Saturday, November 25, 2006

Weird Football Weekend

This weekend, I'm cheering against Arkansas (my wife's favorite team, and therefore one I generally cheer for unless they're playing Miami or Michigan), and for hated rivals Notre Dame and Florida State. All these teams, of course, would help Michigan greatly, especially Notre Dame if they can squeak by USC.

BTW, to anyone who isn't in favor of a Michigan-TOSU rematch, I'd ask this: name one team, apart from TOSU, that's better than Michigan. I'm fairly confident you can't do it.

In any event, it's a bizarre weekend. Cheering for Florida State and Notre Dame makes my stomach churn.

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Speaking of stomach churning, this is not. (Hey, good segue into a recipe, huh?)

I don't like to go all Martha Stewart on you (insert insider trading joke here), but I had to share a recipe I came up with this weekend for leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Try it, and I guarantee you'll like it, unless you're keeping kosher (shalom and l'chaim), or are a vegetarian (pussy). "Southwest Turkey Club" is probably the most accurate name for this creation, but you can call it "Phil's Turkey Club". Or pass it off as your own and thank me later. Whichever.

ingredients:
- leftover Thanksgiving turkey (you can use turkey cold cuts, I suppose, but it's probably not as good)
- thick sliced bread (preferably Texas toast-style, but a loaf of fresh-baked Italian will work just as well if sliced a good 1.5 to 2 inches thick)
- bacon
- lettuce
- tomato
- mayo
- chipotle pepper (these usually come canned, and at least in my supermarket, in the "international" section, which is their way of saying "overpriced")
- pepper cheddar cheese (pepper jack will also work)

how-to:
- toast the bread lightly
- dice the pepper (and whatever you do, do NOT rub your eyes or take a leak before you wash your hands after such dicing)
- mix about 3 tablespoons mayo and 1 diced pepper (if you like it really spicy, use more chipotle peppers)
- pile turkey on the bread, along with bacon, cheese, lettuce and tomato, then spread the chipotle mayo on the bread and serve
- eat and enjoy

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Casino Royale: The Review

I saw Casino Royale for the first time on Saturday night. I'll see it at least once more, then advance purchase the DVD, and make a final judgment as to how it stacks up with the fabled 007 series. I can say this, though: you will not come out of the theater feeling as though you'd be happier setting $8 aflame to see what it smells like. And that's better than you can say for most movies these days.

Let's break down "Casino Royale" by the essential categories.

Originality - Prequels are a tough sell for the brain. On one hand, they expect you to forget everything you know about the character and understand that they're starting from Square One. On the other, they expect you to appreciate the end result of the character development and some of the little moments that hint at what's yet to come. For instance, in one scene, Bond orders a vodka martini. The bartender asks if he'd like it shaken or stirred, and he replies, "do I look like I give a damn?" If you're a longtime fan of the Bond series, it's a mildly amusing in-joke. If you're watching an action movie about a secret agent named James Bond without knowing what's supposed to happen later on, it's a throwaway line without context. So like I said, I think prequels require a little bit of mental gymnastics, and some accomplish their purpose better than others.

This one accomplishes its purpose pretty well, I think. We learn a tremendous amount about James Bond, the man, and how he became 007. Pretty much everything from how a guy on a government salary came into owning a lavishly expensive Aston Martin to how he came to be the misogynist, cold-blooded killer we all know and love is covered. Previous Bond movies were pretty light on character development, and Casino Royale takes up the slack. That alone gives it serious points for originality.

Plot - Good, and pretty realistic, a change from previous Bond movies. Is it that far gone to believe that MI6 would be trying to take down a terrorist financier and that he would be organizing a high-stakes poker game to make money after losing millions in the stock market? I don't think so. Okay, the idea that said financier would knowingly allow an agent of the British government into such a game might be a stretch, but not ridiculously so. The final act (the movie does not, in fact, end with Bond pocketing $150 million from the poker game) advances the plot nicely, not to mention the character of James Bond. It does drag a little in parts, though. For instance, they could have snipped a good 10 minutes of the card game. And the stuff with MI6's contact in Montenegro was predictable.

Action - Excellent. The movie portrays Bond, at first, as something of an amateur at the whole "killing bad guys" thing, as the opening scene shows him dispatch a courier in a rather messy, and somewhat un-Bond-like manner. The scene involving the construction site chase is stellar. My lone complaint: the scene in the sewers, showing Bond tortured in perhaps the most painful of ways for a man, really should have earned the movie an R rating. Yes, when you get old, these are the things you think about. However, since I'm over 17, have no children and have already been as poisoned and jaded as I'm going to get by televised violence, it doesn't bother me. Since that's my only complaint, the action earns full marks.

Cinematography - Is this even the right word to use? Screw it, I'm doing it. Anyway, the movie is filmed well. The black and white opening is a nice touch, and the movie as a whole does a nice job of conveying the dark and gritty feel they're trying to get.

