Friday, June 21, 2013

Let's get this party started...

Booze… liquor… alcohol… hooch…

Great stuff right there. Some call it the solution to-- and cause of-- many of life’s problems.

That’s right folks, I’m here to discuss booze with you. Now I’m not talking about drinking it and tearing up the town, although I could give you a few great stories. Like how the people you trust the most with your safety feel compelled to draw a penis on your forehead in permanent ink when you pass out and the next day you have scrub it so hard that you swear you’re polishing bone. Or waking up in the morning and somehow in the night a witch has cast a spell that transformed the girl on your arm from Scarlett Johansson to Sandra Bernhardt.  There is a great blog article to be found in regaling the stories of being “floor lickin’ loser pissed” but this is not the one. No I’m not here to talk about those great nights that we so often cannot remember until we see the YouTube clip. I’m here to talk about food--and more specifically cooking-- with booze.

Booze is an amazing way to add flavor to food, it is as simple as that. There are multiple ways to use it in cooking and--like all flavor enhancers-- most people need to use trial and error to get it right, like what I said in my post about spices.

The first and easiest way to use booze in food is simply as a flavor. By that I mean add it to your food while you cook it, and that is that. I make a wicked Irish Stew *see recipe below* that uses two cans of Guinness stout to help make the broth. This adds some serious depth of flavor and gives the claim of the stew being Irish a bit of credibility. I also use white wine in a white wine and mustard sauce that I put on clam linguine. Got the idea from Food Network. Seriously, watch it. Hell you can even use alcohol that is still in the package when cooking if you stuff a can of beer up a chicken’s wazoo before you put it on the BBQ and make Beer can Chicken.

Another method of using alcohol is as a marinade. Using red wine to marinade roasts adds huge amounts of flavor and actually begins to break down the connective tissue in the meat which will tenderize it for you a bit. I personally have used wine, whiskey, tequila, rum, beer and vodka in marinades before and they all turned out well.

The two methods above can also be combined as in the case of my “Tequila-Lime Enchiladas” recipe that I previously posted. The leftover marinade is cooked down to make the sauce in the enchiladas. This picks up extra flavor in the food and is less wasteful. I also reuse the red wine marinade from my roasts as the braising liquid and then put the left over “juices” after the roast is cooked in the gravy. Now I’m getting hungry…

The fourth way to use booze in cooking is to make a sauce with it. I’ve found that BBQ sauce lends itself to booze as an ingredient exceptionally well. Who among us hasn’t had a Jack Daniels BBQ sauce at some point, or a beer and chipotle sauce?
And finally, you can use booze simply as the people who make it intend on you using it to enhance your meal; drink it. There are entire industries made on pairing wine with food and as a lifelong baseball fan I can tell you that there is magic involved when hot dogs and beer get together at the ballpark*. Others feel that a small glass or shot of some kind of spirits matches fantastically with your favorite dessert. Always remember that if you are drinking to do it responsibly and either know your limits or have a way home.

*shameless plug – I have posted regularly on the message board for well over a decade now and we are always interested in having new and fun people to talk to. If you enjoy baseball and good discussion please use the following link and come give us a try:

So there it is, cooking with booze. I raise a glass to you for making it this far and hope to see you here again.

Chris Irish Stew

2 Pounds Lean Stew Beef                                6 Large Potatoes Chopped
2 Cups Carrots Chopped                                  3 Stalks Celery Chopped
7 Cloves Garlic Crushed                                  1 Large onion Chopped
1 ½ Cups Frozen Peas                                      2 Cups Fresh Mushrooms Chopped
4 Cups Beef Stock                                            2 Cans Guinness Beer
1 Small Can Tomato Paste                               Seasoning Salt
Black Pepper                                                    Sunflower Oil

  1. Make sure the beef is fully thawed and has been patted dry with paper towel. Put enough oil in the bottom of your stew pot to just coat it and put on medium-high heat. Once the oil it hot, add enough beef to just cover the bottom of the pot. Turn once it is brown. Remove once both sides are browned. Repeat until all of the beef is browned.
  2. Once the beef is out of the pan, add the garlic and stir with a wooden spoon making sure to scrape up all the browned bits on the bottom of the pot, these are HUGE flavor. Once the garlic is translucent, add the beef stock, the browned beef, the onion, half of the potatoes, both cans of Guinness and the tomato paste. Stir it all together really well, making sure you get all of the browned bits off the bottom of the pot.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium until it boils and then reduce to simmer. Simmer until the potatoes have dissolved into the mixture (about 3 hours).
  4. Add the rest of the potatoes, the carrots, celery and the mushrooms and simmer for 30 minutes or so
  5. Mix 1 Tbsp cornstarch in 4 Tbsp cold water and add to Stew if thickening is desired. Bring entire pot to a boil to thicken.
  6. Add peas with there is about 5 minutes until serving. 
Bon appetite...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

This is the End: Hopefully Not

Comedy troupes/acts are typically only relevant for a short while. Monty Python had a solid decade. Bill Murray's prime was from 1980-1984. Even Adam Sandler was funny for a couple of years. The string that Judd Apatow, Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg et al have put together is probably the best of any comedy troupe since Farley-era SNL. They have had a sustained run since 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin (unless you want to go back to Freaks and Geeks), producing seven 'Certified Fresh' movies by RottenTomatoes in that time.

