The Muppets

The Muppets have always been a big inspiration to me. I grew up watching reruns of The Muppet Show, the 9 episodes of The Jim Henson Hour that aired before it was cancelled, the movies, Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and countless other productions. Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favorite movies ever, and a yearly staple, as is the classic “A Christmas Together” album with John Denver.

This special that was made for The Jim Henson hour but didn’t air until much later on Nickelodeon was one of the first “behind-the-scenes” videos (now a ubiquitous DVD feature) of any kind I had ever seen, and I found it endlessly fascinating. I watched it every time that I came across it on TV. I might venture to say that it has had a profound impact on where my life has taken me.

I’ve taken puppeteering and puppet-building classes, walked around the Muppet Studio in L.A., briefly met some of the current puppeteers, and last year got to make a piece of puppet magic myself.

‘The Muppets’ seems to have stolen our puppet mount-cam idea without either us or them knowing it.

But enough about me. The reason that I’m throwing this out there is that there are other people out there like me. I would venture to say that I’m at the tail end of this multi-generational fascination with these characters. The last great piece of entertainment produced with Kermit, Fozzie, etc., was Chrismas Carol in 1992, nearly 20 years ago.

The Muppets have languished in the years since then, through various changes in ownership and stewardship. There have been two mediocre theatrical movies (the last one still a lengthy 12 years ago), a failed TV variety show, a Christmas special that had its moments, another horrific Christmas special, and the terrible Wizard of Oz adaptation.

This lengthy period of brand failure is exactly what the new movie is commenting on, and it does so in such a marvelous way that all cause for concern about how it treats the franchise’s history should be thrown out the window.

Briefly, the movie’s about a two superfans (Jason Segel and Walter, a new muppet performed fantastically by Peter Linz) who travel from Smalltown, USA to L.A. with Segel’s character’s girlfriend (Amy Adams) and visit the Muppet studios, finding it decrepit and more-or-less closed. Walter finds out that an evil corporation has taken control over the studio, theatre and Muppets name and plans to run all of them into the ground. It’s up to the three of them to get everyone back together to save the Muppets legacy. To say that this bears some resemblance to the current state of affairs with the company is quite the understatement.

I watched the original Muppet Movie the night before seeing this, and I’d recommend you do the same. In addition to being able to recognize a few callback references to the original movie, rewatching “The Muppet Movie” puts things in the new film in such an interesting mindset. Kermit was once an idealistic leader, inspiring friends to uproot their lives and travel to Hollywood to become “rich and famous”. Now though, all these years later, Kermit has become sort of an out-of-touch recluse, living in a mansion with only his 1980s robot butler to keep him company. Any object that could remind him of the past, and the never-detailed, but often inferred event that caused them all to split up, is draped off. (As a side note, I would love to see this dark chapter in the Muppets history. It would be the most depressing scene ever — even more than this and the [i’m not kidding] attempted suicide scene that came immediately before it, which I can’t find now — but it would be so compelling. Side side note: this is the world where Kermit was never born.) He’s not cynical or bitter — Kermit could never be that — but he’s deeply saddened by how much he believes he let everyone down, which is a burden he’s put on himself since the first movie. Now, years after the split, he views his life’s work as a failure and sees getting everyone together as a fool’s errand, but is talked into it.

The rest of the movie parallels the original’s structure, in the “getting the band back together” sense, but it’s almost a flipped perspective. Instead of it being about the hope of becoming entertainers and being able to make people happy, it’s about the notion of losing your friends to infighting, and your legacy to years of inactivity and a company bent on ruining your name and replacing you with other people/characters. While Walter brings new energy and hopeful naivety, the rest of the Muppets seem like old souls. They’ve aged in spirit and seem a little weary. Fozzy looks a little grey. Everyone else has moved on with their lives, and it’s quite the effectively sad portion of the movie.

But the movie is greatly funny. The music is mostly fantastic, especially if you like Flight of the Conchords, whose Bret McKenzie wrote four original songs (and a reprise), and served as Music Supervisor. I didn’t really care for the Amy Adams/Miss Piggy splitscreen duet, but the Jason Segel/Walter duet, “Man or Muppet” is both catchy and hilarious. The direction (by “Conchords” TV show co-creator and director) is great, with extremely minimal CG work and many, many “How’d they do that?” moments. Segel and Adams are cute and bring great likeable human energy, even if their story feels a bit too much in the forefront.

The Muppet performers don’t seem to miss a beat at all. Considering the only original performer still involved is Gonzo originator Dave Goelz, it’s amazing that all of these characters can still “live” and “breathe” when being performed by other people. It has taken me a number of years to get used to Steve Whitmire’s slightly higher-pitched Kermit, but the range of emotion he was able to wring out of that puppet was remarkable. Eric Jacobson (Fozzy, Piggy, Animal, Sam Eagle) and Bill Barretta (Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, Bobo, Pepe, Swedish Chef) are incredible apers of the original Frank Oz and Henson voices and master puppeteers to boot. There is really no difference in the Muppet characters noticeable enough to be a distraction, as in some past productions.

The woman sitting in front of me at the screening and her hippie husband left the theatre complaining about the “Disneyfication” of the franchise. Granted, she was also complaining prior to the movie about bottled water being a scam, but she does have a valid point about the movie, to a limited extent. Yes, everything is slick, polished, and sanitized. There are overhead shots of the Muppet Theatre (Disney’s Hollywood Boulevard El Capitan Theatre repurposed for the exteriors) that show a “Cars 2” billboard prominently in the background. The three new principal roles (Segel’s “Gary”, Adams’ “Mary”, and Walter) do get a little bit too much focus.

But here is why all of those complaints are wrong. Every joke or type of joke in this movie that seemed out of place actually had a precedent set for it in some prior movie or project: breaking the fourth wall, presenting a popular song in a ridiculous way (the muppet show did this every week), the over-top bad guy bent on bringing them down (Chris Cooper, doing a great job in limited screentime), even the ridiculous method by which they travel long distances.

No matter what Frank Oz says, I don’t feel that the characters were ever disrespected, with one possible exception, which I’ll get to later. In fact, I’d say the opposite. The newer characters were either never used (Clifford, Johnny Fiama and Sal Manella were completely absent), or, like Pepe, were pushed to the background entirely. Even lesser-known, older characters like Uncle Deadly, and Wayne and Wanda make appearances.

