Sunday, September 26, 2010

Accidental Billionaires

The Book: Accidental Billionaires

The Author: Ben Mezrich

The Dealio: This is the tale of the evolution of Facebook, as envisioned by Ben Merzrich. The author goes waaaaaaay out of his way to attest that, while most of what he has written was culled by endless hours of interviews with the actual peeps involved, certain pivotal moments had to be recreated from what his best about the events du jour would have been. Gotcha. However, could've done without a pants' load of florid prose like this: 'No one really knows what he was thinking, where he was or with whom, but it must surely have gone something like this...' Now multiply this breathless assertion by about a doz.
For those of you (all 3 of you) unfamiliar with the saga, it goes a little something like this: Harvard genius-boy seeking to meet girls and totally uninterested in moolah, creates a social networking site while at Harvard. Joins forces with- and is bankrolled to start-up by- fellow geek he met sophomore year. Next up? A congo line of crashed servers, troubles with Harvard, goggle-eyed meets with idols, the joining of forces with idols, inevitable acrimonious split with geekoid Harvard bud, then, of course, splits with idols, the assumption of neatsy-keenoid status as nonchalant billionaire, and, hot off the update presses: the donation of $100 million to the Newark, NJ public school system. Along the way, much intrigue, back-stabbing and general over-indulgence on the part of all concerned.

The Grading Session: 3.099 pengies out of 5. While an interesting and engrossing story, do we really need to hear 17 times that Mark Zuckerberg almost always eschewed a coat and tie. Or hated shoes. Or was totally absorbed in computers (duh! didn't we know this, going in?). Once more, I say unto you: 'there is nothing quite so valuable, either to a film maker or writer, as a truly great editor. Word.

Lessons Learned: If you think you can rely on the friendship and good intentions of your fellow man but can not understand legalese, 1) do not sign on the dotted and 2) run, nay, race, at full tilt towards the nearest you-friendly lawyer with aforementioned legal verbiage in tow.
Also, this: just because you are a genius, doesn't mean you have the proprietary right to treat everyone around you like anonymous lifeforms placed into your pathway for the sole purpose of serving you and furthering your agendas.

Friday, September 24, 2010


The Book: Room

The Author: Emma Donoghue

The Dealio: This is-basically- a novelisation of the Jaycee Dugard story. Told entirely through the observations of a five year old boy who has known nothing but one 11' by 11' room, his 'ma' and, occasionally, almost incidentally, 'Old Nick', the man who kidnapped his Ma when she was just 19 years old. When the world collapses down on itself to include-for the most part-only two, it provides a unique opportunity to see things- everyday things-from the perspective of an explorer in a strange, new land. This is the perspective Room allows us.

The Grading Session: 4.899 pengies out of 5. Now, any of you who know me at all, right about now would be checking for a stem at the base of my skull. I must surely have been body-snatched if said that I am going to recommend this book. Heck-you might be tempted to do that if I even told you I had read this book. Of my own free will. However, I did have to deduct a smidgen of a pengie for the occasional lapse in narration, when our hero, Jack, suddenly begins to talk like William F. Buckley, Jr. Or, well, at least Christopher Buckley. But Donoghue, overall, does a first rate job of conveying the ways in which children so readily adapt to things that are presented to them as 'just the way things are'. There is beauty, and hope, dread and desperation in this book, and I found it as compelling, as horrifying and as smile-inducing a story as I have read in a long time. NOTE: Yes, the central theme is as horrifying a premise as I can imagine. But there is no graphic depiction of the kidnapping, nor what came after.

Lessons Learned: Never give up hope. Also, don't assume that children don't know what is going on. They, mostly, do, and simply fill in the empty spots with their-fertile- imaginations. Lastly, in a world composed entirely of two, a mother and a child, who is really helping the other survive?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Book: The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Writer: Richard C. Morais

The Dealio: This is a story, narrated by Hassan Haji, of the evolution of a chef. The grandson of an Indian 'tiffin nabob' in post World War II Bombay, a horrific tragedy sends the entire Haji family racketting off, first, to cold, friendless London, then, to Lumiere, tucked away in the French mountains where their car serendipitously dies. There, and under the disapproval of the maitress do cuisine of a century-old restaurant, the Haji family really comes into its own. A pivotal moment, a flare of temper and an ugly accident transforms many lives, while it sets young Hassan on his way to becoming a legendary, innovative and celebrated chef.

