Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Today is a day that will live in infamy.

The Good:

I've been accepted at Roosevelt University, and will begin pursuing BA in English this fall. Keep your fingers crossed that the financial aid comes through.

The Bad:

One of my best friends
— indeed, the Best Man in my wedding — announced that he is moving to Amsterdam. Shane was hired — or rather, re-hired — by Boom Chicago, a sketch-comedy/improv company. He worked with them before, back in 1996. When he returned to Chicago he stepped off the plane wearing a black leather trenchcoat like one of the hitmen in The Replacement Killers. Seriously. It was badass. I'm certainly happy for Shane, but I'm sad that there will be one less person with which to Bear Down next fall. I don't know how easy it will be to Bear Down from Amsterdam, but I know Shane will give it his best shot.

The Ugly:

I got laid off. I can't say I was entirely surprised. They've been laying off one or two people a year for the last few years, and frequently when somebody quit they would not be replaced. It had reached the point where I spent almost half of every day poking around on the Internet for want of something better to do. I was, however, growing exceedingly complacent. I definitely needed something to kick me into gear. I did make some good friends there, though, and I hope I don't lose touch with them.

I am sure this will turn out to be the best thing that could happen, but I'm still gonna sweat a little until I know where my next paycheck is coming from. For now, I'm going to get back to work on my résumé.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Weekly Weigh-In

Current weight: 280.8 lbs
Weight lost to date: 2.8 lbs

So far so good. I'd hoped to crack the 270s today, but I was not quite as disciplined as I should have been in the last week. I'll have to crack the whip on myself a little bit. I was planning on getting back on my bike this week as well, but I'll have to wait for the next snow storm to clear first.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

An Analogy

Last Sunday there came a knocking at my door, and I opened it to find two gentlemen on my doorstep. They were perfectly polite, introduced themselves, and explained they were going door to door trying to get people to read the Bible. I said , "No thanks. I'm an atheist." They were unfazed, said thank you, and went on their way. In hindsight, I wish I had engaged these fellows in a discussion of why, exactly, they wanted other people to read the Bible, but I sort of panicked.

Later that day a friend and I were discussing my fondness for the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He stated that he just didn't agree with anyone who insisted they were the only ones who were right. I had to agree, but I went on to argue that that was the beauty of modern atheism: We don't claim to be "right" about everything—just the stuff for which we have evidence. For example, we have hard, empirical evidence that this planet is approximately 4.5 billion years old. We have no evidence to indicate that it is only 6,000 years old—and no, adding up a bunch of references in a translation of a translation of a two-thousand-year-old storybook does not count as evidence. The only rational thing to do, therefore, is to lean toward the larger number.

In the few discussions I've had with people regarding atheism, a popular response has been that there are so many things science cannot explain, God must exist to fill in the blanks. This is called, in atheist circles, the "God-In-the-Gaps" argument. My response is pretty much the textbook answer: The gaps are shrinking with each new scientific discovery, things we attributed to God a thousand, or even a hundred years ago now have natural explanations, blah blah blah. Does that mean there is no such thing as God? No, because you cannot prove a negative. But it makes God's existence less and less likely with each new breakthrough. I thought of an analogy that I'm gonna whip out next time I hear that argument. Here goes:

Think of our exploration of the universe as the easiest quiz ever devised: Multiple-choice, open book, no time limit, and you're only graded on the questions for which you give a definite answer. Now, whenever you hit a question for which you do not know the answer, you could take the rational route and either look it up or leave the question blank so you could come back to it later. Or you can take the faith-based route, and just fill in D) "None of the above" for each question you don't know the answer to. At the end of the test, who will get the better grade? Who will have learned more from the experience?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Weekly Weigh-In

Current weight: 283.6 lbs

So, this is a new thing I'm trying. I went to the grocery store yesterday and loaded up on chicken, fish, vegetables, and whole grain bread and cereal. A problem I've run into with many diet plans is too much freedom. When I have a lot of choices presented to me, I find myself thinking, "Well, if I can have this, then it's probably okay to have that, too." Eventually I lose control, and I snowball down the hill into a big pile of chocolate Zingers.

