Friday, September 30, 2011

Playground Time!

Piano Movers

The Halloween Calendar

At her house, Mom always put up a hand-made themed calendar every month, so she's decided to keep the tradition alive at our house. Yesterday, she and Penelope made a very spooky, Halloweeny calendar for October. Mom hung it on the wall by the front door so Penelope could see it.

Unfortunately, that also means she can reach it. Last night while we were watching Top Shot and Mom and Dad were asleep, Derrick noticed that Penelope was up to something sneaky. I went over to her to discover that she'd taken almost every single number off the calendar. Worse--I discovered with my shin first after I knelt on the rug beside her--there were green thumb tacks all over the floor.

"Sorry, Mommy," she told me, the way she does, "sorry."

Together, we rebuilt the calendar. To be honest, I think she had so much fun doing it the first time with Grandma that she wanted to do it again with me. After I went back to the couch, she apparently added a finishing touch that I didn't notice until this morning.

When she woke up, I asked her, "Who put this lion on the calendar?"

Penelope answered, "Me," and then explained, "That's Mufasa when he was a baby."

Derrick later commented, "He was so manly, he was born with a mane!"

My new book!

I finished the new book I started in August last night. I'm so excited about it. I feel like it's probably the best, most marketable thing I've ever written. I think writing movie reviews has improved my story-concocting skills because I've realized recently that several of my stories were missing key elements essential for success.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Crazy Dream

I had this incredibly bizarre and vivid dream last night. I was a teacher in Appalachia played by Margo Martindale, and the principal (played by James Caan trying to do a Southern accent) was expressing his concerns to me. It seems I was teaching a sex-ed class, and he was concerned because parents were complaining that I was teaching their children filth.

I said, "Mr. Carver, I'm doing God's work. Do you know what those children think? Half of those students in that class told me a girl can't get pregnant the first time she has sex. Don't you think they deserve the truth?"

He was like, "The issue here is that parents say you're corrupting the children with your liberal sexual agenda."

And then I had this really shocking line, "But Mr. Carver, you don't realize. I'm a nun."

He said, "Why aren't you wearing a habit?"

I said, "The real question is--why are you?"

And then the camera zoomed out and we saw that he was dressed like a nun.

Then I woke up.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fall Movie Diary: Moneyball

Date: Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Time: 6:30 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick
Trivia: A water pipe in our yard broke today, and we had to call the plumber. What was I worried about? Once we paid the plumber, would we have enough money to go to the movie tonight? (I’m crazy.) Mom noticed the water pressure was low in the sink today. Then Derrick came home and saw water running all over the street. I followed him out into the yard, then couldn’t find him. Mom told me, “He’s down there on the ground, poor thing!” I spotted him lying face down, half in the driveway, half in the yard. For some reason, I thought that he was weeping in despair, but actually, he was struggling to turn off the water.
Food: Large Icee (mixed cherry and blue raspberry)
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Bennett Miller

Quick Impressions:
This was the first movie I’ve seen this year that seems like a Best Picture contender. (Don’t get me wrong. I would not be shocked to see various Oscar nominations for Drive, Warrior, and, especially, The Help, but this felt like the type of film that usually gets a picture nod.)

Despite a premise that did not particularly intrigue me—I’m not a big baseball fan, though I do like cotton candy and ice cream sundaes served in little plastic baseball ball caps—Moneyballwas a pleasure to watch, consistently engaging, emotionally rich, and often amusing.

I had no idea the film would be so funny! My husband and I often found ourselves chuckling, sometimes out loud. (Of course, we were the only ones laughing. But then, there was only one other couple in the theater. They just didn’t seem as engaged as we were. They were sitting in the very back corner, though, so maybe they were engaged in something other than watching the movie.) We laughed pretty consistently throughout the film.

The humor arose naturally from the characters and situations rather than seeming contrived. Often, the minor characters acting in ensemble stole scenes from the principal actors. Even though Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and especially Philip Seymour Hoffman all turned in strong performances, I’d guess that what made the movie exceptional was Bennett Miller’s direction and a compelling screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorken.

The Good:
I have to confess that I didn’t really enjoy Bennett Miller’s previous success Capote, though I will acknowledge that it was a good film containing a great performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. (I just found it too depressing for my tastes. That’s all.) I really think that Hoffman gives the strongest performance in this film, too. His character, manager Art Howe, has relatively little significance and less screen time, but Hoffman has such talent, such intensity. He’s particularly marvelous in the scene in which Billy Beane and Pete Brand approach Howe in his office after making some key trades.

