June 2007 Archives

Ten Lies :: Where The Truth Lies

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I loved him in The Bongos, really liked his first solo effort (Cool Blue Halo) and wasn't crazy about this CD, but the song is good. And I'm not lying to you, Calliope!

Where The Truth Lies
Richard Barone


Theremins are cool

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Anthrax :: Like A Drug

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Cure the disease with bad lovin', Calliope.

Like a Drug
They Eat Their Own



Movie Review: Pan's Labyrinth

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I finally got to see Pan's Labyrinth (Spanish title is El Laberinto del fauno, or the labyrinth of the faun), Guillermo del Toro magical mixture of real life horror and a fantasy world that promises escape for a little girl enmeshed in evil. Del Toro, a Mexican director well known for his horror (Blade ][) and comic book adaptations (Hellboy) - genres I usually ignore, has come up with a real gem of a movie here, deftly blending real world events with a fantasy world, until you are no longer sure where one ends and the other begins.

The story begins with a twelve year old girl riding in the back of an ominous black car with her pregnant mother, as they journey to a house deep in the hills of 1944 Spain. The Spanish Civil War, one of the ugliest and most brutal on record, is winding down and the fascist government is stamping out the last of the rebel forces, which are hiding out in the rugged hills. Ofelia (a very winsome and believable Ivana Baquero) is a girl immersed in her books and imagination, which is especially useful given that her mom has just remarried a strict, brutal captain in the fascist army who is determined to wipe out the rebel forces.

On the ride in, Ofelia frees a strange looking insect, who shows up in her bedroom later that first night. The insect turns out to be a fairy, who leads Ofelia into a stone labyrinth found behind the house. There she is given three challenges to prove she is the long lost princess by an ugly old faun, which looks sort of like a Pan, the half man/half goat of Greek mythology.

These three challenges are interspersed with the horrors of guerrilla warfare in the mountains of Spain, and the beast that is her step father. Everything reaches a grand climax as the two worlds collide and shatter in myriad ways.

Wow, what a movie! I just loved it, but my review is colored by the way the movie hits two of my soft spots. The first is that a young girl is a key participant, and as the father of two little girls, the strife Ofelia has to survive really hits home. I'll do all I can to shield my girls from anything at all like what poor Ofelia has to face. Yet she does it in a courageous fashion.

Secondly, I have a real fascination with the Spanish Civil War, dating back to my reading of For Whom The Bell Tolls, a truly fascinating novel by Hemingway. It was such a bloody and intense conflict, a proving ground for World War II. But it was so ugly too. del Toro tells us in his commentary that of the 500,000 who died, half were either executed or otherwise killed in cold blood. It was truly a cruel and barbarous civil war, with atrocities committed on both sides, amply reflected in Pan's Labyrinth. If you want good histories of the conflict, read either Beevor or Thomas's The Spanish Civil War. The first is an excellent read, while the latter one is a behemoth, covering it all.

Funny thing about the movie though. I never saw it as a "fantasy" movie, unlike many others. I saw it as a brutal snapshot of an ugly civil war, fought both inside and outside the house. And Ofelia's flights of imagination were just her ways of escaping the cruelty all around her, and I never really bought into them as "real", even in the movie sense. It might be my natural antagonism towards fantasy movies, or perhaps just my overwhelming interesting the Spanish Civil War, or just my hard core un-imagination, but it worked for me as a straight story, with flights of fancy. And the ending tore me apart; it was perfect.

Kevin recently took me to task for not listening to the commentary tracks, so I did do it this time. It was by del Toro and was pretty informative. He explained the color changes over time, and what a long arduous process making this film turned out to be. He became an immediate friend of mine by calling horses stupid and dangerous, a claim I can heartily endorse!

All in all, a really great movie, one of the best I've seen this year. And one I need to add to my collection, especially if it should ever show up on HD DVD. I've added the prequel, del Toro's The Devil's Backbone to my Netflix queue.



Dance Monkey :: Code Monkey

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Just monkeying around, Calliope ...

Code Monkey



Perky music for a hot day, Calliope No. 8:



Bang Your Head

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Some days (like today) at the keyboard make me feel like this:

What would you do?

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What would you do for someone you love?
Would you lie, cheat, steal? Break the law and call it justice?
Would you say yes? Scream no?
Would you kill? Would you give up your own life?
Would you move mountains, swallow fire, keep a promise?
Would you change the world?
Would you change yourself?
What would you do for someone you love?

