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."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Big Nowhere by, James Ellroy

Book 2 in James Ellroy's LA Quartet series (LA Confidential is #3). Since I didn't do a full review of LA Confidential, I'll have to do part of it here. LA was a great book. There is a lot more to the story (and a lot more twists and turns) than the movie. My one complaint about it was that about halfway through the book, there was a distinct style shift. Ellroy's prose became more stark and staccato. It was almost like he stripped out all adjectives and any non-essential nouns. Like an MTV video where scenes and images keep flashing at you. It's a bit disorienting, but I got used to it. I've heard book 4 (White Jazz) is like that all the way through (which may be why I'm reluctant to pick it up). The Big Nowhere, however, has a constant flow like most novels you read.

Like its follow-up LA Confidential, TBN is the story of three LA cops who end up in a labyrinthine series of connected cases. The stories weave together involving the three big stories in the 1950's City of Angels: labor unions, Communists, and Hollywood. Each man has his own strengths and is deeply flawed in his own way. Ellroy likes to torture his protagonists both emotionally and physically (at least one dies in both novels). Several characters appear in both novels, including Dudley Smith also appears in the all four novels. Ellroy pays homage to the old hardboiled detective story with a twist. The language (from cursing, racial slurs, and sex) to the violence (most off-screen, but we see all the gory results) are distinctly modern. Even the master of sex and violence Mickey Spillane was never as explicit in his descriptions as Ellroy is describing the crimes committed by the perpetrators.

An entertaining read by the modern master of crime fiction. I'll pick up the first book in the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia) next. Maybe then I'll have the courage to read White Jazz.

Update (11/29/11): In the six (!!) years since I wrote this review, I've read both Dahlia and White Jazz. I didn't have as much trouble with Ellroy's style as young me had feared.  Once you match the rhythm of the words with the rhythm in your head, Ellroy's style is a big part of what makes the books.  He's a profane, perverted beat poet, but I wouldn't have it any other way.  Looking back, I think The Big Nowhere is my favorite of the Quartet.  I picked up American Tabloid at a closing Borders, so I'll have some more Ellroy coming my way before too long.

Posted on the old blog 3/12/2005.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Song of the Week: The Core

What can be said that hasn't already been said about Eric Clapton?  I'm a fan of Clapton and a huge fan of the band Cream.  The first Clapton solo recording I remember buying is Slowhand, and it's a good one to start off with.  Quite a few tracks have ended up on some Clapton "Best Of" compilation: "Cocaine","Wonderful Tonight", "Lay Down Sally".  Even the lesser known ones are good (I played "Next Time You See Her" over and over when I first bought the CD).

A few weeks ago, I heard "The Core" on a classic rock station.  I forgot how much I liked this song:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there.  Hope you have lots of turkey and some tasty pumpkin pie.

I usually don't do this, but it's been an eventful year here at Unsquare Headquarters.  Here's a random list of things I'm thankful for:

  • My health. Sure I have aches and pains and right now am nursing a broken toe, but overall I'm healthy. No major medical issues. No daily prescription drugs. No dietary restrictions.  There are so many people I know these days who would give anything to be in my shoes healthwise.
  • My family.
  • My friends (especially the one who knows how to defend herself against overly made-up ladies with switchblades).
  • My faith.
  • A couple days off work.
  • Good jazz.
  • Shapely girls in tight sweaters.
  • Living in a free society where everyone can express themselves.
  • Pumpkin pie.
What are you thankful for?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Hell and Gone by, Duane Swierczynski

When last we left our intrepid hero, Charlie Hardie was being whisked away by a shadowy organization for some nefarious reason. Well, the reason isn’t so nefarious as you might think: they want Hardie to be the new warden of their top secret prison. Not one to take spoonfed answers, Hardie begins asking uncomfortable questions and uncovers the dirty past of the ultra-secure prison. Could the inmates actually be the guards and the guards the inmates?

Being a Swierczy novel, it isn’t even as straightforward as that. I’m not going to delve too deep into spoiler territory, but I can count on one hand the number of authors who could come up with Swierczy’s twist. Hell and Gone is the second novel in the Charlie Hardie trilogy. This is undoubtedly Swierczy’s homage to the prison movie. Though I can’t help but wonder if the chapters after Hardie’s escape (SPOILER ALERT!) were influenced by Lee Marvin’s Point Blank.

Of the two, I enjoyed Fun and Games more, but Hell and Gone is still a hell of a ride. Duane Swierczynski is one of the most imaginative writers we have and his books are adrenaline soaked thrill rides that keep you turning the pages well past your bedtime. And the last couple chapters have me positively itching for the next book (due in March).

Can’t wait.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Song of the Week: Bus Stop

Last year, The Hollies were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  It was well deserved.  Here are two of t heir biggest hits:  Bus Stop and Carrie Ann.

Friday, November 18, 2011

MST3K Friday: Outlaw

"Doing anything later?" "Yeah, blowing you off!"
"Sand Nazis - I hate these guys."
"You smell like comic books."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Song of the Week: Solitude

Lady Day singing a Duke Ellington song. True, it's a bit meloncholy, but is there anything better than this?

Friday, November 11, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Thing That Couldn't Die

"You're evil and I hope you all have snacks."
"Nice evening. I really should get drunk and hit someone."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Song of the Week: Sick of You

It comes as a shock to many people, but I actually enjoy the band CAKE (my music tastes are nothing except eclectic).  I'm not a huge fan of them, but I like them well enough.  Probably the only album I like from start to finish with minimal exception is 1996's Fashion Nugget.  Every other album has songs I really like and songs I dislike. Their catchy, offbeat lyrics are always fun and their best tunes are ones that stick in your head for days.

Speaking of offbeat, here's the official video for the song "Sick of You" off their most recent album.  At 10 seconds in, I laughed out loud at the visual and kept smiling as long as that character was on the screen.

