Movie Defense and Theological Treatise: Stranger Than Fiction

Carol and I went to see another movie sans child over the past weekend. It’s Stranger Than Fiction, which is a film where Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, hears a voice in his head. It also features Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Linda Hunt, Tom Hulce (all but unrecognizable) and Tony Hale (Arrested Development’s “Buster” Bluth).

We liked it very much. You’ll laugh, you may cry. Go see it. I particularly related to the baker who feels cynical about her government, played by Gyllenhaal.

One of the criticisms I’ve read about this film is that the Zach Helm-penned work seems very much in the style of writer Charlie Kaufman. In fact, the CRITICAL CONSENSUS at is:
“A fun, whimsical tale about about an office drone trying to save his life from his narrator. The cast obviously is having a blast with the script, but Stranger Than Fiction’s tidy lessons make this metaphysical movie feel like Charlie Kaufman-lite.”


I’ve seen three Kauffman films: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which was my favorite movie of that year, and which Carol also loved; Adaptation (2002), which seemed to lose its way, both Carol and I felt; and the very fine Being John Malkovich (1999). Like “Stranger Than Fiction”, they’re all “quirky”, in-the- head films, but the similarities are superficial, I feel.

If anything, it is more like The Truman Show (1998), written by Andrew Niccol. Both feature a character played by an actor best known as a comedian – Jim Carrey in “Truman” – and both feature a force who controls the action, a character who is a godlike being. The powerful entity in The Truman Show with the not-insignificant name of Christof, played by Ed Harris, is a reflection of predestination, or, in the words of the Messiah in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, “Everything is fixed, and you can’t change it.” Christof, when Truman discovers the secret, gets to say one of my all-time favorite lines in all moviedom, “Cue the sun!” (A former pastor once did a sermon entitled “Cue the Son” after this movie came out.) Christof is a remote, calculating character whose existence Truman is unaware of for most of the film.

Whereas, Ana Eiffel, the neurotic, chain-smoking novelist suffering from writer’s block, played by Thompson, is very present in Harold Crick’s life. He hears her all the time, though he doesn’t quite know what it means. As with most people who hear voices, others think he’s crazy, but ultimately, there is dialogue between creator (and especially her surrogate) and her creation. I don’t want to give away plot points, but I’ve assigned theological role for the characters played by Hoffman, Latifah, Hulce, Hunt, and even Harold’s watch. Maybe I’ll address this after the movie’s been out a while.

The other main criticisms are whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, which I find unnecessarily reductivist (in other words, what does it matter?), and the ending, which I think the movie comes by honestly.
A positive review from USA Today.

Tom the Dog loved it!

The NPR reviewer is a fan, too.

Television, Part 2: November 2006

I’m waiting in front of my bank Monday night for some bank officials to fix the ATM when I see the local ABC affiliate, WTEN-TV – Channel 10, taping a segment with some folks from an ambulance company. It took at least a half hour to get what was likely a 90-second segment. What struck me, though, was the ambulance pulling out with the siren going and the lights flashing JUST so the cameraman could get a good shot! The siren and lights came off a block later.
I’ve been enjoying the continuing saga about Tom the Dog trying to get onto a game show called 1 Vs. 100. The first and only time I’ve seen the show was for 20 minutes on CNBC on Thanksgiving night. Hey, Tom, how do those lifelines (or whatever they call them) work?
A show I HAVE seen once or twice, JEOPARDY!, finished their celebrity tournament last week – I finished watching it only yesterday – which was fun because I had strong rooting interests daily. In order:
R-rooting to win; T-thought would win, W-won
Carson Kressly R (who only lost because he bet poorly)
Regis Philbin TW
At least the dreadful Nancy Grace didn’t win

Jane Kaczmarek RT
Curt Shilling
Doug Savant W -I guess I shouldn’t underestimate someone named Savant

