Outstreched arm

Friday, July 29, 2005

Neven goes West

Me leaving San FranciscoHey, I'm back. Back from my eight-day vacation in sunny, mild-weathered, beautiful California. I had been planning on going somewhere this summer, and it came down to a choice between New York, California, and New Orleans (which I still plan on visiting in the fall.) California was difficult to arrange with respect to practical issues, but it had the appeal of including a stay with the coolest person in the world, my friend Christa.

I left from Tampa early last Wednesday, changing planes in Memphis. A short 21st century rant: TPA offers free WiFi. MEM and SFO don't - you have to sign up either with PCS or FreedomLink. Boo! An interesting thing about MEM: there's a luggage store at the terminal called Baggage Claim. Isn't that a bit like calling a store Exit or Restrooms?

(In the following paragraphs, links lead to my pictures at Flickr. See the whole trip gallery here.)

I was greeted in San Francisco by Christa and her friend Jesse(sp?) who was flying out. Christa and I drove up to Napa Valley, where we spent the afternoon sightseeing. We stayed at the Shady Oaks Lane B&B - an excellent, cozy little place serving Champagne mimosas for breakfast, and dined at The Culinary Institute's Greystone Restaurant. Fantastic food, served in ridiculously small portions, perfectly fitting the rich, overwhelming flavors. The following day we toured the wineries, including Niebaum Coppola, Grgich Hills (a Croatian place!), Rombauer, Clos Pegase, and many others. Everybody was extremely friendly and not at all snobby - shame on me for expecting it.

We then drove up on Hwy 101 through awesome nature - listen to me, Mr. Gadget - arriving in Christa's town, Arcata. A very cute place - small and packed with interesting little shops and houses. It was a huge relief and joy for this disgruntled Floridian to be able to a) walk around town and b) not see a CVS and Wendy's on every (any!) corner. We visited a few nearby spots, like Lufenholtz beach, Fern Canyon, and the rest of Redwood National Park. It truly makes one feel more alive (or perhaps it was just the excellent company.)

We drove back to San Francisco on Tuesday, staying at The Phoenix Hotel, allegedly a rock'n'roll crowd favorite. I liked the city - it was busy and loud and trashy in places, and it took effort not to just stare around like the dumb tourist I was.

I came back yesterday and one of the first things I did was to check airplane fares for October. Ok, so it's a silly thing to do and I have no idea if I'll be able to afford another trip this year, but I really want to.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Low cost, high CostCo stock

This is beautiful. The New York Times has an article on CostCo, a place you should really consider for your dirt-cheap, medium-to-excellent quality merchandise in American-ass -sized packages, nearly guilt-free. Here's why:

Costco's average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Wal-Mart's Sam's Club. And Costco's health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish.
At Costco, one of Sinegal's cardinal rules is that no branded item can be marked up by more than 14 percent, and no private-label item by more than 15 percent. In contrast, supermarkets generally mark up merchandise by 25 percent, and department stores by 50 percent or more.
...when analysts complained that Costco's workers were paying just 4 percent toward their health costs, he raised that percentage only to 8 percent, when the retail average is 25 percent.

Pretty neat, huh? Except!

Emme Kozloff, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., faulted Sinegal as being too generous to employees...

"He has been too benevolent," she said. "He's right that a happy employee is a productive long-term employee, but he could force employees to pick up a little more of the burden."

- HoustonChronicle.com

The article notes that CostCo's stock price has gone up in the past year, while Walmart's has dropped. C'mon, Wall Street, let us have this one dream - that a business can thrive by being good to both the insiders and the outsiders, Machiavelli be damned. Personally, I like CostCo because their prices are often ridiculous, and their merchandise beats any of the major grocery stores around. Check out their selection of cheese, wine, and office supplies. Get two jars of Nutella for $4. You'll save $45 (the annual membership fee) the first three times you shop; the first time if you have a large family.

Edit: This was posted on Fark, where it got accolades from the usually cynical masses.

Sayonara suckaz

Starting tomorrow, and through July 28, I will be in California, driving up and down the coast with the coolest cool cat in the world. Blog updates are possible (no matter how much fun I might be having) and loads of pictures will follow some time next weekend.

See ya later!

