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30Sep/09Off

Movie Review: The Apartment (1960)

The Apartment

Note: This is #39 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

The Apartment is one of the few movies where I'm not quite sure why it's on this list. I feel like I'm missing something.

It features Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, a sad sack corporate drone for a New York insurance company who is never able to enjoy his cozy apartment because he has been bullied into making it available to his employer's corporate executives so that they can invite ladies over for extramarital affairs. So most nights find Baxter standing morosely on the street underneath his own apartment window, seething and waiting until he can go home. He's doing these favors mostly because he hopes that they will fast track him to a big promotion, but you also get the sense that he's just a pushover and really going nowhere. Then comes along Fran Kubelik (Shirly McClain), the cute elevator girl (elevator girl? Oh, right, 1960) with whom Baxter becomes smitten. The only problem is that Miss Kubelik is herself smitten with the one of the other executives, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred McMurray), who starts inviting her back to Baxter's place and stringing her along for a tryst.

Billed as a "romantic comedy" The Apartment seems kind of short on laughs. But the performances are good. Lemmon is good in the role and sells his whole lonely, frustrated bachelor role pretty well. And McClain is also good as Miss Kubelik, playing her not as a ditz but as a young woman who's almost earned the right to call herself world-weary and jaded, but not quite. And there's some neat commentary in there about the life of a wage slave owing everything to a slothful feudal lord. Both Baxter and Kubelik fawn over Mr. Sheldrake in their own way, and each are disappointed and unfulfilled by what they get out of it.

So the film has some nice character work and development, some good performances, and it's cute. My wife watched this one with me, and she enjoyed it as well. It just doesn't seem to me to be quite on the same level as some of the others that I've watched in this experiment.

Filed under: Movies 1 Comment
29Sep/09Off

Week 296

I'm on a stay at home vacation (a staycation, as my wife calls it) so I'll be brief again.

This is one of my new favorite pictures of the two of the girls together. Sam got it into her head that she wants to read to Mandy, which is nice. Except that I apparently have to then read to Sam, which kind of ruins the efficiency of the whole bedtime routine.

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25Sep/09Off

Book Review: The Black Company

The Black Company

Ocassionally I get the itch to read a fantasy novel for the same reasons that other people my age will stop channel surfing if they come across an old Scooby Doo episode. The Black Company by Glen Cook, though, is different from a lot of others in the genre. It doesn't feature a young hero coming of age and fighting a dark menace that threatens the world. Instead, the book is narrated by Croaker, the aged physician and historian for a group of mercenaries called The Black Company.

The Company is amoral at best, willing to take on pretty much any contract. In fact, for the majority of the book the Company's employer IS the dark menace that threatens the world --a horribly powerful sorceress called The Lady and her group of none too nice lieutenants. You get the feeling that many members of The Black Company are barbarous and devoid of morals themselves, though what it seems to come down to most often is a strange sense of honor requiring them to follow through on the letter of their contract with The Lady.

But what I think really sets the book and its sequels apart is the fact that you soon get the feeling that good and evil are all relative depending on where you're standing, especially if you're just a grunt on the ground in the middle of a war whose overall scope and purpose is outside your ken. Sometimes you're just trying to stay alive. Furthermore, the reader gets the feeling that the Rebel armies that oppose The Lady aren't all noble and pure themselves. It's not light versus dark, but rather gray on gray.

It's also worth noting that while there are wizards and demigods in the book, the way Cook handles them is interesting. They're just people --weird and twisted for sure, but in the end people who are not only vulnerable to weapons but who have their own desires and motivations. A lot of them are killed off in the peripheries of the story which just further reinforces the book's "in the trenches" point of view. So it's pretty good stuff, and a good example of what I would consider "mature" genre fiction.

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24Sep/09Off

Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS)

So this is a really alluring premise for a video game: solve a series of little environmental puzzles by conjuring almost any object you can think of and interacting with it in the game. That's awesome! Who doesn't get excited about a direct pipeline from his imagination to a video game? Here's an example: an early level of Scribblenauts challenges you to get a cat down from the roof of a house and reunite it with its owner. Figure it out. Maybe you type in "W-I-N-G-S" or "L-A-D-D-E-R" and then give them to your in-game avatar Maxwell so that he can go up to retrieve the cat. Or you could lure the cat down with "F-I-S-H" or scare it down by plopping a "D-O-G" down next to it. Or whatever! You imagine it and Scribblenauts will let you create it and use it!

