Grocery Shopping Blues

Since my wife was busy with end of the semester grading, I volunteered to do a little shopping. I made the mistake of going to Auchan on a Saturday afternoon. This is a store very similar to a super Wal-mart, it's got everything. It was absolutely packed. People everywhere looking for food, drinks, magazines, car parts, and everything else imaginable. Shopping in France is always interesting for me, even on a good day. You try reading the ingredients on the back of a package when you don't understand the language its written in, and see where you get. Luckily, today I had a small list and most of the items were pretty obvious. Although I spent 20 minutes looking at vacuum bags before giving up and moving on. Unlike most Wal-marts I have ever been in, Auchan actually had all of their check out aisles open. But there were still a million people in each aisle with shopping carts loaded full. I took my place in a relatively short line full of people with only 10 or 11 items versus the 50 or 60 items per person in the other aisles.

Quickly another lady joins my line behind me. She puts her bags down behind my basket on the floor and says something. I have learned to basically ignore everyone here versus being pulled into a conversations I can't possibly understand, or respond to, with any sense. Normally this procedure works because I can briskly walk away from whomever, and be on my way without any embarrassment or misunderstanding. But this time I was stuck in a slow moving line and had to attempt comprehension. All I could understand from her smiling lips was "vert," the French word for green. I quickly ran through a list of questions that could possibly contain the word green. I came up with none. Sensing I didn't understand, the lady asked me again; this time kneeling towards her bags on the floor and pointing at my basket. Was she asking me if she could use my basket? What kind of nut ball question is that? And besides my basket is most definitely red and the French word for red (rouge) sounds nothing like green. Finally after failing to understand this poor woman's question three times, I explained in my best French, that I didn't understand what she was asking and spoke very little French. She smiled and proceeded to walk up to the cashier. After a quick conversation that I couldn't hear, the lady leaned under the cashier's counter and picked up a green basket. She smiled to the customer nearest the counter as she lifted the green basket up for him to see. As this was the answer they had all been looking for.

There are generally empty baskets laying under the counters in French markets. You pick a basket up when you walk in, fill it with your goods, and then empty the basket when you check out. Why in the world was this crazy woman asking me about the green basket? Am I the keeper of the baskets? Why does she need a basket now? We're at the checkout counter. Surely she could keep track of her bags for a few more minutes. Presumably, she has lugged them across the store basketless, so why get one now when she's ready to check out? The remainder of the time I waited in line, this woman continued to wander to nearby checkout aisles and browse their goods. She could not stand still. One minute she was on my left looking at candy. The next she was on the right checking out a mirror.

As I finally reached the check out counter I lifted my red basket off the ground so that I could begin placing my items on the conveyer belt. No sooner than I had grabbed my bag of corn chips did I realize there was a snag in my plan. There was a small boy lying half his body across the conveyer belt. One can only assume his mother had been dragging him all day from store to store, while she shopped for goods, and he became exhausted. I thought I would give him a hint and began piling my chips next to his head. Any normal, self-conscience lad, I thought, would understand my need to empty the red basket, and move off the belt designed for groceries, and not little boys heads. But no, the boys head stayed. Now the mother of conveyer belt boy begins leaning over the boy, and my corn chips, to check out some phone cards. Why she could not have perused these cards during the 10 minutes she was standing directly in front of them, nobody knows. But now that I am holding my ,increasingly heavy, red basket, her son is laying his head on the belt, and my chips are resting gently nearby, she has decided that phone cards could definitely be a purchase. Several minutes pass like this until she has decided to actually move around me and give those phone cards a good look-over.

By this point I'm seeing red and don't notice if the lady actually purchases the cards or not. What I do see is the line moving forward. Boy lifts his head off the conveyer belt and I am able to lay my goods down. Suddenly boy becomes frightened. There are several of the divider sticks laying near the cashier. These sticks are designed to maintain dividing points between each customers groceries, lest the cashier get confused and charge my corn chips to someone else. There are several of these sticks laying near the cashier, but they are too far up the line to be grabbed by the boy. Boy is so frightened that my goods and his mothers may mix that he sticks his full right arm in between them. Excitedly, girlishly, he chatters to his mother about this problem. She seems to understand but is helpless to solve the matter. Meanwhile crazy lady behind me begins stacking her grocers right on top of mine. I push my goods closer to the boys arm, but crazy lady keeps piling them right up on me. Feeling the boys pain I point my stare of hatred towards the cashier who is hoarding all the dividing sticks. "Why don't you push those down here?" my mind asks. Can't you see the problems your causing?