Oz points to the ubiquitous “fart shoes” joke in the ads as something Fozzie would never do, but in the context of the movie, I think it works. The characters are out of touch and desperate to figure out what people want, and I don’t think Fozzie is below pandering for a laugh. I’d say this movie is truer to the characters than the “World Where Kermit was Never Born” business.

Gary, Mary, and Walter serve as an audience proxy for younger people unfamiliar with “The Muppet Show”. And without Segel’s Gary and Walter there is no real impetus for the characters to reconcile at all, in a not-so-subtle parallel to real-life. Walter and Gary’s storylines are also so simple that they work without being too off-putting, and they’ve found great ways to parallel other character’s stories (the two duets for example).

For me though, and this comes as a side-note, and probably just a personal gripe, but considering he’s the only original performer left, Dave Goelz didn’t have much for Gonzo to do.

I know the last movie, way back when, focused on him entirely, but in re-watching material recently, I’ve realized the hidden layer of soul and sadness that Gonzo can bring, that few others have. The emotion that comes across in this song…

… is something that Miss Piggy and Fozzy are never tasked with. Most of the other characters are just one dimensional, though Rowlf has on occasion brought the emotion in his Muppet Show performances. Because of this, Kermit is left to carry that burden, but his sadness comes from his failures to live up to his ridiculously high expectations of himself as the leader and guy who manages these ridiculous personalities. Gonzo’s pathos has always stemmed from not fitting in, being weird, and not knowing exactly what he is.

Since these characteristics are basically the entirety of Walter’s personality, and his character arc, this brooding side of Gonzo gets pushed to the backburner, and even his comical side does as well. I’d be interested to see his number of lines compared to other characters. I get that not everyone can be properly serviced, but as a member of what I consider to be the core four characters, he feels like an afterthought. You can sense the regret in Fozzie and Piggy, but Gonzo has just seemed to move on. And this overlooking of him is even sadder considering Goelz is the longest-tenured performer here.

I have some mixed feelings about the end, but I have to talk about it in vague ideas. Basically, I feel like it glosses over a majorly important plot point, but the way in which it does this seems to render it fairly unimportant in the overall scheme of things. It sort of takes their literal goal and says their figurative one is more important, which is a great idea, but leaves the main plot as almost a side story.

On the whole though, I felt every emotion I was supposed to, including my normal disinterest in Miss Piggy. I welled up a few times, laughed a lot, and left with a smile on my face, and no feelings of contempt in my heart. I never once thought that they ruined a good thing here, and that’s all I could ask for.

The crux of this movie is whether or not The Muppets are a viable entertainment in today’s pop culture landscape, and I’d say that with the right material (and this is great material… mostly fleece and foam… wocka, wocka), they can be. Let’s hope that the kids that are getting their first taste of these characters feel the same way.

****½

2010 Eagles UniDictions (uniform + predictions) – Week 1 – Packers

This has been cross-posted on crossingbroad.com, a great destination for Philadelphia sports news.

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Being that all predictions for the NFL season thus far are based on a combination of  last year’s results and four pre-season games (The NFL Pre-Season — The four weeks when your friends with season tickets slightly regret their purchase!), we might as well base our predictions on something more arbitrary with little bearing on the actual game*.  Uniforms. 

[*I think some coach or player was once quoted as saying “look good, play good,” so creative interpretation of the rules of English grammar aside, I’ll leave it at “little bearing” instead of “no bearing.”] 

 The big news for this game is that the Eagles will be wearing their 1960 throwbacks.  As detailed at great length previously, I don’t like them.  Classic, accurate, but too plain.  The presence of Kelly Green should appease the loud “bring back the Cunningham-era jersey” people who don’t realize that the throwbacks are not the same as the “Cunningham-era” uniforms (white vs. silver paints, Eagle logo on shoulder, stroke around the numbers, helmet wing details, etc.).  So at the minimum, it takes away their ability to complain about the uniforms, giving more time to complain about things that matter.  Like Kevin Kolb.

With the Eagles wearing green jerseys, this puts the Packers in their White Jersey/Yellow Pants combination.  I don’t think it’s the best combination in the NFL (undecided on that one at the moment), but it’s everything the Eagles throwback is….except it’s not boring.  Something as simple as shoulder striping really makes the look of the “classic” NFL uniform template work well (think of the Bears and the Browns).

The UniDiction

Either 2, 3, 6, or 7 points awarded for each category (safety, field goal, touchdown, touchdown+point after, of course)

Helmet

Eagles: 3 — a white (or black) stroke around the wings would really help.  Really, the design looks unfinished.  A plain green helmet, though historically inaccurate, would look better.

Packers: 7 — there’s absolutely nothing I would change

Jersey

Eagles: 2 — Championship aside, this isn’t one of the Eagles’ better looks.  It’s just green with white numbers!

Packers: 6 — missed PAT because their Green jersey + yellow pants combination is one of the defining images of the NFL.

Pants + Socks

Eagles: 6 — the two green stripes on the white pants definitely add something, and the white stripe on the green section of the socks avoids the “endless field of green” effect seen on the jerseys.  That said, one thick vertical stripe would look better on the pants.

Packers: 7 — the contrast-color/white/contrast-color triple stripe on the pants is nice touch, and the two-tone socks (without anything breaking-up the solid color) work because they would look too busy with a stripe, being that there are plenty of stripes elsewhere.

 Intangibles

Eagles: 7 — authenticity counts and the fan base really likes them.

Packers: 6 — Points awarded for using yellow in their color scheme.  Missed PAT due to the management thinking a uniform from an era with completely different equipment would translate to the 21st century.

Final Score

Eagles 18

Packers 26

Hmm… I may need to adjust my scoring system to add up to numbers which look like real “football scores.”  And so it can go above 28… 

Also of interest, UniWatch (Paul Lukas) on Page 2 posted his 2010 overview of all NFL uniform changes yesterday.  Definitely a must read.

****

The match-up itself gets four stars. Both teams will be wearing “classic” uniforms, and both teams’ colors complement each other.

