29 November 2010

Blu-ray Disc: "Never Say Never Again"

Never Say Never Again Collector's Edition
Starring: Sean Connery, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Max Von Sydow, Barbara Carrera, Kim Basinger, Bernie Casey, Alec McGowen and Edward Fox as "M"
Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Based on an Original Story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming
Directed by Irvin Kershner
MPAA Rating: PG
Blu-ray Disc + DVD Release Date: 3 August 2010
Cinescopes Personality Types: Passionate Maverick, Chosen Adventurer
List price: $24.99

The Film
You can spend hours researching the convoluted history of this movie, but suffice it to say it is a remake of Thunderball not produced by the same production company that has been responsible for the majority of the Bond movies.  Never Say Never Again is most notable for luring Sean Connery back into the role of James Bond after a twelve year absence, and his final screen outing as 007 debuted four months after Octopussy, the thirteenth "official" Bond movie.  Never Say Never Again invited comparisons, then, to the original novel, the Thunderball film and Octopussy, as well as Connery's previous six outings.  You know what?  It holds up fairly well on all counts.

The premise is simple: international crime syndicate SPECTRE (run by Blofeld, played here by Max Von Sydow) absconds with a nuclear bomb and blackmails the west for its safe return.  Countering this is James Bond, assigned to locate the bomb and neutralize the threat.  Adolfo Celli's Largo (SPECTRE's man in the field) may have become iconic for wearing an eyepatch, but Klaus Maria Brandauer's Largo is genuinely psychotic and a far more interesting nemesis for Bond.  Made in the furor of Bondmania in the 1960s, the production of Thunderball was clearly exhausting and it shows; the entire film is mired in lethargy and Connery pretty much walks through the film.  He's never in doubt that he'll save the day, and while we aren't, either, it comes off as though stopping a nuclear blackmail is more of a scheduling nuisance than anything else.  Returning in Never Say Never Again, Connery's Bond is still assured of victory but now it feels appropriate; it's not arrogance, but experience that guides the veteran spy.

Where the film succeeds is in giving us an interesting James Bond who relies on experience and not superheroic strength or encyclopedic knowledge of obscure subjects.  He's a human being; we even see him wearing gray sweats in one scene, and denim overalls in another (no worries; Connery still rocks the tuxedo).  Barbara Carrera vamps it up as antagonist Fatima Blush and it's easy to understand why she's still popular with Bond fans 27 years later.  She infuses each of her scenes with a visceral wildness, the likes of which wouldn't be seen in an Eon-produced Bond movie until 1995's GoldenEye.  Even without the conventions of the "official" Bond movies, there can be no mistake that that's what Never Say Never Again is.

The Blu-ray Disc + DVD Combo Pack
Previously, Never Say Never Again had only been released on DVD with its trailer and a booklet.  This release adds a commentary track featuring Steven Jay Rubin and director Irvin Kershner and a handful of featurettes.  "The Big Gamble" explores the hectic circumstances under which the film came to be produced; "Sean Is Back" lavishes Sir Sean Connery with praise for bringing his professionalism to the production; "The Girls of Never Say Never Again" is self-explanatory.  Kershner (who sounds like Ray Romano) is enthusiastic about praising Connery in the featurettes and the commentary track.  The basic knocks on Never Say Never Again are that Michel Legrand's score is subpar and incongruous with the film, and that its climax is rushed.  Kershner concurs on both counts; he wanted James Horner to score the film and makes clear just how much pressure he was under to just finish the film.  The content is the same on both Blu-ray Disc and DVD, so you've got your choice of format in one package.

The Recommendation
Officially, Never Say Never Again doesn't fit into the Bond series.  Setting aside all that, it's still a movie starring Sean Connery as James Bond.  The film falls just shy of its potential; a little more time and money (and a James Horner score) might have put it over the top but as it is it's still pretty entertaining.  And the nice thing is that it's a one-off production so you don't need to concern yourself with any continuity.  Unfortunately, the Blu-ray transfer is less than stellar; you're not going to get the astounding visual experience you may have hoped to find.

Note: I also reviewed the previous DVD release here.

22 November 2010

Your "Batman" VHS Can Buy a Drink

I meant to post this a few days ago and got the date wrong.  I thought about just posting this retroactively to the 15th, but I'm lazy.

1989.  Batman had already conquered the box office.  Warner Bros., hoping to strike while the iron was hot, elected to rush the home video release and give it a consumer-friendly, "priced to buy" MSRP.  You young kids and your DVDs take for granted that you can wait five months after a movie opens in theaters to watch it at home, but there was a time when the window between theatrical opening and home video release was much longer, and those VHS tapes were substantially more expensive.  We weren't meant to own VHS tapes; we were meant to rent them.  Batman changed that, released 15 November 1989 and priced at $19.99.

