Thursday, April 22, 2010

Round the Kitchen Table

The breakfast table was too big for just the two of them that morning, sitting there staring down into their cups of coffee as though the swirls of cream would have the answers they sought. Once there had been a family here. You could feel them, in the pictures pinned to the refrigerator and the few dirty dishes stacked in the sink. It had a quiet chaos to it. Someone tried to build a home here.

“So now what?” The younger one said. She was pale—both naturally and in pallor—and her hands trembled slightly when she raised the coffee cup to her lips. One knee bounced anxiously.

“Now nothing. We sit here, enjoy our coffee, until we get the call.”  The man across from her was sitting relaxed in his chair, arm half thrown over the back of it. He looked overly large in this kitchen, the furniture too small. He was a thick slab of muscle in a suit that she assumed had to be tailor made for his mountainous frame.

“They can’t expect us to just sit here like nothing happened,” she said. “I mean … come on!”

“Come on nothing,” the guy said easily, reaching out to grab the cup of coffee and taking a long drink. “I expect you to sit there like nothing’s happened. It’s what the job entails. If you don’t think you can cut it…”

The woman sat up straighter, clearing her throat. She reached up and adjusted the nondescript black ponytail she wore. She was in a matching suit, dark fabric. He had insisted. “No, I didn’t mean that. I’m just … nervous.”

“Of course you are. You’re just starting out. I’ve seen plenty of people handle it far worse than you.” He leaned forward in his chair and waved the coffee cup in her direction. “Besides, this wasn’t exactly an easy one. I mean, kid? Geez. I don’t even like it when it’s kids.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You?”

“You might not know it to look at me,” he said, “but I’ve got a big old soft spot. Love kids. Absolutely love ‘em. I’ve got a niece that I visit as much as I can, work permitting. Cute as a button. She’s turning four next month.”

“I … how can you be so laid back about this, then?”

“I have a job to do,” he said with a shrug. “I do it. If I didn’t, someone else would. I happen to be good at what I do, so I don’t worry too much about being bothered by it. It’s just a job, you know?”

“I … don’t think I’ll ever be as blasé as you.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He tapped one into his hand, and then pulled out the lighter. He inhaled sharply, letting it out slow as he pocketed the lighter again and settled back in his chair.

“You act like you own the place.”

“Might as well. Pretty sure the previous owners don’t have much to say about it,” he said. He leaned back in his chair, the back legs groaning as the chair tilted at an angle.  He balanced there perfectly, an elephant on a toothpick.

“You’re disgusting,” she said, standing up. She walked over to the sink, hands resting on the metal rim, staring out of the window that opened out onto the modest yard.

He just continued to smoke, blowing rings up into the air around him. In the stillness of the room, it hung about him like a cloud, thick and heavy. “You know, the first time I did this, I had to go out and have a cigarette to calm my nerves. I felt like I was going to throw up. The guy who was with me, he was a real hard ass. Would have made me feel it if I had lost my lunch. So I just smoked and tried really hard to keep it down.”

“Yeah, and?” She still stared out the window. She could see the wet trails down her cheeks, knew that she didn’t want him to see them. She poured all of her anger and willpower into stopping that flow. That was something she could control.

“And now it’s my ritual. I do my job, I smoke. It’s primal. Man makes fire, man becomes one with fire, the smoke moves like ghosts around you."

“I didn’t know you were such a poet,” she said, nearly shaking with anger. It was easier than hurt, to be pissed at him. “You should write a fucking book.”

“Yeah, maybe, eh?” He said, cackling. If he gave any indication of her distress, he didn’t let on. She wasn’t sure if she was thankful for that or resented him all the more for it. “Maybe when I settle down and retire. That’d make a hell of a book, huh? Pretty sure someone’d pay good money to listen to my bullshit.”

The two of them fell into silence. There was a long moment where he smoked and she struggled to get herself back together. Then there was the sound of knocking on the door. She visibly jumped at the intrusion, but he didn’t seem to be bothered. He tapped ash into what was left of the coffee and went to the back door. 

