Monday, August 29, 2016

In Memoriam

Gene Wilder (June 11, 1933 - August 29, 2016)

This very funny and talented actor left us today. I remember him from The Woman in Red and Young Frankenstein, while I never saw him in what is likely his most famous role, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I'll have to remedy that soon.

He will be missed, even though he hadn't been working in movies in over 25 years.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

American Horror Story: Hotel - Updated

Updates at bottom.

The fifth season of American Horror Story, titled Hotel, brought to an end a winning streak, as I consider it the weakest to date.

In fact, thinking back, I would rate the seasons in crescendo just as they were produced, so season 1 was great, season 2 was better (even though at the time I rated it lower than 1), season 3 was better still (my favorite so far), and season 4 was very good but I found it less enthralling and so my rating went down.

Hotel was the first one that didn't star Jessica Lange, arguably the most charismatic, glamorous, and talented of the varied cast. She was replaced by Lady Gaga, and I've already expressed my feelings about that here and here.

Has my opinion changed now that I've seen the entire season? Not much. My biggest complaint was about giving her the lead actress role, passing over bigger names and better actresses like Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Sarah Paulson. I still stand by that position.

After the first few episodes, I feared the worst as it looked like Gaga was given spare lines to delivered and was largely aided by careful camera work to make her appear at her best. There was a lot of gazing, staring, walking or moving about in a sultry manner, and not much else.

As the season progresses, the story becomes more interesting and involving, and she does show some acting abilities. Does that justify a Best Lead Actress nomination for a Golden Globe. Hardly. A win... most definitely not. Sure, she wasn't terrible, but all the bravura she might have mustered pales in comparison with Queen Latifah's performance in Bessie.

It will be interesting to see in the fall, when the Emmy nominations are announced, whether the Television Academy at large will feel the need to salute Gaga or not. I, for one, doubt it.

So all in all, Hotel was American Horror Story's worst showing so far, and I read that the audience plummeted after the premiere, which doesn't surprise me.

It was slower than previous seasons in establishing interesting characters or a compelling narrative (even with blood thirsty murderers!!). The John Lowe's twist came as no surprise, and the fact that he was able to then continue operating as usual defied belief, even in a show like this. Gaga was a Countess but how she became one is never explained (since she used to be an extra on film sets), which is odd for a show that delights in flashbacks to pad storylines or give characters more dimension.

But it wasn't just Gaga who didn't live up to the expectations of a leading lady. Kathy Bates was given a very dull part that gets more interesting in the second part of the season but is still underutilized. Angela Bassett, a really good actress, was simply given awesome outfits and told to look haughty and sexy, wasting another golden opportunity. And Evan Peters, another great discovery of AHS, was asked to play a more mature, older man and it didn't seem to work too well, not for lack of trying.

Honestly, the best character this season, and one of the best among all seasons, was Denis O'Hare's Liz Taylor. The backstory was revealed early on and as Liz he was given very meaty lines that allowed him to steal every scene.

Personally, I hope Gaga is too busy to come back. I had heard a rumor that Jessica Lange might have been interested in rejoining the production in the future, so hopefully that happens. If not, I can't imagine it would be too hard for Ryan Murphy to find more great talent to reinvent this show once again.

Update: I recently realized another reason why I thought the last season of American Horror Story was a letdown. Why were two of the actors cast for two different and separate roles each?
Let me explain. Sarah Paulson, one of my favorite actresses on the show (and in general), plays Hypodermic Sally for most of the show, and towards the end she's also Billie Dean Howard. Finn Wittrock plays Tristan Duffy and later on Rudolph Valentino.
My question is why? Is there such a dearth of acting talent out there that two new actors just couldn't be found? Doubtful. More likely, the two actors liked the second roles and lobbied for them, or the producers saw these two actors as the perfect fit for the second roles and simply cast them. The problem is that it's confusing to the audience.
When I first saw Wittrock as Valentino in a flashback decades in the past, I assumed his Duffy was some kind of reincarnation of his former self, or rather (given the vampire theme of the season) a character reinvention due to some yet unknown reason. As a result, I fully expected this duality to be explained in the script and to see some of the other characters react to it.
Since nothing of the sort happened, when Paulson started playing a second character I just kept wondering why, with the undesired effect of it fastidiously distracting me from the flow of the show.
Why not have Kathy Bates and Denis O'Hare just play ever role next time??!
Again, both actors are good (Paulson is actually terrific), and my complaint has nothing to do with their work, but the choice was very unfortunate, if you ask me.

