Thursday, June 30, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2: The Panda Strikes Back

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

As I mentioned yesterday, when we saw X-Men: First Class it was immediately prepended by Kung Fu Panda 2. And while the X-Men flick was a mixed bag of candy and turd-nuggets where the latter inevitably prevails over the former, Kung Fu Panda 2 was an enjoyable sequel that built on and matured the subject matter of the first while still keeping it completely kid-friendly.

Expectations 'Odor': I really loved Kung Fu Panda. While a certain other studio is dinking around not making an The Incredibles sequel, Kung Fu Panda was the sort of light-hearted, good-natured action fare that alluded to the thrills I got from The Incredibles. It had humor that was accessible for kids, but not repulsively low-brow, and the character was probably one of the most lovable cuddly characters from an actor who specializes in lovable-buffoon-type-casting.

When I first heard about Kung Fu Panda 2, it was supposed to be subtitled 'The Kaboom of Doom'. Something about the outrageous silliness of that title grabbed me in a giggling kid sort of way, and I referred to it as such right up until it was formally released without the awesome title. But I still had the associations of silliness in my mind, and I went in expecting some more epic humor, including people going blind from awesomeness. Which, as we all know, is free.

Appreciation 'Beef': My expectations of Kung Fu Panda 2 were a little too silly to be accurate. While still a kid's movie, it felt that much darker than the first--more scenes occurred at night and in the rain or in dungeons, which I'm sure presented a challenge to the animators as they had to maintain cartoon light-heartedness and cute elements while casting them in dark, harsh lighting conditions. They did well, and I think the animation's general scope and direction is what really surprised me.

The movie employed three distinct animation types. The primary medium was the CG imagery that tells the vast majority of the story. The prologue was told in a 3d shadow puppet play that was both evocative of the darker mood to the movie and culturally apropos. And the movie's several flashbacks were told through a more traditional-looking cross between painted story book and cell animation. Both of the two new animation styles are pitch perfect for their uses, and so beautifully rendered you feel like they could be used to tell a standalone story just as well.

And the traditional 3d animation has been turned up a notch, too. The character models for a computer generated movie can be reused precisely as a matter of fact, so it is no surprise that they look as kinetic and cuddly in this movie as they did in the first. The interactions with the different lighting types, however, takes the film to another, much more engrossing level.

The plot itself is much more dense, and we see some more legitimate character growth in Po this time around. Without giving anything away, the central theme of the film is about overcoming trauma. It's a bit of a heady concept to get across to kids, and they are careful to depict the trauma in a way that is scary but not unduly violent, but it still means that Kung Fu Panda 2 feels geared towards kids at the middle to high end of the PG spectrum.

The voice acting is good, and a lot more of the supporting characters seem to get a chance to shine in this movie. But the standout character is the villain, Shen, who is voiced by the acting-double-jointed Gary Oldman. Hearing the villain cackle and shout orders at his minions, threaten the good guys, and generally play the evil overlord to the tenth degree is almost distractingly entertaining.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I loved Kung Fu Panda 2 even more than the initial installment. The action is much more frenetically paced, with choreography that twists the camera into odd angles and embodies the stress of the much larger-scale combat that takes place in the movie. The teamwork element is dialed up too, outdoing anything I can think of short of the climax of The Incredibles. Characters throw each other around, catch them when they fall, and generally show that they've been training together since Po became the Dragon Warrior.

This rich density is reflected in the humor of the film, too. I often found myself laughing at something a character said when an unrelated sight gag also passed by, giving an additional snort of appreciation. More than most ninety minute films, I felt this one went by much too quickly.

Probably the biggest reservation I had about the movie is the central plot's moral, which reminded me of The Last Samurai. The villain, Shen, has created the cannon, which will 'destroy kung fu' and hence the protagonists are tasked with destroying the machine and stopping the genocidal peacock. The idea of destroying the advent of firearms is problematic, though, when you consider that the villain of the first movie used his Kung Fu superiority to wipe out all opposition except for a prophesied champion. A simple firing line of muskets could have ended Tai Lung's reign of terror. There's a reason why we call firearms things like the 'equalizer'--it circumvents much of the unfair advantages of savage tyrants. You could imagine one kung fu master defeating one hundred at once, but one gunslinger doing the same is pretty much unimaginable. The fact is, the glorification of kung fu (or the samurai order in the Tom Cruise movie) over firearms is more about elitism than anything else: a farmer with a musket can kill a full time martial arts master, which is the really galling thing about the concept to characters in both movies. Overall, though, this caveat hardly affected my overall enjoyment of the film, largely because the kung fu vs. firearms theme pales in importance to the theme of overcoming personal trauma.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Kung Fu Panda 2 has virtually all the same elements that made Kung Fu Panda a success, but uses them in different proportions. The humor is more dense and operates on two layers. The villain is a lot more hate-filled and active in the plot. Po is not just an innocent dreamer but an immature guardian who still has to fully embrace who he is. These all say that if you enjoy the first movie, you'll enjoy the second, but you do still need to brace yourself for a very different tone.

The shift in focus is also enough in my opinion to make others who didn't appreciate Kung Fu Panda give Kung Fu Panda 2 a chance. There's more of a dynamic plot that moves across the landscape, involves more characters, and requires more personal growth. Po is significantly more mature in this film, though he still has room for more development. And the fight scenes contain stunning choreography that will probably inform CG and maybe even live-action movies to come.

Week of Chicago Dogs: Day Three

Week of Chicago Dogs: As Americans near their various and as sundry Independence Day celebrations coming this July 4, there will be a great number of hot dogs consumed. Most of them will be grilled, Oscar Mayer numbers with a pathetic assortment of condiments of least resistance. A few of them, God help them, will have ketchup on them--ketchup! To help liberate the masses from mediocre hot dogs, this next week will detail the essence of a good Chicago-style hot dog from several Midwest vendors. You're welcome.

Mr. G's

Throughout high school, this place was my weekend afternoon alternate. Since most of my friends lived in the area, it'd be easy for us to swing by Mr. G's, grab some tube steak and fries, and then pounce around the local wetlands preserve and Antioch community property. Nowadays, the wife and I find time to stop by on our way to other southern locales, and it's always a fun bit of nostalgia for me when we do so. For this particular visit, we grabbed a gyro, medium soda, chili-cheese fry, and Chicago Dog all for a smooth twelve bucks.

Dog: The hot dog was Vienna Beef, of course, but Mr. G's also has the distinction of cooking their hot dogs just right to give them an almost perfect amount of firmness. This sturdy hot dog's skin is almost equivalent to finger surface tension--you really feel like you're chomping into a once-living thing with this dog, and that's the way meat should be in general.

