Monday, September 11, 2017

The Rum Diaries (or rather, "why is the rum always gone?)

An anticipated follow-up to one of the all-time classics

Creators are funny things: Give them a vision, inspire them, and they can produce phenomenal works of incredible insight and entertainment. But collaborative efforts are a different thing altogether -- put two visionaries together, and you MIGHT get a classic work out of them, but more often than not you get clashing egos that tear a project apart. Get three artists in the top of their field involved and those numbers go down exponentially.

Why do I tell you this? Because I want to convey to you the rarity and outright insanity of the film, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. The film is a collaborative effort between well-known auteur filmmaker Terry Gilliam, the father of “Gonzo Journalism” Hunter S. Thompson, and the (at the time) delightfully weird Johnny Depp. It was a triumph: A film so grotesque, and yet so moving, that you couldn’t look away. With characters so dysfunctionally disgusting and themes so outside the norm of mainstream film that it should have imploded upon itself and remained forgotten in the annals of Hollywood history… But it’s not; it is now a time-tested classic cinematic masterpiece that introduced a whole new generation to the misadventures of Thompson’s alter egos, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo.

While Thompson took his own life to escape the authoritarian, dystopian world wrought by Bush-era politics, Gillam and Depp went on. It’s arguable to say that Gilliam hasn’t quite made a name for himself since, while people are beginning to tire of Johnny Depp (much in thanks to a certain pirate movie franchise and his stale collaborations with walking goth pastiche Tim Burton).

So, when Depp chose to star in and produce a “follow-up” film based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, The Rum Diary, it could be said that the excitement was high. Thompson, after all, was known for underground articles and flourished journalism where he was a central character, not just reporting the news but providing his views on it. And while The Rum Diary is on the whole or at least semi-fictional, it is quite obviously inspired by Thompson and his central character, Paul Kemp is another self-insertion into the world of the novel (which is based on his own time in Puerto Rico).

But then, Terry Gilliam (who to my knowledge has never made a sequel to any film) wasn’t directing, and Hunter S. Thompson took an early retirement aboard the bullet express. And this is why the film simply cannot compare to the “original.”

The plot, unthickened

The story is about as disjointed as the original film. Paul Kemp is a journalist and failed novelist who takes a job in Puerto Rico with a paper called the San Juan Star. Among his failures are his inability to speak Spanish and his alcoholism, which is raging at the beginning of the film. As the story goes on he meets the usual cadre of Thompson-esque freaks in the form of drunks, users, and degenerates – in this case his co-workers. Along the way he gets involved with a white-collar criminal named Hal Sanderson, who is seeking to exploit the island, rob the people, and exploit its resources the first chance he gets. Kemp seems to roll with Hal’s ambitions, both too meek to question his motivations and too poor to refuse. Along the way Kemp and his friend, photographer Bob Sala (a much more sanguine Dr. Gonzo stand-in), have a run-in with the law, break confidentiality reports, and generally spend the movie in a drunken stupor. Kemp falls in love with Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault, as he misses deadlines and watches the paper he works for eventually spiral and collapse. There is plenty of cockfighting (literal in this sense) in-between.

That’s basically all that happens in the film, albeit for 120 minutes and told with (slightly more) flourish.

So why doesn’t it work?

The movie should work: The characters are weird, the sets are period-appropriate, the actors are fantastic, and the world they inhabit is both shiny and chrome in that early 60s kind of way, but also becomes disgusting and decrepit in the cesspool of the Puerto Rican slums.

No, there’s one simple failing the movie has, and that’s direction. Don’t get me wrong, screenwriter Bruce Robinson tried his best, and I’m sure he had a lot of input from depth, but while his direction is competent, it’s not really good. I know that sounds harsh, and well… it sort of is. This is his first directorial film since 1992’s Jennifer 8, and it shows. He obviously has a love for Thompson’s work, but let’s face it: He’s not Terry Gilliam.

