February 2008 Archives

the cowboy and the lady

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February 29 movie: The Cowboy and the Lady. Stars Gary Cooper as, let's see, a cowboy. And Merle Oberon as ... a lady! What do you know! Oberon, tired of being the poor little rich girl, pretends to be her own maid. Then falls for Cooper and finds she can't extricate herself from the lie without losing him. I feel like I've seen this plot in a dozen movies, and this may be the best one. I loved this movie! Gary Cooper is beyond adorable as a shy cowboy in love for the first time. There's a scene where he's "playing house," pretending she's there and showing her around the half-finished house he's building for her, that is soooo sweet. I also liked Patsy Kelly as the real maid who helps Oberon go slumming, Harry Davenport as Oberon's cool uncle, and Walter Brennan as another cowboy.

hide-out

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February 28 movie: Hide-out. Robert Montgomery plays a womanizing gangster who hides out at a farm in Connecticut. The farming family, not knowing what he is, take him in and accept him. Especially the cute farmer's daughter, Maureen O'Sullivan. This being a Robert Montgomery movie, it's a bit moralistic at the end. Still, I love Montgomery and I loved this movie. The scenes where he tries to learn how to feed chickens are hilarious. Also features Edward Arnold as the cop trying to bring in him, and Mickey Rooney as the sickeningly cute little boy. Did he ever play anything else?

four years

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Happy Leap Day! Bad Astronomy Blog has a fun explanation of exactly how leap day works. Though all I really need to know is that there won't be another exception during my lifetime, barring tremendous advances in medicine and a lot of luck.

there goes my heart

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February 26 movie: There Goes My Heart. Stars Virginia Bruce as the spoiled heiress who runs away from her gruff but beloved male guardian, and Fredric March, the street-smart reporter who desperately needs a hit story. He tries to make his career back with a scoop about her, but falls in love with her instead. Sound familiar? That's right, It Happened One Night! Yes, the plot of There Goes My Heart is a total ripoff of It Happened One Night. What saves this movie is the sparkling chemistry between March and Bruce. Also great supporting work by Patsy Kelly, Eugene Pallette, and especially Alan Mowbray as a would-be chiropractor taking correspondence lessons.

today's lesson

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Today I learned that if you come upon a random roadblock, don't pull off the road a hundred feet away to get your driver's license and registration out in advance. Apparently it looks suspicious to the cops! It wasn't a major problem: they let me go, and I didn't have to get out of the car, but they spent much more time questioning me than everybody else. Next time I'll make the cop stand there and wait while I rummage through the glove box.

the ascent of man

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February 26 movie: The Ascent of Man. Parts 3-5 of Dr. Bronowski's science series. "The Grain in the Stone" talked about the history of agriculture. "The Hidden Structure" addressed stone masonry and architecture, specifically the invention and development of the arch. "Music of the Spheres" dealt with mathematics and metallurgy. Those brief descriptions make it sound dry, which really isn't fair at all. It's really a vibrant series, full of Dr. Bronowski's joy in knowledge.

"Music of the Spheres" includes an image I remember from when I first saw this series as a kid: a Japanese swordsman chopping a sheaf of straw in half. The first time around I did not remember Dr. Bronowski drily explaining that the cut is one of the classic ways to slice through a human body, but they use straw for practice "nowadays."

For some reason the DVD runs with the subtitles turned on by default, and I've been leaving them on out of inertia. There are some funny flubs in the subtitles, such as "here outside the minister" instead of "outside the minster." I think the best subtitle flub was "The astrolabe was the wristwatch and slide door [slide rule] of its time."

I forgot to mention, in the episode about metallurgy Dr. Bronowski gives a wonderful definition of scientific inquiry: "Ask an impertinent question and you're on the way to a pertinent answer."

bachelor mother

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February 24 movie: Bachelor Mother. A fun screwball comedy starring Ginger Rogers as a single salesgirl who finds a baby on her doorstep, and David Niven as her boss. Everyone assumes the baby is Ginger's, and hilarity ensues.

the matrix

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February 23 movie: The Matrix. I think one of the great shames of the movies in recent decades is that the two Matrix sequels were so bad, they made me forget how good the original was. Which was, in fact, a terrific movie. So good that I watched it on AMC. With commercials!