Hoffman’s just a great actor. I almost think this works to the film’s detriment, though. Brad Pitt is the lead, and his character dominates the story. I get the idea that you’re supposed to watch and think, Wow, Brad Pitt is awesome in this movie. This is his best performance yet. He should win an Oscar for sure.

I watched thinking, Hmm, Brad Pitt is pretty good, and then Philip Seymour Hoffman had his brief but lovely moments, reminding me, Wow, Philip Seymour Hoffman can act circles around everyone else in this cast. I don’t think he has a substantial enough role to get a supporting Oscar nomination for this film, though.

Don’t get me wrong. Brad Pitt does a good job. He has wonderful energy, and a fantastic sense of timing that enables him to pull of the comic aspects of his part with panache. And he’s also good in the dramatic scenes, conveying substantial anger, frustration, regret, anxiety, fear, hope—for the most part wordlessly.

I spent most of the movie asking myself four questions on an endless loop. Why does my sister think he’s not as cute as he used to be when I think his looks have improved with age? What is the real Billy Beane like? Who does his voice remind me of so much? (Brad Pitt—aha!—fromInglorious Basterds.) And, of course, Is it part of his character to walk around seeming perfectly satisfied with a bad haircut? It must be.

Billy Beane (at least the fictionalized version of him presented in this movie) is a pretty sympathetic, relatable guy, and the story of his efforts to reorganize the Oakland A’s into a winning team on a limited budget is definitely enhanced by increasingly long glimpses of Beane’s personal backstory, a history of painful disappointment and vague regret. (It’s interesting that the movie is based on a book by Michael Lewis who also wrote The Blind Side. Beane may find his own past angst-inducing, but who knows how he would feel if he’d had Michael’s Orr’s past! Of course, I imagine that Lewis took some literary license in depicting both protagonists.)

Beane’s nearly antagonistic relationship with almost all his workplace associates is as interesting as his unusual bond with Peter Brand and his fatherly love for his twelve-year-old daughter. (I was not as taken with her singing as he was, but the inclusion of her character showed an important aspect of his.)

The movie is not really about baseball. It’s also not really about the success of the Oakland A’s. It’s mostly about Billy Beane, a complicated guy who takes an interesting gamble.

Best Scene:
I liked the part near the end, when Peter Brand called Billy Beane into the replay room to show him some tape of a player trying to steal second base. This is one of the more contrived moments of the movie (which probably means it was a prominent element in Michael Lewis’s book), but it’s still awfully fun and rewarding to watch.

Most Oscar-worthy Moment:
I’d almost be surprised if Brad Pitt didn’t get an Oscar nomination, but I have to say that I wasn’t blown away by his performance. Pitt’s a good actor, one who probably hasn’t gotten as much recognition as he deserves (for acting, I mean). I liked him better here than in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and he got a nomination for that. I thought he was best in the scene in which he called Brand into his office and made several calls at once, trying to arrange some important trades. Even though he handled the emotive, silent, dramatic moments well, I preferred his more energetic moments during scenes where he balanced humor and anger, exhibiting Billy Beane’s charm. Jonah Hill is very good, too, but I can’t think of a particular moment from him that stands out.

If I were the one voting on Oscar nominations, I’d find this film particularly deserving in the picture, screenplay, and direction categories. (But of course, I haven’t seen a lot of other contenders yet.)

Best Surprise:
To me, the entire plot was a surprise because I don’t follow baseball. But I did like the way they showed the conclusion of the game Billy Beane went against his better judgment to come back and watch.

Best Scene Visually:
I didn’t really enjoy the way this movie worked visually. We got so many close-ups of spread sheets, computer screens, and TV monitors. It wasn’t a very pretty movie, though the cinematography seemed pretty good in the scenes involving actual people. (I liked the way many of the conversations were framed, for example.)

I did enjoy the scene in which Billy Beane takes a seat in his ex-wife’s house while waiting nervously for his daughter. The house seemed to swallow him up in its aggressive sense of tranquility. He looked like a minnow in a fish tank, squirming around uncomfortably, on some level aware that he’s probably being used as bait. I also found the scenery of Billy’s standard route when driving around during a game interesting. From what I could see, he always drove in the same areas.

