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.