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March 30, 2008

I Am Legend

Note: Lots and Lots of Spoilers are involved with this post. Matter of fact, the entire post involves the end of the story and the end of the recent movie-- don't read if you don't want to know.
Richard Matheson's brilliant novel I Am Legend is considered the first "modern" vampire story. However, the story also is credited as the first modern pandemic apocalypse story as well as strongly influencing the zombie genre (George Romero is credited as saying that Night of the Living Dead was heavily influenced by I Am Legend).

This ground-breaking novel is about the last survivor of a disease, Robert Neville, that wipes out humanity and replaces it with vampires. Those changed cannot survive in sunlight, sleep during the day, are allergic to garlic, and can be killed by fire, a stake through the heart, or decapitation. Neville spends his days hunting down those afflicted, getting resources for his survival, and repairing his fortress-like home for the night. Although he is just a man with no real scientific background, he attempts to figure out what caused the changes and find a cure. He copes with madness and loneliness during the three years he is alone and fighting for his life.

At night, the majority of the less intelligent vampires attack his house trying to get to him. He fends them off with bombs, guns, etc.

Neville runs into a woman who seems to be afflicted, but also has her facilities. He takes her in and he learns that some of the afflicted are changing; they are smart like human beings used to be, and can withstand some time in the sunlight, but they are also infected. This woman winds up betraying Neville and he is imprisoned. In his last few moments, he comes to realize that society has changed and, while he always thought of himself as the hero of his story, he comes to realize that he is the villain to this new society. As he stares out his prison windows, he sees the parents telling their children about the "monster in the day" and their "boogie man" who hunts them when they are sleeping and kills them without remorse.

It is a powerful story with a reveal that, especially when you consider the year it was published (1954), is so completely original and surprising that the story is considered one of the best ever in the horror genre.

*** --- ***

I Am Legend, the 2007 film starring Will Smith, got a lot of things right. It shows Neville facing madness and loneliness over the three years he is alone. It shows his struggles with survival. The afflicted are changed to be more zombie-like than vampire-like, but it is small change for the story and does have a foundation in the original novel. In the movie he doesn't seem to be going out of his way to hunt down those afflicted, but the movie focused more on his attempts to find a cure. To this end, they made Neville a scientist who knows something about the disease and was actively working with it prior to the infection becoming pandemic.

However, the movie failed in the most pivot points of the story. Neville is rescued by a woman (Anna) and a child (Ethan), neither of whom are infected at all. She tells Neville that she was told by God to go to a camp of survivors. The zombies follow them to his home, which is sort of like the betrayal in the novel, except here it is unintentional. The zombies attack en masse, get into the house, and Neville has to fight them off and save the other two.

He gets everyone downstairs, into his laboratory, and they discover that the last infected he worked on is returning to normal. Neville takes some of the infected's blood, gives it to Anna and Ethan, helps them escape, and then leaps at the infected in his house and kills them, and himself, with a grenade. Cut to Anna and Ethan making it to the survivors camp and handing over the infected's blood for research. A voice over tells the audience that it works.

So, in essence, the writer (Akiva Goldsmith) and the producers and director completely and totally missed the point of the original story. But Will Smith got to be a hero with his sacrifice-- yay. I actually wonder if Smith playing the role "forced" the filmmakers to make Neville into a heroic figure?

I have many posts about movies. Frequently I write about the remakes or book/comic book to film conversions I see and whether they are successful in translating the original material to the film. I expect some differences when taking something from page to screen, but those films that are often the most successful (Jaws, Spider-Man, Forrest Gump, The Godfather, LotRs, Harry Potter, et al) keep as much of the original as possible and they never lose sight of the main points of the source material. Those that are less successful (Elektra, Catwoman, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, Godzilla [1998], et al) either are not faithful or miss the main point(s) of the source material entirely.