Except it doesn't. The problem with the game is that it overreaches and the intelligence or logic or interconnections between objects isn't deep or broad enough. There were way too many frustrating instances of stuff that makes sense to me not working. Why isn't that "B-E-A-V-E-R" chewing through that wood? That's what beavers do! How did that bee just sting my "B-E-E K-E-E-P-E-R" to death? She's wearing a beekeeper suit! Why isn't that "R-A-I-N" putting out that fire? So instead of allowing creative problem solving Scribblenauts just devolves into a never ending game of "Guess what the level designer was thinking here" which is NOT the experience I was sold on. I was sold on solving problems through zany, lateral thinking, yet I found myself simply repeating tried and true approaches like dropping toasters into shark tanks and shooting foes with guns. That got boring AND frustrating.

Perhaps the most aggravating thing about Scribblenauts, though, is the horribly conceived control scheme. You have an in-game character that you move around the environment by tapping on the screen in the direction you wish him to walk or jump. This would be an awkward alternative to the d-pad at worst, except that you ALSO tap on the screen to interact with and move the items you conjure up, which kicks it up into "critically flawed" territory. For example, say you've created a bridge to cross a deadly pit and you then tap the screen in an attempt to move Maxwell across it. Only oops, your errant tapping actually picked up the bridge, causing Maxwell to plummet to his unpleasant demise. Stuff like this happens ALL THE TIME, and it's made all the more infuriating because the obvious solution seems to be to use the d-pad to control Maxwell's movement instead of the camera.

Maybe Scribblenauts would do okay as one of those games that you occasionally pick up for a few minutes during lunch breaks or visits to waiting rooms. For this reason I would probably pick it up if they ported it to the iPhone OS with appropriate pricing. But otherwise, what a disappointment. It was such a great concept.

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23Sep/09Off

Movie Review: Psycho (1960)

Psycho

Note: This is #38 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

For those of you who don't yet know, the plot of Psycho starts with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a secretary who steals $40,000 from her employer so that she can elope with her boyfriend. Now you know! On her way to her new life a storm forces Marion to pull over for the night at a remote motel supposedly run by creepy dude Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his decrepit and homicidal mother. Things start to go badly as Norman tries to cover up his mother's shower related crimes and put the inevitable investigators off the trail. Psycho is the last of the Alfred Hitchcock film on my list, and I found it to be one of the better ones. This despite the fact that I already knew the big twist about Norman Bates that gets revealed at the very end and the fact that I knew all about the iconic and shocking shower stabby stabby scene. It's really Hershey's chocolate syrup going down the drain!

But while the film's intended effects were surely dulled by such familiarity, it didn't detract from the fact that it was a genuinely creepy and suspenseful flick --basically an early example of the slasher genre. Perkins is genuinely creepy as Norman Bates and I appreciate Hitchcock's decision to film in black and white despite the established popularity of color films because the stark lighting adds to the overall effect of many scenes. And I'm not sure what's up with those birds, but there sure were a lot of them hanging around in the background of almost every scene.

So even though I enjoyed some of Hitchock's other movies more than Psycho, this is one of those that I'd recommend to anyone not too squeamish to sit through it if for no other reason that to directly experience something very well done that has permeated popular culture. Sometimes it's best just to see something at its source.

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22Sep/09Off

Week 295

Short week this time. I'm getting into a "time off" kind of mindset. But here are some of those pics of Sam's trophy that I talked about last week.

Filed under: Parenting 1 Comment
16Sep/09Off

Movie Review: Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur

Note: This is #37 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well, that was epic. To boil it down, Ben-Hur tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charton Heston), a contemporary of Jesus Christ who enjoyed the luxuries of the Roman Empire until he chooses to stand against the politics of his long-time Roman friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd). When Messala sees a chance to frame Ben-Hur for an attack on a local political official, he takes it and sentences his one-time friend to a shortened lifetime of slavery on a Roman war galley. Ben-Hur's mother and sister are also imprisoned on the same charge. Obsessed with revenge, Ben-Hur vows to return and punish his enemy, and the balance of the movie sees him wrestling with both his circumstances and his hate. Though Christ only makes a few cameos in the movie, His influence is felt throughout the film, both in the religious reformations He is enacting and through the spiritual awakening that takes place in Ben-Hur simply on the basis of their brief contact.

