Saturday, February 07, 2004

Movieblogging: Lost in Translation
Now, for a movie that I've been dying to see that met my expectations fully: Lost in Translation (2003). I've previously stated that I love the work of Bill Murray--particularly his dramatic roles. This was magnificent, and for once, the Oscar nomination is well-deserved, as is it's current position at #146 on the IMDB Top 250.

It's a bit of a hard movie to recommend. It is by no means a comedy, but there are funny moments. It's not a romance exactly, nor is it really a drama. In fact, there's very little plot involved. It's more of a set of character sketches amidst a wonderfully realized setting.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the movie centers around a washed up actor played by Murray who makes money doing TV ads in Japan. He befriends a young American woman (played by the amazing Scarlett Johansson) who is there with her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi). Though there is barely any plot, I can't say more about it for the sake of my general ethics.

What really struck me about the movie is how it managed to convey how alien Japan was for our main characters in such a realistic way. There's a lot of movies that have explored the "fish out of water" concept, including many regarding Japan, but none that approached the subject like this. For instance, there were never any subtitles. Some of the Japanese people encountered could speak English; in other scenes interpreters passed along some of the meaning, but not all of it for the benefit of our main characters. There are other parts, though, like Johansson and Murray running through a pachinko parlor. They didn't pause to explain what pachinko was for the audience, nor it's importance to Japanese society, but the shot was included.

The word that keeps running through my head after seeing this movie is contemplative. Most of it is shot in low light conditions; there's very little plot and no action to speak of. But I absolutely loved it.
Movieblogging: Masterminds
Yep I must have a masochistic streak in me today. I'm watching Masterminds (1997). This movie would have never been seen by anyone over the age of twelve had it not been for the fact that Patrick Stewart stars as the bad guy, complete with an evil, thin, John Waters-style mustache. It's not every day that you get to see Patrick Stewart play the villain. The plot is vaguely ripped off from Toy Soldiers (1991). That movie had a much stronger cast, including Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, R. Lee Ermey, and Louis Gossett, Jr.

Masterminds does feature Brenda Fricker as the principal. She's best remembered as the hilarious mom in So I Married An Axe Murderer. Matt Craven is a veteran character actor (he was in Timeline last year), and while you'd never recognize his name you'd recognize his face. Here he plays the main character's father, but doesn't get a lot of screen time.

Parts of it are sort of stupidly fun, but definitely aimed at males between the ages of nine and fifteen. Our hero, of course, is a kid who was kicked out of the school being taken over, and in addition to being a prankster is also an 3133r hax0r. (He's conveniently at the school during the terrorist takeover because he had to drop off his little sister.) The opening sequence shows him breaking into a server to download a copy of Scream 2 just a few days before it was to be released in the theater. Scream 2 did come out in 1997, but I'm not sure if it was produced by the same studio or if there was any other connection between the two films. This sequence was one of the dumbest I've ever seen, and I've seen some downright moronic hacking sequences. (I'm not alluding to any mad skillz on my part, but anyone who's spent thirty seconds working on a real server of any kind knows that it's one of the least visually interesting experiences you'll encounter on a computer.) In this scene, not only does the studio have a completely graphical gothic castle for its interface, but in order to break in, the server gives you two minutes to navigate through the castle with a joystick looking for the right door, all the while threatening you with federal prosecution. The wrong doors, naturally, open up to various poorly rendered monsters and skeletons.

There's no need to linger on the plot... It's clearly intended for kids. I'm guessing Patrick Stewart was hard up for cash or something at the time.
Movieblogging: Hot to Trot
Slave to my own bad taste and insatiable curiosity, I'm watching Hot to Trot (1988). This is a bad, bad movie. It has a lot of talent in it--John Candy is the voice of the horse, Burgess Meredith has a cameo as the talking horse's father, Dabney Coleman is the bad guy, and Virginia Madsen is a good yet underappreciated actress. So what went wrong? The Mr. Ed concept only works for a hafl hour. For ninety minutes, it wears pretty thin. Likewise, Bobcat Goldthwait is funny in small doses--his parts in the Police Academy movies are about the limit of what most audiences can take. But watching him and listening to that damned voice for this long is painful.

