Friday, January 25, 2008

Reel To Reel: Rambo

Bloody hell.

How It Rates: * (and that's being generous)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic, Bloody And Sustained War Violence, Sexual Assault, Strong Language

Rambo is so bloodthirsty I had to check my shirt for spatter marks after walking out of the theater. It guns down, assaults, burns, decapitates, carves, stabs, dismembers and blows up hundreds of bodies. It gushes of red, taking CGI and squib effects to levels of unapologetic grotesqueness. Watching the film made me think I was in A Clockwork Orange, where delinquent-turned-Christian Alex De Large is forced to watch sadistic motion pictures as part of an experiment to cure his depravity. The only thing this film cured was my notion of Sylvester Stallone -- who directed and co-wrote -- tying a neat bow on the John Rambo saga a la Rocky Balboa.

The title character emerges from hiatus as a laconic snake-hunter and boat captain in the jungles of Thailand. It's understandable enough for an old soldier with deep-welled anger, forsaken by the country he fought for. A group of missionaries comes to him seeking a ride up the river to war-plagued Burma where they can minister and feed what villagers haven't been killed or forced into the army. He turns them down, but wouldn't you know they would be carrying Sarah (Julie Benz), a beautiful charismatic young woman with them? So with her persuasion, Rambo navigates them there. He runs into a gang of pirates who are not the kind Jack Sparrow (or Bartholomew Burgundy) would hang out with. Facing capture or worse, Rambo cuts them down with the impossible resourcefulness of a battle-hardened Green Beret. Rambo is back. He's bad. He's invincible. But with the Sixth Commandment trumping security, he's not needed once the aid workers step off his boat.

As we would expect, the missionaries get to the village, start doing the Lord's work and then find themselves overrun by the Burmese Army in an unexpurgated sequence of killing and maiming and detonating and raping -- the second such sequence of the movie when coupled with a news-footage prologue explaining the country's strife. For no reason other than need of a plot hook, the soldiers take the missionaries alive.

Several days later, the pastor of the missionaries' church finds Rambo and asks him to take a bunch of mercenaries where his flock went. This is the part where I would expect Rambo to step up and say, "You're gonna need more than that."

"Like what?" the pastor would answer.

"Like me," Rambo would reply in one of those ta-da moments.

But we don't get that satisfaction. Rambo, whose character arc swings between passive-aggressive and ticked off, muses in voiceover: "When you're pushed, killing's as easy as breathing." Well, duh. Didn't we see that already?

Our hero leads a group of rag-tag soldiers of fortune upstream, including an ex-SAS bloke who has probably dropped more f-bombs than actual bombs. This time, Rambo insists on bringing up the rear over the objections of the foul-mouthed Brit. Guess what -- this motley crew makes it to the battle-desolated village with its rotting corpses and heads on sticks and finds itself about to be ambushed by the Burmese. Then -- TA-DA! -- there's Rambo and his trusty crossbow!

A rescue mission to the enemy camp follows, then the mother-of-all-battle scenes with -- you guessed it -- more copious bloodletting, decapitations, bullet spray, and another ta-da moment. We also get to see the awesome power of a Claymore mine, which Wikipedia defines as "a directional anti-personnel mine" firing "steel balls." This version resembles a micro-nuke without the radiation. Let's also not forget the compulsory element: Rambo's big confrontation with the commanding officer. Ever gut a deer?

I dare give you so much plot information, dear readers, because the ultimate atrocity of the film isn't its unrestrained violence; it's the failure to let Rambo be Rambo. You remember the renegade who could singlehandedly take out dozens of enemy troops, who could ignore pain, who could cake himself with mud and survive in conditions killing scores of men with about the same amount of dialogue as Tarzan. Rambo: First Blood Part II built up a legend of testosterone. It perfected the genre of paramilitary adventure. Rambo the Fourth reduces Stallone's character to axle grease, injected into key moments instead of mad and loose throughout the film.

The choice of Burma as a location puzzles me. It's humanitarian and noble but devoid of a rallying cry. Shouldn't Rambo go into Pakistan and kick Osama Bin Laden's behind? Audiences lapped up the second First Blood picture partly because we won Vietnam on film. It still reeked of brutality and cheese, but it did so in a cathartic, patriotic way during the height of Ronald Reagan's America. Rambo doing his thing to Al-Qaida might divert our minds from the mess the War On Terror has generated.

No, I didn't hate this picture. I despised, loathed, disliked and abhorred it for royally messing up a film icon while amping up the grossness. The only reason it earned a single star is the ending scene, which elicits a glimmer of hope -- hope that either the whole thing is over, or that maybe a new chapter can be written in the Rambo saga with some redeeming quality.

Game Of Life

Your Lightning Round editor-in-chief admits he's old school and proud of it when it comes to his video game habits. That's because I grew up in the age of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, before Mortal Combat clones multiplied in the arcades. When I'm behind a joystick, I don't want to be having a philosophical conversation with myself about the dehumanization of life via microchips and its parasitic influence on reality. You can safely deduce I never played Grand Theft Auto. Still, we have exceptions to the trend.