-- Jodi Picoult
Novelist. Her most recent book is Nineteen Minutes.

Nightswimming :: Pretty Good Day

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From my favorite musical social satirist to you, Calliope No. 8 :
    

Pretty Good Day
Loudon Wainwright III

There now, Calliope, there should be plenty of places to go with this cool blue Love and Rockets song...


Our final Saturday night movie was the best of the trio - Norman Jewison's American classic from 1967, In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. A remarkable movie, showing a slice of southern USA that we can all be glad is long gone (hopefully).

Poitier plays a black man waiting overnight at the train station in a small Alabama town when he is pulled in as the main suspect in the murder of a rich white man, whose company is building a new factory in town. Steiger is police chief, who battles his prejudices and inner demons, when it turns out Poitier is Detective Virgil Tibbs, a star police murder investigator from Philadelphia and obviously not, in fact, the murderer. Things get even stickier for Police Chief Bill Gillespie when Tibbs' boss orders him to help out in the homicide investigation and the wife of the murder victim also insists on his participation.

Many red herrings flop about and both men have to get beyond their personal prejudice and pride to find the guilty party. Not surprisingly, none of the natives are anxious to help out the African American outsider and, in fact, try to do him bodily harm. Police Chief Gillespie does an admirable job supressing his own natural tendencies in order to get the killer. And after some pretty tense moments, they, of course, get their man in the end.

What an amazing movie! Truly one of the best of the 60s, and certainly deserves its place in the AFI top 100 (it clocks in at #75). I was surprised and a little ashamed to find out I had never really watched the entire movie before. It was always one of those that would make me stop my channel surfing and watch, but it turned out I often started after about the first 20 minutes or so. I picked up the DVD for US$9 a few weeks ago and finally got a chance to watch it from beginning to end. Glad I was able to, as there are just so many great moments in the movie. It is one I will definitely be watching again and again.




Is there an echo, Calliope?


I was Here :: Now I'm Here

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Let's flash back, Calliope 8, to the days before Queen sucked...


Yeah, I finally figured out how to embed a cover image in my MP3s, and I figured I would celebrate it with my first Calliope posting.  I'm wild about Australia, and this long defunct folk-rock group had two great albums.


RyG tour dates

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Unfortunately, I missed Rodrigo y Gabriela when they were local, and they aren't getting any closer than New York City in the near future.

June 26th, 2007: John Anson Ford Amphitheater Hollywood, CA USA
June 27th, 2007: Mountain Winery Saratoga, CA USA
June 28th, 2007: Fillmore Theatre San Francisco, CA USA
June 30th, 2007: Ram's Head Live Baltimore, MD USA
July 1st, 2007: Central Park Summerstage New York, NY USA
July 4th, 2007: Petrillo Music Shell - Taste of Chicago/Grant Park Chicago, IL USA
August 29th, 2007: Bear Tooth Theatre Pub Anchorage, AK USA
August 31st, 2007: Oregon Zoo Amphitheater Portland, OR USA
September 2nd, 2007: Red Rocks Amphitheatre Morrison, CO USA
September 7th, 2007: The Marquee Tempe, AZ USA
September 8th, 2007: Rialto Theatre Tucson, AZ USA
September 12th, 2007: Canes San Diego, CA USA
September 13th, 2007: Grove of Anaheim Anaheim, CA USA
September 16th, 2007: Austin City Limits - Zilker Park Austin, TX USA
September 18th, 2007: Warehouse Live Houston, TX USA
October 19th, 2007: Roseland Ballroom New York City, NY USA
October 21st, 2007: 9:30 Club Washington, DC USA
November 1st, 2007: Crystal Ballroom Portland, OR USA



Movie Review: Fog Of War

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Our second movie Saturday night was much better than the first - The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara by the acclaimed documentary director Errol Morris. Winner of the 2004 Oscar for best documentary, Fog of War interviews McNamara about World War 2, nuclear bombs, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and a host of other subjects.

