Monday, June 15, 2009

Movie Review - The Hangover

In the movie business, summertime means a proliferation of big budget action flicks and to my delight, comedies. Most of the good comedies are saved for summer release though more and more it seems studios are releasing a few in March and April. This year has already seen “Adventureland”, “Observe and Report”, and “I Love You, Man”.

“The Hangover” is the latest comedic release. It has been getting positive reviews so I took the first opportunity I had to go see the movie. People I talked to gave glowing reviews so maybe I expected too much but I must say, the movie was a letdown. I do think the plot is a creative spin on the typical Vegas/bachelor party movie and the movie is well structured. The basic premise is that four friends, Doug (Justin Bartha; getting married), Phil (Bradley Cooper; frat boy friend), Stu (Ed Helms; nerdy friend), and Alan (Zack Galifianakis; crazy friend/soon to be brother-in-law), head of to Las Vegas two days before the wedding. After for a night of debauchery, Phil, Stu, and Alan wake up to find Doug missing. Most of the movie is spent retracing the steps of the night before so the remaining three friends can make sure Doug makes it back to Los Angeles for his wedding.

My favorite comedies come from Judd Apatow and crew. Apatow or Apatow inspired movies almost always provide at least one joke that I can say is comedy at its best and sometimes even comedic genius. The same cannot be said about “The Hangover”. There were funny moments -- with the funniest provided by Ed Helms (The Daily Show, The Office) -- but nothing side splittingly funny. There were too many jokes that fell flat or went too far. Not that I was offended by any of the jokes but sometimes it’s what you leave out that makes the movie. Addition by subtraction.

The movie was well cast. The best thing about the film is the emergence of Ed Helms as a movie actor. Stu was the only person I found consistently funny. He’s always been good on TV but this is the first time I can remember thinking, he could play the leading role in the right comedy. He’ll never be a star but has the potential to be a reliably funny wing man.

As for Alan, I can’t see many other people playing him. Zach Galifianakis does a fantastic job of making Alan crazy but not so crazy that the audience tires of him. Uttering odd, sometimes incomprehensible lines, Galifianakis always makes you think “what the hell” and more often than not the “what the hell” is accompanied by laughter.

Bradley Cooper did a good job playing Phil but he is the actor that could most easily be replaced in the film. This has more to do with the writing than Cooper’s acting abilities. His main role in the movie was to create the environment for Helms and Galifianakis to be funny.

One of the reasons I might not have loved the movie is that the two trailers for The Hangover gave away too many of the funny surprises. Overall, The Hangover was a fun movie but has nothing on my favorite comedy of the year so far, “I Love You, Man”. Coming July 31 is the movie I am most excited about seeing this summer, Judd Apatow’s third feature film, “Funny People”. Next up, “The Proposal”. Or not. Peace.

I highly recommend seeing "Up" and "Away We Go".

Other reviews of "The Hangover"

Local DC Blogger - Plight of the Pumpernickel - Not only a good review of the movie but she also answers the question on everybody's mind: Does Bradley Cooper deserve heartthrob status? The answer might not surprise you.

My favorite movie reviewer - NYT's A.O. Scott

Friday, June 12, 2009

Best of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (June 8th-12th)

I never watched Late Night consistently but since Conan started the Tonight Show last week, I've been watching each episode the day after on Hulu. Starting today, I am going to post my favorite clips of the week. Enjoy the comedy!

New Chrysler Commercial

Twitter Tracker

Jim Gaffigan interview

Tonight Show Mug Shots

Norm MacDonald interview

Tonight Show Children (from last week)

Gun Fears

Paul Krugman has an interesting non economics column in Friday's New York Times entitled "The Big Hate".
An excerpt:

Yes, the worst terrorist attack in our history was perpetrated by a foreign conspiracy. But the second worst, the Oklahoma City bombing, was perpetrated by an all-American lunatic. Politicians and media organizations wind up such people at their, and our, peril.
Check out the whole column. It is incredible that even with Democrats in control of the Presidency and the Congress, Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, was able to get through an amendment, to a credit card bill of all things, that allows concealed handguns in national parks. Really? Are we that paranoid of a nation that we think it is necessary to carry handguns wherever we go. Recent legislation in Tennessee would allow guns to be carried into bars. Great idea, or not. From the AP:

The legislation that takes effect July 14 retains an existing ban on consuming alcohol while carrying a handgun, and restaurant owners can still opt to ban weapons from their establishments.
Also, it is quite disturbing that gun sales are at record levels since Obama was elected. From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:

On the gun counter at Ace Sporting Goods in Washington County, customers are greeted with a picture of President Barack Obama next to the caption, "Salesman of the Year."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Learned Helplessness and the Age of the SUV

I just came upon an essay Malcolm Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker back in 2004 entitled "Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. Ran Over Automotive Safety". It is a fascinating look at the claim that SUVs are safer than cars Below are a few excerpts. I highly recommend reading the whole essay.

