Friday, December 30, 2011

MST3K Friday: Gamera vs. Guiron

"That's hard to day."  "Seems pretty hard to dub, too!"
"Traffic accidents?"

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Recent Movies

With some time off for Christmas and no new TV (and a couple days with no hockey games), I was able to watch quite a few movies.  Some were new, some I had seen before.  Here are a couple quick hits on the new-to-me movies.

The Hangover Part II.  I really enjoyed 2009's The Hangover.  It is one of the rare recent comedies that is actually funny.  True, the jokes alternated between totally hilarious and totally in bad taste, but it was a good story with interesting characters.  The sequel, while funny, is like a carbon copy of the first movie.

Here's a quick rundown of the original's plot:  Doug is getting married.  His friends Phil and Stu and his future brother-in-law Alan take him to Vegas for the bachelor party.  Phil, Stu, and Alan wake up in a trashed hotel suite to find Doug and their memory of the night missing.  They travel around Vegas, piecing together what happened while trying to find Doug.

Here's the sequel:  Stu is getting married.  Phil, Doug, and Alan travel to Thailand with him for the wedding and bachelor party.  Phil, Stu, and Alan wake up in a trashed Bangkok hotel room to find Stu's future brother-in-law Teddy and their memory of the night missing.  They travel around Bangkok, piecing together what happened while trying to find Teddy.

It's almost the same movie beat for beat with the raunchiness cranked up to 11 and the characters dumbed down a bit.  Stu even learns the same lesson about standing up for himself that he learned in the first movie.  Did I hate it?  No.  Did I laugh out loud?  Yes, but not as often as the first.  It was still a fun time and worth it if you're a fan of the original.  Just don't expect anything new.

The Killer Inside Me.  Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in a small West Texas town.  The townfolks know him has a kindly Andy Griffith-type sheriff always willing to do favors and offer pat aphorisms.  What they don't know is he's a sadistic creep who hurts innocent people and enjoys sadomasochistic sex with his prostitute girlfriend.

Based on noir legend Jim Thompson's novel of the same name, this film generated quite a bit of controversy upon its limited release.  In a world of Saw movies and other torture-porn, generating outrage over violence takes a certain something extra.  And that's what The Killer Inside Me provides.  There are two scenes in the movie where Lou beats a woman to death with his bare hands.  They're not overly stylized like most movies these days, but rough, raw, and difficult to watch.  Director Michael Winterbottom pulls no punches (no pun intended) in showing the brutality of Lou's actions.

There are some parts of the story that don't quite hang together (not sure if it's the scriptwriter or the source material's fault) and the CGI is laughable.  I'm sure the budget wasn't much, but I've seen more believable fire in the movies mocked by Mystery Science Theater.  There is no denying, though, that the movie is as noir as it gets.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Books of 2011

Another year is almost gone, so it's time to look back at all the books I read.  According to my Goodreads profile, I read 25 books this year and I'll probably start #26 tonight or tomorrow.  It's probably been more than 15 years since I've not been in the middle of a book.

And since I'm an engineer by trade, I love all kinds of stats.  Of the 25 books, 21 of them were unique authors.  Of the 21 authors, 12 of them were new to me this year.  There were five non-fiction books (which is high for me), six e-books, and one audiobook.

It was a pretty good year for quality, there weren't any stinkers (like one from last year) and only a couple I wished were better.

Favorites of the Year:
Fun and Games by, Duane Swierczynski
California Fire and Live by, Don Winslow
Right as Rain by, George Pelecanos (review forthcoming)

Not bad, but hoped for more:
The Black Echo by, Michael Connelly - A lot of people love Connelly. Maybe I shouldn't have started with his first book.  Will definitely give him another shot, though.
The Children of Men by, PD James - As I mentioned, I was a fan of the movie.  I knew the book wasn't going to be as action packed, but I hoped for a little more.  Still an enjoyable read.
Spade and Archer by, Joe Gores - Looking back, I'm starting to feel my 3 star review might be a bit generous.

Looking forward to 2012, I see more new authors on the horizon and more non-fiction.  In the past, it's been one or two non-fiction a year, but five felt like a good amount.  Maybe I'll shoot for the same number or even more.

