Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Back, Baby, Back

In 1998, private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro found a lost child, and the fallout from that case nearly destroyed both their personal and professional relationship. That was in Dennis Lehane's Gone, Baby, Gone, also the source for the well-received 2007 Ben Affleck movie of the same name.

Twelve years later, Kenzie and Gennaro are reunited and find themselves searching for the same lost girl, Amanda McCready, now 16 and a top student at her private school in spite of her mother's neglect. Gennaro is earning her college degree and Kenzie is trying to get hired by a large private investigation firm but having trouble because his tendency to speak his mind is not welcomed by the firm's leadership. They are married and have a daughter of their own.

Kenzie starts searching for Amanda because her aunt told him she hasn't been seen for two weeks. Gennaro "unretires" and joins him. Their search will take them into some of the seediest ranges of Boston's underworld and they may find that the years and the concerns surrounding their family have cost them the edge they used to have in dealing with the ruthless criminal element they're encountering again.

Since Gone came out in 1998, Lehane has seen not only it but two of his other novels hit the big screen to applause and widespread recognition: Clint Eastwood directed Mystic River in 2003 and Martin Scorsese Shutter Island in 2010. He also joined the writing staff of the award-winning HBO crime drama The Wire. And he apparently spent a lot of time watching late-season Law & Order episodes, because a number of Moonlight Mile's side plots recall some of that show's clichéd story devices. Obviously anyone with two eyes and a brain can see that when poor people and rich people have the same problems, the rich people can call on resources unavailable to poor people to either handle the problems or escape the consequences. And no small number of problems faced by poor people happen to them because they lack the power wealth provides. But not all of them, and Lehane's side journeys into some of Kenzie's other ongoing cases claim otherwise -- clumsily.

The clumsiness stands out because Moonlight Mile finds Lehane back at the scene of his best work, the series of Kenzie-Gennaro novels that first gained him recognition. Although the non-series novels he's published since that series went on hiatus after 1999's A Prayer for Rain have been generally well-received, they make it obvious that Kenzie and Gennaro are Lehane's "home-field advantage" books -- he's better there than elsewhere. Will he come back to the pair again? It's no spoiler to say that Mile makes it look otherwise and Lehane himself, when interviewed about his 2008 historical novel The Given Day, indicated he doesn't see a lot of those books left in him.

But he was apparently mistaken enough in those interviews to find Moonlight Mile, so we'll see what happens.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Even the Very Toppings of Your Bagels Are Numbered...

I just don't understand how things like the brewing scandal at the University of Miami, the whole situation with Cam Newton's dad soliciting payments to get a college to sign his son and the mess at Ohio State University could make anyone believe the NCAA is somehow not enforcing ethical and proper behavior by its member institutions.

C'mon, these people are on the ball (so to speak). They know what's going on; they have considered every possible problem and have given schools guidelines to follow. For example, I can't count the number of times I've heard of some shady booster surreptitiously paying college cafeteria workers to put toppings on recruits' bagels. That's right. I'll wait while you compose yourself.

Now, every written ethical rule since human beings figured out they could encode their thoughts by making marks on a flat surface speaks with one voice in this matter: Cream cheese is only for enrolled student-athletes. Of course colleges may provide bagels to recruits without any danger whatsoever to their principles, but offering them a small plastic container of butter spread for those bagels imperils the very concept of amateur collegiate athletics. In fact, some ancient texts suggest that the real reason Socrates was forced to drink hemlock was that he gave peanut butter and jelly to a track and field athlete considering enrolling in his philosophical school -- making the NCAA's version of the "death penalty" look kind of wimpy by comparison.

Fortunately, at its recent meeting the NCAA decided that offering recruits spreadable material in conjunction with a dry baked good was not, in and of itself, a problem. It therefore passed Proposal No. 2011-78, which would allow recruits as well as student athletes access to bagel toppings from the college cafeteria. Rumors that the aforementioned shady boosters may file suit to block free access to this popular recruiting "extra" in order help them keep the edge for their school in the fiercely competitive bagel arena of landing top prospects are, as far as I know, unfounded.

(H/T The Sports Economist)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Ah, Life!

Like the item said, sometimes the headlines write themselves, as when Greek police went undercover to get the goods on a ring of doughnut sellers who were using violence and threats to put other doughnut sellers out of business.

The undercover officer was attacked by three members of the ring, meaning they will face charges on the assault, while other members will just face charges of blackmail and fraud.

To top it off, officials also issued food safety violations against the criminals, but I think that's just prosecutors piling on and I expect the bad guys to win on appeal.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I think Weekly Standard writer Fred Barnes is getting at something here, when he suggests that one of the problems President Obama has is that he has not faced much of an adversarial press until fairly recently.

Barnes says that earlier presidents, who found their failures and troubles highlighted by the media, often responded by upping their game, either in terms of policy or working the electorate. Holding elected leaders accountable by talking about their records and probing them on their failures is one of the things that the Founders envisioned when they made a guarantee of a free press part of the very first constitutional amendment.

Unfortunately for his own growth in the job, President Obama has faced little such heat, Barnes says. Certainly his own magazine as well as other conservative stalwarts like National Review or The American Spectator have dogged what they believe to be the president's errors. The conservative-leaning editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and conservative-minded papers like The Washington Times have done so as well. Opinion broadcasters on Fox News, such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, have beaten a serious drum on areas where they think the president has it wrong, and many people say that the news operations of the channel have done likewise.

That's the thing, though -- all of these outlets that have been cited as being tough on or even attacking the president are identifiably conservative. The media operations that carry the reputation of objectivity have been noticeably absent from the rolls of those calling the administration to account for its goofs or places where it hasn't measured up to the promises made at the outset. A New York Times reporter asks the president if the job "enchants" him. A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle calls him a "lightworker," some new kind of being. Hardball host Chris Matthews had a "thrill go up [his] leg" when the president accepted the Democratic nomination.

Like most modern presidencies, the Obama administration has done its best to try to manage the media and keep it out of the way. President Reagan used to pretend he couldn't hear reporters' shouted questions. Subsequent presidents have trimmed the number of press conferences they hold. The Obama administration has shut some media out of photo ops. But with the exception of a few like ABC's Jake Tapper or the reporters from the identifiably conservative outlets, who persist in asking the president or his officials to explain what they're doing, too many media folks have been content to let the administration define itself.

I won't pretend I'm a fan of the president's policies, and as such I consider any ineffectiveness he shows to be a feature, not a bug. I want him to succeed, but my definition of his success would include him changing his mind from what I think he's doing that's wrong, so he might not share that definition with me. But I don't believe one has to be a critic of President Obama to see that much of our media have not dogged him the way they have dogged other presidents, and it's not unreasonable to assume the lack of a whetstone has not allowed him to sharpen in office as much as he might otherwise have done.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

From the Rental Vault (2010): Legend of the Fist

If you're a martial arts movie fan and you were told one character would combine the abilities of Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, you would be correct in thinking that character would be one bad dude. But technically, the character Chen Zhen has only been played by those three Hong Kong action stars -- he's not some sort of melded combination of them.

Lee played Chen Zhen in his second movie, 1972's Fist of Fury. Li played him in the 1994 remake of that movie, Fist of Legend. Yen takes on the role in 2010's Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (its U.S. release was in 2011), set in Shanghai in the 1920s when internal fighting among Chinese warlords was leaving the country open to the eventual invasion by Japan.

After the events of Fist of Legend, wanted man Chen has returned to Shanghai using the identity of Qi Tianyuan, a fallen fellow soldier. As Qi, he becomes friends and business partners with Liu Yutian, owner of the Casablanca nightclub. Since the Casablanca club is popular with Shanghai's foreign population, Chen uses it as a base to spy on the Japanese and the British who are jockeying for power in China by playing its factions against each other. One night, in order to thwart the attempted assassination of a Chinese general by agents of Japanese spymaster Colonel Chikaraishi Takeshi, Chen dons a mask and suit and fights them off. Soon The Masked Warrior becomes a hero to the people of Shanghai who are being squeezed more and more by Japanese pressure. As Qi, he is also developing a romance with the Casablanca club's lead singer, Kiki -- who may be something different than she seems.

Because of its focus on the fight sequences, Legend of the Fist can make a viewer look past the solid acting by its cast, especially Yen, Shu Qi as Kiki and Huang Ho as a police inspector who is in on Chen's secret. Director Andrew Lau includes several nice touches -- a group of Japanese officers in the Casablanca club call for a Japanese song from Kiki, only to be interrupted by a French song played by Chen, much like the singing German officers are interrupted by "La Marseillaise" in the movie Casablanca. The costume Chen wears to fight against the Japanese assassins is modeled on the Kato costume Bruce Lee wore in The Green Hornet TV series. And Lau tries very hard to blend martial arts movie, spy thriller and a straight up film noir into one story -- coming pretty close to pulling it off.

