Friday, April 29, 2011

It Took Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged to Finally Make Humanitarians Look Bad in Hollywood

The lack of any stars in the movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged was a pretty good sign, only a few minutes in, that this movie would stink. But the lack of stars probably had more to do with the fact that 95 percent of Hollywood wouldn't want to touch this film, released on Tax Day and heavily promoted by Dick Armey's Tea Party-affiliated anti-tax organization Freedom Works.

Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Brad Pitt were among the stars who dropped out along the way. Surprisingly, the no-name actors don't do a horrible job. It's more like it's not directed well and is just kind of laughable in a Lifetime mini-series sort of way. OK if you got sucked into it while on the couch, but a little insulting to have been subjected to in a public movie theater.

Making this movie part one of a trilogy only adds to the painfully anti-climactic ending. That said, I'll definitely Netflix the next two parts. As an admitted fan of Rand's The Fountainhead (I've never read Atlas Shrugged), the author's brand of "objectivism" and libertarianism is fascinating.

Not that her writing has a lot of nuance, but it has great characters. And the movie clearly has strong characters. The problem is the nuance is mostly lost. But Rand's mind tricks, like the best science fiction, bring interesting and creative twists to reality. With Atlas Shrugged, it appears that railroad owner Dagny Taggert and metal industrialist Hank Reardon are able to keep their ambitions on course because they won't give up. They are fulfilling their objectivist, individual passion. Meanwhile, other top CEOs "shrugg" and fall by the wayside. They are letting the world down. The story, set in the future, shows sympathy for rich people, disdains poor people (although not enough to ever physically hurt them), and shows how crummy the world would be if rich people weren't so rich.

I'll give it this: you don't see humanitarians made to look evil in Hollywood too often. I wish I could give Atlas Shrugged a better review so that it doesn't look like I'm making a partisan attack, but ...

** out of ***** stars

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My National Geographic Gig: If Only I Had a Yard to Mow

I just got paid for some freelance blogging I did for National Geographic last year, and it reminded me that I never noted that at Pop Culture Lunch Box.

And which article would be better to excerpt, as the weather warms up and people are heading outside to mow their lawns, than one about which mower you should purchase.

Shopping Tips

There are basically three kinds of mowers: reel, rotary, and riding.

  • Reel mowers: Patterned after the scythe, a hand tool used to whack grass, the reel push mower is manual and creates zero air pollution. As more people become environmentally conscious, there has been a steady increase in the sale of push mowers.

  • Rotary mowers: These have internal combustion engines that usually run on gasoline. They have the benefit of more power than reel mowers, but the disadvantages of requiring much more regular maintenance and creating pollutants like carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

  • Riding mowers: Riding mowers are often more appropriate for large lawns and are the most expensive option.

  • Going electric: For those who need a power boost to get the job done, electric models are available, with or without a cord, for both reel and riding mowers. These are sort of the Toyota Prius hybrids of the mower world, and more environmentally friendly than rotary models. The degree to which they pollute depends on the energy efficiency of the power plant from which the battery charge originated. Interestingly, electric riding mowers are becoming more common and they can usually cut about a half an acre before needing to be recharged.

Which mower you pick largely determines the cost to the environment. Consumer Reports and Clean Air Gardening provide nice resources to help you choose an environmentally friendly lawn mower.


It was an honor to write for National Geographic and it would be great to continue the relationship sometime.

Charlie Sheen's Tiger Blood Influences Generations of Wall Street Crooks

Cliches permeate Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street. But then again, many classic movie lines like "greed is good" do the same.

Slicked-back, only-in-the-80s hair for Michael Douglas as financial king Gordon Gekko. But then again, this was probably the best decade of my life and I can't help but feel tons of nostalgia.

Like in another Stone classic, Platoon, young Charlie Sheen is the centerpiece as Bud Fox and there might not be a scene in which he doesn't appear. It's a brilliant performance by him. Douglas, who won the Academy Award for best actor, and Martin Sheen as Charlie's do-gooder dad come in a close second.

Daryl Hannah, a highly idealistic actress (see the video I made with her last December in which she asks us all to stop eating fish for the good of the planet), is an odd choice as the materialistic interior designer who plays everyone's girlfriend and doesn't seem to be having much fun with her role. She even won a Razzie as worst actress that year. Sean Young, who was amazing in another 80s-excess flick called The Boost, apparently lobbied to fire Hannah throughout production so that she could play the role with the right amount of 80s unethical flair.

Stone was inspired to make the movie by the memory of his father, a stock broker during the Great Depression. Wall Street is subsequently said to be hugely influential in building a generation of insider-trading-minded business workers. We might never have had Enron and Bernie Madoff if not for this glamorization of heroic corruption.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Morning Glories Takes the Teen Mystery Graphic Novel Genre to a New Level

As I mentioned recently, I've discovered that graphic novels are the perfect answer for a person who doesn't have as much time to enjoy reading as many great stories as he used to (you know, parenthood).