Bun: Their bun has no poppy seeds on it, which is a bad blow to a place with such a great meaty core for their Chicago Dog. The white bread is fluffy and sturdy, yawning gracefully to contain its bounty (see the picture above). It makes for a good handle on your hot dog, but the negative mark of not having poppy seeds is nothing at which to sneeze.

Toppings: Mr. G's toppings cover your general bases. There's no cucumber on this bad boy, but that is really extra credit where Chicago Dogs are concerned. The sport peppers have a fresh, juicy pop to them, and their mouth-watering hotness combines with their heavy celery salt for a strong one-two punch to your taste buds. This is no weakling's Chicago Dog. Pickle is a bit more watered down than most, especially thanks to their thick tomato slices, so you don't get as much of the garlic taste as you might elsewhere. Overall, the Mr. G's Chicago Dog is a savory, filling hot dog that has just one or two hiccups that keep me from going out of my way to get there a bit more often.

Side: Where chili-cheese fries are concerned, I count myself a connoisseur. In my household, in fact, chili-cheese is seldom uttered--we have to abbreviate it to 'cha-cha fries' or 'cha-cha dogs'. The cha-cha fries at Mr. G's are a unique slant on the bombastic side. Start with those crinkle-cut zig-zag fries about the length of your average golf pencil but the thickness of your middle finger, and you have good amounts of crispy potato flesh without the skin (a plus to some). The cheese is a fluid sauce drizzled over the fries--not really nacho flavored, but it's still a con in my estimation. The chili, however, is the really unique thing. It's a smooth and fluffy chili, a little bit sweeter than most you might try, without any beans to find. The overall texture is like a semi-moist refried beans, and it combines with the cheese sauce to have a thick, viscous hold on the fries beneath.

Venue: Mr. G's is another one of these community establishments that features a smattering of photos of locals plastered to the walls as though they were your average CBS 'celebrity'. The walls are not as cluttered as some places, though, and so you get a bit less atmosphere than elsewhere. Again, this is a plus for some, and I imagine it's deliberate since Mr. G's is on the north side of town and hence probably gets more people passing through town as well. The service is fast, too. Our food was ready faster than it takes a Canadian to waffle over fountain drink selection. By the way, if you're having a hot dog, the right answer is always root beer.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Week of Chicago Dogs: Day Two

Week of Chicago Dogs: As Americans near their various and as sundry Independence Day celebrations coming this July 4, there will be a great number of hot dogs consumed. Most of them will be grilled, Oscar Mayer numbers with a pathetic assortment of condiments of least resistance. A few of them, God help them, will have ketchup on them--ketchup! To help liberate the masses from mediocre hot dogs, this next week will detail the essence of a good Chicago-style hot dog from several Midwest vendors. You're welcome.

Trolley Dogs

Yesterday I featured one of the first hot dog places I'd ever patronized, so today I thought I'd feature a new favorite. Trolley Dogs is a family owned and operated place in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I've been going there for more than three years now, and it's one of those places I always try to bring out-of-town friends and family when they visit. This particular visit I got my usual--two Chicago Dogs and a cheese fry--and my wife got a Polish Dog with a french fry, all for about thirteen dollars.

Dog: Trolley Dogs' Chicago Dog is a red Vienna Beef hot dog with a good, tough skin. The skin is just right, giving that satisfying snap as your teeth tear into the dog. This is an important but elusive trait of a good hot dog--having that 'snap' alludes to the hot dog's heterogeneous origins even as the savory meat is  itself a homogeneous wonder.

Bun: The bread is soft and moist. They include the critical element of a requisite amount of poppy seeds on the bun, but the soft bun is the most defining factor. Since Chicago Dogs are usually so packed full of good toppings, having a moist bun allows the constituent elements to stick to the foundation and helps ensure that every bit of the bountiful hot dog ends up in your mouth.

Toppings: Trolley Dogs' Chicago Dogs are defined by fresh, crisp toppings. The onions are still mouth-watering, infusing the entree with their signature tang. The traditional glowing green relish gives a sweet counter to their bursting hot peppers, whose seeds spill out onto the dog and looming over the other toppings' contributions to the overall taste. The mustard, tomatoes, and celery salt are judiciously applied, so that the full toothsome effect of the hot dog is a fully diversified panoply of distinct elements.

Side: With an order of cheese fries on the side, the Trolley Dogs meal is rounded off with rich, savory flavors that are satisfying. At Trolley Dogs, your average order of a hot dog or Polish will be wrapped in an order of french fries, so they are naturally distinct and delicious. Thick and lightly seasoned with the skin still on them, the fries are the soft, fleshy sort you can normally eat without anything else. But dipping them into the cheese sauce, which has a slight nacho flavoring, completes the meal with heavy staying power.

Venue: Trolley Dogs is a nice, small lot. The front door enters immediately in front of the counter, and you'll always find yourself served quickly. The long, thin shop features a long row of booths, with an electric train set going overhead, which ends in a couple of arcade machines. The front part of the store's walls and counter space is covered with local photos and news, making it a firm fixture in downtown Kenosha's quiet culture. And, located near Lake Michigan, when you're finished eating at Trolley Dogs you're only a couple minute walk from a beach or marina.

X-men: First Class; So Disappointing

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

A few weeks ago, Audumla and I took the little nerdlet to the local drive-in for a double feature. The first film was Kung Fu Panda 2, which--despite not being named The Kaboom of Doom as it was long rumored--was a capable sequel and thoroughly enjoyable. The second film, X-Men: First Class, however, was about what I expected. Which is not very good, as you're about to find out.

Expectations 'Odor': After X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, my expectations for this film were so slight they were measured in micrometers. The first X-Men film was pretty rough, but as it was a breath of fresh air in a movie genre sullied by Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, people didn't notice or didn't care. X2 did everything that the first movie did, only it did it better, more often, and injected Wolverine with more of his traditional 'whatever, bub' attitude (Wolverine is the Liam Lynch of the Marvel Universe). But the following two movies turned the Marvel mutants into something crassly stupid and reduced their action scenes to formulaic sequences where they constantly threw underwhelming special effects at the audience while under-emphasizing the few enjoyable moments of conventional fighting. Not to mention the terrible subtext.

And now they were going to make a reboot, set in the 60's, featuring all the angst of turning the dynamic mentor figures from the first trilogy into a couple of college-age whiners. And there's no Wolverine, so the action sequences would be pure CGI offense to the senses without the relief of simply stabbing a bad guy every once in a while.