If you've seen a commercial, I don't need to tell you what happens in this movie. With every actor playing themselves, Jay Baruchel visits Seth Rogan while in LA. Rogan drags Baruchel to a party at James Franco's new house, when the apocalypse hits and hilarity ensues. With more cameos than any movie in recent memory, the celebrities have to deal with this scenario in surprisingly hilarious fashion.

The film, based on a 2007 short, Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse. attacks a number of actual, real themes: celebrity, ego, friendship and loyalty -- enough that one wonders which of the dramas explored in the film are present in the relationships of the film's stars. More importantly, it is goddamn hilarious.

Story: 3/5 - The story is actually pretty good for a stoner comedy. As mentioned, the guys combat not just the End of Days, but the relationships within the house. Friendships are challenged, beliefs are shaken, and while the writers (Goldberg and Rogan) probably weren't looking to be artsy, the movie is deeper than the dick jokes.

Writing: 5/5 - This is probably the most cleverly-written wide-release comedy since The Hangover. Apparently 50% of the jokes were ad-libbed, and that is believable. The jokes are perfect, the cameos are brilliant. This is the End isn't just funny, this is bring-you-to-tears-in-the-theatre hilarious.

Acting: 4/5 - The cool thing about movies like this (Pineapple Express is the other example) is that the actors are so invested, they become entirely authentic, and this is only exacerbated by the idea to have everybody play themselves. The lines are delivered very effectively. This is the best comedy troupe in Western cinema plying their trade expertly.

Aesthetics: 4/5 - That scene in Office Space where they beat up the fax machine has had a magnificent impact on comedy - slow-motion and ironic music have produced fantastic results in a number of productions in the last five years or so: take this scene from Danny McBride's HBO series Eastbound and Down. This is just an example, of course; the entire movie is full of 'fun' shots and excellent editing.

Final Grade: 80%

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Interviews from History: Ruben Amaro Jr.

Hi, my name is Ian and this is the first edition of "Interviews from History". In this series I will post (fictional) interviews with anybody in history, and I'm open to suggestions. I chose Ruben Amaro Jr. (Philadelphia Phillies GM) to start, because I'm cynical and I enjoy reflecting on my pain when it comes to sports.

As soon as Ruben walks into the room you can feel just how smug he is. "How are you, Mr. Amaro?" I asked, as he stared into his blackberry, saying that I was wasting his time.   I decided to get down to brass tacks. "If given the opportunity, what would you have done differently?" I asked. His reply was short, arrogant, and also really idiotic. "Nothing, why would you ask me that question?"  I asked him that question because it's well known that he's made an excess of bad moves and I was curious if he would admit it.

I soon realized I wouldn't get anywhere with that series of questions, so I decided to ask him about the current team. "Do you think this team can contend, at least for the second wild card?" I figured it was a simple question, and it wouldn't offend him. I figured wrong, as he scoffed, said something under his breath and then ignored me.

This interview wasn't going the way I had hoped it would, so I thought that I'd ask him a light-hearted question so that there wouldn't be so much tension. I decided to ask how his family was doing. It happened to be the only legitimate answer I got all day, but it was just as arrogant as normal. "My children are doing extremely well in school, I suspect that they too will get into Stanford. *chuckle*" He then asked if we were done, and walked away extremely quickly.

This was a very unpleasant interview with a very unpleasant person. He didn't answer any of my questions, but hopefully the next interview with someone will be more enlightening. Feel free to give me suggestions on who to interview next.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Scrubs: A Look Back on an All-Time Great Show

Comedy is one of the toughest genres of television to pull off successfully. More comedies die in their first couple of years than is possible to remember. This is especially true for big networks, which often seem hellbent on killing their best comedies. The three best examples of this are probably Futurama, Arrested Development, and Community, but let's not forget that NBC also managed to lose one of its greats before the show had a chance to come to a conclusive end. That show is Scrubs.

Scrubs is one of those shows that can claim to be part of multiple genres, as at times it felt as much like a drama as it did a comedy. While this is true, the show excelled most greatly in the moments where it tried to be light-hearted and amusing. Not familiar with Scrubs? Here's a short summary:


Scrubs is a show about an innocent and fun-loving medical intern--J.D. (aka John Dorian: played by Zach Braff)--and his close-knit group of friends, mentors, and enemies. The show travels from J.D.'s first day at "Sacred Heart"--a fake hospital believed to be somewhere in California--through his education and development into a full-fledged attending physician.

