Duality and symbolism in The Neverending Story.

Die unendliche Geschicte was written by Michael Ende and published in 1979. Movie rights were so quickly snatched up that the cinematic version was released in the summer of 1984, when my dad took me and my brother to see it as part of a double feature (I was three). Although I finally read the book years and years later, I find myself most devoted to the movie, and so it is the movie that I will be discussing here. Note: I'm assuming you're familiar with the story.

I'm pretty literal-minded, so symbolism can be difficult for me. You may have to forgive my being unable to see the broader picture or theme if I have missed the mark. For example, one layperson's review of TNES said that it is clearly about the fantasy world we have to give up in order to move into the world of adulthood. I have always interpreted it to be about humanity's loss of meaning and hope as a result of the broken promises of modernity - but that may be because that is how Ende framed it. Although children are the protagonists throughout, and it is allegedly a children's book, he does not say the Nothing is encroaching due to the end of innocence and childhood. He says it's because "people have begun to lose their hopes." So I have a hard time detaching from that.

Several years ago, after probably my twentieth viewing of the movie, I finally noticed the duality that springs up at several points, even though, in my final opinion, the movie's narrative does not hinge on it. This is likely due to the concessions made in the script in order to make the first third of the book filmable. I think that the instances are worth acknowledging.

Morla the Ancient One - Morla (aka my spirit animal) is a giant turtle on whose back exists the Shell Mountain. Atreyu treks through the Swamps of Sadness (losing his horse in the process) to ask her if she knows of a cure for the Empress's illness. When she refers to herself as 'we' and Atreyu asks if there's anyone else there, she says "We haven't spoken to anyone for thousands of years, so we started talking to ourselves." She, perhaps due to her persistent loneliness, has become pretty nihilistic, repeating the line "Not that it matters, but yes" and also this timeless gem: "We don't even care whether or not we care." I realized it's probably no coincidence that her home base is a swamp where people and animals drown when they give in to its palpable sadness.


How to use a credit card: Part 3.

In the last post I went through the basics of credit. It was in no way comprehensive but I tried to touch on the things someone most needs to know in order to manage their credit score and understand how it's created and maintained. In this post, I'll get to the point of all this: how to use a credit card.

Let's start with three popular reasons someone might obtain a credit card.

1. To ease the cost of day-to-day living. This is, in my opinion, the most common reason people apply for cards. And with our mediocre dedication to the financial education of youth, it's also how we think of credit cards when we're just starting out on our own: supplementing the cash we have (or, in the case of many students, don't have). If it's true that fully half of Americans could not come up with $400 in an emergency, then it's easy to see the void credit fills when there's so much uncertainty piled on top of bills, childcare expenses, student loans, groceries, transportation, and the tiny bit you might set aside to do something nice, just to to feel human.

2. To build good credit. This is popular too, and has become more so over the last decade as sites like CreditKarma allow people to see an approximation of their credit scores and track how their decisions affect them for good or ill. Read reviews of secured cards on any website and you'll hear the same story over and over: "I needed to rebuild my credit after bankruptcy/a divorce/an expensive hospital stay/defaulting on my student loans," etc. etc. etc. etc. Because credit card companies report to the credit bureaus each month, it is an incredible opportunity to increase your credit score as time goes on. When factors like number of open accounts, credit utilization, payment history, and average age of accounts are so important, even using just one card responsibly can really have an amazing impact.

3. To reap rewards. You may have seen articles every now and then about how one crazy guy has 98 credit cards and uses them to fly all over the world and stay in luxury hotels, all for free. I hate those articles. But they illustrate the fact that you can make rewards credit cards work for you. You don't have to be nuts, or have half a dozen of them. If you enjoy analyzing the impact of your spending on miles or points accrual, and especially if you enjoy planning vacations and compiling information to get the best rates, then rewards cards are a no-brainer. But it's not just about travel - cash back cards can be pretty great too, especially if you have better-than-average credit.

Credit cards are also useful when renting cars and booking hotel rooms, as the use of a debit card usually requires several extra steps like employment and housing verification. Rental car companies in particular will put a hold on the card for a certain amount (in the low hundreds of dollars) while you rent, and it's hard to have a good vacation if your debit card is missing a chunk of change.


How to use a credit card: Part 2.

In my previous post, I tried to spell out the basics of credit cards by hitting the most salient points I wished I had known before I ever signed up for one. Credit can be a minefield if you are unprepared, but there is good news: you can play the game well, and maybe even win sometimes. Read on to find out how.

What is a credit score?