Why am I watching it? Curiosity. I really don't know why I never saw this, because it came out when I was going to the movies pretty regularly and renting a bunch of stuff from the video store. It seems that at some point I would have seen it, but I just never did. Obviously I wasn't missing anything. The movie is everything you'd expect from a talking horse movie, but with worse writing and less class.
Movieblogging: Big Trouble in Little China
After an exhausting week, I don't feel like doing anything more than lying back and watching movies. With determination and sloth, I can make this happen. First up on the list is Big Trouble in Little China (1986). Yet another one of those great bad movies that could have only been made in the 80s.

Had it been made in the 70s, it would have been too bad to watch, unless it starred Bruce Lee. Had it been made in the 90s, it probably would have starred Jackie Chan and been an enjoyable, but wholly different movie. Made in the 00s, Kurt Russell would have been replaced by a rap star and the movie would feature Matrix-style special effects. Only in the 80s could you have a truck driver going up against three guys wearing giant wicker hats and an evil sorcerer and somehow, damnit, it just makes sense.

Kurt Russell is an interesting guy. He's had a long career, stretching back to 1957. He played professional baseball for a few years and has his pilot's license. While you don't hear much from him regarding politics, he's an NRA member and was best man at Ted Nugent's best man at his wedding, so you can figure it out. He's great in comedy, drama, and action movies. Just compare, say, Captain Ron to his performance as the psychiatrist in Vanilla Skyl. You can hardly believe it's the same person. I tend to like his roles in which he plays a guy thrown into an adventure against his will and typically pretty pissed off about it: Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, Escape from New York, Escape from L.A., all directed by John Carpenter.

This is a pretty well-known film and the plot is too silly to analyze, but it's a lot of fun and perfect for a lazy afternoon. Kim Catrall (best known these days as Samantha on Sex and the City) is in this as the female lead. Aside from that, we've got veteran actors James Hong and Victor Wong who have been in tons of movies, and a scattering of other Chinese character actors that have never really broken through into big roles. Still, the cast works well, and despite being goofy, it stands the test of time fairly well.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Boozeblogging: Appleton Special Jamaica Rum
As a result of a general feeling towards self-improvement, I both intend to drink less this year and sample more different kinds of alcoholic beverages. Thus I find myself with a small bottle of Appleton Special Jamaica Rum. The distillery formally goes back to 1749, though it appears as though production was going on as far back as 1655. This bit from 1825 was interesting:
It all began in the year 1825 when John Wray, a wheelwright living in the parish of St. Ann on the northern side of the island, opened a tavern in Kingston. Although it did not become Jamaica's capital until 1872, Kingston was then, as it is now, a bustling seaport and the island's commercial centre. It was also the site of one of the most fashionable theatres in the New World, the Theatre Royal. A theatre which had stood here since 1775 and English touring companies would make their first call there before going north to Boston in America and the then fledging town of New York.

It was beside the Theatre Royal that John Wray set up shop, and he called it appropriately, �The Shakespeare Tavern�. The Tavern stood on the northern side of the main square, known as Parade, which was a popular meeting place for locals. Across the square from the tavern was the Parish Church and to the west a large market. John Wray had chosen his location well and there, �backed by more foresight and genius than by the slender earnings which he had accumulated over a very long period�, he realised his lifelong dream of becoming a successful rum merchant.
As for my own opinion, while it's the first Jamaican rum that I've ever had (yes, stop laughing), I'm not tremendously impressed. It's certainly serviceable, but it has a weird angle to it that I can't quite identify. Actually, I'd like to try one of their aged rums, because I think that it could be a damned good dark aged rum. (After five years, the line between rum and whiskey tends to blur. Rums like that are expensive and should be savored, but never blended. Only a few ice cubes should be allowed to mix with a spirit like that.)
Movieblogging: Rare Birds
This is something that I've been wanting to see for a while, as it's quirky premise always looked appealing on the schedule. Rare Birds (2001) takes place in Newfoundland, and two struggling local businessmen fake the sighting of an extinct bird in order to attract bird-watching tourists. You can pretty easily figure out the plot from there... A good natured look at rural Newfoundland and bird watchers wrapped up in a mild comedy.