Then I saw the first trailer, which revealed that James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender would be playing Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, respectively. McAvoy was fabulous in Children of Dune and ShakespeaRe-told, and I loved Michael Fassbender in Centurion. Fassbender was also the highlight of A Bear Named Winnie. Seeing these two great actors play off of each other as they draw up the lines of battle that would define the mutant struggle in the Marvel Universe would be epic and gripping, and hopefully increase Fassbender's household recognition--he deserves it.

Appreciation 'Beef': Well, X-Men: First Class was certainly a mixed experience. On the one hand, great acting performances turned in by the principals made for some enjoyable moments, but the writing, pacing, and canned action sequences were painfully executed.

The opening of the movie invokes the Nazi sequence at the beginning of X-Men, and uses that to introduce the primary antagonist: Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon. Shaw makes the mistake of ticking off a young Erik Lehnsherr, and the movie quickly moves ahead a few decades to show the proto-Magneto as an adult flushing out Nazis in South America in his search for Shaw and revenge. This is extremely well-done--the movie could have had an understated beauty in its revenge tale if it would've focused on Fassbender fleshing out his cold-blooded hunt. But instead, we get Xavier et al as the story becomes one big tangent from its most interesting plot thread.

Kevin Bacon makes a great antagonist, and he barely features in any of the film's promotional material, which is a shame. He pulls off the mad-thinker role well, and the way he looks positively amused when Erik first comes to try to kill him is thoroughly engrossing. James McAvoy also does very well in his role, but he has the tallest order of all: he has to play the consummate father-figure and mentor in the midst of a selfish, unethical, douche phase. In his second scene of the film, Xavier is running through a soulfully over-practised line about how mutation is sexy--all to get into some heterochromia iridum chick's pants. Raven--blue-skinned shape-changing Mystique, and tied for most shrilly pointless character in the movie--interposes herself in the moment, mainly to illustrate how she has a confused sense of what Xavier views as their purely brother-sister relationship. And, while Xavier is a more interesting character than indicated by that scene, Mystique never transcends the sheer idiocy of her character and the uselessly shallow impact she has on the movie's themes of 'mutant and proud'--which she says three times throughout the movie with all the panache of a talking billboard.

There's really not much more that's admirable about the movie, though. The action sequences are, for the most part, one-sided affairs consisting of one side slaughtering the other. There's not much sense of peril, since the only characters who are mortal according to the plot's demands (ie, aren't already well-known characters who must survive the reboot) are so trivially under-developed you almost want them to die just so they can contribute to the movie's fading plausibility. The primary theme of the movie is the same badly realized string that every mutant movie so far has been plucking, only this time the movie seems to feel self-important in doing so as if it's the first movie to try to label mutants as your generic minority--which is and always has been stupid.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Despite the gems, X-Men: First Class ultimately felt like watching a bunch of friends get hammered and run around a hotel lobby: I had some moments of genuinely enjoying what's going on, but most of it was in a detached, ironic sense, and I certainly didn't want to be associated with them when the night's over.

Why do I feel I have to distance myself from this super-powered dung heap? Because I'm a Marvel fan, and, despite my affection for the Uncanny X-Men cartoons of the nineties, I have a hard time figuring why I tolerate the short-sightedness of the mutants in the Marvel Universe. Any symbolic invocation of mutants as the generic minority is quickly rendered either moot or bigoted in its extremism. Mutants are supposed to be the next stage of human evolution, according to the crabbed science of the comics and movies. So their status as a minority can only last for a handful of generations before they begin to rival the majority of humanity, especially when you consider that in Marvel canon the mutant population has essentially exploded since World War II. Their genetic superiority is invoked constantly in the movies, and First Class is no exception. But the race-conflict angle is moot when there are no well-developed non-mutant characters, and the ones we do see are mindless cogs in a big fear machine. In a major crime against the source material, Moira MacTaggert--one of the most important humans in Charles Xavier's life--is just such another cog in the mundane mechanism of 'homo inferior'. But when the villain is a mutant, his goons are mutants, the government is largely ignorant that mutants even exist, and the only mundanes are viciously swept under the rug by bad writing, there's really nothing to say about hatred or prejudice.

Not to mention that Xavier, while too much of a gentleman to ever read Raven's mind, has no qualms about using his Kenobi schtick to get his government program easily approved. Or that one of his first significant uses of his own powers in the movie consists of tracking down other mutants across the country, violating their rights to privacy and risking outing them as mutants. If you then factor in that many mutants in the movies and the comics are predisposed toward violence, destruction, and general insanity due to the fact that many of their powers are only manifested in violent or combative ways, and you have a disturbingly hateful symbol of whatever minority your theme is trying to invoke. Mutant stories would be much more interesting if they actually treated mutant interactions as something altogether new, but the fact that unimaginative writers keep using it as a socio-political stand-in just makes them vain and needlessly conflicted and convoluted. I mean certain mutants are destined, from the birthright of their powers, to be more important, more influential, and more powerful than others. Xavier and Magneto, for instance, could never be someone's minions--they're too powerful, their powers too all-reaching. Nor could Wolverine ever rise to a position of social prominence in the mutant community--the sheer number of times he's been used as a tool for greater mutants spells that out clearly enough. This tyrant vein in the setting should rankle in creators' collective noses enough that they give up this bad symbolism tactic.

"Despite the gems, X-Men: First Class ultimately felt like watching a bunch of friends get hammered and run around a hotel lobby"

But my qualms with the movie go beyond the symbolic problems inherent to mutant story-telling. They could've told a much better story without rolling in the sty of bad superhero conventions that litter the film. One of the worst offenses in this field? They actually have a moment when all the main characters sit down and say something along the lines of:

"Say, we should have codenames. I call Mystique!"

"Lame, I wanted to be called Mystique, since I blow crap up with my solar-powered hip gesticulations. And that's, you know, totally mysterious."

"Well, sucks to your auntie. I'm Mystique, because everyone knows who I am already."

"I'll be called Darwin, because--"

"Shut up, you'll be dead in fourteen minutes anyways."

It's really that bad. Now, every superhero needs to get past the hurdle of why they would adopt a formal name for a secret identity, and other movies in the past few years have all done better jobs of addressing the issue. In Iron Man, it's a glory-grabbing nomer taken from headlines that Tony assumes purely because of it's spectacle. In Batman, it's out of the desire to become a totalitarian symbol of vigilante-ism, which you can't do without a name with pizzaz. In First Class, it's because these brats get bored and don't want their real names on their undeserved government paychecks.

They have a pillow fight in the next scene.

