Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie Review: Romantics Anonymous

Romantics Anonymous
Directed by Jean-Pierre Améris
Running Time: 80 minutes
Originally Released: November 25, 2011 (USA)

* * * (out of four)

Responding to a help wanted ad, master chocolatier Angélique (Isabelle Carré) lands a job as a sales representative for the floundering confectionary company, The Chocolate Mill. Angélique thought she was interviewing to make chocolates, but she accepts the job anyway. She doesn’t mention the fact that she is cripplingly shy and regularly attends meetings at Emotions Anonymous, a support group for those who are socially over-anxious and easily flustered. As it turns out, Angélique’s new employer, Jean-Rene (Benoît Poelvoorde), is even more neurotic. The intimacy of touching another individual—even for the sake of a casual handshake or a congratulatory pat on the back—paralyzes poor Jean-Rene. Who knows how he would react if he were to learn that he has hired the region’s foremost chocolatier? Of course, he couldn’t know that. Fearing the incapacitation that comes with being the center of attention, Angélique has spent the last several years pretending to be the delivery girl for a mysterious hermit whom she claims is the creator of her decadent chocolates.

Romantics Anonymous is an innocuous treat, a mere stone’s throw away from being wonderful. Rare is the film that revels in the innocent beauty of romance. Romantics Anonymous does just that, even if it fails to do so perfectly. Ironically, it may well be that what hinders the film’s greatness is also its saving grace: simplicity. Suffering more from a lack of daring than from a series of missteps, Romantics Anonymous pleases the palate without leaving one clamoring for more. In that regard, it is not unlike the product of the company that Angélique is hired to save. If there is a genuine complaint to be levied against the film, it is that the precise magnitude of Angélique’s neurosis ever-eludes the audience. Much of the time, Angélique seems like a fully-functioning, confident individual. The quirk of having two “emotionals” falling in love is dampened by the scales of neuroticism tipping decidedly in favor of Jean-Rene.

Romantics Anonymous is currently available for Instant Viewing on Netflix and on Amazon Prime.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanks, But No Thanks

Ever since Peter broke his arm in late September, life has felt crazy. Melanie’s hospitalization and subsequent daily trips to the hospital for antibiotic treatments took quite a toll on us, emotionally and otherwise. Although I took the kids out trick-or-treating on Halloween, we didn’t carve pumpkins until November 5th and we didn’t have our traditional Halloween dinner until last week! We’ve been playing catch up for the last couple of weeks, and it often doesn’t feel like playing at all.

Two days ago, it was Thanksgiving. While we didn’t treat it like an entirely normal Thursday, our celebrations were minimal. We watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV in the morning, which Melanie regards as traditional. The boys loved it and paid more attention to it than they ever have, and Melanie baked some fun pumpkin chocolate chip bread for us to enjoy as we watched. Once the parade was over, we spent a few hours pretty much doing our normal weekday routines. Then Melanie had the wonderful idea of putting up our Christmas tree. I’ve always been the kind of guy that wants to wait until at least December 1st to put up the tree, but I liked the idea of doing something holiday-oriented on Thanksgiving afternoon. We put up the tree, which overjoyed the boys and was especially fascinating for Creegan, whom I’m sure doesn’t remember anything about Christmas trees from last year. We then turned on How the Grinch Stole Christmas while Melanie made us a dinner of hash browns, eggs, and sausage. For all it’s worth, it was turkey sausage.

So, why didn’t we celebrate Thanksgiving in the usual way? Quite honestly, we just didn’t get around to it. We’d expected to grocery shop sometime earlier in the week, and other things just kept getting in the way. Doctor’s appointments for almost everybody, Eddie being sick with a fever, etc. On Wednesday afternoon, with timing running incredibly short, Melanie spent over two hours at her final appointment with the doctor overseeing her cellulitis. Most of those two hours were spent in the waiting room, Melanie’s 2:45pm appointment resulting in a near 5pm visit from the doctor. It was like that for her the last time around, too. It’s a joke. Anyway, by the time Melanie was getting home, I was starving and everybody was worn out. The thought of embarking on an extended grocery shopping trip, not to mention spending the next day working furiously to prepare an abundant feast, was too much to bear. We decided to postpone Thanksgiving dinner.

