The Shapiro Files

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Netflix Weekend Wrap-Up #4

Previous installments: #1, #2, #3

Due to a pretty packed schedule, I only got around to watching one Netflix DVD this past weekend:

The Aristocrats (2005) - Let me say right off the bat that I cannot safely recommend this film to anyone. If you're reading this, odds are you will hate this film. That much said, I found it to be an impressive, occasionally enlightening, and often hilarious little documentary about comedy and comedians. The subtitle of this film says it all: "100 Comedians. One Very Dirty Joke." For many decades, "The Aristocrats" has been the punchline to a joke told backstage and at parties between comedians, but seldom ever on stage. The joke's set-up/punchline is pretty lame, but what makes this particular joke so interesting is what the tellers do in-between. It's during that middle section that comedians can improvise to their heart's content (just like what great jazz musicians do in the middle of a song). And given this is an exercise mostly between comedians, this means being more disgusting and offensive than most people can imagine. Absolutely nothing is off-limits. Somewhere in that madness lies comic genius.

Not to be confused in any way with the 1970 Disney film The Aristocats, this film features a whole bunch of comedians, humorists, and actors (I'm not sure there really were a 100, but it's close) discussing the joke and/or telling it in their own unique way and in the process, revealing quite a bit about the nature of comedy. It's not a perfect film (the editing is a bit excessive and given the nature of the film, not all the featured comedians are equally as talented), but it's a wonderful celebration of free speech and the human ability to find humor in any topic, no matter how shocking. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Monday, January 30, 2006

A Whole New World

After living in our neighborhood for close to two years now, HDTV is now available in our area through our cable company. We've had an HD-ready television since last year (we bought it mostly for enjoying Netflix DVDs in beautiful full-resolution widescreen), but have had to put up with regular non-HD programming when watching broadcast television. So I was very excited to finally take full advantage of our TV. Watching shows like American Idol and 24 in high-definition widescreen with 5.1 surround sound is tremendously entertaining.

While ordering up the new service, I decided we might as well get a DVR (i.e. Tivo equivalent) as well. The long-awaited installation occurred last week and as soon as everything was all set up, I felt like my entire television-watching life has completely changed. The idea of pausing "live" TV is a wonderful thing and I no longer have to stay up if I want to watch late-night favorites such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the occasional Late Show with David Letterman. Sure, I could have been using our VCR for these things, but tapes are cumbersome and VHS recording quality has always been pretty lousy.

So why do I ramble on and on about this? Well, it's partially because I'm so excited to have this cool technology finally at our fingertips, but mostly because I've let it take away from my evening blog-writing time (as can be seen by my gap in writing). I guess I've been finding our new "toy" irresistible over the past week. But now that I've allowed myself sufficient indulgence time, I hopefully can begin balancing the allure of HDTV/DVR technology with once again regularly sharing my random thoughts here at The Shapiro Files.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Netflix Weekend Wrap-Up #3

Previous installments: #1, #2

Another week, another Netflix weekend. Both of this week's DVDs were of films from last year that we missed when they were playing in theaters:

Junebug (2005) - A wonderfully quiet little story of a family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina that made several critics' 2005 "Best of" lists. I can't say this film for everyone, as not much happens in terms of plot. So if you're not into slow-paced films, this one may not be for you. But if a character-based story is more your taste (it certainly is mine), you'll find some very subtle (and refreshingly real) moments here to really make the film worthwhile, with uniformly excellent performances. Amy Adams and Ben McKenzie were especially terrific. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Red Eye (2005) - Horror director Wes Craven's attempt to make a Hitchcock-style thriller — an attempt in which he largely succeeds. It's well-paced (especially given that the second act takes place mostly in two airplane seats) and plenty of fun. At the same time, you have to put up with some huge leaps of logic and a pretty predictable ending. Still, it's a short and entertaining little popcorn movie that could be a good appetizer to a truly great thriller like North by Northwest or Vertigo. My Netflix rating: 3 stars

Monday, January 23, 2006

Spam Blam

In my first Netflix wrap-up posting, I invited fellow Netflix users to join my network of Netflix Friends. In that posting, I included my email address with spaces around the "@" symbol, as I had thought that doing so would prevent automated web spiders from grabbing my address and adding it to spam lists. Well, apparently that old trick doesn't work any more. Unless it's just a coincidence, I've gradually begun getting increasingly more spam over the past couple of weeks. Then when I checked my email this morning before heading off to work, I discovered that I have received more than 100 junk mail messages over just the past two days. It's a good thing my email program has a pretty decent junk mail filter.