AND ALL AFTER PUSHING A FEW BUTTONS. Paxton Galvanek is not a doctor, but the 28-year-old knew enough medical skills to save an accident victim's life after playing America's Army, a free online computer game developed by the military as a recruiting tool. Medical training is part of the virtual drill.

From WRAL-TV's LocalTechWire:
Assuming the role of first responder, he quickly assessed the situation and found two victims in the smoking vehicle. Needing to extract them quickly, he helped the passenger out of the truck and noticed he had minor cuts and injuries. He told the man to stay clear of the smoking car and quickly went to the driver's side where he located a wounded man. He pulled the driver to safety on the side of the road.

Galvanek immediately noticed the man had lost two fingers in the accident and was bleeding profusely. The victim had also suffered head trauma. Galvanek located a towel, put pressure on the man’s hand, and instructed him to sit down and elevate his hand above his head while pressing the towel against his lost fingers. Galvanek then attended to his head cut and determined that injury was not as serious as his hand.
A real soldier who stopped to help determined Galvanek had done an excellent job.

This isn't an isolated example of computer games improving real-life performance. We at your Lightning Round found civil engineers have used SimCity as a learning tool. We also know of a doctor in Phoenix who's using Wii games to teach surgical skills.

Next up, using "Crazy Taxi" to teach defensive driving.

DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY. An Australian teenager took on a donated liver. Then she took on her donor's blood type and immune system, according to the Daily Telegraph:
On closer inspection, specialists found that stem cells from the donor liver had penetrated her bone marrow, effectively resulting in a naturally-occurring bone marrow transplant.

Her treating doctor Michael Stormon said she was able to come off the immunosuppressant drugs that most transplant patients needed to take life-long to ensure they don't reject the donated organ.

"We were stunned, absolutely stunned, and also very puzzled,'' said Dr Stormon, who reported the novel case in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In a related story, your Lightning Round has learned of a man with an artificial heart who mysteriously started beeping like R2-D2.

BUT WAIT, I THOUGHT THE PROBLEM WAS GLOBAL WARMING! The coldest place in the universe is not Leona Helmsley's casket [rim shot]. It's a specially-designed box at MIT where a team of researchers lowered the thermometer to -455°F.

From Smithsonian:
Ultimately, [Wolfgang] Ketterle, like many physicists, hopes to discover new forms of matter that could act as superconductors at room temperature, which would revolutionize how humans use energy. For most Nobel Prize winners, the honor caps a long career. But for Ketterle, who was 44 years old when he was awarded his, the creation of [a new form of matter] opened a new field that he and his colleagues will be exploring for decades.
If they don't freeze themselves to death first, we hope.

ALL THAT HE LEAVES BEHIND. Bono confessed some inconvenient truths to Al Gore: he's less than green in his ways, according to AFP:
"It's like being with an Irish priest. You start to confess your sins," he said. "Father Al, I am not just a noise polluter, I am a noise-polluting, diesel-soaking, gulfstream-flying rock star.

"I'm going to kick the habit. I'm trying father Al, but oil has been very good for me -- those convoys of articulated lorries, petrochemical products, hair gel."
So Father Al, what penance does he get? Putting U2's next album out on a CD-RW?

IT'S LIKE WINDEX, BUT CUTER. Is your computer screen dirty? Do the kids insist on touching that new LCD with the same hands that just touched PB&J? Your Lightning Round has the answer, and even if it doesn't work, it's fun to watch: Click here for a cleaning.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Shall I Sing La Marseillaise?

The following is an actual conversation between myself and a parking attendant at the Tucson Convention Center on Saturday, January 20, 2008 at approximately 7pm.

Attendant: "Are you a visitor?"

CF: "No. I live here."

Attendant: "Oh. You look kind of like you're French."

(It must be my newly-grown ponytail.)

CF: "Well, maybe I am, in a way."

I shoot a French musket and I've dressed like a French viscount. Close.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Reel To Reel: Cloverfield

Alien vs. Camcorder in a terrifying tale of the tape.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sci-Fi Violence And Disturbing 9/11-esque Images Of Destruction In New York City, Some Language

Producer J.J. Abrams, who brought us cool cult hits like Alias and Lost, delivers a frightening mash-up of The Blair Witch Project, Aliens, and War Of The Worlds mimicking the terror of September 11th to an uncomfortable degree. Watching the destruction of a New York City building and seeing the ash roll down the street, I can't ignore the haunting parallel to the news footage of that day. Sheets of paper glide down from the sky while dust-covered people wander the street and cough.

However, Cloverfield is tolerable because the root of this evil is a Godzilla-sized monster who lands on Earth, pulverizing real estate only because that's what movie monsters are supposed to do. Maybe he's ticked at not being cast in Alien Vs. Predator. I'd love to see Hollywood crank out a monster flick where some gigantic creature just sits off Long Island and watches us like a giant ant farm. I'd develop this plot further if we weren't in a writers' strike.

