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Machalniks: Israel's "Secret Weapon"
November 9, 2013 1:09 PM | Posted in: ,

Oath - Volunteers of Foreign Nationals

As long as I assist as a volunteer in the War of Liberation of the Nation of Israel - I hereby swear on my word of honor, to accept unconditionally and without reservations, the rules and discipline of the Israeli Defence Army, to obey all its orders and istructions given by the authorised commanders and to do all in my power, and even to sacrifice my life in the defence of the Freedom of Israel.

In 1948, the nation of Israel was fighting for its continued existence, against numerically overwhelming Arab enemy forces. From the outside looking in, it would take a miracle for Israel to claim victory. But the history of Israel is defined by miracles, small and large, some with seemingly inexplicable supernatural origins, and others more mundane but no less amazing.

One of those latter types of "miracles" was the arrival of the Machal (a contraction of Mitnadvei Hutz La'Aretz, which is Hebrew for "Volunteers from Outside Israel"). About 3,500 volunteers - some Jewish, some not; some Zionist, some not - from 37 countries came to Israel to join in the fight during the War for Independence. An estimated 1,000 of those volunteers were Americans.

Many of the Machal were pilots with extensive combat experience during World War II, and they formed the nucleus for Israel's first organized air force. In addition, they played an important role in Israel's Medical Corps, as non-Israeli doctors and nurses with combat experience also volunteered their service.

I was completely unaware of this history until a friend shared a link to the following video, a preview of a documentary now in production that will tell the story of the Machalniks and others who played an instrumental role in creating the Israeli air force that help win the War for Independence, and which has evolved into arguably the most elite aerial combat force in the world.



You can learn more about the movie Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force via the producer's website. You can also make a donation to help with the costs of the production.

I also strongly recommend Dr. Jason Fenton's The Machal Story, a firsthand account of the history of the group written by one of its members.

I believe that God has a plan for Israel as a nation and the Jewish people, and that His hand has been at work throughout their history. I can't help thinking that the emergence of the Machal was evidence of that providence. But even if you don't share my belief in that respect, you'll have to admit that it makes a compelling story.
I admit I twisted off with yesterday's post, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Now that I've got that out of my system, don't look for much in the way of political commentary for a good long while. Unless...well...never mind.

As an expression of contrition, allow me to repost another Gazette offering from 2009, which should get us back on track, especially considering that another installment in the Die Hard  franchise is set to open on Valentine's Day. How appropriate is that?
So, we took in a matinée showing of Taken today, and as we walked out of the theater I bounced this idea off MLB.

"They need to pair up Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills with Bruce Willis's John McClain and have them be dads who volunteer to be chaperones on a high school trip in order to keep an eye on their daughters. Something could go terribly wrong -- terrorists could, like, kidnap the whole class and, like, do mean stuff -- and Bryan and John could go into action to save them."

I know, it sounds lame, but what if the field trip was to Washington, D.C. And what if the bad guys were actually Congress? Starting to see the appeal now?

OK, it's just a fantasy, but if you're a Hollywood screenwriter cruising the net for ideas, remember where you heard it. Anyway, if you haven't seen Taken and you're a fan of the Die Hard movies, go see it. Neeson doesn't have Willis's comic flair, but to paraphrase Johner in Alien: Resurrection*, he is not the guy with whom you want to **** (pardon my French special characters, which is appropriate given that most of the movie's action took place in Paris).

*This is an under-appreciated member of the "Alien" line-up, in my opinion. The movie is worth watching if only for Ripley's basketball scene, and getting to see the corrupt General Perez pull his own pineal gland** out of the back of his head and stare at it in horror is, well, compelling beyond description.


**OK, I have no idea if it really was a pineal gland, but it was small and icky and seemed like something a person would be really sad to be holding in his hand.

Oops. I just noticed that this was a political post after all. My bad.

"The Hobbit" - A Short Review
December 15, 2012 9:11 PM | Posted in:

Note: There are spoilers below, but not until after the heading that cleverly reads "Spoilers Ahead." Just so you know.

We caught a matinee showing of the first episode of The Hobbit trilogy today at the Palladium IMAX theater in San Antonio (located at The Rim shopping center, near Fiesta Texas). We elected to see the 3D High Frame Rate (HFR) version of the film. This movie is the first major commercial production to be filmed at 48 frames per second, twice the normal frame rate. It's supposed to result in the capture of more detail, and also provides a superior 3D experience, for reasons that I can't explain. Let's agree to call it magic and leave it at that. For $14 a ticket, we had high expectations. Here's how it played out:

  • The movie is almost three hours long (and with the extended trailer for the new Star Trek movie - which looks amazing, by the way - we were in the theater for a full three hours. That's too long. Seriously. The first part of the movie dragged in places, although that was't an issue at all once things got going.
  • Continuing along this line of thought, the movie adaptation of The Hobbit will be presented in three parts, with the next two coming in 2013 and 2014, respectively. This means that you'll spend just about as much time watching it in the theater as it takes to read the book.
  • Still more about the length: three hours is too long to wear 3D glasses. Someone needs to design glasses that are more comfortable, that don't mash into your temples in migraine-inducing fashion. But, perhaps I'm simply unwilling to suffer for someone else's art.
  • The HFR version of the movie has gotten some knocks for being, well, too realistic. Frankly, we thought it was great, and I recommend trying it if you have the option. The movie was beautifully shot and the special effects benefitted from the increase resolution. We also thought the 3D was very well done, and wasn't intrusive or contrived.
Overall, I rate the movie 3.5 stars out of 5. Technically, it was a 5, but the adaptation of the literature fell short. Perhaps I'm simply suffering from LOTR Fatigue. Longer is not always better, and I think Peter Jackson is doing the book a disservice with his three-part approach. (And I fully expect to catch grief for this opinion.)