“Well, hello hello. Took you guys long enough,” he said. He held open the door as two other men, completely nondescript with everyday clothes, walked in. One of them was carrying a gym bag, looked like he had just been out running. He set it on the floor of the kitchen and pulled out two full body hazard suits.

As the two men dressed, the one who was in the running attire nodded to the woman. “Who’s she?”

“My protégé,” the man in the suit said. “This is her first time.”

“Oh, I see,” the other man, now fully zipped up in the hazard suit, said. “Congrats. I had my first day not 18 months ago.”

“Give her the rundown of what we do, boys,” the suit said.

“Right, well, what have you guys touched?”

“Just the kitchen here,” she said. “We both had a cup of coffee, he’s smoking,” she pointed at the trail that led to her partner, leaning against the wall and watching her talk. “The .. um … the big mess is in the bedrooms. They were still sleeping.”

“Of course, though this is the mess we’re really concerned with. You guys’ DNA will be in this room.” The two of them gathered up the coffee cups and all the things she pointed out that they touched. “We’ll get rid of all of this. No prints. Any wiped surfaces will just look like a normal kitchen cleaning.”

“I see … that makes sense,” the woman said with a nod. She watched them work and when they were done gathering up everything they had touched, she took a deep breath. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll show you the bedrooms.”

As the three of them went back into the bedrooms, the man in the suit stayed put. He couldn’t go out smoking in the yard, too much of a chance someone might watch him. It was still early, but this was the suburbs. People woke up awfully early sometimes.

One of the cleaners came down not long after they were gone, the older of the two who had been wearing the jogging clothes. His gloves were already stained bright red. “Your partner insists on watching us clean up.”

“Good for her,” the man in the suit said with a grunt.

“You sure that’s wise? She looks kind of shaken up by the whole bit.”

“Of course she does. Pretty gal like her? We all have our rough first time. But if she’s sticking around, then maybe she’s not too scared off about it. Hate to waste potential like that. You should have seen her, Bobby. She was a natural. A natural.”

“No, thanks. I don’t like watching. I just like putting things right again.” And he turned and went back upstairs, where the trash bags and detergents and hack saws awaited.

His cigarette went out. The man in the suit pulled out a small baggy and dropped the butt into it. Wouldn’t do to leave evidence, now that the cleaners were here. He was, after all, a professional.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hiroki’s Day Out

Hiroki walked down the busy afternoon crowd of the marina. He didn’t stand out here, another high school kid hanging out near the water when the weather was nice. Admittedly, he looked a little dorky, one of the few his age wearing pants instead of shorts, a messenger bag slung across his shoulder. Such distinctions from his peers didn’t bother him, though. 

Hiroki sat down at one of the many picnic tables on the boardwalk, facing out onto the beach. He set his messenger bag down and unzipped it, extracting a laptop. It was rugged, a thick looking piece of tech that to the casual observer would have looked old with its thickness but which Hiroki opened with a certain deference. 

There was homework to do, but Hiroki had other plans. His mother had ordered him out of the house, so he came here like he always did, mingling in with everyday people while he did things he was certain most of them would object to. That’s how it was, the best hiding place was right out in the open. 

Hiroki turned on the laptop and began his work, piggybacking off of the boardwalks’ wifi to access a proxy. The thing wasn’t even secured. If someone looked for who was digging into secure networks, they’d have no way of deciding. Even on an unfavorable tourist season like this one, this part of Colston City saw thousands of people in foot traffic every week.

As he worked, he let his mind wander. He knew that to everyone else he was just the scrawny Asian kid at his computer, completely inconspicuous. He knew that he’d be left alone. Nobody talked to strangers in a city this size, and if they did they wouldn’t pick someone like him, who so obviously was engaged in the epitome of antisocial behav-

“Excuse me, young man?”

Hiroki looked up to see a bent over mockery of a man staring at him. Calling him older than dirty would have been an insult to dirt. He looked as though the wind coming off the ocean might cause him to keel over dead. He looked as though he had something to say that would inconvenience Hiroki.

“Can I help you?”