Finally, my turn arrives. "Bonjour" I say, as I sack and pay for your goods before leaving with a final "Au revoir." Relieved that it is all over I pack my sacks into my back pack and head for the tram.

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Like a Midnight Rambler

Song of the moment: Elvis Presley Blues by Gillian Welch

I've been sick again. Why do I get sick so much. I blame it on travel. My first year in Indiana I got very sick very often. Same thing for Alabama. Tennessee did me good though. This time it was a sinus thing. Very congested. Sinus trouble makes everything very surreal for me. Like it takes a moment for my eyes to focus on anything so I spend my day in a series of brief blurs. I was feverish Wednesday night. Go to bed freezing and piling covers on top. Wake up drenched in sweat and glad of it, for I know it is passing.

After considering London, Dublin, Scottland, and Spain we have finally decided on Rome for our February vacation. Prices all around are cheaper. Our only problem now will be in trying to fit all of the places we want to see into a few days. I'm hoping to head South as well and maybe catch the sea.

My head is too dizzy from bad sinuses and good drugs to write much more. But I wanted to check in to keep the few, the faithful from forgetting about my little piece of cyberspace.

DVD Review: Alien

Each film in the Alien quadrilogy has differed from each other. It has helped that they each had a distinctive and imaginative director. Ridley Scott created a slow, tension filled science fiction epic. James Cameron pumped it full of adrenaline and made an action packed masterpiece. David Fincher cut his teeth on Alien3 by turning the action into a dark, mostly muddled mess. Jean-Pierre Jeunet tried to rescue the franchise, but had no story to work with. Like the Star Wars movies what we're left with is a couple of top notch flicks and a few others that while showing a few moments of visual brilliance leave ultimately leave the series limp.

But my review is not of the series as a whole, but on the movie that started it all. In considering the franchise it is sometimes forgotten that Alien never started out as a quadrilogy. There was only this one movie about a group of average workers sent to capture a monster. Scott does a superb job of creating suspense. It is some 30 minutes into the picture before we actually see an Alien. And even then the action is slow to evolve. For the audience this creates a great amount of tension. Even for those who have never seen an Alien movie, the creature has so penetrated our popular culture that everyone knows it's not an ET kind of alien. So, while watching it we know that the alien is creeping around some corner just waiting to devour the characters. And yet we hardly see the alien. We not only don't get to see any alien through a third of the film, but when the alien does come out and begin its slaughter, we only catch glimpses of the creature itself. It is seen in the dark creeping in a corner, or in a flash as it jumps out of the darkness to attack. Scott, instead, uses shots of the crew to show the fear in their eyes, before their destruction, rather than show the creature in action. There are only one or two moments where the audience sees the alien in full figure, and those last only a short time. Even then the alien does not move, never allowing us to see it kill. This stroke serves to scare the audience even more. For how many times have we seen a movies monster in action only to laugh at its poor design?

The movie oozes with atmosphere. The cinematography is dark and shadowy. The ship's quarters are enclosed and tight, creating claustrophobic spaces in which to encounter the Alien. Then there is HR Giger’s amazing design. His designs of the alien ship and the alien are absolutely perfect. The ship seems to slither and move as if it’s alive. There are curves, ridges and smooth edges as on the alien itself. All of which creates an atmosphere, and mood that stimulates the horror to come.

All of the effects shot were done in without the use of CGI. Generally they still hold their ground. Sure, the glimpses we get of the alien standing look like a man in a rubber suit. But overall the effects look great. This is a testament to the genius of Giger. My main complaint is with MOTHER. Like other science fiction films the crew’s ship, the Nostromo, has its brains in a giant computer. Here, MOTHER is housed in an inner room of the ship and only accessible by the ships captain. We see her captain, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) go to visit MOTHER for a "your eyes only" deal. Why a commercial ship needs this type of security is never mentioned. Mother turns out to be a Star Trekesque computer equipped with blinking lights and a faint whirring sound. All of this is so that the Dallas can sit down to a DOS prompt and ask silly questions like "What's the story, Mother?" They should have gone with a more 2001 approach and have the crew be able to actually speak to MOTHER.