Friday, November 4, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Incredible Melting Man

"Somebody better start melting soon or I'm going to lose patience."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Children of Men by, PD James

January 2021 – no child has been born since October 1995.  Humanity is slowly dying out, the social contract has been ripped up, and an increasingly apathetic population has accepted totalitarian rule.  This is the dystopian future portrayed in PD James’s Children of Men.

I’ve been a fan of the film, starring Clive Owen, since I first saw it, so I figured it was time to read the source material.  Theo Faron, our hero, is an Oxford historian, cousin to the Warden of England, divorced, a loner.  He sees the societal decay around him, but doesn’t care as long as can enjoy his routine and live out the rest of his life unbothered.  A chance meeting with a former student of his, a woman named Julian, jolts him out of his slumber.  She asks him to observe a Quietus (state-sponsored and  -assisted suicide) and speak to The Warden on behalf of her group, who call themselves the Five Fishes, if he is troubled by what he sees.  In doing so, Theo unwittingly puts himself in the crosshairs of the State Police and is forced to go on the run with The Five Fishes.  Early on in the journey, Theo discovers one of the women is pregnant and has to decide if he wants to run with them, or turn the woman  over to The State for proper medical attention.

Much to my surprise, they are very different animals.  The book focuses mainly on the crushed human spirit, the questioning of faith, and how much society is tuned toward improving things for the next generation.  The movie has these same themes, but focuses more on the reactions of people who find out that there actually is a pregnant woman and what Theo does to protect the woman and her unborn child.

Both the book and the movie feature indelible images.  The key set piece in the movie is the assault on the Isle of Man (a location only referenced in the book), which is a nearly 10 minute single tracking shot; one of the finest pieces of cinematography in the past decade. The book on whole is a quieter affair, and so are its images.  One thing that particularly sticks out is about 40 pages in when Theo encounters a deranged woman pushing a doll in a pram – just like she would have a real baby.

With society in such decline, a lot of people question and fall away from their faith in a God (any God). The believers and unbelievers are given worthy advocates in Julian and Theo respectively.  Actually, the open struggle of the question of faith and Theo’s actions in the book’s second half (as well as the persecution angle) put me in mind of The Power and the Glory.

If you go into the book expecting the action of the movie, you’ll be disappointed.  That is not to say, however, that the book is a disappointment.  Dystopian science fiction has always been a good allegory, pointing out the flaws of present society.  In that regard, Children of Men is a worthy, well-written example of the genre.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Song of the Week: Garfield's Halloween

For this week's song of the week, we turn to the Garfield Halloween Special. When I was a kid, CBS would always show this and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" back to back every year.

Here are two songs from the Garfield special:  "What Should I Be?"

And "Scaredy Cat":

Friday, October 28, 2011

MST3K Friday: Lost Continent

"He's playing Pong Solitare."
"Let's form a soccer team and eat each other."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Song of the Week: Mourning

Just like the other week, here's a song from a band that was featured way back in the early days of Song of the Week.  Here's another song from Tantic's first album:  "Mourning".  It just randomly popped in my head last Wednesday, even though I haven't listened to the band in months.

Friday, October 21, 2011

MST3K Friday: Angels Revenge

This is one episode I still haven't seen.

"Sound by Hanna Barbera."
 "Don't watch the jiggling, honey."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Last Four Books I Bought and Why

I always like doing these, even if I haven't posted one in a while.  The "why" this time around is very simple:  Borders was going out of business.  My to-be-read pile exploded earlier this year, so there was no real reason for me to buy more books.  However, the deals Borders had were unbelievable - which you'll see in some of these.

Moonlight Mile by, Dennis Lehane.  I read Lehane for the first time last year and was hooked.  I haven't caught up to this work yet, but Borders had the $27 hardcover on sale for $10.  Can't pass that up.

Savages, by Don Winslow.  Like with Lehane's A Drink Before the War, Winslow's The Dawn Patrol hooked me on a new author.  Your reaction to the first sentence of this book will immediately tell you if the book is for you or not.

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block.  Block is a writer I've been meaning to read for a while.  Everyone speaks highly of his Matthew Scudder series and this book in particular.  I read a couple of his shorts earlier this year and made plans to check this book out of my local library.  When I saw this available for $3.20, I figured it's just as easy to pick up a cheap copy.

Once Were Cops, by Ken Bruen.  Bruen is another writer I've been meaning to read.  Again, $16 book for $6 is an easy buy.

I picked up a couple more books, but these were the heavy hitters.  All told, I bought eight more books (including a couple hardcovers) at two different Borders locations and spent under $60.  I'm sad to see Borders go, but I certainly took advantage of their liquidation sales.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Song of the Week: Straight Up and Down

The Brian Jonestown Massacre is a very eclectic band. You can probably guess that from their very cheeky name (a portmanteau of the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones and the infamous Jonestown Massacre incident). Their music can be described as psychedelia, electronica, folk music, blues, experimental music, and with a heavy influence from 1960's garage rock. This song, "Straight Up and Down", is from their 1996 album Take It from the Man!.  I'd wager that it is probably their most well known song as it is used by a critically acclaimed HBO television show.

Friday, October 14, 2011

MST3K Friday: Red Zone Cuba

I always felt that Red Zone Cuba was one of the worst movies ever shown on MST3K. Movies like Manos: The Hands of Mate and The Creeping Terror were terrible, but at least you could make fun of them. Cuba was just long, boring and nothing happened.

"The red zone is for Cuba and un-Cuba only."
"You shove off!"

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Stop Me If You've Heard This One...

