Saturday, April 24, 2010

White Elephant Reminder

To be posted on Saturday, 24 April:

Hey buds. Just a reminder that submissions for the White Elephant Blogathon are due in a week from today- that's Saturday, May 1. So if you're interested in participating this year, make sure you shoot me an e-Mail by then.

For more information, here's my original announcement. Thank you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saving Gracefully

Tax returns are due tomorrow, and while for some people this portends a healthy return check, I’m not so lucky. For the third year in a row, I’ve owed a good chunk of change to Uncle Sam (and his stately progeny, Cousin Ted). I’m hoping this will be the final year that this will happen to me- writing for Screengrab was a blast, but they didn’t take out any taxes from my check, leading me to grit my teeth every April 15.

Being bled again this year- funny, $600 in taxes doesn’t feel like that much until you have to pay it all at once- has naturally strengthened by resolve to save money whenever possible. But unlike when I was living alone and I could simply rely on Netflix and the Columbus Public Library system to keep me entertained and the good folks at Maruchan to feed me, now that I’ve got Ang and the Offspring it’s gotten a little more complicated. After all, while you can tell a kid until you’re blue in the face that when you buy Frosted Flakes you’re mostly paying for the tiger on the box, there’s just something about the young boy’s taste buds that won’t allow store brands of their favorite products to pass muster.

And it’s more than just the finickiness of a child’s eating habits- it just feels right for a family to sit down and enjoy a full meal, both as a wrap-up to the day and as a bonding ritual that allows everyone to get together at least once a day as a unit. And when you’re having a honest-to-goodness dinner, you want something good, not just something edible. It’s not just about filling your stomachs- it’s about relaxing and enjoying some time together. At least, that’s what I like my dinners to be.

So how to reconcile my goal of saving money with my desire to provide my family with tasty, nutritious dinners? The most obvious change would be to make the switch to store brands in some cases. Of course, Tony the Tiger and pals will still find their way into my grocery cart, but in the cases with many staples of my diet- pasta, for example- the store brands work just as well for our purposes as the name brands do. In addition, I’m trying to be keep a closer eye on the sales and promotions at the supermarket and, if necessary, do some quick mental computations to determine the best value. This can be tricky, as the general assumption is that the larger sizes tend to have a lower per-unit cost, but this isn’t always the case. For example, a few weeks ago Kroger was selling a pack of eight Pop Tarts on sale for $1.88, and a box of twelve for almost twice that amount. So much for conventional wisdom.

Perhaps the biggest way we’ve been trying to cut down on food expenses is to start looking for homemade alternatives to restaurant or carry-out food. Naturally, there are always going to be times when there’s no alternative but to eat out. Now that spring is here, the Offspring is busy with sports, so whenever he’s got a game there really isn’t time for anything BUT carry-out. However, if you’re serious about saving money, you can’t let restaurant eating become your default choice just because you don’t feel like cooking.

One thing we’ve tried lately is to overhaul our weekly pizza dinner. Whereas we once relied on pizza-delivery chains to take care of the meal, recently we’ve started buying the ingredients at the grocery store and preparing the pizzas at home. This is easier than one might think- pre-made crusts are tasty and reasonably priced, and pizza sauce, cheese, and toppings don’t cost a whole lot, unless of course you’re topping your pizzas with expensive meats and hoity-toity veggies. As for us, we tend to stick with the old reliable pepperoni (or just cheese for the Offspring).

After my last ingredients run, I itemized the cost of preparing two pizzas, one pepperoni and one cheese. Here’s what I came up with:

Pre-made 12 inch pizza crusts (2) - $5
12 oz. mozzarella cheese - $3
12 oz. pizza sauce - $1
½ pack (~50) slices pepperoni - $1.50
Total - $10.50

Of course, this doesn’t factor in the smaller costs such as spices, butter or olive oil to brush on the crusts, and gas for the oven, but those would take the cost up to $11, tops. Not bad at all for two pizzas.

So, you ask, how did they turn out? Not to sound immodest, but pretty darn good, especially for a non-professional cook like myself. The Offspring was especially fond of the cheese pizza, eating an unheard-of-for-him four slices. And it even passed the all-important next-day test- after all, any pizza worth its sauce will still be good after a night in the fridge. Now, I wouldn’t claim that my homemade pizzas were as good as the ones we order from the local delivery joints. Then again, those usually run us about twice the cost of the homemade ones, and they certainly aren’t twice as good as the homemade kind. And considering that (a) it takes less time to have a pizza on the table when you make it yourself than when you order one, and (b) the Offspring can help out it he wants, I think I’ll keep on baking my pizzas at home, thank you very much.