And the crime goes on from there. Virtually every character gets that 'wow, you can do what?' introduction to their powers--even the ones who have laughably stupid powers. The shape-shifter, for instance, looks on in awe and smirks with bizarre bloobie-lust as Hank McCoy takes off his shoes and showcases his hands-feet as his flips around to hang from a bar upside down. Mystique could totally rip off Hank's power by transforming her feet to be like his, she just doesn't do that because it would throw off her slinky posture--why in the sphincter of Hell would she be impressed by that? Or take Banshee, who is awesome because he can focus his screams into a physically impossible generic force that he uses to attack others or fly, and is compared to Angel, a girl with bug wings who can fly and fling napalm at her enemies. Banshee can do one thing or the other, but if he tries both at once he generally fails--why doesn't Angel rub his face in the fact that she can do both better than him simultaneously?

Banshee brings up the stupidity of the power progression of the story, too. In teaching him how to fly, they tell him to wear a flying squirrel suit and jump out a window screaming at the ground. This is step one, and it fails for a cheap laugh that doesn't show him getting any broken ribs. Xavier's amendment to the training regimen? He puts Banshee at the top of a taller object, even though the poor dupe is clearly stuffing his pants at the thought. After Iron Man and Spider-Man, both of which have excellent handling of the progression of learning to use their powers, First Class has no excuse to make something so clumsily done and downright lunatic.

And, as an obnoxious bookend, we have the ridiculous stupidity of the film's blue mutants: Hank McCoy and Raven the exhibitionist. Hank's character in the comics is obsessed with overcoming the nature of his mutation--it's a degenerative state that manifests not only as further physical deformity into a blue-furred Quasimoto, but also as a predilection towards bestial, illogical behavior. His mutation is a disease to him. It's the Alzheimer's of the mutant world--his very brilliance is all the more remarkable because he has to fight to maintain clinical thought. In the movie, he's pissed because he has to hide his funky feet. Apparently, the mutant genius would much rather galavant around the hangar in his bare feet, but society's cruel stricture that feet should be different from hands prevents him from living a happy life. Gee whiz. Then, because he tries to fix his feet with a bubbly potion rather than, you know, reconstructive surgery or something logical, he accidentally turns himself into the blue wolfman from the comics. Really, Beast?


Raven, on the other hand, seems to resent the fact that society forces people to wear clothes. Never does anyone actually oppress her or make her feel wierd on screen for having indigo leprosy--Charles Xavier does, however, tell her to put something on when she shows off her blue lumpy bits to the world. This, of course, stems from anti-bloobie prejudice and not the human more that you should not show off your jiggly bits to your brother/professor. This also puts me in the mind to complain that shapeshifting in the comics and movies is totally magical and cannot be defined by any scientific means. Throughout the franchise, Mystique regularly transforms from naked blue form to some other clothed form. She strips, has her clothes peeled off, and so on, without ever screaming: "ow, that's my shape-shifted skin, idiot!" Therefore, some magical force clearly wants her to be able to get slutty without actually having any transition or cost to do so. This force is called testosterone, and it is indeed magical. It is the same force that makes chainmail bikinis good substitutes for a cuirass in fantasy art. It is magical, true, but it is also dumb.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': So who will enjoy X-Men: First Class? A very small sliver of comic book fans, I'd imagine. You'd have to love the source comics unabashedly without yearning to see them rise above their campy, illogical trappings. But you'd also have to be prepared for this piece of cinema to aggressively chew up and spit out the comics, as the shoe-horning of certain themes and elements--such as Beast's degenerative transformation--is downright destructive towards the original meaning.

For those who aren't already ingratiated into the genre, I find it hard to imagine what they would enjoy in X-Men: First Class. There's a solid dramatic vein in the first act that you lose once the movie slips into the litany of mutant introductions, but perhaps the precious classy acting from McAvoy, Fassbender, and Bacon will be enough to hook mundanes.

But probably not.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Week of Chicago Dogs: Day One

Week of Chicago Dogs: As Americans near their various and as sundry Independence Day celebrations coming this July 4, there will be a great number of hot dogs consumed. Most of them will be grilled, Oscar Mayer numbers with a pathetic assortment of condiments of least resistance. A few of them, God help them, will have ketchup on them--ketchup! To help liberate the masses from mediocre hot dogs, this next week will detail the essence of a good Chicago-style hot dog from several Midwest vendors. You're welcome.

Once upon a time, man ate plants.

Then he got diarrhea and constipation. He also looked pasty, had a tough time building muscle mass, and he got crabby every two hours he went without chomping on a celery stick. This made man, in his irritability, kill a dumb animal. Fortunately, this proverbial man knew not to waste the opportunity to try something knew, and he ate the animal. He ate the meat.

Man tasted the meat, and it was good. He got buff, he had the energy to go out and kill more animals, and his hair became shinier and more healthy. Plus, he got heart attacks to break up the monotony of getting older.

As man turned the dumb animals into meat, there were bits that were not good. Hooves, tongues, junk, and other gibby bits. These were not tasty, and the fact that they still resembled their original parts made them all the less appetizing. If only he could get around these parts' individual tastes and looks, there'd be more meat to eat.

So man made the hot dog. The tube steak. The particle board of meat. It was good, didn't even remotely resemble any of its constituent parts, and it used up most of the stuff eating meat had leftover as 'garbage'.

Man put the hot dog in a bun, and he instantly redeemed the bread. He did not put ketchup on it, though, because that's gross. But otherwise the hot dog was very forgiving when it came to toppings: mustard, chili, cheese, onions, and more could be slathered on the dog in turn to make a superior meal. A cheap meal, too.

"Man tasted the meat, and it was good."

And then, in Chicago, a great man decided to make the best iteration of the hot dog. It began with a Vienna Beef hot dog in a poppy seed bun. Mustard was then applied as mortar for the rest of the toppings. The toppings were a consolation prize to the plants that supported man before the glorious advent of meat: onions, tomato, pickle, hot peppers, relish, celery salt, and--on divine occasions--cucumber.

This hot dog was an immediate success. He lured the heads of the other hot dog iterations into a national strategy meeting, where he tommy-gunned them into submission and earned the title Chicago Dog.

The Chicago Dog is a one-handed meal, a sublime mix of nameless meats and half a flora biome. It will keep you going through a long Illinois summer afternoon--or, if you hail from elsewhere, a summer day with a damp electric blanket wrapped around your head. The taste is like a compression of a multi-course meal, complete with the savory, the salty, and the veggies you'd require for a complete palette you'd expect from a nice dinner.

In praise of the Chicago Dog, and to equip you readers for the upcoming holiday weekend, the following entries in the Week of Chicago Dogs will feature and review the signature dog of some of my favorite places in the immediate area. For those of you out of driving distance of my twenty mile hot dog radius, feel free to compare my descriptions to the sorry hot dogs you're eating and marvel at the majesty of the Chicago Dog.

I said marvel!

