Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Jackfruit Tree

Boys and Girls, today’s subject is my jackfruit tree. Maybe I’ll just do a quick pictorial on it, or that’s my intention as I start this. Let’s see how it goes.

There is a strange fruit over here, at least I thought so the first time I saw it back in the 1980s. The locals call it langka—I just call it jackfruit. We have a nice sized tree in our yard that does a pretty good job of producing these gigantic “berries.” I call them berries because the jackfruit sort of resembles humongous mulberries with their similar segmented outer texturing, and according to Wikipedia the jackfruit really is related to the tasty much smaller mulberry. I think they must be related the same way lawn grass is related to 12 foot corn plants.

The first time I saw fully developed jackfruit hanging from a branch high overhead I thought initially that they weren’t real, like some weird natural hoax. I could not believe that anything that big could possibly grow from a tree. Imagine finding a 50 pound Macintosh dangling from an apple tree; of course, it’s not possible.

Last year we had 15 or 20 of these berry behemoths suspended overhead on our jackfruit tree, but were unable to taste even a single one of them. I was disappointed; I love eating jackfruit in my halo halo, a Filipino treat made with concentrated milk, shaved ice and a “mix mix” of various confections like colorful gelatins, syrupy fruit and sweet beans. Yummy.

A big problem with growing these tasty jackfruit giants is their propensity to rot before they attain full ripeness. We touched on this very subject one day when my electrician buddy stopped by. Sitting at the porch table with drinks in hand looking up at my tree loaded with a score of huge rotting fruit, he told me the secret is to keep them covered with plastic bags from the time the jackfruit are still unblemished.

According to him, what starts the fruit rotting are bats from where they nibble at them during the night. He says once the skin is opened by the bats it allows bugs and bacteria to do their nasty business. I don’t know; maybe he’s right. I know there certainly are a lot of bats swooping and looping around but I don’t think any of them are fruit eaters. The way they fly, making impossible turns in the air; it appears they are going after insects. I don’t think insect eating bats also eat fruit. Maybe I’m wrong.

My doubts concerning the bats notwithstanding I had Divine’s high climbing nephew, the fearless “Ungoy,” go up in the tree and cover with plastic bags as many of the jackfruit he could safely reach. Ever concerned with aesthetics, I had him first paint all the bags a dark green; otherwise it would look like I had trash hanging off my tree. I’m a stickler about stuff like that.

Surprisingly, one jackfruit actually sprouted out near the base of the tree about two feet from the ground—strange place for a fruit to grow. That one was easy to cover, although I had Ungoy go ahead and do it along with the rest.

After awhile I mostly forgot about my plastic covered fruit, but every so often I’d inspect them for progress. After a few weeks I noticed that the bags had started to bulge as the jackfruit began to expand in them. They looked like when you blow into a plastic bag just before popping it in your sister’s unsuspecting ear.

I kept asking when they would be ripe enough to try, but I kept getting a “Hindi pa” from them—Not yet. I continued to ask, and more frequently as I became concerned while observing that the unprotected jackfruit, ballooning to the size of oversized loaves of bread, turned brown, starting in certain spots initially, and then with time, those rotten spots joined into a single overall disgusting black putridity.

The fact that these gigantic fruit are hovering precariously over your head can be disconcerting if you think to look up and see them up there. As I said, they can get up to 30 or 40 pounds, so if you are unlucky enough to be under one when it happens to fall, you are likely to come away with at least a minor concussion.

This year we were indeed fortunate enough to be able to eat at least a half dozen of my jacks. I don’t know why, but not all shielded inside the plastic came through unspoiled. It seems these giant fruit with their seemingly tough skin are quite vulnerable to a number of insects and bacteria.

One of the last of the rotten ones fell today. I’m always pleased not to have been in the landing zone when it happens. Cradled in your arms, with their astounding girth and weight, they feel like a rigid limbless body. In size, the only other comparable fruit or vegetable I can think of are super pumpkins and jumbo watermelons. Both those big babies can also get so large that they must be cradled in both arms to carry them; then again, both also grow resting on the ground, where large fruits and veggies are SUPPOSED to grow when they intend to reach massive proportions.

One of the largest of the jacks that we were able to successfully grow to consumable maturity was the one that sprouted near the ground. We cut it free just yesterday in fact. It’s the one in Divine’s arms in the pic below. I asked her to pose with it for about 4 shots; by the last one her back and knees began to give out. It probably weighed 35 pounds or so. Wikipedia says they can get up to 80 pounds. No way! I just can’t imagine that.

Still on the subject of size, the stems attaching the jackfruit to the tree are correspondingly thick and branchlike. These branches carrying the ful weight of the fruit are also necessarily very flexible. Check out the photos—you can see that they are under enormous pressure appearing like ropey rubber bands bending to their limit under the strain of the fruit’s weight. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like it.

One night during a storm, several of the super-large extremely rotten ones splattered with a thud onto the lawn below. Once again, the comparison to a body comes to mind; in this case, to a decomposing cadaver. Huge blow flies, the kind that go after decaying meat began to swarm aboard the nasty wet mess. The smell at that early point is a combination of rot and sweet. Ugh. The decomp juice, as they call it sometimes on the CSI shows, is so harsh that any spot on the yard soaked with it for more than a few minutes dies out for several weeks. I wasted no time composting the rancid fruit flesh underground with all the other yard waste from that day. A week later I happened to dig back into the same area—big mistake—there was no longer even a hint of a sweet aroma, now it smelled exactly like a rotting animal, complete with wriggling maggots and worms.

Contrast that bit of graphic revoltingness to the perfectly ripened jackfruit we harvested yesterday. I was going to say pick, but that word simply doesn’t apply. I had to use the extra sharp pruning clippers to cut the thick tough stem. Even then it didn’t come off easy.