There is another set of movies that are somewhat successful. These are mostly faithful, but vary on some key points. Something like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe comes to mind for this-- the film was mostly faithful and did a good job bringing the world to life, but it left out, missed, or purposely avoided some of the parables that the source material that showed the four children learning powerful lessons for life while in Narnia (for example, in the book, after the final battle when Lucy uses her salve to heal Edmund, she tells Aslan to wait when he suggests there are others who need her help. He growls at her and she realizes that there are others beyond herself and her family who need her-- her lesson is learning to accept and be involved in the greater world).

I guess that I Am Legend will fall into this last category. The film is well-done, and half to two-thirds of it is very close to the source material (and very well-acted by Smith), but the end of it totally missed what made the original source material such a compelling and time-tested classic of the horror genre. By not showing Neville's realization that he is now the monster in a new society, he doesn't become the Legend of the title. With the way this movie ended, he becomes a hero, not a legend, and certainly not an ironic legend.

One other note: I think this movie would have done better business if they hadn't made all the zombies CGI. The CGI effects completely distracted from the film and looked cartoonish. This would have been much scarier and engaging had they just been real people. Of course, then it would have seemed and looked much more like 28 Days Later (which, in many ways, is closer to the intent of the book I Am Legend than many of the direct adaptations).

All-in-all, this is a watchable and fun movie. Will Smith does a very good job with carrying the movie without help for most of the film. However, the zombies are a bit of a disappointment and the ending, while exciting, missed the point of the original book.

March 28, 2008


My wife already detailed out her issues with the Canadian government and taxes. I also detailed some of my initial issues/concerns with American taxes. After returning from Canada, I have had some high-priority projects to work on, including getting some final answers on our tax needs. Luckily, we planned ahead and M got the required documentation together and notarized just in case I needed it.

Today I have been reviewing the documentation for the 1040. The instructions are very seemingly contradictory. In some places they say I cannot file Married filing Jointly because she is a nonresident alien. In another place it says we can file that way, if we both show in writing that we agree to. In another place it says that I have to claim her "world income" and will be taxed on it regardless of whether she was taxed on it in another country. In yet another area the rules state that we get a huge exception for her as long as we can prove she is a nonresident alien (how do you prove someone is NOT a resident?!). These rules led me to not one, not two, but three different other sets of rules that I should read. What I found in those rules seemed equally contradictory to me.

I said screw it and decided to call the IRS 800 number and speak with someone. The first person with whom I spoke could only help me by determining if my wife qualified for an ITIN (which I already knew she did and have all the forms). However, Nancy then transferred me to the more specialized Advanced Individual Tax Law area and I got Tony to aid me with the "how should I file due to these extenuating circumstance" question. I explained in detail what we did last year, and then explained I was sure, based on the very confusing rules I was reading in the various documents, what status I should use to file (Married Joint, Married Separate, Single) and, if Married Joint or Married Separate, how my wife's status as a nonresident alien affected what I should enter and how.

He went through the points of the Married Joint and it seemed like a poor choice for our situation. While we could do it, it would require a lot more paperwork (three additional forms on top of the 1040) and this status would then make her have to state that she is a resident of the US for the next three years, regardless of her residency status. That didn't seem good with me moving to Canada. The rules for Married Separate seemed much more amenable to our situation.

I then further explained that she does not have an SSN or an ITIN yet, but that I assumed she needed an ITIN and we had all the paperwork together to process that. Tony said, "Hold on a minute. Does she need one?" He then went through and explained in detail that she may not, in fact, need anything at all. He said that it is very common for spouses to turn in tax forms with their spouses name on it and no SSN or ITIN for a variety of reasons. That one of the benefits of filing Married Separate is that, excluding the two fields where her name and SSN/ITIN would go, the rest of the form is entirely devoted to my information as though I am a single person. He said that if I turn in my 1040 with no SSN or ITIN for her, they will process it without that with no problem. I also verified that the IRS doesn't "look for" a corresponding tax return from a Married Separate form to match up the two married people (as in my case they would never find one). He did say that, if I did have the paperwork for the ITIN, it shouldn't hurt anything to include that and send the tax return to the appropriate secondary address to get her one. However, he couldn't verify doing so wouldn't negatively affect filing in the future-- especially since I'm moving to Canada.