What was your favorite read this year?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Song of the Week: Nutcracker Suite

One last Christmas entry for Song of the Week this year.  We close out with The Brian Setzer Orchestra's rendition of "The Nutcracker Suite".  Hope everyone had a safe, happy, and joyous holiday season.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from all of us here at Unsquare Headquarters...and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by, Douglas Adams

After re-reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy in December, I became interested in Douglas Adams’s other main works (namely the two Dirk Gently novels). So, I went to Amazon and ordered the first Gently book. The first chapter was interesting in the fact that it didn’t seem very Douglas Adams-y. It reminded me a lot of the beginning of Life, the Universe, and Everything were Adams was very vague in using a lot of he’s, it’s, and the’s. Then, the second chapter convinced me that the book was indeed going to be like the HHGTTG trilogy. It read, “High on a rocky promontory sat an Electric Monk on a bored horse.”

From there the story involves a search for a missing cat, a bewildered ghost, a secret time-traveler, and the devastating secret that lies behind the whole of human history and threatens to bring it to a premature end. Adams weaves these elements together with the help of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" (don't ask). Unlike most detective fictions, Gently isn’t even the main character in the novel. In fact, he doesn’t show up for nearly 100 pages. He is indeed a different kind of detective. He is a private detective who is more interested in telekinesis, quantum mechanics, and lunch than fiddling around with fingerprint powder.

I’m not even going to start unraveling the plot. I tried several times to write summarize it here, but it's just too convoluted to do justice to without spoiling the surprises. I figured out what was going on, but I had to go to to be absolutely sure.

If you’re looking for more Douglas Adams zaniness and off-the-wall characters, I recommend Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. I know I’m going to pick up its sequel The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul very soon.

Update (12/20/11): And I did read the sequel not too much later. Considering, again, that it's been nearly 7 years (holy crap!) since I read both books, my memory is a little hazy.  Though I do remember that Gently being a bit tighter, if such a thing is possible with an Adams book, and funnier than Teatime.  The later book had something to do with abandoned ancient gods like Thor running amok because nobody worshiped them any more.  Here's some trademark Adams humour from Teatime:

"It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression 'As pretty as an airport.'
Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports are full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule), and architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their designs."

Looking over this old review, I feel the urge to reread both books.  They're short, so I might just do so.

Posted on the old blog 2/19/2005.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Song of the Week: Gabriel's Message

 This wasn't planned at all, but turns out to be a happy coincidence.  This is one of the rare years that the 4th Sunday of Advent is actually a full Sunday and not just the day before Christmas, or two days before.  In the Roman Catholic Church it is called Rorate coeli - from Isiah 45:8, "Drop down ye heavens from above."  The appointed text for the day is Luke 1:26-38 where the angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she's pregnant with Jesus.  Another fun coincidence, we sang this hymn this morning.

"Gabriel's Message" (or "The Angel Gabriel Came Down") is a song I became more familiar with a couple years back when the band Jars of Clay recorded it on their Album Christmas Songs.  I like the lilting up and down of this tune.  The Jars version is my favorite, but Sting did a version recently, too.  Actually, Sting's version kinda creeps me out.  Check it out here if you want.

Christmas is usually a happy season filled with lights and presents and visiting loved ones.  But it also happens to be in a cold, harsh time of the year.  True, it's not as raw as January or February can be, but it can be a dreary month weather-wise (as I type this, it's 29 degrees F at 2pm on a Sunday - cold). Darkness falls early, and a bite in the air drives you beneath a thicker blanket, whether alone or with someone soft and warm.  Our next song, from the same album, is all about this.  Here's hoping you have someone soft and warm you can have a "Hibernation Day" with this Christmas season.

Friday, December 16, 2011

MST3K Friday: Terror From the Year 5000

"How is it?"  "It's terrifying!"
"Drive not ready. Abort, Retry, Fail?"
"It's not a good movie, but there's plenty of off street parking."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Random Links

There are always interesting articles I find across the internet that I mean to write about.  Sometimes I do.  Sometimes I forget.  Sometimes I procrastinate so much that they become super stale.