The LOST Finale as a Meta-Metaphor for the Death of a Series

I wonder if the “Man of Science/Man of Faith” argument could be extrapolated to refer to the skeptics vs. those who had faith in the writers.

“Lost” (pun intended) in the hubbub of last night’s “polar”-izing finale, buried beneath the mystical corks, and cliffhanger fights; airplane escapes and journeys into the afterlife together, is a metaphor that I have yet to see in any of today’s recaps, though I have purposely waited to read Jeff “Doc” Jensen’s EW column for fear of it being the only one to taint my idea with his. Most of the disagreement over whether it was a satisfactory conclusion stands between the two camps of fans: people who wanted more “answers” to mysteries of the island (Jacob’s Cabin, The Hurley Bird, Walt and Aaron being ‘Special’, or even why there’s a giant cork in the island to begin with), and the ones who were more interested in where characters’ stories ended. There are those people (NY Times and NY Post, I’m looking at you) who didn’t understand things that were plainly spoken (“What happened was REAL”), but I tend to throw them out, because they obviously haven’t put enough thought into it.

In case there’s confusion, a brief recap of the important points. The entire season we’ve been given what the show’s writers endearingly call the “flash-sideways”. Instead of mixing in the main narrative with flashes of what has happened (flashback), or what will happen in the future (flash-forward) like they’ve done throughout the series (though the term “future” is relative, and makes my brain hurt), they’ve shown us the same characters we’ve known, in a time that we’ve already seen, now in a world whose relationship to the island universe is unknown. Now, the characters are different though, taking us back to the mindsets and issues they were dealing with in the first season, before all of the crazy island adventures changed, and in most cases, killed them. The characters, while having the same hearts and basic characteristics as the ones we’ve come to know, are altered a little bit, but dealing, in essence, with the same baggage as they did in the real world. Much of the enjoyment of this sixth and final season, just as in the first, lies in discovering who these people are in this world and realizing just how much different they are than the characters we grew to know. The only complication of this narrative device is that since we, the viewer, are incapable of coming to an understanding that both of these universes can simultaneously exist, we have to find a way in our own minds to reconcile the two together. “Which one isn’t real?”, or “Which one will become real?” we ask, because we can’t imagine how both of them can exist and still have meaning. My guess early in the season was that each one of them carried the same amount of weight and that the finale would create duel endings (not reconciling these universes), one happy, and one where everyone died. This would leave the viewer to have to decide for himself which one was real or if both were. I was wrong.

The way they were reconciled was by having each character in this “sideways” universe realize that it wasn’t real; that everyone there had died and that it was a holding place for them to move on to “what comes after death”. Everything on the island had happened. Some people died in the course of the show’s run; some lived full lives After Jack Shepherd (A.J.S.). But there they all were, waiting to move on as one group, changing Jack’s “Live together or die alone” mantra to one of “Live together AND DIE TOGETHER”. Their hurdle to enlightenment and realization of where they were in this universe was letting go of petty issues, guilt, fear, atonement, and instead, embracing the love of others. The Island, and the time spent on it were the most important parts of these people’s lives, and all that came before it was just a prelude and backstory. The relationships forged lasted beyond the characters lifetimes and stayed in the collective unconscious until they were ready to “let go”. Once this was understood, they could all go together towards that slightly cheesy white light, to whatever lay beyond. It was a mostly beautiful, and, at the time, slightly sappy ending, that I ate up wholly, reuniting characters but not compromising by bringing them back to life. Dead is Dead. And it seems as though they successfully put to bed the themes of death and love that hearken all the way back to when the first character, Boone, bit the dust as John Locke’s sacrifice to the hatch.

Before the finale, someone at my place remarked about how more than eighty percent of the characters ever introduced on the show have been killed off, and after last night’s episode, I realized that these deaths weren’t merely part of ratings boosting, or shock value, or plot progression, but they were there to bring about discussion on the theme of death. Anyone can go at any time. That’s a phrase I’ve heard the writers say they’ve wanted to impart on our minds for the entire run of the show. They were going to go so far as to potentially kill Jack in the first episode, originally. If you think about it, there’s probably a whole section that I could write about how the smoke monster/man in black was the antagonist because he couldn’t come to terms with his own anger at his death. Sure he wanted to move on (get off the island), but he couldn’t let go of the pain of the past, and parental issues and learn to accept his life for what it was and love. Jacob, as well, stayed around the island, in spirit form, until he was able to let go of his island protector-ship spurned by his guilt over his brother’s death. Michael was trapped as a spirit on the island forever because he couldn’t get past his misdeeds. But this is all discussion for some other time.

What I’m interested in here is the idea of how the show deals with the topic of death, as it relates to the actual death of the show itself. Wow! THAT IS META! Let me clarify that sentence: In the episode, characters are struggling to deal with the idea that their lives are actually over, and they must move on to the next phase together by letting go and embracing a community of love. Hell, the first scene is a coffin coming out of an airplane and the last is a wake/funeral; if that’s not metaphor material, nothing is. In fact, I’d venture to say double metaphor: death of the characters themselves (aside from the specific Christian Shepherd, as the surface example) AND death of the show. Imagine, if you will, that instead of Christian, inside of this casket is a show that has grown with us over the past six years, one that has become our friend, safe haven, source of philosophical debate and stability in a constantly changing world. Imagine that the fan community for the show, one that brings people together in discussion and love, and one that fills living rooms with ten people or more (or less) per week to share in this joint experience is the crowd of characters in pews embracing each other, joyful, weeping, and filled with human emotions. Last night’s episode wasn’t just about characters accepting death and letting the minutiae go, it was about us as fans of the show learning to do the same. But with this show, unlike most, we had to go together. We had to let go of all the unresolved plot points from four years ago and accept that it had ended. And fill the world with love for it and each other. And last night, and this morning, the internet pretty much exploded, with people who loved it, who will remember the good times and cherish it forever in the “what comes after”, and with those who felt burned, angry about the small things, and may never be able to find peace in the resolution. They’ll be haters, but they’ll be stuck in their “waiting room”, ready to be enlightened when they let their cynicism go.