In the parlance of the automobile world, the TrailBlazer is better at "passive safety. " The Boxster is better when it comes to "active safety," which is every bit as important.

The S.U.V. boom represents, then, a shift in how we conceive of safety—from active to passive. It's what happens when a larger number of drivers conclude, consciously or otherwise, that the extra thirty feet that the TrailBlazer takes to come to a stop don't really matter, that the tractor-trailer will hit them anyway, and that they are better off treating accidents as inevitable rather than avoidable.

S.U.V.s are unsafe because they make their drivers feel safe. That feeling of safety isn't the solution; it's the problem.

Read the whole thing.

Books by Malcolm Gladwell:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

The Profitability of SUVs

James Kwak from The Baseline Scenario asks Why are SUVs more profitable?:

Many discussions of auto company economics include the assertion that SUVs and pickup trucks are more profitable than small cars, and so a shift from the former to the latter – as discussed by Felix Salmon, for example – will not be good for the auto companies, particularly GM and Chrysler (since they are in the news these days). I accept that as a historical statement, but I don’t understand why that is the case.

Textbook micro tells you that price equals marginal cost, so the gross margin on every product is zero; that’s clearly no help here. Profit margins should be higher in product segments with less competition, but basically every manufacturer makes a small, midsize, and large SUV, so I don’t think that’s the explanation.

He goes on to give several other reasons why SUVs might be more popular. There are a lot of good comments to the post and I found the exercise of answering the question very intellectually stimulating. Here is my response to the question why are SUVs more profitable?:

The answer to the question has a lot to due with consumer preference. SUV’s are, in a low cost of fuel environment, preferred to cars. The only reason people would rather buy a Civic than a truck/SUV is the low cost of a Civic. A minority would buy the Civic due to environmental reasons but most people won’t sacrifice comfort for the environment. SUV’s fit more people/stuff, make people feel powerful when they are able to look down on cars, and are safer (or at least perceived to be) in case of an accident. Car companies realize this so, since building cars has a high barrier to entry, the existing competitors compete on features rather than price for SUV’s and compete on price rather than features for small cars. This is one reason why Japanese automakers were late introducing multiple models of SUV’s. They had to understand the design aesthetic and features that Americans required for SUV’s and build the capabilities to meet the requirement whereas with a small car they could use their low cost advantage to profitably sell small cars and gain acceptance in the marketplace.

With their low cost structures, why didn’t the Japanese manufacturers lower prices on SUV’s to further pressure domestic manufacturers? The Japanese manufacturers probably realized that the domestic manufacturers didn’t want to risk lowering prices on SUV’s and not seeing a subsequent uptick in sales because the domestics had to make up the money they were losing on the small cars required by the CAFÉ standards. Thus the number of competitors that could compete on price was essentially cut from 6 to 3. With rebates an accepted practice in the car industry, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan could just start offering rebates if there was any real pricing pressure. Combined with the fact that until the past year or so foreign manufacturers did not have excess SUV manufacturing capacity, there was no real incentive to cut prices. Brands such as Hyundai are starting to build quality cars and gain a good reputation so it will be interesting to see if the profit margins continue to stay high.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Phosphorus Famine

Scientific American - Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply:

Land ecosystems use and reuse phosphorus in local cycles an average of 46 times. The mineral then, through weathering and runoff, makes its way into the ocean, where marine organisms may recycle it some 800 times before it passes into sediments. Over tens of millions of years tectonic uplift may return it to dry land.

Harvesting breaks up the cycle because it removes phosphorus from the land. In prescientific agriculture, when human and animal waste served as fertilizers, nutrients went back into the soil at roughly the rate they had been withdrawn. But our modern society separates food production and consumption, which limits our ability to return nutrients to the land. Instead we use them once and then flush them away.

...And flood control contributes to disrupting the natural phosphorus cycle. Typically river floods would redistribute phosphorus-rich sediment to lower lands where it is again available for ecosystems. Instead dams trap sediment, or levees confine it to the river until it washes out to sea.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Budget Airline to Charge for Toilet Use

Its no joke. Ryanair, the Irish low cost airline, is going to remove 2 of the 3 toilets currently on their Boing aircraft and start charging $1.50 to use the remaining toilet. They are also thinking about implementing “'new baggage measures, which would see passengers replace baggage handlers to load luggage onto aircraft” are “under discussion”' and charging for "the privilege of checking themselves in online"

Here are the money quotes, and really the reason for this post, from the NY Times discussing the decision:

“We are flying aircraft on an average flight time of one hour around Europe,” Mr. O’Leary argued, “what the hell do we need three toilets for?”
Mr. O’Leary added that Boeing’s research department should have time to focus on his new toilet concept soon, since the “war in Iraq and Afghanistan is winding down.”

I think I'm going to start paying attention to what the CEO of Ryanair, Michael O'Leary, has to say. He seems pretty hilarious.