The one diet where I had success was the Atkins diet, which for too many other reasons turned out to be not so good, but I had limited myself to a very strict list of acceptable foods, and I did not ever stray outside the lines. I'm gonna try that again, but with more veggies and grains than the Atkins diet allowed. I feel pretty good about this plan. My current goal is to cut ten percent of my body weight. I figure that should take me about fifteen weeks. We'll see what happens after that.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

In Bruges

I really want to go to Bruges, Belgium, right now. What a neat-looking place. If the movie In Bruges is to be believed, it is one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe. The movie lets you have a few good looks at this fantastic location early on, and you can't help but feel an attachment to it for the rest of the film. It becomes another character in a movie that is very much about characters, and not about violence or witty banter — even though In Bruges has plenty of both.

This is a movie about principles. Ray (Colin Ferrell) is an Irish hitman, new to the job, who is sent to Bruges by his boss after botching his first murder. Ray spends most of the movie discovering A) that he has principles, and B) the consequences he must face within himself when he acts against them. Ray is accompanied by Ken (Brendan Gleeson), an older, wiser hitman who thinks he has made peace with who he is and what he does. He knows he is not a "good" person, in the conventional sense, but at least he'll hold the door open for an old lady.

Ray and Ken work for Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes. I like Mr. Fiennes a lot, but I don't think I've ever seen him have as much fun on film as he does here. Harry is a man who adheres to very strict principles, and expects those around him to live up to the same standards.

It would be easy to compare this movie to the rash of post-Pulp Fiction films about criminal-philosophers, who (between acts of violence) sit in coffee shops or bars and discuss their views of the world. This is not one of those movies. We glean these characters' philosophies, moral codes, whatever, through their actions and interactions. We learn that Ray's obnoxious exuberance and impatience cover a soul too sensitive for the career he has chosen. We learn that Ken's fondness for the history and culture of Bruges is his way to forget the real reason he was sent there in the first place. Even Harry, in his own way, communicates his view of the world not with a lengthy speech but through the single-mindedness with which he pursues his goal.

One thing In Bruges does have in common with the Tarantinoesque crime films of the last decade or so (at least the European ones) is a colorful cast of secondary characters. The hitmen come across a film shoot in progress, and Ray becomes instantly fascinated by a dwarf named Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), and infatuated with a production assistant named Chloë (Clémence Poésy) who may be just the right level of naughty for a fellow like Ray.

With Shaun of the Dead Simon Pegg and Nick Frost showed that it was possible to have moments of genuine, moving drama in the midst of wackiness and mayhem, and that when balanced properly the two sides enhance each other and make the whole experience that much more rewarding. In Bruges follows similar rules and finds an equally satisfying balance, although in the other direction. This is a serious film, a violent film, and a heartbreaking, poignant film. Its impact is only enhanced by the moments of straight-up silliness.

Two interesting bits of trivia:

1) Three actors (Gleeson, Fiennes, and Poésy) also play significant roles in the Harry Potter movie series.

2) The two movies I saw in theaters this week (In Bruges and There Will Be Blood) feature Ciarán Hinds — Julius Caesar of HBO's Rome — in small roles. His part is bigger in Blood, but more pivotal in Bruges.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

There Will Be Blood

What the hell was that?

Don't get me wrong here; I'm not saying I hated the movie. On the contrary; I was thoroughly engrossed. Daniel Day Lewis' performance is truly extraordinary. He's charming, and what's more impressive is that he's still charming even after you figure out when he's lying. And in certain moments he goes from charming to truly terrifying. I am in awe of his physical performance. His character, Daniel Plainview, sustains an injury very early in the movie that stays with him throughout the story, and Daniel Day Lewis manages to maintain that even as he alters the rest of his physicality based on his character's age. It was remarkable to watch, even though a day later I keep wanting to mock his strange dialect.

The other performances are solid, particularly Dillon Freasier as the young H.W. Plainview and Paul Dano as a young preacher who butts heads with Daniel. Dano's character is a bit confusing, because, well, apparently, he plays two different characters. Maybe. You never see them on screen together, and there are other hints that one of the two characters may, in fact, not exist. Or maybe not. It's an odd plot point, and one I find distracting more than anything else. That said, Dano's performance as Eli Sunday is carefully constructed as a negative image of Daniel Plainview. He is pale and soft-spoken when Plainview is tanned and powerful. But both characters have created their images to suit their purposes, which makes them almost a match for each other.