Okay, so this Polish guy walks into a brothel and finds his wife working as a call girl. According to the Reuters news agency, that actually happened recently, and Poland’s gag writers must be on strike too, because the shocked husband could come up with no better punch line than, “What are you doing here?” It is unclear whether the prurient Pole employed his wife in her professional capacity, but if so he is a true supply-sider, since every capitalist knows that paid employees work harder than volunteers. In a romantic comedy the couple would reconcile, but in real life, sad to say, they are divorcing. We leave it to Oprah and Dr. Phil to determine which is the aggrieved party.

Posted on the old blog 2/04/2008.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Idiot of the Day

Thirty-three year old Raymond Oprey of Palisades, New York, is a New York City firefighter who helped out at Ground Zero on September 11th.  Last Thursday, he off-duty and was out drinking in Rockleigh, New Jersey when he heard an emergency call on his radio.  There was a strip mall fire in nearby Closter, NJ, about 3 miles west of where he was.  So Raymond sprang into action and went to the nearby Rockleigh Fire Department, jumped in one of their trucks, and took it.  Then he drove, drunk, the three miles to Closter, radioing the firemen on the scene, “I’m on the way and I have the aqua!”  When he got there, he wanted to help out, but the police were suspicious and arrested him.  He’s been charged with DWI, plus burglary and unlawful stealing of a fire truck.  Raymond Oprey could end up with 5 years in jail and $15,000 in fines.

Posted on the old blog 9/30/2006.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Song of the Week: Fire Escape

I had another song planned for this week, but this tune popped in my head just before dinner last night. As I said at the start of this feature, Song of the Week is going to be sort of a window to my mind. Why was this song here? I don't know.

I talked about the band Fastball way back in the second installment of Song of the Week. "Fire Escape" is the second single off their 1999 album All the Pain Money Can Buy. There's kind of a disconnect between the song's lyrics and the video, so listen once for the lyrics and once to watch the video. One technical aspect about the video I liked is that the entire 4 minutes seems to be one long take.


Friday, October 7, 2011

MST3K Friday: Tom Servo vs Blender

Another quick one this week. In this host segment, Tom Servo hits on a blender.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Clemente by, David Maraniss

Baseball players are quite often defined by their stats and their achievements.  From this angle, Roberto Clemente lines up as one of the greatest all time.  Clemente finished his career with a .317 batting average, exactly 3000 hits, 240 home runs, and 1305 RBI.  During his 18-year career, he was a 15 time all-star, won the World Series twice, was the regular season MVP in 1966, World Series MVP in 1971, and was a Gold Glover for twelve straight seasons from 1961-1972.  Clemente recorded at least one hit in all 14 World Series games he played.

Outside of sheer numbers, Clemente exemplified what everyone holds dear about the sport of baseball.  He was able to track down balls in right field that nobody else could.  He could throw out runners at third from the deepest part of the park - without bouncing the ball.  He wasn't the most graceful or fastest runner, but those who saw him on the basepaths said that he ran like he was being chased by someone or something.

As a human being, Clemente is remembered as someone special, too.  He was beloved by fans; quick to make friends.  He had a strong sense of pride and felt that "any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth."  Nothing shows this better than his untimely death at age 38 in a plane crash while delivering supplies to victims of the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake.

But, like most men (and especially athletes), Clemente was no saint.  His interactions with the sportswriters of his day were touchy at best.  He thought they didn't respect him.  They would often write his quotes in phonetic English, attempting to paint him as stupid.  He was quick to anger at those he felt slighted him.

David Maraniss's book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero , chronicles Clemente's life, showing that Clemente was a great man, but doesn't gloss over his faults.  Maraniss talks about Clemente's early life in Puerto Rico, his struggles against Jim Crow during spring training, and how his pride and anger drove him to greater and greater heights.

Maraniss certainly did quite a bit of research.  There are extensive quotes from Clemente's friends, family, former teammates, and former managers.  The chapters on the World Series games (1960 and 1971) are some of the best in the book.  Like Clemente, the book isn't without its flaws.  In just about every chapter, there's mention of Clemente's prickly relationship with the press and the casual racism he faced not only as a Latin player, but as a black Latin player.  Sometimes, Maraniss drops you right in and mentions Clemente's teammates without giving them a proper introduction (even as a Pirates fan, I'm not that familiar with the teams of the 1950's and 1960's, so it took me a second or two to place the players).

There are eerie moments in the book where it appears that Clemente (and some others around him) had premonitions of his death in a plane crash.  Roberto himself mentioned on several occasions that he felt he was going to die young.  These add to the sense that he led a charmed life.

I'd recommend this book to baseball fans everywhere.  I've heard some rumors that Hollywood is planning a movie about Clemente's life. I'd certainly go see it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Song of the Week: Autumn in Washington Square

The morning air is crisp now, and soon leaves will crunch under your feet as you take your morning walk. They burst into vibrant colors; making the trees aflame with their bright reds, yellows, and oranges. It's as if nature is showing us how beautiful it is in order to stave off the bleak, barren months of winter. It is fall.

This week's song is "Autumn in Washington Square" from Dave Brubeck's Jazz Impressions of New York. I think it captures both the beauty and melancholy of the season quite well. There are passages where I can almost see a handful of dry, orange leaves blown across a paved walkway by the cool October breeze.

Friday, September 30, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Phantom Planet

"You know, Captain, every year of my life I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and best is to fix our attention on the good and the beautiful. If you just take the time to look at it."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Stupid Criminals

One common failing of criminals is that, being so focused on instant gratification, they omit to think things through. The disappearance of Angel Ricardo Mendoza, a trucker hauling 3.6 million nickels - $180,000, but weighing 22.5 tons and packed into 900 fifty-pound bags - to the Federal Reserve in New Orleans is a case in point. The unfortunate Mendoza himself is not a suspect, and there are concerns for his well-being. But the question must be raised: Who in his right mind would steal 3.6 million nickels? Surely there are easier ways to heist $180K? How are they to be exchanged for bills, considering that each bag, worth a measly $200, contains 4,000 nickels? No bank accepts loose change, so that’s a lot of rolling to do. An appropriate punishment, perhaps.