The Performances:
Brad Pitt was good as Billy Beane. After watching some online footage of the actual Billy Beane, I’d say that Pitt nails his mannerisms, though he doesn’t come close to matching his accent, inflection, or appearance. Perhaps mimicry is not his intent, though. Pitt’s definitely easy to watch in this movie. He has an energy that’s almost infectious, a charismatic presence. And he plays his dramatic scenes in a low key way instead of being over-the-top, which seems appropriate for a brooding introvert. I’d say this is one of his better performances in recent years.

Jonah Hill also does some fine work as Peter Brand, a character markedly different from anyone I’ve seen Hill play before. Ordinarily, Hill brings a manic energy to his parts and plays a chatterbox, but as Brand, he’s much meeker and more thoughtful, striking a perfect balance of energy opposite Billy Beane. I always like Hill, and he’s very good here, a lot like the character in reverse in that he manages to make someone who doesn’t look very appealing on paper—a Yale graduate in economics who has a Plato poster above his bed and has for some reason gone into baseball—into a very sympathetic and likeable character. Brand is a character who is easy for the audience to trust. His motivations never seem selfish. He comes across as a very honest and lovably innocent person interacting with people who have egos much bigger and more easily bruised.

I’ve said before that Philip Seymour Hoffman gives the best performance of the movie as frustrated manager Art Howe, and I’m sticking with that. The fictionalized Howe is a frustrating and frustrated character, one who doesn’t seem to appreciate what Billy Beane is trying to do and definitely doesn’t appreciate the way he’s being treated as a manager. Hoffman brings a quiet intensity to the role. He doesn’t actively try to upstage anybody, but he definitely comes across as an actor who gives superior performances without trying as hard. He’s great here, but I don’t think the part is substantial enough to get him any Oscar attention for this film.

I loved the character of Scott Hatteberg, a guy who seems to think his career is over before Billy Beane shows up at his door. Chris Pratt does a nice job making Hatteberg somebody we can root for.

Robin Wright has incredibly little to do as Sharon, the mother of Beane’s twelve-year-old daughter, Casey, played by Kerris Dorsey with appropriate sweetness.

Some of the most convincing and entertaining performances in the movie come from the ensemble of men who play the expert baseball scouts, particularly Ken Medlock as Gary Fuson. Brent Jennings is also great as first base coach, Ron Washington.

The Negatives:
Brad Pitt spends an awful lot of time driving around in this movie, yet he never gets anywhere. I really like Peter Brand’s eloquently presented metaphor (even including visual aids) near the end of the movie, but I’m not sure that even the master manipulator of data can convince me that I’ve just seen the success story that he has.

I really appreciated how John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox (played by Arliss Howard) explained the resistance Beane had encountered from the scouts and other baseball officials. Henry’s shrewd analysis of the situation could apply to any field. It’s one of the easiest messages to take home from the film since the movie tells it to you directly. Still, I really see the baseball scouts’ point. Is baseball really about winning or is it about providing a sensory experience that wows the fans?

From a fan’s point of view, saying, “Remember the time we had that great winning streak,” is much less likely to produce vivid, gripping memories than, “Remember that time so-and-so hit the ball so hard he cracked the bat, and the ball soared up over the stadium, and the bat knocked out the catcher…” Statistics may help to win games, but it’s moments that impress fans. Saying an actor won an Oscar is less exciting than recalling a memorable moment in a great performance. Saying a poet won the Nobel Prize is less stirring than quoting some of his or her most evocative verses. If you ask the average person on the street who was our greatest president, you’re not going to get a bunch of statistics about tax reform. You’re going to hear over and over again that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and died for being such a heroic and controversial figure.

Sometimes winning isn’t enough. It’s how you play the game.

Maybe the problem with Moneyball’s fictionalized vision of Billy Beane is that he’s just kind of a boring guy. He wasn’t exciting to watch on the field as a player, and as a coach, he strives to make baseball as boring as possible, too. To be honest, I had a hard time connecting with the character. He projected such a sense of excitement and urgency when he was trying to manage others, but in his own life, he seemed to have a yawning void where excitement and meaning should have been.

