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The Most Anticipated Movie Ever: You’ll Wish You Didn’t Know…

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Disney’s High School Musical 3 opens in London in three weeks, and London movie theaters have already sold more than £500,000 in advance ticket sales.  Why does this affect my life, you may ask?  Here’s why:

Work has already begun on High School Musical 4.

This kind of behavior is not to be encouraged.  Ilya – can’t you do something about this?  ;-)

Categories: Movie Talk | 1 Comment »

R2D2 gives new meaning to Blu-Ray…

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

For anyone who has $2,800 to spend on a DVD player:


(I’m looking at you, Bennion…)

Categories: Movie Talk, Tech Talk | 1 Comment »

Paris bombed!

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

OK, now that I’ve covered Dolly Parton and Harvard University, I simply can’t resist the first (and likely only) opportunity to mention Paris Hilton in three consecutive posts.

Over at Defective Yeti, Matthew Baldwin has one of his patented Bad Review Revues up, this one about The Hottie and the Nottie, executive produced by and starring Paris Hilton. Here are my favorites:

“It’s not like Paris Hilton to rise above her material, but The Hottie and the Nottie sinks so low that all she has to do is stand upright.” — Sam Adams, LOS ANGELES TIMES

“Great actors make the craft look easy. In this Paris Hilton comedy, acting looks very, very difficult.” — Kyle Smith, NEW YORK POST

“How bad is this feature from deservedly unknown director Tom Putnam? How’s this?: It’s a blot on Paris Hilton’s dignity.” — Andy Klein, LOS ANGELES CITYBEAT

Click through and read the rest for yourself. It’s oddly satisfying. Or, if you like, click all the way through to Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie is currently scoring a whopping 7%, and check for new hi….er, lowlights!

Who says there isn’t justice in the world?

Categories: Movie Talk | No Comments »

A Good Enough Actor to Fool God?

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Jason Bennion points us to a story about the Westboro Baptist Church in Topkea, Kansas, who plans to picket Heath Ledger’s funeral because he played a gay character in “Brokeback Mountain.”

I tend to view blatant homophobia, as well as most other kinds of bigotry, as some combination of ignorance and stupidity. I feel like the vast majority of society has gotten past these hangups, and tends to view folks who still walk around hating others as the exception, rather than the rule. To be sure, there are still nuances around the edges of prejudice that we need to work through, but as far as institutionalized or formalized hatred, I think it’s at least on the rapid decline, if not altogether eliminated. Call me optimistic, call me naive, just don’t call me late for dinner…

Anyway, the folks at the Westboro Baptist Church are doing their best to test my theory. Check this out:

“You cannot live in defiance of God,” [Shirley Phelps-Roper, spokesperson for the Church] said. “He got on that big screen with a big, fat message: God is a liar and it’s OK to be gay. Heath Ledger is now in Hell, and has begun serving his eternal sentence there.”

So what they’re saying here, I think, is that it’s not only wrong to be gay, it’s wrong to pretend to be gay as well. I’m no expert, but even if you’re in the “homosexuality is a sin” camp, you would think that God would be able to tell the difference.

Although I guess if you take this ridiculous logic to its ultimate conclusion, it’s possible that Mr. Ledger is in pretend Hell, serving his eternal sentence for his pretend sins.

But wait, there’s more:

Started 1955, the Topeka, Kan.-based church has conducted over 34,000 peaceful demonstrations opposing the homosexual lifestyle, according to their Web site, GodHatesFags.com. The organization runs various Web sites, including GodHatesAmerica.com and others that condemn lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Muslims, Roman Catholics and Jews as well as certain nationalities, according to Wikipedia.

“God hates fags,” [Ms. Phelps-Roger] said. “The wrath of God has been revealed before the eyes of this nation with the death of Heath Ledger. . . . This nation worships the dead almost as much as they worship their filthy sex acts. America is doomed.”

The article also says the group is known for picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. So many people to hate, so little time…

So there you go – ignorance and stupidity, or evidence of systemic intolerance? I’m hoping that folks like Jason and I are the majority now, and the disgust/disbelief we have for people like this reflect our society’s norms. Who’s with me?!?