Alright, I know what you are thinking - "Oh jeez, how boring! A talking head interview with some nobody.".  Let me count the ways you are wrong:


  1. It's an Errol Morris film, so you know the editing, visuals and style are going to be completely original and arresting. Nobody does documentaries like Mr. Morris
  2. The Philip Glass score is memorable, strong and, yes, even rhythmic.
  3. Robert McNamara was one of the most influential, non-presidential people of the twentieth century. From number crunching the firebombing of Tokyo that killed hundreds of thousands, to being an early and vocal supporter of The Domino Theory, to pushing our involvement in the Vietnam War, few men have had a bigger effect on 20th century history.
The "Eleven Lessons" are pretty banal, though:

  • 1. Empathize with your enemy.
  • 2. Rationality will not save us.
  • 3. There's something beyond one's self.
  • 4. Maximize efficiency.
  • 5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war.
  • 6. Get the data.
  • 7. Belief and seeing are both often wrong.
  • 8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.
  • 9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil.
  • 10. Never say never.
  • 11. You can't change human nature.

But still, a fascinating portrait of a towering intellect and seemingly soulless ego. He does sound moderately regretful when talking about the Tokyo firestorm, but in general, he shies away from accepting fuller responsibility for the 50,000+ casualties of Vietnam. The parallels with Iraq are truly eerie though, making this an even more important movie to watch today.





QotD: Just Five More Minutes...

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What time is your alarm clock set for?  Do you use the snooze button?

Funny "you" should ask that, as I have been on a quest for a good alarm clock ever since my clock of many years finally got one last drink spilled on it and gave up the ghost. It had one feature that was proving to be elusive - the ability to set a short snooze time. Not only had it proven to be so far impossible to get a clock that didn't have a hard-coded 9 minute snooze, it was impossible to find a clock that even said anything about it. All I wanted was 4 things out of an alarm clock:

  1. AM-FM radio. I wake to my local NPR station, but sometimes like to listen to the Red Sox game on the radio, rather than listen to the bozos on national TV.
  2. Dual alarms. I use one for my wicked early sports (5am - hockey and now golf) alarm, and one for my slightly later normal time (about 6am)
  3. Automatic time setting. I've become addicted to this feature, as even when the clock gets turned off, it immediately gets the 100% accurate atomic time.
  4. A snooze alarm that goes off after 3-4 minutes.

The snooze alarm feature was proving to be virtually impossible to find. Like I said, most have it hard coded at an odd 9 minutes, but I got used to slapping my snooze 3, 4 or even 5 times with my old clock, which I set the snooze to be 3 minutes. But doing that at every 9 minutes turns a 10 minute snooze into nearly an hour - unacceptable! Finally, after 4 clocks, I got one I could set the snooze time - RCA calls it "SmartSnooze", but I call it a life saver!

So we finished The Departed on Saturday night. This time, the HD DVD played through without a hitch, although it did give us some pause as it had trouble getting started. The final verdict - yech. No really, yech.

We went back to the spot where we had the problem in our first viewing, at about the 45 minute mark. We had skipped to a car explosion, followed by Costigan's (Leonard DiCaprio) first visit to the shrink (Vera Farmiga), and it had us a little confused, so we went back to that point to watch the events leading up to the explosion. And, sadly, it made us more confused, not less! The editing was frenetic and we just couldn't follow who was doing what to who, and by the time the car was blown up, we had no idea what it was about, or why he went to see the shrink.

So then we skipped forward to the 90 minute mark, where the DVD had finally given up the ghost. You might fault us for not watching the entire thing again, but it just wasn't good enough to inflict a repeated 90 minutes. So we watched the rest of the movie and, basically, were both struck by just how bizarre it truly was. Character motivations were completely lost or, even worse, totally random. At one point, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) comes out of a back room, covered past his elbows in blood, with no explanation whatsoever. In general, I felt like the movie was a runaway freight train, and even the normally steady hand of Scorsese couldn't control it.

And we kept expecting some good twists and turns, but there really weren't any true surprises, at least plotwise. Sure, there were shootings from out of the blue, but to me even those felt forced, as if no one could figure out any other way to end the movie. In the end, I was even more disappointed with the movie than I was during the first, abortive, viewing. It got worse and more disjointed, rather than pulling together in the end. Thankfully, the HD DVD really looked great, and the sound was tremendous. But the movie? I repeat - yech.