Friday, July 15, 2005

Rant #2

Ok, yesterday's mini-rant was something I had promised myself not to put on this blog, but I couldn't not do it. Today, we have this:

"It is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because these are subtle seductions which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly."

- Pope Benedict XVI in a letter to a Gabriele Kuby, reported by ABC-CBN

Regarding the very idea that Harry Potter books, which have brought endless joy and made reading fun for millions of children, are evil because they divert them from worshipping a bloody, naked man nailed to a cross, I can only say the pretty much only thing I have to say to any Pope: eat excrement, asshole.

So now we can look forward to parents inspecting, with authority given by the Holy one himself, their daughters' bookshelves for non-scary-ass, ridiculous, brain-washing fiction, lest it prevent them from becoming good little bigots (if only Harry had such power!) And you think George W. is the king of black being white?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Oh ferchrissake

The Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla., has won a 4-year legal battle to be exempted from property tax based on its religious nature. According to the UPI story:

In her ruling, Circuit Judge Cynthia MacKinnon sided with Zion's Hope, pointing out that the non-profit company produces and distributes biblical cassettes, videos, books and CDs; publishes a religious magazine; broadcasts a syndicated radio show; and supports missionaries in Israel. But Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan said Holy Land bears more resemblance to a theme park than a religious ministry. "None of those that I know of charge $30 admission," Donegan said. "It's a business."

- TaxProf Blog

I've been to this place, and it's an absolute travesty. It's basically a large gift shop with some satellite 'attractions' unworthy of anyone's time. Look, if you sell Jesus ties and Holy Land maps and novelty yarmulkes, what kind of a 'religious service' are you providing to the 'community' (which, in this case, consists of Disney/Universal theme parks)? These complaints apply in case you're Christian; in case you're not, you'll be aggravated to learn that a significant number of products sold there are of the anti-evolution and Jew/Muslim-converting nature.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Et tu, Klute?

Klute is a slow, simple story told in minimalist manner by Alan J. Pakula, and to me it seemed similar in tone to Three Days of the Condor, though it's far less action-packed. Donald Sutherland plays the titular character, a small-town man of quiet, bland integrity. He is searching for a long-missing friend in sinful New York City, and the only clue he can pursue is the call girl Bree (Jane Fonda at her absolute best). Soon, she and the people around her become targets of following and, eventually, murder.

The investigation never really develops into anything meaningful, its chief result being Klute's repulsion at Bree's social circle's hedonism, which he ends up giving in to in a small way. However, the movie could (should?) have been named Bree, as Sutherland's character stretches the limits of audience empathy with his statuesque firmness, while Fonda slides up and down the emotional scale, showing her finest subtle touches in scenes at her psychiatrist's, and in the final confrontation with the killer. Her clumsy explanation of why she does what she does and why she doesn't know how or if to lead a 'normal' life - or what that means - is honest because of its incompleteness.

Another strong performance is I-won't-say-whose turn as the sadistic murderer. He's no Lecter, since he hasn't that over-the-top charisma; he's no Lorre in M, since he's not as pathetic; he's a dangerously rational and aware psychopath.

As far as the visuals, there are many tightly orchestrated, underexposed scenes, perhaps a bit claustrophobic on the small screen, but beautifully framed. Fonda is an eye magnet, so you may not notice much else when she's in sight.

Overall, solid, confident, adult filmmaking.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

To code or to blog, that is this decade's question

I'm falling behind on my blogging because I'm trying to give some lasting momentum to a long-time project: the Isaac image browser. If you know what it is, you may be glad to find that it should be released on SourceForge soon. If you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, I guess you'll just have to wait and see.

Quick movie notes: just saw De Palma's Dressed To Kill. There's a lot of hate for this movie, but none from me. I'm a sucker for his braggadocio direction, and you can't not be entertained by the millionth Hitchcock homage he isn't embarrassed to throw in. Nobody keeps me on the edge of my sofa - well, not that I'm sitting down when I'm watching movies - like De Palma. The hilariously long art museum scene is a wonder as is the aftermath, all the way up to the predictably unpredictable murder of the presumed heroine. Like Sisters, a "smaller" movie, this suffers from needless post-conclusive exposition (did he have to learn that from Psycho also?) Nancy Allen does her usual crappy acting job, not as cutely ditzy as in Blow Out, and Michael Caine has little to work with, but these are minor complaints made pointless by the sheer delight De Palma takes in constructing wordless scenes. There's a reason the likes of Argento (whose Profondo Rosso this is reminiscent of) are loved by film buffs - they are too-eager film students with decent budgets, and they'll be damned if they'll tone down the glitz and references.

