Rocky Balboa (***)

Posted on December 27th, 2006 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

When I first heard that Sylvester Stallone was making Yet Another Rocky Movie I cringed. How pitiful, I thought, that Sly would hang onto the lower rungs of Hollywood and exploit his purest achievement in a base attempt to recapture former glory.

Mea culpa. Boy, was I wrong, and I freely and joyfully admit it.

Rocky Balboa captures much (but not quite all) of the punch and emotion of the first Rocky film, and remains true to the original’s flashes of gritty realism mixed with slightly unbelievable heroic feats. However, if it were all believable then why would we go to the movies to see it? There’s nothing super-human and there’s no magical realism, and while the story is implausible it is not impossible. For those who don’t know, in the new film Rocky is an aging ex-champion boxer who runs a nice restaurant that traffics on his fame as a local Philly hero. Adrian, his wife, has been dead for several years and Rocky is going through the motions of trying to have a life after the loss of his soul-mate and in the face of his deepening estrangement from his son.

Rocky is still the kind, considerate palooka who speaks with simple wisdom and humor, and cares for those around him. Some guy he once knocked out eats free at his restaurant whenever he wants. A character from the first film, the young girl who Rocky walked home and admonished to stop smoking and quit hanging around with losers, is now a grown woman with a son of her own, and Rocky gives her a job and takes her son under his wing – with no romantic or lecherous undertones, just because he feels it’s the right thing to do.

But he misses Adrian. He spends a lot of time at her graveside visiting her. He takes a tour of old places from the first film – the pet store, ice skating rink, Mick’s boxing gym, his own old apartment, etc – and he drags his brother-in-law Paulie along with him, until Paulie can’t take it any more. You see, Rocky is living in the past and not moving on – he’s staying alive, but he’s festering.

In a parallel thread we learn about the current heavyweight champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (great name!). He’s undefeated and undisputed, but he’s beaten all of his opponents so handily that nobody takes him seriously as he has yet to prove he has enough heart to go the distance against a worthy opponent.

And so one night ESPN airs a special in which a computer simulation of Rocky in his prime fights Dixon in his prime, and the computers say that Rocky would win. This gives Rocky the idea of getting back into boxing, even though he’s 60 years old. Nothing big, just local club fights, because as he tells Paulie, he’s still got some stuff in his emotional basement that he needs

Esther’s Follies (***½)

Posted on December 18th, 2006 in Austin,Entertainment by EngineerBoy

If you’re ever in Austin make time to go and see Esther’s Follies on Sixth Street. Part of me wants to refrain from giving away any details so that you can experience it fresh, but my take is that if you don’t already know some of what makes the Follies so good you may not go see it. I mean, if someone were to tell me that Esther’s Follies were a vaudeville-esque stage show that had been running continuously for over 20 years, I’d say something like “That sounds quaint…” and then check the movie listings. I mean, come on, really?! Nothing sounds more boring to me than a show filled with singing, dancing, “comedy” skits, and a local magician. I mean…ugh.

However, several years ago Mynagirl convinced me to go see the show, and it was a lot of fun. At that time the material was a bit dated (Ann Richards jokes?) and the seating was sardine-esque. Well, we went again this past weekend and while a coach seat on Continental is a freakin’ emporer’s throne compared to the mini-seats in the theater, the material was very fresh and super-funny. Our party ranged in age from 17 year old teen girl to a 61 year old grandfather and we all laughed our ***es off!

First off, the show is quite ribald, but they do allow children in – there’s no flashing of skin or anything, but the jokes and innuendos do sometimes end up just over the line on the skanky side of naughty, so if you’re not sure if the show will offend you then it probably will. However the show doesn’t just have naughty bits in order to be shocking, the naughty bits are also quite funny. The cast and crew are very talented and hard-working – you will see them before the show setting up, selling tickets, and helping to seat patrons. After the show you’ll see them setting up for the next show while the patrons file out. It has a very we’re-all-in-this-together-the-show-must-go-on feel to it.

The theater itself is entertaining just standing there. First, the inside is decorated in a strange underwater/pool motif (the “Esther” in Esther’s Follies refers to Esther Williams), with murals and sculptures, and gel lights, and all manner of strange, colorful, and engaging touches. The theater appears to hold around 500 people, and both times we’ve gone it’s been a complete sellout. The seats are little institutional stacking chairs with about a quarter-inch of padding and packed in cheek by jowl (well, cheek to cheek in normal human sitting configuration, but you get the gist).

But the ingenious conceit of the theater is that as you sit and look at the stage, the back wall of the stage, behind the performers, is a floor-to-ceiling picture window looking out onto Sixth Street at pedestrian level. Random revelers wander by the window in various states of sobrietary and awareness of the show – some are shocked when they realize an entire theater is watching

The Execution of Saddam Hussein

Posted on December 3rd, 2006 in Politics by EngineerBoy

With startling speed, Saddam Hussein was executed last night. Mynagirl and I were enjoying a quiet evening at home with CNN Headline News playing as background noise when the news reports started. First it was that Hussein would be executed before the end of the year. Then it was that he would be executed some time this weekend. Then it was that he would be executed some time Friday evening. Then it was that he would be executed at dawn in Baghdad (10pm Eastern time).

Then he was dead, at 10:05pm Eastern. Just like that. I mean, yes, his trial had been ongoing, and the war seems endless, and I think we all knew he was going to end up dead. But to an American used to our justice system’s endless death sentence appeals process this felt closer to a lynching than an execution. Not that I think he was a railroaded innocent, or anything, it’s just that it seemed to happen without warning or preamble.

Which may have been the point. In a country so beset with violence it may be that such swift execution of his…execution…was necessary from a security perspective. If the date had been set days/weeks/months in advance then the date would have become a big, juicy target for symbolic actions. Doing the entire thing over the course of a few hours meant that anyone wanting to strike a symbolic blow in concert with the execution would have had to have a plan already in place and ready to go at a moments notice – and it looks like nobody did.

It would be foolish not to expect some aftershocks to this, however, and I will not be surprised when dramatic actions are taken in response. However, I have a perhaps naive feeling that the responses won’t be too grandiose, as I don’t believe that Hussein has much direct support for himself as a person, only as a power-base. So while Sunnis will lament the loss of their ascendancy and will dislike their new position as a persecuted minority, I don’t think that they’ll actually miss Hussein himself, only the protections he offered (and maintained with ruthless violence and oppression).

The saddest part of this entire story, to me, is that although he was a maniacal bastard, Saddam Hussein had tried to set Iraq up as the only secular country in the entire region. Iraq was not ruled by the Islamic Sharia laws, but by a western-style set of courts and laws. Women and Christians had positions of power within the government and the business world. Hussein hoped to spread secular rule across the Arab world, with Iraq leading the way, naturally.

Stop for a moment and consider that fact. Saddam Hussein took Iraq and molded it into a country that was tolerant of religious differences (except when those differences opposed the rule of Hussein), championed the rights of women, rejected fanatical Islam