The only important caveat is that I cannot e-file my return if I do not have a tax identification number for her. I have to paper-file. No real problem, really. Just means it might take a bit longer to get my money back.

So, after some initial panic, this seems like the route to go. File as Married filing Separately status, do not include her tax ID number, and then do my taxes like a single person and send it in. I think this weekend I will spend much time doing just that.

March 24, 2008

In the Valley of Elah

My wife and I managed to watch quite a few of the best picture, actor, etc. nominees this year, both before and after the Oscars. Overall, we felt that No Country... was superior to most of what we watched, even if the others were pretty good. Last night I watched my Unbox rental of Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah. While I wanted to see this film anyway, a post on this blog prompted me to step up my timetable for when I would watch it.


Elah was a complex, realistic, engaging story about a father (Tommy Lee Jones) finding out his youngest son has gone AWOL from the Army after returning from a tour in Iraq. He determines to discover where his son has gone and soon learns of the son's death. He then rattles the cages of the local (Charlize Theron) and the military (Jason Patric) police to do more and to be more aggressive (and, frankly, better at their jobs) in finding out what happened to his son. Susan Sarandan has a small but powerful role as Jones' wife.

From beginning to end, this film was superior to most of the other films up for awards in the last Oscars. I simply do not understand why this film wasn't nominated in more categories than Best Actor for Jones. The script was sound and engaging, the cinematography was well-conceived and executed, the direction and editing were both tight and well-done. All of the performances, including a surprise from Wes Chatham as Cpl. Penning in a very naturalist performance, were spot-on and incredible.

My best guess is that, because the movie was labeled as an "Iraq-war movie" people shied away from seeing it. Yes, it has some themes from Iraq that play a part in the movie, and the war is discussed, but the movie is not primarily about the war. The war was used as a prop; Haggis could have chosen any military conflict for this prop. The war theme is used to state that there are people who go to war, who are trained in and experience circumstances that non-military people could never hope to fully understand, and who come back and cannot "turn off" those experiences or that training. The circumstance of war and conflict alter them and their perceptions fundamentally. I wonder if this film would have been better-received if Haggis had chosen a different conflict as the back story to this story.

In comparison, I found this story tighter and more complete/compelling than Michael Clayton. It is much more powerful and complex than Juno. It nearly rivals No Country for its thought-provoking story and direction. While I have not yet seen Atonement, from what I've read of that movie in reviews, it seems that Elah is more even and consistent in its direction and story telling (most reviewers have argued that Atonement loses focus when the story switches to the man going to war). I would argue that Sarandan's performance was close to the same quality of Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (who won the Best Supporting Oscar). Theron also gave a strong, natural performance.

This movie will not be for everyone. There are some violent images and some of the back story scenes of what went on in Iraq to cause the change in personality of the characters may prove disturbing to some. However, as a thoughtful, relevant, and involving story concerning the ongoing affects of war on those who fight, it is well worth a watch.

March 20, 2008

Safe Trip, but Exciting

While my overall trip was primarily on time and without incident, there was some excitement coming into Chicago and then again close to Orange County. In both instances, we hit really strong cross and head on winds, which cause some pretty extreme turbulence.

We actually landed with the plane not in line with the runway in Chicago. Only after all of the wheels were down did the pilot straighten the plane out and slow us down.

The flight to Orange County was also fun because the plane had a huge number of children under 10 on board. Some were screaming, some were playing games, some were excited by their first time or just being on a plane in general.

I got home pretty fast too. I got right on a Super Shuttle van and was the first person dropped off, for once. However, that still meant that I wasn't home until about a quarter to 9 PST-- and I was still running on AST, so it really felt like 1 am to me!