Spoilers Ahead

  • The first part of the movie seemed to drag a little, and the bits where the dwarves sang and put the dishes away seemed like something out of a 1950s Disney animated movie...not that there's anything wrong with that, per se, but it didn't enhance the film and seemed to be filler.
  • As Jen put it on Facebook, the eagles rocked. Truly.
  • The riddle scene featuring Bilbo and Gollum was great, just the right mixture of manic comedy and suspense.

Fun with Office Supplies
October 21, 2012 8:23 PM | Posted in: ,

Perhaps I'm easily impressed and/or amused, but I had no idea until I went back into the world of corporate dronage that the Liquid Paper I grew up with had been replaced by cool correcting tape that's applied with a dispenser filled with all kinds of rollers and gears and semi-circuitous pathways.

Photo - Tombow Correction Tape

Anything worth engineering is worth over-engineering, or at least providing the appearance of excessive complexity, and the good folks at Tombow apparently take this philosophy seriously. It's an elegant design for a mundane product, but after using it a while, I got this nagging feeling of - I don't know - familiarity...like I'd seen it somewhere before. 

Now, I'm not accusing anyone of product plagiarism, but there really is nothing new under the sun.

Photo - Tombow Correction Tape reimagined as a Star Wars AT-AT Walker

For the less geeky readers, here's the reference.

A Cultural Historical Moment
February 20, 2012 7:57 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm no historian, but the following scene may have been a turning moment in culture.

Scene from 'Heathers'

This unassuming scene comes at approximately 8:12 into the movie Heathers, a dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, filmed in 1988. One second earlier, this group of obvious high school losers was referred to by a female character in the movie as "the geek squad."

This reference occurred a full six years before it was adopted by the computer services company that eventually became a subsidiary of Best Buy and caused an uptick in the sales of oddly-painted VW Beetles. And, as far as I can tell through my extensive research on the subject (comprised of watching 10 minutes of the movie, doing a Google search, and reading a Wikipedia article) this was the first reference in the recorded history of mankind to the phrase "geek squad."

Interestingly - amazingly, actually - the trivia page for Heathers at IMDB.com completely overlooks this cinematic achievement.

And they say bloggers have no legitimate journalistic credibility.

3D Movie a No-Show
December 31, 2011 11:00 AM | Posted in: ,

Ha...a "no-show." Get it? Movie. No-show. I kill myself, sometimes.

I'm sure you're no more surprised than I was when we couldn't get the 3D DVD to work in our setup last night. It was a comedy of errors, although we needed a laugh track because I certainly wasn't giggling.

First, I couldn't find our 3D glasses. They weren't where they were supposed to be, where I put them intentionally so they'd be easy to find. Debbie finally discovered them laying on top of the DVD player. Who stores their 3D glasses on top of their DVD player. (Ed. You, apparently. Me. Shut up.)

We fired up the DVD player, A/V receiver, and TV, and the picture opened to a 55" panoramic view of...a bunch of text in four languages telling us that in order to view this movie in 3D we needed "a 3D capable Blu-ray DVD player (check), a 3D capable HD TV (check), and a 3D capable A/V receiver (che...uh, say what?).

That receiver thing caught me off-guard; I had never considered that an HDMI-equipped A/V receiver might not be capable of handling a 3D data stream. Given that our Onkyo receiver is almost four years old, making it an octogenarian in consumer electronics years, I needed to check its specs to see what they said about 3D.

And, of course, we couldn't find the owner's manual. Of course.

I finally just downloaded the manual in PDF form from the Onkyo website and did a search for 3D. Nada. Looked at the technical specs, and learned that the version of HDMI used by the receiver is 1.3. The most current version of HDMI is 1.4. Is that a problem?

Another series of searches to find out the answer to that question led to a slew of websites and message boards on the topic, all of which read like, well, stereo instructions.

I now know more about HDMI than I ever wanted to...and I still don't know the absolute answer. HDMI 1.4 differs primarily from 1.3 in that it supports an Ethernet connection between two HDMI devices, and (AFAIK) Ethernet is not required for 3D playback. HDMI 1.4 cables are compatible with HDMI 1.3 devices, but those devices may not (will not?) be able to take advantage of whatever additional capabilities are built into the 1.4 specifications. But, still, it appears that 1.3 should be able to handle 3D.

Except for this caveat, from the Disney Blu-ray 3D FAQ (which, btw, was the most helpful resource I found in terms of being understandable by non-rocket scientists or those older than 13): In most cases, your existing HDMI high-speed cables should be able to support Blu-ray 3D, though cables over 3 feet in length may have problems.

This could be our problem, since I've run a 12' in-wall HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV. But, who knows? Should I install a new 1.4 HDMI cable, hoping that does the trick? Does our old-ish A/V receiver make 3D viewing a non-starter regardless? (If you're thinking "firmware upgrade," I applaud your geekishness, but the 1.3-to-1.4 upgrade path requires a hardware boost, too.)

There is a workaround. I can run a 1.4 cable directly from the DVD player to the TV, bypassing the receiver. But to maintain 7.1 surround sound, I'll need to run a separate optical cable from the player to the receiver (and even then, we lose the 3D surround sound that built into some movies). But the whole point of having an integrated A/V setup is to avoid having to run messy ad hoc cables. And, of course, the HDMI ports on our TV are on the opposite side from the other components. (Ed. That went without saying, didn't it? Me. Shut up.)