The old man gestured with the cane he was using, pointing in the direction of the rest of the tables. “I was wondering if I might sit here. Every place else is pretty much full.” Hiroki looked down the row of tables. There were business people off on lunch and kids loitering at pretty much every spot. He didn’t blame the old man, he would have asked a guy like him, too.

“Yeah, I suppose so. Help yourself.” Hiroki half-stood politely while the man sat next to him. That normally would have been pretty weird, considering the two other seats across the table, but everyone sat facing the ocean first. Nobody wanted to see the parking and the street unless they had no choice.

“How’re you doing today?” The old man asked as he settled into the chair. He extended a hand. “My name’s Arthur.” 

“Hiroki,” he said, politely taking the old man’s hand. It was warm and firmer than Hiroki expected, at least. “And I’m doing all right. How about you?”

“Impossible to feel bad on a day as beautiful as this!” Arthur had his cane in between his legs, and he pounded the tip into the ground for emphasis. “When the world sees fit to give me a gift like this, I can’t help but bask in it and be thankful. A little like a lizard, you know?”

“Sure, I guess.” Hiroki stared at his screen. He would have put money on the fact that Arthur wouldn’t know the difference between general web surfing and Hiroki accessing the Colston City police department files, but he wasn’t going to risk it. He closed the window and just pulled up google and wikipedia and a bunch of other normal sites. 

“So you’re a student?” 

“High school,” Hiroki said.

“College soon?”

“I don’t know yet,” Hiroki admitted. “I have a job opportunity if I want it as soon as I graduate. I’m not even sure what I’d study if I did go to college. My family wants me to go, though.”

“Is it a good job?”

“It’s interesting. Research heavy,” Hiroki said, turning to the man. “I have another year to decide. I’m only a junior.”

“Only a junior! You look so serious,” Arthur said with a chuckle.  “I would have mistaken you for a college student if you hadn’t said something. Which begs the question of what you have to be so serious about.”

Hiroki shrugged. “I’m just a serious person. Always have been.” 

Arthur nodded. “Let me guess, you don’t relate well to others your age. You’re awkward and unsure around them. You’d rather be around adults, or alone, because that’s easier to understand.”

Hiroki made a face. “Trying to play shrink on me, or are you just a creepy old man?”

“Just trying to make conversation,” Arthur replied. “But come on, just look at you, so super serious.”

Hiroki turned and looked out at the beach, trying to ignore him. Arthur seemed content at that answer, and stared out at the beach as well. The two sat in silence, looking at nothing in particular together.

It wasn’t that Hiroki was unable to make friends his own age, he just found them all so boring. They’d run around, trying to get into trouble, or trying to hook up, and he wasn’t interested in all those casual acquaintances. He supposed that made him weird, but his mother had always said that he had an ‘old soul.’ 

Hiroki tried hard to channel that sense of being normal, tried to think about what he should do to appear like every other kid. His eyes fell upon a group of girls frolicking out on the beach, tanned and slim and dressed in the most obvious and classic of beach attire--the bikini. Looking at girls was normal, right? He made it a point to openly stare.

The old man leaned over and nudged Hiroki. “Maybe you should ask one of those pretty girls out, eh?”

Hiroki rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to ask out one of those girls. Look at them. Look at me. Not even going to waste my time thinking about doing something so stupid.”

“You’re chicken.”  The old man looked at the young girls, trying to size them up.  “How about that one, the short one in the blue bikini.”

Hiroki knew which one he was talking about. She was the shortest one there, which made her the cutest as far as he was concerned.  “I’m not going to go ask her out. What are you, crazy? Look at me, old man. Look at her. Girls like her don’t go out with guys like me.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m too serious, remember? I’m nerdy and antisocial and plain looking.”

“Some girls are just looking for a nerdy, plain looking guy who will have the courage to come up to them, you know. Not everyone wants someone exceptional.”

“I don’t believe you,” Hiroki said flatly.

“Neither do I,” Arthur answered. “Go ask her out anyway. I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”

“You’re trying to humiliate me for laughs.”