Immediately upon entering the apartment I had to start the clean up from my cat being alone for all that time. I also found my relatively new Drinkwell fountain not running and both water dishes bone dry. I think I may have to rethink my current arrangements for watching my cat. The bathroom where her litter is wasn't too bad, though; I have changed to a clumping pine dust mix that seems to work very well. I still have more cleaning to do from her, but it stuff that can wait a little.

Caly herself started meowing and didn't stop until after I fell asleep. She was sticking to me like glue and still is today (I'm working from home).

I then tried to stay up until 10:30-11pm and was successful.

I am looking at my things to do list now and realizing that I have a ton of stuff to dig into immediately, most especially my taxes (special circumstances due to being married to a Canadian without a US SSN or ITN (at the moment)), my health care needs, and laundry.

March 18, 2008

Ratings and TV

The following is from today:

New episodes of CBS's sitcom lineup returned to the air Monday following months of reruns due to the writers' strike, and ABC aired the season debut of its reality hit Dancing With the Stars, and although all of those shows received decent-to-good ratings, they were well off their comparable figures from a year ago. CBS declined 17 percent against last year's numbers for the comparable night. ABC was off 21 percent. For NBC and Fox, the plunge was far deeper, with NBC down 28 percent from last year and Fox, 32 percent. Reporting on the numbers, MediaWeek columnist Marc Berman asked, "Did the recent writers' strike cause permanent damage?" Berman pointed out that while ABC's Dancing With the Starspremiere averaged a solid 13.4 rating and a 21 share, a year ago it opened with a 15.1/22.

I have been arguing this for a while now. Television is not the end-all, be-all medium anymore. And the television executives are not changing with the times. I see a few ways in which TV execs are not learning:

Fair but not outstanding ratings.
Execs would rather drop a show doing a fair amount (say, a 6.0 to 9.5) in the ratings and hope the replace does better than stick with a show that already has a solid foundation and may improve over time. However, the model over the last 5 years indicates this is no longer a safe bet. Matter of fact, the model shows just the opposite-- it is much more likely for 6.0-9.5 to be the average of "hit" shows. Gone seem to be the days when the top 20-25 shows all were doing better than 10.0 in the ratings. There is so much competition now that a show is going to start high and then level out to somewhere in the 6-9.5 range on a much more regular basis. Only the top 10, certain sports programs, and special presentations will regularly eclipse these numbers. As the internet and cable shows continue to eat into the networks quality and provide even more competition for viewers, this may go down even further.

How to compete?
Leave shows on longer. Let them find their audience and be content with smaller numbers. You are still receiving money from advertisers for that time. If you control costs on the shows without affecting the quality of the show, you can keep this going for a number of years. A recent example would be Studio 60. This show came out like gangbusters, then settled into a respectable but not overwhelming ratings number, and then started to pick up some cudos and awards toward the end of its run. The audience was starting to come around and, like many Sorkin shows, it likely would have picked up in the next season. However, the network wasn't willing to wait and replaced it... with something that made about the same splash and then sank to about the same rating lows. So they lost on two shows rather than giving one a chance to succeed.

Competing with other networks' best shows.
Execs think they can bully their way onto other networks' best days and steal some glory. Instead, they wind up diminishing the entire night's worth of ratings. The four main networks need to start working on ways to help each other maintain viewership rather than always undermining the other networks best shows or blocks of shows. This becomes especially true with the rise of cable networks quality and willingness to compete directly with the networks. Shows like Burn Notice, Damages, The Shield, The Closer, and others, are proving that the cable networks can pull in large audience for quality programming. This further thins the viewing public from the networks. Add in the large number of eyes that have shifted to internet-only programming, MMO games, and other forms of entertainment (to the tune of $3-4 Billion a year and more), and the networks simply do not have the rapt audience they used to have.

Another trick from the last year was scheduling shows to start early or overrun a competing network's show. They figured they would keep audience by holding them past the hour and the audience would switch. Instead, they got massive email, phone calls, and letters with customer complaints about that. They learned quickly that the audience wasn't going to stand for that kind of shenanigans and we slowly saw that tact done away with.

