Escape From New Hampshire

In recent years we’ve been treated to a host of Escape Films: Jurassic Park, Deep Blue Sea, The Cube, etc. The Escape Film — popularized by the classic Escape From New York and epitomized by the forgotten No Escape — is a subgenre of The Action Blockbuster, and typically features a band of plucky and determined men (although, as demonstrated by Alien and Aliens, occasionally women) trapped in a remote and inhospitable geographical location. The band must fight against impossible odds and a host of enemies to reach some far off haven of safety.

Each of the characters in the Escape Movie has a distinct personality and skill set — The Hero, The Strategist, The Mechanic, The Wiseacre — and although they might not like each other, they recognize that they have to work together if they wish to survive. As the movie progresses, the team members are picked off one by one, with each fatality receiving a big, dramatic Death Scene. If the character is a good guy, his final moments involve sacrificing himself so that the others can go on; if the character is unlikable, however, he is usually attacked from behind just after betraying his comrades.

By the time the final credits role, only The Hero remains alive. There’s usually some sort of fake-out at the end, where it looks like two people will survive, but then #2 inevitably blurts out “We made it!” and is immediately shot or eaten or vaporized by Final Bad Guy, who we thought was killed half an hour ago. The Hero, after bellowing a lusty “Noooo!,” engages Final Bad Guy in the biggest, most blowing-up battle of the entire film and, when victorious, wipes the blood from his forearms and rides off into the sunset.

The Democratic Presidential Primary should totally be more like this.

Books: Complete And Utter Failure

When faced with crushing, humiliating defeat, some people shrug and move on while others are prone to dwell. Author Neil Steinberg is a dweller. It helps that the failures he focuses on are (mostly) not his own. Complete and Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runner-Ups, Never-Weres and Total Flops tells the story of those who have reached for that brass ring and toppled out of their chairs trying.

The first chapter sets the stage by chronicling the history of product failure: items enthusiastically thrust onto the marketplace, only to be greeted with apathy or derision. One vignette recounts how toymaker Ideal bought a proposal for a line of cute dolls with fluttering wings called “Fairies”. One of the Ideal honchos, however, just had to put his mark on the product before it hit the shelves, and insisted they add halos and rename the dolls “Angel Babies”. Unfortunately, no one would touch the dolls when they premiered at the New York Toy Fair. All the toy buyers raised the same objection, one which had never occurred to anyone at Ideal during the development process: “So let me get this straight,” the buyers said, “These are dead babies?”

That’s one of many laugh-out-loud anecdotes collected in this slim volume. Subsequent chapters discuss the various attempts to scale Mt. Everest before Sir Hillary actually made it to the top, the quixotic pursuit of perpetual motion and cold fusion, and the effect that Bad Timing can have on someone like Elisha Gray, who invented the telephone but filed for a patent two hours after Alexander Graham Bell registered his own, less elegant device.

Complete and Utter Failure, while enjoyable throughout, is something of a hodge-podge. At times it comes close to becoming just another Litany Book, where an author purports to “investigate” a phenomenon but actually just fills 300 pages with examples of the phenomenon (James Gleick’s Faster and Randall Kennedy’s Nigger are prime examples of the Litany Book.) Elsewhere, it strays pretty far afield from the theme — I don’t see how the burning of the library of Alexandria can really be chalked up as a “failure,” per se.

The section on the National Spelling Bee, however, largely makes up for the deficiencies in the rest. (Complete and Utter Failure was recommended to me by a yeti reader in the Spellbound thread, by the way). This chapter is more like what I wish the whole book had been — an in-depth look at an event that is structured in such a way that failure is a foregone conclusion for virtually everyone who competes (despite the demonstrably false announcement, at the beginning of each and every round of the National Spelling Bee the bee, that “everyone who has gotten this far is a winner”). This chapter weaves together interviews with bee participants, first-hand accounts of the event, and philosophical musings on the nature of failure into a neat little essay on the subject. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this chapter was written first and the rest of the book built around it.

The remainder of the book is quite fun to read, due to Steinberg’s great (and relentlessly self-deprecating) sense of humor, and because he amusingly compares the history of failure with his own personal experience in this particular realm. (Steinberg’s first brush with failure came after being hornswoggled by Captain Kangaroo). So while somewhat uneven, Complete and Utter Failure fails to live down to its title. It is an enjoyable treatise on a subject most of prefer not to dwell upon.

For a sampler of Steinberg’s writing, check out his regular column for the Chicago Sun-Times.

What Up, Boss

While at work I frequent a website where users post interesting pictures and audio clips they have found. Today a guy who works at an ad agency posted an mp3 along with this comment: “I found this audio at the start of one of the our spare tapes. No explanation, no reason it should be there. Seems to be a kid’s tv program host teaching kids slang. It’s overmodulated and pretty strange.” I was rockin’ out to Kosheen at the moment, but was sufficiently intrigued to stop my CD and click the link. A little box popped up to tell me that the mp3 was downloading and would autolaunch in winamp after a minute or so.

A few moments later by boss strolled into my office. I swiveled around in my chair to face him, turning my back to my computer. “Hey Matthew,” he said sitting down,”How are you doing for time? Would you be interested in working on a new project?”

A loud voice from behind me suddenly bellowed “Awwwwwwwwww yeah! Fo shizzle!”

Movies: Bend It Like Beckham, Finding Nemo, and Capturing the Friedmans

What say I just get all my belated movie reviews over at once, eh?