The main star is William Hurt, and Molly Parker (who had a role in Max) stars as a stunning redhead, but unless you're from Canada, you wouldn't recognize anyone else. One or two of the minor actors look familiar from other Canadian movies I've seen, but I don't feel like digging them up at the moment, eh. I have an odd fascination with Canada... A Canadian wildlife calendar graces my wall right now, and

Hard core bird watchers are a funny lot, as they'll make trips all over creation to stomp around in the mud and scan the trees with binoculars. Many keep scorecards and some will spend their last dying days trying to find that one last elusive bird. I have nothing against them, though, as I'm sort of a closeted birder.

Now, I'd never go on a trip specifically to look for birds, and I don't even own a pair of binoculars. But I've got excellent eyesight (20/15), and one of the benefits of picking up my new camera was that the 10x optical zoom would let me catch decent bird photos. My enthusiasm tends to come in the form of being aware of the birds around me, doing a quick scan for interesting species that might be passing through, and then moving on. If I see something interesting, I'll get as close as I can for a better look, but I'm no good at bird calls. Back in Scouts, I had to be able to identify 50-odd species of local birds, and that knowledge has stuck with me. However, I'm by no means an expert and often have to remember as many details as possible in order to consult a field guide later.

Lest you be concerned, it's not just birds... I'm the same way with trees, wildflowers, and other wild animals. What makes birds particularly interesting is that because of the migration patterns, you can live in one place and, over the course of the year, see birds from all over. Turtles from Michigan don't exactly pass through Tennessee on their way to Mexico every fall.

Alas, my geekdom knows no bounds.
Bookblogging: Skin Tight
I've recently finished my second Carl Hiaasen book, Skin Tight (1989). I'm reading a few other things at the moment, but needed a break. Much like Native Tongue, this one takes place amidst the sweaty underbelly of South Florida. There's the usual assortment of rogues and ne'er-do-wells, but it's not exactly formulaic. He's a damned good writer in this particular genre of crime fiction, and his work makes for the perfect mental getaway. And he writes some of the most creative-yet-amusing death scenes I've ever read. I'd mention one, but they always come at interesting points in the plot and I don't want to give anything away. Plus, the deaths make more sense when you've gotten to know the characters involved.

Again, I hate to say much about the plot, but there's a good bit of sex and violence and humor and all of the other things that make pulp fiction enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Weird Food Cravings
I don't know what's up with me recently... Saturday I ordered the oddest sounding thing on the menu at the Chinese take-out joint, "Fragrant Pork" containing something called "black fungus". I was thinking that might just mean black mushrooms, but a post-mortem on the leftovers revealed only a few sinister-looking black strips of something.

Then there's the cacha�a... Enough has already been said over that.

Today I found myself at my beloved local Vietnamese soup restaurant. I normally get the pho with beef, but today I picked out another soup. I don't even remember the name, but it contained pork and "seafood". Now, the Vietnamese definition of seafood is much broader than your local Captain D's. But I like a lot of weird seafood (preferably raw), so I went through with it. The soup was great, but aside from the shrimp I had no idea what I was eating. There were three or four distinct species represented, and I can't even hazard a guess as to what they were.

Lord knows where these odd cravings will take me next...

Monday, February 02, 2004

Thanks to a gift, I'm in possession of a bottle of cacha�a. It's sort of like rum's angry South American cousin with the bad prison record.