How to compete?
Program around another network's best shows. Let them have their piece of the pie and put your best shows on another day or another time. Give the audience a chance to watch both shows and keep both you and your rival afloat. And stop the gimmicks with time shifting your programs. Moving your shows around erodes your audience, as many will not move to the new day or time (they likely already have something for that day or time scheduled, whether it is online, on another network or cable channel, or unrelated). History bears this out-- shows that move their times and days lose audience and ratings. Every time.

They think we want unscripted shows and clones of everything else on TV.
The most recent errors the networks have been making are assuming the viewing audience will watch just anything they throw out there. When Who Wants to be a Millionaire first came out, it was a ratings juggernaut. However, they effectively killed it and drove it to cable and off-times by putting too much of it on the air. CSI and Law & Order drove down their own ratings by splintering into multiple versions of their own shows. Add to that the number of other, similar clones that rolled out on other networks, and the audience further erodes. Super-heroes were doing well at the box offices, so the WB put a couple of super-hero type shows on TV. They did well and built a loyal audience. Next thing you know, there are a bunch of super-hero type shows on TV and each one starts with a big audience and then erodes down to a core set of viewers. I'd be willing to bet it is the same core audience keeping most of them afloat. Supposedly unscripted shows are not doing the gang-buster ratings the networks have come to rely on because, well, the audience is bored. We all know they are not, in fact, unscripted. So we start going back to the original, most interesting and all the others slowly drop to oblivion.

The difference between the originator and the clones? Quality. The originator is usually the best, highest-quality, purest, and most original of the group. The clones are all variations on that same theme. So, once the audience figures that out after 2-4 shows, the audience goes away. Sometimes back to the originator, sometimes on to the next "big thing" hyped, and sometimes away for good.

Also, if you're going to rehash an old show or movie concept, make sure you make something new and different without ruining the feeling and opinions of those who saw and still watch the original. For example, Bionic Woman was too different from the original concept, tried to be too many things at once, and couldn't hold its audience (although it was averaging at the mid-6s... right in what I argue is the target range the networks should be striving for and trying to keep a hold of).

How to compete?
Go for the new and then stick with it and let it find its legs. If your rival network or cable channel comes out with something new and different, don't clone it. Look for your own new and unique shows instead. Don't franchise yourself to death. And simply don't put on the same show two or more times a week. NBC's response to the success of Lost on ABC was to bring out Heroes-- a similar feeling, but wholly different and high-quality show of its own. Both have been successful.

Take a long, hard look at the shows you are passing on. A lot of what is now on cable and stealing your ratings was offered to you first and you passed on it. Maybe it is time for new and different eyes in development?

March 12, 2008

The Waiting Game

While it is great that the Immigration paperwork is in the hands of the Canadian government, it is also frustrating just... waiting.

I have a letter dated February 13, 2008, saying that the Buffalo, NY, Canadian Consulate has my paperwork and that mine is in a "priority queue." When I go to its online site, I see that 30% of the applications have a response in 3 months, 50% in 5 months, 70% within 7 months, and 80% in 9 months (all of those months numbers are the same or better than nearly all out-of-Canada response times).

However, knowing that I am very likely to have a response within 5 months from February still means that I am waiting for a response until July sometime, most likely. And that seems like forever to wait, especially with what is going on in my immediate SoCal area (with work, the housing crisis, etc.) and the nation in general (recession, etc.).

From my mother I get a need to do for myself and not give up a project or task unless absolutely necessary. While this is absolutely necessary, it is nerve-wracking to have it out of my hands and not be able to do anything to assist the application's speed review and approval.

So I will try my best not to go to the web site every single day and look up the application's state. I will try to wait patiently to hear from the Canadian government about my status. *sigh

March 10, 2008

The Week That Was

On the Thursday prior to leaving for Saint John, I commented to both my wife and my boss that I wasn't feeling particularly well and that I was afraid that flying was going to cause me increased difficulties because of that. On top of that, as you have likely already ready in a previous post, the flight took much longer and was a poor day, which didn't help my beleaguered immune system. Lastly, Saint John is suffering from some pretty bad cold/flu problems at the moment (they have been ranked "High" or "Very High" since I got here).