I turned 11 just two weeks later on 1 December, and it was the gift I wanted.  I didn't expect to get it, though; we weren't generally a "movie family."  My mom baked a Batman logo cake, and I got several Bat-gifts.  I couldn't tell you now what they were, but I know I got my VHS. I have no idea how many times I've watched my VHS.

Batman was my "sick" movie; I'd get a bug and spend an afternoon curled up on the couch (remember, this was an era when it was unusual for every kid to have his own home entertainment system in his room) and pop in my Batman VHS.  Sometimes I wouldn't even look at the TV.  It was comfort enough just to hear Michael Keaton say, "I'm Batman" or to hear Jack Nicholson ask, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?"  Today, I can call to mind everything about any given scene, from Danny Elfman's score to the way Kim Basinger screamed.  It's the kind of obsession that only the young can have for a movie. If  Batman was a celebrity, I'd have been cautioned to stay 500 feet away from it.

In the years since, I've bought it on DVD and now own it on Blu-ray Disc.  Unlike nearly every other VHS title I ever owned, though, I haven't gotten rid of this one once I upgraded.  It isn't in High Definition.  It's pan & scan, for crying out loud!  Regardless, I can't bring myself to part with it.  And now, it's 21 years old.

19 November 2010

Where Did the Interesting Music Go?

I love this album art.
It's always fun to watch people try to reconcile the fact that I love country music.  I'm fairly liberal in my beliefs (though fairly conservative in my personal actions), and I probably come across as more urbane than rural.  There was a time just a few years ago when I devoured country music.  At first, I began buying more catalog albums from artists who interested me.  Then I started taking more chances on other mainstream artists where I had previously been content to hear their radio singles.  I bought Tim McGraw's Set This Circus Down in 2001 just because I liked the cover art.  (It turned out that I loved the album, so it wasn't completely wasteful.)

Before long I had exhausted my interest in radio.  I was impatient with the way a song would enter the charts in the top 40 and then spend months ascending to the top and then hovering around the top 20 for months still.  I was disappointed by the choices in singles now that I was hearing whole albums; I'm still upset at Brooks & Dunn for not releasing "Go West" and think Montgomery Gentry should have released "Lie Before You Leave." And that wasn't even accounting for all the interesting music that mainstream radio outright refused to play, such as the talented singer/songwriters Bruce Robison and his brother Charlie.  Radio became like a T.G.I.Friday's special where the restaurant didn't allow for substitutions.  I might like the grilled chicken breast, but I can't stomach the jalapeño sauce and what difference does it really make to them if I prefer mashed potatoes to green beans?  It's been years since I voluntarily listened to radio, and I don't miss it in the least.

The last A.J. album I liked.
Somewhere along the line, though, something happened to the music I was buying and hearing.  The artists I followed seemed to hit a creative brick wall.  In 2006, Alan Jackson stepped out of his comfort zone and turned in a pair of albums; the collection of gospel standards, Precious Memories, and a bluesy/easy listening album produced by Alison Krauss, Like Red on a Rose.  I think I'm one of seventeen people worldwide who bought both of them, and one of maybe fourteen people who loved Like Red on a Rose.  Ever since those dalliances, A.J. has gone back to what had been working for him, turning in one fairly catchy, but generic, album and single after another.  I bought Good Time and liked some of it.  I checked out this year's Freight Train from the library and was entirely bored by it.

Part of the problem is that too many mainstream artists have quit recording art and have instead been contributing to Republican campaign tours.  The most offensive in the lot was a single by Darryl Worley released this year, "Keep the Change."  The song wants to be critical in a Merle Haggard way, but it fails completely.  It's nothing more than bumper sticker jingoism, and the subject matter deserves better than that.  Worley decried that radio wouldn't support it because it was "too controversial."  That doesn't allow for the fact that maybe--just maybe--someone could hear the song and just think it sucked.  It's a shame, too, because I loved his first two albums.  "Sideways" was fun; "A Good Day to Run" was an anthem for me in 2000 and "I Miss My Friend" kills me every time I hear it.  Worley should decide if he's a recording artist or a politico and stick to one or the other.

I know there's still interesting stuff being recorded.  This year I took a chance on Dierks Bentley's Up on the Ridge and loved it.  Likewise, I adored Chely Wright's Lifted Off the Ground, produced by Rodney Crowell.  It's an album for grown-ups who don't need to be spoonfed ringtones every forty seconds.  I was pleased by Joey + Rory's Album Number Two, which I found sincere and familiar like comfort food.  But I have to say, when I look over the list of this year's releases there really aren't many that I even want to hear.  Part of it I'm sure is that my taste, like anyone else's, has evolved and isn't the same as it once was.  Still, it  seems like it's harder to find the good stuff.