“Never! Tell you what, if I’m wrong, it’s 20 bucks.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a battered old wallet. He pulled out the $20 and slapped it down on the table. “Yours if you come back empty handed.”

Hiroki glared at the old man. He was getting talked into a corner, and he knew it.  “What if I succeed?”

“Then I’ll feel a little more optimistic about the world,” Arthur said. “You don’t have to pay me. Just trying to do a good deed.”

Arthur closed his laptop. Once closed, it would require a password he was pretty sure nobody would be able to crack to get into it. “You’re not going to try to rip off my computer if I go, are you? I can track it, you know.”

“Son, I wouldn’t know what to do with it even if I did sell it. Besides, I’m pretty sure you can outrun me.”

Hiroki nodded and then stood and walked down from the boardwalk to the beach, hand idly tracing along the railing as he tried hard not to think about the sudden turmoil in his stomach and instead think about how little he cared about the outcome of this event, how much work he had to do when he finally brushed off the old man.

He walked down the steps onto the beach proper and trudged across the sand towards the girl in the blue bikini. She was playing volleyball with some other friends, but the game seemed to be going at its own slow, lackadaisical pace.

“Excuse me?” Hiroki asked.

The girl turned towards him.  “Yes?”

“Um … I was sitting up there…” Hiroki feebly gestured at the boardwalk and the table he had been sitting at. “And I couldn’t help noticing you down here, and I was wondering if you … uh … would like to go out some time?”

She looked over at the boardwalk, and then back at him. “You were watching me from all the way over there?” 

“Yeah,” Hiroki answered with a shrug. “I … don’t mean to come across as a creep or anything, I just thought maybe I should give it a shot, y’know?”

She stared up at the boardwalk again, and then shrugged. “Sure, I’ll give you my number. You got a pen and some paper?” 

“Um …” Hiroki reached down to his pockets. “No, not with me. I left my stuff back at my seat. I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the girl said. “I’ll come with you.” The two of them began walking back towards the stairs to the boardwalk. “I’m Audrey.”

“Uh … my name’s Hiroki. Pleased to meet you,” he stammered, the voice in his head swearing at himself as much as it could to stop acting like such a jackass.

The two of them made their way back to the table where Arthur was sitting and Hiroki dug into his bag and pulled out a card and a pen. Audrey took them from him and jotted her name and number down on the card. Hiroki was glad she didn’t flip it over. He was suddenly very self-conscious about his business cards.

She handed the card and pen back to him. “I like movies and good coffee. I’m busy this week, but call me next week and we’ll make plans, okay?”

“Um … yeah, okay. Great. Thanks.” Hiroki could feel his face burning with embarrassment. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go down. How could success feel even more humiliating than failure? “I’ll call next week.”

She nodded and then turned to Arthur, bending down and giving the man a small hug. “You shouldn’t be such a meddler, Papa.”

“You know I can’t help myself,” Arthur said with a shrug of his sagging shoulders and a smile. “Besides, it worked out, didn’t it?” 

Audrey looked up at Hiroki, appraising him. Hiroki did his best not to squirm under their joint assessment. “Yeah, he’ll do.” She gave the old man a small kiss on the cheek. “I’ll tell Mom you said hi.” She stood up and headed back towards the beach. “Next week, Hiroki. Call me.” 

Hiroki nodded dumbly, watching her turn and leave. Arthur just hummed happily to himself, fiddling with the cane in his hands and watching the crowd go by.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


They say that those people who live in the poorest countries are often the happiest people, by some scientific metric that can measure out happiness like a dealer measures out cocaine. The idea is that our culture, for all its riches, has created a state of elite unhappiness where our money just opens this void of want which we all suffer neurotically from.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I can tell you this: whoever made such a bullshit claim was never poor.

And I’m not talking the ‘oh, I can’t afford to go out this weekend’ kind of poor. That poor is certainly frustrating, and I understand that there’s a certain quality of life hit that happens when you can’t fit in all your immediate wants. Regardless, I’m talking about the poor that’s several degrees separated from your every day poor.