Categories: Movie Talk, Political Rantings | 5 Comments »

ISBS Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

When Christopher Columbus directed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, he said this:

[Screenwriter] Steve Kloves, David Heyman … and myself are really [such] truly obsessive fans about the book that we wanted to protect it for the fans. We wanted all the people who love the books to feel like they were experiencing [the book] … as much as you can give [that to] them in a film. Obviously … I would have preferred to do all seven hours, but I know that that’s [not possible].

My, how far we’ve come.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is an excellent movie. It is fast-paced, action-packed, and holds your attention from the very first frame until the end (which occurs more than two hours later). The acting is by far the best of the series and the special effects are fantastic. All of that said, though, the film’s defining characteristic is going to be the extent to which it defies everybody’s expectations. To wit:

Despite it’s PG-13 rating, a lot of people will expect this to be a kid’s movie. It is most definitely not. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was PG-13 also, but this movie is vastly different. The fighting scenes are truly violent now (although with one exception, there is still no visible bloodshed). And the scenes were the characters get angry are often downright vicious. The interactions among Harry, Ron and Hermione, especially in the beginning of the film, were truly uncomfortable to watch. This stands as a compliment to the rapidly developing acting chops of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, but the fact remains that kids seeing the film expect these three to be best friends, and the film takes them through a range of emotions that includes true frustration and sometimes even hatred. Having read the book twice now, I did not come away from it with this feeling at all. In the book, arguments between friends come off much more like bickering. This is much more serious.

And speaking of the book, those who have read it are in for several surprises regarding the plot. Unlike Columbus’ obsessive need to be true to the text, this film strays quite far from what J.K. Rowling wrote. I’d go as far as to call it the first Harry Potter movie that’s based on the book, rather than being a film adaptation of the book.

(NOTE: I will now attempt to give examples without providing spoilers.
You have been warned).

All of the major plot points in the movie occurred in the book as well (i.e., it starts and ends the same way). However, many major subplots in the book are either missing from the film entirely or have been significantly rewritten. There is, for example, no Quidditch in the film at all. The Department of Mysteries has only one door, so all of the action that took place in the book behind the other doors is simply missing from the film. The High Inquisitor’s classroom inspections are done as a montage, and contain zero dialog between her and the teachers. The Divination teacher goes through her trials and travails as she did in the book, but a second Divination teacher does not appear or even get mentioned. None of the hospital scenes are included, so the rather major plot point about Neville Longbottom’s parents needs to be significantly rewritten in order to explain Neville’s actions later in the story.

The Order of the Phoenix itself, in fact, is merely mentioned and then wholly ignored throughout the film. There are no meetings at headquarters, no house cleaning, and no scenes with Kreacher the house elf (he makes a couple of cameos, but is completely unrelated to the plot, despite the rather major role he plays in the book).

All of this made it feel to me like the film makers were rushing through the plot in order to fit it all into two hours and eighteen minutes. I, for one, would have gladly sat through another forty-five minutes in order to get more of the exposition and dialogue that J.K. Rowling wrote for her wonderful array of characters.

And I guess that’s the bottom line: this is a long film, but I walked away wanting more. The source material for these stories is so rich and so strong, that one cannot help but be entertained by it.

I’m told David Yates will direct the next film as well, and I’m very much looking forward to it. The sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half Blood
Prince, strikes a better balance between dark times and teenage fun and frivolity. This will give Yates a wider range of emotions to play with, and will likely result in a film that is even more entertaining than this one.

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Movie Talk | 3 Comments »

Before He Gets Started…

Thursday, June 28th, 2007

Michael Moore’s newest documentary hype-machine, Sicko premieres this Friday. In the movie, Mr. Moore is going to tell us, through rather dramatic footage and hand-picked testimony from industry whistle-blowers that insurance companies are evil and exist only to screw over the American people. He was on The Daily Show tonight and told Jon Stewart that insurance companies are profit making businesses, and that the only way they can make a profit is by charging huge premiums and then not paying claims.