The basic ingredient of rum is molasses, which is boiled down and refined from sugar cane juice. Cacha�a is made from fermented sugar cane juice, the drink of choice for those too anxious to wait for the molasses phase. In both cases, the base ingredient is mixed with yeast and some water and allowed to ferment. The yeast turns the sugar into alcohol, and this stage eventually ends when the alcohol content gets high enough to kill off the remaining live yeast. (Different yeast have different tolerances; hence the different strains used for beer, wine, and hard liquor.) For rum and cacha�a, this point hits at around 55%. The resulting liquid is then distilled to separate the alcohol from the water, until you end up with a mostly clear liquid that is 40% alcohol and 60% water. This is known as 80 proof, and is the basic alcohol level for most of your mainstream vodkas, rums, whiskeys, etc. (If you go full 100 proof--50% alcohol--then you can light the beverage on fire with a match, hence the "proof" of its content. However, those beverages are dangerous to serve, drink, and transport.)

However, the distilled beverage isn't exactly pure. Unless its been filtered through charcoal and other substances, it's going to retain other materials and impurities. Here, I have to digress a bit into the sugar industry.

To make sugar, you take sugar cane (or sugar beets or sweet corn if you don't have access to sugar cane) and mash it up. You press out the sweet liquid and then boil it to remove most of the water. Then through a second boiling process, you can extract pure sugar (sucrose) crystals, while the leftover syrup is known as molasses. (This is the stuff used to make rum, and what is drizzled on your biscuits.) Then there's a third boiling that extracts more sucrose, and the leftover syrup from that is called blackstrap molasses. I actually prefer it to regular molasses as it has a sort of bitter flavor. This comes from the fact that it's full of all of the vitamins and minerals that the plant absorbed from the ground. (Regular molasses contains these, but not in anywhere near the same concentration.) For this reason, it's popular amongst health food nuts and affiliated hippies. I'm not one of those, but I prefer the heartier, earthier flavors from blackstrap, as I'm not much into sweet flavors these days.

(It's important to note that rum isn't a sweet beverage, but when combined with other sugary beverages--that were likely sweetened with sugar processed in the above manner--you end up with a natural reunion of flavors and trace elements that blend beautifully.)

All of this leads into the fact that, since it's fermented directly from sugar cane juice, cacha�a has a lot more of those impurities than rum, and thus has a much harder edge. All of the minerals (we can forget the vitamins now) that would normally settle to the bottom and eventually become blackstrap are fully mixed in with the juice, and follow through to the cacha�a. The end result doesn't taste much like rum--in fact, it tastes and acts a lot like tequila.

The standard way of serving cacha�a is to make a caipirinha. Take a lime, cut it up in chunks, and toss about a quarter of the lime in the bottom of a glass (like an old-fashioned or highball). Pour in a tablespoon of sugar, and use a spoon or a pestle to smash up the lime and mix the sugar with the lime juice. Then fill the glass with ice and pour the cacha�a over it. Drink slowly so as to allow the ice to melt and mellow out the alcohol.

I may not have been doing it right, but I really didn't enjoy the above recipe. With a bit of trial and error, I came up with a better alternative. Do the bit with the lime, but skip the sugar. Fill the glass with ice, then fill halfway with cacha�a. Fill up the glass with Sprite/7-Up or the lemon-lime beverage of your choice, and then splash in a bit of grenadine syrup. Mix well and enjoy. This definitely takes the edge off the "aguardente", or "water with teeth" as it's also known. The resulting beverage looks something like a cosmopolitan, but tastes more like a good, old style daiquiri--not one of those syrupy sour/sweet things you get in a restaurant. It is to my eternal regret that mass-produced mixers have forever given margaritas and daiquiris a bad name. Prepare one traditionally without the mix, only using alcohol and fruit juices, and you'll never go back.
Movieblogging: Groundhog Day
Given today's holiday, it is appropriate that Encore is showing Groundhog Day (1993), which clocks in at an unfortunately low #202 on the IMDB Top 250. I've often felt that if this movie only starred someone other than Andie McDowell, it would be a perfect film. For the record, I feel the exact same way about Four Weddings and a Funeral. There are other movies starring her in second-tier roles that I still enjoy, like Hudson Hawk and Short Cuts, but I just really don't like her as an actress. And that's saying a lot as a Southerner who's proud that she has kept her accent (like Matthew McConaughey).