Bond Girls - The brunette in the Bahamas (can't be bothered to remember her name) is an 11 on the 10 scale, a 1 on the binary scale, and a 6 on the Clydesdale scale. Vesper Lynd, the Bond Girl for the bulk of the movie, is well-played, and sufficiently attractive, but she's not blowaway gorgeous or anything. In a neat twist, she's actually there to advance the plot and the character, as opposed to just being good scenery. Unrepentant chauvinist that I am, I can't decide if that's a good thing or not, but it makes the movie work well in this case.

Music - "You Know My Name" is the best Bond theme song in some time, certainly since "The Living Daylights" or "Nobody Does it Better". Chris Cornell was a good choice to do the song. They didn't go for a one-hit wonder (i.e. "Diamonds Are Forever", "The Man With The Golden Gun"). They didn't go for a hot "artist of the moment" with mediocre musical talent (i.e. "Tomorrow Never Dies", "For Your Eyes Only"). They didn't screw around with a superstar who was desperate to "explore the studio space" and thus do too much with it (i.e. "Goldeneye", "Die Another Day"). They just picked a good, solid musician and said, "make a kick-ass rock tune out of this." And he did. Well done, Chris! Also, they do a great job of holding off on the classic 007 theme until the perfect time.

Villain - It's hard to gauge Le Chieffre against previous Bond villains, because unlike most of the previous ones, he's not trying to take over the world or anything. But, as said above, he's realistic. There are almost certainly people like Le Chieffre out there right now (perhaps not possessing a birth defect like bleeding from the tear ducts), making money and financing the bad guys. Chances are, there are NOT men like Ernst Stavro Blofeld out there, plotting world domination. But, in this sense, the movie is hoist upon its own petard. When Le Chieffre gets his comeuppance, we don't feel any grand sense of relief or anything.

Bond - Daniel Craig is easily the most credible physical presence since Sean Connery. He also looks completely comfortable with a weapon, something you couldn't always say for Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton. He lacks Moore's charm, but I think that's partly by design, at least for this movie. Bond's just starting out as 007, and is portrayed more or less as a thug for the first part of the movie, which Craig nails perfectly. He's got the action hero part down pat. We'll have to see how well he can handle being the ladies' man in future movies. In Bond lore, it's universally accepted that Connery and Moore were the best, then a step down to Pierce Brosnan, then several steps down to Dalton and George Lazenby. Right now, Craig is on Brosnan's level, but I think he has a chance to enter the Connery-Moore pantheon.

Gadgets - The whole movie is basically an advertisement for cell phones. But beyond that, there's not much gadgetry. No Q appearances in this one. After the invisible car from "Die Another Day", that's not necessarily a bad thing.

As I said, it's far too early to say where Casino Royale stacks up among the Bond movies. Certainly, we can say it's better than Moonraker, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Living Daylights and Licence To Kill. Where it ultimately ranks is a question for history to decide, but my snap judgment is that it belongs among the all-time best in series history.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Phunwin as Movie Geek

You've seen movie geeks before. We all have. For example, the guy who dresses up as an Imperial Stormtrooper on the opening night of Star Wars VII: The Phantom Cash Grab, or the legions of people who attend Star Trek conventions in hope of bedding the one chick there who actually bears a fleeting resemblence to Seven of Nine (while being perfectly willing to settle any of the dozens of women who look like Worf).

I believe on some level, we all have movie geekishness (is that even a word? No? Screw it, I'm moving on) over some movie series. Well, tonight, my inner movie geek comes out.

From the moment I heard that "Casino Royale" was hitting theaters on 11/17, I was counting the days. In fact, I couldn't wait any longer and went to the North Pole and froze myself with strict instructions for my wife to come get me on the morning of the 17th. Instead, she left me there, had me declared dead, cashed in my 401(k), collected on my life insurance and moved to Hawaii. I was unfrozen 500 years in the future (bad news: Eric Cartman STILL hasn't gotten to play the Nintendo Wii), but fortunately, they had the technology to send me back to today. Yup, my plan worked flawlessly.

I am, to put it mildly, a James Bond geek. I know more Bond trivia than is healthy. I'm fairly confident that little bits of knowledge like "who are the only two people to play different characters in Bond movies?" have pushed out more important stuff like "how does the Rule Against Perpetuities work?". (The answer to the first question is "Charles Grey and Joe Don Baker", the second is, "I haven't got the first damned idea.")

In the style of the guys I mentioned in the first paragraph, I am perfectly willing to show up at the premiere of Casino Royale with a tuxedo and a replica Walther PPK, although I'm somewhat less than willing to pay $100 for a rented tuxedo and another $200 for a replica pistol. Still, I'd do it if the opportunity arose. That's how much of a geek I am for Bond movies.

I'm looking forward to Casino Royale more than any Bond movie before. The Bond series has been careening downhill for sometime now. They're still entertaining movies, of course, but the penchant for gadgets and special effects has gotten out of control, as has the need to suspend disbelief, and not for the first time (who can forget "Moonraker"?). The breaking point came when we saw Bond tooling around in an invisible car, inside an ice palace, trying to chase down a North Korean colonel who somehow accumulates enough money and technological know-how (despite being from a country with a per capita GDP of $1700) to build a massive laser capable of wiping out whole batallions.