In summary, we ended up watching the regular 2D Blu-ray version of Captain America, and didn't miss what we didn't know about. But I have to say that any presumably consumer-level technology that's this arcane and complicated just isn't ready for prime-time. It's ridiculous to have to re-wire your system just to watch a movie.

Now, whether it's a good enough excuse to buy a fancy new A/V receiver...well, that is a legitimate question.

3D TV might be 1D too many
December 30, 2011 2:57 PM | Posted in: ,

As I may have mentioned before, for our Christmas gift to each other Debbie and I bought a new Samsung LCD/LED TV. It's got a lot of bells and whistles, including built-in WiFi and that great edge-to-edge picture that makes it look like movies are literally coming out of the woodwork. And it's also got 3D capability, via the almost-but-not-quite dorky-looking glasses that came with the set. (Does anyone still refer to it as a "TV set"?) 

The 3D thing was not a selling point for us; there's simply no option to leave it out, if you want the same overall picture quality and other features. We have yet to even try out the glasses, other than to put them on and look around the room to see if they turned an actual three-dimensional environment into a 4D one. (Sadly, they didn't.)

That's going to change, however, as we broke down yesterday and bought a 3D movie on DVD at Best Buy. It's Captain America, which we haven't seen, and which got some very good reviews from people whose opinions I respect. The darn thing cost $35, which is ridiculous, but still not much less than seeing it on an actual movie theater screen by the time you add in the required peripheral purchases.

And not only do you get a Blu-Ray 3D version, you also get the plain vanilla Blu-Ray version, as well as an old-and-busted non-Blu-Ray version, and also a digital version. So, theoretically, you could watch this movie in four different formats in four separate rooms at the same time. Does that count as 4D? (Sadly, it doesn't.)

I hope I'm not setting myself up for a big disappointment, but I'm prepared to be blown away by the awesomeness of 3D in my very own living room. I'll try to file a report on these pages, assuming I'm not trapped in an alternate universe.

Movie Review: "Cowboys and Aliens"
July 29, 2011 5:16 PM | Posted in:

Note: This review contains no plot spoilers.

We went to see the highly anticipated (well, by us, anyway) Cowboys and Aliens this afternoon, despite the lukewarm review in this morning's newspaper. I don't necessarily ignore movie reviews, but I have found that I often disagree with professional critics when it comes to science fiction. Perhaps my standards are lower, or I'm more easily entertained.

Regardless, I'm glad we ignored the review, because C&A was a lot of fun, and a fine "popcorn delivery vehicle." Some have expressed skepticism about Daniel Craig's ability to portray a cowboy, but he does an excellent job, and I wouldn't mind seeing him in future such roles.

If there was a disappointment, it was the character that Harrison Ford was asked to portray. His personality was inconsistent, and a little too non-nuanced. But he can still put on a mad face like no one else.

The special science fiction effects blended seamlessly into the Old West setting, ala Firefly. (I still think Firefly and Serenity are the best-written examples of sci-fi/westerns in existence; C&A won't threaten their status in that regard.) The aliens are sufficiently icky, and not derivative of any other particular movie. There were a few humorous moments, which was good, and a few overly serious moments, which was not so good, but overall, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours on a summer afternoon.

Plenty of good movies coming up, based on the trailers (I know...I'm easily impressed), including the next Mission Impossible and a bumbling criminal movie called Tower Heist that stars Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, and Eddie Murphy (apparently reprising a 48 Hours-type of role).
I streamed the first 50 minutes of Gog* today via Netflix, during my workout. This movie debuted in 1954 to widespread yawns, for many good reasons, but it does provide some unintentionally campy moments.

The plot of the movie surrounds some apparent acts of sabotage taking place at a top secret government research facility (I know; how redundant is that?). Most of the top scientists in the US are assembled at the facility to pursue their pet projects, which range from harnessing the power of the sun via mirrors to inducing suspended animation by turning people into blocks of ice. Heady stuff. Oh, and someone has built a super computer, dubbed NOVAC ("Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer," which clearly demonstrates the primitive state of acronymization in the Fifties). NOVAC is also referred to as a "giant brain machine," and it's controlled by commands embedded in hole-punched paper tape ("Every punched hole represents a thought."). I didn't get all the way through the movie, but I suspect NOVAC is behind all the criminal hijinks, laying the groundwork for later similar hijinks by HAL.

Anyway, that's not important. What's important are the various product placements that are peppered through the movie. For example:

Screenshot from 'Gog'

There it is, a genuine Coca Cola vending machine with no discernible purpose other than to be an advertisement. Brilliant!

Then there's this:

Screenshot from 'Gog'

Notice how NOVAC is cleverly accompanied by a device provided by Bendix Computing? This is actually pretty interesting, because, according to our own Giant Brain Machine (aka "Wikipedia"), Bendix made a lot of electronic equipment but didn't actually introduce a computer until 1956. Conspiracy theorists could have a field day with this. Did Bendix actually leak an impending product via a "B" movie? The company did get some sweet credits from the film:

Screenshot from 'Gog'

But the most fascinating product placement was this one:

Screenshot from 'Gog'

This IBM electric typewriter (note the "Return" key) was apparently the first computer peripheral, merrily typing away on its own while NOVAC pondered the imponderable. Its function was inscrutable, but apparently important as it garnered several close-ups during the movie.

But, do you catch the irony? In the movie, IBM played second fiddle to Bendix's computing superiority, but we all know that IBM became the king of Big Iron.

Incidentally, the producer of Gog was Ivan Tors. If that name sounds familiar, then you're getting close to being "of a certain age," as he created such memorable TV series as Sea Hunt, Flipper, and Daktari. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Mr. Tors was the driving force behind the product placements, given his later gift for ginning out commercial hits.