For the photo-opp Divine brought out the largest knife in the kitchen. Watching her through the camera lens I can say in no way is cutting through a jackfruit like cutting through an equally large watermelon or pumpkin. I’ll use the same comparison as before; jackfruit “flesh” is dense and as resistant to a knife blade as is raw muscle tissue. She really had to work at cutting through the center of that fruit “body.”

Before it can be eaten, the yellowish inner fruit has be simmered into a softened condition, again, much like meat has to be cooked before the tissue can be successfully masticated and consumed. Folks here love the stuff. I like it as well, but pretty much only served in halo-halo, the sweet treat I described earlier.

This household eats the stuff up almost as fast as it can be prepared. Still, that last big one provided enough of the sweet gooey stuff to fill several jars. Of course, they are emptying fast, as expected. In fact, I just had a big glass of halo-halo myself which, of course, included a big old dollop of jackfruit. Delicious!

This was supposed to be a quickie pictorial, but as usual, I had more to write about than I thought I would. My apologies.

And speaking of pictorial, click here to view the full flickr slideshow of My Jackfruit Tree.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123 (Don’t read this post if you plan to see it)

Way back in 1980 I dimly remember reading the Reader’s Digest abridged version of this novel. I had a lot of time on my hands back then during the 7 months it took to get the Air Force to accept me after my discharge from the Marines. All I recall from the book was that some criminals take over an NYC subway car demanding a ransom for not killing the passengers. That’s it; that’s all I remember; virtually no details at all.

Arriving at the mall a few minutes before noon we checked out the four cinema posters next to the ticket counter. The only movie I was willing to pay money to see was this one. I asked the ticket girl to make sure the projectionist actually turned on the projector this time, since “Last Monday he must not have spotted us in our seats, and by the time he did and turned on the projector, we had missed the first 5 or 10 minutes of the movie.” She barely looked at me with a vacuous half smile, a look I know well, since it usually accompanies a thought cloud that goes like this: ‘Stupid foreigners, always complaining.’

We entered the theater ten minutes to show time and were the only ones there. Cool. But then two chicks came in. Dang it! There is nothing worse in a theater over here than when two or more women come in to see a show in the middle of the day. Daytime man-woman couples are okay; they are usually there to grope each other when they think no one is watching. The ladies however, they are bad news; for they are there not to watch a movie, but to socialize, and by socialize I mean to yack.

Sure enough, even before the flick started I could hear them. Then it got worse when the fat one started to speak into her cell phone, as if giving a play by play to someone, and that was it—I wanted to kill her, literally. I turned in my seat and stared right at her pig face. Nothing. She did what folks do here when confronted in these parts, she avoided my eyes. I sat down and whispered to my gal, “We have to move or I’m going to get kicked out for committing a capital crime.”

Back home I’ve gone to the theatre manager and successfully tattled on such offenders of theater decorum, but here it seems that speaking on cell phones or having conversations during the showing of a movie is only bothersome to grouchy foreigners like me, so complaining of such rude behavior is not likely to accomplish anything other than to reinforce local negative opinions of us.

I stood up and turned around, facing her fully for at least five seconds. She acted like I was invisible. Typical. She kept right on prattling into that accursed cell phone. We grabbed our drinks and popcorn and moved half way across the theater to get away from pig woman. I could still here her but now it was tolerable.

When I had turned around to stare at my tormentor I was a little surprised to see another half dozen theatergoers in her immediate vicinity, I hadn’t known they were there; but I wasn’t surprised that I was the only one who was bothered by her inconsiderate behavior. Back home she would have been shushed right off the phone. Alas, not so here.

So, I was in a murderous mood as the movie progressed up on the screen. John Travolta played Ryder, the heartless killer in charge of taking the train. As soon as I saw him I wanted him dead. Tony Scott, the director, had him looking hard and mean, like a man who had “done time,” or like a man who wanted to intimidate. In this case, it was both. I despise men like that, and their numbers are legion, men who endeavor to look like thugs; I want them gone as soon as I see them, and by gone I mean underground.

Sure enough, the casual taking of innocent lives was soon bloodily depicted. Director Scott had immediately accomplished one of his movie directing missions, to make the audience hate the ransomers.

Even as director Tony Scott has the audience dreaming of Travolta and his vicious henchmen’s bloody demise, Scott has them caring about Garber, the recently fallen-from-grace train dispatcher controller. The noble and likeable Garber is played believably by Denzel Washington.

I won’t go deeply into the story line, but needless to say, a lot of “stuff” happens, most of it violent and loud, and all of it involving profuse heapings of typical New York City profanity, the same kind of vile language used by the crowd of New Yorkers this past weekend at golf’s US Open. I hope you idiots are proud of yourselves. You people make me ashamed mostly because I know you aren't.

Here’s an aside: Do people in New York have the capacity to put more than three words together without using the word fuck? It seems not. In fact, there’s a scene where a teen couple conversing online declare in the heat of the moment, “I fucking love you so fucking much!” Now there’s a movie quote for the ages for you! Tony Scott, what is WRONG with you!

You know, I complain a lot about “things” over here in the Philippines, but the one thing I absolutely love about these people is that when using the English language they do so without using THAT word. God help me, but I hate it. Folks, those of you who use THAT word so gratuitously, do you realize how utterly unsophisticated and low class you sound? If sounding like a moron is what you are trying to accomplish, then hey, congratulations!