Charlton Heston's acting may have edged up against hammy more than a few times, but there are none the less several impressive things about Ben-Hur. The effort put into costumes and sets alone was pretty spectacular, easily on par with anything you'd see in modern movies like The Lord of the Rings. A few colloquialisms aside, the movie really looks like it's taking place in its own world and gives you a sense of history. There's also the famous chariot race scene where Ben-Hur and Messala have their final showdown in a contest that made me think, perhaps not coincidentally, of the "Greased Lightning" scene in Grease. Still, it's a pretty fantastic sequence and I can see how audiences at the time were wowed by its scope and action.

So at 3 and a half hours long Ben-Hur isn't something you're likely to just pop in on a whim, but it's really pretty good if you're prepared for an epic set in another time and place.

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14Sep/09Off

Week 294: Carnivals, Trophies, and Daisies

It seems like the thing to do around these parts is to have a carnival when things get slow, and given how much the girls like them that's okay. This weekend we took them to the latest offering of this type, which I think was supposed to have something to do with child safety and corn dogs if I read the signs appropriately.

One of the nice benefits of the recurring nature of these events is that they give me photographic evidence that Mandy is indeed growing. Witness these two pics about a year apart standing in front of the same sign:


2008

2009

Here are some more pictures:

Sam had a major victory this weekend of the type that makes you just vicariously thrilled for her. Ger and I attended a series of financial planning classes held at a local church a while back. They had a free "Daisies" class for Sam on the same nights and, while she hadn't been going since our class ended, when the teacher called us and told us that they were having a graduation ceremony we decided to take Sam. When the class ahead of her went up in front of the group to receive their recognition and awards, Sam perked up at the sight of one of the little girls receiving a trophy for ...I don't know what. Possibly being the most God fearing little girl in the group. Or maybe she cleaned the most lepers' feet or something. At any rate, Sam's face lit up and she turned to me, saying "Daddy, it's okay if I don't get a trophy. But I REALLY hope I get a trophy."

Not having been informed beforehand of any trophies to be given, I started hedging Sam's expectations. When her class was called up, though, we were all mildly shocked and surprised when Sam was awarded a small trophy for being the second best Daisy in the bunch. It was blue with gold trim a big cross on the top to remind its bearer that while it may have Sam's name engraved on it Jesus totally died for our sins and that's a lot more impressive than earning some merit badges. But Sam still beamed like a star, clutching at the award like a first-time director on stage at the Oscars. She wouldn't let go of it for the rest of the day, and tells pretty much every person she meets about her "very first trophy ever!"

I'll post some pictures of it shortly. Or next week, whichever comes first.

Filed under: Parenting 1 Comment
13Sep/09Off

Thanks a lot, Microsoft

No, seriously. Thanks. When my first Xbox 360 console died on me, you were nice enough to send me a refurbished one as a replacement. Apparently that was enough though, because just 3 months or so after the warranty on THAT one ran out, it started freezing up and giving me this:

You guys are awful. But despite that, I'm STILL probably going to spend another $200 on another one of your unreliable consoles to replace this one, because I've got so many games, downloadable content, accessories, and other assorted junk tied up in this one. Or maybe I'll just hawk it all and buy one of those new PS3s.

Jerks.

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10Sep/09Off

Movie Review: North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest

Note: This is #36 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

The third the four Alfred Hitchcock movies on the list, I think I like North by Northwest the best (at the time of this writing I've already watched Psycho as well as Vertigo and Rear Window). This is probably because it's got the most straight forward thriller-type plot and some pretty iconic scenes. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is high power executive who accidentally gets involved with some goons, some spies, some microfiche, a MacGuffin, and and Abraham Lincoln's enormous nose. The main drama and intrigue comes from Thornhill's trying to figure out the nature of the mess he's gotten into when some henchmen kidnap him in a case of mistaken identity and repeatedly try to kill him. Thornhill turns out to be more resourceful than anyone might have guessed (himself included), but he has help in the form of a mysterious blond bombshell (Eva Marie Saint) who turns out to be more than she first appeared.