*Two of the "characters" in the movie are Gog and Magog, robots controlled by NOVAC. If those names sound familiar, then you know your Bible (see prophecies in Ezekiel and Revelation).
Recognize any of these mooks?

Photo of the Murchies and Siegmunds

This is a photo of yours truly and MLB in one of the sumptuous skyboxes at Rockhounds Stadium last Sunday afternoon. Those other starstruck folks are Molly (the pregnant one) and Colin Murchie, whom you've met earlier on these pages

OK, they're not really starstruck; they're dazed by a combination of West Texas heat, stadium hot dogs, and the fact that the Rockhounds actually won a game. Plus, they're astounded at my fabulous fashion sense.

Anyway, Molly and Colin traveled all the way from our nation's Capitol to attend Molly's niece's high school graduation and we were privileged to finally meet them.

If you follow the preceding link, you'll learn that they're members of the Washington Improv Theater (WIT), and the group has once again been successful in this year's edition of the 48 Hour Film Project, winning several awards in the local competition. Here's more information about their film.

But, hey...you've got better things to do than click a buncha links, right? I understand, and for your convenience, I'm giving you the actual movie itself. Don't thank me; it's what I do. Enjoy. And if you're wondering, Molly plays the pregnant woman.

Relative from Tyler Korba on Vimeo.

Colin told me that this film was shot using a digital SLR. Pretty cool, huh? Oh, did I mention that Colin and Mollie have a new dog named Frankie who can do a high five?

Zombie Movie Posters
March 23, 2011 10:25 PM | Posted in: ,

The dismayingly prolific Neatorama website has an e-commerce arm called, appropriately enough, the Neatoshop, and I just discovered that it has an entire section devoted to classic movie posters that have been reworked with a zombie theme. While I'm pretty sure you-know-who wouldn't consent to my hanging any of these on our walls (she can be so closed minded sometimes), I'll bet you could find a place for at least one of the following:

  • Deadward Scissorhands
  • The Walking Dead of Oz
  • Alice From Underland
  • Wrecks and the City
  • Who Maimed Roger Rabbit? ["She's not really dead; she's just drawn that way."]
  • Breakfast Is Tiffany
  • Gnaws
  • The Princess Died
  • ...and many, many more.
Now, who's going to step up and rework the zombie movie posters to use a Hello Kitty theme?

Oh, right...that would be too horrifying; we have to draw the line somewhere.

Crippled Netflix App (Why, o why?)
March 10, 2011 9:21 AM | Posted in: ,

Netflix is rapidly becoming the Service We Hate But Can't Live Without. I've previously documented my complaint about the woeful lack of streaming movies, compared to the company's DVD offerings, but grudgingly admit that there are some external causal factors at play.

However, the latest incarnation of Netflix's iOS app was apparently built without regard for logic, common sense, or - worst of all - consideration for its users. 

Granted, the application is very easy to use, with a clean interface and logical navigation. Netflix improved the app by including movie titles alongside every movie poster icon; in the previous version, you had to be able to read the title or recognize the poster to figure out the identity without actually clicking on it. 

Here are a couple of screenshot from the new app. The first shows the typical movie listing for a genre; in this case, I chose the Sci-Fi & Fantasy genre.



It's a straightforward listing of the important facts about each movie: title, release year, MPAA rating, running time, and cumulative Netflix viewer rating (a subjective indication of quality or at least popularity). Click on the icon to watch the movie; click on the title to get a little more information about the movie. Here's the information screen for Blade Runner.



On this page you get a very brief plot summary, the primary actors, the director, and options to either play the movie or add it to your queue. Again, very clean and straightforward.

Well, for many of us, it's too clean and straightforward, as the simplicity was achieved in part by eliminating some valuable features from the previous version of the app. Netflix has eliminated eight genres in the app vs. its website, and has dropped the sub-genres in the app, which were useful for narrowing one's choices. For example, in the previous app's Action & Adventure genre, there were 17 sub-genres (the same ones that are still on the website), making it much easier to find something of interest. In the new app, you just have one choice.

The earlier version also had a longer plot summary as well as access to viewer and critic reviews of the movie, and links to similar movies. Or, more accurately, it mirrored the Netflix website's content, shown below:



Quite a difference. Sure, the web page is busy, and not everyone is interested in all the features, but I'm not sure why Netflix decided its app users didn't need any of them.

Reasonable people may differ on these issues, but there's one area where Netflix has crippled the new app that represents an almost inconceivable backwards step: it truncates the list of available movie titles for a given genre at 100. This means that if you're browsing through the list of, say, available Sci-Fi/Fantasy films, you'll not see 75 movies in that list. If you're looking at Independent films, you'll miss 20 titles. And if you're browsing through the Action/Adventure genre, the list will omit almost 500 movies. (All of these numbers are derived by comparing the total number of streaming titles listed on the website in each genre, vs the 100-count lists in the app.)

That's not to say that the movies aren't available for streaming via the app; they're still there, but you have to know about them, and you can only find them by using the Search feature.  That's about as non-user-friendly as you can get.

It's bad enough that Netflix provides only a tiny fraction of its movie inventory for streaming, but it add insult to injury by making it significantly more difficult to find all the streaming titles via the app that's commonly used for the streaming.

I'm not the only person unhappy about the dumbing down of the Netflix app. However, I was apparently the only person who noticed the shortening of the genre listings, going by the comments in the article linked above. I'm either perceptive or obsessive, but if I'm paying for a service, I expect it to get better over time, not worse. Netflix, are you listening?