Here’s something that struck me as kind of amusing. This movie must have been made during the height of the Obama campaign. I say that because virtually all of the admirable characters in it are black men (and one black woman). There’s Denzel’s character, Garber—black of course—the once high-ranking NYC subway official, now suspected of taking a bribe, yet redeemed by movie’s end as the courageous hero of the city. Then there’s the black SWAT sniper who, while lining the vicious Ryder’s face up in his rifle’s crosshairs, mutters virtuously, “Damn, I hope I’m the one who gets to drop that SOB!” And last but certainly not least is the bravest and most righteous of them all, a black male passenger wearing an airborne ring who selflessly dies in place of his fellow passenger mom who has her little son in tow. Oh, and I shall not leave out the black conductor who valiantly leads the “unneeded” passengers out of the tunnels to safety; but this character is a woman and so doesn’t fit all “the criteria.”

Conversely, other than John Torturo’s character, the NYPD hostage negotiator, most of the rest of the non-black players are white knuckleheads. The flawed mayor, played ably by John Gandolfini, is likable but doesn’t seem all that sharp, except when he asks, “Why didn’t you use a helicopter to get the ransom money to the station?” At this, his retinue of assistants and city officials just stare, while the rest of us “watchers” on the other side of the screen realize that it’s just a Tony Scott excuse to make the NYC police force look like abject idiots as they needlessly crash a multitude of cars and motorcycles, all while getting the $10 Million in small bills to where Ryder wants it.

In a TV promotional spot with Travolta, Washington and Scott, I heard Washington declare that, just like Tony Scott, he also was interested in character development; and I have to say that they did a pretty good job doing that with the Garber character, except for his actions at the very end of the movie. I’ll get into that in a moment.

My problem is with the supposed development of the persona of Ryder, the brutal psychopath played by John Travolta. In most films we look for and usually get some glimpse of decency in the bad guy. In Pelham 123, from scene 1 we see nothing that resembles even a hint of humanity in this killer. In fact we realize within the first ten minutes that there is no one—not man, woman or child—that this brute won’t shoot for his own selfish gain.

Ryder loves the sound of his own voice. He talks and talks, thoroughly enjoying “the game” he plays with “The City.” He has a two-part mission, first, to humiliate the city that had put him in jail the first time he got caught doing bad things; and second, to make a pile of money while going about doing the first.

You see, the $10 Million is a pittance, nothing but a red herring, compared to the hundreds of millions he plans to make by investing in “put” commodity contracts; in other words, making money by investing in downside action and then making the events that causes the downside to happen. The problem is that 4 criminals holding a subway hostage is not what would cause such a thing. What would cause it is if Ryder had declared himself an international terrorist and that the taking of Pelham 123 was only the beginning of a spate of worldwide terrorism. Instead, Ryder denies being a terrorist. Come on Scott, you did want the movie to be logical didn't you? I know, I know, it’s just meaningless details; just watch the movie and enjoy the car crashes, right? Sorry Mr. Scott, not my style.

The final confrontation between Ryder and Garber on the Manhattan Bridge makes virtually no sense to me at all; especially in light of Tony Scott and Denzel Washington’s declaration of the importance of character development. In that final important scene Ryder blathers on and on about “redemption” for crying out loud, as if he put the whole bloody thing together just to give Ryder a chance to redeem himself after taking that $30,000 bribe. BS! It was ALL about the money!

Ryder’s final words as dies on the sidewalk after collapsing with Garber's bullet in his chest, “Now you’re a hero…” What! So what are we supposed to believe, that the irredeemably evil Ryder’s last wish was to make a hero out of Garber? Tell me why such a dyed-in-the-wool murdering psycho savage like Ryder would care even a little about something like that? He wouldn’t. I have to say that Scott and his writers really dropped the ball on this aspect of the film. Just because the man is depicted as a really bad fellow doesn’t mean that they can get lazy when it comes to sculpting the bad man’s words and actions on the screen. It STILL has to make sense to thoughtful movie goers out there, movie goers like me.

On the other hand, Garber's actions make perfect sense to me all the way through; that is until the very end when he refuses to shoot Ryder even as he is goaded by Ryder to do so. How could this guy, even as good as Scott wants us to see him, be displaying the classic Stockholm Syndrome symptoms where the hostage starts to empathize with his captor, after the viciousness perpetrated by this monster called Ryder? Earlier on, Garber had even heard on the radio the shooting death of his conductor buddy and by this very same Ryder. Did he forget about that in just one hour? So how could he be so unwilling to rid the world of this nasty schmuck? I suppose I’m projecting, because I would not have stopped with one bullet. At the word boo I would have emptied the clip.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Nest Building Fools

I have been watching my finches for quite a while now, and without a doubt the coolest thing about them for me is their penchant for building nests. They appeared compelled to do it. From my recent experience with other types of caged birds, the nest building proclivities of the finch is certainly unique.

For instance, unlike the industrious finches the love birds were definitely not nest builders; they were anything but. From the beginning they concentrated on three undertakings; none of them good.

First, they sought to establish their dominion over the other cage residents by using constant bullying and harassing tactics. Seeing that turned me against them with a passion. I hate bullies.

Second, like large yellow and red feathered crawling bird spiders, they poked and prodded every inch of the cage from top to bottom, always apparently seeking a way out; and within a week, one of them actually managed to do exactly that. For a day or so it hung around the top of the cage near its mate, but it finally gave up and flew off for good (and good riddance).

(Similarly, one of my finches once darted out the cage door as I opened it. For over an hour it flitted around the cage seemingly desperate to get back inside to its mate. I figured recovering it was next to hopeless, but hope returned when my daughter excitedly pointed out the little escapee where it sat only a few feet from me on the lip of the low concrete base of my porch. It just perched there looking up at me without moving. I grabbed a nearby towel, walked up to the little bird, now completely calm and quiet, and carefully dropped the towel over it. The tiny thing did not struggle and did not attempt to fly away as it would normally have done. With all certainty, I can say without a doubt that it wanted me to catch it. That was the strangest thing.)