As J.D. is the center of the show, the show relies most strongly on his specific relationships with other characters. Primarily, the show focuses on his relationships with his best friend Chris Turk (Donald Faison) and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Elliot Reed (Sarah Chalke), and personal mentor Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley). These relationships drive the show and carry the audience from J.D.'s innocence as an intern to his eventual growth and maturity as a doctor.


The show uses a very unique style as a very large portion of the show is spent inside the mind of J.D. Whether he is thinking up quirky fantasies or preaching valuable life lessons, this approach makes everything gel together just a little bit more. In most shows, the audience has to rely on reading body language--which requires phenomenal acting--to understand how characters are feeling. In Scrubs, the audience is brought inside the mind of the main character--and sometimes minor characters--for a glimpse at his--and their--inner-most thoughts.


As a medical show, the majority of the time is spent within Sacred Heart hospital, which serves as an educational hospital for young interns trying to break into the medical field. When the show isn't in or around Sacred Heart, time is most likely being spent at J.D. and Turk's shared apartment--where the living situation changes periodically throughout the show.

Now that you know more about the show, I can talk about some of my favorite aspects. Let's start with my top 5 favorite characters:

1. Theodore "Ted" Buckland- Ted is played by actor Samuel Lloyd. In short, Ted is a less-than-capable medical lawyer who lacks self confidence so badly that he serves as the "hospital sad sack." Most of Ted's humor comes off of the actions of other characters, which is part of why I love him so much. Essentially, there really isn't a time at any point in the show where I do not laugh at what Ted's character does. Whether he is singing in an A Capella group or showing everyone that his girlfriend is indeed real, Ted serves as a reminder to us all that we really are better at things than we sometimes think we are.

2. The Janitor--In what may be the best acting performance on the show, Neil Flynn plays the primary antagonist to J.D. With his crazy, over-the-top schemes and general disregard for his work, The Janitor serves as the show's most quirky and out-of-place character. What I mean by that is that the rest of the characters in the show are put in very important and serious positions. Several are doctors, some are lawyers, and some are in charge of running the hospital. One of the recurring themes in the show is that The Janitor doesn't have much work to do, yet he doesn't do it anyway. As the show progresses, we see The Janitor become more and more human to the point where he becomes married and actually is seen helping with important tasks throughout the hospital.

3. Dr. Bob Kelso--The only reason there's a "may" next to Neil Flynn's role as The Janitor is because Ken Jenkins is, in my humble opinion, the best at portraying the role given to him on the show. Dr. Bob Kelso spends the vast majority of the show as the Chief of Medicine at Sacred heart, which is fancy talk for saying that he is the head honcho; he runs the place. Kelso's character depends primarily on his status as the primary antagonist to J.D.'s personal mentor: Dr. Cox. To best summarize Kelso's character, I have a question for you:

Who has two thumbs and doesn't give a crap? Bob Kelso

4. Dr. Percival "Perry" Ulysses Cox- Dr. Cox' character serves as the rebellious leader of the hospital's working staff. Due to Kelso's nature as Chief of Medicine, Cox fulfills the role of the individual who does his best to counteract Kelso's decisions and fight against his authority. When Cox isn't calling J.D. by a vast array of girls' names, he is being incredibly passionate about his job and his family. While his ego is his greatest asset, it is also his greatest nemesis as he repeatedly gets in his own way--most notably in an episode where he ends up losing three patients due to his stubborn drive to get them organs for transplants. His character is defined by his cynicism of the world and his drive to see J.D. do well--despite never being able to admit it.

5. Dr. John "J.D." Dorian--Zach Braff is simply great in this role, and the show is nothing without the performance of Braff as J.D. After all, everything that happens in the show is--in some way-related to what goes on in J.D.'s head. A large portion of the show is spent between J.D.'s often ridiculous day dreaming and his constant screwing up of his intimate relationships. Really, the reason J.D.'s character is so great is because he is easy to relate to. He struggles with self-confidence, he gets in his own way, he is immature, and he is nothing without his best friend--Turk. It's easy to root for J.D.

While it is fun to focus on the funny moments in a comedy, Scrubs is an all-time great due to Bill Lawrence's fantastic ability to direct the story and deliver powerful moments. Here are a few of my favorites--based on how strongly they impact me emotionally:

1. Ending to "My Fallen Idol" (video through 3:22)

2. Carla Says Goodbye to Laverne

3. J.D. Looks Into His Future

All of this makes Scrubs fantastic, but there is one thing that I appreciate more than anything in the show: Lawrence's ability to choose music that fits the scene. Here are some more of my favorites--not including "The Book of Love", which is used in the final scene of the show (that matters, anyway):

"Be Yourself"- Audioslave

"Guy Love"- Turk and J.D. 