Movie Night at La Casa
January 22, 2011 1:06 PM | Posted in: ,

We were still fighting colds last night and we used that as an excuse to brew some Keurig coffee (Donut Shop Decaf for her; Caribou regular for me) and stream a couple of movies (Netflix via Apple TV, if you care about things like that. And you should. The technical details are crucial to the whole ambiance thing.). We didn't plan it, but the movies ended up having a common theme.

[Note: There be spoilers ahead. Ye be warned.]

First up was 1981's Wolfen, a "horror/suspense" movie starring a gravelly-voiced and grim-countenanced Albert Finney (yeah, OK, those are his normal acting modes) and a wise-cracking and jive-talking Gregory Hines (uh, same thing, although he does meet an unexpected fate as dinner) who are trying to solve a series of gruesome murders in The Big Apple. As we all know, it turns out to be a pack of wolves (or are they?) who prefer tenement living and derelicts to woodlands and Bambi.

About halfway through the movie it occurred to me that this wasn't the film I was expecting to see; I had it confused with The Howling, a somewhat-better-than-average werewolf movie from - coincidentally - the same year as Wolfen. Same oeuvre, more or less. Common mistake, I'm sure.

What I did not realize is that Wolfen was written by Whitley Streiber, the author of Critical Mass, a novel about nuclear terrorism that I teased a bit in this post last December. Streiber also wrote The Day After Tomorrow and The Hunger, both of which were adapted to movies of varying quality. The latter starred Catherine Deneuve, who should make any top 10 list of sexy actresses, regardless of era. But I digress.

Well, actually, I don't digress; I'm tru wit dis one. (Quick: what movie is that line from?*)

Feeling somewhat unfulfilled by an absence of werewolves, we then chose Frozen (which reminds me of a joke about Presbyterians that wouldn't be appropriate at all at this point), a movie made just last year about three yahoos - a girl and two guys - who get stuck on a ski lift. The fact that it's already made it to Netflix's streaming catalog should give you some insight as to the quality of this production. It stars some Gen Y/Z actor slackers who look awfully familiar, but, then, they do all look alike, don't they?

I guess Shawn Ashmore would be the most recognizable of the cast, as he has a recurring role in the X-Men series. I'm sure it's one of those little Hollywood insider jokes that Shawn's X-Men character is known as Iceman, and in this movie he battles death by freezing.

Well, I'd like to say that Frozen is an undiscovered, under-appreciated gem of a movie, and it does have its moments, but for the most part you're left despairing about the destiny of our nation if kids like this are its future. You know how in the teen slasher flicks the soon-to-be-decapitated and/or disembowled kids always approach the closed closet door, trembling but without the apparent will to resist, and despite the audience's audible warnings, open the stupid door anyway? Those kids were Rhodes scholars compared to these three bozos, for whom logic is as evanescent as ambition.

I actually awoke in the middle of last night thinking, "I can't believe they didn't ..." Sure, that probably says more about me than about the movie, but that's not the point.

Anyway, I mentioned above that these two movies had something unexpected in common, and that was that - well, remember that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine posits that a wild Australian canine devoured a lady's progeny? Well, guess what the leading cause of death in Frozen turns out to be? That's right; nobody gets iced (in the literal sense), but a pack of wolves does turn out to be a troubling complication to being stuck on a chairlift. I think we both know where this is heading, so there's no need to say more. Suffice it to say that by the end of this movie, we were all rooting for the wolves.

Every movie review must provide a reference to another movie in order to establish the credibility of the reviewer (while ironically exposing his inability to come up with anything original), and so I will compare Frozen to Open Water, the 2003 movie about the scuba divers who are stranded in shark infested waters and end up detonating a nuclear device over Las Vegas to extract revenge. OK, I may have embellished that a bit, but I was trying to avoid irony. Anyway, in both movies the protagonists go through the same "bonding through tribulation" phases, sort of. So, I hope that helps.

There you have: our Friday Night At the Movies en la casa. We should have had popcorn.

*Here's a hint: it starred that annoying actor with a recurring role in the Lethal Weapon series. No, that other annoying actor.

Netflix No DVD Plan: What's Missing
January 4, 2011 6:30 AM | Posted in:

We've just switched our Netflix plan from the "3 DVDs out at-a-time" plan to the "Watching instantly (no DVDs)" plan, thereby saving money ($19.99/month vs. $7.99/month). We don't watch enough movies on DVD to make the rental plan worthwhile.

If Netflix has disclosed how many movies and TV program episodes it has available for "instant watching" (its term for streaming content over the internet), I can't find it. The inventory looks considerable when you're browsing through the company's website. But the streaming content is a fraction of what's available via DVD, and anyone thinking about going disk-free needs to understand exactly what they're giving up.

In an admittedly dangerous precedent, I did some research yesterday evening in an attempt to better characterize the Netflix streaming inventory. I selected the Top 100 Grossing Movies (US market only) for 2008, 2009, and 2010 and correlated those lists to the content available for streaming via Netflix. Every one of the 300 movies was either available on DVD, or was coming to Netflix via DVD (many of the top 2010 movies are still in first-run status).

The availability of those movies for streaming was a starkly different picture. Only nine of the 2010 movies are available via streaming, which wasn't terribly surprising given the typical time lag between first runs and rental availability. 2009 fared better, but still only 33 movies on the list can be watched via streaming. The real shocker came when I cross-checked the 2008 list: only TWO of the Top 100 are available: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (the #20 movie that year), and Defiance, which was last on the Top 100 list. These findings seem to conflict with the company's statement that Netflix has streaming access to films that brought in about 49 percent of the 2010 box office revenues, although they may be including TV shows in that number. [Source]

We don't see a lot of movies at the theater anymore, and haven't felt deprived, so losing access for many of them isn't really a big deal for us. But any film fan who is contemplating a switch to the Netflix no-DVD plan should consider carefully what they're giving up. You may end up spending more on gasoline to drive back and forth to the nearest Red Box to get movie satisfaction if you halt the shipment of Netflix DVDs.

