The Functional Hermit

musings from a homebody

Archive for June 2009

Hermit Cinema: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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This is another movie that I put off watching for far too long. With a running time of two hours and forty-five minutes, I kept reaching for it before thinking to myself that I wasn’t in the mood to watch a nearly three-hour movie. Which is stupid really, especially since several of my very favorite movies are among the three-hour variety.

Several people I know told me they weren’t too crazy about this movie, likening it to a less-interesting take on the  Forrest Gump storyline. I couldn’t disagree more and feel that relating those two movies together is mere cultural laziness. The fact that a movie tracks a person’s life and the historic events that happen through it doesn’t make it Gump-like. There, the main character was making history. Here, we witness one man’s story as history unfolds around him.

As most people already know, this movie is about a man who ages in reverse. Born into a wealthy family, his mother dies in childbirth and his father, horrified over both the loss and appearance of his newborn, abandons him on a New Orleans doorstep. A kindly, god-fearing woman who is the caretaker/caregiver of a retirement home takes him in. With his seemingly elder appearance and infirmities, he fits right in. Mentally though, he longs to discover the world with the restless curiosity of a child.

Slowly he discovers more and more of the city, even taking a job on a tugboat. The skipper of the boat (Jared Harris) steals every scene he’s in, while also introducing Benjamin to the pleasures of a brothel. There he also encounters his real father, who recognizes Benjamin immediately and strikes up a relationship.

Meanwhile, he also begins a lasting friendship with Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the seniors living in the home. Immediately, she recognizes that Benjamin is not at all like ‘an old person.’ They begin to correspond regularly once Benjamin ships out on the tugboat. Living abroad, he has his first love affair with Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton), the wife of an English diplomat and spy. Eventually the tug and its crew serve the US Navy as WWII breaks out.

Up until this point, Benjamin still had the appearance of a senior citizen. He returns home to New Orleans and now has a more Brad Pitt-like appearance. To cut to the chase, he reunites with Daisy (now played by Cate Blanchett) and begins pursuing her, though she is living her own very independent life as a ballet dancer in Manhattan. Their relationship dominates much of the remainder of the movie and Cate Blanchett really shines. This is no usual love story though as they both know Benjamin is beginning his slow ‘decline’ into childhood.

To me, this was a very different movie for David Fincher. I like every movie he’s ever made (Fight Club being my favorite). He’s a technical, storytelling genius but it seems his movies are getting less and less about effects and technical achievement and more and more about performance. Here, the effect of Pitt aging in reverse is a true achievement but is done so well it doesn’t dominate or distract. This movie is really about letting the actors tell this very unusual story and they tell it quite well. In some Fincher movies, special effects always become a character in and of themselves but here, they blend seamlessly into the storytelling.

Pitt’s performance is hugely underrated in my opinion. He strikes just the right balance of youthful curiosity trapped inside a senior with the wisdom of an elder trapped inside a teen. It never seems like he’s acting.

For almost three hours, I couldn’t stop watching. When I had to take a bathroom break I hit pause and then walked hurriedly to the restroom, took care of business, then hurried back. I can’t give a DVD much stronger of a recommendation than that.

I give this movie an A.

Written by the bee dub

June 29, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Hermit Cinema: Valkyrie

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I’m usually a sucker for war films but didn’t have very strong interest in this movie. I did want to check it out but didn’t feel the urgency that I often do with a movie based around World War II. To my pleasant surprise, I really liked it. This was especially impressive to me because we know how this movie ends before it ever begins. You’ve also got the language/cultural barrier but I think they handled it adequately. It was a little weird hearing so many English accents but I stopped noticing after a few minutes. There are loads of actors contributing significant roles here, but a few really stood out to me.

Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a veteran of the Third Reich’s failed North African campaigns. He’s disillusioned and misled about the Furher’s reign even before sacrificing an eye, an arm and a few fingers from the other hand to the cause.

After recovering from his wounds he serves in German Army high command in Berlin. There’s he’s taken in by others of similar mind, like Kenneth Branagh’s Major General Henning von Tresckow and Terence Stamp’s Ludwig Beck, who have already made an attempt or two at taking out AH. They want to prove to the world that not all Germans are like Hitler or his SS and then sue for peace with the Allies.

Stauffenberg takes the bull by the horns and seemingly takes charge of the effort once he joins. To pull off their plan, they need some luck and fortuitous change in circumstance. Much of the plan depends on invoking Operation Valkryie which was designed to stabliize the government in case of Hitler’s death. This requires the use of the German reserve army, headed by General Frederich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), who seems aware of their conspiracy yet does his best to play both sides. They need his troops to defuse the threat of the SS and a few of Hitler’s other heavy cronies after the assasination.