Last week, police in South Miami-Dade County searching a farm for marijuana found not only 88 plants, but a stash of 900 fifty-pound bags buried a few feet underground. The whole treasure has been recovered. Perhaps, given the circumstances under which they were found, the felons might not have been in their “right mind” at the time. Perhaps they thought they were stealing a different kind of nickel-bag?

Posted on the old blog 2/23/2005.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sports in Western PA

This is a slightly modified version of a post that appeared on the old blog on 3/17/2005.

Over Thanksgiving [2004], I went to Pittsburgh to visit with family. While we were there, we decided to go into the city itself to check out the newly opened Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. I had been to the Heinz Center before to check out a different exhibit and thought it was a pretty cool place. While my Penguins were a little under-represented (what do you expect in a football town), the sports museum is very well done. Along with large rooms filled with history and memorabilia of the Pirates and the Steelers, there were also items pertaining to other sports that were and are popular in the region. There is an interesting exhibit and video on the Negro League baseball teams from Pittsburgh (the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords - two of the league’s biggest franchises), sections on the famous golf courses, auto racing, and the various non-professional sports popular among the various ethnic groups in the city. There’s even a small bocce court that you can use to celebrate the Italian community of Pittsburgh.

After returning from the trip, my brother wrote an article about the museum for the American Historical Association's magazine. As with all of his articles, it’s very well written and thoroughly researched. He asked our cousin, a photographer originally from the Pittsburgh area, to take a few pictures to supplement the article (the first one on the page is his). So, check it out. And if you're ever in Pittsburgh, check out the museum, too.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Song of the Week: Photograph

The first time I remember hearing about singer/songwriter/pianist Jamie Cullum was a couple years ago on CBS's Sunday Morning show. They interviewed Cullum and played clips from several recent concerts. The song that made me sit up and listen was his cover of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" (Cullum's version can be heard here). If I have to say one thing about him, it's he's talented. If I can say two things, it's that he's hard to classify. His music is sort of a fusion of jazz, pop, soul, and occasionally mixes in hip hop beats.

This week, the song was a toss up between "London Skies" (which was in my head for a couple days) and "Photograph". Both are off Cullum's 2005 album Catching Tales.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How I Go - The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band

It’s been seven years since the release of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s last studio album, 2004’s disappointing The Place You’re In. In the interim, he’s released a documentary-type album featuring him meeting living blues legends (2007’s 10 Days Out) and a live album (2010’s Live! in Chicago). How I Go is a welcome return to the studio for the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band and well worth the wait.

How I Go gets back to the band’s blues roots while displaying yet another new sound. The band sounds bigger and richer, most likely thanks to additional keyboards on most songs, a horn section, and even backup singers on a track or two. Sticking with the vocals, Noah Hunt returns as the lead singer, but there’s more singing from KWS himself. He backs up Hunt on the refrains of most songs and takes the lead in two tracks (while Hunt backs him up). In one of the bonus tracks, “Butterfly”, the two of them sing the entire song in harmony.

The album starts out with the radio-friendly “Never Lookin’ Back”, a rocking upbeat tune that is a great lead single. Noah Hunt’s seductive singing of “Come On Over” makes the second track another keeper. At this point, the album starts to bog down a little. “Yer Blues” is fine (love The Beatles, love KWS, don’t love the combo), but it’s more of a grind-style blues that KWS isn’t known for. And it sticks out like a sore thumb against the polished tunes of the rest of the album. The next two tracks are fine, but not memorable (“Cold” is the first of the two tracks Shepherd sings himself). Things get back on track with the Albert King standard “Oh Pretty Woman”, but really take off with the Shepherd-penned “Anywhere the Wind Blows”. From then on, things are golden.

“Oh Pretty Woman” isn’t the only callback to earlier blues legends. As with his other releases, there’s an instrumental tune on this one. Fans of the great Freddy King will no doubt enjoy “Strut”. And his arrangement of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” is outstanding.

In addition to the richer sound, Shepherd’s songwriting has taken a big step up. His subject matter is a bit more mature including talking about a love he knows is wrong, but can’t help himself (“Dark Side of Love”) and becoming a father (“Who’s Gonna Catch You Now” – the other track he sings). Song lyrics are best when they are like poetry and capture the exact mood the musician is trying to convey. There are a lot of great lines, but some of my favorites are from “Anywhere the Wind Blows” (“I wasn’t lost at all / I just wasn’t where I thought I’d be”). There are still some clunkers, but they work within the context of the song. In “Round and Round”, he uses the phrase “The wheels on the bus go round and round”. Fits with the tune, but it jars you out of the moment, thinking of the kid’s song.

I highly recommend getting this album, but make sure you get the Special Edition. The last of the three bonus tracks might just be my favorite song on the entire album: “Baby The Rain Must Fall”.  I have to say that I played this CD a second time as soon as I finished the first listen.  It could already be in my top 2 KWS albums.

Favorite songs: “Baby The Rain Must Fall”, “Anywhere the Wind Blows”, “Come On Over”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Song of the Week: I've Got a Crush on You

In any given week if you ask me who the greatest female singer of all time is, I will invariably answer Dinah, Sarah, or Ella. This is a Dinah week. She is virtually unmatched in terms of voice, diction, and emotion.

Dinah Washington's rendition of Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" is undoubtedly my favorite.

"You Don't Know What Love Is" is not a very well known song, but it's worth rediscovering. Her smoky voice is a perfect complement to the lyrics of a heartbroken lover. Heard this on WBGO the other week.