Sam Waterston RT
Kathyrn Erbe
Christopher Meloni W

Neil Patrick Harris TW
Bebe Neuwirth R
James Denton

Isaac Mizrahi
Harry Shearer RW
Soledad O’Brien T

Miguel Ferrer W
Steve Schirripa
Harry Smith RT

Brian Stokes Mitchell R
Drew Lachey
Dana Delany TW

Martin Short R -who was a TERRIBLE player
Mario Cantone W
Joely Fisher T

Scott Turrow TW
Susan Lucci
Paul Schaffer R

Hill Harper
Margaret Spellings
Michael McKean RTW

So two of my rooting interests – both from “Spinal Tap” – won, though I’ve always liked Dana Delany and Neil Patrick Harris as well. Five of the ten I thought would win actually won.
The folks who do the advertising rates haven’t been able to get an agreement with advertisers over how to count viewing via DVR, according to the November 13th Ad Age magazine. For adults 25 to 54 in DVR homes – comprising at least 10% of the viewers – on the prime TV battleground of Thursday at 9 pm ET, Grey’s Anatomy gets a 7.9 rating in real time, but if one adds the real time viewers PLUS those who watch it within seven days, the number jumps to 18.2. Likewise, the numbers for the original CSI are 6.2 and 14.2, respectively. For non-DVR homes, the numbers are 10.4 and 9.4, respectively. This means that viewing for this audience segment is 75% higher for Grey’s and 51% higher for CSI in DVR homes. I watch probably 95% of TV timeshifted, even the evening news, which I watch after Lydia’s gone to bed.
I saw 60 Minutes from a week and a half ago, all about Ed Bradley, and the ABC News piece on Bradley’s funeral, and got sad all over again. He was good friends with Jimmy Buffett? Makes me respect Jimmy Buffett a whole lot more.
I noticed that Elizabeth Vargas has filled in for Charles Gibson on ABC’s World News on a couple Fridays and Thanksgiving Day. I wonder if it’s awkward. If Bob Woodruff hadn’t been injured in Iraq, it’s likely he and Vargas would still be co-anchors, even with her difficult pregnancy, rather than her being the substitute anchor.
There are a number of DVDs out this fall. The most intriguing to me is M*A*S*H – Martinis and Medicine Complete Collection of the 11 seasons. This was one of my Top 10 shows. But it’s not the $200 (or slightly less) that’s the sticking point, it’s whether I would actually watch it enough to make it worth my while. I just haven’t watched most of my DVDs or VHS tapes much in the past three years. Surely, if I did, I’d also be inclined to get another of my Top 10 shows, Homicide: Life on the Street – Complete Series Megaset, which is retailing for nearly $300, though available for about half that.
I’ve been watching less and less television, still something north of 10 hours a week. But I started the season thinking: “Well, this looks interesting, and THAT looks interesting, and so-and-so recommends the other.” But the winnowing has begun, and I’m surprised by two of the dropped programs.

The one I’m not is The Nine. OK, the bank is robbed, then they get out, and live their lives. Their post-hostage lives aren’t very compelling, and I just don’t feel like being drawn back into that bank again and again, where I KNOW the guard and one of the tellers will be killed.

30 Rock: Lots of people whose opinion I respect like this show. Oddly, the best way to explain my disdain for it is to describe a scene on the OTHER Saturday Night Live-inspired show, Studio 60. Simon and Danny, at the former’s urging, go to a club to see a black comedian. Simon, who is a black performer on Studio 60, sees the schtick for less than a minute, then walks out. Watching Tracy Morgan on the second or third episode of 30 Rock doing some jivin’ riff, I said, “I don’t need this,” shut it off in mid-episode, deleted it, deleted the next yet unwatched episode, and removed it from the DVR recording schedule. I thought Tina Fey, who I really like, was pretty undefined as a character, and whatever charm Alec Baldwin brings was not enough to stay with it.

Ugly Betty: I REALLY wanted to like this show. The local TV critic likes it, Lefty likes it, Mrs. Lefty likes it. I was…bored. I think it was that I didn’t LIKE anyone on the show, really, except Betty. Her boss was a boor, her neighbor who got into a fight over a proof that Betty took home was obnoxious, her family members were cyphers. Then there are the folks we’re SUPPOSED to not like, the Vanessa Williams character, her henchman, and Betty’s office nemesis.

Conversely, my favorite show, surprisingly, is Men in Trees. It’s less because of Marin, Anne Heche’s character, who may be the least interesting major character on the show, but it’s the rich crew of supporting folks, with very interesting backstories. ABC’s moving it from the Friday night desert to Thursday after Grey’s Anatomy, at least for a while. Of course, if they move it AGAIN, as is rumored, it’ll be three time slots in one season, a good way to kill off a show.