The first time I saw this movie I had no idea going in what the Matrix was. None at all, and I was on the edge of my seat at the big reveal. How did I manage to get through all the pre-movie advertising without finding that out? It makes me wonder: how much better would, say, Terminator 2 have been if the advertising hadn't so thoroughly spoiled the movie.

notorious

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February 23 movie: Notorious. Here's another movie I can't resist. They were showing Hitchcock all day on TCM. Unfortunately I had to work, but at least I got to see this one.

the talk of the town

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February 22 movie: The Talk of the Town. This was a delightful movie. Cary Grant plays an anarchist agitator falsely accused of arson & murder, who hides out with Jean Arthur and her unwitting tenant, a constitutional law scholar (Ronald Colman). Sounds grim, but that's only if it had starred Humphrey Bogart. This way it's a funny screwball comedy that was also thoughtful and dare I say it, intellectual.

stalag 17

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February 21 movie: Stalag 17. Once again, I cannot miss an opportunity to watch this movie.

pirates of the caribbean: dead man's chest

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February 19 movie: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Eh, my opinion of this movie is about the same as last time. A few fantastic set pieces, a hopeless muddle of a movie. Basically a fun way to kill an evening.

persepolis

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February 16 movie: Persepolis. Wow. What a terrific movie. At times harrowing, at times funny, always gripping. The art style really let the story shine through. I'd like to read the comic it was based on, though I heard it was a fast read. I wonder if she's written further comics that continue the story after the movie.

rosemary clooney: girl singer

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Wow, it's been a long time since I wrote up a movie. I didn't watch that many in February, but I still have a fair amount of catching up to do. So let's go!

We thought this was going to be purely a collection of song clips, like the Nat King Cole movie we watched recently. Instead it was a documentary mixing songs with interviews with Clooney's relatives. Personally I could have done with more music and less talking. Though there were some good stories, particularly Miguel Ferrer talking about her conflicts with Mitch Miller.

left hand vs. right hand

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So our DVR has been acting up in recent months. We have one from the cable company. Yes yes, I know, Tivos are better. Ours works well enough (when we aren't having problems with it, that is) and it came free with digital cable. Good enough for me.

Anyway, we've been having problems with it. Some minor things, like the program guide acting funky, but mainly that the box would crash and reboot itself with some regularity. We should have dealt with this a long time ago, but we always had better things to do, plus there were always a bunch of shows on the DVR that we didn't want to lose. So we lived with it, until a couple of nights ago when it crashed and apparently went back to a three-week-old backup. Everything from February was gone, and a bunch of shows from January that we'd watched and deleted were back.

OK, time to get a new box! I called cable company tech support yesterday morning, told them what was happening, and asked if I had to make an appointment to replace the DVR or if I could just bring it to their office. She said I could just bring it in, but there'd be a $20 charge. "If it's broken, why do I have to pay to get a new one?" She explained that the charge is if I make the choice to come in and replace it on my own. If I let them do their own troubleshooting, they'll either repair it or replace it at no charge.

I'm no hardware expert, but I do know that at my job, a server which did that -- especially after such a failure history -- would be swapped out immediately, no time wasted on diagnosis or repair until after a new machine was up and running. But whatever, I'm not going to spend $20 proving a point. So I went through the troubleshooting. Which consisted of unplugging the machine, rebooting it, and noting that it seemed fine but our February programs were still gone. At which point she scheduled a service call for this morning.

I had more time yesterday than today, but again, whatever. The repairman called this morning on his way to my house and asked me to describe the problem. I told him about the crashing and the lost programs, and he said immediately that I need a new box. Hmm, what a good idea! He also said, "just to let you know, next time you have a problem like this, you can just take it to the office without having to schedule a service call." I told him I had tried that first, but wanted to avoid the $20 charge. His response was "WHAT?"