Your credit score is a single three-digit number which tells lenders how creditworthy you are; or, simply, how likely you are to repay the debt. Scores range from 300 to 850. Within this range are categories, as follows:

  • below 600 - bad credit
  • 600-649 - poor credit
  • 650-699 - fair credit
  • 700-749 - good credit
  • 750+ - excellent credit

Personally I think the words used to describe each category ("poor," "fair," "good") are finely tuned to keep the average person from feeling too good about their score. Just a personal nitpick I have. Also, be aware that there are slightly different credit scales depending on the credit bureau.

Creditors will extend credit with certain terms based on your score. The better the score, obviously the better the terms.

Get to know your credit score.

Your credit score takes into account six main factors:

1. Credit Utilization Ratio: this is the percentage of credit you are using of the entire amount available to you. It only applies to revolving credit, not installment loans (like school, personal, or mortgage loans), so essentially, it applies to your credit cards.

2. Payment History: quite simply, have you paid all your debts on time? Even one missed payment can really drag your score down, because this is in some ways the most important factor to a lender - will they pay me back or not?

3. Derogatory Marks: this is the serious stuff like collections, foreclosures, defaults, and bankruptcies.


How to use a credit card: Part 1.

When I was in college all dorm rooms had landlines, which meant credit card companies would call us constantly, trying to sign us up for an account. Pretty shady, and addressed during our little economic meltdown later that decade. Unfortunately the lure of being able to spend more than c. fifty dollars a month was too great, and I gave in spring of freshman year to Citibank. Later that year, I also sold my soul to Discover.

As you can imagine, I was an idiot with both cards, which is a whole other story I'm too ashamed to tell, and it was a mighty struggle to become debt-free, after which I swore off debt for several years. Along the way, I learned a lot about the good, bad and ugly of credit and credit scoring. Today I have one credit card with a nice credit limit and I spend all my time obsessively not using it.

You can be like me. In fact, I want you to be. So now, for Part 1 of this series, I will launch into everything I wish I had known when Citi and Discover were unethically cold-calling me back in the day.

It's not free money. Period.

Credit cards are not the answer to your prayers. They are not for funding things you cannot afford. They are not for spontaneous splurges. They are not for paying other debts. They are not for when you feel like you want to "be bad." Credit cards are not fun. Credit cards do not make life easier. Credit cards do not give you freedom.

Now that that's been established.

The concept of credit is simple: borrow a sum of money to be paid back in installments over a period of time. It can be helpful in a number of situations, a few of which I'll enumerate at the end. But at no time in human history has credit ever been the same as a gift. If you open a credit card for the purposes of repaying it in installments, you will end up paying more than you borrowed. End of story.

Everyone knows that you have to pay back what you spend with a credit card, but a lot of people don't know how it works. When I got my first credit card I didn't know how to interpret the statement I received, so it was a few months before I understood that I was being charged money on top of what I had actually spent. This wasn't a problem for a long while - I was responsible enough, and they gently increased my credit limit as time went on so I was never in a bind...until I did start approaching that credit limit.

I would call (yes, call) the customer service number to hear my balance. Good enough, I'd think. I'd call back a few days later, having paid my bill but not used the card - yet suddenly I had fifteen or twenty available dollars less than what I thought I should.



What I'm Reading: Snapping by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman
What I'm Watching: finally doing the last season of Mad Men
What I'm Listening To: greatest hits of the 80s!
Mood: cautiously optimistic
Smells: ...normal air?
Sounds: the ceiling fan and spring birds
Temperature: 70s
Thoughts: we never fear the past


How to write an IMDB review.

I admit it, I can be a little obsessed with reading reviews. Be they books on Amazon, albums on iTunes, movies on IMDB, tech reviews, furniture reviews, you name it, I'm reading all 146 reviews of it. In this way do I know the pattern that the average person tends to follow when writing what they assume is their totally unique perspective on a product. So herewith! How to write the most cliched of all things - the IMDB movie review.

1) Choose either a 1/10 or a 10/10 rating. No reason to waste any brain cells attaching the subtlety of a 4/10 or 7/10 to a movie based on an even basic list of pros and cons that you carefully weighed before logging in to the app/website. Either you hated it or you loved it. All or nothing. No shades of gray. Who has time for nuance in modern society anyway.

2) Make a bold statement. And by this I mean, if the movie isn't a part of your current favorite comic book universe, doesn't cater to your spoon-fed ideologies, or challenges you in any way, go ahead and boldly claim with absolute authority that it is in fact 'the worst movie ever made.' It doesn't matter that, technically, only one movie can hold that title (and we all know what that movie is); or that you've probably said that about fifteen different movies; or that making sweeping absolute statements on the subjective quality of an art form could be construed as lazy thinking at best in some circles. Go ahead! Declare it!

