Friday, December 3, 2010

I'm migrating to whatisericdoing.tumblr.com because the interface is much simpler than this site's. It also somehow manages to link itself to everything I use, including google reader and my antiquated cell phone. So now if I ever feel the need to call up the internet and shout at it, I can, and it'll apparently appear online as an audio file. (No, I haven't tried it yet.) Mostly though, it's more suited to passing links along, which is pretty much all I've been using this for.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Film Reviews


I've recently signed on as a contributor to http://dorkosphere.com/ - a cool new site dedicated to film news and reviews. So far they've done a really good job of covering a diverse array of films, and have an audience that's growing really quickly.

So check out my review of Splice: here.

(RSS feeds are provided for your convenience.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Recently Read: Replay

by Ken Grimwood - this is #23 of 2010

In Ken Grimwood's Replay, a middle-aged man named Jeff has a heart attack, dies, and wakes up in his college dorm room to find himself in his eighteen-year-old body. Sounds great, right? Who wouldn't like a chance to redo everything from the beginning, knowing how to avoid all the mistakes and tragedies you'd suffered the first time through? That's exactly the myth that Replay sets out to bust. Jeff starts out by doing all the cliched things that time travellers do when they're new to the trade: making an exorbitant amount of money betting on sports, investing in companies he knows are bound to succeed, and generally living an indulgent lifestyle. The only problem is, nothing he can do significantly alters the original timeline, and that heart attack (along with another restart) is waiting for him just as it was in his first iteration. As Jeff repeats his life again and again, he starts to realize that no matter how hard he tries, he can't force his relationships to be perfect, nor can he prevent the creeping isolation he feels as the lone "repeater." The book has a lot in common with David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself, but takes a more sedate approach. Gerrold wanted to convey how bizarre and alienating it would be to have control over your future and past, where Grimwood seems to say that living the same life again and again would actually grow pretty mundane. Replay isn't the most original book, but it does a great job of showing how the dilemmas that Jeff faces aren't really all that different from anyone else's. In the end, dwelling on repairing the past only causes Jeff anguish, and he's only really at peace when he learns to live for the future.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Recently Read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

#22 of 2010: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

After venturing into the world of romance with our inaugural round of book exchanges, I was happy to see that Matt had selected a somewhat more normal book for me to read in the second round. We had no theme in the first round, which made it sort of hard to pick out books for each other, so this round we kind of ended up picking books we had already read and giving them to each other. I received something that I had heard of from a couple of people but never read myself: Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I literally went into this book knowing nothing about it - even whether it was fiction or not. It turns out that the story is mostly true, and based on events that occurred in the author's life. We follow him and his young son (and a couple friends, initially) on a motorcycle trip across the country while he works through a philosophical arguement in his head. Most of the book is spent focusing on philosophy, with occasional connections made to events occurring during the trip.

I can honestly say I enjoyed this book in the beginning. The philosophy focused mainly on the reconciliation between the natural world and the world of technology, which are often seen as opposing forces in the world. Pirsig says they're really are just two sides of the same coin, and I think there's some merit to his ideas. The events of the trip actually reflected the philosophical arguments that he was making, and it was interesting to see the opposing views of his friends as they journeyed together. There were also some semi-foreboding hints at something dark in the author's past that he was still working through.

When the author's friends parted ways and left him and his son to complete the trip alone, I thought the book just sort of fell apart. My problems with it can be boiled down to two things:

1. If an author has to tell the reader how important and revolutionary his ideas are, they probably weren't that important and revolutionary to begin with.

In the second part of the book, there's nobody for the author to debate with, and no more relevant motorcycle metaphors. Instead, he just delves into his past and starts talking about his philosophical ideas - particularly the importance of Quality as the force behind the entire physical universe. I'd be okay with this, except that he clearly believes that he's done something revolutionary and isn't afraid to tell you how revolutionary it is. Just like I'm wary of people who tell me how smart they are, I'm wary of authors who tell you how important their ideas are. If you have something truly important to say, it should be self-evident.

I didn't share Prisig's enthusiasm for "Quality," and had a hard time seeing it as the thing from which all matter and ideas in the universe arise. Reframing it as "goodness" or "God" or a force along those lines helped me understand a little more about what he trying to say, but I didn't quite see these ideas overthrowing thousands of years of Eastern and Western philosophy.

2. If you're an author and you want to lecture at me, write a nonfiction book. If you want to tell a story, write fiction.

For about 150-200 pages, I felt as if I was being lectured at by a particularly self-absorbed professor. The narrative of the latter half of the book pretty much disintigrates, leaving nothing but pages and pages of semi-stream-of-consciousness philosophy. This is occasionally broken up by a couple paragraphs or a sentence about the motorcycle trip, but it never illuminates the philosophy even remotely. At worst, it's just the author or his son being emo and eating at restaurants. Normally I wouldn't mind straight philosophy, but I feel as if I was lied to at the beginning of the book. I wanted the journey to tie in with the philosophy more than it did. If you're going to use one to illuminate the other, then stick with it through the whole book.

One other minor point that I had a hard time dealing with was the relationship between the author and his son. The author is clearly not the best father, and is often sarcastic and dismissive of his son. He largely ignores him so that he can indulge himself in his ideas, and the son even points this out a few times, only to be promptly written off by his father. Matt remarked that it's almost impossible to carry on a conversation while riding a motorcycle, so I'll grant the author that much. However, there's a significant portion of the story in which the two are hiking up a mountain and the author behaves the same way. I felt genuinely bad for this kid. While the author continually ponders why his son is sullen and emotional for most of the trip (even going so far as to suggest it's mental illness), it seemed crystal clear to me. The end of the book made me feel somewhat better about this, as the author and his son have a "come to Jesus" moment, but that couldn't completely erase the feelings I'd had for the last 300-some pages.

I have a feeling that I'd like this book more if I were to read it again, knowing how it's structured and how everything eventually turns out. I can appreciate it a little more in retrospect, and am willing to give the author's ideas a little more credence than I did when I was reading them. While it's hard to pick them out all the time, I thought that there were some good ideas buried in the middle portion of the book. The sections on the unification of the natural and man-made worlds and the application of Quality to everyday life really stood out to me and seemed relevant. I just wish they hadn't been so obscured by the author's ego and the unevenness of the narrative.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Recently Watched: XTRO

XTRO is a weird little film that's just heinous enough to have managed to hang around since its release in 1982. I've seen it referred to a number of places as "the movie where a woman gives birth to a full-grown man," but honestly, that only starts to scratch the surface. The opening scene shows a young brat named Tony throwing sticks at the family dog with his father before dad's abducted by something - we never actually see anything but a bright light, lots of wind, and a thrown stick inexplicably freezing in mid-air. A couple of years pass, and Tony's father returns to claim Tony and take him away to space. Or something.

I'm having a lot of trouble right now trying to explain what happens in the middle of the film because there really is no logic. An alien crashes on earth and somehow impregnates a random woman with the man-sized version of Tony's father. The father is born, Tony wakes up covered with blood, both develop telekinetic powers, a midget clown with a razorblade yo-yo appears and slashes some throats, Tony's father eats some snake eggs, a black panther appears in the hallway... The list just goes on.

Nobody watches a film like this for any sort of logical plot though. XTRO was one of the post-grindhouse era films that rode into the world on video and could have just as easily disappeared without a second thought. It was temporarily included on the list of "video nasties" which were banned in the U.K., and gained some notoriety when a news story about a murderer showed a copy of XTRO sitting in his living room. The director, Harry Davenport, maintains no illusions about his body of work, and freely admits that they were just out to shock with this film. For the most part it does its job. This film is interesting precisely because you're not sure what it's going to throw at you.

