Movies: Million Dollar Baby

For a guy who has absolutely no interest in the sport of boxing, I sure loves me some boxing movies. Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, Southpaw. I saw Rocky for the first time a few weeks ago and thought it was fantastic.

So I was predisposed to like Million Dollar Baby — the “boxing movie” element of it, at any rate. At the same time, I didn’t have the highest of expectations for the film. I had been completely underwhelmed by Eastwood’s last film, Mystic River. Even while the critics raved, I couldn’t help but think that it was just a pastiche of scenes and characters from other, better mob movies, that, when paired with an over-long run time, made for a mediocre movie at best.

That’s pretty much all I knew about the movie when I entered the theater last week. And if that all you know about it now, do yourself a favor and skip the rest of this review and just go see it. But I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone can not know more, now that the film has up and won the Best Picture Oscar. So the rest of you, read on.

Maggie is thirty, from the wrong side of town park, certain that she wants to be boxer and certain that Frankie Dunn is the one who should train her. Frankie is seventy, owner of a boxing club, and certain of only one thing: he doesn’t want to train Maggie. But Maggie wins him over with perseverance and charm, and, with Frankie in her corner, begins an amazing ascent to the top of first her class, and then the sport of women’s boxing itself. meanwhile, the father-daughter bond between the two grows ever stronger.

Boxing movies like to pretend that they are really relationship movies, that the sparring is metaphor for the struggle we must all fight to communicate with others. But for most, this facade is fairly superficial. Million Dollar Baby turns out to be an honest-to-goodness relationship movie, even going so far as to drop the boxing analogy about two-thirds of the way through. I didn’t know this was going to happen, and even after it did I kept waiting for the boxing movie to resume. When it finally dawned on me that film had completely metmorphasized from one genre to another, I was pleasantly surprised, and walked out of the cinema thinking it had been one of the best movies I’d seen in a spell.

But here’s the thing, folks: I strongly suspect that if I’d known that this was going to be a relationship film from the get-go, I wouldn’t liked it nearly as much. I may have hated it, even. Because, I retrospect, it occurs to me that the whole thing was freighted down with lots and lots of cliched sentimental clap-trap, the sort of stuff you found in every relationship movie ever made. I even recognized this at the time, but, thinking that I was watching a boxing movie, gave it a pass — much as you might excuse the execrable love scenes in The Matrix: Reloaded, thinking, we’ll, it’s an adventure movie, not a romance. (The rest of Reloaded was, alas, inexcusable.) Were I to see Million Dollar Baby a second time (and I won’t), I’m guessing I would have much the same reaction to this film as I did to Mystic River: “I’ve seen all of this before, and Eastwood hasn’t improved it a smidgen.”

But all that is speculation. What I know for a fact is this: I expected to like Million Dollar Baby because it was a boxing movie, and wound up loving it because it was not. I’m hesitant to recommended it to anyone who knows more about it than I did going in (e.g., anyone who read this whole review), but if you are one of those people who (like me) just reads the first paragraph and last line of reviews to avoid spoiling movies you have yet to see, check this one out.

checkout -d belly burgers fries cola

I was in Washington DC for a few days last week, and noticed that the McDonald’s there are under CVS.

I think that’s a pretty good idea. That way they can quickly rollback to an earlier version of the menu a few weeks after introducing some abomination like the McRibs.

Note: If you don’t get this joke, consider yourself lucky that you’re not as big a nerd as the people who do.

Books: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time and Vernon God Little

Note: This review is part of the Booklist 2005 Project.

Note: This review contains minor spoilers for Curious Incident … but you may enjoy the book more for knowing them.

Do you ever do that thing where you make a to-do list, and you intentionally include a few tasks that you have already completed so you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off immediately?

I do that. In fact, I did it just last week.

When I recently groused that “I can’t say that I read any particularly outstanding fiction books in 2004” and asked for recommendations, so many people mentioned The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon that I felt obligated to add it to the Booklist 2005 Project. This, despite the Curious Incident is one of the books I read last year that left me undazzled, thus inspiring the B2K Project in the first place.

Christopher Boon is a 15-year old boy with a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. Unable to relate to human beings, Christopher has a special affinity for animals, who don’t baffle him with the subtleties of facial expressions, voice inflections and body language. So when a neighbor’s dog is brutally murdered and he is initially accused of committing the crime, Christopher resolves to apply his (overly) analytic mind to the task of deducing the killer’s identity.