Speaking of great stories, the last graphic novel I finished was Morning Glories Volume One: For a Better Future, from Image Comics. One of the first things I look for in a graphic novel is compelling cover art. This one, at first glance, looks like a simple prep-school story for adults, which in itself can often be a winning formula.

But what really got me more interested was that the characters looked slightly off, mysterious, and puzzling. The lack of description about what this story is all about added to the intrigue.

As one reviewer at Amazon notes, this is Lost meets The Breakfast Club. Six celebrated kids, who happen to all have the same birthday, arrive at a prestigious prep school. On the first day, the teachers and students set about trying to kill them and generally make their lives hell. There is also a monster that sweeps in with no rhyme or reason to stick his hands through the brains of random people at random times.

The interesting thing is that this doesn't appear to be yet-another teenage vampire tale. Through the first volume, I have no idea what it's about. But it's a page turner, and the characters are built so strongly and with just the right of scheming against each other that I'll definitely return to read subsequent volumes of this mysterious thrill ride.

**** out of ***** stars (with the right to give this more or fewer stars based on how the next chapters pan out)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Win Win is Early Best-Picture Candidate

Tom McCarthy, who directed The Station Agent and The Visitor, is back with a phenomenal little film about a small-time New Jersey lawyer who gets himself into a lot of trouble with his decisions to play God to an old man and his dysfunctional family. Win Win is about how complicated life really is even though it seems so simple.

But all his moves make us completely sympathetic to him. And it helps that the lawyer is played by Paul Giamatti of Sideways fame. He still plays the same lovable schlump here, but instead of wine tasting, he is fixated on keeping his family afloat amid hard economic times. The characters around him are also lovable, if somewhat buffoonish: his Bon Jovi-loving wife (played excellently by Amy Ryan, who was Michael Scott's voice-impression-doing love interest in The Office) and Bobby Cannavale as an assistant wrestling coach who just needs a distraction and seems to want to relive his high-school days.

Alex Shaffer is Kyle, the talented wrestler who serves as the center of Win Win's galaxy. He does a great job, and this should be an early front-runner for best picture.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Time to Take a "Stand" With Graphic Novels

Being a former English-lit undergrad and a voracious reader of novels, I never thought the day would come when it would take multiple months to get through a simple Oprah Book Club book (I may never get through Jonathan Franzen's Freedom!).

But such is fatherhood. In fact, I just canceled my New Yorker subscription after a strong 16-year run. I'll still read what I can of that magazine online. But I've really discovered the perfect format for great stories for the free-time challenged: graphic novels.

I bought a few recently. The first one I finished was one based on the first part of Stephen King's The Stand, which was probably the best novel I read before turning 16.

The Stand: Captain Trips, from the famed Marvel company, tells the tale of several Americans who mysteriously survive a killer virus, popularly referred to as "Captain Trips." While everyone else dies, they try to make sense of what is happening. The premise provides perfect drama, and I just ordered the next parts of this series.

Anyone half-way interested in a killer apocalypse tale should find this exquisitely drawn book. Better yet, read the 1,000-page-plus novel first, then read the comic (1,000 pages! That would take this proud papa half-a-year to get through).

***** out of ***** stars

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Got an iPad? Get These Apps

A friend asked me how I like my iPad, and which apps he should get when he buys his own. I've had this magical device, which I didn't actually know that I needed until I bought it, for about six months now. And this is what I like:

If you read magazines, get Zinio. You can subscribe to magazines on it. Sporting News Today is awesome. I also subscribe to Rolling Stone and Spin on it.

Reeder is perfect if you have a Google Reader account, which is an RSS feeder that allows you to bring all your web sites to one page so you don't have to try and remember checking them all the time. Reeder also allows you to bypass the New York Times' new paywall, because there's a "Readability" button that brings up the entire article within the Reeder app without having to go to the Times website.

Kindle is obviously key for reading books. It's much better on iPad than on the actual Kindle.

I checked out The Daily for a bit. I believe there's still a 14-day free trial available. It's a cool iPad only daily newspaper, but it's published by Rupurt Murdock and I just eventually couldn't take its dumb and slightly conservative leanings. Great idea though.

Read It Later is good, and allows you to save any long articles online for later so you can read them offline whenever you like (which is especially good for long-form journalism in magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker).

Twitter and Friended are good for social media. StumbleUpon is fun for discovering interesting corners of the Internet. Netflix is amazing for streaming movies instantly if you have an account.

Remote is really nice, as it turns your iPad into a remote control for your iTunes account and stereos.

Ultimate Guitar allows you to see and save the guitar tabs and lyrics to just about any song. I've actually been learning other people's songs (instead of always just writing my own songs) for the first time because of this app.