The film's premise, like Blair Witch, is the release of an amateur videotape discovered after the attack. We see everything through the lens of a camcorder, presumably one of those new high-definition ones, because it's the best looking camcorder video ever transferred to film -- even with all the shaking. It's also got the longest battery life I've ever seen, and it somehow manages to squeeze more than an hour of footage onto one of those DV cassettes. The tape starts out with some domestic life of a young New Yorker, then cuts to a farewell party for him shot by a friend. Just as the movie is turning into The Social Gaffe Project, something smashes into Manhattan. People hit the streets for a closer look, and then the head of the Statue of Liberty lands right in front of them with the camera rolling. Poor Lady Liberty. Planet Of The Apes wasn't enough of an insult.

A few more buildings blow up, and for the first time we get a glimpse of this grotesque creature that's stomping down Broadway. Worse, he's dropping little grotesque creatures all over the place who resemble the ooky lifeforms Sigourney Weaver shot up all those years ago. The rest of the film follows a group of three friends as they try to save the guest of honor's girlfriend while running around to escape the creature and his buddies.

Cloverfield's visual effects amaze me because they blend so well with the camcorder footage, and yet the movie doesn't present anything we haven't seen in other monster and horror films. It's a low-budget (only $25 million according to Box Office Mojo!) scare flick with a glossy CGI finish, and yet it left me clinging to my seat, breathing shallow and knowing none of this is going to end well. Thus, it achieved its goal.

Friday, January 18, 2008

You Bet Your Vote!

A recount is now underway in New Hampshire, where Democrat Dennis Kucinich is among many raising flags about disparities between machine-counted and hand-counted vote totals. The recount won't lift him out of the basement, but it might lift more eyebrows if there's a lead change at the top, where Hillary beat Barack by two percentage points. And that might just have people demanding to use pencil and paper again at the polls. We likely won't know the results for several weeks, but in the meantime, another voting irregularity is cropping up in the west.

FIVE-TO-ONE ODDS. Some of the voters in Nevada's Democratic Caucus will do their thing at the Bellaigo hotel, as the Washington Post reports:
Just before noon, the hotel's dishwashers, cocktail waitresses, porters and bellhops will go on break and gather in a 30,000-square-foot ballroom to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama or maybe John Edwards to be the Democratic nominee for president.

A similar scene will play out in eight other casinos on or near Las Vegas's Strip as Democrats caucus in Nevada, the next stop in the party's fiercely competitive presidential race. There will be more than 1,700 caucus precincts across Nevada, but estimates are that the votes cast in the casinos could be more than 10 percent of the statewide total.
Right down the hall, the sports books have Obama by two, but the odds are far from even according to a lawsuit from Nevada teachers who claim the locations are way too convenient to be fair to all candidates. Hillary's hubby had a mild hissy fit with KGO-TV reporter Mark Matthews about it:
Clinton: "This is a one-man one-vote country. I'm amazed. You should be offended by this. You think that one persons vote should count five times as much as another's?"

Mathews: "I think it looks as though it's the Clinton supporters --"

Clinton: "When you ask me that question, your position is that you think that the culinary workers vote should be easier for them to vote than anyone else in Nevada who has to work on Saturday. Second, when they do vote, their vote should count five times as much as everybody else? That's what the teachers have questioned. If that's your position, you have it. Get on your television station and say 'I don't care about the home mortgage crisis'. All I care is that some voters have it easier than others, and when they do vote, their vote should count five times as much? That is your position. If you want to take that position, get on the television and take it. Some people in Nevada are old fashioned. They think the rules should be the same for everybody and everybody's vote should count the same. I had nothing to do with that lawsuit and you know it."
A judge decided the house had no edge. But while the Dems caucus Saturday, maybe Bill will be in the ring at Ceasar's Palace for the main event.

FOR QUALITY ASSURANCE, YOUR PRODUCTIVITY MAY BE MONITORED. Microsoft may be developing the ultimate spyware application: software and hardware that watches how hard you're working. As London's Times Online reports:
Microsoft submitted a patent application in the US for a “unique monitoring system” that could link workers to their computers. Wireless sensors could read “heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure”, the application states.

The system could also “automatically detect frustration or stress in the user” and “offer and provide assistance accordingly”. Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker’s weight, age and health. If the system picked up an increase in heart rate or facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration, it would tell management that he needed help.
We also understand this software will reboot you if your output suffers or grinds to a halt.

OH, RATS! Scientists have grown a heart from cells of rats, paving the way for a lab-grown human heart in the future. As The New York Times Reports:
With modifications, scientists should be able to grow a human heart by taking stem cells from a patient’s bone marrow and placing them in a cadaver heart that has been prepared as a scaffold, Dr. [Doris] Taylor [of the University of Minnesota] said in a telephone interview from her laboratory in Minneapolis. The early success “opens the door to this notion that you can make any organ: kidney, liver, lung, pancreas — you name it and we hope we can make it,” she said.
Okay, Dr. Taylor, what about brains?

