Tuesday, September 30, 2008

If I Had 700 Billion Dollars

Let me start this by saying that I am no economist (which I’m sure would have been very clear shortly anyway), I’m just an average person who is observing the financial goings on in my nation. Luckily, in America at least, you don’t have to know what you are talking about to have an opinion on it (see Kevin McCullough or Cooper Lawrence).

The topic of the day, and indeed month, seems to be whether or not we should bail out all the financial institutions that, through their own immoral, at best, behaviour has found themselves in a bit of a pickle that threatens to bring down the nation’s economy.

What I have found amusing during all of this is the people who were all for the “free market” and “de-regulation” that allowed these companies to get into this mess in the first place are now the ones screaming loudest for government intervention. Suddenly all of these fiscal conservatives have become downright socialist. What happened to the free market taking care of itself? I thought that the idea was that if a company couldn’t hack it, they should fail.

All of that aside, I’ve been doing a little (very little) looking at these bailout ideas. The most popular one seems to be the government spending $700 billion that it does not really have to buy the bad debt off of the people who so willingly incurred it in the first place. It seems to me that we are talking about rewarding people for stupidity at best, fraud at worst. I think I have a better idea.

My idea is, instead of giving the money directly to the banks, we funnel it through the homeowners who were given loans they never should have qualified for in the first place. Homeowners should be able to apply for a piece of the bailout money to be put towards paying off part of their current loan and then refinancing the lower amount at a new fixed rate that they actually could afford.

I know this is still rewarding people for doing something stupid, but in the cases of many of these debtors they really did not know any better. They were told that they should take out all that they could; after all home values are just going up, up, up! I know this happened because it happened to me; I’m just far too stingy to have fallen for it.

The last time I refinanced my home, the loan broker told me that I qualified for a much larger loan, which is horse-crap as over half of my monthly income (maybe a third of household) goes just to the mortgage payment. I would like to buy nice things, but not if I’m going to lose my home in the long run.

Keeping people in their homes is good for American, so I do not think that any bailout plan should not involve keeping Americans in their homes. Look around your neighborhood, there are the houses with ‘For Sale, Bank Owned’ signs in front of them, and they look like crap. They’ve been vacant for months and they look it; brown lawns, leaf covered ground, and just a general look of abandonment to them. They are eyesores, and the current plans look like they would all lead to more of that.

In the end, the banks will still get their money, and would still be saved whether they should be or not, but it could help more Americans get to keep their homes. The current plans don’t look to me like they are going to benefit the 99% of American home owners who are at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure, so why bother?

I’m sure my plan has flaws to it, but none of the plans suggested up to now can really be said to be perfect either. There are people who are much smarter than I am who could make this idea work, who could fill the holes, and work on the specifics.

If the government does not want to institute something that will help a large number of Americans, then screw it. Let the banks fail, the government can just take them over. The money in most people’s accounts is backed by the government anyway, so there is little risk to the average American if this happens. Alternately, a financial institution that was not stupid/greedy enough to get themselves into this mess in the first place will buy them up.

Remember, it’s supposed to be all about the free market, the market will regulate itself. If the market cannot keep itself in check, then maybe there should be some regulation again. It worked before.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Life Imitates Art

I got the chance to go to a preview showing of the new movie “Sex Drive” so I could write a review about it. Going to promotional screenings of films is a lot of fun, and it is usually free, these are two things that attract me to them greatly, but sometimes something can get in the way of that good time.

“Sex Drive” was being screened at a theater I have driven past a thousand time, but have never actually seen a movie at, so I was pleased at the new experience. The ticket said on it that recording devices, including cell phones capable of capturing video, were not allowed in the screening. This makes sense since I’m sure they would like to dissuade people from making bootlegs of the film available of bittorrent before the movie is even released, so my wife left her phone in the car, and I do not usually carry one anyway.

So there we are, standing in line outside a theater that reads “CLOSED” on its sign because they do not want to advertise the special screening (although you would think the huge line of people might give it away a bit, but then probably 98% of the people in the theater were in that line) when it happened. A character from my story “Mallville – A Journal of the Zombie Apocalypse” (working title) enters my life ever so briefly.

“Mallville” features a character named Hashmir Kaur, a man of Indian descent who is the head of Mallville’s security force, and he is a right horse’s ass. He’s officious, rude, possibly evil, a Vogon if ever there was one, and here he was in real life. It is a weird sensation to meet a character that you created in real life.

Sure, this guy is white and balding and looks nothing like Hashmir physically, but he is Hashmir all the same. He is wearing his suit that is the same colour scheme as all of the other employees, and matches the other security team members. The one thing that sets him apart is that his tie is decorated with little handcuffs.