Rodrigo y Gabriela, redux

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I'm still completely blown away by Rodrigo y Gabriela, and thought I'd pass along a thumbnail sketch of their history:

     
  • They were in a thrash rock group together in Mexico City
  •  
  • The group got a record deal, but it just wasn't working, so Roberto y Gabriela chucked it all, grabbed their acoustical guitars (because you can travel lighter with acoustic guitars) and headed out to the countryside
  •  
  • It still wasn't working, so when an acquaintance offered her apartment in Dublin for the summer, they jumped at it and flew to Dublin
  •  
  • Unfortunately, said acquaintance changed her mind when they showed up on the doorstep, and so they were left homeless and nearly broke in a foreign city, with little English to boot
  •  
  • So they started busking, made some good money and got an offer to make a record
  •  
  • They didn't want to be pigeonholed by short sighted record execs as folk or Flamenco (which they particularly abhor) or rock guiatists, so they had a hard time getting the record done. They didn't even want a producer, afraid he would cramp their style
  •  
  • Eventually, they accepted a producer and made Rodrigo y Gabriela, which debuted at #1 on the Irish charts.
Their intensity and commitment to their art is amazing. It is so intense, I admit to getting a little emotional just watching them play on the accompanying DVD.

Speaking of Rodrigo y Gabriela, imagine my shock when I see it prominently pictured in this week's Best Buy circular! My musical tastes run such that I don't imagine ever seeing one I'm interested in even being at a BB, never mind actually pictured in the circular, but lo and behold, there it is. On sale even - just US$7.99. So run out right now and buy this CD / DVD combo - you won't be disappointed. I am! Happy Father's Day!

Also, I just created my first VOX group, dedicated to all things RyG.  You can find it here.


Movie Review: Shortbus

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I'm not sure if Shortbus is porn masquerading as a serious movie, or a serious movie trying to be porn, but it sure was hard core! John Cameron Mitchell, the man behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch, put together an ensemble cast of mostly new actors to film a story about sex, hedonism and the quest for the Big O.

Shortbus focuses on two couples - Sofia and Rob are a married couple working out some problems, while James and Jamie are a gay couple drifting apart and are later joined by Ceth (that would be "Seth"), in more ways than one. Sofia, despite being a sex therapist (oops, she prefers "couple counselor"), says she is "pre-orgasmic", so she has never had an orgasm, despite all appearances to the contrary during the opening montage. After being told about Shortbus, a hedonistic club, by James & Jamie, she decides to check it out to see if it might help her over the hump, so to speak. Much sex, nudity and some pretty funny scenes follow, as she and Rob explores its depths, while James and Jamie work out their emotional problems with the help of a couple of other gay men.

Wow - not quite what I was expecting! And I'm not sure what Mitchell was trying to say, as the sex seemed to overwhelm the story. I'm not a prude, but some of the sexual antics were off putting to say the least. There were some pretty funny bits, and Justin Bond was a riot as the host (or is that hostess?) of the Shortbus. But the message, whatever it might have been, got lost in the play; but maybe that was the point? I don't know. I guess in the end I was mildly entertained, slightly embarrassed (sorry, just not into gay men having group sex), and happy to return it.



Movie Review: Mr. Lucky

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Darn it all! I was hoping to get some stuff done and then get to bed early, but once again, I stumbled across a movie that I just couldn't turn off. Mr. Lucky (1943) is a great Cary Grant vehicle. The movie shows off his incredible range, from firing off snappy dialog to reflecting fierce internal turmoil on his chiseled and dimpled face. It was well worth the hour and half.

Cary Grant is Joe Adams, a cynical, up from the gutter playa who owns the Fortuna, a gambling boat. He finally manages to wrangle permits to sail, when he and another of his cronies gets drafted. But, thinking quick, he takes advantage of a dying crew member's 4-F status and changes his name to Joe Bascopolous to avoid "someone else's war". His war was fighting a tough childhood and making it in the world.

But they need some dough to get started and Joe concocts a plan to host a gambling ball for the War Relief fund and abscond with all the money (oh, how low!). He turns on the charm to convince the head of the local chapter, only to run into an iceberg - society babe Dorothy Bryant (played with wonderful insouciance by Laraine Day, someone I wasn't at all familiar with). Bryant is second in charge and doesn't believe Bascopolous' motives at all. Grant turns on the charm and finally gets her to agree.

But things are changing, both outside and inside, for Bascopolous. Grant depicts Joe's inner turmoil with tremendous versatility, while maintaining a suave demeanor. Truly some great work by the Hollywood icon. Of course, it all works out in the end, although quite different from the original, darker, story.

Lots of fun here, with the back drop of World War 2 adding sharp relief. The supporting cast was great, and watching Cary Grant turn on the charm as Mr. Lucky is a true Hollywood classic moment. Ms. Day was a revelation as well, as she carried off the tough assignment of having the upper crust socialite fall for the gutter climber, albeit one like Cary Grant, with solid believability. The ending was a little confusing, as it didn't seem to reflect the start of the movie, which was where the tale was told as a flashback. But a movie most worth watching.


