Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Good Day Sunshine

Around 3:15 today I realized something with a shock: I had completely forgotten about posting today.

At that point in time I was heading back home from a 2-hour-long, 10,000+ step (thanks, FitBit) walk along Lake Michigan, which is one of my favorite things in the world to do.

Yesterday was the first time in 2015 that I ventured out for a walk rather than hiding from the cold in the gym. But today was even warmer ("warm" in Chicago = 45 degrees) and sunnier and I'd gotten all of my client work done so I decided to go for a really, really long hike.

Around this time of the year, it's more of an adventure than anything. I have to wear my ugly brown waterproof New Balances, I need to make peace with the fact that my pants will have lines of mud splayed up the back by the time I get home, I need to jump over huge puddles, constantly keep my eyes peeled for mounds of goose poop, and leap from boulder to boulder when I'm on some more precarious parts of the mostly-still-snowed-over path closest to the water.

But I have a ton of fun. Today I went down to the beachfront, which does not look like beachfront. I actually don't know what this looks like.

Not bathing suit ready just yet.

Cracked, dry desert? Tundra? Rotting sand dunes? Small mountains? Modern art?

I nearly killed myself climbing up the tallest hill to get this shot and I'm not sure the effort was worth it. But the walk was. And I still got my post done!

- e

Monday, March 09, 2015

What is Your "Claim to Fame"?

Do you have something that you consider to be your "claim to fame"? Longtime readers of this blog might remember that back in 2008 I wrote about how up until that point, I'd never eaten a taco. I was wondering if a thing I had while on vacation in Mexico finally qualified. (The consensus was that it did.)

I still use the "Madonna went to my high school" tidbit referenced in that same post whenever I'm in a situation that requires an "interesting fact about you." But my other go-to statement that tends to shock people is that I've never had coffee. As in, I've never even tried it. Not one sip. This seems to blow a lot of people's minds. Apparently even those who don't consider themselves to be coffee drinkers have at least tried the stuff at some point.

But not me. Not even coffee-flavored ice cream. Not even one of those fancy drinks at Starbucks that has a ton of other stuff in it along with a tiny bit of coffee. NO COFFEE.

There's no reason for this except that I think even the smell of coffee is gross. I know there are people who can't get up in the morning unless they smell a freshly brewed pot of joe wafting through their house. That's something I don't understand.

Know anyone like this?I'm a tea girl, but even with that I'm not too extreme. I have one big mug of Earl Grey each morning and that's it. I'm not too happy if something causes me to have to skip that mug, but I don't transform into a terrible beast in search of caffeine, either.

My husband actually drinks neither. He'll have a bowl of cereal in the morning or a banana or something, but no caffeine. (He will drink coffee or an espresso at restaurants every now and then, though, so he can't steal my no-coffee-ever-whatsoever thunder.)

I'm curious to see if anyone else has one of these claims to fame that they're oddly proud of—something that seems to truly surprise people?

- e

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Problem with Reminders

Of course I picked a fox graphic
Last month I wrote about the four methods I use to help me remember stuff. But I didn't mention the ridiculous lengths I go to in order to remind my husband to do one simple thing almost every single day.

Here's the situation: We bought the three condos in our building with the intention of one day converting them into a single home. But right now, and for the next few years at least, we have these three separate condo units with separate kitchens, separate entrances, and separate electric and gas bills.

My husband goes to our top floor pretty much every night to work on his music. When he's not up there, we want to keep the thermostat waaay down—warm enough so that the pipes won't freeze, but low enough so that our heating bills don't bankrupt us. We do the same thing for our second level, which is where I work during business hours on the weekdays. Each morning I crank up the heat, and each day when I'm done I turn it back to 55. This practice is second nature to me now. I don't even have to think about it. I never forget to do it.

If not, turn around, climb back up 3 flights and DO ITUnfortunately my husband hasn't made the "turning down of the heat" a routine yet. When we were hitting a total of $700 per month in gas bills across the three units, I totally spazzed out at him and found many creative ways to yell, "WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET YOU TO REMEMBER TO TURN DOWN THE HEAT?!?!"

But nothing I did worked. I'd go up to the third floor before I'd start my day and dammit if it wasn't warm and toasty up there, meaning that the furnace had been cranking nonstop throughout the night for absolutely no reason.

So then I started putting signs at his eye level on both the door our of the third-floor condo and the door at the end of our stairwell, thinking that would HAVE to work because he'd pass both on his way back downstairs. And it did for about a week. But then even those reminders failed and I'd find the thermostat at 70 in the morning.

I would email him before I knew he was coming down. I would call him. I would text him. Nothing was able to drive it into his head permanently.