Sammie's Chicago Style Sandwiches

This place is a legacy in the Northern Illinois area. I grew up going to Sammie's on at least a monthly basis, sometimes much more when my mom worked a lot of weekends. Sammie's is always a staple at the Lake County Fair, and in high school it was my favorite pit-stop after class. Nowadays I only get the occasional chance to visit, but when I do, it's always a treat. My staple is always two Chicago Dogs and a side of mozzarella sticks that I split with my father, who also gets a pair of dogs, for a total cost of around thirteen dollars.

Dog: Of course I wouldn't tolerate a Chicago Dog from the same establishment for so long if they didn't use Vienna Beef. Sammie's also has the noble distinction of being recently inducted into the Vienna Beef Hall of Fame for long-term independent vendors, so there's that, too. On the continuum of hot dogs I've eaten over the years, I'd say that the average Sammie's Chicago Dog has a medium skin texture, just enough that your teeth do some legitimate work tearing into the delicious dog, but not enough that you perceive the satisfying (for some) snap with each bite. This means that the hot dog itself has a nice firmness to differentiate its texture from the rest of the toppings, but is soft enough that the dog is homogeneous relative to the rest of the toppings.

Bun: The Sammie's bun is covered in poppy seeds and thick, and sometimes just a little on the dry side. Their ingredients are generally thicker than your average Chicago Dog's, so it fits that they have a bun that is almost inflated compared to most places. It's good, though, and the poppy seeds are dense enough on the bun's flank that picking up your meal to take a bite out of it elicits a soft sprinkling of seeds on your plate.

Toppings: Sammie's Chicago Dog is a decadent fat-boy when it comes to the toppings. It has the ridiculous(ly awesome) distinction of being one of the only Chicago Dog places that regularly includes a slice of cucumber on their hot dogs. It's a great addition to the standard palette, giving a watery counter to the savory goodness of the ensemble. When they include hot peppers, the Sammie's Chicago Dog is lined with green fire--where most places include only two or three per hot dog, Sammie's includes four at minimum. While some appreciate this, it's a little much for me, so I usually pass on the peppers, though the taste is not otherwise dominated by the peppers. The Sammie's pickle spear is at least twice the thickness of most other places, as are the full, fresh tomato slices that help to give a wholesome tang to the savory hot dog. They go fairly light on the celery salt, leaving it as a subtle bitter accent to go hand in hand with the smooth mustard. Finally, the cast is rounded off with some dark green relish. Overall, the Sammie's Chicago Dog is a jaw-extending experience that challenges you to fit all the elements in your mouth at once. When you're successful, you get a fireworks' display of distinctly savory, spicy, and salty tastes. Otherwise, you pick one slant to each nibble as you chip away at this filling dog.

Side: There's only one hot dog place I usually get mozzarella sticks from, and that's Sammie's. Full of thick cheese, these are firm, solid 'mozzo sticks'--not those hollow things that crumble as you pick them up you get at some places. The breading is good and evenly spiced, with very little superfluous stuff crumbling off as you dip your side into a nice marinara sauce. Their red sauce is the weak point: it is often a little bit on the fluid side. It's great for dipping, but good luck finding any rewarding chunks to lift out with your mozzarella stick.

Venue: There are few places so inherently soothing to me as a good hot dog place, and I think that began with Sammie's. Each of their three locations have a clean, cozy atmosphere, with trademark booths of curved particle wood with laminate that is comfy and simple at the same time. Each shop has a couple of old analog TVs slung up in the far corners of the ceiling, with a Chicago ball game of some kind playing whenever there's one to be seen. Decorations are pretty spare, but each shop features one or more of those classic Vienna Beef posters. I must say I'm a fan of those posters, as I have one in a place of honor in my game room.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Movie Web Monday: Tony Curran

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Tony Curran: Awesome at selling the bad-attitude

Movie: Beowulf & Grendel (Own it) Light Spoilers

In a film that rides on the presence of the star more than most, Tony Curran offers a powerful boon to the film in the role of Hondscioh (hahn-shoo or hahn-shoh). As one of the more notable of Beowulf's brothers-in-arms, Tony Curran plays one of the foremost of the warriors that are in the background of virtually every other scene in the film. The scot gives a strong performance within the bounds of his limited role, though, and Hondscioh does serve as an important supporting pillar in the film's message about the allure of revenge. Beowulf & Grendel names three of Beowulf's followers, and of them, Hondscioh is the more relatable. He may not have any epic lines in a film that is choked with them--in addition to the great Beowulf lines I'd mentioned last week, King Hrothgar and Brendan each have their share of lines that are awesome and funny--but Hondscioh has a few moments of sensibility that outlines the bias of these larger-than-life Geats. And plus he looks awesome:

See that antler? That's the hilt and pommel of his shortsword. Frakkin' awesome. And this movie has some of the coolest assortment of armor. Most of the warriors sport chainmail with leather lamelar over it, as seen above. Beside looking awesome, Tony Curran's Hondscioh is a cautionary tale of the escalation of revenge. Early in the movie, he is clearly affected by a bad feeling about their quest to kill the titular troll. Bowing out of practice with the braggart Breca, he tersely replies, "waste your swings on the air, not me." Breca berates him, but Beowulf sums that fear has its uses. After their first few failed forays to slay Grendel, though, Hondscioh's fear makes him become hatefully reactionary. Grendel literally pisses on their ambush, so when the Geats later find Grendel's home, Hondscioh finds and desecrates a troll skull he correctly guesses belonged to Grendel's father. It seals his fate, as Grendel goes on a killing rampage to find the Geat that destroyed the skull.

Hondscioh's death fuels Beowulf's own hunt for revenge, but it also serves as a bit of foreshadowing of how Beowulf is ultimately fated to die over an unjust cause. While the lead's death isn't depicted in the movie, the rest of the film alludes to it enough to establish it as relevant to the theme. And, thanks to Tony Curran's adroit performance in the minor-but-critical role, it is all illustrated through his run as a likable but basely driven boon companion to their leader.

Movie: The 13th Warrior (Own it) Light Spoilers

Before he'd acted in Beowulf & Grendel, Tony Curran played another warrior in a Beowulf tale. This time it was John McTiernan's The 13th Warrior, and the role was Weath the Musician. Adapted from Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead, The 13th Warrior is a somewhat more plausible origin story that might have inspired the epic poem. With no inherently impossible elements, the movie is about giving realistic characters that are nonetheless larger-than-life enough stones to inspire the patently unrealistic actions of Beowulf's saga. While Weath's thematic impact isn't nearly as great in The 13th Warrior as Hondscioh's in Beowulf & Grendel, he still serves to fill out the roster with a good deal of grounded masculine braggadocio. No place is this raving, sexy viking testosterone more cogently displayed than when Ahmed shaves down the over-sized viking sword he'd been given into a sleek saber (sooo improbable). As Ahmed, played by Antonio Banderas, shows off how his sissy sword can chip at the palisades they're building, Tony Curran as Weath replies with perfect delivery: 

In a movie that surrounds its action set-pieces with culture-clash humor, this is one of my favorite comedic moments. I mean, it's a movie about a Baghdad bard joining a group of viking barbarians (RPG party, anyone?), and it says a lot for the film's cleverness that the most improbable moments are in the service of light fun and anecdotally intimate the real misunderstandings that led to ancient stereotypes regarding the northern peoples.