Shores of California

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My girl (ha, I wish!) Amanda Palmer got some friends together like Margaret Cho and David J (of Bauhaus) and made a music video for a great song from the Dresden Dolls' latest CD, Yes Virginia. It is a pretty wacky homage to David Lee Roth's California Girls, and lots of fun. No Brian Viglione though :-(


Fundie PZ at it again

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Ah, another brilliant post by PZ Myers, including this treasure:

These principles are a reliance on natural causes and demanding explanations in terms of the real world, with a documentary chain of evidence, that anyone can examine. The virtues are critical thinking, flexibility, openness, verification, and evidence. The sins are dogma, faith, tradition, revelation, superstition, and the supernatural. There is no holy writ, and a central idea is that everything must be open to rational, evidence-based criticism — it's the opposite of fundamentalism.

He's reacting to a stupid article in Newsweek's "Belief Watch" section, which contains this beaut:

It may not be fair to call what's happening in the atheist community a backlash, since atheists have always been and continue to be one of the smallest, most derided groups in the country.

I guess I'm just damned proud to be part of one of the "smallest" groups in the country. What a bizarro description. And "most derided"? Wow, I think I feel honored, actually.

As a quick final showing for our Saturday night at the home theater, we watched an old B&W mystery movie I had DVRed, The Penguin Pool Murder. Not sure why I recorded this, besides the fact I just love these old mysteries. The synopsis is:

A feisty school teacher sets out to solve a murder in an aquarium.

It's not entirely accurate but it'll do in a pinch. When a murdered man splashes into the penguin pool, the feisty school teacher on a class trip decides to help the police figure out whodunit.  There's plenty of suspects, as the murdered man was liked by few. We have the young wife, trying to escape his clutches. We have the investor who was swindled. We have the wife's lover, trying to free his paramour. To further muddy the waters, it isn't exactly clear whether the plunge into the pool killed him, or did a previous assault do the job already?

What a fun little movie! They did a good job of keeping you guessing, as well as playing the spinster teacher (infused with real personality by Edna May Oliver), bumbling detective (played with gusto by long time favorite James Gleason), and main suspects up for laughs. Plenty of deft touches make 1932'S The Penguin Pool Murder an excellent nightcap. Turns out, this is the opener to a whole series of movies. Penguin was followed by Murder on the Blackboard (1934), with the series ending with 1937's Forty Naughty Girls. Gleason was in all of them, but the last three were filmed without Oliver as Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers.


Engrish

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A friend of mine found the following note on his bed at a Tibetan hotel. I'm not sure if Babelfish does Tibetan, but that would be one excuse.

Next in the player, with fingers crossed, was Who Killed the Electric Car?, a documentary investigating the rise and fall of the EV1, a battery-powered car produced by GM from 1996 through 1997. A truly amazing story of corporate greed and lack of foresight, sad and unnerving in today's world of $4 a gallon gas.

The EV1 was only offered through a lease program and the most disturbing scenes came after the leases were up and GM essentially confiscated the cars. They were so paranoid about the car that they took these virtually new cars and had them crushed, tearing them from the hands of folks who loved them. California's CARB (California Air Resources Board), headed by a hydrogen fuel cell investor, killed the ZEV (Zero Emissions Vehicle) minimums in return for empty fuel cell promises, which is a brilliant strategy - promise something far in the future and then fight it like hell when the time comes.

It was a sad and damning film, even if it did gloss over some of the electric car problems, like battery disposal and costs. Most of these could have been overcome when it became more popular, but GM didn't want it to.  There's a surreal scenario where CARB told GM it would have to sell the EV1 as long as there was a proven demand. So, of course, GM did its utmost to kill the whole idea, from bad to nonexistent advertising to laying off sales and research teams. Funny, if someone stops selling something, demand falls off, eh?

It did end with some hope. The new breed of hybrid cars offers up a possibility of a "plug in" version, whereby it charges via a simple plug in your garage, so it doesn't use any gasoline if it doesn't need it. A limitation of the EV1 is its short range of about 100 miles or so, although virtually no one needs a further range in normal day to day usage. Maybe some day we can try again, although the EV1 marks are real opportunity loss.