My latest tactic is that I've taped a sign right onto the handle of the door he'll go out of so that it's really in his way. But honestly I still don't have faith that this is a permanent solution.

FOR THE LOVE OF GODAnd then today I realized that he's become dependent on all of the nightly reminders I would text and email him to the point that he's ignoring the signs I've hung. He's not even consciously registering them. This notion hit me because I saw some article online about how "spring forward" is this weekend, and I had to laugh because I NEVER remember when the spring forward/fall back dates are on my own because for whatever reason, my mom still emails me reminders about turning our clocks to the right time on the day we're supposed to do this. If my mom stopped reminding me, I would be lost. I've become dependent on those messages twice a year.

So now I really don't know what to do to get my husband to internalize this heating-bill issue. If you're wondering why the aforementioned $700 wasn't enough, it's because I'm the one who actually pays our bills and manages the finances, so it's not front and center in his life. He's not "going without" because of that extra expense. He definitely does realize this is a huge problem and that it's solely his fault, yet he's just not putting those thoughts into repeatable actions every night.

Will publicly shaming him on the Internet like this do the trick? Stay tuned for next month's bill totals to find out! And does anyone else out there have an issue like this? Misery loves company...

- e

Thursday, March 05, 2015

When Momentum Turns Against You

It's either for you or against you
So the last time I wrote a real post here was February 12. (The two more recent film reviews are copies of what I post on Redblog.)

I'd been doing so well. What happened?

I'll tell you what happened: momentum got the best of me. As you may remember, I had guests here for Walker Stalker Con for a week at the end of February. My Scottish friend Paul was set to arrive first on February 18 and would be leaving February 24. In between those two dates I'd also have Jo, her partner Lisa and my parents here. I needed to not only have two floors of our place clean that I normally never clean (truth), but I also wanted to get all of my client work done in advance so that I could fully enjoy the time with my friends and not be stressing about deadlines or to-do's that didn't get done.

So I went dark in the days leading up to Paul's arrival, and had already told myself that it was fine to take a week off from this blog for the reason mentioned above.

The good news is this: Paul, Jo, Lisa and I had the best time ever. I'll dedicate one or two posts to their visit in the future so you can be jealous. But the bad news is that after everyone left and it was back to "real life," I couldn't motivate myself to write. At first the excuse was that I had so much to catch up on from the prior week. Then it was that I "deserved" a few days to mourn the fact that my awesome staycation was over and I had to face the freezing Chicago winter (and work) again. Then it was... well, then I didn't have a reason. I simply had fallen out of my morning writing routine and kept telling myself that it was OK to put off new posts because what would a few more days matter?

That pretty much sums it up.Along with not writing, I was also not going to the gym and not eating healthfully. I used the same "what's a few more days?" excuse—we'd all pigged out at top-notch restaurants around the city for a week... what harm would there be in continuing to overindulge for just a little while longer?

The harm is that I now feel totally disgusting, have gained 2 pounds and my face totally broke out from the shock of consuming almost no sugar or alcohol for months to ingesting dizzying amounts of sugar and lots of booze for the past few weeks.

Now I understand that the momentum (and pride and happiness) that had helped me sustain a month-long writing streak was a fragile thing. My past routine of writing a blog post early in the day had not formed into a hard-to-break habit yet, and so the momentum of not writing easily took over.

I suppose if keeping this blog alive wasn't really that important to me, the negative momentum would've been permanent. But I've truly enjoyed getting back to this type of personal expression. I think it's improved the work I do for clients, forced me to be more productive throughout the rest of the day, and has reconnected me with friends who share some of the weird traits, worries, obsessions and thoughts I post about.

It's soooooo easy to fall off of the wagon when it comes to goals I've set for myself that aren't easy to achieve. But the worst thing I could do is let my writing lapse "win," or let my new crappy-food-every-day habit continue. I'm not saying there will never be another good reason to take a short blogging break, but I think I'll be able to keep the satisfaction I feel from publishing something every day in the forefront of my mind just enough so that I'll resume my old schedule when that break is over.

And with that, I need to get to the gym to work off ALL THE CHOCOLATE.

- e

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Movie Review: Focus

Is she about to pickpocket him? FOCUS, Will, focus!

Will Smith reminds us why we liked him in the first place. (We never forgot why we like Margot Robbie.)

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

In Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky, a confident, smooth-talking con man who runs an organization of professional pickpockets and scammers. Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) plays Jess, a woman who leverages her looks to make cash through petty crimes and wants in on Nicky's next big scheme. There's an instant attraction between the two (who meet at a bar where she's relieving a drunk fool of his wallet), but because of the nature of the biz they're in, you can never be sure if they're playing each other, if they're being real with each other, or if there's a really, really long con afoot.