As I said, the plot if pretty engaging and it moves along quickly. It's essentially a spy caper, only with Cary Gran'ts everyman character sitting in for your typical James Bond lead (well, "typical" from the vantage of 2009 if not 1959). It's a fun story, even if it's not as meaty as the other films I've sampled from Hitchcock's library.

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9Sep/09Off

Week 293: Jacks, Dogs, and Bees

Short update this week. We went out to The Farm for Labor Day weekend, and although the weather was lousy we did fit some fun stuff in. Sam and Mandy went to visit a guy up the road who had puppies, and Mandy learned to deal blackjack. A productive weekend all around. Here are a bunch of pictures.

Also noteworthy is that Mandy started pre-pre-school after we got back from The Farm. She was excited enough about it, but as it so happened on her very first day she got stung by a bee on the playground. No allergic reaction, thank goodness, but now when you ask her how pre-school was, all she EVER says is, "One time, while I was at pre-school, I climbed on the little slide and there were bees there and one bee stinged me." I fear that her entire educational future has been derailed by one little bug.

Filed under: Parenting 3 Comments
4Sep/09Off

The Art and Science of Competency Models

Competency Models

One of my co-workers and I often joked about creating a television sitcom about a group of twenty-something Industrial-Organizational Psychologists who lived in the big city where they learned about love, friendship, and how to leverage the tools and methodologies of psychology to solve organizational problems. This book by Anntoinette Lucia and Richard Lepsinger would figure into one of the episode's B stories in some way, perhaps because the "Chandler" of the show needs to figure out how to identify the critical knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to adequately perform a target job. Look for it soon on NBC's Thursday night lineup.

But enough about that. This book is pretty much what the title suggests: it discusses a hands-on approach to developing competency models --that is, a collection of basic requirements for doing a given job in a work setting. What I like about it is that it's got a very "nuts and bolts" approach that pays some respect to the academic side of the subject but is really pretty squarely aimed at practitioners. It goes into some basic definitions and reviews of relevant legal material, but then jumps right in to how to create a competency model and then how to use that model to build various Human Resources functions like selection systems, training/development, performance appraisal, and succession planning. There are little vignettes along the way that describe how real companies are doing all this stuff.

So it's good that the book doesn't get bogged down in minutia, but at the same time I would have appreciated a little more in terms of tools, worksheets, surveys, handouts, and examples. The authors talk about what you should be doing and even how to do it, but I would have liked to see more concrete examples. It's almost as if they seem afraid to take anything but a generalist approach, since any examples would be specific to a given organization and job. But I don't mind that, since I'm smart enough to figure out how to take what's presented and adapt it to my own circumstances; at least give me a chance to do that. Still, as a primer, it's not bad if you need an overview or starting point for more research on the topic.

2Sep/09Off

Movie Review: Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo

Note: This is #35 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

More Alfred Hitchcock. This time, in Vertigo, detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stuart) develops a fear of heights after a close call involving a fleeing criminal, a tricky jump, and a lot of gravity. After retiring from the police force, he's hired to trail and old college friend's wife (Kim Novak) because the friend thinks she is possessed by some dead spirit and doing some pretty weird stuff. Ferguson falls for the wife (of course!) and a deeper mystery begins to reveal itself, culminating in some very startled nuns with a lot of clean up to do.

That doesn't sound like a very exciting summary, but really to say more about it would spoil things unnecessarily. Vertigo seems like a pretty good example of Hitchcock's "twist" endings, but oddly enough the audience is deliberately made aware of the twist long before the main character is. I guess it's interesting to see him work it out and be affected by it, but honestly I have to think that it would have been more effective to delay things a bit. I read once that Hitchcock once illustrated the concept of suspense by describing a scene where a family sitting down at the dining table rigged with a deadly bomb underneath. The audience sees the bomb, but the family on screen does not. That's the kind of thing going on in the last quarter or so of Vertigo.

So overall I thought the film was okay, though honestly I didn't find it all that suspenseful nor the plot that compelling and it was pretty long with stretches of slow pacing. What I did enjoy was just seeing Hitchcock's film making style on display. It really does seem radically different from the other classic movies I've seen up to this point --much more dramatic camera angles, musical scores, lighting, and other effects. Plus we're getting into some subject matter that's more risque relative to what I've seen before --a man cavorting with a married woman and getting caught up in cold-blooded murder. It's interesting to see the audience's sensibilities change along with the film makers' --or vice versa.

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