Another movie you've probably seen: Scent of A Woman. So that's what everybody's been quoting all this time. Upon seeing it, wouldn't you want to meet Lt. Colonel Slade and willingly submit yourself to his verbal abuse?

Also I've been watching The Twilight Zone DVDs. Have you seen the one called I Am The Night, Color Me Black? It's either extremely complex or just confusing, when you really think about it. In it, a white guy is sentenced to death for killing a well-known racist, presumably in self-defense. On the morning of his execution, the sun refuses to come up and the town is in complete darkness throughout the day; in the very end, the darkness overshadows even the candles and electric lights. It's an idea interesting in its simplicity - black skin = black night - but there are complicating themes that make it, as I said, either rich or puzzling. For instance, right before he dies, becoming a symbol for the black community, the convict announces that he killed the racist because he hated him, and that it felt good. When the black priest sadly summarizes it and calls him guilty, the convict says, "it's important to get with the majority, isn't it?" Odd - maybe I'm just not used to multifaceted moral arguments in half-hour television. Or maybe it's really cut-and-dry for some folks; I sympathized with both sides.

What I think I was attracted to was the highly symbolic and extremely literal supernatural element. I don't like it when the supernatural is 'cautionary' in the sense of 'this could happen to you' or 'there's weird stuff out there.' It's the one thing I didn't care for in Master & Commander, the movie: a navy officer thought to be cursed is shunned and blamed by the crew for their bad luck. Eventually he commits suicide, and the captain's reply to the indignant 'naturalist' on board is that "not all in the world is in your book." Ok, so this was perhaps believed back in the day, but since in that very movie men often reason far beyond the norm of the age, it feels like a letdown, nothing better than an insight into their flaws.

The Twilight Zone always makes a point with its supernatural resolutions (which, you must agree, are simply fun.) Sometimes it's a good tool for the job, sometimes it's not; I like Dust, in which a con artist sells ordinary sand as dust that fills people's hearts with love, not hate; when this does indeed happen, it's quite obviously not due to the dust, but common compassion. Rod Steiger comments, "in search for true magic, first look in the human heart." Corny, but appropriate.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Why must he be the thief?

I'll never understand the desire to absolutely kill the music, mystique, and sharpness of certain movie titles by subjecting them to pointless English translations. My favorite(?) example is Dario Argento's classic over-the-top, Eurotrash giallo film Tenebre - just say it, rolling the 'r': tenebrrrre. Now guess what it was called in its original US release. Darkness? (The literal translation.) Blood Bath? Crazy Killer? You wish. It was called... Unsane. It's not even a word, and with good reason.

This rant was inspired by my learning of the original title of De Sica's classic The Bicycle Thief: Ladri di biciclette. It's such an awesome sound to roll of your tongue. Or, Mario Bava's odd, Peckinpah-like madfest Rabid Dogs: Cani Arrabbiati (highly recommended, by the way, though it's not available on... any format. Try some MPAA-angering apps.)

I'm trying to catch up on some classic movies, and I had not seen this one - Ladri - before tonight. It's sad that my strongest response to these is either "yes, it's grand" or "what's all the fuss about", but I won't attempt a meaningful essay a century too late. I was thoroughly impressed by absolutely every aspect of the movie (well, minus the non-restored transfer.) I feared that the psychic lady would turn out to be a plot device, or anything but an ironic blotch; I feared that there would be a quick turnaround at the end; and I got slapped in the face for my low expectations. Serves me right - and suits me right.

It may be a trivial measure of great filmmaking how much is done with a mud-simple premise (the theft of a bike). Here, however, it becomes a compact life journey that never reflects on its own pathos. The bike indeed means life or death, and the search for it is as dilemma-ridden as a doomsday scenario.

P.S. The reason I don't provide a plot summary for this and similar movies is that you should really see them for yourself.