"Poison"- Belle De Voe

"More Than a Feeling"- Boston


So there you have it. Scrubs is a comedy that knows how to relate to the individual. Through the use of characters we can relate to, the incorporation of music, and the focus around a vulnerable individual trying to make his way in the real world, Scrubs is a show for, well..everyone. There is a character for everyone in the show:

Vulnerable and immature- J.D.
Cocky and confident- Turk
Intelligent, yet ditsy- Elliot
Proud and motherly- Carla
Arrogant and passionate- Dr. Cox
The guy you want to root for- Ted Buckland
The boss that shits on you wherever you turn...but really has a soft side- Dr. Bob Kelso

Very few shows have accomplished what Scrubs has. Unfortunately, NBC swung and missed at the show's end, so they weren't able to finish what they started--the last two seasons (only one matters) aired on ABC. At some point it might be cool to see a Scrubs movie or something of the like, but I feel as if Scrubs' biggest accomplishment was wrapping things up in a way that makes sense. I won't completely ruin it for people that have yet to view the show in its entirety, but it becomes clear where each of the characters is headed.

So this is to you, Bill Lawrence. You created a hell of a show, and I really appreciate that you did.

Bringin' the heat

I  know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking “oh no, they let this guy back on the internet”. Sorry about your luck folks, but I’m back.

I’m going to start out the actual cooking portion of my cooking blog with something that is a major stumbling block for a lot of people: spices.

Spices are a great way to enhance any dish, and they’re also a quick way to make something inedible. I’ve found the best way to initially discover which spices work with which dishes is to look up multiple variations of whatever dish you are thinking of making and taking note of which spices are in all or at least most of the recipes. After a while you will develop a working knowledge of which spices work well with which foods and which work well together.

Remember that different spices are used different ways. Things like garlic, oregano and black pepper are just added into dishes while other things such as star anise or cardamom pods need to be removed from the food before it is consumed or you risk someone biting into them which could potentially be dangerous. Spices can also be used on food instead of in food as in a dry rub on ribs or chicken before you cook them. So always look into the proper method of using the spices before you use them.

The first thing most people need to know about spices is that less is more. You can always add more to a dish if it needs it, but you cannot take it out once it’s put in. We’ve all--at some point--had a dish that tasted like the contents of a used diaper, because your Aunt Gertrude doesn’t know how much curry she should put on her meatballs. So add your spices in small amounts and taste your foods frequently. Another aspect of this rule is to not use too many types of spices in one dish. Eventually they will just end up fighting each other and will ruin the taste of the food.

Secondly, learn which spices give which effect to your food and in which way. Oregano, basil and thyme are all “earthy” spices but they all give their own flair to food. Chilies and peppers both give heat to food but each does it a different way and with a different flavor. Using one spice in place of another can detract from the overall effect of your meal.

Now that I’ve said that all that, the third rule of thumb is to not be afraid of spices. It is way too easy to just get into the habit of using the old standard garlic, salt and pepper on everything. This is a wonderful strategy if the desired effect is to have boring salty food night after night. Again, the internet is your best friend when trying to figure out which spices work best with which foods. Try looking up recipes or just lists of spices and how to use them. I personally bought a book called “The Spice and Herb Bible” which has pretty much every spice known to man in it with explanations of the spices and examples of how to cook with them. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys cooking.

I think there are a few spices that no kitchen should be without. Here is a short list of what I think are the must have spices:

Seasoning Salt – I am not a fan of regular white salt and rarely salt anything, but when I do I use seasoning salt due to its extra flavor. I pretty much only use this on grilled meats like steak or burgers or in tiny amounts in sauces if they need a touch of salt after preparing them. In my opinion, white salt should be reserved for baking only.

Garlic – Garlic is a delicious relative to the onion that adds a wonderful flavor to a wide variety of dishes. I use it both in fresh form or as a dried powder. In its fresh form I finely mince it and cook it down in whatever dish I am preparing. Usually in fresh form I use it in pasta sauces, chili, soups or other “saucy” dishes and on grilled vegetables. I use the powder form in burgers, meatballs, on steaks or in dry rubs. Be careful not to overdo it, a little goes a long way and a lot can ruin a great meal.
Oregano, Basil and Marjoram – I call them the Holy Trinity of pasta sauce. They add a wonderful earthy flavor to whatever you put them in whether you use fresh or dried varieties of each. Outside of sauces I enjoy putting them in burgers and meatballs or in soups to add a depth of flavor. They are also very commonly found in a wide variety of sausage.

Black Pepper – Probably the most versatile spice in any cupboard, black pepper can literally be put in virtually any dish and in small amounts will make almost anything better. It can be put in food or on them when they’re grilled.