At the moment, we’re not entirely sure when we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving. We still plan to do so. We’ve had a menu planned and are relatively excited about it. But it was too much, too fast to try to celebrate Thanksgiving on its nationally recognized day. Whenever we celebrate Thanksgiving, it needs to be in a manner that is conducive to the joy that the holiday is meant to evince. It cannot be a rushed or high-stress thing. Unfortunately, with the end of the semester coming up, it won’t be easy to take a day off and celebrate it in the middle of the week, or even on a Friday. That pushes us back to at least December 1st, and that day already has other plans. So who knows when it’ll happen. But it will. And I’ll write about it when it does. In the meantime, head to Melanie’s blog and check out the fun pictures she’s already posted of the boys decorating the Christmas tree.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Movie Review: The Raven

The Raven
Directed by James McTeigue
Originally Released: April 27, 2012
Running Time: 110 minutes

* * (out of four)

The year is 1849. Edgar Allen Poe, the famed gothic poet and short-story writer, is discovered wandering Baltimore, delirious, and is taken into the custody of a nearby hospital. Less than five days later, Poe is dead, a few months shy of his 41st birthday. The Raven weaves a fictional tale around the final days of Poe’s life. Borrowing from the mystery of Poe’s demise, The Raven casts Poe (played by John Cusack) in the role of spontaneous detective, called upon by Baltimore police authorities when a series of deaths bear striking resemblance to the macabre tales for which Poe is famous. As it turns out, the serial killer is not merely a fan of Poe’s work. Clues alluding to the killer’s next target are left behind at the crime scenes, clues that Poe himself is the most apt to unravel. With the pendulum in full swing—sometimes literally—Poe must decipher the clues that play off of his expansive body of work, a mask of red death here, a tell-tale heart there. As if that weren’t enough, soon things get really personal.

As I watched The Raven, I found myself thinking time and time again: “Gee, I didn’t know that Edgar Allen Poe was so much like John Cusack.” And there’s the problem. Modestly entertaining plotline aside, The Raven never successfully transports the viewer back to 19th-century America. At the film’s forefront, Cusack is the easiest to blame. His performance is too High Fidelity to convince us that Poe hails from a Baltimore devoid of Starbucks and McDonald’s. When Poe waxes eloquent, Cusack is as believable as a pop star on Auto-Tune. But Cusack is not the lone offender. As Emily, Poe’s recently betrothed, Alice Eve looks ever-ready to whip out her Blackberry and check her messages. In an ironically lifeless performance, Luke Evans fares better as Detective Fields, lead investigator of the suspicious deaths. As Emily’s father, Brendan Gleeson outshines the rest of the cast simply by casting a faint glimmer of acting prowess. It is a shame he isn’t given more opportunity to flex his thespian muscles.

Clearly, director James McTeigue bears some responsibility for The Raven’s inability to take flight. His far superior 2005 film, V for Vendetta, suffered from the same stilted tone that makes the journey to another time and place a needlessly difficult task for the moviegoer. The costumes, staging, and other technical details are done right, but one almost wishes McTeigue had committed the sin of having his onscreen Baltimore residents anachronistically speak with a Cockney accent. At least it would have clouded the average American’s judgment about just how well McTeigue had captured the feel of 19th-century America. The thinking goes something like this: The 1840s are foreign. Cockney accents are foreign. Therefore, everyone in the 1840s had Cockney accents. In this case, such logic might have swayed the cinematic jury to a more favorable verdict, underlying injustices aside.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Book Review: Secrets of New Forest Academy