And finally, the dastardly lovebirds were driven by some evil impulse to destroy every bit of foliage they could reach with their powerful sharp beaks. From all my negative experiences with these beautiful, yet hellish creatures, here’s another name I coined for them—“pain in the butt birds.”

The parakeets were okay, but they were boring and produced an irritating screech. Unlike all the other types of birds in my cage these two were NOT inseparable. They would sit together at times, but often they chose to perch in separate locations and often did so even at night when all the other paired birds stayed side by side.

The cockatiels were like lumbering winged bulls. They’d fly in their awkward fashion with a loud rustling of flapping wings, usually crash-landing into the side of the cage where they would then use beaks as hands to pull themselves along to their desired spot. A strange thing about the cockatiels was their obsession with the finch nests, especially the female cockatiel. I watched her poke her head inside every nest she could reach. I have no idea what drove her to do this, but her days became numbered when she started doing that with nests containing finch fledglings.

I must admit my own cockatiel-like obsession with the finch nests. For me, the sight of these grassy nest balls represents an incredible natural mystery. What intrigues me isn’t the nest architecture so much as the nest builder, the finches themselves.

Think about it. Before obtaining these delightful little "flitters of fluff" they had spent their entire lives inside a relatively tiny cage filled with dozens of other finches. All they had ever known was this cramped world where the full flight of more than a beat or two of their wings was impossible. In such a restricted environment the building of nests is impossible; yet, as soon as I put them inside my big bird cage they became nest building fools.

The mystery then is how did these finches know how to build nests? Of course the scientists attribute such things to natural instinct, but why didn’t the lovebirds, cockatiels and parakeets have this useful manufacturing insight?

From what I can see, finches do not always build nests only for procreation purposes, although they certainly do that too; but at nighttime, pairs of them nestle deep within their insulated balls of grass for a good night’s sleep, while the architecturally-challenged parakeets and cockatiels miserably huddled on their perches completely exposed to the weather.

Again, I’m amazed at the uniformity of the finch nests. I mean, these birds do not take nest building classes all from the same community finch college, yet all the nests are alike in construction right down to the round opening just large enough for a finch to pass through. Where does this knowledge come from? I repeat, it's a mystery.

They even have a preference when it comes to building materials. The first time I noticed my finches beginning to build nests with the limited resources within the cage I began to bring inside for their use assorted types of natural stuff like lengths of different types of grass and even different kinds and lengths of string and thread. They ignored the string and thread and went right for the tendril creepers that I pulled from the various types of Bermuda grass in my yard. Evidently the combination of the stiffness of the creeper stem combined with the attached grass blades provides the perfect amalgamation of structure and insulation.

Every two or three days I’ll collect another mass of grass creepers from the yard and drop the clump on the ground inside the cage. Within seconds of closing the door the finches fly down and begin to inspect the latest “supplies.” Yank by miniscule yank they pull the individual strands from the grassy mound.

A fun thing is to see them argue and vie over the best bits. To see two angry finches get into a tug-of-war over an 8 inch creeper tendril never ceases to make me chuckle. Those little fellas really get into it. Here there are at least 25 or 30 lengths to choose from and two finches will get into a tugging match over one. Funny little things.

Their display of persistence and strength is another really cool thing to behold. For some reason they really prefer the extra long grass tendrils. I’ll include a few pieces almost a foot long, which they love. A bird will pull one around on the ground with its orange beak this way and that until it has it lined up exactly the way it wants. Then, taking a firm grip close to one end, it will take off diagonally upward aimed at a perch across the cage from its final destination in one of the four woven nest balls I mounted from hooks under the eaves of the porch.

This initial leg of the trip, carrying this long tendril of grass, takes a lot of energy and they are only half way there. First taking a few moments to gather themselves while also resetting the grip of their beak on the length of grass, they fly with an exaggerated rustle of wings to a point about 12 inches from the nest ball entrance where they hover for a split second before darting forward into the nest. I love sitting behind the bar on my porch with a cup of coffee to watch the intriguing proceedings.

In nature, finches build their nests in spots that lends itself to easy nest building, a spot where they also feel secure and out of the elements. The resulting structure ends up being a thick mass of grass with a hollow inside large enough for two or three adult finches to huddle together side by side. Of course they leave a small round opening to gain access.

Inside my big bird cage the nest building finches use the rattan nest balls and wooden boxes provided by me to construct nests more suitable for egg laying and subsequently to raise to fledgling status the resultant hatchlings.

After a time the finches invariably abandon all their nests, at which point I scoop out the old nest so they can rebuild in that spot. I have no idea why they do this; perhaps the decomposition of the grass combined with the buildup of bird droppings makes the nest repellent to them. It only makes sense right? Smart birds these finches.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Yellow Cosmos, My Happy Accident, a Little Gift from God

I am the kind of amateur naturalist that always looks for sights never seen by me before. Mother Nature feely hands me these little gifts every day or two, and she does so all on my little postage stamp of a yard.

Because of these natural gifts from “Mom Nature” I’m in the habit of carrying my digital camera around with me specifically for those just-in-case moments. I want to be ready to "snap away" with my trusty digi-cam as I search in my daily yard strolls for what I now refer to as “God’s happy little accidents.”

For instance, I spotted a tiny plant sprouting at the base of one of my rock garden features. From the look of the infant pinnate leaf foliage my first impression was that it was a baby version of a plant that I used to call ragweed, although what I thought of as ragweed is not what is displayed as such in Wikipedia. As a kid in Michigan I’d pulled many of these marigold-like plants over the course of my thousands of hours weeding gardens and lawn areas on the grounds of our acre or so of ex-farmland.