Friday, September 16, 2011

MST3K Friday: Tormented

This week, we have another classic from MST3K fave Bert I. Gordon. You may remember him from such films as "The Amazing Colossal Man", "Earth vs The Spider", and "Beginning of the End". "Tormented - I have a feeling this is aptly named." "Somebody kelp me." (ugh) "There's a cold draft all of a sudden." "I could go for a cold draft right now."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

There has been a lot of ink (and words, and bytes) spilled on The Great Gatsby since it was first published in 1925. I’m not going to add much to it, just give some random thoughts/impressions.

Like many people, I first read the novel in high school. I remember it being one of the few we read that I liked, but I didn’t remember much about it (other than the car accident). It’s showed up on so many best of lists and listed by so many authors as their favorite book that I figured now would be a good time to revisit it.

One thing I didn’t remember was the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy. They once were madly in love with each other, but Daisy married Tom Buchanan while Gatsby was off fighting in World War I. Upon meeting again five years later, their passion for each other was still there. Gatsby’s longing to be with someone he obviously couldn’t struck a chord with me this time around.

I also had to feel sorry for Gatsby. For all his money and success and well-attended parties, Nick couldn’t find anyone to attend the funeral.

As a prime example of a Jazz Age novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a simple, declarative style that should be accessible to any reader. Unlike his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, however, Fitzgerald took multiple opportunities to weave lyrical sentences at appropriate parts of the book. The last page is sheer poetry. And I think his introduction to Daisy (through Nick’s eyes) is one of my favorite sentences ever:

Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.

The Great Gatsby is an American classic, and well worth the revisit.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Song of the Week: Miami 2017

On October 20, 2001, a concert was held in New York City to benefit victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Many of the biggest names in music performed, including Billy Joel. Obviously, most people wanted him to perform his mega hit "New York State of Mind" (which he did), but he felt compelled to sing this song as well. He wrote this song in the 1970's as the city of New York was nearing bankruptcy and default. It took on extra significance after the attacks as it talked about the apparent destruction of New York. But as Billy said at the concert, "We ain't going anywhere."

Friday, September 9, 2011

MST3K Friday: Jack Frost

"How not to be seen." "You are a Queen!" "In that you look like Freddy Mercury."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Life as a Book: 2011

The other day, Jen posted a fun little game. It is a meme to describe your life through the books you read so far this year.  OK, so I used one from 2010, but that's only because it worked so well.  Here we go:

One time at band/summer camp, I: (was a) Witness to Death (Dave White)

Weekends at my house are: Fun and Games (Duane Swierczynski)

My neighbor is: Good People (Marcus Sakey)

My boss is: Spade and Archer (Joe Gores)

My ex was: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Steig Larson) HA!

My superhero secret identity is: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry because: (I have a) Gun (Ray Banks)

I’d win a gold medal in: Economic Facts and Fallacies (Thomas Sowell)

I’d pay good money for: A Drink Before the War (Dennis Lehane)

If I were president, I would: (have) The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)

When I don’t have good books, I: (feel) More Sinned Against (Dave White)

Loud talkers at the movies should be: The Black Echo (Michael Connelly)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson

Investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist is hired by aging businessman Henrik Vanger to discover what happened to his niece, Harriet, over 40 years ago. Aided by hacker Lisbeth Salander, Blomqvist uncovers more family secrets than he bargained for.

Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy has been both praised and pilloried ever since the books were published.  I tend to agree with both camps (how's that for taking a stand?).  Salander is an interesting character and the book is written at a breakneck pace.  The central mystery of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger is compelling and I couldn't wait to find out more.  But the book was in need of a good editor.

The Vanger story is bookended by Blomqvist's attempt to bring down a corrupt financier named Wennerström. The first 100 pages set up how Blomqvist is put in a position to accept Vanger's generous offer to investigate the mystery. This section could have easily been shortened or revealed later on as it is solely backstory. The final 100 pages deal with Blomqvist getting his revenge on Wennerström, but after the harrowing climax and resolution of Harriet's disappearance, this felt a bit of a let down.

I didn't notice many clunky sentences like I've seen quoted in reviews of the other two Millennium books. There were some jarring POV shifts (which I tuned out after a while) and parts where Larsson tipped his hand too early. Chapter 16 starts with "In the first week of June, Blomqvist uncovered three totally new pieces of hte puzzle.  Two of them he found himself.  The third he had help with."  This is an example of something that could be excised because telling the reader "something Big is coming" lessens the impact because the reader is expecting it.  The old writing saw applies:  show, don't tell.

Does this mean I didn't like the book? No.  I really enjoyed the middle 300 pages where Blomqvist and Salander piece together the pieces of a 40-year-old puzzle.  It was fascinating to watch their relationship grow and to see Salander mature as a person.  The last chapter of the book (after the Wennerström mess ended) where Salander deals with her emotions toward Blomqvist is heartbreaking and an example of something Larsson got spot on.

Would I recommend it?  That's hard to say.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an entertaining read and the pages kept flying by.  Does it have flaws?  Yes.  Do they ultimately sink the book?  For me, no.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Song of the Week: All We'd Ever Need

A friend of mine introduced me to Lady Antebellum about a year ago. These guys have gotten really big and it's easy to see why. They're country without a lot of twang and their songwriting is excellent. They know how to capture an emotion better than anyone I've heard in a long time. This is the first song I'd heard of theirs, a live version of "All We'd Ever Need".

Friday, September 2, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Dead Talk Back

"This balance of power keeps ice cream in check." "Hey, you got your tongue in my mouth." "You got your mouth in my tongue!"