3) Critique the editing, screenwriting, special effects, etc. The cool thing about the internet is you can just say anything. You don't have to have any prior knowledge or experience in any field; you still can make definitive statements with comforting certainty. So if you loved a movie, make sure to point out that the technical aspects of it are award-winning; if you hated it (again, there's no in-between), it's important that people know that the movie failed technically in every way. This is especially true for CGI, as it's usually "terrible." Don't worry, you don't need to provide any evidence or comparison to back up your statement. People spend years, even decades honing their craft to bring the impossible to the big screen, but you know that they're really the worst at their jobs.

4) Point out exposition. Exposition can simply be defined as "the act of explaining something." So you'll have one more weapon in your arsenal when cogently critiquing a movie if you can point out the abuse of exposition. Does a character tell someone her age? Too much exposition! We should be able to tell by her actions and behaviors her exact age of 33. Does a character quickly toss off the fact that the main character's son died? Abuse! The script should waste time showing us in vignettes instead of advancing the narrative. Remember, if any character at any time gives any information at all - you can ding the movie for providing "too much exposition."

5) Point out deus ex machina. This of course means "god in the machine" and refers to ancient Greek plays in which a god character would be lowered onto the stage to save another character from a hopeless situation. Basically it's cheating. What it isn't, is the series of on-screen events woven into the plot that lead to a climax, payoff, or narrative shift. But who cares? The point is to pile up the movie's transgressions, not be honest.

6) Make outsized comparisons. Everyone knows that your five-year-old nephew could write a better script than the seasoned writer who was paid $1 million by a studio whose job it is to make money. Though completely impossible, it is fortunately now a 100% acceptable way of getting your point across. Use it! Besides, how could The Godfather win an Oscar when I had more fun watching stick figures on three sheets of paper scroll across an open shoebox??

7) Bring home the fight against gender and racial equality. Guys. Literally. Guys. We all know there are just things women and minorities can't do, like be the best in a difficult field or own their own wealth. It's all of our job to make sure the average person understands this. Besides, how detrimental would it be to show marginalized or underprivileged people positive representations of themselves and give them the idea that anything could change? Nonsense. Put a stop to it. Using IMDB.


I realize this is more of a 'how to shit on a movie you don't like' tutorial, but then, that's what so many IMDBers do best. It keeps things interesting, I guess (I may have misspelled "infuriating") and besides, it takes much more effort to defend a movie you did like, and using those brain cells for good is half the battle.

Happy reviewing!


American Horror Story: Freak Show

After a three-year hiatus from watching American Horror Story, I finally really needed something to binge during the 2016 holidays so I picked up where I left off and began watching Freak Show, devoted to the lives, loves, and deaths of the performers in Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities and set in Jupiter, Florida in 1952. I actually had no idea it had been so long since I finished Coven, but my hesitation about the fourth season's premise is what kept me from catching up much sooner. For me, it ended up not being a waste of time - the show's high production values, at least, were instantly familiar and comforting - but ultimately Freak Show suffers from a variety of ills that I will, of course, now detail. (As this is a season retrospective, there will be spoilers)

I'll start with what I liked. The biggest pleasant surprise for me was Sarah Paulson. I'll be honest and say normally I can't stand anything else she does on AHS but she acted her ass off as conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler, and when the writing didn't fail her the twins were the best part about Freak Show. She was truly believably conflicted and cautious as Dot, and simultaneously eager and naive as Bette. I thought the somewhat Hitchcockian angles used when presenting only one twin head or the other worked consistently, and co-producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk - the whole team, really - made genuine and sympathetic what could have been the most banally-conceived freaks in the camp.

Frances Conroy continues to be a national treasure; she was dry and knowing as the ghostly maid in Murder House, absolutely divine as fashion-loving Myrtle in Coven, and here as Gloria Mott she is perfectly polite, doting, and deeply conflicted as the mother of the season's most ambitious character. More about them later.

The best episodes of the season for me were "Edward Mordrake Pt. 2," in which we get the bleak backstory on Jupiter's resident psycho clown Twisty and watch a new, much sillier killer rise out of the ashes of his sojourn to the afterlife; the penultimate "Show Stoppers," the one episode that lives up to the promise of the darkness, horror, and very unpleasant but thrilling surprises which the series continues to struggle with delivering; and "Orphans," which deserves its own long-winded post on my blog for being the most beautiful and poignant episode of perhaps the entire anthology, during which Naomi Grossman as the ill-fated Pepper delivers award-winning scenes and makes me long for a much more expertly handled season on the whole.