It all boils down to energy, and it’s something that the film sorely lacks as it wistfully plods from one set piece to the next, with Depp’s Kemp more of an observer than a participant in most of the scenes. This was done semi-intentionally, of course: It is supposed to be a younger and less “Gonzo” Raoul Duke in his formative years, but regrettably with one exceptional scene near the end (a visit to a voodoo witch doctor) there is none of the fast-paced insanity of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. What we get instead is a lot of medium frame static shots of people talking, and while the dialog is painstakingly adapted from Thompson’s own words (and delivered in a weird, Wes Anderson sort of play-acting), there’s just not enough happening artistically or thematically to drive the story.

The bottom line

If you’re a fan of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, re-watch it. There’s nothing really inspired or invested in this film to consider it worth viewing. I applaud that Depp wanted to reprise the role, but this is not the same weirdo that we fell in love with back in 1998.

The sad thing is, after the critical panning this film received, we may never get any other adaptations of Thompson’s other works, but if they’d be anything like The Rum Diary, we’re not missing much.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Salesman's Odyssey

A fictional story, inspired by true events!

“Do you know Adobe?” she asked.

“Yes! I’ve been using Adobe Creative Cloud for years now,” was my reply.

“What about InDesign?”

“I’ve used it for years. I used it at my previous job to create manuals, pack-in sheets and pamphlets. As a matter of fact, that portfolio you’re looking at was made in InDesign.”

“Have you ever done sales?”

“Well… No, but I used to answer the phone at work in an effort to try to help the salespeople out. I didn’t have access to QuickBooks or anything to enter orders with or to take money, but I endeavored to be courteous and to help the customer out as much as I could before sending them to the sales department.”

“Well, this is directly interacting with customers. You’ve never done that have you? I mean, would you be willing to do that?”

“Yes, I’d be willing to learn.”

This exchange happened eight weeks before my first (and last) job in the sales department of a small local newspaper came to a sudden end.

I should point out that nothing I told my future (and now former) boss (who I will refer to as “Mary Beth” from this point forward) was a lie: I have indeed used Adobe Creative Cloud (and specifically InDesign) for years, and I have never done any sort of sales, and believe it or not, I was genuinely willing to learn how to sell. But that was my problem, you see: I had expected to have training, and that was a mistake.

I had been hired to take the place of another employee (let’s call her “Sally”) who had been with the company for five years. That number was important, because I was attempting to fill those shoes quickly, and during the full two-and-a-half days of training (yes, I’m not making that number up) that I had with that employee, I learned that no one there seemed to know who their various clients actually were (often referred to in vague references of business names), that all of their graphic design was done in InDesign, that any “art” used in the paper was downloaded clip art, and that in 2017, with clear access to simple and numerous database programs, people still used a pile of index cards to write sales leads on.

But things really got tough after “Sally” left. I made an honest effort to track down who the various clients were, only to find out that much of the contact information I was given was grievously out-of-date, but I persevered. It was rough trying to go from a constantly up-to-date Adobe Creative Cloud InDesign on the PC to a horribly redacted version of Adobe Creative Suite on a Mac, which itself had not had an OS update in years, resulting in web browsers that no longer worked and weird program glitches that seemed to happen from time-to-time. It was made all the worse by the fact that “Sally” never had any formal training with InDesign and had never actually bothered to learn any best procedures while using it, resulting in files that were far more difficult to edit than they needed to be. Still, the few ads that I made from scratch were lauded by my clients, and that felt good.

The great unraveling

I think that I knew the end was coming when one of our biggest healthcare clients told me that they wanted to, “see what I could do.” I spent (probably too much time) crafting an ad that used their web page’s colors to great effect, coordinated fonts to look smooth, and colored text boxes with indent spacing so that they could be resized on the fly with the text, making future manipulation better. It looked professional, and I was proud of the job that I had done. The client wasn’t, and kept asking for revision after revision, until finally they gave up and said, “we’ll have our people do it next week,” indicating that I lost the sale for that week. I was crushed by this. “Mary Beth,” rather than being a supportive boss who could have listened and been supportive, decided at that moment to basically yell at me that I should have just done what “Sally” did, and had me look at their previous ad, which was a mess of colors, mismatched clip art, and about six different fonts willy-nilly throughout the page. That was when “Mary Beth” decided that the large clients were too important to entrust to me, and began taking them for herself.