But in the end he and the cast fail, mostly because Legend of the Fist tries to mix too many characters and too many subplots into its action. Colonel Takeshi's plots and plans are ridiculously complex and hinge on twists and turns that eventually lead nowhere. It's stylish, flashy and fightin' fun, but doesn't come out a winner in the end.

Friday, August 26, 2011

This Blog Is Dying

Sorry, that's really an alarmist exaggeration designed to attract your attention and make you think you'll miss something if you don't pay attention to this post. I've been watching a lot of local TV news recently. Not by choice; it's what the gym TVs have been tuned to.

Anyway, according to this story, Blogger is one of several once-popular websites that are now rapidly becoming unpopular. Its demise is apparently coming because Twitter allows people to drop pithy comments into cyberspace without the bother of selecting a format, typing a lot of words or formulating a thought, and that's what most people used blogs for. The figures for the user decline seem accurate, but I don't know if you can say that means Blogger (and the other blogging host site mentioned, Typepad) are "dead or dying." Could mean that it's a shakeout and the number settles back to a smaller but steady user base. As far as I can tell, the use of specialized lingo and symbols like "RT" for re-tweet or repeat and the "hashtag" to indicate groups of topics may eventually overwhelm the 140-character limit of Twitter -- the average message may have so many introductory characters and abbreviations that the message itself will have to be about three words long.

I will say that two sites I would not be sorry to see leave are Gawker and Salon. The former is well described in a quote in the story by a former employee: “But you’re scooping the muck from the sewer and holding it up in your hand and saying, ‘Look at this. Smell this.’ ”

Up until about the middle of George W. Bush's first term as president, I regularly read Salon. I disagreed with a number of its writers about politics, but it had some first-rate reviewers and entertainment columnists. Although straightforwardly liberal, Salon hosted regular pieces by conservative activist David Horowitz and libertarian iconoclast Camile Paglia. And it had King Kaufman, one of the nation's best sports writers. But as the site apparently felt called to become more and more shrill and strident in its opposition to then-President Bush's policies, the variety of viewpoints it had featured dwindled away (A parallel might be Horowitz's own Front Page Magazine site in the current administration -- being conservative doesn't necessarily mean that one has to spend every waking moment slagging an ineffective and misguided leader whom one opposes, and thus FPM has become an infrequent stop on the Friar Cyber Tour). Kaufman stopped writing sports columns for the site in 2009, as the site's financial picture and staff reductions pushed him into an editorial role. He left in January of this year.

Salon, of course, takes a different view about the rumors of their death, impending or otherwise, saying that the site they use to track their traffic shows their independent page views up over this time last year. And the site that used to measure the traffic is "notoriously unreliable." I dunno -- although I am prone to take a Fox report about Salon with a grain of salt, I'm not helped any by the Salon piece's tendency to throw round phrases like "notoriously unreliable" without backing that label up with some stats or quotes.

Anyway, as far as I know, I'm still here. And as long as I have fingers that work and the delusion that if circumstances and such had been different, I could have been Mike Royko, I guess I still will be.

But I wouldn't miss Gawker at all. And maybe TMZ could fold too.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

PSR J1719-1438 Is a Girl's Best Friend

One of its planets is, anyway. PSR J1719-1438 is the name given to a pulsar about 4,000 light years from Earth. Pulsars are a special kind of neutron stars that give off radio pulses, which appear to blink on and off to us as the star rotates and the radio source is aimed towards us and then away from us. Astronomers use those regular emissions to measure things and learn stuff about its immediate neighborhood.

But it seemed that PSR J1719-1438's pulses were regularly disturbed -- at certain times they were just a tick off. Astronomers thought that the most likely explanation was a planet orbiting the pulsar, and when they measured the pattern of interruptions, it let them figure out how fast the planet was moving, how far away it was from the pulsar and how big it was. The answers were eyebrow-raisers, because the measurements showed the planet was probably made of carbon and supremely dense. The combination meant its structure was most likely crystalline in nature, and crystalline carbon usually goes by the more familiar name "diamond." Yup -- pulsar PSR J1719-1438's got a big ol' hunk of engagement ice orbiting around it.

Neutron stars are collapsed old stars that have burned up their fuel but weren't big enough to go nova. Scientists figure its pricy companion was probably a white dwarf star that had all of its outer atmosphere stripped away by the pulsar. White dwarf stars are also small stars. They don't reach the size necessary to produce heavier elements in their nuclear furnaces, stopping at carbon. When the pulsar ripped off the hydrogen-helium atmosphere of the white dwarf, a dense carbon core was left and its own gravity compressed it into the diamond structure. The astronomers say it's even denser than any Earth diamond, meaning it would be much harder and would weigh more than an Earth diamond of the same size.

Astrophysicist Marc Kuchner theorized the existence of carbon or diamond planets. But he thought they would form sort of like planets regularly form, through gradual clumping together in a protoplanetary dust disk, only in a disk that was carbon-rich and oxygen-poor. Kuchner's hypothesis didn't cover the white dwarf scenario.

In any event, the system is, as I mentioned, some 4,000 light years away, meaning the fastest spacecraft we have on the planet would take hundreds of thousands of years to get there and return. Which means, 1) you've still got time to sell your DeBeers stock before the bottom falls out of the diamond market and 2), It's gonna be awhile before the price of those things goes down -- tough luck, fellas.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What The? So Many Times I've Lost Count

The double-take fact in this story about Universal Studios canceling the upcoming movie project Ouija is not the cancellation itself. The movie is, indeed, based on the board game beloved by middle school girls and despised by anti-occultist church youth directors across the country. So canceling it seems like a much smarter decision than the one which logically precedes it, that is, making the movie in the first place.

No, the big ol' pothole in this road is reading that Universal had signed a seven-picture deal with Hasbro, Ouija's manufacturer. Seven movies? Seven movies based on board games? Sounds like someone should have consulted their Magic 8-Ball, because I am sure that it would have advised against such a silly idea. Unless Mattel got offered a piece of the action, that is. Then "signs point to yes."

And He Shows Them Pearly White

No small number of people despise Mark Steyn's politics and his tendency to leave a lot of blood in the water when he tackles an issue. But if you want to know something about an entry in the Great American Songbook, you will find few more knowledgeable sources and almost none who can sum up a story so well.

On the occasion of the July death of Frank Foster, one of the arrangers of the Bobby Darin version of "Mack the Knife" that defines the song for most people who know it, Steyn relates the history of the tune, from its beginnings in a Weimar-era German opera to one of the standard swinging belt songs of today. Steyn notes the character of Mack predates the opera where the song came into being, dating back to a 1728 opera that the 1920s Germans updated.

I've got pretty much nothing to add to Steyn's history of the song, which may be more than interests some people. But I would note something that I can't believe he missed. "Mack the Knife" appeared as a moritat or "murder song" in the opera Die Dreigroschenoper, which is known in English as "The Threepenny Opera." Die Dreigroschenoper has been made into a movie three different times. The first was in 1931 and was actually two movies made at the same time -- one in German and one in French. The most recent one was called Mack the Knife and was released in 1989 with Raul Julia as Macheath, the "Mack" of the title. Andy Serkis of Gollum and Planet of the Apes motion-capture fame is supposed to be working on a new version with the decidedly dark lyrical mind of Nick Cave, which should be interesting if it ever comes out.

The second filmed version of Die Dreigroschenoper, released in 1962, starred among others Curt Jurgens and Gert Fröbe, who also appeared together that year -- along with almost everybody else -- in the D-Day war movie The Longest Day. But that's not all they share. Jurgens, who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis for being "politically unreliable," would in 1977 match wits with British Secret Service agent 007 James Bond as Karl Stromberg, a megalomaniac who wanted to start a nuclear war so people would be forced to move to undersea habitats he would control. Fröbe, who used his membership in the Nazi party to hide two German Jews from the Gestapo, had already faced down 007 and lost back in 1964 as Auric Goldfinger, a megalomaniac who wanted to detonate a nuclear bomb at Fort Knox and destroy America's gold supply, leaving him with the largest gold reserves in the world.

Mack the Knife and James the Spy are both fictional characters, but it's interesting that if you want to play a degrees of separation game with them you don't have to take too many steps.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sand, Rock...No, Nothing About Cardboard

According to the founder of my outfit, one is supposed to build one's abode on rock, rather than on sand, if one has wisdom. That admonition might extend to other buildings as well, we might assume.