TRAGICALLY HIP. Where are the fashion police when you need them? Taking a look at what's coming down the runway, your Lightning Round staffers wonder if the design world is playing a gigantic ongoing joke on us all.
A man in a tutu?
A lady wearing her intestines!
Geek chic.
Masked madness.
Plus, when veils attack!
But the handbag's not bad.

A TRUE PATRIOT. Finally, your Lightning Round editor tips his tricorn and bows humbly to 14-year-old Anna Grant, who stood proud in the midst of egregiously bad sportsmanship this past Sunday. The finalist in the NFL Pepsi Punch, Pass & Kick title was booed by fans in Indianapolis during the Colts-Chargers game because she was wearing a New England Patriots jersey.

Naturally, it made YouTube:

No need here for a lecture on boorishness by people who call them the "Hate-riots." As Anna told the New Hampshire Union-Leader:
"My parents said to expect it, so I just laughed it off, but it was definitely obvious they were booing."
And for her honorable display, she'll be honored on the field before Sunday's game against the Chargers in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where she is sure to receive thunderous huzzahs. So thanks booers, you just gave a fine young lady a priceless moment.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Realm Of The Merry

An account to the Lords and Ladies of All Nations of the ball honoring Her Majesty, Queen of the realm of We Make History, as described by Your Humble Servant, Viscount Christopher Francis.

In the Year Of Our LORD 1757

My Dearest Readers,

With great happiness I report a Grand Ball with Her Majesty the Queen and His Lordship, a gathering of high fashion and temperament, attended by their loyal subjects and visiting nobility of kingdoms far and wide. On this occasion, they were a small yet heartened number, encouraged by the host with one key word.

"Elegance!" he pronounced before the assembled, meaning elegance in dress, in manner, and most importantly, dancing.

I must note his leadership by example, clothed in a regal blend of red jacket and breeches adorned by a golden weskit, topped by the extraordinary efforts of the Court Wigmaker. But I shall not leave you in suspense as to the attire of Her Royal Majesty, the portrait of a joyous monarch in her golden gown and bows with flashes of scarlet, crowned with a white feathered wig. To see her smile is to feel the strength and confidence of a Loving And Righteous Kingdom.

They led a procession in which I had the honour of escorting a beautiful Countess in a brightly-coloured gown of pink.

"You are becoming a regular at these events," she noted to my gracious acknowledgment, having traveled great distance to attend the regal soirée two times before.

Her Majesty and His Lordship embarked in a diversion of Follow The Leader, winding the dancers around them like a spool of thread and then unwinding and looping about the ballroom until all finally stood in a great circle.

In this Realm Of The Merry, honour permeates everything, but lest there be any doubt, His Lordship provided a few words of instruction on the gestures of civility.

A bow, he said, may be performed one of two ways. One with feet together and hands spread apart as the body gracefully bends; the other, with one foot in front. However, he cautioned, the second way was less formal, "although we might think of it as more formal."

I must admit a moment of shock, having learned the second way from a dancing mistress in The English Colonies and ingraining it into my manner. Yet one must always seek improvement, and adapt I would, seeking acceptance amongst the gathered nobility. From a young Princess, the ladies learned a Royal Curtsy and its simple elegance with a sink and rise, eyes not leaving the one recieving honour.

His Lordship reminded us that it was important for the gentlemen to dance with many different ladies during the evening, and he wondered aloud if the assembled understood the reason why.

I ventured a guess. "Balls were social occasions, and you wanted to dance with as many partners as possible."

"Sir Christopher is entirely correct," he responded. But, he added, there was a higher purpose, and that everything we did should be "in honour of the ladies."

Your Humble Servant admits he knew this in his heart, although sadly the truth did not purse his lips. I resolved my actions would render my tongue inconsequential, and the charming Countess and I enjoyed a round of "Noel," a dance of lively skipping and circling. I thanked her with another bow, albeit I was still reminding myself to bow the formal way.

"May I escort you somewhere?" I asked her, remembering yet another instruction from His Lordship. She was well-pleased with my performance and offered kind sentiments for it, but a strong noblewoman she was, and she politely passed on my offer, seeking her next partner with a determined gate. At that moment, I realized had just danced with a future Queen.

A rumour made its way among the gathered, word of two Russians: one a legitimate ambassador; the other, an impostor. The steadfastness and joy of Her Majesty's Realm, alas, leads others to plot against her, somehow thinking they may attain the peace they are lacking through disingenuous means. Members of the nobility began questioning one another, hoping to unmask the spy.

I tell you the whiff of espionage had no ill effect, as the Lords and Ladies of the Realm enjoyed many dances in sets this evening, where the gathered stepped through graceful figures under the direction of the Royal Court Dancing Mistress, and I delighted myself with leading my partners, leading them up and down the line, turning them, and encouraging them if they thought their efforts futile. The asymmetries of "The Fields Of Frost And Snow" did not dismay us, nor did the winding turns of "Jack's Maggot," where a gentleman and two ladies loop in figure eights, and a lady and two gentlemen do as such. (Dearest readers, I should clarify the term "maggot" refers to a fanciful or whimsical idea, in the belief Jack might have conjured the idea for such a curving dance after a bite from a baser creature, if not from a friend named Daniel.)