Smoked Paprika – A recent addition to my repertoire, smoked paprika is now in my favorite spices. It adds a terrific sweet and smoky flavor to things like burgers or chili and can be put in virtually anything. Use it sparingly though as it can overpower easily.

Dry Mustard – Another recent addition for me, I’ve found dry mustard to be very helpful in adding a serious depth of flavor to a wide variety of dishes. It is useful in marinades and sauces or anything that needs a bit of a kick like pulled pork. 

I think that’s enough for now, here is this week’s recipe

Boston Baked Beans

2 Cups Navy Beans                                                   ½ Tsp Black Pepper
1 Pound Bacon                                                          ½ Tsp Dry Mustard
1 Med Onion Chopped                                              ¾ Cup Ketchup
6 Tbsp Molasses                                                        2 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tsp Salt                                                                   ½ Cup Brown Sugar

  1. Soak beans overnight in cold water. Simmer the beans in the same water until tender (1-2 hours). Drain and reserve liquid.
  2. Preheat oven to 325 F
  3. Put beans, bacon and onion in pot.
  4. In a saucepan, combine molasses, salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire and brown sugar. Bring to a boil and pour over beans. Add enough of bean water to just cover the beans. Put lid on dish.
  5. Bake 3-4 hours until beans are tender. Remove lid halfway through cooking and add more bean water as needed to prevent beans from getting dry.

Jester James: Far From the King's Throne

We are no more than two games away from LeBron James concluding his tenth season in the NBA. From the second he was introduced the world, while at St. Vincent St. Mary’s High School, the comparison to Michael Jordan, in terms of being the greatest ever, has been discussed far too much and to such an extent that it could and should be an insult to Jordan himself. James is not close to being the greatest basketball player ever, and where he belongs in comparison to the game’s greatest is difficult to figure out.

I think the biggest problem in this debate is that people see the rare athleticism, which likely sets him as the greatest athlete the NBA has ever seen, but he does not possess the complete package to be the greatest basketball player the NBA has ever seen. Before I go any further, I know there might be the thought that he has plenty of time left in the league so let it all play out before you make a comment of such certainty. I feel I can say it with such certainty because one thing will never change with James, his mental makeup.

Many thought once James got his title last year he had exorcized the demons, which have plagued him in the past, and he was going to propel himself into the stratosphere everyone was expecting since the day he stepped into the league. Fast forward to this year’s NBA Finals, those same demons from the past are once again perched on his shoulders. Games 1 through 3 James failed to reach 20 points in any of the games; something Michael Jordan never did in his entire career during the Finals. Game 4 saw LeBron finally put up a big points night, but the Heat’s victory can be equally, or even more, attributed to Dwyane Wade’s huge night and his ability to come through in crunch time to seal the game. Last night, Game 5, James broke the twenty point barrier for the second consecutive game (high five worthy?) but like I heard numerous times on ESPN today, if you tuned into basketball for the first time you would have never guessed that James was the best basketball player on the planet. For the most part in all five games, the exception possibly being Game 4, James was missing a “killer instinct” and never hesitates to defer to his teammates, even in crunch time.

I might be picking at nits or skewing my views because of my general disdain for LBJ, but I think I am right on track with my evaluation of him. James’ greatest weakness, and the reason why he’ll never be one of the greatest (like Top 10) for me, is because he lacks the “killer instinct” and will to simply never lose. A player like Kobe Bryant plays with a fearlessness that we don’t see in James. Wade has the alpha dog fearlessness as well and he proved his greatness prior to LeBron’s arrival when he put up quite possibly the greatest Finals performance ever in 2006. As I think of it, I can’t identify an all-time great who doesn’t possess those qualities.

I am doing more ranting at this point so I will finish up with these questions. How many all-time great wings were defended in a manner in which the defense was willing to give an open mid to deep range shot? Why does he seemingly disappear at the end of games? What word would you use to define his career to this point?

I’ll reiterate once more, LeBron James is likely the greatest athlete we have ever seen in the NBA but in terms of greatest as a basketball player all-time he has plenty of work to do before he is mentioned with the greats, and thanks to his mental makeup I don’t think he ever gets there.

Man of Steel Criticisms: Actually Painful

Have you seen Man of Steel? If so, odds are you enjoyed it. That is, if you went into the film with reasonable expectations. Unfortunately, it seems that dozens of critics and what could easily be thousands of moviegoers have (I suppose not unsurprisingly) failed to take the simple preemptive measure of not being completely and utterly swept up by the hype train before walking through the theater doors. In fact, from the looks of things I'd say a fair amount of folks have already killed the conductor and taken the now compromised engine for a complete one-eighty, nose pointed directly at Zack Snyder's head.