Living for design

Assuming you've been to this blog before July 03, 2005, you're aware of the design change that took place then - the page has been updated to look more like Mrgan.com, which, again, should be your starting point if you're looking to see what I'm up to, not just read my blog. This is even more true now, since I've removed non-blog content from the blog - redundancy is silly redundancy. If you want to see my latest photo postings at Flickr or click a random link or two, go to my portal.

Comments on this new design? Are any pages looking wacky? Is it usable? Let me know!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Three totally unrelated movies

I didn't feel I had a full review in me for either one of these, for different reasons, so you get three for the price of one today.

I just watched John Sayles' Casa de Los Babys (don't stumble on that title; just go ahead and say it the way you think it's pronounced.) Having seen five Sayles movies, I don't feel comfortable calling myself a fan, but that's how I feel. There's something about his shockingly human approach to characters that at first says Lifetime, but he absolutely refuses to go for the easy, expected emotions and solutions. This can be frustrating for the "outsider" at times (the quotes go away after I've seen all his movies.) The curve of a Sayles plot is not one of conflict and resolution; he seems to weave tapestries instead, letting the movies end at however many minutes the average person is willing to spend in front of the screen. It's as if all his movies are part of the same neverending pattern of dialogue and affection - they could go on forever. He has said that editing is his favorite part of filmmaking, but it must be a bittersweet affair: I wonder how many movies could be made from what he leaves out.

More specifically, Casa is another life story with no beginning or end. It concerns American women who are waiting in Mexico for the paperwork to come through on the children they are adopting from a local hospital. Cultures meet (I will not say 'collide'), as do generations, attitudes, and genders (though this, to be honest, is a bona fide chick flick.) Because he introduces us to his characters in mid-development, Sayles stretches the time by showing the "past" (a maid who's had to give her daughter to adoption - a criminally unnoticed Vanessa Martinez; a pregnant 15-year old not allowed to keep the child), and the "future" (preadoloscent kids living in the street). According to the DVD cover, the movie has six main characters, but that is a real understatement. Even the smallest roles are memorable and believable, as well as multidimensional. To pick just a few - the lawyer who has to deal with an American bulldog of a me-first hopeful mother; the dream-chasing unemployed worker.

This is the best-looking of the movies of his I've seen. The colors of Mexico add an Almodovar flavor to Sayles' actor-focused compositions; the montages are fabulous, especially the one set to the bogus but not completely inappropriate drivel of a TV horoscope dude (who you'll have to see to appreciate). Rather than wrapping up, the movie cuts off, but again - you just have to feel at home in Sayles' universe. Lone Star and Limbo couldn't be possibly too long for my taste. (Brother From Another Planet, though - well, thirty minutes would've been just fine.)

I also saw On The Waterfront - yes, for the first time. Isn't it funny how everyone just assumes that everyone else has seen every classic movie there is? It would be pointless for me to write a 'review' of it, and I don't have anything terribly interesting to add that you haven't already heard. It's a disgustingly fashionable thing to say of a pillar of cinema, but I'll say it: I wasn't blown away by the movie; not by all of it, in any case.

Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur is a character study within a heist movie, full of that French cool that would look laughable on anyone else. Bob, correctly described as an "old young man", is a compulsive gambler of show-offy compassion and with an unfortunate police record and. When he experiences a few too many financial (and personal) failures, he starts planning a wildly unlikely casino job. While the robbery preparation scenes are tight and gripping, they're easily outdone by the excellent Rififi. The character interactions are also slightly underdeveloped, but Bob himself is an unexpectedly fleshed out person; New Wave cinema normally creates cool out of ambiguity. It's true but unfair to say that Cercle Rouge and Rififi are better in the same genre; Bob is still more than worth watching.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

OS X hints from an OS X newbie

You know what sucks about page-embedded Quicktime movies (and other formats similarly included on webpages)? You're stuck with the video size deemed sufficient by the page author, normally a maximum of 320 x 240: no good for watching long videos or sharing them with a room full of people. There's help, though! If you're on OS X, its Universal Access features (meant for handicapped individuals) can assist in presumably unintended ways. Go to System Preferences (under the Apple menu) and check out Universal Access. Turn on the Zoom feature - the default settings are perfect. Now, when at any time you wish to enlarge any portion of the screen, hit Option Command =. Option Command - will zoom you out, obviously (you'll have to hit it more than once, it zooms out in steps.) So next time you watch the Daily Show clips, zoom in and sit back. I'm sure you'll find myriad other uses for this swanky zoom tool.