Unfortunately, aside from its unpredictability XTRO doesn't have a lot going for it. It's weird, but not particularly clever. Other than a few surreal scenes (particularly those with the clown), there's not really any artistry in the carnage. Davenport brings some enthusiasm to his work, but it's not always enough to balance out the lack of care. The low budget of this film sometimes works to its disadvantage, and after a while its seams start to show. Nevertheless, it's worth checking out just because it is so bizarre. I'd say there probably won't ever be another film like XTRO, but there are two sequels, with rumors of another coming soon. Directly to video, presumably.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Recently Read: The Chronoliths


This might be something that I do only once or twice before becoming lazy again, but I want to start writing down my thoughts about stuff I read. Sometimes I remember liking a book but can't remember specific plot points or reasons I liked it. Numerical ratings are quick, but don't really remind me of a whole lot. This is book #21 of this year, for the record.

Robert Charles Wilson is one of those science fiction writers that's fond of introducing a single grandiose change into the world and then spending the rest of the novel exploring how it affects the lives of his characters. This time it's a series of enormous monoliths, apparently sent back in time to commemorate the military victory of a leader known only as "Kuin". The obvious question to ask is whether Kuin's takeover is inevitable or not, and whether these "Chronoliths" truly respresent Kuin's domination of the world or if they're just a bluff sent back in time to change the past and ensure Kuin's rise to power. The main character, Scott, has just undergone a rather messy divorce and is recruited to investigate the true nature of the Chronoliths. Wilson uses the Chronoliths to examine questions of determinism in the context of a life filled with mistakes and regrets. If the future is inevitable, can we be held responsible for the ways in which we've erred or even try to avoid mistakes at all? While the societal upheaval that follows is interesting and meticulously imagined, following Scott through the chaos is what keeps this book interesting. The focus here isn't the spectacle itself (something I've always disliked about Clarke, and to a lesser extent Asimov), but the ways in which it affects real people.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Evil Kids in FIlm

Sometimes I like watching a few thematically linked movies in a short period of time. That way, even if one isn't particularly interesting, I can at least think about it in the context of the others. I've made it through some pretty terrible movies this way. I did a super-long marathon of French horror films back in the Fall, in which I might have lost my sanity (or at least a properly functioning frontal lobe) had I not been thinking slightly more critically about them. My Lucio Fulci series in the Winter was less traumatizing, and I am currently tracking down a series of some forgotten 80's cold-war nuclear apocalypse films.

A few months ago I unintentionally happened to see a few films that all ended up being linked through the theme of evil kids. (For the uninitiated, this is a recurring theme in horror.) I approach kids with apprehension as it is - mostly due to their small size and unpredictability, but also due to the fact that they are largely irrational semi-human things. So imagining them as imbued with some sort of supernatural malice doesn't seem that far off for me.

The first movie that got me thinking was Grace. This film got a lot of buzz before it was released, so maybe I went into it expecting more than I should have. The premise is this: an expecting mother is in a car crash that kills her late-term unborn baby and also her husband. Stricken with grief, she carries the baby to term, and finds ... it's alive... or is it? The somewhat ashen-skinned baby attracts flies and drinks blood - congratulations lady, you gave birth to a zombie. Still grieving for her husband, she refuses to see that her child has, er, special needs, and grows slowly more insane trying to give it the blood that it requires for sustenance.

For me, this film was unsettling in all the wrong ways. This isn't a light-hearted zombie baby movie - it's a pretty depressing study of grief and the destruction of traditional family values. There are some obligatory scares and blood, but what really disturbed me is the way the film focuses on the repressive nature of the traditional nuclear family. There's an overbearing mother-in-law who, after losing her son in the car crash, becomes obsessed with finding a new child to nurture, and tries to gain custody of the dead baby. She's obsessed with nursing in a way that's not just a little creepy and leads to a few scenes that I'm trying really hard to excise from my memory.

While the mother of the zombie baby goes to escalating means to provide for her child, there's also a subplot/subtext about her breaking the shackles of the traditional family. By the end of the movie, she has completely demolished (literally and figuratively) her old family structure, and flees with her (female) birth counsellor to start a new life.

The thing is, Grace sounds more interesting than it actually is. Even at under 90 minutes, it drags in places - a sign that the short film it's based on didn't quite have enough ideas to fill out a feature film. Also, there's really no character you find yourself eager to relate to. The mother is a little too crazy and volatile to really empathize with, the baby is more a plot device than a character, and the birth counsellor appears too intermittently for us to really get to know her. It's interesting enough in retrospect, and has some pretty unsettling scenes, but doesn't maintain enough tension for it to be a really memorable film.

Next up was the Spanish cult horror film Who Can Kill A Child? which would probably have disappeared entirely had it not been for Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth lauding its virtues in the recent past. The title's rhetorical question is largely for show - you know what's going to go down at the end of this movie. What the question is really asking is: what would it take for you to kill a child, and how much remorse would you feel afterwards?

In case we weren't already thinking about this, the credits roll over stock war footage as statistics about child casualties of war are printed on the screen. This really adds nothing to the movie, and could be skipped without a second thought. I thought it bordered on tasteless, and didn't serve to make the film any more relevant. If anything, it should have been pushed to the end credits.

The film is pretty straightforward. Think "Children of the Corn" (which this film predates by a year or so) set on an isolated island, minus the crazy religious sect. A young couple sets off for a vacation on the island, only to find a distinct lack of adults, and a distinct abundance of creepy dead-eyed children. Eventually, they realise that the children have taken out the adults in what seems like a sort of game. Trapped without a ferry to the mainland until the next day, the couple struggles with the realisation that sooner or later, they're going to be overwhelmed by these evil kids and have to step up to the plate.


This film, like Grace, seems to take a little too long to get to the point. I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it been missing, oh, half an hour or so. But while it does a poor job of building suspense, the final act is what makes this movie worth it. This film doesn't shy away from the question it asks, and shows real guts in following it through to the end. Who Can Kill A Child? is a unique sort of film that takes the 70s Eurotrash aesthetic (with all of its flaws) and applies it to a slightly unorthodox idea. It's worth seeing just for something different, although I'd hesitate to label this as a classic. It's more an unusual relic of the exploitation era.

Finally, The White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke, takes a slower (non-horror) look at childhood innocence and how it's really a construction of society. The film is set in rural pre-World War I Germany and focuses on a young schoolteacher, who also narrates the film. The town feels almost intentionally storybookish in the way that most characters are identified and divided into social classes primarily by their occupation. In this way, they also come to represent society as a whole, and it's clear as the story opens that the somewhat tyrannical pastor, the aloof mayor, and the abusive doctor are the ones running the show in this town.

So when the doctor is injured after his horse is tripped in a clearly deliberate attempt on his life, there's no lack of suspects, but an abundance of them. Violent acts continue in the months ahead, and grow increasingly disturbing. Still, it's hard to narrow down just who is responsible. The characters in this film are anything but caricatures, and we see even the most obviously 'evil' characters in a variety of situations that humanize them. Every time you think you've got it figured out, you're shown a new piece of evidence that only serves to complicate things.