This movie was a real gamble. The premise sounds stupid, and it could have failed like many other regular comedies that incorporate a single sci-fi/fantasy plot device into an otherwise normal film (like Multiplicity). But under the genius writing/direction of Harold Ramis (who also directed Caddyshack and Vacation) coupled with the brilliant acting of Bill Murray, it just works. And since it's immensely popular, I'll refrain from talking about the plot, except to say that there are few mainstream movies out there that feature the main character killing himself over and over again.

Bill Murray is a great comic actor, but he has a dramatic depth to him that's just spectacular. Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums are Rum Smuggler Classics. I'm anxiously awaiting his latest movie, the critically acclaimed Lost in Translation, costarring Scarlett Johanssen from Ghost World. (Though it comes out on DVD tomorrow, I've got plans to watch it Saturday evening at the same time as a friend halfway across the state, with e-mail discussion to follow. I'd like to see it tomorrow, but a promise is a promise.)

Murray has been in a bunch of bad movies, but I think those have paid the bills and helped keep him in the public consciousness. And his good roles more than make up for the bad ones. Robin Williams can do comedy and drama well, but he tends to go pretty far in either direction, and doesn't combine the two well. Mrray is able to orbit around the center in just about any part. He brings a little humor to his dramatic roles and a little seriousness to his comedic roles. Most importantly, in both regards he's understated and subtle.

Other notable supporting actors include Ramis in a small role, Chris Elliott as the cameraman, Murray's brother Bryan Doyle-Murray as the mayor, veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, and Scooter as the groundhog.

Oh, and for the record, today Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and thus predicted six more weeks of winter.
A belated note here... Saturday night I saw Comic Book the Movie (2004), though I really didn't know much about it beforehand.

Shot on video, it's a mockmentary starring and directed by Mark Hamill. He plays the world's biggest fan of a made-up character, Commander Courage, who is about to remade by Hollywood in a big budget movie. The new "Codename C.O.U.R.A.G.E." will dress in all black and be dark and tragic; instead of his sidekick Liberty Lad, he'll be teamed up with the buxom Liberty Lass. Hamill's character is initially hired by the studio to do some features for the DVD, but he vows to change the system from within.

You've got to be pretty geeky--and of a particular subset of geekdom--to enjoy the movie. Lots of actual comic book artists and writers are featured in the movie, as a great deal of it was shot at the huge comics convention in San Diego. (This provides one of the odd joys of the movie, watching the reactions of bystanders as Mark Hamill acts like a superfan.) Many of the other actors in the movie are well-known cartoon voice actors. Particularly prominent are Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) and Billy West (Fry from Futurama).

It was a lot of fun to watch, though I'll admit that the joke wore a bit thin by the end. It needed to be about 30 minutes shorter. And I can't recommend it for general audiences, unless you want to piss off your normal friends and spouses.
Election 2004: An 80s Look at the Democratic Candidates
This is just glorious... Via the delightful Wonkette, The Black Table takes a look at the Democratic Candidates through the eyes of 80s Brat Pack movies, several of which have been reviewed here. You'll never look at them the same way again.
Election 2004: Mini Tuesday Primaries
I'm not going to make any solid predictions for tomorrow's primaries, except that unless some miracle occurs, I think Dean may be dead in the water. He's decided not to really campaign or show any TV ads for this set of primaries. And granted, none of these are that important. South Carolina is the only one that anyone is paying attention to, just because John Edwards and Al Sharpton have such strong numbers relative to their prior performance. Had Gephardt stayed in the race, Missouri would have been interesting, but it remains to be seen if he'll endorse a candidate before tomorrow's voting.