18 November 2010

Most Individual (Male), 1997

My senior year of high school was the 1996-1997 academic year.  We began by casting votes for the senior favorites list.  At least, they did.  I didn't vote.  I was named "Most Individual (Male)."  I'm not sure if they expected it or not, but as far as I was concerned there was really only one response I could have had for this.  I declined to accept.  No one ever asked me if I wanted to be considered for their ballot, and as near as I can tell the yearbook staff arbitrarily selected the students for each category.  I never thought that was fair.  I read "Most Individual (Male)," saw I wasn't up for consideration as "Most Likely to Succeed (Male)" and individuality became a codeword for "novelty."  You're likely recalling Joe Pesci's "I amuse you?!" diatribe from GoodFellas at this point and I wasn't far from that.  Maybe that's not how it was meant, but that's how I took it.

I didn't really expect to win the category, so I let the whole thing transpire with nary an objection.  When it came to be that I'd been selected, it was high time to register my complaint.  A photographer from the yearbook staff came to get me and that's when I explained that I would not be participating.  I was referred to the teacher who oversaw the yearbook staff and I made my declination known to her.  Now, as it happened, I'd just had a bicycle accident (the bike stopped; I didn't...stupid hand brakes!) and I looked like Two-Face at the time.  She at first thought I was simply self-conscious about the way I looked and offered to delay the photo until I was healed. I clarified that I had no intention of taking such a photo regardless of what my face looked like; that, if anything, part of me was amused by the notion of taking it right then and there while I was so rough.

When my position was understood, it was met with cold anger.  I'd not taken a yearbook photo throughout my four years of high school.  You know that list of "Not Pictured" students at the end of the group?  She saw to it that I wasn't even included in that list in my senior yearbook.  To my knowledge, there's virtually no evidence from my senior yearbook that I even existed, much less attended school that year.  There is, however, a photograph of some students looking at the posted list of senior favorites.  You can clearly read my name as "Most Individual (Male)" on the list.  To this day, that amuses me.

16 November 2010

Novel Playlist: "Sideways" by Rex Pickett

Sideways is known for being about wine, but what is overlooked is how prominent music is referenced throughout Rex Pickett's novel.  I suspect this is because the film adaptation eschewed these pop songs in favor of Rolfe Kent's jazzy score.  For those who are interested in compiling a novel soundtrack, here is the list of all music mentioned.  Page numbers are cited from the softcover edition I own, ISBN: 0-312-34251-9.

  • "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac (p. 74)
  • "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by The Rolling Stones (p. 78)
  • "Crystal Blue Persuasion" by Tommy James & The Shondells (p. 81) [Miles sings this at karaoke]
  • "All You Need Is Love" by The Beatles (p. 175) ["In a vulnerable moment [Miles] thought pathetically of" the song]
  • "Canon" by Pachelbel (p. 341) [performed by an organist]
  • "The Way You Look Tonight" (p. 344) [performed by a jazz ensemble]

  • Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by Flaming Lips (p. 50) ("the new Flaming Lips CD" If we reckon "new" to refer to the early 2000s, then this is the likeliest entry in their discography)
  • Long Distance by Ivy (p. 240)
  • Bavarian Fruit Bread by Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions (p. 288: "Then I...put Hope Sandoval in the CD player..." could be a reference to her recordings with Opal or Mazzy Star, but it seems reasonable to assume the remark refers to her solo debut album, released in 2001; her second was not released until 2009, years after the publication of Sideways)

Other Music References
  • "I Got So Drunk the Gal Left Town" by Merle Haggard (p. 88) [not real; Jack invents it to make a sarcastic point to Miles]
  • "Jack was in an ebullient mood all the way back, drumming his hands on the steering wheel  and singing out loud to a CD I wasn't familiar with." (p. 110)
  • "...a romantic ballad belted out by Tom Jones" (p. 143) [we're told that "Terra's going through a Tom Jones phase" on p. 144; Maya and Miles briefly discuss him and on p. 146 it's noted that, "Tom Jones crooned away," suggesting that one side of a Jones album had been playing the whole time]
  • "She selected a jazz compilation CD to cleanse the air of Tom Jones." (p. 148)
  • "Maudlin classic rock from the '70's saccharined the emptiness with its plangent strains, further sickening me." (p. 180)
  • "...while classic rock assaulted them over the stereo system." (p. 282)
  • "music filled the church again" (p. 342); "...the organ music faded..." (p. 343)