Although it's a pretty much too late now to make any difference, I've removed my address from that previous posting. Oh well. You live, you learn.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Another Praiseworthy Oprah Book Pick

As if I wasn't impressed enough by Oprah Winfrey's "Summer of Faulkner" reading program, her latest Book Club selection is the Holocaust memoir Night by Elie Wiesel. As a result, the book is now the #1 selling book on and is apparently selling like crazy elsewhere as well.

If there was ever a book that everyone should read, it would be Night. And thanks to Oprah, seemingly everyone will be reading it now. Once again, ya gotta hand it to Ms. Winfrey for using her influence to enrich and educate her audience through challenging and important books.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Netflix Weekend Wrap-Up #2

As announced last week, "Netflix Weekend Wrap-Up" is a new reoccurring feature here at The Shapiro Files comprising mini-reviews of the movies Marcie and I watch via Netflix each weekend. This weekend, we watched:

Central Station (1989) - A very charming little film from Brazil (called Central do Brasil in its original Portuguese language). It's a fairly straightforward road movie with a touch of Fellini in the second act. And although the premise is nothing new (lonely older lady befriending a lonely little boy), it was so well-acted and well-exectued that it transcended its particular sub-genre formula. Recommended. My Netflix rating: 4 stars

Hustle & Flow (2005) - Much has been made of Terrence Howard's star-making performance and for once, I think such praise is actually well-founded. He really was terrific. As for the film itself, like Central Station, its premise is something we've seen many times before--this time, an individual with limited means and innate musical talent trying to make it to the "big time." However, it doesn't transcend its specific sub-genre formula as well as Central Station does. Also, like far too many movies about music, the actual act of composing, recording, and mixing a piece of music is far from realistically portrayed. Additionally, the film's depiction of women is less than generous (bordering on misogynistic). On the flip side, the film is well-constructed, contains some very good dialogue, and features a great soundtrack. My Netflix rating: 3 stars

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Positively Puzzling Poker

Once a month, my friend Michael hosts a poker night at his home. He's a very gracious host and I always enjoy the good company (usually fellow theater guys) and great music (Michael always puts together excellent iTunes playlists for the events).

Interestingly, I've been attending these poker nights for — what is it? — two or three years now and yet, my game really hasn't gotten any better. Or to put it another way: I'm a downright lousy poker player. In fact, I'm pretty lousy at most games involving strategy. I've never been good at chess and despite having a B.A., M.A. (graduating as only one of two people in my class with a 4.0 G.P.A.), and a teaching credential in English, I'm even horrible at Scrabble. For the life of me, I can't figure out why this is. I don't have a reputation as being a particularly unintelligent person among friends and coworkers; but every time I play one of these games, I make Ashton Kutcher look like a genius in comparison.

At least the poker night guys don't complain. Then again, why should they? My frequent mistakes (throwing out cards when I don't need to, forgetting that I can only use two cards in my hand when it's that third card that would give me something worth betting on, etc.) ultimately benefits them.

Not that I really mind. I go for the good company and good music.

But still, why am I so bad at games? Do I have some sort of focus/concentration issue? Is there some weird gap in my brain that doesn't affect my academic/professional abilities, but which seriously inhibits my being able to win at strategy-based pursuits? Could it be my inclination to over-think everything? Could it be that I ask too many questions?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Netflix Weekend Wrap-Up #1

I'm pleased to announce a new reoccurring feature here at The Shapiro Files. Pretty much every weekend, Marcie and I watch a movie or two from Netflix and I thought it would be fun to do mini-reviews on Mondays of what we watched.

This weekend, we only had time for one film, The Island (2005), directed by Michael Bay. While most Michael Bay films are excruciatingly bad, the premise (clones in the future) of this film seemed interesting enough to warrant a rental. As it turns out, the first 30 minutes or so really were quite interesting with a some particularly beautiful photography and impressive set design. The film's first act (read this for more about the three-act structure of most movies) concerns a futuristic colony of child-like adults who have a single wish: to go to "The Island" (a utopia of sorts). Part of the pleasure of this section of the film is discovering the true nature of why these people really are there and what the island in question really is.

And then came the rest of the movie.

Wow, did that movie take a turn for the horrible. Once the Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johanson characters learn the truth about their existences, the film turned into another ridiculous big-action, big-explosion, big-yawn Michael-let's-throw-logic-to-the-wind-Bay mess. Add to that a bunch of plot holes bigger than Mariah Carey's ego, a distractingly large amount of obvious product placement, and a completely nonsensical ending, and you have one pretty rotten — albeit well-filmed — movie.

My Netflix rating (on a five star scale): 2 stars

Friday, January 06, 2006

Not a Morning Person

It's best if people avoid conversations with me during the first couple hours of the day. All attempts will result in frustration, as my brain takes a couple of hours to warm up. To wit*:

Marcie: Did you take any coffee?
Steve: Take coffee?
Marcie: Did you take coffee?
Steve: If you fill the mug, there should still be some left.
(Marcie fills the travel mug)
Marcie: I feel bad; there isn't very much left for you
Steve: I already had a cup.
Marcie: That's what I was asking!

