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150 Films #17: Boiler Room (2000)

I’m a big fan of Oliver Stone’s early films, but I have to admit I never much liked Wall Street, arguably his most popular and enduring movie. Stone, especially in this period, was big on turning American stories into the stuff of myths. Platoon made Vietnam into something like The Iliad, and Wall Street turned the coke-fueled trading of the ’80s into Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with deliberate allusions to Frank Capra’s work. It turned what could have been a story of complicated motives and shitty behavior into a generic tale of good versus evil. If Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) early seduction by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), followed by his redemption after the scales fall from his eyes, qualifies as moral complexity, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather watch Capra than Capra with cocaine.

Boiler Room, an underrated film about the corruption of the high-stakes financial world, could almost be considered a superior remake of Stone’s 1987 film. In fact, I’d wager it’s underrated (to the point of being largely forgotten) because of its deliberate similarities. However, where the stories overlap, writer/director Ben Younger improves everywhere Stone goes wrong.

Let’s start with the hero, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi). In his running voiceover narration, Seth makes no bones about his goal: he wants to make the most money through the least effort. When we first meet him, he’s dropped out of college and makes ends meet by running an illegal casino for his ex-classmates. This establishes the first of many parallels between gambling and stock trading; more importantly, it establishes Seth as a character who lacks the gee-whiz naïveté of Bud Fox. He doesn’t immediately know J.T. Marlin is a boiler room (or chop shop), but he knows something’s wrong pretty early on—and doesn’t care. Even when he pieces together how the company illegally makes money, he keeps going with it until it’s clear he only has one option: throw them under the bus to save his own ass.

In Wall Street, Bud regains his moral compass when he discovers Gekko’s plans will leave his own father (Martin Sheen) unemployed and without a pension. Personal stakes thus established, Bud uses his Wall Street knowledge to double-cross Gekko. In contrast, Seth doesn’t have much interest in impressing his bosses; he wants to impress his father, a cantankerous judge (played with prickly aplomb by Ron Rifkin). Seth’s moment of clarity has very little to do with righteous morality; it’s about the twin cannons of going to prison and losing his father forever.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Ice Age Meals Special Edition!!

Back in September, “Paleo Nick” Massie showed up on one of my favorite shows, Shark Tank, to pitch his frozen-meal company Ice Age Meals. A trained chef and avid CrossFitter, Massie fell in love with paleo eating as so many of us have, but he took it a step further. For those of us who lack the time and/or energy to cook fresh, healthy meals every day, he worked to perfect individual-portion frozen meals that anyone could simply pop in the oven or microwave.

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a teensy bit of trouble moving to an apartment with limited counter space and (especially) no dishwasher. In the past, I would spend part of my weekend batch-cooking meals for breakfasts and lunches, but I would make a fresh dinner from scratch every night. Easier said than done when the meal is followed by dish duty (instead of just shoving them all in the beautiful, indispensable dishwasher). Adding insult to injury, as those who know me personally or have been longtime readers of the blog (no overlap in those categories) know, I had wrist surgery in 2009 that left me with less chronic pain than I once had, and it’s exacerbated by wrist-intensive activities. Ahem. Like washing dishes.

Because of that, I’ve taken to batch-preparing all meals on the weekends. Remembering Ice Age Meals and appreciating the concept, I decided to buy a 14-pack of the amusingly named “Beef Me Up, Scotty!” sampler, which I’ve consumed alongside my usual meals over the past several weeks.

For those too lazy to click the link, the “Beef Me Up, Scotty!” includes three Mexican Meatballs meals, three Grass-Fed Tri Tip with Yams meals, four Pastel de Papa meals, and four Butternut Squash Lasagna meals. The cost is $159.99 including shipping, making the per-meal cost a little less than $11.43—cheaper than all but the shittiest restaurants, for a higher-quality meal. If you have the money, freezer space, and ambition to order in larger quantities, the per-meal price goes down; the 48-meal pack averages to less than $10.94 per meal. But before you dive in whole-hog (or cow), maybe you want to hear a little about the meal quality.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 1 Redux

I fell off the wagon. Not by choice—not at first—but a domino effect caused by moving to a new place, combined with a Presidential election that has left me unusually stressed and uncertain about the future, led me back to my greatest stress-management tool: stuffing my face with junk food. I plan to rededicate myself to these recipe reviews, partly (as always) to give me something to blog about, and partly to keep myself honest by making sure I keep cooking for myself.