12 November 2010

"Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Gorn Crisis" by Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta & Igor Kordey

Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Gorn Crisis
Written by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta
Painted by Igor Kordey
Lettered by Richard Starkings and Comicraft's Albert Deschesne
Designed by Alex Sinclair
Edited by Jeff Mariotte
Date of Publication: 1 October 2002
Cover Price: $17.95
96 Pages

On the one hand, I've never really liked Kevin J. Anderson's writings.  I won't say he ruined the Star Wars Expanded Universe singlehandedly for me, but he certainly had a major hand in it.  Combine that bias with the premise--the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation meet the Gorn--which sounds like the stuff of fan fiction, and there's really not much to lure me here.

However, I came across a softcover copy at Half Price Books for $2.00 and decided to take a chance.  Igor Krodey's paintings are beautiful, and there is an interesting behind-the-scenes feature at the end in which he shares some of his ideas for creating the look of the Gorn, from their physiology to cultural elements.  It might seem entirely unnecessary, but clearly Kordey's art benefited from the depth of his attention to detail.  It's a gorgeous volume to peruse; his likenesses of Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner are great, his battle scenes are epic and there is a great sense of scale and energy to every page.

Story-wise, The Gorn Crisis is fairly average stuff.  A militant segment of Gorn society has engineered a coup, hellbent on conquest, just as the Enterprise has arrived to see about recruiting the Gorn for the war against the Dominion (don't worry if you have no idea what that is; you just need to know that's why they're there).  Elsewhere, Commander Riker is working with a Klingon task force to shore up defenses in anticipation of a Dominion attack.  Naturally, the Klingon commander is disgraced and his crew restless.  Captain Picard's away team is taken hostage and Data has to save the day.

We've seen all these things before, and that's why The Gorn Crisis is disappointing.  This story exists for the express purpose of playing with Star Trek toys.  It doesn't actually have anything to say, though.  Science fiction in general, and Star Trek particularly, are at their best when they are used as allegories.  The only thought that seems to have gone into The Gorn Crisis is, "Wouldn't it be fun to see Klingons and Gorn fight?"  Thankfully there's Kordey's art to breathe some life into such an uninspired and vapid story.

View all my reviews

"Devil May Care" by Sebastian Faulks

The actual product looks a
lot better than this scan.
Devil May Care
Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming
Date of Publication: 28 May 2008
Cover Price: $24.95
278 pages

When I learned of this book in 2007 I was instantly excited.  A new Bond novel!  Then I learned that it was meant to be a continuation of Ian Fleming's original novel series, which I hadn't finished.  I wasn't willing to risk spoiling any of his novels, nor was I willing to break from my self-imposed restriction of reading only one Fleming Bond novel annually, so it wasn't until I finished Octopussy this summer that I was finally able to read Devil May Care without trepidation.

The first thing that catches anyone's attention is the odd writing credit, "writing as Ian Fleming."  Allegedly, Faulks did his best to conform to Fleming's legendary writing schedule: Spend a month writing in the morning, break for lunch, write some more in the afternoon and not revising a thing until the entire manuscript was finished.  So the question becomes: Other than writing on Fleming's schedule, what does "writing as Ian Fleming" actually mean?

I've never read any of Faulks's works so I can't say how representative of his style this novel is, but he clearly made an attempt to capture not just the ideas of an Ian Fleming Bond novel, but Fleming's style as well.  The literary Bond began life as a "blunt instrument" for the machinations of the Cold War.  He's resourceful without being an expert on every conceivable topic.  He's tough without being superhuman.  He's a recognizable person, unlike the cartoon that his cinematic counterpart has often been.  When I read Raymond Benson's Bond novels, published during Pierce Brosnan's tenure as 007, they felt like companion pieces to those four films.  I saw Brosnan in my head when reading them.  To Faulks's credit, when I read Devil May Care pictured the faceless yet recognizable Bond that I found in Fleming's pages.  From time to time, I did imagine Sean Connery or Daniel Craig delivering particular lines.

The premise is that Dr. Julian Gorner operates a global pharmaceutical business.  In true Ian Fleming fashion, Gorner also has a physical malady (his right hand is that of an ape) and his successful business is a front for a far more insidious endeavor.  Gorner's facilities are also hard at work producing heroin, in an effort to subvert social order through addiction.  On top of all that, as Bond learns through his investigation, Gorner has a plan in the offing to precipitate a nuclear war.