The Grading Period: 4.13 pengies out of 5. This story was so deliciously told that it had me hankering to experiment with a raft of new ideas about sauces, spices and rococo combinations of flavors. I adored the notion of young Hassan as the chef du maison of his family's restaurant, as well as the joyous and strident portrayals of the family members. But about three-fourths of the way through, I felt the story began to lose steam and zest for the telling. The last quarter was rather subdued and heaped sadness upon sorrow upon regret. Although I was still involved enough to continue, it was a bit of a let-down after the sheer bubbling happiness and eager pandemonium of the rest of the tale.
This would make a remarkable movie- and I have heard whispers around the campfire that such is a possibility. I am already casting in my brain.

Lessons Learned: As with any other undertaking, there are some folks who are just born with an innate ability or talent in a certain area. This is not something which can be taught- or even should be taught. But, whenever this does happen, it is something which should be led, carefully guided through the evolutionary process. Without this guidance, what results are genius-despots who can not see beyond their own egos. (And, no, this is not just about cooking).
Next: I do not think that I really would enjoy the 'molecular cooking' which swept the cuisine-world about 10-15 years ago, and just as suddenly was GWTW. Oyster foam? Cream Essence? How about Meat Vapor? Blech.
Lastly: To all you natural-born geniuses out there: there are plenty more where you came from, so widen your horizons before it is too late and let a few less-than-genius beings into your world. They will give your existence undreamed-of flavor and spice. I promise.

Easy A

The Flick: Easy A

The Actors: Emma Stone, (still wonder about her being cast as Miz Skeeter in the film adaptation of The Help...but we shall see), Amanda Bynes, Penn Badgley, Patricia Clarkson, Stanlet Tucci, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, etc.

The Dealio: Emma Stone's Olive Penderghast (no relation), is the ultimate in invisibility at Ojai High School: bright, quick, a good student and no troublemaker. That all comes to a screeching halt once Olive tells a white lie to help a fellow misfit. The entire thing sproings out of control at record speed when Olive's English class begins to study the Scarlet Letter. Olive begins to see parallels between the fate of Hester Prynne and her own victimisation at the hands (and messaging fingertips) of her gossipy fellow students. This is when Olive has a great (or, as it turns out, not-so-great) idea of capitalising on her notoriety by proudly flaunting the legendary Big, Red A.

The Grading Period: 4.39 pengies out of 5. BTW-the soundtrack is dominated by pretty decent covers of bits and pieces from those of '80's 'teen com' movies. A pleasant surprise, and I don't wish to carp, but they could have been rounded out with some original stuff.
Prendie talks a lot about movies that take place in 'The Land With No Adults', but this is not a complaint to be made about this movie: adults are represented, but most are so loopy and over the top, they read as almost more immature than the actual teens.
Stone's Olive is grounded, level headed and sweet...with an undertow of tart lurking just beneath the surface. Neat job. Haden Church nails it as that really memorable, inspired and inspiring teacher each of us had at least once in our educational past; the one who seems just that tiny bit too cool for, well, school.
It's clear Stanley Tucci is having a blast- but, then, he always seems to revel in the cards with which he has been presented. Gotta love that appetite and enthusiasm in an actor. Bynes does the weirdly contradictory goody-goody she has done before; and we all know it for the mask cloaking her selfish and superior inner wee-yoch that it truly is. I can easily see her as the very first accuser in The Crucible, the little self-righteous liar who ('eyes on me!') causes an entire society to begin to unravel, as it turns in on itself.
For a lightweight, late summer offering, I say: good job with extra effort taken in the crafting.

Lessons Learned: Well, believe it or don't, but some people actually read The Scarlet Letter- and more than once.
Also- it is great fun revisiting some of the more engaging John Hughes movies, (Sixteen Candles, Say Anything and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, among them), as minor characters in a current-day movie .
Lastly this: too much time is spent during the average school day, texting and recording the detritus of your average, very ordinary days. Get outside, get some fresh air, look around you at the rest of the world. Enjoy. These are the days you will look back on and think of as the high point of your life. Or the worst of times. Ever.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Town

The Film: The Town

The Actors: Ben Affleck (also directed), Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Blake Lively, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper, Pete Postelthwaite, etc.