Basically, the hope is to take out Hitler at his war bunker, codename the Wolf’s Lair, have General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) sever the Wolf’s Lair’s communications with the rest of Germany and then invoke Operation Valkryie to take over the government. Without going into too much detail because, unless you did bong hits everyday through third and fourth grade history lessons, we all know how this story ends.

There are a few things about this movie that really stood out to me. Cruise is very consistent here as is Tom Wilkinson. Some of the plot moves along too conveniently – like the conspirators basically handing Stauffenberg control of their destinies in quick, movie-like fashion – and the relationship between Cruise’s character and his family seemed a superficial attempt to show his humanity. But I think the real star of this movie is Bryan Singer’s direction. This movie starts strong, keeps a complicated conspiracy simple for a person like me to understand and adds a genuine sense of suspense for a movie with a built-in, knowable end.

I also credit them for not turning Hitler’s character, the few times we see him, into some cartoon characateur of evil. We all know how much damage that man did and how much he deserved to be taken out so there’s no need to beat that into our heads any further. Now to be clear, I’m not defending him at all, just crediting the folks responsible for not falling into the very clichéd movie-making trap of showing him ordering the deaths of millions while ripping out the beating heart of a newborn baby just for effect. After all, he was just a man. A terrible and misguided man at that, but that’s all he was.

But enough about that. This is very well produced, directed and acted. It kept me engaged from beginning to end. In the final analysis, I give this movie a solid B.

Written by the bee dub

June 23, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Hermit Cinema: JCVD

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Well I finally got off my non-movie-watching butt, put another of my Netflix DVD’s in and hit the play button. This is a movie I was very skeptical about but when I heard the premise I have to admit I was intrigued. I never would have even considered renting it but my friend Moe walked into my work cubicle-like thing and began telling me what he read about it. When he gets really enthusiastic about something he starts pounding one fist into his other hand while continuously shifting his weight unnecessarily from one foot to the other. That got my attention. Then he directed me to the Time magazine link that listed Van Damme’s performance as one of the best male actor roles of the entire year.

This European movie is one of those vehicles where we have an actor playing himself, or at least some sort of spoof of himself that’s very closely based on what the public thinks it knows about him. In the opening scene, we have Van Damme filming an extended action sequence where he takes out about forty bad guys (literally) while allowing us to see how close his punches and kicks do not actually come to hitting the other actors. It’s also evident that not even the people responsible for making the movie thinks of it as anything worth throwing themselves into.

He’s a mostly washed-up actor, stuck playing the same role over and over again in movies whose only differentiating feature is their title. He’s burned out and desperate to be a part of something more artistically rewarding, but not even his agent takes him seriously. He’s broke and in a bitter custody battle for his daughter in divorce proceedings. He agrees to go ahead and sign up for another ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme movie’ and departs LA for his native Belgium. Once there, he learns he’s lost the part to Steven Seagal who gets the gig by agreeing to cut off his ponytail.

His fellow countrymen admire him and treat him sort of like a hometown hero. Long story short, he walks into the wrong place at the wrong time and because he’s so recognizable, it’s assumed that he’s responsible for a bank robbery turned hostage situation. Crowds, police and news crews gather as the situation becomes a media phenomenon.

The highlight of the movie is a sidebar sequence where Van Damme goes into confessional mode and while in character (in terms of the movie) goes on to seemingly apologize for his entire acting career. It’s a powerful sequence.

This was not a great or extremely well-executed movie. In fact, I think it went on a hair too long but it was interesting. It’s always refreshing to see an actor with such an established public persona poke such fun at himself. I don’t think the final product quite lived up to the potential of the premise, but it was a movie I was glad to have watched.

In the end, I give it a B-minus.

Written by the bee dub

June 18, 2009 at 6:54 pm

NFL Offseason Menu: Buffalo Chicken Dip

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I can’t wait to dig into this in front of a football game.

A little backstory first…My friend Ryan told me he had some buffalo chicken dip at a friend’s house and he quickly declared it, “two of the most delicious things in one.” Whoa. He got the recipe from his friend and I did some digging around and found there are a bunch of versions of the dip and a couple of different techniques but they all seemed to be derived from the same basic, easy recipe.

Preheat your oven to 350. Start with a couple of cooked chicken breasts. I grilled mine. Then shred them and spread them into the bottom of your oven pan of choice. I used an 8 x 6 pyrex thing.

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Take an 8-ounce package of cream cheese and spread it over the top.

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If I owned a microwave, I might have melted it a bit first to make this step easier.

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Pour and spread half a cup of ranch dressing over the cream cheese.

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Pour and spread a half a cup of buffalo sauce over all this. I like the Texas Pete buffalo wing sauce.

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Then  sprinkle some cheddar cheese evenly over all this. We had a bunch of shredded cheese already of the three-cheese-Mexican-like-sort of variety. So I just used that.

