Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ben Affleck Can't Act

I mean really. Stinkeroo. What an amateur. I actually got so annoyed with how bad his performance was in Boiler Room that it took me right out of the movie. And this wasn't even a movie like Gigli where the badness was legendary. This was supposedly a solid performance in a solid movie.

People kept telling me I had to watch this movie Boiler Room. If I liked Wall Street, which I do - and if I liked Glengarry Glen Ross, which I really do - then I owed it to myself to watch Boiler Room. So I picked it up as a rental. (In a nutshell: it was watchable but mediocre.)

Now here's what Variety said about this movie: a "likable ensemble, with a bravura turn from Ben Affleck". And: "Almost every character in Younger's elegantly staged thriller is borrowed from Stone or Mamet, beginning with Affleck's Jim Young, essentially the Alec Baldwin role from "Glengarry Glen Ross".

Here's the New York Times: "In its close attention to the hard-sell ethos of buying and selling, lying and cheating, "Boiler Room" calls to mind another movie its characters occasionally quote, James Foley's 1992 adaptation of David Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross." (At times it hews a bit too close for comfort. Affleck's role -- to say nothing of his suit, his hair and his handsome hint of jowliness -- seems to have been traced over the outline of Alec Baldwin in that earlier movie.)"

One more, from the LA Times: "The way this movie deliberately evokes memories of "Wall Street" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" invites the audience to make comparisons. Ben Affleck plays a small role that is clearly modeled on the tough, arrogant Alec Baldwin character in "Glengarry."

Strong praise, right? I mean - it sounds like Affleck's got a really juicy role where he channels the Alec Baldwin part from Glengarry Glen Ross. Now, I want you to watch both scenes. I want you to watch Alec Baldwin's scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, and then watch Ben Affleck's similar part in Boiler Room. Then we'll come back for discussion.

So you've watched both of them? Me too. Do you see now how godawful Ben Affleck is when you compare it to an actual great performance? And God help me - I never thought I would ever say this - but Alec Baldwin has some serious acting chops. He absolutely nails it. Or maybe he doesn't? Maybe Ben Affleck is just so bad that he makes Baldwin look like Lee Strasberg.

Affleck can't blame the Boiler script. It's top notch. The editing seems okay. He's lit well. He has no one to blame but himself. Seriously this is one of the most botched, painful, amateurish community-theater-level performances I've ever seen. He works himself up into belligerence... and then just keeps it there. He just shouts out every line in faux-drill sergeant anger. No modulation, no playing around with tempo, volume, intensity... it's just memorized lines being barked at you. Look at the Glengarry performance again. Look at how Baldwin changes gears throughout the scene. How he uses body language. How he plays off the other actors. How (if I can borrow from the SNL cowbell sketch) he really "explores the space".

Baldwin rotates through smarm, menace, fury, sarcasm; he drips with contempt for everybody and needles them expertly. Look at when he towers over Lemmon and put his hands on the desk. "These people are sitting out there waiting to give you their money! ... Are you going to take it? ... Are you man enough to take it?" There's a little smile there. He finds the humor in the line. Is he smiling because he feels a little sadistic pleasure in humiliating Lemmon? Or because he recognizes the ridiculousness of what he's asking? Or because he's trying to encourage Lemmon to get mad? You can interpret it many ways.

Another aspect of the performance is how comfortable Baldwin seems in his viciousness. He's not giving a screaming rant of a performance where his face gets red and his neck veins bulge. He's calm - even as he's dishing out withering abuse and shouting obscenities. You get the feeling that he has a whole other level of anger that you don't even want to tap into. It's such a controlled, compelling character and performance. There's a lot baked in there for just 7 minutes, and Baldwin hits it out of the park.

Now, painful as it is, go back to Affleck. After watching the Glengarry scene can you even sit through this open-mike-night quality bullshit? Who at Variety was calling this a "bravura turn"? First of all, terrible casting. Who could possibly believe chubby-cheeked, baby faced Ben Affleck as some sort of corporate pit bull? His anger is whiny. Listening to him it sounds like he's never yelled at anyone before in his life. He doesn't know the rhythm of it. He sounds like a high school jock who unexpectedly has to give the team pep talk because the coach is out sick. He thinks the shouting is the performance. But it's not supposed to be. The script has him singling out Giovani Ribisi for praise, and it clearly makes Ribisi uncomfortable. Is Affleck even aware of that? When he tells the other guy "It's not funny.", does it sound even remotely natural? His hand gesture at the end... do you buy it for a second?