The more I think about it, the more I realize they been trying to prepare us for this the entire season. Obviously, they knew the show was going to die. The entire flash sideways as a denouement not only works in the context of the characters dying, but for the show itself. While the characters were all set up with different life scenarios and what-ifs, many of them better versions of themselves dealing with the same problems, so was the ENTIRE PREMISE of the show itself. “What would happen if Hurley became a successful businessman, or Sayid could protect Nadia, or Sawyer could actually put away criminals instead of being one?” becomes “What if this horrific plane crash never happened?” What would a self-actualized, but slightly askew version of the first season flashback storytelling look like? How would it mirror (oh snap!) the beloved first season that served as the birth of these characters? In the exact same way as the characters went through this season’s sideways stories, not knowing what their place was, we ventured along the same way, only to be enlightened at the end, and able to see these stories for what they were: a waiting room, there to bring us back together with our deceased friends and help us move on to the place after as a group, a “fandom” if that doesn’t sound too nerdy. Bless you LOST, for the friendships you’ve helped create and strengthen over the past six years will surely be enough to carry us over to whatever comes next. I’ve let go.

****½
I think this metaphor pretty much works, but I’m sure there are a few holes you can punch here and there, and I didn’t mean to come off as preachy in more than an “it’s okay to move on” way.

As for the finale itself…
****½
Learning to let go of the minor things, the mysteries, and go back to my first season mindset, where all I cared about were the characters, this was a total success for me. Sure there weren’t “answers”, but that’s life. I’m dealing. The foam rocks falling seemed a little cheesy though, for the -.5 star. Seeya in another life, Brotha.

Half Inventing Stuff Part 3, or Other People Stealing Your Ideas Without Ever Having Met You or Knowing that They Stole Something Part 3

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The Bar-B-Fume bottle design and logo from an infomercial I did as a class project in 2002. Graphics designed by Rob Edwards.

So back in 1998, I had an English oral presentation to do in which I’d be selling a made-up product. After racking my brain for hours, my thought process went as follows: “What do teenage girls want? Answer: Guys. Then what do teenage guys want? Answer: Meat. So the way for a girl to get a guy would be by smelling like meat.” The presentation went fantasticly. I had charts and prototypes (sort of… bottles of cologne and body-wash with crudely designed logos). For the women who didn’t want to have to smell the Bar-B-Fume, I invented the “Scent Remover 5000”, which was just a clothespin to put on your nose. I demonstrated how to use the body wash (which for my purposes was just barbecue sauce in a soap dispenser) by smearing it all over my face. And I finished with the tagline, “Ladies, truly the way to a man’s heart is now through his stomach.”

Two years later, the product was revived as an info-mercial for a TV studio production class I was taking, but this time with way better logo design and a killer intro. I can’t attest to the quality of the rest of it. I haven’t watched it in years. You see, I can’t find the tape with that semester’s projects on it. To make matters worse, I can’t even find the tape that has the original speech on it. I have most other semesters’ projects, and I have the other speech we had to give that year in high school, but as it stands, right now the only tangible evidence of Bar-B-Fume existing is the logo I saved.

What makes this important is that Burger King just started marketing a meat-scented fragrance called “Flame”. Here‘s the website. Granted, it smells like the Whopper and not like barbecue sauce, but it’s still enough to have me shouting “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”. I guess I just need to follow through more.


I’m pretty angry.

2006-07 Academy Awards Nominations


This year, the movie that I chose to not see, but still complain about is “Dreamgirls”, a movie that wasn’t even nominated for best picture… and I’m not really even complaining about it… which makes me feel real strange.

The academy awards nominations came out this morning. And for some reason I decided that I don’t really care this year. It’s weird because I don’t know why. In fact, I wrote most of this review on Sunday, before they were even announced. I’ve become jaded to the whole celebrity scene this year, and I’ve stopped seeing this show as an affirmation that the movies that I enjoyed over the past year are good, and more as a means of keeping up the guise of celebrity importance. (review of the near future: celebrity feuds)

Maybe it was seeing people argue about which movies deserved which awards the way I used to, and thinking, “Wow, do these guys see how completely stupid they look, rooting for something that they think they have partial ownership in, just because they kinda liked it? Did I look that stupid, phony, and in over my head when I was complaining about how undervalued “The Man who Wasn’t There” was, or how that ridiculous “THEY MAKE THE RAIN AND SAY IT’S RAINING!!!” rant from Cold Mountain won good ole squinty-eyed Renee Zellweger her academy award? Well, chances are I did for the last one, because I totally used to do an impression of that was intentionally unintentionally hi-larious, and which has since failed the test of time, seeing as how nobody even remembers the movie a mere two years later. This also goes to show the unimportance of these awards, because I highly doubt that all the people that argue about these sort of things could even tell me without looking it up, who hosted the 2001 awards (held in 2002), let alone who won best actor and actress. Whoopi Goldberg hosted by the by, and I don’t even think I could tell you what movie won best picture ( Chicago maybe?) let alone the acting awards. The only reason I remember Whoopi is because my friends and I were watching in a TV lounge filled with people who actually thought she was funny. We couldn’t take it and ended up leaving in a huff. That’s beside the point.

All this is not to say that I’m not going to look and see who’s nominated or who wins. I’ll probably even watch the show. But at this moment, writing this review, do I think it’s worth having an Oscar “party” or doing an awards pool (in which I have participated numerous times)? Not really. Do I find that a little disheartening? Of course I do. Three years ago at this time, I was in the center of celebrity culture. I was in the bleachers for the Screen Actor’s Guild red carpet. I stood by the limo security checkpoint at the Golden Globes to get a glimpse of anybody relatively famous. I can’t say for sure if I would do it again. Maybe just to say I did it. Then again, I never really got “star-struck” to begin with. Most of the pictures I took of people were either for bragging rights, or because I knew friends might want them. But still, even the following year I went in on an Oscar pool.