I used to use Firefox on my Mac, but Safari 2.0 absolutely won me over - I prefer its idea of displaying feeds, and it's fast. I still use Firefox on my work PC, and there's one thing I miss when I browse with Safari - having the search bar (that's the thing in the top-right corner) use more than one search engine. Why? I use GIS, Wikipedia, and Dictionary.com all the time. Guess what - there's a Safari solution! It's AcidSearch, a very simple, unobtrusive, and free search bar manager. It's absolutely necessary. I wish it added auto-complete functionality to the search bar as well, but it packs something possibly even better: Find-as-you-type. It's disabled by default, but once you enable it, you can just start typing your search within the page without bringing up the Find dialog (Command F) - another thing I adored in Firefox. I hope Google Suggest becomes the standard and this real-time search business takes off...

Friday, July 01, 2005

Broken pawn

Boy, did I pick the wrong movie to watch on yesterday's flu. Sidney Lumet's Pawnbroker (1960), a depressing, dark, slow, and nihilistic look at a Holocaust survivor who, despite Lumet's able direction, seems like an asshole by birth, not by experience. Perhaps this was the point - my brother's view was that the movie didn't want to be sentimental. I can respect that, but it simply makes for torturous viewing.

Sol (Rod Steiger), the pawnbroker, lives in New York and spends his time dealing with various "scum" (his words) from the streets - when he's not busy being a dysfunctional wreck. Several unpleasant things in his life collide on one particular day, and he goes through a doubtful catharsis which, in my opinion, does little for both him and the viewer. I'll say it clearly: I didn't like him before his story was piecemealed, and I didn't like him after I learned about his past (which, oddly, was merely made graphic on the screen - beyond that, there was no surprising insight into the horror he had gone through. Equally, when he finds out that his shop is used for laundering of prostitution money, I went, "uh... duh?")

The contrasty black and white photography is fitting, but Quincy Jones's music most definitely is not. It's great jazz, but when the first notes kicked in, I half-expected the broken Jewish man to voiceover, "My name is Sol. I'm a pawnbroker by day... by night, I chase escaped Nazis in airport lounges and cocktail bars." The performances are dramatic and filled with energy, but they lack subtlety. In Jaime Sánchez's case - playing Jesus, a ghetto kid trying to go straight - there's not much he can do as the script sets up some overly staged moments. Sol dismisses him and he goes back to his thug past quickly, like a well-oiled plot machination.

Rod Steiger's turn here won much praise, but I'm not sure how I feel about it. I basically have two problems with his character: he is a jerk, and somehow people still invest all this effort into getting some sort of a response from him. Marilyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a kind, lonely woman, not only falls for him for some unintelligible reason, but gives him a second chance as well. So strong was my sympathy for her that I wished to see the story told from her point of view: The Man Who Repeatedly Made Me Feel Like Shit, I'd call it.

Jesus is ambitious and eager to please, true, but how much of a clue do these people need to see that Sol is a complete misanthrope? It may be that Sol was not meant to be seen as a product of the War, but as a lost soul in a more general sense. This works, but only in a very direct, obvious way. So what if we have this annoying character? Does he deserve a story? I hope I'm not making too distant an analogy if I mention John Merrick's remark in Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man, said of Romeo and Juliet (he thinks that Romeo doesn't truly love Juliet), "if he didn't love her, why should there be a play?"

Maybe it's a personal thing with me (I say this for purposes of full disclosure). I'm annoyed on a very personal level when crazily-behaving characters seem 'irresistible' to women. Janet Leigh falling for the near-mental Frank Sinatra in the Manchurian Candidate - what was that about? Where's all this patience and understanding coming from? Not that guys don't fall for unapproachable and issue-laden girls (in fiction, I mean). I like David Strathairn's (in Limbo) answer to why his last girlfriend dumped him: "she thought I was too downbeat for her." Spoken like a sincere loser.