The guy was irate. Not at me of course, but at whoever told me that. He said that it costs the company $115 for every service call. He said he was going to bring it up at their next tech meeting and find out what the heck was going on. He also told me that there's a diagnostic on the box, you just enter channel 999 and it will show you all kinds of information about the system, hard drive status, etc. If the woman on tech support had told me to do that, we probably would have seen that the box needed replacing and could have avoided the service call.

I think this is a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. There's probably a very good reason, from the point of view of the call center, to discourage people from bringing in their boxes. (Indeed, the repairman told me that the problem isn't usually the hardware, although in my case it obviously was.) And there's probably a lot of pressure on the phone people to keep the calls as short as possible. If that means shunting everybody off to service calls without doing any diagnostics, so what? That's another department.

I am so glad I have never worked for a large corporation.

lotus of siam

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Ugh ... jet lag. Tonight I'm going to take melatonin and force myself to sleep at a normal-ish time. Tomorrow, I prescribe sunlight. A walk with Jane in the park will do us good.

In the meantime, I'm going to give up chronology in my Vegas write-up and skip right to the best: Lotus of Siam. It's a famous Thai restaurant; they had a review from the NY Times posted on the wall which described it as the best Thai food outside of Thailand. I have nowhere near enough experience with Thai food to even have an opinion on that assessment. I can say that our lunch was incredibly good.

A tiny place in a small strip mall on East Sahara, Lotus of Siam is pretty much the definition of "hole in the wall." It even faces away from the road and would be really easy to miss. There's just a wall along the road with a small neon sign. Pull into the next driveway and the restaurant entrance faces the parking lot.

They have a lunch buffet, but we had read a review on Chowhound which suggested several dishes so we ordered off the regular menu. We had:

Nam Kao Tod: "Minced sour sausage mixed with green onion, fresh chili, ginger, peanuts, crispy rice and lime juice." This may have been my favorite thing we ordered. It's the dish on the left in this photo. I was expecting "crispy rice" to be like Chinese fried rice, but not stirred so it had a crispy edge. Instead I think the rice was deep fried? Every grain was dark and crispy. "Crunchy rice" would also have been accurate. The sour flavor on the diced pork was wonderful. They let us choose the spiciness on a scale of 1 to 10. I like a nice zing but I'm not crazy about sheer heat, and figuring that a Thai restaurant wouldn't kid around, we chose 3. And I have to say, it was at about the upper limit of my enjoyment. If we had ordered 4, I could have still eaten it but I wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much.

Stuffed Chicken Wings: "Chicken wings stuffed with ground pork deep fried, served with sweet & sour sauce." The dish on the right in this photo. The chicken wings were boned, leaving just the wing tip, and pork stuffed into the place where the bone had been. Yum! The sweet & sour sauce tasted completely sweet, not sour at all. That might have been in comparison to the sour rice.

Kana Moo Krob: "Stir-fried Chinese broccoli and crispy side pork slice with oyster flavored sauce." The dish on the right in this photo. Side pork slice means chunks of deep fried pork belly. They also have a dish that's just the pork with Thai basil, which was recommended by the Times review. We felt like we'd regret it if we didn't have at least a few vegetables.

There were a handful of whole dried chilis on top, and the waitress who brought the dish to us advised us to break them open and crumble them onto the pork and broccoli, demonstrating by rubbing her hands together. We didn't, and she came back later and chided us (goodnaturedly) when she saw the pile of uncrumbled chilis on the side of the plate. We probably could have added a little bit of chili, as without it the dish was very mild. But even without the chilis ... mmm, pork belly.

Rad Na: "Stir-fried flat rice noodle topped with gravy Chinese broccoli with choice of meat [we had chicken]." The dish on the left in this photo. This was the only dish that resembled Thai food I've had before. It was just as described, a big bowl of noodles, chicken and broccoli in a brown sauce. Two of the wait staff came over and told us how much they like rad na. Neither one of them used the phrase "comfort food" but that's what they were both describing. Makes perfect sense to me; I can imagine coming in from a rainy winter day and warming up with a bowl of those noodles.

