One blogger's take on movies, television shows, books, and music -- the good, the bad, and the bottom line

Monday, June 11, 2007

I got an email from a friend who has done a lot of Hurricane Katrina relief work. Here are some extraordinary photos, taken by people on the ground. According to my friend, these pictures were made by a man in Magee, Mississippi, where the eye of the storm passed through. Magee is 150 miles North of Waveland, Mississippi, where the Hurricane made landfall:

The following picture was taken from the third- story balcony of Saint Stanislaus College, located next door to Our Lady of the Gulf Church in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, on the morning of August 29th, 2005. This is believed to be the initial tidal wave from Hurricane Katrina. The tidal wave was approximately 35 to 40 feet high. It slammed into the beach front communities of Bay Saint Louis and Waveland, Mississippi, and completely destroyed 99% of every structure along the beach for 9 miles.The destruction only started there. The flooding that continued inland destroyed the contents of all but 35 homes in these two communities of approximately 14,000 people:


UPDATE: Jay Johnson advises that the photos above, while very striking, are NOT Katrina-related. They are in fact photos taken by storm chasers in 2002 and 2004 of extreme weather in Nebraska and Kansas. Sorry about that. Now, the last photo, which does appear to be some nasty tidal surge, nevertheless must be of doubtful provenance, given the innacuracy of the previous eight. If anyone know where it came from, or can confirm that it IS a Katrina-related image, please let us know in the comments.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Memjet: The Future of Printing? Check this out:

What Memjet does is hard to believe: It prints letter-size output at 60 ppm—that's one page per second—with a 1,600- by 1,600-dot-per-inch (dpi) printer that Silverbrook says will be available in 2008 for maybe $200 to $300. Not only that, but the projected cost per page is less than 2 cents for a monochrome page and less than 6 cents for a color page.

Supposedly, this miracle will be available next year. If it's true, sign me up for one!

A comment on the comments to my last post aboutgas prices: wow.

I'm trying not to take the various negative comments too seriously, even the ones that used variations on "you're an idiot." I still think [very unscientifically] that gas prices now hurt a lot more than they have in the past. Also, it just seems, uh, unusual, for prices to shoot up by such relatively large increments. For example, between last week and this, gas prices here in Knoxville jumped 8 to 10 cents. I stand by my statement that I have never seen such sudden -- and consistent -- price bumping.

On a (hopefully) less controversial front, I'm starting to think about adding some sort of audio system to my HD TV. I'm interested in anyone's opinions. At first, I thought of just hooking up an old stero receiver and a couple of speakers. Then, trying to avoid working, I saw this Sony HT-DDW700 Complete 5.1-Channel DVD Home Theater System. I don't really need DVD capacity [I've got one already, of course], and my price range is below $250. Any comments or suggested alternatives?

Friday, May 18, 2007

OK, I'm one of those Democrats "seething" at the injustice of high gas prices. Geroge Will, who I bet hasn't had to worry about what it costs to fill up a tank with gas in a lot of years, pooh-poohs the ridiculously high gas prices: "In real (inflation-adjusted) rather than nominal dollars, $3.07 is less than gasoline cost in 1981."

Here's the BIIIG problem with that. Average salaries/pay rates haven't kept up with the rising cost of goods and services -- especially gasoline. I'd be interested in what the "real (inflation adjusted)" salary/pay rates are, as well. I mean, you can't draw an informed conclusion without that datum.

Oh, and why has gas consumption gone up a little over 2% in the past year? Could it be that fewer people are flying because flying is so damn expensive? And why is flying so damn expensive? Hmmmm.

Also, when have we EVER seen gas prices increase so radically so fast? Prior to Katrina, I can't ever remember a time when we would see a pump price increase by 10 cents per gallon within a week's space of time. Now it's routine. The reason for these unconscionable price hikes is that the oil companies, when they saw we would pay anything for the gas, simply decided to kick up the price. It didn't matter how much or how quickly, they knew we would pay, because we HAVE to pay. What real choice do we have? Of course we're being gouged, and the oil industry is laughing all the way to the bank with their record profits.

I saw a program on TV recently about alternative fuel sources, including hybrid, biodiesel, hydrogen and compressed air. What most of these developers have done on literally a shoestring suggests to me that with a concerted government effort, we could be in business with, say hydrogen, almost right away. Here's one outfit, in Norway, that's, uh, paving the way. for a comprehensive look at U.S. government info on this topic check out the 2007 Cyber Guide to Hydrogen Energy, Fuel Cell Cars and Vehicles, Federal Government Research (Three CD-ROM Set).