The simplest steps produced the most delightful moments, as when I traded places with the lady across the set from me, my smile wide across my face and my eyes affixed on hers as we stepped to the center, my hands spread wide with a hint of a bow as my legs weaved around her and into place. When the call came for a right or left-hand star, my free hand would rise above my shoulder in an expression of joy, one others in the figure would happily imitate. To my delight, two of my favourite dances were part of the evening's celebration: "All Haste To The Wedding" and "Christchurch's Bells." Their simple grace allowed Your Humble Servant to devote his utmost attention to the lady across from him.

During a pause for refreshments, I happened upon a beautiful Countess from Spain. Madrid was truly at the forefront of style, as evidenced from the colour alone. Her glowing countenance permeated my heart at first glance, which explained the presence of the young Musketeer standing guard at her side, although he was a man oddly without sword.

"Purple," I complimented. "That is a color of royalty."

She graciously accepted the words. "And where are you from?" she inquired of me.

"Surrey, England," I replied. "But I have come via the newly established" -- or soon to be, in this time -- "pueblo of Tucson, protected by the finest of Spain, who I have a certain feeling will be helping the cause of liberty."

"And whose side are you on?"

"I am on the side of liberty," I answered, taking a stand that impressed her.

A few more pleasant words followed, but I soon had to excuse myself. "Can I count on you for a dance?" she inquired.

"You shall do more than count," I promised. "You shall have!"

When the dancing resumed and she emerged from the refreshment corridor, a gentleman of Austria found his way to her before me. To my diplomatic friends, I assure you I did not desire any petty hostilities between our nations, so I graciously deferred to him and sought the Countess at the next available opportunity.

"I am a man of my word and my promises," I said, falling into a low bow. "Will you honour me with a dance?"

As I expected, she honoured her word unflinchingly, accepting my hand as we joined a forming set of six for a dance entitled "Come, Let Us Be Merry," another one of my favourites. And Dear Readers, here I must confide to you that my joy achieved its pinnacle. For you see, the aforementioned dance is a beautiful three-quarter tempo highlighted by many bows and curtsies, a grand circle of graceful stepping, and most of all, the opportunity to lead a lady down the center of the line with a minuet step. And I must note here, too, I was joined in the set by His Lordship and Her Majesty, whose elegant movements inspired all of us, Her Majesty's especially -- she truly is The Dancing Queen!

So it should not surprise you, when the Countess and I assumed the role of head couple, we went to great lengths to show we were worthy of dancing in the Regal Presence. Every step I took, I took with refinement, turning and bowing and turning again, casting off to the middle of the set, and then leading the lady between the lines. Her eyes and mine connected as I led her, turning inwards and outwards on alternating beats, her smile once again running a needle through my heart, warming me thoroughly, and her entire face aglow with the joy of the dance. I must admit, I did not want that stately procession to end. If only I could have led her the length of the ballroom and then back again, perhaps capering around her at the end in her honour! However, I abided by convention and followed the dance to the letter.

"Tres bien," His Lordship remarked.

Upon the conclusion of the dance, I bowed to her deeply once again, my eyes misting over. But to my surprise, no tears would come tonight, not even tears of joy. I gather they escaped to my forehead instead.

Efforts to root out the spy intensified, and another rumour of skulduggery emerged: "The Crown Jewels have been stolen!"

"We shall have to employ the efforts of Her Majesty's Secret Service!" I cried.

In their steadfastness, Her Majesty and His Lordship showed no sign of alarm. They proceeded to the awarding of prizes by lot, challenging the winners to recite a fact pertaining to any queen of any kingdom. Unfortunately, many were unprepared, and despite the best efforts of His Lordship to coax out a fact -- any fact -- a few could do no more than resort to the common sentence in The Realm Of The Merry: a jig.

So ladies capered to the clapping encouragement of the assembled, finding joy even in punishment, although one noblewoman briefly neglected decorum by revealing her stockings and knees underneath her frock. The infraction did not escape notice of the host. "She is from Kansas," he noted, and asked the gathering to forgive said transgression.

I must admit, I would have reneged on a promise had it not been for the keen memory of His Lordship, who pointed out that Your Humble Servant had promised a lady a dance at a certain Christmas Party. I recalled the promise, but I was unsure of the lady whom I had honoured with said promise. With His Lordship's help, she was revealed, and I paid my debt with interest.

Inquiries persisted as to the identity of the spy. Even Her Majesty's Secret Service could not discern the impostor. Thus, a team of young Princesses banded together, and in their persistence, they unmasked the cunning one: a young Natasha, sent by personal directive of the czar. Gasps emanated from the assembled, and His Lordship wondered how such an deceptive lady could evade detection.

"Her beauty was so overwhelming, we were blind to her treachery!" I shouted.