Hashmir comes striding out to the line warning people that they could not bring their cell phone, “Game Gear” (yes, he said Game Gear specifically at least three times), camera, etc into the theater. Okay, I think, I guess that makes sense, no recording devices like the ticket says, although the gaming system reference puzzled me, and not just for the fact that he specified a nearly twenty year old system. I didn’t give it too much thought though.

Finally, about thirty minutes before the film is scheduled to start, they start letting people into the theater, and goddamn if Hashmir hasn’t got a security crew searching people’s bags and wanding people with handheld metal detectors like we were going on an airplane (or at least the fair) instead of going to see some raunchy sex comedy.

Now I do have my iPod in my pocket, as I pretty much always do, but as this neither makes noise nor records, and Hashmir did not mention MP3 players (that I heard anyway) I figure I’ll try it and see what happens.

Of course my pockets set off the wand, and I pull everything out, kinda trying to make the iPod blend in with the book I had in my pocket, but the guy with the wand sees it anyway.

“No cell phones” the young Asian gentleman says.

“It’s not a cell phone,” I explain, “It’s just an iPod, it cannot record anything.”

The keeper of the wand looks to Hashmir, who in his best you-kids-stay-off-my-lawn voice barks “No electronics! You need to take it out to your car.”

“It’s just an iPod, it’s not a recording device of any sort.”

Hashmir is having none of it, he repeats his ruling of no electronics, and that’s that. Off I go.

Now people who know me will wonder why I didn’t just fire off a large dose of sarcasm at this wanker. The answer is simple, I wanted to see the movie, and this man is clearly the sort of person who will have someone who defies him removed from the premises. Hell, he’d probably have the insubordinate shot if he could.

So I go out to the car to hide my iPod, and hide is really the proper word here; we already have our backpacks hidden under a camouflage of crap that I always keep in the car for just such reasons. This theater is not in the best area, the mall about two blocks away from there offers a security escort out to your car as a courtesy; it’s just that kind of area.

Plus the incident made me feel young again. I am in my thirties, and it’s been a long time since someone gave me the you-whippersnappers-have-no-respect-for-your-elders act. It was refreshing, kind of like getting carded at BevMo despite the fact many people think I’m a good ten years older than I am on first meeting me.

Heading back inside, I now have to wait at the back of the line which is snaking all the way through the theater and almost to the front entrance. If it were not bad enough that the line is super long, it's also moving super slowly as the security team is encountering people with phones, PDAs, and the like, and sending them back out of line.

It takes over half an hour to get back to the front of the line, and now a woman from the movie company is going through the remains of the line (which is a good 100 people long behind me, mostly people who, like me, had to go hide their personal electronics in their cars) trying to warn people, incorrectly I might add, as she is just warning about phones, about Hashmir's anti-electronics stance.

Luckily the movie did not start on time, as there were still a large number of people trying to get in. If they were going to do such a thorough search of everyone, they probably should have started letting people into the theater at least 30 minutes before they did.

Finally everyone is in the theater, the lights go down, and the movie starts. Things start off shaky; no, not because of the quality of the movie, but because it seems that so much time was spent ,making sure no one smuggled in a PSP that no one bothered to test the projector to make sure it was set up properly. For the first five minutes the screen alternately shakes like there's an earthquake in the booth, ends up with the top of the picture under the bottom, or just projects half onto the floor. After these five minutes, the screen goes dark.

During the projection issues, many people were jeering, but when the screen goes black, the theater fills with a mix of boos, hisses, and applause at the incompetence of Hashmir's crew, not in the least because there are still people in the theater with cell phones.

My wife points out to me that Hashmir and his crew of about 5 security members are off to the side of the theater, and that Hashmir has a nightvision scope. He is looking for bursts of light coming from electronic devices. He takes advantage of the stoppage of the film to stand up by the screen.

The first thing he does is single out some teenager with a cell phone, and bellow to his staff, “Escort this man out of the theater!”. The boy goes willingly enough, but is soon flanked by a pair of security guards/ushers and is escorted out of the theater,

“I have already spotted four cellphones and a Palm Pilot (yes, he said Palm Pilot, not PDA or Blackberry), and if I see any of them again I will have you escorted out. There will be no cell phones in this building!” he bellows at the audience.

It was kind of fun at this point to watch people who I knew had managed to get their phones in try and shelter them from view. Frankly at that point I didn’t feel a lot of pity for those people. You managed to smuggle the device past the metal detector and the bag check, and then you are stupid enough to whip it out and start using it again? Seriously, you don’t deserve to see the movie then.

The rest of the movie was enjoyable enough, as per my review of it that has already been posted, but on the way out we saw Hashmir again standing with some of his crew outside the theater. Alas, he had no name tag, or I would be using his real name here, but he did have a cell phone in his hands.