The waitress who wanted us to add more chili to the pork belly told us that she likes to make it with chopped jalapeños and eat it in front of the TV (making enthusiastic eating motions). I guess jalapenos are easier to find in Las Vegas than Thai chilis. Then the waiter who had taken our order told us that he liked rad na, but with a sort of embarrassed laugh he said that he liked it with rice! He told us that when he was a kid, his mother used to make it, and they had a big family so there weren't enough noodles and they would add rice. And now he still likes it that way. He's right about the rice; we mixed in the rice from the pork belly and it soaked up the sauce nicely.

So in case you haven't guessed, I highly recommend Lotus of Siam. It's on our "must-do" list for next time.

best laid plans

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So my grand plan to spend the day sorting through and posting photos ... went about as well as my grand plan to get back on East Coast time immediately. At least this evening we saw a great movie and had a great dinner.

Speaking of great meals, our first meal in Las Vegas was lunch at the Burger Bar. Which was located basically in our hotel (well, in the mall on the walking bridge between our hotel and the next). And serves the best burgers I've ever had. Sorry, Shake Shack. Actually the burger at the Shake Shack is equally good, but smaller, and they don't have nearly as many options as the Burger Bar.

We stayed at Mandalay Bay, normally out of our price range, because we lucked out and two weeks ago got an email announcement that they had had a conference cancellation, and were discounting rooms. It was indeed a nice room. Comfy bed, two closets, a couch and chair, great view, an iPod player, flat screen TV, a compartmentalized bathroom so one person can wash their face while the other... you know.

The only thing wrong with the room was the noisy people in the adjoining room. Who seemed to delight in standing right next to the door between our two rooms, shouting at each other as if they were a football field apart. We could have asked the hotel to move us, and if I had known the noisy people would be there for our entire stay, we would have. Oh well! Their schedules didn't overlap that much with ours so it wasn't too much of a problem. A couple of times when I woke up in the middle of the night from jet lag, they were just coming in from .. wherever it is loud people go late at night on vacation. And once I was reading and wanted to listen to music, but had to put in earplugs to block the noisy people. Pretty minor inconvenience.

We barely gambled on this trip. I lost exact count but definitely spent less than $20 in five days. For my money I got hours of entertainment and several drinks. Seemed like a good bargain to me. The introduction of penny slot machines makes it all so much easier for my gambling-averse sensibilities.

A wise person once advised me that if your goal with gambling is to win, you should stop immediately. I hate risking money so that made perfect sense to me. My goal on slot machines is to entertain myself for as small a budget as possible. I used to play nickel slots and slow the process down by cashing out after every win, keeping my entire stake in the tray, and feeding the coins in for every single spin. Now the casinos have thwarted my strategy by removing cash slot machines. It's all done with a ticket and it goes much faster when you can't drop in the coins each time. Which I'm sure was their goal. I still come out ahead on penny slots, because it costs five times less per spin, and isn't five times faster.

vegas, baby

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Just got back from a superlative vacation in Las Vegas. I have lots to write and many many photos to post, but it will have to wait as we're about to eat dinner. Which isn't as bad as it sounds because our bodies are still on Vegas time where it's only 10:30 pm.

dream

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Had a dream this morning about the Houston art car event. It started out a classic logistics dream. (do other people have logistics dreams? I have them all the time.) In the dream Clovepod and another art car driver, I'll call him AE for ease of typing, were caravaning with us to Houston. Georg and I had rented a small house in Houston for the week of the event. AE had rented the house next door, and in the dream he was our next door neighbor in Durham as well. Clovepod told us she was going to rent a room in a big art car rooming house, where everyone else would also be there for the parade. We told her there was plenty of space for her in the house we had rented, but she said she'd rather have the independence and flexibility that came with having her own space. Which made perfect sense and was fine with us.

AE brought over his art car to show us what he'd done for the parade. And I realized that we had to leave for the parade in a few days, and looked over and realized Undersea Mah Jongg looks like hell (which, in the waking world, it does) and I hadn't done any prep work yet. At this point it became a classic anxiety dream. (But still basically a logistics dream.) The rest of the dream was spent figuring out what could get done and what couldn't get done in the time remaining. For instance the beads that are coming loose: did we have replacements? (Mostly yes.) Could the old beads be cleaned and reused? (No: any solvent that would remove silicone caulk would also damage the beads.)