Well, before this turns into a “story with legs” and it becomes impossible to say anything about insurance that contradicts the movie, please allow me to share some of what I learned from five years of working in the insurance industry:

1) Insurance Companies Rarely Make Money Selling Insurance
Most of the time, insurance companies pay out slightly more in claims and operating expenses than they take in from premiums. Here are some facts:

The Insurance Information Institute:

Combined Ratio is the ratio of losses and associated expenses to premiums, reflecting the overall underwriting profitability of the company. If it’s below 100 (i.e., losses + expenses < premiums), then the company is making money from its insurance policies. If it’s more than 100 (losses + expenses > premiums), they’re losing money. You’ll note above that as of 2004, the industry average had remained above 100 since the 1970′s.

More sources:

The Motley Fool:
The industry’s average combined ratio in 2005 was 106.2%.

In 1995, the industry average combined ratio of 106.3% was the “best combined ratio in seven years.”

Carinsurance.com (speaking about all Property/Casualty insurance, not just car insurance):
The 93.2% estimate for 2006, if accurate, would represent the industry’s best underwriting performance since the 93.3% combined ratio recorded 70 years earlier in 1936 [and only the second underwriting profit since 1978].
[UPDATE, as of 9/5/2015:  QuinStreet, Inc., owner of Carinsurance.com, contacted me and asked me to remove the link to their site, because it "may be several years old" and "may no longer be relevant to either you or our site."  I have no reason to deny their request, so I have complied]

So how do they make money? Glad you asked:

2) Insurance Companies Make Money Investing Their Premium Dollars While They’re Waiting to Pay Claims
This is called the “float.” Basically, the insurance is an excuse to hold onto your money and make a return on it, until you hurt yourself, crash your car, or damage your home, at which time the insurance company has to give the money back to you (plus, on average, a few dollars more). Note the second and fourth columns in the chart above. While losing 5-10% on their insurance policies, these companies make more than 10% on the cash their holding (in more recent years, this number is typically more like 15%). Here’s Wikipedia:

An insurer’s underwriting performance is measured in its combined ratio. The loss ratio (incurred losses and loss-adjustment expenses divided by net earned premium) is added to the expense ratio (underwriting expenses divided by net premium written) to determine the company’s combined ratio. The combined ratio is a reflection of the company’s overall underwriting profitability. A combined ratio of less than 100 percent indicates profitability, while anything over 100 indicates a loss.

Insurance companies also earn investment profits on “float”. “Float” or available reserve is the amount of money, at hand at any given moment, that an insurer has collected in insurance premiums but has not been paid out in claims. Insurers start investing insurance premiums as soon as they are collected and continue to earn interest on them until claims are paid out.

In the United States, the underwriting loss of property and casualty insurance companies was $142.3 billion in the five years ending 2003. But overall profit for the same period was $68.4 billion, as the result of float.

So you see, Mr. Moore, denying claims is not the “only way they make money.” In fact, it’s one of the worst ways…

3) Therefore, the Path to Profitability for Insurance Companies is in Writing and Keeping More Policies, Not in Paying Less Claims
This is the hard part for many people to understand, which is what Michael Moore is counting on in his movie. The Insurance Company’s biggest concern is that you go get insurance from someone else, not that the frequency and size of your claims. Of course, they’d prefer that you make less claims, but if you feel like they’ve screwed you over, you’ll go somewhere else, and some other company will get to invest your premium dollars instead of them.

4) Everyone Who’s Ever Had a Claim Denied Feels Like They Were Screwed by Their Insurance Company
It’s an unavoidable fact of life. And yes, there are insurance companies out there (particularly small ones that don’t have access to the investment vehicles that the larger ones do) who think they can turn a profit by screwing over customers. But for the most part, insurance companies are setup to attract and retain customers. There are three groups:

Underwriters: These folks are basically lawyers. They write policies with very specific legalese language in them. The intent here is not to screw over the customer, per se, but to avoid a catastrophic loss on the policy. In other words, they write the policy with loopholes that prevent them from having to pay an exorbitant amount of money on a single claim or event. This is the closest thing to “screwing the customer” in the company.