Why all the hate? Before I'm called out, I really don't think hate is an inappropriate word choice here - some of the criticisms being directed at this movie are literally causing me to have triple-takes at my computer screen. It's not because they are so invalid, or that people aren't entitled to their opinions, but rather the fact that the use of the same tropes and idioms that are so painfully rampant throughout all of superhero-filmdom is being absolutely torn to shreds, and I can't figure out why. The film was far from perfect, no doubt, but I found myself walking away completely unoffended, which is somewhat of a feat considering my reaction to the laughable, paper-thin panderfest that was Iron Man 3. In fact, "pander" may be doing the film a favor, as I can't think of anyone who actually wants to see an Iron Man film devoid of any and all stimulating action sequences, replacing them instead with pointless wisecracks, Pepper Potts in a sports bra, and flaming mutants that seem to take cues from the Human Torch in both capability and capacity (read: illogically overpowered and read: stupid). Sure, the film was funny, but that's not why I see superhero films, it's why I see Norbit 2.

Anyways, I'll try to stay on topic here, though to be fair Iron Man 3 isn't a completely irrelevant talking point. You will be hearing about it again. In the meantime, lets get on to the three most cretinous criticisms I've seen directed at Man of Steel, and why they hardly meet the definition of the word.

Criticism One: This movie was filled with product placement! Fuck corporate greed, and fuck IHOP! Zack Snyder can go choke on a silver dollar while bathing in money, SELLOUT!

My Response: Sigh. While I won't deny that I prefer my films be devoid of distracting advertising, I can honestly say that I didn't even notice the cleverly inserted placements going on in Man of Steel. And whether you did notice them while watching or not, I would argue that Man of Steel's usage is far less offensive than most other movies, particularly superhero films, that do the same thing.

I'll start with the presence of IHOP in the film, since that seems to be the one causing everyone to act like they have a Pancake Puppy up their ass. Oh wait, is that a Denny's item? My bad. (Can't wait to get my placement money from them next week, muahaha!)

Could the company responsible for this really be evil?
My main measure for whether product placement in a film is acceptable is whether or not it logically fits into the onscreen happenings. And by logically fitting in, I mean that it could both reasonably happen, and doesn't distract me while I'm watching. And for the record, that doesn't include irascibly Googling "product placement in Man of Steel" the moment you walk out of the theater to satisfy your paranoia that, heaven forbid, the studio needed a little extra dough to bring things to life the way it wanted to. If you leave the film not actually knowing whether something was product placement or not, and need Google to confirm it, then it shouldn't be a problem in the first place.

As an example, let's compare the presence of IHOP in Man of Steel to the presence of Verizon FiOS placement in Iron Man 3.

Man of Steel: Superman and Faora, Zod's accomplice in the film, smash into an IHOP while fighting. They continue to fight in the IHOP, and it is discovered that the bully who used to pick on Clark as a kid now works there. The IHOP sustains some damage but is not destroyed.

Iron Man 3: At the end of the film, the character that Tony Stark refers to as "kid," actually known as Harley Keener, returns to his lab/work area to find that Stark has completely revamped it as a gesture of thanks. The place is pretty decked out, with lots of cool robot-looking stuff, super powerful computers, and -- you guessed it -- Verizon FiOS! Front and center, a computer monitor point-blank before the camera, its pixels all black except for a logo with the words "FiOS: A Network Ahead."

Now let's put both of these up to my logic-distraction test. To me, the presence of an IHOP in Smallville isn't all that strange. It is, after all, a somewhat middle-of-nowhere locale, smack in the center of Kansas. Stereotype though it may be, such places do have a reputation for containing greasy mom-and-pop diners and mediocre breakfast chains such as IHOP, Denny's (cha-ching), or Sonic. I didn't find it at all odd when the two Kryptonians went hurtling through the establishment's roof - in fact, I got a good chuckle out of it. It was the film acknowledging the aforementioned stereotype, and poking it with a stick.

The situation was made all the more comical when the childhood bully shows up in his IHOP garb, and when him and Clark exchange a knowing glance, it's almost touching. It's essentially the final stage of them separating their differences, which began when the red-headed fellow helped Clark up off the ground after he was threatened in their teenage years. Now let's be realistic here - I was hardly crying over the beauty of this exchange, but it served it's purpose well. They just happened to be in an IHOP, and to me whether it's an IHOP, a Sapp Bros, or a Suburban-Metropolis-Pancake-House-That-Is-Entirely-Fictional is pretty much inconsequential.