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Put it in the oven for about 25 minutes. As you can see from the top picture, this cheese didn’t really melt all that great. I think the cheddar would have worked better. There are a few other things I’m thinking of changing. I read one recipe where the guy found some much lower fat cream cheese substitute and claimed there was no difference in taste so I’m considering that. I’m also thinking of either putting the cream cheese as the bottom layer or mixing the chicken and the cream cheese together and then spreading that across the bottom of the pan. I think this would keep the layered effect but also make it a bit easier to eat. I broke a lot of chips trying to dig up the chicken from the bottom.

Speaking of layering, a lot of the recipes directed to mix everything together and then heat in the oven. From the pictures I saw, all the dips came out this weird orange/fake-looking-cheese color and I like having the layered feeling to the dip.

But all in all, it was freaking awesome. We ate it with chips and celery sticks. I’m definitely sticking with that combo again next time. It’s hard to go wrong with something this simple. The only thing that can take it to antoher level is a good football game and a cold beer. There’s no game on these days, but as far as the beer goes, don’t mind if I do…

Written by the bee dub

June 15, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Life according to TV commercials

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If I were an alien who just plopped onto planet Earth and started watching TV, I’d probably make a few assumptions about the life we’re leading here in the good old U.S. of A.

– I’d never be able to hold down a job, as everyone assures me they’ll either handle or forgive payments I’m responsible when I inevitably become unemployed

– doctors are complete idiots, unable to correctly prescribe medicine without our direct input and suggestion (there’s a few pharmaceutical observations here, bear with me)

– I would be unable to have sex without popping one of many pills, if willing to risk a dangerous, four-hour erection

– the male urinary tract is so dysfunctional it either starts peeing and cannot stop or cannot start peeing in the first place

– our food supply is so infected that we need medicine to cure the resulting acid reflux, irritable bowels and other myriad intestinal maladies

– signing up for Verizon Wireless means thousands of creepy types wearing khakis will follow me wherever I go

– alcohol is a very, very popular product that nobody actually needs to consume as its real purpose is to be displayed in a public area where I will immediately be surrounded by attractive members of the opposite sex

– America is populated by very attractive, very fit, very Caucasian people, though they all seem to have one or two non-white friends in the crowd

– sign up for some sort of website and the person I always dreamed of, nay, even better than I would be capable of finding myself will match with me instantaneously and we will marry

– eating fast food will apparently keep me from becoming overweight or the even the slightest bit depressed

– many companies have learned how to bend time and space as they are all capable of bringing you the future, today

– we are so unsatisfied with our own realities that we use devices known as video games and high-definition televisions to create an alternate reality more lifelike and enjoyable

– ‘at the touch of a button’ is the single, most important technology ever invented

– I don’t know what ‘retirement’ is but the mere mention of the word sure scares the total shit out of a lot of people

Written by the bee dub

June 11, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Daily Happenings

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The Netflix Logjam

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It happens to us all. Or at least most of the people I know.

I’ve had the same movies from Netflix sitting next to my TV for probably over a month now. Like a clear, pristine stream that runs healthily along then suddenly gets blocked, becomming a brackish, stagnant pool of water, these movies are beginning to develop a ‘stench’ all their own.

What I mean is, the longer I have a movie from Netflix, the harder it gets to watch it. Why is that? The ones I have are good movies too, ones I definitely want to see. The Wrestler, which I watched and reviewed not too far back was what I was hoping to be the first break in the levee, after which others would flow freely. It didn’t happen that way though. I have no good excuse. I’m also struggling and fighting to make it through the 800-page book I’m currently reading, so apparently the problem is contagious.

One thing that does make this all more challenging is the fact that my wife got into our Netflix account and then was able to create a ‘sub-account’ where one of our rentals is reserved under her control. I didn’t know that was possible. Of course, she’s bringing in the predictable girl stuff. But all I know is, that copy of Howard’s End that she got as her last rental has been in our house even longer than the ones I’m responsible for. (She’s not a good Netflix-er and refuses to admit it. Sorry Honey, but it’s true.)

Anyway, that’s a key part of the problem because variety is the key to keeping a good Netflix flow. A queue with one less available slot is like one of those three-legged dogs you occasionally see. Sure it moves around for the most part, but not as well as it’s supposed to.

Written by the bee dub

June 9, 2009 at 7:20 pm

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Burn Notice returns tonight

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Starts tonight at 9 (Eastern Time). Sweet. May have to miss the beginning of the NBA Finals to catch it. So now Michael is no longer protected by the mysterious organization that was trying to recruit him, leaving him vulnerable to the police whenever he breaks the law – which would make for a good drinking game if you’re into that kind of thing.

Written by the bee dub

June 4, 2009 at 12:12 pm

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