After Jess first pleads with Nicky to take her under his wing, he instead takes her out into the snow and gives her a lesson in focus (ahem), set to a jazzy, new-age instrumental that would've been more appropriate if they were in a W hotel lobby. That mood music was as out of place as a darker scene was near the end of the film. But in the middle of those two moments was a whole lot of fun and a bunch of pretty things to look at.

This is one of those movies where you'll catch yourself rooting for the "bad" guy—fast-paced pickpocketing sequences had me smiling ear to ear, amazed at how Nicky's team could lift countless wallets and watches while weaving through clueless crowds in New Orleans. Then about two seconds later I was like, "Wait, that's awful." And ever since I've been constantly touching my coat pockets and shifting my purse around when I'm walking outside because I'm convinced I'll be ripped off at any minute. So thanks for that, Will. Or I guess really I should be thank-scolding writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who clearly know a little something about charming bad boys (see Crazy, Stupid, Love).

Anyway, Jess proves herself by being able to up the stakes and improvise on the spot during the pickpocketing spree. The team pulls in $1.2 million for their efforts, and that's when we learn Nicky might not be the best person to trust with all of that cash.

To con or not to con?Eventually, Nicky gets an opportunity to make so many millions that he'll be set for life. The only problem is that Jess may or may not be on the other side of the scam, which involves Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a hotshot race car driver, and his right-hand crony Owens (Gerald McRaney, doing his best "Mike from Breaking Bad" impression).

There was so much glamour, so many expensive suits, so many expensive shades, so many cool cons and so much fun trash talk between Nicky, Jess and their crew throughout most of the film that it felt good to have the old Will Smith back. (Was the "take a knee" line Nicky uttered a jokey reference to the terrible After Earth, by the way? I don't even care, I'm telling myself it was.) But then Ficarra and Requa had to go and screw it up with a lame attempt at one last twist that reached too far and fell totally flat.

I'm still glad that Focus helped remind me why I liked Smith in the first place—I've been a fan since the Fresh Prince days and even saw him in concert. The film's a weird mix of heist flick and romantic dramedy, but it mostly works thanks to Smith and Robbie's looks (let's be honest) and performances. Just be forewarned that you're going to be conned out of a decent ending.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

This movie is going to make ten bazillion dollars.
It'll leave fans wanting more—and everyone else wondering what all the fuss is about.
- - - - - - - - - -
It was February 2012. I had seven weeks off after my son was born, and everything people had told me about not getting any sleep or not having any extra time when you're at home with a newborn wasn't turning out to be true. I had several hours free each day while he napped. I asked a friend what I should read during that downtime.

"Have you heard about Fifty Shades of Grey?" she asked. I hadn't. "Well, they're calling it 'mommy porn,' but everyone I know is reading it." Hmm.

I finished the entire Fifty Shades trilogy shortly thereafter in just a few sittings. Early on I was unnerved by the similarities to Twilight... until I learned how E.L. James' story was originally some sort of Twilight fanfic... and then it all made sense. James is a horrendous writer, butlike Stephenie Meyer before hershe's at least an intriguing storyteller. I was curious enough to learn what would become of kinky billionaire Christian Grey and his air-head "girlfriend" Anastasia Steele that I saw the trilogy through despite my shame at reading something that was so awfully written. Less than a month later, the book visited me again via the cover of the Entertainment Weekly that arrived on my doorstep. A movie was in the works.

And now, three years later, that movie has arrived. I can't say I liked the novels, but I have friends who could be classified as super-rabid-crazy-obsessed fans. For their sake, I was hoping that director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) did Christian and Ana (and their, um, unusual relationship) justice. And I believe that she did.
Make of this what you will.
Actually, it was likely a combination of Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) that saved the film from becoming a complete laughingstock. While they chose to keep in the majority of fan-favorite quotes and scenes from the book, gone are the absolute worst, most grating, and most disturbing parts. Which means film-only audiences will never know of the ultra-annoying "inner goddess" who dominates Anastasia's thoughts and is constantly, constantly yapping. Only once will they be subjected to a silly exclamation from Ana that starts with "Holy." They will see a very watered-down version of Christian the Mentally Abusive Control Freak; he comes off as a stalker in his pursuit of Ana, sure—but she's much more empowered in the adaptation.