Grade - Season 5: 4

The Boxtrolls

The Gist: A group of very inventive and friendly trolls live underground and love to scour the town's trash for raw materials for their inventions. Unfortunately, an unscrupulous exterminator has decided to vilify them in order to advance his social status. A human child the Boxtrolls adopted as an infant will be their best hope at redemption and salvation.

I was looking forward to watching The Boxtrolls and wasn't disappointed. Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, it's stop-motion animation of the highest order, powered by an original story that is both funny and charming.

I was blow away by the short scene at the very end, when the camera pulls back to reveal the set and the artists at work, as they position and reposition the small figurines currently on screen. It clearly shows the incredible amount of precision work that goes into making a movie such as this. Hours and hours of painstakingly repositioning and filming of each moving object.

The Bottom Line: I would absolutely recommend this movie to anyone, young and not-so-young. It's a very well made movie with an important message of inclusion and acceptance that we should all heed.

Grade: 8

Dogs hate hugs :-(

Reading that headline probably made anyone who has a dog go "What?!! Noooo!!!" but a new study seems to support the sad findings:

In a giant bummer of an article published recently in Psychology Today, Stanley Coren — who studies canine behavior at the University of British Columbia — makes a sadly strong case against the dog hug, arguing that although humans love embracing their canine pals, the physical contact stresses dogs out. 
If you know what to look for, their annoyance becomes obvious. Lesson one: Coren writes that a dog’s most common outward signal of stress or anxiety is when he “turns his head away from whatever is bothering or worrying him, sometimes also closing his eyes, at least partially.” Lesson two: Just like humans, dogs have whites of the eye — it’s just that you never see it unless the animal is stressed. And lesson three: An anxious or stressed-out dog’s ears will be “lowered or slicked against the side of his head,” Coren writes. 
[...] An embrace between humans signals communication and warmth and intimacy, but dogs, of course, are not humans. Coren explains why the restriction of an embrace may annoy or frighten a dog: 
Dogs are technically cursorial animals, which is a term that indicates that they are designed for swift running. That implies that in times of stress or threat the first line of defense that a dog uses is not his teeth, but rather his ability to run away. Behaviorists believe that depriving a dog of that course of action by immobilizing him with a hug can increase his stress level and, if the dog’s anxiety becomes significantly intense, he may bite.
Here's the link to the source.

Right now I think I need a hug.

Song of the Sea

The Gist: A little boy, Ben, lives on a remote island with his younger sister Saoirse and his father, who's in charge of the local lighthouse. One day, Saoirse transforms into a seal, revealing to her father that she shares some of her late mother's powers. Unfortunately, her life and that of all the fairies are threatened by a malevolent force.

Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, Song of the Sea is both charming and enchanting. The gentle story is told in a traditional animation style and with very simple strokes.

The Bottom Line: While from the outside it might not look like the technically perfect features Pixar and the likes have been crafting for years now, its heart shines a very bright light. Absolutely recommended.

Grade: 8

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Man takes his dying dog on a wonderful final trip

Needless to say, this story is incredibly sad and heartwarming.