I did find one critical take on Affleck during my internet search, and it came from Maxim of all places: "Remember Bugsy Malone, that movie where there was a bunch of little kids acting like tough gangsters? Well, since Boiler Room was a pre-K version of Glengarry Glen Ross, it's no wonder Affleck delivers a watered-down, pre-pubescent version of Baldwin's classic castrating sales lecture. Affleck's about as intimidating as a male nurse, so the effect is, let's say, less intense than the stare-down from Alec's Blake. Hey, Ben, put that coffee down."

It's just a total embarrassment of what could have been a great scene, but for our boy Ben not having a single clue how to take advantage of an A+ part. A part where if he had just been adequately good he could have conceivably stolen the film. He is so godawful in that conference room that I was forced to write two full paragraphs praising Alec Baldwin. Ben Affleck should quit movies and find an entirely new career, maybe operating an apple pushcart in a park somewhere.

That's it! I'm done!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"To Be Honest" is a Perfectly Useful, Appropriate Phrase

I am really getting tired of the people who interrupt you when you begin a sentence with "To be honest". They stop you mid sentence and say "What do you mean, 'To be honest'? Does that mean you aren't honest the rest of the time? That you were lying?"

You get the same criticism for "Honestly," or "To be frank," - any of these phrases that connote that you're about to get serious with the other person. My last boss was particularly strict about this. He absolutely did not want to hear "To be honest" because he thought it spoke badly of your character. And because he was the boss, it filtered through the organization to the point where nobody could comfortably use the phrase.

Well I'm here to tell you that's bullshit. "To be honest" is an enormously useful, perfectly respectful phrase that conveys a definite message and says absolutely nothing about the character of the speaker.

Human conversation is full of artful deception. All of it. All the time. Most of it is benign. When someone says "How are you?", and you say "Doin' just fine Dave." it is understood that you elected not to give a full, detailed reply. Both parties are fine with that. The question was merely a greeting, and the response was just an acknowledgement. That's it. When the wife says "How do I look in these pants?" and you say "I'm not sure I like that style on you", you are choosing not to say "You look like a cow."

Every interaction we participate in has a certain amount of this. We sugarcoat. We spare each other's feelings. We hype up. We put a spin on our message. We highball. We lowball. We use euphamism. We temper, we boast, we use modesty or arrogance - depending on circumstance. We deflect, we downplay, we shift the focus, we exaggerate, we flatter, we console - all of it is to some various degree an acting job. We do not, absolutely do not use pure honesty all the time. Anyone who did try to offer total honesty all the time would be some kind of social outcast.

This is why the phrase "To be honest" is so useful. It alerts the listener that a bullshit-free opinion is about to follow, in a situation where bullshit would normally be employed. It doesn't mean that all bullshit is necessarily bad, or that in generally I am an untrustworthy person - it simply means that I am about to give you a fully truthful, unvarnished opinion. Many people do not even want to hear a fully truthful opinion, and the phrase "To be honest" gives them a second or two to tense up for the blow. It's a phrase that encourages you to pay close attention, to listen in. It advertises the arrival of a meaningful message. It does all of this in three simple words.

And it's particularly useful in a business environment where massaged and sugarcoated opinions are the norm. In my job, I'm expected to be optimistic in marketing, pessimistic to the top brass, and realistic to operations. The boss doesn't want to hear "to be honest"? He doesn't think that these aren't useful distinctions to make? If he asks me how sales are doing for the quarter, I can use A) "We'll get there, boss.", or B) "With a little luck, we can make quota." or C) "To be honest, I'm worried about making quota if that last contract falls through." All three responses are actually quite truthful. It depends on context. If he comes into my office with his shirt sleeves rolled up, closes my door and sits down, I'm going to use C. If he asks my opinion during a meeting where he's going around the table, it might be B. If he's walking through the office giving a tour to the board of directors, stops at my desk and introduces me, then asks, you better believe it will be A.