However, the problem with taking out such big parts of the book is that you've got to replace them with something or there's just not much left to fill two hours. That's the biggest issue with Fifty Shades of Grey: it's about a recent college grad falling for a troubled, rich-as-hell businessman five years her senior who wants her to sign a contract to become his "submissive" in a BDSM relationship. The contract becomes the focus of the plot, which makes zero sense because 1) despite Christian (Jamie Dornan) claiming he "doesn't do romance," he makes almost all grand gestures associated with courtship, and 2) they sleep together, both in and out of his "playroom" without Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) ever signing the contract. What?!?

Knowing what happens in the next two novels, I'm surprised Johnson and Marcel didn't decide to tease a bit more of the trilogy's larger mysteries. Because honestly the whole contract thing became totally pointless.

I kinda wish they would've just let him BE Irish
So it came down to whether or not the leads could carry the film despite the weak plot. I just finished a two-season binge of The Fall, the Netflix series in which Dornan plays a serial killer. (It will 100% give you nightmares, but it's fantastic.) Because of that series, there was no doubt in my mind that Dornan is an incredible actor. In fact, some might argue that his character in The Fall has many things in common with Christian Grey. However, in Fifty Shades, his performance took a backseat to Johnson's. Perhaps that was intentional. Perhaps he was just supposed to show up and look good. Perhaps there didn't need to be any more to his character than the fact that he was a brooding billionaire with a kinky side. Lord knows the majority of female characters these days are one-note. If there was anything that made it tough for me to buy him as Christian, it was how he seemed to be struggling to contain his Irish accent.

As for Dakota Johnson, I knew nothing about her going into the film, except that she's Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson's daughter. I didn't see that in her looks, but man was it there when she opened her mouth. She's got her mom's same high, breathless voice. In an early scene where she first meets Christian, she trips and falls into his office and acts all doofus-embarrassed I was like, "Oh sweet jesus this is going to be awful." But she won me over not too long after that during a scene where Ana drunk-dials Christian from a bar. It was genuinely funny, and the fact that she was able to maintain a tricky balance of naivety, lightness and "I may be young but I wasn't born yesterday" tough-headed-nessespecially in a surprisingly humorous "negotiation" sequence where Ana strikes certain sexual acts from the aforementioned ridiculous contractmade the film's darker ending more powerful. And though the chemistry between Johnson and Dornan doesn't equal that of, say, a "Robsten" (who were dating in real life, remember), it is there.
Laters, baby.
Are you being like I was when I read the first book and wondering, "Where's all the sex?" Rest assured that there are sex scenes, and quite a few of them, but something tells me that the series' fans are going to be left disappointed on this front. Tune in to Game of Thrones any given Sunday and you'll find more freakiness that you're going to get between the film versions of Christian and Ana.

I was prepared to be just as embarrassed to admit I enjoyed Fifty Shades of Grey the movie as I was to admit I'd read the Fifty Shades trilogy. But the truth is that it's just not the horrible B-movie we were all expecting it to be. It's heavy on escapism, lighter-than-expected on sex and pretty much non-existent in plot, but I had fun watching it. And that's more than I can say about the majority of plot-challenged, testosterone-fueled, badly acted shoot-'em-up movies I've seen over the years. If this is what's meant by a "girls' night out" movie, I say bring it on.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Another Home Project I Should've Done Years Ago

We have two fairly low front windows that I've always liked because they're the perfect height for both Desmond and our dog to be able to entertain themselves by watching the action on our busy street. 

The problem is that our dog is, um, a little over-anxious when we leave sometimes. He jumps up on our window sill with his two front paws and barks like a madman at both us ("Come back!") and anyone else he sees ("Stay away!"). This destroyed the paint on our sill, and a year or so ago I stupidly thought that if we just sanded down and repainted the area and then always remembered to leave our blinds down when we left, we would be able to keep the sill nice-looking.

Our longtime handyman tried to warn us against this. But we didn't listen. So we got the sill repainted and then within about three days the paint was getting scratched by our dog. Then Des would roll all of his toy cars and trucks over those scratches and they'd break open and the paint would start flaking off. I kicked myself.

Here's a picture I took a few weeks ago. It got significantly worse after that.


So finally I determined that I needed to just follow our handyman's advice and have them install a wooden plank over the sill. We finally had it done today.

Bring on the dog nails and monster truck toys

Just like the sprucing up of my home office, this is another project I should've done years ago! Ah, well. Better late than never, I guess.

- e

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Joy of Remembering a Great Song

With so many platforms available to both find and listen to music these days, you can easily make a mix of your past and present favorites for your daily enjoyment. But you have to be able to remember those songs first.

Push it, push it some mo-oreMy issue is that I've simply forgotten about many of my really old favorites. Ones that were a little less popular in the mainstream so they never show up on an '80s channel or a Spotify/Amazon/iTunes/whatever pre-made playlist. Ones that I have to hear randomly on a TV show or in a movie or maybe once in a blue moon on the radio and then immediately email myself about them so I don't lose them again forever.

