Sunday, October 30, 2011

Movies: The Good, the Great, the Unforgettable.

I had a topic. It was perfect: it was weighty, deep, and of great significance. I had a page written already, with sources lined up and some evenhanded, fair analysis of current events by yours truly. Unfortunately, about halfway through I realized that I’d gone badly off course and had somehow began making an argument that contradicted my original point. I pondered synthesizing my conflicted opinions, or stepping back and making it a commentary on paradox and the human condition and all that, but in the midsts of thinking about that I lost interest in the topic altogether. But, resolving that I ought to write something on the blog that I created, I began writing.

“I had a topic," I wrote. "It was perfect.”.... And now you’re up to speed. Let’s see where this takes us!

2011 hasn’t been a great year in movies. There have been some good ones: Source Code; Contagion; Captain America; Crazy, Stupid, Love. Not too shabby, but I’m waiting for the movie that makes me smile just thinking about it. I’m looking for Slumdog Millionaire. Actually, let’s replace “smile” with “feel some kind of emotion” so I can include Black Swan. The best I’ve seen so far has been 50/50, an incredibly solid dramedy starring the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun as a dying cancer patient and Seth Rogen as his foul-mouthed best friend. Very, very good movie, but maybe not Best Picture good. Where’s that movie? Hopefully when the Oscars nominations roll around they’ll turn up some gems I’ve missed.

Have you ever had a movie stick with you? One with a scene or theme that just won’t leave you? More than any other film, on that had that effect on me was a slow-paced, fairly dull independent film called Munyurangabo. I didn’t like Munyurangabo. Don’t have much a desire to watch it again. But I won’t forget it.

Munyurangabo is the story of two boys travelling across a post-genocide Rwanda, one carrying a machete, on a mission, we gradually learn, to kill the man who slaughtered one of the boys’ parents. This is heavy stuff - tragedy, innocence, friendship, loss, forgiveness - but it all gets bogged down in an excruciatingly dull middle section that nearly lost me.

And yet, there is one scene, at the end of the movie, that hasn’t left me. The young protagonist, Ngabo, discovers his parents’ murderer in a small, secluded hut. The man is in a drunken stupor, and Ngabo pulls out his machete, looming over the helpless man. He watches and waits, not speaking but clearly and suddenly unsure how to proceed. After some time and without any words, he kneels down and, pausing again, gives the man water to drink. The scene is filmed without music, typical of the film’s deliberate, low-budget style. No Hollywood movie could have pulled it off with such understated heart, and I think about it as much as any scene I’ve ever seen in movies I like much, much more.

So much for that and for paragraph transitions, but let’s continue on with the movie theme. It’s a matter of scientific fact that the greatest movie ever made is Groundhog Day. Some will try to argue otherwise, but that’s just opinion and superstition; the cold, impartial gaze of Reason tells us that Groundhog day must be superior. Consider: Bill Murray. Existential crisis. The Pennsylvania Polka. Ambiguous timeline. Andy McDowell as Rita. Ned...Ryerson! Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head!

"Within this vial of Bill Murray's blood lies the secret of immortality"

Look, we don’t need to go over this any further; the facts are there and you can take them for what they are. The flat-earthers of the cinematic world will say what they will, but if I had to watch a single movie every day for the rest of my life, you know there can only be one choice.

And that, folks, is a blog post. You’ll forgive my stream-of-conscious writing (oh yeah, Joyce? People can understand what I’m trying to say) and lack of serious editing, because I want you, the reader, to see behind the curtain. For you see, you’ve not only read this post but you’ve had a glance into the writing process itself! You’ve been with me from the start, reading (as it were) as I write, and only a quick spelling/grammar check and my thinking of a good title stands between us. I hope you learned something or were moderately entertained. Thanks.

Monday, October 24, 2011

What stays in Vegas, happens in Vegas

Not to turn existentialist here, but I had an interesting experience whilst in Vegas celebrating our first anniversary. My husband learned that when put in an extremely expensive store, I become crazy; and I learned that when put at a Blackjack table, I also become crazy.

But it's my favorite problem!

I already knew I had a little thing for gambling, which is why I have mostly avoided the real gambling up to this point, but I always wanted to sit at a table in Las Vegas and get dealt a couple of cards at a time. One of the disappointing aspects of it is that neither dealer I played with had any good banter (they were also both Asian, but I think that observation in and of itself could be racist, so I’ll leave that alone), you can actually play for hours without saying anything at all. On the other hand, sitting down and placing cash on the table creates an automatic camaraderie with anyone else playing the game.

So the first time I sat down - which was also the first time I ever got carded for anything (other than a movie one time, which doesn’t count as I really was just 18) - I placed my $10 on the table and was dealt in. What a rush! Next thing I knew, the dealer gave me $10 additional, I left $15 to play with and I was suddenly on fire! My next hand I got to 21 exactly, and the dealer gave me more money. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this was easier than my job? Next hand? Blackjack! In a blur, the dealer gave me even more chips and after another hand or two, I realized I had quite a few red (five dollar) chips in front of me. I decided I should stop while I was ahead, so the first hand I lost, I walked away. I counted the $57.50 in my hands and went to the cashier before I could sit down and ruin it all. Easiest money I ever made, right? Wrong.

See, as soon as I walked away I felt an itch to sit right back down. I made $47.50 in a matter of minutes, how much more could be mine if I had stayed? Can I go back? Just for a minute, I swear! I just wanna ride this heater a little while longer!