Like I do with most wild plants that find a way to sprout on the property I live on here, I opted not to pull this little sprout with fern-like leaves. For one thing I wasn’t sure if it actually was that plant that I knew as ragweed since back home they don’t exist singly like this one; in Michigan and throughout the US they come up by the scores and even by the thousands resembling a drably weedy version of marigold. The fact that this one was solitary intrigued me. I left it alone and even placed two stones around it to keep the maid from stepping on it.

‘Let’s see what it grows up to be.’

Over the next week or two it developed a more complicated system of foliage and I realized that rather than ragweed it now reminded me more of a daisy. By comparison, ragweed greenery is thicker than and not as shiny as what I was seeing on this more delicate plant. I began to assume that it actually was some kind of daisy, probably from a seed dropped off serendipitously in that spot by a bird or a by the wind—like I said, another “happy accident.”

My expectation grew at the appearance of a flower bud. What color would it be? How large the blossom? (. . .What a nerd I am, eh?)

Finally, I came home one afternoon and there it was, and it was fantastic. It was yellow, but not a pure yellow, more of a burnt yellow, like an oil paint yellow with a hint of
brown mixed smoothly in. Chance placed it in a fairly shadowy area where the yellow flower heads seem to pop like tiny visual detonations. The eye is drawn to them from all the way across the yard.

I went online to try to identify it. After searching through a half dozen web images of “yellow flowers” I discovered one in flickr titled “
yellow cosmos.” From the aspect of the photo it seemed similar to my flower. I followed up in Wikipedia and confirmed it. Indeed, my flower is of the genus of plants called Cosmos.

Cosmos—what a perfect name for this yellow blossoming plant! Supposedly, it originates in the Americas, although I also see references that it grows throughout the Asian tropics, including Malaysia and Thailand. Certain types of cosmos are even used as an herb.

I still don’t know if cosmos grows in the wild here, or if mine happens to have been blown in or dropped off by a bird from a neighbor’s yard. R
egardless, I’m now collecting it's seeds and drying them to try to further propagate it. My one spindly plant is tending to droop and lay down; so I’m thinking that they grow better in a bed. I’ll have to see how that goes.

Isn’t the internet awesome? It definitely makes me realize how much I do not know. Truthfully, I had never heard of cosmos before. . . . So much to learn—so little time. Sigh. . .

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a snap review

Today, our choices of movies to see were Christian Bale’s Terminator or Mathew McConaughey’s Ghost of Girlfriends Past. Of course, with any Bale movie now off my viewing list, we shrugged and paid to see McConaughey. So, actually, due to Bale’s abusive rant, there WAS no choice.

I wasn’t exactly thrilled looking at the poster. It looked like it was going to be a chick flick, and indeed, it was exactly that. But I will admit that there are some chick flicks that I have enjoyed, and it turns out this was one of them.

In this one, McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a big time womanizer to say the least. Of course the fact that he got that way is not really his fault, it’s actually Jenny’s fault (played by Jennifer Garner), his girlfriend since childhood; and oh yeah, his Uncle Wayne gets much of the credit too, or, if you will, the blame.

They were 8th grade sweethearts attending a school dance together, when young Jenny leaves love struck Connor’s side to dance with a good-looking, wildly popular older boy, a kid in a varsity jacket who is more experienced with the ladies, a grade ahead, and a big time jock. Connor never stood a chance. Crazy in love with the apparently flighty girl, Matthew’s heart is smashed as he painfully observes his first love allowing the older boy to grab her ass and plant a deep “first kiss” on her, which she willingly returns. Crushed and disappointed, Matthew runs out of the dance and into his waiting Uncle Wayne’s car, his uncle played with a perfect mischievousness by Michael Douglas.

Douglas probably has the best part in the movie. He’s an inveterate love-em-and-leave-em kind of guy who becomes his young charge’s model in how to manage all his future relationships. In a nutshell the goal, learned from Douglas, is to sleep with as many different gals as possible and never EVER fall for any of them. In other words, Connor seeks to prevent any woman from hurting him again the way Jenny did. He learns this credo from his uncle, “The one who cares the least has all the power.”

At the film’s beginning, we find Connor a successful fashion photographer, a vocation that has made him very rich, and over the years has allowed him access to hundreds of women’s beds. In one flashback, just before he makes it really big as a fashion photographer, he meets Jenny again and talks his way back into her heart despite his Tomcat rep. After several dates he talks his way into her bed, but suddenly as he begins to fall asleep holding her in his arms, to his horror he realizes that he’s fallen for her. The next morning, she wakes up to find him gone. Poor Jenny is humiliated and devastated. (At this point, as far as I’m concerned, Connor’s even!) But Connor, seeing her devastation from his vantage as an invisible ghost, feels enormous regret and shame.

I got a little ahead of myself there. If you are familiar with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you’ll immediately recognize that Connor is actually just another version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Just as Dickens used various ghosts to show Ebenezer the error of his ways, the writer’s of this wacky version (and about 50 other similar past cinematic knockoffs) of A Christmas Carol uses ghosts to lead Connor to a final conclusion that his Uncle Wayne was wrong all along.

In fact, Uncle Wayne is the first ghost that Connor runs into when he shows up at the family estate for his brother’s wedding. Connor isn’t as nearly as freaked out as I would have been if I’d have similarly run into someone who I knew to be long dead; but, it IS a movie after all, so let it go. Evidently, since death, Uncle Wayne has had a change of heart and tries to convince the cynical-about-love-and-marriage Connor that dying old and alone isn’t exactly a great thing. Nevertheless, Connor blows off his ghostly uncle’s advice. (Of course he does; otherwise, the movie would end after only about 30 minutes.)