The Dealio: Based on Chuck Hogan's book, Prince of Thieves, this is one of those stories which seems at once familiar (think Michael Corleone in the Godfather) and yet, very alien. Doug (Affleck) is the brain-power behind the 'no mess-up crew', as Hamm's FBI agent calls the band of local hoods who routinely -and embarrassingly successfully- knock over armored trucks and banks. During one such bank attempt, things go awry when one of the crew grabs the bank manager- a young woman from the neighborhood- as a hostage. Leaving, of course, the ultimate in unanswered questions: allowed to live, could she finger any of the robbers? Doug volunteers to 'check it out' and begins to fall for the woman (Hall), strengthening his resolve to 'put the old neighborhood and all this in my rear view mirror after this one last job', leaving behind the complex tightrope/spiders' web of loyalties, owed allegiances and tricky paybacks. But, as is usually the case, the 'one last job' turns into another, then another. Each one is more hurried, less well-planned and therefore, more risky, than the one before. It seems only a matter of time before this incredibly shaky house of cards comes tumbling down around Doug's ears.

The Grading Period: 4.799 pengies out of 5. This is a movie that stays true to the letter and the spirit of the source material, and still bears the unmistakable stamp of a skilled and invested director. For those who felt that Gone, Baby, Gone was a fluke, well, as Ben, himself would say, 'How'd'ya like me NOW!?' When I listened to this book on CD, a couple of years ago, I had to stop it several times to catch my breath and to break the tension. It was just that involving. The movie translation bore all the same elements: for the last 30-40 minutes, I could. not. sit. back. in. my chair. The pacing was swift and sharp and smart. I read somewhere that, again, Affleck had gone with real neighborhood peeps for extras and cameos. And all the deets were pin-point accurate- right down to the tiny chip out of one of Dougie's front teeth.
PS- I like you fine, Ben. Just fine.

Lessons Learned: Apparently, you can be a deadly killer and a florist (thinking here of De Niro's Jack Burns in Meet The Parents). Also- you can take the boy out of Boston; but the other way just doesn't seem to work as well. And thank God for that.
Lastly-finally! a use for those old Skeletor masks...just not one I could ever employ.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Tillman Story

The Film: The Tillman Story

The Peeps: Amir Bar Lev (director), narrated by Josh Brolin.

The Dealio: On April 22, 2004, ex-footballer and Ranger corporal , Pat Tillman, was killed 'in the line of duty', during a fire-fight. His family members- and the country- were told that he had died in an act of heroic self-sacrific. He then became a symbol for all that was right, and true and patriotic in our military. And, now we know that the entire tale, the myths, the legends, were all part of a cover-up, intended to wring some sort of positive message from the meaningless loss of his young life. His family, speaking on behalf of their loved one, who could no longer speak for himself, decided to buck the system, find out what actually happened and set the record straight. This doc is the result.

The Grading Session: 4.51 pengies out of 5. Editing, once more, would have turned this into a 5 pengie doc, but the movie still had plenty to say...and said it: about life in the modern military, people's reactions to grief, tragedy and subterfuge, and, mostly, about how divisive and corrosive these wars are to all who touch or are touched by even the tiniest brush with them.

Lessons Learned: It is not valuable, meaningful, or even necessary to see members of the military as either heroes or traitors, patriotic or reluctantly compliant, wildly opinionated or moderately sedated by rhetoric. We are all just mini-glimpses at America's society as a whole. So there is as much reluctance as heroism in each of us. As a vet, myself, I have seen this first hand. I am proud of my service to this country, but do not consider myself either heroic or particularly self-sacrificing. Neither did Pat Tillman. What I think is this: labelling is the lazy person's first and easiest response and does no favors to anyone. So let's stop leaping to conclusions. As in, right now.
Also- Donald Rumsfeld is an ill-mannered, boorish jackanapes and needs a good butt-kicking for his smirking, self-laudatory, inappropriate performance before the good ol' boys (and gals) in the Senate who patted his back and kissed his tuchus for deigning to appear before them. Shame on you for your treatment of this grieving family. Blog out.