Indeed, she displayed much charm and class, a pitiful waste of such gifts. But in the Realm Of The Merry, much is forgivable. His Lordship offered her a higher wage to embark on counterintelligence for Her Majesty, and a gentleman quickly offered her a dance. No gaol would hold her this evening, under edict of The Queen.

The Pineapple Dance raised our spirits once more with the Lords and Ladies of the Realm sashaying down the lines of eager dancers, hoping to take a partner's hand or be the last one to be passed the exotic and hospitable fruit.

"Are you enjoying yourself?" a lady asked me.

"Very much so," I answered with the Spirit Of The Dance enveloping me.

As much as I would delight in regaling you with more tales of dancing and grace, the time did eventually arrive for us to depart for our own kingdoms and times, but not without a waltz borrowed from another age.

I spotted a lady I had been wanting to dance with all evening sitting alone at the side of the room, and I bowed to her.

"Thank you for saving me the last dance," she said to me. We conversed through a two-step, and she put forth a question. "What was your favourite gift this Christmas?"

I puzzled at the answer, but not for long. In the Realm Of The Merry, and with the beautiful lady in my arms, I could not perceive anything material. Searching through my feelings, I spoke from my heart. "GOD has given me many gifts. HE has given me friends and joy such as this." I would leave no doubt of the Kingdom I called home.

Her Majesty's subjects speak! Their words here.

NEXT: Washington's Way

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hankie Panky

Hillary's had quite a week. It started with that much-bally-boo-hooed cry in front of the camera. Was it real or was it crocodile? Or was it simply the frustration of working her tail off and still getting beat like a drum in Iowa?

Then she won the New Hampshire primary and Bill turned on the water. Oh why not, it works for Oprah. But we at your Lightning Round shed no tears as we sift through the net each week, except when somebody forgets to clean their contacts... the lenses, people, not those meat puppets in the Rolodex.

SILVER SALUTE. Listening to Barack Obama Tuesday night, somebody almost forgot to tell him he came in second. Once again, he stepped up and delivered the kind of speech that makes downtrodden patriots believe again.

As the AP reports:
"We know the battle ahead may be long. But always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change," Obama said.

"I am still fired up and ready to go," he said.
"All the candidates in this race have good ideas and all are patriots who serve this country honorably," Obama said.
And further...
"In record numbers, you came out and you spoke up for change. And with your voices and your votes you made it clear that at this moment in this election there is something happening in America."
If he doesn't get the Democrats' nod, we're urging the next president to create the Department of Motivation and name him secretary. Who cares about big government when you have hope for the future?

Here's another motivator: when all the votes were counted in New Hampshire, Obama and Hillary ended up winning exactly the same number of delegates: 9. However, Hillary still has a wide lead in the overall Democratic delegate race because of superdelegates. Huh?

JOHNNY MAC'S BACK. On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain owned the night, leaving your Lightning Round editor-in-chief eating a genrous helping of crow... cold.

Early last year, with the Arizona senator trapped under the debris of immigration reform, donations drying up, and key campaign staff bailing out, I predicted his presidential aspirations wouldn't survive the new year. Yet McCain climbed out of the grave and rededicated himself.

The senator also took a page from the Obama playbook:
"For me, that greater cause has always been my country, which I have served imperfectly for many years but have loved without any reservation every day of my life," McCain said. "However this campaign turns out - and I am more confident tonight that it will turn out much better than once expected - I am grateful beyond expression for the prospect that I might serve her a little while longer."
We remind you McCain won New Hampshire in 2000 before losing the nomination to then-governor George W. Bush. So "little while" is still a little uncertain -- but we wonder if it will outlast the writers' strike.

POLL POSITION. The big losers in New Hampshire were the polls, the ones that had Obama sailing to victory Tuesday night. So what went wrong? ABC News polling director Gary Langer offers a theory or two, but also throws us this:
Prof. Jon Krosnick of Stanford University has another argument: That the order of names on the New Hampshire ballot - in which, by random draw, Clinton was toward the top, Obama at the bottom - netted her about 3 percentage points more than she'd have gotten otherwise. That's not enough to explain the gap in some of the polls, which presumably randomized candidate names, but it might hold part of the answer.
Looking at the long-list ballot, we have other questions: "People are still voting for vice-president?" and who exactly is "O. Savior?"

OPEN SEASON. The next main event on the political fight card is Super Duper Tuesday, February 5, when Arizona and more than a dozen other states hold primaries. But if you're a registered independent, you can't vote because of a quirk in the state's open-primary law. Arizona state senator Jack Harper is offering a quick-fix bill, but like a lot of his Republican cronies, he can't resist taking a cheap shot across the aisle, as reported in the Arizona Daily Star:
His proposal doesn't stop at just letting independents vote in one of the party primaries. It would also let Republicans vote in the Democrat primary.

However, Democrats, described by Harper as "people who would burn American flags in front of American soldiers and call that free speech," would not have the same crossover ability — although he later said he is willing to alter that provision to treat both parties the same.
For Harper, that may mean letting Republicans burn glossies of Hillary.