Mercifully, MGM opted to hit the reset button and do a prequel. And prequels, of course, are all the rage. As we all know, Hollywood has run out of ideas. But by doing a prequel, they can tell what appears like a new story, when in fact it's a way of admitting that they screwed up the movie franchise and want to start over. It's very clever, and it works. Look at how the Batman franchise (another favorite of mine) has been reinvigorated by a darker, tougher Batman and a more down-to-earth story. They're hoping to do the same thing with Bond in "Casino Royale": there's no grand S.P.E.C.T.R.E. plot to blow up the entire world, just a storyline about targeting a guy who finances terrorists. That's perfectly plausible (and timely, too).

We'll see where they go from here, but I'm looking forward to nourishing my inner movie geek tonight.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Confessions of a Sports Bigamist

My wife told me it was time to get help. "No, it's cool, I can handle it." No dice. The gaggle of family and friends in my living room agreed with her. They didn't like me the way I was. They didn't like what this problem was doing to me. I couldn't handle their accusing stares and sharp words, and decided it was time.

I checked the local newspaper for dates and times of meetings, found one I liked and went down to the local community center. A few burnouts stood outside, puffing furiously on cigarettes. Inside the community center, the stench of desperation hung like a fog. I looked around, didn't see a soul I knew. "This is hard", I thought. "I'm not sure I can handle it."

I half-listened to the stories of families and friendships torn asunder by this all-too-common problem, thinking, "nah, I'm not like that." I thought maybe I could sneak out without anyone noticing. I started to edge toward the exit, but before I could, the group leader, a man fully recovered from his problem, pointed to me and said, "I see we have a new member with us this evening. Why don't you introduce yourself to the group?"

Damn. Busted.

Time to face the music.

"My name is Phil, and I'm a Sports Bigamist."

"Hi Phil!"

"Hi. I've been following college football since I was 8. That's how I learned to count by sevens...which, come to think of it, is about the only practical use for that skill. Anyway, I grew up in the far reaches of Upstate New York."

"You mean Buffalo?" interjected a guy with a San Francisco Giants cap and an LA Dodgers t-shirt. Wow, I thought I had problems.

"No", I responded, "a lot farther north than that. Suffice to say, there wasn't a lot of big-time sports in the area. The closest thing to a local sports team was the Montreal Canadiens. Well, there was the Montreal Expos..."

"WHO?" asked the entire room.

"Never mind. Anyway, growing up, I was pretty much left to my own devices when it came to picking my teams. Not much local pressure, no real strong family ties to any one team or other, and no real role models when it came to this stuff. I fell in love with certain teams for one reason or another, but when it came to college football, I had a really hard time of it. I loved the tradition of Michigan football, the maize and blue, the most awesome football helmets ever, the famous fight song, the three yards and a cloud of dust philosophy of Bo Schembechler, the 32 (at that time) Big Ten titles. But I also came to love the 'in your face' philosophy of Miami football..."

"Miami-Florida or Miami-Ohio?" asked someone.

"Miami-Florida," I responded. Retard. I continued, "the great passing game, the legitimate 'us against the world' philosophy before it became an embarrassing cliche, the ultra-talented teams. I just couldn't pick between the two, and frankly, I've been conflicted ever since."

"Let's all thank Phil for sharing. And welcome to the group, Phil."

After the meeting, I was talking to the person sitting next to me. He was wearing one of those half-n-half jerseys that people often buy when their favorite player gets traded. The ones Ray Bourque made popular when he was traded from the Bruins to the Avalanche. In this case, he was wearing a Jay Fiedler Jets-Buccaneers jersey, which I didn't even know existed.

"Yeah, there's some real sad stories here. You saw the guy who can't pick between the Dodgers and Giants?"

"Yeah, I did. How's he live with himself?"

"Don't know. There was a guy who used to come around here who cheered for Duke and North Carolina."

"Really?"

"Yeah. We think he shacked up with some girl who cheered for the Cubs and Cardinals."

"Enablers."

"Compared to them, you're not so bad, Phil. Hey, you're not cheering for Ohio State, right?"

I uttered an unprintable expletive at the mention of THE Ohio State University. Not only had they spoiled more than a few Michigan seasons, but they blatantly stole the 2002 national title from The U.

He chuckled and said, "It's not as though Miami and Michigan play each other. The last time it happened was probably before you started following college football."

"It was 1988. I was young and foolish then." As opposed to being old and foolish now.

"What side were you on?"

"Can't remember. It's all a haze to me. Maybe that's why I'm here."

I said my good-byes, promised to return next week, and left the meeting. It was cool outside, with just a slight mist in the air. The kind of weather that reminds you that it's college football season. And that, in turn, reminded me of my problem. But there's hope in the air, too. I'll get through this.

I've just got to take it one day at a time.