But the manual says nothing about what we're supposed to make them out of, so apparently there won't be anything wrong with the temporary replacement for the Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, being made from some really big cardboard tubes.

The original cathedral was badly damaged in two separate earthquakes this year. Because of its historical significance, officials in Christchurch are taking their time in figuring out exactly how they will rebuild. But in the meantime there are some folks in town who want to be able to go to their church, so the officials contacted a Japanese architect who has made quite a bit of use of cardboard in making large buildings. Properly treated, it's waterproof, and it's apparently quite strong when it's layered the right way. It's pretty strong when it's still thin, too, as anyone who's ever tried to open one of those boxes of canned sodas can tell you.

The idea is that this structure can last until repairs are fully planned and finished, and then when it's taken down the material can be recycled.

So your next Christmas gift might come packed up in a church. Probably better not skip that thank-you card.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Few Good Words

More than a few, actually, from the pen of the great Jerry Lieber:
You just put on your coat and hat,
and walk yourself to the laundromat.
And when you've finished doing that,
bring in the dog and put out the cat
Yakety yak! (Don't talk back)
Lieber, working with Mike Stoller, more or less built rock and roll during the 1950s. The duo wrote "Hound Dog," originally a hit for Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton and used by Elvis Presley to help secure his place at the top of the charts. They wrote several more hits for Elvis, including the title tracks to the only two good movies he made -- "King Creole" and the iconic "Jailhouse Rock."

They also wrote some of the biggest hits for The Coasters, a comic rock band that scored with songs like the above-quoted "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy" (You're gonna need an ocean/of calamine lotion/you'll be scratchin' like a hound/the minute you start to mess around/With poison ivy), "Love Potion No. 9" and a bunch of others. They wrote "Kansas City," a hit for Wilbur Harrison that is pretty much the town's theme song, and the awesome "Stand By Me" for Ben E. King.

Stoller was the musical composer and Lieber the lyricist. His pen was stilled today, but I imagine the musical selection in the afterlife has just perked up quite a bit.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ahead of Behind the Times

So I get rid of most of my vinyl records just before they hit a really big comeback in sales. Figures.

As the story notes, though, some of the reason people are buying new vinyl these days is not to play, but to have the look. Some of the big albums come with download codes allowing the purchaser to get the digital version of the album as well, and as long as most music gets played through iPod earbuds, the vinyl market is likely to remain the province of the specialist.

Several of the commenters make the often-repeated claim that vinyl retains its advantage of superior sound quality over CDs. That may very well be true -- as I've mentioned before, one too many concerts at a younger age leave me without the ability to distinguish precise differences in sound quality. But even so, the listeners who are able to detect the difference are rare.

In his book How Music Works, physicist and musician John Powell refers to a 1993 study that asked 160 music enthusiasts to listen to the same piece of music played from a vinyl record and from a CD. The pair of music psychologists, Klaus-Ernst Behne and Johannes Barkowsky, selected people who ran stereo shops, musicians, regular concertgoers as well as casual fans. They played six sound sequences apiece for each person and asked them to identify which came from a CD and which came from vinyl. Four of the 160 picked the correct source every time. Another 17 were right five out of six times, meaning that less than one percent of the people in the test could identify the differences between CDs and vinyl at least five times out of six even though nearly all of the people in the test strongly believed before they started that vinyl sounded better (A link to some more information about the study can be found here. Most of the others I could find online were in German, since Behne and Barkowsky were working for the Hanover Conservatory when they conducted their tests).

The difference between vinyl, or CDs for that matter, and digital files like MP3s is obvious even to my ears. Most digital files are compressed to save space and because they will most likely be played on those tiny earbuds, they don't have to have very good sonic reproduction. Files with lower compression rates, of course, sound better and can be played on larger speakers like one's bookshelf stereo.

As I mentioned before, I kept some vinyl because I do like the sound -- not the quality, but the little bit of pop and hiss that happens in between songs that helps re-create an experience from an earlier point in my life. But the total collection was huge and bulky and I move too often to keep it all around, so I was happy to send the records off to new homes. It'll be interesting to see if vinyl sales continue to increase, if they level out, or if this is just one of the many trends in modern society that come and go in between eyeblinks.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Told You!

The only good thing about this article about the "most depressing states" is that Oklahoma's presence on it incurs some snark on the pretentious Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips, pointing out that even our state's Official Rock Song -- the Lips' 2002 "Do You Realize??" is depressing.

The first slide in the show points out that the whole premise of the article is false when it says that low ranks in different important health or other categories do not necessarily mean that people who live in a particular state find it depressing to do so, which means it's really just an excuse to make tepid jokes about the states featured in the slideshow. Even so, I'll give it a pass because of the Lips crack. I told you we should have listened to the 99.3 percent of the state that either voted for a different song or didn't care enough about it to vote at all.

Friday, August 19, 2011

'Tis Autumn...

...and a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of how many sets of sheets his mom thinks he needs on that dorm room bed.

Visiting a big department store like Wal-Mart or Target in a college town during August produces some fascinating people-watching as first-year students and their bewildered parents buy some of the necessities that kids may never have had to figure out they needed before now.

Parents and their sons can often be found purchasing laundry detergent, accompanied by mom's desperate attempt to forestall the inevitable phone calls with last-minute instructions on how it is to be used. She will also explain why the largest and therefore least expensive container is not always the best buy unless Junior wants to wind up with a wardrobe that's different shades of the same gray color and prone to chafe where it doesn't fully rinse out. They may buy dryer sheets that will be placed on the top shelf of the closet, there to join ones from the room's previous occupants. Junior's confusion is matched only by his exasperation; the room had an adequate number of electrical outlets for the computer and Xbox and he fails to see what else is needed.

Parents and daughters, on the other hand, are nowhere near these aisles of basic necessities -- they have been purchased well in advance (although a quick side trip to the air fresheners may be in order; one can never have enough Febreze). These shoppers may be found among such items as curtains, bed ruffles and small accent rugs, none of which could be bought before the actual room itself was seen or without consulting the new roommate about what she brought. Wall decorations, which in the male room will tend to be musicians, sports figures or healthy young ladies demonstrating the skills of their personal trainers and the need for dermatologists that work with the whole person, will be considered and discarded, then re-considered and eventually deemed "all right for now."

In each case, those involved will also be wearing a vague look of apprehension or even worry -- what will this new experience be like? Will I meet people or will I be alone? Will my child thrive or is he or she not ready? Will I handle this stage of their lives or will I be unable to let go? Will this cost me an arm or an arm and a leg, and does the "academic excellence fee" I'm paying "to help retain top faculty" mean my kid won't get taught philosophy by someone with worse English than Borat?

Good luck, everyone! And down with Illini communism!

Size Awareness

At this photography blog, some people show off pictures they took with a giant replica of a 50-cent Euro coin and what are called "tilt shift" effects from the camera. The images make full-size objects look like miniatures. The last image in the series shows one of the people who made the coin polishing it so you can see just what the actual size of the prop is.

The blog notes that the coin is for sale at the shop of the craftspeople who made it, but if you click on the link you will find that it's listed as "out of stock." According to the site owners, they only made one and they've sold it.

(H/T Mental Floss)

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the debut of Luxo Jr., a film short shown at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference in Dallas. In it, an articulated desk lamp jumps up and down on a rubber ball, deflating it, bringing sadness until it hopped away and returned with an even bigger ball. Although it would be almost nine years from that day until Toy Story hit theaters and pretty much changed animation forever, Luxo Jr. is the kickoff point for Pixar Animation Studios.

John Young writes an appreciation of the studio's accomplishments in a story for Entertainment Weekly which highlights five of the major changes Pixar brought to animated movies as well as movies in general. I'd add one thing. A lot of animation in movies and television seems to come at their stories looking to reduce them to something fit for the "cartoon" medium. But Pixar, especially in its best movies, seems to have the idea of seeing just how free animation can let the imagination roam, and how big the story might be when unconstrained by the use of "real-world" elements. Every time the studio has listened to that voice and used its medium to nourish and grow the story instead of as a pattern into which a dumbed-down or otherwise limited version of the tale has to be squeezed, it's been spectactular.

Thanks, Luxo.

From the Rental Vault (1985): Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

The best way to get a real sense of how second-rate Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is to watch it soon after watching either the first or second movie of the Mad Max franchise. Bigger budget, bigger profile, bigger stars, all slapped together without much thought given to originality of story, either in terms of the movie by itself or within the context of the trilogy.