(Roughly paraphrased exchange from 7:50 a.m. today)

And most of our morning conversations make even less sense. But due to my minimally functioning early-hours intellect, I rarely remember the conversations later (other than having a vague recollection that they occurred).

All this reminds me of how I've always seemed to follow some sort of bizarro internal clock. It doesn't matter how little sleep I got the evening before, I'm always wide awake at night (I've been fighting frequent bouts of insomnia for over 20 years now) and a complete zombie in the morning. At least I'm not alone. It seems that Calvin of the classic Calvin and Hobbes comic strip has the same problem.

*In case you were wondering, the expression "to wit" used above is spelled correctly and is not — as some people might be inclined to think — spelled "to whit." The expression "to wit" is a shortened form of "that is to wit" meaning “that is to know; that is to say; namely” from the English verb "wit" (meaning "to know”). This was a strong verb with past tense "wot," as in “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot.” In Old English it was spelled "witan" and even further back it was linked with a Germanic verb meaning “to see.” In the first of these senses, it’s closely connected with the modern German verb "wissen"; in the second, it’s the origin of our "witness." It developed further to refer to a person’s understanding or judgement or mind (hence “keep your wits about you”). Just a little spelling/etymology lesson there, free of charge! [Source: World Wide Words]

New Year Resolutions

Although the act of making resolutions upon the arrival of a new year is a tradition that supposedly goes back to 153 B.C. in Rome, it's a practice I've never really followed — probably because I knew I'd never follow through. But since I now have this nice public forum, I thought that if I listed some relatively realistic goals for 2006 here, I might feel pressured enough to actually do them. Of course, the operative word here is "realistic." As much as I'd like to get in Olympics-caliber physical condition or be responsible for ushering in world peace, I figured I should set my sights a little lower to things I could actually do. As a results, the following resolutions are mostly task-oriented, very specific, and may not be particularly meaningful to all visitors to this blog. But heck, they're things I've been putting off long enough and think I should finally do!

2006 Resolutions

  • Learn Cubase and/or Logic music software and record at least two decent demos
  • Compile/edit Marcie's marathon video
  • Write/record a song about (and for) Melody
  • Read/study Elements of Jazz textbook and apply what I learn as much as possible
  • Start going to the gym again (OK, so I had to include at least one typical resolution)
  • Scan all family archive slides and create a website and/or DVD
  • Get all archival 8mm film transfered to DV and edit for DVD
  • Post more regularly to this blog!
So far, I think I've made a decent start to that final resolution. I'll post updates on the others as I (hopefully) check them off my list!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Links at Last

Irina's recent blog redesign reminded me that I've been a bit remiss in my blogging etiquette since launching The Shapiro Files early last year. Up until today, I've failed to include a list of links to fellow bloggers' sites as part of my site template. So to right that wrong, I'm proud to announce a new "Other Blogs of Note" section in my links/archive column at the right of this and all other pages at this blog. Links include fellow bloggers who have been kindly including The Shapiro Files in similar lists at their sites (or who have linked to my site by way of a blog entry) as well as few theater friends who are also part of the blogosphere. Want your site to be included in my list? Simply link to my blog from your site (and let me know in case I miss it) and I'll add a link to yours.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Belated Chanukkah Comedy

OK, so Chanukkah ended a couple of days ago. Nonetheless I still got a chuckle out of this Off the Mark cartoon:

The cartoon also reminded me of some of my father's schtick. Any time we were driving and would stop at an especially long red light, he'd call it a "Chanukkah light" since it seemed to last for eight days and nights.

And speaking of Chanukkah, here's a picture I just took last night of Melody enjoying a Chanukkah gift she received from her Grandma and Grandpa Lewis:

Click for a larger image

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

Well, the holiday season certainly flew by — so fast, in fact, that I didn't have any chances to post any new entries to this blog. I have a few fun topics I plan to cover in upcoming posts, but for now here are some quick highlights of the past few weeks:

  • Melody laughed for the first time
  • Had an action-filled Channukah/gift exchange gathering at Marcie's parent's house (yummy latkas!)
  • We traveled to my mother's house in Upland and met our adorable new niece Sarah (stay tuned for photos of our visit)
  • On December 31, Marcie and I celebrated the tenth anniversary of our meeting (the story of our meeting can be found here)
  • Finished watching the first season of Arrested Development (by way of Netflix)
Coming soon: New Year resolutions, a belated (but cute) Channukah cartoon, fun with newspaper photos, and more!