Movie: Blade II (Own it) Light Spoilers

Blade II is a gem in the surprisingly full action-vampire movie genre. Directed by Guillermo del Toro and featuring the acting talents of Wesley Snipes, Ron Perlman, and another gentleman you'll hear more about next time, Tony Curran helps to fill out and anchor the squad of undead red-shirts that you only get to appreciate in the first act of the movie. Since they aren't given any chance to shine in a combat sense--a problem in all three of the Blade movies, as the star owns everyone except the primary antagonist in single combat--you only have a small amount of screen-time to show the audience how bad-attitude these guys are. For Tony Curran, as vampire hitman Priest, it's the marvelous fact that he even disgusts one of the other vampire hitmen. As they wade shoulder-to-shoulder through a vampire rave of surgically addicted crack-heads looking for the abominations called Reapers, Priest sneers in disgust as he notes, "Half of these bastards aren't even purebloods..."

Look at Asad's expression in the background. You can read the thought bubble at that moment: "I have to work with this joker?" In a franchise where vampire culture isn't very well fleshed out, it's nice to get a hint that there's enough cultural variation amongst the blood-suckers to see this much internal conflict. Since that internal conflict is more or less the point of this movie, it's nice to see it so colorfully illustrated early on in the movie, and Tony Curran's Priest does so especially well.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Warning: Radiation Bad, Keep Away From Head.

Dumbasscience: Science is not always smart. Oh no sir-ree-Bob. Sometimes it is just plain stupid. That's okay, I won't judge. I'll just point it out and mock it mercilessly. These articles will contain rants from history and breaking news where scientists are pursuing through-and-through bad ideas. From the 'flying your car to work' pipe-dream, to various plans of how to forcibly reverse global warming, if it's technological and perilous to rationalists, it's Dumbasscience.

You may not be aware of this, but exposure to radiation can contribute to cancer.

Yeah, I know. Thunder in the heavens. Flash of lightning. Tight pants ripping. This must be quite the revelation for the modern world.

See, once upon a time people thought cells were these indestructible blocks, the irreducible core elements of all matter. Eventually, that understanding passed to atoms, and--quickly--to the sub-atomic particles composing them. Now the modern concept of sub-atomic particles is much more fluid, encompassing almost completely theoretical elements we only get brief glimpses of thanks to particle colliders. And, what do you know, we now freely recognize that atoms aren't so indestructible after all. Radiation is a great way to knock your average atom down a peg or two.

There's two types of radiation--ionizing and non-ionizing. In the specialist's eagerness to pose as a political hegemony and not scientists, you'll commonly be told that ionizing radiation is the dangerous radiation. And you certainly should avoid it. Ionizing radiation has the ability to shear the charge off of atoms, creating ions, which changes their fundamental function on a chemical level. If ionizing radioactive material is ingested, a person's entire metabolism can be subverted so that a person's very organs work against itself (see Polonium-210 for the gory history). We're told, in turn, that non-ionizing radiation--including the radio wave and microwave--has no deleterious effect on organisms unless it comes in quantities large enough to cause direct heating.

Of course, since this non-ionizing radiation is stable and natural, it can't be unhealthy right? Sunlight can't be unhealthy (oops, see melanoma). Or what about electromagnetic waves (ignoring childhood leukemia, of course)? Alright, just forget it.

You know what's totally safe, though? Cell phone radio transmissions. No reason to actually think about putting a non-ionizing radio transmitter to your head four times a day.



So it turns out that this panel reporting to the World Health Organization suggests that cell phone use, especially amongst children, can contribute to the development of brain cancer.

Who'd a thunk it, hm?

In fact, the study compares the danger of cell phones to DDT and gasoline fumes. You keep your kid away from those, right? Of course, before May 31, 2011, the World Health Organization was actively promoting the belief that cell phone use was completely harmless. Frak the fact that they hadn't actually done the scientific leg-work yet, apparently it was perfectly healthy to pick up one of the billions of cell phones in existence and give them to your kids. Sure, it turns out that it may lead to glioma, but isn't it worth it to be able to 'connect' with your kid? And so much more fun than actually, you know, spending time with your third grader?

Science is an inherently self-serving pursuit in at least two ways. The pursuit of scientific answers inevitably leads to more questions--the very methodology of experimental rigor showcases this effect. Consider a few centuries ago how limited a body of knowledge you'd need to learn to be considered a scientist; today, even the field of computer science is prohibitively broad, and is accordingly broken down into computer programming and computer engineering fields at the very least. Furthermore, science is self-serving in the sense that science as a pursuit is intended to make people's lives easier, which in turn frees up more people to support the sciences either directly or indirectly by producing and supplying the quality products yielded by science. This is the strength of ethical, rigorous science. And it had been short-circuited in the case of the W.H.O.'s previous stance on cell phones.

When scientists release statements without scientifically examining their own claims, they inherently preclude good rigorous experimentation to examine the process. Scientific experimentation holds that whatever being tested is held to be false until proven under controlled circumstances or observed under exhaustive conditions. In this case, cell phones ought to have been considered a health risk until thoroughly demonstrated and researched to the contrary. Instead, health authorities the world over made hasty conclusions based on short-term research, released a statement of fact, and thereby put the onus on other researchers to thoroughly prove that cell phones could be demonstrated to cause or contribute to brain cancer.

So, allow me to help you out:
Now, before you cast me as an anti-technology alarmist (with a blog), let me tell you that I'm not giving up my cell phone. It's still strapped to my hip everyday, and I don't feel a strong urge to slip into a pair of tin-foil skivvies or anything. But I'm certainly not giving my son one anytime in the next decade, either.

And this makes me think of the minor controversy surrounding people who allege they have electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Virtually all countries say that this is a false condition with no medical support, and Sweden is the only country I know of that actually recognizes some of these claims as legitimate. Those who debunk the EHS claims do so by illustrating that the vast majority of claimants cannot pass blind experimentation--they don't exhibit symptoms in response to EM fields and only EM fields--and the rest of the tests were conducted under faulty conditions or methods. I'd be inclined to accept such arguments if it weren't in the interest of modern countries to actively deny such claims. It does strike me as telling that Sweden recognizes the condition, and that sufferers of EHS there live in the remote mountain regions of the country, safe in their isolation. As it is, though, it seems plausible that certain individuals could develop hypersensitivity to fields that can cause similar problems over the course of long-term exposure in normal people.