Mad Max, released in 1979, was an international hit that was next to unknown in the U.S. Producer-director George Miller made the independent project for less than half a million dollars. Mad Max 2, known here as The Road Warrior, came three years later and was much better financed based on the hit that its predecessor had been. Miller and partner Byron Kennedy used the extra budget to amp up the action in their post-apocalyptic adaptation of the classic Western story of a drifting loner who saves his own humanity when he finally risks his life to save a besieged village. Both movies established common features of the deluge of post-apocalyptic thrillers that followed and turned those features into clichés.

By 1985, the movies' lead actor Mel Gibson was well on his way to being a top-level movie star and Warner Bros. wanted a reliable box office vehicle for him, so they returned to the character of former policeman Max Rocketansky, now wandering an Australia devastated but not destroyed by some kind of global conflict. Singer Tina Turner was in the middle of a major career renaissance thanks to some well-crafted pop songs and music videos that showcased her nuclear-powered performances. Even though Turner's only scripted role before Thunderdome was The Acid Queen in 1975's Tommy, she was tapped to play Auntie Entity, Max's main antagonist.

Auntie runs Bartertown, a village in the wasteland fueled by the methane contained in pig manure. She has built a society in the midst of the ruins of the old world by virtue of her own will and association with Master, a little person who knows how to process the manure to create fuel. But Master, aided by his huge bodyguard Blaster, has begun to assert his control over Bartertown and Auntie needs him removed without appearing to be involved. Enter Max, who has wandered into Bartertown in search of his wagon, camels and supplies that were stolen by an airplane pilot. Auntie makes a deal with Max that if he fights and kills Blaster in the Thunderdome, she will replace his possessions.

Max reneges on the deal when he learns Blaster has a child's mind, but Auntie takes this hard and sends him out into the desert to die. He is discovered by a group of children living in a desert oasis -- they are the survivors and descendants of a jumbo jet that crashed nearby and are awaiting the return of the adults who promised to find rescue, led by the jet's pilot, Captain Walker. Max proves a disappointing savior and so some of the children, led by Savannah Nix, leave the oasis to find what's out there on their own. Max has to rescue them before they are sucked into Bartertown as slaves or worse.

The fact that the plot takes so much longer to describe shows one of the weaknesses of Thunderdome compared with Road Warrior, the series' high point. Instead of RW's simple point A to point B story -- Max needs some fuel for his car and in order to get it has to help a group of people at a working oil refinery escape marauders who have surrounded them -- we have this meandering storyline chock full of plot holes and lazy "apocalyptic wasteland" movie clichés. We have the strongman -- or strongwoman, in this case -- ruling a group of people by controlling their resources, the wanderer who just wants to be left alone, the degraded version of the civilization and society we know -- Master calls his power stoppages "embargoes" like the OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s and the kids "member" the old world of "highscrapers" and "v-v-video." -- and so on.

Kennedy was killed in a helicopter crash scouting locations for Thunderdome, and Miller lost interest in directing it. He did agree to direct action sequences and left the rest to George Ogilvie, who creates an oddly listless action picture that has to ride the iconic character of Mad Max and the charisma of Tina Turner. Neither is enough to ever really energize the movie at the level of its predecessors, and Thunderdome winds up with a chase scene that more or less repeats the same scene from Road Warrior, down to a large truck playing the center role.

For the last 25 years or so, different projects have risen up and fallen by the wayside under the heading of "Mad Max 4." The most recent and most enduring, shepherded by Miller himself, has been called Mad Max: Fury Road and apparently has been filming over the last year. Filmed with a new Max (British actor Tom Hardy), it's supposed to come out in 2012 but nothing's firm.

Although it's very unlikely that Miller could capture lightning in a bottle a third time the way he did with the first two Max movies, it would be nice if this one could wind up the series with a better final memory than the lackluster Thunderdome.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hit, Miss

Today's Oprah rerun seen at the gym had groudbreaking women rock and pop musicians of the past few decades to talk about their careers and some of the obstacles they faced breaking into the male-dominated fields in which they perform.

Naturally, the ladies also sang, with some interesting duets and great performances. Avril Lavigne made a nice counterpoint to Pat Benatar (who can still belt big time), and Sheryl Crow complemented Stevie Nicks quite well. Sister Sledge fired up an energetic version of their staple "We Are Family" to close the show.

But there were also some clunkers -- Salt-n-Pepa just sound silly singing "Push It" in their mid-40s, bringing to mind the endless string of grown women who've had a wee bit too much to drink to realize that song on the karaoke machine is not their friend. And although the ageless and seemingly death-defying Joan Jett kicks just as much hiney as she ever has, pairing her with the aimless and depth-defying Miley Cyrus just emphasizes the latter's inadequacies as a singer and performer.

Either way, it was a much more diverting show than Ms. Winfrey usually mounts and helped me save about thirty minutes or so of battery time on Mr. iPod.

Ah, Sweet Schadenfreude!

Seems Abercrombie and Fitch is a little bit embarrassed. Have they realized their "magalogs" full of pictures of people not wearing their clothes and articles about excessive drunken escapades were just sleazy trash? Nope.

Well, maybe they've figured out that a lot of their current ads do some of the same things, emphasize sexuality in inappropriate ways. Nope again.

It's that policy they have of making sure that only pretty people with nice teeth work out in the front of the store where customers can see them while average-looking schlumps have to stay in the back and process stock and may not talk to customers, right? 'Fraid not. 

Surely they've finally understood that selling padded swimsuit tops on items designed for elementary schoolers is wrong in so many ways we've had to posit a multitude of other universes just to contain the list of them. Nah.

What's embarrassed the previously unembarassable A&F is that their clothing is being worn by the cast of MTV's animal wildlife behavior show, The Jersey Shore. A spokesperson for the clothing company said that A&F would pay Shore cast members not to wear their clothing on the air. Some thoughts occur:

 --  The Jersey Shore cast members sound like they'd fail a casting call for a Planet of the Apes movie if their behavior is somehow worse than the the crudity, shallow appearance obsession and near clone-ish uniformity that's previously been associated with A&F's self-presentation.

-- The Shore cast should take A&F's money and then switch to Hollister clothes. Hollister, of course, is also made by A&F but bears the different brand name, "Well, hey, you never said anything about Hollister," would be a good defense in court.

-- After taking the money for not wearing Hollister, they should then buy cheap knockoffs of the A&F clothes. Not only would cheap knockoffs be much more appropriate for cast members, they would cost less and still meet the letter of the agreement.

And we should all laugh and laugh and laugh as we see that in this instance, karma wins.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What's My Age Again?

This nifty little website will calculate how old you would be if you had been born on one of the solar system's other planets. It apparently dates back awhile and still includes Pluto as a planet, a status astronomers revoked back in 2006.

When I entered my birthday, I found out that my age varied widely depending on what planet I was considering -- I am nearly two centuries old on Mercury, for example, but on Mars I just passed the legal age three years ago, on Jupiter I'm not quite ready for preschool and on Pluto I'm just starting to recognize the giant male and giant female who are always around as specific individuals who are somehow important to me.

Of course, these "years" represent how long it takes the respective planets to orbit the sun. One orbit Earth orbit around the sun equals one year. We get to say that because we're the ones doing the counting; should there turn out to be Mercurian or Jovian life forms we can discuss it then. Mercury, being much closer to the sun than Earth is, goes around it much faster. Mercury takes just under 88 Earth days to complete an orbit around the sun, so Mercury's years are much shorter when measured in terms of Earth's days than Earth's years are. Jupiter, quite a bit of a ways beyond us, is slower. It takes it a little under a dozen Earth years to make a single Jovian year.

The calculator also gives you your age in days on the planet chosen -- that is, the number of times that planet has turned on its axis since you were born. Again, we got to pick, so one rotation of the Earth on its axis equals one Earth day. The speed of rotation depends on a lot of factors, not just distance from the sun. Although second from the sun, for example, Venus has such a slow rotation rate that its year is actually longer than its day. I would be fewer Venusian years than Venusian days old if I had been born there. Mars turns on its axis just a little bit slower than the Earth does, meaning my age in Martian days is just 400 days less than my age in Earth days, out of a total of about 17,000.

One neat feature of the page is that it will calculate when your next birthday on that planet would be, given the birthday you enter and the number of Earth years it takes for that planet to get around the sun. I am highly likely to see my next Mercury birthday (it's next week), Venusian birthday (next January), Martian birthday (next month, about a week after my Earth birthday) and my next Jovian birthday (next February). I can reasonably expect to see my next Saturnian birthday (2023; I'll be 59) and could very well make it to my next Uranian birthday (2048; I'll be 84). On the other hand, I'll have to be a record setter extraordinaire to see my next Neptunian birthday (2129; I'd be 165) and I imagine some sort of amazing medical developments will have to have happened for me to see my next Plutonian birthday in 2213, when I would be 249. And probably telling those 150-year-old punks to get off my lawn.