This is life. This is about the delicacy of using the right words in the right situations. So when I use C, how do you think I feel when I get rebuked for the implied dishonesty?

To be honest, the people who correct you when you start a sentence this way and rebuke you for the lies are deeply confused jackasses. Anyone who gives you a hard time for "To be honest" is saying that every conversation should be bullshit free. That is delusional. It takes a special pair of balls to correct people mid-sentence on their choice of words, and so if you're going to do it you should probably make sure you have a valid point, and are not simply advertising your lack of intelligence.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Thanks a Lot, Shoe Bomber

Thanks a lot buddy. Great job you did there. What with the bomb in the shoe. That was some strong thinking. Enjoy your prison time.

He's Richard Reid, and has any one person ever been responsible for the creation of so much annoyance? So much disgruntlement? So much ill-temper, brown study, disaccommodation and just general inconvenience? I mean sure, you've got Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse-tung. But they painted their misery on more of a broad canvas. They were more direct. Richard Reid the Shoe Bomber is a more subtle operator. It's as if he wants to rival Stalin for evil, but he's not going to kill anybody - he's just going to poke you in the ribs and screech a soft, high pitched tone in your ear until the total evil inflicted is the same. He doesn't care - he's got time.

The terrible thing is that when I flew east last week, I didn't even get annoyed when the TSA made me remove my shoes. I'm trained now. I'm acclimated. There's no fresh sting of indignation when these incompetent, moon faced, drooling buffoons order me around. I had made it a point to continue to be aggravated at the requirement, just to remind myself that it truly was stupid and unnecessary. But this time I just gave up. Had to make the flight. Didn't care.

Of course we could also talk about the liquids ban. Some other terrorist plot involved a liquid bomb and now we can't bring drinks on the plane. The dirty secret here is that no one in the aviation industry is particularly interested in having this ban lifted. It forces passengers to make expensive purchases at the gate and on the plane. I'm sure it's been a boon to revenue. Don't look for that one to go away anytime soon.

What scares me though is the thought of where the next terrorist is going to hide his bomb. A book? His socks? What item of necessity will we next be forced to part with or subject to a scan? I'll tell you this, if I ever open the paper to read about the iPod bomber or the PsP bomber, I am officially quitting air travel.

Here's the bottom line. Some day the TSA will lift the liquids ban and the shoe scan requirement. Of course they will. Remember the "3 questions" you used to be asked when you checked in? Have you packed your own suitcase? Have you left it unattended? After billions and billions of repetitions of those questions and not a single justifying event to back them up they were discarded. It will be the same thing with the shoes. But the TSA, in its colossal stupidity, needs a lot of time to figure that out. Have I mentioned that the TSA are worthless? Have I mentioned that their front line agents are dumber than cheese? Seriously. The next time they're confiscating a nail file, ask them who the vice president is. Ask them to name a planet. It isn't normally fair to belittle someone for the crime of being dumb, but when that person is ordering you around like a child and making you surrender a diet coke, you should take the edge off their power trip by reminding them who they are and where they are.

We just happen to live in that unhappy twilight time: The Shoe Bomber is in the past. The TSA realizing that shoe scanning is ineffective is in the future. We're stuck in the middle. Plus, can't they just improve the full body scanners to find things in your shoes?

Thanks Shoe Bomber. And you did it all for God, right? Hope that works out for you.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

240 Annoyances

221. Vegetarians who force their pets to be vegetarian.

222. Eddie Murphy's refusal to participate in any kind of SNL retrospective.

223. Songs that reference other songs. Like this recent one that won't go away about "Playing Sweet Home Alabama all summer long." What kind of balls do you have to have to make a song that's about the pleasure of listening to a much better song?

224. When you bump into a friend you haven't seen or spoken to in a long time and they get all petulant about how come you never write or call. Well why didn't you write or call? Why is the onus on me? Isn't a friendship a two-way street? This is particularly annoying when it was you that made the last contact. Your email was ignored or your call wasn't returned - and now she's wagging her finger at you because you don't keep in touch. Man that's irritating.