I couldn’t resist, as it’s not like he could really kick me out at this point, so as we walked past I loudly said to my wife, “I thought there were no cell phones in this building?”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sex Drive

At first glance you might think that the new movie “Sex Drive” is just another teenage sex comedy, but if you look closer you’ll discover that, yeah, you pretty much had it right the first time. Don’t take this as a criticism though; if you are going to see a film like “Sex Drive” chances are that you know what to expect, and this movie will not disappoint, in fact you might even be pleasantly surprised as the film rises just a bit above the standard for the genre.

“Sex Drive” is a standard tale of self-discovery featuring some of the characters you have come to expect in these kinds of films. There’s Ian, played by Josh Zuckerman (“Austin Powers in Goldmember”, “Survivng Christmas”), as the awkward teenaged virgin who has made it his goal to lose his virginity by film’s end. We have Felicia, played by Amanda Crew (“Final Destination 3”, “Whistler”), as the girl who’s right in front of Ian the whole time, although in a twist on the character type it’s Felicia who doesn’t realize that they are right for each other. The final third of the main trio is Lance, played by Clark Duke (“Greek”), as the super-confident guy who gets the ladies with little effort and has confidence to spare; in another character twist though, Lance is super nerdy in his appearance, looking like Rainn Wilson’s little brother, and succeeding on his confidence alone.

The story revolves around Ian trying to meet a girls in Knoxville, Tennesee whose online name is Ms_Tasty. After prompting from Lance, Ian steals the 1969 GTO belonging to his abusive older brother Rex, played by James Marsden (“Enchanted”, “X-Men”) who plays the character perfectly, and hits the road. Felicia joins the ride because she was planning to spend the weekend at Ian’s house to get away from her own family, and is traveling under the belief that they are going to visit Ian’s grandmother.

The movie quickly becomes a road trip move with the trio running into a number of interesting characters, including a sexually adventurous gas station employee and her violent boyfriend, a possibly murderous hitchhiker, a mysterious tuner car, a man who wants to share a bathroom stall with Ian, and a group of unconventional Amish personified by Ezekiel, played by Seth Green (“Family Guy”, “Robot Chicken”).

As the film progresses, you are taken through the predictable stages of this sort of film; friendships are tested, jealousy rears its head, temptation presents itself, and everyone learns something about themselves. Nothing unique or particularly original, but it’s all very well done.

All the things you expect to find in a movie of this type are here; boobs, dick jokes, poop jokes, and lots and lots of sexual innuendo. It’s all very low brow and predictable, but it somehow comes across as something more than its modern sex comedy brethren.

While my first instinct is to compare this film to the likes of “American Pie” or “Road Trip”, that is not totally fair. “Sex Drive” certainly does share a lot with those two movies, but it is more than that, and it is certainly better than the direct-to-DVD garbage that has been shoveled out under the “American Pie” and National Lampoon” banners over the last few years. In fact it is somewhat reminiscent of the original “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, as it shares some of that film’s wit and features many colourful characters that give the story more flavour than it’s slightly off cookie cutter protagonists would alone.

Despite being predictable, crude, and sometimes gross, “Sex Drive” is fast paced, witty, well written, well cast, and features the best Mexican donut mascot you are ever likely to see. This is a movie I recommend strongly for mature (chronologically anyway) audiences that want to just turn their brains off and laugh for an hour and a half.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirate's Life For Me!

Avast mateys! It be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and you'll be complyin' or you'll be walkin' the plank. Have yerself a good one! Arrrrrrr.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

And Another Thing...

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” has played an important role in my life. As a child I first saw the television series on PBS alongside other childhood favourites like “Doctor Who” and “Good Neighbours”, and this helped to set me onto a lifelong love of comedic science fiction, and British comedy in general.

It was not actually until high school, when I saw the series once again being played alongside other favourites like “Red Dwarf” and “Fawlty Towers” on that very same PBS station during a fundraising night (which was the only time they ever really played those shows by that point) that I decided I actually needed to read the books.

I, of course, fell in love with them. The “Trilogy” as a whole is probably my favourite book of all time, it’s certainly the stories I hav re-read and listened to the most times. I got the audiobooks (good to listen to while playing marathon sessions of “SimCity 2000” and “Doom”), the radio play, the script to the radio play, the series on VHS, the graphic novel, and the classic text adventure game. I am not being flip when I say this is my favourite story, as I would rate it even higher than other much-loved series like “The Dark Tower”.

As the years went by, the series never left me. I’ve listened to the audiobooks over and over again, and still to this day react to seeing the number “42”. When the movie came and went, I accumulated some of the toys, the movie itself on DVD, and even though I was not 100% happy with the film as Adams’ lack of presence was strongly felt, I still enjoyed it for what it was. I think it would have been better if Adams had still been around to work on it, but it also seemed different enough from every other version of the story (just as every version is at least a little different from every other version) that he still would have overall approved.