There's apparently a wrinkle in the website algorithm though, because it predicts that my next Earth birthday will happen a day after it actually does. No big deal to me now, but that sure would have been a bummer back in 1980 as I would have had to have waited another entire day to get my driver's license. Which wouldn't be nearly as bad as if I had been born on Pluto, because I would not get my license there until sometime in 5948.

From the Rental Vault: Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

Watching movies from India -- specifically from the major industry base for the art, the city of Mumbai formerly known as Bombay -- is in some ways like watching major Hollywood movies from sixty years ago. This "Bollywood cinema" is generally low on exposed female skin or explicit sex scenes, high on melodrama and will more than likely have at least one full-bore song-and-dance number right in the middle of the story, just like a old-fashioned musical.

And that's even if the movie is a period piece that's doubling as a sports picture, like the 2001 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India.

Set during the Victorian portion of British rule over India, Lagaan focuses on the troubles faced by the villagers of Champaner when a severe dry spell strains their ability to pay taxes imposed by the British officer in charge of their district. These taxes are called "lagaan," and unfortunately the wide latitude given to British officers stationed in different areas of India to set some of their own rules allows the unpleasant and greedy Captain Andrew Russell to impose a higher tax than the villagers can pay. Villager Bhuvan tries to ask for leniency given the dry spell and poor crops, but Russell won't relent. During their visit to the headquarters, the villagers see the English soldiers playing cricket and mock the game as silly. Now angry, Russell challenges them to a cricket match -- if they win, then he will cancel the lagaan for three years. But if they lose, they will have to pay triple. Bhuvan accepts the wager but the villagers don't know about it until afterwards, and they are understandably angry with him. But stuck with the bet, they begin to learn cricket, helped by Russell's sister Elizabeth, who dislikes the way her brother treats the villagers.

Along the way, we will have a love triangle develop as Elizabeth finds herself falling for Bhuvan, who is loyal only to Gauri, a village woman. But another villager is also in love with Gauri and secretly betrays the villagers by offering to be a ringer for Russell. Eventually, after some first-class training montages, longing looks of unrequited love and three or four full-cast musical numbers, we get to to the defining moment of the cricket match, where Lagaan turns into a pure sports film, complete with the familiar figures of the unheralded outcast with secret talent, the turncoat who must decide where his true loyalties lie, the stalwart hero undaunted by the odds against him, villains who villainously cheat to win and the underdogs' determination to prevail even when down and almost out.

If you can find a movie cliché that isn't in Lagaan, you're a more careful watcher than I am. But so what? It embraces every one of them wholeheartedly, and it's well-enough written and acted to help you realize that some of those clichés show up in movies because they work. British actors Paul Blackthorne and Rachel Shelley are properly evil and heart-breaking, respectively, and dancer and Indian television actress Gracy Singh makes a dignified and appealing Gauri. As Bhuvan, Aamir Khan (who seriously earned his money by also producing the sprawling three and a half-hour, four-language movie) is at first hot-headed, irresponsible and arrogant. Only as he builds his team does he realize the danger in which he has placed his village and the responsibility he must carry, and that awareness spurs him to grow as a man and as a leader.

As the Indian film industry has developed even the country's own preferences have started to move away from the extreme melodrama and automatic musical inclusion that marks Bollywood movies. But Indian audiences, their moviemakers say, still want as much entertainment as possible crammed onto the screen before they shell out hard-earned rupees at the box office, so the format is unlikely to disappear entirely. So maybe spending two hours reading subtitles (even when the English actors speak, which is a little surreal at first) and watching a village-wide song-and-dance number before settling down for an hour-long reconstruction of a match in a sport most Americans know little about is not everyone's cup of tea. Audiences conditioned to expect and seek realism in their film fare may not be able to suspend enough disbelief to accept movie musicals with starkly drawn heroes and villains, and I struggled with it for about a half-hour before deciding to persevere and see this one through to the end. I was certainly glad I did, because whatever else you might want to say about Lagaan regarding its historical accuracy, stock storylines and characters and whatnot, you can certainly say this:

It's one heapin' helpin' of fun to watch.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Adding Up

Class act Jim Thome didn't let too much grass grow between nearing the 600 home run mark and reaching it, doing so against the Detroit Tigers in consecutive at-bats Monday evening.

Thome's 20-year career has been spent out of baseball's most glaring lights, as he's spent more time in the midwestern cities of Cleveland, Minnesota and Chicago than playing on the coastal stages during stints in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Other players -- including the pitchers whose mistakes he sends on their no-return voyages over the fence -- seem unanimous in their claims that Thome is a good guy whose home run totals will not wear the chemically enhanced stains that mar Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez' totals.

He hit the milestone number in Detroit and earned a standing ovation from the opposing fans even though his runs helped the Twins to a 9-6 win over the hometown Tigers. But then the Tigers are used to seeing Thome at-bats end badly for them, as he has homered against them more than against any other team. Rick Reed has had the honor of waving goodbye to more of his pitches at Thome's hands than anyone else (9), but Roger Clemens paid the big price for eight wrong guesses and Detroit's ace Justin Verlander for seven. Verlander is one of Thome's boosters, saying, "I'm a bit disappointed that he's not getting more attention than he is because I think he's somebody that's done it the right way this whole time."

The slide show at the link shows all eight players with 600 or more homers -- well, seven of them, anyway, because I think that picture with Babe Ruth is of some kind of scary statue. It's worth the click-through if for no other reason than to see the picture of Thome at bat and the way it illustrates one of baseball's most essential qualities, timelessness. Erase the batting gloves and the shin guards and the modern spikes, and you have a picture that could be from any time in the game's history, of any big, brawny guy muscling around on a pitch to give the ball -- and the emotions of his team's fans -- one heckuva ride.

Get Fitted?

A California legislator has revealed the Scylla or Charybdis choice we face with our modern lawmakers. On the one hand, when they are in session, they are Doing Things, and that can turn out badly. On the other hand, when they are not in session, they have more time to think about what they will do when they are, and that can also turn out badly. Finding the happy medium (or at least the Least Crazy Medium) of keeping them too busy to think up weird laws but not so busy they enact the weird laws someone else already thought up is quite simply the political conundrum of our time.

State Senator Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) has proposed California Senate Bill 432, which would mandate that hotels within the state of California use fitted sheets on all of their beds. Apparently some do not.

Senator DeLeon said he proposed the bill with his mother, a longtime hotel maid whose job often left her with back pains, in mind. I salute the senator's mother for working hard and raising her son to do well enough that he could be elected to a state legislature, and the fact that I am going to mock his bill without let or hindrance should in no way be seen as as any disrespect to her.

Apparently, when hotel personnel use non-fitted sheets on beds, they have to lift the mattress more than when they use fitted sheets. I am not sure of this, because I do use fitted sheets on my bed, and I am picking that blasted mattress up at least once on each corner, not to mention crawling across the thing when the elastic corner opposite me comes loose even though I tucked it firmly underneath said corner. However, as my mother frequently pointed out during my childhood, my maid skills were quite lacking -- and she was not put on this earth to make up the deficit between where they were and where they should have been, by the way. So there may be a fitted sheet trick of which I am unaware.

A hotel worker's union has come out in favor of the bill, saying it could help reduce injuries to hotel workers. No word on what kind of increase in workplace rage incidents it might bring when hotel workers try to fold the fitted sheets. Yes, I have heard people claim there is a way to fold fitted sheets. I have also heard people claim to have developed cold fusion. I believe neither.

Meanwhile, a hotel owners' association opposes the bill, saying the purchase of the new sheets would cost their members a lot of money and could lead to layoffs. My guess is that without using fitted sheets, hotels can simply buy more of the plain old sheets and that doesn't cost as much -- but fifteen million dollars? That's the minimum the association claims hotels would have to spend to outfit California hotel beds with fitted sheets, a claim which smells bad enough someone's going to need an extra can of Febreze or two. Their top end claim is thirty million.

And since I have resisted it throughout this entire entry up until now, I will give in and allow myself to say that I think that Sen. DeLeon, the hotel workers union and the owners' association are all full of sheet.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

From the Rental Vault: The Man From Nowhere

South Korea's biggest movie of 2010 could have, you might say, come out of nowhere. The Man From Nowhere (in Korean, the original title is Ajeossi), a familiar tale of a violent but damaged Man With a Past who is moved to finally risk life and limb on behalf of someone else, cleaned up at the 2010 Korea Film Awards, taking trophies for Best Actor (Won Bin), Best New Actress (Kim Sae-ron) and several technical categories.

What sets Man From Nowhere apart from the long list of films with pretty much the same story are things like the cinematography, music, Lee Jeong-beom's direction and a fantastic though mostly wordless performance from Won. He plays Cha Tae-sik, a pawn shop owner who has closed himself away from society -- because several years ago, he was a secret military operative whose wife was killed in an assassination attempt on his life. But the curious neighbor child Jeong So-mi insinuates herself into his life with her questions and refusal to be pushed aside. So-mi's mother, Hyo-jeong, is a heroin addict who is mostly neglectful of her daughter. Hyo-jeong's decision to involve herself in a heroin smuggling ring at the club where she dances will have disastrous consequences for her and So-mi when the rival gangs moving the heroin find out. With So-mi the prisoner of a Chinese-based criminal gang that uses children to commit crimes, manufacture drugs and eventually harvest their organs, Cha must re-employ his skills to find her before the gang decides she is no longer useful. The road he takes to do so will be bloody, and even so he may not be in time.

Man From Nowhere sets a moody tone -- So-mi is about the only bright spot in the movie. As befits a story dealing with drug smugglers who enslave children and kidnap people for their organs, it's violent, brutal and counts human life as cheap. Cha focuses on saving So-mi, but even that admirable goal doesn't penetrate his darkened world; he leaves broken, bleeding bodies at nearly every turn in trying to find her. Won, who began his career in South Korea as a model and television actor, shows a broken man for whom each day is a reminder of his wounds and the damage he's suffered. Only as his quest nears its end do we see the grim determination to save So-mi start to override the blank face he's been showing the world since his wife was killed.

Fair warning: It's also a violent and bloody movie, and the criminal element with whom Cha deals are not given to polite expressions and genteel language. If that's not an issue, then it's a high-level piece of neo-noir that shows how a man who thinks he has nothing to give may find he's not as empty as he believed when he decides to risk himself to save an innocent -- and that he might just manage to save himself into the bargain.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Unforeseen Consequences

As you might imagine, law schools mostly graduate people who want to be lawyers. Sure, some of them go to work at other things, and those who want to practice law still have to pass the bar exam. But the main reason you spend time cramming Supreme Court cases into your head is so that you can shout, "You're out of order! You're out of order! This whole trial is out of order!" as the bailiffs are dragging you away.

Unfortunately, unemployment has hit the legal profession as well these days, so a number of folks find themselves finished with law school, holding a swell-looking juris doctorate diploma in one hand and a big stack of IOUs in the other, but without a place to work. Some of these folks remember that when they were deciding whether or not they would go to law school or choosing which law school they wanted to attend, the schools themselves released placement statistics that were supposed to show how many of their graduates got jobs when they finished. Said numbers may, in fact, have influenced their decisions. But now they're out, and they find themselves on the wrong side of the statistics.

So they're probably more than a little ticked off, and they've got time on their hands as well as a rather specialized set of job skills that's not getting used right now. What to do, what to do? Aha! I'll sue my law school for artificially boosting placement statistics in a misleading fashion! Technically, the suits were filed by actual law firms on behalf of some law school graduates, but you know those firms are going to have really motivated clients.

I saw the link to the Inside Higher Education report at Critical Mass, a blog by a former university English instructor who noted that law schools are not the only post-graduate educational outfits that may be churning out more graduates than there are jobs for them to do. Many if not most of the academic humanities fields are producing far more PhD's in their respective fields than there are teaching positions for them to fill. Those brand-new doctors come out of school with a lot of debt and relatively few marketable skills other than teaching their particular specialization, at least if "marketable" refers to the kind of employment that will help them pay back those large debts. The same problem is not unknown even at the bachelor's degree level, as students may find themselves waiting many months before anything even close to their field opens up, and the competition for those slots will be pretty tight.

Will English or sociology or literature PhD's be next to join the suing brigade? I don't know, but according to the Inside Higher Ed report, there seem to be a lot of law school graduates looking for something to do these days. If I were a college, I'd start to get worried.

Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Rental Vault (1982): Diner

By 1982, Baltimore-born Barry Levinson had a slew of writing credits on his resumé, including work on some of television's best comedy and variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show, as well as co-writing Silent Movie and High Anxiety with Mel Brooks. He also had an Oscar nomination for co-writing the 1979 Al Pacino movie ...And Justice for All. It's probably not surprising, then, that he would choose one of his own scripts for his directorial debut, and thus we have his semi-autobiographical coming of age ensemble movie, 1982's Diner.

Diner was the first of four movies Levinson wrote and directed set in his hometown that described experiences he knew firsthand as well as some of his family history. Set in 1959, it tells the story of six longtime friends, now in their early 20s, who reunite over the Christmas holiday for the wedding of one of their number, Eddie Simmons (Steve Guttenberg). Other members of the group are Timothy "Fen" Fenwick (Kevin Bacon), Robert "Boogie" Sheftell (Mickey Rourke), Billy Howard (Tim Daly), and Lawrence "Shrevie" Schrieber (Daniel Stern), who is married to high school sweetheart Beth (Ellen Barkin). Paul Reiser is also part of the group, playing the one-named character Modell.

Levinson set much of the movie as conversation between different combinations of his actors and also encouraged them to improvise some of their dialogue. The scenes in the actual diner were filmed last, so he could build on the camaraderie built up over the shoot. In terms of actual storylines, we're following the preparations for Eddie's marriage -- which include a brutal football trivia quiz for the bride-to-be; Boogie's dangerous debt to a local loan shark and his plans to win a big bet to cover it and how Shrevie and Beth handle the difference between life as a dating couple and life as a married couple. All of the leads reflect on the changes adulthood brings to their lives, mainly through conversations with each other.

Although often hilarious, Diner isn't only a comedy. Nor is it solely a drama, even though we watch changes in all of our leads over the course of the movie. It may seem odd today, given the different high profiles nearly the entire cast earned for themselves during the 1980s and the Oscar nomination Levinson earned for the screenplay, but MGM thought Diner would bomb and only released it when the New Yorker ran a positive review by respected critic Pauline Kael.

If Diner got made at all today, it would probably have to be self-financed and generate buzz at Sundance or some other film festival in hopes a distributor might pick it up. Then it would probably have to be re-shot with some "indie cred"-building name inserted into the cast or featuring Ryan Reynolds or Jason Bateman so as to lure the hipsters, as well as more flatulence humor. But fortunately it wasn't, and even if Steve Guttenberg went off to kill his career with way too many Police Academy movies and Mickey Rourke went off to outer space for twenty years, Diner is still one of the top movies of the rental vault and one of the few DVDs I actually own. For a dissenting view, you can check out the review at Box Office Magazine's online site. But be warned, the review actually uses the phrase "paltry fare" in an unironic sense. Couple that with four-star ratings for 30 Minutes or Less and The Change-Up, and you have a good reason to ignore that forum's opinions.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An Interesting Question

A couple of economists from Clemson University muse a little bit on the state of modern collegiate athletics. based on some of the troubles at conference rival University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.

According to the way these fellows see the data and some of the trends it suggests, college sports fans may one day lose their entertainment, but not because anything will happen to the sports. They say that the ballooning costs of the major sports are coming close to the point where they will affect universities themselves. The costs balloon less because of market forces (which economists generally approve of) than because of the cartel-like behavior of the NCAA, the agency that is supposed to regulate, guide and police college sports. So the question becomes, what happens to college sports if there aren't colleges?

The article is full of economic terms like "rents," which carries a slightly different weight in technical economic settings than it does in basic checkbook terminology, but it's still pretty interesting and not impossible to puzzle out. Whether that will still be the case after colleges collapse financially and you can't get an education any more is another question entirely.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Good Day Sunshine!

At the website, you can find a short slideshow of some fantastic photos taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite, launched in February 2010.

The SDO's purpose is to take a look at the sun -- actually, to take several looks at the sun -- with its specialized instruments in order to determine some of what goes on there. We may think that it's enough to know the thing is plenty darn hot and that it sends that heat and light to us in the proper amounts for there to be an us to receive it. But more and more studies show that different kinds of radiation and other emissions from the star we call home can affect our weather and other aspects of life in ways that are a lot more varied and a lot more subtle than just "Big ball of fire make hot!"

And as an indicator that even the best preparations can't guarantee perfect performance, check out pic no. 7. As the caption indicates, somehow during the preparation and launch, a tiny speck of fluff found its way inside the camera, where it will remain lodged for the life of the satellite. It's like Murphy's making rabbit ears behind the sun, in every picture that camera takes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

From the Rental Vault: Invitation to a Gunfighter

A quote attributed to George Orwell and Winston Churchill goes around every now and again, saying: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." No proof of attribution exists for either man, but the thought is probably one they'd both share. And it's often translated to the Western movie genre, in which a group of townsfolk find themselves facing a danger they can't confront on their own. They rely on a rough man or hired gun to deal with the menace.

Sometimes, as in The Magnificent Seven, those hired guns protect the powerless -- simple farm villagers facing a well-armed cadre of bandits. And sometimes, as in Invitation to a Gunfighter, the hired man is there to do the work the townspeople think themselves too good to handle -- nasty, noisy shooting -- or are just too cowardly to face.

Matt Weaver (George Segal) has returned to the New Mexico territory town he left at the start of the Civil War. Originally intending to find his father, he became caught up in the fighting as a Confederate soldier. When he gets home, he finds it's been sold as confiscated "enemy" property -- the townsfolk and their oligarch, Sam Brewster (Pat Hingle), were all on the Union side. Confrontations with Brewster and the man who bought his farm lead to violence, and the town leaders want Weaver gone -- or dead. Unable or unwilling to face him down, they send one of their number to hire a lawman, actually a gunfighter. They wind up with Jules Gaspard d'Estaing (Yul Brynner), a New Orleans-born dandy with lacy shirts, fine cigars and a swift draw. d'Estaing sets himself up at the local drygoods store, run by Crane Adams (Clifford David) and his wife Ruth (Janice Rule), who herself Has a Past with Weaver.

The townspeople's tension and frustration increase as d'Estaing takes no steps to go out after Weaver, preferring to wait him out for when he will come to town for needed supplies. In the meantime, he makes himself much more at home among the townsfolk than they like, even bumping up against the invisible color line drawn between the Anglo and Mexican residents.

d'Estaing's original confrontations with the townspeople and their leaders have a comic quality as he unstuffs a couple of shirts that desperately need it. But they escalate as he pushes more and more against their carefully built hypocrisies, and d'Estaing's intensity and own buried secrets start to dismantle his carefully-cultivated image of the cool and ruthlees gunman as well. The same themes will crop up in Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, albeit with a darker and more supernatural character.

Brynner combines intensity and grace in a way few other actors have ever managed and he plays that to excellent effect as d'Estaing. It's interesting to see Segal in this kind of action role, given the more urbane character he developed over his career, but he really doesn't have much to do in the movie until the end. Hingle strikes some familiar notes in his role as the local boss Brewster, but adds in a level of incompetence in the role that show this is probably the only town Brewster could manage to run, because it's full of people even less able and less brave than he is.

Invitation raises itself above some of the cookie-cutter Westerns of the 1960s by making some attempts to deal with issues of bigotry raised by the division between Anglo and Latino townsfolk. Although Brynner handles that weight fairly well, the rest of the movie is less adept at it, perhaps because in 1964 our nation had a ways to go in figuring out what it was going to say on those matters. Brynner is in better Westerns (the above-mentioned The Magnificent Seven, for one), but Invitation is above average at entertaining while offering a little food for thought -- even if it is more of a snack than a meal.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Photo ID

At the bank earlier today, a rather crusty gentleman was in line to cash a check. He was obviously someone who worked outdoors quite a bit, and had been at the job before he came to the bank based on his clothes. He sported a battered ball-cap that had seen better days -- probably during the Eisenhower administration -- and a fine ZZ Top-styled beard that looked like it was pretty carefully groomed most of the time even if it was some worse for the wear today.

Because he was cashing a check, the teller asked him for his photo ID, which he showed. She checked it, looked at him, and said pleasantly, "That'll work. Looks just like you."

"I know," the man said, putting his wallet back in his pocket. "Ain't that a shame?"

Thanks for the chuckle, sir, and try to stay cool today.

Oversharing at the Gym?

Now this is kind of interesting -- according to research done by a marketing professor at Wharton, people may be more ready to share information after they've physically exerted themselves.

I almost didn't read the article because at first I thought it was about the psychology of over-sharing, which didn't really sound all that interesting. But who would have known that information sharing habits and decisions can change according to physiological factors as well?

We'd expect, for example, that a highly charged emotional state could have an impact on readiness to share information, and this same professor did a study on that back in 2009. After all, when our emotions are more energized, we are not as likely to think through decisions as we are to just act. And many of us find our emotions prompt us to connect to other people. When we are happy we want to share it and when we are sad we want to have people to lean on, for example. But it seems strange that getting to the same state of heightened arousal -- and calm down, that's not what you think it is -- via physical activity can have the same impact.

The writer's hook for the article is that one reason former U.S. Representative Anthony Wiener Tweeted embarrassing photos of himself was that he had just worked out. I think that's a stretch, because the congressman's many other Twitter messages show that he was just that immature and had next to no common sense in some areas, but maybe working out was the tipping point.

One odd little twist to the story is that this research was done not by a behavioral scientist or psychologist, but by a professor of marketing at a business school. No doubt the ultimate purpose of the research is to find out ways to get more eyeballs on a message someone wants out there and to catch people when and where they might be more likely to share that message, but the information is pretty interesting by itself.

On the other hand, my own personal research shows that single women in my age range are not any readier to share contact information with me at the gym than they are anywhere else. Of course, I can sweat a T-shirt from arid to deluge flood stage in less than 30 minutes, so that may have something to do with the reluctance.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Little Cosmic Snooping

Last Friday's launch of the Juno probe may eventually help scientists understand some things about Jupiter that they'd like to know. Specifically, how did it get here, what's it made of, what's it hiding underneath those thousands of miles of gaseous clouds, and so on.

Juno will be only the second human satellite to examine Jupiter while orbiting the gas giant, following Galileo. Other probes have examined it in passing, but they and the Galileo mission have left a bunch of questions. One problem is that we see only the top layer of Jupiter's atmosphere, and that can't really tell us much about anything other than the top layer of Jupiter's atmosphere. Our atmosphere is relatively thin and transparent. But Jupiter's is made up of a whole different mix of gases and is many many times thicker -- its Great Red Spot, for example, is actually a hurricane-like storm that's been going on for several hundred years and is bigger than our entire planet.

Scientists hope that Juno's sophisticated sensors can ferret out Jupiter's secrets. The probe is named after the goddess Juno, who in Roman mythology was the wife of the king of gods, known as Jupiter or Jove. On the one hand, this bodes well for the ability of the probe to snoop through Jupiter's business pretty thoroughly, since husbands are rarely if ever able to keep secrets from wives. On the other hand, we could have a problem if Jupiter forgets something important like an anniversary or when Juno arrived in orbit, because slip-ups like that have been known to block spousal communication for a considerable time.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Century of Henna

I remember watching a lot of the reruns of I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy as a kid, mostly because the UHF channels on the upper end of the dial must have bought them cheap and could show them over and over and over again -- see Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies for more examples.

As I recall, we mostly watched them because they were what was on, not because of any great love of the plots or jokes. But Lucille Ball herself, who was born 100 years ago today, was definitely a pioneer in the television industry. She was at least the equal if not senior partner in creating Desilu Studios with then-husband Desi Arnaz, one of the first women to have control at that high of a level in the industry. After their divorce, Ball bought out Arnaz's share in the studio and ran it herself.

Ball's main legacy today is as a television comedienne, but she did have some dramatic roles in movies before conquering the small screen, like The Big Street opposite Henry Fonda and in the ensemble movie version of The Stage Door with top-level actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.

Although I wasn't all that enamored of the shows, I've always enjoyed Ball herself and seeing her in interviews or on variety programs. For some reason she reminds me a lot of my mom's oldest sister -- some similar mannerisms, similar "This is me, take it or leave it" attitudes, similar big laughs. When Ball was 18, a teacher at a New York City drama school she attended with Bette Davis told her she had no future as a performer, and she spent the next 60 years proving that man's failure as a prophet.

So no 'splainin' necessary about remembering a gifted performer and showbiz pioneer on this occasion.

Friday, August 5, 2011

O Frabjous Day!

A man who willingly calls himself "The Spam King" has been arrested for violating a court order and on charges he broke into Facebook mail accounts to send spam messages. If convicted on all counts and given both maximum sentences and fines he could spend 40 years in jail and fines of $2 million -- some of which, of course, is currently in a savings account in Nigeria to which I also have access, having transmitted my information in a CONFIDENTIAL TRANSACTION to a barrister operating in that country who, any day now, will release the funds into my account.