Rodrigo Y Gabriela

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I have been going absolutely wild over Rodrigo Y Gabriela. A friend lent me the Rodrigo Y Gabriela CD and the energy is just amazing. Incredible guitar insrumentals, including two covers - Stairway To Heavy and, even better, Metallica's Orion. Here's two videos for your viewing pleasure:


New & Used Hi-Fi

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I got my The Departed HD-DVD in the mail today from Netflix, so that's a pretty good turn around, given I left it in the mailbox just yesterday. Of course, I filled out the form on netflix.com/replacement, so they "pre-mailed" it, but still. I supposed that's one good reason to not watch it on Saturday night, as you wait an extra day for it.

I also got the latest issue of Home Theater magazine, and there was a very funny column by Michael Nelson at the back (as there usually is). You might remember Mr. Nelson as the former host of Mystery Science Theater and his columns are usually pretty funny, but I almost spit up my milk reading this one. He likes to peruse eBay auctions of hi-fi gear and try to imagine how the sellers used the gear, why they are selling, etc. And he goes on to wonder about damaged goods:

Giving these people credit and assuming they can successfully unbox a speaker without damaging it, and seeing how speakers are entirely stationary objects, I'm led to wonder what the heck goes on in these people's houses. Are they operating their speakers next to a running stump grinder? Do they regularly race through their home theaters dragging a logging chain behind them?

Good stuff.

They also recommended a new book, McIntosh : for the love of music, a history of McIntosh Labs, the second oldest (next to Klipsch) US audio manufacturer.  Now their equipment is just a little out of my price range. Well, more than just a little, let's say a lot, but still, a man can dream, can't he?

Big movie night last Saturday evening. I had a friend come down and we spun a few DVDs and watched one DVRed movie. Mostly good stuff, although there was some heartbreak.

First up in the DVD player was The Departed, the 2006 Oscar winner for best picture, as well as getting Martin Scorsese his first Oscar for Best Director (oops, I mean "Best Achievement in Directing"). Wow, what a strange movie!  To begin with, the bad and overwrought Boston accents drove me absolutely batshit. They were all bad, but the ones from Alec Baldwin and Vera Farmiga were particularly grating. Listen guys - no one really talks like that any more. Yeah, there are plenty of dropped Rs around here, but it just isn't that overwhelming. At least, I don't think so, although I suppose being a native maybe makes me inured to it a little.

And it also felt like the acting was all over the board too.  Baldwin and Nicholson seemed to be playing it more for laughs than being serious, although Jack was still fascinating to watch. Mark Wahlberg too chewed up the scenery. I thought DiCaprio was fantastic in it, while Damon showed some restraint.

One reason I moved The Departed to the top of my queue was because I could get it in HD, and I thought as a pretty new movie, the technology should be sharp. And yes, the picture was crisp and clear, and the cinematography spectacular. Some really great shots of Boston. But unfortunately, a drawback of rental DVDs raised its ugly head - skipping. While I really like Toshiba DVD players, they do have three shortcomings:

     
  1. Slow; they are really slow to do anything, including even just turning on. The first one I had wasn't too bad, but the last two are approaching the ridiculous. It can take 5 seconds or more to even respond to the power button. 
  2.  
  3. Remote control layout is abysmal. The remote controls are a bunch of tiny, identical buttons, poorly laid out. The first remote I had a hard time even figuring out which way to point it! The HD DVD remote is a tad better, but still not very usable.
  4.  
  5. Error correction is bad. I used to play DVDs on my XBOX when I had problems playing it on the Toshiba, but of course that isn't an option now (unless I upgrade to an XBOX 360 and add its HD player).

So the skipping, non-playing bug hit us while watching The Departed. After much polishing and skipping, I was able to get past the first problem area, but when we hit the second one, we decided to give up. Oh well, let's see how long it takes to get my replacement disc in. I think we got about 2/3 through the quite long movie. It was interesting enough to make me want to try it again, but I can't say I was bowled over by it. Best movie of 2006? Doubt it.



Ignorance Abounds

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These new Gallup poll numbers need very little explanation, and require much weeping and gnashing of teeth but as usual, PZ Myers does a good job of explaining them here.



Hitler's Downfall

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The end of Hitler, with new sub-titles:



Creation Museum Forced Entry

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Not much time left for this, but one of my favorite bloggers, John Scalzi from Whatever, is offering to go to the hideous "Creation Museum" if we come up with at least a $250 donation to Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He's a very good blogger and a very popular sci-fi author. I read his first one (Old Man's War) and found it interesting, but not enough to overcome my natural antipathy towards science fiction these days.