This, of course, made my job even harder, because now I didn’t have the large client base that “Sally” previously had. What’s more, “Mary Beth” hired another salesperson (we’ll call her “Anna”) who was experienced, full of enthusiasm, and ready to make some sales… Until over the course of three weeks I watched “Mary Beth” whittle down “Anna’s” enthusiasm to the point the poor girl was just sick at the thought of coming to work.

Now before we go any further, I want to say that I don’t entirely blame “Mary Beth.” She is a capable woman, that much is true, having started several businesses from scratch. That is admirable for a mother of three with no formal training. The staff at the paper I worked for were great people, and the loss of “Sally” coupled with next-to-no-training and a steep learning curve for new employees really affected the cash flow. Because she suddenly had to take on so many of the responsibilities of her former protégé, she was understandably under a lot of stress.

That didn’t make her any easier to work with.

From this point on, “Mary Beth” would loudly affirm that everyone should have been making sales calls, that there should be no typing, just calls calls calls. But here was the reason that it took me so long to make those calls: I had started my own personal database of contacts, so that I could record short notes of who I called, what I said to them, and how they responded. This was important, because even though I was writing it down, “Mary Beth” would ask me if I had called a client out of the blue, thinking that I was not, but here’s the other thing: Almost none of the people I called ever answered their phone, and a fair few even told me to communicate via email only. Once I started taking these notes, I could look up a conversation in a matter of moments, rather than having to dig through the archaic paper lists that she had us using.

What’s more, “Mary Beth” began assigning us clients to call on, but she herself couldn’t keep a damn thing straight about whose client was whose, giving sales that I had made previously to the other salespeople. This culminated in a moment where “Mary Beth” began grilling me on who I was calling, accusing me of ignoring a client – that she had assigned to the other salesperson. At this point I almost blew up at her, telling her that her system wasn’t working, whereupon I was given an angry speech that “it’s worked for seven years now, there’s nothing wrong with it!” before she dimwittedly gave a client that I was actively working with to another salesperson not five minutes later (true story). After about three weeks of “Mary Beth’s” needling abuse, “Anna” quit, and quite honestly, I envied her… But I’m no quitter!

“It’s worked for seven years now, there’s nothing wrong with it!”
-Mary Beth, right before it didn't work

Selling ads for a weekly free newspaper isn’t easy, despite what “Mary Beth” would have one believe, but learning it under the gun is even worse. People (usually small businesses) pay good money to have a small ad put in the paper for weeks at a time, and very few get any traction from it at all (believe me, I’ve asked some of the people I’ve sold ads to in the past). When I worked for the paper, I was put in charge of employment ads, but if the position is filled they’re not going to advertise again. If they get no responses from your publication, they’re not likely to advertise again – ever. Even if a daily paper is expensive to advertise in, they’re more likely to use it because daily papers are typically delivered to the reader’s door, and not picked up at random gas stations. Moreover, employers will pay the extra money for an online option so that they not only get tech-savvy people, but because getting data from an online form is much easier for a large business to deal with.

The graphic design wasn’t easy, either. Don’t misconstrue that: There’s nothing magical or special about creating graphics for a newspaper, but there’s something difficult about making graphics for a paper that is run by “Mary Beth,” who would constantly state that “Sally used to make graphics while she was still on the phone with a client and have it sent over to them while she was still on the line!” Personally, in the nearly three days that I spent training under “Sally,” I had never seen her do this, nor noticed any indication that she ever had. I did once watch her painfully and ploddingly manually resize the text in the columns of a feature for almost an hour, a feat that took me about two minutes to do BECAUSE I KNOW HOW TO USE INDESIGN DAMMIT – sorry, that was uncalled for. I can believe that “Sally” never spent more than a few minutes with her graphics, however, because trying to make edits to them was a nightmare of shape layers acting as the backgrounds of text boxes, weird combinations of fonts, not a single paragraph style anywhere to be found, and a drunk freshman’s understanding of color theory. To be fair, most of her ads looked fine, though a few left a lot to be desired (she had obviously honed it with time).