One such song that I recently rediscovered was a pretty cheesy one from my college years: "Sweat (A La La La La Long)," by Inner Circle. (I thought it was called "Girl, I'm Gonna Make You Sweat" until I just looked it up. I also didn't realize it was by the same group who sings "Bad Boys"—what?!?)

This song was part of the lunchtime mix at the hotel we stayed at this past November in CuraƧao. The first time I heard it there I totally spazzed out—it brought back great memories of Spring Breaks gone by. How I ensured I would remember it is that I took a video of Desmond eating lunch while it was playing in the background. If you feel like grooving to a reggae beat today, here's the official video. (I won't subject you to the one of a toddler eating fries.)

He ain't no sweet-talkin' RomeoAnother one I was even more excited about surprised me during the movie Wild (which was one of my top picks of 2014, by the way). As you may know, the film is based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who walks more than 1,000 miles across Pacific Coast Trail to make peace with her past. Music is incorporated in a very cool way throughout the movie, and at one point she's hiking and a song starts playing quietly in the background. She says something like, "Sing it with me, Bruce," and it grows louder. And then I could tell it was "Tougher than the Rest," which is one of my all-time favorite Springsteen songs. It was never released as a single in the U.S., but was on his Tunnel of Love album, and I went to that concert tour back in the day. It's now also on the Wild soundtrack.

Oh, how I used to looooooooove that song. I was overjoyed to hear it in Wild. It was like being reunited with a long-lost friend. But since I was in the middle of a theater, I couldn't email myself and then of course forgot about it by the time the credits rolled. Thankfully I watched the film again at home about a month later (a perk of the job: awards-screener DVDs) and then I was able to immediately remind myself to get it on my current playlist. Phew. Now I, too, can say, "Sing it with me, Bruce!"

- e

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I'll Stop Procrastinating... Tomorrow.

Yesterday I enjoyed several hours of "free time" where I didn't have any client calls, appointments or deadlines. I had work to do, mind you, it's just that none of it was due yesterday.

So what did I do? I wrote a long blog post. I did a bunch of annoying administrative things. I went to the gym for a full hour. I took a shower. I got lunch at a nearby restaurant (a very rare thing indeed, as usually I just snack, per my post last week). It was a nice day.

But today—and likely the rest of the week—I'm screwed. On top of the work I knew I'd have to get to today, five other client-related projects hit this morning. And now I'm cursing myself for not being more productive yesterday.

I always do this. And the reality is that I know I'll never stop. I am very, very good at justifying lighter days even though I know doing so will lead to a stressful and packed remainder of the week.

What I've learned about myself is that I work best under pressure. And since I don't have a boss per se, that pressure needs to come from me. I know that if I actually turned in crappy work or made a ton of mistakes when trying to hit a tight deadline, I wouldn't put myself in this position. But that's not the case—I am more creative, more focused, and more on my A-game when I have a ton of stuff hanging over my head.

I'm in!But recently I figured out that I do enjoy having my nights off. By that I mean that for at least two and a half years after Des was born, I would work for several more hours once he was in bed after I'd already put in a full day. It sucked. I like to wind down each night with a TV show or a book, and I'd made that impossible for myself. So lately I've managed to find this seemingly perfect balance: I'll let things pile up until I really HAVE to get going on them... but never so much that it trickles into my sacred 8 - 11 p.m. Me Time zone.

There are days I wish that I could just find the motivation to do my work as it comes in and keep things even-keeled throughout the week. And who knows, maybe one day I'll prefer a more well-paced schedule. But for now this "intentionally stressing myself out" strategy seems to be working.

And with that, I better get busy...

- e

Monday, February 09, 2015

To Me, From Me

Is it just me who feels like she's in the longest-ever game of checking things off of various lists? I have four things I do that help me remember everything:

Lots of plans help me get through the worst-weather month of the year1) OUTLOOK CALENDAR

If it's something like a client call during the day, a film screening in the evening, a doctor's appointment for Desmond or another event/occasion that would prevent me or my husband from doing anything else during that same time (or requires the use of our one car), I set up an Outlook calendar invite (or Dustin sends me one). Most people I've talked to use their computer or phone's actual calendar to schedule everything... yet for whatever reason I only use it for very specific reasons.

Also, I've never synced my laptop's calendar (where all Outlook events are) to my phone. Ever. I have no idea why, but I'm not about to start now. Most people find this insane. That's me, though!