We see throughout the movie that Beane’s personal choices in the past are helping to make his present choices for him. He seems tormented by regret. He feels like a loser and he really wants to win. The movie seems to suggest that Beane can resolve all his issues simply by changing his mindset. Forget winning. Forget losing. Just be satisfied, be content. But does this new mindset really bring any kind of resolution to Beane?

Ultimately, I think the movie is a bit frustrating because it doesn’t try to resolve anything. Then it tries to convince you that things are better when they’re unresolved, in soft focus, kind of boring. I don’t know that I believe it. Anthills and beehives are highly functional and models of efficiency, but few people pay millions of dollars for the privilege of standing around watching them.

Oh yes, and I was also confused by the inclusion of Robin Wright’s character (not to mention her lovably strange husband). How did Billy feel about Sharon? Why didn’t they stay together? Was her approval important to him? We have no idea, so why include her? Why cast such a prominent actress to play such a ghost of a role?

I really enjoyed Moneyball. I found it thoroughly engaging throughout, highly entertaining, and though ultimately not-quite-satisfying, still one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this fall. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this movie. (In fact, it’s probably better if you’re not.) Brad Pitt is good as Billy Beane, the script is fantastic, and the pacing is great. Often, the minor characters really shine, making the movie a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Simba at the Playground

Penelope's Favorite Movies

Based on how often she watches them, here are some of Penelope's favorite movies:

1. Tangled
2. Alice in Wonderland
3. Winnie the Pooh
4. A Bug's Life
5. Because of Winn-Dixie
6. 101 Dalmatians
7. Lady and the Tramp
8. Monsters Inc.
9. The Three Little Pigs Cartoons
10. Gremlins

She told me just now that her favorite movies were Tangled, Dumbo, and The Lion King. Definitely, she's obsessed with The Lion King right now, but she's only seen Dumbo once and seemed kind of upset by it, so I'm not sold on that.

Some Pictures from Swim Practice

Facebook Moments: Penelope Says

Grayson (making fun of Jane Foster as she kneels over the wounded Thor): Nooo! He was my only piece of research left, and he got hit by a robot!!!
September 17 at 9:02 pm

Penelope: (approaching Derrick with her plastic cutlass) This is a nice sword, Daddy. He won't hurt you.
September 18 at 12:54 pm

Penelope (showing Derrick a photograph): Here's me and Mommy and Bubby. Daddy, you weren't born yet.
September 18 at 5:59 pm

Penelope (in the bath tub): Where's my fahhhhder? Where's my fahhhhhhder? I'm hanging upside down from my bath tub. This is not a good idea!
Septmeber 19 at 1:00 am

Trying to dress a toddler to leave the house can be frustrating. But it's so hard to get mad at someone who is jumping up and down antically on her tip toes, holding up a strand of hair on each side of her head and insisting as she scrunches her nose, "I'm a bad bunny! I'm a bad bunny!"
September 19 at 5:54 pm

We definitely had fun today running around in our Halloween costumes--until it got too hot. Penelope asked, "Where did all this sun come from? Maybe from Greece!"
September 19 at 8:09 pm

Penelope (trying to pull her snake away from Derrick while holding a tiny Shamu): Shamu is going to help pull because he's a whale. But Shamu is just a tiny baby. I always take care of him. I used to have a little, little, little, little, little...little, little, little...I used to have a little, little, little brush and a little hair dryer to make Shamu's tale so fluffy and nice.
September 19 at 11:01 pm

Penelope's hair arrived just now! She was so excited she immediately ran to show her "dolly" (as she calls Rapunzel). Now it's hanging up on top of the DVD shelf until Halloween!
September 21 at 12:38 pm

Penelope (as I try to pull on her shirt over her enormous head, and it gets stuck): I can't go like this!
September 22 at 2:27 pm

Penelope (singing randomly in the back seat): Like a lion in the sky!
September 22 at 2:50 pm

Penelope's flu shot came off without a hitch although the ice cream afterwards turned into quite a disaster! Now we're all cuddled up watching Dumbo!
September 22 at 4:18 pm

I had no idea elephants could be such jerks!
September 22 at 4:52 pm

Me (yesterday): I'm excited about something, but I can't remember why.
Penelope: Because Dumbo's coming tomorrow!
Me (tonight): I feel so excited because...(I trail off, not remembering)
Penelope (excitedly): Because Lion King is coming soon to own on DVD!!!
September 22 at 9:18 pm