Actuaries: The actuary is a number cruncher. He/She sifts through tons of experience data, and based on as much information as he/she can know about you, decides how much premium to charge for the policy, as written by the underwriter. If the actuary does his job, combined ratios stay within the normal range (i.e., right around 100%).

Claims Examiners: The claims examiner is the customer facing person. He/She is judged on his/her ability to maximize payment speed and hence, minimize loss administration expenses. Re-read that last sentence, because it’s important. The claims examiner does not get rewarded for paying smaller claims. He/She gets rewarded for paying claims quickly in order to avoid additional administration costs associated with dragging the process out. This is why a claims examiner on a homeowners claim will generally print you a check when he/she comes to visit your damaged home, or why a health insurance company will automatically pay a doctor a pre-set agreed upon price for a service. It’s all about keeping the customer happy and keeping costs down, so that you’ll stay with the company and they can continue to invest your dollars.

5) Doctors are Motivated by Profits Just as Much as Insurance Companies
A related point that Mr. Moore will make in his movie (and that he made on The Daily Show tonight) is that doctors need to “ask permission” from insurance company representatives before providing you with treatment. Setting aside for a second the fact that this is typically untrue (the company will usually quote a reimbursement rate – the doctor is always free to provide the service at that rate), it ignores the fact that without that kind of check, doctors would be heavily incented to run a full battery of tests on every patient they see, since they ultimately make more money the more procedures/tests they run. Instinctively, no one wants to tell a doctor he/she can’t do a test he/she wants to do, because instinctively we all want to believe that the doctor is ordering the test solely to benefit the patient. But the hard, cold fact is that doctors can be every bit as profit driven and/or corrupt as insurance companies. And if you think health care costs are rising today, imagine what it would be like if we did CAT Scans for the common cold.

I’m not saying I have answer to how this should work, but Mr. Moore’s suggestion that insurance companies “go away” is clearly not the silver bullet.

So, please enjoy the movie. I encourage you to see it. I will probably see it myself, although it might take me a while, owing to the need for a babysitter before I do. But please keep the above thoughts in mind while you watch, and remember – you heard it here first, before it became grossly unpopular to say it.

Categories: Money Talk, Movie Talk, Political Rantings | 6 Comments »

Growing Old with the Joneses…

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Quite a bit to comment on from Simple Tricks & Nonsense tonight.

Jason thinks Dr. Jones looks pretty good in this picture, taken this past week on the set of Indiana Jones, Part IV:

Indiana Jones – 2007

Oh yeah? Take a look at this eerily similar picture from 1989:

Indiana Jones – 1989

Arthritis. Why did it have to be arthritis? I HATE arthritis…

(still looking forward to the movie, though…)

Categories: Movie Talk | 1 Comment »

ISBS Movie Review: An Inconvenient Truth

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

There have been two movies in my lifetime that people kept insisting I must see. The first was Schindler’s List, which Spielberg expertly released right before the Jewish High Holidays, so that every rabbi in America would entitle his sermon, “You must see this movie.” Pretty powerful marketing strategy. As it turned out, I didn’t see it until years later, half out of defiance (I’ll see or not see whatever movie I damn well please, thank you very much…) and half out of the fact that I’ve really seen enough Holocaust movies to understand how awful it was, and really didn’t need another. They eventually put it on network TV, uncut and with no commercials, so I saw it then.

The second “must see” movie was An Inconvenient Truth. This one also waited about a year. Again, half out of defiance, but now half out of the fact that if my wife and I get a babysitter on a Saturday night, we’re going to see something more entertaining than Al Gore. Yes, even if it means destroying the planet. If you have young kids, you understand. This week, though, brought a business trip and a stop at Blockbuster (not in that order). So I watched the movie while sitting in a plane which flew up near the atmosphere and spit nasty, harmful chemicals at it. Take that, you green-niks!