Now this I could see being offended by. Maybe.
Shift focus to Iron Man 3, and the situation is not quite as rosy. There are so many things wrong with this, but I'll just pick a few. First off, let's keep in mind that Tony Stark is unarguably a genius. His IQ is through the roof, he engineered and built the Iron Man suits himself, his house is an intelligent robot - the list goes on. Now, I know a fair amount of tech savvy folks, and usually when installing new software or functionality on a computer, they don't rely on tutorials or packaged CD-ROMS to help them. For example, say you're installing a Linksys router. If you have no clue what you're doing, you'll use the packed-in CD, and a software wizard will pop up and assist you. It will set up your router with some Linksys software that will sit in the system tray and do its job, as well as constantly bombard you with information or product updates pertaining to Linksys.

The savvy user, on the other hand, will bypass those steps completely, locate the drivers on the disc, and install the router via the Device Manager. No Linksys software, no annoying popups, no delayed startup and extraneous tray icons.

My point? Why on earth would Tony Stark, a computer whiz, set up FiOS in such a way that would install and enable a "FiOS: A Network Ahead" screensaver? The man is a GENIUS. Do you really think he needed the setup CD to tell him what to do, and subsequently force him to enable a screensaver that doesn't even move? Ok, so it wasn't a screensaver then. Was it the wallpaper? I didn't see any icons. Were icons turned off? If so, why? Why would Stark do that? The way this product placement was handled makes zero logical sense, with zero consideration for damage to viewer immersion. It single-handedly obliterates the fourth wall with an oversized, money-grabbing sledge hammer, and never looks back.

Obviously what I want in my movies.
Now, to be fair, I do apply the same logic for Iron Man as well: if the filmmakers needed the extra cash to get their budget where they wanted it, then they had to do what they had to do, and I can accept it. While I doubt this was the case for either film, there's no excuse for the embarrassingly shoddy implementation on Marvel's part. Man of Steel's situation looks saintly in comparison, and even standing on its own, I don't find it terribly problematic. Update: Looks like I was onto something after all! If the most product-heavy film of all time can manage to handle placement tactfully, and recover 3/4 of its budget in the process, I think that means other films need to step up their game.

I would also like to add some info I discovered in an interview that BusinessWeek conducted with Craig Hoffman, a company spokesman for IHOP. In it, he commented that the partnership was born out of the idea that both IHOP and Superman are "iconic American brands." He goes on to say that IHOP had no say in the creative process or story, their only condition to Snyder that he refrain from "disparaging the brand in the script." Woe is me, what an outrage! Corporate greed at it's finest! While we're at it, I'd better mention Denny's once more to make sure they pay me in full.

Criticism Two: The filmmakers took away the charming, colorful world of Superman and made it drab and gray! How dare they strip Superman of his red trunks! This series is the Call of Duty of films! I guess Zack Snyder wanted to make his movie the same color as his soul, the DOUCHEBAG!

My Response: This is the sort of insular fear of change that prevents reboots from being good in the first place. 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man comes to mind. Sure, Andrew Garfield's clever snark as Peter Parker was somewhat new, but was his masked swinging and wise-cracking really all that different from Tobey MaGuire when push came to shove? At least he hasn't gone emo - yet.

Time to get over it, nerds!
Though the shift to a more gritty and realistic presentation with Man of Steel was, inherently, a big choice, I'm unsure about how the world Snyder and Nolan have brought to life can be described as drab. The opening scenes of the film alone can easily refute this - Jor-El's dramatic grand theft of the Kryptonian codex and subsequent escape atop a winged beast was quite vibrant visually, with greens and blues abound and a swirl of impressive CGI that I would describe as anything but gray. But no, according to these rabid, change-fearing, Snyder-hating comic book purists, anything less colorful than Superman's bright-red ass cheeks from the 1940s qualifies as "gray."

The ironic thing is that many of the people complaining about this are the ones also complaining that the film didn't live up to Nolan's Batman films. You want Superman to be more like Nolan's Batman? Well, it seems like a good place to start might be, oh I don't know, the look and feel of the entire film. Snyder and company did in fact strive for a more realistic tone, just like the Nolan trilogy. Just because he didn't top the best superhero films of all time doesn't mean that Superman's slightly less dynamic trousers are to blame. Sheesh. Which brings me to my final point.

Criticism Three: This was not nearly as good as Nolan's Batman films! This was supposed to revolutionize superhero films just like The Dark Knight did! I can't believe Nolan put his name on this and didn't deliver! How dare he bait-and-switch me! It was cheesy when Zod said "release the world engine!"

My Response: Look - if you're making this complaint, then you need to accept one simple fact: your expectations were too high. Why were they too high? Because you either don't know the difference between a film's producer and its director, or you chose to ignore it.

Christopher Nolan produced this film - that's it! Now don't get me wrong, it's still a huge, involved job - he's even credited with helping David Goyer with the story, and obviously he oversaw the whole project to a certain degree. That said, it's not his baby. It's Zack Snyder's. Personally I'm a fan of Snyder, but for anyone somewhat skeptical of him taking the reigns on Man of Steel, it wouldn't have taken more than a quick Google search to pull up his page on Rotten Tomatoes.