In the realm of oil/politics fiction (maybe), check out The Formula,featuring George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, and directed by Rocky and The Karate Kid's director, John Avildsen.

UPDATE: Thanks to an anonymous commenter, it appears that, comparing 1981 to 2004, average weekly wages between the two are essentially identical. So, while wages have remained the same, look at where gas prices have gone. It IS more for schlubs like us, because our wages haven't kept up with gas prices.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Instapundit has an interesting post on the Japanese criminal justice system. Well, it was interesting to me, because I just happened to finish reading James Clavell's Gai-Jin, an incredibly dense and vivd historical novel of the early years of western involvement in Japan (1862, specifically). While a novel, the book highlights the extraordinary cultural and moral differences between westerners (British, French, American, etc.) and the native Japanese. The Japanese justice system, which I bet was grafted onto the country following WWII, is consistent with those differences, and demonstrates the extent to which asians generally, and Japanese particularly, simply think differently than we do. As Gai-Jin illustrates, that's neither good nor bad; it simply is.

By the way, Gai-Jin is a helluva book, but at 1,035 pages, you have to wade through it a bit. Nevertheless, I give it four flicks, and recommend the rest of the Clavell Asia novels.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"My Favorite Use of Post-It Notes"

This should be my worst problem....

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

I was reading Eric Muller's post on discovering his Uncle Leo's identity card 65 years after the Germans sent him to the gas in Poland. One commenter speaks of the pure evil operating in Nazi Germany. While I don't quibble with the term, I think that many people miss the point when trying to apply the historical significance of the German "Final Solution" to our contemporary lives.

The point here is not that "monsters" perpetrated these acts. The point is that regular, everyday Germans did so, while going about their regular everyday business. It bears thinking about that the clerks and bureaucratic functionaries who signed the orders, made the entries, ensured the trains were full, and dropped the poison zyklon pellets were all regular people, doing what they were told to do because their government told them the subhuman Jews were the enemy. Apparently for the Germans, their government's denunciation was enough; without a flicker of remorse or second-guessing [collectively, at least], regular Germans as "normal" as any average American accepted unquestioningly the twisted ravings of a few, and translated it into a horrifyingly efficient and bureaucratically well-documented genocide.

For those interested in the best and most-readable exposition of the German-perpetrated genocide, as well as the typical German efficiency with which it was carried out, read Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance. The made for TV miniseries of War & Remembrance is flawed, but the episodes dealing with the Holocaust-related aspects of World War II are strikingly well done. In fact, the Auschwitz scenes were actually filmed there.

It is naive to think another such holocaust could never happen here. Without constant vigilance, it could happen anywhere.

Monday, April 16, 2007

After using up all my excuses, I finally watched the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth. This Oscar-winning documentary makes the case that global warming is a reality, and is a call to action on this "moral, not political" issue.

Now, I have some history with Al Gore, albeit tangential. I interned in his Senate office as a third year law student. While I had very limited exposure to the Senator at the time, it was apparent that he was extremely hard-working, thoughtful, and well-meaning. It was also clear to all that this guy was going to be president one day. With me personally, he amused me greatly when he met my parents who came in for a courtesy call during my law school graduation. Gore sat there and, with a straight face, told them I was the best intern he had ever had. I practically guffawed, because I was sure that he didn't even know my name. Good staff work, I guess. Oh, he was even then a techno-geek; he was one of the first legislators to have a computer at his desk.

Those irerelevancies aside, my thoughts on the documentary:

The Good: It's hard to take the relatively dry subject matter of global warming, presented essentially in a powerpoint-type presentation, and make it interesting. Gore and the filmmakers succeeded for the most part. Substantively they make a compelling case for the increasing dangers of global warming, and for the reality of its existence. The filmmakers use an effective device in telling their "story;" they make Gore the "protagonist," interspersing into his presentation a summary of his life and career, and how it informed his commitment to this issue. As Gore is the "good guy," it follows that those who oppose the clarion call are perceived as the "bad guys." Those who oppose his position here may or may not be bad, but you have to admit, it's an effective storytelling device. Even Ann Althouse thought so, more or less ("And dammit, it works. I do feel good about Al Gore!"). The statistic that stays with me over a week after viewing the movie is that there have been close to 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles demonstraitng the reality of global warming, and zero such papers refuting its existence. He then contrasted that statstic with the countervailing statistic that in popular publications there are over 50% that dispute the reality of global warming. I found the production values good -- sharp, pleasant photography, and enough cutting to keep it interesting without giving me a headache. I thought the movie presented a compelling argument.