I don’t want to go on and on making excuses, because I hold the philosophy that I can eat whatever I want—I just choose to eat paleo because I feel significantly better when I do. It’s as simple as that. All I will say is this: adjusting to a lack of dishwasher and a lack of kitchen space proved to be an extremely difficult (but not insurmountable) challenge. You would think, for someone who cooks as much as I do, I would prize the apartment kitchen over all other things. That’s true, but beggars can’t be choosers, and it’s simply difficult to find apartments with reasonable counter space—and especially difficult to find one with dishwashers.

Oh, and also, I’m kind of an idiot. My new apartment, when empty, looked like it had an acceptable amount of counter space for cooking. Then I moved in, unpacked all my shit, and—oops, no more counter space.

Weeks passed. Sandwiches, Chinese food, and pizza filled my gullet. Weight increased, ankle/knee/wrist/back pain returned, and I have been approaching that crucial “Ozzy Osbourne hobble” turning point. I’ve spent evenings and (especially) weekends working on this pad to make sure everything’s just so, so not only did I have less time to cook, I had less inclination since I’d spent all day working on household projects. I got some new furniture, so the lack of counter space caused me to get a significantly larger dining table. I also got a storage cabinet for my appliance arsenal and, most importantly, a wheeled island with a cutting board surface. I’ve settled into the apartment and have no reason not to resume eating like a grown-up.

It’s past time to get back on the horsemeat and resume weekends full of cooking magic.

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150 Films #16: Blood Simple (1984)

As a preamble, let me just discuss the year-long gap between reviews. It began, as so many things do, with fear. Only 10% of the way through this project, it began to occur to me that I’d already started to repeat myself. I examined my shelf of wonders, at the films that lay ahead, and thought I like a lot of movies with similar themes, similar stories, in similar genres, at times by the same filmmakers—and I like all of these films for roughly similar reasons.

When I decided to combine The Big Lebowski with The Big Sleep and talk about their protagonists’ shared moral codes and interest in the truth above all things. This will be a recurring theme in many 150 Films selections, and it won’t be the only recurring theme. I worried less about boring readers through repetition—one advantage of having no readers is that nobody will get bored—than boring myself. I thought of different modes of attack—for instance, grouping the movies by five and doing a single essay on the whole group—and then started to get overwhelmed by this entirely self-imposed project.

So… I put off the next post. And put it off, and put it off, until I more or less forgot about it. I started writing paleo food reviews as a stopgap while I regrouped, and then I stopped writing those. And then I forgot about them, too, and as is often the case with this blog, it took a back burner to other priorities. Lately, though, I’ve found myself doing nothing instead of focusing on other priorities, so I’m back, because at least this is something. I can flex my writing muscles and my critical analysis muscles, give myself an excuse to watch movies that were once (and might still be) meaningful to me, and have an outlet to ramble about myself until I get something better going.

Oh, and self-promotion. Nobody reads this blog, and I don’t know how to get them to, but it’s here. As I try to get something real going with my writing, I can point people to this place because I don’t want strangers on my Facebook friends list, and after trying to get into Twitter to boost my “social media” profile, I found I’m more of a passive observer than an active participant. So this is it. My place.

Finally, that nebulous thought solidified over the past few weeks: this is my place. I don’t need to overwhelm myself with some bullshit I chose to do. I don’t need to wax poetic for paragraph after paragraph if I have little to say because I’ve said it all before. These reviews could be one sentence long if I want them to be. Nobody’s paying me or grading me on my content, and if someone were to do either, that would be their nightmare, not mine. With that glorious sense of freedom restored, I’ve decided to resurrect this project, those paleo reviews, and maybe even—gasp!!—some of those cranky posts about politics, religion, and how much I like Ayn Rand. The events of the past few months have given me a metric ass-tonne to complain about, so why am I ranting in private? Why am I not trying to pick fights against Sean Spicer or the morons in the “Antifa” movement? Isn’t that how people boost their social media profiles?

It sure is! But first, let me talk briefly about a great, great film called Blood Simple.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 16

By my count, it’s been 11 weeks since my last Paleo Challenge Round-Up. I fell out of the habit of writing these posts, but I didn’t fall out of the habit of eating paleo, with only a couple of exceptions:

  • During a trip to Seattle, I indulged in dim sum and ate a slice of chocolate cake to celebrate my nephew’s birthday.
  • In an extremely poor decision, I had a Taco Bell dinner to celebrate my weight falling below 250 lbs. (and counting)
  • Last weekend, I had lunch at Chili’s with my family, because I was starving.