225. Asking for ginger ale and getting Sprite.

226. People: if you form a big semi-circle around the shopping mall mime disguised as a statue who freaks out the people who walk by, then everyone will know it's not a statue. Disperse! Watch from a distance!

227. People who call tomato sauce on pasta "gravy". Yeah, you're Italian.

228. That oblivious driver in front of you who if he pulled forward just a few inches would allow you into the turn lane.

229. When your friends make a St. Patrick's Day plan to all meet at around 9pm at that one Irish pub that's about 20 minutes away on the freeway - and when you get there, you realize, a) this is the most crowded you've ever seen an enclosed space, b) there's a $20 cover, and c) a portion of the floor has been roped off to feature a live band playing the loudest and shittiest music you've ever heard. Despite not having any fun at all, and meeting outside after 20 minutes to decide where to go next, you will all get amnesia and do the exact same thing next year, and ever year thereafter.

230. What good is a piece of sushi that's too big to put in your mouth? It's not like you can cut it into smaller pieces. Chefs: cut them smaller. Make 10 pieces instead of 8. Especially if its some kind of dragon-pizza-volcano-roll type deal.

231. I hate the expression "It's a glorious day." A "glorious day" means only one thing: that I'm about to get a hard time for continuing to sleep or watch TV.

232. Trivial Pursuit games with ancient pop culture questions. Also: Trivial Pursuit games with way-too-current, why-should-I-be-rewarded-for-knowing-this? pop culture questions.

233. TV shows where the opening credits spoil the surprise of which secondary characters you can expect to see in that particular episode.

234. People at the symphony who clap after the first movement.

235. Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones.

236. Waitresses: if you're out of something, just tell me up front. Don't roll the dice that I won't order it.

237. The gauntlet of questions you have to answer at the Barnes & Nobles counter before they let you buy anything.

238. People who begin a speech with "The Chinese have a proverb: May you live in interesting times."

239. Who made the decision to replace the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." with "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough"? The original line is much better.

240. Can I get some sort of "Knows How to Navigate a Website" certification? So that I can opt of all these bullshit online training courses that I've had to take at two consecutive jobs wherein I am taught, click by click, how to use a supplier or client website? I mean maybe there are a few people out there who really do need to be shown how to navigate a menu bar and click on things, how to log on and change a password, how to select something from a pull down tab - but can't people who aren't fucking morons take a pass? Can't there be some kind of opt out clause?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Being Told That Your Password Isn't Rigorous Enough

It's been kind of a chore, over the years, to keep track of all my passwords. I don't want them all to be identical, and yet if I had 10 or 20 different ones there would be no way to remember them all. I do have about 5 passwords that I use, and they're all related to each other. So if I forget my log-on for some email account or customer-ID or something, it's a quick question of cycling through the list.

But I do have to gripe just a bit about these passwords at work. At any job where they give you a computer and a log-on, you're going to have to create passwords. Back in the olden days, you could pick whatever password you wanted. Then they started to tighten the rules. It had to be at least 8 letters. Fine. It had to contain at least one number. Well, okay. It had to contain both upper and lower case. Errr. And it had to be changed once a month, and could never be replaced with a previously used password.

Well Jesus Christ. So it has to be Mnz8sJk9, and you have to change it once a month. Putting aside the ridiculous notion that anyone would a) want to hack my work PC, or b) be thwarted at the last moment by my ingenious use of upper case, consider the following:

We are not robots. We cannot memorize multiple nonsense passwords, and then start fresh every month. I brought this up to my boss, who said, "Oh, just use 'Password1'. And then next month, 'Password2', and so on. It's what everyone does. It's easy." Good idea. And that's exactly what I do now.

But you just have to note the irony. This ultra secure, super fool-proof set of password requirements that was put in place to guarantee impenetrable ciphers of dazzling complexity... has instead resulted in everyone, EVERYONE, using the most obvious password you can possibly think of. Don't you just love that? Isn't this a great argument for just leaving people the hell alone?