I’m just kidding. In fact, the movie pleasantly surprised me. See, here’s the thing: Gore is working very, very hard to prove something that has already been proven true. And as anyone with any public speaking experience knows, when you’re backed up by the truth, you can speak for hours and make many compelling arguments in favor of your point of view. The result is a presentation that convinces everyone in the audience of something they already believed when they walked into the room. And as silly as that sounds, the communal “YES!” that comes along with it is very powerful.

What surprised me about the movie was how, well, moderate it was. Gore’s only point is that the earth is getting warmer, and that this is being caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide, and that this is being caused by the presence and activities of billions of additional humans, who generate carbon dioxide while doing everything from breathing to driving their cars. Gore does not advocate shutting down the airline industry, outlawing gasoline, or limiting the amount of toilet paper available per…um…sitting. (Note to Sheryl Crow: Yes, I know it was a joke. If you’re going around the country to clarify an issue that has been intentionally muddled by political opponents, how about you lay off the jokes, ‘kay?) All Gore wants us to do is understand that the problem exists, and do basic things to mitigate it. Things like conserve energy, use less gas, learn how to work your thermostat, etc.

Based on that message and that message alone, I think an objective view of the facts would suggest that he’s succeeding. Hybrid cars are appearing everywhere, major cities and large corporations alike are “going green,” and being personally enviro-friendly is becoming as chic as being anti-aerosol or anti-apartheid used to be. But an entire industry has developed around the cause, and the stakes have increased. In the movie, Gore quotes Upton Sinclair as saying, “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” Given the current state of the Global Warming debate (and, by the way, Gore refers to it exclusively as “Global Warming.” He never utters the term “Global Climate Change”), I think we can also agree that this is true: “It is difficult to make a man believe that a problem has been solved when his salary depends on him working to solve it.”

If I had any problem with the film, it was Gore’s pathological need to be more than just right. He needs to be dramatic as well, even to the point of twisting the facts to do it. This, I believe, is what ultimately sunk him in his 2000 election bid, and it’s presence here is palpable. First, there are the truly inexplicable asides about the hardships he has endured in his life. We cover the near death of his son at the age of six, his controversial loss in the 2000 election (Yes, he lost. Please spare me the snark), 9/11, and the death of his sister, daughter of a tobacco farmer, due to lung cancer. All of these things, he says, made him dedicate his life to solving the global warming crisis. Of course, these things happened over a period of 30-40 years, during which time he was consistently advocating for global warming anyway, so we can only conclude that these scenes are in the movie purely to tug at our heartstrings. They are sad, yes, but I found them distracting. Also, I had to laugh at the various scenes of Al Gore “studying” global warming data on his laptop. A closer look at the machine clearly shows that he’s working in whatever the Mac’s equivalent of PowerPoint is, and he’s editing slides, not studying data. Setting aside the fact that he says he’s given this slide show over 1,000 times, so the slides are probably already set, I’d be willing to bet a large sum of money on the fact that Gore didn’t create any of these slides himself. Once again – dramatic effect over substance (or even honesty).

Turning more toward content, I noted the order in which he presented his data. First, the carbon dioxide levels, then the temperature, then the polar ice caps, drying river beds and horrific floods, and then the population explosion (for those who haven’t seen the movie, he points out that it took thousands of generations for the earth’s population to reach 2 billion, but in only three or four generations, it will go from 2 billion to 9 billion). It occurs to me that if he had shown this slide first, the entire argument changes dramatically. Everything else becomes a function of how many of us there are, and since no one is advocating for killing off 7 billion people, we almost have to look at ways to adapt to this new reality, rather than ways to stop/reverse it.

Also on the questionable content side was the much-previewed simulations of the highly populated areas going under water if nothing is done. Two examples caught my eye: Holland and the World Trade Center memorial site (note that it’s not Manhattan that goes under water, it’s the WTC memorial site – much more dramatic that way). These are ironic because both sites are currently below sea level, and both have been protected by technology that was invented decades ago. Holland has a much heralded system of levees that protects its sub-sealevel cities, and the World Trade Center was built inside a concrete “bathtub” that kept the water from rushing in. In fact, the land excavated to build the WTC was appended to Manhattan island and now supports the World Financial Center, all despite the fact that the water level around the WTC site is higher than the ground.