Curious Incident is written in first person — at one point, a teacher suggests to Christopher that he keep a journal of his investigation, and this book is the supposed result. Haddon does a remarkable job of showing us the world through Christopher’s eyes, while still allowing the reader glimpses of how someone without Asperger’s would see the situation. As Christopher interviews his neighbors, for instance, it becomes clear to the reader that many of them know much more than they are telling, even while Christopher — unable to spot or even suspect deception — takes their statements at face value. The author does a masterful job of weaving together these two concurrent two stories — how Christopher sees things and how everyone else sees things — into a single, cohesive narrative.

So I loved this book, right? Well, I did … halfway through. At that point I told The Queen that Curious Incident was the best book I’d read in years, and that I couldn’t wait to finish it so she could have a crack at it. [Spoilers begin] But shortly thereafter Christopher suddenly abandons the mystery and sets off on a journey by himself, thereby eliminating the two things I had been enjoying most: the aforementioned “parallel stories” (once he’s on his own, it’s pretty much all Christopher’s POV all the time), and my curiosity as to how the crime was going to be “solved”. Worse, Christopher’s Asperger’s becomes heightened as he becomes increasingly anxious during his travels, which means that the story becomes ever more packed with trivia and tangents. I appreciate that Haddon was trying to convey to the reader how the autistic mind thinks (Haddon has real-life experience working with autistics, so presumably knows of what he writes), but at one point Christopher laments about his obsession with minutia, and by then I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. [Spoilers end]

I didn’t dislike Curious Incident, I just felt a little cheated by a perceived bait-and-switch. But if you ignored the spoiler warnings and read the above paragraph, you may be avoid my fate and love the book as much as most other people appear to. (Though, truth be told, I think I would have found the last 50 pages a tad boring under any circumstances.) Recommended, if only because it’s well-written and an interesting experiment.

As as long as I’m damning books that invite comparisons to Catcher In The Rye with faint praise …

Vernon God Little caught my eye because it won the 2003 Man Booker Prize and because a blurb on the cover compared it to the movie Rushmore. It’s not a bad book, but by the end I thought both the award and the comparison were unjustified.

Also written in first person, Little follows the adventures of Vernon, a teen whose best (and perhaps only) friend just went on a Columbineesque shooting rampages and killed 16 classmates before turning the gun on himself. Without a living person to blame for the atrocity, the town starts casting about for a suitable substitute, and much of the story revolves around Vernon’s efforts to avoid becoming the designated scapegoat.

In many ways Vernon is as inept at dealing with people as Christopher, though his anti-social tendencies seem the result of choice rather than biology. Written in Vernon’s voice, Little is full of slang and the obsessions of young males — at one point the word “panties” appears on eight consecutive pages. This makes for some tough reading — it’s no A Clockwork Orange, but turgid nonetheless. And if it has been the same length as A Clockwork Orange (i.e., 100 pages shorter) it might have been worth the effort. Instead, it feels somewhat rambling and unfocused. And author DBC Pierre can’t seem to decide how broad to make his satire, so the book oscillates from subtle social commentary to situations so hyperbolic that they could work as second-half-of-the-show Saturday Night Live sketches.

As with Curious Incident, I didn’t dislike Vernon God Little. But I finished both in 2004, and my assessment that I read no “outstanding fiction” that year stands.

One Down

The Squirrelly is one year old today. So says the calendar, at any rate. If I had to guestimate how long I’ve been father, based on how quickly/slowly time has flown/crawled by since Birthday #0, I’d reckon about ((F-5) + ((S*3) / (W2 – A)) – C) months, where F is my current frustration level on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 0 as “child asleep” and 10 as “in the middle of trying to change diaper while child simulates a paint shaker”), S = my current sleep debt (in hours), W = number of times in the past four weeks the kid has successfully prevented The Queen and I from wrasslin’ by employing one of his many Sibling Prevention Techniques, A = number of alcoholic beverages I’ve consumed prior to contemplating the question, and C = his cuteness constant of 210.

Recently The Squirrelly has begun taking steps. He will stand up and take a tottering lurch toward something before giving up, resuming his quadrapedic lifestyle, and crawling to his destination in a flash. Grandpa Baldwin thinks that he will start walking-for-real by the end of the month, but, if he’s anything like his father, that might be overly optimistic. I can hunt-and-peck about 70 words a minute, and although I have tried to switch to touch-typing countless times over the last 15 years, I inevitably get frustrated in mid-email and revert to my two-fingers method. Given the speed at which The Squirrelly can crawl and the genetic material he carries, he may be crawling up to receive his diploma at 18.