Friday, February 27, 2009

New Blog Update

I had one or two other topics to go here that were poker related. But I'm starting to think that poker is a bit of a niche issue, and not everyone would be interested in my complaints about specific Las Vegas poker rooms. So I'm starting up a new blog called Poker Advice of Dubious Value. It will cover all the poker topics I want to talk about, and that way I can stick to general subjects here. If you're a poker player and want to check it out, the address is The plan will be to update it every Sunday. As for the Petty Annoyances, I'm tapped out at the moment. I got nothing in the hopper.

But I do have a great quote from the author Jonah Goldberg, where he discusses his own petty annoyance. Read and enjoy:

Another useful ban would be to bar people from using foreign words when English ones work just fine. My favorite example of this, if memory serves, was a piece in the American Spectator in the mid 1990s by, I believe, Michael Vlahos who in the course of a perfectly insightful and intelligent article used the German word Konzept instead of the English "concept."

Even today a friend of mine will over-pronounce the word Konzept (spitting on the final "T") like a Disney movie German scientist whenever one of us comes up with a fairly banal idea or suggestion. For example, Me: "Some buffalo wings would be really good right now." Friend: "That is a fascinating Kooooooohhhhhhnnnnnzzzzzzepttttt!"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Undeserved Reputation of the Bellagio Poker Room

The Bellagio Poker Room in Las Vegas is seriously overrated. It coasts on accolades like these year after year, without any real critical scrutiny. Yes, Bellagio hosts the biggest games. Yes, Bobby's room is cool. Yes, it's the place to go for poker celebrity sightings, and yes the Bellagio has made a big commitment to poker. But....

Have any of you actually tried to play there? At any given time there's 25 games going. Most of those games are not high limit, they're the same 4-8, 5-10, 1-2 and 2-5 games that you see everywhere else. They're the bread and butter of the poker room. And Bellagio's service is terrible. Let me outline what we commoners have to put up with:

1. The Tables Suck

One of the most irritating things a poker room can do is play ten handed holdem on a stud table. None of the Bellagio tables are big enough. No cup holders or wood border either.

2. And There's No Space Between Them

Good luck getting to one of those tables in the corner.

3. Drink Service Disappears When the Room Gets Crowded

4. The Brushes are Surly

5. They Use a Retarded Clipboard System for Lists.

Look, you can make an argument that the electronic lists are buggy and problematic and maybe there's a certain nostalgia factor for keeping an old-timey chalkboard list, but a pencil-and-clipboard list just doesn't work.

First, no electronic list, no remote monitoring of the list. That means you can't get it on your hotel room TV. Second, if you can't see the list, you can't decide what you want to do unless you're already talking to the brush. At Caesars, or the Venetian, or anywhere else, I can view the list at a distance, and I don't need to actually talk to the host until I know which lists I want to be on. The clipboard system means I always have to be crowded around the front desk craning my neck to see what's going on.

6. There's No Technology on the Tables.

There's no "seat open" button that the dealer can press, which means that Bellagio is one of the last houses in town where little old lady dealers still have to shout "I've got 2 on 15!!!" at the top of their lungs.

7. "You're going to table 8. Go and purchase chips first over there."

Thanks friend. Where's table 8? Oh, it's the one under the TV in the general direction where you're waving? That's helpful. And I'll go wait on the cashier's line first, I get it. Can I pick up some trash on the way?

Other poker rooms actually seat you and get your chips for you, but hey - this is the Bellagio.

8. They Won't Page You.

So what are you supposed to do if you're on a list that's a mile long? Just stand there awkwardly for an hour? Which leads directly to:

9. Where are Players Supposed to Wait?

Seriously. If you stand more than 10 feet from the brush, you will miss your call. If you stand in front of his face you clog the tiny space that people use to circulate in and out of the room. There is nowhere to sit. There is no alcove. The magazine rack is mysteriously on the other side of the room. If you wander even as far as the sportsbook bar, you will be out of earshot. This system of having players bottleneck the entrance by standing awkwardly against the wall is so poorly thought out that I'm surprised anyone puts up with it.