Faulks's plot is clearly in the Fleming mold; we immediately recall Dr. No's guano business in Jamaica used as a cover for tampering with U.S. rocket trials or Auric Goldfinger's smelting facilities being used to smuggle gold internationally.  He tries to do a bit too much, though, connecting events from Vietnam to 9/11 (implied, of course; never clearly stated, as the novel takes place in the 1960s).  Some of the connections in the novel make sense and serve the story well, but others are too much and smack of a glorified conspiracy theory.  I suppose that's the danger in writing a retro spy story.

Ultimately, Devil May Care is a well-intentioned, above-average read.  I think it could have used some tweaking, but it never breaks from the conventions established by Fleming.  The final act felt too recycled for my taste, and I could have done with less name-dropping of previous Bond stories and characters.  It might have been a bit much to bring in Felix Leiter, but Fleming himself was fairly shameless about inventing reasons to reunite Bond with his CIA pal so I give Faulks a pass here.  Rene Mathis is back, but not quite recognizable as the Mathis we met in Casino Royale.  This guy is more aloof and selfish; less the charming pseudo-mentor that he was in Fleming's novels.  Perhaps this was meant to tie into the cinematic Mathis of the Daniel Craig era.

Is it a mandatory addition to a Bond fan's library?  Hard to say.  I liked it more than, say, Moonraker but it's still a Bond novel not written by Ian Fleming.  The pace is brisk and at 278 pages it doesn't try to do too much.  Fleming always said his novels were meant to be consumed in a setting or two, likely on a train commute, and Devil May Care fits that kind of reading schedule.

Kudos, incidentally, to Rodrigo Corral and Mark Stutzman for their work on the U.S. hardcover release dust jacket design and illustration, respectively.  You may not be able to tell it from the cover art image I've posted here, but it's a nice looking design.

08 November 2010

Go Fish. I'll Stay Here.

I hate fishing.  Always have.  I hate baiting a hook with live worms because it seems odd to me to kill one animal to maybe catch another that I have every intention of then immediately releasing back into the water.  Plus, unlike artificial bait, the live ones squirm, making it all the likelier I'll injure myself.  I can't get mad at the worm, of course; I'd try to make the guy impaling me hurt himself, too.

Beyond this squeamishness, there's the fact I just don't care about fishing.  Committing oneself to a singular stationary place around a body of water doesn't do it for me.  It's not that I'm an impatient person that's the problem; it's that I'm entirely uninterested in the task of fishing.  I have no problem being in quiet isolation for hours on end.  It probably hasn't helped that I've never been lucky with fishing.  Allow me to regale you with my last attempt, circa summer 2002, that serves as a perfect microcosm of my failed experience as a fisherman.

My brother was fairly excited to go fishing one summer afternoon and I decided I'd give it a go.  Just him and me; we'd never done that before.  Previously, there had always been someone older around supervising.  Enough years had passed, though, that we were long past that point in our lives.  He had gear enough to spare, so I grabbed a ballcap to keep out the sun and away we went.  I was somewhat whimsical when I selected my Brad Paisley cap, as he was riding high on "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)" at the time.  We headed off on a high note.  This time, I was gonna enjoy myself.

We trotted on over to a little pond nearby and set up some folding chairs.  The line on one of the rods was severely tangled, so my brother handed me the one that was ready to go--kindly enough, he baited it for me--and I was in the water.  It took him probably ten minutes to completely untangle his line and get it baited, during which I had failed to elicit so much as a ripple from a fish aware of my bait.  Oh, well, I figured; it was late afternoon and maybe they just weren't biting.  Fine with me; I could just chill in the foldout chair for a bit.

If you don't see where this story is headed by now, I'd advise you to stay away from Scooby-Doo; those plot twists might blow your mind.  Within a minute of casting his line, my brother had a bite.  He reeled in a bass, I believe, roughly about 8-10" in length.  To his credit, he said nothing to me about it.  He just unhooked it and returned it to the water and began to bait his hook.

A few moments later, I had one.  I reeled it in, and knowing I was too inexperienced at actually catching a fish to know how to handle it properly, Adam intervened once I had it out of the water and spared me the hassle of removing it.  I figure his graciousness had earned a moment of humor so I (jokingly) complained, "You know what pisses me off?  I was in the water a good ten minutes before you, and you've already had one by the time I got this one."

Without hesitating, my brother added, "Mine was bigger, too."

What could I do but laugh?  Mercifully, rain began to fall about fifteen minutes after that--during which he'd caught a second fish and re-tangled his line--so we called it.  I haven't picked up a rod since, and frankly can't imagine doing so unless I find myself in some kind of strange post-zombie survival situation.