Using Actors In Place of the Real Thing
November 24, 2010 7:00 AM | Posted in: ,

Did you catch Gwyneth Paltrow's performance at the Country Music Awards a couple of weeks ago (watch it on YouTube)? Paltrow is, of course, an Oscar-winning actress, and with more than forty movies under her belt, is probably intimidated by nothing. But it had to give her pause, appearing before many of the most talented, experienced performers in the world of country music - at an awards show, no less, where everyone is already in a judgmental state of mind - and pretending to be a country singer herself in her public singing debut.

Paltrow stars as a washed up country singer in the upcoming movie Country Strong. Gee, that sounds awfully familiar; wonder where they came up with that idea? Of course, copying Crazy Heart isn't a bad strategy, considering that it won Jeff Bridges an Oscar. And playing a country singer on the big screen also has some mojo; just ask Reese Witherspoon, who got an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line.

But Witherspoon's portrayal had something important in common with Jamie Foxx's performance in Ray (another Oscar-garnering appearance). They were portraying real performers who were either dead or no longer active. When you can't get the actual person to play themselves, it's natural to look for an actor who can do a credible job.

Which brings me to my mild complaint about Paltrow being cast as a country singer. Don't we already have enough real country singers who are also gifted actors? Did they have to look for someone with no musical background (being married to a rocker doesn't really count), who had to learn to sing, and learn to talk country, and learn to have big hair, to play this role?

As good as Paltrow is, I can't help thinking that someone like Carrie Underwood, Reba McIntyre, or Faith Hill could do just as good a job on the acting front while being completely authentic as a country musician (and let's not get into bickering about the state of country music today, 'k?).

It's all about box office buzz, I know. Gwyneth Paltrow's name on the poster guarantees an additional xx millions of revenue for the movie, and that's fine. I like Gwyneth Paltrow, and I'm very impressed with her poise and, yes, her voice. And it didn't hurt her credibility to be paired onstage with Vince Gill. But puh-leeze don't try to tell me that she's got a future in country music. Let her take a show on the road through East Texas and Missouri and Southeast New Mexico and Gillette, Wyoming for a few years and then let's talk. In the meantime, we've got plenty of ladies who've earned the right to represent country music.

The Biggest Time-Suck Ever
August 8, 2010 10:31 PM | Posted in: ,

Only time will tell as to whether my installing the Netflix app on my iPad this afternoon will be the greatest or the worst decision of my life.*

I've already spent two hours watching a documentary on Cream** (the band, not the dairy product, although that would probably be interesting too, as long as I can watch it on an iPad).

Netflix doesn't provide every movie in its catalog for streaming, but there are enough titles of interest to suck up every otherwise-productive moment of the day. Very dangerous.

*I've been prone to hyperbole for, like, a billion years.

**Things I Learned: Ginger Baker was the driving force behind the formation of Cream (the band, not the dairy product, although I suppose it's possible he also spent time churning milk). He's also a very bitter fellow who hated bassist Jack Bruce for most of their time together. Also, Eric Clapton was planning to give Jimi Hendrix a left-handed Stratocaster as a gift on a certain night, but never was able to connect with him. That turned out to be the night Hendrix died of a drug overdose. And, finally, all three of the band members have lost significant hearing as a result of their time in front of high-powered amplifiers, and they blame Jim Marshall.

In Praise of Bitter Enders
August 6, 2010 3:13 PM | Posted in:

I enjoyed this article about folks who sit all the way through movie end credits. Debbie and I fall squarely in the category of "bitter enders," rarely missing the final credits. We're usually looking for outtakes or "Easter eggs," but we also enjoy reading the obscure job titles of people who work on movies. I'd like to think that we're showing the assistant gaffer a bit of appreciation for her hard work at, uh, gaffing, and recognizing (or at least guessing at) the significant impact that work had on the movie we just watched.

I wish more movie reviews were sensitive to the needs of bitter enders by including something like "stay for the credits" (no need for spoilers) or "there's nothing in the credits but credits." We wouldn't change our habits based on those tips, but it might expand the ranks of our small but dedicated cadre.

Of course, ushers would be less pleased, but that's why they make the big bucks.

It's always something
June 28, 2010 9:36 PM | Posted in: ,

Remember my excitement over this? The new A/V receiver was a welcome addition to our home theater setup, and I was quite happy with it...until we installed a new Sony Blu-ray player and immediately discovered that something was not quite right.

Whenever we'd try to watch a DVD, the TV would display a fuzzy pink-tinged picture, something that I'm pretty sure didn't accurately reflect the content of the disc. Then, it would display a message like "resolution not supported" and go blank. The cycle would start over, and while it occasionally would end with the DVD playing properly, more often we had to give up on it. The problem was that I was never sure if it was the DVD player, the receiver, the TV, or a combination of two or more of them. All three have the capability of upconverting non-HD signals, and I feared that they just weren't playing well together. And, of course, the documentation read like, well, stereo instructions.

I tried everything I could think of...swapping out HDMI cables, toggling the conversion settings on all the devices, and...well, that's all I could think of to try, to be honest. I finally had the brilliant idea of connecting the DVD player directly to the TV, and it played perfectly. That, combined with the fact that even the cable box/DVR that was routed through another HDMI connector on the receiver led me to believe that the receiver's HDMI circuit board had issues. I googled the problem and found that others had experienced HDMI problems with Onkyo A/V receivers, albeit not with our particular model.