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

1912, by James Chace

I think the first line from the Publishers Weekly review of James Chace's 1912 sums up my opinion of the book perfectly, "Some histories interpret new evidence and add to our store of knowledge. Some, relying on others' research, simply tell a known story. Chace's work is the best of the latter kind: a lively, balanced and accurate retelling of an important moment in American history." One thing I disagree with them about is that "the 1912 election wasn't the election that changed the country" [emphasis theirs]. Nearly every election before and after 1912 featured a progressive candidate vs a conservative candidate. Chace points out early (and often) than all four candidates for President were progressives to one extent or the other. No matter who won, the country would be moving in a more progressive direction. Only the extent of the changes was going to be determined by who won.

Chace does a good job balancing the time spent between these dynamic personalities, with obviously more time spent on the frontrunners: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He goes through each candidate's history and the reason why they were running. Once the campaign starts, William Howard Taft and Eugene V. Debs are relegated to secondary characters that are talked about mostly in terms of their interactions with the main candidates and each other. Taft, the sitting President and reluctant politician, gets the short end of the stick. Most of what is written about him deals with the divisive (and decisive) Republican convention where Roosevelt and his supporters break off and form their own party.

Chace's book is a fascinating account of the 1912 campaign and its aftermath. He doesn't just stop at the election, but goes on to tell what happened to each man afterward. Roosevelt's role in policy until his death in 1919, Debs being put on trial, incarcerated, and running again in 1920, Taft's retirement and ultimate joy in being named to the Supreme Court in 1921 (the only job he ever really wanted), and Wilson's presidency. Wilson didn't get to implement many of his progressive ideas on domestic policy, but tried to change the world with America's entry into World War I and his post-WWI idea of the League of Nations. His two terms (and TR's before him) led to the idea of the imperial presidency that was so effectively used by FDR and several presidents afterward.

1912 is a good, fast-paced story of the more important elections in American history. If you're looking for an in-depth analysis of the election and its repercussions, this is probably not the book for you. For all its good points, it is better suited to be used as an overview to the event and the men involved in changing America's course.

Originally posted on the old blog 2/28/2005

Monday, August 29, 2011

Classic Leading Man Test

Your result for The Classic Leading Man Test...

Humphrey Bogart

You scored 45% Tough, 5% Roguish, 33% Friendly, and 19% Charming!
You're the original man of honor, rough and tough but willing to stick your neck out when you need to, despite what you might say to the contrary. You're a complex character full of spit and vinegar, but with a soft heart and a tender streak that you try to hide. There's usually a complicated dame in the picture, someone who sees the real you behind all the tough talk and can dish it out as well as you can. You're not easy to get next to, but when you find the right partner, you're caring and loyal to a fault. A big fault. But you take it on the chin and move on, nursing your pain inside and maintaining your armor...until the next dame walks in. Or possibly the same dame, and of all the gin joints in all the world, it had to be yours. Co-stars include Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall, hot chicks with problems.
Take The Classic Leading Man Test at HelloQuizzy

Bogie's a bit tougher than I am, but otherwise sounds pretty good.

Originally posted on the old blog 9/30/2008

Song of the Week: Rain

With all the hoopla about hurricane Irene on the east coast this weekend, what better song for this week than The Beatles' "Rain". Released in June 1966 as a B-side to "Paperback Writer", "Rain" is credited to the songwriting duo of Lennon/McCartney. The following is one of three promotional videos released for the song. As George says at the beginning, The Beatles essentially invented MTV.

"When the rain comes / they run and hide their heads"

Friday, August 26, 2011

MST3K Friday: Godzilla vs the Sea Creature

"This is for the seafood lover in us."
"I'm hysterical! And I'm wet!" (Young Frankenstein reference)
"I'd say McEnroe is unhappy with that call."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Killers

Tonight at 11:30pm, Turner Classic movies is showing "The Killers".  Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway,  the movie stars Burt Lancaster and the gorgeous Ava Gardner. The director, Robert Siodmak, re-teamed with Lancaster three years later in another good noir called "Criss Cross".  If you get TCM, I suggest you check it out.

11:30 PM  EST: Killers, The (1946) —   An insurance investigator uncovers a string of crimes when he tries to find a murdered boxer’s beneficiary. Dir: Robert Siodmak Cast:  Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien. BW-102 mins.

In Bruges (2008)

After a job gone wrong, hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are ordered by their boss Harry (Ralph Finnes) to flee London.  He puts them up in a hotel in Bruges, Belgium.  The two men see the sights of the ancient city and talk about life, death, and redemption.

In Bruges (2008) is a really good flick.  Chock full of black humor and keen insights into the human mind.  It's not quite a spoiler to say this, but in the course of the hit, Ray accidentally kills a young boy.  He's wracked with guilt and wonders if he's a bad person.  Ken, the old pro, attempts to console Ray and begins to wonder if he's really cut out for the job Ken's been doing for 30 years.

I like a lot of the artistic choices first time director Martin McDonagh made.  There are a lot of long shots (no 2 second edits like in most recent films) that focus your attention on the tremendous acting job by the leads.  The shots are beautifully composed too, using the medieval setting of Bruges to full effect.  There are even subtle callbacks to earlier films as well.  One night while Ray is out on a date, Ken sits alone in their hotel room waiting for Harry to call.  Ken is watching Orson Welles's marvelous Touch of Evil on television.  We see the famous five minute tracking shot that begins the movie (complete with Henry Mancini's score).  When the phone rings, the viewer is treated to a continuous five minute take of Ken talking on the phone to Harry.  It's a nice display of artistry that is never seen these days.

In Bruges is R-rated and with good reason.  There's some blood (but the camera doesn't linger on the gore) and a lot of cursing.  According to IMDb, the f-word and its variants are used 126 times in the movie's 108 minute running time.  There's a little drug use and some hilarious jokes about racist dwarves.

 To sum up, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and would recommend it to friends.