Now seemed like a good time to start writing again, for two major reasons. First, I’m one of the many people who bought an Instant Pot on Prime Day, which I used for the first time to cook some of this week’s meals. Secondly, while complaining to a friend about being tired of making soup (a natural consequence of trying to eat paleo with braces), the friend suggested smoothies.

Ordinarily, when I browse recipe websites looking for food to make, my eyes skip right past smoothies. I always view them as, at best, a post-workout indulgence. This is more psychological than anything else; smoothies are too easy to make, too quick to drink, and too liquidy to be “real” food. But hell, when I slow cook meat until it’s fork-tender or grind up sausage in a food processor, how much different is that from a smoothie? (Answer: not much.) In fact, my most realistic gripe against smoothies is that they tend to have a fruity base, and I try to eat fruits in pretty strict moderation until I have my weight under better control.

On the other hand, I’m so fucking tired of soup. So… After getting the thumbs-up from my friend Marisa Moon about whether or not to trust grass-fed whey protein powder, I decided to dive right in.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 5

The paleo challenge is supposed to last for 30 days, so technically, it ended on Tuesday. However, as I mentioned early on, I plan to continue to eat with the “challenge” restrictions for as long as possible. There will be a few “cheats” here and there, but nothing taking me off the paleo reservation—just off the highly restrictive challenge rules.

Over the past week, things have continued to change for the better. I took the initial four weeks off from the gym, as a way of forcing myself to remember the importance of nutrition as party of a healthy lifestyle. This is one of those things that I know, but I also knew I needed both a reminder and a clear demonstration of the results. Even though I haven’t done any regular weigh-ins or anything like that, I did weight myself about three weeks ago, and again one week ago, and I’d lost about five pounds. Over the total month of the paleo challenge, I’m not sure how much weight I’ve lost, but I can tell you this: (1) I’ve gone down a full belt size, (2) my shirts and pants no longer stretch taut when I sit down, and (3) my flexibility and physical movement has dramatically improved (it was reaching a point where tying my shoes was becoming a Sisyphean task). So I don’t really need concrete numbers to see that it’s working.

Well, last week, I added going to the gym back to the equation. I made it three days for cardio (could’ve gone for four, but the bike at my gym really makes my butt hurt, and until I’m a little bit more used to the workout, I’d prefer to keep doing the bike rather than risking hurting myself on an elliptical or rowing machine, which are basically the only other machines I can do). I lost another five pounds between last week and this week, which may be unhealthy on some level, but it’s on pace with the first time I did this paleo challenge. This time, for the sake of curiosity and finding a reason why intense hunger pangs and cravings pushed me off the paleo bandwagon time and again, I’ve kept track of my caloric intake. I’ve been surprised to see I’m generally in the 2300-2400 calorie per day range—so I’m not starving myself by any means, yet I’m still “losing weight” (I don’t like putting everything into those terms, and honestly, my goal is better nutrition, so I am looking at “weight loss” as a positive side effect rather than the main purpose), a sign my body is adjusting to eating better foods and utilizing them better. (And as you’ll see, some of this week’s meals included non-“challenge” “treats” for completing the 30 days—and yet I continued to feel better and keep losing weight.)

Another positive side effect is this feeling swelling within me (that’s what she said!). I’m not sure I’d call it yearning, exactly. Maybe restlessness. In any case, I have had quite intense desires to just…get out and do things. I’m not exaggerating when I say I haven’t felt anything this strongly since the last time I started eating clean. Once I started veering off a clean diet (and I’m not talking non-“challenge” rules; I’m talking getting candy bars or fast food or whatever), I slowly but surely lost that fire. Until now, I thought that had a lot to do with things happening in my personal life. Until now, I genuinely thought I’d kind of deluded myself into thinking paleo influenced my brain with all the good vibes, but I’m starting to see that the chicken-versus-egg issue here is that eating paleo gave me the incentive to seek out good vibes (in the form of a social life, forging good friendships, and dating), in part because I feel really, really good and want to chase that “high” by finding fun, engaging, possibly perverse ways of burning off the extra energy.

I didn’t feel good then because I had a social life and feel bad now (until recently) because I didn’t; I felt good then, and I both felt compelled and had the energy to start doing the things a person needs to do in order to cultivate a good, rewarding life. When I first started the paleo challenge, I was coming off a toxic relationship, several bad dates, and a period of intense depression that left me questioning whether or not any of my friends were actual friends, or if we were just mutually using each other as emotional crutches because we were too miserable and cowardly to take any actions without running them by the committee.