The receiver is still under warranty, so I contacted the store I ordered it from (Vann's Inc., via Amazon.com) and they immediately diagnosed it as a defective unit and offered to exchange it or issue a refund. I was very impressed, until they added that these options were available only if I shipped the unit back to them in the original packaging. That packaging included a box big enough to house a refrigerator, and we didn't want to use an entire spare bedroom just to store an empty cardboard box. So, Vann's washed their hands of the issue.

Next stop: Onkyo's customer support. I emailed them and received a response within a couple of days (along with an apology for the delayed reply). They directed me to one of their service centers for warranty work. Of course, the closest such center is in Denver, so I've got to ship a 40 pound piece of electronics up there and the turnaround is 2-3 weeks, assuming they have the parts in stock to fix it. So be it.

The upside is that we've greatly simplified our remote control situation once more. And we can still watch the Blu-ray player by connecting it directly to the TV. But the absence of surround sound makes an HD DVD a less than satisfying experience. What I really miss is the ability to play music on the front and back porches.

Why am I sharing this? No real reason, other than it might help someone else diagnose a similar problem. And, I guess, also to point out that in light of the kinds of problems we could be having, this one's not too bad.

Overdue A/V Upgrade
April 1, 2010 4:02 PM | Posted in: ,

March was a good month, business-wise, and so I'm splurging on a new A/V receiver. This definitely falls into the category of "luxury" but it will fill several "needs":

  1. When we built this house two years ago I wired it for 7.1 surround sound. We had the four rear speakers installed in the ceiling at the time so they could be painted to match, but two of them have never been connected because our current receiver is an old-and-busted 5.1 model. The new receiver will enhance our listening pleasure by approximately...let's see, carry the one...20%. (The new box is actually a 7.2 receiver; I guess the .2 means that we could run two sub-woofers, but I have no idea why I'd want to do that. I value our drywall too much.)

  2. Our current receiver also does not have an HDMI connector, meaning that the digital HD cable signal is bypassing the receiver completely, going from the cable box directly to the display. So the picture is great, but the audio - well, not so much. Plus, whenever we want to watch a DVD, I have to plug a separate S-Video cable into the side of the TV, which looks ugly in addition to being less than optimal for picture quality. (I knew that eventually I'd have HDMI capabilities, so I didn't go to the trouble to run an S-Video cable through the wall to the TV...in case you're wondering.) The new receiver has six HDMI ports, which should pretty much satisfy our hi-def connection needs for, say, the next two decades, or until something better comes out next month.

  3. This means that we can upgrade to a Blu-Ray player if we so desire. Perhaps April will be a good month, too, although Blu-Ray machines are becoming almost ridiculously inexpensive, at least compared to where they started.

  4. And, finally, because the new receiver supports music streaming by Ethernet, I can finally see if the CAT-5 cable I had run from my office over to the A/V bookshelf actually works. Or, to be more precise, I can finally see if I know how to hook things up so that my computer will talk to the receiver and make sweet music together.
The biggest compromise I made with this selection is that Onkyo's receivers are "Sirius-ready" but not "XM-ready." But I don't have my XM base station connected in the house anyway, so I'm not anticipating that to be a great loss.

What I am simultaneously dreading/looking forward to is disconnecting everything from the old receiver and trying to get it all plugged into the right places on the new one. And, because of the "cascading upgrade" effect, I'll have to do this multiple times, as I move the old receiver into another room to replace and even older one, and move that even older one into a room without one at all.

Creepy Dolls
December 18, 2009 5:47 PM | Posted in:

Dolls have always had the potential to be creepy, if cast in the right (wrong?) light - sort of like clowns. Remember the steel-fanged playtoys in Barbarella? How about those that appeared in various episodes of The Twilight Zone? And we won't even mention voodoo dolls. (Oops.) Then there's this:

While watching the following video of the Muppets performing Queen's classic Bohemian Rhapsody, it occurred to me that they would be perfect to do a cover of something - anything - by Meatloaf. But why stop there? I want to see a Muppet version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Even if you're not a Queen fan, be sure and watch at least the last 20 seconds or so.


Movie Mini-Review: "2012"
November 13, 2009 5:34 PM | Posted in:

Note: No plot spoilers are included in this post

We caught the first matinee showing of 2012, the latest epic disaster movie from Roland Emmerich. The bad news is that the whole world gets destroyed; the good news is that it's not blamed on SUV drivers. Al Gore is reported to be disconsolate.

We went in with reasonable [read: lowered] expectations, and came out thinking, "that was actually pretty entertaining." Sure, Emmerich borrowed heavily from almost every major action thriller movie that has gone before - including Volcano, Earthquake, The Day After Tomorrow, The Poseidon Adventure, and even Speed (he somehow missed Twister, although that footage may have been cut in order to pare the movie down to its spare 158 minute run time) - and it clung to the stereotypical characters (plucky unlikely succeed-against-all-odds heroes, cold-hearted politicians, cute kids and dogs in harm's way, ex-wives who eventually see the error of their ways, and flying rhinos. Oops; strike that last one. Sort of.), but they were all presented in a "we know that you know that we know that this is all in good fun" manner.

So, if you have the budget to afford the popcorn and the bladder to withstand the soft drink, I recommend 2012 as a good way to while away a fall afternoon or evening. Sure, it's mindless entertainment, but let's face it: nowadays, Hollywood just isn't giving us that many chances to irritate Al Gore. Plus, you'll get to see the assassin from Serenity (it took me a while to figure out where I'd seen him before).