Check out the trailer here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

End of an Era

For a number of years, I've maintained my own website on the side.  Another developer and I purchased the domain and found a hosting company.  The idea was to have it for a possible side consulting business and a portfolio of sorts.  The other guy dropped out, but I took over the payments and the maintenance.  After thinking about it for a while, I've decided to shutter the site.

I think the portfolio idea was a good one at the time, but I have a feeling none of my prospective employers ever checked it out.  The site quickly became a playground for me.  I was bored one day and wrote my own blog software in a single afternoon.  I messed around with stylesheets as I learned CSS.  The last thing I did was add some of the things I learned in JQuery.  That was over a year ago.

My domain registration runs out in September and my hosting contract ends in early October.  Unless someone provides a compelling case as to why I should keep the site open, I plan to let both lapse.

I've backed up the database and copied all my files from the server.  I plan on going through some of the old blog posts (going back to 2004) and posting some of them here.

It was fun while it lasted.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories

In May, Rockstar Games released L.A. Noire* for Playstation3. The game itself is great (and may be a topic of an upcoming post). In conjunction with the release, Rockstar and Mulholland Books got a bunch of crime writers together and released a companion short story collection.

With short story collections by multiple authors, the results have been hit or miss. Generally, the ones I've picked up have been solid throughout. I hate to say it, but the L.A. Noire collection breaks that streak.

Don't get me wrong. There are some fantastic stories in this collection. My favorites are:

"See the Woman" by, Lawrence Block
"Hell of an Affair" by, Duane Swierczynski
"Postwar Boom" by, Andrew Vachss

Joe R. Lansdale's "Naked Angel" was pretty good, too. I liked how he used a couple characters from the game in his story (he was the only one of the authors to do so).

Francine Prose's "School for Murder" wasn't poorly written, but I called the ending on second page of the story.

Overall, not a bad collection, but not one I'd recommend either. I'm glad I downloaded it when the collection was free for one weekend.

* Don't get me started on the extra "e" at the end.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Song of the Week: Kashmir

I've been trying to think of how to follow last week's classical interlude.  With Led Zeppelin, of course!  I am a Leppelin fan, but I will admit there are times where I'm not in the mood to listen to them.  Sometimes it's a certain song (I can't tell you the last time I listened to "Stairway"), sometimes it's the band in general.  But there is one song I'll listen to no matter what mood I'm in.  If I find it on the radio, the station stays locked until the song is over, no matter at what point I join it.  And that song is "Kashmir".

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Gun by Ray Banks

Ray Banks is unputdownable. This short novella grabs you from the first page and never lets go. All ex-con Richie has to do is pick up a gun and deliver it to a man known as Goose. Of course, it's not quite as easy as all that. Banks has the uncanny ability to infuse each one of his characters with so much life in so few words.

Like a fresh pint of Guinness, "Gun" is bitter, black as hell, and goes down smooth.

I read this novella in one day

Friday, August 19, 2011

MST3K Friday: Girl in Gold Boots

"Come on! I just teleported here. That's impressive."
"Look at these hippies. Get a hair cut!"

Doesn't the girl at 7:33 look like Amy Winehouse?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Illustrated Batman

I was a bit of a comics nerd when I was younger, but I never read any Batman. I was more of a Marvel guy and I said before the only comic I really collected was X-Men. So when I came across one of those lists a while back about the Top Ten Batman comics, I decided that would be a good starting point to get into The Dark Knight.

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Year One has the added bonus of being a huge source of inspiration for the Chris Nolan Batman movies. The story follows a young Bruce Wayne as he first puts on the Bat-mantle. Since he's just learning the ropes, Batman makes a slew of mistakes and is hunted by Gotham PD. In a trademark Miller move, he made Selina Kyle a prostitute before she becomes Catwoman.

Since this is a comic, I'll comment on the art. It didn't really do anything for me. It wasn't as over the top as Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and it wasn't as full of energy and awesome visuals as his Sin City.

The real hero of the story is Jim Gordon; the sole honest cop in a corrupt department. He is a truly fleshed out character, full of conflicts. The rest of the story is well known (now), and didn't leave me breathless.

The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Chris Nolan pulled elements from this story for The Dark Knight and rumors for his third Batman movie hint that he might pull some more from this book. There is a serial killer on the loose, and he's taking out members of Carmine "The Roman" Falcone's crew. Each month, a murder is committed on a holiday using the same type of weapon (a .22), leading the killer to be dubbed "The Holiday Killer". Batman, Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent team up to take down Falcone and apprehend Holiday.

I liked Tim Sale's artwork much better. His Batman was full of menace and his villains are top-notch. The only complaints I have are his Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne are kind of generic, handsome, white guy-ish. I had a hard time telling them apart. Luckily, Bruce Wayne isn't in the story much.

Loeb was obviously influenced by The Godfather movie trilogy, but it helps the reader with a little shorthand to get pulled into the story quicker. I also enjoyed the relationship between Batman and Catwoman in this book.

If you remember the phrase "I believe in Harvey Dent" from TDK, this is where Nolan picked it up.

I believe in Batman.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Song of the Week: Danzon No 2

Earlier this summer, you couldn't turn on WQXR without hearing this song at least once a day. Not that I'm complaining. It's a nice, upbeat tune; not a bad way to start a day off. There were a couple times I sat in the parking lot of my office waiting for the end.

Here is Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Arturo Marquez's Danzon No. 2.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Other Man, by Hilary Davidson

I'm a little behind the times, but I just read "The Other Man" by Hilary Davidson over at Beat to a Pulp.

Ms. Davidson's short stories are some of the best on the web. I'm ashamed to admit that I still haven't read her debut novel, The Damage Done. That's something I have to rectify toot sweet.