All of the characters are very well acted and fleshed out. Each character is given their own personality and is fully realized. There is a nice scene in which the crew is searching for the recently unsucking face sucker has disappeared. Ripley (Signorney Weaver) has left the door open and Ash (Ian Holm) moves to shut it so the alien won't escape. The look Ash gives as he is doing this is incredible. Ash and Ripley have previously had a bit of a fight and you can see the anger and irritation at Ripley perfectly in Ash's face.

Signorney Weaver plays Ripley beautifully. This is a female action star that is sexy, but doesn't pander her sexuality (though they did manage to get her in her underwear.) She is tough as nails and intelligent. And Weaver plays her perfectly.

Alien is arguably the best in one of the most successful series in film history. It is also one of the best science fiction films Hollywood has ever made.

Snow Another Day

Daniel and all of the AIM missionaries went to Belgium for a conference this last weekend. It was decided that I should preach on Sunday. There was a time, many a year ago, when I aspired to be a minister of some sort. I gave up that aspiration for various reasons and haven't done any type of preaching/teaching in a very long time. The last time I did anything like it was in 1999 where my parents were going to church in Grove, OK. At that time I read a few passages from Pascal and asked the audience what they thought about it. Unfortunately I left my Pascal in America and knew I would actually have to lead some sort of sermon. I worked a few things together and padded it with a lot of Scripture. Luckily there were only about 5 of us there. Half the congregation was in Belgium and the weather was poor enough to keep the rest at home. The funny thing was that even with so few Jean Claude was there and he doens't speak English. So Tammy had to translate everything for him.

We went to Laura's home in the evening. A bunch of us ate pizza and watched a movie. The movie was French, but was about a young man traveling to Spain and living with an ecclectic group. It was difficult for me to follow. Most of it was in French, but the group that was living together all spoke English or Spanish. So I got a French soundtract part of the time, then it would switch to Spanish with French subtitles or English with French subtitles. I would concentrate really hard on what was being spoken to understand what little French I could. Then I would have to stop listening and try to understand the French subtitles. Then it would turn to English being spoken but it would take me a minute to realize I could actually understand what was being spoken and stop reading the subtitles.

We went home around 1 in the morning. It was cold and snowing! A beautiful snow too. Big bright, fluffy, flakes coming down all around. It packed rather well as well so we had to throw a few snowballs. Suddenly I became the loud guy on the street who I am normally cursing. It didn't last too long and now there is hardly a remnant left.

We're trying to plan a vacation in February. Originally we thought we'd go to London and then maybe Dublin, but it is looking a little too pricey for the moment. So now the plan is to take a tour of German castles. We'll see if that works out.

DVD Review: A Hard Days Night

I started watching Alien on Monday to follow through with my alphabetical watching, but IB0000542D2.01._AA_SCMZZZZZZZ_.jpg have been delayed in completing it. Instead I have a review of the Beatles first film A Hard Day's Night.

Critiquing this film as a piece of cinema, and not as a collection of Beatles tunes is a difficult task. Richard Lester creates some truly beautiful black and white images. Though sometimes the camera can't seem to find its focus. And the images obviously taken on a helicopter as they boys play in the grass outside the television studio shake wildly and distract from the fun being had. The boys, though essentially playing themselves still play it a little stiff as if they are not sure how, exactly, to be themselves. The jokes, for the most part, are still funny, and what little plot there is, still works to give a glimpse into what it was like to be a band on the verge of universal stardom.

To take the movie without the songs is well beyond the point, though. The movie is essentially a market ploy to get the songs heard via a different media. One might not be so forgiving if the songs were not any good, but the music shines throughout. The title song that starts the movie off starts with a struuuum that is instantly recognizable and jumps out and smack you in the face. That is followed by what is arguably the Beatles best tunes. When you add in such songs as: I Should Have Known Better, Tell Me Why, I'm Happy Just to Dance with You, the simple, sweet "If I Fell" and the sing along favorite "Can't Buy Me Love" to the soundtrack then you have a musical that is just shy of remarkable.