The title of the film seems to me to point out what this film is really about. When the mayor's children are out past their curfew, they're punished and forced to wear a white ribbon on their arm as a reminder of the innocence they've abandoned. When the mayor's son confesses to "self-abuse", his arms are tied to his bed at night with the same ribbons. The ribbon itself is an obvious symbol of innocence, but it's the way in which it's imposed upon the children that's really interesting to me. It's not an innate thing, but a label forced upon the kids by the adults in defiance of their true nature. It's also a way for the adults of the town to turn a blind eye to the fact that the children are the common denominator in the increasingly violent occurrances in the town.


The White Ribbon, like all of Haneke's films, isn't easy to digest. It's (ironically) filmed in black and white, but the moral issues in the film are anything but. Haneke isn't fond of giving clear answers to the questions he asks in his films (or even any answers at all, as in Cache), but instead chooses to lay out a number of possibilities that each illuminate the question in a different way. I'm sure that I'm reading this film differently than a lot of people would, but that's what I really like about Haneke - he offers you a problem and lets you come up with your own solution. Regardless of how you view it, one thing is clear in this film: whatever darkness has arisen in this town has been birthed by the town itself, and only upon accepting responsibility for this fact can it be eliminated.

In reality, kids aren't born evil, as in Grace, nor do they rise en masse to punish adults for their cruelty, as in Who Can Kill a Child? They are capable of evil things, as is anyone, and it's the way in which they're raised that determines exactly what kind of adults they'll become. In that sense, the White Ribbon offers the most nuanced and perhaps accurate view of innocence itself: as a brief and fleeting ideal that can never be fully recaptured, but is nonetheless worth striving for.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Music

I'm not in a bad mood or anything - quite the opposite, actually - I just had a handful of folk-punk songs that I liked and wanted to put into a mix, so the theme had to be either angst or anarchy. Anarchy's crap, so here you go. It's filled out with some non-folk songs on a similar theme.



1. Oh, Susquehanna! - Defiance, Ohio
2. Joset of Nazareth's Blues - Titus Andronicus
3. Little Prince (El Principito) - Andrew Jackson Jihad
4. No Children - The Mountain Goats
5. Ways to Make it Through the Wall - Los Campesinos!
6. Fireball, or What I Learned From TV - Spoonboy
7. Unicron - Andrew Jackson Jihad
8. Young Hearts Spark Fire - Japandroids

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I Read a Romance Novel

I owe all of what follows below to one person, and one person alone: Matt Simon. The story really begins about a year ago, at a used bookstore/coffeeshop located on the ground floor of an old woman's house in the ghost town of Louisberg, NC. Matt was buying a stack of used books, and was looking for one more so that he could qualify for some special buy 3 get 2 free deal, or something. I looked at a shelf of old paperbacks and grabbed the one with the most garish spine. It turned out that it was a book called "Sweety Baby Cookie Honey." I didn't then, nor do I now know what it is really about. All I know is that I opened it up to a random page and was greeted by a particularly explicit sex scene. Naturally, I told Matt that he had to buy this book, and not only that, he was going to read it.

That book is an entirely different story though. Months later, when he and I decided to form a two-man book club in which each person would select a book for the other every other month, I was dreading what I knew was inevitable. When Matt said he had sent my book, I was not in the least bit anxious to find out what he had drudged up from the abyss. I knew only that it would probably leave my brain shriveled and me curled up in the laundry room dry-heaving. An illustrated guide to horse breeding? A kama sutra from the seventies?



I should have been so lucky. My book was called "Santa, Honey," and was a short anthology of three Christmas-themed romance stories. I've read a lot of things, but none of those things have ever been a romance novel. My life is full of metaphorical potholes, but never has it occurred to me that a fictionalized love story would be just the thing to fill any of them. Needless to say, I put off reading it for as long as I could. This week marked the final week before the next selections in our book club would be exchanged, so there was no beating around the bush. I had to read the book, and I had to get it done fast. To become motivated, I freebased more caffiene than I'd ever consumed in my life (seriously - it was a truly massive amount), sat down on my couch, and began to read.

All three stories followed the same basic format: a frigid woman with no interest in a relationship (either because of having been previously burned by her boyfriend or because she's too devoted to her job, or some other selfless humanitarian cause, such as an orphanage, etc.) meets the sexiest man in the universe. They're forced together due to circumstances beyond their control, usually for a matter of days. In this book, a blizzard was used twice, and in the other story the guy had to work as a mall santa as community service to avoid a parking ticket, which is in steep competition for the most implausible thing to have ever been written. Take some sexual tension, multiply it by a factor of a thousand, and end with a poorly written sex scene that did nothing but made me question the author's choice of metaphors.

If this wasn't bad enough, add in every possible Christmas-innuendo you can think of. It's all here, as shameless as can be: peppermint sticks, jingle bells, "decking the halls", a partridge full of pear trees. If it was Christmas-themed, it happened. Ho, ho, ho, indeed.

One thought that I was unable to expunge from my mind as I read these three stories was that of the identities of the authors. Having no picture in the back cover to refer to, I was forced to use my imagination coupled with inferences from what I read. Several things were apparent to me from the stories - the women who wrote them had never been in a real relationship, or if they had, they were willfully ignoring realism in favor of giving the reader exactly what she presumably wanted without any burden of thought. Also, these women must have had an extremely optimistic view of men, as even the most reprehensible guys in these stories turned out to be massive charmers.

The scariest thing about these stories to me was the fact that the biggest fantasy focused not on the sex scenes or the seduction or the romance, but the personalities of the male characters. No man on earth has ever acted or ever will act like these characters did. I'd be lying if I said they were completely selfless or without ulterior motivations - one character starts out as sort of a slimeball focused on nothing but sex, but even he quickly turns into a selfless drone with only his mistress's needs in mind. Not only that, but he's good with kids, rich, holds a job that has acquainted him with celebrities, and is willing to be completely and utterly devoted to this woman for life. Nobody on earth could ever be this guy.

It's worth noting that at the end of this story, the guy calls up all his celebrity friends and has them visit the orphange where the protagonist works. I'm not kidding. In the book's most absurd twist, Janet Jackson (who must have been a celebrity in 1996) shows up and has Christmas dinner with the orphans. Then they all sing and dance. This coincided with the peak of my caffiene high and nearly sent me over the edge.

A surprising amount of the stories were written from the perspective of the men. Reading these parts of the stories provided a strange experience: viewing the mind of a man as it is imagined by a woman. As an example of how incorrect the authors got things, I'll draw upon a particular example from the orphanage story. When the guy meets the girl, the first thought that goes through his head is something along the lines of "Wow, is she beautiful!" The second thought is: "I need to ask her to marry me - how can I persuade her?" Then, finally, "I would like to have wild sex with her." While I hate to burst this particular bubble, I'm willing to bet that in reality, said slimeball wouldn't have thought of marriage second, nor third, nor fourth, ad infinitum.

The whole issue of fiction as wish-fulfillment is tricky. I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy novels, and while sci-fi at least has the excuse that it's provoking thought on the future and such, fantasy doesn't always. Some things I read are purely escapist, and I'm okay with that. Everyone projects themselves onto the protagonist of a novel to some extent when they read; that's what makes reading fun - experiencing things you wouldn't otherwise through the lens of someone else is great. I think there's a line an author crosses that takes them into the realm of indulgent wish-fulfillment though. Would I like to slay a dragon? Hell yes. Let's say, for the sake of argument that this is something I deeply desire. There are two ways an author can work this into a story for me. 1) I can read a book where a hero slays a dragon and then has to grapple with the larger implications of the slaying: why was the dragon there? Why did he slay it? Did he feel sorry about it afterward? Is he scorned for his actions, or treated as a hero? This gets me, as a reader, thinking about what the actual consequences of dragon-slaying might be, if, of course, dragons existed. 2) I can read a book where there's this huge dragon - like, the biggest most monstrous dragon ever. This thing doesn't mess around. Enter the awesome flawless most valiant hero in the history of the world (clearly meant to represent me). He tries so hard to kill the dragon, and it's not easy, but eventually he does. He completely and utterly slays it and is rewarded with fortune, fame, and acolytes. Happily ever after, etc. Can you guess which formula romance novels follow?