To that end, I’ve been puzzling out ways to make our pizzas even better. Maybe next time I’ll pick up some provolone to lace in with the mozzarella, or some onions or peppers to add some zing to the toppings. In addition, I’m trying to find other restaurant favorites I can learn to whip up at home. Anybody know of some good (and fairly simple) Chinese recipes? Because that would be awesome.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

All Day Geekout '10

And if the Cannes announcement didn’t satisfy your thirst for awesomeness, we’ve only got two more days until this year’s installment of the Ohio 24-Hour Science Fiction Marathon. Ever since I started going to this back in 2002, the Marathon has become one of the highlights of my moviegoing year. As we speak, Marathon guru Bruce Bartoo is hard at work putting the finishing touches on the event, which promises, as ever, to be a blast.

As any veteran attendee can tell you, the movies themselves are only part of the fun, with the incidental stuff- contests, favorite trailers, traditions both official and unofficial- really making the event one-of-a-kind (this explains why the midnight-to-noon “Half-a-thon” just isn’t the same). Still, you can’t overlook the movies themselves. Let’s begin with this year’s “premieres,” which are more plentiful than in most years:

This one probably intrigues me the most, being the title that may fit the “brainy SF” profile best here. Although its popularity among the torrent crowd doesn’t necessarily mean anything, it could go over nicely with this group. Or not, you never know.

Documentaries tend to be hit-and-miss with the Marathon audience, but this was well-received at SXSW last month, so this could be a winner.

On the basis of The American Astronaut, it’s hard to say whether Cory McAbee will have appeal to a group raised on George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry. May be too culty for the room, but I’m down with that.

These, on the other hand, are more their kind of cult objects. Gehara looks to be in the vein of Big Man Japan, which played a few years back, and The Lost Skeleton Returns is a follow-up to Marathon favorite The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, which of course gave us the immortal line, “Aliens? Us? Is this one of your Earth jokes?” And hey, it'd have to be better than Don't Ask, Don't Tell, right?

However, on the basis of my admittedly limited research, I’m guess this could be the biggest audience hit out of all the premieres. It’s cyberpunk-y enough to scratch that itch, without the Hollywood polish that softens the edge so many fans of the genre tend to enjoy. Then again, what do I know?

And now, the oldies. I’m surprised by the lack of canonical genre classics this year, but some of these should be fun, anyway.

Kind of a “duh” choice, and indeed Bruce said he booked this one wayyyyyyyy in advance. I’ve only seen this one once and couldn’t resist comparing it to 2001, but I’m curious to see if I’ll be able to watch it without thinking of Kubrick the entire time. I’m a little disappointed, however, that Bruce wasn’t able to pull off his proposed Marathon theme, “2010: The Year We Show Contact.” Not that I’m a fan of the Zemeckis film, but it just would’ve been too perfect.

Normally, there’s a single slot for a Toho classic at the Marathon, but this year Bruce decided to double up, so here we are. GvKG is an obvious choice, but Battle in Outer Space somewhat less so, less of a monster movie than a space opera done Toho-style. Still, it should be pretty fun, which is more than I can say for…

… which represents the kind of cheeseball I wouldn’t dream of watching anywhere other than the Marathon. I suppose the only logical reactions are (a) does Stratten get naked?, and (b) hey, at least it’s short.

Not sure why they’d book these, especially Star Trek, seeing as how they just came out last year. I don’t feel the need to watch either one again- can’t imagine Moon will do well with this crowd, especially considering that the ones who would be into probably saw it already. So depending on how these are scheduled I may either duck out and sneak into buy a ticket for something else at the Drexel (like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the new Egoyan), take a nap if they’re in the middle of the night, or go home altogether.

Finally, my bud Mike Olenick will be screening his remake of the Marathon perennial Spaceboy this year, in conjunction with the original. Now, that’s the kind of Marathon goodness I can get behind.

The Ohio 24-Hour Science Fiction Marathon will run from noon on Saturday, 17 May until sometime around noon the next day. Tickets will be available at the door.