This means that Six Degrees, which I’m still watching, is on hiatus until sometime in January. The local TV guy described this thusly: “The cast (including Jay Hernandez and Erika Christensen and several unfamiliar faces), but this series doesn’t do enough to make us care how or why these people are crossing paths.” I would say “The cast (including Hope Davis and Campbell Scott and several unfamiliar faces)…” And it is the two cast members of The Secret Lives of Dentists that have kept me interested enough, so far.
The other new show I’m watching is Brothers and Sisters. It’s a real family values program.
The youngest is an Iraq war vet with a drug issues and a problem with relationships.
Another brother is a gay lawyer with a problem with relationships.
The other brother is married, nags his baby brother, but uses the sperm from both his brothers to get his wife pregnant because he’s “shooting blanks”
Republican talk show host who supported the war, but who tried to get her brother out of going back again.
The head of the family company with a VERY patient husband and a couple kids.

The father of this tribe, who owned the company, died in the first episode, and the kids try to protect their mom from her late husband’s flaws (fiscal impropriety, a long-time mistress with whom he had a child).
Oh, the widow’s brother now has a romantic feelings for his late brother-in-law’s mistress.
Can you say soap opera? Yet, the family members do love each other, try to protect each other. I’m watching it mostly for Sally Field as the matriarch.

Television: November 2006

I think the removal of Lost from the schedule in the middle of November – smack dab during that evil construct known as sweeps month – was a bold move. Its replacement, Deja Vu, I mean Day Break which I won’t watch, seems to be doing OK , ratings-wise. Will this become a new model, especially for serialized shows?

Some people get SO bent out of shape when their show’s pre-empted or is in rerun or doesn’t start right away. Not I. I’m perfectly happy that Scrubs won’t start until this Thursday. It’ll still be 22 episodes – and three pregnancies.

I’m SO happy Dancing with the Stars is over. I don’t think my wife fully realized that I was upstairs working on my blog, when she (and often, Lydia) were watching it, for a reason. So, the answer to the question, “Do you want to see Emmitt Smith’s free-style dance? It’s REALLY good!” is NO, thank you. Now, it’s skating season, during which she tells me that I’ll really want to see some woman skater lifting her male partner over her head. That answer is also in the negative.

There’s a new show called My Boys, which starts tonight on TBS. I’m thinking of watching the pilot because I am interested in the notion of men and women as friends. Most of my friends are female, and have been since I was 10. But the real selling point is that Jim Gaffigan appears in it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen his stand-up that people know rave about – he’s been on Conan O’Brien and David Letterman about a dozen times each – but I have liked him in series such as “The Ellen Show” and “Ed”.

I’ve been reading a lot about different forms of apologies. Lots of people do the “I’m sorry if I’ve offended you” in a way that it appears that it is YOUR fault for being offended. In that context, I thought Michael Richards’ apology for his racist rant was sincere, public (already removed by YouTube at CBS’s request, alas), and quick (although not quickly enough for this columnist). The Letterman show may not have been the best venue, though, since he was not actually present in the studio, so people thought it was supposed to be a humorous bit. So he goes on Jesse Jackson’s radio show,as he did a couple days ago, he goes on something else, etc. The added benefit is that, in time, and continued honest contrition, perhaps it’ll go the way of Hugh Grant’s indiscretion, forgiven if not forgotten.

The peculiar aspect of this story, which I read Saturday, is how Kenny Kramer, the inspiration for Cosmo Kramer, Richards’ character on Seinfeld, has gotten “15 to 20 interviews” about the incident. Kenny Kramer’s statement: “I know the public is smart enough to realize that Michael Richards’ personal actions in no way reflect on the character he portrayed on television or me, Kenny Kramer, the real person that the character was based on.” So he says. Surreal.
Conversely, FOX’s apology over the O.J. deal reeks of “see how sensitive we are in responding to your needs, public!” as opposed to “What WERE we thinking?”

Truth is, though, when the book/TV show package was first announced, it had no appreciable effect on me, other than, “Eh, FOX being tacky again.” I received unsolicited e-mails wanting me to tell NewsCorp and/or Simpson I wasn’t going to buy the book or watch the show. Well, I wasn’t going to watch the show, and I’m not going to buy the book – they exist, and I’ve read in the Wall Street Journal that some have sold on eBay for $100 or more, with someone offering to sell it for $1000 before it was taken down – but I wasn’t moved to sign online petitions. Now, after the cancellation, there’s the post-mortem. If you look at the Amazon discussion site about this book, you’d think it was 1995 all over again, with discussions of guilt/innocence and race, with a new twist: censorship.

Oh, see what IS on e-Bay.