Maybe you haven’t experienced this kind of poor. The poor where you would come home from work or school and be unsure which utility would be shut off that day. The poor where you wonder how you’re going to stretch what’s in the kitchen out another two weeks. When those mystery cans in the pantry that just kind of sit forever start to get opened up. When you start taking showers by candlelight.

There’s something demoralizing about that kind of poor. There’s no nobility to that kind of life. No secret to happiness. There is fear and stress and hate. Lots of hate. Hate for yourself, hate for those around you, envy of anyone who is obviously better off. It’s a festering kind of existence, where the lack becomes a cancerous growth that begins to dominate your life.

I don’t know if I can properly explain such a thing to someone who’s never felt it. But it feels … unjust. As though you are singularly being persecuted. As though the entire world is about to fall upon your shoulders. When you fall to those depths, you start to see all the cracks where people get lost. The places where society will just forget about you. Where the system doesn’t go. Where life hits rock bottom and dead ends and points of no return. It’s scary, to see how quickly a life can go from normal member of society to homeless, penniless, an utter wreck.

This is how my life was during my late teens. Actually, up until about three years ago, even. It was a continued existence of mental anguish, of moving to place to place. Relying on the efforts of strangers to keep off of the streets or out of the shelters. I don’t know if I learned any lessons from that time, but the memory is burned into my mind forever. The encroaching despair.

I only bring it up because I realized recently that this is no longer my life. I work a job that pays the bills. I am in a place where I will live as long as I choose to. The debts are getting paid off, slowly but surely. I no longer have to choose between food and gas. In fact, I don’t have to choose between anything. The years of living paycheck to paycheck are, in a sense, over. I have a surplus between each payday.

To someone who grew up like I did, the very idea of a surplus is a magical talisman, a sense of ‘having it made’, of being of a better class. I am the person who five years ago I would have resented. That knowledge makes it easier to deal with those lingering doubts, that old feeling of resentment that still sometimes crops up when I do see people making out better than I. It’s all relative, and I no longer want for anything material.

I don’t have a neat conclusion for this one. Normally I try to talk about lessons learned, but this is something that just occurred to me last week, and I don’t have any answers to it. It’s come along with a bunch of other related problems, but they are well outside the scope of this little essay-thing. So … I don’t know what to leave you with.

Once upon a time a boy worried about his life collapsing. Now, as a man, he worries far less about such immediate concerns. Not that the boy lived happily ever after, but it’s something. The end.

Thanks for following along.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day of Birth

Joseph attached the final connection between the main processing unit and the rest of the machine. It was delicate work, so much technology jammed into such a small space. He swore softly as he worked.

“Aesthetics must be maintained,” a voice from the computer bank beside him said. 

Joseph snorted. He knew that the computer would pick it up, perhaps scold him. He didn’t care. He had been working for nearly three weeks straight at this point. By now, if he wanted to be a little rough around the edges, then Patri would just have to get used to it.

“I know that such concerns don’t particular matter to you, Joseph, but being discreet is important,” Patri said from the speaker mounted on it. It was a ridiculously large computer, a box that had to be wheeled around like a food cart. “The processing space is cramped because you can’t have some fat-headed mongoloid. Especially since you decided to make it so low profile.”

Joseph finally snapped the last connection into place, and began to recover the processing units with the protection shielding and the skin he had developed. That was easy work, meant to break apart quickly for easy repair once it was all together and running.

“It’s not ‘low profile,’ you hulking rust-bucket. You know, for a memory dump of a person, you’re pretty inhuman.”

The computer hesitated, then spoke in a tone that might as well have been a shrug. “I’m an old model. Also, my predecessor was far less concerned about such … animal impulses as you seem to have.”

Joseph moved back to the main body to work on attaching the power supply. This was the last bit, the bizarre battery that Patri had created back when he was Patrick Alvers, experimental engineer. It was arguably his greatest technical invention. Joseph wasn’t egotistic enough to more than toy with the alternative.

“It’s not an animal impulse,” Joseph said. “It’s a serious concern. If this work is ever to evolve and survive, we have to answer for the idea of social groups and maybe even propagation.”