There are other, smaller things too (his citation of escalating insured damage in storms, which depends as much upon the value of the property in the storms’ path as it does on the strength of the storms, his criticism about our rejection of the Kyoto treaty, despite the fact that the economic impact on the US was so severe that the Senate rejected it by a vote of 99-0, and his criticism of an economic impact slide which he claimed weighed the desirability of gold bars against the entire planet, when clearly the graphic was meant to discuss economic impact vs. environmental impact – a legitimate topic no matter what side of the issue you’re on).

But again, these are minor criticisms, and speak more to Gore’s affinity for hyperbole than his overall point, which is that global warming exists, and we need to react to it. On that point, he was very convincing to just about everyone who watched the movie, except perhaps those who adamantly didn’t believe it going in, and who likely walked away unconvinced.

What’s important now that the movie is out there, is how we respond. The current strategy seems to be purely political – disparaging everyone who disagrees with anything Gore says, rather than discussing reasonable alternatives (or even, heaven forbid, market opportunities) for how to deal with the issue.

I’ve compared global warming to Y2K before, and I remain convinced they are similar. In the coming years, steps will be taken to address the issue. These steps will prevent the predicted calamities from occurring. And fifty years from now, someone will look back at the movie and call Gore an alarmist who predicted massive flooding, population displacement and death that never came. And like the thousands who worked so hard to address Y2K, he will have provided an invaluable public service that will go largely un-thanked.

Such is the way of things, I guess…

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Movie Talk | 1 Comment »

Kryptonite discovered in mine

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

Good news: Kryptonite is real.
Bad news: It’s not green.

Yet another in a series of science mirroring science fiction:

Researchers from mining group Rio Tinto discovered the unusual mineral and enlisted the help of [Dr Chris Stanley, a mineralogist at London's Natural History Museum] when they could not match it with anything known previously to science.

Once the London expert had unravelled the mineral’s chemical make-up, he was shocked to discover this formula was already referenced in the literature – albeit literary fiction.

“Towards the end of my research I searched the web using the mineral’s chemical formula – sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide – and was amazed to discover that same scientific name, written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luthor from a museum in the film Superman Returns.

The new mineral does not contain fluorine (which it does in the film) and is white rather than green but, in all other respects, the chemistry matches that for the rock containing kryptonite.”

Now, about that whole “flying man of steel” thing…

Categories: Movie Talk, The World Wide Weird | 4 Comments »

Harold and Kumar go to Penn

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Well, Kumar, anyway:

PHILADELPHIA – Kal Penn [a.k.a. Kalpen Modi], known for his role as Kumar Patel in the 2004 cult classic “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” will be a guest instructor at the University of Pennsylvania during the spring 2008 semester.

Penn, 29, will teach two undergraduate courses, tentatively titled, “Images of Asian Americans in the Media” and “Contemporary American Teen Films,” the school announced Monday.

Grace Kao, director of Penn’s Asian American Studies Program called Modi “one of the leading Asian American actors of his generation.”

I’m sure Mr. Modi is an intelligent man (he’s currently pursuing a graduate degree at Stanford University), and I’m sure that he will have quite a bit to teach Penn students who are interested in these topics. None of this changes the fact that he will absorb endless amounts of ridicule from the student body (heck – I can almost see the Penn Band’s halftime show now – not to mention the Princeton band’s, the Brown band’s, the Yale band’s…)

Also, I think we’ve estabilshed that Grace Kao needs to get out to the movies more often…

Oh, by the way:

[Modi] recently finished shooting “Harold & Kumar 2 with [John] Cho

Maybe he’ll get really lucky and they’ll release it on campus on the first day of classes…

Categories: Movie Talk, University of Pennsylvania | 4 Comments »

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