I think the money goes to a good cause, and I think the resulting post will be bitingly funny. I've sent in my $5, how about you? Full post is here.

Book Review: The Ghost Map

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I'm back after a quick, busy and fun business trip to Chicago. Got to see New Comisky Park for the first time, even if the White Sox lost to the hated Yanqui Devils. Got to try and get ramped back up into posting.

I finished up the book The Ghost Map last weekend and enjoyed it quite a bit. The true story of the detective work that uncovered the source of the last great cholera epidemic in London, it delved deep into many varied subjects, from microbiology to urban landscapes. Author Steven Johnson, who wrote the bestselling Everything Bad Is Good For You, does a good job of explaining the science and illuminating the London society of the 1850s.

It follows the story of two men, the Reverend Henry Whitehead, who tries to comfort the dying, and Dr. John Snow, an earlier pioneer in the anesthetic field and the investigator who fights against the prevailing scientific theory of "miasma", which postulated that all infections were air born. Together they begin the job of convincing the scientific community about waterborne illness, even if you can't see it.

The book was good, but, much like The Man Who Would Be King, I wanted more somehow. I really think both books would make great historical novels. You could get inside the head of one of these principles, especially Dr. Snow, and have a riveting tale. But still, a good read and Johnson gets really scary at the end. He explains that one unexplored side effect of 9/11 and the move to cities, is just how open we are to terrorist assault. Concentration of people makes for easy targets. While we seem to have the technology to defend against new strains of microbes, we are extremely vulnerable to a man-made disaster.

The Ghost Map
Steven Johnson



A few months ago, I read the book Fiasco, which describes just how badly the United States was prepared when we (they - I didn't vote for the bum) invaded Iraq. One of the nearly infinite sources of information that was ignored or misinterpreted was a "handbook" on battling guerrilla insurgency written by the French commander in Algiers.  Reading about this encouraged me to move The Battle of Algiers up in my Netflix queue and I finally got around to watching it last night.

The Battle of Algiers documents the guerilla warfare in the city of Algiers during the Algerian War of Independence, by the National Liberation Front (FLN). In a neo-realistic, mock-umentary fashion, The Battle Of Algiers follows the story of the brains of the operation, especially Ali, the more brutal of the four. Showing both the terrorism and counter-terrorism, it is a pretty even handed film, depicting brutality on both sides.

Wow, what an intense film! Really surprised me just how intense it was. I had seen bits and pieces of it on TV a few times, which made me want to watch it even more. There were also many conflicting emotions. On the one hand, you wanted the Algerians to throw off the yoke of colonialism and give the French masters a "what for". But on the other hand, they were religious radicals, intent on wiping out any who disagreed with them. And you also had the feeling that the final outcome, while it could be called independence from France, wouldn't really match any idealistic hopes and dreams of the regular people. And further research on Wikipedia proved that out. After they finally shucked off the French, they not surprisingly sunk into a virtual dictatorship for 30 years or more.

But the movie was powerful. Filmed in a quasi-documentary style, complete with bad focus and shaky cameras, you really felt like you were involved. Explosions felt real and the characters believable. When they dropped off bombs in the European Quarters, the bombers were shown glancing about, seeing the people they were about to blow up. Very tense stuff, and hitting all to close to home, as you can imagine the US Army, in Iraq, behaving in equally reprehensible fashion much like the desparate French army did.  Well worth your time and effort.



Movie Review: Garden State

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I watched my DVR'd copy of Garden State last night and enjoyed myself quite a bit. Admittedly, I missed the first 10 minutes or so when I began the recording, so I'm not entirely clear on some of the subplots, but that didn't detract much from it for me.

Zach Braf, in his directorial (and writing) debut, stars in this movie about an aimless guy in his mid-20s who comes back to New Jersey for his mother's funeral and tries to come to grip with his dysfunctional family. His path intersects the wacky Sam, played with charming quirkiness by Natalie Portman, whereupon they "get involved". He continues to struggle with his past and tries to come to grips with his future.

All in all, a very enjoyable film, with some truly funny moments.  Braff pulls off the aimless loser with aplomb and really seems to grow the character as the movie goes along. Slight, perhaps, but still a fun couple of hours. Some day, I'll have to track down the beginning of this movie!



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