Secrets of New Forest Academy, the second in Tyler Whitesides’ Janitors series, finds twelve-year-old Spencer Zumbro and his loyal friend, the gullible Daisy Gates, going into hiding at an elite prep school. The Bureau of Educational Maintenance (BEM), whose mission is to infest schools with magical Toxites that sap students of their abilities to concentrate, has learned of Spencer’s alliance with the rebel janitorial force that seeks to thwart the BEM’s nefarious plans. With a rebel janitor among its staff, New Forest Academy promises to be a safe haven for Spencer and Daisy. The only problem is, once the duo arrives, Spencer and Daisy find that their anticipated liaison has been replaced by a shady janitor named Slick. Their connection to the outside world presumably lost, Spencer and Daisy must figure out who is friend and who is foe.

As the first entry in the series, Whiteside’s Janitors was a charming, entertaining, and recommendable read. As the sequel, Secrets of New Forest Academy legitimizes Whiteside’s presence in the admittedly bloated genre of young adult fantasy series writers. Genuinely clever and frequently funny, Secrets reads with an ease that is not merely the byproduct of aiming at a younger audience. Whiteside’s writing has matured noticeably since his 2011 debut, the thinly-veiled morality lessons of book #1 pleasantly omitted here. This isn’t to say that the book is perfect. The parallels to Harry Potter are hard to miss, such as Spencer’s discovery that he has a psychic connection to the enemy. There are also times when the narrative seems to get sloppy, leaving gaping questions in the mind of the reader. In actuality, those questions will all be answered within a few more pages of reading, and yet it seems the reader’s temporary beguilement should be better reflected in the fictional characters themselves. It’s a minor complaint, but one that takes the reader that much more out of the story.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Unsolved Mysteries

As a philosopher, I see it as my duty to take questions seriously. I don’t shy away from considering points of view different from my own, and I happily seek to understand those views as fully and as fairly as possible. As a religious person, I hold beliefs that many would deem outrageous. As a person who is both religious and a philosopher, I find myself in the precarious position of trying to balance faith and reason in a way that is both honest and sincere. Retaining intellectual integrity is of the highest importance to me. I am not comfortable to shy away from difficult questions, as many religious people do (perhaps without even realizing it). Compared to many with my religious beliefs, I can be quite the skeptic. In my mind, this is the natural result of being inquisitive, genuine, and at least modestly well-informed. Whereas some religious folk would consider it a sin even to ask, “What if God doesn’t exist?”, I can play devil’s advocate until the cows come home. I am an ardent advocate for truth. If you don’t explore all of the possibilities, you might miss something—and in my opinion, that is a cardinal sin (God or no).

I’ve said all of the above because, as a person who strives to be intellectually honest, I can admit that my religious beliefs might be false. None of my religious experiences, taken individually or as a whole, guarantees that any of my religious beliefs are true. I believe the human mind is a powerful thing. I believe there are people with religious views radically different from my own that have just as much experiential evidence for their views as I have for mine. As a philosopher, this is troubling. At the very least, it should undermine my confidence in the particular religious beliefs I hold. Perhaps some religion out there is correct, but there’s little reason for supposing it’s my own. Now, I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain why I think I am justified in holding to my own particular religious beliefs assuming that some religion or another is true. But here’s the thing. No matter how much I’ve tried to doubt that anything religious (or at least religious-ish) is true, I cannot. Based on a handful of non-religious experiences I’ve had, I am stuck believing that there is more to existence than modern science promises to explain.