In the middle of my logistical anxiety the dog woke me up. The funny thing is, we can't even go to Houston this year. We've been going every other year since 2002 but we're going to have to miss this one. Because the primary election is on May 6, the Tuesday before the Houston parade. And I've committed to working at the primary.

I like to leave for the parade on Monday and arrive Wednesday evening, so we have Thursday day to relax, see local friends and do stuff before the first art car event Thursday night. In 2006 I even left on Sunday so I could stop for a day-long mini-vacation in New Orleans. Which was great and I'd like to do that again next time.

If we waited until after the primary and left Wednesday morning, we'd have to skip New Orleans and we still wouldn't get to Houston until Friday evening, having missed the Art Car Ball and the Main Street Drag (school tour). We don't usually go to the Friday night symposium so we'd be missing 2/3 of the events we like to do. We'd only be there for the parade itself. It doesn't seem worth traveling 1200 miles for a one-day event. And that would also mean starting a 1200 mile road trip the day after working 14 hours at the primary. Which sounds insane. Houston art car weekend is incredibly busy and in order to enjoy it I need to be well rested when I arrive, not pushing myself to the limit before I even get there.

I could just skip the primary. But I really want to work the polls on election day this year, and I really don't want election day (a busy, extremely important election day) to be the first time I've ever done it. Besides, people are saying that this year our primary might actually matter: the Democratic nominee might not be decided yet by then. In which case I don't want to miss it for a road trip.

So, we will skip Houston this year and start going on odd years instead. This way I'll have more time to do that desperately needed work on Undersea Mahjongg before art car season starts. I think we're going to Artscape in Baltimore this year, in early July. Plenty of time.

awesomeness of awesome

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Today was, in a word, awesome. Finally beating that damned campfire level in We Love Katamari: awesome. Opening up the house and letting fresh air in: awesome. DJ Spooky's classic soul show: beyond awesome. Late dinner at Watts Grocery: awesome. D and S and their out of town friends: awesome.

The best part of all was that we had two annoying guys behind us at DJ Spooky, loudly describing the show to each other, until I turned around and said "Will you shut up?" And they did! I made the rude annoying people shut up! And then a few minutes later they moved away so they could talk freely and annoy someone else! I scared the rude annoying people away! So awesome!

my tax dollars at work

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I love the library! We went there this afternoon for reading material. I got a biography of Nat King Cole, Corelli's Mandolin (the supposedly excellent book they made into that terrible movie), and a picture book of photographs by Sammy Davis Jr.

For the Cole biography we had to go to the McDougald Terrance branch of the library. Which is the smallest library I have ever seen, and has one of the nicest librarians I have ever met. They don't have an outdoor book return but she told me I can return it to the main library.

kitten spam

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Now I have truly seen it all: Russian Kitten Spam.
kittenspam.jpg

where's my rocket car

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Today was a day of fun stuff, both high tech (a Skype chat with a dear friend on another continent) and low (a walk/jog with Jane in the park). And both lowbrow (an America's Next Top Model greatest hits show) and highbrow (wait, there wasn't anything highbrow today. Oh well!)

Also I received a birthday present: a wide-angle lens which I bought with all my birthday money. I had one before and adored it, and then after about a year the auto-focus broke. Waah! I had hopes of getting it repaired (as lenses go, it was cheap, but for me it was quite expensive). Then I found out that the brand, Sigma, is known for lenses with cheap auto-focus that breaks. And cost more to repair than replacing the lens. Bummer.

I put off getting a new one for months, but the windfall of birthday money and an impending visit to the Neon Boneyard made it finally worthwhile. This time I got a Tamron, which is wider (11-18mm, the old one was 18-25mm) and lighter. And I hope will last more than a year.