What’s my point in all this? I’m not quite sure. All I know is that at this specific minute of this specific day, I’m thinking to myself “Don’t we have enough other things to be interested in or worry about than awards for millionaires (I know that the tech award winners are mostly non-millionaires, and the people who make the shorts and documentaries are probably even less well-off) we’ve never met and mostly think they’re better than us anyway?” I suppose you could argue the same of sports, but to me the difference is that football and baseball are designed to be competitions, and film isn’t, or at least shouldn’t. Why should it matter to us if a movie we like wins an award? Shouldn’t liking it be enough? Maybe it’s the validation that comes with being behind something that is regarded by professionals to be the best. Maybe it’s the ability to say to our friends “I totally knew Marcia Gay Harden was gonna win for Pollack, even though I’ve never even heard of the movie because it sounds boring and was only playing in 8 cities”, thereby coming off as knowledgeable, even though you just got lucky or read a newspaper article. Maybe it’s just that feeling that you know a lot about a subject, even if you really don’t, but just know a little bit more than your friends. Besides, ten years from now, “Saving Private Ryan” will be remembered even though it lost to the completely forgettable “Shakespeare in Love”, which was lauded by the pretentious set.

This pretentiousness is something that the Oscars and other awards do spur on, and I guess this is where my whole complaint starts. Soon enough, the debates will rage over which arthouse movie that nobody was able to see was more overrated, which one deserves more attention etc. And all these people will be arguing over the fact that we love a movie that we haven’t even seen, just because of the talent attached to it. And that “you’re” (the royal “you”) stupid and less important because you’ve never even heard of it. And that’s just wrong. I really don’t want to do that again. (Update: I was flipping through the morning shows today to see if anyone was talking about the noms, just to prove my case, and the new FOX morning show had on their two Oscar Experts… two women who looked to be a mere few years older than I am. Of course there were raving about how great Helen Mirren was in “The Queen”… and to make matters worse, the audience erupted in applause. Now, you have to be sure that in this situation, maybe 25 percent of the audience at most has seen this movie, and the rest are either being egged on by the stage manager/audience warm-up guy, or just don’t want to seem like they don’t know anything about anything. Strangely enough, I’m looking at the box-office tallies for this weekend, and “The Queen” is actually playing in more theaters than “Children of Men”, “Alpha Dog”, and “The Good Shepherd”.)

And maybe I’m upset that somehow I’ve grown to see something that I used to see as the Holy Grail of Film-making achievement now as a way to sell movies that otherwise wouldn’t have an audience. I mean, would anyone have gone to see “The Last King of Scotland” otherwise? It’s all part of the self-promoting hype machine, and I don’t know if I’m still down with that. Maybe in a case like this, yes, but that silly red carpet image stuff always seems to undermine the gravitas of the “talent-based” awards.

As for the specific nominations themselves, they seem generally fine across the board, as far as the movies that I’ve gone to see, and those are really all that I can discuss.

**

The 2006-07 Academy Awards Nominations get two stars for being a way to generally promote smaller, higher-quality movies. As far as awards competition goes, I’m not really a fan of how devisive it makes people, including myself, about movies we like, versus ones we aren’t planning on seeing, but dislike just for the sake of it . As far as this year’s specific award nominees go, I’ve got no major complaints, other than the lack of “Children of Men”, but I can live without it, knowing how the voting process, and awards campaigning go. Oh… and the fact that THREE freakin songs from Dreamgirls are nominated…. now that’s something genuine to dislike… but still, does it really matter?

Calling Out Northwestern on National TV

It’s not often that colleges get called out negatively on TV. Usually, writers namedrop the college they attended in passing: “These guys were frat brothers of mine from my time at Northwestern” (a sort of quote from an episode of Andy Richter Controls the Universe); it’s not really an endorsement, but it is a type of plug, I guess the screenplayer writer‘s to hanging one’s diploma on the wall at work. Anyway, aside from some Simpsons jokes making fun of Yale (because there was a time when many of the Simpsons writers had come from Harvard), college namedrops are neutral at worst.

NU
Hollywood doesn’t like you!

But, when watching tonight’s episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip“, the following dialogue was exchanged:
note, this is more of an “I think this is what they said” than a pure transcription

Matthew Perry’s Character: I’ll write you a letter of recommendation.
Bradley Whitford’s Character: Speaking of which, against my better advice, my nephew is applying to Northwestern, and he needs a letter of recommendation, too.

Not that big a deal, I know, but in a way, my non-donating-alumnus status just got a high five from Hollywood! Now, I guess it could be rationalized away by the writers by saying, they were getting at: “there are better such and such programs at some other college than Northwestern,” but I feel like I’m part of higher educational history: The first(?) prime time dis’.

****½

Calling Out Northwestern on National TV gets four-and-a-half stars for being the first negative namedrop of a college, with that 1/2 being deducted for the episode of “Studio 60…” being a perfect example of everything that’s right and everything that’s wrong with the show. *note: I don’t really have any negative feelings towards Northwestern or anything like that, but considering how rarely it’s brought up in pop culture, the fact that it was a negative (or pushing towards negative from neutral, at best) mention makes it quite newsworthy.

Game 3 of the LaFrance China vs. LaFrance US Basketball Series

Chinese people love their basketball. Playing, watching, talking about it, assuming that the black guy that’s over here for four weeks is both an engineer and in the NBA (because he’s black, duh). They love it the way the same way that noted friend of The Bookshelf™ (Josh) Calloway loves ginger ale.

basketball

Score: 92-80 US
Any color blue jersey: Chinese Team
Front Row (minus one basketball player): Basketball Groupies
Whistle-Owner: Referee
The rest: The US team (including the girl in the back right who’s from the US)
(This victory made the US team 3-0. Notice, the US team member holding 3 fingers up. The Chinese people hold 2 fingers up because, well, that’s what Chinese people seem to do when they have their picture taken.)

So, naturally, the Chinese all-stars (pulled from the ranks of security guards, engineers, factory workers, etc, etc.) from the company want to play the Americans, who they assume are seasoned basketball veterans, being that they’re Americans. So, here are the requirements for a successful intercontinental basketball dominance challenge:

1. It has to be Wednesday. Selective brown-outs make it so the court is only illuminated on Wednesdays. Let’s say you have some sort of conflict that can only be resolved on the basketball court… and it’s Thursday. You have to wait one whole week to get it taken care of.

2. You need a court with the gigantic, trapezoidal, official international basketball lane dimensions. Well, this is the only type you’ll find in China, you’re all set. And be careful, if the referee (see below) feels like calling offensive 3 second violations, and you’re in for some embarrassment until you get used to it.

3. You need fans. The court is between two dorms which probably house 200 people combined. These fans need to bring a drum to bang on whenever the Chinese team scores.