So early in what would become my last week I began calling in volume. I stayed focused, which wasn’t easy with “Mary Beth” constantly coming over to tell me that everything I was doing was wrong and that “Sally” could have done it so much better and faster. “Mary Beth” sold an ad that her client sent to her in a Microsoft Publisher file, and she couldn’t figure out how to open it, but I had Publisher on my machine and told her to send it over. It took me about 10 minutes to create an InDesign file equivalent of the publisher one in our paper’s format from nearly scratch (it was seriously easy), but instead I was told that I had taken too long with it. Other little interruptions like this broke out throughout the week, and I got them all taken care of quickly, so that I could concentrate on my calls.

Simply using the list of contacts that I had built-up. Between Tuesday and Thursday, I had made around 70 calls, and sold three small ads, which wasn’t enough to meet my sales goals for the week. When I came in on Friday “Mary Beth” was already there, along with the editor-in-chief (I’m guessing that he was there as backup in case anything happened). She informed me that “It’s not working out, and I think you know that.”

I packed up my things and left, but before leaving, I told her, “You want my advice? Get “Sally” back. Double her pay if you have to, because you are LOST without her.”

My advice to anyone out there, learn to spot a “Mary Beth” before you work for him or her. These people are usually religious (in the sense of status and ease-of-offense, not necessarily the ‘love your fellow man’ bits) and very embedded in the community. They get where they are by smiling and sucking up to power, are very passive-aggressive, and in private are the most miserable people you’ll ever come across. I can’t explain it, really. Let’s just say that I once saw “Mary Beth” at an event which was fun and exciting, where she was a participant. If one was to take a photograph of her during this event with a telephoto lens, she would be glowering and look like the most bitter and hateful person you’ve ever seen trying to have fun. That is not a fun person to be around, and that is not a good person to work for.

And so my odyssey in sales ends. I’m not unhappy to be rid of it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Hike with Mike: Grousing in the Rough

The Strange Forest Chicken

While descending the slopes of the extended Hatch Run Conservancy trail in Warren, Pennsylvania, I had a chance encounter. Going through a particularly wild area, I was startled by a loud hiss and a sudden aggressive movement! That's right: I had encountered the fabled hissing chicken of the forest! Fortunately, I had my trusty GoPro with me, so now you get to relive this deadly encounter too!

Well, all right... I may be overselling it a bit. It was the official bird of Pennsylvania, the ruffed grouse. I had never seen one up close before, nor one so eager to get my attention. Like a lot of bird species, the entire show as to lead me away from her nesting area (which I looked for briefly but didn't find -- she may not have laid her eggs yet, I don't know). The funny thing is I wouldn't have even seen her if she hadn't bolted right in front of me.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Unemployed? Beware of Vultures In Sheep's Clothing!

Yes, it's angry rant time again

Before you ask, yes: this experience made me angry. The parts you need to know are:
  • These people found me via one of the job boards I'm posted on.
  • They invited me to a "free webinar."
  • It was an hour (60 minutes) long.
  • She spent 20 minutes talking about herself.
  • Worthless (readily available) career advice was doled out for 15 minutes.
  • The last 25 minutes or so (I left early) were used to "fluff" the audience to sign up for her career counseling service.
  • This service cost nearly $2000.00.
  • I have $0.52 in the bank.

Now, you might get the impression from the video that these people aren't legitimate. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, I'm 100% certain that these people have spent a great deal of time and money being legal and legitimate... In the same way that Donald Trump's presidency is legitimate (in law only).

Not my first rodeo

Please understand that I've been through this sort of scam before. They offer actual, real advice, but it is advice that is easily obtainable elsewhere for free or for a nominal fee. Their shtick is that the woman who runs the "Limitless Career Lab" (which I will not link to, to defy their site even that shred of search engine legitimacy) is pretty, peppy, well-spoken, and by the persona that she's manufactured on the web, successful. This is the veneer on the treasure chest, if you will. Except that when you open the treasure chest, it's filled with nothing, or even worse a dwarf who will pop out and rob you of what treasure you have on you.

Beyond where the rubber meets the road

So I'm passing a moral judgment on the "Limitless Career Lab." While what they do is perfectly legal, and I'm sure that some would argue, beneficial, for the most part they are just targeting desperate people with no hope of ever getting that dream job and bilking them out of (at least) $2000.00 for what is essentially the content of a very thin book or a very thick pamphlet.