Calling all Disney DVD Owners

I've written about it before, but going into the holiday season I feel compelled to once more call your attention to the Disney Movie Rewards program.  Inside nearly every Disney DVD and Blu-ray manufactured since October 2006, and many CD's from Disney Records, is a Magic Rewards Code.  You go to the Disney Movie Rewards ("DMR" henceforth if I get lazy) website, sign up for free and enter your codes.  It doesn't matter if they say they're expired; Disney has extended all codes to remain currently active.

Once you've entered your codes, you can begin redeeming them for items.  If you've got Disney collectors on your shopping list, you might get away with snagging a gift or two they won't expect since the majority of these items are exclusive to DMR (told you I'd get lazy).

The real reason I'm flagging your attention now, though, is that there are a few different ways you can redeem your points for a charitable donation.  Some DVD codes are only worth 75 points, but most are worth 100; Blu-ray Discs are worth 125.  For 100 points, you can do one of the following:

  • Donate a Disney DVD to Gifts in Kind International.  Bonus: Disney will match this donation, so you're actually giving two Disney DVDs!  (limit 10 redemptions, for a total of 20 DVDs)
  • Donate a child's tote bag to Gifts in Kind International. (limit 5 redemptions)
  • Donate a dog food bowl to a dog adoption organization.  Way too many adults seem to think a pet is an accessory and not an animal and so those puppy Christmas gifts quickly appear at shelters in January.  You may not be able to adopt Fido yourself, but at least you can see that the adoption agency doesn't have to buy a bowl for him. (limit 2 redemptions)
  • Donate a toy to Toys for Tots.  Surely you know about this program by now.  You've already bought the Disney DVD.  Cash in the points from it and donate without even leaving your home. (limit 2 redemptions)
  • Also, for 175 points, you can donate a tree seedling to a school by way of the Arbor Day Foundation. (limit 3 redemptions)
There are some other reasons to join DMR if you haven't already.  If you redeem a code from a Disney title that includes a Digital Copy, you'll also unlock the movie to stream directly from your Disney account.  Nice if you're on the go and don't want to carry discs with you to entertain yourself or others, so long as you can find a WiFi signal.

Sometimes, Disney offers exclusive bonuses to DMR members on a certain title.  For instance, if you redeem a Magic Code from Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, you get an exclusive charm bracelet with a Tinker Bell charm.  Redeem Beauty and the Beast and you get a rose charm; later in the month when The Search for Santa Paws is released, that code will get you a Santa Paws charm for the set.  Shipping is $2.85 each, which really isn't bad.  You've got until the end of January to redeem and request these.

If you're not into trinkets, there's still a reason to join: coupons.  Disney has been very generous to its consumers with coupons in the last couple of years.  Take the Toy Story Blu-ray releases from this year, for instance.  DMR offered a printable manufacturer's coupon for Toy Story and Toy Story 2 worth $5.00 per title.  Since many retailers had already reduced them in price the week they went on sale, we wound up only paying $6.99 apiece for them after discounts and applying the coupons.  Each of those included a free movie ticket to see Toy Story 3 in the theaters, so for $13.98 we bought both of the first movies and got to see the third.  Disney also offered an $8.00 coupon for Toy Story 3 Blu-ray Combo Pack, good during its first week of release (if you hurry, you can still get one but you have to use it today).

Even if you don't have a Blu-ray player yet, the combo pack includes the movie on DVD as well as a Digital Copy you can add to your PC and transfer to your iPod or other portable device.  You'll also unlock a streaming version of it in your Disney account that you can watch without even downloading a thing! Did I mention we got a combined 375 points from the three Blu-ray purchases, plus another 100 for our movie tickets from seeing Toy Story 3?  That's $20 in coupon savings, 475 points added to our account and we got to see a movie for free; all for just buying some titles we wanted anyway and checking in on DMR.

Disney is already offering a $10.00 coupon for the forthcoming Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 Blu-ray Combo Pack (4-disc set including both movies on Blu-ray and on DVD).  All you have to do is enter the UPC code from any previous edition of either movie and you'll unlock the coupon to print.  Better hurry to use it, though; it releases on 30 November and the coupon expires 4 December.  (Notice: I've linked to it on Amazon, but you can't use the coupon online.  Go figure.)

Early word has it that Target will price this at $31.99 during that time, meaning the coupon drops your purchase to $21.99.  And guess what?  Then you'll have 125 more DMR points to use for another donation with 25 leftover.  The circle of giving continues.