4. You need groupies. When you’ve just missed two layups, airballed a shot from the arc, and you’re out of breath only three minutes into the game, you need someone to tell you that you’re “number 1 basketball star.”

5. You need a referee. No, scratch that. You need someone who owns a whistle. Two older (in their 40’s) whistle-owning guys who live in the dorms provided law and order (and a bafflingly inadequate grasp of the concepts of the backcourt violation and team foul) for our game.

6. You need to have at least 4 of 5 players who are taller than 6’2″. Otherwise, the speed of the Chinese will overwhelm the rebound and layup differentials.

7. You need to figure out which Chinese player is the best and switch to a box and one zone to cause him to take shots with an exceedingly low chance of being successful. The four people in #6 take care of the rebounds resulting from these shots.

8. You need a time keeper who keeps time by his watch and yells when the 12 minute quarters are over. Also, he should speak no English; this way, the US team is unable to know how much time is remaining. More importantly, he should arbitrarily add time to the fourth quarter whenever the Chinese team slightly closes the point differential. This way, what should be 48 minutes of basketball ends up being closer to 60 minutes.

9. You need a security guard to operate the scoreboard. Because he wouldn’t let anyone else near it.

10. Most importantly, the US team needs an in-shape 40ish guy who plays basketball three times a week.

****½

Game 3 of the LaFrance China vs. LaFrance US Basketball Series receives four-and-a-half stars due largely to the fact that we won the game and that games against the Chinese team don’t end up with someone from one team wanting to fight someone on the other team, like most (if not all) other competitive-in-some-way basketball games in which I’ve participated. And how often does someone get to represent their country successfully without doing something stupid? Minus 1/2 star for the ungodly amount of running involved in basketball.

getting ripped off by your long-distance carrier/ISP

I’ve been ripped off huuuuge. Conned. Bamboozled. Gypped. Screwed. And like in any con, the only person I have to blame is myself.


17 miles is a long distance from Bethlehem, but not from 3 minutes away from here

A few months ago my modem died. I was without internet at home for a while but I was still paying for the service, mostly because I kept telling myself that I’d be getting a new modem shortly. Eventually, thanks to Dan, I got one, and when I went to log in, there was a kindly message from People PC telling me that they added some new numbers and if i wanted to add them, I could. I checked out the new location, someplace maybe 15-20 miles from here on the other side of allentown. The area code was the same as mine, so I added it and figured that it would be thrown down at the bottom of the list that I already had.

Today I woke up to my mom crying out in frustration. She showed me the phone bill, with huge charges to a phone number I didn’t recognize in a town that I didn’t recognize. I realized it could only be one thing, and I went to see what number my dial-up connection had been dialing. Sure enough, it was the same number.

Since I left my internet connected (a period of 241 minutes each time), and each session for the last two weeks ranged in price from 29 dollars to 60 dollars, I managed to rack up a nineteen day total of $810. You heard me. I’m glad I have some money saved up, because that’s the kind of mistake that makes you homeless. Just think, there’s still another four days worth of internet connectivity to be had on the next bill!!

Still, not understanding the reason for the long distance charge, we called to complain to the Verizon managers. We spoke to higher-ups, and higher-higher-ups, and all we got was the same response. “This is not our fault”. If you look in your phone book, you’ll see that a call to that place is long distance. I say, “But the area code is the same; how can that be long-distance.” “It doesn’t go by area code. It goes by exchange number (the first three digits). In your phone book you’ll find a listing of the exchange numbers that are local to your area that you can call.”

Of course I went to the phone book and found that sure enough, in Bethlehem, PA, that number is not in the “local” area. If however, I were to live literally two minutes away from here, in Allentown, it would’ve been perfectly fine.

I can’t blame the ISP because they have a waiver that you click on that says that you’re responsible for all charges incurred by your phone provider. I can’t blame Verizon because the phone book clearly doesn’t list that area as a “local” call. And now I’m out 800 dollars because long distance doesn’t go by area codes, and because that new phone number somehow got set to default.

Verizon managed to take off 20 percent, so technically I’m only out 640 dollars, but that’s still a huuge chunk of money for 3 weeks of internet service that was mostly slow anyway.

One thing I can’t understand, and didn’t think of it until after my conversation with the Verizon guy ended, is that if they were a credit card company, and they saw that there were large, abnormal changes to the bill, they would call (hopefully) to make sure that all was right. How come the phone company, after a few days of these enormous charges didn’t bother to think that something was abnormal or wrong about this. Why did they let it go on for weeks and weeks? I understand that with a credit card, there runs a risk of it being stolen, and that’s why those companies do that, to provide security. I just don’t understand how something like this goes unnoticed until the bill arrives. Nobody thinks that four hours of long distance calling per day is strange? In my opinion, Verizon was negligent.

But like I said, I can’t really hold them accountable for anything, because it’s clearly defined in small print some place I would never bother to look. Bravo legal experts and money-grabbing corporations. You suckered a man out of two weeks pay.


This may be the most humiliating, degrading, and definitely costly thing that’s happened to me all year… keep in mind that I bombed at a job interview at NBC.

Empty Bookshelf’s First 100 Reviews


Oh, those kids. Always at it. You guys really shouldn’t’ve.

So here we are at the first of what may be a few reviews of our first milestone, 100 reviews. Not only is this the first review of this milestone, but of what could be very many milestones. We here at the Bookshelf like the word “milestone“, and don’t believe in Thesauruses. So here we go, our first hundred in a nutshell.

The first actual review happened way back in October of 2005… remember that time before the Steelers won the superbowl, before “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” movie, before Dick Cheny accidentally shot his friend while hunting, and before Bristol, United Kingdom celebrated the 200th birthday of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (actually April 9) by relighting the Clifton Suspension Bridge?

Dan’s first review was aimed at complaining about post-game hype surrounding an extremely long baseball game. Of course our readers probably care about boring Astros-Braves baseball games as much as they seemed to care about my terrible review of the dictionary. Even though that picture was good, it was nowhere near the five star quality of this image. I too tried my hand at reviewing food, but it was an utter failure. On the plus side, my review of the letter to the editor is one of my favorites, and my first review actually got eight comments, including this link. The few following that grilled chese review focused mostly on music, my opinion of “Good Night, and Good Luck”, a particular episode of Trading Spouses, and Dan’s opinion of My opinion of “Good Night, and Good Luck”. Dan also said that the Colbert report wouldn’t last, which seems to have been proven false.