I’m not going to go into details, but there are a few distinct, non-religious experiences in my life that ultimately buttress my religious beliefs. If they had been experiences that involved only me, I am sure I would doubt them at this point. If they had been experiences that involved only myself and one or two other people who were in the same location as I, I could very easily explain away any mutual interpretation of these events as coincidental and incidental to the situation in which we jointly found ourselves. Even if I had an incredibly vivid memory of a gigantic alien spacecraft coming down out of the sky and opening up to reveal little green men to me on my 30th birthday, I could muster up some skepticism about the veracity of such a memory. But the experiences I’m thinking of cannot be explained away so easily. Putting on my skeptic hat and fighting to the death to interpret these experiences in a “rational” way, I have to come up with some pretty outlandish scenarios. The scenarios that could explain these events in an obviously scientifically-friendly way are so outrageous that alternative explanations actually seem more likely. Imagine thinking to yourself out of the blue, “I wonder what ice cream my mother likes best,” only to have your telephone immediately ring, and when you answer the phone with only the word “hello,” your mother who lives 1,000 miles away says, “Chocolate. That’s my favorite ice cream. Just answering your question.” That could be a coincidence. What I’m talking about goes far, far beyond something like that. I’m so rationally beguiled by these experiences that I recently contacted via Facebook a friend that I haven’t seen since graduating high school and asked her what she remembered about an event that happened 20 years ago. I didn’t tell her why I was asking, and she didn’t know the significance of the event anyway. Nonetheless, she confirmed key details of the event that make it a remarkable one. I assure you, I am not taking anything for granted here.

Part of my reason for bringing all of this up is that I wonder how common this is. That is, for my religious readers, how many of you have had experiences that are not overtly religious but that you feel provide evidence for the view that there is more to this world than what science currently suggests? That might not be the best way to phrase the question, but I trust my inquiry is clear enough. I’m not asking for details about any of your experiences. I’m just wondering if such experiences are common. I should clarify that, when I say the events were non-religious, what I mean is that I wasn’t in the midst of doing something religious when these events occurred. Likewise, the events did not involve anything overtly religious. I could tell you every last detail of the events without referencing anything even quasi-religious—there weren’t angels, spirits of the deceased walking about, etc. To put the question yet another way, if you pretend for a moment that all of your religious beliefs are false, do you yet have some experiences that it would be incredibly difficult to explain based on “secular” reasoning? In my opinion, even to say, “Oh, I know I saw the spirit of my dead grandma standing at the foot of the bed one night, and science cannot explain that!” is not going to cut it. Hallucinations are scientifically viable. Of course, I’ll leave the final judgment up to you. But I expect anyone who answers this question to be intellectually honest. Again, no details are necessary. Just be honest with whatever you do say.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Book Review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Something doesn’t smell right about Jean-Baptiste Grenouillle. Actually, Grenouille doesn’t smell at all. Or, rather, he smells better than anyone ever has. It all makes sense in Patrick Süskind’s euphoric Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure to have read.

Grenouille is born a bastard child in a squalid corner of 18th-century Paris. Abandoned to die, Grenouille is rescued and given over to a series of wet nurses, none of whom can muster any genuine compassion for the child. Indeed, even as a babe, Grenouille is accused of being possessed by the devil—the most damning evidence being that he does not smell as babies ought to smell. He is, in fact, odorless. Paradoxically, Grenouille has been blessed with an incredible sense of smell. His olfactory sensitivities are such that Grenouille has little use for his other senses. When he is sold into a leather-tanning apprenticeship as an older child, he excels at the craft precisely because he can smell when the chemical reactions taking place within the leather have reached the perfect state. However, when Grenouille encounters the most intoxicating smell he has ever known—that of a pubescent girl—his professional ambitions shift decidedly to the world of perfumery. His greatest goal: to capture the fragrance of female adolescence in a bottle.

Don’t let the title (or the plot summary I’ve provided above) fool you. Surprisingly little of Perfume has to do with killing. Readers might even think the book misleadingly titled, if not for the fact that it is said to be the story of a murderer and not a story of murder. The distinction is telling in this case. Much of the book focuses on Grenouille’s apprenticeship under Baldini, an elderly perfumer who clings desperately to his fading renown. Süskind describes perfuming methods in language as flowery and as mesmerizing as the scents they aspire to create. The relevant passages are at once scholarly and lyrical, a compliment that holds equally well for the other parts of the novel. While some credit must be given to translator John E. Woods, Süskind’s writing blurs the boundary between poetry and prose. It is a gothic novel, but light on the macabre.