I suppose that reason alone might explain, to some degree at least, why the movie ends the way it does. I honestly don't know how else it should have ended, but this particular ending comes from out of nowhere. It isn't even that it takes some sort of turn that you don't expect. It literally felt like the end of a different story. I'm not saying that writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson is wrong — I'm just saying I don't get it. But again, I don't know where else this particular story could have gone.

Do I recommend the movie? Yes I do. Very much so, but not because you will be entertained. I think you will leave the theater with a head full of questions, but I think, in this case, that's the idea. And Daniel Day Lewis' performance is something to behold, either way.

The Aftermath

Writers in Hollywood returned to work today, ending a three and a half month strike that pretty much brought the television industry to a halt, replacing everything interesting about TV with reality shows where people take lie detector tests in front of their friends and families. But that's all over now, and soon we will all get to bask in the glory of new stories to keep us entertained. Mostly. Unfortunately, it's not as if everything is suddenly back to normal. I did a little checking on the three shows I can't live without to find out how they would recover.

Battlestar Galactica, it appears, will come out relatively unscathed. They had already completed fourteen of the twenty episodes for their final season. There had been some concern that, if the strike continued, they would never film the end of the story. It seems that won't be an issue now. However, there is a good chance that the second half of the season will be delayed, airing either in the fall or, worst case scenario, in the spring of 2009. Of course, SciFi had threatened to do this anyway, just for the advertising revenue, so it's not like anything has changed. The important thing is, we were promised twenty final episodes, and it appears that is what we shall receive.

Lost was also in a decent position, having shot eight of the sixteen promised episodes for their fourth season. An interview with actor Matthew Fox suggested that they could be back in production within five weeks of the strike's conclusion, and therefore they should be able to have new episodes ready as soon as the first eight have aired. Because of the tightened schedule, however, it has been suggested that the season be trimmed from sixteen down to thirteen episodes. We'll get most of the story we were originally promised, but it will come in a somewhat truncated form.

And last, there is Friday Night Lights. I am sad to say that this show appears to be finished. They shot fifteen of twenty-two episodes, and there does not appear to be any plan to go back and finish what they started. In fact, NBC has unofficially announced April 22 as the release date for the Season 2 DVD, with just the fifteen completed episodes. Since the show has always had trouble getting ratings, it looks like the Powers That Be have written it off. It's a sad, ignominious ending to the best acted and directed show on network television. The writing has not thrilled me as much this season as it had last year, but the last few episodes felt like it was getting back on track. I hope, at the very least, they managed to wrap up a few of the storylines before the plug got pulled.

The good news, though, is that the writers are back. That means new shows and new movies. Huzzah... least until this summer, when the actors go on strike. Crap.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the 199th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin — the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor.


Oh Yeah, the Super Bowl

I can't believe it took me so long to comment on it, but here ya go:

The New York Daily News held a contest to name that play where Eli Manning escaped an intense pass rush and then lofted a pass which David Tyree caught by pinning the ball to his helmet as he fell to the ground. The winner was "Catch 42," a reference to it taking place during the forty-second Super Bowl. However, I found out about the contest too late to enter my own suggestion, which is almost too awesome to express in a mere blog:

The Spear and Magic Helmet

Get it? From that Bugs Bunny cartoon? With Elmer Fudd? The opera? Wagner?

Eh, screw you guys. It's awesome. Don't deny it.

Anyway, I was disappointed, because I wanted the Patriots to make the '72 Dolphins sit down and shut the hell up. Now we've gotta hear about these douchebags and their annual champagne toasts until they're all dead. But the game itself, particularly the fourth quarter, was so good that I cannot in any way complain. And that catch, the Spear and Magic Helmet, was incredible. When it happened, all of us watching just sat at the edge of our seats with our jaws hanging open. I think we knew then just how the game was going to end. So, congrats to the Giants; they earned it.

On the plus side, the Patriots' loss leaves the window open for the Bears to be the first team to go 19-0. Bear Down!