Still, he’s a little ahead of the game, locomotion-wise. But he appears to be behind the curve in the language department. Other kids his age have said their first words, or, at the very least, wave bye-bye with a little prompting. The Squirrelly, meanwhile, has given no indication that he will be conjugating verbs anytime soon. Apparently this is normal: at one year of age there are walkers, and there are talkers, but there are very few walkie-talkies. Given a choice we would have opted for a kid who could charmingly exclaim “duck!” rather than one who can wander into the laundry room and eat “Tide” straight from the box, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that our desires and The Squirrelly’s development belong to mutually exclusive sets. We wanted a kid who could clean gutters by now, for instance, and that hasn’t panned out.

But he’s healthy and super-fun and completely normal. We have to keep reminding ourselves of this latter fact, because, like all parents, we are constantly (and often subconsciously) comparing our child’s development with that of his peers and fretting about any differences, real or imagined. It doesn’t help that most parenting books focus almost exclusively on Things That Can Go Terribly, Terribly Wrong. That’s why I’m going to write a book for new parents called Your Child Is Completely Normal, to serve as a counterweight to the “guides” that trade in wanton fearmongering. My book will read like this:

All the books we’re read say that infants will roll over by themselves by week 14 but our baby is 14 weeks, four days old and still can’t do it! Should we be concerned?

Your child is completely normal.

Our baby used to make eye contact with us all the time, but now he won’t ever look at us when we speak to him. Is he becoming antisocial?

Your child is completely normal.

Junior is only four months old, but he already says sentences, like “get out!” and “Captain Howdie says no!” Also, he floats above the bed and can rotate his head 360 degrees. Is this unusual?

Your child is completely normal.

As Telly Savalas as my witness, I think this would be a best-seller.

Happy Birthday, Squirrelly — the best years are yet to come! For your mother and I, I mean. Once you figure out that gutter-cleaning thing.

The Booklist 2005 Project

In the past, this has been my method for determining my reading list:

  1. Go to library
  2. Wander over to “new releases” section
  3. Judge books by cover

This has led me to some great stuff. Unfortunately, it has also resulted in long stretches of mediocrity.

One of those stretches was the year affectionately known as 2004, and I said as much in my annual recap. But then, as an afterthought, I asked readers to send me recommendations for future reading.

And boy-howdie, did I get ’em. And it would be a shame to let them go to waste. So this year I’m going to try the Booklist 2005 project, and try and plow through the majority of the books that were endorsed by dy readers. And although I was terribly lax about writing book reviews last year, I intend to comment on every B2K Project novel I read on these virtual pages.

Here is my current list of a dozen (Update: now 20) books. Below it are some 25 more, that I will add to the list if they receive seconds from commenters. And if you know of something that really, really ought to be on here but isn’t mentioned at all, you can put that in the comments as well. (Although, given the rate at which I read books, the list as it stands is probably sufficient to keep me in fiction until 2008).

The Current List
(i.e., books that received a second and/or intrigued me)

  • Annals of the Black Company, Glen Cook [Read first 20 pages, didn’t like. May try again later.]
  • Civilwarland in Bad Decline, George Saunders [Done!]
  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell [Done!]
  • The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon [Done!]
  • Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorow [Done!]
  • The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq
  • Freedom & Necessity, Stephen Brust and Emma Bull
  • Game of Thrones, George Martin [Have — trying to find a sufficient block of time to read]
  • Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  • Gringos, Charles Portis [Don’t like — abandoned.]
  • Hardboiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, Haruki Murakami
  • House of Leaves, Mark Z. Dainielewski [Done! One of my favorite books of all-time!]
  • An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
  • Oracle Night, Paul Auster [Done!]
  • Oryx and Crak, Margaret Atwood
  • Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke [Yeah, it was okay …]
  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon [Enjoyable, but not fantastic]
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger [Done!]
  • Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West, Gregory Maguire

(i.e., books in need of a second)

  • The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  • Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  • Dirt Music, Tim Winton
  • The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, Minister Faust
  • Facing the Music, Larry Brown
  • The Fermata, Nicholson Baker
  • Little Children, Tom Perrotta
  • The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
  • McCarthy’s Bar, Pete McCarthy
  • The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Pattern Recognition, William Gibson
  • Pest Control, Bill Fitzhugh
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Rothv
  • Seven Types of Ambiguity, Elliot Perlman
  • Sock, Penn Jillette
  • Star of the Sea, Joseph O’Conner
  • Sunshine, Robin McKinley
  • The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay
  • When the Nines Roll Over, David Benioff

P.S.1. These are all fiction recommendations, because that’s what I specifically asked for in my recap. But, if suggesting brand new titles, non-fiction is also welcomed.