Check out this killer opening line for "The Other Man":

I knew I was a dead man when the cop walked into my bar.
(read more)

MST3K Friday: Cave Dwellers

"How much Keeffe is in this movie anyway?" "Miles O'Keeffe!"
"They were too cheap to hire villains in this movie."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Song of the Week: Don't Worry Baby

A little different version than the standard Beach Boys one. Here's Billy Joel singing "Don't Worry Baby" at a tribute to Brian Wilson.

Friday, August 5, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman

This is an early Mike episode from Season 5. It's also one I have on DVD. I like the short on Cheating.

"In front of you is your pal Mary, with her head chock full of the answers you needed." "Split it open now!"
"This contract arrived for you from a Mr. Eelzebub."

"Angels, you're going undercover with Adam West."
"That's 40 pounds of butt in 30 pound butt capacity pants."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is an American blues guitarist from Shreveport, Louisiana. He first burst onto the scene in 1995 (at the age of 18) with the album Ledbetter Heights (favorite tracks "Deja Voodoo" and "Shame, Shame, Shame"). At this point Kenny was hailed as the next Stevie Ray Vaughan, the next Eric Clapton, the next Hendrix.

Between Heights and 1997's Trouble Is..., Kenny switched lead singers. No disrespect to Corey Stirling, but Noah Hunt's vocals are a perfect match to Kenny's music. Trouble Is... quickly went platinum with radio friendly hits like "Blue on Black" and "Somehow, Somewhere, Someway". I don't think this was released as a single, but I always liked "I Found Love".

His career seemed to be on a roll with another release in 1999: the album Live On (which also went platinum). Then there was a long break before the disappointing album The Place You're In (in 2004). The blues was replaced with generic early 2000's rock and Noah only sang two songs, the rest were sung by Kenny himself. (Of course, the two Noah tracks are my favorites: "Burdens" and "Believe").

Now, almost 7 years later, the Kenny Wayne Shepherd band has released a new album called How I Go. From what I've heard so far, it seems like Kenny has returned to the blues. I hope to get the album in the next couple days, so maybe I'll post my thoughts after I give it a listen.

In the meantime, check out the lead single called "Never Looking Back".

Monday, August 1, 2011

Song of the Week: I've Got You Under My Skin

Francis Albert Sinatra, the pride of Hoboken New Jersey. Nobody could swing like he could. Two of my friends got married and who better to celebrate with than Old Blue Eyes himself?

First up is a typical Sinatra love song:

This second song is one I was introduced to recently. It's called "Always" and it captures an abiding kind of love that makes you promise to be with someone even when times aren't great, rather than the mad, intoxicating love Sinatra always sings about. A fitting song for wedding vows, I think.

Friday, July 29, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Day The Earth Froze

"Hello, Sigfried." "Hello, Roy."
"I'm here for the Prince Valiant auditions."
"This is the kind of music Up With People rejected."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Raymond Chandler

Came across this post the other day by Stephen Blackmoore (now there's a bloke who knows how to spell his first name correctly). It's a nice little birthday tribute to one of my favorite authors: Raymond Chandler.

While working in New York a few years back, I decided to dip my toe into some of the classics of the crime genre.  I was (and am) a big fan of films noir, so I figured I'd read the source material for some of my favorite movies.  After about 50 pages of The Big Sleep, I logged on to Amazon and bought the remaining Marlowe novels.

I'll quote Mr. Blackmoore here because it sums up what I think is Chandler's lasting appeal.

Reading Chandler is like reading poetry. It's rhythm and flow. More to evoke mood than move plot it somehow manages to do both. He was a storyteller who could charm you with the music in his writing and you wouldn't care if he actually made sense.
There are many authors (too many to count) who were influenced by Chandler.  Some of them are good.  Many of them just try to ape his similes and miss out on the "music" part of his writing (not to mention the actual complexity of the Marlowe character).  Reading them is like watching a whale knit.

That being said, I'll leave you with a couple of my favorite lines.  Feel free to add your own in the comments.

"Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food." - Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

"She's a charming middle age lady with a face like a bucket of mud..." - Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

"I never saw any of them again — except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them." - The Long Goodbye (1954)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Song of the Week: Lo Que Me Hace Vivir

I talked about him briefly last year, but I'm a big fan of Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca. Here's the second track from his 2010 release "Akokan" entitled "Lo Que Me Hace Vivir".

Friday, July 22, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Corpse Vanishes

"Jim never drinks coffee on our home planet."
"Let's get over the the car." "Yeah, the bullets don't hurt over there."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Good People by Marcus Sakey

What would you do if you found $400,000?

For Tom and Anna Reed, this isn't merely a thought exercise, but an actual decision they have to make. The Reeds are your average American couple - mid-30's, trying to have a child, and in debt up to their eyeballs. To help pay the mortgage on their Chicago home, they rent a basement apartment to a man they barely know. One night, they respond to a fire alarm downstairs and find their tenant dead. In the process of putting out the fire, they stumble upon almost $400,000 in cash.

The tenant has had no family or friends visit him in the months he rented the space, so they figure it's OK to take the cash as their own. Little do they realize the cash comes from a heist the dead man pulled off. Now his associates, a nasty drug dealer, and the cops are all breathing down their necks.

I'm a huge fan of Sakey's (after reading his first book) and he's done another fine job with Good People. The characters all feel real and have real reactions. Our protagonists are two ordinary people thrown into a world of thieves and murderers by one bad decision. Their terror at having their lives thrown upside down is palpable.

Sakey raises more questions than you'd normally find in a thriller. At the start of the book, Tom and Anna are "good people". They take money that doesn't belong to them, but still consider themselves good. They lie to the cops. They lie to the thieves. They essentially serve up on a silver platter a man to be executed. But, like a lot of people in the modern world, they are blind to their own hypocrisy and stick to their moral superiority. These are folks who, at the end of the story, perform heroic actions, but are themselves not heroic.

Good People is a solid thriller, with more heft than normally found in the genre, told by a master stylist.