Sure enough, I got sick. Very sick. Happily, it was a slightly uncommon illness for me in that my face really showed it, I was coughing a ton (and powerfully), and even sneezing and blowing my nose. My throat was raw both from the coughing and from the illness, some intestinal/stomach issues, and I had a severe headache. I say "luckily" because, oftentimes, I get very sick but it doesn't show up on my face and people around me don't completely believe I'm sick. Apparently, the key to making people believe you really are sick is to have a red nose from blowing too much or water, dry, drained, eyes. I simply don't usually have those symptoms.

I actually logged off early and or took a full sick day a couple of times last week, I felt that bad. This weekend it came to a head and I actually coughed so hard that I vomited! Ugh! I have been sucking on cough drops, Hall's Defense, and taking Advil Cold and Sinus all week and praying for health.

What has been wonderful is being with my wife. What a difference it makes to have someone who can take over the cooking needs, can keep the cupboards stocked, and rub you when you are having a hot or cold flash. Unlike when I am at my apartment and I have to eat whatever crap happens to be left over in my fridge or cupboards, which I'm sure doesn't help me get any better. My only hope is that she doesn't catch what I've had. *fingers crossed

I'm back at work today. Sneezing and blowing a bit, still having powerful and painful coughing, and still feeling liquid sloshing around in my chest. But I am definitely on the mend. Finally!

Now, today would normally be Enbrel day, but that lowers the hell out of my immune system and I'm not supposed to take it when I feel sick or feel like I am getting sick. So I think I had better hold off a day or two more before trying it. *sigh

March 3, 2008

Journey Here

For the most part, the trip here this time was okay and mostly uneventful. However, I have learned that having 3 or more hours of waiting to do at any one stop is like Hell. I will have to avoid flights with overly long layovers next time.

The last flight came after what was scheduled as a 4 hour layover. However, my flight from Chicago to Toronto was early and then a weather front in SJ caused my flight to be delayed from a takeoff of 9:55pm to 10:40pm. With the time change going to AST, I was already supposed to land at 12:45am, so this delay was pushing me back to nearly a 2 am arrival time. And then, when  they finally announced what was going on (I had gone up and spoken with someone at the desk, which is why I knew about the delay and what was going on and found out the chances were "poor" they could get us to SJ), they said that they were thinking about taking off, seeing if the weather cleared as they traveled to SJ, and then landing at Quebec City if it was not clearing enough to land for refueling and "further consideration." Er, excuse me? You want to take off, hope that you have a place you can land, and then turn around and land in a much smaller city, with fewer hotels and other options for our continued travel? If the runway in SJ didn't clear, they even said they might then fly us back to Toronto from Quebec City later that night. Ugh!

I determined that if the chances of the runway didn't improve, then I would opt out of this marry-go-round and find the hotel that M had researched for me and just try again in the morning (Toronto had an 8 am flight that would get me to SJ by just shy of 11 am AST). However, the next announcement, over an hour and a half later and very nearly the time we should have been boarding the plane was that we were waiting a bit longer, and that they chances of getting through to SJ were "fair." I told M I was going to risk it and get on; I'd speak with her whenever/wherever I landed-- hopefully in SJ at 2 am.

This flight was uneventful and we did manage to land in SJ early in the morning. M had driven the borrowed Aztek, which has either all-wheel or four-wheel drive over the icy roads to come get me, nearly spinning out of control once along the way. We took a different path back, took it slowly, and she got me home safely.

Sunday we spent a lazy day at home adjusting to having me here. The snow outside is pretty thick-- I'd say close to a foot on the unshoveled and unplowed areas. We shoveled the driveway and back porch a bit so M could go to work on Monday.

The time shift struck me last night/this morning-- I had trouble falling asleep until after 2 am and am very tired this morning. It always takes me a little while to adjust either way. But we are hitting our routine and happy to be together.