YOU EAT MY HEART OUT. Perhaps one can serve his political opponents in effigy, if not in love. Chidi Ogbuta of Allen, Texas had her wedding cake made to look like her -- life sized, with her veiled upper torso on top of several lower layers. She told her future hubby she wanted a "unique, personalized wedding."

Just what I want to see on my happiest day: somebody sticking a knife in me.

PASTA POLITICS. The sauce is red, but its consumer may be blue. The American Italian Pasta Company dug into it, offering its findings on partisan pasta eating a press release that crossed our wires:
Democrats, data shows, lean towards elbow macaroni, while Republicans tend to prefer long spaghetti.
We gather independents have the Lasagna vote.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wait Just A Minuet

My favorite We Make History ball of the year is coming up this weekend. I love Colonial-style dancing (a.k.a. English Country Dance), but one dance I haven't done yet is a minuet. It's on my Bucket List.

I'm dreaming of a moment of movement like this one, performed by The Covent Garden Minuet Company:

And then something else lively, like this from the Mercurius Company:

And finally, sharing the ballroom floor alone with a beautiful lady... like this.

Ahhhh... Ladies of the realm, I extend my hand. Refuse me and break my heart!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Reel To Reel: Charlie Wilson's War

How to fund a war under the table and win.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ned Beatty
Rated: R
Red Flags: One Scene Of Nudity (including Hanks' bare derriere), Language, War Violence

Much of what happens in Washington happens outside of our vision, out of reach of the press or C-Span or blogs or otherwise. So it's entirely possible a Texas congressman could engineer the funding and weapons deals that helped Afghan rebels defeat the Soviets in the 1980's -- all under the table. But better, it actually happened.

Charlie Wilson's War is based upon the book by former 60 Minutes producer George Crile, who chronicled how the hard-drinking and womanizing Rep. Charlie Wilson pulled off one of the most successful covert operations in history. It's a ode to logrolling and influence peddling used for something other than a highway in Alaska. At the same time, it's a political thriller unmasking Washington's systemic inaction and hypocrisy.

Wilson (Hanks) learns of Afghanistan's failing resistance from a Dan Rather report -- while sitting in a Las Vegas hotel jacuzzi surrounded by nude women and cocaine. He isn't shy about his boozing or skirt-chasing. Curvy assistants keep his office running, and he's quick to offer a drink to anybody who stops by. Yet behind the good-ol'-Texas-boy front is a leader with incredible power and influence as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. The position enables him to ask for get more funding for covert CIA operations with little resistance.

Houston socialite Joanne Herring (Roberts) uses her charm to prod Wilson to visit Afghanistan after hearing how he doubled some intelligence funding with just a few words. She's the kind of woman you admire and detest in the same sentence. Herring reeks of rich like someone on Dynasty but at least she's not spending it on a tummy tuck. Wilson is dismayed to find diplomats unwilling to give the Afghans more than just chump change, old weapons and lip service. He teams up with Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman), a chain-smoking CIA pariah aching to get something done and escape the agency's bureaucratic sludge. Together they weave the tangled and secret web of alliances and funding to put rocket launchers into the hands of the Afghan rebels and turned the tide.

Charlie Wilson's War is a breezy Washington fable with comic edge, thanks in large part to the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing. We hear references to former House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill and then-prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. Still, people who don't go for political thrillers will like this film because of its economy and avoidance of excess Washington-isms. Yes, Sorkin's a liberal. And yes, I have heard conservatives grumble that Wilson is getting too much credit for bringing about the end of the Cold War. Yet Wilson himself admits that, saying "they made me a little better than I am." And somebody remind conservatives -- as if you need to -- that it wasn't Wilson who got the Soviets in a nuclear arms race.

Like the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, the film pulls out before the liberated country falls under control of the Taliban, paving the way for Al-Qaida and 9/11. We see Wilson in one scene trying to win the peace, but he is left to offer us only an expletive-laced quote summarizing what happened -- The End. The aftermath of Charlie Wilson's War is the topic for another movie at another time, if Hollywood is willing to make it. Judging from the box office performance of Lions For Lambs, it won't be soon.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Playing Both Sides

Round one of the super-heavyweight fight known as the presidential race is over and scored. Amidst the politically charged headlines from Iowa this week, somebody got their polarity reversed. But it's what your Lightning Round editors have come to expect during campaign season, when partisan ethics is an oxymoron.

NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON'T. GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee took the peculiar step of declaring he would run a positive campaign and then showing the negative ad he wasn't going to run.

From The Hill:
When asked if it is hypocritical to make an announcement about not running negative ads, and then show a negative advertisement to dozens of members of the national and local media, Huckabee said he had to show the ad to prove its existence.

“I want to show you that we were fully prepared,” Huckabee said.
Yeah, like nobody would ever believe a gentleman like Mike Huckabee was capable of putting together a mean, nasty, hateful campaign ad, now?
Huckabee said the ad cost about $30,000 to make, and the original purpose of the press conference was to introduce the spot to the media.