What a wonderful friendship:

It was the worst possible news you could get about your best buddy. 
Bone cancer, so a leg is amputated. But it gets worse. The cancer's spread to the lungs. Now it's a terminal condition. 
So what do you do? 
Robert Kugler decide to take his best friend -- a three-legged chocolate lab named Bella -- on one last, legendary ride. 
"This is one of the biggest connections I've ever had to another living being. I don't care that it's a dog," said Kugler, who's from Broken Bow, Nebraska. 
Kugler found out last year that Bella was dying of cancer. He had adopted her as a puppy nine years ago and wasn't anyway ready to let her go.
Such a great adventure. It brings tears to my eyes.

While Bella had been given only 3-6 months when diagnosed, she's survived a lot longer and is still going.

Kugler put it best:
"Some days I'm completely prepared. I pictured her just swimming out to sea," he said. "But there's other days when I'm like, oh my God, I can't bear the thought of it." 
But whenever and wherever it happens, he'll be with her. It's part of the job of being best buds with a dog. 
"We take on these animals, which means we're gonna take on their life and their passing," Kugler said. "To be there with them when they pass is the greatest gift you can give anybody."
You can read more about it here, and Kugler also has an Instagram account. As of yesterday, Bella was still alive :-)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


The Gist: After the assassination of the CIA operative tasked with preventing the sale of a nuclear weapon to terrorist groups, an agent who has never been in the field volunteers to go undercover to try and stop the bad guys.

This Melissa McCarthy vehicle strikes all the right notes, allowing her to shine and showcase her incredible comedic talents.

The movie is really funny, well written, even if not terribly original, and well acted by the entire cast of big names like Jude Law, Allison Janney, Rose Byrne, Morena Baccarin, Jason Statham, and Bobby Cannavale.

While I commend the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for nominating Spy for a Best Picture - Musical or Comedy Golden Globe, I'm still scratching my head over their decision to not only nominate but also award the magnificent The Martian, in this category.

The Bottom Line: While Spy doesn't really strive to reinvent the wheel, it is a successful spoof of Bond/Bourne type movies. McCarthy is belly-ache funny.

Grade: 8

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Mary Lambert

She has a very nice voice and looks like a great gal to hang out with. And if you love dogs as much as I do, you'll enjoy this video :-)

Newt Gingrich

The Republican former Speaker of the House said this during an interview while discussing racism in America:
"It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years, to get a sense of this: If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don't understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk."
A very important message to white America, especially coming from a white Republican former lawmaker.

Ariana Grande does Whitney

I really like Ariana Grande's voice, it's powerful and pretty much perfect. Her songs don't always drive me crazy, but given our age difference I guess it's to be expected that her tastes in music and mine would diverge somewhat.

Anyway, here she is with a medley of a couple of Whitney Houston hits in which she manages to hit all those high notes:

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Flossing might be useless, but don't stop just yet

According to the New York Times, there is no hard evidence that flossing helps in the prevention of cavities, but it might just be because we're not doing it right.

Furthermore, even if it doesn't help with cavities prevention, it's still helpful to prevent gingivitis.

An excerpt:
Turns out, all that flossing may be overrated. 
The latest dietary guidelines for Americans, issued by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, quietly dropped any mention of flossing without notice. This week, The Associated Press reported that officials had never researched the effectiveness of regular flossing, as required, before cajoling Americans to do it. 
[...] The revelation has caused a stir among guilt-ridden citizens who strive to floss daily but fall short of that lofty goal. Among experts, however, it has been something of an open secret that flossing has not been shown to prevent cavities or severe periodontal disease. 
[...] If it is any consolation, there is some mediocre evidence that flossing does reduce bloody gums and inflammation known as gingivitis. That Cochrane review found that regular brushers and flossers had less gum bleeding than people who only brushed, although the authors cautioned that the quality of the evidence was “very low.” 
Early gingivitis is a long way from severe periodontal disease. Still, some dentists argue that despite a lack of rigorous study, flossing matters if it can reverse initial gum problems. 
Gum inflammation progresses to periodontitis, which is bone loss, so the logic is if we can reduce gingivitis, we’ll reduce the progression to bone loss,” said Dr. Sebastian G. Ciancio, the chairman of the department of periodontology at the University at Buffalo. 
Severe periodontal disease may take five to 20 years to develop.
“It’s a very insidious, slow, bone-melting disease,” said Dr. Wayne Aldredge, the president of the American Academy of Periodontology, who practices in Holmdel, N.J.
Even without rigorous evidence that flossing prevents late-stage periodontal disease, Dr. Aldredge urges his patients to floss. Those who quit are “rolling the dice,” he said. 
“You don’t know if you’ll develop periodontal disease, and you can find out too late,” he said.