I have officially ODed on Rachael Ray. Those of you not from around here (Albany, NY) may only know her from her various Food Network programs, her new Oprahfied syndicated show, and her appearances on other shows, not to mention magazine articles and now boxes of Nabisco crackers, fercrinoutloud. But folks from my area have already seen her for a couple years as the spokesperson for a local food chain (Price Chopper) and a furniture store. Still, I do feel sorry for the local gal makes good, as she now appears on the cover of the National Inquirer; her husband allegedly cheated on her.

Those Capital One ads are very deceptive. Over a year ago, the Minnesota Attorney General’s office filed legal action against the company. And a recent Business Week article really lays it out:
By offering multiple cards, the lender helps land some subprime borrowers in a deep hole and boosts its earnings with fee income.

When Brad Kehn received his first credit card from Capital One Financial Corp. in 2004, it took him only three months to exceed its $300 credit limit and get socked with a $35 over-limit fee. But what surprised the Plankinton (S.D.) resident more was that Cap One then offered him another card even though he was over the limit — and another and another. By early 2006, he and his wife had six Cap One Visa and MasterCards. They were in over their heads.

The couple was late and over the limit on all six cards, despite occasionally borrowing from one to pay the other. Every month they chalked up $70 in late and over-limit fees on each card, for a total of $420, in addition to paying penalty interest rates. The couple fell further behind as their Cap One balances soared. Even so, they still received mail offers for more Cap One cards until they sought relief at a credit counseling agency this May…

Credit card experts and counselors who help overextended debtors say there’s nothing crazy about it. Cap One, they contend, is simply aiming to maximize fee income from debtors who may be less sophisticated and who may not have many options because of their credit history. By offering several cards with low limits, instead of one with a larger limit, the odds are increased that cardholders will exceed their limits, garnering over-limit fees. Juggling several cards also increases the chance consumers may be late on a payment, incurring an additional fee. And if cardholders fall behind, they pile up over-limit and late fees on several cards instead of just one. “How many more ways can I fool you?” says Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor who has written extensively on the card industry. “That is all this is about.”

Consumers may not be the only ones who are unaware of Cap One’s ways. Its practice of issuing multiple cards to some borrowers with low credit ratings doesn’t appear well-known in the investment community. And just how much Cap One relies on fee income, vs. interest, is a mystery, since, like most lenders, it doesn’t disclose that. All credit card companies have become more reliant on fee income in recent years, but in a report issued in 2002, William Ryan, an investment analyst at Portales Partners, warned that Cap One’s earnings could be “devastated” if regulators cracked down on multiple cards or fees…

In a written response to questions, Cap One acknowledges that it offers multiple cards. “Our goal is to offer products that meet our customers’ needs and appropriately reflect their ability to pay,” it says. The company also stated: “Within our current U.S. portfolio, the vast majority of Capital One customers have only one Capital One credit card with a very small percentage choosing to have three or more cards.” Spokeswoman Tatiana Stead declined to offer precise numbers or to say whether households with three or more cards were concentrated among “subprime” borrowers, who have low credit ratings.

The nation’s fifth-largest credit card issuer, with $49 billion in U.S. credit card receivables as of the end of June, McLean (Va.)-based Cap One is a major lender to the subprime market. According to Cap One’s regulatory filings, 30% of its credit card loans are subprime. Representatives of 32 credit counseling agencies contacted by BusinessWeek say that Cap One has long stood out for the number of cards it’s willing to give to subprime borrowers. “In the higher-risk market, no lender is more aggressive in offering multiple cards,” says Kathryn Crumpton, manager of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Milwaukee. Other big card-industry players that do subprime lending include Bank of America, Chase, and Citigroup. Representatives for Chase and Citigroup say they do not offer multiple cards to subprime customers. (BofA did not respond to inquiries.)

Last year, West Virginia Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw Jr. filed an action in state court seeking documents from Cap One related to its issuance of multiple cards, as well as other credit practices. Other than that, however, Cap One’s practices do not appear to have drawn regulatory scrutiny. A spokesman for the Federal Reserve, Cap One’s primary federal overseer, declined to comment about Cap One, but said that in general the regulator doesn’t object to multiple cards. Still, Fed guidelines warn multiple-card lenders to analyze the credit risk tied to all the cards before offering additional ones…

Analysts, including Carl Neff, ratings director on card securitizations for Standard & Poor’s, say Cap One tells investors that it carefully controls risk by giving such borrowers only small lines of credit. Indeed, the largest percentage of Cap One’s 28 million credit-card accounts, 43%, have balances of $1,500 or less, according to its SEC filings…

So, several states are alleging, the notion that one won’t get hit by high fees by using Capital One is not supported by Cap One practices. “What’s in YOUR wallet?” Indeed.
From MSNBC: A seven-minute video about The Beatles’ LOVE album that I hope you can open; I could at work, but not at home. It features George Martin and his son, the two surviving Beatles, and the two Beatle widows.