Here are some that have been floating around for a while:

The New York Times on Decision Fatigue:  The case studies are a real eye-opener.  The first one is three prisoners in an Israeli prison.  Each had served 2/3rds of their sentence, but the review board only recommended parole for one - the prisoner who appeared before them at 8:50am.  To quote the article, "The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down....Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it"

All the tests and examples they give clearly illustrate the realness and possible dangers of decision fatigue.  About two thirds of the way through, the researchers apparently stumbled across the cause of (and a possible solution to) this phenomenon.  Another quote:

In their eagerness to chart the human equivalent of the computer’s chips and circuits, most psychologists neglected one mundane but essential part of the machine: the power supply. The brain, like the rest of the body, derived energy from glucose, the simple sugar manufactured from all kinds of foods. To establish cause and effect, researchers at Baumeister’s lab tried refueling the brain in a series of experiments involving lemonade mixed either with sugar or with a diet sweetener. The sugary lemonade provided a burst of glucose, the effects of which could be observed right away in the lab; the sugarless variety tasted quite similar without providing the same burst of glucose. Again and again, the sugar restored willpower, but the artificial sweetener had no effect. The glucose would at least mitigate the ego depletion and sometimes completely reverse it. The restored willpower improved people’s self-control as well as the quality of their decisions: they resisted irrational bias when making choices, and when asked to make financial decisions, they were more likely to choose the better long-term strategy instead of going for a quick payoff.

And later:

Apparently ego depletion causes activity to rise in some parts of the brain and to decline in others. Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects. 
There are some great things in here to learn about the decision making process and human willpower.  Well worth the read.


"The Pump You Pump Water From":  A little change of topic.  This is an essay by Sven Birkerts about writer's block.  In almost poetic terms, Birkerts captures the extreme joy writers feel when the words flow and the intense frustration when everything that comes out of your pen feels like crap.  Enjoyable for both writers and non-writers.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Song of the Week: Christmas in Killarney

One of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th Century, Bing Crosby is heard only at Christmas these days.  White Christmas is another one my parents had on a record and my brother particularly liked the first of our two songs this week.

Christmas in Killarney:

Here is one of the more frequently heard Crosby tunes:  "Jingle Bells".  The entrance of The Andrews Sisters at 0:36 always puts a smile on my face.

Friday, December 9, 2011

MST3K Friday: Manos - The Hands of Fate

Here it is.  The granddaddy of them all.  The movie a lot of MSTies call the worst movie ever made.

"I remember the first thing that Harry drilled into me..." "was Harry!"
"Every frame of this movie looks like someone's last known photograph."

I always thought The Master looks like Freddie Mercury.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

California Fire and Life by Don Winslow

Woman's lying in bed and the bed's on fire.
She doesn't wake up.
Flame licks at her thighs like a lover and she doesn't wake up.
Just down the hill the Pacific pounds on the rocks.
California fire and life.

That's chapter 1 of California Fire and Life.

Pamela Vale is young, rich, beautiful, socially conscious, and a recovering alcoholic. Basically your prototypical California trophy wife. She’s also dead - burned to death in the west wing of her mansion. The fire investigator quickly rules it an accidental death from too much booze and a stray cigarette. Jack Wade, arson investigator for California Fire and Life, is charged with verifying the fire was an accident and authorizing a million-plus dollar payout. What he finds is an unusual char pattern, a trace of accelerants, and a husband who is more concerned with his antique furniture than his now dead wife.

Don Winslow really is one of the better writers working today and it’s a shame he’s not more well known. His characters breathe, his prose sizzles, and he certainly brings California to life. Not that he’s all style – the early chapters told me more about the nature and behavior of fire than I ever knew existed.

I also love how the book is structured. The repetition in the first three chapters are almost like a poem. And the first and last appearances of Jack Wade are perfect mirror images of each other. The plot is twisty and unpredictable. When you think you have it figured out and Winslow builds anticipation toward bringing the arsonist down, he pulls the rug out from under you. It’s not so much expecting a zig and getting a zag, but expecting a zig and having a steamroller blindside you into a human pancake. We’re talking corruption and conspiracies on a James Ellroy level here.

Don't take my word for it, here's January magazine's review (link).

Highly recommended.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Song of the Week: A Cradle in Bethlehem

Since it's the Christmas season, I'm going to take advantage of the Song of the Week and start posting Christmas songs.  Where available, I'll post Amazon links to the CDs in case you want to purchase them.

As a kid, the times I remember my parents playing music at home the most was during Christmas.  The record player (yes, records) would mostly collect dust the other 11 months of the year, but it would get heavy use this month.  Without a doubt, my favorite record was Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song (a 1963 re-release of the 1960 album The Magic of Christmas).  To me, nothing ushers in the season quite like the rich honey sound of Nat's voice.

The first song this week is one that I've become a huge fan of in recent years.  It's called "A Cradle in Bethlehem".

The second song this week is the standard "The Christmas Song".

Friday, December 2, 2011

MST3K Friday: Compilation

Here are just some random funny clips from Mystery Science Theater this week.

"You know, he blends in; he looks like a sack of garbage."