October seemed to be us finding our footing.
***

November saw Dan’s Cleveland Trifecta, a diatribe against horses, a road that he liked, an episode of “Coach“, and his complaints about how much he aches, now that he’s an old man. I started the month strong with the Beth review, but struggled through the rest of it, with lame reviews like Thursday, a type of tooth”paste” that doesn’t work for me, and an insightful, yet completely unnecessary complaint about my nosebleeds. My FAO Schwarz review kinda made up for them, but the highlight of the month involved Dan and I sparring about how Christmas is coming earlier every year, and something about me being a time-traveling sheep.

November didn’t see much improvement over October, but the Christmas stuff was entertaining.
***½

December got a bit better, even with a few less reviews. I busted out the old NES games, for a few reviews that I swear are not trying to copy off of XE, another personal favorite, Christmas Cards, Adam’s first review, Dan throwing the hate down on Pitchfork media, and a suprising amount of people commenting on Roger Ebert’s take on video games. The biggest advance in December was the pop-ins, that added added some clarity to our parentheses-obsessed-writing.

December was a highly engaging and entertaining month, even with only nine reviews.
****½

2006 rolled around, and January saw Dan get political, review half of a book, not like warm winters a lot. I only contributed three of ten reviews that month, but all three of them were relatively alright, mostly because “Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego“, and “The Simpsons” after season 9 is so easy to complain about.

January’s topics fell off a little.
***½

February, while being the shortest month, was also a monster for us, as far as number goes. A whopping twenty-one reviews. To be fair, 17 of them came in our envelope-pushing live superbowl reviews, the biggest stunt pulled in the history of reviewing anything and everything on a five star scale. The only other reviews of any substance were my Gauntlet Review of the Beatles albums, and Dan’s digging up of our one-issue underground high-school newspaper.

Despite the big stunt, and two good reviews, February was kinda lacking.
**½

March just plain sucked. Four reviews total. One by me. Three megareviews by Dan.

½

April was slightly better, with another of my top five of my reviews, Legacy of the Wizard. The other four I would give an average of 3 stars to, but since there were only four during the month, that’s going to cancel out the Legacy of the Wizard bonus and take it down a half star.

**½

For my money, May was our best month yet. Dan’s contribution was the lengthy three-part TV landscape review. I threw out quality stuff with my Songs for Silverman, and Degree Navigator reviews. The shorter American Dreamz and Davinci Code video game reviews were serviceable, but my immense LOST season 2 review tops everything.

*****

June fell off a bit. Four reviews total. Split two and two. Mine were based on a ridiculous news story, and anger at other people for coincidentally coming up with the same ideas as me. Dan tried to put everything into perspective by seeing how well the entire history of human ingenuity and artistry stacked up in the interstellar community, and complained a little about how the national geography of roadways isn’t designed to suit his needs.

**

July was filled with the (I gotta admit my ignorance as to the relevance of this phrase… and wikipedia does nothing to help) Navel Gazing set. I was had for a few minutes by a Jimmy Kimmel hoax, and I thought the critics were a little too harsh on Shayamalan. Despite the mediocre numbers for the month, I’d give it a 3.5

***½

This gives us a per-month average of 3 stars, which isn’t too shabby.

In my first ever review, I reviewed the concept of this website. I claimed that we wouldn’t be able to keep it fresh, that we’d run out of ideas, and that we wouldn’t be able to stay somewhat funny at least. I believe my exact quote was “It has the potential to provide hours of entertainment for readers, and shape their lives for years to come. However, the downside is that it could get old real soon, and provide us with nothing but an excuse not to get real jobs.”

Well, I think we’ve significantly proven wrong every single point that I just brought up. We have 29 categories, 19 subcategories, and even two sub-sub categories. We’re still writing about reasonably different things, and while we may have slacked on the funny in recent months, we still bring the ‘A’ game on occasion. As far as my quote goes, I’d be willing to bet that we’ve provided maybe a few hours of entertainment for a handful of people, which probably did nothing to shape their lives for even the near fututre. On the upside, it hasn’t gotten old, and we have gotten real-ish jobs.

For all of these reasons, I’m willing to up our star rating by half a star, over the average rating of 3. I’ve also realized that my method of calculating the rating might not be the best, so I’m gonna throw in another half star for a final rating of 4 stars out of five.

****

And for those of you playing along at home, yes, this technically is the 100th review and so therefore should be included. This review receives 3 stars for not having much to offer in the way of witty musings, and for having a faulty overall rating method, but for packing so many subjects and links into one review.

***

The Degree Navigator Class Registration System


They kinda look like the Azores.

With the one-year anniversary of my college graduation taking place on May 16th, I figured I’d write something about my college experience, something that the few of you who read this that went to Ithaca would be able to relate to and feel nostalgic about. I decided early however, that I wasn’t just going to do a review on my college experience, as that would seem too “Dear Diary” for me. I wasn’t going to complain about the “food” in the Campus Center Dining hall ad nauseum, because I’m sure that’s been done to death… and most people move off campus or to the Circle Apartments and don’t deal with the “Double C” for their last year or two. I wasn’t going to complain about the curriculum, mostly because those issues have been dealt with, starting with the class after me, and they’re much better off for it. Lastly, I wasn’t going to offer warm and fuzzy memories of how great all my friends were, the teachers were, the facilities were, and my extracurricular opportunities and the semester in L.A. were.

What else could there be to complain about/praise? Well if you haven’t guessed by reading the title, I’ll put it bluntly: The method of registering for classes that we used.