Remember my glorious Excel budget spreadsheet that tracks my life's expenses? Well, I also have an Excel-based calendar that I've been logging my daily activities in since 2006. This crazy file deserves its own post one day, but suffice it to say that EVERYTHING goes in my Excel calendar. Every. Single. Thing.

It's pretty much like this.3) STICKY NOTES

What did people do before sticky notes? Surely they are the most ingenious invention of our time. Except that I don't ONLY use sticky notes to jot down things I need to remember. I use notepads, random scraps of paper, the backs of bills—pretty much anything that's nearby so that I can capture a thought before it disappears into the ether. Have I mentioned how awful my memory is?

Anyway, there's got to be hundreds of random sticky notes and other lists of things to do all around our house. Every once in a while I'll find one from months or years ago and there will still be one thing on it that I never got around to doing, so I'll toss the old note and add the forgotten item to a new sticky. And the beat goes on.


The main method I use to remind myself of what I need to do—the method that results in time being blocked on my Outlook calendar or notes in my Excel calendar in the first place—is emailing myself. Any time something pops into my head that I want/need to read or watch or do or buy, I send a message to myself. That's how I remembered this very topic for today's post.

The problem is that I don't always actually DO the things I email myself. I work on a "just in time" basis, so if something isn't urgent, doesn't have a deadline of today or tomorrow or otherwise is just one of those "this would be great to read/watch/do/buy when somebody figures out how to freeze time" activities, it doesn't get deleted from my Inbox. Because I keep holding out hope that that day will come.

I stopped counting after 250 and started scrolling, but I would guess I have at least 2,000 email messages of this To Me, From Me sort still in my Inbox, dating back to May of 2012 (I got this laptop in 2012 so there are probably more on my old computer).

Dork, party of one!

The thing is, this ridiculous "system" works for me. There are very few times when I totally forget to do something that is actually important. And so I'm going to stick with it.

If you're one of those perfectly organized people who has a superior system or can magically keep everything straight in her head, I don't want to hear about it. (But good for you, really.)

- e

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Movie Review: Seventh Son

Save your money
A strange, mostly harmless attempt at medieval fantasy. Come for the mythical beasts, stay for Jeff Bridges' bizarro performance.
- - - - - - - - - - -
I need to get the weirdest thing about Seventh Son out of the way upfront: Jeff Bridges—who plays John Gregory, a "spook" who helps rid the world of evil creatures—sounds like he's Gandalf with really bad dentures. It's this gruff, gravelly voice belonging to a man who always seems to have his mouth full of mashed potatoes. Did director Sergei Bodrov advise him to talk like that? Or was it Bridges' idea and Bodrov was too intimidated by his star to suggest clearer enunciation? I couldn't get over it.

So that was the first thing that threw me and stopped me from being able to fully suspend disbelief, which is kind of critical with a fantasy film. The next (bigger) issue is that the entire premise of Seventh Son is illogical. Ben Barnes plays Tom Ward, a weak-seeming pig farmer prone to seizures that make him pass out. But since he's "the seventh son of the seventh son," he must become Gregory's apprentice. Huh? Wouldn't Gregory want the best and most skilled right-hand man he could find to fight supernatural beasts alongside him? Apparently not. It's gotta be Tom.
Isn't ANY comparison to Gandalf a compliment?
Gregory mentions that he trained his past apprentices (all of whom died on the job) for months or years, but he only has one week to get Tom in shape to help him defeat Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), a witch queen who's out for serious revenge after Gregory stranded her in an underground cave a decade ago. She's finally escaped and her evil-doing powers will be fully charged when the Blood Moon arrives in seven days. But for all the urgency this situation would seem to justify, Gregory, Tom and their tusked roadie, er, Tusk (John DeSantis), just dawdle along the countryside waiting for Malkin's various cronies to attack.

And attack they do. Those are the coolest sequences in the film; several members of Team Witch transform seamlessly into various beasts, including a bear, a dragon, a leopard, and more. But while it's fun to watch and impressive to look at, it gets old really quickly when you just don't care about any of the characters. Barnes' just can't match the screen presence of either Bridges or Moore (who's at least having fun), which doesn't make for a very believable hero. And half the time he's distracted by Alice (Alicia Vikander), a half-witch who's also reporting his every move back to home base. Vikander is a jaw-droppingly beautiful actress and is trying her best here, but despite her good looks and Barnes', they just don't share any believable chemistry. She gave me flashes of Robin Wright in The Princess Bride (my all-time favorite movie), so I hope the other six movies she has coming out this year treat her better than Seventh Son did.
Wow, high praise, E!

