Hoskins as the bad guy. He portrays a character who is tough, smart, slick, and even sometimes deep, but ultimately evil. His performance alone would be enough to see the film, but when added to the rest of the story Hoskins makes this a must-see film.

American Idol 2005

Posted on May 2nd, 2005 in American Idol by mynagirl

This is last year’s American Idol page. Click here to see the American Idol 2006 Dashboard!! Who’s Been Voted Off the Top Twelve

Week Number
Who Was Voted Off American Idol This Week
In Trouble (In Bottom Three)

Week 1
Lindsay Cardinale

Mikalah Gordon
Jessica Sierra

Week 2
Mikalah Gordon

Anthony Fedorov
Nadia Turner

Week 3
Jessica Sierra

Nadia Turner
Anwar Robinson

Week 4
Nikko Smith

Scott Savol
Vonzell Solomon

Week 5
Nadia Turner

Scott Savol
Bo Bice

Week 6
Anwar Robinson

Scott Savol
Anthony Federov

Week 7
Constantine Maroulis

Vonzell Solomon
Anthony Federov

Week 8
Scott Savol

Anthony Federov

Week 9
Anthony Federov

Unclear? Probably Vonzell Solomon

Week 10
Vonzell Solomon

(N/A)

Week 11
Bo Bice

(N/A)

Finale Ok, I so looked forward to this finale more than last year’s. I mean, I was into it last year, but I wasn’t really rooting for Fantasia vs. Diana or anything. This year I was like, damn, Bo deserves this thing more than Carrie — he’s a better singer, he’s a better performer, he can actually feel and understand the songs he sings (what a concept), and he’s just so much more what American Idol and the music market needs than one more young, plastic, manufactured country-pop nothingness of a singer.

Apparently the producers of American Idol disagreed with me. And I say producers rather than the voters of America because even though I’m sure the voting is legit (think of the lawsuits if it were actually crooked in some way), the judges without a doubt influence it in the way they want to see it turn out. Simon’s been praising Carrie and Bo relentlessly (not without good reason), but — see rants below — he’s been equally relentlessly harsh on Scott Savol when I don’t think it was altogether warranted, because I know he saw Carrie and Bo as more marketable than the (let’s face it) slightly-serial-killer-esque Savol. Carrie especially is the marketing guy’s dream, and I think the producers decided to put their puppetmaster strings to work for her for the finale: she has no embarassing details in her past (“oh no! once she fed the durned cows an hour late!”) vs. Bo’s brushes with the law on marijuana and cocaine charges. Plus, I think it’s so much easier to manufacture a sound and a star in this lordy-I’ll-buy-whatever-they-darned-well-put-on-an-end-cap-in-Walmart flag-waving country America. So Carrie was who they put their influence behind.

The songs were horrible in the finale. Without a doubt they were for Carrie’s audience and vocal style (yawn). Bo did the best he could with that