Cannes 2010 Lineup, My Thoughts On

So the Cannes competition schedule came out today, and the first thing I notice is how small it is. After all, sixteen movies seems like a pretty dinky bunch for Cannes. But then I remember that nowadays, there is always at least a handful of movies selected after the initial announcement, so that gives me hope for some enticing future choices. Because, really, this isn’t all that impressive.
Then again, last year brought us a much-vaunted “All-Star Cannes” (Haneke! Loach! Almodovar! Tsai!), and many of those turned out to be fairly disappointing. I mean, Basterds was undeniably awesome, and despite- or perhaps because of- its nature, Antichrist was a worthy entry in competition. But in retrospect, I wouldn’t make any claims for Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, or the half of Chan-wook Park’s Thirst I bothered to watch. Even Haneke’s Palme winner, The White Ribbon, was no great shakes.

So in this way, it’s good that there are some unknown quantities in the mix this year. Of course, new films by onetime Palme winners Abbas Kiarostami and Mike Leigh are good news, especially since they’ve foregone Cannes in recent years. And there are a few other world cinema “usual suspects” in there as well- Rachid Bouchareb, Lee Chang-dong, Bertrand Tavernier. Then there’s the inclusion of Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, whose transcendent awesomeness should counterbalance the suckiness that Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and Doug frickin’ Liman bring to the table. And despite his flagrant inconsistency as a filmmaker, it’s always interesting to see what Takeshi Kitano is doing.

However, one of my favorite aspects of Cannes-watching is the element of surprise. Think about the 2007 fest, in which Croisette regulars like the Coen brothers, Wong Kar-Wai, Emir Kusturica and others were bested by a little-known Romanian named Cristian Mungiu. In the end, it’s all about the movies themselves, and even if I don’t think 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was the best film in competition, it was certainly one of them, and I have no problem with the jury throwing a bone at quality instead of simply wanting to give a makeup Palme to an old favorite, like what happened last year.

Anyway, I expect that sometime in the next few weeks, we’ll get at least three or four more competition selections, including perhaps one more American film (dare I hope for Tree of Life?). But as it stands, here’s what we’ve got right now:

Mathieu AMALRIC – Tournée
Xavier BEAUVOIS – Des Hommes et Des Dieux
Rachid BOUCHAREB – Hors la Loi
Alejandro GONZALEZ INARRITU – Biutiful
Mahamet-Saleh HAROUN – Un Homme Qui Crie
IM Sang-soo – Housemaid
Abbas KIAROSTAMI – Copie Conforme
Takeshi KITANO – Outrage
LEE Chang-dong – Poetry
Mike LEIGH – Another Year
Doug LIMAN – Fair Game
Sergei LOZNITSA – You, My Joy
Daniele LUCHETTI – La Nostra Vita
Nikita MIKHALKOV – Burnt by the Sun 2
Bertrand TAVERNIER – La Princesse de Montpensier
Apichatpong WEERASETHAKUL – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Again, not the starriest Cannes lineup ever, but there should be at least a handful of winners. This is Cannes, after all. And even if the main competition disappoints, there’s still new movies from Hong Sang-soo (Ha Ha Ha), Cristi Puiu (Aurora), Lodge Kerrigan (Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs)), and Jean-Luc frickin’ Godard (Film Socialisme) playing in the sidebars.

Normally, I’d try to make some half-assed predictions about which of the films would go over well with the Tim Burton-headed jury, but considering that the lineup is almost certainly incomplete, I’ll refrain from that now, except to say two things:

1. Wouldn’t it be awesome if Burton and his crew- including Kate Beckinsale, Benicio Del Toro, and Victor Erice- were gobsmacked by Joe’s offbeat whimsical fantasy, and

2. If by some chance Amalric’s film turns out to be awesome- I haven’t heard great things about his previous efforts, but you never know- and he ends up winning a prize, I hope he finds time to bust out some funky dance moves onstage:

The Cannes Film Festival runs from 12 May to 23 May. Watch this space for more announcements.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

It's... the Return of the Curse of the White Elephant Blogathon!

A little over three years ago, Ben Lim and his buds over at Lucid Screening came up with one of the more entertaining blog phenomena I’ve seen- the White Elephant Blogathon. It was based on the concept of a White Elephant gift exchange, in which participants will each bring one gift, usually something less than desirable, and draw names to see who goes home with which gift. Ben’s inspiration was to do the same for movies- you submit one movie, then write about another blogger’s submission. Sometimes you’ll end up with one that’s surprisingly good- in 2008 I drew Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon- and other times, well, not so much .

Sadly, Ben wasn’t able to continue the tradition this year. However, he was gracious enough to accept my offer to take over hosting duties. Due to being tied up with the Muriels and other stuff, I wasn’t able to get the Blogathon up and running in time for April Fool’s Day, the date Ben has hosted it for the past three years. Instead, I’m going to be holding it a little over two months from now, on June 15.