The Bad: Well, I did fall asleep twice trying to get through it. That's why God invented "rewind."

The Bottom Line: Four Flicks. I didn't think this was a Gore for President info-mercial; I think they used him to tell their story and make their point. For a documentary, it was solid work.

Those who decry Gore for using more energy than the average joe miss the point, I think. Don't shoot the messenger; Gore's personal habits don't negatively affect the credibility of his message. Lambasting him simply muddies the waters, which is the goal of the nay-sayers anyway. While this documentary may have oversimplified some points, the broad theme seems valid. And as I have said for some time, even if they're wrong about global warming, we ought to hedge our bets and start reducing our emissions. Now if I could only afford a hybrid car....

I just glanced at all the comments of my review of Little Miss Sunshine. Thanks for looking in, everybody! I agree with one of them that I did not sense some sort of liberal political agenda in the plotting of or approach to the film. If anything, this movie is indicative of middle class desperation, and the crazy ways we cope with day to day stresses of just getting through.

I did perceive the metaphor of family in everyone having to push the van to get it started. I just didn't think to mention it, not only to avoid a spoiler, but also because it just seemed to be lost in the rest of the background noise.

A commenter correctly noted that I did not mention Paul Dano, who played the angst-ridden teenage brother. Well, it was 1:30 a.m. when I wrote it, so give me a break, huh? Also, I led the review with HIS quote, so don't I get props for that?

The reason the majority of commenters were as dissatisfied with the picture as I was is that the distributor and MSM touted this movie as something that it was not. It was not a warm family comedy; it was a dark, bittersweet [emphasis on bitter] examination of dysfunctional family mechanics. Maybe the problem was that it tried to be all things to all people, but failed [all due respect to those who did find it amusing]. Sometimes you can't take your eyes off a train wreck, no matter how distasteful it is. This movie was not one of those occasions.

Finally, I do want to acknowledge what I have said for years: I'm just one critic. I may like the movie, but that doesn't mean anything if you don't. You know, different strokes and all that.

Keep watching!

UPDATE: Apparently, I'm "some sort of a clown." Well, clowns are entertaining, so I guess that means I am, too. I'll take that as a compliment. Yeah, that's the ticket.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Well, the hits just keep on comin'! I'm also "The most banal fim critic ever." At least someone's reading....

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: From a pithy commenter, my quote of the day: "parade of human ugliness." Indeed.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

One of the characters in Little Miss Sunshineadroitly sums up this movie for any potential viewers: "welcome to hell." What is billed as a charming and quirky comedy is actually a painful exercise in "let's make fun of the dysfunctional family." If you get the impression I didn't much like the picture, you may be right.

This one hour and 43 minute study in misery and seat squirming is the story of a truly sad family and their odyssey to make it to the youngest daughter's "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant. "Sunshine" is actually reminiscent of funnier movies, like National Lampoon's Vacation,even down to certain plot points that I won't give away here. But while the latter actually amused, Little Miss Sunshine simply made me want to hide my face in my hands and pray for the end credits.

The Good: Not much actually. The best part of the movie is the young pageant contestant's talent performance, as choreographed by her grandfather. That amused for about 2 minutes. Of course, I had to figure out a way to deal with the remaining 11 minutes.

Dustin Hoffmancalled young newcomer Abigail Breslin's work the best child actress performance he ever saw. While this young girl is reasonably engaging, she can't make up for this sad excuse for a story/script. Personally, I think Dustin should have seen, say, Tatum O'Neal's tour de force in Paper Moon. Alan Arkinwon an Oscar for his part as the heroin snorting, foul-mouthed grandfather. I can't figure out why, unless the award was more for his body of work than for this particular part. Greg Kinnearis appropriately smarmy as the motivational expert who can't get anyone motivated. However, he's effective enough that one can't really like -- or root for -- his character. Toni Colletteis the one relatively normal member of this family, and her role is essentially straight man to the rest of them. She's wasted in the part; anyone with any acting ability could have played it. Steve Carrell,who's hot as a firecracker as a comedy performer these days, is maybe the most effective actor in this piece, with his understated delivery of the gay, suicidal, Proust expert along for the ride. On the other hand, all he's got to do is look sad and play it straight.

The Bad: I get enough dysfunctional unhappiness in my own life; why would I consider it entertainment to watch it on a movie screen? as alluded to above, some of the movie was deriviative of other road movies. While I understood the theme that the filmmakers were going for [family, for better or worse], I was expectng some humor, and what I got was almost painful to watch.