Suffice to say that I really like HHGttG, and it has played a role in shaping my tastes, sense of humour, and even the way I think. Knowing this, you can imagine the mixed emotions when I see this in my Twitterfeed this morning “Oh, christ. http://tinyurl.com/56qtgv” from someone who I won’t name, since I do not know that they would want to be named here (I doubt they would care, but in any case….). The link led to a BBC News story about a sixth HHGttG book being written.

“How can that be?” you ask, “Didn’t Douglas Adams die like seven years ago?”

Yes, yes he did, and no, this is not some lost manuscript found in the back of his desk drawer. This is going to be a new novel supposedly titled “And Another Thing…”, and will be penned by author Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl series of books. I’ve never read any Artemis Fowl books, so I have no idea of the skill of this author to reproduce something I’ve been in love with my whole life.

According to the article, Mr. Colfer was “terrified” about doing a new HHG book, and well he should be. This is like tampering with Star Wars, and even George Lucas himself couldn’t pick up Star Wars twenty years later without pissing off just about every fanboy out there. How can someone other than Adams himself expect to pull this off?

I am not going to attack Mr. Colfer though. While I may not have read any of his work, I know that it is popular which means there must be something to it. I will reserve judgment until there is something to judge.

Continuing the series will be no easy trick for Colfer, as Adams ended “Mostly Harmless” by neatly wrapping up all of the main characters save for Marvin and Zaphod, and Marvin was sorted at the end of “So Long, and Thanks For All The Fish”. It will be interesting to see how he writes his way out of the corner Adams painted him into.

“And Another Thing…” is due out next October, and I shall be waiting with both hope that Colfer is up to the job, and fear that he is not. I really want it to be good, as Arthur, Ford, Trillian, and Zaphod are like good friends, and it will nice to see them again.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ghost Town

“Ghost Town” is the new romantic comedy starring Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, and Tea Leoni about a man who can speak to the dead. Don’t let the horrendously uncreative, and somewhat misleading, title fool you; this is a really funny movie. There’s nothing here that you really have not seen before, but it’s done so well that even having Tea Leoni in it does not ruin things.

“Ghost Town” casts Ricky Gervais as David Brent Andy Millman Bertram Pincus, a dentist who on the surface seems exactly like Gervais’ other famous roles in “The Office” and “Extras” with one big difference, instead off wanting fame or recognition, Bertram just wants to be left alone. If it sounds like I am criticizing the fact that Gervais plays the same character over and over, I’m really not. Some actors are just really well suited to one type of role, and Gervais is one of those actors; he has playing a completely socially inept prick down to an art, and I wouldn’t want him any other way.

Pincus is being relatively successful in his attempts to avoid human contact until, during a routine medical procedure, he dies. He doesn’t stay dead, but when he is released from the hospital he starts being able to see ghosts, and in a city like New York ghosts are everywhere. Once ghosts start to realize that Pincus can see them, they flock to him for help in tying up the loose ends of their life.

One ghost is particularly insistent on Pincus helping him, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) wants Bertram to break up his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni), and her new love. At first Pincus just wants Frank to go away, but then he starts to fall for Gwen and decides to help break them up by making her fall from him using personal information fed to him by Frank.

Acting is not a big issue in this movie. Just as Gervais plays his standard character, Kinnear plays Frank as the same character he’s been playing since his “Talk Soup” days, but just as I would not expect (or necessarily even want) to see Gervais play a different character type, this is what Kinnear is good at. Even Leone manages to pull off a few convincing scenes as she completely geeks out over a mummy in front of Pincus at the museum where she is preparing an exhibit.

This movie far exceeds the sum of its parts. While it follows a standard romantic comedy formula, and is mostly predictable, the interaction between Gervais and those around is quick, funny, and comes across as fairly natural. If you enjoyed the style of cringe-humour in “The Office”, then this movie will have you howling with laughter.

You should also be on the look out for small appearances by Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show, Jericho) as the dentist who shares an office with Pincus, Kristen Wiig (Saturday Night Live, The Joe Schmo Show) as Pincus’ doctor, and Alan Ruck (Spin City, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) as one of the ghosts seeking help. They all add a little something special to the experience that is this movie.

The only real sore spot to the film is that it feels like some things are cut. Some prominently featured ghosts are never shown to get any sort of resolution, Pincus’ back story is handled as almost a throw-away line, and some of the more emotional scenes feel somewhat out of place and forced in such an otherwise funny film.

There is also a point towards the end where it seems like the ending may not be the one you expect going in. I do not wish to spoil it for anyone, but it would have been interesting, if maybe a little disappointing over all, to see how that could have played out. Maybe there will be an alternate ending on the DVD.

This is a great date movie. It’s very funny, touching at points, and a little gross; all the things a good date movie should be. If you enjoy Gervais’ brand of humour then you will not leave the theater disappointed. I highly recommend seeing these dead people.