In any case, do yourself a favor and think things through before you blithely accept a W.H.O. claim that something is perfectly safe--they might change their tune in a decade or so when they actually do the math.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie Web Monday: Gerard Butler

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Gerard Butler: Brogue Hero

Movie: Timeline (Own it, though it is still MIA) SPOILERS SHALL FLOW

As I said before, Timeline is definitely one of the better Crichton movies. It's got a kinetic energy and eclectic cast that makes it feel like a mainstream popcorn movie--which is rare amongst the author's movie adaptations. Probably the heaviest hitter of the cast, Gerard Butler certainly leads much of Timeline's best scenes with a combination of his trademark Scottish charm and fearful combat sequences.  As Andre Marek, Butler plays an archeologist with a love for the practical elements of medieval living and fighting, and as such he is the most capable character amongst the generally outclassed academics. That's not to say he comes across as being particularly capable in a fight--one of the refreshing traits of Timeline is the fact that all of the action set-pieces showcase desperate, frightened fights. Marek's first kill in the movie starts as ambushing a soldier and becomes a savage wrestling match before he guts the nameless enemy. Butler gives the first act of violence particular vitality with his tearful performance, reminding the audience that these are scholars, not soldiers, and that being forced to fight and kill takes its toll on them.

At the film's climax, Butler gets the chance to scream four syllables and then get a dramatic action-movie worthy kill. However, since this isn't the atrocious 300, the moment has some subtle elation behind its screaming fury. Marek comes to the abrupt realization, after receiving a distinctive wound, that he had already seen evidence from the future that he'd win the fight, and his reaction is heavy-laden with the relief, pain, and anger that you'd imagine Marek feels at that moment.

In addition to being such a powerful-but-well-realized protagonist, Gerard Butler's character helps to ground the movie with a likable character throughout the feature. Paul Walker, as the main protagonist, is vain and childish throughout most of the movie, and hence too annoying to carry the film in my estimation. David Thewlis, Michael Sheen, and Celeborn Marton Csokas are fantastic antagonists, though, and with a strong, charismatic, and pro-active Gerard Butler opposite them, the movie works despite its other minor failings.

Movie: Reign of Fire (Renting it for the umpteenth time) minor spoilers below

Gerard Butler's character in Reign of Fire, on the other hand, offers a distinctly different set of assets to the post-draconic apocalypse. He's still a grounded, likable character with a thick accent and according social pull in the setting, but in this one he's a reactive, physically passive character. He plays Creedy, best friend to main character Quinn (played by Christian Bale) and right-hand man when it comes to running their castle of English survivors. Now in this sort of genre movie, there usually has to be a Schlub character. The Schlub is either ignorant, thick, or overly diplomatic--any of these can serve as a narrative excuse to have characters explain the basics of the setting. The ignorant Schlub is commonly the fish-out-of-water, either because he's a new recruit or stranded out of his natural dimension, timeline, or world. A stupid Schlub, similarly, is thick or obtuse enough that people have to explain the basics of society to him--either to genuinely set him straight on how the spaceship or whatever works or to insult his intelligence. The charismatic Schlub is a bit more rare, but he normally feels the most natural in a genre film. The charismatic Schlub prefers to reason with people, and in so doing he lets slip basic information about the setting, usually in the context of reiterating common ground for the other party to agree upon.

In Reign of Fire, Gerard Butler's Creedy is a Schlub of the charismatic persuasion. In his first scene, Creedy arrives in the middle of a fight between Quinn and a dissenting citizen of their castle, which sheds a little light on the survivors' informal compact. Later, when Quinn entertains some American soldiers in their castle, Creedy argues in favor of isolation, and in so doing he offers a litany of the marauding human elements that they've had to fear in the past. And his character's role as Schlub is cemented by the fact that when Creedy dies, there is no longer any expository information being offered--leaving only the climax of the action and the personal conflict to be resolved.

But the necessity of Creedy as an exposition element doesn't detract from the enjoyable, personable texture he lends to the film. He's a generally friendly character, and his off-hand politeness to the imposing Americans or the pig-headed dissenters in the first part of the film help to make the audience appreciate that Creedy really helped hold the castle together through the force of his personality. This is apparent at the grinning skepticism he offers when the Americans explain how their parachutists use nets during free-fall to snare dragons.

Movie: Beowulf and Grendel (Own it)

There are several iterations of the Beowulf saga in film today. Most of them are loose adaptations of the epic poem, and one of them is terrible despite the winning element of a monster with a deformed ear-drum weakness (I poop on you, Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf!). But the small Danish production Beowulf and Grendel, while taking a number of liberties with the source, is probably one of the more accurate depictions of the first piece of English literature. Gerard Butler plays the title hero of the movie, and it's immediately apparent that he is a more humble, understated, and approachable interpretation of Beowulf.

Butler's Beowulf is a very real character, and he's caught between the violent realities of his cultural vocation and his own philosophical doubts. But there's still a rich veracity of the role and the plot that makes the audience feel that these realistic events could have inspired the outrageous action of the poem. The script is great, filled with a combination of more modern sarcastic sentiment with archaic-sounding florid language that is delivered flawlessly by the cast--especially Gerard Butler. When Beowulf pledges himself to his quest to go to Daneland and hunt the troll there, the moment is superbly delivered:

The followup line hints at the ancient boasting standard that is prevalent in the source material. Drawing his sword, Beowulf pledges to increase the fame of his Geatland countrymen: "So that Danes may see that Geats don't wield words where swords speak truer." I love the language of this film. Even when it's offensively crass--which it is at several points--it still manages to excite the literary senses without feeling as contrived as the fixed meter of the original poem. The film's rather original and occasionally heavy-handed subtext of revenge and bigotry is not entirely to the piece's detriment, and Butler's consistently conflicted portrayal of the lead character never ceases to sell the themes of the movie.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Father's Day at the Nerdery

Today was Father's Day here in the United States. Early in the twentieth century, Americans began celebrating Father's Day informally around the same time that Mother's Day gained support. But, while Mother's Day became an official national holiday in 1914, the holiday honoring fathers wasn't officially recognized until 1972. It's also the annual peak of collect calls every year, even though it is eclipsed by Mother's Day in terms of overall phone calls, gift giving, and trips to visit loved ones.

This is unacceptable.