06 November 2010

Tis the Season for Selfishness and Judgment

While browsing Amazon the other night, I happened to glance at the Customer Discussions: Gold Box Forum and I saw a topic titled, "What's a good Christmas gift idea for an 11 year old who has everything?"  I don't know why I felt the need to see what some of the ideas were, since there are no 11 year old boys who have everything on my shopping list.  I confess part of me just wanted to know what, in her world, constituted "[having]" everything."  Here's what the original poster ("OP" for those in the know about forum slang) had to say:
My son has everything. He has an iPod, a DS, Xbox 360, Wii, and we even fixed up one of our old PC's so he has his own computer. 
I am at a loss for what to get him this year. His birthday was in August and he got all of the video games that he wanted. He's got a new bike and he's not really athletic so any other sporting goods aren't an option. I just don't know what to get him. Any ideas? I'm willing to spend up to around $200 for his gift.
WWUJD? (What Would
Uncle Jesse Do?)
I don't even care to guess how many posters have replied by saying she should take her son to volunteer at a soup kitchen (apparently, they saw that episode of Full House and it stuck with them).  Just as many have slammed the mother for lavishing her kid with so many high priced electronics.  Some are appalled by what they perceive to be a lack of humility; others, by a materialistic obsession.  A minority have suggested things like a handheld GPS device so that mom and son can take up geocaching (whatever the hell that is).  I personally suggested taking the kid to a Christmas-themed play or ballet, like "A Christmas Carol."  She can even include a new suit and make dressing up for the occasion part of the gift.  Experiences are more important than things, but that's just my philosophy.

This, of course, got me to wondering about the implications of that family.  $200.00 for the "big gift" may well be more than a lot of families can afford for all their kids this year.  I personally know a guy who drops $500 apiece on his two kids every Christmas, and he's firmly lower-middle class.  Everyone's budget and priorities are different.  Knowing the retail prices of the devices the OP mentioned adds up to a hefty sum, but we don't know which models he has (an iPod Shuffle is $49; an iPod Touch is $249), or when he received them, or that they all came from mom.  Conceivably, a grandparent gave the X-Box for his last birthday, an aunt, the Wii in 2008 and so on.

You could give 249 McDoubles to the
hungry instead of buying this.
More importantly, we don't know anything about the kid himself.  The temptation is to say, "No 11 year old needs all that," and that it can only lead to him appreciating nothing in life and becoming a narcissistic monster one cold pizza away from becoming a serial killing sociopath.  Maybe.  But I've been a kid once, and I know several.  There's simply no causal relationship between how many things a kid owns and whether or not he appreciates them.  I've known kids who had everything under the sun that were clearly headed for that life of egocentricity, but I've also known many who genuinely understood how fortunate they were and fostered a sincere respect for it.  Conversely, I've known kids who treasured their few belongings and others who took such poor care of the few things they owned that I had a moral problem wasting the money on things for them to trash within a week.

What is it about us, then, as a society that we feel entitled to pass such judgments based on so little information about someone we don't know?  One poster in the thread attributed it to mere jealousy, and I think that's partly it.  Surely, it's got to rub a lot of people the wrong way to read something that smacks of frivolity during a time of such economic hardship.  There are millions of people anxious about whether they'll even still have a home for Christmas, much less a tree in the living room with gifts under it.  To know some 11 year old kid will be adding yet another $200 video game console to his massive collection of them just feels insensitive.

On the other hand, I'm of the mind that I do not begrudge anyone their good fortune (unless they mistake their being lucky along the way for evidence that they're a better person than those less fortunate, in which case I despise them and wish I could be there when the truth is revealed to them).  For all I know, this woman singlehandedly has kept a business afloat that employs a hundred people who, thanks to her efforts, are not among those who will go to bed tonight afraid this will be their last month as a homeowner. Maybe she's a researcher trying to cure Crohn's disease.  Then again, maybe she's nothing more than a trophy wife and her husband is one of the villains of the economic collapse who managed to get away with murder.  Since I don't know any of this to be true, I don't feel entitled to pass judgment on her.  To be honest, even if I did know any of that to be true, I still wouldn't feel qualified to pass judgment.

Actually, it's been my experience with Crohn's that has sharpened that philosophy.  There are quite a lot of foods I've had to give up, including salads (leafy greens are a recipe for a complete blockage) and chili (hurts way too much).  My wife has shied away from eating those things around me, trying to be sensitive.  It's sweet of her, but misguided.  The bottom line is, I can either eat or not eat a given food whether the entire world eats it or not.  What good does it do me for her to not eat a salad in front of me?  How would a less fortunate family benefit from that 11 year old boy not getting a $200 video game console for Christmas?