New music.

The 90s was a weird time for music. The whole decade is essentially typified by the alternative genre, and I'll just say that for me, most of what came from alternative was a wash - so purposefully un-melodic and apathetic it made me want to put a gun to my head. The snap-back from those long, painful years was the bright, shiny, pointless pop of Britney, Backstreet Boys, etc.; we clearly got what we deserved.

But this blog post isn't about shitty 90s music. I'm just prefacing to get to where I want to go. By the early 2000s I was hearing songs that gave me hope for music's future. Since then popular music in most genres has returned to melodic form, and even in increasingly sub-subgenres like dream pop and post-dubstep and EDM, writers and producers are still discovering the infinite ways to spin and wield a dope melodic/harmonic progression. Think of La Roux's 'Bulletproof,' Goyte's 'Somebody That I Used To Know' - hell, even Nicki Minaj's 'Superbass' has an earworm.

Which brings me to today, and my happiness at discovering some new musicians to listen to who, in a different decade, would have fallen prey to the times, but here and now are fantastic.

First up is Banks (first name Jillian), discovered in the car stereo of a friend last week. She's got a couple of albums out in the 'alt-pop' genre, which is dominated by 'sultry [women] singers backed by uber-hip electronic beatscapes,' something I happen to very much enjoy, thank you. I especially appreciate her use of interwoven vocal motifs in the absence of acoustic instrumentation, and she consistently sets a wonderfully evocative, moody atmosphere. Although after several methodical previews of both albums via iTunes I only came away purchasing a handful of songs, the point is that she's in the right direction and she's something new to listen to.

(One thing I realized after obsessively listening to those songs was that they were everything I wished so much that Ellie Goulding's third album, Delirium, would be, and in fact, Banks sounds a lot like Halcyon-era Goulding. It makes me sad that Goulding abandoned a perfect sound and structure in favor of 'progress' or 'love' or whatever, and I hope that on her next album she gets back to what works best)

In the reviews for one of Banks' albums someone suggested she pair up with James Blake. So I looked him up and...story time.


Halloween viewing list.

Because apparently I can only do lists anymore!

I realized after putting together my 'best movies of the decade so far' list that I left out of consideration a couple of truly stellar scary flicks, which chastened me because I'm always the one saying that the intelligentsia should finally start recognizing and awarding those outside genres like sci-fi and horror. If applicable I will rectify this on the eve of 2020 - pending we're all still here, of course. ;) (I'm not a doomsday prepper, I just don't know what's wrong with this world anymore. Sigh) In the meantime, I'll put an asterisk next to the names of movies that should have been in the running for last year's list.

I think that the 2010s have been an incredible time for scary movies because they're finally being done right. We're past the slasher insanity of the 70s, the teen nonsense of the 80s, and the self-awareness of the 90s and 00s. Finally, filmmakers are making good on the truth that the only thing to fear is fear itself - it's what you don't know, what you can't see, that is the scariest, because the mind will fill in the blanks with whatever scares you the most. In this way, the 'scare' factor impacts a much larger portion of the audience than is possible with gushing blood and feral screaming (which, shocker, isn't scary!).

So, herewith, my list of movies to watch during the witching season that should leave you good and scared by the time Halloween night gets here. Enjoy...IF YOU DARE. No, just enjoy.

(in no particular order)

Paranormal Activity (2007) The first movie to dare to capitalize on the found-footage premise of Blair Witch Project almost a decade before, PA scared THE SHIT out of me. It is only one of three movies that have ever kept me awake at night after seeing it (the other two being Signs and Event Horizon). It's basically 100% 'things that go bump in the night' and that is really all I ask for. Of the sequels, only part three reaches the level of the first. Absolutely do not watch this alone with the lights out. You will die.

Insidious Chapter 2* (2013) While the first Insidious was great, the sequel blew my mind, for several reasons. First, I think the concept of The Further is awesome - a dead zone parallel to ours, all dark empty houses and bad memories and regret (the motionless people seen in the third Insidious were a great touch, for an otherwise subpar installment). Second, the integration of the events from the first movie, with the intruder, is phenomenal. If the screenwriter did not write the first movie with any inkling of a second in mind, he's a genius. Third, I thoroughly enjoy how Chapter 2 taps into the contemporary ghost hunting craze, as the characters investigate an abandoned hospital (classic!) and an essentially haunted house. Fourth, the backstory on the Old Woman is both creepy as hell and heartbreaking. If you twisted my arm, I'd have to say this is my favorite on the list.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) If you've never seen Flight of the Conchords then you will be unprepared for the majesty that is Jemaine Clement. He and fellow kiwi Taika Waititi produced this comedic gem (Watiti, fun fact, is currently directing the third Thor - whaaa?!). The movie is a mockumentary about four vampires living in a huge, rundown house in modern-day New Zealand, and their struggles to stay relevant yet still undiscovered. It's so second-by-second hilarious that at one point I was laughing so hard I couldn't hear what else they were saying and I thought, oh well, there'll be something else ridiculous along in a moment. No worries! Of course this movie isn't scary and isn't meant to be, but it will make your Halloween for sure.