Connor’s primary ghost guide is a 16 year old girl ghost, who is played by a woman who looks to be in her mid-30s. This supposed “girl” is the gal that Connor first lost his cherry to when he was just a young teen himself. This girl, her mouth noticeably filled with braces, is chirpily obnoxious as she leads Connor from scene to scene, always making the journey on a king-sized bed that slams down from the sky each time they jump to the next location. Obviously the bed is a metaphor for Connor’s life of one night stands.

Much of the movie takes place as the wedding party prepares for the next day’s nuptials. Right off the bat I got pissed when we meet Connor’s soon to be father in law. He is introduced as “Sarge.” What made me mad was that this guy was supposed to be a retired Marine Corps sergeant major. It is an absolute surety that no self-respecting sergeant major would ever allow himself to be called Sarge. He’ll either to tell you to use his first name, or if you must refer to his rank, it will be Sergeant Major. Call a real sergeant major Sarge anyway and expect to get knocked on your ass.

And while we’re talking about this so-called Sarge; there is a scene toward the end where McConaughey punches him out. Yeah right! A fashion photographer pretty boy is going to get the jump on a grizzled old sergeant major? No way, not even a retired one. In fact, the entire movie would be much better if they just took out the Sarge character all together. The writers inappropriately have their fun with him yet again at the wedding reception where he tells a ridiculously drunken blood and guts war story, which no one who’s actually been in combat would ever consider doing. Watching this idiot try to play a sergeant major of Marines ruined much of the whole movie for me. Robert Forster, who plays "Sarge," and all you writers of this film, you guys suck. Next time, do your research better and do NOT even try to turn a Marine Corps sergeant major into an object of derisive mirth, but I digress. (Deep breath... sigh...)

To make a long plot line short, a final “babe ghost” shows Connor what’s in store for him—a loveless life and a funeral at which no one but his brother shows up. This is actually a dream he has out in his car where he’s fallen asleep after being told to leave the house. His brother had finally had enough when the seed of Connor’s sabotage comes to fruition. Connor had let the cat out of the bag that his baby brother, years before, had once slept with one of the bridesmaids. Not believing in love and marriage himself, Connor’s shenanigans caused the wedding plans to fall apart when the bride learns of her fiancé’s past transgression.

The next morning, the day of the now cancelled wedding, although he doesn’t know the wedding is off yet, Connor awakes with a start in his own bed from a nightmare. In it, his brother from the future—now old and unmarried too, and all because of Connor—had pushed Connor into his grave, where he lands hard, 6 feet down, on his back. Looking up at the sky framed by the grave’s opening, Connor screams as “the ghosts “of all his old girlfriends gleefully shovel dirt over him.

Thrilled to be alive, Connor--now with a completely new lease on life, love and marriage—scampers downstairs, now utterly eager to be a part of his brother’s wedding day. But, the house is empty. He finds his downcast brother who forlornly tells him his fiancé called it off, “thanks to you Connor.”

In that over exuberant “McConaughey way” of his, he gets crazy and impulsively decides to go after his brother’s now ex-fiancé to make her change her mind. She and the rest of the wedding party have a pretty good head start, the road is deeply snow covered, and Connor can’t get his car to start. Instead, he jumps into his late Uncle Wayne’s “love mobile” and crashes straight through the garage door, wood and wreckage flying everywhere.

Shades of Schwarzenegger in Commando where Arnold recklessly flies down the side of a mountain in his 4 wheel drive after his kidnapped daughter, McConaughey does a similar stunt in his uncle’s caddy. At the bottom of the mountain, the caddy wrecked and at the bottom of an ice-covered lake; even so, Connor manages to stop the wedding party gone bust.

This is where the movie goes big time into chick flick mode. After knocking out Sarge with one weakass punch to the chin, McConaughey then pulls the “would be bride” from the car and goes into an almost ridiculous heartfelt pleading oration. His words fairly spill out of his mouth and all over the ground at the stunned girl’s the feet.

Lo and behold, surprise, surprise, she agrees and the wedding is back on. A relieved and happy Connor collapses exhausted into an embrace with the smiling young lady, now destined to be his sister-in-law once again.

At least three times during Connor’s bizarre beseeching tirade the camera cuts to Jenny inside the car. Listening to Connor’s heretofore unlikely words, we see her melting along with all the other girls in the car at his total change of heart. Sure enough, Connor works on her next, and bing-bam-boom, Jenny takes him back. The boy is on a roll. I mean, dang he’s slick. No wonder he was able to sleep with so many women during his confirmed bachelor days.

At the end there’s a big gooey wedding scene. I guarantee that nearly all females and most homosexuals leave the theater with misty eyes and lumpy throats. Chick Flick! Still, I admit I liked it too; mostly because this is a very funny movie. Michael Douglas is a blast, McConaughey ain’t bad, and the girl who plays the angry bride is a real hoot. She definitely steals several of the scenes she’s in.

When it comes out on cable I’ll be sure to watch it again, especially if I’m in the mood for a laugh.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A 60s Kid Watches Star Trek, 2009

I don’t know if he liked the movie or not, but my brother asked me to review the new Star Trek. Okay, so be it.

Divine and I try to go see a flick every Monday, arriving before noon to catch the first show. That way, usually we have the whole theater to ourselves. Its just another way I go about avoiding people. Truthfully, I don’t much like being around other members of the human race. Generally speaking, I think people suck. But I digress.

It came down to Wolverine or Star Trek. I left it up to Divine, and surprisingly, she went for Star Trek. Normally she tends to shun those types of space adventures on the tube, but I think the scary images on the Wolverine poster had a lot to do with her decision.