The biggest crime Bodrov and screenwriters Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) committed with this film, which is based on a YA book series (what isn't?), is that the plot and character development took a backseat to the action sequences and effects. So if you're only interested in seeing really cool mythical creatures wreak havoc, Seventh Son is the movie for you. But if you're looking for a new twist on a mighty old formula, you're out of luck here.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending

So disappointing.
Visually striking but otherwise forgettable, Jupiter Ascending is a big letdown.
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You can never accuse the Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas) of not putting it all out there in their films. Jupiter Ascending might actually be the greatest example of how the writing and directing brother-sister duo let nothing hold them back in bringing their creative vision to the big screen. It's just that this time around their vision was pretty silly. Cool in parts, but still depressingly silly.

In a set-up so ridiculous and offensive to me personally that I won't even dignify it with a description, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis)—a housekeeper from a big Russian family who, as she repeats every morning, "hates her life"—learns she's an heir to the House of Abrasax, an alien empire that controls the planets. Under her rule specifically would be Earth. When the other heirs—Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton)—find out about Jupiter, they want to make sure she doesn't get in the way of their own plans to reign over the universe.

That's where Caine (Channing Tatum) comes in. He's an albino human-wolf splice (you heard me) charged with whisking Jupiter away from her daily routine of scrubbing toilets and bringing her up to space to meet whatever fate the Abrasax siblings have in store for her. Hands down, the best thing about Jupiter Ascending is the anti-gravity boots Caine uses to skate around in the sky. I want some. It also didn't hurt that Jupiter lives in Chicago—it's always fun to see your hometown in a sci-fi flick, especially one where it doesn't get totally destroyed (coughTransformers 3cough).

Sure I'll put on this sexy leather dress for an alien I just met!On that note, the effects are top-notch, whether they're in the form of gigantic lizard henchmen, vast space cities or one of many chase/battle sequences. It's just that everything else falls flat. First off, it was hard to believe that Jupiter would just start rolling with things as easily as she does. When Neo finds out about the reality of The Matrix, there are several reasons why he's able to jump into his new role so quickly; when Jupiter learns that she is Jupiter Ascending's version of "The One," its anticlimactic and there's nothing to support her coming to terms with a shocking new reality. She's either holding onto Caine for dear life during a chase or asking questions clearly meant to provide the audience with clues as to what in the hell is going on. There's nothing to make you believe that an unmotivated maid could suddenly go toe-to-toe with scheming aliens who've lived for centuries.

About those aliens... Redmayne's Balem speaks in a hoarse whisper throughout for no reason that ends up mattering. So it just becomes comical. Middleton's Kalique was forgettable, and Booth's Titus was pretty much the space version of Gossip Girl's Chuck Bass. His character was entertaining, but also ultimately pointless. We're supposed to believe that the Abrasax siblings are powerful and merciless, yet for some inexplicable reason they need to follow various administrative rules when it comes to stopping Jupiter from claiming her throne. What?!?

Do you have any idea what is going on?     No. Do you?
Scenes that could've been cool were ruined with exposition. Bees swarm Jupiter while she's still on Earth and appear to follow her command. It would've been nice for the Wachowskis to let the audience figure out the connection, but no. Caine's fellow rebel Stinger (Sean Bean) has to spell out how bees recognize royalty. Get it, kids? She's like the Queen Bee!

The sad thing is that the entire cast is committed. No one's phoning it in, even though you couldn't blame them if they did. But we all know the best acting still can't overcome nonsensical writing.

I really wish I'd enjoyed Jupiter Ascending because I'm always the one bitching about remakes and reboots and adaptations and Hollywood running out of fresh ideas. But the Wachowskis have proven that just because something's creative and original doesn't mean it's compelling or good.

Friday, February 06, 2015

On the Hunt for Guiltless (But Not Gross) Snacks

I'm what you would call a "grazer"—I snack throughout the afternoon after a small breakfast. I think I read that's supposed to be better for you than eating three bigger meals per day ... but not if everything you're snacking on is unhealthy, of course.

That's why I always try to have good options available at home. I've learned the hard way that if, say, Sea Salt Caramel Bites are in my vicinity, I will eat them. All of them. After Desmond's birthday party I was tortured by the leftover cake and cupcakes—my husband and I decided we needed to give everything to our nanny that Monday or else we were going to gain 20 pounds each.

Recently I thought I'd stumbled upon a great find: Trader Joe's Reduced Guilt Air-Popped popcorn. I loooove popcorn. But this stuff was THE GROSSEST.

Take this stuff off the shelves, Joe!

Seriously, it's pretty damn disgusting. It tastes like you're eating those foam packing peanut thingies. I love Trader Joe's overall (semi-related note: their Brown Rice & Quinoa Fusilli Pasta is incredible), but this popcorn was inexcusable.