Harmless, right? Except that in these stories, it's not dragons or swordsmen or other clearly imaginary things that are being focused on, it's people in relationships. The way I imagine dragons can't be distorted beyond reality because it's not real to begin with. But when a book plants unrealistic notions about interactions with other human beings in your mind, then what happens? Like violence in video games, it's probably harmless 99.9% of the time. People in general are pretty good about separating fantasy from reality. I just found nothing else even remotely redeeming about this book, and it made the strangeness and distortion of reality stand out that much more.

To say that reading this book left me with no insights would be a lie. Rather, I think I've plunged into depths to which I had no intent of ever delving. It makes me somewhat frightened that this fictionalized notion of romance (which is very different than fiction containing romance as a plot device) is being sold in such vast quantities. However, I now know for a fact that I will never have to read a romance novel again.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Work Update #2

Last week:

  • I got sidelined by our final quantum mechanics homework set, which ended up consuming several days. We're in the last chapter of Sakurai's Modern Quantum Mechanics, which deals with scattering (in three dimensions, where it's unsurprisingly more complicated than one). The derivations are particularly obtuse, which is likely a side effect of the book being completed and assembled by a colleague after the author's death. I'm not sure if anyone knows exactly how much he actually wrote before he died, but the book falls apart slowly the deeper you get into it, and it just trainwrecks by the last chapter.

  • Worked with a scaled-down version of the hydrodynamics code to run a few test simulations:
    1. The Sod shock tube - a 1-D "tube" of fluid split into two regions: high pressure and density on one side, low on the other. The evolution shows a shock wave and rarefaction wave travelling in opposite directions from the initial boundary.
    2. The Sedov blast wave - a problem initially solved to estimate the amount of energy produced by a nuclear bomb. Sedov apparently solved it pretty accurately using only pictures of the blast. The setup is pretty simple - assume radial symmetry and put a lot of energy in the center of a stationary fluid. The pressure/density waves radiate outward with time just like you expect they would.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Work Update #1

This week:

  • I submitted an appication for a fellowship in computational science that would fully fund me through next year.

  • I was forced to develop the skeleton of a research project in a matter of days as part of the fellowship application. The idea (which is subject to change and evolve once research actually starts) is to model the accretion of a gas onto a black hole using a three-dimensional hydrodynamics code. Foglizzo and Tagger have done this in a general case with a Newtonian potential and found instabilities in the system that would presumably appear in the luminosity. Black holes don't follow the rules of Newtonian gravity though, so making things relativistic could cause further instabilities.

  • I kept on reading Thompson's Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics

Film Thoughts - 3/10

Forgot that I had written these:

A Prophet - This brutal French prison drama follows a young delinquent named Malik through six years of incarceration. Initially he's focused on simply surviving, but is quickly offered protection by the Corsican mafia, with one requirement - he has to kill an inmate belonging to one of the rival Arab gangs. This act doesn't come easy for Malik, and it follows him throughout the rest of his sentence as he becomes more involved in the world of organized crime. While the film is brutal by its nature, it, like Malik, never loses its humanity. He enters as prison as a naive kid, and leaves a trained criminal guilty of innumerable crimes. Even so, we get the sense that he's done his best to get by any way he can, and hasn't lost his dignity. This is a gritty film most of the time, but it isn't afraid to give us a few moments of beauty and introspection.

A Serious Man - A really great Coen brothers film that meditates on the bad things that happen to people who try (and fail) to do good things.

The Broken - A pretty mediocre doppleganger horror film. After getting in a car crash, a young woman gets the feeling that everything in her life is not right and that people she was previously close to have been replaced by evil identical clones. Is she just suffering from brain damage, or is there something seriously evil going on? It's slow, and not that surprising in the end.

The Core - How many times have I seen this wretched movie? About five, which is four too many. I used to show this in my Earth Science class as an example of bad movie science. Recently, the physics grad student society chose it as their film for "bad movie night." What do you do when the core of the Earth stops spinning? Drive a huge drill down below and blow up some nuclear bombs to kick-start it again. The dialogue is terrible, the jokes are lame, and the science is heinous.

Gamer - This film riffs on the "video games as reality" theme that's been around since "Wargames" and probably reached its peak with "eXistenZ." The premise here is that felons are offered a get-out-of-jail free card if they can survive running a violent combat-zone gauntlet for a certain number of matches (a la "Death Race 2000" or "The Running Man"). The catch is that they're remotely controlled by players who manipulate them much like avatars in a game. While it sounds like ground that's been covered many times before, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor as directors (as well as an awesome performance by Michael C. Hall) make it worth a look. Gamer sports the same sort of frenetic You-Tube style editing and gratuitous violence and sex that elevated the duo's Crank films above the realm of typical action films. Unfortunately, it's not always enough to make up for the sloppy battle scenes and lack of originality.

Gomorrah - I caught this at the "Legacies of Neorealism" series on campus. I'm not exactly sure what neo-realism is, but this crime drama definitely seems realistic. It focuses on the lives of several people in Italy who come into contact with the Comorra (the other Italian mafia, not the Sicilians). Some stories are more interesting than others, but they average out to being pretty good.

The Hurt Locker - I thought this was a good movie, but definitely not the best of the year, especially when pitted against Inglourious Basterds, District 9, and A Serious Man. A renegade soldier defuses bombs. That's about it.

Road Games - Jamie Lee Curtis got her start in a series of slasher films (most notably Halloween and Prom Night), and this one seems to have disappeared from the collective consciousness. I caught this at Cinema Overdrive, and it's fun enough for what it is. A truck driver in Austrailia notices a suspicious van and begins to believe that a serial killer is abducting and murdering hitchhikers. Not by any means great, but still enjoyable.

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Season 3 - Watching this show is like lying on the couch at 3 am staring at local-access television while suffering from insomnia-induced hallucinations. This is probably the best season thus far, quality-wise. Previous seasons have been hit and miss as far as the consistency of the sketches, but Tim and Eric seem to have learned how to balance out all of their ingredients. This is humor that's willing to disgust and disturb you on the off-chance that you'll laugh out of embarassment.

The White Ribbon - A quiet meditation on violence and innocence set in rural pre-WWII Germany. More thoughts forthcoming.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Work

It occurred to me recently that it might be nice to log what I'm doing in the world of physics from time to time. When I was teaching I had interesting stories from work almost every day but very little time to actually write them down. Now that I'm in grad school, the opposite is true: I have ample time but a dearth of interestingness.

This past year has consisted mostly of me going to class and working problem sets. It's been interesting for me personally, but it doesn't really make for dynamic writing. "Isn't graduate-level physics where all the exciting stuff happens though?" Yes and no. Most of it is so steeped in mathematical formalism that it becomes interesting more as a set of tools than a collection of ideas. There are still interesting ideas out there, but they're rarely the focus of the required reading or problems.

The more I learn about physics, the less I enjoy digging into its implicit philosophical quandaries. Maybe I'm too much of a pragmatist, but as I do more and more physics, I realize exactly what physics is: a set of mathematical approximations describing physical phenomena. The descriptions can be awesome, but in my mind there's a difference the predictions themselves, and the way we obtain them.

What is a Green's function? Does it have physical meaning? Not as far as I can tell, but still it pops up again and again throughout all branches of fundamental physics. It's a really useful mathematical artifact that solves a wide variety of problems, so we use it. When it's useful to assign a physical meaning to something, we do it. When it's too abstract or convoluted, we don't. "Shut up and calculate" is a pretty useful way to view things sometimes.

I like problem solving. I also like big ideas, but I'm happy to put them aside most of the time to get things done. Still, in order for me to stay motivated, I need to know that there's something cool waiting at the end once all the work is done. This is why I'm probably going to end up in astrophysics - even if there's no less grinding than in any other branch of physics, it's to describe something that's (sometimes literally) orders of magnitude bigger and more awesome than, say, surface science or condensed matter.

I'm currently trying to arrange some summer research with a professor who applies large-scale fluid dynamics simulations to various problems in astrophysics. In preparation for a summer job, I've done/am doing a couple of things:


  1. Over spring break I went to a seminar on high-performance (parallel processor) computing. While I've done computational physics in the past, it was all relatively small scale. It's not too hard to re-envision writing code that will run in parallel, but it takes a different kind of thinking. While we didn't really do any useful examples, it was a nice introduction to MPI, the standard interface for parallel computing. Also, writing scripts and working in five linux terminals simultaneously always makes me feel like a hacker.

  2. I've been reading Thompson's An Introduction to Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics to get some of the basic physics down. Fluid dynamics is one of those things that it's possible to never have to do when you're learning physics. I touched upon it only once as an undergrad during a partial differential equations class. It's not part of the "standard" curriculum, and often gets overlooked, but it's fairly common sense stuff a lot of the time, and it seems like vector calculus was made for it. I'm currently working my way through material on accretion and shocks, which isn't intuitive yet, but is becoming so, slowly.


Hopefully as I start doing (as opposed to learning) more physics, I'll have more to report.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Top 10 Out of 10,000

I hit 10,000 songs played on my Zune the other day, and decided to dig out the statistics. Out of the last 10,000 these were the most frequently played. It starts with #1 and then goes in descending order.



I didn't want to have any artists on the playlist with more than one song, so in some cases it's the most frequently played song from an album I listened to a lot. The main exception here is Owl City - I like that song, but pretty much nothing else the guy has done.

1. Little Secrets - Passion Pit
2. Mind, Drips - Neon Indian
3. 10 Dollar - M.I.A.
4. You'll See It - Washed Out
5. Cartoons and Macrame Wounds - Mew
6. Ways to Make it Through the Wall - Los Campesinos!
7. Cave In - Owl City
8. Zodiac Girls (Pony Version) - Black Moth Super Rainbow
9. By Torpedo or Crohn's - Why?
10. Willow Tree - Chad VanGaalen

What's really interesting to me is how long on average it takes me to get familiar with an album. There were lots of other albums that I really enjoy and know really well, but have only listened to six or seven times. Passion Pit definitely hit #1 with about 18 listens, but the rest averaged between 10-15, which sounds kind of small to me. This is the power of data.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Hausu

Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hausu (from 1977) is unlike any film I've ever seen before. No one clip can encompass everything in this film, but the one below does a pretty good job.



It's a kinetic mess that similar to what you might see if you animated a kid's coloring book, spliced it together with some old television commercials and watched the whole thing on acid. I wish more movies had the testicular fortitude to let their effects be this cool.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The End of the World - Part 1: Crime and Punishment

On post-apocalyptic laws, reasons why we behave, and the necessity for shades of gray.

The struggle to re-establish order and a new set of laws after the collapse of society is one of the main issues examined in Robert Kirkman's zombie-apocalypse comic The Walking Dead. The first couple of volumes deal with the initial response to the end of the world, and the third and fourth books focus on the characters' search for a safe place to hide from the hordes of undead. The group eventually stumbles upon an abandoned prison, inhabited only by four ex-inmates of varying degrees of trustworthiness. After a few run-ins with the inmates, the group's leader, and main character, a former small-town police officer named Rick, is forced to impose a very simple rule on the small "society": you kill, you die.

Anyone taking the life of anyone else is sentenced to death immediately, no questions asked. The motive or circumstances of the murder aren't to be taken into account. Rick realizes that times have changed, and this new world has brought with it a new set of rules - namely, that human life, now scarce, is too valuable to be threatened by violence from other humans. (The innate hypocrisy of the new law doesn't escape the characters.)

This rule has its subtler points though - what if someone threatens another person with death? What if they plan to steal guns or food that are necessary for others to live? Is intent, or indirect harm enough to sentence someone to death? Just as the old testament's "Thou shalt not kill" covers a wide range of actual transgressions, Rick's new commandment proves to be more nuanced than he initially believes. Eventually, Rick is forced to abandon his rule altogether when it is simply too cut and dried, although no other explicit code takes its place. Dealing with crime on a case-by-case basis has varying results for the group, and while a black-and-white law led to chaos, some very profound tragedies also result from a lack of quick and definitive action.

If there is one overarching law that seems to emerge after the apocalypse, it's this: anything that hinders the survival of the human race is wrong. The problem is, how can you effectively enforce this law?

Pop quiz: someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night. You can hear them rummaging around downstairs while you lay in bed. What do you do? A common answer might be: quietly call the police, try to remain silent, and hope that nobody enters your room. Change it up a little though - there's no working phone, no police, and you happen to be armed with a handgun that you're pretty good at firing. Are you willing to take the chance that the burglar will leave without hurting you or your family?

Most of the time, we're able to leave the "dirty work" in our lives to those who volunteer to do it. We have a police force to deal with crime, a legal system to enact punishment, and myriad of other leaders to make sure that dangerous things get taken care of in an orderly, fair, and consistent manner. When society is gone though, the responsibility to uphold the "rules" falls onto everyone's shoulders.

To make the problem worse, it's a lot easier to break the rules when there aren't any official authority figures around to keep you in line. In addition to shifting the responsibility to uphold the law onto the victims, the end of society increases the chance that the law will need to be upheld. So, the question is, what changes: the rules themselves, or the people who enforce them? Things quickly get nebulous, and this lack of clarity leads to conflict.

If the world ended tomorrow, would its laws still hold? Probably in the short term, while some structure still remained, but what about as things continued to fall apart? Completely remove government and law enforcement from the picture and it's not so clear. Crime seems to thrive whenever it sees an opportunity to do so without consequence. Add to the mix the fact that what we define as crime could even be necessary to exist (say, stealing food in order to keep your family from going hungry), and it's likely that the number of traditionally defined "crimes" is only going to increase.

But there are different degrees of crime - taking food from an abandoned store is different from holding up a shop at gunpoint and forcing them to empty the register. Crimes that directly harm another person are among the most harshly punished, and rightfully so. More "impersonal" crimes such as vandalism, possession of illegal substances, etc. aren't punished nearly as severely. Remove society and it seems as if the severity of these two types of crime shifts in opposite directions. Harming another person when the survival of the human race is at stake is even more unforgivable than in times of safety. For the crimes that remain crimes, there's less room for deliberation about their punishment when so much is at stake. On the other hand, society necessitates the punishment of theft, trespassing, and the like, because these crimes work against the smooth functioning of society itself. Take modern society out of the picture, and these crimes may in fact become necessary to reestablish society.

The reversion to an older, clearer, moral code with fewer shades of gray is something that occurs frequently in post-apocalyptic fiction. It seems like survival dictates the necessity for clear and immediate action against crime, but to what extent can you enforce such a brutal code without becoming as ruthless as those who threaten you?

Imposing a moral code that's painted in black and white simply won't work in a world that has infinite shades of gray, but in a more ruthless society we can't simply maintain the rules that govern us today. Just as the unforgiving laws of the old testament evolved slowly into the more generous laws of the new testament, the laws governing a post-apocalyptic world would have to evolve along with the re-evolution of society. Without society to draw clear cut lines between "right" and "wrong", it's not so easy to tell the difference.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Film Thoughts - 2/10

Thoughts on things I watched in February. Not all of these provoked enough thought for me to squeeze out a longer review, but this doesn't necessarily reflect on how much I enjoyed them. These were also posted on Netflix.

Basket Case - This splatstick horror film is fun and surprisingly shocking at the end. It's quirky enough to keep you guessing despite lagging a little in the middle. The premise is clever and pretty twisted - a young man named Duane seeks out revenge on the doctors who severed his horribly deformed conjoined twin while carrying the (still alive and now bloodthirsty) twin in a basket. While the gore isn't as over the top as it could have been (a la Braindead), the focus here isn't really on sight gags. More unsettling than the bloody parts are the uncomfortable situations it puts the severed twin in. I don't really know if this film was exploiting the notion of physical deformity for laughs or trying to say something about how we oppress and ignore those with some sort of deformity. Either way, it's unsettling. Even more disturbing is one of the DVD extras: "Beverly Bonner's Laugh Track" which showcases the public access comedy show of one of the film's actresses. It's one of the most unintentionally frightening things I've ever seen.

Chalk - A mockumentary focusing on the lives of several beginning teachers and newly appointed school administrators. Speaking from experience, this movie captures what it truly feels like to be a new teacher more than any other film I've seen. The teachers portrayed here aren't heroes or saviors (or even necessarily good teachers), but just slightly burned out adults trying as best they can to figure out how to manage a classroom. This film is at its best when it's not trying to be funny, but unfortunately it tries a little too hard. There's one dream sequence that feels completely out of place. Still, the unglamorous classroom footage is extremely well done, and conveys the awkwardness and absurdity of trying to figure out how exactly to teach high schoolers.

Cut-throats Nine - An unusually nihilistic and gory Euro-Western (Spanish, not Italian, so not "spaghetti"). I was lucky enough to catch a theatrical screening of this at Cinema Overdrive in February. Nine criminals on a chain gang escape from their mountain prison and struggle for survival against the elements and each other. This film goes into some very dark places, and is even more downbeat than a lot of the spaghetti westerns. There's not a lot more to say other than jump at the chance to see this if you can find it somewhere.


Finding Forrester
- A predictable, but well done teacher/mentor story. Sean Connery plays a hermit who befriends and mentors an underprivileged youth. The main character is a little unbelievable, (how many teenagers do you know who have independently worked their way through the canon of English literature?) but if you can suspend disbelief, it's an entertaining enough movie. Thankfully, it tries to avoid unnecessary sentimentality, but eventually caves. Comparable to Freedom Writers, but not nearly as saccharine.

Freaks and Geeks - I remember this show being on when I was in high school, but I'm glad I waited until long after I graduated to watch it. I don't think I would have appreciated the way it captures the awkwardness and struggle for identity that everyone seems to go through in their teenage years. The show follows Lindsay Weir and her younger brother Sam as they both try to fit in while attending high school in the early 80s. Lindsay is torn between hanging out with her dysfunctional "freak" friends and the more straight-edged ones she grew up with. Sam, on the other hand, struggles to adjust to freshman year and leaving his childhood behind. It's nice to have a high school series that completely ignores the jocks and cheerleaders to focus on the unpopular crowd. This show flips the bird to the completely false modern myth of teenage life that most shows set in high school try to romanticize.

Moon - A good, but not quite outstanding story of a lone man working on a lunar refinery who discovers that he's not... unique. To discuss this film too much is to ruin the fun of it, but I will say that it kept me guessing often enough to remain interesting. I'm kind of baffled that this got the hype that it did. The story is based on several staples of sci-fi, and doesn't bring a lot of new ideas to the table. The visuals are all right, but are clearly meant to evoke memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in that sense, we've seen them all before. What is outstanding is Sam Rockwell's job as the only real actor in this film. He carries it when it starts to drag, and takes it to a level of poignancy that might have otherwise fallen flat.

Shutter Island - Scorsese's latest film is a polished horror story about a detective investigating the disappearance of a woman from an insane asylum. To add to the suspense, all of this takes place on a remote island as a storm of biblical proportions is brewing. Technically speaking, this film is a masterpiece. The visuals are beautiful, and it's clear that care was put into every shot. When special effects are present, they're not overused, and they fit seamlessly into the numerous dream sequences. If there's one thing that isn't spectacular, it's the plot. The story of the investigation is interesting enough to get things moving, and once it's going we're led along by tidbits of information that cause us to believe something sinister is going on behind the scenes in the asylum. But when the film reaches its denouement, it throws all its cards on the table and simply starts dictating to us as if we're too dumb to figure things out for ourselves. A little more editing in the final 30 minutes, and this would have been a truly great film. As it stands, it's still very good, and deserves your time.

Sunshine Cleaning - Several people recommended this movie to me knowing that I like dark comedies, but maybe I was expecting too much comedy. This little indie drama is more a meditation on death, albeit with humorous moments. Two down-on-their-luck sisters decide to start their own business cleaning up after crime scenes and end up learning a lot about themselves in the process. Nice enough, although a little more depressing than I initially expected.

Tom Goes to the Mayor - Initially this series has the same feel as many of the other deliberately bizarre Adult Swim cartoons: intentionally poor animation, musical numbers, awkward pauses and silences, "celebrity" cameos, etc. I got the feeling that the show's creators (Tim and Eric) were playing it relatively safe in the beginning. Eventually though, it starts to take on a life of its own and grows increasingly demented and dark. By the final season the show drops all pretense of logic and plot to the point where it simply had to end because it couldn't outdo itself. Perfectly lampoons the absurdity of life in a small town or suburb and pokes fun at everything from infomercials, bad powerpoint presentations, and local news to small-town celebrations and shopping malls.

Also,

Carriers - A great character-driven post-apocalyptic road movie. More thoughts forthcoming.

Testament - A post-apocalyptic film focusing on a small town's struggle for survival after a nuclear attack. More thoughts forthcoming.

Who Can Kill a Child? - A somewhat disappointing evil kid movie. More thoughts forthcoming.

Grace - A not-so-great evil baby movie. More thoughts forthcoming.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

David Lynch's Rabbits

What starts off a seemingly innocuous satirical mock-up of a modern sitcom slowly builds up an inexplicable sense of foreboding and dread. The nonsense phrases thrown around seem to gain meaning when you start realizing that questions are being answered before they're asked and conversations are taking place out of order. Laugh tracks play when time is mentioned, and long periods of silence stretch out in between. Vague references to the past creep in after a while. Is this purgatory? Disembodied demonic muttering eventually appears, but even without it, this is more like a dream of hell.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Waking Life (2001) Review


Waking Life (2001) Directed by Richard Linklater

Have you ever been at a party where everyone is stoned and you're the only sober one? That's what watching Waking Life is like. Unless you're fond of listening to quasi-philosophical yammering for an hour and a half, stay away.

That's not to say that it's entirely uninteresting. Lots of ideas about the nature of existence are thrown around in this movie, and some of them begin to show some promise, but before any one can be explored in any real depth, we're off to watch someone else ranting about something else. The ideas are about as deep as something you'd hear in a late-night college dormrooom bullshit session or by attending Philosophy 101 office hours. Take your pick. While the rotoscoped animation provides a little more visual stimulation than we would have had with a traditionally shot film, it doesn't add a whole lot other than being pretty.

Add to this the fact that most of the "conversations" are clearly scripted affairs wherein the characters name-drop philosophers, poets, and authors, and it grows tiresome. People just don't talk like this. Maybe I'm missing the point, but I'd rather get my philosophy from a book with a coherent point rather than in disjointed fragments from a series of animated talking heads. I expected to like this movie, but just found it lacking.

4 / 10

Pros: Kind of interesting at times. Nice animation.
Cons: No discernible point, at least that I could find.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I Can Do Everything

The End of the World - Part 0: Why?

I have loved post-apocalyptic stories ever since I found When the Tripods Came in the local library as a kid. Imagining myself struggling for survival resonated deeply for some reason, and always has since then. What I liked most when I was young was the sheer grandness of survival. The apocalypse imbues even the most mundane acts and objects with a sense of monstrous importance and immediacy. You might not think much of buying produce at the grocery store, but what if it was the last you would ever eat? What if you had to fight for a can of food? What if gardening wasn't a hobby, but a necessity for life? In a culture of abundance, what's more exciting and terrifying than scarcity? Post-apocalyptic stories recast our everyday world in a new light. Things appear more or less the same on the surface, but all the rules have changed.

I don't think the nature of the apocalypse is really what matters. The point is to reduce society and humanity down to their essence and see how they really function under the ultimate stress test. Modern society and culture too often get in the way of our raw humanity. There's always a veil of expectations drawn in front of us that conceals how we truly think or would choose to behave. How many times a day do you make a decision to do or say something simply because it's the appropriate or expected thing? Remove large-scale society, and you remove the veil. What's underneath are your true feelings.

I also believe that fundamentally, the nature of the apocalypse is irrelevant. Whether it's a plague, a bomb, the undead, natural disasters, or simple societal collapse doesn't really matter. Granted, many stories choose a certain form of destruction for a reason. It's not a coincidence that most of the stories written in the 50's and 60's focused on annihilation by nuclear bomb, and that now we've moved on to plagues and other biohazards. There's a certain amount of commentary that comes along with each individual sub-genre. Zombies can be a metaphor for the perils of consumerism or the fear of society as a whole. Plagues can warn against playing god with biotechnology, or play on the universal fear of illness and bodily deformities. What matters most to me in a story though, is not the means of destruction, but how the characters react to it.

The exception to this is biblical or religious apocalypse stories (such as the Left Behind series). I'd argue that they focus mainly on themes of redemption, and follow a more traditional plot structure, akin to a morality play. It's not that these themes aren't present in other post-apocalypse stories, it's that their function is different. Religious apocalypse stories serve to instruct or warn humanity, while others serve to examine it.

There are different sizes and scales of apocalypses, and different lengths over which they've been examined, but the kind I want to focus on in more detail later on (and probably the kind that is my favorite) is the the "day after" story. In these stories, we see the collapse of society happen and still face the aftermath of the destruction firsthand. It's here that all the key events in its reformation take place. Wait too long and the apocalypse starts to become nothing more than a set piece. While it's interesting to see how society might re-form in full (as in A Canticle for Leibowitz, or in the incredible Liberation), it's the process of immediate reformation that I find most interesting (as in The Stand, or The Death of Grass). It's here that we get to take modern life and subtract society from the equation to see what happens. Maybe this focus is a bit too narrow, but it's where most of the action happens in my mind.

How would I live if the world ended? What would I do? Where would I go? Would I survive? And what would I have to do in order to live? How far would I push myself and my morals in order to ensure that I make it? These are the kinds of questions that I find myself asking when I'm immersed in a post-apocalyptic story, and these are the kinds of questions that I think get to the heart of what it means to be human.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ninja Assassin (2009) Review

Ninja Assassin (2009) Directed by James McTeigue


Nobody will ever accuse "Ninja Assassin" of false advertising. You pretty much know exactly what you're getting into based on the title. My only questions are these: how does a film titled "Ninja Assassin" manage to take itself so seriously, and how on earth does it manage to fail at what it sets out to do?

The plot is pretty standard fare: an ex-member of a clan of ninjas is being pursued by his clan for deserting them. There's also a completely extraneous subplot about a European police agency tracking down the ninja clans. The "hero" Raito, is played by Rain (a Korean pop star), and as he seeks to take his ex-clan down, we're shown flashbacks of his past and his training at the clan's dojo.

If we were supposed to empathize with Raito due to his harsh upbringing at the dojo, then maybe it would have been wise to leave out scene after scene of him being abused by his sensei. After a very short while, watching children being beaten until they're bloody gets really tiresome. It also makes me certain that the adult Raito has grown up to be an emotionless sociopath. Rather than a likable anti-hero, we're given a creepy blank-faced killer who it's impossible to relate to.

I wanted a fun ninja movie - and granted, parts of this began to approach fun. Some of the battle scenes were decently choreographed for brief instances. One fight involving knives on chains was entertaining, although not significantly more than playing God of War at home. But most battles were blurry and overedited with a more-than-ample amount of CG blood added in to distract you from their faults. It's not the most terrible crime an action movie can commit, but there's absolutely no emotional investment in the battles to make up for their shoddy choreography. There's not a single character in the film we care about, so all the flashy fight scenes in the world don't mean a thing at the end of the day.

If there's one flaw that takes this film down, it's that it takes itself so seriously. There is not a single moment of levity in the entire thing. The dialogue in this film was scraped off the bottom of the barrel, and is peppered with lines like "You have a special heart." "Your heart is strong." "Your heart is weak." It's a shame that a movie seemingly fixated on hearts doesn't have one of its own.

3 / 10

Pros: Mindlessly entertaining at times.
Cons: Takes itself way too seriously to be fun. Not a single likable character.

Tips for North Carolinians from a "Snow Pro"

This weekend, due to some atmospheric fluke, North Carolina (where I happen to reside) fell prey to a rare occurrance - it was snow, ha ha. Several inches fell overnight on Friday. In North Carolina this is called a "statewide emergency." I lived in Minnesota for ten years, and we called this "a good day in April". To be fair, the lack of any sort of snow removal services left the roads pretty dangerous, but there are still some basic things I think everyone should know. I have used my expertise to develop this list of tips for those not quite accustomed to the wintry weather.

1. Your four-wheel-drive truck slides as easily as my Ford Taurus.

Friction doesn't care that you've got testosterone running through your fuel-injection system. Slow down. The surface area of your tires is only slightly greater than that of mine Your tires are made out of the same stuff as mine and unless you've got chains on yours, you're sliding around just as much as me.

2. Don't let your kids sled in the street. Ever.

This weekend my neighborhood turned into a veritable sledding party. Every family in town was out there with their kids sliding around. Lots of fun, except they were all sledding down the street. I know it looks like the street has disappeared! But trust me, it is still there underneath the snow, and my car is driving down it. Anything below bumper level is not likely to be seen by me, especially if it's moving swiftly towards my car.

3. Despite their apparent absence, the lines in the parking lot still exist.

And it is still possible with some moderate amount of geometric reasoning to align your cars in an orderly fashion. Usually you're either parallel or perpendicular to some feature of the landscape, such as a sidewalk, kart korral, or little divider island thing with a tree. If all else fails you can line up with the car next to you.

4. A toboggan is something you sled on, not something you wear on your head.

I was so confused the first time I heard a crime alert on campus. They described a man who had been accused of something, standing so tall with these facial features, wearing a black coat and a black toboggan.

?

A few months later I found out that they meant a hat. I realize that these two things are usually only used in cold weather, so it may be a bit confusing. However, it's really quite simple - a toboggan is a type of sled, and the thing you wear on your head is most commonly called a "stocking cap," "snow hat," or even just "hat."

5. Produce will return after the "big melt."

So don't buy it all please. I actually could not find an onion to buy on Friday.

Friday, January 29, 2010

NEWS FLASH

Chavez says US 'weapon' caused Haiti quake

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez Wednesday accused the United States of causing the destruction in Haiti by testing a 'tectonic weapon' to induce the catastrophic earthquake that hit the country last week.

Makes more sense than voodoo or pacts with Satan, I suppose.

Double Review - The Black Cat (1981) and The Cat in the Brain (1991)

Meow.

The Black Cat (1981) Directed by Lucio Fulci

When Fulci is at his best he creates surreal, artistic, carefully shot horror films that lead us through bizarre events in a string of nightmare logic. His death scenes are some of the most notorious in film history, and are often extended sequences that linger casually over their subjects, daring us to keep staring. Fulci films have a tendency to keep you guessing, simply because it's impossible to predict what will be thrown at you, or when.

Unfortunately, The Black Cat is not Fulci at his best.

The Black Cat meanders on for an hour and a half with only a tiny shred of a plot. As is par for the course with Fulci, the details of the story are somewhat murky. There's a psychic, a reporter/investigator and a female sidekick, as well as a cat murdering people... This was supposedly based on an Edgar Allen Poe story, but I'm pretty sure enormous liberties were taken with the source material. Normally Fulci's visuals and aesthetics make up for the lack of story, but there's nothing here to enjoy. I just couldn't make myself care.

There are certain scenes that show signs of promise, but they all seem to end the same way: with an extreme close-up of a fake cat paw scratching away at someone's face. Speaking of close-ups, I can't count how many times they're used in this film. The extreme close-up eye shot has always been one of Fulci's idiosyncracies, but it's so over-used in this film that it almost becomes a mockery of itself.

Anyone thinking of touching this film without first seeing The Beyond, Zombi, House by the Cemetary, or Fulci's old giallos should stay far away. This one is for the completists only.

3 / 10

Pros: Occasionally a bit of the Fulci style pops up.
Cons: Boring plot, uninteresting characters, bad effects.

The Cat in the Brain (1990) Directed by Lucio Fulci

There's another cat as the villian in this film, but only metaphorically speaking. As the title suggests, this cat resides inside the minid of Lucio Fulci - the director and here, protagonist of his own movie. This film was the last that Fulci made before his death, and it only really makes sense in the context of the rest of his oeuvre.

The film opens with a troubled Lucio writing down a list of details about grisly deaths and murders - if I did this I'd probably be institutionalized, but then, I'm not a horror film director. It's clear that Fulci's distressed though, and we soon find out that he's being haunted by the scenes of his past films and is unable to rid them from his mind. (Sort of like a cat gnawing at his brain, I suppose.)

The concept is interesting at first - is Fulci really calling into question all the gruesome films he's created over the years? It's similar to a question that I (and I'm sure many horror fans) ask sometimes: why do I watch this stuff? Is there any value in it, or is it just trash? As the creator, Fulci's question is a bit deeper - has he produced anything of worth in his life, or is he just a purveyor of filth? Is he even mentally sound, or does it take a madman to conjure up death after death and put them to film? Plagued by hallucinations in which scenes from his films replay themselves in real life, he decides to see a psychiatrist.

This is where things fall apart. The psychiatrist is actually a murderer, and hypontizes Fulci to believe that he is actually the killer of the psycho-doctor's victims. The narrative completely disintigrates halfway through the film, and we're just left to watch Fulci wander around, seeing death after death everywhere he goes while the eerily grinning doctor ambushes and murders innocents in public, in full daylight.

There might be more redeeming value in the film if it was completely original, but at least 75% of the footage is spliced in from other films Fulci directed or produced. By the end, we're watching nothing but death scenes from other films with Lucio's face popping up between them. Any atmosphere that the film manages to produce comes directly from the films that footage was copied from and is destroyed by the editing. It's impossible for there to be any natural flow in this film because it's a patchwork job.

The concept of Fulci calling his career into question is interesting, but it isn't followed through to any conclusions. If Fulci really had doubts about the content of his films, then why on earth did he make this one? This film is easily his most gratuitous, and isn't ashamed to replay deaths over and over just in case you missed them the first (or second, or fourth) time. I can only surmise that Fulci intended to give one final middle finger to the censors who had plagued him throughout his career by pulling a bait and switch with this film. There's no possible way this film could be censored - there would be no film left if it was.

As a stand-alone film, The Cat in the Brain would be baffling. Viewed in the context of Fulci's full body of work, it raises some interesting questions, but fails to answer them. Apparently Fulci was content to end his career just as he began it: as one of exploitation cinema's masters of gore.

4 / 10

Pros: Interesting premise...
Cons: ...that doesn't follow through to any real conclusions.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Switchblade Sisters (1975) Review


Switchblade Sisters (1975) Directed by Jack Hill

The streets are a rough place to grow up, - at least in the world of Switchblade Sisters, as young Maggie finds out when she gets involved with a gang of girls who regularly flaunt the law while getting into scuffles with other gangs. This is exploitation cinema in every sense of the word, and it might have easily been forgotten had Quentin Tarantino not resurrected it in the '90's (into mainstream theaters, nonetheless).

If Switchblade Sisters succeeds, it's because it's willing to go far over the top without a second thought. Girls getting into knife fights? Got 'em. Lesbian prison guards? Why not? Black revolutionaries? Of course, it's the '70's! And we're just getting started. We're also treated to a roller rink shootout, countless gang brawls, gratuitous sex, comic relief that could have been ripped out of a bad high school comedy, and immense amounts of laughably bad dialogue. It exemplifies an astonishing number of the different qualities that make exploitation films what they are, and for this alone it's notable.

As we get to know the girls and guys in the gang, it's obvious that each one of them is some kind of instantly recognizable stereotype. As a result, we don't have to put an ounce of thought into them - that would just detract from our enjoyment of the film. Their names pretty much say it all: Maggie is clearly the "nice girl" who isn't so nice underneath, the sidekick with the eyepatch is named Patch, the fat girl Donut, and so on. There is no character development here, but who cares? These characters are iconic above anything, so much so that Tarantino himself lifted a number of them (including Patch) and threw them into Kill Bill.

Ironically, the film falls flat when it tries to pay attention to the intricacies of its plot or meaningful interactions between its characters. In fact, the "serious" dialogue seems almost absurd. Late in the film when a couple of the girls discuss their revenge on Maggie, they can't seem to break away from the exaggerated portrayals of their characters we see for 95% of the film, and the result is close-up shots of them making ridiculous enraged faces.

Meaningful dialogue or good acting isn't what this is about though. Leave your standards at the door, prepare to be entertained, and try to appreciate this film for all its trashy glory. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

8/10

Pros: A great representation of what the exploitation grindhouse films had to offer.
Cons: Occasionally starts to take itself too seriously before lapsing back into ridiculousness.

There are times when the 60's terrify me.