Several people have insisted she should donate the $200 to a charity, or have the son spend the money on things for Toys for Tots, etc.  We don't know anything about the family's charitable giving from her original post (though it is later stated that they do, in fact, make a point of charitable donations).  I would posit that we are not entitled to demand she, or anyone, make such a contribution.  I personally am reluctant to donate more than a dollar or so at a time to any given charity because I frankly am too suspicious that it will ever actually manifest itself in a meaningful way.  I've done the odd good deed here or there, but I consider it vulgar to cite any examples here and anyway, I resent being made to feel that I should prove my generosity to anyone.  I suspect most of us feel the same way, and yet there's clearly a sense that if you're going to tell us how many expensive things your son already owns, you owe us a donation slip to offset your selfishness.


05 November 2010

Open Letter to the President: Why Spock Wasn't Captain

Dear President Obama,

I know you're a Trekker.  I know you know you've been likened to Mr. Spock by fans and critics alike, and I think the connotation is fairly accurate.  Spock's every decision was guided by logic.  He saw the big picture, and was not afraid to champion unpopular positions if they were the right decisions to make.  Surely the character had as much to do with Leonard Nimoy's mailbag as his performance; Spock has resonated with fans from the beginning.  A guy like that is comforting and inspiring, in his own way.  Note the qualifier.

 Five Star Trek Captains
James T. Kirk had to be the captain.  Had to be.  No matter how much more about things Spock knew, no matter how respected he was, the simple truth is that leadership is only effective if it is dynamic and engaging.  You don't need me to tell you about the difference between being on the bridge and being in the captain's chair; there are only four living people in the entire world who've sat where you sit in the Oval Office.  It's a very exclusive club.  Interestingly, there are only five actors in the entire world who know what it's like to have played a captain on a Star Trek TV series.*

Five Living Presidents
It's always been asked just why Spock needs Kirk at all, that if he's the one offering the important insight, why he wouldn't be better suited for command than the guy he's constantly having to guide.  What we saw, time and again, was that when push came to shove the crew didn't respond to Spock with the same passion that Kirk inspired in them.  Kirk wasn't always right.  He was impetuous, impatient and sometimes too quick to answer with a phaser instead of his communicator.  In real life, those are all traits that few would seek in their president.  I know I personally admire your demeanor and in a lot of ways you're the perfect man for the job.  But.

If the midterm election has shown anything, it's that the crew is restless.  It may be logical to be patient, but it isn't human nature.  Many Americans are at their own personal breaking point.  It's impossible to earn overtime pay on government benefits, so it's impossible to account for the unexpected expenses of daily life.  The economists can reappraise the statistics all they want: until the average American has a job in which he or she feels secure, and we stop seeing "For Sale" signs and start seeing "Now Open" signs, no one is going to believe that things are improving.  It may not be logical, but it is human nature.

The good news, Mr. President, is that you're not a TV character.  We'd have been put off by Mr. Spock all of a sudden becoming the gung ho captain, but you can do it.  I understand that your ambition to create a new paradigm for our national political conversation.  Where is the logic in staying on the high road if no one has followed you?  You can do it as an individual, but a leader with no followers is not a leader.  It's time to switch modes.

I hope those are notes
on leadership.
The pundits tell us that the majority of your 2008 supporters didn't vote in the midterm elections because they were impatient with your progress.  That too many of the programs you championed as a candidate haven't materialized, and that those that have have been too sluggish to be satisfying.  The good news is, that anger means there's still support out there for those programs.  You're not going to make them happen by presenting them as the next items on your agenda.  You're not going to have an easy time of things with the Republicans in Congress.

You can still get things done by doing what every effective president before you has done: go to the people.  Start with asking, "Do you remember when you told me you wanted [insert concept]?  Let's do it.  You tell your legislators to craft a bill and I'll sign it."  Present it not as a process, but as an action to be taken.  If it turns out that the nature of those programs needs to be different than originally envisioned, so be it.  We need an energy system that liberates us from foreign nations, reduces pollutants and puts Americans to work.  That needs to be the priority of this administration, because it's the tri-fecta.  Three birds with one stone.  You can't do it sounding flat like Mr. Spock.  You've...got! to begin...to sound! like the captain!  It's the only logical thing to do.

*I'm not counting Chris Pine as a Star Trek captain, because he's only got one movie under his belt and hasn't had to be the lead actor on an ongoing TV series.  Also, is it just me or is it weird that one captain wore a blue uniform (Archer) and three wore red (Picard, Sisko, Janeway) and in that picture from the White House, three presidents were wearing blue ties (Mr. Obama and both Bushes) and two wore red (Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton).  Only Captain Kirk wore yellow.  And he totally rocked it.