The Bottom Line: One Flick. This picture would have gotten zero flicks, but the talent competition sequence did amuse, however briefly. Why so many others have raved about this waste of time is beyond me.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

In The Sentinel, Michael Douglas is a well-liked, veteran Secret Service agent who, years previously, took a bullet for Ronald Reagan. He also has a secret -- he's schtupping the current First Lady. He starts having a really bad day when an assasination plot against the president is uncovered, pointing at him as the secret service mole setting up his boss, the leader of the free world. From there, mayhem, chase scenes and high body count ensue. Here's what I thought of it:

The Good: This movie is a nicely paced, reasonably taut thriller. Douglas, typically, gives a strong performance, and largely erases my image of him as The President in The American President. Kiefer Sutherland is not bad as the investigating agent who is out to crucify his former mentor and friend. For a while, I was left guessing where the story would go. Although I eventually figured out the whodunnit part, the picture nevertheless kept my interest.

The Bad: The filmmakers left a lot of this story untold, for whatever reason. An agent is murdered early on in the action, and while it's implied that he dies because he has learned something about the assasination attempt, we never find out what he knew. When we find out who the assasins are, we get precious little exposition on why they're gunning for the president. I suspect we were supposed to be carried along with the story at such a rate that we would forget for those niggling details. Eva Longoria and Kim Basinger are basically wasted in their supporting roles as the newbie Secret Service Agent and cheatin' First Lady, respectively.

The Bottom Line: Three flicks. Kept my interest, but predictable in the end.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

And now, a brief foray into music, one of my other passions.

One of my early drummer heroes was Danny Seraphine from Chicago. For reasons never disseminated to the public, Danny was unceremoniously canned by the band in 1990, and he fell off the radar screen. Well, he's re-emerged with a great new interview. This interview, for the first time, gives us some explanation for his unfortunate departure from one of the most successful bands in rock history.

More interestingly, he's put together a new band, called -- slyly -- CTA (California Transit Authority). The web site has an audio montage of some of his work with this new band, and it sounds really good. I can't wait for an album, which apparently is in the works. Now what's cool is that part of that montage is a cover of Chicago's Mississippi Delta City Blues from Chicago XI, maybe my all-time fave Chicago tune.

This guy's a monster drummer, who has been an inspiration to a whole generation of drummers. Stay tuned for his next move.

Cameron Crowe is the luckiest guy in the world. At fifteen or thereabouts, he was touring and writing about the biggest bands on the rock scene. See Almost Famous - The Director's Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition). And getting paid for it! But, "what I really want to do is direct." So he gets to direct, and he does so well. See Jerry Maguire, Say Anything, Vanilla Sky. On top of everything else, he's married to Nancy Wilson from Heart. He gives hope to geeks everywhere.

So it was with great interest that I watched Elizabethtown, Crowe's latest. He's got a strong cast, including Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, and Susan Sarandon, and he's got a penchant for telling effective character-based stories. So did he pull it off again? Let's see:

The Good: Drew (Bloom) is having the bad day of bad days. The shoe he has developed has laid an elephant-sized egg, to the tune of about a billion dollars. His craven boss (Alec Baldwin, in a throwaway part) wants Bloom to take the heat for the fiasco. To make his day perfect, he learns that his father has died in rural Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and he's been drafted to schlep cross-country to the hinterlands to collect the body and deal with the (to his mother and sister) annoying locals. As he sits on the plane, basically suicidal, he encounters the most proactive filght attendant I ever saw. And what happens to Drew as he moves physically and spiritually through Elizabethtown and beyond is the real story here.

Bloom, who is English, affects a flawless -- if regionally neutral -- American accent, and is engaging as the beset-upon Drew. Kirsten Dunst, as usual, lights up the screen. The movie basically is Drew's voyage of discovery and redemption, as he comes to terms with the death of his father, the collective love of dad's native Elizabethtown friends and family, his own professional failures, and and his own disconnect with all of the above. Crowe is an engaging writer, and has good chops in telling a story as a director. I figured out fairly quickly that this movie was informed by Crowe's loss of his own father, many years ago. While I applaud Crowe for giving it the old college try, the movie just doesn't hold together in the end.

The Bad: As alluded to earlier, Kirsten is the most in-your-face flight attendant in history. Why don't I get stewardesses like that [you really want me to answer that? -- ed.]? As my wife the retailer said while watching the movie, it's just not realistic that the shoe that Drew developed would have ever gone to market before exhaustive testing to ensure it didn't lay the egg described in the story. Certainly, the designer is not going to be the only one in the chain to take the heat for the failure.