But the former governor said he had a change of heart shortly before the media assembled. Easels outlining the attacks on Romney were still standing in the room, and Huckabee stood in front of a banner that read “Enough is Enough.”

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said.
It's never too late to make up a cover story, either. Your Lightning Round editors praise Huckabee for figuring out how to get ad time without paying for it -- show an incendiary commercial to the press and let them lap it up like dogs. However, the twisted logic behind this political stunt smacks of somebody who's figured out how to live on both sides of the issue... sorta like Hillary.

On caucus night, Iowans didn't turn him off. Huckabee invoked the spirit of the founding patriots after his win, saying "it's not about me; it's about we." He meant "we" as in "we the people," not "we" as "we are gonna stomp Mitt Romney's Mormon butt in New Hampshire."

He also said, "I wish it was all over tonight, and we could celebrate." Envisioning the wild and woolly campaign season yet to come, "we" can't blame him.

HE'S A GONER. Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut quit the race as the last of the Iowa Caucus results trickled in. He did indescribably bad, as CNN's Wolf Blitzer phrased it, saying Dodd came in a "distant distant... place."

The Wolfman also referred to Barack Obama as a "young man in his mid-forties." Huzzah -- that makes your Lightning Round editor a kid again!

WHAT ABOUT RON? Republican un-candidate Ron Paul finished Iowa with a respectable 10 percent, behind Fred Thompson.

Of course, his supporters claim the networks are underreporting and underestimating his support. Paul vows to continue. We would too if we finished ahead of Rudy Guiliani.

STAND BY ME. The eventual nominee will eventually have to pick a running mate, but a wingman will do for now. During the post-caucus speeches, Hillary Clinton had Bill and Chelsea at her side along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Mike Huckabee had Chuck Norris, who easily doubled as his bodyguard. John Edwards had his wife. Barack Obama stood solo; hope was his companion.

THREE BOTTLE MINIMUM. Running from the political arena and into the nearest club now, Gregory Barnard is suing the trendy Times Square nightclub Arena for $2 million after a booze beatdown. Bouncers roughed him up for buying only one $350 bottle of vodka. Why? Because he didn't buy two more as the club requires.

The New York Post lays things out:
A bouncer threw him to the floor and held him down while two other bouncers punched and kicked him, he said.

They then picked Barnard up and walked him two blocks to an ATM for more money, but the bank had frozen his card because the waitress had already charged $1,400 on it, swiping the card at least nine times, he said.

He said the bouncers dragged him back to the bar, where he waited until police arrived and arrested him for theft of services.

The charges were dismissed.
All for $700 in spirits he and his friends didn't want and never drank. For you non-clubbing types -- including your Lightning Round editor -- Mr. Barnard ordered "bottle service," defined as paying a ghastly amount of money for not only the alcohol, but also glasses, mixers and a dedicated server whom you hope has a shapely figure. We can safely conclude no tip was left this evening.

As for that three-bottle minimum, hasn't anybody at Arena ever heard of public intoxication? Or DUI?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Reel To Reel: National Treasure: Book Of Secrets

Hurry people! Treasure's out there and we've only got two hours to find it.

How It Rates: **
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Jon Voight, Diane Kruger, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Harvey Keitel
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Adventure Violence

Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer are prepared to get a lot of mileage out of far-fetched legends and conspiracy theories, turning them into as many treasure hunts as they can. This sequel to 2004's National Treasure leads us on another breathless chase for another huge stash, doing the impossible in mere minutes and somehow managing to avoid any war-on-terror tripwire. It is not so much a movie as a collection of plot twists tied together.

Treasure hunter Benjamin Frankin Gates (Cage) is back, as is his father Patrick (Voight) and gadget-guru Riley (Bartha). This time, they're not just hunting for some whopping pile of artifacts. Somebody has come forward with a scrap from John Wilkes Booth's diary, suggesting Gates' great-grandfather was involved in a conspiracy to kill President Lincoln. Ben is determined to clear his family's name, but along the way, he uncovers evidence pointing to the golden city of Cibola, an ancient dwelling that makes Fort Knox, Kentucky look like Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

The movie's various plot gymnastics (and that's putting it mildly) lead through Paris, London and Washington, D.C. We have desks that double as safes and ratty old wooden planks with ancient markings. A huge cover-up involves Mount Rushmore. Gates somehow manages to finagle a moment alone with the president, and Riley manages to hack into any computer system they come across with the help of a laptop and what looked to me like an iPhone. Why does he have to help Gates hunt treasure? He could make a fortune unlocking iPhones.

But we all know Ben and his buddies are going to get to the treasure, thus making the journey the reward. National Treasure: Book of Secrets is all about the trip, not the destination. It moves faster than common sense can keep up, but we really don't care because we're dying to see the next clue, and then the clue after that. It doesn't matter that Cage's character can slip out of any trap like a modern Indiana Jones -- which reminds me: the third act of this film reminded me of the first act of Raiders of the Lost Ark with ancient booby-traps and a giant stone to boot. Jones has one more sequel on the Coming Attractions reel. And I bet you Cage and company will have one, too.