What I've found to be much better is the Whole Foods version. That, and Skinny Pop, both taste good and have comparable stats when it comes to calories, fat, salt, and whatnot.

Much better.

Another snack staple of mine has become KIND bars—specifically these two types. I did a lot of research on all of the bars out there and these were the ones that were not only recommended by a trainer at my gym, but also seemed to meet all of the other tests I put them through.

They make many other flavors, but I only like these two.

My other go-tos:
  • Honeycrisp apples—the only apples I can just eat as-is (without some chocolate accompaniment). Too bad they're not in season for much of the year
  • Grapes, the biggest kinds I can find. I keep meaning to freeze them because I heard they're great that way, too.
  • Mary's Gone Crackers, um, crackers and hummus or baba ghanoush for dip.
My snack criteria, aside from needing to be healthy, is that the snack must also be effortless. As in, zero prep time.

Anyone have any other old standbys that fit the bill?

- e

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Positive Feedback

I'm dramatic, I know.This world gives us many things to complain about or be disappointed by. When you're pissed off about something, you're likely to let others know about it. I do just that whenever I think it might end up helping somebody else out down the line.

But that means I also have to play my part in encouraging great service. From yesterday's post you may remember that I had People's Gas scheduled to come out and fix our screeching meter this morning. I cannot express how much I was dreading this visit. I mean, yeah, I wanted the noise to stop, but everything about gas lines freaks me out and I had visions of our place exploding into a magnificent fireball. I also had resigned myself to the fact that the serviceman would arrive precisely within the half-hour window when I was alone with both Des and our dog and it would be total chaos. I was positive that he would run into problems disconnecting our stove, furnace, water heater and dryer. I had visions of our inside pipe valves breaking and the visit escalating into an emergency (which has actually happened in the past). Like I said, I was just dreading this whole thing.

But none of it happened. Desmond and his nanny were leaving for "story time" just as the service guy arrived, so if the fireball erupted, at least they would be safe. I scrambled to secure my dog upstairs and built little barricades around the freshly painted areas I was most concerned he'd destroy. (Dogs aren't allowed in the unit where the serviceman is, they made that very clear. But our Wrigley tends to have extreme separation anxiety issues, so I feared he would not do well alone.)
5 stars for People's Gas!
The guy took about 5 minutes to replace the outside meter. Then he came in and ensured all of the connected appliances worked and that the air that got into the pipes during the switch had made its way out. (Proof of this was our stove-top burners flickering down completely and then eventually coming back on.) Everything worked. There was no drama. It didn't take up my entire day. Nothing exploded. We would live! And we wouldn't have to deal with the shrieking meter anymore. The new one was smooth and silent.

I viewed all of this as some sort of miracle because nothing ever ever ever ever goes right with a service visit to our place. Ever. On top of all that, the People's Gas rep was totally nice, efficient and went above and beyond in checking to make sure everything was working properly again and explaining how we might end up getting a credit once the old meter was tested for accuracy.

Corny but I love itWhen he left, I offered him a tip. He said thanks, but he wasn't allowed to accept any money. I was impressed he stuck to that code. We said our goodbyes. I went back inside and then thought of something. I ran back onto the deck.

"Hey, what's your name? I want to call Customer Service and say how smooth everything was!"

His entire face lit up. He gave me his name and employee number and said he would really appreciate any positive comments.

And so right before I started this post I called People's Gas and just waited on the line since there was no phone-tree option for compliments. I eventually reached someone who took down all of the information and said it would be routed by email to our guy's supervisor. Yay!

Now I feel bad about not leaving a positive comment on a service-related web site for some guys who helped us with the most ridiculous issue we've ever had here this past summer. It's too painful to recount in detail, but it has to do with another contractor dropping cement bricks and other materials down our chimneys, which blocked our furnace and hot-water heater vents, which had the effect of slowly poisoning us with carbon monoxide. The guys who figured out what happened and fixed it were the ones I meant to leave positive feedback for.
Buddha knows
But the reality is that it would most likely still be appreciated, and positive feedback can probably never come too late. And so that's what I'll go do now. Because it's really easy--and almost second nature these days--to pitch a fit loudly and publicly on social media when a product or service sucks. My view is that if I want to avoid experiencing nothing but crappy service from disgruntled employees, I need to go the extra step to encourage the people who are making an effort. If your waitress was attentive, leave her a little more. If a dude just slaved away fixing a leak in your house for two hours, tip him well. Say thanks. Send an email or make a call to let someone's boss know that they exceeded your expectations. Good karma will come back to you, I promise.

- e