Let me preface this all by saying that before computers were used, I have absolutely no idea how a class registration system could be fair. I can assume that people wrote down on a piece of paper the classes that they needed, and the classes that they wanted and turned it in and waited for the results… sort’ve like in high school, where your guidance counselor spent 25 minutes convincing you to take a bunch of extra classes that you didn’t come in wanting, (of course, taking some time out in the middle of the meeting to take a call from his real estate side-job) only to find that when your schedule arrived weeks later, you weren’t enrolled in any of the classes anyway. Maybe that was just me. But by handing in forms that said what you wanted your schedule to look like, how were students to be guaranteed that those were the classes they were going to get? What if classes were filled? What if new sections that students were switched into conflicted with other classes the student wanted to take? How did the administration decide what order to take individual registrations? Obviously by credit amount, but what about students who were at the same grade level, with the same amount of credits?

island” view, which conveniently showed you what your different requirements were (as in communications, non-comm, liberal arts [a phrase whose meaning still eludes me], and the various requirements within each major) shown in the form of colorful islands floating on a bright blue background. When you rolled your mouse over them, it showed what you had completed and what you were still required to take. I believe that those might’ve been shown in pie chart form, but I could be wrong.

You would go to the registrar’s website, and there would be a link to register for classes. Clicking on it would open the application, as sort’ve an advanced pop-up window with forms. This was the degree navigator. You’d go over to the selection tab, type the course number into the spot for it, and hit enter. The course description and section times would come up, and you were allowed to add the classes to your schedule. You would then have to go over to the side where all the selected classes were and individually finalize the registration for each class. If there were island” thing, which was more for telling you what classes you had done and what you needed to do, rather than for registering.

The problem was in the actual method by which the whole student body was meant to register. It happened during the course of a week and a half every semester. A different group registered every day, starting with students in the honors program (i don’t know that i ever met any of them), then freshmen, then seniors (yes freshmen got to register before seniors), juniors, and sophomores… of course all of those were divided up into first and second semester students, via credits. So each day of registering saw students within about a 12-18 credit window signing up at the same time. Not too huge of a problem. We weren’t a terribly large school, so it wasn’t like there were more than a few thousand people registering per day. There was no breakdown however, within each day, and so you had a couple thousand people trying to get on the system at the exact same time. That shouldn’t’ve been a problem… after all, there’s at least four times that amount that use the internet at one time, any other time of day or year. The problem however, was that our residential computer network was incredibly unstable to begin with (blamed by the people in charge on the proliferation of computer viruses on the network…. cause I’m sure that other schools don’t have to deal with viruses, and they manage to be epic disaster. The residential network just couldn’t handle the sheer number of people attempting to log on (if you managed to open the program prior to the start time you could open the application, just not log on to actually register). And of course rather than just telling us that we couldn’t be logged on because something somewhere along the line was too busy, it just kept trying to log everyone on. Of course, in the best possible scenario of it not working, the program froze. In the worst, it caused people’s computers to crash, freeze, and quite possibly be thrown out of windows in fits of frustration.

In fact, only serving to exacerbate things more was the registration time. Because classes started at 8 a.m., and the people in charge wanted to make sure that everyone had the same opportunity to get to classes before the seats were filled, the registration window opened at the extremely early 7 a.m. That’s right. Imagine thousands of frustrated college students pissed off at the idea of being shut out of classes and screwed over by the system, dealing with a program that isn’t going to work correctly, having to reboot their computer numerous times, and on top of that, having to get up before 7. At least we had the opportunity to register from the comfort of our own computers, if we could ever get this demon program to operate correctly.

The worst year that I remember was the second semester of my freshman year, registering for sophomore year. It was early April probably, and it was also probably really cold and rainy outside. I just remember sitting at my computer, my comforter draped over me, waiting, complaining to neighbors across the hall and next door. I sat there, knowing I was going to miss my 8 a.m. class. Everyone that I had recently added to my AIM buddy list was in the same boat as I was. People had away messages up about how much they hated the degree navigator, how they wished it would die, and how they were so tired and pissed off in general. Having just gone through a phase of creating new screennames and harrassing people with them, I saw this as an opportunity to pose as the Degree Navigator through IM, asking people why they hated me so much. I was THAT bored and pissed off. People who managed to log on were offering to register other people for classes via phone, but others were skeptical about giving out their registration password for fear that their schedule might be tampered with. It wasn’t until 10:15 that I was able to log on and register, making me late for my 10:25 class. Of course, I got the bottom of the barrel when it came to classes that weren’t course requirements. I can’t remember what I had, but I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t anywhere near what I had in mind the night before.

The following semesters were much of the same, but not taking as long, as more people in my class (year) decided to move off campus, or use the computer labs, which were on a different network, to do their registration. Knowing that I’d probably have to wait in line to use a computer for as long as it would actually take me to register from my room, and not wanting to get dressed at 6:50, and instead go back to bed when I was done, I decided for next few semesters to just ride out the storm in my room. Unlike the people in New Orleans, my decision wasn’t really all that detrimental to my health. Sure it took forever to get logged on, but none of the future attempts took more than an hour. Still, the away messages were up, the people were complaining across the hall, and there was a feeling of bonding.

Without a popular sports team to rally behind (save the one game a year where the entire school went crazy for the football team, mostly because it was an excuse to get drunk at 8 a.m.), or, fortunately, some tragic event that effected everyone at the school (save the September 11th stuff), the universal hatred of the degree navigator registration system brought everyone together. In fact, I’d wager that had somebody decided to sell T-shirts that said “I survived Registration ’02”, they’d probably make enough money for the school to fix the actual problem. To prove my point even more, I typed in “Degree Navigator”+sucks in google, and these are the first two pages it came up with: here and here.

Of course, what this 7 a.m. east coast egistration time meant for me when I was in L.A. was that I had to register at 4 a.m. Pacific Time….and we didn’t have the internet in our apartment. I’m not sure how we got around that, but I know I didn’t walk 3 blocks at 4 a.m. to register at the Ithaca L.A. student center.

The Degree Navigator was a good system in theory, but they say the same thing about communism. There were bigger problems that everyone pretty much blamed on the Navigator, giving it a bad rap.

***½
The Degree Navigator program itself gets three and a half stars. It was mostly easy to navigate, and I’m sure it was a bit more fair and, yes, less of a hassle, than however they did it before it was done by computer. It was pretty much the scapegoat for the entire student body’s issues with registration, and served to bring them together with something unified to complain about.

*
The actual process of class registration gets one star for not having the foresight to see, especially after it happened numerous times before, that the network would get log-jammed by allowing so many people on at once; for not allowing people to get into classes that they needed; and for intruding on the sleep of thousands of students who schedule their earliest class at 11 a.m. for a reason.