Patri made a static-heavy noise that Joseph recognized as clearing its throat. “Propagation? That’s never been my goal.” 

“Yeah, I know, but that’s the funny thing about life.  It kind of just takes off on its own in directions you never expect.”  He slid in the battery, which was mostly modular, and closed up that compartment. He then stepped back, looking at his project finally all assembled before him. It looked … human. About five foot five tall. Brown hair, slim build. “What do you think, Patri?”

“I think that making a woman is perverse.”

“You would think that, stuffy bastard. Unfortunately, it’s not as if you’ve left me with a lot of options.”  Joseph finished his work and then turned to the small computer on the table. He tapped a few buttons, and then the computer went dark. There was the faint flickering of lights the local grid was tapped for the initial charge of the battery.  There was silence.  The internal mechanisms ran quiet.  But Joseph reached down, taking the wrist of the figure on the table, pressing where pulse points would normally be.

“At least you rigged up some interesting interfaces. I have to admit, the tactile connectivity is impressive,” Patri said begrudgingly from beside him, his electronic voice sounding strangely excited. 

“Shh, she’s going through her initial boot. I made some tweaks to the start program, set up a rudimentary learned tasks system.”

“Whatever for?” 

“So I didn’t have to spend thirty years training her how to do things like walk and talk and dress herself, like some people did,” Joseph said. He didn’t begrudge Patri his early years of life, they had been informative and full of learning and wonder. But he knew he could make it more efficient. Take her to a normal state of operation in minutes rather than decades.

There were several tense moments, and then Joseph’s face softened.  “She’s through the initial boot. She’s absorbing the startup program I wrote.” He let go of her, trying to give her her privacy in these first moments of awareness. She would be overwhelmed, he knew, but he had faith in the design.  “Is this when I get to cackle madly and shout ‘It’s alive!’?”

“I nearly did, actually. Part terrified and part drunk with power. I mostly just gaped at you as you started to respond and move.” 

“I remember,” Joseph said.  “Though I had no context for any of it at the time. It was just input.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t a more capable father,” Patri said. 

Joseph turned to look at the squat box that held the brain patterns of the greatest human mind of his generation. He reached out and in an oddly human gesture for a room devoid of living beings, patted the console. “You did the best you could. Same as any parent. Don’t worry. I think I turned out all right.”

There was a sudden jerk from the figure on the table. The construction’s eyes opened and Joseph knew that she was receiving an initial flood of visual input. There was a moment where she was perfectly still, then her human mimicry routines activated and her pupils dilated and her eyes began to move. It wasn’t necessary, but it helped.

Her mouth opened. “Iiiiiiiiiiiiii…” The initial word was drawn out, her mind trying to properly sync up to the vocal processor. There was just a moment before the sound died down, and then appeared again. “I am …” There was a pause, as this new being tried to access itself. There seemed to be no words, though Joseph knew it was a lack of context.  “I do not have a designation,” she said. 

“Not yet, no. We figured we’d wait for you to awaken and help us pick a name. My name is Joseph,” he said. “This console here is named Patri.” 

The woman, because that was truly what she looked like now, animating correctly and moving with human precision, nodded. “Your startup files were quite helpful, Joseph. I … wish to know more.”

“I know you do,” Joseph said with a grin. “There’s time for that. Plenty of time. How about your internal diagnostics? Everything running in the green?” 

“I am fully functioning,” she answered. “What do I do now?” 

Patri spoke up.  “Why don’t you try sitting up, first? That’s the most natural thing for someone to do when they awaken.” 

There was a moment of hesitation, and then the woman’s hands twitched. Once, twice. Then they pressed down on the bed. She lifted herself up, the movements predetermined to look natural. Then, sitting up, her brown hair fell in front of her face. She raised one hand to brush it behind an ear. Patri’s speaker crackled with laughter.

“Happy birthday,” Joseph said. “It’s good to be alive.” He smiled at the woman.