Although I make a point to post reviews for every movie I see in the theater, I somehow never got around to writing about Bend It Like Beckham, despite having seen it over two months ago. When the film left the theaters several weeks ago, I shrugged and assumed that it would be my first omission since defective yeti’s inception. Today, however, it appears that Beckham has returned to theaters across the nation, thereby negating my excuse. Dad gummit.

Maybe I’m reluctant to review Beckham because I feel like I have already covered this movie a couple of times. It is, in fact, That Movie — you know, the one that comes out every year, where some strong-willed youngster decides to go against tradition and follow his dream, much to the annoyance of his parents who vainly try and thwart his ambition but, in the end, recognize the importance of their offspring’s happiness and reluctantly relent. A couple years ago That Movie was called Billy Elliot, and then it was East Is East, last year it was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, etc. This year it’s Beckham, and apparently he can Bend It, apparently.

Bend It Like Beckham focuses on a strong-willed youngster who decides to go against tradition and follow her dream blah blah blah. The youngster here is Jess, the only Indian (that’s the “from India” flavor of Indian) on an all-girls, British soccer team; the dream is Jess’s ambition to make it to the finals. Unfortunately (and predictably), her parents don’t approve. In particular, her father recalls the racism he faced as an Indian in a British cricket league, and urges his daughter to quit before she encounters the same brand of ugly discrimination. She refuses, the come to loggerheads, and I could keep telling you the plot but there’s probablyy no need.

I can enjoy That Movie once a year, so long as it’s funny, well directed, and at least covers some new ground. Bend It Like Beckham succeeds so marvelously at the first two criteria that I was willing to overlook the fact that there was really nothing new here whatsoever. Beckham is also a perfect Mom Movie. (I know this for a fact because my Mom wanted to take me to see Down With Love, but I talked her into this one instead and she quite enjoyed it. Whew — I dodged a bullet, there.) I wouldn’t recommend it per se, but I can assure you that you won’t regret seeing Beckham if nothing else at the Cineplex floats your boat, as it’s a film that’s almost impossible to dislike.

Another genre of film that I can see once a year and enjoy is the Big Animated Movie Ostensibly For Children, and this summer it was Finding Nemo. I’ve been a big fan of Pixar dating back to the days when you could only see thier flicks at The Festival Of Animation, and I have enjoyed every movie they have ever made. Finding Nemo was no exception, although I’ll confess to it being my least favorite in thier repertoire.

As with all Pixar films the animation is gorgeous, the plot is clever, the voices are well-done, etc., etc. But I couldn’t get over the fact that the protagonists were fish. I mean, I had no problem sympathizing with inanimate playthings in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, the critters in A Bug’s Life, and even the beasts in Monsters Inc., but, I dunno: fish! I had to practically will myself to care about them. (I should acknowledge that, even in real life, I have no affinity for fish whatsoever. I don’t understand the allure of having them as pets, for example. Personally, I am only interested in fish when they are accompanied by chips.) It also didn’t help that within the first 10 minutes this film racked up a higher body count than most horror movies, which kind of made Nemo’s perils seem trivial by comparison.

Still, the worst Pixar movie is better than just about any other American kids’ film out there, so you can still chalk this review up as a rave. Even without getting all worked up over the protagonist (fish!) I still enjoyed the story, and Ellen DeGeneres does some fantastic voice work. Certainly worth seeing in the theater — doubly so if you can muster up the slightest enthusiasm for our fine finned friends.

And speaking of Feel Good Hits Of The Summer, Capturing the Friedmans documents the harrowing story of a family torn apart by allegations of pedophilia and sexual assault.

The story begins in the late 1987’s, when Arnold Friedman, a teacher and father of three, is arrested for the possession of child pornography. After Friedman confesses to being a pedophile, students from a computer course he taught in his basement begin alleging that Arnold, along with his son, Jesse, turned the classes into orgies of child molestation and rape.

The claims seem wildly improbable — parents who picked their children up after these supposed orgies noticed nothing amiss, and many of the “victims” enrolled in the class year after year — but the late 80’s were the heyday of child molestation witch hunts in the United States, so the case is brought against Arnold and his son all the same. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasing clear that while the most lurid and outlandish of tales concerning what went on in those computer classes are certainly false, it’s not entirely clear that something didn’t happen.

What sets Friedmans apart from the run-of-the-mill “What really happened?” news-magazine stories you’d see on tv is the use of film footage shot while the events were actually taking place. As things began to fall apart, David Friedman, the oldest son, took to filming his family as they discussed, argued, and pondered the charges against Arnold and Jesse. So while Capturing the Friedman makes use of many modern-day interviews (most notably with David and his mother, Elaine) where participants recollect how they felt and reacted to developments in the case, it also incorporates the scenes that David shot on the given day. Some of David footage is painfully intimate, such as one soliloquy by David himself where he looks at the camera and says “This is private, so if you’re not me, you shouldn’t be watching.”

Also setting Capturing The Friedmans apart from the standard news-magazine tv shows is the fact that it doesn’t take a stand as to the truth of the allegations. Each time I was convinced one way the other — Friedman was guilty, Friedman was framed — the film would introduce a new fact or witness who would cast doubt on everything I though I knew for sure. I appreciated this even-handedness, but I occasionally wondered if the filmmakers weren’t bend over backwards to make things as ambiguous as possible, purposely blurring the line between the credible and the outrageous. Still, I’d rather the director err on the side of neutrality than come in with a bias and slant the coverage to bolster a pre-held conclusion. Capturing the Friedmans is one of the most thought-provoking legal documentaries I have seen since Brother’s Keeper, and the best films I’ve seen all year.

Hey Seattlites: Capturing the Friedmans is still playing at the Metro. All three of ’em are, actually.