The movie was released just before the Beatles came to America and appeared on Ed Sullivan which brought on the madness known as Beatlemania. By this time they were extremely popular as can be seen in the crowds reaction while the boys sings on the television show. It is still shocking to see images of teenage girls screaming, crying and shaking in a manner previously only known to the Pentecostal religion. The soundtrack periodically allow the girls screaming to take over the music allowing us to glimpse what it must have been like to be there. No wonder the boys gave up playing live shortly thereafter.

A Hard Days Night is an excellent glimpse of the Beatles on the cusp of World Stardom. This was before the summer of love, drugs, and the sitar where the Beatles were just trying to be the best band in the world and writing songs that made them so. It is a joy to see them cutting up and being their goofy, hilarious selves. I dare you not to sing and dance along as you watch it.

A Day Trip

Boats rest serenely in Colmar's "Little Venice"

A few days ago we were given notice that our water was going to be turned off from 8:30 until 5 pm Wednesday. After much discussion, Amy and I decided to make a day trip of it. We got up early Wednesday morning, and showered before the water was turned off. After checking the train schedules and some more debate we decided to go to Colmar. It is a quaint little city about 30 minutes, by train, South of Strasbourg. Colmar is the former home of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who created the Statue of Liberty. His home has been converted into a museum. There are several old churches built by the Dominicans in the 13th and 14th Centuries. The city is beautiful, or, I believe it is in the Spring. It had the cold, gray bleakness of winter while we were there. They city has done a good job promoting it's tourism and history. There are plaques giving information in French, English, and German at numerous points of interest throughout.

We bought a tourist map for .80 Euros and walked across the town visiting the various churches, schools and nunneries. We visited the art museum. It is located in a beautiful old church. Most of the artwork is from local artists and is of a religious nature. With our ticket we also received an audio guide. This was very interesting at first but became exhausting after an hour or so. There are only so many times I can listen to someone explaining the significance of yet another painting of the crucifixion scene.

We ate at a little pastry shop. Amy had a coffee and an apple tart. I had a delicious raspberry cream tart and a hot chocolate. We caught the 6:10 train to Strasbourg and returned to an apartment with running water! It's the little things that keep us going.

Born Again French

After my French lesson on Saturday my tutor, Ann, gave me a little lecture about practicing.

"You need to go over your verbs." she said. She then brought out a little address book. The address book had English words with French definitions filling its pages. They were alphabetized in the book in the same manner you would use it for address'. On pages B instead of Bowland and Bales there was banana and beach towel.

"You should get one of these. I've found it very helpful with my English vocabulary." She then asked me if I had any friends that I could speak French with. Upon admitting that, no, I tended to hang out with English speakers Ann told me to start speaking with Amy.

"You've been here five months and hardly speak a word of French," she lectured. Before I could counter that I had really only been here four months and that the first one didn't count as I wasn't taking lessons she expressing her worry over me wasting my time and money on lessons. We agreed to meet on Monday and I promised to do better.

I mentioned Ann's lecture in casual conversation on the phone to my mother.

"Mathew," she said, "you know why you aren't doing well? You aren't studying are you? Are you paying for these lessons?"

Upon hearing that yes, I was in fact paying for them she increased her lecture into a feverish pitch. My mother is a world class nagger and here she was in top form. She urged me to start hitting the books. She added a stern voice while telling me that I was wasting my money if I wasn't practicing the language with Amy. She swore she would have no son if I didn't get things together.

It worked. Amy and I spent an hour the next evening speaking in French. She picked an old LaRedoute catalog and chose interesting pages to talk about. At first she would describe what the models were wearing and ask me to repeat the French words for "skirt, boots, and jacket." Then she would quiz me on the different colors being worn or where the models were located. Soon I was making up little stories to go with the picture.

"That girl is from Lawrence, KS," I'd say, "she came to Paris on a two week vacation. After three days her luggage was stolen and she couldn't afford to stay in the hotel. After 7 days she had to start prostituting herself to live."*

I was remembering word I didn't know I had ever learned. Suddenly I could conjugate the verb "to steal" in the third person past form. The problem with my tutoring sessions is that we are continually learning new and more difficult language use. We rarely review in class and I am supposed to remember at will any past lesson. My mind gets so tied up in unscrambling the new information that it is too scared to remember anything older than a few minutes. But now in a casual setting with nothing new keeping me occupied I was remembering three months worth of verbs, nouns and prepositions. I was far from perfect, and I had a very limited vocabulary but it was enlightening to suddenly be able to make a complete sentence and better yet, have it understood.