(Local) music, music, music, mostly

Before that, though, I should note the passing of someone I met only once, Dave Cockrum, who died this week. The cover pictured is for the X-Men Chronicles, published by FantaCo in the early 1980s. As editor of the publication, I arranged with Dave, the artist who helped revive the X-Men, to have the cover drawn and sent up to us. Unfortunately, Dave got a little behind. So I took a train from Albany to NYC, to the Marvel offices, and met Dave. He gave me the painted cover – WHICH WAS STILL WET! He was very pleasant and apologetic. I carried the cover carefully on the subway back to the train station, then back up to Albany.

Read more about Dave here (November 26) and here.
As part of the Victorian Stroll in downtown Troy, St. Paul’s Choir and guest singers [including me] will once again perform Messiah, DECEMBER 3 at 4 o’clock. It should last until about 5:30 p.m.
I’d probably cast out of my church choir if I didn’t mention that we’re doing our annual VESPERS service:

The Chancel choir and orchestra of First Presbyterian Church, 362 State Street, Albany, under the direction of Victor Klimash, will perform Mozart’s Vesperae de Dominica as part of an Advent Vespers service on Sunday, December 10, at 7:30 p.m.

Soloists include Deborah Rocco, soprano, Fiona McKinney, alto, Paul D’Arcy, tenor,
and Allan Kirk, bass . In addition, the orchestra will play two Symphonies de Noel by Michel-Richard de Lalande. For further information, call the church at 449-7332 or check the website at

The program is free. Parking available on the street or in Washington Park.
The 15-year old daughter – a girl I’ve known all of her life – of an old friend of mine plays the French Horn for the Empire State Youth Orchestra. On Thursday December 7 a portion of any purchase one makes at the Wolf Road Barnes & Noble will be donated to ESYO. You’ll need a voucher, and I’ll e-mail one to you.
Emmanuel Baptist Church, 275 State St., Albany announces a holiday concert, “The Three Divas of Christmas”, featuring local vocalists, Bienvenida Baez, my bud Deborah Rocco, and Alaina Warren Zachary accompanied by Michael Clement. It will be held December 16, 7:30 p.m. A reception will follow. Suggested donation is $15 plus a non-perishable item for the food pantry. 465-5161

This is a benefit for the renovation of Emmanuel Baptist Church. An urban church, nearly 175 years old with a gothic, cathedral-like structure, Emmanuel is creating a very different worship space and a new designated space for the FOCUS Interfaith Food Pantry which is housed at the church.
Finally, The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilts will be on display in Albany at the Empire State Plaza from today through Friday. The display is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 27th, Tuesday, Nov. 28th and Thursday, Nov. 30; from 9 a.m. to 8 pm on Wednesday, Nov. 29th; and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 1, 2006. This display is a partnership of the New York State Department of Health, the Capital Region of the NAMES Project and HIV/AIDS Community-Based Organizations. The display is part of observances for World AIDS Day, December 1, 2006. I’ll be working on Thursday from 1 to 5 p.m. this year.

The Lydster, Part 32: Brought to You By the Letter L

It’s only been in the last month or so that every time Lydia sees a capital L, she says, “That’s my name!” And it’s not only her initial she’s glommed onto. Every A represents her friend Alex, e.g.

EVERYTHING with a right angle is an L now. She took a bite out of a Wheat Thin from the corner, and the resulting figure: “That’s my name!” She sees a check mark and proclaims the same. We have these refrigerator magnets which we’ve been using to trace her name. OK, just the L, so far.

It only occurred to me after she was named that her initials are the same as my father’s. Those of you with degrees in psychology: please discuss, and get back to me about the existential significance of that.

The interesting thing about child development is that it ‘s so non-linear. On the same night (Friday) we’re off at Grandma and Grandpa’s and she asks to use the toilet, rather than the potty for the first time is the same night she decides to sleep with Mommy and/or Daddy again.

Anyway, she’s more interesting to me all the time. Happy 2 2/3, my child.

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