She looked up at him, and smiled in return.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Long Time Coming – Movie Rundown

Okay, I know it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My movie mood kind of died after the fever pitch it was at during the end of 2009. Which isn’t all that surprising. It was a truly unsustainable pace. And it is within my nature to tend to overindulge in one thing until I burn out, and then pick up one of the things I neglected in the interim.

But I didn’t completely stop watching movies. So here’s the rundown of what I’ve been watching, and how I feel about it. New to this list is TV season reviews, because I’ve been watching a lot more TV shows and it was suggested that I give them their proper turn in this list, too.

I wouldn’t expect the Movie Rundown to return to being a weekly feature just yet; I don’t watch enough right now to justify that kind of regular committment. But I’ll keep watching and when I get a build up I’ll put one out. Until then, here we go!

Whisper of the Heart – ****
One of the more obscure titles from Studio Ghibli, Whisper of the Heart is the story of a bookish young girl who dreams of becoming a writer. It’s a sweet coming of age story, about childhood dreams and budding romance on the cusp of adulthood. But all you really should need is that this is a Ghibli film. Which means it is of course beautiful and sweet. The heartwarming, quiet story told within is just the icing on the cake.

Tron – ****
The last time I saw Tron, many years ago, I remember not liking it very much. Revisiting it after the trailer for Tron: Legacy dropped, I couldn’t begin to tell you why. Tron is a pretty amazing film. From the silent film cinematography to the trippy neon visuals and crazy Metropolis-inspired computer effects, Tron is a visual treat. It doesn’t hurt that wrapped around it all is a fascinating story about faith and rebellion. This is a movie I’m really glad I revisited.

The Hurt Locker – *****
I saw this shortly after The Hurt Locker won best picture. After seeing it, I understood why. The Hurt Locker is the perfect war film for our time. Not about the conflict itself, but about the people who live it and what happens to them. Not even those who fight, but those who deal with the periphery of war, suffer the consequences of being in a combat zone. The Hurt Locker is a long look into a dark part of the human experience.

Rear Window – ***
I don’t get it. I understand Rear Window is really popular, but … of the three Hitchcock movies I’ve seen, this is by far my least favorite. The story meanders, the tension is as limp as a wet noodle, and the whole time I’m listening to the lackadaisical jazz soundtrack and wondering when it all will end. I thought it was funny more than anything, and while I enjoyed Stewart’s performance (as usual) I was left pretty unmoved by the whole thing.

Vicky Christina Barcelona – ****
In my very short acquaintance with Woody Allen movies, I’ve kind of fallen for his understated humor. And Vicky Christina Barcelona is the most understated of the lot, a melodramatic set of love triangles that speak to the fickleness of the heart and the bizarreness of the creative temperament. Also of note is the absolutely amazing soundtrack, heavy on Spanish guitar. It really is an enchanting ‘strangers in a strange land’ kind of film.

The Breakfast Club – ****
I hadn’t seen this until recently, which probably makes me a failure as a movie person. The worst part is, despite my genuine distaste for most things 80s, I found myself really loving this movie. It’s a surprisingly bleak look at being a teenager, with stereotypes that do a pretty great job of breaking out of their outlines and becoming recognizable people. That said, Emilio Estevez as the super jock is too ridiculous for words.

Richard III – ***
I’ll admit it, I’m not really much of an Olivier kind of guy. On the spectrum of Shakespearian film adaptations, I feel he errs too far on the side of theatrical. And I understand that that’s a product of the time he performed in, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. That said, I’m not sure there’s a better faithful adaptation of Richard III around, which is a pretty good play with one of Shakespeare's better villain main characters. So … any Shakespeare nerds should probably see this.

Sunshine Cleaning – ***
The story of a single mother who starts her own crime scene cleaning business. It sounds like quirky indie bait and it really is, but it’s got a lot of heart and Amy Adams is as lovely as always. I’m not sure there’s much to say about this, though. It’s cute, but it exhausts its premise pretty quickly and the ending leaves a lot to be desired.