Best movies of the decade (so far).

I'm not even sure if luxuries like blogs will be afforded us in 2020 with the way this world is going, so I might as well get this in. Besides, there have been a lot of great movies in the last six years and it would be a bear to whittle out a top ten list after four more years. One interesting thing to note is how many of these movies feature the same actors. I don't know if that's good or bad.

Also, just to get this out of the way now, I make no apologies for including three (3) Christopher Nolan movies on this list. Let's begin.

1. Her (2013)

(Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, directed by Spike Jonze)

In the near future, Thomas Twombly (Phoenix) is a greeting card composer by day and sad divorcee by night. When a tech company unveils a new operating system featuring evolving artificial intelligence, he purchases one and becomes fast friends with "Samantha" (Johansson). They become inseparable as their relationship deepens amidst a futuristic backdrop where a romantic relationship with a computer can be deemed simply "cool," simply one more step for humankind, simply one more way to connect when human involvement is eternally complicated and disappointing. Thomas and Samantha fall in love in scenes featuring the most divine cinematography I think I've ever seen, through dialogue that is perfectly shaped by director/screenwriter Jonze, brought to life by Johannson's beautifully capable voice acting and a steady, measured performance by Phoenix that pays off incredibly when his world is finally rocked.

Samantha's psychological and emotional evolution is so incredibly fascinating to watch; when she reveals that she can have thousands of simultaneous conversations with other people and other OSes at the complexity she experiences with Thomas, you're forced to finally begin contemplating the larger world in which the OSes are likely far more intelligent than their creators anticipated. Her is an endlessly gorgeous, heartbreaking sci-fi love story unlike anything I've ever seen and I have no doubt that when this decade draws to a close it will still sit at my number one.

2. Sarah's Key (2010)

(Kristen Scott Thomas, Melusine Mayance, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner)

Sarah Starzynski (Mayance) and her parents are victims of the Vel d'Hiv roundup in 1942; when the police arrive at their apartment, Sarah locks her little brother Michel in a closet so that he may avoid detection. Unfortunately, Sarah and her mother are taken, and Sarah hangs on to the closet key and what becomes a singular resilience and obsession to return to the apartment in time enough to save her brother. Concurrently we have the storyline of modern-day Julia Dormond (Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris working on a story about the Vel d'Hiv roundup, during which she finds little Sarah's labor camp photograph.

It is hard for me to say more without giving spoilers, so you must see it for yourself. Mayance is fabulous, and tackles the complete range of emotions required of her with brilliance. The cinematography from the scenes in 1942 is breathtaking at times, and I think the director did an amazing job pacing and crafting scenes to have utmost emotional impact. It can be too easy to assume that any film dealing with the Holocaust must be by definition well-crafted and heart-rending, and having seen my fair share, I know this is not the case. Sarah's Key packs an indelible punch on its own merits, and is a film that, if you're lucky, will haunt you for a long time. (Seen at the 2011 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival)

3. Inception (2010)

(Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, directed by Christopher Nolan)

After being accused of murdering his wife (Cotillard), Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) flees to France where he continues to work with a team as an extractor, entering the dreams of unsuspecting sleepers to steal information and secrets as corporate espionage. He is offered the chance to go home, and see his children again, by Saito, a Japanese magnate who in return needs the opposite of extraction: he needs the son of a rival to decide to take his father's company in a different direction; he has to believe it is his own idea; he has to be incepted. And to plant an idea means the team has to go further down the rabbit hole than any of them have ever been.

While the plot is complex and nearly flawless, the cast is dynamic and the overall effect is that of breathlessness, what I love most about Inception is how the elegant statements on dreaming touch on the metaphysical aspects of life that we struggle with even when we're convinced we already have the answers. Life being a dream that feels as real as dreams do while we're sleeping; recurring dreams being akin to life events that keep repeating, for good and ill; what deja vu really is; that in order to wake up from this madness you have to die. All of these gems are casually dropped throughout the script and add another exciting layer to an already intense and mind-opening experience.