Amy and I have been speaking everyday since and I have started using an address book for new vocabulary and grammar. "How is your sandwich?" I'll ask over lunch. "I like the cheese." And Amy, with an encouraging smile will say, "Tres bien."

* In actuality this conversation went more like this: "She is American. She go to Paris. She no have bags and money. She is prostitute."

Blogcritics

My faithful readers will notice a new link in my sidebar. I have joined blogcritics.com as a reviewer. Basically I will be joint posting my reviews here and there.

If you are linking to my blog from blogcritics, welcome! I have been reviewing my dvd collection for the last couple of weeks. Here you will not only get those reviews, but my feelings on spending a year in France with my wife. She is doing a teaching exchange from Indiana University, and I am…well I'm taking some time off and enjoying the French experience.

So for my regular readers go visit blogcritics. It's a cool site full of reviews/discussion on movies, music, books, politics, and just about everything else. Oh, and please visit my little space on their site by clicking here. They do a really cool job of putting pictures up on the various movies I talk about in my reviews.

DVD Review: Army of Darkness

Those of you looking closely at my list of DVDs will notice there are a couple of movies before Army of Darkness. But on a Sunday night you watch what your wife wants to watch. Especially when it's part of the Evil Dead series and not a silly romantic comedy.

Army of Darkness is the third (and so far final) movie in the Evil Dead Series. Before director Sam Raimi went legits with a series of critically acclaimed dramas and the Spiderman series, he was a low budget horror genius. Army of Darkness begins right where Evil Dead II ended, with Bruce Campbell trapped in medieval times to battle the deadites once again.

The trilogy started out in Evil Dead as a pretty straight horror movie. A group of people discover a book of the dead and unleash gore filled horror upon themselves in a remote cabin. Evil Dead II basically re-tells the same story with a different cast (except for the ever present Bruce Campbell), bigger budget and plenty of slapstick. The second movie is by far my favorite in the series. It keeps the ghoulish gore while adding hilarious physical comedy and some classic one liners. Army of Darkness furthers this tradition by adding even more slap stick and one lines while removing almost all of the gore.

What little plot there is goes something like this: Stranded in the middle ages Bruce Campbell is at first captured by a small army for being mistaken for a member of a rival army. Bruce quickly uses his "boomstick" to gain clout with his captors and is sent on a quest to recover the Necronomicon which will both send Bruce back to his own time and save the army from evil. Bruce being Bruce he gets the book and unleashes an army of the dead. There are two endings released for this movie. One happier ending was released in US theatres and another sequel set up unhappy ending seen in a theatrical cut in the UK and on many US DVD versions.

Raimi once again does a nice job creating a mix of horror movie cliche's (which range from Jason and the Argonauts to Gulliver's Travels) with the slapstick of the Three Stooges. Unfortunately the comic elements seem to take over this picture leaving the horror end of it as more of a backdrop. It feels more like a Zucker brother's movie more than a horror film. Most of the evil dead are formed as skeletons which only crumble when destroyed rather than burst into a mess of blood and guts as they did in the first two movies. This may seem to be an absurd complaint, but as a fan of gory movies I felt disappointed with that choice.

The cinematography is actually quite well done throughout most of the picture. My DVD copy is actually quite beautiful in scenes. Especially the exterior shots around the windmill. The use of color and lighting is well above par for most horror films. The pre CGI special effects effect the quality of the print in several areas, but still hold up as goofy Raimi effects. I kept thinking the picture was too pretty for what was actually taking place on screen.

Bruce Campbell once again does a nice job of making Ash come to life. He delivers his lines with the comic timing of a comedian while still delivering enough pain to make his albeit over-the-top beatings believable. The rest of the cast is hardly memorable as characters or for their acting.

Army of Darkness still makes a nice end to the trilogy. In a way it makes a nice bookend to Evil Dead's pure gore horror with the single middle book being a mix between bloody gore and slapstick comedy.