I made a friend, by way of two dates that were, in retrospect, pretty bad. She was interested in fitness, running, paleo, CrossFit, and she unlocked that entire world for me, for which I will always be grateful. But I came around to thinking that a lot of the good vibes—maybe all of them—were a result of this combination of worship and, let’s face it, sexual desire for my friend. She “inspired” me, and I thought I wanted to succeed just to impress her. Now that I’m doing it all again, I’m seeing that while those things were true at that time, my desire to impress her was sort of a “Dumbo’s feather” situation; I was still putting in all the work myself, and all the positive changes physically, emotionally, and mentally came from within—from the positive results of great nutrition and intense exercise—rather than the external worship/crush feelings.

I think that’s a good thing for me to realize, emotionally. Even though these days, it’s harder for me to get down on myself, it still happens, especially when I have what seems like “evidence” of a shortcoming. When I was in full “worship” mode, it was so, so easy to eat well… Afterward I was out of “worship” mode, it got harder and harder until I just plain stopped. And I told myself it wasn’t worth the effort, because I had nobody to impress. What happened to the good old self-motivated D.B.? What happened to the guy who used to see Ayn Rand characters as inspirational figures, instead of impossible fantasies? That D.B. imploded.

But he’s clawing his way back, and astoundingly, a lot of the credit must go to nutrition. I can’t under-emphasize this relationship between the physical (what you put into your body and how you use it) and the mental/emotional. It can be so easy to lose sight of, especially if you’re like me and enjoy “comfort food” and emotional eating, but this shit is not magic. It’s also not an accident; I eat better, I think better, I feel better, I work harder, I stay sharper, and instead of a downward spiral of eating like garbage and feeling like garbage, there’s an upward spiral of eating great and feeling great, which leads to greater and greater achievements in all areas of life.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 4

As I enter the home stretch of this 30-day paleo challenge, I’m reconnecting with why I loved paleo in the first place. The bottom line is simple: regardless of whether or not I lose weight, whether or not it serves as a magical cure-all (or even-more-magical placebo effect) for what ails me, eating well makes me feel great; eating poorly makes me feel like shit. That’s all there is to it.

Another thing I’m reconnecting with is paleo recipe websites. Scouring the web for new recipes to continue momentum with eating paleo (although I’ve fallen in love with some recipes, I don’t want to fall into the trap of eating the same things until I get bored and choose Taco Bell instead), I’ve discovered a disturbing trend: many websites simply regurgitate the same recipes as other sites, without tweaks or added information (one thing I’ve been trying to do here is explain where I’ve veered from the actual recipe, and whether or not it improves or worsens the recipe). With a couple of exceptions where I know the person writing the blog is experimenting and creating the recipes, I have no idea who should deserve credit for recipes that turn out great. I find that a little disheartening.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 3

I spoke too soon about my foot. It’s feeling a lot better, despite the fact that I haven’t exercised at all in about a month, but I still occasionally get a series of shooting pains if I walk around for too long. Also, the jury’s out as to whether the diminishing pain in my joints and muscles is a miraculous effect of paleo or the fact that, because I spend significant chunks of my weekend cooking, I consequently spend a lot of it on my feet.

Even if that’s the case, it’s a good thing. And it’s a good thing that I have the newfound energy and, let’s face it, enthusiasm to stay on my feet for a big chunk of the weekend.

I’ve also found my energy level has led me to some strange directions. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten a wild hair up my ass to upgrade my Hackintosh—that is, for you n00bs, a PC built by me to run Mac OS X—from Snow Leopard, which it’s been running since Lion was released in 2011. I built it originally in 2009, but I made a conscious decision to stay one OS generation behind, because I figured by the time the next OS was released, the Hackintosh community would have all the bugs worked out. After awhile, I stopped caring about keeping one-generation-behind, but now—goddammit, I want to be current! Forgetting the advantages of staying behind, I started with the latest operating system, El Capitan, but something is wonky with the video drivers. I tried numerous hacks to make it work properly with my older video card, but finally, I just settled on installing the previous OS, Yosemite, which runs perfectly.

Of course, the Yosemite decision and getting it to run perfectly all came about this weekend. I also bought a new, larger hard drive and decided to use the old hard drive to play around with Linux, something I haven’t done (and haven’t been interested in doing) since around 2001. Remember when Linux was touted as a free-for-all Windows-killer? Those were the days! But unlike Lex from Jurassic Park, I didn’t know enough about UNIX systems to have much fun with it. Now, thanks to 15 years of OS X use—and 15 years of making Linux a friendlier out-of-the-box experience—I think it’ll be fun to screw around with.