Steer clear, fellow job seekers!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Check out One Punch Man, if you can!

Hell no! Anime Go!

I have a confession to make: I detest -- nay, HATE anime. Oh, I like cartoons, but I have a palpable contempt for the Japanese variety. I find the character models boring. I find the incessant prattling of the protagonists too much to stomach. I find the insipid, recycled episodic scripts unbearable. I rage at the anime heroes who are always just "too cool" or "too unbeatable" to be interesting at all. I roll my eyes at the slow pacing. I can't even count how many times I've seen a storyline about cool robots or dragons having epic battles devolve into gag-inducing whiny diatribes about how "our feelings drive war," or some other stupid nonsense. It's to the point where even anime that doesn't follow these trends directly (like Cowboy Bebop) grates on my nerves to the point where I can't watch it anymore.

Think I'm joking? I tried watching the original Ghost in the Shell the other night, and only made it about 45 minutes in before I was done. I will never watch it again, and that's a movie I remember liking. Anime and I are Splitsville... or so I thought...

For literally no reason at all I began watching an anime on Netflix last night. And as of today, I've watched the entire first season. I don't normally binge-watch shows, and as my previous statements should have convinced you, I don't watch anime anymore. But I can say the following with conviction:

One Punch Man is one of the greatest shows I've ever watched.

I know: It's weird, right? But One Punch Man is a simple, one-note show that has wormed its way into my heart and I hope that I'll see more of it in the future. And I love it because it makes fun of every single thing that the culture and medium that spawned it introduced into the zeitgeist. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

The basics

The show follows a recently laid-off telemarketer named Saitama, who happens upon a monster on his way home. He saves a child from the monster, beating it in the process. He then decides he wants to be a hero "for fun," and begins a training regimen (which is hilarious, but I'll leave that as a spoiler). Three years later, he has trained "so hard that (his) hair fell out." Now he has the unique problem that being a hero isn't fun for him anymore, and for one simple reason: He's so powerful that he beats any foe he meets with one single punch. What's worse, nobody recognizes him as a hero and they frequently make fun of his bald head.

It's such a unique and fun take on the whole Superman problem: When you have a hero who is all-powerful, what motivates him? Saitama is stuck in a constant state of ennui. He's in over his head because he isn't particularly bright, which makes his frustrations even more entertaining. His biggest concerns when he's fighting are that his costume will get ruined (and he's not rich enough to replace it) and that he might not make it to the supermarket before it closes. His round, vacant face in the heat of battle is just so entertaining it defies logic.

The show pokes fun at anime, superheroes, fighting games, Japanese culture, action movies, and really too much else to mention. The supporting cast includes a cool-looking cyborg who becomes Saitama's unwanted disciple, a bloodthirsty ninja with serious inadequacy issues, a dangerous young telepath who could give the Phoenix force a run for its money, and my favorite, Mumen Rider (which literally translates to "No-license Rider"), a sting at the Japanese superhero staple Kamen Rider (Masked Rider) who has no superpowers and rides a pretty crappy bicycle (and he doesn't even ride it particularly well, either). The funny thing is, you can find yourself starting to care about these characters, despite the show's ridiculous premise.

In conclusion

CAUTION: Be aware that this is a Japanese program, so there are a few characters who are skirting the edge of being offensive and racist (and that's putting it kindly). While not as bloody as some anime, it can still be a little gruesome at times, so avoid watching with kids. This show is in Japanese and is subtitled (on Netflix, anyway), so if that's not your thing you might want to give it a "pass." Side effects may include holding poses for way too long and power levels above 5,000.

Anyway, other than those minor gripes I had a genuinely fun time watching it. The episodes are short, the pacing is mostly fast, and even when it's slow it seems more like an episode of Seinfeld than an anime. I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Cleaning Stove Glass Doors (the extra-dirty version)

Innuendo Away!

Okay, so this video was originally shot for my former employer, but while writing the script and filming the video, I noticed... Well, you'll see.

I felt that it was funny, and made sure to layer it on even thicker during the editing, but my bosses weren't impressed, so a newer, cleaner version was put on the site instead. A shame really, as I think this would have gotten FAR MORE views had it stayed up.

Here's the video with disclaimers intact: