Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Avatar"- we should all get one- we'd look alot better

From Wikipedia:

The film begins in 2154 and focuses on an epic conflict on Pandora, an inhabited Earth-sized moon of Polyphemus, one of three fictional gas giants orbiting Alpha Centauri A. On Pandora, human colonists and the sapient humanoid indigenous inhabitants of Pandora, the Na'vi, engage in a war over the planet's resources and the latter's continued existence. The film's title refers to the remotely controlled, genetically engineered human-Na'vi bodies used by the film's human characters to interact with the natives.

As you may have figured, I am a science fiction geek. Thus, I was highly motivated to see “Avatar”, James Cameron’s latest movie. Not only did I see it in 3-D, I also saw it in an Imax theater. The movie is superb. It does not break new ground with its plot. We have seen evil corporations and military in action in other movies (e.g., the “Alien” franchise, “District 9”). We have seen innocents taken advantage of and we have seen the environment tampered with in other cinematic efforts. The movie is long- about 2.5 hours, but it never feels in need of editing or shortening.

But what Cameron gives us is nothing short of sublime. He creates “alien” characters that I could actually care about. He knows how to right a love story that is universally appealing- it is more than a chick flick. The plant Pandora is a beautiful and imaginative creation. From its floating islands to its luminescent plains, Pandora is exotic and appealing. Its wild animals are vicious, and they don’t stretch our credulity. The aliens themselves are beautifully broad shouldered and narrow hipped. They are about 10 feet tall, lithe, and blue skinned- there are no fatties on Pandora. Cameron has managed, for the most part, to make the CGI visuals believable. There is an occasional background or billow of smoke that looks digitally generated, but for the most part it doesn’t take a lot of suspension of belief to perceive that the Na’vi and Pandora as real. This movie will be noted for the ability of Cameron to graft human faces onto computer-generated creatures. There is nary a misstep in this process. When a head turns, the creature’s body adjusts in a way that is perfectly realistic and its face doesn’t shake or shiver because of the camera’s instability. This movie shows that soon we will be able to watch a movie composed of computer-generated people and we may not know the difference. Regardless of how the creature’s were created, I still could have empathy for their plight and for the human-Na’vi love story.

Cameron also understands how to use 3-D in a way that heightens the intimacy between the audience and the characters on the screen. This is not the “poke-you-in-the-eye “3-D movie making. In “Avatar” I am an eaves dropper into the world of Pandora. I am able to sit in the relative comfort of the movie theater yet fly to Pandora and experience its beauty and the horrors done to its inhabitants in a way that I have never experienced before. This subtle use of the 3-D effect may cause it to be used more frequently in non-animation features in the future. I can only imagine what “Alien” would have been like in 3-D, with the Nostromo’s dark, closed in hallways and underbelly. But, I also think that 3-D might be used in regular dramatic movies if used as masterfully as Cameron uses it in “Avatar.”

The actors, on average, are quite good. I was less impressed with Sam Worthington (who?) as a human than as a Na’vi. Zoe Saldana was stunning as the female lead even though she only appears as a Pandoran native. Sigourney Weaver is always a strong actor and she looks good either as a human or alien. She has an uncomfortable role, along with Giovanni Ribisi, of providing a lot of exposition in the beginning in order to orient the viewers to Pandora and the Na’vi. She even looked out of sorts with this role. I appreciated Cameron using his “Aliens” star as another strong female character. Stephen Lang plays the bad guy. These are somewhat thankless roles, in part because they tend to require exaggeration so as to make us really dislike them. Kurt Russell had the same problem in “Stargate”, where he was called on to play a not so likeable military officer and he also overacted. I was surprised to see CCH Pounder’s name in the ending credits. I couldn’t identify her in the movie so successful was her Na’vi transformation.

The movie score was by James Horner who wrote the score for Cameron’s “Titantic. There was nothing in this movie that equaled that magnificent music, but I quibble. At least the music didn’t have to sustain or underscore the drama in “Avatar” like it does in so many mediocre movies.

My one major criticism of the movie was the 3-D glasses. They were big, bulky, and uncomfortable. They were a major distraction.

In sum, I highly recommend this movie and plan to see it again myself. Do see it in 3-D and if possible at an Imax theater. The extra cost is worth it.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Los Angeles- in praise of celebrityhood

Amanda and I went on our short vacation to Los Angeles. I flew to L.A. on Delta and had no problems. During the first day, the weather was decent but for the subsequent two, it put the lie to “It never rains in Southern California.” I chose a hotel in Long Beach, which was not the best choice. It was too far from the things we wanted to see and also too far from conveniences. The electronic door locks failed frequently also.

The second day we went to Disneyland and the California Adventure Park. The area around the resort has been majorly improved since I last visited more than a decade ago. The park and its environs have seen significant upgrades to its landscaping. The weather seemed warm until we rode on the tram, when we realized that any wind made the subjective temperature plummet. It drizzled throughout the day and it became colder throughout the day. A got so cold that we had to buy a Mickey hoodie that I am sure she will never wear again. Disneyland is, well, Disneyland. The rides have not really been improved since the last visit and the size of the park pales in comparison to Disneyworld. The former Nautilus ride has morphed into a Finding Nemo submarine “adventure.” It was overly long, relies on unsophisticated technology, and overall, was a crashing bore. We could not wait for it to be over but it probably thrilled 7 year olds. The Haunted Mansion was decked out for Nightmare Before Christmas. It also was no thrill. We did the Pirates of the Caribbean and A marveled at how much money Johnny Depp must be making from licensing his image. Also, she was disappointed that the robotic man who used to have his leg resting over a footbridge is now legless. It’s a Small World was also decked out for the holidays. Apparently Muslims sing Christmas carols also. Space Mountain and the Matterhorn are still fun. There was the annoying holiday parade that held us up as we were trying to get to another ride. We avoided the water rides since it was so cold. We spent about 5 hours at Disneyland.

We then strolled over to the California Experience. I am not sure why there should be a theme park about the very state in which its located, but setting that aside- the park is sort of lame. The first ride we went on was California Soaring. As we waited in line, a 10-year old boy was terrorizing a little girl who was in line. He was roughing her up. His younger brother reminded him that he was treat girls with respect. As the 10 year old continued to be rough, I told him to stop. His little brother then snitched to his mother. That resulted in her coming over and asking if I felt the older boy was disrespectful to me. Talk about being on the spot. I didn’t want to get into the middle of this situation so I said that I didn’t notice. The mother then told the boy to get out of line so that he could not ride. A. and I discussed the merits of this approach. I thought it a bit harsh but felt that this was a repeat problem for the kid so the mother probably was just looking for an excuse. She had a blond mullet, by the way.

Back to Soaring- the ride is supposed to be like a hang glider tour of the Golden State. It’s a motion simulator ride that would be a lot more effective if, when soaring, you wouldn’t see the dangling feet of those in the “glider” ahead of you. Anyway, there were some effective flying sequences that encouraged my phobia of heights to kick in. I am embarrassed to say that I had to close my eyes from time to time. A thought the ride was full of lameness. We walked over to the Tower of Terror in a fake movie backlot. This must be the west coast version of the Orlando MGM Studios. I am always impressed with the detail that Disney puts into the rides and this is especially true with regard to the Tower. The lobby of the old hotel is so authentic to the 1930s. Anyway, the ride is not nearly as good as the east coast version. The drops are good, but the car does not move through the “hotel” as in Florida. There was a young woman sitting behind us that was sooo loud. I think she was trying to look afraid and cute to her adolescent male friends. Maybe they liked it but we didn’t. A young guy next to me kept flipping the bird during the ride. I don’t have a clue as to why. We went to the section of the park that is supposed to be an old-fashioned boardwalk. Fake nostalgia as I call it. The California Screamin’ (yes, they left off the “g” just like our president does when he addresses working class audiences) roller coaster is decorated to appear like a wooden coaster but it has a loop so that we were not fooled! The best part of the coaster was the zero to fifty five 5-second acceleration at the start. We also road the Ferris wheel that has a clever system where the cars are on rails so that they move and swing back and forth during portions of the ride, although the wheel stopped a lot to let people on and off. That was it for the “attractions” at the California Adventure. .A thought, and I agreed, that the park is weak and that it lacks focus. Not sure what it was trying to communicate, if anything, about the Disney heritage. We left the park around midnight.

The next day we went to the Getty Museum. Parking is a very expensive $15 but it does include the museum admission fee. The museum is located on a hill but since it was so rainy and foggy, we didn’t get any nice views of the surrounding area from the museum plaza. To reach the Museum from the bottom of its hill, it is necessary to take a tram. It is powered by a cable rather than by an on-board electric motor, which made the ride slow. The Museum buildings are beautiful. They should be for the $1 billion they cost to build. They are covered in limestone that already has some mold growing on them. The plaza areas are travertine. The buildings are magnificent and house large galleries. We were not unable to tour the gardens nor were we able to eat al fresco because of the rain, so we did miss some of the Museum’s best features. But, in all honesty, the Museum’s art collection is second rate. I realize that the art came from the collection of one man, but it provided only a small sample of art from various periods. Maybe having seen museums around the world is bound to make the Getty seem inadequate. Maybe the rain added to our disappointment, but there is no doubt that the building is better than the art. The one exception here was a display of photos by Irving Penn that capture laborers from around the world in the early 20th century. These photos, all in black and white, are brutally honest about the dirt on and rounded shoulders of the workers. They were not airbrushed, decked out in Armani, coiffed, or malnourished. They were the people that helped to make America great. We have no manufacturing class left so these images are stark to the modern eye. The butchers, carriage drivers, chimney sweeps, etc. had great dignity and pride, as shown in these photos. This traveling exhibit made the Getty visit worthwhile.

We finished far earlier at the Museum than we thought we would so drove into downtown LA. We wanted to see the Geffen museum, but could not find an entrance. Maybe it was the insistent rain, but signage was almost totally lacking. Also no one seemed to be walking into the building and we didn’t want to park and walk in a downpour to find an entrance. So we bagged it.

Someone once said that LA is a collection of suburbs in search of a city. I can see why. The downtown, like many newer cities, has broad streets with great stretches of sidewalks between buildings. It is anything but pedestrian friendly. In the old northeastern cities, buildings are closer together and seem to draw walkers from one to another. Not so in LA. Not being compact makes downtown LA seem unhurried, unexciting, and empty. There is also some terrible architecture here. The federal buildings are hard on the eyes, but that is true in many cities. It seems like the 1950s through the 1980’s were a very dry spell for governmental architectural design. The Disney Concert Hall, in contrast, is magnificent. Gehry’s design is flawless and the flowing shapes of the façade help to temper some of the angularity of the buildings in downtown LA. I wanted to take pictures, but it was raining too hard. There are a few preserved art deco buildings in this area that are also quite beautiful. Overall, we were disappointed.

The next day we went to Catalina Island. I had been there maybe ten years ago, but stayed only a short time. I probably should have done the same this time. Again the weather was cold, but not raining. I made reservations early in the morning for a bus tour of the island. I was supposed to receive and e-ticket, but it did not arrive. A little hitch is that tickets could not be bought on site, so if the ticket didn’t arrive, we might have been out of luck. As fortune would have it, we had some helpful tour representatives who facilitated us meeting up with a tour that had just left. By the way, we were told the tour would leave at 1:30. Instead, it left at 1:15. So we joined the already departed tour bus and the guide resumed his narrative. He was knowledgeable but he went on and on about stuff that I had little interest in. Since the roads on Catalina are so narrow, he would slow down at a key viewing area, but he never stopped to let us out to take pictures. And when he did slow down, I would get my camera ready and he timed the departure to the moment I was about to take my picture. Without stops, the tour became a grind. We finally did reach the summit of the island where the Catalina airport, aka, the Airport in the Sky. It is about 1600 feet above sea level. We were given 15 minutes to grab a cup of coffee, a chocolate chip cookie, and a few pictures. We again loaded onto the bus and went down the same road we traveled up. The guide restarted his narrative. Ugh. When we finally got to Avalon, we searched for a vegan restaurant so that A could eat. We did find a place that had a hummus plate, so we stopped, ate, and waited for about 2 hours for the ferry back to Long Beach. It was cold enough that we did not want to walk around anymore, but there is little to see in Avalon anyway, unless you like shops with sea shell lamps, glass fish, and overpriced tee shirts. The ferry ride to and from the island were relatively rough and apparently the boat had no heat. Ugh again.

The day of our departure, we drove along Mulholland Drive. It is not the elegant road that I thought it would be, especially after having read about it. There were a few nice houses for sure, but most looked like ordinary ranch-style homes. We took the obligatory pictures of the LA skyline. We then drove to Beverly Hills and had the most fun of our visit. We were intent on seeing the Ivy and Mr. Chows, where, at least according to TMZ, all the celebs go to eat. My GPS was great at helping us find them. The Ivy is much smaller than we thought. It has maybe 6 outdoor tables. We drove around and noticed some paparazzi hanging out. We knew them by their cameras. We found a place to park and I tried to take some photos without looking like a tourist. We then walked by the restaurant to look, nonchalantly at adjacent windows, while sneaking glances to see if there were any celebs at lunch. We again walked by the outdoor tables. There was one very tall woman who was waiting for her car that had been valeted. She was very thin and was dressed in an all white outfit. She had on a hat and her slacks had bell bottoms with huge cuffs. She probably was someone we should have recognized, but didn’t. We also saw a woman seated at a table who looked celebrity-like. She resembled Kim Bassinger, but what do I know? We then went to ask the paps if there was a celeb-sighting. They said “no” but they had their cameras ready none-the-less. Initially we asked the guys if they were indeed paps. One demurred saying that the other guy was, but that he himself was not. They both had cameras, however. They agreed to let me take A’s picture with them. We then walked to an Armani Casa store. First time I had been in one. The furnishings were beautiful and very, very pricey. The sales person sort of glommed onto us. We chatted a bit while I admired the stuff. A. and I then walked to a coffee shop to feed her addiction. We both noticed that women in Beverly Hills wear clothing that would be more appropriate as evening wear and that everyone looks you right in the face, as if to see if you are celeb or celeb-worthy. She and I got plenty of stares. A. noticed this particularly since she is from New York, where no one looks at another in the face. We went by Mr. Chow’s but saw no one. By this time, the day was growing long and we still had several hours before our planes were to depart. I wanted to go to the Pacific Design Center, but again, the place looked barren. We could see no one going in or any activity on the inside. We decided against it. We then road along Sunset looking for Gloria Swanson, but didn’t find here. We went to the local Target to kill some time but it’s just like a Target anywhere.

All in all LA was a disappointment. A. thinks it is full of cheaply made buildings that fill up every inch of space possible. In fact, we went to a small vegan restaurant in a little strip mall. It looked to be maybe 15 years old. As we were eating, the ceiling started to leak. I mentioned it to the waitperson who said “Yes” and went about her business. I guess in heavy rain, leakage is expected. I thought the LA had more one and two story warehouses than I have ever seen. This evident while driving along the freeways, and especially in the Hollywood neighborhood. The good news is that the LA area is replete with good vegan restaurants. We went to one in Santa Monica (the RFD Bread Company) and one near Mulholland that I particularly liked. The former was pricey with good food; the latter was less expensive and had the very best green iced tea that I have ever had. I also had a chance to read about how cruelly animals are treated in the food industry.

It was wonderful being with A. We are very much alike and say or think the same things in unison. She is very, very bright. She is well read and retains what she reads. She makes a father proud.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rev. Otis Young

Rev. Otis Young, Emeritus Minister of First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, NE, died last week. I attended First Plymouth in the 1990s. Otis developed a ministry at this church that focused on our social responsibility to each other. He did not talk about guilt or life after death or appeasing a vengeful god. He did talk about caring for each other, helping each other, and realizing, accepting and addressing our own shortcomings. He would take a brief bible section and apply it to life situations. Usually his biblical references were about how helping each other was at the heart of the Christian message. Personal redemption through acts was also a theme in Otis’ sermons. Such redemption was not just to please god but to make our lives happier and healthier. I also liked that Otis understood the value of music in helping to establish a spiritual space. He understood the value of making sermons focused and mercifully brief, about 20 minutes. He did not waste time on theological minutiae, in part because I think he realized that we were not seminary students. Otis never used the pulpit to advocate for his political views or those of “the church”. He was indeed welcoming of all. I admired Dr. Young and am grateful that he enabled me to understand what caring for each other is all about.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On Being Viciously Insulted

I was insulted this morning in a way that I have not been insulted in recent memory. The insults were hurtful, all wrapped up in the guise of telling me what anonymous others are saying, yet with no warning of how sharp the words would be. I wonder about the motivation of someone who says such hurtful, and well, nasty things. I wonder why someone chooses to deliberately hurt another, especially in the presence of a third party. I wonder why this sanctimoniously religious person would so willingly reveal the hypocrite that she is. (I am afraid that religions give permission to hurt, when the believer need only ask for forgiveness for their thoughtlessness). I wonder why I still react with hurt feelings and why I get perturbed with myself for becoming hurt. Yes- my anger would like to become vindictiveness, but I know better. My spirit says that to hurt in the same way would be unhealthy. At least I will not have to ask forgiveness, even from myself.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shopping Malls- Dead or Alive?

Lately I have found going to American shopping malls to be unpleasant. My goal once being in one is to leave as quickly as possible. Many were built in the 1970s and are a tribute to the Brutalist architecture of the period. The enclosed shopping mall is in decline all over the country, due in part to the economy, but also due to our changing shopping preferences. In addition, the 150+ store mall no longer makes sense, given that the marketplace is being dominated by far fewer competitors than were available in the past. The Gaps, Targets, and Bed, Bath, and Beyonds have replaced the numerous smaller privately held retailers that were prevalent decades ago. Finally, the rabbit warren- like hallways featuring one retailer after another has lost its charm, although I am not sure that design ever had much charm.

No doubt that our shopping habits have also changed during the last four decades and retailers have found more effective ways of attracting us to their stores. Thus “lifestyle centers” and “big-box” strip malls are now in vogue. The former attempt to fool us into believing that the small-town retail center is reborn (Atlanta’s Atlantic Station is one example of this). The latter takes advantage of our tendency to drive everywhere, and park as close as possible to our destination, in order, I suppose, to reduce the need to walk.

Yet I find the shopping experience in malls in other countries to be quite a bit different, particularly in countries located in warmer climates. There are several reasons for this. First, other countries still have small retailers that have a niche market and that have not yet been swallowed up by two or three major chains. Second, many of these malls cater to well-to-do customers. This expands the shopping options in the mall. Third, these malls provide a new town center for people, particularly where heat and humidity can be a major barrier to leaving one’s house. The mall can be a social center, an entertainment complex, a place to leave children in a supervised and protected play area, and a temperature controlled environment to spend money.

But, for me, one of the reasons these malls are so successful is their architecture. They make extensive use of: expensive materials, such as marble floors and dramatic light fixtures; large clerestory windows to allow natural light to flow in; hallways that are either curved or irregularly shaped to pull the eye, and presumably the dollars, to the next set of retailers. The buildings are designed to have large central areas where people can congregate, or have a cup of coffee, while people watching. Some have ceiling components that are full of energy, in contrast to the flat suspended ceilings prevalent in our 1970s designs. They also make extensive use of water features; such are waterfalls or large outdoor ponds. Maybe if we were still building enclosed malls in the US, they would have these same design qualities. But the newly built malls I have seen rely more on spare industrial design rather than on elegant, high- end luxury features.

Here are a few surreptitious photos of The Avenues Mall in Kuwait that exemplify these new approaches to mall design. Since photography is not allowed in many foreign malls, I had to quickly take pictures using my cell phone, which accounts for their less-than-stellar photography. But I think they capture the beautiful finishes and spaces in this building. While I don’t have photos of it, the exterior of the building is exciting. It is made up of stone-clad boxes attached end to end, but the boxes are not perpendicular to the ground. Rather they look like a series of blocks that have been randomly thrown and have landed leaning on each other at different angles. It is so much more attractive than the block long walls broken only by the occasional Macy’s façade that characterize American malls.

The malls are a treat for my eye and sometimes I even enjoy spending more than just time in them. It also gives me a sense of pride to see how my oil dollars are being invested, especially in the Middle East.

Friday, December 4, 2009

On Tiger Wood's personal life

He (or she) who lives by celebrity may die by celebrity. If you don't want close media scrutiny then don't a celebrity become. All things in life have costs and opportunities. Even if I don't care about Woods, others might and obviously do, given the amount of attention on the web. My career doesn't put me in the spotlight, but then it doesn't generate millions or billions of dollars either. I am ok with that and maybe Mr. Woods and other "outed" celebrities should be as satisfied with their trade-offs.

"The Life Before Her Eyes"

“The Life Before Her Eyes” features Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood. The movie was a box office flop that has been criticized for its difficult to follow narrative and confusing ending. I think that maybe we are just too used to being spoon fed stories that do not require much brain intervention.

From Wikipedia:

The Life Before Her Eyes is a 2007 American thriller film directed by Vadim Perelman. The screenplay was adapted by Emil Stern from the Laura Kasischke novel of the same name. The film stars Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood. It was released on April 18, 2008, and revolves around a woman's survivor's guilt from a Columbine-like event that occurred fifteen years previously, which causes her present-day idyllic life to fall apart.

For me, this was an affecting and involving movie about sacrifice, lost potential, and tragedy. Even the Wiki quote provides a simplistic summary that misses the point of the movie. It is not a “thriller” by any means. I hesitate to provide my own summary because I think it worth a movie lovers’ effort to figure it out without me providing a spoiler.

The movie has several strengths. The cinematography is beautiful. It provides rich, glowing, saturated colors that are in stark contrast to the terribly sad circumstance of the movie. Thurman and Wood provide powerful performances. Wood brings to life the adolescent girl whose life has barely begun. Thurman plays a mature woman whose life is haunted by horrific crime and who can’t seem to make meaningful connection with her family. Some have criticized Thurman’s performance as being almost zombie-like. I think she in fact brings a kind of “damaged goods” quality to the character that is absolutely essential for the story. Both women are wonderful to look at and to watch.

The story is told with numerous flashbacks and flash forwards that are confusing and challenging to put together. The director has been criticized by some for making the story too confusing. For me, this technique is necessary to creating the painfully sad ending, without telegraphing that ending half-way through the movie.

There are some superficial similarities of this movie to the Ewan MacGregor-vehicle “Stay”, which seems to have an equally confusing narrative. (By the way, “Stay” also has some beautiful special effects in its final scenes). Again, the perplexing narrative is necessary to reach a climax that cannot be guessed within the first few minutes of the movie. There is truly something to be said for the surprise ending.

There is also a “Sophie’s Choice” point in the movie that seals the fate of the main character.

I like movies that enable me to see events in a new way and to explore the sadness that simply reading of an event in newsprint cannot convey. “The Life in Front of Her Eyes” did this for me.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Health Care Reform today- time to put it out of its misery

For me, there can be no true health care reform without cost controls. So far, neither the Senate nor House bills do anything to temper physician and other provider fees. The sick will continue to support the lavish lifestyles of those in the “healing professions.” I would rather let the system continue on as is until it totally collapses under the weight of exorbitant costs. Maybe then our leaders will develop the political will to realize that much of the cost of health care is related to provider fees, which are needed, for example, to build ostentatious additions onto their already lavish houses. I now want no reform.

Circumstances are not yet dire enough to convince the politicians that provider fees must be controlled. Let the corporations fall on their knees from the excess cost of insurance premiums, driven by health care costs. The provider guilds and the insurance companies are too strong now.

Let us become even more uncompetitive in the world market place because of the added cost to our goods due to health care premiums. Let’s hope that Senator Ben Nelson, and his cohorts, can put a stop to current efforts to reform insurance, which is only part of what we need.

"The Prisoner"- must see TV

Sometimes television really pays off. AMC recently presented its mini-series of “The Prisoner.” It was an updated version of the classic 1960’s television series, but in no way did it simply retell the same story. The new version is about am employee of a large, secretive company who resigns. The company was heavily involved in personal spying. The story cuts between the main character’s previous life and his new one as Number 6 in a mysterious desert-set place called the village. Jim Caviezal plays 6. The village is headed by Number 2, played by a wonderfully malevolent sir. Ian McKellan. Number 6 has no idea of how he got to the village and why he is there. Over time we find out that 2 is attempting to get information from 6 about his resignation , but even more, to break down his identity so that he becomes as docile, and fearful, as the other village residents. Number 6 and some other residents have memories of their past life, usually from fleeting dreams. All but 6 are hesitant to discuss it since everyone spies on everyone else. Even the children have classroom lessons on spying. The end is surprising and difficult to comprehend but worth the effort. I do not want to give away too much of the plot since it would definitely be a spoiler.

Caviezal is surprisingly good. He has not had a particularly distinguished career and I have tended not want to see him because of his close connection to Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.” I thought it was creepy. Anyway he competently portrays 6’s efforts to remain an individual in the face of strong forces designed to break his will and to confuse him.

McKellan is amazing. He can be kindly, yet subtlely malevant, while confronting a little girl about spying on him. She is eating an ice cream cone. Through smiles and warmth, he extracts a confession from her. He asks if she knows what this means. She said yes, and he says “the clinic.” That’s the indoctrination and reeducation facility. She has a look of fear on her face, and Number 2 says that it’s ok; she could finish her ice cream first. The next scene has a black car speeding away and running over the ice cream cone, with the girl screaming in the background. Number 6 also gives his usually sleeping wife three pills. Their son watches this and becomes curious about the nature of the pills. This same son has a relationship with one of the male spies that watches 6, who catches the young man with his lover. Number 6 uses this to blackmail the son into providing information.

The theme of the show reminds me a bit of the hilarious comedy “Team America” that parodies US forays into other countries in the name of the war on terror. That is, in order to save a country we must destroy it. Number 2 must destroy Number 6’s identity in order to save him, at least according to 2’s definition of save. It also mirrors the notion that in order to treat sometimes differences, e.g., mental illness, it is necessary to break down their self in order to rebuild it correctly, much like the Soviet mental institutions used to house political dissidents.

The village in located in the sand dunes of some desert dessert, although in one scene, the editors forgot to remove one of

California hills appearing in the background. The village is made up of rows of exactly alike A-frame houses. All of the automobiles are strange, retro looking vehicles that are unidentifiable by maker or country of origin. Number 2 lives in the only mansion in the village and he is protected by a phalanx of body guards. There are two multi-story buildings that appear in the distance. They are glass towers that shimmer in the dessert light.

Mysterious holes appear in the ground, which in one particularly horrifying scene, swallow up a small child on a bicycle, while onlookers watch without much reaction. These holes seem to be related to the time when the wife is awake. A large latex-like ball, called Rover in the original series, keeps people from leaving the village by rolling over them and suffocating them or by vaporizing them. There is homage to the original series when Number 2 is in a shop and he looks up and sees an old-fashioned two wheel bike with the huge front- and small- rear wheels. This was the logo for the 60’s series.

The end is very surprising and involves the corporation that 6 had worked in. It is surprising and unanticipated. It was worth the 6 hours needed to watch this series. It was great TV.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Savage Grace"- when is a mother's love too much

Another movie seen in the wee hours of the morning due to sleep disruption:

From Wikipedia.org: Savage Grace is a 2007 film starring Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne, Hugh Dancy, and Elena Anaya. The film is directed by Tom Kalin and written by Howard Rodman, based on the book Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson. The story is based on the true story of the dysfunctional, incestuous relationship between heiress Barbara Daly Baekeland and her son Antony.

This is a most difficult movie to watch. Julianne Moore is a great actress. She portrays the lead character, Barbara Baekeland, as an emotional predator who uses sex to deal with her anxiety, loneliness, lack of self esteem, and depression. Moore captures the fracture between Barbara’s ego and superego. She seemingly wreaks her havoc with no sense of remorse or even questioning the legitimacy of what she does. As a former actress, Baekeland took up acting to live out her life. In one scene taking place at the Stork Club, Barbara asks her husband if he would be willing to sleep with the last person he saw leaving the restaurant. He said yes. She became so infuriated that when she left, she hailed down the next car she saw being driven by a man. She got in presumably had a one-night stand with the stranger. In another scene, after confronting her husband in an airport as he was leaving with his girlfriend, Barbara leaves the terminal and flags down a cab. In the next scene she leaves a motel and tries to offer the driver money, which she refuses.

Stephan Dillane portrays her unavailable, emotionally detached husband who is the heir to the Bakelite fortune. He is something of an explorer and raconteur. He does not appear to bond with his new son, But ultimately grows weary of his wife and son and moves into a new life with his son’s ex-girlfriend.

Eddie Redmayne plays Barbara’s troubled son Antony. He is the heir to his mother’s smothering of him. She is so enmeshed with Anthony that taking a bath in front of him (and he in front of her), and having a three-way relationship with one of Barbara’s advisors/sycophants. In all fairness, the “friend” Sam Green later said "it is true that almost 40 years ago I did have an affair with Barbara, but I certainly never slept with her son, and nor did she, to the best of my knowledge. Nor am I bisexual...” But true or not, the scene with the three of them in bed with arms interlocked is certainly a shocker.

Antony is bright and learns several languages. He is a kind of trophy son for his mother. At one party, when all the guests are about to leave, Barbara invites young Tony to read a book in French. The guest wanted to leave and began to take their leave. Barbara became incensed and yelled at them as they left the house.

The most horrific scene is where Barbara is sitting on a sofa with Tony. She begins to feel his crotch, which he apparently responded to. She left the room and came back. She sat on Tony’s lap and proceeded to have intercourse with her own son. When he did not climax, she provided a manual assist. In the next scene Tony stabs his mother and orders take-out Chinese. When the police arrive, after he called them, he was found sitting on the floor next to his dead mother eating his rice.

Yes, this is disturbing stuff. I wonder why the producers thought this would make good box office, or any for that matter. But it is an absorbing look at the psyches of a very dysfunctional family. I do not think that that is necessarily bad if both the viewer and the director are respectful of the difficult material. Here I think it works.

As I mentioned above, Moore is wonderful and Redmayne is surprisingly good given his young age and the content of what he is being asked to do. I think it is a very good movie, but watch it at your own risk.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Atlanta Symphony Concert- rising stars and broken eardrums

I went to see and hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra last night. When I review the ASO, I feel like such a curmudgeon, but…

Here is the program:

TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake Suite
GLAZUNOV: Violin Concerto
SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1

Hannu Lintu conducted and the soloist was Tai Murray.

Here is the ASO’s blurb about these folks:
Mr. Lintu, a rising young Finnish star, showcases the world’s favorite ballet music from Tchaikovsky’s version of a Russian legend of enchantment, deception, and love triumphant. The all Russian theme continues as the virtuosic sparkle of Ms. Murray — last seen here in a brilliant performance in 2005 — is paired with Glazunov’s perennially popular violin concerto. Shostakovich’s genius first asserted itself in his brilliant First Symphony, composed as a graduation piece at the famed St. Petersburg Conservatory.

For every rising star I suppose there may be several that are falling. I am testimony to that. But, Mr. Lintu provide some interpretations that were other worldly, but not in a good way. Atlanta Symphony Hall is terrible, but visually and acoustically. But Mr. Hintu’s interpretation exacerbated the situation. The orchestral balances were so off that some of the music was unrecognizable. For example, in the Danse Hongroise from Swan Lake, the second portion of the piece was so unbalanced that the music sounded almost laughable. In this section, the strings play a melody based on Tchaikovsky’s interpretation of Hungarian music. The brass provides a beat. Well under Mr. Hintu let the brass so overpower the strings that all I could hear was the brass. At this point, the ASO sounded like a German “oom pah” band. Maybe the conductor hears different balances from the podium than I do from the hall, but I thought the concert was for the audience and not the conductor. The hall’s deficiencies should help guide the conductor, but it did not. In addition, the introduction to dance was very slow and unballet-like.

The ASO brass may be technically brilliant, but they seem incapable of subtlety. They always seem to be too loud- I particularly find the trombones to be hard-edged and ungracious. Every time I know that there is a focus on the brass in a piece of music, I cringe. Again, it may be the hall.

The Glazunov concerto may be popular and may have inspired Rosza and Korngold (of movie music fame) but it strikes me as vapid- full of pretty music with little development and structure. One criticism of movie soundtracks is that they often have beautiful sounds, but they are disembodied because they usually have no development- so too with Glazunov. His concerto has three movements and is played without break, which for me, adds to its meandering and unstructured quality. Ms. Murray is a powerhouse player with a big sound. Her pizzicati were strong and could be easily heard against the orchestra. Her intonation was very good and she plays without a lot of body histrionics, so prevalent among soloists. By the way, the concertmistress, who had several solos throughout the concert, played with a very tiny sound. I initially thought that her lack of volume was due to acoustics, but Ms. Murray showed that is not the case. Either Ms. Murray knows how to produce a big sound, or her violin had a mic on it.

The Shostakovich Fist symphony may be his most popular, but it is not his best. His later works, which were written against the backdrop of Soviet oppression, are more powerful. Mr. Hintu’s interpretation was strong, but I was so jaded by the stridency of the sound, that I was looking forward to it being over!

Atlanta audiences are very gracious and dispense standing ovations and “Bravos” quite easily. For me, this concert deserved neither. My ear is still ringing from the trombones.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"The Sun Also Rises"- even if it shouldn't

When I get home from traveling, I find it very difficult to stay awake much before 9:00 pm, and I usually awaken around 3:00 am. When I awake, I turn on the TV to see what’s on, other than infomercials. Today I caught about two-thirds of “The Sun Also Rises”, the1950s movie adaptation of Hemingway’s classic novel. The movie stars Tyrone Power, Eddie Albert, Errol Flynn, Mel Ferrer, and Ava Gardner. All were popular powerhouse actors at the time. The story is about the “lost generation,” that group of expatriates who remained in Europe after World War I. I have never read the book so I cannot tell how closely the movie mirrors it.

There are several themes: unfulfilled love as a result of a war injury; obsessive sexuality; ennui; existential angst and alcoholism. Uplifting-no? I found the movie to be a crashing bore. Power, Albert, and Flynn seemed to be too old to play their characters. Only Ferrer and Gardner seemed to be of the right age. The movie was over 2.5 hours long and it could have been edited down to about the usual 1.5 minutes. Many scenes last too long. There is one in which Brett Ashley (Gardner) is flirting with a matador across the table from her longtime love, played by Power. Thejilted war-injured hero  glares at Gardner. I could here in my head the director saying, “Now do a double take and express dismay with your face.” This scene seemed to last forever. The bull fight scenes are interminable and are obviously not real. The matador, Brett’s current inamorato, looks surprisingly feminine in his matador hat. All of the male characters wear some kind of hair grease, and then cover their manes with berets. To me, those omnipresent berets look silly as do the orange scarves that everyone has tied around their necks. My guess is that they made a Spanish political statement at the time in which the movie is set (the 1920s). Maybe the berets just remind me of Monica Lewinsky.

 I could not become invested in the trials and tribulations of these people. Maybe the actors couldn’t get in touch with their characters’ sturm und drang. Maybe it was that passionless style of acting that was so prevalent in the 1950’s. Often movies from the period seem like a series of tableaux inhabited by moving statues. There is another odd scene where Lady Brett takes her leave of her companion to duck into a church for a quick prayer. Gardner stares up at something and moves her lips. The scene does not appear to be shot in a real church, but rather in front of a rear projection screen. It all seemed silly. The shot of Garnder looked like it was taken by one of those mall-based glamour shot photographers.  Flynn’s character rarely stops drinking. I am sure that was Hemingway’s intent, given his own problems with alcohol. But Flynn doesn’t play it well and never really seems to get as intoxicated as would be the case with all of the alcohol his character consumes.

The photography is quite good and captures that sunlit tan color seen in the old Spanish buildings.

I once had a supervisor who said “I won’t stir in your sh*t if you don’t stir in mine.” Maybe I had to stir in too much of Hemingway’s to enjoy this movie.

I recommend this film only to people who cannot sleep at 3:00 in the morning.

Autumn Moon over Bishkek

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

To view photo album, click on


From Wikipedia.org:

Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, is a country in Central Asia. Landlocked and mountainous, it is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east.

The ethnonym "Kyrgyz", after which the country is named, is thought to originally mean either "forty girls" or "forty tribes", presumably referring to the epic hero Manas who, as legend has it, unified forty tribes against the Khitans. The 40-ray sun on the flag of Kyrgyzstan symbolizes the forty tribes of Manas.

Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic is located just off the northern fringe of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, an extension of the Tien Shan mountain range, which rises up to 16,000 ft and provides a spectacular backdrop to the city. North of the city, a fertile and gently undulating steppe extends far north into neighboring Kazakhstan. The Chui River drains most of the area. Bishkek is connected to the Turkestan-Siberia Railway by a spur.

Bishkek is a city of wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings combined with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks surrounding interior courtyards and, especially outside the city centre, thousands of smaller privately built houses. It is laid out on a grid pattern, with most streets flanked on both sides by narrow irrigation channels that water the innumerable trees which provide shade in the hot summers.

I visited Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic for about 20 hours. I enjoy visiting former Soviet Union countries because I develop more of a perspective on what it must have like to live in a communist society. As noted above, Bishkek has some beautiful tree-lined boulevards. But I am not sure that I saw anything that merits Bishkek city being called “The Garden City.”

The city’s air is so dirty. There are three very tall smokestacks that loom over the city. At night, the light from auto headlights shines into the dust from the air, as if into fog. I assume that the dust comes, in part, from the smokestacks. The city has many Soviet-style buildings. To me, this style of architecture means some variant of neo-classical style with large flat surfaces of marble or concrete. The buildings are oppressive and usually too large scale for their setting. Like Brutalist buildings in the US, their surfaces collect dirt from the air and the rain to become stained with black gunk. What may have started as a marginally attractive building transforms into an eyesore.

The Soviets also spent little on infrastructure. The highways are rough and bumpy, as are the airport’s runways. The lights along the boulevards on mounted on standards that look like they are made up of erector set pieces. Some of the apartment buildings in Bishkek are large and graceless. Their facades are sometimes overly busy or overly unadorned. My guess is that Soviet architects became masters of creating cityscapes that demoralized the citizenry and submerged individuality into the state collective. Bishkek may be one of the most unattractive cities I have seen.

I was surprised by two things about the people. The first is that they are, on average, quite attractive. The men are tall and thin and the women are quite beautiful. The second is that they dress very, very well. Maybe their style of dress is a reaction to Bishkek’s bleak physical environment. That is, they dress to improve what they look at. It might also be a function of Kyrgyzstan’s low cost of living where nice clothing is affordable. I was surprised to see a 24-hour fashion channel on TV. I saw the same channel that I saw in Dubai. I think that fashion and style are important to the Kyrgystanis and it was great to see.

I met a representative of the World Hunger Program in the hotel where I was staying. She said that they were faced with many large challenges in the Republic. A quick internet search confirms that hunger remains a huge issue in this country. I thought to myself, somewhat facetiously, that this is the explanation for everyone being slim.

One final note, Kyrgyzstan’s government is considered by the United Nations to be one of the most corrupt in the world. Maybe that helps account for its terrible infrastructure and visual pollution.

The Kindom of Bahrain

For photo album go to: www.picasaweb.google.com/WEF100/Bahrain#

From the US Department of State Website:

Cities: Capital--Manama, pop. (2002 est.) 148,000. Other cities--Al Muharraq.

Terrain: Low desert plain (highest elevation point--122 m).

Climate: Hot and humid from May-September, with average highs ranging from 30o-40o C (86o-104o F). Maximum temperatures average 20o-30o C (68o-86o F) the remainder of the year.

The Kingdom of Bahrain
 I had the opportunity to spend about a day and a half in the Kingdom of Bahrain. It’s a beautiful island in the Persian Gulf and its capital is Manama. Not only did I get to drive around and see the tree of life, I was able to appreciate all that our oil dollars have contributed to the Bahraini lifestyle. While not as developed as Dubai, Bahrain has many new buildings that share the stunning architecture of its UAE neighbor. One of the most impressive buildings is the World Trade Center. Two towers comprise this structure. The towers are mirror images of each other and are connected by three struts, each of which has a wind turbine. Here in the oil-rich Middle East, the Bahrainis are forward thinking enough that they see the merits of wind energy. These three huge turbines generate about 12-15 % of the energy requirements of the towers. At the base of the two towers is the Moda Mall, a very high-end retail center that is lit by fiber optic chandeliers. The mall seems recent ly opened and it was not crowded. Another popular mall in Manama is City Center that has about 350 stores. It is very busy with Bahrainis in western dress. In fact, few traditional abayas and disdashas are seen in Manama. The City Center has a large food court with an array of international eateries. I found that when driving in Bahrain the traffic is orderly and well controlled, unlike Kuwait where driving seems like a free-for-all. At rush hour, armed militia men with machine guns and guerilla paint on their faces patrol each major intersection. Who needs traffic tickets? Bahrain has the reputation of being the Las Vegas of the Middle-East. The country, however, it is neither as glitzy nor vulgar as Sin City; it does, however, permit the sale of alcohol in the major hotels so it has a fairly active night life.

There is much landscaping throughout Manama. There are green spaces and water features. All in all, I thought it quite attractive. If I had to choose a place to live in the desert, I might well select Bahrain.

For a description of my trip to the Tree of Life, see my earlier blog entry.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Tree of Life

I was able to spend a day in the Kingdom of Bahrain this week. Part of the day was spent trying to find the Tree of Life, which is 100+year old tree, probably a Prosopis cineraria (Mesquite), which is considered a natural wonder. This unique tree stands alone in the desert about 1.2 mi from the Jebel Dukhan, the highest point in Bahrain. The source of water for this tree remains a mystery because it stands in a place completely free of water.

I picked up a guide to Bahrain at the airport. It included a map of Bahrain, with the Tree of Life noted as one of the country’s highlights. The map prominently features a deep blue to represent the Persian Gulf that surrounds the island and the roads that lead to the Tree of Life. The map lacked any identification for the roads because most of the roads in Bahrain are neither named nor numbered. While driving to see this wonder in the desert we saw two directional signs, but there was no other signage to one of the Kingdom’s prime tourist sites.

I rented a car since there are also not many organized tours, which surprises me because the Kingdom is something of a tourist destination. The rental car only had about a quarter of a tank of gas. While threading our way around the streets of Manama, the Kingdom’s capital, we made several wrong turns, in part because of the lack of street names. We finally found that coastal highway that would take us quickly and efficiently to the Tree. I was very impressed with the roads and the orderliness of traffic, given that in other middle-eastern countries, traffic in unregulated and something of a free-for-all. We soon realized that we had to purchase gas, so one of us was assigned the task of looking for a filling station. Given that this is an oil-rich country, this would be an easy task, right? Well, not really, since the gas stations are rather dreary little buildings with nothing to make them stand out from other dreary little buildings. Finally we found one and waited in line to fill up. When it was our turn, we found out from the attendant that he didn’t take credit cards. Since none of us had Bahraini Dinar, we had to find an ATM. Having seen a shopping mall a few miles back, we took off back toward Manama, went to the mall, withdrew money, had lunch, and returned to the gas station. A fill up cost us about $9- one of the benefits of being in an oil-rich country. We returned to the highway. After several missteps, we followed a directional sign for the Tree. We ended up on this desert road that was made up of rutted asphalt and white fine powder. After feeling that we were lost in the desert without Moses to guide us, I saw two people who had just left their car. I ran up to them to ask for directions. It’s a good thing that most Bahrainis have some ability to speak English. Anyway, one of the men told me to continue on the road (even though it would be unpaved in some areas) until we came to a roundabout, where sometime after, we would make a left. We would continue on until we find two uprights that would allow only one car through at a time. We would then make a left. We continued on and the road indeed nearly disappeared under to be limestone rocks and powder. We passed a cement factory, many trucks and buses with locals who waved and seemed happy to see the foreign tourists. We passed mini-mountains of limestone rocks and piles of old truck tires. After maybe 10 minutes I lost confidence since it seemed like we should have found the roundabout, I stopped to ask another Bahraini for directions. He was cleaning out his truck with a hose and water was running across the street. He seemed eager to help but did not understand English. I had the tourist map with me so that I could point out where we were going. He pointed in the direction we were going, so I figured we should press ahead. We finally found the pipes that only allowed one car to pass. I turned right onto another highway and we went what seemed to be a few miles further into the desert. Losing confidence, I turned around to go in to opposite direction. We passed large oil field pipes and networks of limestone-covered smaller pipes that were lying on the desert floor. Again, my confidence evaporated quicker than a bead of sweat in the desert heat. I said, in a semi-sarcastic way, “If only god would give us a sign here in the middle of the desert so we can find the Tree of Life.” In about two minutes, I pulled to the side of the road and saw a lime green car coming our way. I got out of my car and waved the oncoming vehicle to stop. The car stopped in the road- it was apparent that there was no traffic coming in either direction. I walked over to the car, the occupants lowered the window. I looked in and saw that they were holding the blue tourist map with the Tree circled. I asked them if they knew how to get there and one said “No, we were going to ask you.” I started to howl with laughter, as did they. It was hilarious to see that they were playing out the same tourist script as us. One of the guys was from Madrid, and one from Sri Lanka. Just as we completed our introductions, a white car with a Bahraini family headed toward us. I flagged them down. They stopped and I asked directions to the Tree. The driver said to follow him. Since he was going in the opposite direction, I turned my rental around and followed our new friends and the Bahraini family. We soon found ourselves at the point of previous indecision where we had turned around. The tree was just a few miles away. Long story short- I asked for divine intervention and indeed- it came.

At the Tree we were able to further talk with our new friends. They were both architects. One had been in Bahrain for one month and one for a year and a half. We spent about an hour at the Tree. Juan, the architect from Madrid, said that they were going to leave to visit the oil museum. I asked if he knew how to get there. He said they would find it just liked they found the tree. We shook hands good-bye. It was a great afternoon, made all the better by the great sense of humor of my traveling companions. It’s great to be a tourist.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Nothing Sacred"- run, don't walk, to see it.

I watched the movie “Nothing Sacred” in my continuing quest to understand what it must have been like in an earlier America. This movie, starring Carole Lombard and Frederic March was made in 1937. Here is a plot synopsis from Wikipedia:

“New York newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) tries to pass off an ordinary African-American (Troy Brown) as an African nobleman hosting a charity event. Wally Cook is demoted to writing obituaries. He begs his boss Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) for another chance. Wally is sent to Warsaw, a fictional town in Vermont, to interview Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a woman supposedly dying of radium poisoning. When Cook finally locates Hazel, she is crying because her doctor has told her that she is not dying. Unaware of this, he invites her to New York as the guest of the Morning Star newspaper. The newspaper uses her story to increase its circulation. She receives a ticker tape parade and the key to the city, and becomes an inspiration to many. In addition, she and Wally fall in love. When it is finally discovered that Hazel is not really dying, city officials decide that it would be better to avoid embarrassment by having it seem that she committed suicide. Hazel and Wally get married and quietly set sail for the tropics.”

It doesn’t seem like a great plot but then many movies do not have a great plot (think “Transformers,” anything with Ryan Reynolds or Jennifer Anniston). Nevertheless, this movie was thoroughly enjoyable and maybe verged on greatness, mostly because of Lombard.

Again from Wikipedia:

“Carole Lombard (October 6, 1908 – January 16, 1942) was an American actress. She was particularly noted for her comedic roles in several classic films of the 1930s, most notably in the 1936 film My Man Godfrey. She is listed as one of the American Film Institute's greatest stars of all time and was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s, earning around $500,000 per year (more than five times the salary of the US President). Lombard's career was cut short when she died at the age of 33 in the crash of TWA Flight 3.”

This is the first time I saw Lombard in a movie. She was an incredible comedic actress. She was delicately beautiful with a beautiful pale complexion. She was great in the role of Hazel because she did not have to act funny. She simply was. She read funny lines with an earnestness that she probably would also have used for Shakespeare. I think she was a comedic genius. She was such a contrast to the strident, mugging, and dim-witted Lucille Ball. She also was a great contrast to Rosalind Russell who morphed from a fashion model, to “tough broad”, to someone who calls everyone “dahling” to Auntie Mame , a model for every drag queen. Lombard was light, not prone to pratfalls or overacting. She always kept control of her character so that it did not stoop to become a cartoon or a parody. This makes her early death all the sadder. Her personal life was interesting. Her first marriage, which ended in divorce, was to William Powell. Gun She then has a relationship with Russ Columbo, who died in a gun accident. She later said that Columbo was the love of her life. Her last husband was Clark Gable, who called her the love of his life. My fantasy is that she would be a person with whom I would enjoy spending time. Her easy going style must have captivated those around her.

Frederic March was a very competent actor and played a good straight man to Lombard’s Hazel.

There are several other things about the movie that were noteworthy:

1. This was the only Technicolor film that Lombard made. In the print that I saw, the colors were muted and not highly saturated. I liked the effect.

2. Shots of New York were all rear projections, which were not always successful. There is an interesting flyover of Manhattan when Hazel and Wally fly to New York. The city view out of the airplane window was obviously a special effect but lower Manhattan, with its mostly pre-modernism buildings, was impressive. The city had many neo-classic skyscrapers that today probably look dated but in 1937 they looked grand.

3. Most of the interiors were in the Art Moderne or Streamline Moderne style that was a late branch of the Art Deco design style. Its architectural style emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements (such as railings and porthole windows). It reached its height in 1937. Art Moderne seemed to be lost in comparison to the more widely known Deco and Bauhaus styles. There is a night club in “Nothing Sacred”, called Club Moderne, which is a perfect example of this style. There were round lights, sitting on round columns with Deco-inspired lighting. Banisters along the various levels of the club were long metal railings that gently curved toward the ground when they ended. These movie night clubs were always large and elegant. People sat at tables and the dance floor, at least in Club Moderne, was on a stage. People dressed formally and no one seemed to break a sweat. The movie nightclubs of this period were always elegant. My guess is that the clubs of Hollywood legend, e.g., Ciro’s and Mocambo (both opened shortly after the making of “Nothing Sacred”), may have been something like Club Moderne, although in a different architectural style.

4. No one smoked in “Nothing Sacred.”

5. There were fresh flowers in every scene, which added even more glamour to the Moderne style.

6. The movie was a critique of newspapers that made-up news to increase circulation. Sound familiar? (Look up Fox news, CNN, or CNBC if you aren’t familiar with this concept.) You may remember newspapers-they were awkwardly sized pieces of paper with news stories printed on them. In the past nearly every major city had at least two. Today, the internet-based “Huffington Post” fulfills that function for some cities, such as Denver. Many papers are dying today because their leadership did not learn the lesson of the music industry’s demise in the digital age. Too bad- so sad.

If you ever have the chance, spend the 90 minutes it takes to watch “Nothing Sacred.” It is a classy and funny movie, with a magical leading lady, that provides a friendly glimpse into the late 1930s.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"High Anxiety"- better remembered

I watched the Mel Brooks’ movie “High Anxiety” the other day. I remember enjoying Brooks’ films over the year and thought it would be a good laugh to watch this Hitchcock parody again. I learned that parody is best enjoyed the closer it is to the event being parodied. When too much time has elapsed the target of the parody becomes something of a dim memory. What was cutting edge becomes dull and blunted. Of course Hitchcock was a great director and many of his movies were inspired. His directorial bag of tricks was large and his stories seemed so fresh when they were, well, fresh. The best parts of “High Anxiety” are those that poke fun at that bag of tricks. There is a scene with the wonderful Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel and Harvey Korman as her B&D psychiatrist playmate. They are sitting at a glass topped table and Brooks, taking a page from Hitchcock, has the camera photographing the actors through the glass top. It is wonderful to watch the camera contend with coffee cups and plates being moved around by Leachman and Korman without regard to where the camera is. Leachman has a hilarious thin mustache and she talks with her mouth continually clenched. She embodies all the bad psychiatric nurses found in so many movies.  Korman acts with just a bit of the effete, making the two a great comedic couple. Madelaine Kahn is also a treat to watch. She has a way of using her mouth and hair to demonstrate movie-fake sensuality. A Kahn scene that works very well is when Brooks calls her from a phone booth while he is being strangled. She interprets it as a heavy breathing pervert call. She initially feigns disgust but gradually begins to ask questions, “ How did you, ummmm... get my room number? I am not going to listen to any more of this, I mean, I've had just about enough! What are you wearing? Jeans? you're wearing jeans? I bet they're tight.” She does this while throwing back her long blonde hair like some glamorous Hollywood leading lady of days past. There is also one funny scene where Brooks parodies the famous “Psycho” shower scene. However, Brooks does not have the comedic timing and rubber face that Gene Wilder had in the much funnier “Young Frankenstein.” Brooks’ Jewish schtick also seems tired today. But most of the movie is like silly filler that was probably quite funny in 1977 but not so much now.

“High Anxiety” makes reference also to Hitchcocks’s“The Birds,” “Vertigo,”, “Marnie”, “Suspicion” and others. It also sends up films of other directors including “Blow Up, “the Pink Panther,” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

I suppose that when I watch the “Scary Movie” films 30-years from now, I will probably forget the movies they were parodying and wonder why I liked “Scary Movie 3” so much. So too is the fate of “High Anxiety” 30 years later.

The sense of "I"

The other night on Irish TV I saw a fascinating show about how the sense of “I” or “me” arises out of the brain. In other words, what happens at the neuronal level that causes us to organize the world as “me” and “not me.” The narrator was a mathematician atheist. He began the discussion with a review of Descartes’ notions of mind-body dualism which attempted, but ultimately failed to answer the question of how a nonmaterial mind could influence a material body, without invoking supernatural explanations. This program was attempting to summarize our current understanding of the mind-body issue by reviewing some current research.

The assumption of most of the research reviewed arises out of the assumption that the sense of “I” arises from the brain. As a result, some of the studies focused on neurological investigations. The first involved cortical stimulation of the brain. MRI scans were done at the same time to describe how electrical impulses flow within the brain. This study showed that, when awake, the area stimulated immediately shows a response, but that other areas of the brain then show electrical activity. This appears to show that in the awake brain, various areas communicate with each other after stimulation and that activity is not limited to just one area. In contrast, when an area is stimulated in the sleeping brain, electrical activity is limited to just the area stimulated. When a person is asleep, and presumably without the sense of “I”, his or her brain functions differently than when awake, when presumably the individual has the sense of “I.”

Another study showed that in one individual, there are neurons that appear to store information of a certain type. The researchers found that a certain bundle of neurons stored material related to Jennifer Anniston. When the individual was shown a picture of Anniston, the neurons fired. When shown a picture of Anniston and Brad Pitt, the neurons did not fire. However, when the subject was shown the letters “Jennifer Anniston”, the neurons again fired. The researcher concluded that neurons were storing the concept “Jennifer Anniston” rather than just her visual image. This seems to indicate that single or bundled neurons act as file folders for concepts. Thus, the neurons could, by extension, contain a concept of “I”.

The final study focused on how visual cues can support the sense of “I.” The experiment involved having a subject wear a visor that contained a video screen, much like those that are used to view movies with a portable video player. The visor blocks out visual input except that which is on the screen. Attached to the visor are two video cameras mounted behind the subject. As a result of this setup, the subject is viewing himself as seen by another person. The subject reported disorientation as a result of the confusion between his predetermined sense of location and the visual cues of being in a different location based on the feeds from the cameras. To compound the confusion, the experimenter placed the video cameras on his head and then walked around. This was even more confusing for the subject, given that he was seated. From the subject’s point of view, his sense of “I” was being disturbed by the incongruous video feed. This study was certainly interesting, but struck me as a bit gimmicky. It did not demonstrate whether the subject would become habituated to the incongruous video cues and thus recover to some degree the sense of “I.”

Like many TV-based summaries of research, this British-made show did not have time to explore all of the limitations of the studies nor the antecedent and subsequent studies that may have shed more light on the phenomenon investigated. The show did show how science can approach the study of how the sense of “I” is created. From the results presented, the mind-body interaction arises out of neuronal activity and sensory input. This seems obvious, but the obvious is not always correct.

One of the problems with this, and other neurological research, is that the studies must use such large and complicated machinery that the process of measuring the phenomenon being studied introduces a certain artificiality that likely influences the results. As technology continues to evolve, more sophisticated and miniaturized equipment may help reduce the influence of the process of measurement on the findings.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Fellini: I am a Born Liar"

“Fellini: I am a Born Liar” was recently shown on Irish TV. It was made in 1993 and provides the last interview the Federico Fellini had before his death. Fellini was considered one of the most influential movie directors of the mid-twentieth century. His films include “8 1/2”, “Satyricon”, “Fellini’s Roma”, and “Juliet of the Spirits.” The interview with Fellini was interesting and led me to modify my view of his work. The interview contains clips of his movies, but does not identify which movies they were in. They are used to illustrate his ideas rather than to be a “greatest hits” compendium. I frequently find that interviews with artists are tedious because artists frequently talk in a language that has meaning for them but is so idiosyncratic that it leaves the rest of us behind. This is particularly a problem for someone like me who tends to be a concrete thinker and a reductionist. This interview was no different and it was made worse because it was in Italian with English subtitles. When I have seen English language films with English subtitles, I can see how meaning can be slightly changed through the subtitling process. I can only imagine what was done here.

The interview with Fellini was augmented by interviews with Donald Sutherland and Terrance Stamp, two of the most interesting and talented actors in the last 60 years. Neither actor seemed to like working with Fellini very much. They both found him to be overbearing in some instances and too uninvolved in others. Fellini, in contrast, thought that he was very tuned into actors and that he liked them very much. The one actor with whom he had a long-term professional relationship was not interviewed, i.e., Marcello Mastroianni. From others interviewed it seems that Mastroianni was able to not personalize Fellini’s direction and he often simply walked away. Nevertheless his acting style was probably more to Fellini’s natural rhythm that Sutherland’s and Stamp’s.

After Fellini sought treatment for depression from a psychoanalyst, his movies became more informed by Freudian theory. His movies were never just about storytelling. They were not simply a presentation of his perception of a story. Rather they were about his interpretation of the story through the lens of his understanding of his psychological makeup. In that way, Fellini’s movies were self-indulgent and sometimes full of images that were strange and unapproachable. Fellini used actors who were often grotesquely overweight with big hair and who were scantily clad. He used little people, old people, and disabled people to populate his cities and towns. He used these characters not because he was particularly interested in them, but because they reflected his psyche. They were representative of his fears, conflicts, and neuroses. Through his approach, Fellini invited us into his psychoanalysis but we often did not know what he was showing us.

There were two scenes from his films that were part of this interview that illustrated this. The first involved three children on a beach who were peeking in a cabana to see a woman change into her beach clothes. Because it was his recollection of the beach, he insisted that the real ocean would not reflect the quality of memory. He then had his designers build a faux ocean using large sheets of plastic that made artificial waves when moved. In this scene, the woman in the cabana exited and started to walk toward the ocean. She was dressed in a red bikini. She was voluptuous but her derriere was large. This scene incorporated techniques that were designed to make concrete Fellini’s memory using artifice and grotesquerie. One other point- Fellini never stooped to making the scene gratuitously sexy. There was never a close up on the woman’s posterior to highlight its ampleness. What a contrast to modern movie making.

The other scene that I thought illustrated Fellini’s art. It was a scene in a large hotel lobby. I was not certain if this was a real hotel or a set. The lobby was a baroque concoction in red, white and gold leaf. Mastrioanni walked across the lobby. At first the scene was presented in full color. It was then replayed in Fellini’s black and white. It was amazing for me to see how the latter transformed the scene into an abstract work of art. I interpreted this brief scene differently when the color was stripped out. It became cooler and the actor became less engaged with the surrounding but more engaged with me. It was fascinating.

“Fellini: I am a Born Liar” informed me about Fellini’s art. I am less convinced that his work is as great as I once thought, but hearing (or reading) him discuss his films was interesting and provided insights into Fellini’s filmmaking approach. There are scores of movies by others that are indebted to Fellini’s technique of using the director's psychological constructs to tell a story.

"Echo der Stars"

Kuwaiti cable TV is an international mix of television shows that show the best and worst of many cultures. Last night it showed the best of Germany. “Echo der Stars” is the annual German awards show for classical music. To an American classical music fan, this was a pleasant surprise since classical music is no longer a focus of American culture. I do not understand the German language, except a few words, like danke, schnitzel, Leipzig, and orchester, but I don’t think and any of the award recipients thanked god for their award. In addition, there was no crotch grabbing, swearing, interrupting, or interjecting that someone else should have won the award. I am not passing judgment on those behaviors, just drawing a contrast.

I tuned after the show had begun but the first piece of music I heard was a Monteverde piece played on period instruments and sung by a soprano and a countertenor. It was beautiful. We do not hear many countertenors in the US so it was a treat to hear. Awards were presented to Placido Domingo and David Fray. Domingo is so skilled a vocalist that I marvel at the control he has in his lungs, diaphragm, and vocal chords. Fray is a young French pianist who is quirky. He sits in an arm chair, rather than on a piano bench. He apparently sings along with the music and also conducts the orchestra from time to time, although when he played his solo, he kept his flamboyance under control. His played “La Vida Breve” by deFalla. He obviously is talented and, apropos of nothing, he is tall, thin and handsome. He has nicely styled long hair.

One nominee was Sir Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic for their China trip. There was a clip of Rattle coming out of a building with a crowd of at least 5,000 Chinese cheering for him. What a wonderful reception!

The show was live from the Dresden Concert Hall, which is a beautiful baroque facility with gold leaf everywhere. The ceiling of the stage has a series of moveable squares that are adjustable to improve the acoustics. One side is mirrored and when visible creates fascinating reflections of the orchestra and audience. There was a brief glimpse of the hallway outside of the concert hall. It looked as if it was straight from “Le Belle Epoque.” The Staatskapple Orchestra is the resident orchestra and its conductor, Fabio Luisi, won an award for conductor of the year. There was once quirky transcription of Bizet’s “Carmen” played by a saxophone trio and a clarino trumpet. I appreciated how unmusical saxophones can be, but piece was different and it challenged the ear.

The presenters, award winners, and audience were all formally dressed. There were even twenty-something people in the audience, which is not something we usually see in American concert halls.

I do have some frivolous observations. The first is that one of the masters of ceremony had a pompadour that must have been at least 6 inches tall. His hair swirled around his head until it looked something like a miniature Devils Tower. The second is that the concert master was bald on the top of his head with long red hair at the sides. He looked like Krusty the Clown. Finally, the award given to the winners looked to me like a cross between a meat cleaver and a mitre saw.

After the show was finished, I turned to the Kuwaiti Showtime cable network. There, in all of its glory, was a showing of one of the pinnacles of American culture, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Friday, October 16, 2009

Irish TV and "Design for Life"

Irish television is rather limited. There are about 15 channels. Two are in Arabic, two are soccer dominated, two are news channels and the rest are made up of period dramas, antique shows, game shows (in great supply), Springer clones, Ellen, Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Judge Judy. They seem to like our old TV westerns and “Murder She Wrote.” The best programming seems to be very late at night. Some of these shows are signed, which is not the norm during the day. Apparently the hearing- impaired only watch TV at 3:30 in the morning.

I saw a very interesting show last night at about 2:00AM. It’s called “Design for Life” and it is similar to our reality shows like “Top Model,” “Project Runway,” and the various cooking shows. I liked it because it involves several students designing a product that, if deemed the winner of the competition, will result in one of the students being placed in the studio of Phillippe Starck, who is a French product designer and probably the best known designer in the New Design style. His designs range from spectacular interior designs to mass produced consumer goods such as toothbrushes, chairs, and even houses.

The students must design a product that will help people. One designed a cane-like stand to assist the elderly to stand up from a chair. Another designed a glove-like device for women to wear that can be used to shine a bright light into the eye of an attacker. The third student designed a wobbly chair for children to improve their coordination. The final student designed a tray with utensils for the blind. They must not only design the project, have a model made of it, but also create a logo and marketing material for it. The students were bright, serious, and articulate. This show would never make it on American television. It is too cerebral and design as a profession has never penetrated the popular culture in the way that clothing- and people-designing has.

I enjoyed watching Starck give feedback to the students. They are from the UK and he is from France, of which there is no doubt because of his thick accent. While they are attempting to design a useful product for persons in special circumstances, Starck’s comments are very conceptual. The challenge for the students is, of course, to makes sense of what the master is saying and apply it concretely. I remember working in a consulting firm where the owner gave such conceptual comments that I was somehow to apply to writing a proposal for government funding. I think he thought he was brilliant. I usually walked away wondering what he, in fact he had said. I was miserable at implementing his lofty feedback. Fortunately, I think he did not know what he was saying or did not remember it because he was fairly bad at following up. In contrast, Starck has two assistants who do follow up and appear to understand his feedback, although they add a lot of their own ideas, much like Tim Gunn on “Runway.”

It was a privilege watching Starck at work. He has a vision for the student’s design projects and it seems to justify his lofty reputation. He also has a sense of humor and seems approachable. There are two finalists and I hope to see who the winner is, but given the lack of predictability in my travel and my sleep, it’s unlikely.

I liked seeing genius at work. Mostly I do not see it at work on American TV. I never get the sense of genius in Heidi Klum, Tom Ford, or Tyra Banks. Not even Bill O’Reilly, in spite of what he thinks of himself.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Pandorum"- a mediocre movie

“Pandorum” is a sci-fi picture filmed and financed in Germany. Like “District 9” (reviewed elsewhere) this movie is derivative and fairly predictable. The only surprise comes at the end and makes the movie less that a total loss. The movie stars Dennis Quaid (the Quaid brother not arrested recently for failing to pay a hotel bill) and Ben Foster. I liked Foster. He has earnestness about him and he acts with a certain dignity that doesn’t deteriorate into hysteria, even when faced with a bad script. Quaid adds nothing substantial to his role. A synopsis of the movie can be found in Wikipedia. It includes a laundry list of sci-fi staples: a large dark space ship; a forgotten mission; mutants; an action hero (Foster); a villain (Quaid); long dark ship walkways; a nuclear reactor; a female action hero; special effects (not very good). The only mildly frightening scene in the movie for me was when Foster was in a pipe chase hunting for the flight deck. It was claustrophobic and anxiety provoking. “Pandorum” uses extreme close-ups in the human-mutant battles. There is so much action and no perspective for the viewer that it is mostly impossible to tell what is happening. I assume that it is filmed this way so that we do not get a good view of the mutants. Maybe it is also used to cover up poor execution of CGI effects. There is a similar problem in the “Transformers” movies, although they are a disaster on many other levels (think Meghan Fox and her perpetually open mouth). The music attempts to add to the suspense but it just seemed loud to me. The CGI-effects in the last scene of “Pandorum” are very poorly done. For example, the sprays of water are so obviously a digital effect that they are unconvincing. All in all, this is a mediocre movie probably best avoided except on the SyFy channel.