Why June 15, you ask? Aside from giving everyone enough time to submit their choices then procure the titles that I’ve selected for them, I thought it just seemed like a normal, boring-sounding day, one that could stand to be livened up a little by something like this. Besides, should it go well this year, I’m hoping to move it back to the original date next year.

Naturally, I’ll be sticking to the rules that Ben has laid down in previous years:

1) Submit the title of a movie that you want someone else to review (preferably something available via Netflix).
2) Review the movie that you get assigned and post the review on June 15th.
3) Have fun!

So if you’re interested in taking part this year- and you know who you are- send your submission to me at no later than May 1. Please don’t submit through the comments section- I’d like to keep this year’s selections a secret if possible. And if you’d like to know more about the White Elephant Blogathon, visit your local library. Or, failing that, leave a message in the comments box.

See you on June 15th! And spread the word, will ya? The more the merrier, says I.

Fill in the blank: “Chaos ______.”

Here's the hint from this month's Criterion Newsletter:

I’m not sure I’ll buy this one, mostly because I’ll have a hard time convincing myself to watch it again (link to Muriels writeup). Nonetheless, I support the inclusion of Antichrist in the Criterion Collection. For all the hype coming out of Cannes last year, I think a lot of people dismissed von Trier’s latest as a wallow in extreme violence. And that’s a pity, because while the film is graphic, von Trier also explores some rather thorny themes that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, and does so while making one of the most convulsively beautiful (thank you, Andre Breton) films of the past decade. Also, it’s bleedin’ scary. Anyway, I’d much rather see the CC take on movies like this than the likes of Benjamin Button, although I certainly understand the mercenary impulses behind their releasing the latter. Still- woohoo!

Unhappy Motoring

OK, so I’ve been away for a while, which seems to be the typical way things work around here during the month or so after the Muriels. What can I say- I’ve been swamped lately, and I just haven’t had a lot of energy to keep updating the blog. Sorry about that, folks. And though I’d like to say that what got me to come back was the opportunity to write about a movie that was just too good not to share with the rest of you, the truth is that my motivation for this post is an inspiration as old as blogging itself- namely, the chance to write about something that pisses me off. If nothing else, I figure this might cleanse the palate in anticipation of more substantial writing that I hope will come in the near future.

So… what’s burning my brisket nowadays? In short, it’s those drivers on the highway who won’t scoot over so that others can enter the flow of traffic. Don’t you hate that? Think about it- you’ve just gotten on the on-ramp and are trying to accelerate to 65 mph. Sometimes, that’s a tricky proposition- there might be a steep incline, a sharp bend, multiple entrances to the ramp that need to merge into one before the cars hit the freeway. Heck, every once in a while it’ll be two or even three of these things. In short, you want to bring your car up to highway speed so that you won’t slow down everyone else.

Yet these idiots just mosey along in the far-right lane, not thinking about everyone who’s trying to enter. They cruise along at full speed like they’re the only ones on the road. And yes, I realize that technically, the drivers who are already on the highway have the right-of-way. But you know what? It’s called courtesy. It’s one thing when it’s rush hour and all lanes are filled with cars so that there really isn’t anywhere you can move to so that others can get in. I can understand that. It’s when no one else is around that this behavior annoys the hell out of me.

Take, for example, the humanitarian I encountered last night whilst trying to hop on I-670. It was 9:30 PM, so the roads weren’t exactly jam-packed. So there I am, trying to speed up my not-exactly-new car to enter the highway. As I approach the straightaway portion of the ramp, I see this guy in my rear-view mirror, speeding forward like nothing’s the matter. As a way of letting him know that I plan on merging with his lane (which was my only choice in this situation), I hit my left-turn signal. But he doesn’t move. What ends up happening then is that I scoot over into the shoulder and lean on the horn to express my displeasure.

So what does God's gift to the gene pool do next? He flips me the bird.

Really, fucko? REALLY? So it’s not enough that you nearly sent me careening into a concrete barrier (I’m not exaggerating) simply because you felt the need to stand your ground- how very Alpha Male of you!- but then you’ve got the nerve to fly the bird at me simply because I got in your way? That just won’t do, bud. It’s bad enough when you lack the courtesy to accommodate your fellow motorists, but when you more or less broadcast your pride in being discourteous- well, you just crossed the Curtis line, dickhead.

Coming soon on Things That Piss Paul Off: guys who can’t be bothered to lift the toilet seat in public restrooms. Seriously dudes, that’s just nasty.