Here's why Congress is dysfunctional

FlyersRights is an organization that works to improve the conditions of flying for passengers rather than the airlines. They have been able to improve a lot, but a lot more work needs to be done, so visit their website if you want to find out more.

Anyway, I get their newsletter and this was at the top of a recent one. I thought I would share:

Dysfunctional Relationship
The Reason for Congressional dysfunction
July 26, 2016

To put it briefly, it's minority rule.  
In the House, under the Hastert Rule -named for a disgraced  former Speaker - legislation cannot be voted on unless a majority of the majority approve.
So, as little as 26% can block votes. In the Senate, as explained to me by former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, unanimous consent is required for most votes. Any one senator can place an indefinite and anonymous hold on legislation and the mere threat of a filibuster normally stops the Senate cold. 
These congressional rules used by both parties thwart majority rule and popular will in a way never imagined by the Founding Fathers and not supported by anything in the Constitution. 
They enable partisan factions, or even a single member of Congress, to block legislation and even shut down the government. When approval of a governing legislature sinks to single digits in other countries it often leads to revolution or a coup.  
Short of that, or a state-called constitutional convention, both parties and both presidential candidates should make restoration of majority rule in Congress a cornerstone of reform for 2017.   
Otherwise it will be SOS going forward, as practical, popular and needed legislation is continually smashed, needed compromises cannot happen and American government will continue as by and for entrenched special interests.  
Paul HudsonPresident, FlyersRights.orgSarasota, Florida

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Scarborough calls Trump "dangerous for this country"

According to Raw Story, Morning Joe's Joe Scarborough has come to the conclusion that Trump is out of control and seemingly losing his mind:
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is headed completely off the rails right now, and the crew over at Morning Joe is in awe. 
Talking about Trump’s epic day in Tuesday — in which he booted a baby out of a rally, tripled down on his attacks on the Khan family and continued trashing top Republicans such as John McCain and Kelly Ayotte — Joe Scarborough came to the conclusion that Trump cannot be stopped from self-destructing. 
“The family can’t control him, the kids can’t control him, [Paul] Manafort can’t control him, nobody can control him anymore,” Scarborough said. “He’s off in the fields wandering. It’s really bad for this country. It’s dangerous for this country. What are Republicans going to do now?”

Meg Whitman sides with Hillary

Great news for Clinton and for any of us who still harbor some hope for humanity.

From Raw Story:
Calling Donald Trump an “authoritarian character” and a threat to democracy, Meg Whitman, a prominent Republican fundraiser and chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton’s White House bid late Tuesday. 
“To vote Republican out of party loyalty alone would be to endorse a candidacy that I believe has exploited anger, grievance, xenophobia and racial division. Donald Trump’s demagoguery has undermined the fabric of our national character,” Whitman posted on Facebook about the Republican nominee. 
In an interview with the New York Times, which first reported the endorsement, Whitman said it was time “to put country first before party” and that she would give a “substantial” contribution to Clinton’s campaign. 
Whitman told the Times that Trump is a “dishonest demagogue” and said that those who look at other failed democracies and believe “it can’t happen here” are mistaken. 
“Trump’s unsteady hand would endanger our prosperity and national security. His authoritarian character could threaten much more,” Whitman wrote on Facebook.
Now we need more high profile republicans to follow her lead.