While I know the idea of sitting at a computer, figuring out why shit doesn’t work and playing around with new operating systems, doesn’t sound like a huge energy investment, I’m directing excitement and enthusiasm at a project I haven’t cared about in years; in fact, since I bought a friend’s used MacBook a few years back, I’ve used my menacing, once-overpowering desktop Hackintosh less and less, to the point that it’s acted as a media server more than anything else. Yet now, I want to play around with it again, and I’m having fun doing it, even when I fuck everything up and have to reinstall Yosemite from scratch.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 2

As I write this, on Wednesday afternoon (a little later than I’d like, but better late than never), I can confirm that the good vibes of paleo are starting to kick in. Pain in my wrists, from my surgery in 2009 and arthritis I’ve developed is almost completely gone. The muscle fatigue and labored breathing I was experiencing during my depressingly short walk to and from the train has vanished. My mood is better—despite numerous shitty things occurring at work, not directly to me, which nevertheless leave me unhappy—as are my concentration and memory.

I’m not ready to call it a miracle yet, but the chronic, debilitating pain in my foot has abated significantly. I’m not sure about weight loss—I weighed myself for the first time in this challenge just last night, and I was not happy with the number I saw—because I see the weight loss more as a pleasant side effect than the main goal. The goal is to feel good, physically and mentally, and it’s truly amazing how much of that can be accomplished through diet alone. (I haven’t exercised over the past two weeks, as I readjust to the diet.)

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 1

Longtime readers of this blog probably won’t remember that I did my first paleo challenge in early 2012. This is a fact I mentioned in one post, and then never again (partly because I abandoned blogging for a long stretch about a month later). Let me briefly fill in the gaps:

After my initial “30-day challenge,” I just kept rolling with the rules of that challenging, not quite realizing that the guidelines I used were an extremely strict form of the diet. The positive side is that, in addition to change my eating habits, I started working out, lost about 70-80 pounds, pulled out of a spiral of depression and anxiety, and then—for awhile—everything seemed to be going my way. About a year later, when things stopped going my way…

Well, I don’t know that I want to compare my food issues with actual addiction; it’s certainly compulsive, and at times unmanageable, but I think it’s an exaggeration to say I was “addicted” to shitty food, and it does a disservice to actual addicts struggling with actual problems. But basically, my 2012 holiday season was a fairly stressful time for a number of reasons. I’ve always been a stress eater, and although I managed to resist the many treats and snacks brought into work during the holidays, I made the decision at a Christmas party with a friend’s family that a few treats wouldn’t hurt me. And they didn’t—not at first. The fact that I had lost so much weight and continued to work out made me think I could treat myself once in awhile. “Once in awhile” quickly became “once a week,” but it was okay. I was training for a half-marathon at that point, shedding pounds like they were going out of style, eating well 95% of the time. Then, weekly treats led to more frequent cravings, which I would try to resist but often didn’t. Some of the time, I would say to myself, “I’m satisfying this craving so it goes away” (it didn’t); some of the time, I would simply acknowledged that I was stressed and dealt with it by eating, even though I knew it was a hollow activity. Part of it, even, had a warped, secretive quality that I still don’t fully understand… Like, I’m so much of an open book, I somehow felt like I needed this secret of eating garbage to keep to myself. Not my finest hour.

Then, in August of 2013 (one week before the half-marathon), while house-sitting for a friend, I got up early to go for my last “long run.” Two miles into it, I tripped on a protruding chunk of sidewalk, tumbled, and literally saw stars (I didn’t think that really happened!). I knew I’d sprained my ankle, and after sitting for a little while and trying to determine if I could walk, I made the trek back to the condo. This may have exacerbated the injury, but I had no choice; it was 6AM on a Sunday, nobody was out on the streets, nobody I knew lived nearby (and even if they did, I left my phone behind so it wouldn’t flop around the entire run), there were no cabs or buses.

This was a turning point. After an urgent care doctor diagnosed me with a minor sprain and all but guaranteed I would be able to run my half-marathon the following week, I felt no better. After a month of physical therapy, I felt somewhat better, but my foot was definitely not in running shape. I let it slide for a few months, hoping the pain would gradually go away; it didn’t. Finally, I went to an orthopedist for a proper diagnosis, and within two weeks, I was in surgery having a torn tendon and ligament repaired. Grueling recovery followed; overly intensive physical therapy led to a separate issue, the build-up of scar tissue on my Achilles’ tendon, which was both extremely painful and required even more physical therapy.

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