The Dean decline has been depressing to watch. I still wouldn't have voted for him for president, but I really admired what he brought to the race. It's a lot like how I felt about the 2000 primaries and the defeat of John McCain. A lot of conservatives and libertarians hate the guy for his centrism and his successful push for campaign finance reform. To the latter, I must point out that his constituents (tons of senior citizens in Arizona) were really vocal about the issue, and I can't fault a man for following his convictions and listening to his supporters. Likewise, I don't think he could have gotten the bill passed were he president, especially if the Democrats had been able to hold the Senate. Most importantly, I think he could have solidly beaten Al Gore, saving us all of the crap that followed. To this day I have little respect or interest in George W. Bush, aside from the general respect for the office that I accord every president. Particularly in light of his recent spending spree. Arrrgh...

With Dean and McCain, it wasn't so much that I 100% agreed with them, but I wanted to see an "outsider" succeed and shake up the system a bit. Our current stasis isn't going to allow for any significant changes in the way government works. I don't advocate radical change, but there are obvious procedures and departments that need heavy work, and under the current sytem I just don't think it can happen.
Quiz Time!
Maybe I'll just start posting the results every time I take one of those silly little quizzes, though I think this one hit me spot-on:

You are 61% geek
You are a geek. Good for you! Considering the endless complexity of the universe, as well as whatever discipline you happen to be most interested in, you'll never be bored as long as you have a good book store, a net connection, and thousands of dollars worth of expensive equipment. Assuming you're a technical geek, you'll be able to afford it, too. If you're not a technical geek, you're geek enough to mate with a technical geek and thereby get the needed dough. Dating tip: Don't date a geek of the same persuasion as you. You'll constantly try to out-geek the other.

Take the Polygeek Quiz at Thudfactor.com

And I'm also a Drew Carey fan... Weird. I'm just glad the music section didn't have a percentage boost if you were actually listening to Weezer while taking the test.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

States I've Visited
Many blogs have been excited about this map utility over the past week, so I thought I should generate my own (states I've visisted are in red):

create your own visited states map
or write about it on the open travel guide
I've considered a road trip through the northeast just to knock out a lot of those little states.
Movieblogging: Solaris
This is the more recent adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's classic novel, Solaris (2002). Starring George Clooney and a bunch of people you've never heard of. I've seen and much prefer the original Russian version, Солярис (1972), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, the only Soviet director besides Eisentein that you're likely to have heard of. (To his credit, Tarkovsky defected later in life, but he died in France, so it's kind of a mixed blessing.) It's not exactly the most exciting film you'll ever see, but definitely one of the most thoughtful and contemplative.

Back to Clooney... For some reason, I think I should hate him, but upon reflection, I have no logical reason to do so. I was indifferent towards his early work in the end days of The Facts of life. I vaugely remember him as the bad guy in Combat High (1986) alongside Dana Hill, better known as Audrey Griswold from Euorpean Vacataion, who died in 1996 after complications from diabetes. However, looking over Clooney's body of work, I must admit that I mostly like the guy.

His work on ER was great, and I'm only referring to the second TV series bearing that name in which he starred. (He was on the unrelated E/R in 1984.) O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a Rum Smuggler Classic. I mostly enjoyed Three Kings and Out of Sight. The remake of Ocean's Eleven was pretty decent, and I don't hold much against him for Batman and Robin. Seriously, I don't. And I have a soft spot for One Fine Day, though I have no desire to see it right now. (For some reason, I really love movies that show an idealized, romanticized view of New York City. I've never been there, but despite my Southern upbringing I've tried to hold on to a glorified notion of our nation's biggest city, and some movies tend to show it in a loving light. Examples would include Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You and the splendid John Cusak/Kate Beckinsale feature Serendipity. I'm generally able to put my bitter cynicism aside for these films.)

All of that aside, let's get back to the movie... Actually, why bother? It's basically the same story, but with better special effects, half the length, and little of the mood of the original. Basically the "Cliff's Note" version. Let's face it: the original was a hit not only among particularly devoted sci-fi fans but also certain film enthusiasts. I don't see this modern version being appealing to either group. Do yourself a favor and watch the Russian adaptation, or read the novel.

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