And, finally, I haven't checked it out yet, but apparently all the old Atari games are available now through one, single app. Whenever I find some downtime, I'm going to be all over that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Supplies Solid Populist Suspense

I've been meaning to see what all the hype about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about for quite a while. I bought the hardback novel for $1 at a thrift store a couple of years ago but never read it. I think I may have even purchased it on Kindle, but never got to that version either.

I even recently read the long New Yorker feature on dead author Stieg Larsson. So enough was enough. It was finally time for me to watch the 2009 Swedish movie on Netflix Instant (Daniel Craig is pegged to star in an upcoming Hollywood remake).

And if there's one thing the Larsson/Tattoo phenomenon confirms, it's that Americans (and indeed, most pop-culture lovers the world over) go wild for shock, awe, and taking things one step further than they've ever gone before.

A cynic might say this movie is simply a ripoff of The Silence of the Lambs. The two movies do have similarities, but a gripping, suspenseful murder mystery is pretty tough to argue against. Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist who is being trailed by Lisbeth Salander, the title character, who is undergoing a string of highly troubling events.

The two eventually work through their disagreements and team up to get lost in a web of intrigue that includes industrialists, Nazis, sadistic rapists, and a general collection of puzzle pieces scattered all over the world. What more could you really ask for? This is a highly entertaining and complex (without actually making your brain hurt like, say, Lost does) populist tromp.

**** out of ***** stars

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Pretty Hotspots of Austin

I didn't get nearly enough time to explore Austin, Texas on my four-day work trip there last week, but I did take a couple of hours to rent a bike and see the city.

That's me in front of the University of Texas clock tower. I rode around the campus, past a workers-rights protest at the state capital, and down along South Congress Avenue and the river-like lake, which has nice jogging and biking paths on both sides.

The last photo here is from the lovely sculpture garden where we had our climate-adaptation team retreat. The bus ride on the way to the conference dinner at a Nature Conservancy reserve through the rolling hills west of Austin was also nice.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Honky Tonkin' Through Austin Rock City

Just returned from Austin, and it's a great town where they do things quite a bit differently.

I would never be crazy about living in Texas, but this is a place where I could really stand to spend some more time. There is live music being played everywhere, from the airport to bar rooftops at night to a guy playing a piano under the columns of a corporate skyscraper.

Here are a handful of images that represent Austin's feel. From top left then clockwise: a display in a shop on famed East 6th Street called Crazy About Music, Austin legend Willie Nelson's street with my Raddison hotel in the background, and famed Emo's rock club with some interestingly named artists soon coming to town.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Stubb's BBQ is First Stop on Austin 3-Day Work Trip

I finally landed in Austin, Texas today after significant weather delays on American Airlines. But the weather is beautiful here and there was just enough time to stroll around town before the NCAA championship game between UConn and Butler started.

My destination: the legendary music club/meat joint known as Stubb's BBQ. I saddled up to the bar and got one of the best beef briskets ever, along with mashed sweet potatoes and walnuts, a side salad, and a couple of Real Ales from Texas Hill Country.

Stubb's is a rustic, roadhouse-like place with two levels. There is a stage inside but there is also a huge backyard that stretches out and allows some of the biggest names in music to perform. It would be a fun place to see a show, espially if I ever make it back here for the SXSW festival.

It's good to be here and I'm looking forward to leading a messaging workshop for The Nature Conservancy's "climate adaptation team" and attending a conference on "freshwater" as well.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Here Comes the Jennifer Aniston Double Feature

I'm a chick-flick guy, but this may have been over the line.

Somehow, two Jennifer Aniston movies landed at the top of our Netflix queue, which happened to be a pretty sure-fire way of pushing our luck.

We watched the first one a few nights ago when we were in Tahoe City, California and, I have to admit, I've already quickly forgotten most everything about The Switch. But I do remember liking it. Quite a bit. Jason Bateman can almost do no wrong for me. The former Arrested Development star plays Aniston's best friend and, one drunken night, he switches the donor's sperm with his own. Several years pass before he realizes her child is his as well.

This movie, based on a Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex) short story is, somehow, funny. It works.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Back home, Love Happens is the "pushing our luck" part. At least we didn't pay movie-theater prices.

While Aaron Eckhart and Aniston try to make us care, the Hallmark-Channel script drags these actors to new lows.

Eckhart, who was so good in Thank You for Smoking, plays a self-help guru who helps people deal with loss. But he is slow to let Aniston into his own world.

It's not funny. It's really condescending to our emotions. And it's one of the least original plots imaginable. Two writers even sued the filmmakers, claiming the script was stolen. Hopefully the worst movie I'll see in 2011.

1/2 out of ***** stars (and it only gets that 1/2 star because of a couple of good Rogue Wave and Eels songs on the soundtrack)