P.S.2. Feel free to warn me away from any books I am considering if you’re so inclined. You guys are picking these, so the more input the better.

Love Of Flatulation Humor Is Found On Chromosome Y

The Squirrelly recently discovered that he can press his mouth into the crook of his elbow, blow vigorously, and generate impressive farting noises. He has been doing this ever since, laughing uproariously after every performance.

Any lingering doubts that this child is mine have now been dispelled.

No Good Deed

Sunday I went to my local electronics store to browse for a new computer, and a $500 laptop caught my attention. It lacked the massive amounts of memory and storage space that come with the $1000-and-up models, but I chalked that up as a virtue rather than a fault. I intend to use the laptop for my writing, and anything that prevents me from installing or enjoying City of Heroes is a boon.

But a salesperson approached me and, without preamble, declared the laptop to be steaming mound of uselessness. “That thing …” she said, letting the sentence trail-off and shaking her head ruefully. “If you’re even considering that, you should be looking at that Sony over there.” She gestured toward a model across the aisle that sold for about three times as much. “This thing is so slow, you won’t be able to use it for anything.”

Irritated, I adopted my msot cheerful tone and said “I’ll be the judge of that. Abruptly uninterested, the saleswoman squirted off without another word.

Then as I turned back to reading the system specifications, I was waylaid by seniors.

“What do you know about this here computer?” the old man demanded, in that tone of volume of voice that I’m wont to hear from the row behind me in the movie theater.

“I don’t work here,” I said, “but it looks …”

“I just want to play my games,” the woman interjected.

The man confirmed. “We just want to play our games. But these salespeople, they say this computer is no good for games. They say it won’t work.”

“It says in the ad that this computer is $500,” added the wife. “And now they tell us it doesn’t even work.”

She held up an insert from a newspaper, on which this very laptop was touted as an bargain on par with the Louisiana Purchase. Apparently that was this store’s business model: they advertise some item as being the greatest thing since oral sex, and then station salespeople around it to snort derisively at anyone stupid enough to even glance in the featured item’s direction.

“What kind of games?” I asked, suspecting that weren’t talking World Of Warcraft, here.

“I like to play poker,” said the man. Then he cocked his thumb back to point as the woman behind him and said “She likes to play the slots. And they say we need a thousand dollar computer to do it.”

“That’s ridiculous. We are in our seventies,” said the woman, as if there was a well-established, scientific prinicple correlating the age of a user to his required amount of RAM.

“If you’re just playing casino games, I think this computer will be just fine,” I told them.

“I knew it.” The man said to his wife, vindicated. “What about AOL? Does this thing have AOL?”

“Our son told us not to have a computer with AOL on it,” the woman said. “He says AOL runs a lot of programs on your computer and makes it run slow.”

“Well, it’s not a matter of a computer ‘having’ AOL or not, because AOL is an ISP not a …” I stopped and restarted. “This computer might have, like, a little AOL picture on the desktop? But if you don’t want to use it you can just get delete it.”

“How do we do that?” asked the man.

“Just drag the icon into the Trash,” I said.

The woman looked confused. “Won’t that delete the hard drive?”

This astoundingly stereotypical “technologically clueless old person” statement, combined with the phrase “hard drive”, actually made me wonder if they were having one over on me, like maybe I was being featured on “Geriatric Punk’d!” or something. Or perhaps this was an modern day version of that fairy tale where the King disguises himself as a pauper and goes out amongst his subjects, rewarding those who offer him charity with riches beyond their wildest dreams. Perhaps these people were actually sent out by the store management, and by helping them out I would receive a free CDR/DVD drive.

Alas, our subsequent banter conclusively disproved the latter hypothesis.

“We’re getting this computer,” the man announced at last, and set off to find a salesman. The woman followed, leaving me a little irked that I hadn’t even got thanked.

But there was one bright side: despite brushing off the saleswoman earlier, she had got me wondering if I really wanted this laptop, instead of that $1500 Sony over yonder. In explaining to the elderly couple that they didn’t really need more than this model offered, I had also talked myself into saidsame.

Resolved, I opened my mouth to address the salesman who was approaching me. “Excuse me,” I said.

“Hang on a sec,” he replied. Then he reached around me and put a bright red card on the laptop I was going to buy. It read “This model is sold out.” I looked over at the register and saw the old people handing over their credit card and looking satisfied that they had seen through the store’s bait-and-switch scheme.

“Okay,” the sales guy said. “What can I get you?”