My mother nurtured me and loved me, but it was my father who taught me the hard lessons. And I love the hard lessons. Things like how to stand tall when you're getting beaten down, when to fight back and when to back off, and--hardest lesson of them all--how to treat the opposite sex. I don't think I'm alone in owing this much to my father, either--I think most of you could say similar things. This isn't meant to be self-congratulatory, though. Today may be my first Father's Day as a parent, but I feel not even a fraction of the esteem for myself that beams from me to my dad. Mother's Day, to me, has always felt much more like a day to thank mothers for acute instances of love and nurturing--birth being foremost. But Father's Day seems to be more about giving a return to fathers for the investment of spirit they've given us all over the years. So no, today isn't a day to honor me, even if I happen to be a dad. I haven't earned it yet.

But I plan on earning it, and I enjoy getting some inspiration from the media around me.

I don't think most popular media holds to my views of Father's Day or the special impact of a good father in a child's life--especially a son's life. It doesn't seem like good fathers are easily found in the stories we share in our entertainment-soaked lives. They're tough to find, and tough to recognize once they are found.

That is something we shall have to remedy.

There are a few pieces of quality media that speak to the special influence a father can have in the life of his child. Being a male myself, I also gravitate towards the ones that show the bond of a father and son. So here are a few great inspirational stories of a father's impact on their son:

(Light spoilers throughout)

3:10 to Yuma (Own it)
The 2007 James Mangold version of 3:10 to Yuma is a picturesque film--perfectly shot, casted, and paced. Starring Christian Bale and Russel Crowe, it's a western that achieves a timeless classic feel that overshoots the fanciful westerns of the 1950s through 1990s and instead goes back to the grim veracity of the 1870s. And Alan Tudyk's in it, too. But the core of 3:10 to Yuma, the heart and soul that drives the railroad western to its tragic end, is a father-son relationship of heart-rending poignancy. Bale's character, Dan Evans, begins the film a ruin of a father figure. He's been rendered impotent in his home through circumstance and stubborn ethics, and the audience is pretty clearly told that he is not genuinely respected by his wife or his eldest son, William. When Dan takes on the job of escorting the notorious outlaw Ben Wade, everyone assumes it's either to escape his abject poverty or to assuage his strict ethics. But it's in the middle of the film's tear-spilling climax that he levels with the outlaw as to what drives him: a desire to fill his son with pride and respect. When you watch this film, pay close attention to the pained dynamic between Dan and William, and you'll see a father--who is all too aware of his own short-comings--trying to be a true hero to his son at an age where the cheap and the frivolous is all too appealing to the youth.

Run, Fatboy, Run (Need to own it--need to own it real bad)
You might not realize it, but David Schwimmer's comedy about a slacker baby-daddy in London trying to run the Thames marathon has a lot in common with 3:10 to Yuma. Starring the pitch-perfect Simon Pegg as the improbably lovable dissolute Dennis, Run, Fatboy, Run begins with a moment of acute failure on the lead's part: it depicts Dennis running out on his pregnant fiance on their wedding day. The movie's bulk takes place five years later, when Dennis lives in a tenuous equilibrium balancing his uninspired life as a feckless bachelor with his shining relationship with his adorable son. He also clearly still has feelings beyond guilt for his ex, as well, so when she gets engaged to a motivated, marathon-running self-starter, the petty and impetuous Dennis jumps into a pair of running shorts, too. This isn't a romance, though, as Dennis clearly admits that he has no hope to aspire beyond merely earning some respect from his love and his son. So, like the western above, this comedy is about a father tackling insurmountable odds in the name of being better for those who look to him for strength. The humor is a mix of American gross-out gags and British understatement, and the climax is an emotional string of endearing moments that are all too rare in comedies.

Battlestar Galactica (Own seasons one through three so far)
One of the core dynamics throughout the 2004 Battlestar Galactica series is the strained relationship between William Adama and his son Lee. Early on in the pilot mini-series, we see that Lee deeply resents the pressure and oppressive military legacy he felt overshadowed his and his dead brother's lives. They come to an uneasy truce, but the relationship becomes gold-platedly touching in the season one episode "Hand of God". Amidst the sterling sci-fi treat of the episode, the son--like many of us--flounders with doubt about his own abilities to accomplish the mission of the highest importance, and he tells his father as much in the flimsy hope of being let off the hook. Instead, father William Adama tells Lee that, as his son, he wouldn't have anyone else go out on the mission--because he's always had faith in his son to do the right thing. It's one of the first and best of the series' quiet, tender moments between the two, and when Lee returns home victorious, the look the two exchange adds to the military triumph with an emotional mastery that inspires you that any rocky relationship with a parent can be forged into something delicate and respectable.

Red Dead Redemption (Own it) SPOILERS WILL FLOW
Produced by Rockstar Games, I never expected Red Dead Redemption to be beautiful. But, between sweeping visuals, open pacing, and a plot that takes cues from Unforgiven, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Outlaw Josey Whales, it is just that: beautiful. Over the course of a long and violent quest for alleged government men, protagonist and former-outlaw John Marston kills off the rest of his former gang and returns home to his wife and teenage son, Jack. What makes the game achieve a level of narrative brilliance I never expected from the Grand Theft Auto creators, though, is that the last act of the game concerns itself with minor missions that give you some time to enjoy with your wife and son. During the understated missions, John is confronted with Jack's resentment over the additional hardships he's endured because of his father's mistakes. John also confides in his wife that they have a responsibility to put away their wild, free-willed ways in order to make a better life accessible for their son. After these moments and a few more like them, John gives up his life in order to give his wife and son a chance to escape. The tragic death is given the grand treatment that you'd expect from any of the above movies, and is afterward followed by one last mission as Jack Marston rides to avenge his father seven years later. Not only does the game illustrate the touching, pathetic power of a father's nobility and personal sacrifice, but it also outlines the flow of a father's sins upon his son's head.

Patriarch's Hope (Own it)
As the sixth book in the Seafort Saga, Patriarch's Hope presents the reader with a rich tapestry of characters as the children of the series become protagonists alongside the first generation. Not only does this make for a unique and gripping read, but it becomes a wonderful dissection of the trials of parenting and the power of guilt. The series' main character, Nicholas Seafort, spends the entire series haunted by the severe presence of his single father's regimented upbringing. Now, Nick Seafort is also being hounded by his own son's contrary idealism. The drama gets a little thick, as much of it revolves around futurist politics, but it is nonetheless a wonderfully affecting story about the bonds of fathers and sons, and the conflict they have in trying to define themselves independently from each other--which, in the end, is impossible.

Don't just go out and read, play or watch these tributes to fathers. Live them, honoring your father by being the man or woman he taught you to be--the one he wants you to be. And I hope you gave him a phone call, too. But not a collect call.