More jarring than any violence it contains is Perfume’s outlandish ending. The final 20 pages of the book are all but an assassination of any realism that precedes them. Indeed, the novel veers sharply and suddenly off of its narrative path, crashing full force into the allegorical wayside. I have no doubt that many readers will be disappointed. But for those who can resist the initial impulse to renounce the book’s merits and who will instead invest in several minutes of quiet reflection, appreciation will come. Like a breath of fresh air, you might say.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Melanie Joins the ER Club

Amazingly, I find myself with a moment to write this blog post. What started off as a fun week turned into something of a disaster. Sunday was Creegan’s birthday. It started off well enough, but by Sunday evening, Melanie was feeling very ill. She was acting very distraught and as though she had a fever, with chills and complaints of freezing. But she didn’t actually have a fever, which was strange. However, when she’d calm down and start to say she felt too warm, her temperature was up to 102F. She started taking Tylenol, etc., and ended up sleeping fairly well on Sunday night. When she was awake in the night, she said she felt much better. On Monday morning, she assumed she was getting better and laid off the drugs. Then she started feeling awful again. To make matters worse, her right leg was swelling a little bit. That was disconcerting to me, as it seemed an unusual accompaniment to fever-like symptoms. But Melanie wasn’t panicking. She thought maybe it was an allergic reaction to something and tried an antihistamine. It didn’t help. She decided that if she weren’t feeling better on Tuesday, she would go to the doctor.

I went to school on Tuesday morning, and when I got home, Melanie still wasn’t feeling better. Her leg was also getting much worse and getting darker and darker pink. She finally went to an Urgent Care facility. They ended up sending her to the ER, and she hasn’t been home since. After many hours, they admitted her to the hospital. After many more hours, Melanie was told they would have a “doctor of infectious diseases” come look at her. That didn’t sit too well with me. I had no idea what that meant or how panicked I should be. Wednesday was a somewhat hellish day for me, emotionally. My anxiety was through the roof, precisely because I didn’t know how much anxiety the situation called for. To top it all off, they were saying that Melanie would likely be in the hospital multiple nights. When she went to Urgent Care, I just assumed she’d be coming home within a couple of hours with a prescription antibiotic. I was devastated to learn she’d be kept overnight, but when they started saying things like, “seven to ten days” and “up to two weeks,” I was shocked. How could they possibly not be thinking the worst?

With a great sigh of relief, I now know a lot more about the situation than I did. It turns out this is a case of cellulitis. Yes, it does require aggressive antibiotic treatment for up to a few weeks, but it’s not something to panic about. And yes, it’s considered an infectious disease. But I didn’t know what that term really meant or included. I was thinking worst-case scenarios, like something from a mosquito that inevitably kills you. Thankfully, that’s not the case. And second only to the fact that Melanie’s not going to die, she is unlikely to remain in the hospital beyond tomorrow afternoon / early evening. She’ll likely have to receive a “PICC line” IV that will remain in her upper arm for two weeks while she makes daily visits to the hospital for antibiotic treatment. That’s a nuisance, sure, but it beats living there.

Melanie’s lower right leg. The blue lines are the pen markings made by the doctor to track improvement.

And so, for the last few days, I’ve been living much like a single parent. Melanie’s the expert in this department, but I’m pleased with how well it’s gone. I had to bail on school, which I shamefully feel sheepish about because I recently stayed home so Peter could have surgery and then so I could deal with gout. I can’t help thinking my professor will think I’m making things up. Oh well. I did take the boys trick-or-treating on Halloween, and believe it or not, I’ve done some cooking. I’ve also done my first couple of loads of laundry since at least 2011. I guess those are some neat things to come out of this. Oh, and Melanie finally got to join the club to which Edison, Peter, Creegan, and I already belong—having spent our time in the emergency room at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. It’s one of the only things to do here in Tallahassee, so I guess it’s good she’s had a turn.