The basic hook of 2009’s Star Trek: to show how all the original characters from the 60’s TV show came to be shipmates on the Starship Enterprise. As I think about it, it was pretty ingenious. It’s never been done and with the huge cult following of the Star Trek franchise it’s bound to make a lot of money for a long time.

So, is it any good? Well, strategically, I sat down with my popcorn in lap purposely not expecting much. Admitting that, I definitely got more than I expected. How much more? I think quite a bit more. I actually enjoyed it from start to finish; but I have to say that at my age, and being a child of the 60s, I was predisposed to like it. I wanted to like it.

I was 9 when the original TV series came out in September 1966. At the time, along with the rest of my family, we lived on or near an Air Force base in western Turkey. Why is that something to know? Well, believe it or not, there was no TV there. We had AFRTS (a single radio station) and that was it. I doubt if any American under the age of 60 can even imagine such a thing. Anyway, we lived there quite happily in our TV-less condition from ‘66 till we moved to San Antonio in ‘68 I think it was. So we missed all but the last year of the show when it was on in primetime.

Once I finally did see the show though, I was hooked. I never missed an episode if I could help it. Back then, you had just two shots at catching a TV show; miss the first one and that was it until the summer rerun. At the time I never dreamed that I would end up seeing every Star Trek episode in syndication several times over during the next 20 years. But without benefit of that foresight, back in ’68 and ’69, missing a single episode was a tragedy to the Star Trek loving 6th grader that I was. Oh, and my other favorite show on TV at the time was Batman. “...Same bat channel, same bat time...!"

I didn’t get the chance to be stunned when Star Trek was cancelled in 1969 because I wasn’t aware that it happened. By then the Air Force had already moved us back to Karamursel, Turkey. Star Trek was already in syndication by the time we got back to “TV land” USA late in 1970. I was delighted to find on TV every day after school one of my favorite shows ever.

I imagine the idea is quite intriguing to certain of us 60s kids that a movie now exists with insights into the time when all those beloved TV characters, first created 43 years ago, came to be together as young Federation Starship crewmembers. Kirk, Uhura, Sulu, “Bones” McCoy, Checkov, Spock, Scotty—all the primary cast is in it, but portrayed about a dozen years before we got to know them as “Shatner’s crew” on the TV series. Kirk and Spock are shown even younger, as 12 year old “wild childs,” each going through their own unique character-defining tribulations.

Now, I’m not a Trekkie—I doubt that I even spelled it right; I just know I’ve loved the TV show from the beginning. Truth is though; it was the character interplay that inspired my interest, more so even than the show’s science fiction adventure scenes, which were pretty darn cool for the time.

Having said that, my few beefs with Star Trek 2009 are with certain character portrayals, along with some issues I have with a couple of the relationships.

For instance, let’s start with Scotty, the loveable Scottish engineer. The young Scotty in ST 09 is nothing at all like the older Scotty from the TV show, and that deeply disappointed me since I loved the concept of the original older one. The young one can be best described as a bit of an eccentric nutcase genius. That makes no sense. Why would the young engineer Scott be so far over the top compared to the more levelheaded man he evidently becomes? It just doesn’t work that way. I have to say I do not like the newest interpretation of the young Scott. Sorry.

The new Uhura is just too physically hot. The original one was a babe but not a Barbie model like this new girl. She loses credibility for me. As you can see, I’m a purist. They should have found an actress that more closely resembled the Uhura from the TV show.

As far as Young Spock, I just don’t think he matches up well physically with Leonard Nimoy, who even now at 78, seems wider and more robust than the young wannabe Spock. I don’t know, the ST 09 Spock version comes across as a petulant insubstantial butthead. The writers have him give the young Kirk a hard time, and I realize the plot calls for it, but it didn’t sit well with me. I liked the old Spock against whom the younger one just doesn’t measure up. Take their voices for instance. Nimoy speaks in a distinctive baritone, while the young pretender’s voice lacks a similar resonance that would make him believable. Again, sorry, it just doesn’t work. Find a new Spock for the next one. It ain’t just about the ears and a vague resemblance.

New Sulu matches up pretty well with the old one, although the original Sulu, George Takei, has a much more distinctive voice. So again, it’s similar to the Spock voice comparison problem, but I’m not as worried about it. The ST 09 Sulu has a couple of spectacular daredevil scenes with the young Kirk, which were very cool and very well done. So thumbs up for new Sulu.

The new Checkov is not as good as the original. The 60’s Checkov showed more natural humor and flare. Perhaps I’m not being fair though, since Checkov doesn’t have a lot of lines in this flick. Even a long movie doesn’t provide enough time to develop all the characters. Oh well, sorry new Checkov. Better luck in what I hope will be an ST 11?

James T. Kirk is of course the primary protagonist in the new Star Trek, as well he should be. I like this younger Kirk, although for me he’s a reinvention. It would have been great if they could have captured more of the physical essence of the Shatner version of Kirk, but I suppose that is too much to ask. As I think back on the 60s Captain K though, the new guy does perfectly capture the impulsivity of the original. In many ways this is the closest match of new to old, and since this is the most important character trait that means this movie gets a big thumbs up from me.

Now, for the relationship issues I spoke of earlier; I can think of at least three worthy of discussion—first, Spock and Kirk compete for the sexual attentions of Uhura; second, the Spock versus Kirk conflict; and third, the lack of lighthearted friction between “Bones” McCoy and Spock.