It's impossible to feel sorry for this guy because 1) he spams, 2), he's been caught before, fined, sued and in this case was violating a direct judicial order and 3), he spams. But you'd sure hope he gets help, because the continuing and repeated violations in the face of huge fines and lawsuit settlements indicate there's some kind of problem going on.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Drop the Lemon and Back Away Slowly...

Although this site seems a little shrill, they have a sadly hilarious map on this page of places where, over the last 20 years or so, municipal law enforcement or code enforcement personnel have shut down lemonade or snack stands or put the arm on the Girl Scouts and their dangerous products (Thin Mints don't kill people. Middle school girls armed with boxes of cookies kill people). Most of the stands were run by kids, and in several cases the parents or grandparents in whose front yard the stands were placed were fined -- in one case earlier this summer, $500.

In some cases, the kids are told to close it down until they get a permit. After New York City's Should Be Most Ashamed Finest shut down some kids in August 2008 because they didn't have a permit, the kids were good citizens and applied for one. They were denied.

I know sometimes we look at politicians at the national level and figure that all the power and perks have gone to their collective heads, and that's one reason why they are so often jerks. When then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi demanded military air transport between her home in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., I thought it was an example of someone thinking a wee bit too much of herself, but I didn't think about it that long because nobody except the military pilots required to put up with her was harmed all that much. Plus, they could always close and lock the cockpit door.

But it seems that even the relatively tiny amount of power held by local officials can persuade them to be jerks as well. Which shouldn't surprise me; remember how the kid left in charge of the classroom when the teacher stepped out for a moment turned into a combination of Voldemort and the East German Stasi secret police? Still the same nine-year-old rug rat, but now he or she had paper, pencil, and a warrant to name the names of offenders -- or of those whom the temporary monitor wished to label offenders. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall indeed.

Eric Blair, writing as George Orwell, gave us the dystopian prediction of an all-powerful state in Nineteen Eighty-Four and a satirical vision of similar issues in Animal Farm. I'm betting that if he were alive today and tried to sit down and write the same kinds of books, he'd throw up his hands in despair. How, after all, can you create a literary extreme of an all-powerful state in a society where the city council in Savannah, Georgia, home of Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low tells her organization they can't sell Girl Scout cookies outside her historic home? How do you satirize the way the exercise of power turns today's revolutionaries into tomorrow's autocrats when the health commissioner of a major American city tells a 10-year-old and a 12-year old they've got to shut down their stand because they're using "unsafe" ice cubes or another one has to close because it doesn't have a hand-washing station (To be fair, the first guy realized he'd been an idiot and backed off on his order).

Things like this aren't Orwellian, they're doubleplus Orwellian.

ETA: Should you wish, you may check out Lemonade Freedom Day, set for Aug. 20. I won't be setting up a stand myself, but I will buy from one if I see it and will certainly drink a glass in solidarity.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I Said, No %@-&+ Parking!

The mayor of Vilnius in Latvia was a little ticked that someone had parked a Benz in a bikes-only lane.

So he ran over it with an armored personnel carrier.

Sounds like the Latvians didn't forget everything they learned as a part of the Soviet Union.

(H/T University Diaries)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


A few days ago I suggested that the trailers for the movie Battleship, based on the strategy game, indicated that the movie industry was out of ideas. For one, Sub Search was a way cooler game: Three levels, depth charges, submarines that could shoot back. If you're going to reduce your level of creativity to the place where you try to dream up a movie story that matches a game, then pick a better one.

Kyle Smith, a movie writer for the New York Post, wrote a much longer piece than mine about the matter, which could have to do with the fact that the Post pays him and I do this for the love of seeing my own ideas set in type -- I mean, "for fun." And also because he's also reviewing a book, Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon.

Smith's column is fun and should be read in its entirety. The high points surround a couple of main problems. One is that the movie industry rewards success rather than risk, and "success" is defined solely in terms of box office receipts. Critics and movie writers can howl all the "art form" claims they want, but the beautifully autumnal melancholy meditations on life's fleeting fancies that they love so much happen because studios have money to spend on them, and they get that money from blockbusters where things blow up. A studio exec who shepherds a bunch of those "little movies" into the theaters only to see them right back out again the next week with just enough take to buy him or her a bag of popcorn can probably expect an invitation to work for another studio. But a studio exec who spills Transformers 4: Yes, Shia LeBeouf Still Has a Job over the edge of the slop bucket and rakes in every dollar ever printed will be rewarded with more work.

The other major problem is you and me, because we see this stuff and reward its makers. There probably will be a fourth Transformers movie, even if I'm a little off on the title, because a lot of people paid money to see the first three. Pirates of the Caribbean nos. 2 and 3 exist because Johnny Depp's sly Keith Richards impression was one of the most fun parts of a fun movie. The original story requires no sequels in order to finish it off, but Disney whipped them up because it's hard to get people to pay for tickets to the same movie a couple years later unless you tweak the story and slap a number after it (Roman or otherwise). Pirates 4 exists because we were stupid enough to pay Disney for making 2 and 3.

So in sum, we have a group of people who behave badly by making movies that stink, and we go and reinforce their bad behavior by rewarding them for it. I think every mom who's tried to transform her toddler from the self-absorbed and self-centered menace of the preschool years to the marginally acceptable creature she can pawn off on the public school system understands why this is a bad idea.

And maybe I'm starting to as well. I never sailed On Stranger Tides, for example, nor did I visit The Dark of the Moon. I'm also going to skip out on watching Andy Serkis take another step in cementing his career as the most-watched actor you'd never recognize.  I'm just one guy, after all, but we have to start with baby steps.

Monday, August 1, 2011

From the Rental Vault: The Black Hole

Judging by the December 1979 release date, I saw The Black Hole when I was 15. I remembered next to nothing about it except that I didn't enjoy it very much. I think I liked the novelization better, but that memory may be colored by the fact that I was a big fan of the author, Alan Dean Foster.

Recently viewing it again, I can see why I wouldn't have liked it at 15 -- it's waaaaaay too talky, and even a sci-fi nerdboy like me can only be wooed so far by some snazzy special effects. But when I view it today, I don't find myself better able to pay attention during long talky spells -- I just find more about it to dislike, such as plot holes, laughable dialogue and clunky performances and some absolutely ridiculous set pieces, even in the midst of some neat scenes and effects.

Our story opens as the exploratory ship Palomino makes an unexpected course correction due to encountering the intense gravitational field of a black hole -- an object in space with gravity so strong that not even light can escape it. Scanning the area around the hole, they see a ship they eventually identify as the long-lost Cygnus, commanded by Dr. Hans Reinhardt. The crew explore it and find the Cygnus somehow generates an anti-gravitational field, but their ship is damaged when they drift out of the field. They dock with the apparently deserted Cygnus, only to find Reinhardt has survived but claims the crew abandoned ship when it became damaged by the black hole. He chose to remain and was eventually able to repair the ship as well as develop the anti-gravitational field. He intends to use that field to protect the Cygnus and safely explore the black hole. But as Reinhardt's plans come closer to reality, the Palomino crew discovers all may not be as they have been told.

The Black Hole boasts a pretty strong cast -- Maximilian Schell plays Reinhardt, Robert Forster the captain of the Palomino, Anthony Perkins and Yvette Mimieux two scientists on his crew and Ernest Borgnine a journalist covering the voyage. Some of the physics of the Palomino's problems at the Cygnus and how it returns to the safety of the antigravity field are nicely done, and the Cygnus itself is very impressive. It probably was even more so on a big screen. Several other shots when the big ship encounters a meteor storm rank with probably all but the top pre-CGI special effects.

But as mentioned above, the story is lame and the cheesy dialogue forces these good actors into clunky line readings that ring mostly false whenever the action slows down a little. The movie's use of robots is just bizarre, with an attempt to capitalize on the R2-D2 and C-3PO popularity from Star Wars, as well as the idea that the brilliant Reinhardt can develop antigravity but can't make a sentry robot that doesn't walk like something from Night of the Living Dead. The uncredited Roddy McDowell sounds fine as the Palomino's robot, but Slim Pickens as the voice of an older model serving on board the Cygnus? Really? Whoever scored the shootout scenes paired them with music so wildly inapt you actually notice it instead of it underlining the action -- the cardinal sin of the movie composer.

The Black Hole made $36 million, coming in the top 15 grossers of that year. Today, it's noticeable for being the first Walt Disney film released with a PG rating, the first movie recorded with a digital soundtrack and for the first use of a computer-controlled camera that could scan across matte-painted backgrounds. Other than that, there's not much reason for keeping it from drifting into the black hole of forgetfulness, which I had already allowed to happen once and will now do again.