Penelope (getting out of the car, pointing into the distance): Look at that darkness!
Me: Wow!
Penelope: Maybe there's monsters in there!
September 22 at 9:52 pm

Penelope (urgently): NALA!
Me: Yes, what is it, Simba?
Penelope: I feel something under my feet!
Me: What is it, Simba?
Penelope: Monsters I think!
Me: Maybe it's the hyenas again!
Penelope: (running around frantically in circles) I'm going to get them! Help me get them! Let's get them! Run! They're coming! Hide! Hide! Hide!
September 22 at 9:58 pm

Penelope: Why did you put that there?
Grandma: Because we put something else in the place it was.
Penelope: What did you put in the other place? Something pleasant?
September 22 at 10:32 pm

So apparently Penelope, Mommy, and Daddy are now to be known as Simba, Nala, and Mufasa. Anyone who slips up gets an immediate, hysterical reprimand!
Friday at 12:21 am

Penelope: Nala! Nala! NALA!!!!!
Me: Yes, what is it, Simba?
Penelope: I'm going to have macaroni and cheese!
Me: Oh boy! That's what lions like best!
Penelope: I'm not a lion yet. I'm a kitty cat cub!
Friday at 1:28 pm

Simba fell down at swim practice and skinned her nose. She's quite a sight!
Friday at 8:18 pm

Penelope: Shh! Mufasa is sleeping! Please tip toe. (Looking through binoculars) I'm Simba the captain. Nala, you're a matey!
Saturday at 12:24 am

Well, Rafiki and Mufasa just moved the piano. After Rafiki hurt his back, Mufasa texted a friend to help but ended up not needing him and telling him, "No worries," when he called. Simba immediately echoed, "No worries! Hakuna Matata!"
Saturday at 11:44 am

Grandpa: Hello, Nellie.
Penelope: I'm Simba. My nose got hurt by some antelopes. You be Rafiki.
Saturday at 12:08 pm

Me: I love you, P...Simba.
Penelope (annoyed): Nala!
Me: Oh sorry, Simba. I mean, Hakuna Matata!
P: (cheerfully) Hakuna Matata!
Saturday at 12:11 pm

Derrick: We're almost to the zoo, Simba.
Penelope: Oh good. My daddy's in the zoo.
Saturday at 1:53 pm

Penelope (over and over again): If you see a pantha, antha, "Aaaahhhh!"
Saturday at 1:55 pm

P: I thought there was a storm last night. Grandpa saw something flashing and thought it was lightning. Look at that old post. He's just standing there.
Saturday at 1:57 pm

D (makes a weird noise)
P: What was that? I thought I heard something, Dad.
D: Me, too. (Makes noise again)
P: Maybe it was an animal.
D: Maybe it was a crazy animal.
P: You're funny, Dad.
Saturday at 1:59 pm

Penelope (looking through the fence at the orangutan enclosure): He's a very bad monkey, and now he's in jail for being so naughty!
Saturday at 2:47 pm

P: Be very careful, everyone because Scar may be hiding anywhere trying to frighten me!
Yesterday at 12:59 am

Penelope (pointing to a page in our photobook): There's Mickey Mouse!
Me: Where?
(She points to a picture of me and does it over and over again for the rest of the book)
P: Boy Mickey Mouse sure is following us!
Yesterday at 1:14 am

Courtney: Penelope, how old are you?
Penelope: January second.
17 hours ago

Me: Penelope, do you want to come help me make the guacamole?
Penelope: No, let's make cookies.
17 hours ago

Penelope (looking at a picture of the four of us): There's Tootie and Rootie and Tootie and me. (Pointing at a pic of Gray in Disneyland) Oh, there's Dumbo!
13 hours ago

Me: Did you have fun with Aunt Merry and Courtney at the park? What did you do?
Penelope: I went down the big baby slide, and I swung on the big baby swing. I was grown up!
41 minutes ago

Me (watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with Penelope): Oh, they're having a carnival for the chickens. That looks fun. Would you like to go to a carnival?
Penelope: Yeah.
Me: Me, too.
Penelope: Yeah, I'd take off all my clothes and sit in the chair by the duckies, and then they'd throw a ball and knock me in the water and dunk me. That would be fun.
28 minutes ago