I was annoyed at what I perceived to be the stereotyping of small southern communities portrayed by Californian cum Washingtonian Crowe. Although he did appear to soft peddle it, the Elizabethtown residents were the usual suspects: the frosted-hair aunts, the redneck local businessmen, the redneck single father cousin. Maybe I'm just hypersensitive here, but I don't see that kind of thing here in Knoxville, at least.

Ultimately, I didn't think the action while in the town scanned. Why didn't Sarandon, as Drew's mother and new widow, go to Elizabethtown to deal with arrangements concerning her own dead husband? If she had such a good relationship with her husband, why then was she taking cooking and tap dancing classes instead of burying her beloved? If it was because she couldn't stand the townspeople, or her family in-laws, then why did she show up at the end of the picture for the memorial service they held? She was basically wasted in this role.

Come to think of it, we never learned why dad was in his native Elizabethtown in the first place. If he and his family were as estranged with his local family as implied, then why was he there? Why was dad so revered by local family and friends? Let's face it: out of sight means out of mind. If he had been gone from his home town for decades, as implied, then it is likely that the town was not going to be as collectively prostrate with grief as portrayed.

I also couldn't suspend disbelief long enough to believe in the crucial and central relationship between Bloom and Dunst. Don't get me wrong; I rooted for them, but I just didn't believe it. And Bloom's questing drive cross-country to cap off the film is supposed to be quixotically romantic, I suppose. It just comes off as silly to me.

The Bottom Line: Two Flicks. I really wanted to like this movie better, but it just didn't stack up well compared to Crowe's very solid previous work. To use a sports metaphor, sometimes, you've got the right play called, the right players on the field, and the touchdown pass just falls short. That's "Elizabethtown" to me.

Friday, April 06, 2007

I always got a kick out of the 1976 Walter Matthau/Tatum O'Neal vehicle The Bad News Bears,and I've watched it many times over the years. The picture got a lot of attention in the day for the raw language and situations the child characters found themselves in. But the interplay between Matthau and O'Neal, Matthau and the kids, Matthau and the adults [detect a trend there?] creates a sort of whimsical atmosphere. That, with a clear love of thegame of baseball, made the original work notable andentertaining.

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down with the remake of it -- 2005's Bad News Bears,this one with Billy Bob Thornton apparently trying to channel the late Matthau. Here's my take:

The Good: Not much, frankly. Billy Bob is serviceable as Buttermaker, but viewed -- inevitably -- through the patina of Matthaus's bravura performance almost 30 years previously, it comes off as a pale imitation of the original. There are a couple of decent gags, but I found myself amused really only two or three times.

The Bad: Richard Linklater, the director, clearly couldn't figure out how to handle this remake. Retell the story, or change it up enough to make it independent of the original? What results is a mish mash of attempts at originality, interpsersed with distracting thefts from the original. For example, Linklater steals almost verbatim the gag involving Tanner in the Bears's first game. They can't stop the Yankees from running the bases, so in frustration Tanner starts throwing his glove at the opposing base runners. The only change is that Linklater has the Tanner character go an additional step. He jumps on the base runners as well. Big deal. In another example, Buttermaker is pitching to his team in practice, all the while getting crocked. The scene culminates with a cut to a prostrate Buttermaker, completely passed out over the pitcher's mound. Linklater does the same thing, with the only extension being the kids actually picking his pocket and stealing his money. Hilarious. These retreads of the original's scenes continue throughout, even down to using the same camera angle as the original on one scene, when Timmy Lupus finally gets a chance to catch a fly ball. Here, the sublime finally becomes the ridiculous. Lupus gets his glove on the ball, but he doesn't get the catch; instead, it's bounces off to be caught by Hooper, a paraplegic [yeah, you read that right], who gets to play in the outfield. Uh, how does this kid bat out of a powered wheelchair? Well, we don't have to figure that one out, because Linklater conveniently never puts him up at bat.

The worst failing is the Tatum O'Neal character, Amanda. The young actress is sadly miscast, and has no chemistry with Billy Bob at all. The key to the original was the implicit, bittersweet interplay between Matthau and O'Neal. That interplay is wholly nonexistent in the new movie. This movie just never captures any of the whimsy that made the original so special.

The Bottom Line: One Flick. Watch the original. You'll see the same gags, and much better executed.

UPDATE: I watched the original Bad News Bears yesterday, and realized that I was flat wrong with my reference to the camera angle on the penultimate Lupus catch toward the end of the picture. The 2005 shot was a point of view shot from the ball, in the air. In the 1976 movie, the shot is from the ground level. Sorry about the mistake, but I still stand by my take on the two fims. The first one just hangs together better, and is sweeter than the new one, language notwithstanding.