Now look, I'm not one to regard RT as the holy grail of whether a film is worthy or not, but it's a pretty solid measurement of whether something is simply "good" or bad," in general. If you take the average of Snyder's rankings on RT for all of his films before Man of Steel, you get 54.4%. And hey, what do you know - Man of Steel currently sits at a 56%! Funny how that works isn't it? With this expectation in mind (and it is the expectation I had in mind going into the theater), the film totally knocked my socks off. Was it great? Maybe not. The next Batman? No. But was it good? Most definitely.

The fact that this film has a 56% on Rotten Tomatoes while Iron Man 3 is enjoying a 78% is something I find mildly disturbing. For those who don't know how the site works, this means that only 56% reviewed the film "positively," meaning above 60 out of 100 when converted from the original rating scale. Now, I'm not questioning critics' rating per se, but I would love to know this: what percent of that 44% who scored it negatively would say that Man of Steel was a worse film that Iron Man 3? I'd wager less than half. As much as a critic's aim should be to review things objectively, at the same time assessment without comparison is at its root impossible. How can good and bad be differentiated without the reviewer acknowledging his or her exposure to both? Reviewing films like this in a vacuum leaves only potentially unreasonable expectations and the resulting bias. And as is so often the case, here expectations have spoiled reality for everyone. How many people will now refrain from seeing Man of Steel in theaters when they see its Tomatometer ranking? "Woa, Captain America: The First Avenger was terrible and that has a 79%, Man of Steel must be complete junk!"

Being angry at Snyder is unfortunate. Being angry at Nolan is ridiculous.
But alas, no - Man of Steel is both blessed and cursed by Nolan's name, and despite his positive contribution, nothing short of him actually directing would have been able to save this film from a lukewarm reception. In a recent interview with Hero Complex, Nolan said the following about his involvement with the film.

“What I've been hoping for is to be able to take my kids to see a version of this story that is going to fry their imaginations the way the 1978 [Superman] that Dick Donner did for me when I was an 8-year old boy. That’s what I’ve been focused on and that’s my role in things. So anything beyond that, I can’t comment.”

Wow, big time jerk huh? Well, I hope everybody's happy. My only hope now is that people feel so betrayed by Nolan and Snyder that they refrain from seeing the film's sequel, and let the rest of us enjoy it in all of its good-but-not-great glory.

Fingers crossed!

Introducing: Born on Third Podcast

So one of the things I get to do with my spare time is write for a cool blog called "Beyond the Box Score." As part of that job, I get to work with with some pretty awesome and smart people. A few of these people, including Alex Kienholz--who will be contributing to this blog now and then--put together a great new podcast. To keep things short, here's the first episode:



Song Review: Sugar, Sugar

"Sugar, Sugar" was recorded in 1969 by a group called the Archies. Not only did it reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for 4 weeks, but it was the #1 single of 1969. It has a catchy melody to it that makes you want to tap your foot and sing along. The lyrics are simple, but have an addictive quality that can get the song stuck in your head. I'm willing to bet that this was the “Call Me Maybe” of 1969.

Here are the lyrics:
Sugar, ah, honey, honey
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you
Honey, ah, sugar, sugar
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you

I just can't believe the loveliness of loving you
(I just can't believe it's true)
I just can't believe the wonder of this feeling to
(I just can't believe it's true)

Ah, sugar, ah, honey, honey
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you
Oh, honey, ah, sugar, sugar
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you

When I kissed you girl I knew how sweet a kiss could be
(I know how sweet a kiss can be)
Like the summer sunshine pour you sweetness over me
(Pour your sweetness over me)

(Oh, sugar)
Pour a little sugar on it, honey
Pour a little sugar on it, baby
I'm gonna make your life so sweet, yeah, yeah, yeah

Pour a little sugar on it, oh, yeah
Pour a little sugar on it, honey
Pour a little sugar on it, baby
I'm gonna make your life so sweet, yeah, yeah, yeah
Pour a little sugar on it, honey

Ah sugar, ah, honey, honey
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you
Oh, honey, honey, sugar, sugar
Honey, honey, sugar, sugar
You are my candy girl

What makes this song so unique is that it’s not even performed by a real band. The Archies were a fictional group from the Saturday morning cartoon show called, the Archie Show based on characters from Archie Comics. When "Sugar, Sugar" was released on radio stations, they weren’t told the name of the group. It was only after most of the DJs stated they liked it and it became an unexpected hit that they were aware it was sung by a cartoon group.

The vocals were performed by real musicians, though. Ron Dante provided lead vocals (The Cuff Links), while Toni Wine and Andy Kim did backup.

Here is the cartoon music video, performed "live" by the Archies:

What's also fascinating is the number of times this song as been covered.  Here's Bob Marley's recording of the song: