Thursday, December 31, 2009

You Aughta See . . .

While I wrote about music back in the days before blogs, I never really did the same with movies. It wasn't due to lack of interest. A lot of lonely weekends in law school led to my development into a film fanatic. Thanks to Netflix, I've got a treasure trove of great cinema, new and old, to work through these days.

As with the tunes, I do not claim to be any kind of an expert. Hell, I can at least make music, but I've never made a film! I won't argue that the ten movies below were the "best" of the decade (although some probably are), they're just the ones that stuck with me in a particularly ferocious way.

A word about the method to my madness - I took every flick that made my Year in Film & Video posts as well as things that got a 4 (out of 5) star rating or better at Netflix and threw them in the hopper. The plan was to narrow the list down to my top ten, but I had to include at least one more. Even that was a challenge.

Think of these as personal recommendations - if you haven't seen these flicks, you really ought to check them out.

Films of the Decade

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

This has the double benefit of being a gripping, well made documentary (it won an Academy Award in 2001) that also happens to have public defenders as the heroes. Brenton Butler was a 15 year old kid swooped up by police in the wake of a brutal murder in Florida. Police coerced a confession out of Butler, who was rescued by a collection of lawyers and investigators from the local PD office. Not only did they clear an innocent man, they tipped police to the two real killers who were subsequently convicted. This story is the shot of courage I need when I get in one of those "why am I doing this kind of work?" funks.

Ararat (2002)

Director Atom Egoyan could have made a straight forward Schindler's List type movie about the Armenian Genocide. But that wouldn't be Egoyan's style. Instead, he uses the device of a movie about the making of that kind of movie to do something much more interesting. The result is a story that is about the power of the stories we tell, to ourselves and to others. It's a brilliant meditation on history and memory as well.

25th Hour (2002)

I've been pleasantly surprised to see this Spike Lee joint on several lists of the decade's best films. Most folks pick up on the fact that this was one of the first (if not the first) films shot in post-9/11 New York City that makes reference to the fall of the Twin Towers. Yeah, that's part of it, but it's not what resonated with me. Given my line of work, this story of Monty, a drug dealer, wrapping up his life before going to prison for seven years says a lot about the collateral damage of the "War on Drugs." Monty's a bastard, but you feel for him, maybe because he finally realizes how much of a bastard he's been all his life.

Shattered Glass (2003)

I'm drawn back to this movie again and again for largely the same reason I was fascinated by Forbidden Lie$, as it's a finely detailed examination of a fraud flailing about trying to dig himself out from underneath his artifice while actually digging himself deeper in. Stephen Glass was a hot shot writer for The New Republic back in the Clinton years when it still meant something. Turns out that Glass's reputation was built on the back of stories that were largely, and in some instances completely, works of fiction. When the bubble was pricked by a rival online magazine, it popped in spectacular fashion. The pop and the fallout are fascinating to watch. Oh, and it turns out young Anakin can actually act!

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

If it's true that we are all the sum of our experiences, then that must include the bad ones, right? Painful memories are just as important to who we are as good ones. That's the essential truth at the heart of one of the best sci-fi flicks of recent memory. "Wait a tic," you say, "there's no lasers or aliens or spaceships here - is it really sci-fi?" Absolutely. The plot is driven by a device that allows the targeted destruction of memories, a means to eliminate the nasty bits of your past. But the mechanics of the tech aren't as important as what its effects tell us about humanity. That's good sci-fi. It's also funny, inventive, sweet, and scathing in turn. That's just a good flick.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Speaking of inventive, but in a much darker vein. It's hard to believe that a movie set during the days of fascist Spain in which the main character, a young girl, dies (after a fashion) can be so enjoyable. That's largely down to Guillermo del Toro's amazing visual style, but that doesn't really mean anything without a story and compelling characters to back it up. I'm very glad I actually got to see this in the theater, in addition to repeated viewings on DVD.

The Prestige (2006)

I won't argue that The Prestige is especially profound, like Eternal Sunshine . . ., or a unique visual treat, like Pan's . . ., but, damn, it was the most entertaining thing I saw in a theater this decade. A tale of deadly oneupsmanship between a pair of Victorian magicians, it really did keep you guessing up until the end. Or it kept me guessing, at any rate. One of the few DVDs I've purchased that's devoid of any real bonus material - it's that good.

United 93 (2006)

9/11 was the defining event of the decades, to be sure, and will be the "where were you when" moment for my generation. It was inevitable that movies would be made about the event and the people involved, but it was far from certain that they would be any good. Paul Greengrass succeeded in this flick by keeping it completely straight, simply telling the story of the "fourth plane", which crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers, alerted to what was going on by loved ones, stormed the cockpit. The moments before that occurs, when those on the plan make last calls to their friends and families is one of the most moving things I've ever seen. United 93 hurts so much because it's not been pumped up with Hollywood gimmicks. Sadly, there was simply no need.

The Lives of Others (2006)

Eavesdroppers, by definition, are a sleazy bunch. Those who hang around to catch bits of gossip are bad enough. Those who do it systematically for the government are on whole other level, though. Which is why a movie about one of them, working for one of the most oppressive states ever, is so fascinating. As much evil as Gerd does for the Stasi, he is not, deep down inside, a bad person. If he was, his job would be easier and wouldn't bleed over into the rest of his life. That's the story - how the listening impacts the listener. Made a great double bill with The Conversation when I saw them a couple of years ago.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)

Black markets exist because the law can never really keep human beings from acting on their desires and needs. We have a robust black market for drugs in this country. The fact that it's illegal to sell or possess them doesn't make it go away. So to with abortion, in the pre-Roe days. That truth lurked in my mind all the way through this flick, about a woman who helps her friend obtain a black market abortion in Ceausescu's Romania. The plot make the film interesting, intellectually. What makes it excellent and emotionally robust is the attention to detail and the finely worked performances of all involved.

Man on Wire (2008)

Before the Twin Towers were symbols of horrific crime, they were symbols of progress, innovation, and wonder. It's those earlier impressions that caught the eye of Phillipe Petit, a French acrobat who saw a picture of the rising towers in a magazine in his dentist's office in 1968. He hatched deviously simple idea that required a complex scheme to pull off - stretch a high wire between the two towers and walk it. Man on Wire is the story of that scheme - the "artistic crime of the century" according to some - told with lots of enthusiasm by Petit himself. A great documentary in its own right, but also a wonderful reminder that the WTC will always be more than the sight of the nation's greatest crime.

There you have it. Update your Netflix queues as warranted!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You Aughta Hear . . .

Back in the days before blogs, I wrote album reviews. Nothing all that substantive, just gut reactions to whatever passed through my world. Ever since I started this blog I've occasionally popped off about music. So it only seems natural, as we wind up the decade, to look back at the high points.

I am by no means an expert and won't make the argument that these are the ten "best" albums of the Aughts. They are simply the favorites of all the ones I heard. Think of them as personal recommendations - if you haven't heard this stuff, you really ought to give some of it a shot.

A word on methodology - I took all the albums released this decade that either made my Year in Tunes posts or that I gave ratings of 8 (of 10) or better in my music inventory program. I listened to them all afresh and took the top ten. Taking a page from The Onion A.V. Club, I've also included ten favorite songs from albums that didn't make the "best of" cut.

Albums of the Decade
Dancing, by Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins (2000)

A bit of a last hurrah for the Beer for Dolphins moniker, Keneally's big band album is probably his most accessible. That's not to say that there isn't a load of brilliant playing and general weirdness about, but its all wrapped around memorable tunes, from the playful "Live in Japan" to the elegiac "I Was Not Ready for You" to the full throated closers "Kedgeree." Even with a cut I almost always skip ("Only Mondays" gives me hives) it's brilliant.

Kid A, by Radiohead (2000)

I didn't know it at the time, but this was my gateway into electronic music, something that I've been exploring more and more over the years. I bought it largely because I missed out on OK Computer when it came out and didn't want to be behind the curve. I do vividly remember the band on SNL doing "Ideoteque," however, with one of the guys swapping patch cords on some massive modular synth all the while, tho'.

mei, by echolyn (2002)

echolyn's 2000 comeback album was a little less overtly proggy than their earlier works, although it's brilliant in its own right. Any worries that the guys might be "maturing," however, was put to rest with mei, made up of one 53-minute track (it's not even subdivided). Epics that long most often just don't work, much less work this well. It rocks, it floats, it wails. Brilliant from beginning to end.

In Absentia, by Porcupine Tree (2002)

The Aughts were good to Steven Wilson and company, who continued to build a following so passionate that 2009's The Incident made significant noise on the British charts. The groundwork for that was laid with In Absentia, where the band took their Floyd influences and acoustic shadings and slammed them headlong into metal riffage. This is the best sustained example of that formula.

The World That We Drive Through, by The Tangent (2004)

I was a little surprised to find that every album by The Tangent had made it onto my Year in Tunes posts (until this year, sadly). Not because they aren't one of my favorite bands - they are - but because I hadn't realized how good they had always been. I'm probably in the minority in ranking The World . . . as their best, but I think it's the most consistent example of their blend of classic symphonic prog and Canterbury elements.

The Sane Day, by Beardfish (2005)

As I recall, these Swedes started their legendary Progday set with "The Gooberville Ballroom Dancer," the first line of which begins "he was a filthy mutherfucker . . .." Talk about an entrance! They've been fixtures on the prog scene ever since. While all of their copious output has its moments, I think this one works best as a whole. It's got a loose spacey feeling in spots that's lacking on later albums. It's a concept album, about a bizarre journey that teaches that you really can't go home again. I think. But who cares, when the music's so good?

The Hemulic Voluntary Band, by Ritual (2007)

More proggy goodness from Sweden, also with a skewed lyrical outlook. Based mostly on Tove Jansson's Moomin stories, the band weaves several tales spiced with intricate, organic, interesting music. It says something that this is one of my favorite keyboard albums and there's nary a synth to be found on it.

4th, by D.F.A. (2008)

As I said, I took all the "nominated" albums and gave them a listen. My intent with 4th was to figure out which tune would go on to be a "best of the rest" contender. When I couldn't do it, it dawned on me that this had to be on the album list. And why not? Jazzy Canterbury-esque prog, with crunchier guitars and an Italian accent, topped off with a track led by a trio of female vocalists updating an older folk tune. Great stuff.

The Hazards of Love, by The Decemberists (2009)

Colin Meloy and crew tell a tale that involves a shape shifting hero, his evil witch of a mother, his put upon lover, and, somehow, a sociopathic rake who murdered his own children (they interfered with his lifestyle, don't you know). Musically I think it's closer to the band's older stuff, (I've heard it described as a "folk opera") save for the epic scope of the whole thing. As I said in the Year in Tunes post, it's pretentious, overly bombastic in spots, and nonsensical in others, but I love every minute of it.

Scambot 1, by Mike Keneally (2009)

Mike Keneally is many things - an amazing guitarist, fine crafter of melodies, a crafty arranger, and an all around skewed personality. Over the years, he's worked in the confines of rock bands, classical ensembles, and improvisational projects. All those facets come together on Scambot 1, a tale of dastardly manipulation and . . . well, I'm still not quite sure. What I am sure of is that any album that can run through the catchy as hell "Hallmark" to the Grand Wazoo-esque "Chee" and onto the improvised "We Are the Quiet Chiildren" - all so different, but so good and working so well next to each other - is a classic.

Best of the Rest - Songs of the Decade

  • "Certifiable #1 Smash," by Kevin Gilbert, from The Shaming of the True (2000): Shaming is the story of Johnny Virgil, a huge talent who sells out in pursuit of success. This is his blueprint for a hit song, complete with a vivid description of "the video idea." The lyrics skewer the idea of music as commodity, while the music rocks in a way that only something real and from the heart can.
  • "Serpentine Song," by Steve Hackett, from To Watch the Storms (2003): Quite simply, one of the most beautiful songs I own. Dedicated to Hackett's father, who sells his paintings on the weekends in Hyde Park, it takes Steve's more restrained acoustic style to its zenith, augmented by fantastic flute and sax work in the end.
  • "The Bachelor and the Bride," by The Decemberists, from Her Majesty . . . (2003): One of things that appeals to be about The Decemberists is that many of their songs, even the short ones, tell a story or present well drawn characters. This is my favorite of those tracks, aided probably by a very cool video (done in the same style as the one for "The Tain").
  • "Beat Box Guitar," by Adrian Belew, from Side One (2004): On his three Sides, Belew alternated between thumping power trio tunes and even more dense and layered one man band takes. This falls into the later category and is a brilliant example (it was even nominated for a Grammy, IIRC). Almost as brilliant, in a completely different way, is the live power trio version from Side Four, which uses the studio track as a jumping off point.
  • "The Invisible Man," by Marillion, from Marbles (2004): I was sort of surprised when I made the albums list and Marillion wasn't on it, since they are one of my favorite bands. Truth is, their releases this decade were hit and miss affairs in need of some editing. Nonetheless, when they're on their game, it's a thing of beauty. This is the best of the lot.
  • "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here," by Porcupine Tree, from Deadwing (2004): Everything I said above about PT's blending of styles on In Absentia applies in miniature to this track, where it all comes together most successfully. Plus, the middle section is the closest to head banging I'm likely to get!
  • "World Through My Eyes," by RPWL, from World Through My Eyes (2005): RPWL, which started off as a Pink Floyd tribute band, has a tendency to sound a bit like a second rate Porcupine Tree. On this album, at least, the infusion of some Eastern sounds and rhythms helped to spice things up. They drive this track, which includes a great synth break in the middle, and pushes it to another level.
  • "An Ode to the Spacemane," by The Mandrake Project, from A Favor to the Muse (2006): One of the musical highlights of my decade was finally making it to a prog festival, 3RP in Pittsburgh this year and last. The greatest part of those things is being blown away by a band you've never heard before, or even heard of (see Beardfish above for a good example). Last year at 3RP this local band absolutely blew me away, this tune in particular.
  • "In Earnest," by The Tangent, from A Place in the Queue (2006): The epic of the decade, in my book. I'm not much of a lyrics guy - as long as they're serviceable I don't pay them too much attention. But the story of Earnest, the ordinary man who flew Spitfires in World War II only to face a life devoid of future promise where nothing can live up to that life. It's very touching, particularly for a 20-minute prog epic filled with terrific Tangent music.
  • "The Way the Wind Blows," by Rush, from Snakes and Arrows (2007): Given Neal Peart's personal tragedies after Test for Echo was released, it was just good to see the band back and producing new material in 2007. That most of it was really good was a pleasant bonus. Many of the tracks on Snakes and Arrows take aim at religion and related issues. This track does the best job of melding the lyric with the music.
There you go. It'll be interesting to go back in another decade and see how the next ten years match up.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 - My Year in Film and Video

In comparison with the year in tunes, it feels like I've hardly seen any movies this year. Maybe it's because, going back over my list, there wasn't anything I saw in the theater that really grabbed me. I suppose I should just delete "film" from the post title, then, but why mess with a tradition?

That being said, I managed to uncover quite a bit of good older stuff this year and catch up with some classics I'd previously neglected. It was a particularly good year for documentaries.

Without further ado, the most memorable movies of my past year:

Throne of Blood (1957): Akira Kurosawa does Macbeth, reset in feudal Japan, of course. It's as good as it sounds (if you like that kind of thing). The Criterion Collection essay that goes along with this version says many critics consider this the best adaptation of Macbeth and I see no need to argue.

Harakiri (1962): Harakiri is a form of seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. That may give you some idea that things will not end well in this film, which begins with a disgraced samurai seeking permission from a noble lord to commit harakiri in his castle and, thus, with honor. But in this time, disgraced samurai are known to make this request hoping that the lord will take pity on them and provide some support. What follows is an unfolding of multiple tales of "honor," revenge, and the importance of perception. Brilliant, but bloody.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985): I mentioned this the other day in a discussion of biopics, as this really doesn't fit the bill. Yukio Mishima is one of Japan's most celebrate authors. He also happened to be a hard right iconoclast complete with his own private army. Did I mention that he committed seppuku after taking over a Tokyo military headquarters? Amazingly, director Paul Schrader (better known for his scripts, including Taxi Driver) manages to explore what made the man tick, using a combination of styles including some beautifully rendered scenes from four of Mishima's books. This is not a "cradle to grave" biopic. Rather, it's a meditation on what the life of a particular man might have meant. Thought provoking and, in places, amazing to look at.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988): A caution: don't watch this movie at the end of a long hard day. You'll probably slit your wrists. After all, it's the story of a pair of orphans during World War II - dad's in the Imperial Navy and most likely dead, mom is killed during an American bombing raid. Yes, it's a cartoon. Yes, it's Japanese. No, it's not a kiddie flick (not even a little bit). Having said that, this is a sad, beautiful, heart wrenching, amazing movie. Exceptionally powerful, but I've' got no real desire to watch it again any time soon.

Grizzly Man (2005)/Man on Wire (2008): I think of these two documentaries as a set because they illustrate one of the unfortunate truths about how people react to docs - the often get so wrapped up in the person or persons depicted that they lose sight of the skill of the filmmaker. In both of these flicks, what you think about them comes down largely to how you feel about their subjects, both certified eccentrics.

Grizzly Man is about Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers amongst grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness before being killed and eaten by one of them. Treadwell was certainly a lost soul, at sea in the human world. Depending on your worldview, his dancing with the bears was either a wonderful act of conservation and education or a stupid meddling with the violence of nature that ended up costing him (and his girlfriend) his life. How you feel about Treadwell probably matches up with what you think of the film.

Man on Wire is about Phillipe Petit, an ebullient French acrobat who, along with a team of assistants, strung a tightrope between the top of the then unfinished World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit is the shining star at the heart of Man on Wire, a man so full of joy and wonder about what he did that he's really hard to resist. Or he's incredibly annoying and you want to smack him in the face. I found Petit a fascinating subject and thus loved the film, but I know he rubbed others the wrong way.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006): I blogged about this film, a documentary about the fallout from the Catholic church sex abuse scandal in a particular parish, here. Not really any more to say.

War/Dance (2007): As you know if you're a regular reader, I am not exactly a fuzzy "up with people" kind of person. I'm a cynic, a skeptic, and more often than not, a curmudgeon. But even I am not beyond being reached by an uplifting tale of the underdog making good. In this case, the underdogs are Ugandan school children, refugees from a war zone, who compete in Uganda's annual National Music Competition. The kids dance, sing, and drum their way through the film with great heart and skill. It is a great example of music being a therapeutic outlet for some very troubled souls. Not only is there a lot of great performance footage, there's also quite a bit of beautiful cinematography of the landscape. Highly recommended.

Forbidden Lie$ (2007): This is not a perfect documentary. In fact, over a couple of viewings, its flaws become more apparent. Notice, however, that I was compelled to watch it twice. Regardless of its flaws, this is a fascinating study of a hoax and the hoaxer, who just keeps digging and digging and never makes her way out. If you want to see what the "fraud personality" looks like, this is your chance.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): I blogged about this flick, and its aggravating protagonist, here, and my impression still stands - the fact that Mike Leigh makes me care about Poppy and even root for her is a testament to his skills as a director.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008): Back in March I blogged about this flick, a cause of Roger Ebert, that was sitting in distribution purgatory. I'm happy to report that while Sita may still be blue, she's now available on DVD at Netflix (and no doubt elsewhere). I enjoyed it immensely on the small computer screen, so I really look forward to getting it on the TV and seeing it "full" sized.

In Bruges (2008): A good flick, but a weird one. It has funny bits, but it's not really comedy. It has heavy bits, but it's not really drama. Oh, and there's a midget. Be warned - the two main characters are professional killers. If that fact alone will get your dander up, stay away. If morally ambiguity doesn't turn you off, it's well worth it. It sort of falls apart in the end, but that's a minor quibble. Dark comedy is hard to do well, and In Bruges does a lot more right than it does wrong.

In the Loop (2009): Satire is hard to do well, too, especially if you're satirizing a current event that is no laughing matter. Although it's never mentioned, the Iraq War is the subject of the scathingly vulgar and funny film. When a British cabinet minster casually tells a radio interviewer that war is "unforeseeable" the hawks and doves in his own government, as well as ours, line up to use the moment for their own ends. As a result, the most powerful nations in the world stumble into something that really shouldn't be stumbled into. Like I said, it's not really that funny, but In the Loop mines a lot of comedy gold from the serious subject, sort of like Dr. Strangelove. And if you love the vulgar put down, the master craftsman played by Peter Capaldi will give you oodles of new material.

That's it for the Year in Film and Video. Will any of these pop up as something You Aughta See later this week? Tune in to find out!

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 - My Year in Tunes

Yes, dear readers, it's that time of year, once again. The time where I take a few minutes and talk about the cultural artifacts that particularly moved me over the past 12 months. And after that, a special treat - my top movies and tunes of the decade as we send out the Aughts.

We start, as always, with music. Holy cow I listened to a lot of tunes this year! It was a big year for several of my favorite artists. In addition, getting ready for and then shopping at 3RP this year really drove the numbers up. Bottom line, it was a very good year. And away we go . . .

New for 2009

  • The Hazards of Love, by The Decemberists: This was a hell of a year for concept albums/rock operas/whatever you want to call them. In an era of iTunes downloads and shrinking attention spans, quite a number of bands not only clung to the album as a format by proved why the whole thing works on that scale. Building on their proggier dalliances from "The Tain" and The Crane Wife, The Decemberists were first out of the gate (in my collection, at least) and one of the most successful. It's pretentious, overly bombastic in spots, and nonsensical in others. I love every minute of it. It was a blast to hear live.
  • The Incident, by Porcupine Tree: While repeating yourself is generally something to be avoided, there's something to be said for finding some inspiration in the deeper parts of the back catalog. After a disappointing Fear of a Blank Planet, Steven Wilson and crew spiced up the metal-tinged modern PT sound with some of the more Floyd influenced and acoustic sounds of the pre-In Absentia days for this year's release. Another concept album (although much looser than some of the others), it's their strongest in years from stem to stem.
  • Number Seven, by Phideaux: I reviewed this one back in July and my initial impression still holds true. That middle section, dubbed "Dormouse Escapes", is probably my favorite hunk of music from this year.
  • Scambot 1, by Mike Keneally: Mike Keneally has done so many things over the course of his solo career that it begged the question - what would happen if he could take a little bit of all those things and blend them into a single cohesive musical statement? Although it's only part one of two, Scambot 1 provides the answer - it would be fucking brilliant. Seriously, this is an album that has everything from guitar heroics and shiny pop gems to wild improv and big band Zappa stuff. Best experienced with liner notes in hand, in which the story of Scambot unfolds (sort of), this is the sum total of all Keneally has been over the years. Which, of course, is brilliant.
New to Me
  • Revolver (1966) & Magical Mystery Tour (1967), by The Beatles: The release of the remastered Beatles catalog this year was a good excuse to go back and plug some holes in my collection. No eye popping revelations on any of those discs, but these two stood out as the ones I would play again and again. Magical Mystery Tour just has some wonderfully crafted pop tunes on it (and, in the American version, a whole truckload of hits), while Revolver hints at some of the experimentation to come. If nothing else, they maybe helped remind me to not take the boys from Liverpool for granted quite so often.
  • Being, by Wigwam (1974): I keep a running list of albums I want to pick up (cleverly titled "Tunes I Want") where I'll note the name of a band and album that strikes my fancy. Often they linger on that list for years and I forget exactly why I put them there in the first place. Such was the case with Wigwam. But since Being was on my list and I found at copy at 3RP, of course I picked it up. I'm damn glad I did. Aside from some overly hippie leaning lyrical bits, it's a really excellent jazzy prog album. There's loads of fantastic keyboard work on it, in addition to some Zappa-esque horn arrangements in spots. That's why I keep the list!
  • Creatures, by Frogg Cafe (2003): I really dig 2005's Fortunate Observer of Time, but never got around to picking up any other Froggy things until this summer. This earlier effort is a little more stereotypically "proggy" than Observer but equally good. Smack in the middle is a bit of Ives inspired weirdness that acts as a bizarro palette cleanser. Good stuff.
  • Grötesk, by Mörglbl (2007): I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I picked this disc up at 3RP, but I think I imagined it would be a bit more "out there." Intense instrumental French jazz-tinged prog - what else could it be? How about amazingly well crafted and melodic instrumental tunes with more than a small dose of fun? "The Toy Maker" had me dancing around my kitchen - I'm not kidding. While these guys have chops to burn, they know how to use them.
  • Oblivion Sun, by Oblivion Sun (2007): Not surprisingly, this spin off project from the short lived Happy the Man rebirth sounds an awful lot like the mother ship, maybe with a bit less ambient/new age flavor (no Kit Watkins, after all) and a bit heavier guitar work. What is surprising is just how damn good it is, nailing that easy blend of prog and jazz that was HtM's hallmark.
That's it for the Year in Tunes, folks. Will any of these turn up as something You Aughta Hear later in the week? Tune in and find out!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Law Is the Devil

The Devil. It’s always the Devil’s fault.

It seems appropriate that in the same week that we bid good riddance to religious huckster supreme Oral Roberts that one of his followers makes the kind of base plea for cash that would have made ol’ Oral smile. Remember, he demanded millions in 1987 lest he be “called home” by the Lord.

Rod Parsley runs a megaministry in Columbus, one that is firmly in the “how intense I pray depends on how much you pay” school. You know the kind:

Turns out that Rod’s bottom line isn’t too good, leading him to beg for money on the air (via Ed and Pam, who both have the video):

The Rev. Rod Parsley has issued a desperate plea for money, telling his flock that he is facing a 'demonically inspired financial attack' that is threatening his ministry.
Parsley is asking for donations by Dec. 31, calling that date an 'unavoidable deadline' during an episode of Breakthrough posted yesterday on Breakthrough is Parsley's television show.

* * *

The headline of the appeal for donations reads: 'Will you help me take back what the devil stole?'

When asked to comment yesterday, Parsley's World Harvest Church issued a statement saying the recession caused a decline in member giving in 2009, which has led to a fourth-quarter deficit of $3 million despite a 30 percent reduction in the budget.
Now, $3 million is a pretty specific request. I wonder what the Devil did to cause Pastor Rod to part with his hard earned money?
This year, the church settled for $3.1 million with a family whose son was spanked at its day-care center in 2006, to the point his buttocks and legs were covered with welts and abrasions.

* * *

The [plaintiffs] said the payment was made this year. During yesterday's Breakthrough broadcast, Parsley referred to a $3 million check he had to write from the ministry.
Aha! So by “Devil” what Pastor Rod actually means is “the law” and by “stole” he means “awarded by a jury after a trial.” More appropriately, what he means is “one of my poorly supervised underlings who beat up a toddler and I’ve got to pay for it!” I’ll admit, that’s damned evil, but no Devil required. Sadly, it’s firmly within the scope of ordinary human behavior. Why is it that the religious base of the “party of personal responsibility” always tries to blame their sins on somebody else?

Of course, to be completely fair to Rod, the $3.1 he paid out was at one time collected from the gullible souls who bought into his earlier pitches for salvation by the dollar. It’s only natural that he’d go back to the well for another dip. Nobody ever said you’d go broke playing on the faith of the gullible religious.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

20 Years Ago Tonight

The nation first met this family (for the most part):

Hard to believe the show started before I was even in college! And that debut episode profoundly shaped my ideals of Christmas:

Ho ho ho, indeed!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Dubious Honor Is Better Than None

I’ve never wasted a whole lot of time or energy on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

For one thing, the idea of a “hall of fame” for music of any kind (or art in general) seems odd. Unlike sports, which have statistics to work with and a career defined by a term of specific years, music is inherently subjective and careers never really end, as long as we’re talking about recorded music, anyway. In other words, Pele, for all his greatness, will never play another meaningful game but I can pull out Selling England by the Pound every day and give it a listen with fresh ears, regardless of its age.

For another thing, the Hall of Fame seems to have an odd definition of “rock and roll.” Admittedly a vague term, it nevertheless seems way off base when describing such members as Madonna or Run-D.M.C. Whatever their value as artists and performers, they reside firmly within genres that neither rock nor roll (Run-D.M.C.’s collaboration with Aerosmith excepted). Shouldn’t the Hall of Fame either change its name or narrow its focus?

All of that is introduction to saying that I’ve never gotten particularly worked up about the absence of many of my favorite bands from the Hall. Aside from Floyd and Frank, progressive rock has been pretty much ignored. That has led to some great uproar in proggy circles, along with petitions and all sorts of other haranguing on behalf of Yes or Rush (in particular). Given the Hall’s identity crisis and questionable standards, who the hell cares, really?

Still and all, it’s nice to see Genesis among the list of inductees for this year’s Hall of Fame class, along with (among others) those hard core rockers Abba (when was the last time Björn Ulvaeus bit the head off a farm animal on stage, anyway?). Aside from their later day Collins-era pop success, Genesis were both one of the foundations of prog’s golden age (one of the Big Five, in my book), but their influence ripples through huge swaths of the modern prog world. King Crimson may have been more daring musically and Yes more commercially successful as a prog band, but the symphonic Genesis style is the template for an awful lot of the prog that came afterward, for good or bad.

Besides, there is one thing I do like about the Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremonies, there are usually some good musical moments between the inductees and those doing the inducting (wonder who that will be for Genesis?). It may be the perfect excuse for the five-man Genesis to get back together (hell, call Anthony Phillip in, too!), even if only for a couple of tunes on one night. Wonder if Gabriel can still fit in the red dress?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Perverse Justice

When I made the shift from state to federal criminal defense practice, it seemed to me that the leitmotif of the cases passing through our office, which were mostly drug cases, was this: dude gets pulled over for speeding (sometimes flagrantly) or some other minor traffic violation, gives consent to search the car, and the cops recover a large amount of cocaine/crack/meth (pick your poison). That always seemed weird to me, as you’d expect folks hauling around contraband to pay particular attention to things like traffic laws. Smuggling is all about evasion, after all.*

Nowadays there’s another theme developing in case after case: dude chats online with someone he things is a 13-year old boy/girl, they arrange to meet, only for dude to discover that the kid is, in fact, an undercover cop of some flavor. Long prison sentences and a sex offender designation ensue.

All of which is my way of introducing a fascinating article from this month’s issue of Vanity Fair. Written by Mark Bowden (of Black Hawk Down fame), it explores the issue of police stings in cyberspace, focusing on a roving hoard of virtual child molesters which, in all actuality, doesn’t exist. In the process, guys guilty of nothing more than bad taste and weird kinks are being swept up in the national hysteria about sex offenders and paying a serious price because of it.

The article tracks one case, in which a Philadelphia area police officer, posing as a mother of two offering her daughters for sex in various chat rooms, baits the hook and lands J, who eventually agrees to meet up with “mom” and the kids in the real world. Along the way, Bowden takes down some of the myths about sex offenders in cyberspace. For example, he cites the Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s well traveled statistic that 1 in 5 (later revised to 1 in 7) children have been solicited for sex online. An alarming statistic:

Until you look closer. The actual question posed in the department’s “Youth Internet Safety” survey asked teenagers under 17 if they had received an “unwanted sexual solicitation,” which was defined as follows: “a request to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or give personal sexual information that was unwanted or, whether wanted or not, made by an adult.” Since “adult” in this case was defined as anyone 17 or older, the definition included many would-be high-school Romeos, predators of a highly conventional and not particularly dangerous sort, and also took in a strain of intimate gossip familiar to all teenage girls. As the study’s authors themselves noted, half the solicitations came from other teenagers. Not a single solicitation led to actual sexual contact. Violent sexual predators hunting children are out there, as they have always been, yet they remain blessedly rare, and most young people flee such strangeness instinctively. Only 3 percent of the contacts reported in the survey resembled the one most feared by parents, the adult stranger attempting to seduce a child.
The use, or rather misuse, of numbers like that one – along with the unsourced claim that 50,000 predators are online and trolling at any moment – have fuelled a crackdown on Internet sex crimes. Child pornography sentences, particularly for federal offenses, have ballooned over the past few years, to the point that a good number of judges are balking at them. And as Bowden writes, other problems arise:
Yet the more numerous aggressors may be the police. Three researchers at the University of New Hampshire reported earlier this year that during the period between 2000 and 2006, when Internet use by juveniles grew between 73 and 93 percent, the number of people arrested for soliciting sex online from them grew only 21 percent, from 508 to 615. The number of people arrested for soliciting sex from undercover police like Deery, however, rose 381 percent during the same period. In other words, alleged child-molesters like J are many, many times more likely to be locked up for approaching detectives than children. And despite this full-court press on Internet child predation, those arrested for it represent only 1 percent of all arrests for sex crimes against children and adolescents.
Bowden does not argue, nor do I, that there are no honest to goodness predators on the Internet. Of course there are. But they don’t seem to be as omnipresent as law enforcement would have you suggest. And the back and forth between J and the cop who snared him makes a good case for moral, if not legal, entrapment. Granted, J’s defense of “it was all a fantasy, I wasn’t going to do anything do the kids” has to be taken with a grain of salt, coming as it did after he was arrested. But what if he was telling the truth? The current climate doesn’t really care. Read the whole article and decide for yourself.

Point being, in a world of precious law enforcement resources and bulging prisons, doesn’t it make sense to rethink our priorities? Shouldn’t we focus on, oh, I don’t know, the people who actually hurt kids instead of those who get talked into it by overzealous cops?

* Note: The cynic in me is very aware of the possibility that said minor traffic violations are post hoc rationalizations for stops like those. Nonetheless, try and prove that in a suppression hearing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who Would Jesus Convict?

Sadly, we may never know the answer to that question. For when Jesus gets called for jury duty, she (yup, you read that right) can't make it through voir dire (via Volokh):

Christ was sent to Judge Clyde Jones's courtroom for a criminal case. She was excused because she was disruptive, court officials said. Instead of answering questions, she was asking them, a court employee in Jones's office said.

Efforts to reach Christ today were unsuccessful.
Aren't they always? One wonders how long the writer of that story waited to slip a line like that into a story. No details, by the way, on what questions Christ was asking.

Also, props to the first comment on the Volokh thread:
How would she have been sworn as a juror? 'So help me Dad?'
FTW, as the kids say. Also, she could always have affirmed. I'm sure that would have thrown some people for a loop!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Fuck You Aeolus!

I live in a duplex. That means that earlier this year when the roof picked up a little wind damage on my side of the house, but quite a bit on my neighbor's side, I had to pony up to put a new roof on the whole shebang. Such is one of the perils of sharing a wall with someone.

So today, we've had some amazingly powerful winds whipping around (74 mph at the airport, according to local news). Luckily when I got home, my spiffy new roof in one piece.

The crappy metal slats in the under hang of the front roof and back deck, however, are another matter. Yay! Another call to my insurance company! Another appointment with the repair guys to see how much this is going to cost me! Ain't home ownership grand?

So, I think, for the night at least, I will choose to believe in Aeolus, whom the ancient Greeks believed was the master of winds. At least that way I have somebody at which to direct my anger.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Quick Hits

Jeez, you leave town for a few days and all this juicy news stuff piles up at the front door. Oh well, at the risk of ruining the spirit, if not the letter, of my “one post per day” limit, a few quick thoughts . . .

On Clemency & Huckabee
I am no fan of former Arkansas governor and failed GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. His approach to governance is so enmeshed with his religious beliefs that I’m never sure if he wants to be president, pope, or savior (maybe all three). That being said, I think he is being unfairly reamed over the clemency he showed Maurice Clemmons.

Clemmons, you’ll recall, is the nut who shot four cops in a Washington state coffee house for no apparent reason and was then himself killed by a cop a few days later. Years ago, Clemmons was sentenced to over 100 years in prison for crimes committed while he was 16. While Huckabee was governor, he reduced Clemmons’s sentence to the point that he was eligible for parole, which he received several months later.

Hindsight being 20/20, Huckabee is now getting slammed on the simplistic notion that had he not made that decision, those four cops would still be alive today. The problem, of course, is that neither Huckabee nor anyone else had perfect knowledge of what Clemmons might do once released from prison. As he explains (via TalkLeft):

Despite news reports, no objections were raised during the 30-day response period for this case. In fact, only letters of support for Clemmons' commutation were received, including one from the circuit judge.
On the one hand, the detractors have a point. To paraphrase an old semi-baddie on Law & Order, “I concede your point – if things were different, they wouldn’t be the same.” But that’s hardly a logical way to look at things like this.

The only logical endpoint of that kind of backwards looking decision is to completely do away with clemency, parole, pardons and the like. As underutilized as they are, they are still vital safety valves in our out of control criminal justice system. If Huckabee fucked up, make the case based on what he knew at the time, not what we know now.

On the Truth of a Person
Stanley Fish has an interesting take on Sarah Palin’s new book, Going Rogue, by making a key distinction between biographies and autobiographies:
My assessment of the book has nothing to do with the accuracy of its accounts. Some news agencies have fact-checkers poring over every sentence, which would be to the point if the book were a biography, a genre that is judged by the degree to which the factual claims being made can be verified down to the last assertion. 'Going Rogue,' however, is an autobiography, and while autobiographers certainly insist that they are telling the truth, the truth the genre promises is the truth about themselves — the kind of persons they are — and even when they are being mendacious or self-serving (and I don’t mean to imply that Palin is either), they are, necessarily, fleshing out that truth. As I remarked in a previous column, autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say will truthfully serve their project, which, again, is not to portray the facts, but to portray themselves.
That's a very good point that puts me in mind of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, director Paul Schrader's magnificent meditation on the iconoclastic Japanese author/extremist. Most biopics are focused on detailing what happened in a person's life. Schrader's film, by contrast, makes an attempt to understand the man, rather than recite by rote the events of his life. It becomes, rather than a movie about a man's life, a movie about the man itself.

I don't know how well Fish's analysis plays with Palin's book, given that it's not really a true autobiography. Nevertheless, it certainly makes for an interesting reading of her.

On How That Must Hurt
A recent poll asked Americans who they would vote for in a party election among Democrats, Republicans, and a fictional and not very well defined “Tea Party” party. The Dems won. The GOPers came in last with only 18% of the vote. Damn, that must sting. It almost makes me feel sorry for them. Almost.

On Going Bowling
I'll concede that the Gator Bowl is a nice reward for WVU's season, one that but for a blown replay call at Cincinnati probably would have meant another BCS bowl birth. But I'm a little perplexed as to how we end up playing in a New Year's Day bowl against a team without a winning record. Yeah, I know, it's Bobby Bowden's last game and he coached here before he went to Florida State, but still. Stewart Mandel sorts it all out.

For the record, when 6-6 teams play in bowls, there are too many bowls. Plain and simple. A winning record should be a prerequisite (sorry, Herd fans).

On Paging Rosana-Rosana Dana
Remember those videos of a "pimp" and his "ho'" seeking services from various Acorn offices that caused such apoplexy on the right? Yeah, well, turns out they're mostly bullshit. As an independent review concluded:
The videos that have been released appear to have been edited, in some cases substantially, including the insertion of a substitute voiceover for significant portions of Mr. O'Keefe's and Ms. Giles's comments, which makes it difficult to determine the questions to which ACORN employees are responding. A comparison of the publicly available transcripts to the released videos confirms that large portions of the original video have been omitted from the released versions.
Given the winger logic displayed in the climate scientist email dust up (a couple of out of context remarks = all evidence of global warming is a fraud!), the manipulation of the video means none of this ever happened. Acorn may be a figment of our imaginations, or something.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

What Ed Said (Redux)

Were you glued to the TV last weekend watching the Grey Cup, the Super Bowl of Canada? No, neither was anybody else with a full slate of NFL games to watch. Nonetheless, the game, between the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders was a nail biter, coming down to to a field goal attempt with no time left the clock by Montreal kicker Damon Duval.

He missed.

But wait! A second chance at redemption! Unlike American football, which adopts soccer and rugby's 11-man squads, the Canadians go for 12 players on the field per team at a time. But they draw the line at 13. Unfortunately for Saskatchewan, an extra one of their defenders screwed up and got caught on the field when the play started. Penalty, do over, and 10 yards closer, by the way. Duval took his second chance and nailed the kick, Montreal winning 28-27.

So what does Duval (who, to be fair, is not Canadian) do after the game? Does he thank the Saskatchewan defender who chumped the substitution and provided the second chance? Of course not, he thanked his invisible friend in the sky, God.

I've written before about how it turns my stomach when athletes draft God on their side when they win (He never gets flack for a loss, tho'). Rather than rehash that, I'll quote a bit of Ed Brayton's post on Duval's proclamation, as it tracks my thoughts perfectly:

Really, Damon? God did that? How exactly did he do it? Did he tell the 12th guy to run on to the field so he could be humiliated on national television and be blamed for the loss by his teammates and the Saskatchewan fans? Because that's about the only way God could actually have caused it to happen. Perhaps you'd like to ask God why he hates that 12th man on the Roughriders so much.

Or better yet, ask yourself why you think you're so special that God went out of his way to humiliate another human being just to make sure you could win a game of football. Is that really what God spends his time doing, fixing the results of football games? Perhaps God had money on the game with a bookie and just wanted to cover the spread?
Oh, and this.

As Ed points out, people who spout these kinds of platitudes apparently don't think through the logic of their position. It's really just a tackiness thing when it pops up in sports, but when it pops up in some kind of natural disaster or the like it's much more sinister.

UPDATE: My, what a fickle deity. Apparently the Lord has swung his support to the University of Texas, who otherwise sucked so bad that they needed divine intervention to squeak past Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship. Is it too much to hope that Alabama isn't a bunch of God botherers so I can at least root for them in the BCS title game?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Spoilers Ahead! Deal With It

When I first got online in college back the mid-1990s (before there were even pictures on the Web, kids!), the main interactive destination was the USENET newsgroups. Organized by topic and dedicated to a bewildering array of human interests, newsgroups provided a way for fans of particular arts, artists, hobbies, sports teams, whatever to talk to each other in semi-real time. Web-based forums have displaced the newsgroups over the years, but they’re still out there.

On the sports groups I frequented – soccer and Formula 1, naturally – a common bit of courtesy developed when it came to discussing results for games or races while they were in progress or shortly thereafter. If, for instance, you wanted to talk about Tottenham’s 9-1 demolition of Wigan a couple weekends ago, your subject would be something like "Tottenham/Wigan [R]". The "[R]" meant there were results in the thread. If you didn’t want to know how the game turned out, come back later. That was opposed to a header something like "OMG, Tottenham Hammers 9 Past Wigan!"

In modern terms we call such things "spoilers" and people are routinely castigated for giving them away. Yeah, well, quit yer' bitchin', says one British critic:

Lately, I've witnessed adults sulking over someone pre-revealing that the house actually goes 'up' in the children's Pixar cartoon Up. Or that True Blood is about sex and vampires. And most heinous of all – SPOILER ALERT – that The Wire features a drug-dealer called Stringer Bell. ('Oh my God! I was saving that box set for sometime in 2011 once our youngest kid started day-nursery! You have totally sprayed me with SPOILER SHRAPNEL!') The bleating never ceases, and Wire fans are the worst offenders. I could tell Wire fans I'd driven home four times over the limit and parked vaguely west of my next-door neighbour's sofa, and this would not elicit the same horror as accidentally saying that Angry shoots Cracky in season blank. Spoiling someone's sacred experience of watching The Wire – which is a very good TV show, but let's be clear, just a bloody TV show – is a grave, unspeakable sin.
I agree completely, at least in terms of general Internet conversation.

Going back to the USENET example, in spite of the general policy against putting results in headers folks would regularly do just that. Swept away in the joy of a big win (or the pity of a crushing defeat), someone would do the unthinkable and be roundly criticized for it. On occasion, someone would post a result in a header just to piss people off. Their defense - if you don't want to have the result of a game or race ruined for you, stay the hell away from a news group until you've seen it.

That makes eminent sense. Really, if you want to wait on pins and needles to see what happens on this week's edition of Flash Forward, but you can't watch it until the weekend, just stay away from the places where the show will be discussed for the next few days. Why should everyone else on the plant conform to your TiVo schedule? That's not even getting into shows or movies that have been around for years. Dent has it right, it's those folks who are "spoiled to the core."

As always, there are exceptions to that general rule. For one, published reviews of movies and such should generally give as little of the plot away as possible. But that's because reviews are generally read ahead of time (though not always) when making the decision whether to see a flick or not, not comprehensive breakdowns of who does what to whom. Another exception would be among friends and family, if you know someone hasn't seen something and really wants to, simple courtesy dictates not being a dick and ruing their fun.

But there's more to it than courtesy or what have you. Fact is, if the only thing that moves you about a movie or TV show is the mechanics of the plot, you're pretty much beyond hope. Brazil gets repeated viewings in my house, even though I know that Sam ends up tortured by best friend and goes insane (Gilliam's "happy ending"). I watch The Prestige over and over even though I know how all the false identities play out in the end. I know that Buffy blows up her school to defeat The Mayor at the end of the third season, but that doesn't stop me from rewatching it. Because there are things to be gleaned, even on repeated viewings, beyond the mechanics of who lives or dies.

For the record:
  • The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz is really just a feeble old man behind a curtain with some cool effects at his disposal;
  • Darth Vader is not only Luke's father, but Leia is also Luke's sister (which makes the chemistry in Episode IV just a little creepy, no?);
  • "Rosebud" is the name of Kane's sled; and
  • Tommy "sure plays a mean pinball."
If the knowledge of any of those things really ruins, nay spoils, your appreciation of those works, well then you're a dolt. And you deserve it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

I'm a Winnah! (Redux)

It is done, yet it is not finished.

What could lead to such near incoherence? Why the end of National Novel Writing Month, that's what! For the second year in a row, I've hit the magic 50,000 word month and thus I'm a NaNoWriMo winner twice over!

After a month's worth of work, I've pooted forth 50,202 words. That's the good news. The bad news is that, unlike last year, I'm nowhere near finished with this book. Last year's Plausible Reliability finished up at about 73,600 words, so I was two-thirds of the way through after NaNo. The Water Road is, at best, about halfway finished, and that depends largely on whether I try to wedge one character's story into it or leave it out for a separate novella. Miles to go before I sleep and all that.

Thanks again to everybody who has offered a kind word or encouragement along the way. Hopefully, this one won't end up in a heap on the kitchen table once editing time comes along!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How to Make Baseball Interesting

I'm not a fan of the national pastime, but maybe that's because I've been doing it wrong. Like engaging with it sober (via Concurring Opinions):

I've heard worse excuses to embed some echolyn, while I'm at it:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Can't Argue With That

For the most part, the fortune cookies I get when I eat Chinese food actually make some kind of sense. Not so yesterday's lunch chaser:

Now go to it!
It's ready to be prick.
Add to that the fact that my Chinese word of the day on the other side was "disease" and I'm not sure what they were trying to tell me. Maybe that I should have ordered off the Chinese, rather than Japanese, side of the menu?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oh Noes!

She's gone rogue, but now Sarah Palin is . . .

. . . going Moog! Run for the hills!

Shamelessly lifted from here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Breaker’s Gone

English actor Edward Woodward, most well known in the States for his Golden Globe winning role in the TV series The Equalizer, has died in a British hospital.

Though prolific on stage and both screens (small and big), he only really got to be the main attraction in films twice. Once was in the cult classic The Wicker Man (the first one, obviously) and in one of my favorite films of all time, Breaker Morant. I’ve gone on about Breaker before, so I won’t do it again. Suffice to say, it’s a bummer he’s no longer with us.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Time to Make Some Lists

I just realized that we're coming to an end of a decade, as the "aughts" will finish up when the New Year rolls around in January. Not surprisingly, we're starting to see "best of" lists for the decade. The Times of London is already up with its 100 best films of the decade, while The Onion's AV Club has started a project to nail down the decades best . . . well, everything.

In that spirit and in line with (and in addition to) my tradition "My Year In . . ." posts, I'll have a pair of posts about what you "aught" to have heard or seen in the past ten years. I'll limit it to the top ten albums and movies of the decade, that I've actually seen and heard, of course. Get your nominations and politicking in now!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Annoyance and Art

When it comes to fictional characters, main characters at least, most audiences want them to be likable. They want to empathize with the hero battling evil or the underdog overcoming huge odds. At the very least, we don't want the main character to be an annoying dipshit.

Not that annoying dipshits can't be entertaining. John Cleese has made a living annoying other people for a living. He even made an instructional video, How To Annoy People, along the way. Of course, that's in laugh out loud farcical situations.

And we love annoying dipshits who get their comeuppance. Think of the title character of Voltaire's (and later Bernstein's) Candide, who is indoctrinated in the worldview that this is the best of all possible worlds. It takes scrapes with the Lisbon earthquake, and auto-de-fe, and other horrors to shake his perception. But at least he comes around in the end.

But what about a character who starts out annoying, stays that way throughout the picture, and doesn't have a change of heart in the end? If the idea intrigues you, may I recommend Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky. It'll mess with your mind.

Happy-Go-Lucky is the story of Poppy, a 30 year old with the sunny disposition of a pre-angst tween. She is precisely the kind of person that would annoy the hell out of me in real life. Relentelessly positive, quick to toss off of non-sequitor to answer a question, and never (well, almost) thrown off stride by what life throws at her, whether it be a bicycle thief, a racist conspiracy theorist driving instructor, or a babbling homeless man. She seems impervious to the real world and all the troubling things that go with it.

So I hated the movie, right? Poppy never learns her lesson, never straightens up and starts to act like the adult she is. What could be more aggravating, right?

Except it isn't. As the film progresses, we see that Poppy is actually a very admirable character. She has deep connections with those around her, from her roommate of a decade to her family and coworkers. She has a job, an important one, that she does well. Her coworkers seem to respect her, at least. Rather than being oblivious to the shitty bits of the world around her, she just refuses to let then ruin her good mood. She's actually kind of impressive, in her own way.

The bottom line is this - Mike Leigh took a character who is clearly annoying and managed to make me admire her. I still didn't care for her, in the end, but I had sufficient respect for her to let her live her life on her own terms. If nothing else, that's a hell of an artistic accomplishment, but what else would you expect from Leigh?

After all, her way of dealing with the world didn't harm anybody else, so what the fuck? I'll just cross the street if I see her bopping down the sidewalk.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Twenty Years Ago . . .

A great day indeed.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Do They Have Super Duper Precedent?

Legal briefs on the whole are dry, dull, boring affairs. Trust me - I write them for a living. It can be tempting to try and enliven things with a joke or a pop culture reference, but you have to tread carefully. If the audience either doesn't get the joke or is insulted at its very existence, you're better off dry, dull, and boring. And if you drop a pop culture reference, you might just find yourself on the receiving end of something like this:

Defendant further contends that his behavior could be construed as innocent ‘girl watching,’ citing Frank Loesser's immortal number ‘Standing on the Corner’ from Most Happy Fella (1956) (‘Brother, you can't go to jail for what you're thinking/Or for the “Ooooh” look in your eye.’). Research indicates, however, that Mr. Loesser's thoughts on the innocence of ‘girl watching’ have been limited, if not directly overruled, by more recent Broadway musicals. See, e.g., Stephen Sondheim, ‘Pretty Lady,’ Pacific Overtures (1976), and accompanying scene.
US v. Kaplansky, 42 F.3d 320, 327, fn. 1 (6th Cir. 1994)(en banc).

See, I never even learned the precedential hierarchy of Broadway shows in law school. I wonder how they'd fare compared to a Peter Hammil lyric (which I did deploy in a law school paper once)?

Stumbled across this one at work today and just had to share.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Kindred Spirit

One of my pet peeves, although one I don't go off on much here because I don't carry a camera around with me all the time, is the abuse so many people heap upon quotation marks. Hardly seems like a day goes by where some store sign or announcement completely mangles the poor things.

Thankfully, I've found somebody else who is keeping an archive of this abuse, The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. On first blush, my personal favorite is this one, a sign I've seen at a restaurant in the Pittsburgh area:

I'm not keen on the idea of sushi to start off with, but "sushi"? Sounds dicey.

Check the link above for more grammatical foolishness.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Freedom is Slavery!

Turns out Big Brother was right. At least that's what the church up the street from me says. Who knew?

At least Big Brother was pithier.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Programming Note

November is National Novel Writing Month. As I mentioned last week, I'm participating in NaNoWriMo again, for the third year running. Of course, that means posts here at the Ranch will be few and far between. However, if the progression of my past efforts means anything, I might have something decent when all is said and done this year.

My project in 2007, The Year of Living Magically, cratered a little past halfway and thus fell well short of the 50,000 word goal for NaNoWriMo. Still, it was an important learning experience and I find myself drawn back to that story every now and then with an eye towards redoing it from a fresh perspective. We'll see.

In 2008 I was a winner! All that means it that I hit the 50,000 word mark by the end of November. However, by December I actually had a finished first draft, so I was seriously pumped. Unfortunately, Plausible Reliability is stuck in editing hell and I've lost some enthusiasm for the project. I still have a great deal of enthusiasm for the underlying West Virginia legend that animated it, however, the saga of the Flatwoods Monster. For more on that, see this excellent diary of at Kos (of all places), part of a regular series on UFO lore. It even includes a magazine article that quotes my grandfather, who was mayor of nearby Sutton and publisher of one of the county's newspapers, as well as an article he later wrote for one of the Charleston papers.

This year's project is tentatively titled The Water Road, a title I've lifted shamelessly from last year's Thieves Kitchen album of the same name. It's also the name of the defining geographic feature of the fictional land in which the story takes place. Since it's not set on Earth, doesn't involve humans, and I make no attempts to claim it's scientifically plausible, it's technically "fantasy." But there's no magic (sorry, honey) and it's got little in common with Tolkein and his ilk. Think of it more like a history of another world.

Here's the "back of the book blurb" I've come up with for it:

What begins with a murder, ends with a revolution.

The Land is divided by the Water Road. To the north, an alliance of nations clings together against the marauding nomadic tribes of the southern mountains. That fragile alliance, The Triumvirate, has held for more than one hundred years, bringing peace to the north. But one woman, torn between the two worlds, will discover the secret of how that peace has been earned. The spark she strikes will changes her life, and the Land, forever.
Unlike my earlier projects, which were pretty off the cuff, I've spent time over the past few months fleshing out this world and its inhabitants. I even have a map.

Wish me luck and I'll see y'all on the other side!