Hot Tub Time Machine – ****
Remember how I said earlier that I kind of hated all things 80s? Well, here’s another exception, since it’s kind of a spoof and also ridiculous. HTTM is a dumb movie. It wears that fact on its sleeve, and just carries forth with all the tropes of 80s teen comedies AND time travel stories with a flip, breezy attitude. It’s a movie that smartly never gets mired too far in subplots, going for the laughs and keeping it all light and moving. A great genre mash-up.

Wonder Woman – ***
Okay, so the DC Animated Universe movies have all been pretty good. So I’ll admit that I hold them to a higher standard. Which is why I was kind of disappointed in Wonder Woman. It’s a gorgeous movie, and has some fun moments, but it’s probably the weakest entry of the films I’ve seen so far. Wonder Woman’s naive feministic stances play as eye-rollingly camp more than effective character-building, and the origin story for WW has always been kind of lame. This story was told better in Justice League, I’m afraid.

Green Lantern: First Flight – ****
This is the flip side of the coin. I don’t really remember the Justice League Green Lantern story being all that great, but Green Lantern: First Flight is probably the best movie Green Lantern story we’re going to get (because I have almost no faith in the eventual live action version). This movie might as well be called SPACE COP. It’s got all the beats of a great two-man cop movie, but with space adventure and aliens and all the general Green Lantern craziness. It’s fun, it’s smart, it’s a GREAT superhero movie.

Shutter Island – *****
It’s hard to quantify why exactly I love Shutter Island so. It’s not the most inventive film. The twist it was sold on is predictable. But it is a beautiful film, a lush tribute to Hitchcock, a film fallen out of time. From the amazingly dark score to the stillness of the scenes, the film is a dark ominous cloud, a gathering storm of dread. It’s beautiful and scratches an itch for that ‘cinema’ feel that so few movies satisfy these days.

Crazy Heart – ****
The Dude won an Oscar for this movie. Sure, it was a long time coming, but this movie really did make a compelling case. The story of a washed up old country singer and his deteriorating life, Crazy Heart reminded me in many ways of The Wrestler. Though, it’s a much more sentimental picture than Aronofsky’s. Also, the music is pretty amazing.

K-ON! – ****
K-ON! is an anime about a group of high school girls who decide to form a music club at their school. I kind of ended up watching this on a whim and totally falling in love with it. The key here is that this show is ALL about being cute and girly. They play pretty fluffy light rock, have tea time, wear a bunch of costumes. It’s a Japanitastic version of girliness. But weirdly it’s crazy compelling. There’s something irresistible about a show that makes you squee over and over again. K-ON! is that show.

Initial D First Stage – ****
Initial D is a show about drift racing. If you don’t know what drift racing is, I’ll direct you to some awesome youtube videos of drift racing. This is a pretty old show, and it definitely shows its age. The animation is kind of meh and the car models are kind of hilariously low poly, but it has some of the best music of any show ever and the racing sequences are genuinely fantastic. If you’re into eurobeat and drifting, this is the go to thing.

Dexter (season 1) – ****
Dexter’s the kind of show I was pretty sure I would like. The story of a forensic investigator who is also a serial killer, tracking down serial killers that he discovers through his job. What isn’t to love? Little did I know that the show would be such a lush dark comedy, full of irony and self-depreciation and a dark appreciation for this kind of flippant violence. The first season kind of meanders right near the end and wraps up a little too fast, but it’s truly a great show.

Dexter (season 2) – *****
Second verse, same as the first. Season 2 is a much tighter show than season 1, in part because the main storyline is that Dexter’s body dump site is found by the police and a federal investigation into his activities is opened. It’s a tense season, with Dexter trying to balance all the parts of his life while changing his carefully crafted methods to both keep killing and not get trapped by the approaching manhunt. It’s a dizzy season, full of great moments. Fantastic.

The West Wing (season 1) – *****
I almost feel silly reviewing The West Wing. Either you know its great or you’ve been missing out on something amazing in your life. I don’t have much to add to the heap of love this show regularly still gets. I will say, though, that The West Wing is the one show that when I watch it makes me desire to be a better person. That’s a pretty powerful thing. An invaluable thing. Which is why The West Wing is special.