What with the new lens, the transcontinental chat, plus exchanging email with another friend in Mexico and starting to learn Joomla, I feel all high tech today. So where's my rocket car?

the value of restaurant spanish

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I got lunch at Taqueria Lopez last week. Ordered in Spanish, and was inordinately proud of myself that my accent was good enough that the guy at the counter (the owner, I'd guess) gave me my total in Spanish too. Unfortunately it became quickly apparent that I'm not up to discussing numbers in Spanish, in fact "quesadilla con pastor" is about the extent of it. So the back end of the conversation ("here's your ticket" etc) was all in English.

Tonight I picked up dinner for Georg and myself, and though I gave it my best shot, this time it wasn't fooling anybody. Too many words! My total lack of fluency was much more obvious. I'll keep trying though. So how do you say "to go" in Spanish?

the bride of home depot

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Went to a bridal shower this morning that was actually fun. The guest of honor and her fiance are renovating an old house so we gave her a Big Orange shower. Everyone got her Big Orange gift cards and we brought her to Big Orange for a scavenger hunt. Hidden throughout the store were little charms that said "Love," each of which represented a gift card. She had a series of clues to help her find the charms. The funny thing is that no one thought to explain this to the bride, tell her that each charm she found meant another gift card. I guess she thought, I don't know, that scavenger hunt was just one of those dumb party games? When we left the store and got to the cake, she reacted with such shock to the bag full of gift cards.

The people at the store were good sports about the whole thing. The woman who organized the party talked to them in advance and then went over the morning of the party to hide the charms. They took our picture at the end, and they even got on the intercom and said "Attention, customers! We have a bride on aisle 11!" for us.

the ascent of man

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February 4 movie: The Ascent of Man. This isn't technically a movie but I'm writing it up because I'm so glad Netflix has it and I'm enjoying it so much. It's an early 1970s BBC science series by Jacob Bronowski, aka Dr. Bloody Bronowski. Among my earliest memories are watching The Ascent of Man with my dad. Tonight I watched the first two episodes, "Lower than the Angels" which deals with human evolution, specifically the evolution of the head, and "Harvest of the Seasons" which addresses the agricultural revolution. I appreciate how Bronowski mixes the science with personal stories. For example in the first episode he describes being asked to do a mathematical analysis of the shape of Australopithecus' teeth. It makes it all seem so much more vivid.

pirates of the caribbean

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February 2 movie: Pirates of the Caribbean. I enjoyed this immensely, even though I totally called the ending. I thought it would be a sequel rather than a credit cookie, but I called it.

sampson and delilah

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January 31 movie: Sampson and Delilah. This is the second best Biblical epic about hair. The best Biblical epic about hair is, of course, Sodom and Gomorrah starring Stewart Granger's pompadour. But this one has Hedy Lamarr! And Victor Mature wrestling a lion! And George Sanders and Angela Lansbury too.

four sisters

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January 27 movie: Four Sisters. This is the original movie of which Young at Heart was a remake. Starred John Garfield instead of Frank Sinatra, Claude Rains as the dad, and three real sisters as three of the four sisters. Like I said the premise -- adult daughters who do nothing all day but stand around waiting for papa to come home -- makes a little more sense in the 30s than in the 50s. Robert Osborne said this movie set Garfield on the path to fame playing bitter outsiders. Which he did many many times.

young at heart

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January 26 movie: Young at Heart. Frank Sinatra and Doris Day isn't the weirdest romantic pairing I've ever seen, but it's close. This is a strange movie, largely (I think) because it's based on an older movie and the premise -- three adult daughters who live at home and apparently have no jobs, no hobbies, no friends, nothing to do but stand around looking pretty -- seems rooted in an earlier time, nonsensical in Technicolor. As Georg pointed out, the strangest thing about the movie is that not one character is actually young at heart. Everyone seems weary and embittered beyond their years. Except Alan Hale Jr. who plays the boyfriend of one of Doris Day's sisters. He's pretty lighthearted throughout the movie. I'm a huge fan of Alan Hale Sr. so it was fun to see his son (the Skipper) in a movie. Great music too, many good songs by Sinatra.

puppy bowl

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How is it that I never watched the Puppy Bowl before? How can this be possible? It is the cutest thing imaginable. Whoever thought up this show is a damn genius.

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