10. There are no Loyalty Rewards of Any Kind.

No swiping in, no points, no jackpots, no bad beats, no high hands, no drawings, no deli coupon, no monday night football square... there's bubkus. Absolutely nothing. Nada.

Although... it needs to be said: #10 is the reason why I do still play there. Not that I don't want a bad beat jackpot, but the lack of any kind of loyalty rewards keeps the poker zombies far away. The cranky, savage, nitpicky, liver spotted retirees that clog poker tables in Vegas like cholesterol. You know these guys. They're the ones who play one hand and then take an hour break. The ones fighting over who gets the next seat change button. The ones requesting setups. The ones more interested in enforcing obscure rules than in actually playing poker. At Bellagio they earn nothing for their play, and so they withdraw like Dracula from sunlight and actually make the games more playable.

But I digress. Have I painted a clear enough picture of what to expect at Bellagio at the lower limits? A sardine-packed space with crappy service? Even for all that, it's not a terrible experience. They have lots of games going all the time, which is a crucial plus. The quality of the opponents is a little lower than average (counter to conventional wisdom and due, I think, to the loyalty reward factor I noted above). And they make a good orange julius.

But let's be honest. Wynn has the best room in town, and Venetian isn't far behind. It's time for Bellagio to take inventory and sort a few things out. And it's time for the poker media to stop giving them a free pass.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Hate the "Clock Manipulation" Portion of the Football Game

In my opinion there's just something unsportmanlike about it and it diminishes the game. That's probably an extreme position to take on it, but come on. There's something lawyerly, something unfriendly about those last two minutes where people are spiking balls, calling time-outs, running out of bounds, taking a knee, doing goofy things on the field for no other reason than to manage the clock.

I've said this before and I'll say it again. The rules of a sport exist to serve the sport. It's not the other way around. Football is an athletic contest. It's offense versus defense, broken down into discrete plays. The rules should be structured to promote the finest and fairest possible contest, so that pure athleticism is the deciding factor. If a running play is called for, but clock considerations force you to run a passing play instead, then you've got some flawed rules. The rules should always promote best play, all the time.

I don't think this is a hard line position. I've been complaining for years that I think there's something ugly about a basketball team running out the clock, and I've always faulted the rules of bridge for arbitrarily penalizing a 4 contract in the minors and a 5 contract in the majors. But football just takes it to a whole other level. Now, I come to football as a really casual fan. I don't watch a lot of it. I didn't grow up with it. When I sit through a game, there are always a few questions that come up for me about penalties and technicalities. I don't know all the rules.

But I know enough of the game to see that there are really 5 quarters. There's quarters 1-4, and then there's the really unfornutate final 2 minutes which can often last longer than a full quarter. Now, I don't fault the players or the coaches. They're just doing the best they can under the given rules. It's the governing body that's at fault. They've created a game which is doomed to always conclude with 10 or 20 minutes of pointless micromanagement. They've created time-outs for one purpose: extra time to confer about the next play, only to have coaches use it for a different purpose: stopping the clock. They've created distinctions about which plays cause the clock to stop and which kinds of plays cause the clock to keep going, that end up determining which plays players have to run.

As a spectator those last two minutes of gametime offer a completely different football experience, one that's not so much about great athleticism as it is about efficient coaching and a creative expoiting of the rules. Longtime, passionate football fans don't see this. To them, the whole micromanaged, litigous conclusion to the game is just part of the fun. To me, it's just kind of crass and it doesn't have anything good to show about the sport.

Do I have an alternative? Well, I don't have any well thought out plan - but clearly you need to rethink the clock, and some of the ways it can be cleverly manipulated. Baseball has no time limit. Other games like hockey and soccer manage to have time limits without the game turning into molasses at the end. Maybe you need to need to have a "last possession" rule when time expires. The clock ticks down to zero, at which point it's officially the last possession. Then you could see some real football because the team with the ball wouldn't be burdened with a time limit.

I don't know how many great, historic football coaches are now spinning in their graves, but I stand by my heresy - these rules are no good. I've got other suggestions as well: why should the winner of the overtime coin-toss get such a huge advantage? but that's an argument for another day.