Having to watch Kirk and Spock try to bed down with the new “Hottie Uhura” kind of creeped me out. I wasn’t expecting that. I think I dimly remember a brief romantic interlude from the 60s TV ST involving Uhura and Kirk, but for the life of me I don’t remember Spock showing much sexuality at all, except for that one episode where he went into an animalistic mindless "rutting" mode, during which he tried to kill Kirk in mortal combat (remember when Jim Carey reenacted that scene in "The Cable Guy"? Classic!). I don’t know why, but Spock's otherwise complete emotional self-management always appealed to me. I loved his total self control. As an angsty young male teen I wanted to be just like him in that way.

In this movie however; try as he might, Kirk cannot get Uhura interested, and boy does he ever try. Nope, instead, shamelessly she practically throws herself at Spock. And yes, in ST 09 Spock and Uhura do the bedspring nasty. Ahem. I’m still reeling over it. There are some things that should not be tampered with and putting Spock and Uhura into the same rack falls into the “bad idea” category.

In this modern "back to the future" ST 09, Spock and Kirk are at complete odds; enemies even, especially as far as Spock is concerned. Perfectionist Spock is a stickler for following all regs and rules, while upstart maverick Kirk bends rules and pushes envelopes. Spock outranks Kirk in the beginning and the “pointy eared one” even seeks to bust his future friend and eventual superior out of the Starship Academy for "cheating" on a battle simulation test. Interestingly, in the end, Spock’s stoic brand of ever logical genius is beaten out by Kirk’s paradigm popping cowboy style. I loved it, because that is exactly one of the main themes repeated in the original TV series. Perfect.

A minor letdown for me with the movie was the lack of playful discord that I expected to see between Spock and McCoy. I was hoping to see the beginnings of the never-ending argument the two of them would eventually get into concerning Spock’s insistence on the universal application of logic versus McCoy’s endless irritation with that philosophy. It seems like half the TV episodes ended on that note of comedic relief. If ST 09 would have ended like that I would have given it an A+; without it, I grade it a B. And it isn't just for the humor that I so loved the tete-a-tete between those two; the argument they made is an important one and always will be. It appeals to me even now.

Overall, Star Trek 2009 has a good story line, lots of great spine-chilling action, and does a passably fair job with character development. If I’d known what I know now before seeing it, I have to say I would have gone ahead and checked it out. So yes, I recommend it. Go see it if you haven't; especially if you liked the old TV Star Trek. If you did, I predict you’ll likely enjoy ST 09.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Christian Bale: Terminated!

The new terminator movie is out over here but you couldn’t PAY me enough to watch it—EVER! NEVER! No WAY!

Why? Because Christian Bale is in it.

There was a time when I was fascinated with that man’s work. As a child actor in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Bale was pure brilliance. In fact I thought he showed genius in just about everything I had seen him in, UNTIL I heard him ranting on the set of this movie.

My first thought, ‘What a jerk.’ But no, as he continued I realized that he’s not just a jerk, he’s a spoiled tyrant. In fact, I’m listening to him again right now and I feel absolute hatred for the man while I listen to his bullying profanity. He’s giving the lighting technician unbelievable hell for crossing into his field of vision during a take. I’m imagining that it is me on the receiving end and in response I also imagine kicking him in the “special place.” If any man ever deserved a well placed kick, or better yet, a bitch slap across his filth spewing mouth, it’s this miserable excuse for a human being. Any man that would speak to another like what I’m hearing right now deserves nothing but scorn.

From now on, whenever I see Christian Bale, I’ll hear this foul tirade against a man who seems to be trying to offer an apology in return; against a man who is attempting to be respectful in the face of Bale’s incessant viciousness.

Bale is a bully, and my life has been much defined by bullies like him. I hate them whenever I spot them, and Bale, YOU are a bully. Obviously if he tried that crap on any normal person that didn’t have to worry about keeping their job, at best, they’d tell this prima donna to kiss it, and better yet, knock him on his loud-mouthed butt.

It isn’t just the vile language that has me so pissed off, as I said; it’s the bullying behind the invective that I find so despicable. Clearly he is going after a man who cannot respond in kind without likely losing his job. It’s like stomping on a kitten.

I could even accept “a moment.” I mean everyone loses their temper, but in this case, Bale goes on and on and on. He doesn’t stop. He even baits the guy for crying out loud. He actually seems to be trying to create “something from nothing.” No, Bale in this horrible interminable screen rant shows not only unprofessionalism as an actor, he displays the very worst behavior that a human being can show—the man is a loathsome monster.

I saw a TV interview with the director, or maybe it was the producer of the movie and this sap was trying to take some of the pressure off Bale by claiming that the whole miserable affair is mostly his fault for not better controlling the set. By that, this director/producer fellow evidently means that he should have kept a better reign over the wayward set technicians, and even more importantly, better control over unauthorized recordings made on the set.

Maybe the director SHOULD take responsibility for this. After all, it is true that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. I mean If not for this ugly side of him on tape I would still be a Christian Bale fan, but dude, the cat’s out of the bag now—it’s too late pal. I’m one of those fans that cannot separate how I feel about the actor from what he does on the screen.

Some will say, “Hey, give the man a break; after all, he apologized and did so convincingly.” My answer: He’s a brilliant actor, of course he’s convincing, but if his repulsive outburst hadn’t been u-tubed throughout the entire world would he STILL have apologized? Probably not, and now that I’ve seen who this guy really is, as BB King sings, the thrill is gone baby, the thrill is gone.

In other words, there are a lot of movies to watch out there, and I will only see a fraction of them. And now, after this, Bale has made it that much easier to pick and choose from the movies I WON’T see—Terminator: Salvation is now first on my list of movies NOT to see.

I just listened to it one more time. Hearing it fresh, I will take great pleasure in NEVER seeing anything that jerk EVER does EVER again.