Wandering the Web
October 5, 2009 6:27 PM | Posted in: ,

We spent the last few days in scenic Weatherford, Texas (if that sounds like sarcasm, you need to drive through some of the neighborhoods south of I-20 and you'll see that I'm serious. But be sure to pack a GPS.) and thus haven't been attending to bloggerly duties. Here's some stuff I hope will make up for that.

  • We don't live far from Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico, but I've never seen the bats emerge from or return to the caves. I'll bet you haven't either, at least not like this:


The flight of the bats was filmed using an infrared camera which tracked their movements via their body heat. Amazing footage. I've watched it closely, and out of a half million bats (unaudited, I suspect, but still) I saw not a single collision. Drivers in Houston's rush hour traffic should be so skilled. (Via Wired)
  • From the sublime to the, um, not so. Here's how Terminator should have ended. (Via  Geeks are Sexy)


  • Wonder if Bruce Schneier knows about this?

  • Peace Frog is a Japanese motorcycle shop (manufacturer? customizer? hard to tell) which has assembled what appears to be a Royal Enfield with an Indian badge. Gotta love the minimalism; I'd ride one.

  • Speaking of bicycles (well, sort of) here's a lush new (to me) online-only cycling publication called The Ride (big honkin' PDF). It's mostly a series of one page essays written mostly by people unfamiliar to me, although Greg LeMond does recollect The Time Trial (surely you don't have to ask).

  • On a less light-hearted note, I continue to be disappointed, if not downright disgusted, by the names appearing on the petition to have Roman Polanski released. Wonder how many of them would be OK with their 13-year-old daughters being raped? Ah, don't answer that.

  • Last, and probably least, here's a list of 50 large corporations whose PR departments dropped the ball, social-media-wise, and allowed their names to fall victim to cyber-squatters. It's interesting that Chevron's fall-back name, @chevron_justinh, makes it sound like they've assigned their Twitter campaign to an HR intern. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.

I learned everything I know from subtitles
September 8, 2009 2:59 PM | Posted in: ,

My wife inexplicably added Dirty Dancing to our NetFlix queue. I inexplicably put it in the DVD player this morning (my copy of Die Hard 3 having mysteriously gone missing), and as is my habit while watching a movie during a run on the treadmill, I activated subtitles so as not to miss any of the deep and moving dialog.

You may not have noticed, but the writers of movie subtitles often exercise what I'll diplomatically refer to as artistic license when generating the text that accompanies the movie's audio track. The really good (or compulsive) subtitlers will even describe sound effects (craaaack!) or musical interludes (cello playing ominously). You'll occasionally see long monologues paraphrased, sometimes in ways that affirm one's suspicions that no aspect of modern industry is immune to outsourcing to workers for whom English is, at best, a second language.

And, sometimes, they just get it wrong, having apparently thrown up their figurative hands in dismay, as if they'd been asked to subtitle the original version of Louie, Louie. Such is the case with one scene in Dirty Dancing.

Remember when Baby and Johnny are doing the mambo exhibition while Johnny's regular partner visits the butcher with the coat hanger? Of course you do; don't play coy. Anyway, she's all, like, nervous and he's all, like, just follow my lead, and he's talking her through the next steps (like anyone ever does that), and at one point he says, very clearly, albeit sotto voce, "cross body lead."

Now, as we all know, the cross body lead is one of the more common moves in ballroom and Latin dancing, where the male turns away from the female and then pulls her past his body in one fluid (theoretically) motion so that she ends up on the opposite side of where she started. One can do cross body leads in everything from cowboy two step to rumba to foxtrot (although I've never seen anyone actually successfully execute the move while doing the gator). So, it's not like it's some exotic move that was specially created at Patrick Swayze's behest just for this movie.

Anyway...well, I've lost my train of thought. Oh, wait; the subtitle. Yeah, when Johnny says cross body lead, the subtitle comes up as now spot a lead. Oh, my. Talk about a disaster of epic proportions.

I think (I hope) the message is clear: never rely on subtitles when trying to master subject material of a highly technical or life-and-death nature. Because it might just be that the next time you're trying to defuse a bomb before it blows up the nunnery, instead of playing through your head the proper snip the red wire, you'll hear strip and head higher, and not only will people die, but you'll probably be humiliated. 

My Idea for a "Taken" Sequel
February 6, 2009 10:11 AM | Posted in:

So, we took in a matinée showing of Taken today, and as we walked out of the theater I bounced this idea off MLB

"They need to pair up Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills with Bruce Willis's John McClain and have them be dads who volunteer to be chaperones on a high school trip in order to keep an eye on their daughters. Something could go terribly wrong -- terrorists could, like, kidnap the whole class and, like, do mean stuff -- and Bryan and John could go into action to save them." 

I know, it sounds lame, but what if the field trip was to Washington, D.C. And what if the bad guys were actually Congress? Starting to see the appeal now? 

OK, it's just a fantasy, but if you're a Hollywood screenwriter cruising the net for ideas, remember where you heard it. 

Anyway, if you haven't seen Taken and you're a fan of the Die Hard movies, go see it. Neeson doesn't have Willis's comic flair, but to paraphrase Johner in Alien: Resurrection*, he is not the guy with whom you want to **** (pardon my French special characters, which is appropriate given that most of the movie's action took place in Paris). 

*This is an under-appreciated member of the "Alien" line-up, in my opinion. The movie is worth watching if only for Ripley's basketball scene, and getting to see the corrupt General Perez pull his own pineal gland** out of the back of his head and stare at it in horror is, well, compelling beyond description. 

**OK, I have no idea if it really was a pineal gland, but it was small and icky and seemed like something a person would be really sad to be holding in his hand.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Movies category.

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