That night after dinner, I plotted and schemed in my head (which was probably unnecessary, but females don’t do things or not do things based on necessity), and I decided I needed to get back to that table. What if I wait too long and my luck runs out? Utah doesn’t have gambling, who know when I’ll do it again? I murderously strutted down the strip in my cheap Target heels (which kill if you walk too much in them, by the way) down to the promise of easy money. Of Blackjack at the MGM Grand. Just look at the name! I could win a grand! Pay for our whole vacation here and more! I found the same table and had to wait briefly to sit down as it was full, but eventually I sat down and watched all $50 of my gambling budget disappear.

Fortunately, this lesson only cost me two dollars, fifty cents, and sore feet for a couple of days, but it’s a valuable lesson nonetheless. I’m just glad I waited until the last day to gamble so I couldn’t try to go back.

Point is - addiction is a powerful thing. It grabs you before you realize it was even there. Logic? Gone. Reason? MIA. Hope? Lost. When you Google “gambling,” the first search it offers you isn’t poker, blackjack or even gambling sites. It’s “gambling addiction.” It’s a fierce monster that shines and promises that you too can win! Thing is, the house always wins.

Psychology Today published an article online on the exact subject. Studies show that “online gamblers misjudge the variance and uncertainty of the payoffs derived from taking risks, mainly because multiple small wins inflate the players' sense of success.” It argues that specifically, lottery players tend to underestimate their losses in the constant hope of getting the “big one.” So, no matter how many small wins inflate confidence of the player, the house is still taking in more than the players realize.

“It's a statistical guarantee voided only if you're one of the fortunate few who takes a big pot and calls it quits right then and there. Play on, and the house has you again.”

In short, I left my crazy in Vegas for next time. I hope.

As the bard once said, “If evil were a lesser breed than justice after all these years the righteous would have freed the world of sin. / The house wins. Oh the house always wins. / You don't have to be alone to be lonely / You might as well give in.”

"Theyde melt into a black ash:" Why you can't trust Facebook friends as sources

I like to think I have a little rebellious streak in me. There's something about my character that doesn't lend itself toward believing people just because I'm told to, or (even worse) because I just should. When a person is well-liked by a large group of people, I instantly become wary of him or her, and my first inclination when someone tells me about their heroes or idols is to figure out why said persons should not be idolized. I like controversies and I love when something runs against common thought or practice.

But even I'm not crazy enough to think we faked the moon landing.

When I logged onto Facebook today, I was greeted by one of my acquaintances from high school posting, and I quote,

The moon landing never least on the moon.

Perhaps stemming from a brief past addiction to, or perhaps coming from a childhood spent dreaming of becoming an astronaut (or Indiana Jones) when I grew up, I decided to look at some of the dozen or so comments to this post.

The first several were sort of a self-congratulatory back-and-forth between the person who posted this originally and a like-minded individual. Let me include a brief sample of this:

(Like-minded individual): Welllll its true ha. We were in such a huge rush to beat the Russians for the landing of the moon we could of done ANYTHING to make it seem like we did it first

(My acquaintance):
Oh yeah. I have pages of proof just like that of how it was all a hoax just so we could win the cold war. :)

"Welllll I declare that before this decade is out we shall beat
the Russians for the landing of the moon ha." --JFK

A couple of posts later, my acquaintance backs up some of his claims with the following:

Yeah I bore people all the time and get into heated arguments about how it never happened. It took so much gas and such a huge craft just to get there. Then ALL that was left was a tiny capsule...which we are supposed to believe could make it back the same way it came? Not to mention the radiation...the fact if Niel was the first on the moon who was filming him?...or how bout the fact that his primary job was acting...and how come the footage of it mysteriously vanished...?

Now, let me pause to give a quick back-story. The guy who started this whole Facebook thread is someone I knew in junior high and high school. I recall that he was pretty smart, fairly funny, and quite popular. He is currently a Marine serving in Japan. While I was surprised to see him bring up the so-called "Apollo moon hoax," it is certainly not out of character for him. What was out of character, though, was the fairly rational response added to the thread from another of my high school acquaintances:

A. The flag was made to look as if it was waving. Was it waving in the video? B. there was a camera on the outside of the ship that filmed the guy climbing out. C. outer space is full of........nothing! Hence, once something starts floating a certain direction it will keep going at the same speed until something stops it. All the ship needed was a little boost to get it going and then it could go all the way. I'm still not convinced that it was fake.

An adequate rebuttal, especially since the person who wrote will forever be remembered for stealing a bag of chalk from the high school baseball field and throwing it on people's fences before putting some in a mailbox, leading to the HazMat team and several police cruisers being called in to investigate what was assumed to be anthrax. The policemen were able to trace it all back to him by rolling down their windows, sticking out their heads, and following the trail of thrown chalk dust all the way back to his house. Remember--this is our voice of reason.

His post, to no one's surprise, was not well received, and was followed by a lengthy diatribe citing 1960s-era camera rigging technology (and the assumed insufficiency thereof) and solar radiation ("In the 1960's they thought if you wore aluminum foil with the shiny side out you would be safe because it would reflect the radiation waves. This turned out to be false because by the 70's 100's of thousands died at uranium mills all across the world." ). He concluded by saying,

Radiation is too strong for any man made suit or ship. And it is SO strong in space that if any man were to pass through it they wouldn't just die immediately theyde melt into a black ash. Yet the first moon landing says they survived going there and coming back?

A cunning blow, made all the more impressive by its refusal to give sources.

The thread is still on-going, and perhaps in the comments section I'll post some updates to it. However, if you actually do have questions about the supposed moon hoax, I would direct you instead to an article on the Bad Astronomy blog, where astronomer Phil Plait discusses this topic in-depth.